The best albums of 2013
Compiled by Jack Foley
THE time has come for the annual round-up of the year’s best albums – but while there are plenty to choose from (such as new releases from Vampire Weekend and JAY-Z), we’ve decided to mix in some of the hidden gems that you may have missed out on buying.
Hence, while the likes of Justin Timberlake and Sigur Ros undoubtedly (and deservedly) get a mention, what of lesser known gems such as Agnes Obel, Filligar and Hannah Georgas?
Keep an eye out, too, for outstanding albums from the likes of Lord Huron, La Honda and Jumip. We’ve picked just 30 long-players to lead your life by… they’re not listed in any particular order of preference, though – just all good listens in their own right! And worth noting, too, we’ve not heard every album released this year (or even been sent them), so there may be notable omissions.
Agnes Obel – Aventine
What we said: This provides yet another charming and often beautiful showcase of the classically trained pianist/singer’s skills as both an orator and musician. If anything, it’s the instrumentals here that leave the most striking impression, from the delicate beauty of the piano solo opener Chord Left to the clever combinations of piano and strings that occur throughout..
Best tracks: Chord Left, Fuel To Fire, Dorian, Aventine, Run Cried The Crawling, Tokka, The Curse
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
What we said: It’s always good when a band can surprise you. Arcade Fire’s Reflektor does just that… and pleasantly so. Abandoning their trademark rock sound in favour of a dance orientated collection of songs, the album draws cheekily on their influences while sounding resolutely original. It’s a disarming mix and a charming juxtaposition. And every bit as surprising and innovative as that of one of their biggest inspirations, David Bowie, who actually appears here (on the superb title track)… Reflektor is a mighty achievement, a damn fine listen and one of the year’s best albums.
Best tracks: Reflektor, We Exist, Flashbulb Eyes, Here Comes The Night, You Already Know, It’s Never Over, Afterlife
Arctic Monkeys – AM
What we said: You’ve got to hand it to Arctic Monkeys… they’re maturing very nicely with age. While their debut was a little over-rated (in our humble opinion), subsequent albums have been getting better and better. AM, their fifth offering, has some terrific moments that succeed in updating their sound while referencing the very things that have helped to make them one of Britain’s brightest acts… It’s a class act from start to finish.
Best tracks: Do I Wanna Know?, R U Mine?, One For The Road, Arabella, Fireside
Balthazar – Rats
What we said: Balthazar – aka songwriters Maarten Devoldere and Jinte Deprez – are an act you should get to know real soon. Rats, their debut album, is a cracking collection of songs that echo the values of everyone from Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen to Beck and Dangermouse… If not every track entirely works (and we’re only talking about one or two here), this is an album that hits near-perfect levels of satisfaction by virtue of the gob-smackingly terrific songs that do! We defy you not to keep coming back to it and gaining more from each listen.
Best tracks: The Oldest of Sisters, Sinking Ship, The Man Who Owns The Place, Do Not Claim Them Anymore, Listen Up, Sides
Bell X1 – Chop Chop
What we said: Ireland’s Bell X1 continue to go from strength to strength as a band with their latest offering, Chop Chop. A self-consciously simpler album than their previous two offerings, and so brief as to leave you wanting more, it’s also a collection of songs that are steeped in beauty. Rather than relying on malevolent noise makers and malfunctioning computers, Chop Chop shaves the band’s trademark melancholic sound – sculpted by frontman Paul Noonan, bassist Dominic Philips and multi-instrumentalist David Geraghty – down to nothing but reverb-trailed riffs, wildly expressive vocals and delicately layered rhythms. It’s effective in its simplicty and often strikingly brilliant.
Best tracks: A Thousand Little Downers, Careful What You Wish For, I Will Follow You, Drive By Summer, Motorcades
Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up!
What we said: Having originally met while collaborating on a John Lee Hooker record over a decade ago, Ben Harper and renowned harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite have decided to unite again for new album Get Up!. The result could quite possibly be one of the blues-soaked albums of the year! Seamlessly combining Harper’s gruff vocals and penchant for slide guitar with Musselwhite’s harmonica, the album delivers 10 tracks of blues, gospel, roots and RnB in delicious style.
