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The Best Albums of 2013

This year has been interesting for music. Major artists like Daft Punk, Kanye West, Eminem and Drake released their heavily anticipated albums—none of which make this list, by the way. Amidst that hype, certain female artists, most notably Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor, have been stirring drama and drawing attention to gender in the music industry—a topic that has often been on my mind ever since I studied music business in college.

Coincidentally, my year has also revolved around gender equality due to my secondary project in Peace Corps, and given my great love for music, I made a conscious decision to listen to more female artists in support of my undertaking. This was not an easy task as my very large music library is composed heavily of male artists, as are the majority of my favorite bands. Presumably this dynamic is reflected in many people’s musical preferences, demonstrating how challenging it is for female artists to gain audiences and a foothold in the industry, particularly in genres beyond ‘Pop.’

This year, my album selections reflect the above endeavor. Compared to my list in 2012 that featured only two female artists, this year I chose four, and one with heavy female contribution. It was my initial wish that this list contain all female artists, but I have to be honest with the albums that truly circulated through my year, hence earning them the classification of ‘the best.’

As stated last year: It should go without saying that this is my own subjective opinion. Also, most albums are new, though not all albums have been released this year. These albums are not ranked, but are in order of when they appeared in my year. And so we begin with…

In Between Dreams – Jack Johnson – 2005

I had to move halfway across the world and spend a few weeks lounging in an isolated island paradise—in a place that precisely replicates this album cover—to get on the Jack Johnson train that started almost a decade ago. Back then, I wasn’t immune to the catchy ‘Banana Pancakes’ tune that streamed through the radio, but it just didn’t have the same draw until I found myself in Flores.

What can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said? This man strumming his guitar manifests carefree vibes, with a hint of melancholy in his soothing buttery voice. For me, this album is the American take on bossa, and Jack Johnson reminds me of the great João Gilberto and his album, Chega de Saudade.

According to Wikipedia, the untranslatable saudade is “the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure and well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live them again.” Like Gilberto before him, Johnson captures this sentiment in his music, particularly with ‘Better Together,’ ‘No Other Way,’ ‘Belle’ with its rustic French accordion, ‘Do You Remember’ and ‘Constellations.’ Yet, my favorite track, ‘Breakdown,’ with its ukulele riffs and metallic guitar plucks sums it best with the contemplative lyrics: “Time is just a melody.”

Lucky Shiner – Gold Panda – 2010

A friend from Peace Corps, Joe, and I have a music club that we cleverly named IndoShuffle, in which we exchange songs on a weekly basis. I immediately acquired Lucky Shiner upon receiving one of his recommendations, ‘You.’ Before listening to the album, I was intrigued by the song titles, which seemed to outline a relationship’s sequence. Once, I listened to the album it all came together, complete with the frantic sounds of the real thing.

Beginning with ‘You,’ the high-energy track could be compared to the electric thrill of meeting someone new. The track splices the wordsyou,” “and,” “me” swirling them around in a repetitious beating melody, in the same dance of individuals relating to one another for the first time. Ending with another ‘You,’ this slow nostalgic track draws out the word “you” in what, to me, sounds like reverence or, possibly, longing. In between ‘You,’ the tracks are lyric-less electronic configurations of amusement (‘Vanilla Minus,’ ‘Same Dream China, ‘Snow & Taxis’), tension (‘Before We Talked’), brightness (‘Marriage’), perplexity (‘I’m With You But I’m Lonely’) and balance and imbalance (‘After We Talked’).

‘Parents’ is the only track that breaks the electronic feel. Sampling Gold Panda’s grandmother speaking before a brief arrangement, the track is highlighted by its skids upon the acoustic guitar strings—a traditional anchor within a sea of cacophonous emotions.

In the bonus tracks, the vivid ‘Casio Daisy’ is quite possibly my second favorite song on the album.

