It's the time of the year: an avalanche of hyperbole and grasping at adjectives. I review approximately 200 albums a year; these 40 make it all worthwhile, and then some.
1. AroarA - In the Pines (Club Roll). I thought I had Andrew Whiteman figured out by now, having followed his musical career for the past 20 years. Nope. Once he disbanded Apostle of Hustle and Broken Social Scene went on hiatus, he married Ariel Engle, who appears to have turned his world on its head. Together, they dove into the poetry of Alice Notley; together, they set it to music; together they assembled and manipulated samples of old folk music, adding their own guitars and Engle’s commanding vocals. “I was born to be your poet,” she sings; it’s a line of Notley’s—as is everything here—but it could well be either partner singing to the other, giving birth to something so much more compelling and creative than the assembled parts. In the Pines is a 21st-century dialogue with the musical past, with lyrics drawn from a woman suffering from hepatitis C, a disease that spreads through infected blood. From that mortal situation, Whiteman and Engle transfuse Notley’s words into majestic, magical, melodic sonic creations that astound at every turn. Nothing else I heard in 2013 matched this level of invention, this element of surprise, this much inspiration. (Note: the complete album, now finally out on vinyl, was released in two digital installments: an five-song EP in the spring and nine more songs in August; iTunes still sells them both individually. Start with the EP.)
2. Jim Guthrie - Takes Time (Static Clang). After a 10-year retreat from making solo albums (spent largely writing soundtracks and jingles), Guthrie certainly does take his time. It’s worth it. That gap informs everything here: the attention to minute detail, the lyrical fixation on the passing of time, the musical maturity, the lush orchestration. It’s the difference a decade makes. Guthrie started out making small symphonies in his Guelph basement with whatever he could find; now 40, he’s made a perfect time-capsule album of classic pop music, autumnal in tone. Is it, as he asks, “The Sound of Wanting More”? He offers only a typically cryptic answer: “The Rest is Yet to Come.”
3. Veda Hille - Peter Panties (independent). Most people won’t get past the elevator pitch for this project: arty singer and pianist cowrites a musical version of Peter Pan with a playwright with Down syndrome, and performs it with a bunch of 15-year-old boys. Still with us? Good, because Peter Panties is not just the ultra-rare rock opera that clicks (probably the best since Hedwig), it’s 18 songs of less than three minutes each that have better melodies than Broadway has heard in at least the last 20 years. Despite the odd concept and appropriated pop culture references, Peter Panties is not just silly and fun, it has actual fist-pumping anthems and tender ballads. In a career as productive and varied as Veda Hille’s, it seems strange to elevate something called Peter Panties to the top of her discography. Until you hear it.
4. Pusha T - My Name is My Name (Universal). Like The Wire as a hip-hop musical, hardcore and harrowing in ways that Jay Z never was and never will be, Pusha T, formerly of The Clipse, details life in the crack game with electrifying delivery that’s every bit exciting as hearing top-notch producers (Kanye West, The-Dream, Pharrell Williams) delivering their best beats. The subject matter may be one-dimensional, but nothing else here is remotely so, least of all Pusha T’s rhymes and flow.
5. Lee Harvey Osmond - The Folk Sinner (Latent). Dim lights, minor keys, lonely harmonicas, rockabilly rhythms, lurching waltzes ghostly pedal steel guitars, luminescent vibraphones. It’s all tied together by the finest collection of roots rockers in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, led by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ Tom Wilson and the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins—the only one missing seems to be Daniel Lanois, though his spiritual presence is felt. As for Timmins, this might be the most satisfying album he’s been involved with since the Junkies’ Trinity Session—so when sister Margo shows up to duet on the closing track, “Deep Water,” it ties together the last 25 years of a roots music community dedicated strolling off the beaten path. (This review originally written for Exclaim's year-end roots list, where the album ranked #10.)
6. Hilotrons - At Least There's Commotion (Kelp). In fact, there was no commotion at all for this record—sadly, as bandleader Mike Dubue was ill before and after the release. Not that you’d know it from hearing his spirited vocals on this hectic, eclectic new wave rock record, driven by keyboards of all kinds; powerhouse drummer Philip Shaw Bova is the only other performer. Both production and performance are impeccable, and when Dubue squeals “I know he’s got the hooks!” on the opening track, he’s just warning you that an embarrassment of sonic and melodic riches is about to follow.
7. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (Columbia). In the late ’70s, prog rock and disco were contemporaries, yet mortal enemies—until Daft Punk brought them together. Absolutely no one makes million-dollar-budget music like this anymore, tailor-made for weddings and bar mitzvahs and yet focused entirely on the most technically advanced studio session players still around (some of them played on Thriller, for starters). Just as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was a cinephilic lecture couched inside a heartwarming children’s adventure, Random Access Memories is a musical history lesson delivered through drop-dead-awesome disco—and surprisingly beautiful sad-robot ballads.
