In 2013, I wrote about the best albums that came out that year. This is what music critics do. But opinions have a way of changing over time. So I decided to write about the best albums of 2013, 10 years later.
Why 2013? Because it’s the most interesting year for music in the past decade. As we’ll see, this is the year when the 2010s really began in a musical sense, while a lot of the trends that were popular in the previous decade fell away. Writing about 2013 is a way to understand music in 2023, including whether we are currently in the midst of similar changes that will come to define the 2020s.
Before we begin, I want to discuss my methodology. Because this is not a list of only my favorite albums, nor is it a list of only albums that are generally considered great or important. So, what is it? It’s a combination of both.
Let’s break it down into percentages:
- Personal favoritism (Do I like the album? Do I play it a lot? Am I personally invested in how well it does on this list?) — 65 percent
- General consensus (What do other people think? How well is it regarded now? How annoyed will I be by people complaining if it doesn’t make the list?) — 35 percent
I think we’re all set. Let’s travel back to 2013!
30. Bombino, Nomad
Even more than a typical list column, this look back at 2013 feels first and foremost like an exercise in nostalgia. And I mean that literally — listening to all of this music fills me with an aching feeling for something irretrievably lost.
As a writer, I have thoroughly curated my formative years back when I was in my teens and 20s. And, sure, you end up sustaining that time in your mind by unwittingly filling your memory holes with bullshit spackling. Nevertheless, those years still feel tangible to me. But the year I turned 36? I let those 12 months get overrun with the mental equivalent of weeds and discarded fast food wrappers.
Case in point: I have not listened to this album in at least five years. I went back and looked at what I wrote about it in My Top 10 Best (Favorite) Albums Of 2013 column — I placed it at No. 3 — and I praised Nomad for its “fusion of blues, folk, psych-rock, ’70s metal, and the Grateful Dead” that is “as expansive as the Nigerien desert.”
Wow, I thought. That sounds amazing. Why have I not played Nomad in at least five years? Also: I have no memory of writing this. Is it possible this was written by a different Steven Hyden? It is possible, but given that I can’t recall 99 percent of the things I did in 2013, let’s pretend it’s me for sure.
I proceeded to punch the word “Nomad” into the nearest streaming service and pressed play: Well, this truly is fusion of blues, folk, psych-rock, ’70s metal, and the Grateful Dead that is as expansive as the Nigerien desert! I was exactly right about that one! 2013 me was on point!
Then I read ahead a few sentences and saw this: “But the real reason I ranked Nomad so high is that it was the first album my infant son ever danced to.” Whoa. Suddenly, I had a full-on Tree Of Life moment, in which time collapsed and the infant version of my son and the 11-year-old version of my son coexisted simultaneously while dinosaurs and alien life forms stalked about in the background. I might need to take a moment before we continue.
29. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap
This column will also be an exercise in anti-nostalgia, in that some of these albums inevitably sound worse now than they did then and will therefore by downgraded accordingly.
By “worse” I generally mean “cornier.” In the case of this record, I mean that with maximum specificity. No critically adored artist of the 2010s has been hit harder retrospectively by the “cornier” virus than Chance. It occurred to me while working on this column that he is the Arrested Development (the rap group, not the TV show) of the era. If you were alive and engaged with pop music in 1993, it was impossible not to think that Arrested Development represented the future of hip-hop. Whereas for anyone who came along later, believing at one time that Arrested Development was the future of hip-hop seems impossible to comprehend.
To me the most incredible legacy of Chance at this time isn’t Acid Rap, it’s the fact that Surf by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, a 2015 album that have been completely memory-holed in 2023, became one of the most acclaimed LPs of the mid-2010s strictly because Chance was involved. People loved Acid Rap so much that Pitchfork felt compelled to rank an album by a group called DONNIE TRUMPET & THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT — which sounds like the undercard of a bill headlined by Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish — at No. 21 on their Best Albums Of 2015 list.
I repeat: Impossible to comprehend! For that reason alone I felt obligated to sneak Chance onto my 2013 list even though I will probably never play Acid Rap again.
