Halfway through 2013, we’ve come to an interesting impasse: moreso than the last several years, the music of this year has been largely awesome. I don’t say this to suggest that I’m one of those curmudgeonly sorts that thinks new music blows; it’s just, we’ve been in a bit of a lull. Much of 2012 was boring on the album front, and 2011 was only marginally better.
And yet, here we are at unlucky ’13, and I’ve already doled out more ‘A’s than the previous two years combined. The second half of the year has massive shoes to fill, but I like to think that music critics are going to find their year’s-end lists more hotly contested than usual. Until then, though, here’s a taste of what’s been floating my boat thus far.
HONORABLE MENTION: Kanye West, Yeezus. Mr. West’s latest masterpiece (maybe) is a grower, maybe, although those thundering drums and distorted vocals surely demand attention now. It’s beautifully repulsive. It’s primal, and intricate. I’m not quite sure what I think about Yeezus yet, although it’s made quite the impression; I just know that it deserves some recognition for being one of the most abrasive album-length statements to ever come from an artist of Kanye’s popularity. It might be my #1 at years’ end, but for now, we’ll just let it stew, and see how that works out.
10. Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God. My Morning Jacket frontman goes solo, creates perfectly acceptable alternative to those days when you wear out your My Morning Jacket albums; I officially want to wake up to “New Life” every morning. (full review)
9. Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost*. Iron & Wine undergo artistic reinvention, miraculously manage to still be awesome even as they sound completely different from the Iron & Wine we loved when that was just a fancy name for Sam Beam playing the guitar by your bed, singing you death-rattle folk songs to lull you to sleep; Iron & Wine 2.0 is groovier, and with more horns, and it works really, really well. (full review)
8. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. If this album isn’t part of every party you throw this year, I’m not sure you understand the concept of parties. (full review)
7. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience. It’s my list, not yours. (full review)
6. Ghostface Killah, Twelve Reasons to Die. Almost certainly the hip-hop album of the year thus far, Ghostface takes hip-hop to the grindhouse and brings it back grimy and bloodied; in the meantime, producer Adrian Younge emerges as a fine talent, capable of cobbling together ambiance from score sweeps and melodrama. (full review)
5. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse. My #1 album of the year, tied with a bunch of others? That’s probably closer to the truth than Frightened Rabbit scoring #5 of the year, but I did my best to rank an intensely qualitative and remarkably brilliant top 5. A stellar return to form for FR, eviscerating and catchy and mournful and hopeful at once; I say “return to form” because it’s full-on great, just like The Midnight Organ Fight, where last record The Winter of Mixed Drinks was merely really, really good. Ah, the perils of artistry. (full review)
4. Dawes, Stories Don’t End. Seriously, this band has to be from another era. The tunes, the harmonies, the purity of the writing, those crisp melodies that sound plucked from a magical song-tree? Music just isn’t this instantly timeless, is it? (full review)
3. Mikal Cronin, MCII. Perhaps the best album of sunny guitar-pop you skipped this year; you’ve got six months to familiarize yourself with these songs, although given Cronin’s way with a hook, you’ll scarcely need six days. (full review)
2. Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart. I understand that the title sounds like some douchebag’s idea for a cool tattoo. (“It’s ’cause, you know, music is pretty much… like, expression of self.”) Doesn’t matter: Turner’s record is enthusiastic, insanely tuneful, deeply felt, and pretty much perfect. There’s not a person alive who doesn’t owe this record to themselves. (full review)
1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Finally delivering on the promise of their self-titled debut, VW return with a vivid release that explores their textures, influences, and innovations in fluid, vivacious depth. Perhaps their best record yet? (full review)
So that’s what I’ve got so far, kiddos. We’ll see what happens the rest of the year — until then, bone up on these records, or maybe just listen to “Blurred Lines” a whole bunch. (I know, I know — I’m addicted to it too.)
* See also Phosphorescent’s exceptional Muchacho, which, like Iron & Wine’s record, introduces a pinwheeling grooviness to an act previously known for skeletal, haunting folk songs. It would be on this list, except I forgot about it until after I ordered the top 10 and I was pretty married to it. I’ve got half a year to fix this, no worries.