Halcyon – Ellie Goulding – 2012Ellie Goulding - Halcyon

Because I listen to a lot of electronic dance music, the incredibly talented Ellie Goulding has been on my radar for a while. So when I saw her sophomore album had been released, I decided to give it a shot. It was a good decision.

In the same style that made the ‘Lights’ single so popular and a pleasure to remix by the best EDM artists, her airy-vocal skills flutter from alto to soprano over mid-tempo beats. Goulding’s raspy voice sings her memorable refrains, which are difficult to get out of your head. Consequently, you’re forced to listen to the album over and over because mimicking Goulding is impossible, and any attempt is embarrassing.

Except for a few songs that break the tone—like the top dance track ‘I Need Your Love’ with Calvin Harris—the album is reminiscing peaceful days with sad lyrics. Yet, Goulding’s beautiful voice radiates through, etching the melodies of the outstanding ‘My Blood,’ ‘Halcyon,’ ‘Figure 8,’ and especially, ‘Explosions,’ like a firefly in the darkness.

Note: Halcyon’s deluxe version includes the pop single, ‘Burn,’ whose ferocity and charm underlines my last point.

Takk… – Sigur Rós – 2005

Sigur Ros - Takk

Sigur Rós has the gift of capturing landscapes with their ethereal soundscapes. In their orchestrations of oscillating chimes, unique instruments made from stones and played with bows make nature audible. Rivers gush in ‘Sæglópur.’ Trees sway in ‘Andvari.’ And in ‘Gong’ and ‘Glósóli,’ warriors march to the invented languages of kingdoms shaped in legendary tales.

Confession: This album scored my reading of the Lord of the Rings, and nothing could have been better.

In all seriousness, Sigur Rós is sublime. I enjoy instrumental music or—in Takk’s case—music in an incomprehensible language, which encourages one to listen beyond lyrics and truly sense the composition. In this way, voice transcends merely being another medium for words, and becomes a versatile instrument bound only to Jónsi’s range and creativity for designing vocal sounds. This results in scenic sonatas that expand and contract, paralleling the progression of classical music. But this is post-rock.

In spite of its dynamic electric guitars and modern production techniques, no song is ever abrasive. Each track is intricate and even, tranquil, thawing effortlessly into the next. Most songs are heroic like ‘Mílanó,’ or most notably, ‘Hoppípolla.’ Often selected to score films and documentaries, this song has introduced Sigur Rós to audiences around the world. In fact, as I write this, ‘Hoppípolla’ is streaming through my Indonesian television as the background music for a National Geographic spot honoring Nelson Mandela.

However, ‘Sé Lest,’ with its happy piano introduction and hopeful brass band finale, remains my favorite track of the album. It’s eight and a half minutes in heaven. Though I may not be able to tell you what it’s saying—or even the meaning of any of these titles—that’s all insignificant because it’s the music that speaks.

Passage – Exitmusic – 2012

Exitmusic - Passage

There are not many actors that are simultaneously successful musicians. And I’m not talking about Disney Channel tweens turned pop performers. I’m talking about real musicians with real instruments; the kind that’s a complex art. You have to have a certain caliber of talent in order to achieve this and actress and multi-instrumentalist, Aleksa Palladino, seems to have it.

It’s appropriate that Passage follows Sigur Rós on this list, because not only are they listed as one of Exitmusic’s influences, but, like Jónsi, Palladino also uses her voice as a starring instrument. Taking the lead, Palladino’s contralto mirrors Diana Krall’s, coalesced with Billie Holiday’s evocative delivery and Björk’s elasticity. Her singing begins as a whisper, then her textured vibrato thunders and storms, rousing a resonating hurricane. It’s practically a force of nature.

A lot of people can sing, but not many can manipulate pitch like this, simply because their vocal agility will not allow it. Palladino doesn’t have that problem. Her broad range allows her to hover above a low haunting murmur, which then combusts into a deluge of high-pitch sound like in ‘Passage’ and ‘The Wanting.’ Guitars, drums and keyboards—fueled with electronic reverbs—weather Exitmusic’s somber, but poetic sketches, represented most elegantly in ‘The Night,’ where Palladino hoarsely sings: “If the stars can align all of man with night sky / then why can’t my heart mend the break?/ But I’ll love you the same / cause it’s only a dream / and the dreamer is bound to awake.” It’s exquisite.

