Top Ten Albums of 2013

Steven Casimer Kowalski and Neal Christyson

10. Neal’s Pick: Kid Cudi - Indicud

Neal: This is a direct transcription of a conversation Steve and I had about this album. In it, you get a pretty decent idea of each of our text message styles and it also pretty much says what needs to be said about the album. The only thing it’s missing is that, according to my records, “Just What I am” came in third place on my personal chart of most listened to songs of the year.
N - As is typical of any year Kid Cudi releases an album, he is right on the bubble of the top 5 for me.
S - Indicud I really like
S - That Michael Bolton song is awesome
N - Totally. I think it’s his best album to date. He just needs to stop making 18 song albums because there are always about 4 songs I end up skipping. If they were cut into a 13-14 song album it would be a monster.
S - Kid Cudi CANNOT say no to a track.
N - Hahaha nope. If he records it, you best believe it’s going on the album.
S - ‘Im kid cuddy(sic) and ive never even taped over anything’
N - Hahaha
S - ‘I dont even delete voicemails’

Steve: For everyone’s information, that Michael Bolton song is “Bring Your Friends.” It would be a great place to start for those skeptical of this album’s pedigree and its inclusion in the top ten. From there, check out “Beez” with RZA/ and a PERFECT Geto Boys sample. Haim is on this record. Goddamn Too $hort is on this record. Kid Cudi tries every silly idea he has ever had. It can be a total mess but I like that so much. I wish Kanye could still have this much fun on an album.

9. Steve’s Pick: King Krule - Six Feet Beneath the Moon

Steve: Take a look at this guy and guess his real name. Did you guess Archy Marshall? I bet you did because JUST LOOK AT HIM. While his face and size and shape and hair might scream Archiiiiiiie his music is something else entirely. First things first: dude is 19. FUCKING NINETEEN. He’s younger than four-fifths of One Direction. He’s younger than Miley Cyrus. So while you lament the younger generation and try to get them to stop twerking on your lawn, remember there are kids like Archy out there making something soulful and beautiful for the world. And Archy, my dude, don’t lose that accent.

Neal: I first came across this album when a friend with good music taste posted something about going to see him in concert. So on the backs of their and your recommendations I was excited to listen. At first I was thrown off by the fact that a guy named Archy could ever sing like he does. It's insane. It's way too loud in the mix and the style and accent come across as comically over the top. Yet as I came to the end of the album I just wanted to listen to it again and again. Those early impressions end up sounding like they could never be any other way. It adds a level of earnest passion to this album, which really makes the whole thing great. The first time I heard him wail, "Another disappointed soul," to begin the song “Has This Hit?” I muffled a bit of a laugh. Now I just want to wail along with him, all slurred and accented. Then when “A Lizard State” plays I just want to dance around in an alley with the characters from Top Cat, especially when things mellow out and you get a song like "Out Getting Ribs", which is completely pretty and also a strong contender for song title of the year. Whether he is loud and jagged or calm and beautiful, I am on Team Archy.

8. Neal’s Pick: Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Neal: I have to admit up-front that I really struggled with how to talk about this album. It’s difficult because I don’t quite know how best to praise it. I came across this album shortly after it came out. I was looking at mid-year lists to find something new. What I can say for certain is that I have listened to this album A LOT. Traveling from Point-A to Point-B? Put this on. Doing laundry? Put this on. Dishes? Put this on. Staying up way too late because you’re playing MYST on your phone? DEFINITELY PUT THIS ON. Seriously though, do it. It’s a straightforward ambient electronic album, but where Immunity really excels is the stubborn attention to detail. Whether it’s footsteps, voices, or general swirly static hiding in the background, everything seems to be in an exact place and it all sounds precisely the way it’s supposed to. In short it just works, and my idle time throughout the year was so much the better for it.

Steve: Holy shit, man. I can PLAY MYST ON MY PHONE? The Hell am I writing this for? I should be solving those puzzles I couldn’t solve when I was 8.

