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Year in Review: Music's highs, lows 

The best and worst albums and artists we heard in 2013


The best of what's worth listening to

When CL contacted its music writers about submitting their picks to a list of Top 10 albums for 2013, a few of them declined, citing a weak year for the music business, or simply not discovering enough music worthy of Top 10 consideration. Maybe that's the same answer, though.

To me, the best album of the year is a collection of songs I can't get enough of. I listen to it for weeks, it's solid from start to finish, it breaks new ground and is a game changer — for the genre or music in general. I didn't find that in 2013. I found some solid albums, but nothing that made me say, "Everyone should hear this album!" All of my picks had strengths and weaknesses; therefore, I present my list with no front-runner.

Regardless, these lists are only meant as potential guides for new music and casual listening, recognition of the year's talent or as the starting point for an over-lunch debate. Here are (some of) our writers' lists for the Top 10 Albums of 2013:

No clear favorite.

Arctic Monkeys, AM

Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park

Kurt Vile, Wakin' on a Pretty Daze

Foals, Holy Fire

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady

Serena Ryder, Harmony

HRVRD, From the Bird's Cage

Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe

Letlive, The Blackest Beautiful

Haim, Days Are Gone

- Jeff Hahne


Sleepy LaBeef, Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again

He may not own most of the music he sings, but once Sleepy LaBeef wraps his vocals chords around a lyric, it might as well be his. For more than five decades, his rockabilly persona has transported gospel, country and rock tunes into a territory so unique that few musical travelers can navigate it. On this live CD/DVD set recorded in RCA's historic Studio B in Nashville and the Douglas Corner Cafe the night before, LaBeef restructures tracks from the Delmore Brothers and Johnny Cash with stops along the way to rearrange Willie Dixon, Joe Turner, Fats Domino and Hank Williams before going to church to whip up the traditional spiritual "Standing In the Need Of Prayer" into a honky-tonk lather. At 77, he's still worthy of his nickname, "the human jukebox," proving tune by tune that he remains the best musical investment your money can buy.

2. Omar Dykes, Runnin' With the Wolf

3. Mike Zito, Gone to Texas

4. Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, A New Road

5. Mighty Mojo Prophets, Flyin' Home From Memphis

6. Southern Hospitality, Easy Livin'

7. Various Artists, Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers

8. Various Artists, Remembering Little Walter

9. Hayden Sayers, Rolling Soul

10. Pine Leaf Boys, Danser

- Grant Britt


Mikal Cronin, MCII

Thanks to superb LPs from the likes of

Superchunk, Mount Moriah and William Tyler, Durham's Merge Records just enjoyed one of the best years in its storied history. But the pièce de résistance was this sophomore outing from garage maestro Mikal Cronin. Trading in the Beatles influence of his 2011 debut, he soars with new Wings, grafting gut-check fuzz onto anxious 12-string jangles. His sound is still adventurous: Feral guitars duel with razor-sharp fiddles. Elegant pianos wind up leading raucous crescendos. But more than anything, MCII is a profound and poignant expression of youthful confusion, the kind that can shush momentarily the worries of adulthood and leave even the most jaded souls shouting along in exquisite agony.

2. Chris Forsyth, Solar Motel

3. Arnold Dreyblatt & Megafaun, Appalachian Excitation

4. Hiss Golden Messenger, Haw

5. Mountains, Centrallia

6. Inter Arma, Sky Burial

7. Body/Head, Coming Apart

8. Joint D≠, Satan Is Real Again, Again, or: Feeling Good About Feeling Good About Bad


9. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels

10. The National, Trouble Will Find Me

- Jordan Lawrence


Kanye West, Yeezus

Kanye West's last handful of albums represented seismic shifts in the genre, and Yeezus was no different. The transformative album stripped away some of the subtleties of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to create something darker and honest to his herky-jerky emotions. If his life outside of music is a car crash, it plays out perfectly on wax, unapologetically encapsulating his passion, ego, hopes and contradictions while wholly embracing his role as hip-hop heel. You won't get it now, but you'll feel its influence for years to come.