28. Pup, Pup
Here’s the inverse of the Acid Rap phenomenon — an album that was mostly overlooked at the time by prestige music outlets, but a decade later feels like an influential and important touchstone. If 2013 was a year when “indie” as a relevant term started to feel outmoded as the scene’s hottest rising stars embraced full-on pop aesthetics, it was also true that the qualities associated with “old” indie — noise, attitude, youthful piss and vinegar — were now represented by the punk and emo acts now being welcomed into the indie conversation after being ignored or derided in the previous decade. And few bands from that scene brought the noise, attitude, and youthful piss and vinegar with the joie de vivre of Pup on their enormously enjoyable self-titled debut.
27. Thundercat, Apocalypse
Acid Rap was released about three months after Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term. But rather than represent a new beginning, that album now feels like the tail end of the original Obama optimism from his first term. Back then, the political centrism that Obama promoted was still in vogue, which cleared a path in pop culture for feel-good, middle-of-the-road rappers. Musically, this was signified by the old-school ’60s and ’70s soul that Obama adopted as an unofficial soundtrack, most often in the guise of Stevie Wonder, possibly the most universally liked living American musician.
Thundercat also draws upon that era on Apocalypse, but he comes at it from a dutch angle. If Chance The Rapper was 2013’s quintessential straight arrow, here was the guy who sang about going on a multi-day MDMA-fueled bender over slap-bass licks. Not the sort of thing that’s going to get you on Barack’s annual playlist, perhaps, but this album remains an enduringly funky gem regardless.
26. MGMT, MGMT
There are two kind of records that we are going to see a lot of on this list. The first kind point toward what music will become later on in the 2010s and beyond, particularly early works by some of the decade’s biggest young stars. The second kind are what I call “hangover” records, which are mid-career albums by established acts who are in a dark place and expressing those vibes musically in flawed but fascinating fashion.
MGMT by MGMT is the epitome of an early 2010s “hangover” record. It actually makes me feel like I have a hangover when I listen to it. “We thought it was a funny record,” Ben Goldwasser told me when I profiled MGMT in 2018. He must have noticed my look of utter incredulity, because he quickly added, “There were lots of moments on it that, to us, were obviously meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Or the music itself had lighthearted moments. [But] it was received as just this impenetrably dark album. That’s not how we were feeling when we made the music. We were having a lot of fun.”
I have fun when I listen to this album now, but at the time MGMT was the sound of aughts-era indie dying a painful death via asphyxiation at the bottom of a very deep oil well.
25. The Strokes, Comedown Machine
Confession time: I have a soft spot for “hangover” records. And looking over my list, it appears that I have a slight bias in favor of them over the “young stars” records. Which explains, for instance, why the self-titled debut by The 1975 is not on my list, even though The 1975 quite possibly is their best or second-best album. And it also explains why possibly the worst Strokes record did make my list. Upon the release of Comedown Machine, I questioned whether The Strokes were still fully engaged with being The Strokes, and judged the album with appropriate harshness. But now the lack of engagement is the very thing that attracts me to Comedown Machine. It’s the sound of The Strokes quiet-quitting! Which for The Strokes is the best thing, as there has never been a group who has ever been as good as when they appear to not be trying.
24. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt
The album that made Katie Crutchfield indie-famous. After her 2012 lo-fi debut American Weekend became a cult hit, Cerulean Salt sounded like her “level up” record, the relatively expansive sophomore effort that signaled her arrival as one of the era’s most respected indie singer-songwriters. But in light of the career she has had since, Cerulean Salt now feels about as intimate and sparse as the first record.
I suspect there is a split in Waxahatchee’s fanbase about whether the “early” or “later” stuff is better, as that split exists in every fanbase. As someone who believes that 2020’s Saint Cloud is Crutchfield’s first front-to-back great album, I am obviously in the “later” camp. But there’s no denying that her voice was already compelling on Cerulean Salt, even as she was still in the process of fully discovering that voice.
23. Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
This album, on the other hand, might very well represent the peak for this particular respected indie singer-songwriter. No disrespect to her 2015 official debut studio debut, the excellent Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, but Barnett distills the essence of her artistic voice perfectly on the timelessly droll “Avant Gardner.” Endlessly witty and irrepressibly deadpan, “Avant Gardner” is also Barnett at her most quotable. My personal favorite lyric: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying.”