(plays Myst for 2 days)

I STILL cannot solve any of those puzzles, Neal, but you’re right, this record really gets in the seams of whatever you’re doing and fills the gaps. It isn’t pushy and it isn’t too pretentious, which was a big problem for me in 20dance13. I am especially drawn to “Breathe The Air” because of those piano notes in the background make it seem real lonesome. I am not saying I am a lonely guy, per say, but let’s face it, I just had the chance to play Myst for 48 hours uninterrupted. So yeah, maybe I need to get on Google+. I heard that’s where the people are. I love doing this list every year because you always get stuff on my radar that I overlooked or ignored. This is such a cool record.

7. Steve’s Pick: Danny Brown - Old

Steve: Browns’ XXX was the Acid Rap of 2011. It was an incredibly professional statement released as a free mix-tape and it brought the world to Brown’s Detroit doorstep. It took him just over 2 years to follow it up and while Old doesn’t, and maybe can’t surprise like XXX, it certainly showcases an artist going for it as hard as he can on the biggest release of his career. Brown is not young. My fav. hip hop album of 2012, now that I’ve had all of 2013 to think about it, was Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Kendrick Lamar was 25 when he made that record and it seemed like he’d been waiting an eternity for it to drop. Well, Danny is 31 or 32 now and this is his major label debut. He doesn’t hold back even a little. All of his persona is here; drugs, girls, violence, doubt, sadness, vulnerability, crazy. It is a complicated affair and I appreciate that. And “Float On” is my fav. album closer of the 2013.

Neal: Oh Danny Brown. My first ever exposure to him was a video where he and Mike Skinner were interviewing each other. It was exactly as awesome as it sounds like it would be. This album was a bit of a slow burner for me. At first there wasn’t much to really grab me. It’s a straightforward rap album that demands time. There aren’t many large poppy choruses, which have you humming along after first listen. What is definitely there is a guy who is absolutely going for it. Tracks 11-14 are as good of a four-song block as you will find on any album this year. Those are the ones I find myself repeating the most, and “25 Bucks” with Purity Ring is really my jam. Danny Brown had a lot of promise and hype to live up to on this album and he killed it.

6. Neal’s Pick: Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap

Neal: 2013 was a year full of monster rap releases. Kanye West was projecting his face on the side of buildings. Jay-Z released an album which, for a period of time, was exclusively available on Samsung cellphones. Despite all of my protests, Drake continued to be Drake and released an album which could have been good if it weren’t for the fact that there was so much Drake on it. While all of this was going on, Chance The Rapper self-released the best rap album of the year. I love the way he hits everything so hard and constantly sounds like he’s about to run out of breath but never does. “Favorite Song” as it turns out, was my favorite song on the album and also the second most listened to song of the year for me. It’s clever, funny, and most importantly makes you feel cool when you listen to it. Also, how about Twista (yes THAT Twista) likening himself to the Higgs boson and then bragging about defeating Voltron in “Cocoa Butter Kisses”? That was awesome.

Steve: “Everybody dies in the summer,” GAH, check out the Rap Genius link for that line. That line was where this record pulled me in. Like Danny Brown, Chance paints an-all-too-vivid, all-too-messy picture, and in the middle of it all pulls off a pretty convincing ballad with “Lost”. And just because I know you need to know, my fav. here is “Chain Smoker”. It is buried way, way down at the end of the album and the idea that Chance would rap about hyping his own track while it’s playing blows my mind. That’s like rap-game MC Escher right there. Also, we don’t talk about cover art much in these lists but did a better cover come out in 2013? It is iconic. It is appropriate. It is kind of funny and kind of scary; super rad.

