You won't find Kanye West on my best of 2013 list. But you will find some black metal, instrumental guitar and a sampling of pop from around the British Isles. Here are my top albums of 2013:
20. Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt
I have this fantasy that Pearl Jam, the boys now pushing 50, will come out with an album so amazing that it will transcend even their best work of the 1990s. Lighting Bolt isn't that. But it's very good. Eddie Veder sounds terrific and Pearl Jam remains a worthy torchbearer for classic rock.
19. Camera Obscura - Desire Lines
A lovely pop album from the Glagow band fronted by the excellent Tracyanne Campbell.
18. Joseph Arthur - The Ballad of Boogie Christ
Joseph Arthur is an interesting cat. He's tough to pin down but he's never boring on this creative and soulful album.
17. Elvis Costello and the Roots - Wise Up Ghost
When I heard that Elvis Costello would be teaming up with the Roots, I wasn't surprised (Can any new Elvis Costello project really surprise us?) but I wasn't sure what to expect. Thankfully, this is not an Elvis Costello hip-hop record. It's Elvis doing his thing with funk and deep grooves. Nice.
16. State Champs - The Finer Things
It seems that every year some pop-punk band grabs my attention. Last year it was the Menzingers from Scranton, PA. This year, it's the exuberant State Champs from Albany, NY.
15. The National - Trouble Will Find me
It's not quite as good as High Violet but it is what we've come to expect from the National - moody and compelling. Rolling Stone nailed it when they wrote that Matt Berninger moans "like a man drowning in too much merlot and just enough Leonard Cohen." If you like that, you'll like this.
14. The Pastels - Slow Summits
What is it about Glasgow that results in such wonderful melancholy indie pop? Before there was Belle and Sebastian, or Camera Obscura or even Teenage Fanclub, there were the Pastels, now back with a fine record.
13. Superchunk - I Hate Music
Another band that hasn't lost a step. One of the underrated indie bands of the 1990s, Superchunk has put together a strong work with plenty of ass-kicking pop-punk hooks.
12. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Powerful singing on powerful songs - Neko Case keeps getting better (even if her album titles don't).
11. Los Campesinos! - No Blues
Underrated band from Wales offers a fine sampling of guitar-driven Britpop.
10. William Tyler - Impossible Truth
William Tyler plays guitar in Nashville's eclectic alt-country outfit, Lambchop. I don't usually go for entire albums of instrumental guitar, but Tyler's playing and layered arrangements are utterly captivating. It's like listening to America.
9. Mark Mulcahy - Dear Mark J Mulcahy, I Love You
Mark Mulcahy's cult following includes Michael Stipe, ThomYorke and Nick Hornby. On this album, you can hear what the fuss is about.
8. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
For me, a pleasant surprise. When Vampire Weekend hit the scene about five years ago, I figured they were a one-off. Sure, I enjoyed them and critics loved they way these Columbia-educated kids dabbled in world music but I also thought they were a bit too clever and too cute for their own good (or mine). But they deliver fine pop hooks and quality songwriting here. They're for real.
7. Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record
I had the pleasure of hearing Friedbeger (of the Fiery Furnaces) with John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders at the City Winery. Her breathless singing recalls Patti Smith and her songs are melodious and engaging.
6. Deafheaven - Sunbather
I have never cared a fig for heavy metal and so the distinctions between the various subgenres - black metal, death metal, thrash metal - mean absolutely nothing to me. But when I listen to Sunbather's swirling guitars, raw screams and crescendos of emotion, I don't hear metal. I hear a symphony.
5. Jason Isbell - Southeastern
Do you remember when music was not just for background or accompanying some other activity but for actual listening? When you just opened up and let the songs and heartache wash over you? If you don't, you can listen to Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-by Truckers) and he will remind you.
4. Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In
A chanteuse who deserves our attention, Rose sings with a voice from old Nashville and a rock-n-roll heart.
3. Arctic Monkeys - AM
There's always been something fun and appealing about the Monkey's misanthropy - the sneering, leering and snarling. But here, there's also a bit of maturity and the songs, the cool beats and guitar riffs, have real staying power.
2. Willie Nile - American Ride
No Springsteen in 2013? No matter. Willie Nile has been looking into the heart of America and rocking out with earnest, from-the-gut, sing-along, rock anthems for years. On American Ride, he's never been better.
1. Phosphorescent - Muchacho
I liked Phosphorescent's 2010 album, Here's to Taking it Easy, but it did strike me as standard alt-country-lite fare. This time, Matthew Houck has significantly upped the ante with a mesmerizing and achingly beautiful album.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2014.