2013 was a really, really, really hard year for me. I would say music helped me through it, and it did, but even listening to music, or getting through a whole song in one sitting, much less a whole album, was virtually impossible most days, so even that was a source of stress for me. But I kept listening to and writing about a huge amount of music this year because there were so many records coming that excited and intrigued me, that made me happy to be alive and paying attention right now. And paying attention should be rewarding -- one gets a sense sometimes from music critics that the more we hear, the less we're able to actually enjoy any of it, like any hardcore addict or fetishist who needs more and more extreme stuff just to get anything approaching the desired feeling that used to come with ease when we were younger and more easily impressed. But I dunno, I feel like music is nourishing and fortifying my existence in ways it didn't even when I was a teenager and I lived for it. I'm not really to stop caring.
Of course, 'paying attention' these days is pretty insane -- Spotify and other streaming services have enabled me to listen to practically every new album I have even the slightest interest in listening to, and this running 2013 albums playlist
of everything on Spotify that I've listened to is over 150 albums deep. Once you factor in stuff not on Spotify that I listened to on DatPiff or Bandcamp or wherever, I'm probably over 200. That's an insane number, but processing that much made it really easy to think of over 50 albums that I found really impressive and enjoyable this year, that didn't have the immediate and obvious flaws or frustrations that most of those 200 albums had. And as many of those albums are discarded and forgotten after a couple listens, these are the ones I kept going back to. I also made a shorter, more digestible Best of 2013 playlist
with one track each from the top 50.
1. Paramore - Paramore
Releasing a self-titled album in the middle of your career has always struck me as kind of a haughty gesture, particularly in the midst of changes in sound or personnel, defiantly stating "you may have liked those other records, but this one is the real me/us, deal with it." That's absolutely the case with Paramore
, which was written after two key members left the band in a huff, declaring in a manufactured star vehicle for frontwoman Hayley Williams. But instead of going solo as a pop diva, Williams regrouped with the two other remaining members (who only had a handful of writing credits on their previous albums), and refashioned Paramore into a better, more adventurous band. That narrative, though it hovers around triumphant, life-affirming anthems like "Ain't It Fun" and "Grow Up," may actually be the least interesting thing about the album, however. It's the gigantic hooks, the dizzying variety, the generously detailed and glimmeringly textured production that kept me coming back to this 64-minute beast of an album over and over without ever feeling the need to skip a track. Williams can sing a solemn, sincere breakup song like "Hate To See Your Heart Break" on one track, and in the next sing a satirical stalker's lament like "[One of Those] Crazy Girls" and somehow the emotion is just as real and deeply felt in both. The droning lo-fi 8-minute closer "The Future" coexists on an album with the giddy, fuzzed-out punk of "Anklebiters," the anthemic Blondie homage "Daydreaming," and the swinging synth pop of "Ain't It Fun." Members of a band that had no indie cred to begin with defected in the name of integrity, and Paramore turned around and became an amazing band just to prove that that bullshit doesn't actually matter.
2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park
When her breakthrough single, "Merry Go 'Round," showed up last year, Kacey Musgraves cut right through all the affectionate good ol' boy celebrations of Southern culture on country radio with the terse, unpleasant realities of small town blue collar life. And if she'd just repeated that trick over and over, it'd be a memorable and probably still very acclaimed album, but it wouldn't be a great album. Same Trailer Different Park
is the heartbreaking album about the downtrodden middle class that Springsteen was trying to make last year, songs like "Back On The Map" and "Blowin' Smoke" getting me through a year where I worked harder just to be broke than I ever have in my life. Her dry, matter-of-fact delivery and economic songwriting even makes the more topically pedestrian songs like "I Miss You" and "Keep It Yourself" strangely affecting in a way most country singers wouldn't even think to try.