5. Steve’s Pick: The Love Language - Ruby Red

Steve: It could be that I am resistant to change. But I just like this record so much because it has great songwriting and it feels familiar. I can hear the sounds of bands I have already loved all over every Love Language song. But I don’t start humming those other bands music. I stick with the Love Language because their takes are interesting and catchy. As examples, I hear Neil Young ALL OVER “Faithbreaker” and The Smiths (particularly Oscillate Wildly) in “On Our Heels”. Those two songs are my favorites on the record and they are buried deep at 7 and 8. It reinforces the listenability and variety of Ruby Red that two standouts can appear so far into the album. Not sure I’ll ever expect greatness from The Love Language. Not sure I’ll ever hear them again (I hadn’t heard them previously). But they won right here. They made a very difficult thing seem beautiful and easy.

Neal: This is the album I spent most of 2013 searching for. For a while I had an aching for a guitar driven band. It sounds silly but it’s true. I don’t know if it stems from a few years devoting the majority of my listening to electronic music, or maybe it all has to do with some bent on nostalgia. Regardless, after many failed attempts, this was the album that filled the hole. The songwriting is great. The production is fantastic. If I was asked to pick one, “On Our Heels” is the track for me. You nailed it with the Smiths comparison. The album as whole does the things you want it to do, and it does them very well. My relationship with this album falls right in line with Twin Shadow’s Confess from last year. It’s a band that was completely new to me, they made a great album, and I may not pay attention to what they do from now on. They gave me what I wanted. I’m thrilled to have known them. I have a real hard time seeing a future. It’s not them. It’s me.

4. Neal’s Pick: Disclosure - Settle

Neal: I know this album had/has some seriously vocal detractors. Whether it’s accusations of an overactive hype machine, labeling them nothing more than a retro copycat group, or whatever...none of it matters. What is left after all of that is an incredibly enjoyable album. Settle works in different ways and that is what’s best about it. It has its retro appeal in solid songs like “When a Fire Starts to Burn” and “Stimulation” It also hits perfect pop music heights in “Latch”. “Latch” also achieved the heights of being the song I listened to the most this year. Disclosure succeeds in their ability to make the old stuff what it never was. Their ability to embrace and master pop music formulas is what sets it apart. That and its earning of the honorable distinction of being the soundtrack to my solo bedroom dance parties of 2013.

Steve: One word, “Latch.” “Latch” is the jam, the cut, the crusher, the floor-filler, the whatever. It is a song so well realized it could and can carry an entire album. Let’s give some love to Sam Smith who hit the vocal on that track. He was no one before that song and by the end of 2013 he’d done vocals on a number-one single and was signed to Capitol. See, the song is so amazing it made everyone who touched it famous as Hell! Maybe the best comparison for how I felt about this record in 2013 was when Justice released Cross in 2007(holy shit, man, 2007!). That was another young, kinda outta nowhere team, with a couple decent cuts under their belt putting out something super-fresh and fun. I haven’t given them much time since Cross, so let’s hope Disclosure doesn’t follow the same path. Ultimately, I hope the kids keep it weird. Time will tell. But if they start replacing Sam Smith’s with Bruno Mars’ then we’ll know we can move on.

3. Steve’s Pick: William Tyler - Impossible Truth

Steve: Along with The Love Language, this is my second Merge Records release on my best of 2013 list. And really, the way we do this, I only get to pick five records. So two out of my five best albums of the year both came from Merge, and I almost put Superchunk’s I Hate Music on this list, as well. I would have needed maybe three more picks for it to squeeze in. I did not realize it until this moment, but Merge had an incredible 2013. They are one of those labels that I assume will be around forever (Matador, Sub Pop). That’s a foolish thing to think. I shouldn’t think that. They won’t be around forever and I should do a better job appreciating the AMAZING work they do now, while they are around. Kudos, Merge! William Tyler’s Impossible Truth is haunting and gorgeous and swirls with styles that seem totally unfamiliar. Then, it gently drifts back toward something that conjures creek swimming and cold beer and calm. It’s actually difficult to write this while listening to the album because I find myself stopping for long stretches just to look out the window and daydream.

