Let’s put “the good old days” of recording history in perspective. As a decent rock n’ roller in 1963, you’d be lucky to sell enough 45s to even dream of getting the opportunity to lay down an LP. A decade later, you’d be warned that concept albums were “just a fad.” So take your industry doomsaying and put it up against our selection of the 25 best albums of the year, most of them premised on the old-fashioned notion that listeners will sit through the whole thing. Case in point: In 2013, the reigning king of hip-hop worked with Rick Rubin, Daft Punk, and the ghost of Nina Simone on a dense, droning album that advertises its conceptual daring at every turn, is very hard to sit through, and landed near the top of our list.
So, while television eminences sputtered on about the year’s messier pop-culture moments (Lily Allen’s war on hip-hop! Miley Cyrus at the VMAs! “Accidental Racist”!), musicians across musical idioms played the album format in interesting ways, whether as a novel (Laura Marling’s Once I Was an Eagle), a sonic self-redefinition (Drake’s Nothing Was the Same), a nonfiction song cycle about romantic tension with your bandmate (the Civil Wars’ self-titled LP), or even a stoned-out entry in an ongoing serialized saga (Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady).
If the traditional long-player format remains sustainable from an artistic standpoint, we can take further encouragement from sales. Consider a week in late June, when the year’s most pretentious hip-hop album (Yeezus) appeared the same day as the year’s least pretentious hip-hop album (Born Sinner). Both went gold almost immediately. The market has spoken: If album-as-format is dead, it’s enjoying one hell of an afterlife. Ted Scheinman
Editor’s Note: Check out our list of The 25 Best Singles of 2013.
Little Boots, Nocturnes
Like on her debut (and countless dance-pop treasures before it), the hooks and rhythms on Victoria Hesketh’s sophomore effort, Nocturnes, burrow farther and farther into your brain with each spin. If the strength of 2009’s Hands was its variety, though, Nocturnes‘s is its consistency, with a more focused attention on electronic dance music. The ‘80s is a decided touchstone, from the sliced-and-diced vocals of “Every Night I Say a Prayer” to the electro-Kate-Bush hook of “All for You,” and while the album stumbles slightly when it directly apes past dance subgenres rather than slyly nodding to them within the context of a more contemporary EDM sound, its highlights, like opening track “Motorway,” which pairs the time-honored theme of escape from a small town with cool synth pads and a subtly propulsive undercurrent, and the rollicking single “Broken Record,” make it easy to keep Nocturnes stuck on repeat. Sal Cinquemani
My Bloody Valentine, m b v
How do you follow a miracle? If you’re My Bloody Valentine, you don’t bother, especially when your own miracle, 1991’s Loveless, becomes such a colossal, money-sucking commercial failure that it makes you question whether these ignorant philistines were worth all the trouble in the first place. Or at least that’s what you did until earlier this year, when—without fanfare—you decide the world might finally be ready for another one. While m b v may not have the genre-shaking influence of its predecessor, it’s no less perfect for failing to foment the same kind of slow-burning revolution. It astonishes not by establishing a new musical lexicon (as its predecessor did), but by revealing just how much more can still be done with it. Blue Sullivan
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
The unique vocal and theatrical symbiosis that distinguished the Civil Wars from their contemporary-folk peers always seemed a bit too good to be true, and the duo’s very public breakup during an abbreviated European tour suggested that such intimate musical collaborations can only last so long. The Civil Wars, recorded as the duo’s relationship disintegrated, reflects the fragile tensions that inevitably develop in long-term partnerships and the desperate, confused attempts made to salvage them. Those tensions render the album a more muscular production than 2011’s Barton Hollow: the Rick Rubin-produced “I Had Me a Girl” features a razor-sharp electric guitar that slices through the Civil Wars’ signature honeyed harmonies, and “The One That Got Away” finds Joy Williams and John Paul White pushing one another toward new extremes of vocal range. Light spots like the uptempo “From This Valley” leaven the album’s lyrical weight and allow one to hope that this tightly wrought collaboration won’t be the group’s last. Annie Galvin
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
The V in their name, inserted to make it easier to find them on the Internet, may be a tell that Chvrches hail from the 21st century, but everything else about the icy fortress of sound that the Scottish trio constructs on The Bones of What You Believe is mainlined straight from the ‘80s. The band appropriates both the misty synthesizers of Cocteau Twins and the laser-sharp pop sensibilities of New Order, welding them together to create stomping anthems. “Lies” channels the glaring swagger of Depeche Mode, while “Gun,” underpinned by the crystalline fragility of Lauren Mayberry’s voice, glistens with a vast yearning reminiscent of Kate Bush. Like breath hitting crisp air, Chvrches are a fascinating meeting of human warmth and brutal cold. Mark Collett
Lightning Dust, Fantasy
In my review of Web Therapy, I mentioned that the worst piece of advice I ever received was from a well-intentioned but misguided friend who told me that “feelings are just chemicals.” Lightning Dust’s Amber Webber must have received similar false comfort from a friend, but actually bought it hook, line, and sinker: “Whisper to me that you’ve had enough/Apologize that you’re not in love/If it’s just the chemicals in our brains/Stop, stay,” she pleads on “Diamond,” the opening track of the Canadian duo’s third album. Webber makes similar such laments about fading love throughout the album in a quivering, reverb-cloaked vibrato backed by partner Joshua Wells’s sparse, minimalist arrangements of ominous, creeping synths, Wurlitzer, and occasional acoustic guitar. The hooks are memorable and often mesmerizing, like on the enchanting penultimate ballad “Agatha.” If the songs on the first half of Fantasy trigger the chemicals in your brain, the captivating tracks that make up the second half implore you to submit to them completely. Cinquemani