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Top 20 albums of 2013: #5-1

John Darr & Matt McMahon | Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Every year, I hope for a bright and shining album to fill the No. 1 spot on my end-of-year list. Every year, one manages to turn up. As our best-album-of-the-year list series comes to a close, I guess I’d like to leave you with one message. If you really care about art in any form – books, movies, videogames, visual or performance arts, music, etc. – go out there and find that No. 1 spot for yourself. If you look hard enough, you’ll find it out there. The search is worth its every step, should you keep stepping until you reach your destination.


5. “Shaking the Habitual” – The Knife

Very few groups employ the tropes of the synth-pop genre in the way The Knife does.  The Swedish electro-pop duo first bore their experimental teeth with 2010’s hugely ambitious, but uneven, opera ode to Darwin, “Tomorrow, In A Year.” Combining their past successes in art pop with the avant-garde experimentalism of that score, The Knife returned with the epic “Shaking the Habitual.” The double album spans 98 minutes of intriguing long-form, linear song structuring. The duo merge Eastern- and Western- influenced sound, layering complex synth and percussion patterns that play off each other in captivating, wholly original ways. “Shaking the Habitual” offers a unique experience, setting a sprawling atmosphere to get completely lost within.
Choice Cuts: “A Tooth for an Eye,” “Full of Fire,” “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”


4. “Settle” – Disclosure

“One thing I know – change is inevitable.”
“People love watching a fire burn.”
“How do you stay motivated with everything that’s going on?”

In the first minute of the album, Disclosure unleashes the spirit of “Settle” – innovative, explosive and yet incredibly focused. Managing both a cohesive sound and incredible variety, “Settle” manages to be a rare thing: an album of brilliant standalone tracks, as well as a brilliant album as a whole. Genres like deep house, dubstep, chillwave, European garage and IDM are mixed and mashed throughout the album, allowing for unique sounds using consistent sonic elements. A wide variety of guest singers allows for further variation between tracks; voices range from powerful to soft to sensual to comforting as the album progresses. If you’re into dance music and want an alternative to flashy radio EDM, this is the album for you.
Choice Cuts: “White Noise,” “Latch,” “Help Me Lose My Mind”


3. “Sunbather” – Deafheaven

“Uplifting” and “beautiful” might not be the first adjectives you expect someone to use to describe a black metal album. Furthermore, many black-metal purists may be very reluctant to even ascribe the label “black metal” to Deafheaven – the album features much cleaner production and far more shoegaze and post-rock influence than traditional black metal. Debates on their genre aside (and really, does it even matter?), Deafheaven has composed one of the prettiest, while instrumentally harsh and powerful, albums of the year. The band’s meticulous construction and attention to detail manages to create equally impressive moments in the tense, quieter instants as it does in the bruising, climactic releases. Finding a perfect formula between buildup and downtime, “Sunbather” still surprises, even after it’s been listened to enough times to anticipate what’s about to come.
Choice Cuts: “Dream House,” “Sunbather,” Irresistible”


2. “Field of Reeds” – These New Puritans


“Field of Reeds” is a truly challenging work. Best described as a quiet orchestral post-rock record, the sound of the album is warm and welcoming, and yet its form is ambitious and experimental. Acoustic instrumentation, calm tempos and clean production are paired with complex time signatures, unfamiliar chord progressions and unconventional song structures. Sounds that would normally offer straightforward relaxation to a listener instead disorient and even confuse. Hooks are sparse, and major chords few and far between. The arrangements are minimal, allowing for large amounts of space in the arrangement. At first, “Field of Reeds” offers very little for a listener to hold onto.

And yet upon repeated listens, the hidden beauty on each track becomes more and more evident. Transient melodies become rewards that justify and transcend their respective journeys. Seemingly repetitive phases reveal subtle, yet intriguing, evolutions in sound. Each minute holds a thousand secrets waiting to be discovered.

“Field of Reeds” is an album that requires patience and true curiosity in order to be worth listening to, making it both the highest-risk and highest-reward album of the year. Look for this to become a classic.
Choice Cuts: “Fragment Two,” “V (Island Song),” “Field of Reeds”


1. “Modern Vampires of the City” – Vampire Weekend

Everyone knew Vampire Weekend could write an insanely catchy pop song. The evidence is all over their first two albums. But with their third LP, “Modern Vampires of the City,” the band matured into crafting meaningful, thought-provoking music, while not giving up any of the stickiness. Putting aside the possibly pretentious, definitely slight, cryptic Ivy League lyricism – as well as their afro-pop inclinations – for views on spirituality, familial responsibilities and the general concepts that accompany growing up, Vampire Weekend assembled the most cohesive album of the year, thematically and instrumentally. The tracks are just as catchy and more technically sound, and they feature tighter production. “Modern Vampires of the City” showcases the next logical step in Vampire Weekend’s career: adulthood.
Choice Cuts: “Step,” “Ya Hey,” “Hannah Hunt,” “Diane Young”


Addendum: We know, especially in the making of this list, that opinions vary. We love to talk music, and if anyone wants to contact us about the top-20 list, we highly encourage it. In fact, if anyone has a burning stance in support of or against inclusions or exclusions on this list, we might be tempted to write a future article about it. 


Contact John Darr at jdarr@nd.edu and Matt McMahon at mcmaho7@nd.edu