An end-of-the-year top ten list is meant to be a snapshot. It’s not etched into stone. It can and will change—partly because the listener’s mood shifts, and partly because the best records grow deeper and more resonant over time, sinking their hooks in gradually.
I have published a list of my favorite albums at the end of every year, going back to the year 2000. Every year I wrestle with the notion of not ranking my albums at all—of simply offering up a ten-album tie for first place—and every year I grudgingly make decisions about, say, which album is my sixth favorite of the year and which is my seventh. I often regret at least half of my rankings by the following morning.
This year I feel liberated to tell you upfront that these are my ten favorite albums of 2013, as of December 31. I don’t merely acknowledge that this list might change by tomorrow: I guarantee that it will.
What follow is a list of the thirteen new releases that made the biggest impact on me in 2013—first, ten brand new recordings, listed in the order I feel is most appropriate as of right now. After that are three re-issues—older music that sounded as fresh and as revelatory as the new recordings, in many cases more so.
I will say that picking my favorite album of the year proved more difficult than usual. Last year, Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio was the clear choice—with no disrespect intended toward any of the other fine LPs from the class of 2012. Honestly, were I to pick my favorite album of 2013 based solely on what I listened to the most, I suspect Robert Glasper would win again—and I’m sure my wife would confirm for you that Black Radio 2 has played around here just about every day since it came out.
And yet, the album that seemed the most substantive and nourishing—the one that hit me the hardest at the soul level—was Over the Rhine’s. The albums that surprised me the most—for different reasons—belonged to Brandy Clark and Nick Lowe. The first time I heard John Smith’s album I never dreamed it would end up on a year-end list, yet I’ve come back to it again and again, and now can’t imagine making my list without it.
Truthfully, the first three albums here could all make fine and fair choices for my favorite album of the year… and I could likely expand that to the first four. As I hear them in this moment, however, my ten favorite recordings of 2013 are:
- Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Linford and Karin make it a double—again—and reteam with Joe Henry and his Garfield House players for a record that’s richer than Ohio, earthier than The Long Surrender; tethered to a particular piece of ground, steeped in country and haunted by The Band; as personal as anything they’ve recorded, and seemingly as contented. They could have called this one Ohio, had the name not been taken; or they could have just called it Over the Rhine.
- Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2. Glasper and his dream team of jazz cats, R&B songbirds, and positive-thinking MCs court disappointment by making a straight sequel to last year’s landmark of boundary-free imagination; avoid it by going deeper, risking more on original compositions over covers, keeping the songs paramount.
- Brandy Clark, 12 Stories. Today’s country music is all explanation, no seduction—but here’s a woman who knows how to hook you, how to leave you space to find yourself in her songs, how to speak through silences as much as she does through words.
- North Mississippi All-Stars, World Boogie is Coming. No need to wait: World boogie is here. The brothers Dickinson aren’t afraid to dress up backwoods blues in the hand-me-downs of punk, hip-hop, and garage rock—to say nothing of Jack White’s peppermint-stick wardrobe. Authentically weird and totally timeless.
- Trombone Shorty, Say That to Say This. The hardest working man in showbiz tightens things up—keeping to ten songs in 35 minutes, celebrity cameos at a minimum—and comes up with an album that’s funkier, livelier, and closer to his live show than any yet released: The great Trombone Shorty R&B album—at last!
- Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up Ghost. Costello’s Warner Years refracted through hip-hop’s prism, every allusion giving the album depth even as the soon-to-be Tonight Show band keeps things darkly funky and in the pocket.
- Nick Lowe, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family. I’ve never put a holiday album on my year-end list—but then, I’ve never heard a holiday record as surprising as this. Biggest and best surprise: It’s not just a killer Christmas record but one of the best Nick Lowe albums, funny and loose and dripping with charm.
- Paul McCartney, New. Who better than Sir Paul to fall in head-over-heels, punchdrunk love with the craft of modern pop music? It’s a Technicolor wonder; all surface, all heart.
- John Smith, Great Lakes. A sweet whisper of an album—hushed, melancholy, romantic; tough to shake—but then, why would you want to?
- Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience. There are dozens of reasons to write off JT—for his excess; for his awful lyrics; for how he always tries so damn hard—but on a purely surface level, the classic soul and R&B updates on his first 20/20 are irresistible; the album’s elegance and romance, surprisingly winsome.
And three great collections of older music:
- Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self-Portrait. Like shit he didn’t care about these songs: What was once written off as tossed-off, third-rate Dylan is redeemed on this fine set, as heartfelt and seductive as anything he ever released. I don’t have an answer for why he left the best stuff in the vault all these years—but just listen to this. Beautiful.
- Duane Allman, Skydog: A Duane Allman Retrospective. It works equally well as an exhaustive tribute to an all-time great guitar player—revealed here to be shockingly, criminally underrated—and as a shadow history of American rock and pop music; keeps its momentum and its appeal over seven discs, then begs to be played over again from the beginning.
- The Band, Live from the Academy of Music 1971. The presentation is imperfect, but the music is as wild and wooly as anything these fellas ever cut—proof enough that, artsy inclinations aside, they were not-so-secretly the world’s greatest R&B band.