Over the years, the “Top 40 Albums” list (once a measly list of 10) has become the apex of BDWPS, a culmination of a year’s worth of obsessive listening and re-listening (and re-listening) to every piece of music I can get my hands on. Even as I compile this final definitive list (which I traditionally question months and years later), I find myself revisiting albums I was quick to write off, or I end up digging for gems that may have slipped through the cracks of my consciousness. I didn’t have as tough of a time leaving albums off the list this year; I don’t know if that means 2013 was a weak year in music or if I just didn’t have as tight of a connection with as much music as usual. Regardless, I can promise you that the following 40 albums are well-crafted collections of music/art worth investing your time in…lord knows I have.
Danny Brown, Old
Chelsea Light Moving, S/T
Jason Isbell, Souteastern
Ka, The Night’s Gambit
Moonface, Julia With Blue Jeans On
Pissed Jeans, Honeys
Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light
Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin
True Widow, Circumambulation
Ores & Minerals
[Fat Possum; 2013]
From the first time I heard Ores & Minerals, I knew I loved the band’s sophomore album. The problem was in the fact I didn’t know why I liked it so much. Few of the songs feature choruses, and if they do, they aren’t instantly memorable. There aren’t any tracks on the album that beg your attention nor do the lyrics ever delve much beyond the contents of a fortune cookie. The songs seem to ramble on for long stretches of time, never really going any place. Yet, despite all this monotony, I couldn’t quit listening to the album in 2013.
Often it reminds me of The Feelies easy-breezing ways or the Modern Lovers low-key assault, and at other times Mazes have hints of Wire or Television’s airwaves whirring just below the surface of their metronomic loops. But just when I think I’ve got my thumb on the band’s jangle pop leanings, their songs will throw me asunder, kraut rock influences taking hold of each track, turning what starts as a simple, constant loop, into a growing, evolving organism (perhaps the geologic album title isn’t far off). What’s all the more confounding is the fact that there is rarely a reliance on distortion, a mainstay on their debut album. On Ores & Minerals, every song is so clean, crisp, and neatly pressed that you’d swear it’d come straight from Don Draper’s closet. I still don’t know why I like this Mazes album so much, but sometimes the puzzle doesn’t need to be solved.
“Ores and Minerals”:
Cut 4 Me
[Fade to Mind; 2013]
For those unfamiliar with BDWPS.com, this blog covers a wide range of genres (as you’ll see with this list) but rarely do we delve into the realm of R&B. A major reason for this negligence is the genre’s lack of innovation in the past decade, but in 2013, Kelela brought the freshness that I’ve been looking for, creating an album with Cut 4 Me that provides a glimpse of a future where the soulful melodies of R&B collide full-force with the ever-expanding world of dub-step.
I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that other artists are also attempting this same blend, but they pale in comparison to Kelela’s stripped down, cavernous tracks. While others in the genre focus on their vocal acrobatics, Kelela would rather tinker with the snare and bass, constructing epileptic carnage to subwoofer’s around the world. Cut 4 Me is far from a perfect album, but it’s certainly a nice starting point for a promising young artist.
[Mom & Pop; 2013]
There are so many reasons why what FIDLAR does shouldn’t work. On their first full-length self-titled album they sing primarily about getting drunk, surfing/skateboarding, and doing drugs – the type of subject matter that one may find a couple dozen bands unsuccessfully singing about at Warped Tour this past summer. Yet somehow, FIDLAR pull it off. Musically, the band blends punk/rockabilly/garage rock, a recipe that’s been done and done again. Yet somehow, FIDLAR pulls it off. Even the band’s acronym name (Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk) is the same type of Tony Robbins, YOLO fare that would make one apt to squirm in their chair. Yet somehow, the name FIDLAR fits perfectly.
But how? It may not be intelligent, and it certainly isn’t breaking any new ground musically, but what FIDLAR has pulled off with their self-titled album is a collection of 14 earnest songs that are teeming with youthful energy and indifference. It is a party album at its core with songs about cheap beer, smoking pot, and album finisher “Cocaine.” Even if you don’t condone these kids’ recreational drug use, you won’t be able to resist the addictive nature of their songs with one memorable hook after another, coming at you like an endless night of revelry. Before you know it, you’ll be jonesin’ for more FIDLAR in no time.
