Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Musical Baker’s Dozen, Part II: The Top 13 Albums of 2013

We’ve arrived at the end of yet another year and my annual reflection on the music that made up the soundtrack of 2013. The past year in music could easily be summed up in a single word: Electronica. To this music lover’s ears, 2013 will be remembered as the year electronica matured and came fully into its own. It’s the year electronica ripened from an experimental musical medium to a mainstream genre, earning a deserved spot as a bona fide musical category. Some artists whose 2013 albums made my list – like James Blake, Jessie Ware, and the incomparable Alison Moyet – embraced the form completely, while several others used elements of electronica as accoutrement to augment the more traditional pop stylings of their albums. Whether artists used electronica as musical accessory or foundation, the music of 2013 was peppered with a decidedly electronic aesthetic.

Without further rumination, I offer up my list of 2013’s best albums – a baker’s dozen of the musical collections that resonated with me on the greatest levels.

13. Pet Shop Boys / Electric

Here’s what I like about Pet Shop Boys: Despite having been around long enough to easily coast into
a comfortable retirement, the electropop duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have stayed the course over the past three decades, creating albums that have never once lost the signature new wave synthpop sound that defined them. In 2013, they released their 12th album, ELECTRIC (continuing their long-running tradition of single-word album titles). This dance-floor focused set finds the duo in fine form, with their lyrical wit and undertones of longing once again marvelously married to the requisite synthesizer-generated pulsating beats. Dance music for smart people.

Standout Tracks: “Vocal” / “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” / “Thursday”

12. Cher / Closer to the Truth

Dismiss Cher all you want, but there is something to be said about an artist who releases her first studio album in over a decade only to have it become her highest-charting solo album in the U.S. to date. Yep, for as much as she’s become somewhat of a pop culture caricature, it’s hard to write-off the staying power of this 67-year-old with the distinctive contralto and penchant for Auto-Tune. CLOSER TO THE TRUTH, the iconic singer’s 25th studio album, finds the seemingly indefatigable songbird not straying too far from the anthemic dance-floor formula of 1998’s juggernaut BELIEVE or its 2001 follow-up, LIVING PROOF. But it’s on the mid-tempo tracks and slower numbers included here – like a stunning cover of Miley Cyrus’ “I Hope You Find It” – that we’re reminded that behind the glitzy Bob Mackie gowns and distracting plastic surgery and outrageously blunt Twitter outbursts that often eclipse Cher, the singer, there is a beautiful, breathtaking voice.

Standout Tracks: “Take It Like a Man” / “I Hope You Find It” / “Red” / “Favorite Scars”

11. The Neighbourhood / I Love You

Don’t let the decidedly British orthography of this American quintet’s name fool you – they’re about as LA as they come. Falling somewhere on the musical spectrum between Garbage and Foster the People, The Neighbourhood fuses lyrics full of petulant bitterness and angst-ridden melodrama and coats it with a thick, shiny pop-rock candy shell. The result is somewhat teen-leaning and shallow in terms of content, yet decidedly adult in terms of songcraft and production. An impressively mature, eclectic debut from a promising new band. 

Standout Tracks: “Sweater Weather” / “Female Robbery” / “How” / “Alleyways”

10. James Blake / Overgrown

This accessibly abstract exploration of space and sound is – on first listen – challenging to the casual musical ear. Majestically melancholic and moody, the deceptively sparse arrangements on OVERGROWN are layered one on top of the other like a ghostly blueprint, giving the album an undertone of restraint even when Blake’s warbling falsetto and muffled mumbles seem to drown in a cacophonic crescendo of electronic anarchy at times. The disarming minimalism of the songs here is punctuated – sometimes simultaneously – by icy mechanical clatters and lush caresses of the piano. Cold to the touch on first listen, the lyrically confessional tone of the tracks, coupled with Blake’s occasional vocal cracks and an almost unsettling silence between notes at times, imbue OVERGROWN with its ultimately satisfying emotional resonance. Contemplative and dreamlike, OVERGROWN needs to be musically absorbed versus consumed.

