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Andy Juniper

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Why Men Love Making Top 10 Album Lists

Posted: 12/17/2013 12:21 pm

It's that time of year again, when critics, reviewers, amateur enthusiasts of all things aural -- hell, every basement blogger and his tone deaf brother -- pull tiny muscles in their large heads compiling and posting for public consumption their lists of Top Albums of the Year. Ah, be still your beating heart...

A female friend once pointed out that these oftentimes inane lists are (strangely, suspiciously) almost always the domain of men. "It's a real guy thing," she said. And I'm fairly certain that wasn't a compliment considering she expounded by suggesting that spending precious time attempting to rank what is in essence unrankable -- how can one even suggest that one work of art is actually better than another? -- is anal, compulsive. A real sickness.

Inexplicably, women seem to have no need or, more remarkably, no desire to even attempt to rank the oftentimes unrankable (unless figure skaters or contestants on Dancing With The Stars are involved). They seem quite content to just listen to music and not even contemplate what album should be sagaciously declared the year's best. And similarly content not caring about who happens to be topping what list. I know this for a fact because I asked the many females in my world if they knew who ruled Rolling Stone's roost (or Spin, or NME, or Pitchfork, or whatever), and the answer I received most often was: "How did you get my phone number?" Followed closely by, "Who cares?"

Who cares? My word, I care. That's who!

Honestly, I'll tell you who really cares. Sports guys care, and I'm one of them. And why do we care? Because, we are the worst. We are the most anal, the most compulsive, the sickest seekers of some sort of hierarchy in all things, as established by... us. We demand demarcation. We want to know. We need to know. We won't leave a bar or a dinner party until it's decided, definitively, which means we're there until someone turns out the lights, or the sun comes up, or the booze runs out, debating, say: Top 10 Lefty Relievers Ever. Five Best Goalies to Ever Wear the Blue & White. Did I mention that this is a sickness?

Eventually, of course, we run out of sports topics to demarcate to death, so we turn our musings to music. I cannot tell you why so many sports journalists are music nuts. But they are. And they tend to not be paddling their dinghies down music's mainstream. Check out any indie or alternative concert at any oddball hole-in-the-wall venue and you'll find them, front and centre, generally not acting their age -- all the guys who write-up sports stories, or put their ballsy baritones into jock broadcasts, or light-up the nightly sportscasts with their wit and wisdom. And all probably inventing more infernal lists as they jabber amongst themselves between sets of alt-rockers Capitalist Pigs Eat Paste & Die!

Top 10 Songs By The Jayhawks, Original Lineup. Or how about this gem, an old post by the A.V. Club breaking down Ten Great Songs Nearly Ruined By Saxaphone. Yeah, that one actually happened.

You know, I'm pretty sure that deep down most of us get it. We know that these lists are purely subjective and sans all science. And that our pathological postings on pecking order are no more definitive than anyone else's lousy list, no matter how obviously undiscerning and stupid their tastes. Now, as we zoom toward the close of 2013, as the lists just keep on piling up -- hey, how about a list of the Top 10 Album Lists? -- we surely become acutely aware that the world does not really need another curious cataloguing of the Top Albums of 2013.

Yeah, whatever.

It's been a banner year for new music. Here's my list (Editor's note: this list is indeed definitive and makes all other lists look like Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers -- that is, pale Pretenders):

1. Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium
2. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
3. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
4. Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold
5. The Avett Brothers, Magpie & The Dandelion
6. Sam Phillips, Push Any Button
7. Jake Bugg, Shangri La
8. The Head & The Heart, Let's Be Still
9. Paul McCartney, New
10. Cayucas, Big Foot
11. Jimmy Eat World, Damage
12. Foxygen, We Are The 21rst Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
13. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight
14. Generationals, Heza
15. The Olms, The Olms
16. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
17. Dawes, Stories Don't End
18. San Fermin, San Fermin
19. The Shouting Matches, Grownass Man
20. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Made Up Mind
21. The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
22. Lorde, Pure Heroine
23. Washed Out, Paracosm
24. Haim, Days Are Gone
25. The Milk Carton Kids, Ashes & Clay

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  • 10. Sky Ferreira — "Night Time, My Time"