8. Rokia Traoré - Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch). Imagine if Nina Simone had operatic training and grew up in West Africa, and then made a record with PJ Harvey’s guitar player—or just listen to Rokia Traoré’s fifth album instead. Mali is one of the most musically rich regions of the planet, yet precious few of her neighbours have made a record as fantastic as this one. She had every reason to despair for her homeland in the past two years, but she emerges resilient and hopeful. My interview with her is here.
9. Headstones - Love and Fury (FrostByte). Who crawls out of the grave 10 years after their demise sounding more alive than ever? The Headstones came roaring back with one of the most invigorating, near-perfect, raging rock’n’roll records to come out of this country in a long time. This is a group you do not want to mess with; singer Hugh Dillon sounds like he eats young punks for dinner. More importantly, the Headstones are writing triumphant songs that shame not only their peers and descendants, but their own back catalogue. Original review here. Original review here.
10. Man Man - On Oni Pond (Anti). Since their inception, Philadelphia’s Man Man have been a chaotic carnival, with choruses of wailing children, brash brass, furious percussion, and a gravel-voiced lead singer who parades around in furs and leaps off his piano. That hasn’t changed. But now that they’re approaching their first decade together, Man Man has corralled the cacophony into a fine, funky songcraft, the howls of pain replaced with odes to joy—though still delivered with an absurdist angle.
11. Two Hours Traffic - Foolish Blood (Bumstead). Yes, pure pop bands with “ooo-oohs” in their choruses are a dime a dozen, but precious few pull it off as the soon-to-be late, great Two Hours Traffic do here on their final album. Producer Darryl Neudorf takes Spoon’s minimalist arrangements and transfers them to widescreen California vistas, all framing 11 pop songs with at least three great hooks each. No gridlock here.
12. Darkside - Psychic (Matador). There was a highly anticipated Boards of Canada album released this year, but when it comes to electronic albums you could imagine playing around the campfire, Darkside had them beat by a country mile. A digital clicks-and-cuts approach meshes seamlessly with live drums and analog synths, while surprising electric guitar licks sound like Mark Knopfler wandered into an Orb session. True to their name, Darkside is all shadows and smoke and sensuality.
13. Basia Bulat - Tall Tall Shadow (Secret City). This is when that cute, friendly but underwhelming girl you first saw play years ago suddenly makes a record that stops you in your tracks and realize that her songwriting has caught up to her angelic voice, and the production behind her makes her sound like the love child of Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell.
14. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti). As a poet, Neko Case all show and no tell; you’re welcome to read whatever you want into these songs (she gave some unusually personal interviews this year), but they are wide templates rich with metaphor and imagery. Likewise, her approach to instrumentation, arrangement, production and songcraft—and it’s Case, grossly underrated as a producer, who is calling all those shots—creates vivid worlds within each song, be it the rousing brass in “Ragtime,” the a cappella tone poem of “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” the New Pornographic romp of “Man,” the sparse, empathetic reading of Nico’s “Alone,” or the aching melancholy, love and regret that drive “Calling Cards” and “City Swans.” Neko Case is a fighter and a lover, and she’s on your side. My Q&A with her for Maclean's is here. (This review originally written for Exclaim's year-end roots list, where it ranked #3, behind Daniel Romano and the Sadies.)
15. Willis Earl Beal - Nobody Knows (XL). This wandering, hard-luck troubadour used to think he was an outsider artist, or a naïf who stumbles upon musical skill—which of course is ridiculous, because, by definition, self-awareness negates the concept of outsider artist. But Beal does exist outside of any conventional norm; his songs are modern blues sung a cappella, with most instrumentation an ambient afterthought—and yet on this, his first proper studio record, he colours in his sketch drawings every so subtly. When he fires up an actual soul band and gets Cat Power to sing backing vocals on "Coming Through," it’s almost jarring; Beal, a gifted gospel-infused vocalist, can obviously go pro if he wants to. And yet he prefers howling on the margins, conjuring unique music out of step with every corner of conformist culture.
16. Mavis Staples - One True Vine (Anti). On her second album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing, the gospel great strips things back to little more than guitar, drums and backing vocals, with commissioned songs by Nick Lowe, Tweedy and the band Low, as well as a killer Funkadelic cover and a reworking of the Staple Singers’ "I Like the Things About Me." For Sunday mornings and so much more.
