2013: The Big List Of Albums I Liked Quite A Lot

by Ken DiTomaso

The year 2013 is finally at an end so as always it is time for a massive article of year-end shenanigans. I bumped my favourites list up to 20 albums this time around and wrote mini-reviews for all of them. It seems like these lists just get longer every year. Enjoy!


20. The Beach Boys – Made In California

Another year, another archival release from The Beach Boys. This box set is kind of a mess. Throwing classic hits alongside obscure rarities ensures that this set as a whole won't fully satisfy both casual and hardcore fans. However, aside from that annoyance, the rare material here is regularly fascinating and often outstanding. This box set finally gives a proper release to many of the band’s best songs that never made it to an album. It also highlights often-overlooked eras of their career, as well as their prowess as a live act. I especially appreciate the spotlight it puts on the music of the late Dennis Wilson, who so often got overshadowed by his brothers. It's not as comprehensive as I would have liked, but two hours of excellent rare material from one of my favourite bands is always a wonderful thing.


19. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

Over the years, Steven Wilson has become increasingly more passionate about looking back at the days of ‘70s progressive rock and trying to recapture that sound. He has become extremely good at it, to the point where he’s now the go-to guy for remixing and remastering progressive rock albums by bands such as King Crimson and Jethro Tull. This year, his prog obsession reached a pinnacle with The Raven That Refused To Sing. Unfortunately, the trade-off to Wilson's dedication to historical accuracy is that this album comes across as cold and calculated in its attempt to hit as many prog rock hallmarks as it can muster. As a fan of the genre, I can't help but have an ideological concern about progressive rock that doesn't actually, you know, progress. But on the other hand, as a fan of the genre I can't help but enjoy it anyway since it pushes all the right buttons.

18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

Of Montreal has stripped their sound back for the first time in over a decade and I couldn’t be happier. I felt that Kevin Barnes’ songwriting had been playing second fiddle to his overwrought arrangements for far too long. This album is almost totally free from that. The songwriting isn’t quite at the level it once was, but the simple arrangements and live in the studio atmosphere help make even the weakest tracks on this record among Of Montreal’s most charming in years.


17. Lorde – Pure Heroine

This girl is far more talented than her young age would suggest, but whether or not she can parlay her raw talent into a long-term career remains to be seen. I hope she can, though. These songs have a bit of a sing-song vibe to them, and I'm not in love with the lightweight trap-influenced production either. But a good number of these tunes have really stuck with me nonetheless and I look forward to following Lorde’s musical evolution in the future.


16. CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe

A solid album of synth-pop with some memorable vocal hooks and cheery beats. I really enjoy Lauren Mayberry’s voice, it has a comforting and oddly pure timbre to it. The album isn't perfect (the songs that the male singer does vocals on stink) and the songwriting lacks depth, but the singles are excellent. A respectable debut.


15. Future Bible Heroes – Partygoing

Far superior to The Magnetic Fields most recent outing, Stephin Merritt’s other band reaches for many of the same goals and hits its mark far more often. These mildly electronic tunes all feature the sarcastic wit that Merritt is so good at delivering. The musical style of the Future Bible Heroes isn’t as distinctive as that of The Magnetic Fields, but I’d venture to say that Partygoing contains Merritt’s best batch of melodies since 2004’s i.


14. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

After their landmark album Loveless, My Bloody Valentine virtually disappeared for 22 years. Then suddenly they resurfaced with a follow-up and astonishingly didn't miss a beat. Despite the two decades since their last release, this album sounds like a completely natural follow-up. Beautifully hazy guitars are as prominent as ever, and the production has a delightful analog quality. The album is probably too new and out of its era to achieve the same legacy as Loveless but as far as the quality of the music is concerned it's nearly as good.


