Best CDs of 2013, According to an Old Guy Who Bought Seven

Wesley Stace, Self-Titled

This man deserves to be selling zillions more albums. Someone see to it.

It’s that time of year again! The last time I summarized my year in music purchases, it was slightly longer than this year’s list, only because I bought a 2012 reissue that merited inclusion. I don’t limit myself to a maximum of seven CDs per year; the identical count is coincidental. Blame the music industry for largely boring or alienating me nowadays. As you can imagine, local commercial radio is no help.

The following, then, comprises every CD I acquired in 2013 that was also released in 2013. Back-catalog materials are forbidden from inclusion, though allow me to express in this singular clause that I wish I’d gotten Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Live at Hollywood High much, much sooner.

On with the countdown, then — from least best to surprising favorite:

7. Childish Gambino, Because the Internet. The only other rap album I bought in the last five years was Donald Glover’s 2011 pseudonymous debut Camp — a killer mix of scathing satire and autobiography, laced with pop-culture references as cutting descriptors rather than random gags. Harsh language isn’t my thing anymore, but the Community-clever snark and wounded candor rose above. His sophomore effort, on the other hand, is a hodgepodge of half-finished tracks, electronic hooks in search of lyrics to stick to, verses that lead nowhere, Bone Thugs speed-rap for listeners who love rhyming words but hate complete sentences, and a general impenetrability that strings a velvet rope in front of us intruders who don’t Get It.

Sample track: The obligatory NSFW single “3005“, in which he sounds defensive about his insecurities and comforts himself with in-jokes. Or something. But it’s more or less a complete song in music-class terms. Points for English class completeness, I suppose.

6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito. I’m always up for noise-pop in a Sonic Youth vein, but their fourth album never earwormed its way into my nervous system as its predecessors did. Karen O sounds as fierce as ever, and yet I feel guilty for thinking of guitarist Nick Zinner as the band’s real winner here. To my own irritation, every time I pop the disc in, my minds disconnects and wanders off for the next half-hour when the gospel choir kicks in on “Sacrilege”. Gratuitous gospel choirs always remind me of the excesses of Rattle and Hum. I can imagine Karen O in 2024 sniping at a packed, restless arena, “Am I buggin’ ya? I didn’t mean to bug ya.”

Sample track:Area 52“, a passionate demand for alien abduction with wondrously discordant, sci-fi guitar-noodling.

5. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots. I lost track: this is, what, their 75th album in 25 years? Quirky, whimsical, diversified, effervescent — the TMBG standard has become so reliable over the decades that it’s tough to chart if or when any real progress or mediocrity sneak into the mix. However, their decision to load up the second half with ten-second song snippets feels less like unbridled creativity and more like padding. Collecting 20-odd chorus fragments into a single track was a clever novelty the first time they tried it as “Fingertips” back in ’92, but the reuse of that gag feels like outtakes posing as content.

Sample track:Stone Cold Coup d’Etat“, because I’m sucker for any tune where the two Johns allow Dan Miller to rock out and join in on backup vocals.

4. Grant Hart, The Argument. Insert obligatory use of the phrase “former member of Hüsker Dü” that must accompany any paragraph written about the singer/drummer/songwriter who was a powerhouse in his own right but so often overshadowed by bandmate Bob Mould. Eclectic yet far from prolific, Hart aims for anything but commerce with this concept album that’s essentially an off-off-off-Broadway adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, complete with liner-notes libretto that spells out the narrative. As with his past solo efforts, Hart plays nearly all the instruments (save a couple of bass-guitarist guests) with little concern for studio wizardry, allowing for some rough-sounding unvarnished moments, though the 30-year-plus rock veteran still knows a thing or two about primal hummability. Few of today’s big stars would dare toy around with old-fashioned organs, harmonica, and whistling. Best of all: there’s a Bible story buried in there!

Sample track: the catchy “It Isn’t Love“, in which an angel warns Adam about an approaching intruder whose facade may well spell doom for Eden. While the indie-rock drums trot along, relish the swirling retro organ that clearly doesn’t care if any youngsters buy this album or not.

3. Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks. Academy Award Winner Trent Reznor steps away from movie composing and returns to guitars and the occasional aggro-synth, albeit with the volume turned down to 8 and the screaming kept to a minimum because he’s now 48 and isn’t as incensed at The Machine as he used to be. Still louder than an angry Depeche Mode, but closer at times to the Cure than to Ministry. Who knew any of the old industrial-rock maestros would age gracefully?

Sample track: The shiny, happy “Everything“, in which you can just barely make out the sound of Reznor trying a smile on for size.

2. Wesley Stace, Self-Titled. The artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding has written novels under real name, but this is his first time doing the same for his long-standing folk-rock career. Neither graying hair nor an all-acoustic setting take the edge off his wit, which covers a range of broken-heart vantage points — hopeless junkie crushes (“The Dealer’s Daughter”), wistful Manhattan memories (“We Will Always Have New York”), acting auditions as metaphor for a failed relationship (“Wrong for the Part”), and the occasional moments of joy in between low points (“The Wrong Tree”). Par for the course for our Wes, all told.

Sample track:The Woman” (ignoring the typo in the YouTube title), a solo paean from a detective narrator to a devious special gal named Irene. Frankly, I don’t know why this hasn’t gone viral among Sherlock fans.

1. Lorde, Pure Heroine. I trust you’ve heard of her. This feels like self-betrayal to purchase a top-40 product, let alone rank it this highly, become attached to it, and find merit in lyrics written by someone younger than my own son. Granted, a few numbers clearly aren’t meant for my demographic (“Tennis Court” sounds like unruly high-schoolers getting ready to rumble and in need of detention), but Lorde and collaborator Joel Little have all by themselves constructed the best DIY electropop symphony I’ve heard in years. Winning me over was no mean feat considering my first few listens to “Royals” had me writing her off as Kid Adele. Eventually her stylings began to lodge themselves in my head and kept looping and looping and looping in there for days on end, and not in an accursed “Friday” kind of way. In my scorebook it helps immeasurably that Lorde is a rarity in today’s environment as a performer who’s emphatically not trying to sell me sex first and music second. Much appreciated.

Sample track: You’ve already heard “Royals” to death and maybe watched her try to hypnotize you in “Tennis Court”, so let’s go with “Team“, a can’t-we-all-just-get-along negotiation attempt with the kids back home in New Zealand who hopefully aren’t mocking her fame or labeling her a sellout.

So, 2013, then. See you next year!

5 responses

    • I’ve been going back and forth over this in my mind and trying to come up with some kind of improved defense that makes sense outside my own head. Funny thing is, I’ve seen a couple of other writers hitting the same snag — i.e., adding Lorde to their best-of list while seemingly incapable of explaining exactly why. Weird, but there it is.


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