Neal: I’m glad you brought up the Superchunk album because it deserves a mention. That album and m.b.v by My Bloody Valentine shared polar-opposite fates. I was excited for Superchunk and listened to it and loved it. I can’t bring myself to listen to m.b.v.. There is an aching fear of aging which weighs on My Bloody Valentine. And while I know it can be argued that I’m nowhere near the time to have such fears, it needs to be mentioned that I have struggled with the coming of every new birthday since I turned 16. This relates to William Tyler because Impossible Truth is an album, which makes it all ok. It runs you through a filter of soaring anthems and jaunty smiles. When you come out the other end it leaves you feeling calm and as you appropriately said, daydreaming.

2. Neal’s Pick: Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety

Neal: This is the album. Yes, it’s quite obvious that Autre Ne Veut’s Arthur Ashin really loves Prince. When I first listened to Anxiety it had me right away. The way it starts out completely disjointed and slowly builds together. The song itself is basically a verse and a half for the first three minutes and a single chorus for the final two. As soon as things first came together for that first chorus I had picked my number one. I have spent months rotating through what may be my favorite song. I really can’t pick one. I do find myself frequently coming back to “Play By Play” and humming that melody over and over again. The more I listen to it the more I find new things I love. Most recently it’s an appreciation of how, when singing, Ashin never dreams of holding back. When he goes for an overblown, searing falsetto it may be a bit too much, but that too much is exactly right. He just GOES for it. It’s that level of commitment which draws me in. Well that and musically there is a pretty fantastic thing going on as well. It’s the winner.

Steve: We’ve developed a nice theme this year in that we both really liked people who put their performative selves on the line and took some risks, specifically with regards to emotional release. Chance and Danny both did records filled in vulnerability and bravado. Cudi and King Krule were, well, maybe the most “themselves” they could be. And I think Arthur is doing something similar on this one. He’s smart enough and talented enough to have a vision and put it down and, for the most part, succeed with it. Including this album on this list makes us the 1000th people to put at least something connected to Daniel Lopatin on their Best Of. So that’s good, too. I really hope in five or six years that 90’s R&B, rather than 80’s, becomes the base from which artists like this launch their work. I want to see things get super out-there and way oversexed in a very academic way. I want debates about which type of subwoofer warms up a bedroom best. A guy can dream, right?

1. Steve’s Pick: La Luz - It’s Alive

Steve: In 2013, my most consistently enjoyable surprise was that, every few weeks, another all-female or mostly female band showed up on my radar with an absolutely TREMENDOUS album. Just a short list to prove a point; Potty Mouth - Hell Bent, Football Etc... - Audible, Swearin - S/T, Bleached - Ride Your Heart... and that doesn’t even mention the ones that received (and deserved) a boost from the hype-chamber; Waxahatchee, HAIM, Savages. And out of that accomplished bunch, Seattle’s La Luz put together what was, almost from the moment I heard it, my favorite album of the year. I say almost because I had to get all the way down to track 8, “Call Me In The Day” because all the pieces fit and I stopped doing whatever I was doing to just go, “shit this is so good.” So yeah, you can call it a throwback. You can let it scratch your itch for The Cramps or The Ventures. I just kind of let it do whatever. On Jan. 1 2013 there is NO WAY I would have believed that in a year when pretty much every major artist ever releases an album, not only would none of them crack my top 5, but that the one that stuck out more, the one that got the most plays, the one that impressed endlessly...would be from a 4-piece in Seattle who play druggy, psych-kissed, surf-rock jams. We live in such a wonderful world.

