The Definitive Top Five Albums of 2013

As promised here are my eagerly awaited five favourite albums of 2013:

5. Trouble Will Find Me­ – The National 

As a relative newcomer to The National (I fell in love with them around November 2012) and because of the emotional resonance that is attached to how I discovered them, I have a pretty special place in my heart for this intensely adored and acclaimed band who, despite achieving a relative rise in fame and popularity recently, have not lost or forgotten the things that make them one of the most talented bands in the world right now- that is, introspective and ambiguous lyrics and lush interesting instrumentation. Lead singer Matt Berninger has the most unique and fragile voice in music currently, and the main musical song writing duo, twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, create compositions that can be filed only as sounding like The National. Add inventive drumming to all of this and you have Trouble Will Find Me, a culmination of all their efforts until now – an emotional and near perfectly crafted album. Berninger’s curious words and a voice that sounds like it is from someone who has been through unspeakable devastation in their lifetime remains, for me, the most praiseworthy presence on this record. The National’s albums are filled with a humour that is at the same time darkly comic and sad. Examples of this are scattered throughout the record. On first single “Demons”, Berninger laments: “when I walk into a room, I do not light it up…FUCK”. On “Pink Rabbits”, he moans: “you didn’t see me, I was falling apart, I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”. These imaginatively worded and thought provoking expressions are littered across its running time, and so, as with previous albums by The National, it becomes a word maze almost ripe for a literary analysis.

These tales of death and unrequited love are so eloquently spoken and with flowery cadence and are backed beautifully, making this an almost irresistibly moving record.

Highlight: the key change in Pink Rabbits- another song of the year candidate

4. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend 

As a stubborn, arrogant know-it-all, it is difficult for me to explain the strange mix of emotions I encountered when I decided that the third record from Vampire Weekend was the fourth best album I listened to last year. “Vampire Weekend? They’re not that special. A pretentious bunch of one hit wonder hipsters. A-Punk? Overplayed trash!”. Well, here I am, admitting to a mistake like a boy in a James Joyce novel: I was wrong. While I still hold reservations about their first two albums (I just didn’t like them), I was bowled over by Modern Vampires. A collection of musings on life, love, culture and religion, the album is filled with intricate musical compositions and vocal trickery. “Hannah Hunt”, a heart-filled, heart-breaking character study of the too good to resist, too bad to sustain titular character, is one of my top three favourite songs of the year just gone, and “Ya Hey” is just about the best song about God you’re likely to ever hear. If I had written before now, I’d crumple the paper and literally eat my past criticisms as a gesture. It took a pretty bloody great album to do it though.  Don’t expect it too often.

Highlight: Ezra Koenig breaking out into a shrieking plea for trust on “Hannah Hunt”

3. Yeezus – Kanye West 

What is left to be said about the best rap artist on the planet (he transcends that actually), a musical genius’ sixth record?

Yeezus is so anti-Kanye: concise, sparse, minimal, and at times grating. There is almost no orchestral excess, no fat – it is all militant, angry, self-aggrandising and self-deprecating in equal measure, full of wit and insight and is one of the most musically diverse and interesting albums of any genre in the last few years (probably since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). It is a weird splice of hard electro and warm soul, a mix of social comment and pure personal declaration. It has been divisive, but should we expect any less from Kanye West? For me, this would be the best album of the year, and yet it clocks in at number four only because this year has been so consistently excellent. I have listened to Yeezus more all the way through than any other album on this list, it begs to be. Each time another lyric, another layer of sound, another meticulously placed sample reveals itself to me. This is another challenging but rewarding listen in the Kanye canon. Kanye surprises me so often- he produces consistently great records but changes his sound how and when he, and only he, sees fit. He will be happy, but not surprised to hear, that he’s way ahead of the rest.

Highlight: after all the minimalism, “Bound 2” delivers a hopeful, happy, familiar Kanye. A fabulous coda to a fabulous album

2. Reflektor – Arcade Fire 

Everyone who is talking about the fourth Arcade Fire record seems to either be talking about all the anti-technology, Greek myth-incorporating philosophical “reflektion” malarkey present on wax (all true), or the gimmicky slow-release plan or fancy dress live shows being distractions from an overlong, pretentious bore of an album (not true in the slightest). Reflektor is one of the best albums of the year for so many reasons, but the most important one should be musical. Arcade Fire have done with Reflektor what so many big bands try to do once they’ve hit their fourth or fifth album stride – that is, come up with a sound that is fresh, new and surprising that is still obviously and inherently Arcade Fire, a band with a distinctive sound in the first place. On top of this, in a year in which Disclosure and Daft Punk have sought to reinvent dance music, or rather danceable music, using traditional methods and genres, Arcade Fire have teamed up with one of the most forward thinking men in dance music, mixed in some of their favourite punk and created a record which showcases dance music from 2013, not from the heyday of soul and disco or the golden years of British dance culture. Reflektor is the turning point for Arcade Fire that other well established acts like Radiohead and Achtung Baby-era U2 had – alienating a few whilst stealing the hearts of many for eons to come. If The Suburbs was their OK Computer, this is most certainly their Kid A.

Highlight: There are too many to choose.  The saxophone and Bowie cameo on the title track, the bass on “Here Comes the Night Time”, the French on “Joan of Arc”, the vocal back and forth on “It’s Never Over”……..

1. Wakin on a Pretty Daze – Kurt Vile 

In a year where people tried to make music for us to dance to, music for us to be angry with, music that is high in energy and tempo, music that deals with issues that are global and newsworthy, it seems appropriate that the stand out album of 2013 is one where there is a conspicuous absence of all these qualities, at least explicitly. Wakin on a Pretty Daze saunters, strolls and wanders along its running time, a lengthy one at that, across 11 songs of golden tones, lackadaisical soul and the ability to make time irrelevant. To me, this album full of earwormy sagas of everyday problems that were so irrevocably to do with the person who is actually singing, touched me more profoundly than any other record I heard. No matter how others, with their grand and sweeping statements tried, it was this deeply personal album, containing down to earth thoughts and emotions, which made me feel the most. These emotions were backed by complex arrangements, some drifted over ten or so minutes, others punched and kicked harder, but all of them carried me with them. I have never lost interest in it, never skipped a track, and have continued to find more in amongst the nooks and crannies of its music, and have repeatedly returned to it for more. Kurt Vile’s 2013 album is, for me, the best of the year; it never purports to be something it’s not and this modesty ends up hiding what it is at its core: a soon-to-be treasured modern classic.

Highlight: the tempo shift at 4:27 on the title track

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