This was a difficult list to write. 2013 was a rough year; too many things happened to me. A lot of my love for these albums is conflicted or incomplete. And there were many memorable experiences I had with music that aren’t represented at all on this list, like crying to Ty Segall’s “The West” on a Greyhound bus, the last Borrowed Beams of Light show I saw in Charlottesville, or seeing Thee Oh Sees, The Body, and Oozing Wound over a span of two days once I returned to Chicago. But after a month of complaining, I’ve finally finished my list. Here it is:
1. Kanye West / Yeezus / Def Jam
What do I say about Yeezus that hasn’t already been said? But let’s forget about Jesus figures, tour merch, pop-up stores, and Seth Rogen. I want to talk about the music. This album is my favorite of 2013 because it is an uncompromising personal statement from one of popular music’s greatest artists. It’s stripped down, challenging, and takes the “soul-sampling Kanye” trope and uses it to make the songs even darker and more jarring. And then there’s “Bound 2.”
2. Parquet Courts / Light Up Gold / What’s Your Rupture?
This album comes from a place where Pavement, The Fall, and the Minutemen are the rock gods and Parquet Courts are the kids hearing it all on the radio and making their own, skewed, earnest version of those songs. Dynamic and wordy, Light Up Gold mixes the absurd (“Socrates died in the f—-ing gutter!”) with the mundane (looking for something to eat while stoned, the inability to find a good bagel south of the Mason-Dixon line) to produce a record that flows, stops, starts, challenges, and reaffirms everything I love about snotty indie (post?) punk. “Careers in Combat” is a D. Boon-esque political non-anthem; “Borrowed Time” is excellent mosh pit fodder for punching people while having feelings about growing up; and “Stoned and Starving” is a prime example of not a set-ending but a set-shattering jam.
3. The Men / New Moon / Sacred Bones
I put this album on my best of 2013 list because when I first heard it, I hated it a lot. Then it proceeded to ruin my life so intensely for the rest of the year that I feel compelled to write something about it. Initially, I was upset because I felt like New Moon moved the band another step away from their abrasive 2011 record Leave Home, one of my favorites in recent memory. Upon a bit of reflection and two live shows, I realized that the band sounds even better now with the addition of new member Ben Greenberg, and these songs aren’t so bad at all when The Men purposefully chose to play all the loud ones even louder. For the best tracks on New Moon, it made their Neil Young phase sound sufficiently noisy (see the guitar-and-harmonica combo in “Without a Face”) while still churning out some pretty decent rock tunes (“Half Angel Half Light” is really catchy). What I like about The Men is that they’re unrelentingly honest about their influences, their music, and who they are. New Moon is undeniable proof of that.
4. Locrian / Return to Annihilation / Relapse
Chilling, full of empty spaces and quick explosions of sound, Return to Annihilation was released back in July and has been woefully overlooked since. This blackened noise/drone record from Chicago band Locrian proves that successful experimentation with black metal tropes produced more than one fascinating 2013 release, as well as demonstrates the wide range of genres black metal can enhance. The complexity of this record is nearly impossible to put into words, as the textures and images on this record are constantly shifting and moving as I listen, layered upon each other and morphing into new forms each time I hear the record.
5. Deafheaven / Sunbather / Deathwish Inc.
Oh, the whiny think pieces by black metal purists. Oh, the merciless teasing of Deafheaven about the way they looked or their pretty pink album cover. Oh, the vast amount of eye rolling I did in response. This album not only opened me up to understanding more about what makes black metal what it is, it also showed me the possibilities for the genre to give a beautiful yet brutal texture to the swooping, epic, post-rock/shoegaze format. It’s poetic, it’s twisted, it’s some of the most emotional music I heard this year.
6. Pharmakon / Abandon / Sacred Bones
Abandon is extremely confrontational. The shattering scream that subsides into ugly synthesized throbbing in “Milkweed/It Hangs Heavy” is only the beginning. When Margaret Chardiet performs live as Pharmakon, she descends from the stage, creeps through the audience, stopping to literally scream in individual attendees’ faces. Her recorded music does almost the same job, forcing its audience to connect with another human through sheer force of will. This album is power electronics/industrial noise at its most primal, a reminder that this beastliness is in all of us.
7. Earl Sweatshirt / Doris / Columbia
The perfect, darkly conflicted, largely hookless response to years of hype for someone who is still so young. Here we see definite maturation for the youngest member of Odd Future often referred to as their “best rapper,” with his newfound willingness to talk about his personal life and darkest fears: “I’m afraid I’m going to blow it/And when them expectations raising/Because daddy was a poet, right?” Earl’s halting, twisted rhymes and out-of-nowhere references combine with guest verses and grimy production to form an honest, personal debut album. The RZA collaboration “Molasses” reminds me that Earl is a worthy candidate to update Wu-Tang’s iconic sound. And I’m still kind of chuckling at Tyler’s One Direction reference on “Sasquatch,” whoops.
8. Inter Arma / Sky Burial / Relapse
Inter Arma are so much more than the big, fat, classic doom riff that kicks off the first ten minutes of their second full-length record. Of the three blackened-something-or-other albums on my list of 2013 favorites, Sky Burial is the closest to traditional metal, but that doesn’t mean the Richmond group doesn’t have an experimental, forward-looking attitude underneath the surface. The album is a crushing carousel of classic metal genres, and it all easily comes together in a showcase of the band’s talent and the singer’s versatility. I saw Inter Arma play Raleigh’s Lincoln Theater a few hours before Sleep absolutely destroyed the place during Hopscotch this year, and they were one of my favorite performances of the festival. Even more so than on the album, Inter Arma’s built towering walls of noise with their sludgy hypnotic riffs, punctuated with bursts of impassioned vocals, and balanced it all with extended sections of quiet atmospherics. It’s immediately clear that the group believes in what they’re playing, and can travel through varying volumes and intensity levels with ease.
9. Wooden Wand / Blood Oaths of the New Blues / Fire
Blood Oaths is a slice of drone-influenced, alt-country Americana from the infinitely adaptable, sometime-Michael Gira collaborator James Jackson Toth. I often found myself completely lost in the stories he tells on this record, only to be jolted awake when they stomped on my heart a little bit. This is the album with the highest instance of lines in songs giving me chills: “This evening I threw up my heart/It looked like honeycomb.” Blood Oaths takes the daily (e.g. taking a road trip to a blues fest with a significant other) and elevates it to the mystical and the universal. The lingering, elliptical lyrics are perfect to sing along to on a lonely road trip in the dark, as the album and the highway slowly stretch on ahead: smooth sailing now.
10. Pissed Jeans / Honeys / Sub Pop
A beer-stained, hilarious, sludge punk insta-classic. This band, consisting of 30-something insurance salesmen, does not take itself seriously at all. From frontman Matt Korvette tearing through at least four tank tops during an early set at Pitchfork Music Festival, to releasing a music video featuring an ice skating routine choreographed to match “Romanticize Me,” Pissed Jeans have made their brand of Flipper/Melvins/“My War”-era Black Flag post-hardcore into something entirely their own.
Honorable mentions below the cut.