Best tracks: We Can’t End This Way, I Don’t Believe (A Word You Say), I Ride At Dawn, Blood Side Out, Get Up, She Got Kick
Diamond Rugs – Diamond Rugs
What we said: Anyone who got their musical kicks from listening to the debut album from Deer Tick last year would be well advised to check out Diamond Rugs‘ eponymous debut LP too. A blue-collar super-group featuring members of Deer Tick, Black Lips, Los Lobos, Dead Confederate and Six Finger Satellite, this is a romp that channels many of the positive elements from all of the bands listed… the results are positively dazzling – raw, hedonistic, hard-rockin’ and nicely retro-leaning. They’ll put a big sloppy grin on your face.
Best tracks: Hightail, Gimme A Beer, Hungover and Horny, Call Girl Blues, Out On My Own, Totally Lonely, Motherland, Christmas In A Chinese Restaurant
Django Unchained soundtrack
What we said: Quentin Tarantino may just have surpassed his own high standards when it comes to soundtracks with Django Unchained. A thrilling collection of original compositions and classic songs (several unearthed from his own vinyl record collection, complete with scratches!), this is a stupendously good compilation album regardless of whether you’ve seen the film or not. The fact that several artists, including Ennio Morricone himself, contributed some original pieces of work inspired by the film and its themes (a first for Tarantino) showcases just how revered he has become as both a filmmaker and assembler of kick-ass cool soundtracks…. This is a rootin’, tootin’, mother**kin’ blast of a soundtrack!
Best tracks: Django (Main Theme), The Braying Mule, 100 Black Coffins, I Got A Name, Ancora Qui, Who Did That To You?, Unchained, Trinity, Too Old To Die Young
Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo – Dear River
What we said: Having self-financed her first three albums, Emily Barker is now releasing her fourth album on one of the world’s leading ‘audiophile’ labels, Linn Records. If it brings her wider success, it will be wholly deserved. Dear River effortlessly blends classical, rock, country and folk while lyrically exploring the meaning of home and its related tangents of exile, displacement and family. It’s a terrific achievement that engages, satisfies and provokes a great deal of reflection and thought into the bargain.
Best tracks: Dear River, Letters, Everywhen, Ghost Narrative, A Spadeful of Ground
RE-ISSUE OF THE YEAR: Eric Clapton – Give Me Strength: The 1974/1975 Studio Recordings
What we said: If ever there was a must have re-issue, here’s one. The fertile year that signalled the spectacular creative resurgence of Eric Clapton is being celebrated with the Super Deluxe release of Give Me Strength: The ‘74/’75 Recordings – and they sure ‘aint kiddin’ when they save ‘super’. This is an exemplary collection of tracks, featuring live recordings, previously unreleased golden nuggets, cleaned up originals… you name it. This is as great now as it was upon first release – and quite possibly even better, augmented now as it is by all of those unreleased gems and session insights. If ever there was any doubt that Clapton is one of music’s true legends, then this dispels them in emphatic fashion.
Best tracks: Almost every track
Filligar – Hexagon
What we said: Hailed as “one of the best young bands in America”, Illinois indie-rock quartet Filligar now look set to make a sizeable splash in the UK with new album Hexagon. A strong collection of Americana influenced rock songs that look set to garner favourable comparisons with the likes of Kings of Leon and The Black Keys, this also has a distinct sense of identity that led the American Society of Composers, Authors, & Publishers (ASCAP) to hail them as being “of prestige value”. The out-and-out highlight, Money On The Dark Horse, drops some of the best guitar riffs on the LP and even hints at a Rolling Stones/Gimme Shelter kind of vibe with added blues.
Best tracks: Knock Yourself Out, Lock & Key, Money On The Dark Horse, Atlas, Culture Bleach
Gabriella Cilmi – The Sting
What we said: She may still only be 21 but Gabriella Cilmi has lived a big life. You could almost call her a ‘veteran’ of the music scene – an artist who broke big, became a little exploited and is now determined to do her own thing. The new phase is marked by The Sting, her latest album, which finds her smouldering in a different way. An easy comparison would be to say that Cilmi has adopted a husky tone similar to Macy Gray. She would counter: “I wanted it to sound the way Italian neo-realist photographs look, that post-war, ruined glamour which is really gritty and heart-breaking.” Whatever, Cilmi barely puts a foot wrong on this record. It’s a supremely classy offering with so much to admire.