This is not the kind of music you can dance to. It’s hardly something you’d hear on the radio. It’s tumultuous and surreal. Corrosive, but absorbing. And it’s exactly the kind of alt-rock music I hope more women make. (With or without a male artistic partner.)

Free the Universe – Major Lazer – 2013

Major Lazer - Free the Universe

Have you ever watched the iTunes visualizer? Well, listening to this album is like stepping inside it.

The music is explosively loud and convoluted with sounds that make every song a universe as viewed through a kaleidoscope. Each track erupts in percussion transforming through a whirl of screeches, simulated gunshots, claps, laser booms and zooms led with voices ranging from electronic musicians like Peaches, reggae artists like the strayed Shaggy and Wyclef Jean, amongst rising stars like Bruno Mars, Tyga, Danielle Haim, and Ezra Koening from Vampire Weekend.

Most tracks are overwhelmingly colorful. ‘Watch Out For This’ and the closing track, ‘Playground,’ are principally entrancing with their horn tirades amid the clamorous ‘You’re No Good,’ ‘Jet Blue,’ ‘Jah No Partial,’ ‘Scare Me’ –which comes close to being the soundtrack to a frenzied nightmare – and ‘Sweat.’ It’s energy rendered as sound dissolving one song into the other, creating the incandescent mandala of Free the Universe. Yet, sometimes, it echoes like a placid dream in ‘Jessica,’ ‘Keep Cool,’ ‘Reach for the Stars,’ or in my favorite track, ‘Get Free,’ with Amber Coffman’s hazy voice enhancing the hallucination. And this psychedelic Avicii remix may make it even better.

It must be said, however, that the song ‘Bubble Butt’ must be one of the worst ever made – and I unfailingly skipped it. Nevertheless, if I were ranking the albums on this list, I would probably place this one in the top slot.

Don’t Look Down – Skylar Grey – 2013

Skylar Grey - Don't Look Down

Skylar Grey is the oft overlooked songwriter behind some of the most successful pop songs of the recent past, including ‘I Love The Way You Lie’ performed by Eminem and Rihanna and the indelible hooks of Dr. Dre’s ‘I Need a Doctor,’ P. Diddy’s ‘I’m Coming Home’ and Kascade’s ‘Room for Happiness.’

In a game of light and shadows, Grey’s voice flickers through the minor piano chords of her Gothic sentimental songs filled with mysteries and superstitions. Beginning with ‘Back from the Dead’ featuring Big Sean and Blink-182’s drummer, Travis Barker, an ominous tone is set and continued with songs like ‘Final Warning,’ ‘Wear Me Out,’ ‘Religion’ and ‘Beautiful Nightmare.’ In many of her songs, Grey’s elegant melodies are complemented with sinister rap verses, but in ‘C’mon Let Me Ride’ featuring Eminem, she breaks through her delicacy revealing a punk-rock force. However, most tracks stick to Grey’s specialty – soft ballads with powerful bridges showing off her impressive vocal skills and songwriting abilities (i.e. ‘White Suburban’).

Days Are Gone – Haim – 2013

Haim - Days Are Gone

It’s redundant to compare Haim to Fleetwood Mac, but seriously, ‘Little Lies’ and ‘Everywhere’ could easily be part of this album.

Hailing from a musical family, this rising sister trio of musical prodigies had a big year. Not only did they release their critically acclaimed debut, but have also been featured in two other albums that made this list, Free the Universe and Indicud. Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim combine their vintage appearance and sound with contemporary R&B influences and electronic accents in their upbeat, summery tunes akin to Vampire Weekend’s debut, Oxford Comma.

