Wouldn’t it be nice if all the best-album lists agreed so that we would know what not to waste our time with? Of course, music (and people) would have to be pretty boring for that to happen. This year, like every year, there was little consensus about what music was best. Kanye West’s “Yeezus” was the exception, and since it is on every other end-of-the-year list out there, there was no point in putting it on this one. Ditto for Daft Punk, who put out a ubiquitous electro-pop album that was gleefully retro and refreshingly offbeat next to the rest of the Top 40.
The truth is that music is incredibly personal. I, for example, am partial to feminism, queerness, Boston, storytelling, and melody. You won’t find any spacey electronic music or misogynistic hip-hop on this list. Or anything from outside the global Northwest. That’s where you come in: post your favorites in the comment section below! The more offensive, exotic, obscure, and atonal, the better.
So without further ado, I give you the 12 best (according to me) albums of 2013, in alphabetical order.
Sam Amidon “Bright Sunny South”
He might not write his own material, but Sam Amidon is original by any standard. His last two albums, composed of re-imagined folksongs and the occasional pop cover, featured contributions from modern classical composer Nico Muhly. “Bright Sunny South” plumbs the same sort of material, but with a sparser sound devoid of Muhly’s immense, abundant arrangements. The result is meandering and experimental, and like all of Amidon’s work, at once comforting and transportive.
Beyoncé pulled quite a stunt when she released an entire album on iTunes, with no warning, on Dec. 13. “Beyoncé” came just in time for the holidays but a little too late to make it onto most best-album lists. Luckily for you, I’m a huge procrastinator. The album is slick and of-the-moment, and does not disappoint. It picks up where “4” left off, aiming for artistic integrity and lyrical honesty while producing danceable, radio-ready music. This time, however, Beyoncé is less concerned with making hits as she is with creating an album that hangs together as a whole. Producers like Timbaland, Boots, and Detail, and songwriters such as Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and The-Dream help fashion a soundscape populated by off-kilter beats and unconventional structures.
What’s really exciting, though, is how personal the songs feel, and how confidently the pop diva seizes control of her sexuality and owns her identity as a feminist. “Beyoncé” is all about female pleasure and the objectification of women’s bodies. Beyoncé presents a flawless exterior while simultaneously lamenting the damage done to women by a beauty-obsessed culture, and the tension that emerges gives “Beyoncé” the imperfection its creator so desperately seeks.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound “Howl”
JC Brooks gave me my favorite interview this year, and that’s partly why I love “Howl.” But the album holds up quite well on its own. It’s a catchy amalgam of soul, punk, disco, blues, and indie rock with Brooks breathing life into every passionate word.
Brandy Clark “12 Stories”
Brandy Clark is oft touted as Nashville’s savior, and for good reason. After years spent penning hits for country music’s biggest stars, Clark released “12 Stories” to critical acclaim. The album employs country’s penchant for wit and story with uncommon depth and honesty. You know Nashville is ready for a change when its breakthrough star is singing things like this: “So we pray to Jesus/ And we play the lotto/ ‘Cause there ain’t but two ways/ We can change tomorrow.”
Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside “Untamed Beast”
I went to see Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge on the advice of a friend, and it turned out to be one of the best shows I saw all year. Ford has a giggly, peculiar persona onstage, but she writes, and sings, with the attitude of a rock star. On “Untamed Beast” she and her band channel rockabilly, jazz, and surf, but “Untamed Beast” takes its swagger from punk. No one says it better than Ford herself: “I can f--k/ I can drink/ And I don’t care what you think/ You can say/ I’m just a girl/ But I’ve had a lady or two/ Bet she’d prefer me to you/ Yeah I like bad boys/ But I’m like a bad boy, too.”
Joy Kills Sorrow “Wide Awake”
Joy Kills Sorrow have been making modern bluegrass music in Boston since 2005. Theirs is the classic untold indie-band story, defined by years of obscurity and numerous personnel changes. These days, they are more like a string band that plays pop songs, and it’s definitely working for them. Their EP “Wide Awake” showcases top-notch musicianship and songwriting, along with a rhythmic intensity that only a band steeped in bluegrass tradition can deliver.
Kingsley Flood “Battles”
Kingsley Flood were my favorite discovery from the Boston Music Awards nominations. “Battles” won Album/EP of the Year and deservedly so. The band fuses a folk sensibility with an offbeat punk energy, and they do so with exquisite melodies and imaginative, just-so arrangements.
There is a reason why NPR’s Bob Boilen is in love with Lucius (pictured at top). The Brooklyn-based indie-pop group, fronted by two Berklee grads, really hit their stride this year. Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig seem to sing as one, while the rest of the band supplies a dense rhythmic bed for them to play in. “Wildewoman” is their full-length debut, a vast and intricate studio product that deftly captures the energy of their live shows.
Janelle Monáe “The Electric Lady”
“The Electric Lady” is an imperfect album redeemed by moments of brilliance. The elaborate concept piece is set in a post-apocalyptic world where robots rule and funk and soul music reign. But the real triumph is the Electric Lady herself, a tuxedo-clad android prophet from the future who seems to speak directly to the women of today: “Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?/ Is it weird to dance alone late at night?” I hear ya, Janelle.
Kacey Musgraves “Same Trailer Different Park”
I’ll be the first to admit my love for pop country. Which is why I am so often disappointed by the blandness and pandering that is part and parcel of the mainstream country music industry. Kacey Musgraves was a breath of fresh air—albeit tinted by pot smoke—among all the sameness coming out of Nashville this year. Her debut album contains modern insights, feminist musings, and a humorous touch, couched in characteristic country attitude.
Moe Pope & Rain “Let The Right Ones In”
Boston isn’t famous for hip-hop, and Moe Pope is set to change that. On “Let The Right Ones In,” he worked with the producer Rain and collaborated with a slew of mostly local musicians and MC’s to create an eerie, engrossing record. Pope doesn’t write hits, probably because he is too focused on taking his listeners on a journey. “Let The Right Ones In” is an otherworldly trip through Boston’s neglected neighborhoods and one man’s unknown mind.
Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City”
Vampire Weekend have always been adept at melding cerebral production with hook-minded writing. “Modern Vampires of the City” is a sonic wonderland of elaborate counterpoint, electronic experimentation, strange instrumentation, cacophonous percussion, and, of course, singable after singable song.
Amelia Mason is a writer, musician, and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr: http://thebestalbumofalltime.tumblr.com/
This program aired on December 27, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.