Oh hey, it’s that time again! I still don’t love making (ranked) lists, but I do love sharing music with you, and it has certainly been a good year for that — so, here’s what I loved in 2013. As always, I’m giving you a disclaimer that I (gasp!) didn’t listen to everything that was released in the last year, and I’m looking forward to hearing what slipped through the cracks later on. Another disclaimer: I listened to a lot of country music this year — but please don’t let that scare you! I used to consider myself not a country person, but I’ve heard some incredible storytelling in the form of country music (namely, Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark and Holly Williams) — so if you’ll just trust me on this, you can download a mix of 35 of my favorite songs of the year, country and otherwise.
Quick note: I know I’ve been awful about keeping up with ETB this year! I’m (kinda) working on it, but it’s likely that posts will still be pretty infrequent going forward. However, I’ve got one more coming later this month, from last month’s Supper Studio event, and will continue to post other new recipes on occasion.
So, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2013, roughly in order from 10-1… but that tends to change every few minutes:
Yo La Tengo, Fade
Yo La Tengo’s album Fade was big for me at the beginning of 2013 (see my post about my grandpa + a recipe for chocolate fig rugelach), and while I didn’t listen to it consistently throughout the whole year, every time I do put it on I’m surprised by how I managed to even briefly forget that these songs existed. It’s comforting and consistent.
Favorite songs: “Ohm,” “Stupid Things,” “Paddle Forward”
Holly Williams, The Highway
First, a big thanks to the great Rachael Maddux (one of few people whose music recommendations I will always take) for telling me about this record, which I knew I would love after just 30 seconds of Holly Williams’s sorta-raspy voice singing, “Why’re you drinkin’ like the night is young?” So, Williams is the granddaughter, daughter and half-sister of Hank Williams Sr., Jr. and III, respectively. Also, this record has guest vocals from Jackson Browne and, uh, Gwenyth Paltrow. Thankfully all of that is completely irrelevant because the traditional, no-frills country songs on The Highway would be as amazing (and heartwrenching) without any of that.
Favorite tracks: “Railroads,” “Gone Away From Me”
The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Trouble Will Find Me is admittedly the first National album that’s been released since I’ve considered myself more than just a casual fan; it’s beautiful and majestic and not quite as consistently dark as some of their other records. And of course anything with vocal help from the inimitable Sharon Van Etten gets extra points in my book.
Favorite tracks: “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “This Is The Last Time”
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
12 Stories is, hands down, the best straight-up country album of the year — and one of the best of the year, period. Brandy Clark has written hits for Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, the Band Perry and others, but this is the first collection of her own songs. She’s a masterful storyteller: The first track “Pray To Jesus” is about praying and playing the lotto because “there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow”; “Take a Little Pill” is about a woman’s addiction to prescription meds; the hilarious “Stripes,” which I’d love to hear somewhere in Orange is the New Black, is about not pulling the trigger on a cheating lover so as to not be forced to wear orange or stripes. With other songs about cheating, divorce, pot and illigitimate children, Clark’s songs might sound sonically traditional, but she is far from your average country songwriter. (Side note: I was really proud to have gotten the BF’s parents super into this one on our trip to San Francisco last month.)
Favorite tracks: “Stripes,” “Take a Little Pill”
Mikal Cronin, MCII
These are 10 masterful pop songs that will get stuck in your head for months — I’m pretty sure at any given moment throughout the whole summer I had at least one of them running around in my brain, and I was never mad about it. Fantastically jangly, hooky songs about growing up and the stress of figuring out what to do with your life. We can all relate, right? His set at Pitchfork Fest in July was glorious.
Favorite tracks: “Shout It Out,” “Peace of Mind”
Lorde, Pure Heroine
You’ve maybe only heard “Royals,” but this whole album is amazing. Previously on ETB: more thoughts on Lorde, with a recipe for eggplant ricotta rolls inspired by her.
