Just when people were beginning to write off the album as an increasingly irrelevant format, 2013 produced a bumper crop of high profile LPs. The challenge of producing a list of a whole year’s best albums is like ranking flavours in an ice cream parlour – hardly objective but certainly fun.
We tasked WOW247’s music writers to do just that, and after tallying up the votes, we present our list of the top 20 albums of 2013, with longer reviews for each critics’ number one choice.
(Sorry David Bowie and Disclosure, you didn’t quite make the cut).
20. Kanye West – Yeezus
The sixth studio album from the controversial rapper (and Kim’s other half) was an uncompromising tour de force that teetered on the faultline between egomania and paranoia, while showcasing some bludgeoning production work. While it divided public opinion, it won high praise from critics and was a commercial smash, topping the UK album chart on its release.
19. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Previously known through his stints in Test Icicles and as Lightspeed Champion, and more lately as a collaborator with the likes of Solange Knowles, New York-based Londoner Dev Hynes came to the fore in 2013 with Blood Orange. Second album Cupid Deluxe was a late contender for many fans’ album of the year – a funkadelic, future-soul collection featuring the likes of Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek.
18. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Released through Matador Records, …Like Clockwork is the sixth studio album by Queens of the Stone Age and was self-produced by the band. The album received widespread critical and commercial success and was their first album to top the charts in the US, despite a tumultuous recording period that saw long-time drummer Joey Castillo leave the band. A work of measured power and sophistication, it has since been nominated for two Grammys, including Best Rock Album.
17. Sigur Rós – Kveikur
While they may have lost keyboard player Kjartan Sveinsson, Sigur Rós did not let that stop them breaking new ground with their seventh studio album. As spell-binding as ever, the Icelandic post-rockers delivered one of their most accessible collections, and backed it up with a thrilling, cinematic live show in the autumn.
16. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
The most hyped album of the second half of 2013 was the latest release from Arcade Fire. A double album, it was co-produced by former LCD Soundsystem man James Murphy (and you can feel his influence throughout the pulse of the record), along with the band’s regular producer Markus Dravs and the band themselves. Receiving critical acclaim from most critics, Reflektor was influenced by Haitian rara music and the 1959 film Black Orpheus.
15. Motörhead – Aftershock
Jamie Brotherston‘s album of 2013
The class of music today, it seems, is measured in an artists’ ability to lick a hammer whilst sending their buttocks into an epileptic fit. By contrast Motörhead, the seemingly immortal gods of heavy metal, take a bottle of Jack, throw it back in a single gulp, and smash it over the heads of twerkers everywhere with their latest studio release.
Aftershock, the 21st album from the band, is typically scintillating stuff from the rock greats, and undoubtedly amongst their finest material in recent memory, with Lemmy’s Malboro-tinged voice still growling through tales of rock n’ roll debauchery with no regrets.
Whilst there is nothing new here, tracks like ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Coup de Grace‘ and ‘End of Time‘ are quite brilliant, with furious tempo and the written words of Lemmy, like psalms from the book of the damned, exhibiting exactly why this band are still the best.
There are rare moments in the eye of the storm, with subtle points in ‘Lost Woman Blues’ and ‘Dust and Glass’ showing the softer side of Motörhead; a side that snarls nonetheless.
For Lemmy and Motörhead to still be alive, never mind releasing new material of this standard, is nothing short of a miracle; and Aftershock is a refreshing, timeless reminder that you just can’t kill rock n‘ roll. [Jamie Brotherston]
14. Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Syrian star Omar Souleyman may have landed an unlikely audience of western hipsters this year, but the Four Tet-produced Wenu Wenu is still one of those records that grabs your attention from the get-go. Whether you enjoy it or not will depend on your tolerance for dabke and its incessant keyboard lines, but regardless of your taste it’s a sonically dazzling work.
13. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Nick Mitchell‘s album of 2013
I have to admit I was ignorant to the talents of John Grant until the first time I heard his second album upon its release in March. The fact that Grant is anything but a newbie only compounds my ignorance: in the ’90s and early 2000s he was the founding – and ultimately the sole remaining – member of Denver band The Czars, before going on to release a fine solo record (with the help of members of Midlake) called Queen of Denmark in 2010.