    Plagued with a drug arrest scandal just prior to singer Sky Ferreira’s debut album release, "Night Time, My Time" became a highly overlooked — and severely under-promoted, as Ferreira pointed out in a Twitter rant against her record label — album which truly deserved all of our attention. It's a rewarding debut given the numerous delays behind its release, but the final product showed a pop artist whose versatility is well documented in this collection of songs, which vary from ‘80s power pop to Cat Power-inspired somber ballads. Standout track: “You’re Not the One”

  • 9. Chvrches — "The Bones Of What You Believe"

    Glasgow trio Chvrches, like many on this list, produced one of the year's best debut albums because of their ability to hone in a signature sound right off the bat. Their heavy synth barrage of vibrant electronics sounds perfected like a science, with every loop and programmed beat fitted into its very specific place to set off the perfect sound foundation for singer Lauren Mayberry's sharp, pointed words. A brazen display of modern technology, Chvrches' human touches is what completes their sound, creating an album that's simultaneously futuristic and charismatic. Standout track: “Lies”

  • 8. Lady Gaga — "ARTPOP"

    Lady Gaga gives us her best album yet with "ARTPOP," an aspiring work of meta-dance pop glory. It’s a cluttered album, but one that reveals humanity in the pristinely presented pop star. Tracks erupt with strange arrangements and production, but buried in there are indeed many melodic gems that manifest into anthemic throwdowns. It's the sort of wonderfully self-indulgent affair that is expected from Gaga, yet still pleasantly surprising. Standout track: “G.U.Y.”

  • 7. Arcade Fire — "Reflektor"

    Following up their Grammy Award-winning album "The Suburbs," Montreal indie-rockers Arcade Fire upped the ambition with a two-disc opus this year called "Reflektor." Embracing a more celebratory, upbeat sound that crosses over into pop territory -- with some help from LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy — "Reflektor" translates the band's reflective words into something worth dancing to as opposed to toiling over. It's a glittering piece of work that maintains the band’s sincerity while exploring new sounds that are just as big and determined. Standout track: "Afterlife"

  • 6. Miley Cyrus – "Bangerz"

    We may have fixated on many of Miley Cyrus’ actions this year – twerking, pot-smoking, pants-neglecting – but the true engine that drove the mania we saw before us was the pop star’s transformative album, "Bangerz." A matured step outside of the safe bubblegum hooks of her past, Cyrus embraced a bombastic new look and sound that actually paid off. Singles “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” are among some of the year’s best songs with infectious melodies that possess a gift of longevity, a rarity in pop music today. But beyond that, the entire album proves to be an accurate portrait of a child star’s growing pains: it’s rebellious, it’s shameless and it’s everything one should expect from a 20-year-old woman trying to discover who she really is. Standout track: “Wrecking Ball”

  • 5. Charli XCX - "True Romance"

    Responsible for co-writing Swedish duo Icona Pop's breakout hit, "I Love It," British songwriter/pop star Charli XCX released her own full-length this year, crafting the perfect hooks for herself using similar traits from her most successful hit. Brash pop melodies combined with industrial, house and mainstream influences from many eras, Charli’s collage sound is very much the patchwork of a young woman who grew up in the age of the Internet (she's only 21). Still, what stands out most is the star’s writing abilities, which have since earned her opportunities to work with the Princess of Pop herself, Britney Spears. Standout track: "You (Ha Ha Ha)"

  • 4. Ariana Grande — "Yours Truly"

    Heavily lauded as the new Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande has some large, diva-sized shoes to fill and her debut album, "Yours Truly," delivers. Matching Carey’s range, octave for octave, Grande’s honeyed vocals soar above a set of equally saccharine ballad-pop piano and R&B-influenced songs. "Yours Truly" successfully pulls Grande out of the shadow of her predecessors and shines the spotlight forward on one of pop's brightest stars. Standout track: "Baby I"

  • 3. Lorde – "Pure Heroine"

