As I mentioned in my Top Five Songs of 2013 list last week, 2013 has been a decent year for music. There were some great debuts, even better follow-ups and a promise for the future. So, without further ado, here’s my take on the Top Five Albums of 2013.
5. Shaking the Habitual, by The Knife
It’s often hard to imagine what ‘textural’ means in the context of music. How can a purely tactile sense be attributed to sound? The word is often thrown about as a vague catch-all for everything from ambient to post-rock, but there is music for which ‘textural’ is a perfect adjective. One such example is The Knife’s fervent fourth album, Shaking the Habitual, which puts you in the middle of a seethingly alive jungle.
On “A Tooth For an Eye”, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s wild, unintelligible chants soar and whoop like tribal cants through her brother Olof Dreijer ‘s electronic safari through a rain-forest. The strongest beat lies on “Full of Fire”, which could form the ominous soundtrack for a dream that wakes you up sweating and disturbed. You could get lost in the labyrinth of “Raging Lung”, gasping for breath while your masked overlords laugh at your ghastly predicament. It’s like each song comes with its own dizzying music video.
I will freely admit that I wasn’t a fan of The Knife prior to this album; their much-hyped Silent Shout came off as far too pretentious, like early Animal Collective gestated too far into the sinisterly inaccessible. However, after a few listens of Shaking the Habitual, I found myself getting enveloped in the ethereal gauze of “A Cherry on Top”, the busy techno of Networking” and the dark drama of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”. While it’s still not the most accessible music – case in point, the 19-minute horror-movie diegetic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” – there may hardly be an album in 2013 more imaginative and textural (there’s that word again) than Shaking the Habitual. Recommended, for those willing to stomach it.
Best tracks: “A Tooth For an Eye”, “Raging Lung”
4. Pure Heroine, by Lorde
Contrary to what twee stars may have you believe, being a 16-year-old famous pop star is not always easy or even fun. Even a normal teenager’s world seems to change all too rapidly; imminent rise to fame can only cause further confusion. Lorde’s Pure Heroine (full review here) is a meditation on this theme, a sort of commentary piece to the young New Zealander’s sudden rise to fame.
But sudden does not mean unexpected. In her mid-teens, Lorde possesses musical chops like none of her peers. She wields her whip-sharp pen – writing cleverly about teenage romance and suburban life and impending fame – with as much confidence as she sings, sly smirk in place. Add to that a magnetic personality – the hair! the winged mascara! – and you’ve got yourself a true pop star. The difference is that she really doesn’t want to be one. “We crave a different kind of buzz,” she explains on her hit “Royals”, before going on to claim her personal throne: “Let me be your ruler/ You can call me Queen Bee.” She fears fame, too, with the intensity of a small-town girl pushed into big-city spotlights: “How can I fuck with the fun again, when I’m known,” she wonders wistfully on “Tennis Court”. It’s quite a refreshing take on success.
Pure Heroine by Lorde – note the effect of the foisted ‘e’ in both cases – is perhaps the best debut of 2013, and one of the best albums overall. It will be interesting to see where true fame takes Lorde in her follow-up albums. She’s one to watch, for sure.
Best tracks: “Tennis Court”, “Royals”
3. Days Are Gone, by Haim
Every once in a while, a true revivalist comes along, making music that sounds like it should have been a famous hit already. On their debut Days Are Gone (full review here), Haim have managed pay perfect homage to a discography spanning synth-heavy hits from the late 70s all the way to glossy-lipped R&B from the 90s.
Haim comprises three attractive sisters – Danielle, Este and Alana Haim – whose first band was called Rockinhaim, composed of themselves and their parents. The girls make sunny, honest, genuine music that speaks of their pedigree as much as it does of their home in California’s carefree San Fernando Valley.
That Days Are Gone is a debut is a little hard to believe at times. Just listen to the sludgy-cool “My Song 5” or the shining hooks on “Honey & I”. This is music that already has a classic feel. In fact, Days Are Gone often feels like a best-of compilation of female-fronted music from pop’s golden eras, which is probably what the Haim girls intended to do.
