Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

My Favourite Records of 2013

’Tis the season for lists.

There are people in this world who truly believe that we’ve entered a dark era of music. They think that there hasn’t been a great album released since Kurt Cobain died, and they believe that we won’t see an artist that’s truly “great”.

These people are completely and utterly wrong.

2013 was the best year for new music in the past decade, and that’s not a small pronouncement: the past ten years have seen the birth of a lot of contemporary classics, from Deftones’ “Diamond Eyes” to Jay-Z’s “Black Album”. But we’ve been spoiled this year. I’ve imagined “perfect” years of record releases, yet I never imagined anything this close to perfection. These are my favourite records of the year, though I’m sure you have your favourites, too. I proudly recommend all of these to you.

Most of these album links are iTunes affiliate links, which means that if you buy any of these records from those links, I get a small slice of your purchase. It was a pretty big year for me. Thank you to all of you for supporting the site.

Reflektor — Arcade Fire

A predictable choice to start the (alphabetical) list, but definitely not unwarranted. This entry into the Arcade Fire canon was their most ambitious yet, spreading funk, soul, disco, and cinematic influences over two discs (if you bought it, you know, in a physical package). It has fewer arena-filling anthemic tracks than its predecessors, but it feels more intimate as a result.

Pictures on Silence — Atu

I’m a little bit of a sucker for these kinds of downtempo, trip-hop inspired R&B records, but I especially enjoyed Atu’s take on it this year. It’s a short album — just 28 minutes — but it’s comfortable at that length. Songs like “Close” and “Way I Feel” are surprisingly funky, while “Let Me” and “Gotta Be” are sexy and soft. It’s just a really, really nice little record.

Anxiety — Autre Ne Veut

Autre Ne Veut doesn’t give you his music with any sort of immediacy: you’ll be nearly three minutes into the first song before you get the first chorus. And, yet, it’s a surprisingly approachable record. It’s complex, it’s multilayered, and but it’s surprisingly easy. I’m not a good singer, but I found myself jamming along with “Counting” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — both are irresistibly catchy. I loved this album the first time I listened to it, and I love it equally on every listen since.

Tomorrow’s Harvest — Boards of Canada

“Please don’t be another ‘Campfire Headphase’,” I prayed before its release. Indeed, it isn’t. It was apparently inspired by film scores, and you can hear that influence throughout, especially with the opening melody which wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1980s TriStar logo. But it would supersede any sort of film to which you can imagine setting its melodies with its texture and beauty.

Flourish // Perish — Braids

After their release of “Native Speaker” in 2011, Braids was perceived as a promising if derivative band. But on this, their “difficult third album”, Braids comes to their own. The title reflects the split nature of the tracks: about half are upbeat, while the others are a little bit darker. But these two sides of the band’s personality are not opposites; they’re of the same thread, and it shows on such a strong album.

Rival Dealer — Burial

As more and more electronic musicians try to copy Burial’s unique blend of scratchy, fuzzy sounds overtop crisp beats, William Bevan himself is moving away from that. This record is perhaps the most upbeat sounding of any Burial album, but there are funerals that are more upbeat than some of Burial’s records. Among other samples on this record is an excerpt from Lana Wachowski’s speech receiving the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award last year. Indeed, there is an underlying theme of reflection of the rights and perception of the LGBT community on this record, and it’s a powerful quality for a record in a genre that isn’t known to be particularly profound.

The Bones of What You Believe — Chvrches

The much-anticipated debut album from Chvrches did not disappoint. The layered synths and driving beats create a comfortable atmosphere for Lauren Mayberry’s voice to play in, which are used not only straight but sampled and manipulated, creating some warm layered textures. A surprisingly humanistic electronic album.

The Next Day — David Bowie

What a fun little surprise this was. While it isn’t “Heroes” (despite the cover art) or “Low”, it’s a worthy addition to Bowie’s canon, coming a full ten years after his last record. There are aspects of this record which sound like the Bowie you know and love, but he’s still experimenting with sounds and genres twenty-four albums in. Standouts include the sympathetic “Valentine’s Day” (written from the perspective of a mass shooter) and album closer “Heat”.