“Max Can’t Surf”:
37. Death Grips
A lot of 2013 lists have lauded Kanye West as a trend-setter thanks to his sparse, blunt production. While I do credit Kanye for his keen ear and willingness to take risks, I doubt Yeezus would have ever happened without Death Grips laying down the gritty groundwork two years ago. Kanye may have recognized this new approach and decided to polish it up a bit for the masses, but if you want truly abrasive, hard-hitting, chaotic hip-hop, then let Death Grips take you on a horrifying journey.
Three albums in, Death Grips have only gotten more violent and unrelenting with Government Plates, an album filled with pounding, harsh beats and incoherent, angry vocals. You can’t help but question where the band can go from here, but whatever it is, there’s no sign of softening their ceaseless assault. If Kanye’s proclamation “I am a God” is true, then Death Grips need to write “I am a Demon,” pronto.
“You Might Think He Loves Your Money, But I Know What He Really Loves You For; It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”:
The Invisible Way
It would be easy to look at what Low is producing 20 years into their existence and assume that not much has changed. Their music is still the basic recipe of harmonizing voices, a plodding pace, sparse instrumentation, and repetitive lyrics. But looking in the rearview mirror of Low’s back catalog, and the change within the band’s sound is much more evident. Their first album I Could Live in Hope was an album of understatement, songs that ventured forth slowly, allowing the silent spirit in the room to be a prominent presence. On their 2013 release The Invisible Way the white space on the canvas has been all but filled in. Songs like “So Blue” and “Just Make It Stop” push forth with Mimi Parker’s voice coming at you as a layered, angelic victory march. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy’s production allows the songs to still have the delicate nature of Low’s past work while bringing in a wider spectrum of colors.
Musically, Low were once a band that ignored the common tropes of pop music, opting to focus on the mood rather than the melody. Getting a Low song stuck in your head just wasn’t applicable in the 90s. The same can’t be said 20 years later with this Duluth, Minnesota duo belting out one unforgettable tune after another for 11 straight, melodically commanding tracks. Even though Low will always be remembered for their seminal early work, there’s something kind of comforting about singing along with a Low album.
35. Speedy Ortiz
I’m a sucker for bands that can conjure up the sounds of my youth (the 90s), but often after several listens, the nostalgia wears off. On my first few listens to Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana, I braced myself for the let-down, but something different happened this time during my stroll down 90s indie rock lane. While the Pavement/Letters to Cleo/Archers of Loaf influences weigh heavy upon each track, Sadie Dupuis crawls her way atop the wistfulness with her emotive vocals and vivid lyrics of abuse and abandonment.
When you’re not admiring the angular, slanted and enchanted riffage, you’ll be marveling at Dupuis skills as a poet, singing the type of wordplay that would make Stephen Malkmus proud. While the distorted, spirited guitars will bring you back to the 90s, Dupuis lyrics will stir up those memories you’ve tried to bury from your youth, and make you realize that it all turned out fine in the end.
Kenny Dennis LP
One may argue that Serengeti’s albums about Kenny Dennis are a gimmick, and I suppose they’d be right. Kenny Dennis is the alter-ego Serengeti came up with almost a decade ago. The character is reminiscent of a 90s era SNL skit: a mustachioed, overweight white rapper in his mid-40s, rapping about bratwurst, the Bears, and the Bulls through a distinctive Chicago accent. It’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously, but does the silliness of the whole thing negate it of any artistic integrity?
On the contrary. Rappers have been utilizing alter-ego’s for years now (Ghostface/Tony Stark, Redman/Reggie Noble, Eminem/Slim Shady), and if the fact that the Kenny Dennis LP makes me laugh demerits it, than you might as well consider The Beastie Boys, Action Bronson, and ODB as hacks while you’re at it. If the Kenny Dennis LP was just a joke, then I doubt Serengeti would have invested so much thought in his back-story. In the same way one must watch Arrested Development episodes again and again, Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis albums present a labyrinth of mythology, all inter-connected through references to Shaq, Brian Dennehy, Nitro from “American Gladiators,” and Chicago Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges. The more you delve into the story of Kenny Dennis and his 90s rap group Grimm Teachaz, the more invested you become in the story, the experience, and the joke.