3. Fantasia - Side Effects of You
Side Effects of You
is less a solo effort than an album-length collaboration between Fantasia Barrino and Harmony "H-Money" Samuels, who produced all but one track on it. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Samuels produced an array of hit singles for Ariana Grande, Sevyn Streeter, Keyshia Cole and others, and no two songs sounded alike. That same variety is present in Side Effects of You
, which runs through pretty much every kind of track you might want to hear Fantasia sing over, from the Whitney homage "Change Your Mind" to the uptempo funk workout "Get It Right" to the reggae inflections of "Ain't All Bad" to my single of the year, "Without Me." Ever since winning American Idol, Fantasia's vocal ability and charisma has never been in doubt, but "When I See U" aside, her material never quite matched her talent until Side Effects of You
4. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap
I wouldn't have imagined 8 months ago when first listening to Acid Rap
that I'd eventually be calling it the best rap record of the year. I immediately recognized that it was good, but I had a lot of misgivings: 1) Chance's voice took some getting used to, especially those "nehnehnehneh-AH!" ad libs, 2) weariness over not-ready-for-primetime Chicago rappers being hyped into the major leagues, 3) weariness over the "wait, Chance is actually the anti-Chief Keef" narrative, 4) guest spots by rappers I try to avoid like Childish Gambino and Action Bronson, and 5) opening the mixtape with a sample of an intro from one of Kanye's early mixtapes. Thankfully, I kept listening and let all that stuff stop bothering me, as I came to realize that nobody else in rap this year had made such a dense, textured, quick-witted, energetic and big-hearted album.
5. 2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME
His first major label solo album, last year's Based On A T.R.U. Story
, went gold and established 2 Chainz as a big star, but by the time the thing had run its course, it kinda felt like all the best songs were singles and that dude didn't really know how to make an album. So it's bittersweet that a year later he came back with the consistent, well rounded album he should've made the first time, but the singles weren't hitting the same way so the thing sold less than half as much as its predecessor. 2 Chainz is an incorrigible goofball, and if you're the kind of rap fan who has no time for that, this album won't convince you, but you enjoy him in the concentrated bursts of his best guest verses, B.O.A.T.S. II
delivers peak 2 Chainz in huge servings. And even something like "So We Can Live," which spans almost 7 minutes and switches up the beat mid-song, hints at the more cerebral, emotional side of 2 Chainz that he earnestly tried and failed to put across on the first album. Even Chance The Rapper
had to give him props for how cohesive this album is.
6. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
I always end up fishing my albums list for the year later than I wanted to, but I love being able to throw some great December release into my top 10 after most people finalized their lists in late November, and there's
never been a more example than Beyoncé
's surprise blockbuster a couple weeks ago. Obviously, I'm still digesting the record, and haven't even watched any of the videos yet, but the whole thing is pretty undeniably awesome. It's obviously building on a lot of things that she tried for the first time on 4
, and is a full 20 minutes longer than that album and lacking its automatic standout masterpieces, but it feels more consistent and fully realized as a whole. The way the universal themes tangle up with the things that really only a handful of people in the world, if not only Beyoncé
, can actually speak on, often within the same song on "Pretty Hurts" or the incredible "Rocket," just feels so awe-inspiring and ambitious, and I've never really been one to bow down to B's supremacy as a fact of life.
7. Amel Larrieux - Ice Cream Everyday
A big part of R&B becoming "cool" to people that for some reason didn't consider it worth their time a couple years ago was the way newer acts like Miguel and Frank Ocean were using trippy production styles associated with the underground -- muffled drums, wobbly synths, instruments abruptly cutting in and out of the mix, and surreal soundscapes. Of course, R&B acts have been trading in sonics like this for ages, but a lot of them have been hippie neo-soul types, the uncoolest acts out there. So it was cool to see someone like Amel Larrieux, who's been more or less ignored on the periphery of mainstream R&B for over a decade, come around with some of the most gorgeously intimate, idiosyncratic production on any album of any genre this year. But it's Larrieux's guileless, unguarded songwriting and stark vocal production on songs like "Have You" and "Ur The Shhh" that really makes the record sparkle and resonate beyond just the cool sounds surrounding her voice.
8. Kevin Gates - Stranger Than Fiction
Less than 6 months after Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates released his breakthrough mixtape, The Luca Brasi Story
, he released the independent album Stranger Than Fiction
. Releasing two high quality projects in one year is impressive, but inevitably one is going to get more praise than the other, and the one that was released first and for free seemed to have the advantage. Stranger Than Fiction ended up being my favorite, though, with its mix of storytelling on "4:30am," knowing ignorance on "Thinking With My Dick," and ill-advised but entertaining experiment with rapping in character with cartoonish accents on "Careful."
