This has become a yearly tradition, going back to the In Mala Fide days; me educating you, my valued readership, on music that doesn’t suck. It’s an undeniable fact that my rarefied tastes in post-indie hipster rockabilly make me qualified to lecture you Nickelback- and Bieber-loving droolers on what to listen to. With that in mind, here are my favorite (and least favorite) albums of 2013. Note that this year, I’ve chopped the list into two posts due to its sheer length; Part Two will feature honorable mentions as well as the worst and most disappointing records of the year.
10. m b v — My Bloody Valentine
Yeah, you just know this is going to end up on every other top ten list this year. My Bloody Valentine is the Velvet Underground of Generation X; tragically neglected while they were alive, imitated by everyone who came after. And while I love Loveless as much as anyone else, watching the alt-media shamelessly suck Kevin Shields’ dick is embarrassing. More than a decade of jacking off in his recording studio and this is the best he could come up with?
m b v is good, but it’s not dick-sucking good.
I’m not just saying this out of some hipster desire to go against the grain; the album is nearly sunk by its two penultimate songs, “In Another Way” and “Nothing Is.” Both of them draw on the godawful drum-and-bass music that was popular in Britain when Shields recorded them in the late 90′s, and both are so repetitive, simplistic and obnoxious that they kill the atmosphere that the previous songs so painstakingly built. (Coincidentally, when I saw My Bloody Valentine live in New York City last month, those were the only two songs off the album they didn’t perform.)
It’s a shame because the rest of m b v is fantastic, showing how the band has evolved in the two decades since Loveless. The album has an expansive, orchestral sound in contrast to the hemmed-in feel of Loveless, Shields’ glide guitar technique dragging the listener onto a new plane of reality. The first three tracks set the tone, with Shields and Bilinda Butcher trading vocals over a vivid soundscape of tremolo bar abuse. The standout track is “New You,” featuring Butcher’s breathy, sensual voice set against an ascending dreamworld of grainy, distorted chords and pulsating bass lines.
9. Desire Lines — Camera Obscura
Listening to Camera Obscura is like taking a time warp back to the late nineties; as one of the last major twee pop bands, their music is essentially a soundtrack for over-privileged white kids whose lives are just a bit too comfortable. Fortunately, they’re good at it; frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell’s depressive voice is perfect for narrating tales of lost love, augmented with a perpetually sad-sounding brass and string ensemble.
Camera Obscura hit gold with 2006′s Let’s Get Out of This Country, with their 2009 follow-up My Maudlin Career laying on the treacle just a little too much. Desire Lines actually hearkens back to the band’s 2002 debut, Biggest Bluest Hi Fi, albeit without the Belle & Sebastian-ripoff feel that characterized that record. Desire Lines excels by dialing the sentimentality back, as well as the arrangements; the trumpets and strings are given a back seat to more traditional guitar and piano work. Campbell’s vocals are just as sad as ever, but without the over-exaggerated whininess of My Maudlin Career, gently echoing through the speakers.
8. Coming Apart — Body/Head
Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s divorce may have been one of the best things to ever happen to indie rock. For the last decade, Sonic Youth has been a corpse waiting for a burial; the albums they’ve put out have ranged from total garbage (NYC Ghosts & Flowers) to half-listenable at best (The Eternal). Getting away from each other has rejuvenated all of Sonic Youth’s former members, enabling them to put out music that is actually good.
Coming Apart, the debut from Kim Gordon and guitarist Bill Nace, is far better than records like it have any right to be. An experimentalist cacophony of guitar improvisation, the album is carried by Gordon’s haunting vocals, which break from her usual strident, authoritative voice, revealing a wellspring of anguish and torture. Listening to tracks like “Last Mistress” and “Murderess,” you can almost visualize the tears running down her cheeks.
7. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action — Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand began their career doing everything right, marrying an aggressive art punk sound with cynical, sneering lyrics. Then they crapped out Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, which ditched the frankness of their first two albums in favor of a bathetic, Bret Easton Ellis-esque narrative about the evils of excessive partying. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action isn’t on the same level as their earlier work, but it’s a nice recovery; they return to the detached, street smart lyrics that they do so well, and aside from the weirdly Beatles-esque “Fresh Strawberries,” their sound ditches the excesses of Tonight: Franz Ferdinand as well.
6. Girl Talk — Kate Nash
Kate Nash is a musician I’m conflicted about. On one hand, she’s the embodiment of everything I oppose; she’s a delusional feminist and fat acceptance advocate who takes her cues from the riot grrrl movement. On the other hand, unlike most soi-disant feminist musicians, Nash is actually good. She’s an accomplished guitarist and bassist and a good singer as well, actually able to carry a tune.
Girl Talk is easily Nash’s best record because it fully realizes her strengths as a musician. Her first two albums had a singer-songwriter feel to them, which clashes with Nash’s aggressive, in-your-face musicianship; Girl Talk adopts a garage rock sound, with screeching, visceral guitars and bass lines to match her strident singing. Her lyrics are also better, exposing a charming pathos as she angrily admonishes the world for its “misogyny” in songs like “All Talk” and “Rap for Rejection,” the pathos of a genuine social misfit.
5. Fade Away — Best Coast
I roasted Best Coast’s previous album The Only Place for being musically repetitive and uninspired, but Fade Away is a complete 180 from that record. The band’s surf pop sound has been replaced with a floatier, dreamier feel, with grainier guitars and slower-paced songs. Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics have also evolved in the right direction; in contrast to the teenage wistfulness of The Only Place and Crazy for You, Fade Away has deeper, more mature songs.
4. Corsicana Lemonade — White Denim
One of my favorite bands, White Denim’s sound is a cross between the dissonant psychedelia of the Red Krayola and the 13th Floor Elevators and the jarring, rapid-fire punk shredding of Butthole Surfers, with a little bit of blues to boot. With each album, they’ve been getting better and better, and Corsicana Lemonade doesn’t break this trend. Amazingly, they’ve managed to speed up the tempo even more from their previous record D, rapidly switching between time signatures, though they manage to offer a few more traditional rock offerings like “Limited by Stature.”
3. Volume Three — She & Him
As I’ve written before, I’m a recent convert to the cult of Zooey Deschanel, mainly through the music of her band She & Him. The band’s name and the titles of its albums—as you can guess, their two prior records are titled Volume One and Volume Two—aren’t terribly inventive, but Deschanel and her collaborator M. Ward know how to make catchy, fun pop songs. While I’m still partial to Volume One, Volume Three comes near to that record due to the evolution it shows in She & Him’s musicianship. Deschanel’s vocals are sultrier and sexier in Volume Three, in contrast to her girlier earlier records, and her and Ward’s arrangements are bigger and more elaborate, moving away from the stripped-down indie feel of their earlier work.
2. Push the Sky Away — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave is one of a handful of rock stars who seem immune to the embarrassments that come with old age, though that might be because he isn’t trying to be a young man. Push the Sky Away moves away from the garage rock sound of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! back to the gothic ballads that have defined Cave’s career. Driven by slow, thumping bass lines and bleak piano work, Cave spins tales of doomed mermaids, forlorn prostitutes and other esoteric subjects (he claims to have been inspired in part by reading Wikipedia articles), his forceful vocals layering on the blackness.
1. Chelsea Light Moving — Chelsea Light Moving
Ding ding ding! We have a winner!
In the great Sonic Youth breakup, Thurston Moore has been cast as the villain, the evil, philandering manchild who abandoned his long-suffering wife of nearly thirty years for younger hotter tighter groupie love. It’s this bias that prevents the music media—and the public at large—from acknowledging the quality of Moore’s new band. Shit, when I went to go see Chelsea Light Moving in Buffalo months ago, I was talking with a guy at my hostel who also went to the show and he said, “Yeah, he played a lot of good, punky songs, but I dunno… he and Kim Gordon broke up!”
If Chelsea Light Moving’s debut is any indication, Moore is way better off as a bachelor.
Chelsea Light Moving is a great reminder of what Sonic Youth used to sound like, before they jumped the shark. In contrast to Moore’s crummy solo records, this album is full of soaring punk riffs, aggressive drums and passionate, angry vocals from the man himself. While the album is ostensibly about the Beats and the early counterculture of the sixties, Moore’s lyrics also work in references to later punk musicians (“Mohawk” references Darby Crash, and the record has a cover of the Germs’ “Communist Eyes”) and contemporary events (“Lip” is about #OccupyWallStreet). Chelsea Light Moving is everything you want out of a rock record; energetic, frenetic, catchy and memorable.
Read Next: Matt Forney’s Top Ten Albums of 2012