22. Danny Brown, Old
Definitely the best sequenced rap album of 2013, and I feel like it might just be the best sequenced album-album of that year. Listening to it a decade later, Old still is all rising action with near nonexistent fat. Even “Wonderbread,” the “weirdness for weirdness” segue that briefly upset the seamless flow in the first half of the record, leaves a gob of spit on the inside of your skull and stickily affixes itself to your brain.
21. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
This album is not as much fun as Old, but it’s probably more important. Certainly in the arc of Odd Future, Doris (along with Tyler, The Creator’s Wolf, also released in 2013) signaled the surprising “mature” phase of the combustible L.A. collective’s career. Just a few years prior, they represented the last stand of wanton provocation in mainstream pop culture. But while Wolf still has some of the same triggering troll moves of Tyler’s outrageous 2011 effort Goblin, Earl Sweatshirt pointed to a more thoughtful and insular sensibility that ruled pop music later on the decade. At the same time, he exhibited the prodigy-level lyrical gifts he displayed as an enigmatic teenager who went MIA in the very early 2010s. Idiosyncratic and dense without being exactly hooky, Doris nonetheless feels like a blueprint for many of the “critic’s choice” rap records that followed.
20. Lorde, Pure Heroine
The music-critic aesthetic movement known as “poptimism” was peaking around this time. For instance, I vividly remember a prominent critic challenging a popular novelist to a public debate after the novelist wrote a snarky review of Taylor Swift’s 2012 album Red. That was how the world worked back then: If you said something untoward about “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in public, a music writer might slap you across the face with a white glove and challenge you to a duel. (That might also happen in 2023, of course, but it was just starting in the early 2010s.)
I also recall Lorde’s breakout single “Royals” being slightly controversial in those circles, given the song’s critique of pop-star exceptionalism. But then Lorde became a pop star herself, which quickly nullified her underdog edge. And Lorde is still a pop star, though a lot of that juice still comes from Pure Heroine. (I actually prefer 2017’s Melodrama, which is one of the great pop records of the last decade, but it didn’t do nearly as well commercially.) I wonder if Lorde’s most lasting legacy is how she invented the modern “goth girl movie/TV series trailer” voice that you hear constantly now. If your project is “dark” and/or “gritty,” and you are communicating that darkness and/or grittiness by using a reimagined cover of an ’80s or ’90s hit in the commercial’s soundtrack, you are probably going to use a singer who sounds exactly like Lorde.
19.Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
I feel like this band tends to get unfairly dismissed as L.A. record-collector hypebeasts because 1) they have a dumb name, 2) they put on some hilariously excessive late-night TV performances, 3) they never again made an album as good as this one, and 4) most people forget how good this album is. But this album really is good! I might even call it great if I only pay attention to the first four songs, which are incredible.
After Nevermind, Kurt Cobain expressed regret that he put so many catchy songs on one record, rather than space them out over several records, because it made sustaining a career that much more difficult. I would say something similar about Foxygen. Only Foxygen took it even further by stuffing multiple hooks and melodies — enough to sustain a whole other album or two — into every track on We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. And then they followed this record with a double-album that was half as catchy.
18. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
I recently wrote an anniversary column about this album in which I addressed whether it is overrated, since a lot of the writing about Random Access Memories after 2013 has insisted that it is. My decision to put Random Access Memories at No. 18 on this list – in spite of it being among the most acclaimed records of 2013 in the moment — might suggest that I agree with the “overrated” crowd. But Random Access Memories now seems so maligned as an overlong bore that putting it at No. 18 feels like a proper rating. This album wasn’t as good as we thought in 2013, but it’s better than many people say it is in 2023.
