Dear Accidental Poptimists:
You know the phrase, “I don’t just love you, I like you”? I’m not just bringing up this bit of romantic-comedy doggerel now because we’re about to wrap up here, and I … well, very much like all of you. It’s also how I feel about great albums. Make that good albums.
Each December, as critics we’re asked—by our editors, by our bloggy peers, by Pazz & Jop—to place at least 10 albums in the pantheon of greats. If you consume as much music as we do, it’s not hard to come up with 15, 20, even 50 albums that came out during the year that dazzled us; I recall Ann tweeting just last week about the brutality of narrowing her list down. And I’m not anti–top 10. I’m the chart nerd, for Pete’s sake—I love ranking things.
No, what’s artificial about this process, to me, is highlighting albums that, for all their craft and wonderment, you won’t be playing by February. There’s a great throwaway line in High Fidelity, the movie, where John Cusack’s pissy Rob Gordon tells Jack Black’s overcaffeinated Barry, “I just want something I can ignore.” For me, the line always read as a knowing confession from a true music nerd: These are the albums you actually put on and listen to all the time, the ones that become sonic wallpaper, tickling the right parts of your brain. That’s not a low bar—it’s a high one. I don’t want albums I can only be infatuated with. I need to like them, too.
I offer all this preamble (apologia?) because many of my favorite albums in 2013 were hardly flawless; some were, arguably, boring. On the latest New York Times Popcast, Jon Caramanica pokes merciless fun at Ben Ratliff for including Rhye’s gender-flipped Sade-revival album Woman in his top 10; Jon calls it a cure for insomnia. Well, it’s in my top 10, too, and I don’t disagree that it’s a snooze: a beautiful, exquisite, jewel-toned snooze. And I liked it a lot, and I played it plenty. I expect it will be soundtracking my life (and yes, my cocktail parties and brunches) three years from now.
Or how about the Beyoncé album I said, right here, just days ago, I wouldn’t force myself to assess and rank in under a week? Well, imagine my surprise: I’ve been living with it for days, and I’m falling for it, not because it’s dazzling—this is Beyoncé, the queen of dazzle—but because it’s soulful and rich and dirty in a happily-married way, not a crazy-freaky way. (The secret to properly assessing Beyoncé: Stop watching the videos. They’re alluring and beautifully crafted, sure, but the album is the album, and it’s deep.) Honestly, Beyoncé reads to me as her answer to D’Angelo’s Voodoo—the ultimate slow-as-honey soul record. The first thing I told friends in the immediate wake of its release was, “Brace yourself, because I’m not sure I hear hits here.” I still don’t, and that’s a virtue; to me, it’s the most album-like thing she’s ever released.
Speaking of album-qua-albums, I am placing, at the very top of my list, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories which, as Geeta noted, is now remembered more for its expert marketing campaign than its contents. To me, RAM elevates boredom to new heights of perverse genius. Not just the nine minutes of Giorgio Moroder talking about his salad days in Germany over a beat, or the eight minutes of Paul Williams warbling over a ’70s symphonic fantasia; I’m talking about the downright somnambulant “Game of Love,” just two tracks into the album, with talk-box so mellow Peter Frampton might tell the robot boys to kindly step it up a bit. For me, the album works on two levels, both idea and reality: the idea of the forefathers of the current EDM wave, coming back after a long absence to assume their throne, and then punking (sorry) everyone by refusing to drop the bass and bring the beats; and the reality of an album that is so clearly deeply felt, true to themselves, and meant to be played as a total piece. Which I did, plenty.
The closest I come to the Dazzle on my albums list is Kanye West, who on Yeezus can’t be listened to passively. I’m with Rob Sheffield in thinking “Bound 2,” the lush, ridiculous, out-of-step last track, is what makes Yeezus what it is—its placement serves, not just to wrap the album up with a Kim-sized bow, but also to allow you to read the album as a statement and not just a screed. Interestingly, the other hip-hop album on my list, Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name, was executive-produced by West, and while it replicates some of the starkness of Yeezus it also indulges in some of the prior lushness he’s known for. For me, it’s the perfect sonic side dish, all complements and contrasts.