The Man Who Died in his Boat
When I was in high school choir, my friends and I would try to annoy our curmudgeonly director Mr. Brown by intentionally singing slightly off-key. It was an acquired skill, but when we were able to pull it off just right, he would stop the entire choir and shout, “I’m trying to make chicken salad and all that you’re giving me is chicken shit!” I imagine this would be Mr. Brown’s same reaction to the layered choir of dissonant Liz Harris voices on her latest Grouper album The Man Who Died in his Boat. Most people would describe Grouper’s ethereal chants as ambient music, but rarely does it encompass the calming nature often associated with the genre. Instead, Harris’s interwoven voices somehow discordantly do battle while melding together as one eerily, ominous force. I imagine it is what it might sound like if a children’s’ choir decided to cover Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising. The album title, based off of one of Harris’s childhood experiences, fits perfectly with the music. The songs can be as calm and intimate as a summer day out on the lake yet as limp and gloomy as a dead body sitting within a bobbing boat, lifelessly holding a fishing pole.
“Being Her Shadow”:
[Joyful Noise; 2013]
Sebadoh just can’t win. Back in the 90s, classic albums like Bubble & Scrape, III, and Weed Forestin’ were often disparaged for their inclusion of drummer Eric Gaffney’s songs, their noise-laden awkwardness off-setting the beauty of Lou Barlow’s melodic tracks. Over 20 years later, the criticism has done an about-face for the album Defend Yourself , with many suggesting the album lacks the oomph that Gaffney brought to their now legendary early work (Gaffney is no longer in the band). Obviously, this knee-jerk disregard is pretty hypocritical and a bit frustrating in lieu of what a fantastic album Defend Yourself turned out to be.
It’s not like Lou Barlow has been resting on his laurels since the last Sebadoh album. Over the past 14 years, Lou has released two solo albums, two albums with Folk Implosion, and three Dinosaur Jr. albums. While I enjoy all of Lou’s work, his solo albums never quite sounded like the Lou I remembered from Sebadoh, and he always gets a bit lost in the J. Mascis mix on the new Dinosaur Jr albums. However, on Defend Yourself, paired with his long time band mate Jason Loewenstein, that Sebadoh magic has returned. It may not feature the Gaffney bedlam of early albums, but sometimes you have to take a moment to appreciate the calm after the storm.
Free Reign II
What if there was another version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out there that has never been heard? And what if that remixed version was actually better than the original? This is the case with Clinic’s Free Reign II, one of the strangest releases of the year. Just last year Clinic released Free Reign. Originally, the band had worked with Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never fame, but uncertain of the sonic changes brought about by Lopatin, the band opted to release their original psychedelic album, stashing the remixes for a rainy day. The result was an album that followed in the predictable Clinic archetype. The album was enjoyable, but didn’t break any new ground.
Then only a couple of months later in a true sign of second-guessing, along came Free Reign II, an album comprised of Lopatin’s dusty, stashed away tracks. With the track listing flipped on its head and Lopatin as the overseer, Clinic’s signature sheltered psychedelia becomes a spacey, airy carnival of bouncing organ riffs and smoldering bass lines. The songs remain in the realm of Clinic, but Lopatin’s fingerprints can be found on the outskirts of each track, providing the flourishes and undercurrents that the original album lacked. This isn’t a remix album; it’s a Mulligan.
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is a pretty fitting album title to Foxygen’s sophomore album. As we move into an era where dub-step, auto tune, and Justin Bieber are considered acceptable in the music industry, Foxygen are time travelers from the 60s (an era of peace and magic), reminding us of a time when music could be charmingly flawed, have a sense of humor, and more importantly, have an optimistic soul at its core.
But We Are isn’t simply a period piece; it’s a journey through a record collection that ranges from the Stones to The Kinks to Velvet Underground and even a little Dylan in there for a good measure. Each song teeters between these influences while still infusing this Los Angeles duo’s playful imagery and penchant for melodies that belong in another time. Rather than simply being a chameleon cover band that can take on a multitude of 60s sounds, Foxygen have asserted their personality on their sophomore album making it blatantly clear that, yes, they are influenced by the past, but like the Wyld Stallyns from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, they are creating an homage that is tailor-made for the modern age. PARTY ON DUDES!
29. Mikal Cronin
While fellow San Francisco garage rockers Ty Segall and John Dwyer churn out new material like an assembly line, Mikal Cronin takes on his recording career with a much more laid-back approach. A two-year lull between albums is far from a hiatus, but in comparison to his musician friends, Mikal is a perfectionist in the studio and his work on mcii shows just that. On his self-titled debut, Cronin remained grounded in the garage rock approach that worked for those around him, but this time around he has taken his own path, recording songs that are both beautiful and sheen in production. The 60s reverberations and fuzz distortion still remain on many of the tracks, yet Cronin takes on his signature power-pop sound with an unprecedented wisdom and nuance.