9. Ariana Grande - Yours Truly
A disciple of Mariah Carey whose debut album samples old hits by Big Punisher, Lil Kim and Mary J. Blige, Ariana Grande could be the first '90s baby to participate heavily in pop music's incoming '90s revival. But between the doo wop overtones of the album's bookends, "Honeymoon Avenue" and "Better Left Unsaid," and the general air of earnest innocence around Grande's entire vocal style and public persona, what Yours Truly
really offers is R&B at its most bubblegum. And in a year when R&B was often depicted as only interesting or credible when it was debauched and drugged out, that managed to be pretty refreshing, nevermind the fact that the album was just executed incredibly well, with lots of help from Babyface himself and the 2013 R&B MVP, Harmony "H-Money" Samuels.
10. Elvis Costello And The Roots - Wise Up Ghost
Being on the younger side of Elvis Costello's fanbase, the idea of him being on a permanent artistic decline, of his best music having been mostly recorded before I was born, is this ominous cloud that hangs over the dozens of new albums he continues to make. I've always done my best to get out from under that cloud, though, and enjoy those albums for what they are, and Wise Up Ghost
is my favorite since The Delivery Man
, if not Painted From Memory
. The Roots aren't The Attractions, but they're a good match with Costello for a lot of the same reasons: strong rhythm section, a large arsenal of synth textures, an encyclopedic knowledge of American music. And Wise Up Ghost
is more in line with the murky funk of later albums like Game Theory
, which I love. That these two chameleonic serial collaborators got together to mostly sound like themselves is a pleasant surprise.
11. The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law
Two years ago, The Joy Formidable's debut full-length The Big Roar
was my album of the year. And the follow-up is very nearly its equal, and in some ways is more varied, and more surprising, with all sorts of new wrinkles in their sound and the texture of the production. But it didn't have a killer single on the level of "Whirring," and maybe the newness of the band wore off and a lot of people moved on, so Wolf's Law
didn't get nearly the same amount of attention. But it definitely wasn't a sophomore slump.
12. Tegan And Sara - Heartthrob
I'd never really listened to Tegan And Sara before this record, and came into it more as a fan of the album's producer, Greg Kurstin, who made a similar alternative-to-pop transition as they did over the past decade, but behind the scenes. Of course, this album's whole crossover Cyndi Lauper 2K13 sound was aimed at winning them new fans, so it worked on me.
13. Dungeonesse - Dungeonesse
In a way, Dungeonesse is a similar "indie kids do synth pop" story as the Tegan And Sara record, although that move's been pulled enough times now that I'm more enamored of the execution than the novelty. And in this case, it was done by a couple of Baltimore musicians that I've been following for over a half decade -- I can still remember the first time I saw Jenn Wasner with Wye Oak at the Lo-Fi Social Club and the first time I saw Jon Ehrens with The Art Department at The Ottobar (the album also features a guest spot by the rapper DDm, who I can remember seeing battle at 5 Seasons back in the same era). And it's cool to hear people who I instantly saw potential in continue to surprise me with great new things.
14. Nova Starz - Dark Lovely Places... For The #Ragers
If Dungeonesse is a particularly good record that follows what is becoming a pretty good narrative (people from the indie world playing with the sounds of pop and R&B), this is another awesome record out of Baltimore that arrived at a similar destination from the opposite direction. Nova Starz and her producer Street Scott pushed way outside of their backgrounds in traditional R&B and hip-hop to create something different for her debut project, which was initially marketed as an EP but is pretty much a 9-track album (one of the tag's on the record's Soundcloud
page is "urban indie pop," which seems appropriate"). I really enjoyed interviewing those guys and this remained one of the more unique and listenable projects that came out of Baltimore this year.
15. Superchunk - I Hate Music
Being my favorite band of the '90s
is no guarantee that I'll love your new records, but Superchunk have kept me a faithful and loyal fan of their new material. And while the highs on I Hate Music
may not be as high as the ones on 2010's Majesty Shredding
, the whole thing holds together better. The death of a longtime friend of the band, Dave Doernberg, looms over the whole thing the way Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance's breakup loomed over 1994's Foolish
, making one of indie rock's most eternally youthful bands sound aware of mortality like never before but
16. Lee Ranaldo And The Dust - Last Night On Earth
Sonic Youth are another one of my favorite bands, although one that may never make another album together. But members continue to work together, including Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley in Ranaldo's new band configuration, which toured for his 2012 album Between The Times And The Tides
and seemed to quickly cohere into a solid unit with an even better album appearing just a year later. Ranaldo's collections of songs never quite live up to the fantasy I had of what they'd be like back when he was writing one or two awesome Sonic Youth songs per album, but the sound of this record is very close to the Murray Street
era hippie jams that I'm a huge fan of.
