The 50 Best Albums of 2013
Even in this playlist-oriented era, hundreds of thousands of albums still get released every year. A very ambitious blogger can hear bits and pieces of a few thousand of them, less than one percent of the total. A very, very ambitious blogger can hear, at best, maybe ten percent of that small sample all the way through, at least enough to get the gist of what those albums are about. So consider this list a celebration of good music released in 2013 or thereabouts rather than anything definitive, the sheer volume of what’s available reducing the possibility of a truly definitive list to a pipe dream. Since this is a New York-centric blog, this is a New York-centric list. Because New York Music Daily focuses mainly on rock, this list doesn’t include the many brilliant jazz, classical and avant garde albums released over the past year.
Every year, there are about a couple dozen new albums that rate as genuine classics. But trying to rank them in numerical order is a thankless task. Balkan brass or Nashville gothic? Blazing circus rock or dreamy guitar nocturnes? Depends on what mood you’re in, right? And as much as the artists who make the top ten love lists like this, artists who end up toward the bottom hate it. Who wants to be the #69 artist of 2013? Nobody. So this year, there’s no numerical ranking other than an attempt to lump the first couple dozen very best releases toward the top, roughly in order of when they were reviewed here, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with official release dates. To be clear: the stuff at the bottom of the page isn’t there because it’s the ass end of the list, it’s there because it got written up here in December instead of, say, April.
Virtually all of these albums can be heard in their entirety online and many can be downloaded for free: links to all of them are included here, so you might want to bookmark this page and spend some time with them.
Much as there isn’t any numerical ranking here, there’s one artist who achieved something that no other artist did this year and that’s why Avi Fox-Rosen tops the list for 2013. The eclectic rocker released a new album every month this year and the only one of the twelve that wasn’t excellent was all covers rather than original material. Otherwise, his other eleven thematic collections tackled topics ranging from money, to stupidity (April’s album, the best of the bunch), to existential angst, family dysfunction and rockstar narcissism. Fox-Rosen has an encyclopedic grasp of a vast range of styles, including but not limited to oldschool soul, circus rock, noir cabaret, folk-rock, vintage disco and metal. Many of these songs are parodies of those genres and others, and they are hilarious, especially the “classic rock” and top 40 spoofs. They’re all streaming here.
And here’s the rest. What a great year this was for music: enjoy!
Ward White – Bob
A menacing, nonlinear narrative done as a long suite rather than a collection of songs, in which at least one person and probably several people get killed. Part art-rock, part chamber pop, with White’s signature, corrosively literate lyricism, like a Russell Banks novel come to life in music. Like Fox-Rosen, White is a great guitarist who can play pretty much anything in any style ever invented.
The Brooklyn What– Hot Wine
The third album by NYC’s most consistently exciting rock band – if you count their excellent South Brooklyn Singles collection as an album – mixes punk, soul, doo-wop, indie noise, pensive jangle and a wildly surreal one by their late, great bandmate Billy Cohen. Frontman Jamie Frey is confrontational and often hilarious, as always, but this is the album where the twin guitar attack of Evan O’Donnell and John-Severin Napolillo really crystallizes as one of the alltime great NYC rock guitar lineups.
The Snow– Disaster Is Your Mistress
The first of two Pierre de Gaillande projects here is the most recent album by his lush art-rock band. Lavishly produced with strings, winds, layes of keys and guitars, no verse or chorus is identical, and de Gaillande and co-bandleader Hilary Downes’ songwriting and vocals are sharp and intense.
Hannah vs.the Many– Ghost Stories
If it wasn’t so short – five songs – and if Avi Fox-Rosen hadn’t decided to make 2013 his big year, this album would be at the top of the list. Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s searing, literate lyrics and fearsome wail make this mix of savage cabaret-punk and smoldering, torchy songcraft the best ep of 2013.
Mild Mannered Rebel– Ear to the Sky
On which oud virtuoso Mavrothi Kontanis picks up his guitar and collection of lutes and plays fiery, Greek and Middle Eastern-flavored psychedelic rock with sharp, often vengeful lyrics. Kontanis’ vocals turn out to be as strong and eclectic as his fretwork.
Richard Thompson– Electric
The guy who might be the greatest rock guitarist of all time, AND the greatest rock songwriter of all time continues to reinvent himself. This is a power trio album with his characteristic brooding, intense Britfolk-influenced tunesmithing and snarling lyrics.
Serena Jost– A Bird Will Sing
An art-rock masterpiece from the cellist/bandleader/chanteuse who might be this century’s counterpart to Jeff Lynne, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist with equal prowess at blending classic pop tunes with lush, achingly beautiful classically-tinged arrangements.
