The 20 best albums of 2013

By Nick Bollinger, Jim Pinckney In Music

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Anna Calvi

CARAMEL, Connan Mockasin (Phantasy/Because). Summoning up the spirit of psych soul, Te Awanga’s finest commandeered a Tokyo hotel room to record this mutated, woozy, intimate confection that could only sound slightly normal after a debut like Forever Dolphin Love.

DEDICATION, Zomby (4AD). In a year awash with quality electronic releases from Forest Swords, Laurel Halo, Four Tet et al, it’s the moody, mysterious and notoriously unreliable Zomby who stole the show with his insidiously absorbing double album.

DEVILS, Kody Nielson (Bandcamp). Brother Reuben may have grabbed the limelight with Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s impressive II but this low-key release from Kody Nielson surprised and delighted with its depth and unified tone. Heavy on the horns and rattling percussion, it’s an all-instrumental affair that suggests scruffy jazz and limber afrobeat but defies categorisation.

EGOSPECT, Sheep Dog & Wolf (Lil’ Chief). He calls it jazz-folk, but 19-year-old Aucklander Daniel McBride makes music as though genres simply don’t exist. On his entirely self-performed debut, jazz rhythms crash into angelic choirs, saxophone arpeggios chase fingerstyle guitars and somehow it all makes musical sense.

THE ELECTRIC LADY, Janelle Monae (Bad Boy/Wondaland). Monae champions the marginalised – women, African-Americans, gays – in songs that pay homage to Stevie Wonder, Prince and early Motown, while presenting the whole thing as an unfolding suite with a Blade Runner-inspired storyline.

FANDANGO, the Phoenix Foundation (Universal). Playfully combining the sublime and the ridiculous, the Wellingtonians deliver an audacious 78 minutes of lush, lyrical pop, sharing their skewed thoughts on subjects ranging from evolution to black mould.

INFORM – EDUCATE – ENTERTAIN, Public Service Broadcasting (Test Card Recordings). Utilising audio from vintage documentary, safety and propaganda films over a compelling and varied musical bed, this British duo conjured up one of the year’s most straightforward, enjoyable listens.

NEWS FROM NOWHERE, Darkstar (Warp). The UK trio have deftly augmented their electronica foundations with a shift towards the Albionic pastoral folk of the Canterbury scene and the classy pop of Metronomy and their ilk.

NOMAD, Bombino (Nonesuch). Desert bluesman Omara “Bombino” Moctar cut this breakthrough album in Nashville – and, yes, it probably is the first time West African trance music has included a pedal steel guitar.

Nomad

ONE BREATH, Anna Calvi (Domino). Echoing her Italian and English heritage, Calvi’s music has both extravagance and reserve. Her lyrics hint at big emotional dramas while leaving the particulars unsaid; her choruses have the operatic feel of 60s Italian pop, with the brittle edge of a PJ Harvey.

PURE HEROINE, Lorde (Universal). Even if Royals hadn’t taken her from schoolgirl to megastar in what seems like minutes, Lorde’s album would stand out for its creative lyricism, uncluttered beatscapes and a wisdom that is refreshing in a Miley-and-Selena world.

PUSHIN’ AGAINST A STONE, Valerie June (Sunday Best). Memphian Valerie June Hockett has a voice you could imagine cracking glass; a diamond tone more often found in African music or old Southern gospel. On her Dan Auerbach-produced album, she sets that voice against hip-hop loops, Ethiopian grooves and her own neo-primitive banjolele-driven blues.

THE REDEEMER, Dean Blunt (Hippos in Tanks). Blunt’s explorations into postmodern cracked electronic balladry get stronger, stranger and more fragmented with each release. Whether he is playing for you or with you remains debatable, but the quality doesn’t.

A SERIES OF OOPSIE DAISIES AND VARIOUS OTHER FLORA, Christoph El’ Truento (Bandcamp). The best of the next wave of domestic delicacies can be found first on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, with such diverse artists as Naram, Totems, Fis, Arthur Ahbez and Jane Deezy among those threatening to spread beyond. @Peace producer El’ Truento is already there and blossoming with his latest release, which transports him further away from genrefied territory and off into his own musical stratosphere.

Savages

SILENCE YOURSELF, Savages (Matador). Seventies post-punk produced such pioneering all-women bands as the Slits and the Raincoats. Savages take whatever declarations of independence those bands made and file them to a sharp point. Vocalist Jehnny Beth chisels her lyrics into a set of harsh commands, and the other three back her with muscle and blood.

STAND UP, PEOPLE: GYPSY POP SONGS FROM TITO’S YUGOSLAVIA 1964-1980, Various Artists (Apshalt Tango). On a different tack to the usual Balkan compilations and gypsy grab-bags, there is not much trad but instead a whole heap of outside influences, including Bollywood soundtracks, mariachi horns, Anatolian psych and Western pop, on this riotously enjoyable collection.

WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR?, William Onyeabor (Luaka Bop). This enigmatic, heavily bootlegged Nigerian recorded only between 1978 and 1985, before renouncing secular music. Legitimately licensed for the first time, hypnotic grooves like the ebullient Fantastic Man and the proto-acid Let’s Fall in Love are far fruitier than most afrobeat gear, with wickedly wayward electronic touches amid an infectious blend of sumptuous afro electrofunk.

WISE UP GHOST, Elvis Costello & the Roots (Blue Note). Costello’s collaborations often make better ideas than listening experiences, but this meeting with hip-hop’s hottest live band is exceptional. Recontextualising his old lyrics – and adding new ones – Costello, with the vital assistance of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Roots producer Steve Mandel, conjures a broodingly funky apocalypse.

Elvis Costello & the Roots. Photo/Danny Clinch

A WONDER WORKING STONE, Alasdair Roberts and Friends (Drag City). Roberts wears his folk emblems loudly on his sleeve, singing in his natural Scottish accent and drawing his melodies from the deep well of traditional song. He’s a superb solo guitarist and the more elaborate constructions here recall, and build upon, the 60s innovations of Fairport Convention.

YEEZUS, Kanye West (Universal). The most contrary figure of our times is just the man to deliver an album that is often hard to listen to and enjoy yet also impossible to ignore and frequently startlingly brilliant. Whether or not you care to embrace West’s lyrical conceit, sketchy misogyny and confused racial politics, the artistic reach and sonic architecture is undeniable.

See also: The 50 best children’s books of 2013.

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