Best tracks: Symmetry, Not Sorry, Don’t Look Back, Left Someone Else, Vicious Love, I Am Just A Girl
Gabrielle Aplin – English Rain
What we said: Gabrielle Aplin is, without doubt, ferociously talented, having written her first song at 14 (which then became the title track of her debut EP at 17), and setting up her own record label (Never Fade Records) in order to provide a self-made platform to super-stardom. Now that she releases her debut album, at the still tender age of 20 and inclusive of that track, she looks set to prove beyond doubt that she’s one of Britain’s brightest singer-songwriter talents… When she sings “maybe we could be the start of something”, she could almost be serenading her burgeoning fanbase. And the answer to that invitation is most emphatically yes – something special.
Best tracks: Panic Cord, Keep on Walking, Salvation, Ready to Question, November, Start of Time
Hannah Georgas – Hannah Georgas
What we said: Vancouverite Hannah Georgas has a voice that could melt butter. And she writes greats songs too. Her eponymous latest album is a masterclass in musical enjoyment that finds the singer evolving from her guitar-based sound into something more electronic – although not electronica. There’s a breezy disposition to the composition of the songs that gives rise to highly energetic, ear-pleasing moments that wash over you like a cool wave on a hot summer’s day. When accompanied by that voice, the results are utterly intoxicating.
Best tracks: Elephant, Enemies, Shortie, Fantasize, What You Do To Me, Waiting Game
Harper Simon – Division Street
What we said: If Harper Simon’s eponymous debut album was comprised of vintage-sounding country folk tunes reminiscent of his father’s work, then sophomore effort Division Street broadens out that sound into more psychedelic, rock-driven territory. It’s every bit as engaging. Co-produced with Tom Rothrock, the ensuing collection of songs does, indeed, rock your socks off and encompasses many of the elements that either Simon held originally dear or strayed into. Division Street finds Simon progressing nicely. It’s a really great album that exhibits timeless qualities.
Best tracks: Veteran’s Parade, Division Street, Eternal Questions, ’99, Chinese Jade, Leaves of Golden Brown
Jack Johnson – From Here To Now To You
What we said: From Here To Now To You, his latest, delivers pretty much what you might have been expecting for the most part. But it also, rather pleasingly, adds a little more too. There are a three or four moments on this latest collection that play on that formula and deliver a more robust sound. You couldn’t quite call it rock. And there are traces of pop. But it’s essentially a fuller sound to the campfire vibe Johnson usually delivers. And they are the undoubted album highlights. This could be Johnson’s strongest collection of songs since On And On and In Between Dreams. From Here To Now To You is just a really great listen.
Best tracks: I Got You, Washing Dishes, Shot Reverse Shot, Radiate, Ones And Zeroes
Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail
What we said: JAY-Z has delivered his most enjoyable and most complete album in years with Magna Carta Holy Grail, a monster of a hip-hop album in every sense. Shot through with starry guest appearances and a keen mix of sharp social and political commentary, as well as the odd moment of more personal soul-searching, this is a hip-hop event that effortlessly outclasses Kanye West’s recent offering. Indeed, for its sustained ability to impress, deliver telling beats and choruses and appeal beyond its hip-hop borders, this is comparable to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy… It is undoubtedly one of the big release highlights of the year (hip-hop or otherwise).
Best tracks: Holy Grail, FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt, Oceans, FUTW, BBC, Nickels And Dimes, Beach Is Better
Junip – Junip
What we said: Think you know José González and all that he has to offer musically? Think again… the eponymous album from Junip, the band he fronts alongside drummer Elias Araya and keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn is a real eye-opener – and a gem. Largely eschewing the stark folk aesthetic of González’s solo efforts, this is a fuller band effort that takes some surprising, often thrilling, directions to encompass garage-rock stompers, Beatles-inspired pop songs and more besides… This is a cracking listen and, quite possibly, one of the best albums you’ll hear all year.