17. Cass McCombs, Big Wheel And Others
You know what sorts of records benefit from 10 years worth of distance? Really long albums. Now, that obviously isn’t true for Random Access Memories. But it is true of Big Wheel And Others. Upon its release, this record was like a data dump. At 22 songs and 85 minutes, Big Wheel And Others is the biggest meal on this menu. Even for a McCombs fan like myself, it seemed like too much of a good thing. But after letting it marinate for the past decade, Big Wheel And Others now feels like one of the best albums by one of our best contemporary singer-songwriters, a sprawling statement about Manifest Destiny and the failed promises of the ’60s counterculture. It also has lots of crunchy guitar solos and wicked basslines courtesy of Phish’s Mike Gordon. An ideal “joint by the campfire” listen in the summertime.
16. Bill Callahan, Dream River
Another ideal “joint by the campfire” listen in the summertime. I interviewed Callahan for this album cycle, and this was a time when interviewing Bill Callahan was a rare occurrence. When he phoned, he told me he was standing inside of a bathroom situated on a college campus in Austin, Texas. He was in the middle of filming a music video for “Small Plane,” and I was mildly surprised that Bill Callahan would agree to appear in his own music videos. This, again, was a more enigmatic period for him — I spoke with him again last year and he was doing interviews with pretty much everybody. But in 2013, he was this remote figure who appeared on the verge of hanging up the phone at any minute. Thankfully, he did not do that. Instead, he patiently listened to me explain my “theory” about Dream River — it’s a concept album about the final thoughts of a man who is about to be killed in a car accident. I think I explained this for a long goddamn time. When I was finally done, and there was a moment of “well, what do you think?“-themed silence.
“I’m impressed and happy that you got that from it because no one really has, including me,” he replied. As he does in his songs, Bill Callahan chose his words perfectly.
15. My Bloody Valentine, m b v
As I wrote back in February, 2013 was a weirdly good year for new albums from artists that hadn’t put out an album in a very long time. There was Daft Punk, of course, but there was also David Bowie’s The Next Day, his first in 10 years, and Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, their first in eight years. But My Bloody Valentine were the all-time champs in the year’s “long time, no see” category, dropping m b v 22 years after their deathless 1991 classic Loveless. There was so much anticipation for this record among music critics that some writers actually publicly worried about pressing play, for fear of disappointing themselves. But m b v was actually a really good follow-up to one of the most iconic indie-rock albums ever, which made it seem like a masterpiece at the time.
14. Queens Of The Stone Age, …Like Clockwork
Another great “hangover” record. When I reviewed this album in 2013, I called it “a welcome, though not essential, addition to the band’s canon.” But …Like Clockwork has deepened for me over the years. It’s an album with two well-defined halves. The first half is more song-oriented — it’s where the grabbiest rockers (“I Sat By The Ocean,” “My God Is The Sun,” “If I Had A Tail”) are located. The second half is the “bad vibes” part of the record, and that’s the part to which I now gravitate. Ten years ago, I must have clocked this half as indulgent, and maybe even a little boring. But that’s because I was listening to …Like Clockwork in the early 2010s, which was an indulgent and slightly boring time. When Josh Homme closes out the record by singing, “One thing that is clear / It’s all downhill from here,” it seemed like sullen metal-dude posturing. But now, clearly, it seems like he was onto something.
13. Deerhunter, Monomania
Like the Queens record, this seemed a little disappointing upon release. But now Monomania stands for me as the definitive “hangover” album of 2013. This is true in the micro sense (Deerhunter was going through a dark period and they worked through it musically) and in the macro (Monomania signaled a downturn for the type of indie rock that was popular in the aughts). As I was listening to the record in preparation for this column, it occurred to me that Monomania is to aughts indie what R.E.M. Monster was to ’90s alt-rock, i.e. an easily identifiable pivot point signaling the end of one era and the beginning of another. (For R.E.M., the next era was nu-metal and teen pop; for Deerhunter, it was the sprawl of pop taking over underground music.) And then I read my review from 2013 and realized that I also compared Monomania to Monster back then, but for different and not entirely complimentary reasons. (I referred to Monster then as “goofy,” which makes me want to crawl into a hole and write an apology letter to Peter Buck.) Anyway, I love both of these noisy, subversive, slyly witty, and sneaky sad records.