Standout Tracks: “Retrograde” / “Overgrown” / “Voyeur”

9. Lorde / Pure Heroine (Expanded)  

You’d had to have been living in a bubble to have missed the meteoric rise of this 17-year-old New Zealand pop prodigy in 2013. And in a year that saw other pop princesses behaving badly, it was refreshing to witness the unflappable self-assurance and mature demeanor of Miss Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor. Lorde became the first solo artist from New Zealand to top the domestic Billboard music chart, and the youngest artist to hold the number one chart position in the U.S. in more than 25 years with her inescapable breakout hit, “Royals”. With PURE HEROINE, her debut album that followed, Lorde proved she’d be no one-hit wonder. With obvious comparisons in vocal delivery to Lana Del Ray and Adele, Lorde sing-slurs over intoxicatingly stark electro-pop beats and sharp, thought-provoking lyrics that are devoid of sentimentalism and full of biting honesty. Her astute songwriting – coupled with Lorde’s wholly unique voice – gives the impressive collection an overall feeling of one big sarcastic, satirical wink. Treat yourself to the expanded edition of PURE HEROINE, which includes six additional tracks, most of which were culled from a previously released EP, THE LOVE CLUB.

Postscript: Producers of the HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE soundtrack wisely took advantage of Lorde’s widespread visibility and added her icily sublime cover of Tears For Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to their track listing. Well worth the download price and will fit perfectly at the end of your PURE HEROINE playlist.

Standout Tracks: “Tennis Court” / “White Teeth Teens” / “Million Dollar Bills”

8. London Grammar / If You Wait

At the forefront of this strikingly understated, self-possessed debut from UK trio London Grammar is the instantly memorable soprano of lead vocalist, Hannah Reid. Calling to mind Everything But The Girl and Florence + The Machine with a weighty huskiness and ethereal sophistication, she anchors this atmospheric pop-electronica collection with a maturity that belies her youth. Reid’s at times soaring, at times slurred vocals ground the lyrically plaintive songs with an aching earnestness that’s complimented to perfection by the subtle instrumentation provided by bandmates Dot Major and Dan Rothman.

Postscript: Reid was wisely plucked by electronica outfit Disclosure as a featured vocalist on their acclaimed 2013 album SETTLE for the stunning closer, “Help Me Lose My Mind”.

Standout Tracks: “Strong” / “Nightcall” / “Hey Now” / “Sights”

7. Alice Russell / To Dust

With TO DUST, the UK’s Alice Russell delivered the closest thing to a new Adele album listeners were likely to hear last year. Lurking just beyond the breakout successes of other female British soul singers of the last decade, Russell has inexplicably flown under the musical radars of most – and this is a crime. With hints of Dusty Springfield and Adele, Russell’s husky voice effortlessly envelops this collection of contemporary soul, the British soulstress' fifth solo album in a little under a decade. Like recent albums by contemporaries Emeli Sandé and the late Amy Winehouse, Russell’s TO DUST has a decidedly throwback feel that’s firmly embodied in a neo-soul freshness, leaving the songs with a retro vibe that never feels outdated.

Standout Tracks: “Hard and Strong” / “Heartbreaker” / “To Dust”

6. Tegan and Sara / Heartthrob

The indie pop-rock duo of Tegan Quin and Sara Quin – identical twin sisters, both lesbians, hailing from Canada – delivered the bounciest, most radio-friendly album of the year – and their career. HEARTTHROB, the sibling pair’s seventh studio album, is quintessential pop music, full of bright synthesizers and infectious choruses. Tegan and Sara throw down the power pop gauntlet on ten perfectly-crafted tracks ranging from breezy dance-pop anthems to bittersweet power ballads, whose retro 80’s grooves and dramatic walls of synths might just make you wax nostalgic for an old John Hughes flick like SIXTEEN CANDLES or PRETTY IN PINK.  But don’t let the spinning disco ball at the roller rink blind you to all the yearning and lamenting for loves lost and love gone wrong behind the lyrics. This is smart pop music, shrewdly crafted by two gifted singer-songwriters with deft ears for head-bopping melodies and the souls of poets who have loved, lost, and lived to tell about it. 

