A time to dance: Sweet 16 top 2013 albums

(Not a 2013 photo)

(Not a 2013 photo)

In terms of music, 2013 was a time to dance. So many notable dance/DJ/electronica albums came out in this year, and many show up near the top of my best releases list. What I rank as my top album isn’t a dance record per se, but it does feature a song called “Four Simple Words,” which are: “I want to dance.” And if 2013 didn’t feature (imho) any all-time-great albums, it did put a lot of really good releases into the mix.

16. “Ghost on Ghost,” Iron and Wine. The best song Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine cut this year was a cover of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” for a spellbinding promo of the BBC show “Copper.” It’s not on this album. What’s on this album is pleasant enough but not particularly memorable or compelling. Standout track: With its mix of folky arrangements, sweet harmonies and a brassy horn line, “Caught in the Briars” gets pleasantly stuck in your head quite easily.

15. “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire. Even us amateur music critics apparently are expected to cheer every time Arcade Fire sneezes, and erupt into gushing praise when they release an album. The overproduced “Reflektor” comes with the added artifice of being a “two-record set” that only tallies 13 tracks. Don’t get me wrong: I like this band’s music. This is a reasonably talented band putting out a decent fourth album (its fourth-best release, at that), no more, no less. Standout track: “You Already Know” layers grooves masterfully without drowning them in sound better than most of this effort.

14. “The Hurry and the Harm,” City and Colour. Listen to City and Colour’s back catalogue, and you sense they’ll put together a great album. “The Hurry and The Harm,” while a nice effort, isn’t it. Dallas Green’s soft distinctive vocals and hypnotic musical swells often hit the mark from time to time, but this album feels like too much filler to meet the greater potential. Standout track: While the title track is part of City and Colour’s canon of effortlessly likable songs, “Commentators” deserves special mention as the ultimate smackdown of anonymous online critics under a beautiful cover.

13. “Acoustics II,” Minus the Bear. This Pledge Music crowd-funded unplugged collection from Seattle’s kings of math rock strips down their often-complicated arrangements to reinforce the band’s skill as songwriters, arrangers and musicians. Any band who can breathe new life into their songs via acoustic treatment deserves the praise MtB tends to receive. Standout track: The stripped-down version of “Hooray” is an eminently likable, affectionate portrait of an unexpected Seattle snowstorm that unfolds masterfully like an audio Currier and Ives card.

12. “Pure Heroine,” Lorde. One facile (and not inaccurate) comparison for Lorde would be this year’s Adele, a teen whose propulsive and preternatural voice and smart lyrics demand attention. Or Tegan and Sara, to whom critics often compare her sound. Beyond the hype machine, this is a nice 10-track record that isn’t up the level of either of the above artists … although she clearly has the time and ability to grow into her acclaim. Standout track: “Royals” gets all the attention, but if the precisely arranged and executed “400 Lux” is indicative of her direction, the future is bright indeed.

11. “Magpie and the Dandelion,” The Avett Brothers. The Avett Brothers’ main blessing — their jaw-dropping 2009 masterpiece “I and Love and You” — is in a way its biggest curse, because what could they do for an encore? Curiously, these tracks came from the same recording sessions as 2012’s rather disappointing “The Carpenter,” but the new collection somehow outshines it. Perhaps being a bit less ambitious, but a bit more personal, makes it feel at least a rung better than “The Carpenter.” Standout track: “Good to You” is the kind of expansive, emotional storytelling that put the band on the map and will keep it relevant for years to come.

10. “Random Access Memories,” Daft Punk. This album is dazzling and dizzying, mesmerizing and mystifying. With an act as talented, imaginative and genre-spanning as Daft Punk, you’ll get quite the auditory party … which means hits as well as misses. But oh, when the band hits, the result is towering, fireworks-inducing home runs. Standout track: The incredibly fun and funky “Get Lucky” gets my vote for single of the year — good luck getting it out of your head.

9. “Event II,” Deltron 3030. This trip-hop concept album spent more time in the rumor mill than production process, but it’s worth the wait following to Deltron’s 2000 debut. Del the Funky Homosapian, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala — better known for their roles in the Gorillaz collective — envision a post-apocalyptic future where the technology we embrace has led humanity to ruin. Which sounds heavy, but the beats and hooks and raps flow so smooth, you may not even notice, especially on the double disc that features the 16-track album plus 11 instrumental versions. Standout track: “Pay the Price” is emblematic on how the various members’ masterful skills converge through rapping, samples and production are a potent combination.