12. Haim, Days Are Gone
So much about Days Are Gone that seemed fresh and even revolutionary a decade ago is now deeply baked into the music that commands the most attention in indie music these days, starting with an irresistible single (“The Wire”) that simultaneously evokes Destiny Child, The Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight,” and an amalgam of Shania Twain hits from the late ’90s. This mastery of various pop and rock styles made Days Are Gone an undeniable listen in 2013, but in 2023, every indie-ish pop album (even the bad ones) exhibits that kind of range. The paradox of Days Are Gone is that its influence is so pervasive that Haim’s aesthetic is somewhat difficult to appreciate now. Here’s a hypothetical that helps to put this album in perspective: If Haim did not exist, would Taylor Swift have made 1989? I honestly don’t think so. That’s why Days Are Gone is 2013’s definitive “anti-hangover” record. The future that people like Josh Homme and Bradford Cox dreaded belonged to the Haim sisters.
11. Phosphorescent, Muchacho
A personal note: My dog died during the writing of this column. So, I didn’t actually listen to this album very much, as I felt that subjecting myself to “Song For Zula” in my anguished emotional state might in fact murder me.
10. Deafheaven, Sunbather
This was No. 1 record of 2013 in 2013. I put it as my No. 10 about of 2013 in 2023 because I am no longer at a place in my life where I want to listen to a black metal record with shoegaze guitar tones on a regular basis. I wasn’t really at that place in my life in 2013, either, but I was closer to that place. I would play Sunbather in the car while driving my son around town, and it was fine because he was a 1-year-old and in no position to complain about George Clarke’s screaming demon vocals. But even if he did feel traumatized, I felt that Kerry McCoy’s shiny guitar arpeggios would swiftly soothe him.
Anyway, none of this is Deafheaven’s problem. It’s my problem. This is still a beautiful record, and when I’m up for it, Sunbather still has the power to transport me to a specific headspace lodged somewhere between brutality and grace.
9. Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold
The one album on this list that is both a “young stars” record and a “hangover” record. It introduced one of the most popular and acclaimed indie bands of the 2010s, and it also represents the end of New York City’s aughts-era dominance of indie rock. Light Up Gold coincided with intense media attention on the Brooklyn DIY venue 285 Kent, which a handful of Brooklyn-pilled music writers attempted to imbue with CBGB’s-style mythos. For anyone who didn’t live in New York, it all seemed … a bit much. Though a decade later, it does make me feel wistful that a non-corporate music venue inspired so much romanticism. As the 2010s unfolded, popular music no longer had that sense of place. It all just seems to live on the internet. But listening to Light Up Gold puts you right back in Ridgewood, Queens, flipping through magazines.
8. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Not a hangover record, but rather a record you put on while nursing a hangover. With Trouble Will Find Me, The National proved they were among the small class of indie-famous acts in the aughts who were able to transition to the 2010s without losing steam. And they did it not by leaning into what Haim, Lorde, and The 1975 were doing, but by staying the course and continuing to write sad, mournful, mid-tempo, dad-pleasing, and thoroughly amazing National songs. By the end of the decade, Taylor Swift would be coming to them, not the other way around.
7. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Shoutout to Ariel Rechtshaid, a former ska musician turned ’80s production aficionado who became the most important producer of 2013 due to his work on Haim’s Days Are Gone and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of The City. He also produced the debut solo album by Sky Ferreira, which for me might very well be his most impressive work. Rechtshaid moves Ferreira through a variety of Reagan-era guises on Night Time, My Time, from the big-sky synth-rock of “You’re Not The One” to the streetwise Madonna-style pop “I Blame Myself” to the noisy shoegaze of “Omanko,” and several other places in between. But it wouldn’t work without Ferreira’s one-of-a-kind moxie. Her talent for conveying toughness and vulnerability with warts-and-all candor made her the sort of “approachably messy” pop star we could really use in 2023.
