Favorite albums of 2013

Does the world really need another best-of-2013 music list? Of course not (which is why my sense of urgency was low enough that I didn’t get around to finishing it until just now), but I wrote one anyway. It’s a top-28 list, because that was where I decided I was done.

I’ll start with #1 momentarily, but first, here’s a Spotify playlist to listen to while you read (or to listen to instead of reading, if you want, I’m not your mom).

1) Janelle Monae, “The Electric Lady”

I appear to be a sucker for eclectic funky-soulful-jazzy ladies (see also #10 and #18). Many friends had recommended her earlier album “The Archandroid” to me, but I still managed to miss it (I think I was underwhelmed by “Tightrope” when I heard it on the radio and so didn’t go out of my way to hear more). Anyway, this album is all over the map in the best way, and I liked it so much I even overlooked that it has SKITS, usually a guaranteed demotion. It’s also possible Janelle is the beneficiary of my having bought her entire oeuvre all at once, leading me to overrate this album slightly based on my collective enjoyment of all 2.5 albums … but what the hell, this isn’t an exact science.

2) Prefab Sprout, “Crimson/Red”

Prefab Sprout have been mostly on hiatus for a while, and the last album they did release was a spruced-up unreleased album, so hooray for this one, which is all newly recorded but sounds like it could’ve been released alongside any album from their prime and fit right in. Some of these tracks feel like little master classes in how to write songs, particularly “The Old Magician.” Not available on Spotify, so you’ll have to head over to YouTube to hear samples.

3) Eleanor Friedberger, “Personal Record” / Wesley Stace, “Self-Titled”

I hadn’t been following Eleanor Friedberger’s solo career because I’d tried out her former band, the Fiery Furnaces, and never much liked them. On paper, the Fiery Furnaces seemed like just the sort of brainy overcomplicated thing I usually love, but despite multiple attempts, only a few of their songs stuck with me. But then I heard that Eleanor’s new album entirely consisted of collaborations with one of my favorite songwriters, Wesley Stace (formerly known sometimes as John Wesley Harding), so I had to give it a shot — and holy crap, what an album (and what great 70s-sounding production). Later I looked into it a bit more and realized that most of the Fiery Furnaces’ songs were by Matthew Friedberger, So, apparently I only like one Friedberger sibling. Meanwhile, two of the Stace/Friedberger collaborations appear in alternate versions on Wesley Stace’s first album under his own name, another excellent album in a recent string of same (“Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead,” “The Sound of His Own Voice”). His album also shares her 70s-radio ambience and confessional subject matter, solidifying all the more my brain’s opinion that these two albums ought to get filed together.

4) Paul McCartney, “New”

Well, Paul McCartney, he’s pretty good, I suppose. “I Can Bet” reminds me of something from “Press to Play” but I haven’t figured out what.

5) Neko Case, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You”

Neko Case’s voice is pretty much always transcendent, but sometimes her albums shoot me right in the heart (“Fox Confessor…”) and sometimes they glance off (“Middle Cyclone”). This is in the first of those groups, and has the added benefit of rocking out a little more than usual (on “Man”), something I’d been hoping to hear.

6) David Bowie, “The Next Day”

After the dead zone that was Bowie albums for a long time (“Earthling,” “Outside,” “Hours” … meh), “Heathen” and “Reality” were a huge relief, proof that he hadn’t lost it. Going back to them now, they’re still good, but I find them a little unexciting. Especially compared to this one, which is (let’s all say it together) the Best Bowie Album Since … “Black Tie White Noise!” (Oh, sorry, I probably ruined the unison there, because I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority in loving that one.) There are a couple of sleepy tunes here, and it’s tempting to downgrade this for the asshole move of releasing a special bonus disc edition mere months after the original release (which itself had a regular version and a deluxe version), but I can’t do it, it’s too good.

7) Bryan Ferry Orchestra, “The Jazz Age”

What’s that? Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry songs rearranged for 20s-style jazz band, recorded on vintage equipment? You would have to lock me in a box and bury it deep underground to keep me from acquiring that. I hope this stuff is making the rounds on the swing dance circuit.