Kotorino – Better Than This
The Brooklyn band’s first album was surreal chamber pop with a brooding noir edge. Their follow-up is a boisterous, creepily carnivalesque circus rock album with lush four-part vocal harmonies, strings, brass and frontman Jeff Morris’ persistently menacing songwriting.
The Frank Flight Band – Remains
The British psychedelic rockers may have released it this year, but this sounds like a lost classic from the 70s, a ferocious collection of symbolically-charged, death-obsessed epics with sweeping keyboard orchestration and some of the tastiest lead guitar in recent memory.
Beninghove’s Hangmen – Rattlesnake Chopper
Saxophonist/bandleader Bryan Beninghove made his mark in jazz and film music, but he’s unsurpassed at noir surf music. No one else put out a darker or creepier rock instrumental album this year.
Mud Blood & Beer– The Sweet Life
A glorious, guitar-fueled throwback to the days of classic 80s paisley underground bands like the Dream Syndicate, True West and Green on Red. Jon Glover and Jess Hoeffner’s twin guitar sorcery is as intense as it is psychedelic.
Salaam– Train to Basra
Indiana-based violist/multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar’s Middle Eastern band’s gorgeously haunting tenth album mixes up slinky levantine vamps, a darkly vivid Bollywood theme and finds the missing link between Chicago blues and Iraq.
Raya Brass Band– This Train Is Now
Their previous album, which also ranked among the year’s best here last year, was mostly traditional material. This is mostly originals, reaffirming that a band from Brooklyn can write and play Balkan music as fast, and furiously, and intensely as anyone in Serbia.
Black Sea Hotel -The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying
The Brooklyn a-cappella trio reinvent otherworldly Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs with radical new arrangements.
Eva Salina – Eva Salina Solo
With just her meticulously nuanced vocals and accordion, the Balkan chanteuse proves to be just as haunting as the previous group on this list, airing out a mix of traditional Romany and southern Balkan material.
Sarah Alden – Fists of Violets
Since most of the band is on it, the brilliant, eclectic violinist’s latest release is sort of the new Luminescent Orchestrii album, a mix of classic Appalachian and Balkan tunes plus original western swing and torch songs.
The Lost Patrol– Driven
Darkly cinematic surf rock instrumentals and echoey, luridly reverb-driven, Lynchian rock featuring frontwoman Mollie Israel’s haunting, alluring vocals.
The Tea Club– Quickly Quickly Quickly
Epically shapeshifting psychedelic art-rock epics with a sweepingly tuneful surrealism evocative of vintage Genesis, Nektar and prime-era Pink Floyd from this New Jersey band.
Matthew Grimm– Songs in the Key of Your Face
The Stephen Colbert of heartland rock returns with his third solo album, a mix of characteristically hilarious, socially aware and occasionally haunting powerpop and Americana rock anthems.
Pete Galub – Candy Tears
A psychedelic powerpop classic to rival anything Big Star or the Raspberries ever did, with more vigorous, eclectically excellent, richly produced layers of guitars than either of those bands.
Pierre de Gaillande– Bad Reputation, Volume 2
The Snow frontman’s second collection of his artful, spot-on original English translations of songs by legendary proto-punk French cult songwriter Georges Brassens is just as funny, savagely lyrical and elegantly rearranged as the first one.
Robin O’Brien – Dive into the End of the World
The first collection of all-new material in several years from the cassette underground cult heroine finds her hauntingly mining noir folk, soul and chamber pop, tersely yet lushly produced by Luxtone Records’ George Reisch; Kevin Salem adds a biting guitar edge on several tracks.
The Balkan Arts reissues
Field recordings played by unsung local musicians from across the Balkans, originally released as vinyl singles and ep’s (which are still in stock!) in the 1960s by the predecessor organization to New York’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance. These obscure treasures, newly digitized and reissued, comprise a sort of Eastern European counterpart to the Harry Smith album.
The Brasslands soundtrack
Sizzling new Balkan brass tracks from Dejan Petrovic, Demiran Cerminovic, Slavic Soul Party, Zlatne Uste, Raya Brass Band, Veveritse Brass Band from the indie documentary.
Valerie Kuehne – Phoenix Goes Crazy
A characteristically diverse mix of punk classical, parodies of the High Romantic and classical lieder and a couple of surrealistically sinister narratives from the irrepressible cellist/composer/impresario.
Lee Feldman– Album No. 4: Trying To Put The Things Together That Never Been Together Before
A hauntingly thematic contemplation of the perils of getting old, from the chamber pop songwriter/pianist and creator of the surrealist cult classic musical Starboy.
Kagero – Gumbo du Jour
The Japanese-American Romany-punk band make the missing connection between oldtimey swing and Gogol Bordello, with characteristic black humor and high-voltage, danceable tunes.