But while that debut laid the groundwork, Pale Green Ghosts is the extraordinary pay-off, an album that hits you like a sledgehammer to the solar plexus from the first listen. Grant, now based in Reykjavik, enlisted the help of Biggi Veira of electro-pop group Gus Gus, and his impact is abundantly clear from the first swarthy keyboard stabs of the title track. The late-night, underground club mood, far from being an arbitrary accessory, fits Grant’s songs as snugly as a Savile Row suit, especially on the likes of ‘Black Belt’ and ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’.
Let’s not overstate the sound of the record though (and it does sound incredible), because Grant’s bludgeoning lyricism and cavernous soul-searching is the beating heart of Pale Green Ghosts. Largely the extended tale of a break-up, Grant, whose first album dealt with his acceptance of being gay, takes a crossbow to his ex-lover on ‘GMF’ (“I am the greatest mother-f***er that you’re ever going to meet”) and ‘Vietnam’ (“Your silence is a weapon, it’s like a nuclear bomb, it’s like the Agent Orange they used in Vietnam”) and confronts the shell-shock of his recent HIV diagnosis on ‘Ernest Borgnine’ (“Doc ain’t lookin’ at me; says I got the disease / Now what did you expect? You spent your life on your knees”).
It’s often said that creativity is a form of therapy for the damaged and downtrodden. On Pale Green Ghosts Grant has transformed his unimaginable personal tragedies into an album that’s alive with passion, sadness and pitch-black humour. Even as a new fan, John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts was by some distance the finest album I heard in 2013. [Nick Mitchell]
12. Peace – In Love
Produced by Jim Abiss, In Love is British quartet Peace’s debut album. It was met with generally positive review by critics with the NME, the band’s primary champion, awarding it 9 out 10 saying, they are “as rejuvenating as a wash of zesty orange juice over a crushing hangover.” While other publications questioned Peace’s longevity, they’re one of few emerging guitar bands still getting mainstream radio rotation.
11. These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Bryan Duncan‘s album of 2013
“Not industry enough” tweeted These New Puritans when they discovered they were snubbed in this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. Despite creating one of the most intriguing LPs of 2013, the London act’s third effort seemingly wasn’t good enough for the prestigious award. While Jon Hopkins and Laura Mvula were worthy nominees, some other acts in the list felt a little too beige and safe, as if the judges used Google to whittle down their selection.
But enough about the Mercurys. Field of Reeds is an immaculate piece of work which weaves together sweeping strings, rumbling brass and arrangements that paint a grand but gothic landscape. While debut album Beat Pyramid looked to Gang of Four for inspiration, FOR is a more ethereal affair which channels the spirit of Talk Talk, and expands on the classical sounds that their second album, Hidden explored.
At times it sounds like the soundtrack of a lost Disney masterpiece, discarded in the cutting room floor for its unbearingly dark tones. But through the melancholia there are bursts of technicolour.
‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ is a beautifully understated intro, while ‘V (Island Song)’ moves between some skewed film noir piece and an unsettling prog-rock groove akin to Radiohead. Meanwhile the soothing synth arpeggios of ‘Organ Eternal’ and piano hook of ‘Fragment Two’ offers light relief from the more challenging elements of the record. It’s a fascinating work that demands you listen to it from start to finish. Whatever the judges thought, it’s perfect Mercury Prize material. [Bryan Duncan]
10. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Patrick McPartlin‘s album of 2013
The sixth album from the Brooklyn five-piece, Trouble Will Find Me is a more polished and accessible record than previous efforts, but still something of a slow-burner – a recognisable feature of all their work to date.
Edging into the limelight with 2010’s High Violet, The National peddle a brand of melancholic indie rock led by Matt Berninger’s distinctive rich baritone, and Trouble… finds the laconic frontman at his wistful yet poetic best.
Songs such as ‘I Need My Girl’ and ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ contain a swagger absent from previous albums, but at times it still feels a little voyeuristic listening to Berninger’s regretful couplets and bleak observations (‘You didn’t see me; I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart’).
Yet there is a positivity to the desolation; with Berninger seemingly at peace with his demons, murmuring the songs to himself as if nursing a pint in the corner of a pub.
A natural follow-up to High Violet, the songs on Trouble… showcase, for the first time, Berninger’s vocal range, none more so than ‘Pink Rabbit’, but still tug hard on the heartstrings, with lines such as ‘you’re a needle in the hay, you’re the water at the door; you’re a million miles away – doesn’t matter any more’ on devastating break-up number ‘Fireproof’.