Best tracks: Line of Fire, So Clear, Your Life Your Call, Villain, Walking Lightly, Baton
Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2
What we said: Justin Timberlake adds extra energy and danger to the second part of his 20/20 Experience album release and, quite possibly, surpasses the enjoyment value of its predecessor. Boasting production support from Timbaland and a now obligatory guest appearance from Jay-Z, this feels sexier, rawer and more edgy than the first album – and a little more anguished. Admittedly, you have to wait for the darkness to permeate. There are traces early on, especially on TKO, but 2 of 2 really begins to inhabit its edginess once Murder (featuring Jay-Z) lands… On this form, fans can only hope that it doesn’t take seven years for more new material to surface as the singer appears to be coming into his prime.
Best tracks: Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want), Take Back The Night, Murder, Drink You Away, Amnesia, Only When I Walk Away, Not A Bad Thing
La Honda – I See Stars
What we said: La Honda’s album I See Stars almost never got released. And that would have been a travesty. Recorded some 12 years ago by Sarah Joyce (now better known as multi-platinum selling singer Rumer) together with songwriting guitarist Malcolm Doherty, drummer Dave Roberts and bassist Mark George Brown, I See Stars has only now seen the light of day via the band’s own AMS record label. It’s a goldmine of great songs that was inspired by the West Coast sound of the ’60s, from Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas & The Papas to Dylan, Donovan and Laurel Canyon, with a touch of Joyce’s Karen Carpenter vocals thrown in. Once heard, you’re musical life will be enriched, while you’ll yearn for a reunion and a follow-up record.
Best tracks: Take A Look Around You, I See Stars, Solid Gold, Rich Man’s Wine, Maybe Sunshine, The One That Got Away
Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
What we said: In a career already marked by countless plaudits and acclaim, Laura Marling continues to raise her own high standards with new album Once I Was An Eagle. Comprised of a mighty 16 songs, the opening four of which were reportedly recorded ‘off the cuff’ and which roll into one another, this is an ambitious, confident work from an artist clearly on the top of her game. Musically, there are some great compositions and a richness of sound that’s often quite thrilling and surprisingly robust. Lyrically, meanwhile, there’s plenty to contemplate as Marling continues to examine life and relationships and the motivating factors of both.
Best tracks: Take The Night Off, Once I Was An Eagle, Breathe, Master Hunter, Little Love Caster, Where Can I Go?
Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
What we said: I doubt you’ll hear too many better albums this year than Lord Huron’s debut full length LP Lonesome Dreams. Ben Schneider has created something that is utterly mesmerising by embracing many of the classic values of Americana and infusing it with his own distinct style. There’s a beauty here that’s both enchanting and beguiling depending on Schneider’s mood, and one that’s capable of appealing to listeners of all ages, whether you grew up with Simon & Garfunkel or enjoy Mumford & Sons. This has such a timeless quality about it that I can honestly predict it won’t be far from the top come the end of the year. It’s a masterpiece.
Best tracks: Ends of The Earth, Time To Run, Lonesome Dreams, The Man Who Lives Forever, I Will Be Back One Day, In The Wind
Melinda Ortner – I Wanna Be OK
What we said: Melinda Ortner first came across our radar when she released the brilliant Strangers EP last year. She impresses even more now that her debut album, I Wanna Be OK, has arrived. Boasting refreshingly honest lyrics and a keen mix of styles, this is a genuine showcase of Ortner’s talents as a singer and songwriter of the highest calibre. She can pull off a great ballad or a melody strewn pop favourite. And the world is her oyster right now..
Best tracks: Jezebella, Wait Another Day, I Wanna Be OK, Maybe, Strangers, When You’ve Got It All, Say Those Things
Moby – Innocents
What we said: Moby rolls back the years with his latest album, Innocents, recalling his brilliant best while also marking some of his own personal firsts in the process. The LP marks the first time in his career that he has worked with an outside producer, friend Mark “Spike” Stent, whose résumé includes Madonna, U2, Muse, Björk and Massive Attack. The result very cleverly recalls classic Play-era Moby (beautiful ambience married to stunning beat arrangements), while sounding equally of the moment. In that regard, he has chosen his collaborators well.