6. Jason Isbell, Southeastern
The 2013 album whose stock has risen most dramatically in the past 10 years. At the time that he put out Southeastern, Jason Isbell was a journeyman Americana artist who many people assumed had already peaked as a songwriter when he was in Drive-By Truckers. For that reason, the love for Southeastern took a while to build, as critics simply weren’t used to paying close attention to this guy. But over time, the narrative of Southeastern proved irresistible. Man kicks drugs and booze, sets about re-applying himself to his craft, puts his heart into songs that courageously address his demons, and produces some of the era’s most emotionally overpowering music. (I refer specifically to “Elephant,” a song that makes me cry even when I’m typing out a sentence about how it makes cry.)
5. Kurt Vile, Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Just to demonstrate my objectivity: This is my favorite album of 2013. It’s the one I have played the most. It’s the one that makes me happiest when it is on. It’s the one that evokes the happiest memories. But it’s not the best album of the year. It’s among the best, but it’s not the best.
4. Kanye West, Yeezus
Heading into this column, I assumed that Yeezus would be my No. 1. It was the most exciting 2013 album to hear in 2013. It was the most fun album to write about. It feels like the most momentous record in retrospect. Somehow Kanye’s artistic/mental/sociopolitical decline has only elevated the status of Yeezus as a high-water mark in the man’s professional life. If you ever loved or cared about Kanye, 2013 is the year to which you wish you could return.
I still think that all of those things are true. But upon revisiting Yeezus, I’m also reminded that there are some real dogshit tracks on this record. Like, “I Am A God” might be one of the top five worst songs to ever appear on any quote-unquote masterpiece. It was also stupid in 2013, but the presumption of self-awareness granted to Kanye back then is gone now, and that makes “I Am A God” so much worse. The lines that were meme-able in 2013 — “Hurry up with my damn croissants” comes to mind — frankly sound like disturbing confessions from a man already suffering from incurable brain worms. And don’t get me started on “Hurry up with my damn massage / Hurry up with my damn ménage.” It’s a testament to the greatness of “Black Skinhead” and “Bound 2” that Yeezus still manages to land in the Top Five.
3. Beyoncé, Beyoncé
In 2013, it seemed like Beyoncé (the album) would revolutionize the music business in two critical ways. One, the “surprise” album release strategy this record utilized was perceived as an ingenious solution to the problem of piracy. Two, putting out such an important album in mid-December would surely discourage music publications from publishing their year-end lists in early December. (This album likely would have supplanted Yeezus at the top of so many lists if they had been published slightly later.)
Ten years later, we know that one, “surprise” album releases remain a novelty and two, year-end lists get published even earlier now. Nevertheless: Still a Top Five record of 2013.
2. Arctic Monkeys, A.M.
There is a local farm supply store in my area whose radio jingle rips off the guitar riff and opening drum pattern from “Do I Wanna Know” to an egregious degree. If Alex Turner wants to win some tractor equipment in a lawsuit, this one seems like a slam-dunk. Then again, if Arctic Monkeys went after every tire company, hot sauce maker, and mid-tier rum distiller that has co-opted a “Do I Wanna Know” soundalike as a commerical jingle, they would have to give up music to commit themselves to full-time civil litigation. If “Seven Nation Army” is the most famous rock song of the last 20 years, then “Do I Wanna Know” has to be the second most famous. As for the rest of A.M., I can’t believe that young men were donning leather jackets and writing sexy guitar anthems as recently as 10 years ago.
1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City
I dared myself going into this column to not put Modern Vampires Of The City at No. 1. It just seemed too obvious. And then I put the album on and I was powerless to resist the laws of nature. This album is basically perfect. The production is perfect. The arrangements are perfect. The instrumentation is perfect. The lyrics are perfect. Ezra Koenig’s vocals are perfect. But is it too perfect? Actually, it’s the perfect level of perfect. Along with being the best album of 2013, it’s the record that — sorry to use this word again — perfectly encapsulates the year. It points forward musically, but lyrically it has a hangover/”I am dealing with my own mortality” vibe. It involves “man of the moment” Ariel Rechtshaid. It allowed Vampire Weekend to make that tricky aughts-to-2010s transition, but also marked the end of an era for the band and the NYC scene from which they emerged. And, most important of all, it’s the album that most powerfully reminds me of what it was like to be 36. Turns out 36 feels a lot like the last 75 seconds of “Hannah Hunt.” Oh, the ache!
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.