If you can believe it, it’s already December, and as people prepare for finals and the holidays, pop-culture obsessives (myself included) look back at the year that was. For music, 2013 was a watershed moment, filled with blockbuster releases and indie breakouts. But it was also a year of unparalleled quality. It’s difficult to narrow down an entire year’s worth of music into only five releases. Nonetheless, if there are five albums from the year to hear, these are them: five sets of moving, powerful songs from masters of their craft.
Dirty Beaches: Drifters/Love Is the Devil
Dirty Beaches’ Alex Hungtai is a nomad. In interviews, he describes his childhood as adrift, moving from country to country. Drifters/Love Is the Devil, then, is an album that constantly shifts its own locations: from “Belgrade” to “Alone At the Danube River,” from a “Night Walk” to a “Greyhound At Night.” It’s exciting and kinetic, never sitting still and never settling on one style of music, and it draws on inspirations ranging from Brian Eno’s ambient drone to Tom Waits’ fuzzy growl to Nick Cave’s ferocious snarl.
But, because of this, it’s also an exhausting listen, never letting the listener settle emotionally. For each moment of darkness, like “Casino Lisboa” or “Aurevioir Mon Visage,” there is a moment of extreme beauty, like “Love Is the Devil.” Does Hungtai find his way back home at the end of this globe-trotting album? It’s hard to say. But maybe that’s the point of it all: the beauty never comes from the destination. It comes from the journey.
Elvis Costello & The Roots: Wise Up Ghost
I confess, I’m biased: Elvis Costello and The Roots were two of the first acts that I ever truly loved. But this collaboration is more than just a jam session and absolutely more than just a cash-grab. It’s a fully formed piece of work that takes the best of two titanic acts—Costello’s acerbic wit and the Roots’ unparalleled musical craftsmanship—and melds them into a sharp, funky collection of tracks that rank amongst the best of both artists’ catalogs. Whether biting political commentary wrapped in slick funk on “Viceroy’s Row” or bleak, poetic prophecies delivered on “Come the Meantimes,” this is an album that isn’t afraid to pull punches, a collection filled with anger and grandiosity. This is more than just recommended listening for fans of Costello or Questlove and company: this is a powerful celebration of the past 40 years of music.
My Bloody Valentine: m b v
22 years is a long time to wait for an album. Hell, the five years that I spent waiting for this album were long enough. Thankfully, Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher haven’t lost a step in that time, and with mbv, they’ve delivered a breathtaking new set of tracks that ultimately picks up where their last album, Loveless, left off. The base of the group is still there: Butcher’s saccharine vocals and Shields’ wailing guitar and thick walls of sound are better than ever here. But there’s something newer, something freer about this album, a sense of grandeur and openness that makes this album a slower, more captivating listen. It’s difficult to tell if this is the last we’ll hear of My Bloody Valentine. But if this is how they want to leave us, it’s a hell of a way to go out.
The National: Trouble Will Find Me
“If I stay here,” growls The National’s Matt Berninger on their newest LP, Trouble Will Find Me. This kind of depressive forlornness has characterized this band in the thirteen year’s they’ve been on the scene. Yet Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s sixth album, feels larger and more versatile than the rest of their efforts. Whether the dirge of “This is the Last Time” or the rush of “Sea of Love” or the isolation of “Hard to Find,” The National is branching out, expanding itself in style and scope.
The depression’s still there (it wouldn’t be a National album without it), but it feels shared, less insular. Berninger’s narratives are all first-person (the album opens with “I Should Live In Salt,” for example), but the “I” here feels more interchangeable with “you.” Maybe, after over a decade, he’s not singing alone. Finally, he’s singing to us.
Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
It’s pretty rare for there to be an album that eclipses all other releases. This year is an exception, and Modern Vampires of the City is that album. Contra was great, and their debut produced some of the funkiest pop singles in recent memory, but Modern Vampires of the City feels like so much more. Perhaps the band’s mission statement. Dropping the bright afropop influences for a darker sound, this is an album filled with moments of folkie energy and ambient noise, and Sgt.Pepper-era harpsichords and revving guitars, each moment more exciting than the last.
Yet it’s the songwriting that truly makes this an album for the ages: here, Ezra Koenig embraces his inner poet, crafting lyrics that demand close listening. “Unbelievers” prepares for the apocalypse, “Diane Young” for death, “Ya Hey” for salvation. But “Step” is the crown jewel, a tale of life at a crossroads, filled with paradoxes: insecurity and confidence, nostalgia, and foresight. It’s this song that cements Modern Vampires of the City as more than just a great album but an album that will stand the test of time and, perhaps, prove to be this band’s mark on music.