2013: Year in Review
It’s been a long year. I’ve spent the past few months away from In Our Bedrooms After the War because of all the other music writing I’ve been doing— The Owl Mag, WYEP, and my local university publications. But I’ve been constantly listening – inhaling, really – all of the great music that’s come out in 2013. On CD, mp3, and yes, even vinyl, I listened to a lot of new and old bands come out with new releases.
Not only did some of my favorite bands put out some remarkably great albums, but I was surprised with an influx of new talent, new songs, and new styles. Like a lot of music journalists, I love putting together lists, especially at the end of the year— just as in 2012, these are my opinion, my preferences, and neither reflect all genres out there nor are necessarily objective measurements of quality. These are the albums I loved. I hope you’ll listen to them and love them too.
My favorites of 2013:
1. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City
- When Vampire Weekend came out of the woodwork, afropop was having a resurgence in indie rock. Their 2008 self-titled debut and 2010’s Contra were happy, poppy, preppy, often absurdly lyrical albums that took Paul Simon’s Graceland as the be-all end-all of reference points. Modern Vampires of the City isn’t just a third album; it’s the pinnacle of Vampire Weekend’s musicality. The darkness of New York City overhangs, and hip-hop and even rockabilly influences complement classical-ripping arrangements (and yes, a solid helping of afro-pop) as MVotC ponders religion and mortality. Throughout all 12 songs, no moment is wasted, not during the slow pace of “Step” nor the quick-spitting “Finger Back.” It’s not just the most cohesive effort of the year, but it’s also the most surprising step forward from a band that could have been comfortable in its niche. Vampire Weekend isn’t just music festival/summer radio fare: MVotC is capital-S capital-A Serious Art.
- Essential track: “Diane Young”
2. The National — Trouble Will Find Me
- When Trouble Will Find Me first came out, I called it a “grower.” It didn’t immediately excite me like High Violet or nearly reach the level of Boxer in my mind. The songs were too subtle, too quiet. But it took about one more listen for me to be convinced that this was one of The National’s best. The Brooklyn group has moved beyond the confines of being mopey rock band to a confident collective that has no qualms with making beautiful music. With Matt Berninger’s sweet baritone telling stories in only the self-deprecating, deeply emotional way that only The National is capable of, TWFM is full of those wow lyrics that feel so specific yet universally applicable. Their newest album doesn’t just grow with you the more you listen to it— it swells.
- Essential track: “Graceless”
3. Chvrches — The Bones of What You Believe
- The only debut on my Top 10 list, The Bones of What You Believe exceeded my expectations for what a synth-pop group could do. M83’s 2011 epic Wake Up, We’re Dreaming set a precedent in my mind for maximalist, ’80s-inspired electronic music. Chvrches takes the torch and sets an entire album on fire. Fronted by Lauren Mayberry, Chvrches intricately layers keyboards on keyboards on percussion and doesn’t back down from confrontation. The songs on TBoWYB are fiery, passionate, but also infinitely varied. This was a year of incredibly strong women, and Chvrches was at the forefront.
- Essential track: “The Mother We Share”
4. Yo La Tengo — Fade
- After 30 years together as an indie rock band – one of the most influential, too – Yo La Tengo settled down for their 13th studio album. Fade departs from their earlier releases, less fuzzy and noisy and much more compact. But it’s also imbued with a sense of contentedness, and is no less musically expansive. From the first drums of “Ohm,” Fade stretches its arms, sweetly and intimately.
- Essential track: “Ohm”
5. Laura Marling — Once I Was An Eagle
- Laura Marling is not just another female singer-songwriter, and Once I Was an Eagle is not just an album. It’s an opera, played out on an acoustic guitar and with minimal percussion. Marling’s violently rhythmic strumming lashes out against those who’ve hurt her, but the lyrics, sung like Joni Mitchell with a grudge, are what really bite. “You weren’t my curse / Thank you naivety for failing me again / He was my next verse.” Marling is defiant; OIWAE is definitive.
- Essential track: “Master Hunter”
6. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
- If The Suburbs was their statement against the monotony and monoculture of modern life, Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s statement against… technology’s impact on modern life. The most dramatic move they could make was moving from orchestral indie rock into Talking Heads-level, Haitian-influenced grooves, drawing out rhythms for minutes on end. It was a grand experiment, occasionally going too far into experimentation, but with some of Arcade Fire’s most ambitious songs finding a home on an a defiantly soulful project.
- Essential track: “Afterlife”
7. Janelle Monáe — The Electric Lady
- There may be no lack of female empowerment in R&B, but there certainly is a queen. Janelle Monáe, building off the amazing sci-fi concepts of her Metropolis multi-suite series, returned this year to continue the story of a queer android musician-messiah who travels back in time to save us from oppression. The Electric Lady brings soul, gospel, funk, jazz, and rock together in a way that only Monáe knows how. She is Motown, thousands of years in the future. As a diva, she stands alone, above the competition in creativity and musical ability.
- Essential track: “Dance Apocalyptic”
8. Mikal Cronin — MCII
- MCII is a pure summer album. Blazing with bright, guitar-driven power pop, Mikal Cronin steps into the role of band leader with finess. With a newly-earned degree in music composition, Cronin finely arranges his garage rock album with piano and strings, balancing out the energy of rip-roaring guitar solos with mellow sweetness. And damn, is it catchy as anything. Those hooks will wedge their way into your brain.
- Essential track: “Weight”
9. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories
- Forget about what you’ve heard about Daft Punk redefining EDM. There is no EDM. Random Access Memories doesn’t even try to be a dance album in the contemporary music scene. The French duo made a full-on prog album, with a foundation in the golden guitar riffs of the disco heyday but a lofty ambition of synth soundscapes. RAM is more than just “Get Lucky” repeated for 75 minutes. Sometimes it requires you to slow down and sit back, and sometimes it demands participation. No matter what, it’s an exercise in humanness.
- Essential track: “Touch (feat. Paul Williams)”
10. Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
- The last time we saw Neko Case, she was singing about whales and tornados and Mother Nature. You’re not going to find that on The Worse Things Get. Here, Case is pained, singing about personal experiences, but no less confrontational. From a capella to horns to New Pornographers-esque power pop, Case’s range is incredible. “Alt-country,” be damned. Case’s voice, a siren’s call, transcends genre.
- Essential track: “Man”
And some honorable mentions, in no particular order:
- Phosphorescent — Muchacho
- Haim — Days Are Gone
- Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience
- Sigur Ros — Kveikur
- Nick Cave + The Bad Seeds — Push the Sky Away
- Joseph Arthur — The Ballad of Boogie Christ
- Little Green Cars — Absolute Zero
- Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
- My Bloody Valentine — mbv
Thanks so much for reading! I hope you found some new artists and albums to check out, and if you have any feedback, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Remember to keep buying music, listening to radio, and supporting your local bloggers!