I was a little surprised that Ann’s all-women, pop-savvy top 10 list, which made room for Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz (love the singles, but not enough of the rest coheres for me), didn’t have enough room for Sky Ferreira’s shimmering Night Time, My Time. It’s my favorite pure pop record of the year, despite the fact that its singles will likely never be heard widely and its cover is a little too brave.
As for my songs list, I am even less concerned with looking cool there, although I am giving myself 20 positions to acknowledge, as Geeta says, the thrill of the single. I’m not troubling myself with the old critic’s trick of avoiding the album-and-song double-up in order to include more acts. For example, as strong as HAIM’s Days Are Gone is as a guitar-pop album, I’d be dishonest if I didn't also acknowledge that “The Wire” is a near-perfect brain fungus of a song. I also don’t mind looking uncool enough to place Icona Pop’s “I Love It” in my top five; yes, it dates back to mid-2012, but as I reported this year, it was part of a wave of slow-cooking radio hits that found any means necessary to fight their way into the top 10 (in Icona Pop’s case: Lena Dunham and cocaine). Among my circles of friends, heavy with parents of hyper tweens, “I Love It”—not “Blurred Lines” or “Get Lucky”—dominated the summer.
Oh, and regarding the Great Summer Songs Battle of 2013 (aka Pharrell vs. Pharrell), I am on record, here in Slate, not only adoring “Get Lucky” but also enjoying “Blurred Lines.” And while the latter doesn’t make my top 10, I won’t turn my back on it now. (My sister and I got too many laughs this summer imitating Pharrell’s “Errrebuddy get up” for me to pretend I wasn’t on board.) Carl is correct that the conversation about sex and gender in that song became fraught, but perhaps needlessly: As critic and Thicke fan Maura Johnston expertly noted in a piece for her eponymous magazine, a completely different interpretation of the song emerges when one listens past “I know you want it,” to the parts of the song in which the lothario insists he won’t try to hem in or “domesticate” the target of his affections. (Again, as with Beyoncé, maybe ignoring the video is advisable here, if you can.)
As for other summer hits, the only thing preventing me from following Carl in placing Anna Kendrick’s delightful “Cups (When I’m Gone)” on my singles list is the way the late-emerging 2013 radio edit neutered the starkness of the near–a cappella (save for cup percussion) of the original. Give me this version of Kendrick’s weird-America ditty any day, even if it’s under a minute and you have to loop it to get it near song length.
So here are my full lists, with Daft Punk on top of both—I will chortle ruefully in February if my barely defensible adoration for them is mirrored by the Grammys. As I walk off into the sunset that Guy-Manual, Thomas, Pharrell, and Nile are jamming in front of, I wish the three of you happy holidays and thanks for the welcome. My New York winter is going to look more like the cover of my No. 2 album, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, but I’ll be warming myself by loving and liking a good deal of the music you all have turned me onto here.
- Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
- Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
- Kanye West, Yeezus
- Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
- Pet Shop Boys, Electric
- Pusha T, My Name Is My Name
- HAIM, Days Are Gone
- Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold
- Rhye, Woman
- Daft Punk feat. Pharrell, “Get Lucky”
- Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”
- Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Z, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
- HAIM, “The Wire”
- Icona Pop feat. Charli XCX, “I Love It”
- Bruno Mars, “Treasure”
- Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
- Capital Cities, Safe and Sound”
- Tegan and Sara, “Closer”/“I Was a Fool”
- Atoms for Peace, “Ingenue”
- Daft Punk feat. Panda Bear, “Doin’ It Right”
- Ke$ha, “Crazy Kids”
- David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?”
- Paramore, “Still Into You”
- Lorde, “Royals”
- Lady Gaga, “Applause”
- Arcade Fire, “Here Comes the Night Time”
- Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell, “Blurred Lines”
- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert, “Same Love”
- Fall Out Boy, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)”