8. “One More for the Road,” The Wiyos. I generally don’t include EPs in lists, but I’ll make an exception for this band that feels like it’s from a different time and space. The very talented trio plays what could be called a combination of roots folk, jump blues and Vaudeville with a bit of punk attitude. The Wiyos’ universe includes a lot of hobos and train-hopping, but it’s so appealing you almost want to bundle up a bindle and ride the rails. Standout track: “Milwaukee Blues,” written in the early 20th century by Charlie Poole, gets fiery new life that could make a dead man dance.

7. “Shadows,” Lenka. This PledgeMusic-powered release found the pop queen/new mom from Down Under shifting gears to release an album of lovely lullabies. She mostly stays on the sweet side of syrupy, thanks to evocative lyrics, a beautifully breathy voice and smart arrangements — which work fine in non-lullaby contexts as well. Standout track: The combination of layered vocal hooks, percussion and horn lines makes “Nothing Here But Love” a comforting, captivating song.

6. “A Song Across Wires,” BT. With all the up-and-coming DJs emerging, maybe it’s too easy to take Brian Transeau (better known by his initials) for granted. Then he drops something with the cinema-scale virtuosity of “A Song Across Wires,” and we remember. It comes packaged as 12 individual edited tracks (per record company request) plus its intended nearly 80-minute continuous play mix — the latter non-stop fantastic voyage the recommended method of consumption. Standout track: If BT wanted this released as one track, you can just cite the whole album. It works just fine.

5. “Bad Blood,” Bastille. Bastille is sort of this year’s Imagine Dragons, just missing a breakout hit or two appearing in every other ad or sporting-event bumper. Their earnest rock is worthy of such royal treatment. Bastille’s blend of heady lyrics (referencing everything from ancient Rome to the Bible to “Twin Peaks”), ample vocal hooks, diverse influences and smooth arrangements make for a winning debut album. Standout track: “Pompeii” infuses chants and smaller harmony lines, ’80s-style riffs, a wall of sound and other elements to near perfection.

4. “True,” Avicii. Instead of trying to list every genre this Swedish DJ taps, it would be easier to say what it isn’t: Like any other record released this year. Name a style of music and it’s probably on this record, and that’s what makes “True” so admirable and listenable. When the breathtaking musical trip is over, you’re left wanting more — the ultimate measure of a great record. Standout track: “Wake Me Up,” the first track and lead single, is as splendid an introduction as any, even if it (or any tune) isn’t indicative of the depth and breadth of this collection.

3. “Arrows of Desire,” Matthew Good. You can almost set your watch to the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter putting out 10 tracks of compelling rock every other year, and they always land in my top 10. The outspoken singer-singwriter’s tracks meander between personal and political, rock and pop, but killer melody lines in songs like “Via Delorosa,” “Had It Coming,” “Garden of Knives” and “Guns of Carolina” make this worth many listens. Standout track: “Via Delarosa” is probably the most catchy song Good has laid down in the past several years.

2. “Heartthrob,” Tegan and Sara. Has it really been four years since they released their last album? The Canadian twins’ catalogue and signature sound are staples by now to the point they seem to be everywhere. “Heartthrob” finds them in fine form, throwing a bit more electronica into their well-established and always-welcome hook-filled, clever-worded, heart-wrenching recipe. Standout track: The countrapuntal combination of “Go/Please Stay” in the outro chorus of “All Messed Up” is possibly the most beautiful/heartbreaking arrangement on record this year.

1. “Tape Deck Heart,” Frank Turner. Turner’s power pop/rock/post-punk songs don’t necessarily reinvent any genres, but they just plain work. Head-bopping rockers like “Recovery” and “Plain Sailing Weather” sit happily next to meditative ballads like “Polaroid Picture” and “Broken Piano.” The extended 17-track version provides icing on an already delicious cake. It’s the most bitter, sweet, bittersweet and best album of 2013. Standout track: Hard to choose, but I think the straight-out rock and smile-inducing lyrics of lead single “Recovery” probably puts it at the top of a stellar collection.

1 Comment

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One response to “A time to dance: Sweet 16 top 2013 albums

  1. Thanks for participating in the Higher Ed Music Critics collaborative once again this year, Tim! It’s always great to discover new tunes from musically minded colleagues in higher ed. Happy New Year to you!

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