Berninger’s bandmates – twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitar and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively – have also raised their game, with an orchestral feel creeping into certain tracks, such as ‘Heavenfaced’ and album closer ‘Hard to Find’.
It’s hard to fault Trouble… in any way – a haunting, bleakly beautiful masterpiece that cements the band’s position at the forefront of melodic melancholia. [Patrick McPartlin]
9. Conquering Animal Sound – On Floating Bodies
Chris Tapley‘s album of 2013
This has been a pretty great year for new music so picking just one album is tough, but I think I’ve listened to this album more than any other, and consistently since it was released back in February.
Taking its title from Archimedes writings on Hydrostatics and most of its lyrical cues from the worlds of philosophy, physics and neuroscience, on a first glimpse On Floating Bodies doesn’t seem like an album designed for casual listening, but the Glasgow-based duo’s brand of cerebral loop-based ambient pop is somehow quite effortlessly charming.
Their Scottish Album of the Year Award-nominated debut Kammerspiel was a quite purposefully abstract collation of electronic fragments, pieced together with occasional moments of humanity baring themselves amid the choir of machines.
With this follow-up (their first on Chemikal Underground) they go about blurring the gaps between those more avant-garde structures and leftfield pop by redressing the balance of control between human and machine, most notably with Anneke Kampman’s slight but frequently ominous vocals exerting more influence over the songs.
The subtle, neo-soul grooves of tracks like ‘Ipse’ and ‘Treehouse’ are irresistibly catchy but sit perfectly beside gargling abstract electronica, and the album often merges those disparate styles seamlessly together to create something with a sense of the familiar and a lure of otherness.
These combinations make for a thoroughly satisfying album, both warm, cold, tersely melodic and deeply rhythmic – something to make it an album for all seasons. [Chris Tapley]
8. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The third studio album by the archly inventive New Yorkers became their second number one album in the US and was widely acclaimed by critics, even topping Pitchfork’s own best albums of 2013 list. Modern Vampires of the City saw Vampire Weekend break with their trademark approach and bring in producer Ariel Reichshaid in a bid to distance themselves from their previous sound. As well as experimenting with unconventional techniques like pitch-shifting, the album is arguably their best yet, with Ezra Koenig’s songwriting reaching new heights of dexterity and maturity.
7. Daughter – If You Leave
Released through 4AD in March, If You Leave was London trio Daughter’s debut album and reached number 16 in the charts. The album was relatively well received commercially but gained mixed reviews from critics. The Guardian characterized the sound as “atmospheric but calculatingly so” while the BBC described Daughter’s sound as “wholly hypnotic and more engaging than many a peer’s offering.” A string of beguiling festival shows in the summer won over most of the doubters.
6. Everything Everything – Arc
The hyperactive Mancunians delivered on the promise of their 2010 debut Man Alive with this scintillating follow-up. Combining the ambition of Radiohead with the R’n’B stylings of R Kelly, the result is as disparately brilliant as you might imagine. Released right back at the beginning of January, it may now be overlooked by many publications in their annual lists, but we’re still humming along to tracks like ‘Kemosabe’ almost 12 months later.
5. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
You could argue that the promotional campaign behind Random Access Memories was the real masterpiece here, and while it fluctuates in quality, over the course the long-awaited fourth album from Daft Punk was a thrilling, kaleidoscopic ode to the French duo’s influences. Aside from summer anthem ‘Get Lucky’, the orchestral extravagance of ‘Touch’ and the earworm chorus of ‘Doin’ it Right’ were just two tracks that stood out in this work of expensive, luxurious scale.
4. There Will Be Fireworks – The Dark, Dark Bright
Another late addition to our top 20 is the second album from Scottish indie-rock band There Will Be Fireworks. While their 2009 self-titled debut was a musical hurricane of surging choruses and raging feedback, their new record is a more measured affair, without sacrificing an ounce of passion.
3. Arctic Monkeys – AM
Anthony Longstaff‘s album of 2013
As a metal fan I had lined up Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail to the King as my album of the year until I was recommended Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album. It has quite simply blown away anything else this year that I’ve listened to.