17. Kae Sun - Afriyie (independent). Modern R&B is stuck between AutoTuned megastars, obtuse game-changers like Frank Ocean, the noirish goth strains of The Weeknd, and retro revivalists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Which is where this virtually unknown Ghanaian-Canadian slides up the middle ala Miguel, with old-school vocal chops, the charm of John Legend, and a full embrace of modern production. On top of that, he’s got hooks to spare; “Blackstar Rising” sounds like a 21st-century Bill Withers. I almost missed this record myself; don’t make the same mistake.
18. Jim James - Regions of Light and Sound of God (ATO). In My Morning Jacket, James fronts one of the best live bands in North America. But all by his lonesome—surrounded mostly by spooky synths—he makes far better records. Sometimes he layers on eerie psychedelic textures; sometimes he just has a guitar and heaps of otherworldly reverb on his voice. Whatever it is he’s up to here, it’s pure magic.
19. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator (Arbutus). Devon Welsh sounds like an emo kid alone in his bedroom pleading for an emotional connection on message boards. His mournful, “zero-BPM” synths weep in the background while Welsh comes off like a baritone cantor contemplating mortality and the meaning of life. That may seem about as appealing as his horrible moniker, but it works. The man is intense, earnest and ultimately empathetic—and that’s just his delivery, because the lyrics don’t quite yet reach the power of the performance. Welsh is easily the most intriguing debut artist of the year, and I’ll bet that next time out he’ll no longer sound like the loneliest man in the universe.
20. Colin Stetson - New History of Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (Constellation). The record on this list you’re least likely to play during social occasions (it’s a room-clearer), the third record by this Montreal saxophonist is equally beautiful and punishing, an emotional roller coaster as well as an impressive physical feat (Stetson recorded these complex, layered songs entirely live with just one saxophone). To See More Light must be experienced as an album, taking one motif and extrapolating on it, stretching and pulling it any way he can, slowly encircling the listener and inducing hypnotic delirium.
Runners-up, listed alphabetically:
Arcade Fire - Reflektor (Sonovox). A flawed yet fascinating album that finds the Montreal band pushing themselves on the dance floor—sometimes awkwardly, sometimes just as every great rock band’s disco conversion should be. The OMGs far outweigh the WTFs. My Q&A with Win Butler is here; my Q&A with Tim Kingsbury and Richard Reed Parry is here; my Maclean's article is here.
Atoms for Peace - Amok (XL). Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea in the same band? Yes, please. Amok crackles and pops and delights in sonic adventure while always putting the rhythm first. It even makes Yorke sound less mopey: miracles do happen.
Austra - Olympia (Paper Bag). Goth girl goes disco—that’s the shorthand for Austra’s second album, but it’s only part of the story. By letting her backing singers (a.k.a. Tasseomancy) into the songwriting process, and by relying more on her live band than preprogrammed tracks, former opera singer Katie Stelmanis finds her groove in more ways than one. My Maclean's article is here.
Devendra Banhart - Mala (Nonesuch). The undeniably talented Banhart usually gets too silly and distracted for his own good. Which is why it’s worth celebrating those rare moments when his love of flamenco, German techno, American folk music, Brazilian bossa nova and outsider art all manage to make sense over the course of an album.
Blue Hawaii - Untogether (Arbutus). In Braids, Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s main group, she fronts one of this country’s most acclaimed weirdo art bands, but this techno-tinged side project serves her sense of abstraction far better, underneath icy grooves and deep bass.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.). Outside of 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, this is the sparsest Nick Cave has ever sounded with his Bad Seeds, who manage to inject mystery and menace even when they’re playing as few notes as possible. Cave, usually a meticulous lyricist, allows himself to free-associate on occasionally absurd tangents, and yet he’s even more captivating than usual, making this one of the few essential records of his storied career.
Dirty Beaches – Drifters / Love is the Devil (Zoo). I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it sure sounds evil. Montreal’s Alex Zhang Hungtai lives in the shadow of Suicide, the droning, confrontational synth-punk duo from New York City’s ’70s punk scene, music that once sounded like a dystopian future, which Hungtai now unearths like an ancient artifact in a dislocated digital age where the tangible is ever elusive. This double album is divided into eight songs of ominous, propulsive rock music twice removed (Drifters) and eight songs of what sounds like a soundtrack to an urban horror movie discovered on a decaying VHS tape (Love is the Devil). It’s as confounding as it is compelling; ultimately, it’s nothing short of beautiful.
Haim - Days Are Gone (Sony). If Daft Punk seemed like an anomaly, this was even more so: three sisters who sing and play together like session players three times their age, and writing the best Fleetwood Mac songs since Tango in the Night. (Side note: Is this cover photo by the same guy who shot Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas, or is that just a weird L.A. coincidence?)
