So… It took almost two months, but here’s the second half of my Top 10 2013 Albums list, just slightly behind schedule. (I suppose moving into a new house with a pregnant wife in her third trimester played a part in that.)
In any case, this half of the list will have more of what you’re probably expecting to see, but again, I did my part to uncover some albums that may have gotten lost in the fold.
5. AM, Arctic Monkeys – key track: “R U Mine?”
The Arctic Monkeys have grown quite a bit as a band, and their maturation has taken them to some really fascinating places: from the raw brashness of their debut, Whatever to People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, to the stoner grime of the Josh Homme-produced Humbug. Through it all, the band has made a name for itself by being surprisingly and refreshingly consistent. In seven years together, they’ve released five albums, each offering new developments and unique charms. In retrospect, each of their albums feels like a pit stop on the road to AM, their most accomplished album to date, a flawlessly produced collection of indie anthems that incorporates the bombast of hip-hop beats and the resonance of late-night comedown R&B.
Aside from the uniqueness of Alex Turner’s croon, there’s scarcely anything here that resembles the band that dropped “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” back in 2006. And I think that’s much of the point here. They sound different, they look different (having adopted the sophistication of a GQ catalogue), and they speak different. Where early albums found Turner looking for the cheap thrills of young excess, AM finds him confronted with the harsh light of reality (as harsh as it can be when you’re young, famous, and rich). The brashness has faded into a confused second-guessing, where the narrator of these tracks finds himself pleading for what he wants. It’s fascinating to hear the arrogance of early, raw Arctic Monkeys be replaced with doubt and fragility, especially on such an accomplished and tightly executed album. In this way, through nearly a decade of development, the Arctic Monkeys have found an incarnation to which we can relate.
4. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend – key track: “Step”
For reasons both irrational and somewhat justifiable, Vampire Weekend is a band I don’t want to like. I don’t really find them charming, I often hate the way they dress, and I can’t bring myself to take many of Ezra Koenig’s lyrical references seriously. But the minute I hear one of their songs, I just can’t help myself. I become a goofy, smiling reprisal of Steve Martin’s discovery of rhythm in The Jerk. Nearly everything they do is just so damn catchy. And with few exceptions – some of the auto-tune experimentation here slips into annoying distraction – Modern Vampires of the City is their most enjoyable album yet.
There’s some deep stuff in here, too. Koenig describes the woes of post-debauchery mornings with flair, particularly on the fantastic opener “Obvious Bicycle,” but it’s his wrestling with faith that grounds the album. His lyrics oscillate between nonchalant consignment to damnation (“Unbelievers”) and earnest questioning directed at an unknown higher power (“Ya Hey”). With Modern Vampires, the portrayal of doubt is refreshingly and accurately dynamic. The high points of Koenig’s characters never fly away from the fear of the unknown, and their lows never lose a stubborn defiance. In their own way, the band is expressing the spiritual fears and frustrations of the age, and somehow, they turn that angst into joy.
3. Harlem River, Kevin Morby – key track: “Miles Miles Miles”
I should confess that I’ve never heard much of Woods, the Brooklyn-based band for which Kevin Morby plays bass. Nor am I very familiar with much of The Babies’ output, most of which was written and sung by Morby. So when I first got a copy ofHarlem River, I had no idea what to expect, but it didn’t take long to get acquainted with Morby’s debut. From the opening track, the shimmering “Miles Miles Miles,” it’s apparent that Morby borrows heavily from his influences in obvious ways. There are very clear strokes of early electric Dylan (“Miles Miles Miles”), some Neil Young (“The Dead They Don’t Come Back”), and even a bit of Lou Reed (“Wild Side”).
It’s difficult at times to discern whether this album is more complex or simpler than it sounds, but in any case, it is certainly enjoyable. From the bouncing outlaw thump of “Reign” to the slow burn of the epic “Harlem River,” Morby traverses a wide range of styles and shifts over eight tracks of quiet folk. Like the body of water in its title, Morby’s Harlem River tells a story of calm waters and violent rapids, of peace and horror, each song a tale learned and worth remembering. But by the time the death’s door knocks come in on “The Dead They Don’t Come Back,” you get the sense that what Morby’s doing is actually warning us. The river goes on, carrying dead and alive cargo all the same.
2. Kveikur, Sigur Ros – key track: “Isjaki”
Though I am of the opinion that 2012’s Valtari was an underrated record, there’s no denying that upon its release, Sigur Ros seemed to be a band running out of ideas. There wasn’t much ground broken on the album’s eight tracks, and even though the band still delivered an expectedly beautiful record, the faint hint of formula was hard to dismiss. The pieces of that formula – the epic swells, Jonsi’s angelic vocals, the haunting melodies – sound just as fresh today as they did on 1999’s Agaetus Byrjun, but the band was ripe for a shakeup. I’m not sure anyone anticipated that it would come so soon.
Barely a year after the release of Valtari, Sigur Ros surprised everyone with Kveikur, an album the band – now a trio after the departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson – describes as heavier and “more aggressive” than anything they had done before. It’s an appropriate description, as it’s hard to imagine the same band that released 2002’s () creating songs like “Brennisteinn” and “Kveikur,” two of the new album’s heaviest hitters. But make no mistake. Though the songs punch with more velocity and the ambience is occasionally broken up by crashing objects and heavy distortion, this is still a Sigur Ros record. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, and like the band’s best material, there’s hope hidden behind its darkest turns. Kveikur is an incredible experience, that rare album that deserves to be heard as a whole, and any compiler of 2013’s best works would be silly to leave it out.
1. Trouble Will Find Me, The National – key track: “Graceless”
Of all the albums on this list, none cast a shadow as big as The National’s Trouble Will Find Me. Thirteen years and six albums into their career, The National have developed a style all their own, equal parts brooding melancholy and subtle, defiant hope. That Trouble might only be their fourth best album is a testament to the band’s relentless consistency, a product of their ceaseless work ethic and the genuine joy they seem to get from creating music together. Even without the stories of how difficult 2011’s High Violet was to complete, you get the sense that Trouble was a blast for the band to make. The weird time signature of the opener (“I Should Live in Salt”), the deadpan delivery of lines like “I was in guns and noses” (“Humiliation”), the video for “Sea of Love” – The National are clearly having fun this go around, which might come as a surprise given the gloominess they’re often associated with.
To be fair, that sadness still comes through on tracks like “I Need My Girl” and “Pink Rabbits,” but as with all National albums, the sorrow never travels far from faith. “I’m not alone,” Berninger defiantly proclaims on album highlight “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” “I’ll never be.” It’s a complicated balance the band strikes, in the blurry gulf between sadness and hope, and it’s often difficult to tell if the narrators of Berninger’s songs are truly confident or simply lying to themselves. In the album’s closing moments, Matt Berninger sings “You can all just kiss off into the air,” but it isn’t so much a victorious shout as much as it is a resigned exhale, an expression that should feel familiar to anybody listening. As they hit their stride with Trouble Will Find Me, The National have found us as they’ve found themselves.