I’m no longer a full-time critic, but a lifelong reflex still kicks in each December: gotta make my year’s top 10 list! So, for whate’er ‘tis worth, for whomever may still care: personal and critical faves from 2013 …
Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” (Atlantic)
You might not think an Afrofuturist sci-fi concept album would be an easy project to follow up, but Janelle Monae — literally and figuratively — didn’t lose the plot on this year’s “The Electric Lady,” the continuation of the “electro-sophista-funky-cated” world of oppressed but soulful androids introduced on 2011’s flawless “The ArchAndroid” (my list-topper in 2011) She doesn’t just keep the narrative and groove going, she brings an elegance to it. This sophomore effort comes front-loaded with entertaining guest stars, from Prince to Solange, though they’re needless next to Monae’s natural and formidable songwriting and vocal talents. Yet another album for brain and booty. (Read more)
Vampire Weekend, “Modern Vampires of the City” (XL)
When both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork select the same album to top their year-end lists, the end must be nigh. But it’s not easy to deny the achievement of this record — the real maturation of a band lauded with superlatives since birth and, thankfully, not thus far spoiling as a result. Dialing down the cheeky spunk of previous outings, Vampire Weekend here meditates on mortality while maintaining an overall musical lift and friendly mood. Intricately plotted, deftly arranged, always going for something a little more sophisticated than a ready pop confection — it’s a beautiful record. (Read more)
Laura Mvula, “Sing to the Moon” (Columbia)
I’ve yet to play this album at night — it’s simply too perfect a suite of songs for the morning. That’s not just because the first song is the multi-tracked choir of “Like the Morning Dew.” Rather, the sunny arrangements of “Sing to the Moon” — its muted trumpets, languid strings, its utter mastery of instrumental and vocal dynamics — makes for a fine soundtrack to any awakening day. Mvula possesses a strong voice worthy of note (despite this album’s penchant for overlayering vocal parts almost to the brink of contrivance), and an old-soul air infuses her songwriting, founded as it is on classic R&B, gospel, and some jazz. Stylish and bold.
Hayden, “Us Alone” (Arts & Crafts)
The very opposite of a morning record, the latest from dour Canadian troubadour is a slow, subtle, sometimes sad, sometimes scary drive through a long, black night. Yes, this is Hayden, aka Paul Hayden Desser, he of the five minutes of alt-rock fame in 1996 for his arresting debut single “Bad as They Seem.” Songs shuffle slowly, a snare drum occasionally startles because of its infrequency, guitars whisper, and the lap steel moans from distances it’s difficult to achieve in mere studio recording. He’s mentioned that he made much of this album upstairs at night while his daughter slept, and it sounds it, like Mark Kozelek strumming on eggshells. A wonderful, gritty surprise. (Read more)
Laura Marling, “Once I Was an Eagle” (Ribbon)
So the digital age still delivers the occasional jaw-dropping A-side! The first seven songs of this 16-track stunner are a single suite, knitted together with the same basic and occasionally Middle Eastern strumming drone and one serious rumination on the depths of a complicated relationship. With her soft, husky voice — reminds me of a spent, sleepy Jennifer Trynin, though it’s completely Cat Power-ish on “Devil’s Resting Place” — this young British folkie is sweet as a wood nymph and as acerbic as Martha Wainwright. A fine find.
Savages, “Silence Yourself” (Matador)
Savages are a serious post-punk quartet, and it’s worth hushing up in order to hear the intricacies at work amid all their carefully wrought guitar squall and gleefully bleak observations. Songs massage as much fierce feedback as they do surprisingly supple melody, resulting in a rock record built on old tropes but crafting a fresh sound. (Read more)
Lorde, “Pure Heroine” (Universal)
This babe from the New Zealand woods, Ella Yelich-O’Connor, is the undisputed critics darling of the year. She’s delivered a superb debut, no doubt, though I haven’t been as googly-eared over this as so many other scribes. Its winning simplicity allures — little more than some block-rockin’ beats, muted synths, and Lorde’s powerful but accessible voice (that is, a nice voice, not “The Voice”) — and despite the serious tones of her moody melodies, there’s a playful, Lily Allen quality to her lyrics, saving the whole operation from utter pretension. Whew.
David Bowie, “The Next Day” (Columbia)
Not as easy to digest as the previous albums he made with producer Tony Visconti (2002’s “Heathen, 2003’s “Reality”), the hopefully titled “The Next Day” brings the band back in for a horn-honking, singer-squawking, lyrically fetishized hootenanny that ultimately gels as a new Bowie classic. (Read more)
Kanye West, “Yeezus” (Def Jam)
While 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was honed and actually beautiful — in Kanye’s notoriously brash way — “Yeezus” hardly ever deigns to be tuneful, fluid, or even aurally attractive. That doesn’t mean the sum total isn’t an intensely smart, finely crafted bit of studio genius. Again.
CHVRCHES, “The Bones of What You Believe” (Glassnote-Virgin)
Speaking of 808s and heartbreak: My ’80s fixations glare through in this selection, but this Scottish trio’s synth-driven pop is so clean and breezy we don’t even have to discuss its very old New Wave influences in the presence of innocent millennials. Melodies as cherub-cute as singer Lauren Mayberry, important earnestness, a vibrant synth-vocal combo — CHVRCHES warm up with a Depeche Mode forthrightness and mix the studied modernity of the Drums with the winning postmodernity of the xx. Good enough while we wait for Robyn, anyway.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.