The heartbeat-like intro of the first track, ‘Falling,’ hooks immediately and careens into their zesty California sunshine and amicable breakup songs like ‘Forever,’ ‘Send Me Down,’ ‘If I Could Change Your Mind,’ ‘Honey & I’ and the title track, ‘Days Are Gone.’ As in most of the songs, ‘Go Slow,’ exhibits Danielle’s sharp staccato singing style as she punctuates the word “heat,” while her sisters harmonize in the background. ‘The Wire’ and ‘Don’t Save Me’ are exceptionally strong tracks sharing in Stevie Nicks’s gumption with empowered lyrics, whilst ‘My Song 5’ stands out with an addicting electric guitar riff.

Judging from their charismatic debut, Haim is likely to be around for a while. Listen up.

Indicud – Kid Cudi – 2013

Kid Cudi - Explicit - Indicud

Following the Man on the Moon albums and his secondary project WZRD, Kid Cudi is now flexing his muscles as a producer. Though Kid Cudi is present, this album is different in that most songs feature new rappers in Cudi’s stead including King Chip, Kendrick Lamar, RZA and A$AP Rocky. Established rockers, Father John Misty and (oddly) Michael Bolton, are also featured, as is the indie band, Haim, rocking the spirited ‘Red Eye.’ Meanwhile, Cudi focuses on the music. Using synthesizers, he constructs cinematic beats and a few wordless tracks, occasionally sampling voice clips from films like in the introductory track, ‘The Resurrection of Scott Mescudi.’ His efforts build spacey, grungy atmospheres summed up best in the ‘Beez’ line: “I don’t write songs, grasshopper, I write sceneries.”

In the style from the music and video of ‘No One Believes Me,’ Kid Cudi is writing sceneries. Revealing clips of his life, attitude and philosophies, Cudi sticks to his usual brooding with cerebral and existential lyrics in ‘King Wizard’ (“I can’t decide, what if life’s a lie?”) ‘Immortal’ (“I’m living my life as if I’ve got powers”) and ‘Mad Solar’ (“How strange the notion, you don’t really know no one”). Most characteristically, Cudi rages—whether it be in anger (‘Unfuckwittable,’ ‘Solo Dolo Pt. II’, ‘Burn Baby Burn,’ ‘Lord of the Sad and Lonely,’) or in a party anthem (‘Girls,’ ‘Brothers’, ‘Afterwards’). Sure, the album is long and unbalanced, lacking the stellar tracks comparable to ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ or ‘Mr. Rager,’ but Cudi does his thing without compunction, a sentiment immortalized in ‘Just What I Am,’ the album’s best track—and in my favorite opening line from any song this year: “I’m just what you made, God.”

At the end of the day, Kid Cudi is a rapper. His egotistic solipsism bleeds through Indicud, but it’s entertaining and refreshing. Unlike other hip hop/rap albums released this year, Cudi rarely goes on about b*tches or money. Instead, Cudi continuously analogizes the sun – even in his self-created cover art—illustrating a personal transition from the lunar to the sovereign solar.

This album is good, but I’m looking forward to better. Still, props to Kid Cudi for delivering us from Yeezus.

Hesitation Marks – Nine Inch Nails – 2013

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks

In the manner of another noteworthy record released this year, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, this album considers the theme of perception and distortion by creating this ambiance with sound. Trent Reznor is a champion of electronic production mixing traditional instruments—lustrous guitars and his excellent piano skills—with discordant synthesizers and music software. And this makes Hesitation Marks feel like a walk through a carnival’s fun house, full of smoke and mirrors. Unlike the busy industrial sounds of NIN’s preceding albums, the music is simpler, but layered, echoing and spiraling in a pulsating maze of distorted beats exemplified best in ‘Copy of A’ and ‘Find My Way.’

