For us music lovers, early December is like March Madness of sorts — everyone’s betting on which albums will ascend to the top of year-end lists from publications like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Stereogum … the list goes on. If you’re crazy enough, you make your own, post it on the Internet and wait for your musical friends to tell you how wrong you are. But only one list really matters: The Observer’s Top 20 Albums of 2013. Crafted by stalwart music nerds John Darr and Matt McMahon, this list brings together the best of the best of this year.
20.) “The 20/20 Experience: Part 1” — Justin Timberlake
I guess you have every right to shake your head and say, “They put Justin Timberlake on the list just so they could name ‘20/20’ the 20th best album of the year. Very clever.”
Fortunately, you’re wrong. Justin Timberlake’s second-latest release found him hitting a sweet spot. Each song on this monster of a record (70 minutes!) features gorgeous, unforgettable melodies melded into luscious landscapes. Just listening to this record evokes a feeling of immense luxury. The drums are huge but never overwhelm, strings flow enticingly through a swarm of background vocals and Justin’s voice is, per usual, gold.
The picture-perfect songwriting, ambitious song lengths and exquisite production make “20/20” a pop record of an undeniably high quality. It’s an experience no one should be missing.
Choice Cuts: “Pusher Love Girl,” “Mirrors,” “Blue Ocean Floor”
19.) “Tomorrow’s Harvest” — Boards of Canada
It’s odd but true to call Boards of Canada ear candy. After all, we’re talking about forward-thinking downtempo electronic music that sometimes lacks melody and often forgoes major keys altogether. However, the sonic textures this group creates have pushed its previous three releases to classic status. The analog synthesizers and meticulous production tactics B.O.C. uses allows it to craft soundscapes with unrivaled depth and richness.
What pushes a Boards of Canada album beyond sum-of-its-parts quality is an engaging and nuanced theme. So far, B.O.C. has focused in on nostalgia, childhood innocence, natural fear and beaut, and mystical experience. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” finds the duo exploring the cycle of birth, decay, death and rebirth, making for an often dark, but ultimately rewarding, listen. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” is one of this year’s most thought-provoking journeys. Of course, it’s up to you to take it.
Choice Cuts: “Palace Posy,” “Nothing is Real,” “New Seeds”
18.) “Sleeper” — Ty Segall
Ty Segall, indie rock and punk’s busiest young musician, settled down with his most stripped, personal record to date. “Sleeper” does not feature full-length collaborations, outsourced work from another band or even Ty Segall’s own band taken after his namesake. Instead, Segall bears all with only his voice, an acoustic guitar and his songwriting. What results is an album more powerful than any of his busier punk endeavors, spurred on by the weighty subject matter of his songs. The album focuses — and is it ever focused in its scope, with track after track existing in tandem, establishing his most cohesive work — on the passing of Segall’s father, his strained relationship with his mother and his combatting of dreams about death. The punches come not from a place of driving energy, but from emotional performances and superior song crafting.
Choice Cuts: “Sleeper,” “Crazy”
17.) “LONG.LIVE.A$AP” — A$AP Rocky
Swag swag swag swag swag swag swag swag swag.
But honestly, do you want to feel cool? Because if you’re listening to this album, you will feel cool. It’s impossible not to. “LONG.LIVE.A$AP” is full of massive, masterfully crafted beats that echo everything exciting happening in atmospheric pop/hip hop right now: Lana del Rey, Clams Casino and Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” to name a few. A$AP’s voice is smooth, calm and confident, and it never takes itself too seriously. The songs here don’t have deep messages, but they don’t need to. They’re accessible yet ambitious — the album’s beats jump from old school to dubstep to chillwave without losing focus. In a world of vapid pop-rap, A$AP is a welcome exception.
Choice Cuts: “Wild For the Night,” “Goldie,” “Fashion Killa”
16.) “Trouble Will Find Me” — The National
The sixth studio album from the extremely, somewhat perplexingly, consistent indie rock group The National, “Trouble Will Find Me,” continues the band’s streak of successes. Expertly constructed with little nuances in melodies, intricate drum patterns and rich vocals, “Trouble Will Find Me” carefully establishes an elegant, poignant atmosphere. Progression of songs lead to the slightest, but most gratifying, upswings, and hooks eventually creep their way into the back of the mind and firmly plant themselves. Subtly brilliant, the LP’s songs exist in a universe that finds chief interest in the every day. For that, it’s unique, yet humanly relatable.
Choice Cuts: “Sea of Love,” “Pink Rabbits,” “Demons”