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The 23 best albums of 2013

Every year, The A.V. Club invites our regular music writers and staff to pick their favorite albums of the past 12 months. While in previous years we asked contributors to allot weighted points on up to 15 records, this year we went a more straightforward route. Writers were asked to pick their top 10 records and rank them in order, with their favorite getting 10 points, their second favorite nine, and so on. We then tallied up the points to arrive at our very democratic best-of list. (In the event that two albums tied for points, the record with the greatest number of votes prevailed.) It made for a diverse, rewarding mix of 23 different records we loved this year, ones that we hope you’ll love as well. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our  readers’ poll.

[Take a look at the individual ballots, as well as some additional notes on our favorite 2013 albums and songs, here. Also, don’t forget to vote for your favorite 2013 music in our readers’ poll.]

18. Los Campesinos!, No Blues (10 points)
After debuting with a crash on 2007’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP and a full-length, Hold On Now, Youngster, the following year, Welsh band Los Campesinos! grew a little staid. 2011’s Hello Sadness was fine, but a little removed from the charming, charged music that preceded it. Prior to No Blues, Los Campesinos! lost a founding member and seemed on the verge of dissolution—instead it roared back with its best album in years. No Blues recaptures the boldness of those early Campesinos! records and delivers its best song since “You! Me! Dancing!” (“Avocado, Baby”). It’s 2013’s most welcome return to form. [KR]

17. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap (10 points) 
Chicago’s Chance The Rapper has yet to put out a proper, official LP, yet two mixtapes in, and he’s already established himself as an undeniable talent. The incandescent Acid Rap features several guest appearances and skillful production flourishes, but nothing outshines Chance himself. He’s already in command of a flow and a way with wordplay that MCs twice his age should envy, and he’s unafraid to pour his heart out on issues both micro (the inability to hug his grandmother because he reeks of weed) and macro (violent deaths in Chicago increase when the temperature rises). If his voice were less assured, a 20-year-old reminiscing about how much simpler life was when he was a senior in high school performing at open mics would seem silly. That it comes across as poignant is proof positive that Chance has tapped into something beyond his own pathos. His mixtape may not be an official debut, but it is a well-deserved breakthrough. [AB]

17. My Bloody Valentine, mbv (10 points)
If any band knows about delayed gratification, it’s the one famed for interrupting its standard show-closing number with sustained blasts of static and feedback. The 22 years of silence between My Bloody Valentine LPs only improved the old recordings, but mbv is all the sweeter for being a legit comeback. The churning bliss of “She Found Now” delays that gratification even further, gently propping open the door through which the sons of Loveless can flood in. Now about that follow-up… [EA]

16. Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana (11 points)
While the New England quartet Speedy Ortiz has drawn comparisons to Pavement and Helium—blame laissez-faire minor chords, noise outbursts, and occasionally ominous vocals—the band’s full-length debut, Major Arcana, is no neo-slacker masterpiece. The album’s lyrics equate conflict (relationships, personal or otherwise) with destructive or morbid imagery, while its music is full of tense dynamics: ragged streaks of distortion, sharp guitar punctures, and lurching tempos. Sadie Dupuis’ coy suckerpunch phrasing and rich alto can resemble Liz Phair’s, though her stoic sadness and fierce vulnerability in other cases conjures Jenny Lewis. Either way, Major Arcana is a familiar-sounding album that doesn’t sound like a slavish rehash of its influences. [AZ]

15. Locrian, Return To Annihilation (12 points)
Until Return To Annihilation, Locrian had been content to make obscure music on obscure records for obscure labels. But the fog-drenched oscillations of earlier releases have been sculpted into something new on the group’s latest full-length. With sharpness, lucidity, and a lust for sullen melody, Return is a red-eyed glimpse beyond the veil of logic and permanence. In its place is manicured chaos; everything from the lushness of vintage prog to the knottiness of avant-folk to the cadence of droning noise all mesh to form a ritualistic hum. If Return To Annihilation heralds the end times, at least it does so with the first pained pulse of rebirth. [JH]