    Pop took a new form in Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a.k.a. Lorde, this year. The now-17-year-old New Zealander burst onto the charts, spanning the board of genres from pop to R&B, with her breakout track “Royals,” which decries the unrelatable opulence espoused in the songs of her contemporaries. Her debut full-length "Pure Heroine" follows suit, showcasing Lorde's innate skill for crafting direct and honest lyrics about how it feels to be a normal teenager while navigating around sparse electronic arrangements inspired by bands such as The xx. The confident Lorde has proven that she has a lot to say — sometimes even outside of her music, as her ever-growing list of beefs might indicate — and we’re definitely excited to hear more from the young star in the years to come. Standout track: “Team”

  • 2. Justin Timberlake – "The 20/20 Experience Part 1"

    The music world welcomed back Justin Timberlake this year after a seven-year absence and "The 20/20 Experience Part 1" is just as lavish and extravagant as we had hoped for. Teaming up with longtime collaborator/producer Timbaland, "The 20/20 Experience" is Timberlake at his most polished and sophisticated as he flawlessly executes pop songs with his signature falsetto like the seasoned pro that he is. And even though the poorly thought-out mess that was "The 20/20 Experience Part 2" almost threatened to erase the progress of its more triumphant half, "Part 1" is a great, constant reminder that Timberlake does indeed belong on the charts even more than he does on the big screen. Standout track: "Mirrors"

  • 1. Tegan and Sara – "Heartthrob"

    Many would say that the sleek and polished pop of Tegan and Sara's seventh studio album "Heartthrob" was a huge departure from their past work, which dabbled in folk, punk and alternative rock. But what was always present in the band’s 15-plus years of writing and recording was their innate knack for a good melody. Instead of churning out another riff-heavy rock album, Tegan and Sara bravely jumped ship into the synth-pop game, resulting in a product that still held their integrity in its direct, lovelorn lyrics, but packaged in a radio-friendlier exterior that truthfully suits the band better. Standout track: “Closer”

  • BEST CANADIAN ALBUMS OF 2013

    By Liisa Ladouceur

  • 13. Monster Truck - "Furiosity"

    Stepping up to the meat-and-potatoes rawk 'n' roll stage left void by Chad Kroeger getting busy with Avril instead of new Nickelback (#smallmercies), Hamilton's Monster Truck delivered riffs and roars aplenty on its debut full-length. The Junos anointed the band Breakthrough Group of the Year and "Furiosity" is a strong contender for next year’s Rock Album statuette. Featured Song: "The Lion"

  • 12. Classified - "Classified"

    Long gone are the days when only one Canadian rap artist could get attention at once. Far from the shadow of Drake, East Coast rapper Classified rose to the top of the country's charts with his 15th (!) studio album and its bouncy hit singles "Inner Ninja" and "3 Foot Tall." The disc is packed with notable collaborators —Kardinal Offishall, Raekwon, "X-Factor" star Olly Mur — but the real guest star is Classified the producer; his sharp talents will serve him well if, as he told Huffington Post earlier this year, he takes a break being an MC. Featured Song: "That Ain't Classy"

  • 11. Daniel Romano - "Come Cry with Me"

    This new platter of classic country should come packaged with handkerchiefs, for Daniel Romano's olde tyme hurting songs — many of which sound like they could have premiered at the Grand Ole Opry 50 years ago — will have you weeping in your beer and/or pillow. Romano's traditional drawl, sequinned suits and his irony-free performance style has been slowly but surely grabbing the attention of George Jones and Waylon Jennings fans as well as young listeners discovering traditional country for the first time. Featured Song: "He Lets Her Memory Go (Wild)"

  • 10. Arcade Fire - "Reflektor"

    Because even the worst Arcade Fire album — too long by half, a dance record you can't dance to — is better than most other albums these days. It's time to admit it, this is Canada's U2, and not every one of the band's experiments will be a winner but ultimately they will all be remembered. Featured Song: "Reflektor"

  • 9. Young Galaxy - "Ultramarine"

    Pretty indie pop is reaching critical mass out there, but Young Galaxy (Montrealers by way of Vancouver) made something special on this fourth record, conjuring pure pleasure from many different moods. "Pretty Boy" is the best kind of 21st century new wave; "New Summer" can take over from the Hip's "Bobcaygeon" as your favourite cottage sunset jam; "Fever" is classic clap-a-long. Basically, "Ultramarine" is the album you wanted "Reflektor" to be. Featured Song: "New Summer"