13. Aivi & Surasshu – The Black Box

In the past I’ve never really considered chiptunes to be my thing. So it has come as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that this year I’ve enjoyed not one but two albums in the genre enough to make my end of year list. This album combines solo piano pieces with pretty and memorable synth melodies. It’s a breezy, relaxing listen that I could imagine appealing to just about everybody. This album happens to be home to my favourite song of 2013, the jaw-dropping, complex yet melodic “Distance (Bicycle Trip).” However, I later discovered that it’s a cover, and the same goes for the album's second best tune, “Lonely Rolling Star (Missing You).” So much of the credit for why I like this album must be given to the original composers. Nonetheless, the original compositions that make up the rest of this album are still very lovely in their own right. I look forward to checking out what this duo has in store in the future.


12. Phoenix – Bankrupt

A nice punchy little record. It doesn’t have the big radio hits their last album had, but it’s a great outing all the same. Phoenix is one of the most consistent bands going right now, and while that means they rarely blow me away, it also means that I couldn’t even imagine what a disappointing album from them would sound like.

11. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

The band’s most mature effort to date. This album tones down most of the hyper-eccentricities of their first two records, letting their songwriting talents come to the fore. Their lyrics take a huge step forward here, too. They don’t sound like a bunch of preppies just having a good time anymore. They’ve come up with some really interesting ruminations on religion and on finding one's place in the world. All the while, their knack for colorful arrangements and hooky tunes remains in full force.


10. The Flaming Lips – The Terror

It’s a testament to the integrity of the band that The Flaming Lips has been making music for 30 years and are still releasing albums that push boundaries and defy the expectations of fans and critics alike. This album may be a little short on melody, but it more than compensates with an intensely moody atmosphere. The Flaming Lips has never before been as dark or as eerie as they are here.



9. David Bowie – The Next Day Extra

This album would have been appreciated even if it were just a toss-off showing that Bowie is still alive and well. Thankfully, however, Bowie took the time to make a record worth his legacy. It isn’t better than some of his other later career albums (there’s no beating Heathen if you ask me), but it’s definitely in the same league. If this album does end up being Bowie’s last, it will have been a very respectable swan-song. The record is very consistent with few individual highlights, but he touches on many of the different styles he’s dabbled in over the years and there isn’t a single dud on the record. The best track is the haunting closer “Heat;” and while Bowie can’t match the intensity of the Scott Walker material he’s emulating, his effort is appreciated all the same. It makes for the one of Bowie’s most striking songs. I’m choosing to list the expanded version of this album over the regular version because it adds a ton of value. It features two fantastic remixes that blow the originals out of the water, along with a batch of B-sides and bonus tracks that are better than many of the songs from the album proper. That extra disc gives this album enough heft to boost it into my top 10.


 8. Queens Of The Stone Age – ...Like Clockwork

The guitars are loud, the riffs kick ass, and the production is full and thick. Josh Homme is at the top of his game here, writing memorable tunes that don’t just get my foot tapping but get my head banging as well. It's not the only rock album on my list, but it’s certainly the album that rocks the hardest.


7. The Knife – Shaking The Habitual

Shaking The Habitual is among the weirdest albums I’ve heard all year. About half of the songs are incredible pieces of highly experimental synth-pop, and if the album only consisted of those tracks, this would have been guaranteed a spot near the very top of my list, no doubt about it. But this album also contains several unsuccessful experiments that puzzle me. Taken as a whole, the album feels messy and lacking in focus. Regardless, the majority of the lesser tracks are still quite interesting in some way or another (with the notable exception of the purposely boring 20 minute ambient piece). This is a baffling, twisted record, with a ton of hidden depth and odd curiosities around every corner. Not everything works, but when it does, it's really brilliant.


6. Death Grips – Government Plates

This is the most low-key and least aggressive record Death Grips has ever put out. Of course, that really only means that this time around the beats are simply weird instead of pummelling, and MC Ride sounds pissed rather than furious. They’ve always been a highly experimental act, but this album pushes their limits further than ever with loads of weird sound effects, loops, and distortion piled in all corners. Zach Hill’s drumming is as astounding as ever. I appreciate that he’s moved to using more traditional percussion sounds here as opposed to the electronic sounds that characterized past Death Grips albums. The band sounds as self-assured as ever and they continue to impress me not just by making intense crazy-sounding music, but also by taking care that the song quality doesn't falter in the process.


5. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Monae’s followup to her tremendous debut isn’t quite as electrifying, but it comes pretty darn close. Songs such as “Primetime,” and “Dance Apocalyptic,” are tremendous slices of R&B, and most of the other tracks on the first half are just as great. The second half of the record is a little weaker than the first, lacking the wild mood swings between quirky and epic that characterized The ArchAndroid. But regardless, Monae proves to have major staying power as an artist, and I still adore her ambition and persona.



4. Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy

This is one of the most relentlessly positive albums of 2013. This album is really long (well over double the length of their debut), and I don't think all that length was necessary. But the sheer volume of material here ensures that this is a record that delivers in the long term. These synthesized Nintendo-inspired tunes pack a serious rock punch that only Anamanaguchi can provide. The melodies are bubbly and memorable as can be throughout. 22 tracks of chiptunes is a lot to digest at once, but when split into smaller chunks, this album goes a long way. Months after I first heard it, I’m still finding new details to dig into.


3. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Reflektor feels like a welcome breath of fresh air for Arcade Fire. The Suburbs felt overly serious and uptight to me. But with Reflektor, they actually sound like they're having fun for a change. The production consistently keeps things lively and interesting, and I love the loose imperfect feel that they capture here. "Here Comes The Night Time" and "Awful Sound" are tremendously well done tracks, loaded with great melodies and dramatic arrangements. Both immediately became favourites of mine. Arcade Fire rock out harder than they have in years on "Normal Person," and they maintain their knack for emotional resonance on tracks like "Porno" and "Supersymmetry". Finally, all of the band's strengths come together on "It's Never Over" and the wonderful expansive title track. After many years of wondering whether the band had lost their touch, I’m glad to be back on board the Arcade Fire train.


2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Nanda Collection

A musical burst of pure sugar injected directly into the bloodstream. Lots of J-pop aims for this aesthetic, but few are able to achieve it as thoroughly as Kyary does. Songs as relentlessly fun and catchy as these can’t help but be addictive. A lot of people on this side of the Pacific might find it difficult to listen to something as kawaii as this album, but they’re missing out on some tremendous fun. I think I've listened to this record more than any other this year. It's the very best kind of bubblegum.


1. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

After such a long hiatus since the lacklustre Human After All, I doubted whether Daft Punk would still fit in to the modern music landscape. Especially seeing how they defined an era so definitively with their output around the turn of the millennium. But they completely shattered all my expectations with Random Access Memories. Their old material was often created by sampling or digitally recontextualising the sounds of dance music to utilize in their modern electronic compositions. But now they’ve gone to the source of the sounds they love by using live instrumentation from master studio musicians. The performances are more vibrant and full of life than electronics could ever recreate on their own. The production is astonishing featuring a clear and dynamic sound palate that would make Steely Dan jealous. No two songs sound alike and the different styles are performed to perfection. Whether they’re aiming for sun-soaked soft-rock (“Fragments Of Time,” “The Game Of Love”) or funk odysseys (“Lose Yourself To Dance,” “Give Life Back To Music”), every single song has something to offer. Extended-length tracks “Giorgio By Moroder” and “Touch” are boundless displays of creativity that border on progressive rock jumping between multiple different sections and throwing all standard songwriting conventions out the window. Random Access Memories takes the listener on a highly varied, but always danceable, journey never growing even the slightest bit dull over its 74 minutes. The hooks are infectious, the arrangements are ambitious, and the grooves are dynamite. It’s an outstanding record and my favourite album of 2013.


 ...And now for some things that didn't make my top 20. This list is ordered very roughly from records I liked to records I disliked, beginning with some runners up for my top 20 and ending with my least favourite album of the year. Keep in mind that this list isn't comprehensive at all, there are loads of albums I heard this year but didn't include here. These are the just the particular releases that sparked some additional thoughts from me.


