‘13 songs

The RN&R arts editor picks his favorite new albums of 2013

Nothing pisses me off quite like prescriptive music criticism—that is to say, music criticism written by people who think they know what makes music good. I have little use for writers who say things like, “Good music has strong melodies and memorable lyrics” or “good music has monster crushing guitar riffs” or “good music would never use AutoTune.”

Sure, sometimes those things make for good music. But there are endless ways that music can be good. To me, the best pieces of music are those that are good in unexpected ways. I like to be surprised, to practice investigative music criticism, exploring possibilities, hearing things in new ways. I listen as an explorer, not as a hall monitor enforcing the rules of what I think makes music good.

To me, the best pieces of music are those that reward repeated listening, continued exploration. I don’t want to just be coddled, to hear confirmation of what I already think is good. Of course, sometimes it’s nice to hear a familiar voice, and sometimes it’s nice to be comforted. There’s value in that. It’s one of the infinite possible ways that music can be good.

So what is the function of year-end lists like this? If, like me, you love discovering new music, there’s a strong possibility you’ve already read dozens of lists like this. There’s so much music in the world; it can be daunting to keep up. (You only have two ears and 24 hours in a day, and only about 27,740 days in a lifetime—if you’re lucky. And only if you’re really lucky will you be able to devote a sizable number of those hours to music.) Here are the new albums I personally found the most rewarding to explore in 2013. I will continue to listen to these albums into 2014 and beyond. Give a listen. Let me know what you think.

The runners up

13. Yo La Tengo: Fade12. Flaming Lips: The Terror11. Thee Oh Sees: Floating Coffin

The best new albums of 2013

10. Low:The Invisible Way

The problem with being old and consistent is that you can put out really good records annually, and people just shrug them off. That's true of Yo La Tengo, one of my runners up, and it's true of this Minnesota slowcore band that's been putting out records since the early '90s. But for some reason, I like this one as much as anything they've ever done. It might be that Jeff Tweedy's production emphasizes the music's spacious, melancholy country vibe. Or, it might be the increased prominence of vocals from drummer Mimi Parker. She sings lead on half the record, and in close, haunting harmony with her husband, guitarist Alan Sparhawk, for much of the rest of it.

9. William Onyeabor:World Psychedelic Classics, Vol. 5: Who Is William Onyeabor?

There's a great record store on Valencia Street in San Francisco called Aquarius Records. It's the kind of place where you go to discover something new—perhaps even an entire genre previously unknown. The store's relatively small selection is carefully chosen, and many of the albums are attached with handwritten reviews and descriptions by staffers. Anyway, I was there a few years ago and started asking the clerk for recommendations. At the time, I had been on a big kick of early '70s Temptations, and wanted more psychedelic soul. Among the albums I ended up leaving with was a compilation from the label Luaka Bop called World Psychedelic Classics, Vol. 3: Love’s a Real Thing. It was a collection of “funky, fuzzy” rock and dance music from West Africa in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s remained in constant rotation for years. One of my favorite tracks on that comp was a song called “Better Change Your Mind” by William Onyeabor—which sounded like James Brown playing a blown-out mid-’70s synthesizer. At the time, I couldn’t find anything else by Onyeabor, a Nigerian vocalist and keyboard master. And then, lo and behold, this compilation came out, and it’s terrific—seriously funky. You might argue that it’s a compilation of music from the ’70s, and therefore not a “new album,” but I don’t think any of this music ever got an American release, and besides, it’s my list, so I’ll do what I want.

8. The National:Trouble Will Find Me

Man, I wish I could just dismiss this band as boring hipster dad rock. But I can't stop listening to this record. Fuck. I might be a boring hipster dad.

7. My Bloody Valentine:m b v

Yeah, yeah, comeback of the year, blah blah blah. In stark contrast with '90s-affiliated bands like Yo La Tengo and Low, who have continued quietly releasing great albums for decades. My Bloody Valentine waited 22 years to release the follow-up to its widely beloved and influential 1991 album Loveless. The album was greeted with fanfare-blowing hype and knee-jerk criticism, and probably wins this year’s award for the record more discussed than actually listened to (at least in circles, like many of mine, where music is the most common topic of conversation).

6. A$AP Rocky:LongLiveA$AP

One of the year's best hip-hop records, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Skrillex-produced banger “Wild for the Night,” which is the best argument I've heard yet in favor of this whole dubstep business.

5. Iceage:You're Nothing

Despite my lip service to preferring records that surprise me, sometimes I like a record just because it nails my taste perfectly. These Danish punks are perfect for my ears—moody art punk that's not too arty or moody.

4. Queens of the Stone Age:… Like Clockwork

To those classic rock fans who point toward albums like Led Zeppelin IV, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? or Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and say, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore”: Yes, they do.

3. Danny Brown:Old

My favorite rap record of 2013. The Detroit rapper's previous album, XXX, was a record that I liked when it came out in 2011, and then grew to love over the next couple of years. Old is actually a more temperate affair—relatively—with Brown toning down his oversized, occasionally cartoonish delivery in favor of rugged introspection and accompanied by beats chosen by a master curator.

2. Savages:Silence Yourself

OK, this is another record that manages to just perfectly hit my taste buds right where they like to get spiked. I like many kinds of music, but British post-punk is probably my favorite genre. And this all-woman quartet from London has delivered the best new record in the genre in years. All the best reference points are there—notably Joy Division, Wire, and Siouxsie and the Banshees—wrapped in all black with the requisite glum, serious expressions. But the music is still somehow super catchy and hard rocking. Plus, it's the last album you'd expect to end with a clarinet, but there it is.

1. Daft Punk:Random Access Memories

This album did, for me, the thing I most desire in music: It changed the way I hear. The album is constructed from raw materials that, coming from a rock background, I might not have always considered cool—disco, easy-listening, electronic dance music, yacht rock, Broadway tunes, cheesy prog—but immaculately produced, beautifully constructed, and all wrapped up in a couple of French robot suits, it works. Sure, perceptions of the album might have suffered some from all the hype, prominent major label advertising, and the ubiquity of the Pharrell-sung single “Get Lucky.” But that undeniably catchy summer jam is, to my ears, actually one of the set's weaker cuts. I prefer the musical biopic “Giorgio by Moroder,” the pensive, melodic Julian Casablancas song “Instant Crush,” or the dramatic Paul Williams feature “Touch.” And as great as the album's melodic hooks are, the real power of the album is in the subtle details: like the use of pedal steel guitar, usually more likely associated with American country music than European dance music, or the rocket propulsion sounds in the cosmic science fiction song “Contact.”