Favorite tracks: “Team,” “Tennis Court”
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Neko Case can do no wrong, ever. Not only is she an incredible singer, songwriter and performer, but she is also brilliant on the internet. The songs on The Worse Things Get… hit hard, especially combined with her singular voice: In the a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” she sings about not being loved by her parents; in “Bracing for Sunday” she sings about someone who “died having a child by her brother/ He died because I murdered him”; and she explores gender roles in “Man” and “I’m From Nowhere” (“I was surprised when you called me a lady/ ‘Cause I’m still not so sure that that’s what I wanna be”). This one is more of a slow burn than 2009’s Middle Cyclone, but it’s more than worth the extra time to let it sink in.
Favorite tracks: “Man,” “Bracing for a Sunday”
Tied for second because I really, truly cannot decide:
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Ripely Pine
Most of these songs had been previously recorded (in basements and bedrooms and other makeshift recording spots), and there’s a raw beauty to those early versions that turned me into a huge fan a couple years back. But once Aly Spaltro, aka Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, got into an actual studio, she got to make the sound she was actually going for and she knocked it out of the damn park (understatement). The older songs are fleshed out with a full band (as are the new ones), but her voice maintains the same rawness and intimacy that made the earlier renditions of her songs so disarming. Spaltro’s lyrics are poetic and dark; the way she sings about love involves intense hunger and intertwined limbs as much as it does blood and eating organs (the epic “Crane Your Neck” is un-freaking-believable). Also, don’t miss out on seeing her live; every time I go to one of her shows it’s better than the last one. From the blog a couple years ago: making apple sandwiches with Lady Lamb the Beekeeper.
Favorite tracks: “Bird Balloons,” “Crane Your Neck”
Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Ugh, this record is still so good. I wrote a bunch about it earlier this year, with a recipe for a spring quiche.
Favorite tracks: “Gold Tone,” “Too Hard”
And, the record I couldn’t stop listening to more than anything else in 2013:
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Oof, this is one of those cases when I love a record so much that I can’t even articulate why (at least not in a way that will do it justice), and I feel like maybe a lot of people will listen to this and not think it’s anything more than just a solid country-leaning Americana record, but nearly every song on Southeastern hits something in me that makes my head explode. Jason Isbell used to be in the Drive-By Truckers, and he wrote this album years after leaving that band and shortly after getting out of rehab (read this excellent New York Times profile for a little more back story). But while there are plenty of references to “[swearing] off that stuff/ forever this time,” the songs don’t all sound directly autobiographical, and ultimately Southeastern is as much a collection of poignant love songs and really beautiful/sometimes devastating stories than it is a “getting-sober” record. There are brilliant lines in every song: “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” starts with “On a lark/ On a whim/ I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them/ And his fist/ cut the smoke/ I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke”; or “Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin” in “Different Days.” “Elephant” is the best and most devastating song of 2013 and it rips me apart every time I listen (it’s been a lot of times); “Traveling Alone” is a special one because I’m a sap… I could go on for days. I don’t even love this because I have personal connections to most of the subject matter; it’s more that every minute of it makes me feel things because they’re just damn perfect songs.
Favorite tracks: “Elephant,” “Traveling Alone,” “Stockholm,” all of them
Aaaaand, the best of the rest, alphabetically:
Sam Amidon, Bright Sunny South
Arcade Fire, Reflektor
Bill Callahan, Dream River
CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe
Samantha Crain, Kid Face
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Daughn Gibson, Me Moan
John Grant, Pale Green Ghosts
HAIM, Days Are Gone
Hiss Golden Messenger, Haw
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
Low, The Invisible Way
Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
Ashley Monroe, Like A Rose
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park (on ETB: sweet potato cornmeal pancakes)
Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon (on ETB: cucumber melon salad with feta and arugula)
The Men, New Moon
Lindi Ortega, Tin Star
The Parson Red Heads, Orb Weaver
Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In
San Fermin, San Fermin
Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Any Port in a Storm
Amanda Shires, Down Fell the Doves
Marnie Stern, Chronicles of Marnia
Laura Veirs, Warp and Weft
Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt