The 40 best albums of 2013
Sorry Jay Z, Daft Punk and Gaga… you just didn't cut it. Here are the records that excited our ears this year
Fri Dec 6 2013
From glorious comebacks to stunning debuts, 2013 has given us plenty of records to get excited about. The Time Out Music Team have crunched the numbers and argued the toss to put together this list of the year's very best albums. Every single one is worth a listen.
Halfway through recording his latest album as Dirty Beaches, Alex Zhang Hungtai went through a hard break-up and moved from Montreal to Berlin. You can hear the fractures running through ‘Drifters/Love Is the Devil’: between the Americas and Europe, the past and the present, the seedy synth loops of ‘Drifters’ and the austere, borderline ambient elegies of ‘Love Is the Devil’. It’s a starkly beautiful album for exiles everywhere. James Manning
A cult presence on Warp Records in the ’90s, Boards of Canada have found massive fame for their beautiful hazy beats since they went underground in 2005. They matched huge expectations with this, their first album in eight years – even progressing into more tribal and industrial spaces along the way. Oliver Keens
Deafheaven – 'Sunbather'
Woah – black metal? On the Time Out albums of the year list? Believe it, baby. With its machine-gun drumming and pained, high-pitch screeching, this California duo’s second album is undeniably black metal. But they’ve filtered it through a love of shoegaze melodies and post-rock atmospherics, like Mogwai stranded in a Norwegian forest, to create a heady, harsh and brilliant little record. Eddy Frankel
Danny Brown – 'Old'
Before 2011’s mind-bending ‘XXX’ made him the internet’s favourite molly-fuelled party rapper, Danny Brown was a street emcee from Detroit. The 32-year-old returned to past stomping grounds on ‘Old’, a claustrophobic 19-track mission statement bubbling with angst and ’hood credentials that also pushed into new sonic territory. Brown staked his claim as one of the game’s most versatile players, while production from Paul White, Rustie and Darq E Freaker solidified ‘Old’ into one of 2013’s most musically innovative albums. Nick Aveling
While Hot Chip were touring the world this year, five upstart Scousers released a debut album that threatened to oust them as the UK’s resident synth lords. Outfit’s ‘Performance’ brought together perfectly poised songwriting and dance floor nous with shades of retro synth-pop and an avant-garde edge. Don’t bet against them becoming major players in 2014. James Manning
Thee Oh Sees – 'Floating Coffin'
Beating off stiff competition from Wooden Shjips and Ty Segall (twice), John Dwyer and his freak-rocking garage band made the best record to come out of the Californian psychedelic scene in 2013. ‘Floating Coffin’ combined frazzled guitars, alien keyboards and relentless grooves with some of Thee Oh Sees’ most cohesive songs in years. It’s also a strong contender for the year’s most terrifying album cover. (Seriously, what the hell even is that?) James Manning
If you thought the Ohioan band's breakthrough album, ‘High Violet’, was suffused with melancholy, try sucking on this bittersweet LP. The across-the-board superlative critical acclaim is deserved – this is a record that's full of heart, from a band at very top of their game. Jonny Ensall
Earl Sweatshirt – 'Doris'
Earl Sweatshirt dropped the shock and went straight for the awe on this, his major label debut. Gone were the flippant references to shit and murder. Kept was Earl’s baroque, labyrinthine flow. Added were thick, molasses-y beats and a slew of net-gain feature appearances. ‘Doris’ didn’t meet the astronomically high expectations lumped on this 19-year-old from LA, the unlikely son of South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile – it went right around them. Nick Aveling
Tim Hecker – 'Virgins'
At the heart of that slippery genre often described as ‘ambient’ is the idea that music can be felt rather than heard. That was especially true in case of Tim Hecker’s latest album ‘Virgins’. The LP featured the revered Montreal artist’s usual banks of melodic noise – organ sounds piled upon organ sounds and treated with cathedral-sized amounts of reverb – along with twinkling piano melodies, rising up through the electronic haze in unexpected ways. You might not be able to pinpoint just which part of ‘Virgins’ you like best, but a journey through the entire album is a memorable experience, nonetheless. Jonny Ensall
Kurt Vile – 'Wakin on a Pretty Daze'
Philadelphia indie scenester Kurt Vile isn’t just blessed with an awesome name, but also with a master’s ear for rich chord sequences and lyrical guitar lines. Clocking in at well over an hour, and yoking together lo-fi intimacy with creamy, dreamy production, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’ is Vile’s most accomplished record to date: the musical equivalent of a strong black coffee and a stack of maple syrup pancakes on a sunny Sunday morning. James Manning