8) The Dismemberment Plan, “Uncanney Valley”

A critically unloved comeback by a critically beloved band. I don’t really get what’s not to like here, really. Sounds like the Dismemberment Plan to me! I suppose there are a couple of places that have a little feel of “we’re trying to figure out exactly how we used to do this” that’s probably going to be inevitable when you have a group that used to do this for a living ten years ago and is now doing it on the side in between having regular jobs, but come on. At least half of this is great and the rest is certainly all songs I would much rather have existing in the world than not.

9) Ghost Train Orchestra, “Book of Rhapsodies”

I discovered Ghost Train Orchestra by happenstance, while looking up the Raymond Scott Orchestrette to see what they were up to — which turned out to be opening for the Ghost Train Orchestra at a CD release show. I wasn’t able to make it to that show, so I just bought the CD instead, which, I reasoned, was a lot like a concert that didn’t require standing up for two hours. Anyway, this album features a few Raymond Scott tunes, but also the works of some lesser-known eccentric bandleaders not far from the Raymond Scott aesthetic, played to perfection. Those pieces were the main attraction for me but I was also pleasantly surprised to find the Raymond Scott pieces to be inventively reinterpreted (particularly “Celebration on the Planet Mars,” stretched out to like four times its usual length).

10) Alice Smith, “She”

Alice Smith’s 2007 debut, “For Lovers, Dreamers & Me,” was a great, eclectic soul album that made me look forward to what she would do next … but unfortunately, what she would do next would apparently be “have record label troubles,” leading to a six-year hiatus before her follow-up emerged. But hey, better late than never. At first it didn’t grab me quite as immediately as the first album, but it’s been growing on me steadily. Now I’m ready for more again. One option: everyone buy this album and make Alice Smith a huge success, and maybe the unbelievable asshats at Sony will change their minds and decide to release the completed but inexplicably shitcanned Alice Smith album they’ve been sitting on for years.

11) Julia Holter, “Loud City Song”

This is either as eccentric and jazzy as you can get while making dreamy pop, or as dreamy and poppy as you can get while making eccentric jazz. Reminds me a little bit of Kate Bush, but reminds me more of one of my favorite albums of last year, Mimi Goese and Ben Neill’s “Songs for Persephone.”

12) Daughn Gibson, “Me Moan”

This is one of those albums where if you describe its contributing elements, it does not quite sound like a thing that should work. Country music riffs sampled, chopped, and spliced in a sorta-hip-hop way, plus a deep-voiced singer who kind of sounds like he’s doing a caricature of a country crooner’s vocal tone (or maybe it’s more like Ian-Curtis-as-country-singer). You made your own genre, sir! Good show.

13) Robyn Hitchcock, “Love from London”

Well, if you know Robyn Hitchcock, you kinda know what to expect from any new album. You know it’ll be, at the very least, decent, and it will probably mention fish at some point. I tend to prefer (lately, anyway) his more acoustic, harmony-heavy releases, like “Spooked” or this one.

14) Elvis Costello & the Roots, “Wise Up Ghost”

I’d like to extend a personal thank-you to Questlove for helping to make Elvis Costello interesting again (a service Elvis Costello has himself provided to other songwriters in his day).

15) Johnny Marr, “The Messenger”

Johnny Marr has one of the greatest guitar sounds ever, so while I’ve enjoyed plenty of his post-Smiths work (Electronic, his guest appearances with Pet Shop Boys), it’s been odd how rarely his guitar has really been front and center. I mean, what was that shoegaze crap he was doing with the Healers? Yeesh. Anyway, this album sounds very Smithsy-sans-Morrissey, and although Morrissey’s entertainment value is undeniable, I am kind of sick of his pissy shenanigans, so it turns out Smithsy-sans-Morrissey is juuuuuust right for me right now.

16) Ethan Lipton, “No Place to Go”

This is a jazz song cycle about a company relocating to Mars, and the plight of the workers who don’t want to relocate to Mars and are left behind, jobless and drifting. One of the songs is from the point of view of the last sandwich left over from a catered meeting. That probably gives you enough information to know if you want to hear this.

17) Rhye, “Woman”

This is kind of a retro-80s new-wave-meets-yacht-rock kind of thing. Some bits remind me of Fleetwood Mac, or Sade, or maybe a little Bronski Beat. Anyway, it’s solid enough to be well worth hearing on its own merits, nostalgia value aside.

18) Laura Mvula, “Sing to the Moon”

The livelier songs on this are what got my attention at first (“Green Garden”, “That’s Alright”), but there are some amazing arrangements and harmonies throughout (“Like the Morning Dew”, “Make Me Lovely”). There are still a few tracks where my attention wanders, but this is quite a debut album.

19) TMBG, “Nanobots”

They Might Be Giants! Still great! Still throwing a ton of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, just the way I like it!

20) Agony Aunts, “Big Cinnamon”

A band I discovered via Scott Miller’s “Music: What Happened?” — though it would be more accurate to say that’s actually how I discovered the Corner Laughers, of whom the Agony Aunts are a more psych-influenced alter ego. I enjoy the lyrical constraint of the verses in “Family Drugs”, where lines recur with syllables dropped out (“You disregard what I say / I guard what I say”).

21) Mike Keneally, “You Must Be This Tall”

I love Mike Keneally, a prog-rocker who can seemingly do just about everything; he’s equally impressive on guitar and keyboards, and is a highly inventive songwriter who can somehow make a song catchy and fun despite it being ridiculously complicated. That said, this album isn’t my favorite of his, though it’s still quite good; it just feels kind of like an odds-and-ends collection, which it basically is. Really you should go hear “Wing Beat Fantastic” (his collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge), “Dancing”, or “Wooden Smoke” first.

22) John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts”

It’s possible this one is underrated here just because I only discovered it very late in the year and haven’t listened to it much. Skimming it again for the sake of this list, I’m realizing how good these lyrics are — dark, funny, and unexpected.

23) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Brooklyn Babylon”

Another late discovery (but hey, that’s a benefit of not finishing this list until the end of January). If you think big-band jazz should be more influenced by Steve Reich, here is the album for you.

24) Analog Birds, “No-Knock” (single)

I heard about this band (which, like a lot of music on this list, falls into the “oddball but catchy” category) on an mp3 blog. Their entire oeuvre-so-far is available for free download. Mixed feelings! Yes, it’s crappy that a band this good seems to have no non-tip-jar-based income, but hey, at least they exist and you can hear them!

25) Wire, “Change Becomes Us”

The current incarnation of Wire goes back and reworks some uncompleted songs from around the breakup of their first incarnation, which is to say, their prime. This isn’t quite the second coming of “154” (it would be #1 with a bullet if it were), but it’s definitely a big step up from their last few albums, which have sounded pret-ty samey to me.

26) My Bloody Valentine, “mbv”

The fact this exists at all is pretty impressive given how long the universe has been waiting for a new My Bloody Valentine album. Honestly I’m not a megafan — I agree “Loveless” is great, but it’s the kind of thing I listen to and am basically satisfied with that amount of that kind of thing instead of wanting to shout to the skies UNIVERSE GIVE ME MORE OF THIS — so I reacted to its announcement not so much by passing out from shock and joy but more by being like “oh, huh, whaddaya know…I reckon I oughta buy that thing there.” And yeah, it’s good! Now I have another thing to listen to when I want to hear this kind of thing!

27) Masami Tsuchiya, “Swan Dive” (EP)

At the same time I’ve been working on this “favorites of 2013” list, I’ve also been working on a “favorite things I heard for the first time in 2013 that did not themselves get released in 2013” list. Masami Tsuchiya, a Japanese guitarist/singer/songwriter who has worked with David Sylvian and Arcadia, among others, was on that list, and while I was looking on Spotify to figure out which of his songs to include, I saw that he actually released this EP, which I’d had no idea existed, in 2013. Well, okay then!

28) Grant Hart, “The Argument”

I’m more of a Bob Mould fan when it comes to Husker Du boosterism, but hey, other guy from Husker Du, gotta say I did not expect you to come up with a half-decent concept album based on “Paradise Lost”! This might have appeared higher on the list, but when I say “half-decent” I am being fairly literal; there are a lot of songs on here I don’t much like at all. But the good songs are very good, so. Here it is.

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