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A Distinguished Year

My favorite albums from 2013, unquestionably one of the deepest years for worthy music in my lifetime.

Listen as you browse via a Rdio or Spotify playlist.

Update, April 2014: I wouldn’t add to this post unless I thought it was important. After months of reflection and increased listening ranking Jon Hopkins’ Immunity at #26 was an egregious misstep. If I could redo this list today I’d rank it at #5.

1. Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
“If I could be somebody else. Well, I think I would for you.”

In the pantheon of Nine Inch Nails albums I rank Hesitation Marks second behind The Fragile, but it’s damn close. For perspective, Nine Inch Nails has been my favorite band since adolescence (I’m 31), I own all the official releases and then some, I’ve been to tons of live shows, yada yada. Since its release I’ve listened to tracks off the album more than 1,100 times, far more than any other record since I began tracking my listening habits.

1. Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks

How I consumed the album is worth mentioning. I abused the singles with repeated listens as they were released — Came Back Haunted, Copy of A, and Everything — so these songs were anything but new to me upon first listen. After several listens from front to back I grew attached to songs in groups of three, starting with All Time Low, Satellite, and In Two — aggressive, in-your-face tracks. Next, I listened to the catchy, if not more conventional, Various Methods of Escape, I Would For You, and While I’m Still Here over and over. Finally, I gravitated towards Running, Find My Way, and Disappointed. Admittedly, it did take a while to warm up to Disappointed.

“The ghosts of who I used to be. I can feel them come for me.”

I think so highly of this record because it feels like the ultimate culmination of Nine Inch Nails. Music and vocal elements of essentially every single previous release make an appearance in one way or another. Watching Trent Reznor’s evolution to this specific point — particularly from a sonic point of view — has been incredibly fulfilling as a serious fan. Being along for the ride for essentially his entire career has made listening to Hesitation Marks a special, enjoyable, and consistently rewarding experience. Spin does a wonderful job articulating how Nine Inch Nails’ sound has evolved through various influences in their take on the album. It’s a super interesting review.

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Far more valuable than anything I’ll say about Hesitation Marks are Reznor’s own words about it. The iTunes Deluxe Edition contains 42+ minutes of Trent discussing the album in a track titled “In Conversation With…” which is also available on YouTube. It enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of the album, and offered fascinating insight into the writing and production process. Hearing demos that didn’t make the cut was especially compelling, notably the track played 11 minutes in. Trent needs to have someone (*cough* El-P *cough*) rap over that beat and release it yesterday.

“I had a friend, I think, who knew me. Couldn’t seem to make him stay.”

The audiophile mastered version of the album — described in detail here — differs slightly from the original but in all the right ways. The low end is clearer and smoother, which allows for tiny details to more easily reveal themselves after repeated listens. And about those repeated listens… here’s one of my favorite quotes from Reznor’s September interview with NPR:

“Yeah, I mean, I aspire to make a record that sounds better 10 listens in than it does after two — and still, at 50 listens, you’re picking out things that add a depth and a thoughtfulness. There’s enough in there that you can still be extracting pieces out of it. I don’t know that people listen to records that many times these days, but I do.”

I do too, Trent. I do too.

Essentials: Copy of A; All Time Low; I Would For You; While I’m Still Here

2. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels

This self-titled debut is a non-stop assault with absolutely no filler. 10 tracks that go and go hard. As you’d expect, El-P’s production is anything but typical and the chemistry he and Killer Mike show is just insane. Their live show communicated the essence of this record perfectly. Intense and to the point with enthusiasm throughout. Download the album for free here.

Essentials: Sea Legs; Job Well Done; A Christmas Fucking Miracle

3. The Dillinger Escape Plan — One Of Us Is The Killer

Everything I love about my favorite Dillinger records — Miss Machine, Ire Works, and Option Paralysis — thrown into a blender then seasoned with their earlier work. Powerful results. Greg Puciato remains the baddest frontman in music. The essentials below are relentless. Brace yourself.

Essentials: Prancer; When I Lost My Bet; Hero of the Soviet Union

4. The National — Trouble Will Find Me

I didn’t listen to The National at all before this year. Hell, I barely knew who they were. I can’t believe they’re this high in my list. FOURTH! It doesn’t make sense until I consider how much I love every single track. These guys know how to write captivating songs that touch a nerve, and you can’t help but to be emotionally invested. The lyrical themes strike me as deeply personal but it’s not difficult to frame them in a broader light, too. In fact, much of the accomplishment here comes from that judgement completely being in the ears of the beholder. This is how music is supposed to feel.

Essentials: Don’t Swallow the Cap; Fireproof; Humiliation

5. How To Destroy Angels — Welcome oblivion

Underrated because it’s automatically overrated? If you go in wanting this album to be something it’s not, well yeah, you’re not going to like it. For what it actually is, it’s truly spectacular. Just because it involves Trent Reznor and is something other than Nine Inch Nails doesn’t mean it sucks. Just because his wife sings doesn’t mean Trent’s soft (if you don’t like her singing that’s another issue). My advice is to embrace the album for what it is: meticulously crafted electronic music with insane attention to detail.

Essentials: Too late, all gone; The loop closes; On the wing

6. Kiln — meadow:watt

I said it after 2007's Dusker and I’ll say it again: there is no better music to listen to if you want to focus and get tasks done. This album stimulates my creativity unlike any other and helps avoid distractions. Pulsing. Rhythmic. Put it on in the background and knock out your to-do list. So thankful they finally put out another record after all this time. Highly recommended!