17. Tate Kobang - Hitler Hardaway
It was dismaying to see recently, after putting Hitler Hardaway
at the top of my list of the best Baltimore hip-hop release of 2013
, that the mixtape doesn't appear to be online anywhere anymore. When I interviewed Tate Kobang
earlier in the year, he'd just had a falling out with one of the tape's producers, Matic808, who put out his own great project this year, and some of Tate's videos had been taken offline. Now, it looks like the entire mixtape has followed suit, and it really sucks when one of your favorite albums of the year gets erased from the internet before the year is even over. Maybe hit up Tate on Twitter
if you want to get it, though.
18. Birds And Arrows - Coyotes
There's something off about the mixing or mastering of this album, Birds And Arrows are not a very bass-heavy band but I hear this weird low end distortion or clipping whenever I turn up the volume. But this North Carolina husband-and-wife duo, who I've caught live a couple times on their frequent trips to Baltimore, continue to make charmingly intimate, twangy records that sound best at a moderate volume anyway.
19. K. Michelle - Rebellious Soul
If Keyshia Cole amped up the Mary J. Blige formula with more working class grit and indulgent vocal gymnastics, K. Michelle throws the whole thing off its axis by going to further extremes on both counts. The result is borderline camp, to the point that song titles like "Pay My Bills" and "Hate On Her" and "Coochie Symphony (Interlude)" helped make K. Michelle as much a Black Twitter meme as she is a popular R&B artist. But the vocals, production and songwriting on Rebellious Soul
were all high quality enough to make the album function on its own terms as an album worth repeat plays, K. Michelle establishing herself as a female protege of R. Kelly that can actually keep up with him in terms of outrageousness and personality.
20. Kanye West - Yeezus
My review of Yeezus
was maybe the best and most certainly the most widely read thing I wrote this year. But in my efforts to avoid both the overly generous everything-he-does-is-brilliant praise and tedious 'let's rank all the Kanye albums' debates, a lot of people came away from the review thinking I hated the album and was panning it. The truth is, I hate his last couple solo albums and actually enjoy Yeezus
more than any of his albums since Graduation
, if not Late Registration
. I'm still not convinced that Adam Sandler references and "'Strange Fruit' really goes well what I'm saying about child support" bullshit don't muddle and hurt the kind of social statements he's trying to make, just like pretty much everything he said in an interview this year failed so utterly to convince anyone of anything that stans set up a little cottage industry dedicated to Kansplaining away his scattershot analogies into something coherent. But the album sounds fantastic, and does something none of his other albums do (as opposed to My Beautiful Dark Late Registration Retread
) and ultimately that matters to me more than the other stuff, at least in terms of what I want to listen to.
21. Matic808 - Yeezus: Baltimore Club Edition
The instant remixes that pop up within weeks, if not days, of every big event record are getting tiresome. But I've always been fascinated with how Baltimore club producers can make almost anything danceable, and Matic808 doing remixes of every track from a reputedly inaccessible album that urban radio practically ignored was just bold and awesome and worked even better in practice than it did in theory. Essential listening for any fan of the original Yeezus
, and maybe even some of the people who hate it. Check it out on Soundcloud
22. Juicy J - Stay Trippy
DJ Paul's recent Da Mafia 6ix project gives a good idea of what Juicy J could be doing right now that'd be more true to the Three 6 Mafia sound, but honestly I think it's kinda badass that he signed with Dr. Luke and one of major label rap's biggest sellout cautionary tales, Wiz Khalifa, and still basically managed to sound like himself. This album is full of jams, and yes Wale, it is better than your album, which also has strip club songs, but doesn't have any vague aspirations of being "conscious" rap to compromise on. Juicy J is just being himself, which is really the most you can ask any rapper to do on his album.
23. Prodigy & Alchemist - Albert Einstein
Prodigy is another old-ass rap dude who is totally incapable of trying to be anything but himself, in the best way. P and Alc's previous full-length collaboration, Return Of The Mac
, is a minor classic to me, not too far behind Mobb Deep's best records, and this is a worthy follow-up that manages to stake out its own distinct aesthetic. Alchemist has such a great ear for these odd little textures in his tracks that go beyond boom bap revivalism, like "Stay Dope" is a genuinely weird, almost psychedelic production.