James Blake – 'Overgrown'
He once was the sensitive face (and voice) of the dubstep scene. Now he’s a proper songwriter. Blake’s dad (also a musician) told the talented, piano-playing youngster to write some of his own material after Blake nicked his lyrics for debut album track ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. This second effort has got a bit more of Blake himself on it, and it’s all the better for it. 'Overgrown' feels grown up, honest and, quite frankly, majestic. It wasn't our fave of the year, but it was a nice surprise to see it take the 2013 Mercury Prize. Jonny Ensall
A warm, psychedelic prog-fest with electronics at its core, ‘The Inheritors’ saw its creator move away from the electro sheen of his much-loved debut ‘The Idiots Are Winning’. His follow-up channelled the more hippie-ish sound of German experimentalists like Popul Vah and Tangerine Dream, while still putting the needs of a dancefloor first. Oliver Keens
How did a 47-year-old farmer from Tel Amir in Syria make it onto this list? It’s got a little to do with Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, the London electronic wizard who produced Omar Souleyman’s studio debut. But mostly it’s down to the man himself: to his harsh, imposing voice, his enigmatic charisma, and his two decades’ experience (with musician Rizan Sa’id) transforming traditional Arabic and Kurdish songs into supercharged electro-folk stompers and belting them out at weddings. ‘Wenu Wenu’ is a dance album that perfectly fulfils its prime objective: it’s impossible to hear it and keep your feet still. James Manning
Vampire Weekend – 'Modern Vampires of the City'
On their third LP, the preppy New Yorkers took their Afro-tinged indie-pop template, squished it around, experimented on it and crammed in some rock ’n’ roll. What came out was an Elvis-tinged, alt-rockin’ Frankenstein and it was bloody brilliant. Time signatures shifted at the drop of a hat, Ezra Koenig’s tender vocals were synthetically manipulated and harpsichord effects were thrown in among orchestral flourishes. ‘Modern Vampires…’ marked the year Vampire Weekend took a risk, and it’ll be paying off for years to come. Danielle Goldstein
A lot of music is spoken about as being ‘dreamlike’, but that tag can be used erroneously. Not all dreams are woozy, out-of-body experiences. Some are precise, and vital and unnerving at the same time as being otherworldly. This was the essence of ‘Flourish // Perish’, the second album by Canadian art rockers Braids. On it, Raphaelle Standell-Preston sang with birdlike delicacy over skittering percussion, expressive bursts of electronic fuzz, and cascading keyboard melodies. She connected with the listener with the directness of Björk at her best, over backings that recalled Radiohead’s more successful electronic experiments. The whole was strange, resonant and uncannily beautiful. Jonny Ensall
What with all the blabbermouth publicity appearances (‘everything needs to actually be architected’) and self-indulgently cancelled tour dates (let alone the deliberately ludicrous, super-viral ‘Bound 2’ video) Kanye West has been one of the most dramatic musical presences of 2013. It’s no surprise therefore that he also managed to make the most out-there hip hop album of the year. ‘Yeezus’ was brilliantly nuts even by Ye’s standards, by turns confrontational, euphoric, petulant and sexy – and backed by a bewildering patchwork of harsh electronica, classic soul and even glam rock. For all the bluster, ‘Yeezus’ is a bona fide work of art. James Manning
It’s not too much of a stretch, conceptually, to combine the easy-breezy pop-rock of Fleetwood Mac with immaculate R&B. But if you’re going to do it, you need the tunes to back it up – and Danielle, Este and Alana Haim have more hooks than a fly fishing convention. ‘Days Are Gone’ packs some of the strongest pop songs of the last few years, and it’s executed brilliantly too despite some heavy-handed production. All in all, it’s one of the year’s very best pop debuts. James Manning
Over the last few years, three London art school graduates locked themselves in a studio in Seven Sisters and looped drums and synthesizers for hours and hours and hours, deconstructing, rebuilding, perfecting and sharpening a laser-precise sound. They finally emerged in 2013 with this gleaming, industrial avant-techno monster. ‘Factory Floor’ is a captivating and hypnotic piece of work, with only a single flaw: it’s almost too intense and finely crafted for any puny human to actually dance to. James Manning
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – 'II'
A supremely tight album of grungy yet soulful songs, ‘II’ ticked all the trendiest boxes (psych, lo-fi, falsetto-singing). Yet it’s more than simply blog fodder, featuring some classic songwriting, especially on the Motown-esque ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’, and the more explosive ‘Faded in the Morning’. Jonny Ensall
