Personally, 2013 has been something of a mixed bag. I think my list reflect this.
1. Nils Frahm - Spaces
Rather than a live album showcasing one particular performance, Spaces is a collection of live performances spanning the last two years that captures the broad scope of Nils’s music. The best description of it I have read is that it is something of a field recording. From gorgeous layered synth pieces to hauntingly sparse and beautiful piano compositions, if you’ve never listened to Nils before you should do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in this record. It hits all my emotional nerves in the best way.
Marnie Stern is a relentless shredding machine. Her first two albums are wildly frenetic and, as she puts it, “nutso.” Her third self-titled album marked the beginning of her shift away from this towards a more melodic sound, something that comes good on Chronicles. She admits this is the first time she has focused on “songwriting. Not guitar playing.” The guitar playing is as brilliant as ever, but her music is stronger for the shift in focus.
3. Paramore – Paramore
Forget the haters, I am an out and proud Paramore fan. This is pop-rock at its finest with great lyrics and a mile-wide defiant streak. It looked like it might have been curtains for Paramore after two members left, but the remaining trio only went on to make their best album yet. It’s exhilarating, my new gym album (a title previously held by the first And So I Watch You From Afar album) and my new album to listen to when I’m feeling down because it’s an instant upper. If you still need convincing there’s a smashing review by Sean Adams over at Drowned in Sound that says it better than I ever could.
4. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
It sounds like mid-90s indie-guitar-rock never stopped happening or evolved, yet at the same time it doesn’t sound old or worn. This was a year when I listened to a lot of great, female-fronted guitar bands and of all these, Speedy Ortiz are my favourites. It’s loud and heavy in places, introspective and lo-fi in others but the lyrics are always fantastic. The singer is a poetry teacher so there’s a lot of love of wordplay showcased on the album.
5. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
I hadn’t heard of Waxahatchee until a few months ago. Boy, am I glad I did. Even though this album is one of sad songs it still manages to be a joy to listen to in an oddly cathartic manner. What really stands out, however, are Katie Crutchfield’s vocals which are raw yet assured, steadfast and clear – capable of cutting clean to the bone. The music itself is simple and direct, the linchpin to Katie’s axle. Cerulean Salt is understated devastation at its best.
This is my favourite debut that I heard this year. It’s kind of exciting because if PINS live up to the promise they show on Girls Like Us they could well be my new favourite band. It’s not a perfect album by any means and in some places they maybe wear their influences a little firmly on their sleeve, but given time they could be something special. As it is, this is a great album full of riffs, intent, and ambition.
7. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
John Grant has suffered from depression, alcoholism, homophobic abuse and was recently diagnosed HIV positive. Pale Green Ghosts is a beautiful album about his attempts to come to terms with these trials and tribulations. There’s a wry sense of self-deprecation threaded through the sorrow and anger he somehow forms into wonderful music. Spend time with it over winter.
8. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Neko Case could sing the phonebook and it would be on my end of year list. Her voice is more than just a voice; it is a force of nature. She has talked openly about the depression she suffered from during the writing of this, her sixth, album and it is apparent on the likes of Wild Creature and Night Still Comes. Yet for me the standout moment is on Nearly Midnight, Honolulu. I won’t say anything here, just go listen for yourself and tell me you didn’t get goosebumps.
9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
This is just a really lovely album. Probably one of the prettiest things I listened to all year. That’s about all I have to say about it.
10. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
This album is on the list because not only is it very good, but the first half scared the bejesus out of me. It’s the creepiest damned thing I’ve ever heard. Excavation is a concept album about the slow descent into death and so the first half is basically death creeping up behind you and never quite catching you. It isn’t hackneyed, it is beautifully executed. The second-half is also very good – more the relief that follows the release. But seriously, don’t listen to this at night. If you do, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Honourable mentions go to several albums which were, at one point or another, on this list and really deserve to be there too. Thundercat – Apocalypse, CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe, Charlie XCX – True Romance, Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister, Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft, Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady, 65daysofstatic – Wild Light, Veronica Falls – Waiting for Something to Happen, DJ Koze – Amygdala and Swearin’ – Surfing Strange. Also, I feel like the Beyoncé album really belongs on the list because it is so, so good. However, she released it after I’d started shortlisting albums and I felt it was unfair to the others that it should arrive late and get bumped to the top. But, you should listen to the Beyoncé album because it is really, really good. Anyway, I’m pretty happy with the list.