  • 8. Tim Hecker - "Virgins"

    Breaking out of the niche musical community that embraced his early experiments in drones and minimalism, Tim Hecker reaches new heights with this gorgeous collection of orchestral pieces. The abstract, unconventional structures and glitches of distorted noise are still there, but choreographed alongside organic instruments like woodwinds and harpsichord into a heavenly body of work. Featured Song: "Live Room + Live Room Out"

  • 7. Brendan Canning - "You Gots 2 Chill"

    Brendan Canning's not kidding. The second solo record from the Broken Social Scene founder is seriously mellowwwwww. The vibe is more living room than chill-out room, and each moment is carefully placed, fully present, from the opening acoustic guitar instrumental "Post Fahey" through dreamy folk for the Nick Cave and Elliott Smith lovers out there to the melancholy closer "Last Song for the Summer Hideaway." A fine follow-up move after Canning's soundtrack for the Lindsay Lohan flop "Canyons," putting him back on the 2013 "winners" list. Featured Song: "Plugged In"

  • 6. City and Colour - "The Hurry and the Harm"

    On his first solo album since the split of Alexisonfire, singer/guitarist Dallas Green kept to the realm of grave acoustic confessionals he's been releasing as City and Colour since 2005, but with a freedom to get out his innermost anxieties without concern for band fall-out. The result is portrait of an artist as an aging man, taking his first steps towards writing things not about himself (the single "Thirst"), all the while preoccupied with his own mortality ("Two Coins," "Death Song"). Melancholic Americana that successfully bridges Green's past and his future. Featured Song: "Two Coins"

  • 5. Shad - Flying Colours

    "I never thought on the day I started to write rhymes / That I might climb / And now it’s like I / Just may be Jay-Z in my lifetime." He's been a One to Watch for almost a decade now but Shad still feels on the cusp of mainstream success. Regardless, "Flying Colours" is a tour de force, a true album with layer upon layer of clever wordplay both biographical and fantastical. His seven-minute track "Progress (Part 1: American Pie, Part 2: The Future is Here)" is as biting social commentary as you'll hear anywhere this year, and exhibits a musical sophistication that puts Shad up with the best anywhere in the world. Featured Song: "Stylin" featuring Saukrates

  • 4. Majical Cloudz - "Impersonator"

    Haunting and heavy, this minimal synthpop record from Montreal duo Majical Cloudz showcases one of the country's most compelling and strongest new vocalists in Devon Welsh. The former Grimes collaborator strips down to the bone here, his intense confessionals about friendship and loss, nightmares and death supported by a warm ambient pulse. Don't be fooled by the title "Impersonator," Welsh and his emo electronica is in a league of its own. Featured Song: "Childhood's End"

  • 3. Tegan and Sara - "Heartthrob"

    It came out way back in January and has thus been overshadowed by summer smashes from south of the border, but this seventh album from the Vancouver sisters was a giant leap in their pop songwriting prowess that catapulted them onto "Glee" and the Billboard Top 5 and should be remembered as one of 2013's best. Boasting slick production and killer hooks throughout, "Heartthrob" combines the best of youthful exuberance and adult insight into affairs of the heart, positioning Tegan and Sara as go-to for both teens and grown-ups. The duo's guest appearance on stage with Macklemore for "Same Love" at Osheaga in August was also a highlight of the year's music festival season. Featured Song: "I Was A Fool"

  • 2. Drake - "Nothing Was the Same"

    There were new albums from Avril, Celine and Bublé this year, but the only Canadian music superstar to drop a truly impressive effort was Drake. Never mind the overnight line-ups to score free T-shirts promoting "Nothing was the Same" in Toronto, New York and L.A, Kayne showing up to his OVO Fest, which has become Canada's first truly get-on-a-plane-for-this summer music festival, or his new role as global ambassador for the Raptors — it's the music that makes his world domination possible. This third album is polished and accomplished, "Hold On, We're Going Home" an instant classic and "Started from the Bottom" quickly entering the pop culture lexicon, something few Canadian artists have accomplished, ever. Featured Song: "Hold On, We're Going Home" ft. Majid Jordan