2. Toro Y Moi, Anything in Return

3. Seravince, Hear To See

4. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels

5. Danny Brown, Old

6. A$AP Ferg, Trap Lord

7. Big K.R.I.T., King Remembered In Time

8. Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This

Door Go

9. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap

10. J. Cole, Truly Yours 2

- Mike McCray


Mop Mop, Isle of Magic

On Isle of Magic, drummer/DJ Andrea Benini's jazz/afro/hip-hop collective Mop Mop summons Can's Krautrock shuffle, the Poets of Rhythm's überfunk and Nicola Conte's jazzy exotica, catapulting their concoction into a tropic, narcotic netherworld. Aided by trombonist Fred Wesley's coruscating runs, British-Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph channels Can's Malcolm Mooney on the slip-sliding "Let I Go" and weaves a spoken word web on his call to inner revolution, "Run Around." Finnish-Egyptian chanteuse Sara Sayed brings languid allure to the slithery bossa-beat "Loa Chant." As this hypnotic LP winds like a serpent, Benini stirs in steel pans, vibraphones and sneaky guitar shredding to complete Isle of Magic's seductive spell.

2. Elvis Costello and the Roots, Wise Up Ghost

3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away

4. Widowspeak, The Swamps; Legs, Legs (tie)

5. Patrick Cowley, School Daze

6. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Jama Ko

7. Natalia Clavier, Lumen

8. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady

9. Bombino, Nomad

10. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City; The Knife, Shaking the

Habitual; Cults, Static (tie)

- Pat Moran


Kevin Morby, Harlem River

The ex-Woods bassist chronicles the end of his N.Y.C. tenancy by channeling some of the city's great cultural touchstones: Al Kooper's Blonde On Blonde organ, Greenwich Village folk-blues, and novelist James Baldwin among them. But coursing like the titular waterway through the themes and music are the Velvet Underground. Morby pulls off the same de-romanticizing that Lou Reed did with the flower-power '60s, only this time it's the dark side of Reed's dark side rendered bare: slinky riffs and chugging drones contrast hipster New York with the squalor of tiny apartments and too many roomies, violence, addiction, lost love and mortality.

2. Califone, Stitches

3. Baptist Generals, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart

4. Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold

5. Shannon Wright, In Film Sound

6. Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

7. Lady, Lady

8. Yellowbirds, Songs from the Vanished Frontier

9. Nick Cave, Push the Sky Away

10. The Sadies, Internal Sounds

- John Schacht


Mark Lanegan, Imitations

Lanegan never ceases to blow me away. This album of covers is haunting, moody, subtle, sparse and sung by one of the most emotive and gripping singers in all music genres.

2. The Flaming Lips, The Terror

3. Mazzy Star, Seasons of Your Day

4. Monster Magnet, Last Patrol

5. Red Baraat, Shruggy Ji

6. Wayne Shorter, Without a Net

7. My Bloody Valentine, MBV

8. Black Sabbath, 13

9. Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park

10. John Fogerty, Wrote a Song for Everyone

- Samir Shukla


Because some albums simply suck

Arcade Fire, Reflektor

After winning a Grammy for its last album, The Suburbs, Arcade Fire goes in an experimental direction on a new double album. The result is too many half-assed ideas slapped together without reaching the full potential of any of them. Lyrically weaker than previous efforts and no one should revisit disco. Mission: failed. - Jeff Hahne

Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines

Bad enough to write a sappy title track tribute to your dick, but ripping off Marvin Gaye to do it is inexcusable. The rest of the album makes you wish for a repeat of 1979's infamous disco demolition ceremony. Rot in hell, bitch! - Grant Britt

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience

2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds was Timberlake's Off the Wall. 20/20 should have been his Thriller. Alas, Timbaland's complex beats bloat into gaudy caricature, and Justin's sharp croon gets lost amid aimless melodies and seven-minute songs that always overstay their welcome. - Jordan Lawrence

Black Flag, What The...