Neal: This was an album I had never heard before you put it on this list, but man have I been making up for lost time ever since hearing it. It’s Alive sounds like the best of late 90’s indie rock fell asleep in a bathtub full of sunshine and 60’s psychedelic surf-rock swirls. And while that could be a recipe for something a bit too pretentious for it’s own good, La Luz keeps it fun. It makes you feel cool. At the end of the day, what more are we looking for from music than fun and feeling cool. I know I can’t really think of anything else. I mean there is sex, yeah, but in my experience that generally has a direct relationship with how cool one feels. The only thing I don’t like about this album is that I wish I had heard it sooner. Which, come to think of it, is also quite a bit similar to sex. Let us take one moment to recognize that this list lacks any overt “this shouldn’t be on the list” disagreements. Is it a testament to 2013? I think it is. This has been a fantastic year for new music and I still know there is likely to be more out there from this year that I am yet to fall in love with. Well played, 2013, well played.

Dishonorable Mentions

1. Kanye West - Yeezus

Find the review here.
Neal: I’m mad. I’m mad because you and I have been having an ongoing argument about Kanye West for years. My stance as a Kanye apologist is on record is before this album. And it is the first album he has released that I have not thoroughly enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I like it a lot more now than when it first came out. it has grown on me, but I have no idea how so many year-end lists have this ranked so high with the amount of truly fantastic music that came out this year. It’s pretty much the least fun album of the it has that. Kanye is at his best when he is having fun. Even on 808’s & Heartbreaks--which for the record does have the completely un-fun word “Heartbreaks” in the title--you get a song where Lil Wayne is laughing his weird little laugh in the background while they are recording. And on that note, the best time I had listening to this album was when I forgot to turn off shuffle and I ended up listening to most of the aforementioned 808’s & Heartbreaks instead.

Steve: I was talking Kanye with some friends and I think I had an epiphany. All the things people hate about Kanye are the things I like about him. And the things people usually like about him, you know, the music, is the stuff I don’t like. I’ve made no secret about thinking he is a weak MC. Check that, the world has made no secret about it. And his production has just been downhill since Graduation. HOWEVER, all the bat-shit crazy projecting on buildings and bat-shit SNL performance and bat-shit live performances and bat-shit radio interviews and bat-shit marriage proposals I absolutely adore. If it’s all for show, that’s fine by me. If it’s real that’s fine, too. He is making statements, weird ones. He is in a fantastic position to do so. I am along for the ride, but Yeezus is just a terrible album. “Keep it 300, like the Romans.” KANYE THE 300 WERE FROM GREECE GET ENCARTA ‘96!

2. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Neal: I don’t agree with this one being here. It actually resides just outside my top 5 for the year. You could call it simple, and I suppose in ways you good also call it derivative. When it comes down to it I am a sucker for a good groove, and on Random Access Memories the grooves are mighty tasty.

Steve: This album is a pile. The massive success of a weak beat like “Get Lucky” is baffling to me. The attention to two grown men in helmets is baffling to me. And yes, this is hypocritical given my love of the NFL and NHL. Daft Punk boasts producers, but they brought in guest production? It’s a disco album with zero discos on it.

3. Childish Gambino, Beyonce, R. Kelly, anyone else who released an album in December.

Neal: Come on, people. We have a strict calendar in order to qualify for this list and we also have jobs. Release your albums earlier in the year so we have time to love them. Then we can talk about them by alluding to cartoons and determining whether or not it is fun to swim in creeks or solve puzzles while listening to it. We take this very seriously and so should you.

Steve: You know I’m super glad you brought this up. I wanted to care about these records but I had no time to care. I saw people on Facebook, people whose job is to write about music, hailing that the Bey album as the best of 2013 after it was out for 8 hours. This is where we live now; the land of hyperbole. Everything is awesome and worthy of up or fed on buzz. Meanwhile, Childish Gambino is looking all scraggly and serious and I’m not even sure I care why. Is it tough being famous? Try being not famous...see how that works out. Burial put out a new EP on 12/16. I haven’t touched it yet. I want to. It could be great. But I am pissed that he waited until now. So, having not heard it, I’m just going to guess that’s it’s probably dark sounding and contains the following samples; water(rain, steam and ice; all three), traffic, voicemails, submarines/sonar, pitch-shifted cat meows, breathing(all kinds), crispy toast, muffled cockney voices. F’ em.