The highlights of the album are in fact completely outside expectation for Mikal. Acoustic slow-burner “Don’t Let Me Go” and album closer “Piano Mantra” show a complexity to the lo-fi San Francisco scene not evident before mcii. The latter is a slow build, starting with a somber piano ballad and Mikal’s soft voice singing out his despair. By the end, the distortion arrives along with a feeling of redemption in Mikal’s mantra of “Open arms have given me hope.” While Ty Segall can certainly throw together a great collection of sweaty rock n’ roll, Mikal has shown that with a little bit more focus and attention to detail, truly remarkable things can be accomplished.
I Hate Music
As I grow older, I’m beginning to feel a bit like a species on the brink of extinction. It seems like all of my friends from adolescence, the same ones who once depended on music as their emotional compass, have all abandoned their love of music. Sure, they’ll still pull out an old Soundgarden CD on occasion for nostalgic purposes, but when it comes to that feeling of discovery and connection through a new album, they’ve all moved on.
One may accuse me of clinging to the past with my eternal love of the 90s power-pop band Superchunk, but I would argue that the band’s music has grown up with its listeners. While the subject matter has evolved, their album contains the same type of upbeat, memorable tracks that they produced over 20 years ago. On 2010’s Majesty Shredding, “My Gap Feels Weird” lamented the feeling of disconnect with youth culture, and the band’s ability to capture its aging listeners experiences continues on I Hate Music, with “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” and its instantly memorable opening line “I hate music / what is it worth?/ Can’t bring you back to this Earth.” Music may not be able to solve all the woes of adulthood, but Superchunk proves that music can still reach that awkward teen at your core, even if there are now bills to pay.
“Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”:
27. Marnie Stern
Chronicles of Marnia
[Kill Rock Stars; 2013]
The Chronicles of Marnia is Marnie Stern’s most accessible album to date, but don’t get too worried. It’s still as untamed, unpredictable, joyous, and outlandish as her past work. If you were to play one of these tracks for those uninitiated, they’d likely still find it otherworldly and weird, but if you’ve ventured into the mystical land of Marnia before you’ll likely find that her songs are more mature, purposeful, and focused than in the past. A major part of this change is the departure of drum virtuoso Zack Hill (Hella, Death Grips). While the combination of Hill and Stern resulted in some of the most intricately frenzied music of the past decade, the instrumental acrobatics and one-upmanship often took precedence over Marnie’s knack for creating strangely memorable melodies.
The addition of Kid Millions of Brooklyn’s Oneida provides more stability while still maintaining the exuberance of Marnie’s past work. Rather than do battle with Marnie, he helps to drive the point home that she is one of the most creative, inspirational musicians out there today. Hooting, hollering, growling, and finger-tapping – the tenets of what make Marnie great are still in tact. But amidst all the usual madness, she also sounds strangely mature.
“Nothing Is Easy”:
26. No Age
An Object is the epitome of DIY. Everything with the album was created by No Age – the art work, the packaging, and yes, the music. The band was involved every step of the way, whether it be producing every intricately woven track on the album or mindlessly gluing together every record sleeve that came down their indie assembly line.
For being such a hands-on project, An Object is the band’s sleekest album to date. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t still contain layers of distortion and discordant notes. The band still draws from their palette of crunchy dissonance, but An Object shows them gaining more control of their craft, mixing all of the turmoil into masterfully crafted works of pop-art. No Age started as a band composed of two guys who didn’t know how to play their instruments, and that sentiment remains true on An Object – they’ve just figured out how to make their mistakes into beautiful melodies.
25. The Body
[Thrill Jockey; 2013]
Last weekend I hung-out with a friend of mine who one may describe as a metal head (while at his apartment we listened to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Skeletonwitch). While catching up on things, he asked, “So what metal bands are on your year-end list?” I hated to inform him that not nearly as much metal as years past had made the list. I gave him a few band names (to be seen on next week’s list) and then added The Body’s Christs, Redeemers, following it up with, “They’re metal, right?” He wasn’t quite so sure, and I’m not either.
This uncertainty is due in large part to The Body’s avant garde theatrics. Whether it be the bleating vocals, screaming out in terror, the samples of ominous audio tracks dug up from what must have been the site of a séance, or the choir of angelic voices, off-setting the pandemonium around it – The Body are far from the Judas Priest blaring from my friend’s apartment. The Body refuse to rely solely on a thrashing riff to get their listeners heads nodding; they’d rather cause you to get into the fetal position and cower in fear – if that’s not metal, I don’t know what is.