They Might Be Giants – Nanobots

A solid late-period entry in the TMBG discography. It will hardly blow anybody away and it certainly isn’t the career highlight that Join Us was. But there are plenty of nifty little tunes from the duo here, and I greatly enjoyed their return to the mini-song format on several of these tracks.


Aaron Freeman – Gener's Gone: The Final Demo Recordings of Gene Ween (2009-2011)

I find this short EP of demos to be a little depressing since it seems to have been released with the intention of distancing Freeman from the band he was such an integral part of. These tunes were created in the final years before he got sober (hopefully for good) and broke up Ween (hopefully not for good), so it’s hard not to read deeper into them (especially on the touching title track). Ultimately, however, this is just a small bunch of nice humble tunes. They likely would have been improved by being recorded for a proper album, but if this is how Freeman intends to leave them, I don’t mind at all.


Moistboyz – V

On the opposite side of the coin the other ex-member of Ween put out an album this year as well. This is probably the best Moistboyz album yet, though it still can't touch anything Ween ever did mainly because of the stylistic restrictions they pose on themselves. Still, it's got some great punk tunes and a couple fun Ween-like left turns on it. I'm still looking more towards a proper Deaner solo album, but this is plenty good enough to tide me over for now.


Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

A new Nine Inch Nails album is always welcome, but this doesn’t seem it will go down as one of Reznor’s best efforts. There are about four tracks I really like. But the rest is just OK for me.


Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

A good album with many good songs, but the best tracks don’t hit me as hard as her previous work. And the weaker songs mostly pass me by altogether. I still like Neko Case plenty and there are several tracks that I’ll be returning to here, but I likely won’t be spinning this album anywhere near the number of times I did with Fox Confessor or Middle Cyclone.


Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light

I'm quite fond of Stetson's transfixing saxophone style. But the tracks on Volume 3 are a lot less interesting than the ones on Volume 2. The vocals from Justin Vernon are annoying and don't help either. However, the 15-minute title track is really incredible, and pretty much singlehandedly makes this album worthwhile.


Rush – Vapor Trails Remixed

Finally, after over 10 years, Rush delivered on one of their fans’ biggest demands: a version of their comeback album that doesn't sound like it was being fed into a garbage disposal. Through extensive remixing, the new edition of the album sounds light years better than the original. Now the nuances of the songs can finally be experienced. It’s still not the best album the band has ever done. But thanks to the huge improvement in sound quality we can finally judge these songs without getting a headache in the process. I for one like these tracks a lot more than I used to. “Ceiling Unlimited” and “How It Is” have been particularly great to rediscover. It speaks volumes about the integrity of a band that they can admit to their mistakes and take the time to fix them.


Atoms For Peace – AMOK

Much like Radiohead’s King Of Limbs, the debut of Thom Yorke’s side project Atoms For Peace prods at my brain in interesting ways but ultimately fails to stick with me in the long term. I can admire the beauty in the complexity of these tracks, but I can’t connect on a personal level with any of these songs. I don't dislike this record, but after my initial spins I almost completely lost the urge to listen to it. It's just not that compelling of an album.


Kanye West – Yeezus

Swinging wildly from bold experimentation to unadulterated garbage, sometimes even within the same song, to call Yeezus a divisive record is an understatement. Kanye West has huge balls and knows no limits to the music he makes. He does whatever the heck he wants, and while I respect him as an artist for that (though not particularly as a person), it’s simultaneously his biggest strength and his biggest weakness. He’s completely unfiltered, and as a result both the good and bad ideas get the go-ahead. As a result, fantastic intense tracks like “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead” sit next to cringe-worthy embarrassments like “Hold My Liquor” and “Bound 2,” and all his fans are left in the dark tying to make sense of it all.


The Dear Hunter – Migrant

A really underwhelming follow-up to what I felt was the band’s best record yet. There are a couple of really big highlights at the start, and a few other decent tracks that follow. But the ballads are really dull, and the album runs out of gas pretty quickly.