24. Bilal - A Love Surreal
Bilal has always been a neo soul 2nd stringer to me, the guy who seems to channel Prince the most of all his contemporaries but doesn't quite have the originality or charisma to be as amazing as Prince and just winds up being kind of annoying. So I was pleasantly surprised to find his vocal affectations less irritating than usual on A Love Surreal
, his progressive jazz R&B pretentions leading him to something genuinely unique and interesting, at times approaching a kind of acoustic orchestral pop.
25. The Band Perry - Pioneer
No album in country, or perhaps in any genre, had as good a trio of hit singles this year as Pioneer
's first three tracks. But the Perry siblings, who look like a gang of sexy hobbits, didn't slouch on the deep cuts, which include equally anthemic tracks like "I'm A Keeper" and "Forever Mine Nevermind." I hope they go six singles deep on this motherfucker.
26. Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines
The Blurred Lines
album will always be overshadowed by its title track -- how could a gold album not
be overshadowed by a sextuple platinum single? But the album deserves credit for being really solid and enjoyable both as a pop crossover effort and as an R&B album that sits well in Thicke's underrated back catalog
27. Mr. Moccasin - XAHA
I have some vague connections to Mr. Moccasin -- the compilation of Baltimore bands
that I helped assemble this year opened with a track by them, and weirdly my band only got to play the release party for that comp because Mr. Moccasin had to cancel (don't really know the band outside of Greg Hatem, though -- his solo project Heart Of Hearts also played a show with my band this year). In any event, hearing this band's stuff shortly before this record came out really bowled me over, definitely one of the best things I've heard out of the Baltimore indie scene in a while, even if I can't quite put my finger on what they're really doing that's special, there's just this otherworldly ambiance. Check out the record on Bandcamp
28. They Might Be Giants - Nanobots
They Might Be Giants ended one of their best albums, 1992's Apollo 18
, with "Fingertips," a suite of over a dozen tracks of even shorter and sillier songs than their usual fare, designed so that they'd be peppered throughout the album if the CD was played in the 'shuffle' mode that was still kind of a new thing at the time. Nanobots, a respectable follow-up to 2011's Join Us
(which may have actually been their best since Apollo 18
), attempts something like the "Fingertips" concept again, spreading nine tracks that run under a minute long throughout the album, and the result is absurd and entertaining and a little offputtingly nerdy, just as TMBG's best records often are.
29. The Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley
After Emergency & I
established The Dismemberment Plan as both a more popular and more serious, somber band than they'd ever been before, there started being some debate about whether they were (gasp) an emo band, back when that was, like, a deadly important thing to know. Travis Morrison responded to that chatter with a post on the band's site that pointed out that when they released their goofball first record, they were getting compared to They Might Be Giants and not Rites of Spring or Hoover. That popped into my head a few times this year as fans of Emergency & I
were shocked and appalled to find that the band's big comeback record was kind of a playful, silly dad rock record and not a fraught emotional journey or whatever. In some ways, the album is a big step down from their best work, but as a fan of Morrison's widely reviled Travistan
, I felt more prepared to accept the album on its own terms.
30. Deathfix - Deathfix
For every beloved D.C. band like The Dismemberment Plan that actually stays together for several records and then reunites years later, there are dozens that just splinter off and combine with members of other bands from the same incestuous scene under new names, to the point that it's hard to keep track of them all. So I was pretty annoyed with myself to realize just in the past week, while reading a year-end list, that Dischord released an album way back in March by a new band featuring a couple of my favorite D.C. musicians, Brendan Canty and Devin Ocampo. And though the thing very nearly gets derailed by an 8-minute novelty song called "Dali's House," it's otherwise a great listen, with some really talented guys exploring a kind of '70s riff rock sound that their previous bands have never really touched on before.
31. Kelly Rowland - Talk A Good Game
Kelly Ro killed it this year -- guest spots on my single of the year, Fantasia's "Without Me," as well as Future's "Neva End" and the Destiny's Child one-off reunion "Nuclear," and every single off of her best solo album to date, Talk A Good Game. She even addressed living in Beyoncé's shadow on "Dirty Laundry," in a way that gave her a more relateable public persona than she'd ever had before. Of course, then B came in at the end of the year and dominated everything again, once again insuring that people would continue to sleep on Kelly, but
32. J. Roddy Walston & The Business - Essential Tremors
J. Roddy Walston & The Business was a band in Tennessee before they relocated to Baltimore a decade ago, and at the moment only one member of the band still lives in the city. But they still feel like hometown heroes, and I always think fondly of them putting on some of the greatest shows I've ever seen at the Ottobar as they sign to ATO Records and tour the country and show up on national charts, especially when I hear "Marigold," one of Walston's songs most directly inspired by living in Baltimore.