Essentials: Roil; Star.field; KopperKosmo

7. Danny Brown — Old

I love this guy. He’s hilarious, he laughs funny, he looks funny, and he’s moving the genre forward far more than any other rapper out there.

Essentials: Smokin & Drinkin; Side A; Break It (Go)

8. Fuck Buttons — Slow Focus

Pretty noise on the surface and a beautiful journey behind it all. Their sound has evolved in a seriously significant way with a lot of hip-hop influence.

Essentials: Brainfreeze; The Red Wing; Stalker

9. Deafheaven — Sunbather

Twenty years from now we’ll still be gushing about how magnificent this is.

Essentials: Dream House; Sunbather; The Pecan Tree

10. VOLTO! — Incitare

OK, here’s something incredible. Danny Carey — VOLTO! drummer extraordinaire who you may know from his work in the best band in world, Tool — said all but two or three songs were recorded on the first take! All others were second or third take. Considering there was no tracking on the album and they recorded together as a band, this is absolutely phenomenal.

Essentials: Drumbeaux; BHP; I’m Calm Now

11. M.I.A. — Matangi

Her worst songs can be annoying. Her best songs are perfect and impactful. There’s much more of the latter on Matangi.

Essentials: Exodus; Double Bubble Trouble; Know It Ain’t Right

12. Alessandro Cortini — Forse 1
13. Alessandro Cortini — Forse 2

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can create warmth and mood through a single instrument like Alessandro Cortini, synthesizer God. Only the Buchla Music Easel (just 13 exist in the world) was used on these albums and Forse 3(!) is coming next year. It’s unique to experience real emotion when lyrics are completely absent. In just one word: glowing.

Essentials: Forse 1: Stella; Nebbia; Gloria | Forse 2: Canta; Marcia; Strada

14. Boards of Canada — Tomorrow’s Harvest

It’s tough for me to understand exactly why this is so low in my list. I love Boards of Canada immensely. Geoghaddi is one of my favorite albums of all time. So much time off (eight years since their last full-length) should had made this album an automatic top five, but in a year with so much superb music it wasn’t close. This wasn’t just about the 2013 competition, though. Tomorrow’s Harvest doesn’t differ enough from their other work for me to really get into it. Everything you ever loved about Boards of Canada is basically here, but there’s not much else. It’s too expected and it sounds… almost exactly the same. Their sound in general remains unique and easily identifiable but I craved something more. It doesn’t advance enough.

That was an awful lot of negativity for an album I really like.

Essentials: Reach For The Dead; Palace Posy; Uritual

15. Lusine — The Waiting Room

16. The Haxan Cloak — Excavation

17. Tim Hecker — Virgins

18. Pusha T — My Name Is My Name

19. Queens of the Stone Age — …Like Clockwork

20. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories

21. Kanye West — Yeezus

22. Disclosure — Settle

23. A$AP Rocky — LONG.LIVE.A$AP

24. Autechre — Exai

25. Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven

26. Jon Hopkins — Immunity

27. Zomby — With Love

28. Sound City — Real to Reel

29. Palms — Palms

30. The Knife — Shaking the Habitual

31. ADULT. — The Way Things Fall

32. Hammock — Oblivion Hymns

33. Death Grips — Government Plates

34. Puscifer — All Re-Mixed Up

35. Agnes Obel — Aventine

36. Moderat — II

37. Nails — Abandon All Life

38. Puscifer — Donkey Punch the Night

39. Protest The Hero — Volition

40. Cage — Kill the Architect

Other albums I enjoyed to varying degrees,
in no particular order:

Grouper — The Man Who Died In His Boat

My Bloody Valentine — m b v

Savages — Silence Yourself

Lapalux — Nostalchic

Pharmakon — Abandon

Ikonika — Aerotropolis

Autre Ne Veut — Anxiety

David Bowie — The Next Day

Beacon — The Ways We Separate

Baths — Obsidian

Depeche Mode — Delta Machine

Earl Sweatshirt — Doris

Shigeto — No Better Time Than Now

Yosi Horikawa — Vapor

CHVRCHES — The Bones of What You Believe

Filter — The Sun Comes Out Tonight

Lustmord — The Word As Power

Perera Elsewhere — Everlast

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — Specter At the Feast

Deerhunter — Monomania

James Blake — Overgrown

Data Romance — Other

CX Kidtronik — Krak Attack 2: Ballad of Elli Skiff

Pretty Lights — A Color Map of the Sun

Gold Panda — Half of Where You Live

Skeletonwitch — Serpents Unleashed

Action Bronson — SAAAB Stories produced by Harry Fraud

Samaris — Samaris

Sigur Ros — Kveikur

Washed Out — Parocosm

M83 — You And The Night (Original Soundtrack)

Lorde — Pure Heroine

Paul White — Watch the Ants

Deltron 3030 — Event II

Phantogram — Phantogram

Laura Marling — Once I Was An Eagle

Arcade Fire — Reflektor

Carcass — Surgical Steel

Gorguts — Colored Sands

Daedelus — Drown Out

Modern Life Is War — Fever Hunting

Recondite — Hinterland

Kvelertak — Meir

Yeah Yeah Yeahs — Mosquito

Four Tet — 0181

Tropic of Cancer — Restless Idylls

Jay Z — Magna Carta… Holy Grail

Haim — Days Are Gone

Phoenix — Bankrupt!

Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience

Burial — Rival Dealer

Enabler — Flies

Sky Ferreira — Night Time, My Time

Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Tweaker — And Then There’s Nothing

Big Black Delta — Big Black Delta