15. Paramore, Paramore (12 points)
Between 2009’s Brand New Eyes and this year’s self-titled reinvention, Paramore lost a couple of band members but gained a whole lot of range. From the mercurial dance-punk of “Now” to the “Mariah Carey by way of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me-era Cure” barnstormer “Ain’t It Fun,” the orchestra-kissed “Hate To See Your Heart Break,” and the Rilo Kiley-esque meltdown “(One Of Those) Crazy Girls,” Paramore sprints from one bravado turn to the next with ebullient conviction, acquainting itself so well to each new style that even the cascading, eight-minute post-rock closer “Future” doesn’t feel like an overreach. [ER]

15. Tim Hecker, Virgins (12 points)
As an encore to the garbled broadcasts of Ravedeath, 1972, Virgins presents the tangible Tim Hecker: There’s never a doubt that actual fingers are manipulating the piano at the record’s core. Convening a small army of like-minded composers in Iceland, Hecker had his Steve Reich moment, cultivating atmosphere and ambience that’s no less haunting for its evident human touch. Never before could a Hecker title like “Live Room” be taken at face value. [EA]

14. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady (15 points) 
Janelle Monáe’s sophomore album expands her range into a jazzy, soulful hybrid that defies easy categorization. It’s funky, psychedelic, and unafraid of a strong R&B beat, but it’s also smooth and sensual. Monáe’s voice is what holds the album together—a full, belting sound that moves effortlessly through styles and genres. (It’s hard to imagine two more different songs than “Primetime” and “Dance Apocalyptic” on the same pop album.) After the success of The ArchAndroid, it feels like Monáe is flexing her claws with this one, showcasing both her talents and the performances of Prince, Erykah Badu, and Solange, who all make guest appearances. The Electric Lady is infectious, and it contains multitudes. [SS]

13. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse (16 points)
Pedestrian Verse is Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, its first for a major label, and its most difficult to immediately parse. Ultimately, grand gestures like album-opener “Acts Of Man”—which kicks things off without a bang—and the keening “Nitrous Gas” reveal themselves, slowly, to be of the same caliber as the Scottish band’s best work. And Pedestrian Verse is not without its more direct songs, including the fantastic, depressing “State Hospital” and the shuffling, also very depressing “Dead Now.” As always, their Scottish rainy days are gorgeous. [JM]

12. Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus (17 points)
After a nearly four-year absence marked only by the surprise contribution of two songs to the London Olympics, British circuit-fryers Fuck Buttons returned with an album full of even more pomp and circumstance—the “circumstance” of which just happens to be the apocalypse. The Bristol duo has always wired an undercurrent of dread into its fuzz-busted, fractured drones, but Slow Focus streamlines it into a sustained blast of menace, layering in swarming, jet-engine synths and a masterful sense of construction for its heaviest, most gobsmacking album yet. From the junkyard-dog battle cry of “Brainfreeze” through the alien-ship-lifting-off climax of “Stalker,” it’s an album of enthralling power, created out of entangled chaos. And it’s just the thing to soundtrack the epic feats of strength it takes to walk through the near-end of the world. [SO]

11. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (18 points)
A reverent survey of the musical culture of the ’70s and ’80s, Random Access Memories recaptures the spacey glamour and soft mystery of that era with a scattershot, thrillingly indulgent collection of slinky disco-funk, downtempo new-wave ballads, and stargazing long-form synth jams. Daft Punk’s not interested in mere homage, though. Overflowing with guilty-pleasure excesses and experiments, the record swirls in live orchestration and sci-fi aesthetic and piano solos and proggy interludes and honky-tonk and vocoder and Paul Williams until it all ceases to be a tribute to the past and morphs into a touchstone for the future of music. [CM]