Standout Tracks: “I Was a Fool” / “Drove Me Wild” / “Closer” / “Shock to Your System”

5. Lady Gaga / ARTPOP

If Lady Gaga would just stop talking and making statements about…well, making statements, she’d likely not have suffered the rather brutal commercial backlash she did this year. ARTPOP will not, alas, be changing the world as we know it, nor was it a statement of epic proportion about much of anything. But it’s a damn fine pop album, filled with strong hooks, stronger beats, and luridly campy, Gaga-esque lyrics like: “Uranus! Don’t you know my ass is famous?” And a prediction: The record label will get smart and release “Gypsy” as a single – and it’ll be a huge hit for Lady G in 2014.

Standout Tracks: “Gypsy” / “MANiCURE” / “Fashion!” / “Do What U Want”

4. Sara Bareilles / The Blessed Unrest

On her fourth album, singer-songwriter Bareilles builds on the individual strengths of previous efforts to put forth her most stylistically serious and mature album to date. That she’s been recognized with some weighty Grammy nominations (including a nod in the prestigious Album of the Year category) is no surprise. From her inspirational battle cry on the booming anthem “Brave” to her more plaintive reflections on songs like “Manhattan” and “December”, Bareilles substitutes some of the trademark cheeriness of past endeavors for a more global sense of seriousness that adds some heft to THE BLESSED UNREST. Her songwriting acumen and keen ear for melody has only sharpened further on this superb collection of smart, humanistic pop.  

Standout Tracks: “Brave” / “I Choose You” / “Chasing the Sun” / “Little Black Dress”

3. Arcade Fire / Reflektor

For the follow-up to the decidedly linear rock approach taken with their Grammy-winning Album of the Year, THE SUBURBS, Arcade Fire did something illogically brilliant: They made an entirely different sounding album. The Canadian outfit’s fourth album is like a night out at the alt-rock discothèque – and if you think those terms incompatible, then you haven’t given REFLEKTOR a proper listen. In this 76-minute behemoth of a set, Arcade Fire lyrically and musically reconfigures the myth of Orpheus within thirteen propulsive, reverb-heavy tracks that are awash in bouncy synthesizers and fuzzy guitar licks in equal measure. The result is a spectacularly overblown masterpiece that eschews all pretense of subtlety for musical merrymaking that sounds positively symphonic at times.

Standout Tracks: “Reflektor” / “Porno” / “You Already Know” / “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”

2. Jessie Ware / Devotion

Why the UK’s Jessie Ware wasn’t a bigger breakout success in 2013 is beyond me. Hailed by ROLLING STONE as the missing link between Sade and Adele, Ware sings with a cool, sultry voice set against a slow-burning hybrid of pop, soul, and adult contemporary held surprisingly cohesive within a hypnotic electronica framework. Ware’s vocals are deceptively restrained on most of this chilled collection, but when her voice stretches from a breathy whisper to a muscular wail, the results are glorious. DEVOTION is an exquisitely sophisticated, understated affair on every level that only hints at Ware’s range and potential.

Standout Tracks: “Running” / “Imagine It Was Us” / “Swan Song” / “Devotion”

1. Alison Moyet / The Minutes

In her first solo album since 2007′s THE TURN, Moyet determinedly goes against market grains, shunning those clamoring for the 80’s nostalgia of her Yazoo days while politely flipping the middle finger to still others who would see her boxed in making covers albums with other female singers of a certain age.  Producer-programmer Guy Sigsworth – famed for his work with Madonna, Björk, Britney Spears, Alanis Morrisette, and Sweden’s Robyn – returns Moyet to the synth-heavy realm of earlier career efforts but never lets her slide into a full-blown nostalgia tour. The result is an album on which Moyet sounds as ageless as ever – yet relevant. Still boasting a singularly powerful voice full of depth and drama that’s complimented by trademark lyrics bursting with lush and poetic imagery, Moyet remains true to her artistic self while stretching her musical legs in a way that never seems forced despite the album’s youthful sonic wizardry. And although Sigsworth – who easily proves himself here to be Moyet’s musical soul mate – opts to surround the singer with jarring, jangling synthesizers, her voice is never lost within the – at times – bombastic electronic landscape. On “Horizon Flame”, the set’s opening track, she sings, “Suddenly the landscape has changed…” letting listeners know from the outset that THE MINUTES is both a welcome departure and return-of-sorts for the UK chanteuse.

Standout Tracks: “Changeling” / “Apple Kisses” / “Right As Rain” / “Remind Yourself”

Check out my list of favorite songs from 2013 here.

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