Year-in-Review: Top 20 albums of 2013

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From the December 26, 2013 edition

It’s a challenge to narrow down a year in music to just 20 albums. Keeping in mind there’s no such thing as a definitive best-of list (please feel free to argue these choices and submit your own picks via our website or Facebook account), here are the records I found myself returning to most often over the course of 2013.

10. Danny Brown: Old

Danny Brown’s off-kilter flow mirrors his deranged haystack of a hairdo; it’s unkempt, tousled and prone to shooting off in unexpected directions. The rhymes on Old are nearly as inventive as the Detroit native’s lyrical style, touching on everything from his (many) sexual conquests to the ways society has grown emotionally numb.

9. Bill Callahan: Dream River

Callahan’s music has displayed increasing clarity since he ditched the longtime Smog moniker in favor of his birth name. The songs populating Dream River are minimalist gems, conveying a range of big ideas in the singer’s lovingly blue-collar language. Beer? Thank you.

8. Deafheaven: Sunbather

The San Francisco black metal crew kicks off its immersive sophomore album with “Dream House,” a nine-minute, skyscraper-sized monster more likely to soundtrack your nightmares (note frontman George Clarke’s paint-peeling scream). The band employs an angry hornets’ nest of feedback throughout, and the mood is undeniably bleak. Still, Sunbather is also grandly cinematic and damned impossible to shake.

7. Richard Thompson: Electric

Few write about heartbreak and the various emotions that follow in its wake (sadness, bitterness, jealousy, relief, etc.) better than Richard Thompson, and the veteran folk-rocker is at his best on songs like “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” and the wonderfully prickly “Good Things Happen to Bad People.”

6. Daft Punk: Random Access Memories

The robotic French duo lays out the blueprint for the ideal song on “Beyond,” saying, “It is the birthplace of your dreams.” Daft Punk spends a bulk of Random Access Memories working backwards to this point, collaborating with a host of musicians who have inspired it along the way, including guitarist Nile Rodgers (“Get Lucky’s” not-so-secret weapon) and synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder.

5. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park

On her breakout single the Texas-born singer/songwriter fretted about settling “like dust” in her small town. So while some country artists might be content to churn out wholesome anthems for big-box America, Musgraves prefers to challenge convention. This audacity is on full display in “Follow Your Arrow,” a be-who-you-are anthem that would be equally at home played at either the Grand Ole Opry or a gay pride parade.

4. Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap

The youthful Chicago rapper might have an inventive style (dig his exotic-bird squawk) and a predilection for off-the-wall beats steeped in everything from juke to acid-jazz, but his lyrics often deal in reality, touching on everything from the plague of inner-city gun violence to his longing for those carefree childhood days.

3. Bombino: Nomad

Nomad is a fitting name for the latest from Bombino, born Omara Moctar, since the Tuareg singer/guitarist was forced to live a portion of his adult life in exile. The music maintains a similar sense of exploration, drifting from hypnotic, blues-inspired guitar burners to more mellow turns like “Imidiwan,” which echoes a sunrise slowly stretching across the desert plains.

2. Mikal Cronin: MCII

The San Francisco-based garage-rocker spends a bulk of his sophomore album asking questions, singing: “Is it my fault?”; “Am I wrong?”; “Do I shout it out?” But while Cronin occasionally sounds riddled with doubt, his concerns tend to wash away beneath the glorious avalanche of fuzzed-out riffs. Play this one loud.

1. Jason Isbell: Southeastern

“From the sky the highway’s straight as it could be,” sings Jason Isbell on “Flying Over Water.” But time and again on the career-best Southeastern the Alabama-born singer/songwriter zooms in for the close-up, examining the fears, flaws and frailties that make all of us endearingly human. Songs focus on big, worldly themes like redemption and coming to terms with the man (or woman) you are today, but it’s the small details that give this gorgeous, oddly life-affirming record its heartbeat.