  • 1. Basia Bulat - "Tall Tall Shadow"

    Canada's legacy of female folk legends is secured in Basia Bulat, who has crafted the album of the year in Tall Tall Shadow. The 29-year-old singer/songwriter wields an autoharp, piano, organ, and a honeyed, raw voice that fans of Joni Mitchell and Feist would be foolish not buy into without prejudice post haste. Recorded in a naturally reverberating old dance hall and co-produced by Mark Lawson and Tim Kinsbury (a member of Arcade Fire), Tall Tall Shadow has a grandiose, ethereal sound that oozes comfort and joy, but the songs themselves are devastatingly tragic. Basia's plaintive vocal trilling on "It Can’t Be You" will break your heart; the cheerful doo-wop handclaps of "Promise Not To Think About Love" will stitch it back up again. With pure, powerful melodies, brutally honest lyrics, but always full of much hope, "Tall Tall Shadow" is a masterwork from a woman ready for prime-time. Featured Song: "Tall Tall Shadow"

  • BEST INDIE ALBUMS OF 2013

    By Trevor Risk

  • 10. The Dirtbombs - "Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey"

    Detroit veterans The Dirtbombs decided to shine their light on '60s pop act Ohio Express and they did so with such accuracy that it almost plays like a parody album. Putting away their often-used fuzz lines and pinpointing the idea of drums functioning as hooks, this record is also on par with anything done by the Archies or Sha Na Na. Standout track: “Hot Sour Salty Sweet”

  • 9. Connan Mockasin – "Caramel"

    If you’re the kind of person who still pitches woo by making mixed tapes, go in strong by including Connan Mockasin's single off his most recent release, "I'm The Man, That Will Find You." It's smooth and romantic and just weird enough to be intriguing. The album plays like a less obtuse Ariel Pink, if Dean Learner delivered it from his talk show. If this is where psychedelic music is moving towards, start paying attention. Standout track: "I'm The Man, That Will Find You"

  • 8. War Baby - "Jesus Horse"

    Any listener will give this record an obligatory Bleach comparison, and that's fair but with EDM ruling the airwaves as well as the live industry, it's a healthy reminder to re-discover your spastic guitar roots. With frontman Jon Red's House-Of-Guitars-style of absurdist humour in their videos and social media, and a live show that makes them sell out of merchandise nightly, expect big things from this rising act in the next two years. Standout track: "Horseless Headman"

  • 7. Louise Burns -"The Midnight Mass"

    It's mildly en vogue to switch lanes from dreamy, guitar pop into a more electronic realm, but Louise Burns' second record did it with more aplomb than her contemporaries. Instead of attempting to become a radio sensation by getting hyper-billboard producers and writers on board (which we’ll call "The Liz Phair Manoeuver") Ms. Burns enlisted The Raveonettes' Sune Rose Wagner to man the controls on a darker record than one might expect from her. Also with the help of indie all-stars Sandra Vu (Dum Dum Girls), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), Darcy Hancock (Ladyhawk), Brennan Saul (Brasstronaut), and James Younger, Louise Burns is in an indie episode of Hollywood Squares, and she's in Betty White’s seat. Standout track: "Don't Like Sunny Days” Featured song: "Emerald Shatter"

  • 6. Yuck - "Glow And Behold"

    Yuck had a mountain to climb with their follow-up to their scorching, self-titled debut and they nailed it by doing something we don't see in music that often anymore: parity. All the songs have different styles to them, instead of just trying to make a sequel to the album that got them so much attention. "Rebirth" might be the most obvious "Loveless" tribute ever made (and that's saying something), "Middle Sea" could be on any Placebo full-length, and "Nothing New" belongs on Ash's 2001 release "Free All Angels." Standout track: "Middle Sea"

  • 5. The Ballantynes – "Liquor Store Gun Store Pawn Shop Church"

    Northern soul was the original rave music. That beat can make any wallflower turn into a stomping, sweaty mess, and the fact that it's under-utilized is one of the great shames of fashionable music. Vancouver's The Ballantynes may be one of the only acts doing a straight-ahead version of this style, but they're not lazy about it. With vintage Hammonds and powerful backups vocals, they are being true to the genre and making even young fans nostalgic for a time they don't remember. Standout track: "No Love"