“I am just a copy of a copy of a copy./ Everything I’ve said has come before,” kicks off the album, confessing what is true. In spite of a long hiatus, NIN has said this before, once again dismantling sheltered misconceptions founded on comfortable illusions. Just listen to With Teeth. But in all fairness, what can an artist do after breaching the existential—and often nihilistic—concepts that nothing stays the same (‘While I’m Still Here’), which becomes inevitably redundant (‘Various Methods of Escape’), in spite of the transience of being (‘Come Back Haunted’) and cruel mortality (‘All Time Low’)? The answer is: they can experiment with sound.

As someone who only seriously started listening to NIN in the mid-2000s, it’s mind-blowing to think that this band has been around since the 80s. That’s nearly three decades of growth—and light-years of technological advances – proving Reznor a career musician. Though it remains to be seen whether NIN will remain, Hesitation Marks is but another fragment of Reznor’s art, likely to gain him new audiences assembled from younger generations. But there’s life beyond NIN. Reznor’s secondary project with his wife, How to Destroy Angels, and his award-winning film scores for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo show that music is, quite literally, his life. No matter what, he’s not going anywhere. He still has a lot of experimenting to do.

Advice: Nine Inch Nails is also one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to, if not the best. If you get the chance – go.

Honorable Mentions:

Nine Inch Nail’s With Teeth (2005) was disqualified from this list only because I’ve listened to it a lot before this year. However, I can’t overstate how many times I played ‘Everyday is Exactly the Same’ –the theme song of my Peace Corps low points— and ‘Right Where It Belongs.’

Deadmau5’s Album Title Goes Here, Macklemore’s The Heist and my guilty pleasure, Sean Paul’s Tomahawk Technique—all released in 2012—also deserve shout outs.

Notable Tracks:

  • ‘A Sail’ – Lisa Hannigan – Passenger – 2011: Fittingly, this song sailed into my top 25 most played iTunes playlist in 3 days, because Hannigan’s jazzy voice is divine.
  • ‘The Wake-Up’ – How to Destroy Angels – Welcome Oblivion – 2013: Man, Trent Reznor is a genius. I can’t really pin down what it is about this song, but I love it.
  • ‘Olsen Olsen’ – Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun – 1999: This song is the heart of the enchanting Sigur Rós performance I got to see in Jakarta last May.
  • ‘Ingenue’Atoms for Peace – Amok – 2013: This album nearly made this list as well, but since I base my decisions on play count – it didn’t quite make the cut. But this song indisputably did.
  • ‘Finger Back’ – Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City – 2013: In a word: addictive.
  • ‘Surprise Hotel’ – Fool’s Gold – Fool’s Gold – 2009: Another one of Joe’s epic selections that’s also in one of my favorite movies, Like Crazy.
  • ‘We Are All Made of Stars’ – Moby – 18 – 2002: I woke up one day with this song in my head—and then I couldn’t stop listening to it for an entire week.
  • ‘Aquarium’ – Nosaj Thing – Views/Octopus – EP – 2006: This song is so beautiful and just completely epic. If you can only listen to one track on this entire list, trust me, listen to this one.
  • ‘Elastic Heart’ – Sia featuring Weeknd and Diplo (i.e. Major Lazer!) – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Soundtrack – 2013: At the rate I’m playing this song and album, it nearly made this list as well, but it came into my life too late in the year to truly compete in play count.

Notable Music Documentary:

In Sound City (2013), Dave Grohl—Foo Fighters’ leading man and Nirvana’s final drummer— directs his exploration of one of the most prominent recording studios in music history, which produced masterpieces like Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album and Nirvana’s Nevermind.

It’s not exactly fair to call Sound City the ‘best’ music documentary of the year since it’s the only one I saw, but it does merit recognition—and a huge recommendation.

***

It’s said you should measure your life in love. I measure mine in love and music. And so another year ends, and it’s represented here in these selections.

Now, I’m off to Quito, Ecuador and in this trip—that’s been long overdue—I’ll listen to a ton of Christmas music and immerse myself in HOME.

Happy Holidays & Happy New Year, all!

Peace.

xo

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