Musical trends return every 20 years, we know this. The 80s had us sentimental for The Wonder Years, the 90s had showbands reviving every horrible disco/senti/crossover song ever written, and the 00s saw the return of shoulder pads and synthesizers. As a 90s kid, I was eagerly awaiting its return this decade. I thought to myself, “OMG here we go grunge is gonna come back and everyone’s gonna sound like Sleater-Kinney and Pavement I’m so excited!”
And so this year the 90s did come back, but definitely not in the way I expected it to. Instead of dirty lo-fi indierock and angsty female-fronted alternative music, we get a revival of the cheesy 90s pop I thought everyone locked up, threw away and pretended never existed.
It was even better than I hoped, and I fucking loved it.
Sky Ferreira and her Debbie Gibson handclapped percussions, I Break Horses and their Martika-smooth vocals, Haim and their insane mishmash of 90s heroes from Wilson Phillips to Sheryl Crow, Chvrches and their EMF-inspired synth-programmed “oh oh ohs” ,Charli XCX and her attempts at becoming all The Spice Girls rolled into one, Solange and her unabashed Janet Jacksonness, even Lorde and… whatever 90s artist Lorde sounds like. This past year 90s pop was pervasive, and, it seemed, completely unplanned.
The theme of this year’s list is nostalgia—whether it’s the aforementioned 90s pop revival or the return of beloved artists who haven’t been around in decades or new projects from all-time faves, my 2013 looks like a collaboration between a Grantland rock journalist in their 40s and a pre-teenage girl. What is happening to me.
10.The National – Trouble Will Find Me
This record almost didn’t make it to the list, having been locked in a three-way battle with Luscious Jackson and Toro Y Moi. In the end, the boys of Brooklyn-via-Cincinatti win out with another record best enjoyed drinking Scotch in an empty, dingy bar. The sixth National album is another exercise in conveying Midwestern isolation and emptiness set to excellently crafted melodies, but with groupies in every city and sold out shows at the Greek, it’s getting harder to take their word for it. In the song Pink Rabbits Matt Berninger sings that he’s “a television version of a person with a broken heart”. There’s some truth there, and at least they’re honest about it.
9.Minor Alps – Get There
If you’ve seen anything I’ve ever posted in my life you might know that Juliana Hatfield is my favorite musician of all time. What you might not know is that I’ve hated her past few albums; so you might imagine how good it feels to finally have something this decade worth putting on the top ten list. Minor Alps is Hatfield’s collaboration with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, and while you can definitely feel the presence of both 90s heroes, the record is also distinct enough to be its own entity. Unlike her many collaborations with men (John Strohm in the Blake Babies, The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, Frank Smith), Juliana sings every single word of every song (except one) with Caws. The result is a weird minimalist electronic reimagining of the type of folk act you’d see referenced to in A Mighty Wind.
8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
When it was announced that James Murphy (aka LCD Soundsystem) was going to produce the new Arcade Fire album, you could hear every hipster in America scream in delight before stopping themselves as they realized they should be beyond feeling enthusiasm. Alas, Reflektor was neither as mindblowing nor gamechanging as everyone hoped it would be, but it still is an excellent (double) record nonetheless. Many prefer the poppier, more upbeat first disc; dismissing the second as long, indulgent and boring. It is disc two that is ultimately rewarding, however, with the experimentation between Murphy and the band finally paying off. This all comes to a climax with the album’s best song: Afterlife, THE break up song of 2013. In it, Win Butler sounds increasingly and increasingly desperate every time he goes to chorus: “can we work it out? we scream and shout, til we work it out”, until finally there is resignation, and what is left is the question: “when love is gone, where does it go?”
7. Yo La Tengo - Fade
This is the first time since 2000’s classic And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out that Yo La Tengo’s appearing on my top ten list, but their absence by no means means that their subsequent releases haven’t been good; it just means that Yo La Tengo have always been so reliable that you sometimes forget they’re around. Fade is a quiet, reflective collection of songs written by artists who have achieved so much they no longer have anything to prove, and is a perfect album for those moments when you simply want to exist. The two best songs in the album, funnily enough, are entitled “I’ll Be Around” and “Is That Enough?” It sure is, YLT.
6. Charli XCX – True Romance
One of the most memorable hits of the past year was Iconapop’s I Don’t Care, and yet when you listen to their album none of the songs are as clever or catchy as that one hit. You might decide, then, to look for the album of that song’s writer, and that’s where you’ll hit gold. Charli XCX is a genius at pop everything; she knows how to arrange the best beats (Nuclear Season), knows the exact number of times to repeat a chorus before overkill (Take My Hand, Stay Away) and even uses “hahahaha” in a chorus in a way that makes complete sense(You(Hahaha)). In an era of music where the geniuses are hailed because of the postmodern way they throw all the songwriting rules out the window (read: Grimes) it’s good to know there’s someone new out there dedicating herself to mastering the old ways.
5.Haim – Days Are Gone
Haim’s debut album Days are Gone begins with a rumbling; a deep echoing percussion that seems to warn us that something big is about to happen. And it does. Danielle Haim’s voice comes in, and before you know it the masterpiece Falling is in full swing. Like a smarter, more talented Hanson, Haim expertly takes from the history of pop: Michael Jackson’s primal expressions, Miami Sound Machine’s too-good-to-be-true instrumentation, Janis Joplin’s brash guitarwork, Stevie Nicks’ sensuality. The result is an album so self-assured and so technically brilliant that there’s no question these former teen pop stars are destined for bigger and better things. I say bigger than Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Phoenix, eventually. We can only wait and see.
4. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Many people tell me that after the occasional flirtation with pop music, Tegan and Sara Quinn have finally gone full sellout with Heartthrob. To that, I say “Hallelujah”! Deep, introspective writing has never really been a strength of this duo, and the fact that they’re focusing on their core competency – unapologetically pop love songs that are one endless amalgamation of teenage heartbreak, is cause for celebration. Of course the fact that these are lesbian twins singing juvenile lyrics like “Goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye like the first time. You never really knew me , never really saw me like they did” just adds to the intertextual fun!
3.Atoms for Peace - AMOK
It’s getting increasingly and increasingly harder to tolerate Thom Yorke : that larger than life sense of self, that I’m-reclusive-but-really-I’m-not personality, those dance moves. And yet, amidst all this, it’s easy to forget how brilliant he actually is. I’d put Amok up there amongst the better Thom Yorke albums of the 21st century, and while it very much seems like the follow-up to his solo record The Eraser (which AfP was originally meant to be a touring band for), the genius of Nigel Godrich and skills of Flea demand you to take notice. The weirdest yet most welcome quality of this album, however, is how it feels celebratory—something the Radiohead albums don’t have.
2. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
I’d like to say I was one of those people who waited 22 years for My Bloody Valentine’s follow-up to their classic Loveless, but the truth is when that album came out I was playing agawan base in the Montessori playground, eagerly awaiting Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit. I got into MBV around 1997, and by then it was clear to everyone that the band had broken up. I, along with a whole generation of people who grew up Valentine-less, was happy enough waiting for the occasional Kevin Shields tune in random soundtracks; until finally, without warning the very controversial mbv was dropped. Comprised of three vintage-MBV songs, three sweet and poppy songs, and three bloody and f’d up tunes, the very aptly titled mbv simultaneously feels like a strange new world and home.
1. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
The first time I saw CHVRCHES they played in The Echo, a venue as small as Saguijo. The next time I saw them was at the Henry Fonda Theater, playing in a similarly awkward manner to a crowd of maybe 900 people. The last time I saw them they had a crazy light show, expert stage banter, and actual stage presence at the 1,500++ capacitied Wiltern. This kind of growth would be expected of a band as talented as Glasgow’s CHVRCHES, except it all happened within only nine months. Much like Haim, by the end of the year everyone knew how to pronounce this band’s name, and all the teenyboppers with their Native American Headdresses were storming twitter begging promoters to bring the trio over. The Bones of What You Believe is thankfully bigger than all this, with Lauren Mayberry’s relatable yet ambiguous lyrics (their biggest hit has a chorus that starts with “I'm in misery where you can seem as old as your omens”) and solid technical production care of Martin Doherty and Iain Cook. As if that weren't enough, CHVRCHES has to go and be so goshdarn lovable, winning over fans with their social media, intelligent and honest essays, and down-to-Earth personalities.
HONORABLE MENTION: As mentioned above, Luscious Jackson's Magic Hour and Toro y Moi’s Anything in Return almost made it, but I realized I may just have missed LJ too much. After that Kanye West and Vampire Weekend were next in line.
EP OF THE YEAR: A tie between Wild Nothing’s Empty Estate and the return of The Pixies with EP-1. And yes, that choice has more to do with the Pixies returning than with the EP being of considerable merit.
SINGLES OF THE YEAR: I made a playlist. It’s on Spotify. Aside from the guys mentioned above we also have Frankie Rose, Cults, Grizzly Bear, Wild Nothing, Daft Punk, A$AP Rocky, San Fermin’s masterpiece “Sonsick”, and more!
DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE YEAR: Good year for music, but the disappointments were a shocker. Three bands who not only regularly appear on the top 10 but the top of the top 10 are nowhere to be found. Foals (who were actually #1 in 2010) at least made a halfway decent album, but Phoenix and Yeah Yeah Yeahs just came out with crap. On a side note, it's funny how no one mentions MGMT and the Strokes no mo, because everyone just expects them to suck.
VIDEOS OF THE YEAR: What does it say about the music video industry that my favorite video of the year is a parody of a Kanye West video featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen? This live performance for Arcade Fire's Afterlife directed by Spike Jonze would definitely be at the top of the list too, except it's a live performance and feels like cheating. The only real music vid that deserves any sort of mention is Eric Wareheim's promo for Beach House’s Wishes, mostly due to Leland Palmer's magnificent performance on a horse. On the local front, I liked this trippy video from Similar Objects a lot.
BEST LIVE BANDS: This is the first year in the list's history that I've actually been lucky enough to see every band on the top 10 live. Strangely enough only one act crosses over with this list. That band is Haim, who I liked until I saw them live, and then I really loved them. They are as tight onstage as they are on their album, but perform with an energy, humor, and sexuality (or maybe it’s just Alana) that is impossible to record. I also finally got to see BLUR, and they were phenomenal. Perfect set list, perfect performance, perfect night. Björk is and has always been a religious experience to watch, and even though I hate that Biophilia album her intimate performance at Hollywood Palladium was just…beyond. I'm not a big fan of Savages' album Silence Yourself, but I definitely am a big fan of theirs live.
Aaaaaand that’s it for 2013. On a final note, HAPPY TENTH ANNIVERSARY TOP TEN LIST! Can’t believe I’ve been doing this for ten years. I know none of you really care about knowing this, but if you put a gun to my head and forced me to name my favorite album during the existence of this list, it would be XX by The xx. It’s always a pleasure doing this, even though I know you don’t read everything and less and less people read every year. To quote Walter White, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.”