Done correctly, year-in-review lists can be illuminating, thought-provoking and productively contentious.
Yeah, we didn’t try to do anything like that.
Below, three regular Free Times music section contributors, one irregular contributor, Free Times’ incoming music editor and its outgoing music editor have selected five records apiece they particularly enjoyed from a rather fruitful year in music. No attempt at critical consensus was made; these are simply 29 records — two of us really liked that Haim record — from six people with widely variegated tastes in music.
We hope you enjoy our wholly self-seeking enterprise. Who knows — maybe you’ll be spurred into listening to something you might not otherwise have discovered. Or not.
Mikal Cronin, MCII
Confusion is underrated. The decisions and situations that baffle us and leave us reeling are also profoundly freeing — anything, it seems, could happen next. With jangling 12-strings and punishing fuzz, razoring fiddles and scorching guitar solos, Cronin captures this bittersweet ecstasy better than almost anyone.
Arnold Dreyblatt & Megafaun, Appalachian Excitation
Dreyblatt, an avant-garde composer known for his dense and demanding overtones, has never sounded so light on his feet, whisked along by Megafaun’s toe-tapping momentum. Megafaun, a far-ranging folk troupe from North Carolina, hasn’t sounded this wonderfully weird since its 2007 debut. I’m not sure which development is more exciting.
Chris Forsyth, Solar Motel
With impressive outings from William Tyler, Daniel Bachman and several others, 2013 was a great year for guitar records. But no axe-slinger embodied the chaotic elation at the core of rock ‘n’ roll better than Forsyth. He and his band create a tremendous racket, with striking guitar lines that keep them from getting lost.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Haw
“I’m trying to learn / To learn to love my conqueror.” No line on Haw better sums up the album’s enthralling conundrum. Strings swirl, guitars slash, banjos prickle, and M.C. Taylor sings with a knotty croon, searching for faith in a world filled with bigotry and hypocrisy. His struggle is honest and profound.
Centralia, yet another wowing effort from Brooklyn’s Mountains, is an immersive drone record where the frigid whirs from twisted knobs melt into warming cello, where subtle guitar plucks dance with spacey synths. Embracing technology without rejecting time-tested sounds, Centralia was 2013’s most timeless listen.
Olafur Arnalds, For Now I Am Winter
I’m not sure that this qualifies as pop music, but it’s beautiful stuff no matter the genre. Arnalds’ style is closer to a classical one than anything resembling radio fodder; it’s telling that his other album this year was a film score.
A Fragile Tomorrow, Be Nice Be Careful
Power-pop isn’t restricted to the Shoes/Beat/Tommy Keene heyday of the ’80s, as these 20-somethings proved on this Don Dixon-produced joyride through a thoroughly modern take on the genre.
David Francey, So Say We All
Canadian folk singer David Francey has one of those intimately familiar voices that’s inviting and yet aching with pain experienced in a life that’s lived, for better and worse. I listened to this album more than anything else this year, by a long shot.
Was there a more gorgeous album of wispy pop music made this year? The male duo Rhye sounds like this generation’s Everything But The Girl, all understated charm and unencumbered hooks.
The South Carolina Broadcasters, Short Time To Stay Here
Making old-time music new again through its undeniable energy and enthusiasm, this trio is a joy to see perform, single-microphone style; the songs are nearly as much fun in recorded form.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Somewhere in the midst of the disembodied celestial stampede at the center of the schmaltz-rock-meets-prog-fantasy centerpiece “Touch,” Daft Punk won me over. It doesn’t matter how much your attention waxes and wanes, or that a few of the songs go on for far too long. Random Access Memories dug its hooks in to me and wouldn’t let me go. That the album also featured one of the year’s best singles, the ubiquitous “Get Lucky,” didn’t hurt either.
Haim, Days Are Gone
I didn’t even want to like this record — ’80s Fleetwood Mac and ’90s R&B influences doesn’t exactly set my hair ablaze, plus the hipster buzzwave and odd interviews turned me off — but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a brilliant collection of impeccably sung pop songs, all organic synths and throbbing electronic drums that give their feather-light, hook-filled confections some needed warmth and depth.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
An instant classic, and a record that budding Americana songwriters are going to be listening obsessively to 10, 15, 20 years from now. Mark my words.
Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt
Poignant, bruised songs sung with stunning clarity and honesty by the young Katie Crutchfield. The most haunting songwriter album of the year.
Kanye West, Yeezus
I got into Kanye pretty heavily this year, and it’s largely on the basis of the aggravating, abrasive and uncomfortable Yeezus, an album whose self-aware exploration of hubris and id are second only to the power of the music itself.