“To Attempt Openness”:
24. Steve Gunn
[Paradise of Bachelors; 2013]
In the past few months I went through a strange Grateful Dead phase. I’ve never cared much for the Dead until I recently delved into their work from the 60s. On those earliest albums the band was at its most free, allowing their songs to expand and grow as you listened. Then in 1970, with label pressure mounting, the band released their biggest album to date, American Beauty, and washed away any semblance of the free-flowing band they’d once been. Steve Gunn’s Time Off is what I imagine American Beauty would have sounded like if the band hadn’t felt the pressure to write a “hit song.” Steve Gunn shares that early Dead spirit of letting a song follow its own whim, each track always developing but never crescendo-ing.
For American Beauty, Jerry Garcia said he went the acoustic route to pay homage to his love of folk artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and John Fahey, but the essence of these luminary artists gets lost in the sheen. Gunn, on the contrary, allows Fahey’s Americana finger-picking lead the way to this ever-growing, acoustic ode to sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying even the most of mundane moments – if that’s not American beauty, I don’t know what is.
23. Cate Le Bon
[Wichita / Turnstile; 2013]
When Lou Reed died, I, like many, spent the next several weeks revisiting all of his albums, again and again. It goes without saying that a lot of time was spent re-listening to the Velvet Underground, and while my goal was to focus on the genius of Lou Reed, I also came away from those listens with a rekindled love for Nico. During that same time period, I discovered Cate Le Bon and her latest album Mug Museum. It almost seemed like fate discovering such a calming, fluid voice right in the midst of my Nico-Renaissance. “Mirror Me” is the 21st century version of Nico’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Sisters” sounds like a playful response to Nico’s “Little Sister.”
What made my immersion into Cate Le Bon even more satisfying was when I realized she was so much more than a Velvet Underground re-hash. When it comes to influences, I’d lean more toward a feminine take on Belle and Sebastian with superbly constructed lyrics to match. Cate’s voice is always the centerpiece, but the playful guitar licks also play their part, ensuring that each song, no matter how despairing the lyrics, remain a lighthearted escapade. Now if only Cate Le Bon could find her Lou Reed, it’d be a perfect day for us all.
“Are You With Me Now?”:
22. Destruction Unit
[Sacred Bones; 2013]
If you thought the movie Gravity was a scary portrayal of space, then you’ve never heard Destruction Unit. On Deep Trip the Arizona band takes you on a psychedelic journey into a horrifying space-scape fit for “The Twilight Zone.” The distortion rains down upon you like a meteor shower and the reverb swirls around you in a vortex, pulling you into the black hole of madness. Ryan Rosseau’s vocals bark out like a villain from Star Trek, commanding you to remain in the void. As chaotic as Deep Trip can be at times, tracks like “Bumpy Road” show the band’s ability to mesh several genres into one miraculous universe. Throughout the album the band can shift from psychedelic splendor to light-speed punk raucousness in an instant, somehow making this abrupt change feel like a natural progression. While many lauded Gravity for its use of silence to capture the horror of space, I’d rather take a Deep Trip through the unknown any day.
21. Youth Lagoon
[Fat Possum; 2013]
In 2011, Youth Lagoon’s Year of Hibernation was a nice little discovery, the music of a 21-year old, Trevor Powers, concocting his minimalist, personal synth mixes from the comfort of his bedroom. What made the album such a great unearthing was Power’s ability to pull the listener in early in each track with his personal hushed lyrics, only to be bamboozled by a full on glorious crescendo. Despite going back to this wheelhouse again and again, it never got old over the charming eight tracks.
In 2013, Power’s is no longer just a kid, and he no longer needs to rely on the simplistic song structure that worked so well in the past. Wondrous Bughouse is evidence that his talent goes far beyond the bedroom, a collection of psychedelic, mind-expanding tracks. Shifting from the synths of old into harpsichords and Moogs, Powers is able to expand upon his songwriting in a way that is both demanding and thrilling. None of Power’s charm is lost in the studio with his nasally voice still crackling from the distance, and despite the major increase in production, it still sounds homespun. Wondrous Bughouse is both quaint and otherworldly at the same time, like dropping acid on that beanbag in the corner of your room.
Look for the Top 20 Albums next week!