Settle — Disclosure

Who knew the best dance record of the year would begin with a vocal sample from Eric Thomas’ podcast? This is a dance record with heart and soul. Who knew that this would produce some of the catchiest, earwormiest songs of the year? This album’s full of that sort of stuff: there’s “Latch”, and “Defeated No More”, and the magnificent “Help Me Lost My Mind”. I love this record.

Days Are Gone — Haim

Three sisters and more genres than you can imagine: that’s “Days Are Gone” in a nut. Produced in part by Ariel Rechtshaid — also responsible for the 2013 offerings of Vampire Weekend and Sky Ferreira — the album bumps between the bluesy “The Wire”, the poppy “Falling”, and the noisy “My Song 5”. It doesn’t come across sounding like a compilation, though; everything sounds like it belongs together on this one album. It’s fabulous.

Chansons — Jill Barber

After 2008’s retro-cool “Chances”, it was perhaps inevitable for Jill Barber to release a French-language album which, almost certainly intentionally, channels Édith Pìaf. That’s not a knock: “Chansons” sounds effectively timeless. It’s as retro-fuzzy as a photo taken with a film camera, and — when paired with Rainy Cafe — sounds exactly like sitting in a warm Parisian cafe. It’s delightful.

Immunity — Jon Hopkins

Usually, albums of the more electronic bent tend to feel cold and distant. This year, though, there’s something of a theme with the electronic offerings: Burial, Chvrches, Disclosure, and Jon Hopkins all delivered records full of warmth and humanity. Hopkins has created an album of several pieces of roughly ten minutes, bracketed by a few shorter ones. Each track eschews gloss and perfection for slightly fuzzier tones and analog synths, creating a sense of a more humane electronic record. He adds to this by creating a sense of space and depth through minimalism. I think this strategy worked brilliantly.

The 20/20 Experience — Justin Timberlake

Decades of pop, R&B, rock, and blues inspiration are condensed into a 21-song masterpiece split over two albums. “That Girl” and “Take Back the Night” evoke early Michael Jackson, while “Only When I Walk Away” sounds a bit like a White Stripes song, if the White Stripes played R&B. Big Timbaland beats contrast with Timberlake’s smooth voice through a series of intricate and sundry musical movements. “20/20” is a breathtaking achievement in pop music. It’s too bad the second part doesn’t live up to the standard set by the first.

Yeezus — Kanye West

Barely a minute in, you’re made acutely aware that this is a Kanye record, as he rhymes “park the Benz” with “Parkinsons”. But this isn’t like any Kanye record before: this is high-test, wired, concentrated, and barely-contained Yeezy. If you don’t think “Black Skinhead”, “Bound 2”, and “Blood on the Leaves” — which, bravely, samples the painful Nina Simone classic “Strange Fruit” for a track about balancing personal relationships — are three of the best songs of the year, I don’t know what to tell you. And no matter how ridiculous the infamous “croissants” line is, it’s still a hundred times better than the lazy mess from his mentor.

Wakin on a Pretty Daze — Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile’s unique brand of rock was the perfect record for its springtime release. The album kicks off with a nearly ten-minute piece which feels tight, but also like an extended jam session. Much of the record feels similar: a tight jam with a bluesy undercurrent. It’s a beautiful little album which stretches Vile’s guitarist strengths while finding new pockets of musical intrigue. It’s all decidedly downtempo and blissfully relaxing.

If You Wait — London Grammar

London Grammar vocalist Hannah Reid wasn’t only featured on Disclosure’s “Help Me Lose My Mind”; the band released their debut record this year, too. And, let’s not beat around the bush here: Reid has a voice very reminiscent of Annie Lennox, or Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. Meanwhile Dot Major and Dan Rothman produce melodies which wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by The XX. But, while this may not be the single most creative assemblage, it is a very powerful one. The spacious sound and heavy use of reverb creates songs which sound as intimate as they do haunting.