The Band, Live at the Academy of Music, 1971
The Band is so simply named for a reason. Few, if any, ensembles can match its songwriting prowess and pure musicianship. Pound for pound, note for note, The Band is one of the best groups to ever roll tape. It’s not The Last Waltz, but it will do nicely.
Barenaked Ladies, Grinning Streak
Co-songwriter and vocalist Steven Page left the band in 2009, taking with him a big part of what has always made the Ladies so engaging. But their latest record reassures that the group hasn’t lost an ounce of their wide-eyed, unironic sense of melody and optimism.
David Bowie, The Next Day
Bowie’s voice hasn’t aged one lil’ metric meter. His latest album doesn’t sound as sexually dangerous as Ziggy Stardust did, but his energy and unwillingness to downplay his accent haven’t flagged a bit. And he can still rock ass with the Spiders we have here on Earth.
Dropkick Murphys, Signed & Sealed in Blood
Bagpipes, power chords and layer upon layer of gang vocals — these are what Dropkick Murphys have been selling since 1998. This is a band that has never once forsaken its strengths or reinvented itself in pursuit of new fans, and their old ones love them all the more for it.
Queens of the Stone Age, ...Like Clockwork
If Frank Black sings like the devil himself (and he does), then Josh Homme is Beelzebub, perfectly wasted. This was one of the most anticipated hard rock albums of the year and it didn’t disappoint. Sir Elton called Homme personally to offer his services. Come on.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get,
The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Women dominated music in 2013, and made some of the best albums of the year. Neko Case’s Worse is a cathartic record, retaining only a smidgen of pop glue to hold it all together. On the best track, “Man,” Case takes out the garbage with a gender-bending middle finger to societal expectations: “I’m a man / It’s what you raised me to be / I’m not an identity crisis / This was planned.”
CVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe
This album is addictive, pure and simple. Pulsating beats and Depeche Mode synth are elevated by Lauren Mayberry’s vocals. Her Glasgow accent comes off sweet and shoegazy, but it turns on a dime, becoming defiant on “Gun.” It’s that same Don’t-F#!k-With-Me stance she’s taken toward misogynistic Internet trolls. They should run while they still can.
Haim, Days Are Gone
Lest we focus on faces made while performing, these three sisters from the West Coast are killing it. Their take on pop is innocently endearing, as heard in the let-‘em-down-easy break-up tune “The Wire.” The comparison to Fleetwood Mac is easy to make — it’s pure, polished pop music that doesn’t leave you stripped.
Lorde, Pure Heroine
Everyone is deserving of a guilty pleasure, and this one has the benefit of actual substance — and talent. Ella Yelich-O’Connor is a teenager wise beyond her years, rejecting the vanities and unrealistic lifestyles glorified by pop music with her working-class anthem “Royals.” And she does it with pop music!
M.I.A. is a paradox, but she’s an entertaining one, thank goodness, saving herself from insufferable pretentiousness. She’s unapologetic, slamming haters and slinging South Asian spiritual references all in one hook. Matangi reminds us just how genius Arular was, minus some of the acid.
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest
You ever watch those what-if documentaries that suppose what would happen if humanity were wiped from the planet and the earth were left to reclaim itself? Tomorrow’s Harvest — awash in disintegrating loops that evoke dread and fear and disquiet and awe and malice — is the record that should soundtrack all of them.
Steve Gunn, Time Off
In a year of great and often cyclonic guitar records — see: Daniel Bachman’s Jesus, I’m a Sinner; Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel; William Tyler’s Impossible Truth — Steve Gunn won by trading whiplash for slow-burning offhand folk-rock grace.
KEN Mode, Entrench
It’s mankind’s most primal instinct, fight or flight. Entrench opts for the former, a combative and hyper-aggressive — without being overly macho — collection of robust, noisy hardcore that’s meticulously composed, making the most of its malevolence.
The Necks, Open
The first hi-hat hit in The Necks’ ambient-jazz triumph Open doesn’t come until the song’s more than nine minutes old. There’s nearly an hour of music left after that. But Open is less glacially paced than wholly meditative — the intensely intimate sound of bass, piano and drums deliberating and reflecting for 68 enthralling minutes.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels
The larger problem with Drake’s Nothing Was the Same and Kanye’s Yeezus isn’t the megalomania, isn’t the misogyny, isn’t the subpar lyricism and rapping, isn’t the stale all-payload production. It’s that neither of those records are any fun. Run the Jewels, the best of Killer Mike and El-P’s deepening and exemplary grit-rap oneupsmanship bromance, is. These motherf#!kers are all thorn and no rose, as El Producto spits on the title track, but pain is sometimes pleasure.
Let us know what you think: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.