  • 4. Teenanger - "Singles Don't $ell"

    Toronto's Teenanger released their third full-length this year and it's made some long strides in securing them as the country's finest garage-punk act. Without falling into the trap of being a tribute to the decades-old genre, "Singles Don't $ell" has seen their songwriting go beyond what many fans thought they could, and coupled with some of the most interesting production on guitar-based music since Grinderman, Teenanger have stepped up another full plateau. Standout track: "Singles Don't $ell"

  • 3. HAIM - "Days Are Gone"

    The Haim sisters get a lot of backlash, mostly from stylish, talented, young women, in the same way that hip men in the early part of the century quickly turned on the White Stripes after they went all MTV on us. It should be noted that HAIM are definitely not a "put together" band unless you count their parents training them up from a young age to be a juggernaut live act, complete with top shelf charm and Este's now famous “bass face." Standout track: "Forever" Also see: <a href="http://youtu.be/OlN9AJkgeYk" target="_blank">David Letterman fall deeply in love with them</a>.

  • 2. The History of Apple Pie – "Out of View"

    We're living in a time of '90s revisionism with the popularity of acts like the Weeknd and Sleigh Bells being both critical stars and touring machines, and London's The History of Apple Pie are one part <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Records" target="_blank">Sarah Records</a> act and two parts <a href="http://youtu.be/VW15vdcNSSk" target="_blank">The Rentals</a>. If your soul is empty because there hasn't been a new Pains of Being Pure at Heart record in two years, fill it with "Out of View." Standout track: “Mallory”

  • 1. Cut Copy - "Free Your Mind"

    It looked a little bleak for Cut Copy recently. With the massively underwhelming release of 2011's "Zonoscope," the fact that band members were living in different hemispheres, and the somewhat boring first single off Free "Your Mind," they looked like they might sink in the same way peers MGMT and Bloc Party have. However, their latest album is rich with texture in the variety of songs, and indie-meets-deep-house production. Cut Copy is back, and this might be their best album yet. Standout track: "Meet Me In a House of Love"

  • BEST COUNTRY ALBUMS OF 2013

    By Stuart Henderson

  • 10. Brad Paisley - "Wheelhouse"

    Perhaps the most daring album on this list full of daring albums, Nashville megastar Brad Paisley's overtly progressive "Wheelhouse" swings for the fences, and sometimes lands a homer. Indeed, on a couple tracks he even manages a walk-off grand slam. Tackling Southern-pride-cum-xenophobia ("Southern Comfort Zone"), domestic violence ("Karate"), and even religion ("Those Crazy Christians"), Paisley heads way out on a skinny limb, daring his listeners to pepper him with stones. If his songs weren't so catchy, his vocals so radio-friendly, his guitar playing so virtuosic, the record might not have been able to sneak through so easily. (Remember, it wasn't that long ago that the Dixie Chicks found themselves banned across the South for saying much less.) If, sometimes, he reaches too far (or simply blows it, as he does on the wildly over-simplified "Accidental Racist"), he more than makes up for it elsewhere. I can't think of a better bestselling country record in the past five years, nor one as potentially revolutionary in its implication. A milestone. Standout Song: "Southern Comfort Zone"

  • 9. Good Family – "The Good Family Album"

    Two of the most widely respected and consistently excellent bands in Canada, The Good Brothers (active since the late-1960s in one form or another) and The Sadies (often described as the best group working today), are comprised of members of two generations of the same family. While the elders have tended toward bluegrass and country-folk on their records, the youngsters have pushed these forms into thrilling electric territory, turning the Sadies into an innovative and eclectic alt-country powerhouse. Here, on their first complete record together (along with wife/mother Margaret Good, niece/cousin D'Arcy Good and pal/producer Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies) the results are as warm and refreshing as summer rain. Moving freely between ripping bluegrass ("Outside of Saskatoon"), back porch singalongs ("Paradise"), traditional country ("Life Passes," a co-write with Daniel Romano), and hybrids thereof ("Leaf in a Storm," a marvelous brand new song by D'Arcy that feels like it's always been here), the Good Family offers a bit of everything, and often all at once. What a thing to hear. Song: "Coal Black Hills"