Best tracks: Everything That Rises, The Perfect Life, The Last Day, Don’t Love Me, Saints, Tell Me, The Lonely Night
Paper Lions – My Friends
What we said: Dripping with ear-pleasing melody and a style that encapsulates the best qualities of bands like Fountains of Wayne and The Shins, Paper Lions’ new album, My Friends, is a genuinely great listen. Recorded with acclaimed Canadian indie-rock producer Howard Redekopp (Tegan and Sara, The New Pornographers, Mother Mother), this collection of 10 songs captures a polaroid of Prince Edward Island 20-some years ago. Hence, stories of love and pain, childish fights, best friends, beaches and forts evoke the melancholia of youth, as remembered by a group of people not very far from it..
Best tracks: Bodies In The Winter, My Friends, San Simeon, Ghostwriters, Sandcastles
PSAPP – What Makes Us Glow
What we said: Call it quirk pop, art-pop or just hugely creative pop but PSAPP know how to deliver a killer tune that’s both high on originality and widespread appeal. What Makes Us Glow is their fourth album and, as its name suggests, it’s designed to make you glow. Indeed, it might. Scored with home built instruments, the album is bursting with swampy drones of recorded ambience and plenty of raw sounds.
Best tracks: Your Hot Knife, The Well And The Wall, Wet Salt, In And Out, In The Black, Bone Marrow
Sigur Rós – Kveikur
What we said: If you thought Sigur Ros had had their day, particularly in light of the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, then think again. When approaching their seventh studio album, Kveikur, they decided to challenge themselves and expand their sound, resulting in a collection of tracks that retains the majestic, sometimes ethereal beauty of their previous best with a sound that’s perhaps their most mainstream yet. It’s a musical journey that is utterly wonderous… and it’s close to Sigur Rós’s best. It’s an album to enrich. Don’t miss.
Best tracks: Brennisteinn, Isjaki, Stormur, Rafstraumur, Bláþráður
The Snowman and The Snowdog – Ilan Eshkeri and Andy Burrows
What we said: Following Howard Blake’s memorable score for Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman was always going to take something magical but, fortunately, Ilan Eshkeri and Andy Burrows have created something that more than fits that bill for The Snowman & The Snowdog. Burrows and Eshkeri’s score is a delight. Warm throughout, it’s also playful and inspirational at certain points, and heartfelt and even poignant at others. It also contains two terrific songs from Burrows, in Light The Night and Hometown.
Best tracks: Building The Snowman, The Snowman & The Snowdog, Light The Night, Snowman Carnival, Downhill Race
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
What we said: Vampire Weekend have delivered a near-perfect third album in Modern Vampires Of The City, an endlessly enjoyable collection of songs that manage to touch the heart and engage the brain. Embodying a fuller, more diverse sound and widening their influences, this is an album that gleefully mixes tempos and styles, whether channelling Graceland-era Paul Simon or classic Beatles, or even the likes of Tom Petty and Primal Scream in terms of storytelling values and sonic ambition. Vampire Weekend have undoubtedly crafted one of the year’s best albums. And their own personal masterpiece to boot. There simply isn’t a track to dislike or disappoint.
Best tracks: Obvious Bicycle, Step, Diane Young, Hannah Hunt, Everlasting Arms, Worship You, Hudson, Ya Hey
Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue Acoustic
What we said: American pop-punk band Yellowcard have had two reasons to celebrate recently: this year marks the 10th anniversary of their breakthrough single and its album of the same name, Ocean Avenue, while the track itself has just been certified platinum (over one million sold). To celebrate, they have re-recorded the album acoustically. And it’s a blast. The acoustic delivery means that the punk edge has gone but it’s replaced instead by a greater emotional depth befitting the band’s maturity… A good album has just been transformed into a great one.
Best tracks: Ocean Avenue, Only One, Empty Apartment, View From Heaven, Inside Out