As a year goes on, it's pretty difficult to gauge the overall quality of new music hitting the streets. It's only when the calendar is just about to expire that avid listeners can tune into the previous 365 days and assess the melody. It sounds like 2013 was a hit. Massaging our electric and acoustic nerves, this year's best new albums show how certain bands and artists have flourished. There are even a handful of new bands that have shown up and delivered the goods. Here are the 10 best for your perusal and enjoyment.
Boards of Canada
Alright, who knew that Boards of Canada would be showing up on a "top albums of the year" list in 2013? No one, to be sure. But here they are. Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin — the electronic ghouls from Scotland — cut a truly mesmerizing album with Tomorrow's Harvest. Only time will tell, but the tunes here seem to stand alongside Music Had The Right to Children, an undeniable high-water mark from earlier in the group's career. And like the albums from Boards' past, Tomorrow's Harvest works well as a fine distraction from the rest of life. Set the needle and buckle up for a twisted ride into another world entirely. The duo of "Palace Posy" and "Split Your Infinities" is a trippy example late in the album.
Just imagine the sheer awesomeness of a virtuoso Tuareg guitarist (from Agadez, Niger) combined with the attitude of the Black Keys. Sounds great, right? That's precisely how Bombino's latest album, Nomad, sounds because that's precisely what the album is. Dan Auerbach produced the African musician's second solo album, which is such a fun listen. It's exotic enough to entice the most entrenched Western listeners but familiar enough to turn them into fans at the drop of the first note. Bombino hit the summer festival circuit in 2013, and he's sure to be a more regular presence here in the States. Nomad will show you why.
Impeccable songwriting. (The editorial comments could probably just stop right there for this one, but...) Jason Isbell, of Drive-By Truckers fame, captured the essence of doleful American folk on his latest solo outing. The landscape is different here. It's expansive and thoughtful. It's patient. Isbell takes his time on each song, getting messages across in haunting, evocative imagery. And each song is a wholly unique world unto itself. "Elephant" is an early highlight of the album. In that song, Isbell discusses a friend dying of cancer. His voice is gentle, and the guitar lines ebb and flow in harmony with the overall feeling of the song.
The Bones of What You Believe
The catharsis of synthpop was badly needed in 2013. Then, CHVRCHES dropped this little party of an album. It's sugary sweet, but that's largely the point. And despite the electronic looping, it doesn't fall into the traps of repetitiveness. Each song carves its own path into the face of the album (compare/contrast "Gun" and "Lies," two of the more alluring songs on the album). It's a robust collection of pop tunes, etched with precision for 2013's trying times. Oh, and Lauren Mayberry's voice is just fantastic at every turn of the melody.
The Man Who Died in His Boat
Probably no other album released this year attains the esoteric heights of Grouper's latest outing. This album quietly plunked into the terrain of early 2013, giving listeners the perfect complement to the brooding cold outside. Rather than pursuing the more deranged aspects of her catalog, Grouper (aka Liz Harris) chose almost to make a folk album. The gentle guitar that massages her voice in "Vital," for instance, tees up one of the best folk songs of the year and one of the best electronic albums of the year (Harris' voice cascades through endless feedback loops). Winter is upon us again, making a return to The Man Who Died in His Boat absolutely imperative.
Build Me Up From Bones
Taking her stellar reputation in the bluegrass camp to newer and more distant galaxies, Sarah Jarosz let her third album showcase a fuller sound and a more robust songwriting talent. The album is just fantastic. By the end of it, the songs have traversed territory diverse enough for nearly any music lover. Music like Jarosz's ages well, and this album will prove that statement completely. Songs like "Gone Too Soon," "Fuel the Fire," and "Build Me Up From Bones" marry her amazing voice with dynamic musicianship to create new worlds of aural delight. Jarosz also includes a wonderfully simple take on Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," which is worth the price of admission alone.
The Milk Carton Kids
The Ash & Clay
Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan formed this little folk duo a few years ago. This year, they dropped a terrific sophomore album. The Ash and Clay is a warmly bucolic ode to the promised land. One thing that stands out — even more so on this album than on the debut — is the wonderful way these two guys harmonize. "Honey, Honey" is a perfect example of this. Most of the guitar work is simple (but profoundly inviting). "Heaven" boasts some really awe-inspiring playing, but the bulk of the album is the aural equivalent of leaning back in your chair on the front porch and eyeing the idly shifting trees on the horizon.
Trouble Will Find Me
"I Should Live in Salt" is one of the best songs this band has ever written: Fact. Truly, Trouble Will Find Me eclipses High Violet and dares to touch the heights first achieved on the National's 2007 release, Boxer. There's so much happening in each song, the listener may at first feel either overwhelmed or underwhelmed. But the trick to the National's songwriting resembles the blossoming of a flower; songs like "Demons" and "This is the Last Time" reveal more of themselves with each listen. It's a headphones album, surely. So cue it up and revel in the band's blissful melancholy and its fine return to form.
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Made Up Mind
When the guitar revs up on the title track and Susan Tedeschi's soulful vocals start coming through the speakers, it's clear that this album is going to be a wild ride. And it is. What makes this album so special is the way it builds on everything that Derek Trucks and Tedeschi have done prior. There's a sense of arrival on this one, evidenced visually by the impending collision of buffalo and train on the album cover. Cue up "The Storm," a ballsy tune that often closed out shows this past summer and fall, and you'll pick up on the power embedded in this band's awe-inspiring cohesion. Take note of the dual drummers' talents as "The Storm" builds. Trucks freely and joyously admits that their music fits into no one single category, which allows the album's collection of songs to blossom on its own merits. Illustratively, the headlong rock of "The Storm" bleeds into "Calling Out to You," a one-on-one cut between Trucks and Tedeschi. It's a beautiful closing track for the album, wrapping up an amazing hour of music.
Yo La Tengo
Decades into one of the most formidable tenures in indie rock history, Yo La Tengo dropped an absolute gem back in January. From the opening effects of the anthemic "Ohm" to the brass-led fizzling conclusion of "Before We Run," Fade is such a delightful addition to the band's canon. More to the point, the songwriting seems more straightforward on this one. "The Point of It" becomes a central tune in the story of the album, shedding light on the musicians' age and, of course, the ongoing story of how Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have kept everything buzzing along for so long. Fade works well as an introduction to the band for the uninitiated, as well as a firmly planted flag on the peak of the band's musical mountain. It's a beautiful album.