  • 8. Ashley Monroe – "Like A Rose"

    At just nine songs and running a brisk 32 minutes, this tightly-constructed record is like a delirious one-nighter, enveloping you with its passion before running off into the night. Sparingly produced by Nashville veteran Vince Gill, Monroe's songs blend wry, subversive humour ("You Ain't Dolly," "Weed Instead of Roses"), social commentary ("Two Weeks Late," the extraordinary title track co-written with Guy Clark), and rollicking honkytonkers into a marvelously compelling whole. Fans of Monroe's pal (and Pistol Annies bandmate) Miranda Lambert will already know her voice, but newcomers will be dazzled by its gracefulness, and by Monroe's unrestrained confidence. Featuring yet another standout track co-written by Shane McAnally – the man is in many ways the story of popular country music in 2013 – "Like a Rose" is the third (along with "Same Trailer" and "12 Stories") in a trifecta of extraordinary, trailblazing country records by women looking to change the conversation. Amen to that. Song: "Like A Rose"

  • 7. Brandy Clark – "12 Stories"

    Brandy Clark, also writing with Shane McAnally, has made a record that in many ways can be described in the same words of praise as Kacey Musgraves'. But, with an album title that echoes Randy Newman's classic "12 Songs," Clark goes even further into the territory he occupied than does her younger contemporary. Playing the outspoken observer, the half-sensitive and half-arch chronicler of a certain North American way of life, Clark writes songs with an acid pen. Highlights abound, but the opening track "Pray to Jesus" may just be the very best song in this vein that I've heard in years. Balancing the bleakness of contemporary post-middle-class poverty with the futility of asking Jesus to let you win the lotto, Clark dares to suggest that even Christianity is a false panacea. A few songs later she's extolling the virtues of smoking dope to escape the pain of a housewife’s wasted life. Country music has told stories like these before, of course, but it feels like a long time since we've heard them sung with such confidence and wisdom Song: "Pray To Jesus"

  • 6. Valarie June – "Pushin’ Against A Stone"

    On her first official record, Memphis fixture Valerie June pushes at the very edges of what we might reasonably call "country" music. Swamp blues, Appalachian folk, traditional country, classic soul, and backporch gospel all rub up against each other in June's songs, while her unmistakable, reedy voice swirls around like smoke, carried aloft on Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) and Kevin Augunas' tasteful, rich co-production. It's a magical album filled with troubled songs; less a country music record than a record haunted by country music. Irresistible. Standout Song: "Tennessee Time"

  • 5. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – "Cheater’s Game"

    But, elsewhere, there's no justice at all. I'll never understand why Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison aren't more famous. On their respective solo records over the past 15 years they have proven, again and again, that they are masters of the form. Her voice is a rare thing, an instrument as powerfully expressive as it is unforgettable. And his songwriting – Robison penned "Travelin' Soldier" for the Dixie Chicks, and "Angry All the Time" for Tim McGraw, for instance – is exemplary. Together, this longtime married couple has fused their respective skills into a winning combination of road-tested experience and utterly fresh, radio-friendly performances. Mixing seven terrific original songs with six well-chosen covers -- Dave Alvin's "Border Radio" is a highlight among highlights -- this record is as much a celebration of the duo's influences as it is a demonstration of their powers. It is mystifying that so little attention has been directed towards this fantastic album. Let's fix that, shall we? Song: "Lifeline" (Live)

  • 4. Kacey Musgraves – "Same Trailer, Different Park"

    Breakout star Kacey Musgraves has somehow managed to square the circle that has bedeviled so many aspiring country artists these past decades. How do you write intelligent songs built around cutting social critiques and still sell more than like eleven records? Well, this is how: Find the perspective between outsider condescension and insider awareness, find the tone between satire and celebration, find the sound between urban radio pop and rural folk picking… find Kacey Musgraves and her fun, snappy, yet endlessly insightful portraits of a rural America impoverished by its own monotony, boredom, resignation. Like Randy Newman crossed with Lucinda Williams, Musgraves (and her talented co-writer Shane McAnally) finds complexity in the mundane – take the terrific album title, for starters. But what makes her rise to fame all the more astonishing is that she isn't afraid to skewer the sacred cows of her community, or of the notoriously conservative musical genre in which she writes and performs. Improbably, yet rightfully, this has made her into a star. There is some justice in pop music, after all. Song: "Merry Go 'Round"