10. Fall Out Boy, Save Rock And Roll (19 points)
It’s simply a coincidence that the return of Fall Out Boy happened the same year as a resurgence of mainstream interest in emo. But the parallels are fitting: The Chicago-bred quartet was a direct descendent of the Midwestern hardcore and punk scenes of the late ’90s, and its immense popularity a decade ago marked the last time emo was a household term. Still, Save Rock And Roll reinforces that Fall Out Boy has never been interested in scene-driven limitations or genre pigeonholing. The band’s unabashedly pop-leaning comeback record touches on hip-hop, dance-punk, ’80s pop, theatrical hard rock, and soul, while diverse guest stars add grit (Courtney Love slurring rambling slam poetry on the punk surge “Rat A Tat”) and glamour (Elton John purring in tandem with Patrick Stump on the piano-heavy title track). Save Rock And Roll is more impressive in how it eschews escapist lyrics and themes in favor of discussing the difficult realities of adulthood—whether that pertains to career pressure, failed relationships, personal responsibilities, or simply missing the way things used to be. The members of Fall Out Boy are growing up along with their fans—and their music is more meaningful because of it. [AZ]

10. David Bowie, The Next Day (19 points)
Considering David Bowie has been making music for 50 years and has released two dozen studio albums, it’s mind-boggling how rarely he repeats himself. Though his voice is instantly recognizable, it’s anyone’s guess what the net result of a David Bowie album will be. From its “Heroes with a blank face” cover art to the themes it explores, The Next Day suggests that Bowie is confronting his past without repeating it, contemplating the nature of death without succumbing to morbidity, and confirming he can still sustain introspection and an expansive, surging momentum. He can gain new experiences and new listeners without aping trends. To use fewer words, he’s still David Freaking Bowie. From the album-opening title track to the haunting closer “Heat,” this is Bowie at his hypnotically sprawling and infinite best, yet also at his most sentimental and meditative. With The Next Day, Bowie reiterates to any who may need reminding that he’s achieved gravity and gravitas, and he’s earned every ounce of both. [AB]

9. Lorde, Pure Heroine (20 points)
From a teenager with a recording contract in New Zealand to a global sensation with a triple-platinum single taking pictures with David Bowie and Tilda Swinton, Ella Yelich-O’Connor took the fast lane to pop-darling status with her debut album Pure Heroine. “Royals” lived at the top of the charts, and “Tennis Court” was the soundtrack to Wimbledon this year, but the record isn’t top heavy with singles. “Ribs” examines High Fidelity-esque fears of growing old. “Buzzcut Season” thumps along with an infectiously danceable, minimalist beat courtesy of producer Joel Little. And “White Teeth Teens” is a late-album gem that recalls Adele’s “Rumour Has It.” The only person who courted fame while simultaneously embracing the mysterious shroud of privacy that surrounds acts like The Weeknd and Burial more than Lorde this year was Kanye West, and that was out of megalomania. But for the first female solo artist to top the Billboard alternative charts since Tracy Bonham in 1996—five months before Yelich-O’Connor was even born—Lorde projects prodigious confidence for the future. [KM]

8. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (22 points)
For more than a decade, Neko Case has released an unbroken string of excellent, accomplished albums, continuing this year with another collection of haunted songs that found her getting more personal and reflective than she has in the past. (That title alone is a 180 for someone who had previously expressed her doubts about love.) Now firmly in her 40s, Case seems more confident in her abilities, but also slightly melancholy about the loneliness of the path she’s forged. (The beautiful “Calling Cards” aches with the wistfulness of “being together even when we’re not together.”) The Worse Things Get is the logical successor to its predecessors, but not devoid of curveballs: The a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is an empathetic account of a real-life encounter Case had with a parent verbally abusing a child. Case seems due for a left turn—she seems too restless of an artist to stay in one place for too long—but for now, the predictability of another great Neko Case album is hardly a burden. [KR]

7. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt (22 points)
Waxahatchee’s most distinctive trait is simplicity. For 2012’s American Weekend, Katie Crutchfield holed up with an acoustic guitar and crafted a record that was subtle and deliberate, her voice cracking and her repetitious power chords swirling toward a thesis for the new project. It was an album packed full of introspective longing, and even if it felt one-note at times (though it was a really good note), it always suggested that its strength was an ability to feel honestly off-the-cuff. On Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield orchestrates something grandiose by comparison, as the bass and drums that now accompany her propel the band into dimensions it never hinted at previously. On fuzzy rockers such as “Coast To Coast” and “Misery Over Dispute,” Waxahatchee displays its ease at transitioning from acoustic to electric without betraying the all-consuming worry and vulnerability that became its core. Cerulean Salt’s variety never steps on the toes of Waxahatchee’s straightforward nature, and whether it’s rocking or waltzing, Crutchfield’s delicate voice anchors the album, finding ways to transform a collection of sad songs into an album that never wallows, but uses them as the basis for growth and change, both musically and metaphorically. [DA]

6. Savages, Silence Yourself (22 points)
Savages was the buzz band of this year’s SXSW festival, its raw energy and voracious musicality setting it apart from the masses of plodding indie-pop acts and charmless singer-songwriters. The band’s debut, Silence Yourself, emerged in May, shortly after the fest, and (thankfully) did everything but disappoint the blogging masses. Anarchic and non-stop, Silence Yourself is one of the best rock records of the year. And while it’s worth noting that four young British women made this masterwork, their gender is pretty much a moot point. This record is the kind of ferocious, unrelenting post-punk that only sees the light of day once in a blue moon, and that the group’s members have vaginas shouldn’t matter one bit. [ME]

5. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City (27 points)
Vampire Weekend’s spoiled-rich-kid image didn’t bode particularly well for future maturity, which makes Modern Vampires Of The City 2013’s most gorgeously pleasant surprise. Though singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig pitched it as the last of a trilogy, Vampires is miles ahead of both Vampire Weekend and Contra in terms of sophistication (and neither of those were exactly slouches). “Diane Young” trips and fades where the band once would have simply charged forward, and “Unbelievers” injects a little dose of motorik pop to the band’s vaguely African moves, which have otherwise been mostly jettisoned. And it all comes together with the loping, gorgeous “Step,” which blends harpsichord with layered harmonies and some of Koenig’s cleverest lyrics yet. If this is the end of an era, as promised, it’s a ridiculously good capper. [JM]

4. Chvrches, The Bones Of What You Believe (28 points)
Not many bands had a better year than the Scottish trio Chvrches, which began the year with a little buzz around some songs it had posted online and closed out 2013 with a highly acclaimed (and massively promoted) debut full-length, multiple successful tours, and some of the catchiest songs released this year. When the earworm “The Mother We Share” made the rounds late last year, its potent hooks and anthemic chorus heralded the arrival of a promising new group. Chvrches had a couple of other songs online, but made its debut with the Recover EP in late March following a string of profile-raising performances at SXSW. More touring followed, and as the months passed, The Bones Of What You Believe became one of 2013’s most anticipated albums. When Glassnote finally released it in September, Bones proved to be one of those rare albums that met—even surpassed—the high expectations that had built up since the beginning of the year. No other album in 2013 had a stronger opening salvo than the trio of songs that begins the record: “The Mother We Share,” the just as catchy “We Sink,” and the melodic-yet-confrontational “Gun.” Clearly descended from the likes of New Order, OMD, Yaz, and other synth-pop founding fathers, Chvrches favors the pop end of the electronic spectrum, with detours into more pronounced EDM (“Science/Visions”). Other influences appear throughout The Bones Of What You Believe, such as The Cure and The Knife, but Chvrches does a good job carving out new space for itself on its debut full-length. [KR]

4. The National, Trouble Will Find Me (28 points)
Trouble Will Find Me finds The National more technically accomplished and ambitious than ever—not to mention more popular. But standing at the summit, a line from “Sea Of Love” containing the album title (“If I stay here / Trouble will find me”) describes both the song’s story about love in squalor and an existential crisis for the band. The National is at once embracing its higher profile while looking askance, wondering if the big ride will all end tomorrow. The songs on Trouble never reach the comparatively rollicking levels of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” on High Violet, but there are plenty of sparsely inviting tracks. “Graceless” is the fastest, practically thundering in contrast to “Fireproof” or “Pink Rabbits,” an anti-victory lap where Matt Berninger offers that just because the band keeps finding new peaks doesn’t mean the worrying disappears, intoning over and over that “There’s a science to walking through windows.” And “I Need My Girl” stands out late in the album with a serpentine guitar line flickering underneath Berninger’s croon. On album six, The National still sounds like it’s learning to grapple, beautifully, with the next rung up the ladder. [KM]