It’s a cacophony of dirty, post-grunge blues that slips out of the earphones. This wasn’t the commercial sound typically associated with the Monkeys; Alex Turner’s new quiff must have awakened a new songwriting beast from within. From the opening track the bass grabs you and takes a delicate but firm hold of you throughout the entire album.
It takes you back to the genius of their debut Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not in the sense that it doesn’t need to grow on you. Most tracks are instant winners with some – like ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, ‘One For The Road’, ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’ and ‘R U Mine?’ – becoming instant fan favourites.
Perhaps it’s my northern heritage which has turned me from having an obligatory metal album as an annual favourite, but AM is an album and a half. If it’s not one you’ve purchased make sure it’s on your Christmas list. [Anthony Longstaff]
2. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
From their debut Glasgow gig, in a little over 12 months Chvrches have played the San Siro stadium in Milan with Depeche Mode, dazzled the SXSW conference in Texas, had their music featured on blockbuster video games, and performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in front of more than a million Americans. But it was their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, that really set their career alight. The risk was always that they’d fail to reproduce the immediate energy of their singles over an album, but they responded with a work that flits between ascending pop choruses and stormy, expansive electronics.
1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Fittingly, the WOW247 album of 2013, was the top choice of two of our writers, Harris Brine and Mike McDonald.
Harris Brine‘s album of 2013
With Immunity, Hopkins has eclipsed all previous output and has begun to move into a new echelon altogether.
When making the record, people observed that he looked “absolutely in love with it”, and it shows. Immunity is a concept album divided into two halves that initially sought inspiration from the arc of a night out, although the composer has admitted it became more abstract during recording.
However you interpret it, Hopkins has managed to capture the stark bipolarity of nature, one all humans experience, albeit with different severities. Of chaos and calm. Of the overwhelming happiness and deep-rooted sorrow.
The first half is a fizzing, vibrant venture. ‘We Disappear’ has a rhythmic, electronic pulsar beating through a five-minute crescendo, and flirts with an explosion into the same blissful euphoria of Chemical Brothers’ ‘Sunshine Underground’, without ever actually doing so.
Sandwiched between two burring numbers is ‘Breath This Air’, which concludes in the same manner as those that straddle it, but drops hints of delicate piano, an instrument that dominates the latter half.
The second portion delves into reflection, akin to the state you’re inevitably thrust into after substances vacate the body, or people vacate your life. This part sees King Creosote return (they jointly created the stunning LP Diamond Mine in 2011). This time, it’s on Hopkins’ own territory, an electronic backyard littered with soft piano.
‘Abandon Window’ is an ethereal rumination, but Immunity‘s eponymous epilogue may be Hopkins’ magnum opus. Nearly ten minutes long, filled with clicking loops, layers of piano and King Creosote’s vocals, it’s one of few tracks in the last decade to perfectly encapsulate loss, sorrow and rue, as well as still being cathartic.
Ultimately, Immunity is a powerful assimilation of numerous reels cut up and spliced together to create a dynamic and cinematic listening experience, and clear indication that Hopkins will become, with Brian Eno, one of the UK’s greatest modern-day composers. [Harris Brine]
Mike McDonald‘s album of 2013
Justifying why one album is better than all others to yourself is a tricky business. Why is Jon Hopkins’ Immunity better than everything else released in 2013? Certainly it had an immediate impact, capturing my imagination from the first spin. It was obvious from that first listen that the album had depth, nuance and cohesion, and over repeat listens this has become only more apparent. Yet, while these things help – a lot – in making this my album of the year, it’s actually how Immunity relates to everything else I’ve loved this year that really sets it apart.
2013 has been a great year for electronic music, particularly the more instrumental end of things. I’ve found myself listening to more piano pieces than guitar riffs for the first time, and despite a long-running passion for broad, textural electronica, I’ve found that there’s been a renewed focus on expanded sound-stages in many of this year’s releases that has had me, at times, mesmerised.
Hopkins has succeeded in striking alchemical gold with an amalgam of electronic beats and analogue instrumentation; nothing new in that, but it does capture the essence of what this year has been about for me. In doing so, I’ve found that this is an album that is both communal and intimate, that I can listen to morning, noon and night and that I’ll be coming back to many a year from now. By distilling the best elements of a great year of music, Jon Hopkins’ Immunity stands out as the best record of the year. [Mike McDonald]