  • 3. Daniel Romano – "Come Cry With Me"

    Over the past several years and three records, this Canadian troubadour has managed to write some of the best traditional country songs you’re likely to have heard. Channeling classic George Jones or Charlie Rich, Romano embraces this antique form as a lost art, refusing to mock its earnestness, its sincerity, its sentimentalism. Refreshingly free of irony, Romano's take on tradition (perhaps due to his outsider status as a Canadian) is reverent and clear-eyed, frozen in time. This is no update on classic country music – it really is classic country music. "Come Cry With Me" could have been released 40 years ago. And it would've been among the best country records of that year, too. Timeless. Perfect. Song: "A New Love (Can Be Found)"

  • 2. Caitlin Rose – "The Stand-In"

    The most out-and-out pleasurable record of the year, relative newcomer Caitlin Rose's "The Stand-In" offers a genre-bending mix of country, pop, and melodic rock that would be at home on a mix with Neko Case, Patsy Cline and Sheryl Crow. An impressively confident vocalist, 25-year-old Rose's punkish poise is irresistible – just try not to be carried away by her energy on barnburner pop anthem "Menagerie" or the tight twanging-rock of "Only A Clown." "There's a little darkness hiding at the corner of your eye," she teases on "Silver Sings" (a song featuring delicious throwback production straight out of Jeff Lynne's late 1980s playbook), but she could well be singing about herself. It's the subtle tinge of melancholy that imbues this record with its timelessness. Even when she's making a joyful noise, there's something there, a creeping shadow. This is, as I say, a vastly pleasurable record – but it ain't mere confection. It's deeply rewarding, thrilling stuff. Song: "Only A Clown"

  • 1. Jason Isbell – "Southeastern"

    There is, simply, no better singer-songwriter working today, in any genre. Following an apprenticeship in the Drive-By Truckers and a pair of iffy (but occasionally brilliant) solo records, Jason Isbell spent the early 2010s honing his craft, tightening his focus, sobering up, and settling into his undeniable talent for storytelling. On 2011's masterful "Here We Rest," Isbell finally arrived, a fully formed and commanding presence. But, with this year’s instant classic "Southeastern," Isbell has, rather remarkably, upped his game. Isbell has an uncanny knack for limning the contours of the southern American experience without descending into easy cliché. By no means a "traditional country" record – many of you may quibble with its inclusion here, considering its free borrowing from a range of musical traditions – Isbell has surely made an American record, an album built on the same hard luck stories, same proud rambling characters, same everyday struggles that move the music of his contemporaries in Nashville. Whatever your pleasure, this is it. The best record of 2013. Song: "Relatively Easy"

  • BEST ELECTRONIC ALBUMS OF 2013

    By Ben Boles

  • 10. A Tribe Called Red – "Nation II Nation"

    Teaming up with Tribal Spirit Music gave Ottawa's A Tribe Called Red greater access to raw powwow music recordings, which allowed them to refine their proudly aboriginal club sound even further than on their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut. Featured Track: "NDN Stakes" (live)

  • 9. Bonobo – "The North Borders"

    The fifth album by UK downtempo mainstay Bonobo saw the producer subtly honing his trademark warm organic sound, and making superb use of guest vocalists like neo-soul goddess Erykah Badu and Brooklyn singer songwriter Reverend Grey. Featured Track: "Cirrus"

  • 8. Ryan Hemsworth – "Guilt Trips"

    The much-hyped Canadian producer's debut album successfully brought together his eclectic influences into a cohesive album that nimbly jumps between ambient hip hop, futuristic R&B, and dramatic dance floor flourishes. Featured track: "Against A Wall" ft. Lofty305

  • 7. Disclosure – "Settle"

    It was impossible to avoid the sounds of the young Lawrence brothers in 2013, and their debut full-length album easily lived up to the hype generated by their early singles. House music that actually makes as much sense at home as it does in the club. Featured Track: "When A Fire Starts To Burn"

 

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