3. Deafheaven, Sunbather (28 points)
From Weakling to Liturgy, American black-metal bands have caught a lot of shit over the past couple decades. The biggest argument against them: They aren’t black metal at all. But even in its early-’90s Scandinavian heyday, black metal was never pure—and that impurity has resulted in some of the genre’s greatest records. Deafheaven’s Sunbather is one of them. The San Francisco-based outfit widened its roster—and its lens—on its sophomore album, building masterful, galloping epics like “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree” into hymns to melancholic paralysis and cosmic awe. Screaming, surging, shuddering, and shivering, the album veers from scouring ambience to acoustic delicacy on a dime, but mostly it’s content to splice black-metal extremism, hardcore nerve, and post-rock melody. The album’s longest track, the 15-minute “Vertigo,” even goes so far as to shroud itself in gauzy shoegaze atmosphere—but the balance between empty space, absolute zero, and the desperate pumping of blood makes for a harrowing yet dynamic voyage. On the surface, it’s easy to see why Sunbather has caused such a stir: From its pink cover art to its major-key euphoria, it doesn’t offer easy, monochrome, climate-controlled answers. Instead, it revels in contrast and contradiction. Like sunlight slivered by a prism, there’s a whole spectrum of tone and emotion to Sunbather. Black is just the primer. [JH]

2. HAIM, Days Are Gone (36 points)
Los Angeles sister act HAIM started gaining momentum in 2012 with the release of its debut three-song EP, Forever, but it wasn’t until late in 2013 that the band really broke through into the musical mainstream. First came the release of excellent single “The Wire” in July, the track that Buzzfeed called “the best rock song of the summer.” Then came the über-successful release of Days Are Gone in September, which found the record topping the U.K. charts and sitting at no. 6 in the States, and led to the group’s musical slot this November on Saturday Night Live. It might seem a little meteoric for a band that’s only truly been working together in this form for a few years, but listen to Days Are Gone and be convinced. The songs—including “The Wire”—are great, and the sisters have chops for days. The record’s also a grower, with tracks like “Don’t Save Me” and “If I Could Change Your Mind” so tightly built and hook-stacked that they reward return visits. [ME] 

1. Kanye West, Yeezus (45 points)
Kanye West loves to set up enemies for himself—mostly imaginary, some surely real but ultimately powerless—and then work himself into a lather proving them wrong. That dynamic can lead to ego-blasted, borderline-psychotic interviews, which get the lion’s share of the public’s attention, but it also leads to the ego-blasted, borderline-psychotic art and energy that make up Yeezus. The trade-off is absolutely worth it. West may not have (yet) proved himself to be the things he aspires to—shoe designer, Steve Jobs, Michelangelo, etc.—but over the course of seven albums (counting Watch The Throne), he has undeniably earned his spot as both a hip-hop visionary and populist, moving the genre forward more than any other mainstream artist. Who else would have thought to, let alone dared, mash the influences apparent on Yeezus, a deliberately difficult-sounding album whose main stated influence is early 20th-century architect and designer Le Corbusier? With all the ideas clearly pinballing around West’s head, it would have been easy for this record to sound like a mess, but somehow it’s both cliff-dwelling and precise, made possible by the fact that West doesn’t seem to know the edge is there at all. “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead” are ferocious both musically and lyrically, with distorted industrial sounds grinding against lyrics about dick-sucking one minute and West’s complicated place in the world next. (The dick-sucking lyrics are probably not influenced by Le Corbusier, but who knows?) And “I Am A God” sums the whole endeavor up perfectly: It’s wickedly funny and sonically almost unprecedented. Like Yeezus as a whole, it’s got two simple things going for it: It’s magnificent, and it sounds like absolutely nothing else. [JM]

Illustration by Jeremy Wheeler