Murray A. Lightburn’s MASS:LIGHT — Murray A. Lightburn

You probably know Murray Lightburn as the frontman of The Dears, painting haunting soundscapes with his alternately delicate and powerful voice, and his choice lyricisms. This year, he released a solo record using mainly electronic instrumentation, and it’s magnificent. The album kicks off with “Motherfuckers”, which is a pretty strong name for such a pop-sounding song; yet, its lyrics are as painful as you’d expect from Lightburn. This is an easy record to listen to while casually missing the poignancy of the lyrics, but you won’t be listening to this one just once. It’s the kind of thing you can leave on repeat and feel like you’re discovering it again and again.

mbv — My Bloody Valentine

The last time My Bloody Valentine released a new album, I was one year old. It was the spectacularly-received and highly-influential “Loveless”. With that kind of delay, the expectations for whatever My Bloody Valentine was cooking up were impossibly high. And, yet, “mbv” satisfied my wildest dreams. It’s the same sheer wall of distortion and sound that you’ve come to expect from My Bloody Valentine, but with over twenty years of practice has allowed the band to discover just what makes that so special. They’ve deconstructed it on songs like “Is This and Yes”, and built it back up on songs like “Wonder 2”. With “mbv”, the codifying shoegaze band reminds us why they’re so highly regarded. It’s weighty, but it’s worth the listen.

Trouble Will Find Me — The National

The National is the perfect soundtrack to being inside by a fire with a book and a mug of coffee while snow lazily falls outside. That hasn’t changed since the release of “Alligator” in 2005, and it’s just as true four records and eight years later. “Trouble” doesn’t forge new paths, but it continues The National’s sublime trajectory. Unfortunately, that means there’s not a lot to say about this one in particular, aside from that if you enjoyed previous albums by the band, you’ll dig this one. Heck, I think you’ll like it regardless of your familiarity with The National.

Hesitation Marks — Nine Inch Nails

Both Trent Reznor and Marshall Mathers — you know, Eminem — released new records this year inspired by previous works considered to be their best: “The Downward Spiral” begat “Hesitation Marks”, and “The Marshall Mathers LP” begat “The Marshall Mathers LP 2”. But, while Eminem did his best to emulate his 28 year-old self as a 41 year-old man and fell on his face doing so, Reznor chose to reflect on the changes in his life in the 19 years since releasing “Spiral”. Usually, “mature” would be a euphemistic way of saying a record is boring — not here, though. “Hesitation Marks” swaps heavy guitar and screamed vocals for synths and quiet viciousness. It’s a new direction in the Nine Inch Nails canon, but one that can proudly stand beside “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile” as one of the very best.

More Light — Primal Scream

I’ve only picked up a few Primal Scream albums over the years, but the band has created a body of work that varies in both style and quality. “More Light”, though, is an outstanding record. On opening track “2013”, Bobby Gillespie mourns and moans about what he views as a contemporary dystopia. But rather than shout about it, Gillespie sounds more like he just wants you to be aware. It’s a mellow record, but not one without a point to make. It takes some of the psychedelic tendencies Primal Scream is known for and updates them for 2013 (the year, not just the song). It makes for a multifaceted, colourful, and enjoyable listen.

…Like Clockwork — Queens of the Stone Age

Rock star becomes extremely ill, slips into severe depression, and writes a record while emerging from that dark space. This kind of thing sounds pretty routine, but the resulting record from Josh Homme and crew is anything but. It’s more fragile than any previous Queens album, but it’s somehow more troubling because of how fragile it is. That’s not to say there aren’t any rockers on here — “My God is the Sun” and “Fairweather Friends” fill that role nicely — but there are more experimental avenues paved by Queens. The title track is a little reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but in Homme’s decidedly robotic interpretation. Meanwhile, the record offers a plethora of collaborators, from Trent Reznor to Elton John, and frequent friend of the band Mark Lanegan. Even UNKLE’s James Lavelle makes an appearance. It’s funky, dangerous, heavy, and often delicate. It’s excellent.

Woman — Rhye

“Woman” is a deeply mysterious album which somehow manages to feel comfortable and close. Don’t be fooled by its comfortable R&B beats or its sensuous-sounding vocals: it’s much more complex than that sounds on the surface. After all, it’s called “Woman”, not “Chick”. Its creators are fiercely opposed to the oversexualization of pop music, and despite this record likely becoming the bedroom soundtrack of choice for some this year. Despite this apparent contradiction, vocalist Mike Milosh (oh, yeah, he’s a dude) has a voice so smooth and welcoming that it becomes an album that envelops the listener.

More Is Than Isn’t — RJD2

I’m putting this on here for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s one of the most fun- and joyous-sounding records released this year. The instrumentation is all over the place. On some songs, it sounds like it’s going to unfold into a nu-jazz record, while others sound like they were cribbed from the playbooks of Girl Talk or DJ Shadow. The second reason it’s on my list, though, is because it’s one of the best-mastered records of the year. Frequent readers of Pixel Envy will know my disdain for poorly-mastered albums which clip and distort, but RJD2 proves that this simply isn’t necessary for a powerful-sounding album. It’s punchy, it’s catchy, it’s a little sexy, and it’s just plain fun.

Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels

So you’ve got El-P and you’ve got Killer Mike. El-P produced Killer Mike’s sixth studio album, while Killer Mike guested on a track by El-P. And, so, it was natural that they’d collaborate on a full-length album and, I suppose, it’s natural that such a collaboration would be phenomenal. The duo’s vocal technique is the star of the show here: with rapid-fire, aggressive delivery, it’s hip hop that sounds vital, like they’re both fighting to be heard rather than being content that they will be. The production is top-notch as well: the beats are layered, but they don’t sacrifice catchiness with their complexity. This isn’t background music, and it has no aim to be; it’s wholly at the forefront, as it should be.

Modern Vampires of the City — Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend is a band made of an array of contradictions. They make music which sounds contemporary, but which also evokes times’ past; they’re from New York, but most of their music is reggae- and African-inspired. And that’s inspired its own contradiction on my end: that sort of thing usually sounds like a recipe for disaster (Sting and the Police, I’m looking at you), but I dig Vampire Weekend. On “Modern Vampires”, though, they give up most of their African influences for more American South stuff: organs and upright pianos, especially. Despite these stylistic changes, Vampire Weekend are still as fun and as relevant as ever. With regard to the latter, the lyrical choices are much more mature with geopolitical and introspective themes. There’s a reason why this is regarded to be one of the best records of the year by major music publications.

“Runners Up”

These are albums which I enjoyed, but for whatever reason didn’t think were my favourites, as set by the standard above. They’re really great albums, though, and I recommend them all the same.

The Worst Album of the Year

I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s the elephant in the room: what was my least favourite record this year?

It’s a difficult question. Lil’ Wayne is running out of ways to talk about how much he enjoys getting inebriated and fellatiated, while Will.I.Am’s “#willpower” clutched on to every desperate trend he could find (there’s a fucking hashtag in the title!). But, then, you’d probably expect both of those to be terrible.

This is true, too, for the records released this year by Bon Jovi, OneRepublic, Fall Out Boy, One Direction, Miley Cyrus, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, all of which produced an indistinguishable miasma of mediocrity. It wasn’t so much that their records were bad; rather, it’s that they were anodyne, uninspired, and clearly built to produce income before art.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is a good candidate for this, as it blurred the lines between risqué and sexist — and possibly heinous — but there are other parts of that record where he displays clear talent as a vocalist. While I wish his lyrics represented a better human being, the music isn’t completely banal.

No, the worst record of the year is one which had understandably high expectations, but failed to come even close to delivering: Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail”.

There’s the title: Magna Carta, the long-superseded but highly-influential original document of modern law, and Holy Grail, the legendary serving dish referenced in Arthurian literature. Those aspects signify that this will be a crucially important album.

Then there’s the teaser video, which promised the very highest production values, and a theme:

The album is about this duality of ‘how do you navigate your way through this whole thing?’, you know: through success, through failures, through all of it … and remain yourself.

Extremely promising, then.

You can imagine my disappointment at finding the resulting record to be weak sauce. It’s dull, it’s uninspired, it’s overlong, and the only reason it charted so well is because a million copies were given away. There are precisely three good songs on the album: “Tom Ford”, “Oceans”, and “BBC”. Everything else is perfunctory.

Even “Holy Grail”, the album opener, begins on a dreary note. The first time you hear Jay-Z, it’s a minute into the track and his opening lines sound like they were written after losing a bet. The album is entirely that lazy. Nearly every song is a rehash of previous themes, where Jay namechecks modern artists, his drug dealing days, and his watch collection. I understand the braggadocio attitude of his contemporary albums — he’s half of a couple that rakes in a hundred million dollars a year — but it seems exceedingly indolent, as if he played a Jay-Z Mad Lib game to write the lyrics.

I rarely feel that way when listening to a Jay-Z record; “Reasonable Doubt” and “The Blueprint” are among my favourite albums of all time. But this attempt is insipid beyond anything he’s released prior, especially going up against his protégé’s “Yeezus”. It’s the worst album of the year.