33. DJ Mustard - Ketchup
For the first time in maybe 20 years, rappers all over the country are copping West coast sounds to stay current, and DJ Mustard is a huge part of that. Ketchup
only lightly surveys the huge year he had, and doesn't include most of the big hits he produced, but it works as a great sampler of his tracks, which follow a Lil Jon or early Neptunes template of incorporating a huge variety of sounds within a pretty consistent rhythmic framework. Check it out on hotnewhiphop.com
34. Meek Mill - Dreamchasers 3
Last year, Dreamchasers 2
broke records on mixtape sites like DatPiff, putting Meek's street buzz on an insane level that his major label album was doomed to not live up to (although I content that Dreams & Nightmares
is underrated as fuck -- tell me the title track isn't one of the best rap songs of the last 5 years). Dreamchasers 3
only notched maybe a quarter as many downloads as 2
did, and it's hard to say he hasn't lost some career momentum, but there's still nobody in the mainstream making music like Meek, and I appreciate that he's around. "Lil N***a Snupe" is incredible and the homie J. Oliver from Baltimore killed the beat on "Ain't Me," even if they didn't credit him in the liner notes. Check out Dreamchasers 3
35. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Random Access Memories
is like a Rattle & Hum
for dance music, a Grammy bait blockbuster that alienated a large number of the people who'd anticipated it by spending much of its time trying to educate them on the group's influences. That would be an effective premise for one of the album's many angry, disappointed reviews, but I don't actually mean it in a bad way -- I think it's kind of awesome and subversive that a hit album with an Album of the Year nomination exists mainly to prop up guys like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder as B.B. King-like legends (which, hey, if the Rock'n'Roll HOF is gonna keep snubbing Chic, why not?). I could do without the cornballs from The Strokes and Animal Collection on vocals making the album vaguely 'current,' but as a sincere celebration of '70s cheese, these guys made a heck of a Trans Am album.
36. Audio Push - Come As You Are
I always thought "Teach Me How To Jerk" was low key the best record out of that whole movement, and even if Audio Push's whole thing these days seems to be about disavowing that record or not letting it define them, whatever, it helped me give this tape a chance, and I'm glad I did. Dudes have a lot of personality and some bars and Hit Boy gave them some of his best tracks ever on here.
37. Yo Gotti - I Am
Yo Gotti has always been trap rap's most generic, offbrand star, and his career finally seemed to bottom out after 2012's anti-climactic major label debut, Live From The Kitchen
. Instead, he started finally making some hits that didn't rely on bigger guest stars, jumped from RCA to Epic, and came back bigger than ever. He's still not as charismatic or creative as a lot of his contemporaries, but right now he's winning with the sheer bulk of bangers he's putting out.
38. Thee Lexington Arrows - Dog That Bites
Hopefully when I put Baltimore artists on this list, it doesn't sound like I'm just plugging my friends' records because I know or have interviewed a lot of them -- I have to really dig their records to even think of including them here with all the records from everywhere else that I loved throughout the year. Thee Lexington Arrows
is one band I do have a lot of connections with, though -- their frontwoman, Kathleen, one of my favorite singers in Baltimore, did me the great favor of singing on my band's debut single's A-side
. Also, their bassist Curt has run our sound at The Sidebar whenever we've played there, and their guitarist, Alex, is a great illustrator whose work has accompanied several of my City Paper articles over the years (and also drew the awesome cover for Dog That Bites
). But this record is here because Thee Lexington Arrows have been making killer garage rock for nearly a decade, and seem to just keep getting better at it.
39. Vinny Vegas - The Big White Whale
Vinny Vegas is another band from Baltimore whose singer, Scott, really impressed me and I also asked him to do some singing on the Western Blot record. They've been playing shows and releasing singles and EPs for years and years, and this is the full-length debut they finally came out with just a few weeks ago. I'm kinda still digesting it, it's a really dense work, these guys just write incredibly complex, dramatic songs, but it's just great to finally hear them stretch out on an album, it's always felt like their songs needed and deserved a whole LP to sprawl across.
