The best albums of 2013 so far: A mid-year status report
Given the volume of music released already in 2013, a half-year update on the best so far is assuredly in order. After all, six months in and already Coachella broke records, Lil Wayne was nearly pronounced dead by the press, the Rolling Stones have come and gone, Azaelea Banks still hasn’t released her debut, LL Cool J and Brad Paisley have attempted to solve the problem of race in America, a bunch of Frenchmen have stormed the charts, Beyoncé has stomped across the Super Bowl stage and Snoop Dogg has changed his name to Lion and back again.
Oh, and Kanye West has declared himself a god and desecrated “Strange Fruit” while releasing a phenomenally produced record that smited (smote?) nearly all his people, especially the women, the fashion purveyors preying on the poor and servants sleeping on his damn croissants.
And within all that drama, roughly 100 trillion hours of new music has been uploaded to the Internet.
A very small percentage of this is essential, but so far, 2013 has been a stellar year for surprises both big and small. It’s impossible not to drown in the volume, honestly, and despite a life that affords and encourages voluminous listening, I can’t argue that this list is definitive. But we’ve got six months to catch up.
Below are my favorite 11 records of the year so far, in alphabetical order.
Bombino, “Nomad” (Nonesuch). A shimmering electric guitar record that no fan of the instrument should miss, “Nomad” by young Tuareg musician Bombino is, well, perfect. Overflowing with sonic and lyrical joy, the record, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in Nashville, continues to grow with each listen. Fans of Jimi Hendrix and Amadou & Miriam alike can connect through Bombino. Listen to “Amidinine.”
David Bowie, “The Next Day” (Columbia). Close your eyes, pick a song, ignore the release date and the advancing age of its composer and let a random Bowie track on “The Next Day” seep into your head. Be it the riff rock of “Love Is Lost,” with the insistent cry of “What have you done?,” or the next track, “Where Are We Now?,” which asks a similarly huge and unanswerable question, Bowie released in “The Next Day” not only the best album he’s done since the 1970s but also a record that might take over your psyche. Gone are the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust. In its place: the man himself. Maybe for his next album he’ll revert to his birth name, David Jones, and dig deeper into the living, breathing man within.
Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rap.” (self-released free download). His name doesn’t lie. The young Chicagoan released his second mixtape, “Acid Rap,” in the spring, and from there it’s been a quick ascent. Currently being courted by virtually every label of note in hip-hop, the lyricist on “Acid Rap” offers a distinctly Midwestern take on what it means to be young, talented and human in 2013. Just listen to “Cocoa Butter Kisses” for quick evidence of a lyricist willing and able to rap about something as touching as missing the scent of cocoa butter on his mom’s skin. You can listen to “Cocoa Butter Kisses” on Soundcloud and download the mixtape here.
Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories” (Columbia). A record that lives up to its hype -- which is saying something -- “Random Access Memories” is a shimmering time capsule, a spinning mirror ball in an orbit that connects the disco of 1977 with the dance tones of 2013. The record is a testament to grand statements in an age of bedroom EDM, proof that laptop auteurs are all well and good but that something truly magical can arise from a seemingly limitless budget and a community of well-tuned, imaginative ears eager to think big.
Laura Marling, “Once I Was an Eagle,” (Ribbon Music). Fans of acoustic guitars and searing lyrics who love a convincing voice and a temperament that’s both fearless and delicate should track down “Once I Was an Eagle.” Produced by Ethan Johns, the record hums with organs that suggest Garth Hudson’s work with the Band, is propelled at times by driving snare and tom toms. Although Marling’s only 23, she’s firmly in command throughout 16 songs. Listen to “Where Can I Go?” below.
Jon Hopkins, “Immunity” (Domino). Hopkins’ day job is as a behind-the-scenes collaborator and engineer with Brian Eno, where he’s worked on sessions with Coldplay and Eno himself, as well as early time spent with Imogen Heap. It takes something special to earn Eno’s trust, and the evidence is on “Immunity,” an instrumental electronic record that taps into countless moods, some heavily rhythmic and repetitive, others pensive experiments in piano-based minimalism. Check out the rhythmic breakdown “Open Eye Signal.”
Justin Timberlake, “The 20/20 Experience” (RCA). A modern record filled with well-tailored melodies and sharp-seamed beats, “The 20/20 Experience” spins contemporary dance pop into a realm of synthetic funk with the confidence befitting Timberlake and producer Timbaland. Yes, “The 20/20 Experience” glistens with overtly commercial instincts, but the pair admirably upended the serious expectations of a new Timberlake music project by fitting digital sounds into grand, epic structures that consistently defy expectations.
Kacey Musgraves, “Same Trailer Different Park” (Mercury). Musgraves writes and sings about a world where “lemonade keeps turning into lemons” on her confident breakout album, a languid, honest and ultimately optimistic country statement. An assured voice who unflinchingly attacks topics ranging from promiscuity to hopeless love, Musgraves brushes off a drunk boyfriend on “Keep It to Yourself,” and on “Dandelion” sings of hopeless love while rich, perfectly engineered instrumentation -- including cello, pedal steel and intricately laced guitars -- lifts her words. You’ve probably heard her hit, but if not, “Merry Go ‘Round” is below.
Thee Oh Sees, “Floating Coffin” (Castle Face). Garage rock, punk rock, scuzz rock -- call it what you want -- but no rock and roll band is firing with as much intensity in 2013. (OK, maybe Queens of the Stone Age.) The San Francisco band is incredible live: neck tattoos tight with throbbing veins, humming organ lines, deep mid-song freewheeling detours that suggest Krautrock as much as punk rock. Lead singer John Dwyer seems genuinely unhinged most of the time. But he can turn off the crazy to go soft on songs such as “No Spell,” which harnesses the clean sound of a Rickenbacker guitar to create tripped-out bliss.
Rhye, “Woman” (Republic/Universal). An album that could fool casual fans of Sade into thinking she’s gone indie, Rhye’s debut record doesn’t hide its affection for the smooth sound or candlelit soul music. Rather, it offers whispered seductions one after the other. Some, such as “The Fall,” work on the dance floor, while others, such as the closer, “One of These Summer Days,” are better for romance, reading or relaxing in the bathtub. Taken together, Rhye offers more pleasure per measure than any record in 2013.
William Tyler, “Impossible Truth” (Merge). Mesmerizing instrumental guitar music is an Achilles heel of mine -- be it John Fahey, Sandy Bull or James Blackshaw. Tyler is a Nashville guitarist whose exquisitely constructed and recorded eight-song work bodes well for the future of the art form. Like those mentioned above, Tyler has a curious brain looking for expansion, not nostalgia or period-pieces. He builds exquisite structures, the most profound of which, “Cadillac Desert,” feels like the score to a particularly haunting western. Here it is below.
Music from these albums and more can be found on a Spotify playlist I’ve been keeping up to date.
Also bubbling this year: Queens of the Stone Age, "... Like Clockwork”; Foxygen, “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic”; Marnie Stern, “The Chronicles of Marnia”; Run the Jewels, “s/t” (Killer Mike and El-P); Savages, “Silence Yourself”; Vince Staples and Larry Fisherman, “Stolen Youth”; Matias Aguayo, “The Visitor”; Larry Gus, “Silent Congas”; Serengeti, “The Kenny Dennis LP”; Kanye West, “Yeezus”; Eric Church, “Caught in the Act: Live”; Devendra Banhart, “Mala”; Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “II”; Dean Blunt, “The Redeemer”; Vampire Weekend, “Modern Vampires of the City”; Melvins, “Everybody Loves Sausages”; How to destroy angels, “Welcome Oblivion.”
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