Whether on the breezy post-breakup title song or on the irresistibly catchy “The Wire”, Danielle, Este and Alana have the confidence of old sessions regulars with nothing to prove, or world-famous musicians with several concert tours under their belts. With that sort of aura, it seems only natural that the Haim sisters are set to be superstars.
Best tracks: “The Wire”, “My Song 5”
2. AM, by Arctic Monkeys
In late 2005, four young British lads released a kicker of an album about life as young British lads that immediately shot to unrivaled success. They hadn’t planned on fame: neighbors Alex Turner and Jaime Cook asked for guitars on Christmas only a few years prior so that they could play some songs together with their high school friend Matt Helders. Somehow, in an accident that involved the novelty of file-sharing, MySpace and a shamelessly salivating British music press, the boys became superstars: shy, ill-suited for fame and too wordy for their own good, but superstars nonetheless.
In 2009, Arctic Monkeys took a break from their witty chronicles of getting turned down by girls in clubs and headed to the California desert with Queens of the Stone Age front-man Josh Homme, who lent a heavy black aura to their music and lyrics. The band lost a legion of their earlier fans with the resulting album Humbug; even I, a devout fan-girl, was tempted to think that the Monkeys were losing their touch with this strange new direction. It didn’t help that the follow-up Suck It and See was lacklustre at best, with elliptical lyrics and a conspicuous lack of blistering indie rock that diverged sharply from their original image.
But now it all makes sense. Themes from their entire discography – the lusty darkness of Humbug and the way lyrics were carefully wrought on Favorite Worst Nightmare – make an appearance on AM, which may just be their best album yet.
Every part of their act has gotten tighter. Alex has evolved as a vocalist, effecting a sly, jilted prowl on “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” as easily as the whipped desperation on “Fireside”. His lyrics, too, have gotten even better. “It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light/ The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes,” Mr. Turner sighs about the eponymous woman on “Arabella”, going on to croon, “And her lips are like the galaxy’s edge/ And her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place.” Quite the poet he is.
But the band is not a one-man show. On AM, Arctic Monkeys have damn near perfected the art of drawing organically from influences to create a their own new sound. Jaime Cook’s ponderous riff on “Do I Wanna Know?” evokes a stripped-down QOTSA while “Arabella” could be slipped into a Black Sabbath mixtape. The best example, though, comes on “Mad Sounds”, a beautiful ballad that fittingly brings to mind the late Lou Reed, complete with “ooh la las” sprinkled over a sparkling-pop everyman love song.
The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album is the latest stepping stone on their journey from clever cads with guitars to mature musicians. AM is at once the culmination of everything the band has done so far as well as an exciting direction for the future. One thing’s for certain: as good as this album is, their best is yet to come.
Best tracks: “Arabella”, “Why’d You Always Call Me When You’re High?”
1. Random Access Memories, by Daft Punk
Putting Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (full review here) above an Arctic Monkeys masterpiece really made me think. On one hand, I’ve been a rabid Arctic Monkeys fangirl for the past decade; on the other, Random Access Memories is otherworldly genius. In the end, timeless genius won over everything else, and that is why Random Access Memories is, in my opinion, the best album of the year.
There’s very little to say that hasn’t been said already. We can talk about the featured artists – industry legends and indie superstars alike – and how their combined starpower with Daft Punk resulted in perfect collaborations. “Doin’ It Right” sounds exactly like how an Animal Collective-tinged Daft Punk song should sound, while “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas would fit in uncannily well on the Strokes’ Comedown Machine.
We can talk about the theme – futuristic humans-turned-robots finding their way back to humanity through love and the power of music – and how perfectly every song fits into the overall idea, like robot-manufactured puzzle pieces. The story stretches from the disco heydey on song-of-the-year “Get Lucky” to the magnum opus “Touch”, which is basically a fantastic, musical version of Pixar’s Wall-E.
We can talk about the music itself, ranging from lackadaisical bliss on “Lose Yourself to Dance” to instrumental fantasia on “Motherboard”. But in the end, it’s as Giorgio says on the epic “Giorgio by Moroder”: “Once you want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.” This, in essence, Daft Punk’s idea for Random Access Memories.
This is not music. It’s expression: timeless and impossibly perfect.
Best tracks: “Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself to Dance”