Paul McCartney – New

Even on auto-pilot, Paul McCartney still makes better music than a lot of other musicians can muster. But when he's coasting (like he is for most of this album), he's just a shadow of the songwriter we know and love. This album is competent but not much more than that. And would it have killed the guy who designed the album cover to double check how many vertical lines a capital letter N has?


Polvo – Siberia

I loved 2009's In Prism, but this record is pretty uninspiring. “Blues Is Loss” is a tremendous song, though.


Deafheaven – Sunbather

Deafheaven plays a unique combination of black metal and shoegaze music. This album was recommended over and over to me this year, so I had to check it out. But unfortunately, I don't really get it. I enjoy the shoegaze aspects of this album. When the band focuses on driving guitars and distorted atmospheric textures, I’m completely on board. But then the blast beats kick in and it just doesn't jive at all. As a result large portions of this album just sound like a sloppy mess to me. I'm no metal head, though, so maybe I'm just missing something here.


Barenaked Ladies – Grinning Streak

These songs are often pretty catchy, but this album is extremely empty and hollow. There is no substance to anything whatsoever here. That’s in part largely thanks to the lyrics, which have degraded from the wit and cleverness that used to characterize the band, to a barrage of clichés and genericisms. It's a little sad how shallow this band has gotten. Soul has never been one of BNL's biggest strengths, but never before have they sounded soulless. This album is what it would sound like if you invented a music making robot and told it to run a Barenaked Ladies simulation.


Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Parts 1 and 2)

I really like Justin Timberlake as a presence on the modern celebrity landscape. He’s a really likeable guy, a decent actor, he can be really funny when he wants to be, and has a great singing voice to boot. I liked most of his previous hits, and I really wanted to like any new music he was going to put out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t because both halves of his two part 20/20 Experience are consistently uninspired and overwrought. Every song sounds meticulously put together, and many of the arrangements attempt to get ambitious. However, ambitions are only worth anything if they can be pulled off successfully and here they really really weren’t. With no exceptions, every song overstays its welcome. There are a few nearly decent songs scattered about on Part 1, but they’re still marred by flat, listless, and claustrophobic production lacking bass and cluttered with boring percussion rhythms. Several of these songs start out with decent ideas but they're stretched far too thin over six or seven minutes and never change or develop in any meaningful way. The ballads in particular are absolutely excruciating (I’m looking at you “Mirrors”). Part 2 is even worse and I'm not going to hesitate in calling it the worst album I have voluntarily sat through in its entirety in the 2010s so far. All the problems of Part 1 are exasperated, with one dud after another culminating in the groan-inducing “Thriller” rip-off “True Blood,” which is one of the worst songs I have ever heard. Only the hidden bonus track “Pair Of Wings” approaches decency, and even that song is twice as long as it has any right being. The Jay-Z guest spots sound like they were recorded while half-asleep, the general mood is constantly dreary and oppressive, the lyrics are stupid, and every damn song drags on for freaking ever. A plague on both your albums, Justin!


Finally, to close things off on a positive note, here are two great albums from 2012 that I didn't have the opportunity to hear until this year.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Pamyu Pamyu Revolution

Obviously I discovered this after hearing Nanda Collection. Kyary’s first album is significantly more patchy than her newer release, but it still contains a handful of tracks as delightful as anything on that record. “Tsukematsukeru” and “Drinker” in particular are among her best songs, and “PonPonPon” pretty much sums up everything great (and potentially annoying) about Kyary in four minutes.


Hey Ocean! – IS

A delightful and diverse collection of tremendous indie pop tunes. This band covers a lot of stylistic ground, from country, to vocal jazz, to folk, and power pop. They pull almost everything off with a feel-good vibe, an upbeat attitude, and a lot of creativity. This band has a great knack for catchy hooks and wonderful vocal harmonies. But they also have the ability to imbue their songs with a lot of depth, which is a rarity in the modern pop landscape. This would have been easily ranked near the top of my 2012 list if I had heard it last year. But better late than never, of course.

Thanks for the music 2013. Now bring on 2014!

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