Reports of the music industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The year 2013 was a tour de force year for music fans.
From pop stalwarts making good on early promise, to upstarts just cutting their teeth, we got album after album of challenging, important and just plain fun tunes. Yeezus be praised. Whoever says music isn’t what it used to be must be paying too much attention to the Grammys. That white dude who played at Colby last year won some stuff—in addition to four Grammys, Macklemore won Humble Brag of the Year and Most Bizarre Wedding Singer.
Last year proved that artists could have a lot of fun with long-form album publicity, a la Arcade Fire’s “Black Orpheus” stream, Kanye West’s facial projections, and Daft Punk’s guerrilla style poster campaign. It also proved that artists—okay, Beyoncé—could have a lot fun recording an album in secret before letting the Internet devour it piranha-style with no warning at all.
When Daft Punk exhorted musicians to “Give Life Back to Music,” it seems like they took it to heart. Yo ’71, Imma let you finish, but 2013 was one of the best years for music of all time. Here are some of my favorite albums from the past 12 months, minus “Yeezus.”
Mutual Benefit - “Love’s
At last, the banjo has been reclaimed from Mumford & Sons by a multi-instrumentalist worthy of the “Heir to Sufjan” title. Recorded on the road during a tour of tiny midwestern venues, “Love’s Crushing Diamond” is breathtakingly gorgeous. It is an album resplendent with shimmering strings and warbling vocals. A delicate, transitory record, it clocks in at just over a half hour, and is all the more precious because of it.
Darkside - “Psychic”
The debut album of ambient wunderkind (and recent Brown graduate) Nicolas Jaar and his friend Dave Harrington, Darkside takes LCD Soundsystem’s guitar-turntable dialectic and extends it to its logical conclusion. The album fuses woozy sounds, boozy vocals, and shoe-gazey guitar-work into a syncretic soundscape. Opener “Golden Arrow” sets the stage, taking a full five minutes to build a twerking, jerking guitar riff out of an ethereal morass of sound before slipping into a comfortable groove for the next seven minutes. The rest of the record is no less weird, especially the initiation ritual chant of “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen.”
My Bloody Valentine – “m b v”
Kevin Shields had been promising a new MBV album for years, but I think we’d all given up hope. The record they returned with—their first in 22 years after the groundbreaking (and still perfect) “Loveless”—shows what reclusive perfectionists can do given unlimited time and sky-high expectations.
Somehow, the seething sounds pioneered in “Loveless” still seemed fresh when lucky listeners heard the first ghostly whispers of a new track back in February. “She Found Now” opens the album like a hurricane in a bell jar, roaring with odd detachment and quiet devastation. The album is a superior release to this year’s other long-awaited (and also pretty good) album, Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories,” and is every bit as well produced. Each guitar tremolo, snare hit, and unintelligible lyric is in exactly the right place. My Bloody Valentine once defined an era, but with “m b v” they prove that their sound is timeless.
Arcade Fire - “Reflektor”
Just how high were the stakes for Arcade Fire’s new album, the band’s fourth release after a decade-long run of cathartic, anthemic, fantastic records? So high that they brought in James Murphy to produce it and upped the ante once more with the September release of the title track. When the album finally dropped, after a drawn out tease release, fans were nonplussed. What the hell were we listening to? A Haitian-tinged disco fest about Greek mythology and Baudrillard? What happened to the transcendent “woah ohs,” the songs about childhood and innocence, or, for that matter, a leading part for Regine? “Reflektor” is more “Achtung Baby” or “Fear of Music” than “Kid A.” Its grooves are irresistible, but the kids always knew how to dance. What’s new is its playfulness, its carnival-style damned-if-I-do attitude that makes being “trapped in a reflektor” sound like the right moment to pop the balloons, fill the room with confetti, and dance.
Vampire Weekend- “Modern Vampires of the City”
No one was expecting Vampire Weekend to release an album this good. Their debut was promising, and their follow-up more of the same, but Ezra and his Columbia cohorts always seemed more preoccupied with seeming smart than actually being smart. They strip away the pretense, however, on “Modern Vampires of the City.” From Rostam’s funky vocal manipulations to Ezra’s lyrical poetry, this is a rich poignant record that has each band member on point. Maturity suits these Ivy Leaguers, as Ezra waxes eloquently about God, wisdom and a girl in his sophomore English class.
Vampire Weekend proves that it can reappropriate the best song of the last decade and turn it into a contender for the best song in this one: instead of “Hey Ya,” I’ll be squealing “Ya Hey” for the next 10 years.