Stephen Thompson's Top 10 Albums Of 2013
The same caveats apply to every individual writer's year-end Top 10 list: This is one person's favorite albums of 2013, based on one highly individualized set of tastes, level of desire to reflect the culture at large, life circumstances and genre preferences, as well as mood swings and a capricious nature, complicated further by an intricately nested bundle of personality disorders.
For this particular writer, the best albums of 2013 stood as album-length statements rather than mere collections of good songs. Each captured a powerful songwriting voice and, just as important, a central philosophy: Moving and smart, the records below have clearly defined reasons to exist. They say something meaningful about the people who made them. And, more to the point, I simply love them — and have played them over and over again, even as deadlines loomed and other, newer material beckoned.
1. Kacey Musgraves, 'Same Trailer Different Park'
The do-what-you-feel politics of "Follow Your Arrow," while unusual for mainstream country music, sometimes overshadow Kacey Musgraves' real strength: a gut-level, ground-level, unromantic understanding of how people live. In song after catchy and affecting song, Same Trailer Different Park finds Musgraves nailing the details of small-town boredom ("Merry Go Round"), lousy jobs ("Blowin' Smoke") and compromised romantic standards ("It Is What It Is"), in ways that sound both modern and true to the roots and meaning of country music.
2. Neko Case, 'The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You'
"Man" is a thrilling, gender-bending, fun and funny anthem, and certainly the grabbiest moment on The Worse Things Get... But the rest of the album delves deeper and more provocatively into a brilliant and complex mind: Neko Case has wrapped her luxuriantly powerful voice around some terrific songs in her time, but she's never wrapped it around statements this bold, or nerves this exposed. When, in her cover of a Nico ballad, Case sings "You are beautiful and you are alone," the loneliness and beauty are profound enough to overwhelm.
3. San Fermin, 'San Fermin'
Thematically, sonically, vocally and artistically ambitious, San Fermin is the fully formed vision of a young, classically trained pianist and songwriter named Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Sung by Allen Tate (voice: deep, brooding) and the women of Lucius (voices: high, sweet, sung in unison), Ludwig-Leone's 55-minute opening statement swoons and stuns. Months after its release, it still beckons to be unfurled further, with ever more intricate details to discover.
4. Rhye, 'Woman'
Mystery is baked into the collective persona of Rhye, the duo of singer Mike Milosh and producer Robin Hannibal. The two men perform in darkness and enshroud their publicity photos in shadows; for months, those who'd heard the band couldn't be certain of Milosh's gender, let alone his identity. But there's nothing so enigmatic about Woman, a collection of love songs bathed in desire, intimacy and bone-deep affection. It's bedroom music, sure, but for lovers who've shared every room in the house.
5. Laura Marling, 'Once I Was An Eagle'
Some albums find their strength in the vulnerabilities they expose. For Laura Marling's Once I Was an Eagle, strength lies in bared fangs and the will to shred everything in sight. At 23, Marling is already on her fourth album: a 16-song, 63-minute powerhouse in which she chronicles the end of a relationship with a ferocity that's not cold so much as clear-eyed. "I am a master hunter," she sings during the stunning five-song suite at the top of the record, adding, "I've cured my skin / Now nothing gets in." Her assuredness is awe-inspiring.
6. Volcano Choir, 'Repave'
Justin Vernon has suggested that he may never return to Bon Iver, the project that made him an unlikely household name. Instead, he spent 2013 focusing on side projects: producing The Blind Boys of Alabama, running a boutique record label, heading up a blues-rock band, appearing on Colin Stetson's record and, of course, singing in Volcano Choir. But where Volcano Choir once glued together chopped-up experimental fragments with varying degrees of approachability, it now finds the midpoint between avant-garde meandering and the alternately intimate and grandiose gorgeousness of late-period Bon Iver.
7. Dessa, 'Parts Of Speech'
A leading member of the Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree, Dessa is equal parts rapper, singer and poet, often landing at a spot all her own. On Parts of Speech, she paws through the steaming shrapnel of failed relationships with smart specificity, references to Greek philosophy and a wise eye trained on her own guarded heart. But for all the personal vulnerability Dessa explores, she's never better than in "Fighting Fish," an ode to boldness and a life free of meekness or apology.
8. Frank Turner, 'Tape Deck Heart'
Frank Turner is a London folk singer who often wields an acoustic guitar, but he's got the boozy, funny, bleeding-heart bluster of a barroom raconteur. Tape Deck Heart opens with a rowdily infectious chronicling of rehab — "Recovery," one of the year's great chant-along anthems — before delving into an album-length string of bawdy, goodhearted moments. Equally adept at rafter-raisers and lighter-lifters, Turner carries off Tape Deck Heart with the charisma of an arena-filling rock legend.
9. Laura Mvula, 'Sing To The Moon'
Laura Mvula's confident debut sprawls across genres — soul, pop, R&B, jazz — as freely as it straddles eras and breezes around the globe. Regardless of how and whether she's pigeonholed, the English singer-songwriter paints in Technicolor, with brash, spangly arrangements that never overwhelm Mvula's elastic, exciting voice. Throughout Sing to the Moon, she and her band conjure images of classic soul and old movie scores, yet keep their attention trained ever forward.
10. The National, 'Trouble Will Find Me'
The National's records reveal themselves slowly: What might seem formless at first can unveil hidden intensity over time in ways you might never expect. Like its predecessors, Trouble Will Find Me explores the worried mind and internal struggles of singer Matt Berninger. But The National also possesses the patience and chops to continue exploring musically, which helps give the band's songs beauty as well as meaning.