Heliocentrics - 13 Degrees of Reality (Now Again). Psychedelic space jazz with an undercurrent of menace, driven by drummer Malcolm Catto and guitarist Ade Owusu, who extrapolate on Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Ethiopian jazz, Colombian rhythms, 21st-century classical, underground hip-hop and anything else they can hoover up and transform into strange new waveforms.
Jimmy Hunt – Maladie d’amour (Grosse Boite). Never mind “Space Oddity”—this planetarium pop record sounds like it should be the soundtrack to Chris Hadfield’s journeys. This francophone Quebecois sounds like the only Beatles song he knows is “Across the Universe” and thinks Pink Floyd quit before making Dark Side of the Moon. Or maybe he just thought he could make a better record than Beck’s Sea Change—because he did.
Jenny Hval - Innocence is Kinky (Rune Grammofon). Amidst a squall of feedback, white noise and intermittent percussion, this Norwegian novelist and performance artist intones, “I have a mouth and I want to sing like a face that is slit open / I want to sing like a continuous echo of splitting hymens.” She can do incredible things with her elastic voice, bending her pitch conversationally, turning a frayed screech into a melody, or holding a sustained, quiet note to uncomfortable lengths, at once vulnerable and determined. Producer John Parish darts and stabs around her melodies with jagged guitar and evocative soundscapes; he’s the perfect sounding board, illuminating her often opaque lyrical and musical ideas, which go to the limit of avant-garde songcraft without falling right off the edge.
The Julie Ruin - s/t (TJR). It’s been almost a decade since we heard the full power of Kathleen Hanna’s voice, last heard fronting the feminist electro queens Le Tigre. Knowing that she spent many of those years battling disease, it’s invigorating to hear her roaring back in front of a new band that marries her love of pure pop and her raw punk roots. Still fiery, she’s also deeply in love and grappling with maintaining one’s activist spirit on the other side of 40. Both literally and metaphorically, her voice hasn’t diminished one bit.
Jordan Klassen – Repentance (Nevado). Yes, it’s another sensitive soul playing a lilting banjo on hushed songs and occasionally singing wordless choruses in falsetto. It doesn’t help that he describes his own music as “fairy folk.” Except that this Vancouver songwriter has songs that silence any doubts, and instantly transport the listener away from urban hustle on a Rocky Mountain high.
Kobo Town - Jumbie in the Jukebox (Cumbancha). Reggae and ska and soca and Cuban music have been constantly evolving over the last 50 years; Kobo Town thinks it’s calypso’s time to catch up. Jumbie in the Jukebox is more than just a genre overhaul; songwriter Drew Gonsalves would stand tall regardless of the arrangements around him.
Low - The Invisible Way (Sub Pop). After experimenting (arguably poorly) with volume and electronics, Low knows what they do best: ultra-minimal guitar-drum arrangements with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s harmonies front and centre—even better when Sparhawk hits the stratosphere above Parker. Producer Jeff Tweedy takes the same approach here he did with Mavis Staples this year: nothing extraneous, all the focus on great songs and spellbinding vocals.
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu (Ribbon). Good news out of Syria? Not exactly, as the country’s best-known musical export (which is not saying much) relocated to Turkey to avoid the civil war tearing apart his home. But Souleyman did team up with British producer Four Tet to make his first official Western release (after literally hundreds of cassettes, many recorded live at weddings), and the end result captures the delirium and joy of dabke, a genre with a relentless pulse and keyboard melodies that constantly twist and turn.
The Strumbellas – We Still Move on Dance Floors (Six Shooter). Seeing how it’s not that unusual to see stripped-down folkie bands playing stadiums these days, it’s a matter of time before this Toronto band—with these nine, rousing classics sung with perfect four-part harmony and electric energy—is headlining every summer festival in 2014.
Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Vol. 1 (Sony). Soul, swagger, seduction—and pure stupidity, if you’re foolish enough to listen to his lyrics. That aside (as well as the horrid second installment, also released in 2013), this wasn’t just the return of Timberlake—it was a long-overdue comeback for producer Timbaland, who hasn’t sounded this fresh and surprising in years.
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City (XL). If the first album was fun and the second album a bit off, this is where Vampire Weekend found their feet and made a truly inspired album with pop anthems, arty detours and clever production.
Rachel Zeffira - The Deserters (Paper Bag). A classical music student from the Kootenays in B.C. finds herself in Italian towns and British churches writing and recording her debut album, and the result is suitably haunting, restless and enchanting. Fans of This Mortal Coil, Saint Etienne and Julee Cruise will recognize these surroundings; so will any Europhile who should be sure to pack this album for that train ride through the Alps.