Ella Yellich-O’Connor, a remarkably self-possessed 16-year-old from suburban New Zealand, became one of the faces of 2013 when her song ‘Royals’ went Top Ten in 18 different countries. It was down to her debut album to prove that it wasn’t all a flash in the pan – and Lorde played a blinder with ‘Pure Heroine’, a whip-smart record with sharp lyrics and production values to match. She’ll be around for a while yet. James Manning
J Cole – 'Born Sinner'
Two years can really change a man. Jermaine Cole, the North Carolinan MC, spent the majority of his debut album ‘Cole World’ rapping about drugs, money and hooking up. But his follow-up this year was a heartfelt parable about how bogus he became once he found fame and his attempts to stay grounded and find love. It sounds soppy, but hip hop is about bearing all and skilfully rhyming about it. There’s never been any question about Cole’s ability to eloquently string a verse together, but he reached new heights with the honesty of 'Born Sinner'. The rapper came back down to earth and in doing so hit the top of the charts. Danielle Goldstein
Connan Mockasin – 'Caramel'
Just when you thought you were safe, Connan Mockasin comes back with his second mind-bending psych-funk album of sleepy, creepy tunes. His music has the uncanny ability to sound at once disgusting and alluring. The fact that the blonde-haired musical Nosferatu has five tracks named ‘It’s Your Body’ on one record gives you some idea how corporeally squelchy and awkward ‘Caramel’ is. This is an album to party with, then promptly kick out of bed in the morning when you want to feel clean again. Jonny Ensall
This Hackney four-piece came up with a drum ’n’ bass-meets-big band approach (with elements of hip hop, soul and post-dubstep) that was so fun it was simply irresistible. Their dancey and all-encompassing groove ‘Home’ shot straight to Number One (with a little help from guests including Emeli Sandé and Angel Haze). The album has proved so widely appealing, in fact, it’s hard to believe there’s a Londoner out there who isn’t deliriously chuffed listening to it. Danielle Goldstein
Hookworms – 'Pearl Mystic'
Back in March, this Leeds quintet blew the tops of our heads off and started rearranging the insides with their special brew of semi-improvised motorik fuzz-rock. The storming wig-outs on ‘Pearl Mystic’ may be balanced by woozily drifting Spiritualized-style interludes, but the heady atmosphere doesn’t let up for a minute. The band have already promised something ‘faster and heavier’ next time – we’re not sure our fragile minds are ready, but we can’t wait nonetheless. James Manning
Chance The Rapper – 'Acid Rap'
The mixtape reached its apotheosis with ‘Acid Rap’, from Chicago’s Chancelor ‘Chance’ Bennett. The 20-year-old made a mangled question mark of the line separating rapping and singing, pitching his voice somewhere between Mos Def and late-era Esther Phillips. Highlight ‘Juice’ is alone worth the price – or would be, anyway, if ‘Acid Rap’ wasn’t free to download. Nick Aveling
Inspired by Nick Cave’s adopted hometown of Brighton, The Bad Seeds’ fifteenth was an end-of-evening, end-of-season, dawn-of-late-middle-age album that found the singer lusting after mermaids at the sea’s edge. It throbbed, longed and lurked. It did shimmering ballads and shivering blues and cracked jokes about the time Cave drove his Jag into a speed camera in Hove. This was masterful and utterly singular storytelling. Bella Todd
Darkside – 'Psychic'
Electronic producer Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington felt the force together when they teamed up to produce this bluesy and woozy debut. It’s a scintillating record which pushes the boundaries of just how slow and trippy dance music can be while still being dance music. Jaar’s a bit of a wunderkind (he put out his first releases while studying at a US Ivy League university), and he’s brought all of his precocious musical wisdom to bear on this mature yet gloriously out-there project. A true space odyssey. Jonny Ensall
And the Most Appropriate Band Name award goes to… post-punkers Savages. One of London’s fiercest live acts, the all-female four-piece easily squashed any doubts as to whether they could carry their coiled energy into the studio with this majestic debut. Their boiling basslines, ear-splitting guitars and impassioned shrieks made ‘Silence Yourself’ an immediate cult classic – but it was the album’s simmering, langorous moments that really lifted it above the post-punk pack. James Manning
All manner of chimes and dongs went into this unique album by Hamburg producer Pantha Du Prince (aka Hendrik Weber). On paper, a 40-minute suite of songs written for bells and beats sounded like a hard-going avant-garde experiment. However Weber used the driving force of techno to create something colourful, moving and with a locomotive edge last heard when Kraftwerk boarded the ‘Trans-Europe Express’. Oliver Keens
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