40. Kevin Gates - The Luca Brasi Story
As previously mentioned, I've taken a stand on rating Stranger Than Fiction
over its breakthrough predecessor, but I'm not gonna front, this is an awesome mixtape. Gates had a crazy year, totally deserves to be the only artist with two records on this list.
41. Ben Goldberg - Unfold Ordinary Mind
Awesome avant jazz from an all-star group featuring Nels Cline and Ellery Eskelin that I got to see in one of its first live performances last year
. This kinda thing is always more exciting to me to see performed in person than to hear on record, but hearing the material live and then getting the record was a good way to be introduced to these songs.
42. Dawn Richard - Goldenheart
2013 was weird and a little anti-climactic for Dawn Richard. She finally released her first full-length retail album, but Goldenheart
, good as it was, didn't quite have the staying power of its predecessor EP, last year's Armor On
, and she quickly started releasing new tracks online that were more immediate and accessible than anything on the album. By the end of the year, she'd cut ties with the collaborator who'd produced most of her best songs, Andrew "Druski" Scott, and reunited with the girl group that first brought her fame but who she's long since outgrown artistically, Danity Kane. So I dunno if this is a lull in her career or the end of her being interesting -- I'm still holding out for a Diddy-Dirty Money reunion, too.
43. Tiffany Evans - 143 EP
Evans, who once upon a time years ago had a mildly popular single featuring Ciara, is stuck in that awkward interzone of almost-mainstream R&B artists who's years removed from their last major label release, is just now starting to make really good music, but doesn't have even the mild critical cachet that Dawn Richard managed to amass. This record was awesome, though, listen to it
-- yet another 'EP' that's basically just a concise album the way people used to make them.
44. Haim - Days Are Gone
I'm not as crazy about this record as some people are, but it's enjoyable enough as a debut, and I could see them growing on me if they keep getting better from here. And it was fun to see women make unapologetically catchy pop/rock and get enough critical praise for it to drive the critics who would never stand for such a thing get really upset about that.
45. Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest
A few weeks ago, Sara Bareilles gained one of the most surprising, confusing Album Of The Year nominations in recent Grammy history -- The Blessed Unrest
had a nonexistant critical profile, sold less than every other nominee (about a quarter as much as the next lowest selling album, Daft Punk), and its big hit single, "Brave," is mostly known for sounding like Katy Perry's "Roar" but blander. And it bums me out to see Bareilles becoming an emblem for Grammy voter cluelessness, because I've always thought she had a great, unique voice and makes lovely, well crafted records. People who like the Haim album would probably enjoy it!
46. Brad Paisley - Wheelhouse
Another incredibly uncool album I enjoyed this year was Brad Paisley's latest. Yes, "Accidental Racist" is a bad, bad song, but it may be the only bad song he's ever written, as he continues to be perhaps Nashville's most consistent star who writes his own songs and excels at deep cuts
47. How To Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion
Hesitation Marks returned Trent Reznor to the Nine Inch Nails formula with few surprises, but up until that point he'd spent a few years in the wilderness of film scores, and experiments like NIN's great Ghosts I-IV
, culminating in this woefully underappreciated side project. Reznor's own wife, Mariqueen Maandig, finally showed is that there's a way to sing over his versatile productions that made them sounded nothing like the same old same old industrial angst.
48. Atoms For Peace - AMOK
The most talented member of one of alternative rock's greatest bands collaborates with the weird-looking guy from Radiohead, har har. This album probably would've been higher but I haven't listened to it since they pulled it from Spotify, word to Vice
49. Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In
A swooning, swaying, self-consciously retro but still often disarmingly lovely singer-songwriter record, dressed up in slide guitar and sweeping strings, sometimes veering into country but just as often feeling like classic pop balladry. Rose's voice sometimes veers into that Zooey Deschanel kind of thing I can't stand, but when this record is good, I buy into the whole
50. Body/Head - Coming Apart
In the absence of new Sonic Youth music, the men have gone off and made music that pretty much sounds like the band's own classic indie rock guitar swing, which suits me fine with the Lee Ranaldo records and kinda bores me on Thurston's Chelsea Light Moving record. But Kim Gordon's new music with Body/Head harkens back to the band's early no wave era, while also hinting at the marital discord that led to the band's current indefinite hiatus on unnervingly stark tracks like "Last Mistress" that are as harrowing as anything she's done since "Shaking Hell."