Mike Rimbaud– Night Rainbow
Few other songwriters have chronicled New York as savagely and insightfully as this Elvis Costello-esque, psychedelically inclined guitarist and rocker; it’s arguably his best album ever.
Low – The Invisible Way
Yet another gorgeous, harmony-infused, sardonically lyrical album by a band that was pioneering chamber pop and dark Americana back when most of those bands were still in diapers.
Chicha Libre– Cuatro Tigres
That this Brooklyn group would be revered in Peru as being one of the alltime greatest bands in the world of chicha – psychedelic Peruvian surf rock – attests to their cred. This wryly entertaining covers ep includes songs by the Clash, Love and also the version of the Simpsons theme that the band recorded for the show’s 20th anniversary special.
Dawn Oberg– Rye
Darkly bluesy, jazz and gospel-tinged piano-based chamber pop and art-rock from the eclectic, wickedly lyrical Bay Area tunesmith/chanteuse.
Lily Henley– Words Like Yours
A bracing mix of Sephardic, Balkan and Appalachian music from the eclectic violinist and her inspired acoustic band.
Wooden Indian Burial Ground– s/t
Long, creepily psychedelic noir surf rock and punk blues jams from this menacing Portland instrumental rock crew.
Guided by Voices– English Little League
The iconic indie rockers saved the best for last, with their fourth release in the previous twelve months, a droll, bitingly witty mix of Britrock, psychedelia, catchy powerpop and confoundingly weird miniatures, i.e. classic GBV.
Linda Draper– Edgewise
The seventh album by the lyrically intense acoustic tunesmith finds her amping up the guitars and going deeper into dark Americana than ever before, richly produced by guitarist Matt Keating.
The Del-Lords – Elvis Club
Their first new album in twenty years reveals that the legendary roots rockers – pioneers of alt-country before alt-country existed – haven’t lost a step. And co-frontman/guitarist Eric Ambel’s rich, analog-style production gives them a deep, purist studio sound they never really got back when they were on big labels back in the 80s.
Willie Nile – American Ride
The king of the underground NYC powerpop anthem at the top of his sardonically lyrical, tunefully rich game, backed by a lush, hard-hitting, sympatico band.
The Handsome Family – Wilderness
Arguably the most noir of all of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ gleefully noir Americana albums, which they’ve been making since the 90s.
Tribecastan – New Songs from the Old Country
A return to the dizzyingly eclectic, psychedelic Central Asian/Balkan/Middle Eastern/tango-influenced original sounds that multi-instrumentalists Jeff Greene, John Kruth and their vast cast of accomplices worked on their debut album.
Tipsy Oxcart– Meet Tipsy Oxcart
Original and classic Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian sounds from this hard-hitting Brooklyn Balkan band with a rock rhythm section.
Nehedar – This Heart
Darkly lyrical, vocally gorgeous, eclectic tunesmithing that ranges from classic soul to neosoul, noir cabaret, Nashville gothic, garage rock and new wave.
The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries– debut album
Broodingly catchy, pensively guitar-driven songs from the vintage-era indie supergroup of Kahoots’ Elisha Wiesner, Shellac’s Bob Weston and Come’s Chris Brokaw.
Inna Barmash– Yiddish Lullabies and Love Songs
The frontwoman of sizzling Romany/Balkan party band Romashka pulled together a brilliant horn and string-driven band for haunting new arrangements of brilliant, obscure Jewish folk songs from the Ukraine and points further west.
Don Peris– The Old Century
Gently haunting, rustically cinematic blue-sky themes and nocturnal acoustic waltzes from the Innocence Mission guitarist.
Sharon Goldman– Silent Lessons
Metaphorically-charged, vividly lyrical, intense narratives from the brilliant acoustic pop tunesmith and singer.
Eidetic Seeing– Against Nature
A surreal, guitar-driven blend of stoner metal, psychedelia and noisy indie jangle from this edgy, uncategorizably tuneful Brooklyn band.
Sean Kershaw– The Aussie Sessions
Creepy, carnivalesque Nashville gothic, spaghetti western and highway rock sounds from the Brooklyn baritone crooner and leader of all-star country crew the New Jack Ramblers.
Band of Outsiders– Sound Beach Time
The CBGB-era psychedelic punk legends’ most epic, most darkly lyrical and possibly best album in a thirty-plus year career: Marc Jeffrey and Jim McCarthy’s intertwining, Television-esque guitars have never been more psychedelic or more tuneful.
The Bright Smoke– Virginia Et. Al.
Haunting, Joy Division-influenced noir blues and murky Americana from the powerful, brooding former frontwoman of dark NYC art-rockers the French Exit.