The sound of a hardcore legend rapidly circling the drain, Greg Ginn's kitschy exercise in self-indulgence manages to be both abrasive and boring. - Pat Moran

Kanye West, Yeezus

Production values so bombastic as to make your memories of the Late Registration/Jon Brion era that much more bittersweet. - John Schacht

Will.I.Am, #willpower

Aside from a couple of escapist, dancey, "check your brain at the door" club party tracks, this release has "I've got a shitload of money and time on my hands, so let's do a record" written all over it. - Samir Shukla


It's rare that multiple writers are at the same show on the same night due to other obligations or assignments. Because of this, we asked our writers to give their five top performances of the year.

Pink, Time Warner Cable Arena, March 16 — The acrobatics — while singing! — were like nothing I've seen before.

Chris Cornell, Knight Theater, Dec. 2 — One man, a guitar and nearly three hours of music. A couple of Avetts didn't hurt either.

Janelle Monae, The Fillmore, Nov. 20 — Nonstop action for the duration of the show. True performance in every sense.

Zola Jesus (Asheville), Oct. 26 — Her collaboration with JG Thirlwell at the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit was stunning.

Joshua James, Evening Muse, March 27 — One of the most off-the-radar talents you should see every chance you get.

- Jeff Hahne

Pig Destroyer, GWAR B-Q (Richmond, Va.), Aug. 17

Thee Oh Sees, Krankies Coffee (Winston-Salem), Oct. 31

Inter Arma, Local 506 (Chapel Hill), Aug. 3

Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band, Raleigh Little Theatre's Louise "Scottie" Stephenson Amphitheatre (Hopscotch Music Festival day party), Sept. 7

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Orange Peel (Asheville), March 17

- Jordan Lawrence

Cody Chesnutt, The Visulite, Oct. 1 — Merging modern grit with urgent classic grooves, the hardest working man in showbiz fuses a soul connection with the crowd.

Leopold & His Fiction, Tremont Music Hall, July 24 — Nick Cave's Bad Seeds fronted by Iggy Pop in stand-up comic mode, swigging a hip flask full of mutant glam rock doo-wop.

Astro, Neighborhood Theatre, July 17 — The eclectic and uplifting next generation of Rock en Español delivers prog choirboy harmonies, rockin' polyrhythms and splintered synths.

NoTeVaGustar, The Latin American Festival, Symphony Park, Oct. 13 — Pumping out muscular, horn-driven alt-rock, the Uruguayan superstars channel the invigorating populism of the Clash.

Hugh Cornwell, Tremont Music Hall, Dec. 4 — Dark and literate punk veteran snarls hard-assed yet melodic new tunes, plus reinvigorated Stranglers' classics.

- Pat Moran

Califone, Unity Church (Raleigh), Sept. 6 — Hearing Tim Rutili's digital-electrical-acoustic song-reveries in the perfect acoustic setting of this landmark was indeed a spiritual experience.

Spiritualized, Hopscotch, Main Plaza, Sept. 7 — J. Spaceman and company are still floating in space, delivering the goods over a transcendent two-hour set.

Kenny Roby, Grey Eagle (Asheville), April 2 — White-knuckling it through an ice-storm wound up being totally worth it for Roby's brilliant, moody and poetic Memories & Birds release party.

Jeff Mangum, Neighborhood Theatre, Jan. 31 — Maybe it was the last-minute nature of the tickets I got; more likely it was hearing a packed house sing along to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Frank Black, Visulite Theatre, May 11 — The Big Bald Pixie dug down deep into his early solo career and his parent band's best material to remind us why he matters.

- John Schacht

Shankar Tucker, McKnight Hall, UNC Charlotte, Nov. 22

Peter Murphy, Tremont Music Hall, May 3

Wayne the Train Hancock, Double Door Inn, Feb. 27

Flogging Molly, The Fillmore, Feb. 7

Rev. Horton Heat, Tremont Music Hall, Oct. 30

- Samir Shukla


Kanye West — You're not a genius, that's your ego talking.

Miley Cyrus — Keep your tongue and ass covered.

Baauer — Because no one was actually doing the Harlem Shake correctly.

Katy Perry — We're done hearing you roar.

Ylvis — The fox doesn't say any of that gibberish. It's not clever, just annoying.

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