The Best Music of 2013

Autre Ne Veut
Anxiety (Software Recording Co.)

R&B fans will find it too strange, fans of strange music will find it too R&B, and both will be missing out on Arthur Ashin's nakedly emotive breakthrough, which offers challenges and rewards like few other pop records this year. Plenty of credit is due to art-music heavyweight Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and his regular collaborator Joel Ford, whose array of offbeat synths and appropriately nervous percussion creeps toward the avant garde, but it's Ashin's vocal theatrics and dark, deceptively hooky songs that shove those sounds into a more compelling pop context. By turns haunting and exhilarating, Anxiety is one of the records that pushed music forward in 2013. (Nick Huinker)

James Blackshaw and Lubomyr Melnyck
The Watchers (Important Records)

Twelve-string steel guitarist James Blackshaw and pianist Lubomyr Melnyck are both known for repetitive long-form compositions (continuous music, Melnyck calls it), so a collaboration between the two wasn't all that surprising. That they would produce an album this fully realized was perhaps unexpected, given that they had never performed together and had only briefly met. The four pieces taken from a six-hour improvisation session are as captivating as anything either has recorded, benefiting from the complementary nature of their styles. (Eric Dawson)

Dean Blunt
The Redeemer (Hippos in Tanks/World Music)

The former Hype Williams mastermind augments stark electro-R&B beats with strings, horns, harps, and a host of female vocalists to create a genuinely depressing break-up album. Samples, sound effects, and voicemail messages add to the dark and at times oppressive atmosphere running throughout one of the year's most lyrically and musically personal albums. What a world it would be if mainstream R&B would crib from it. (E.D.)

Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)

Metal's pursuit of extremity has pushed it into some fascinating, if forbidding, places. Leave it to some veteran extremists who haven't made a record in 17 years to return to the scene and blow everyone else away with omnivorous metal that emphasizes melodies, hooks, and, well, fun, assuming that ripping blast beats and lyrics about abattoirs are your idea of a good time. (Lee Gardner)

Colored Sands (Season of Mist)

"Orchestral metal" usually equals cheesy synth patches, or the bass player's girlfriend's viola bolted on. Luc Lemay's venerable death-metal crew returned this year with a new paradigm for the term: a heaving, surging, complex suite of riffs, harmonies, and rhythmic switchbacks that will give you a pulled muscle if you try to headbang and never descends into mere din. (L.G.)

Steve Gunn
Time Off (Paradise of Bachelors)

After recording a string of great solo guitar records, Steve Gunn formed a band and made a great folk-rock record. His playing still relies on complex runs that draw from blues, ragas, and post-Fahey folk, but he's created hummable tunes with the help of drummer John Truscinski and bassist Justin Tripp. It was a stellar year for American Primitive-affiliated guitarists who stretched out into cosmic-jam territory (Chris Forsyth and Cian Nugent also made great records in this vein), but Time Off stands out thanks to Gunn's excellent songwriting and his ear for catchy riffs. (E.D.)

Glenn Jones
My Garden State (Thrill Jockey)

You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a neo-Fahey guitar picker this year, but of all the limited-to-500-copies-on-180-gram-vinyl releases from said army of capo fiends, none matched Glenn Jones' latest for variety, poignancy, and secret harmonic sauce. (L.G.)

Meir (Roadrunner)

Three guitars. Why don't more groups do this? Van too small? Not that the weight and complex, hooky wallop of this Norwegian band's second album is all due to an extra six strings—the straight-ahead pound of Kjetil Gjermundrød's drum kit, Erlend Hjelvik's perfectly raspy vocal screams, and the occasional shout-along backup chorus all kick in, too. Yeah, yeah, Sunbather, but this is the year's true metal gateway drug right here. (L.G.)

Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy
What the Brothers Sang (Drag City)

Everybody knows the Everly Brothers for those grinning teen-harmony hits, but Don and Phil's catalog runs a lot deeper, and frankly weirder, than that. This pair of unrelated indie luminaries can't match the bros' preternatural harmonies, but they uncover a seam of baroque Southern pop and heartache as rich as it is long. (L.G.)

Ashley Monroe
Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)

Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark were the big stories of Nashville's so-called Year of the Woman, but Ashley Monroe quietly delivered one of the best albums of the year in any genre, an update of the classic sound of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn that takes into account more contemporary concerns—marijuana, one-night stands, and kinky sex. (Matthew Everett)

The Necks
Open (Northern Spy)

The first Necks' album that feels more like songs, in a way, than the typical hour-long-ish improvisation, but only because of the varied passages and states they navigate on this seamless, plangent, uncategorizable musical epic. (L.G.)

Night Beds
Country Sleep (Dead Oceans)

Back in 2011, college dropout Winston Yellen ventured to the outskirts of Nashville, rented a cabin once owned by Johnny Cash, and submerged himself in blissful acoustic melodrama. The result is the enigmatic Country Sleep, one of the year's most underrated albums. Across 10 sparse tracks, Yellen layers his warm tenor over lush backdrops of pedal steel, brushed drums, and ramshackle orchestras. It's a bit folk, a bit country, a bit jazz, a bit psychedelia—and completely immersive. From the wall-of-sound hymn "Ramona" to the pin-drop atmospherics of "Was I for You?," every track is a legitimate knockout. (Ryan Reed)

Dawn Richard
Goldenheart (Our Dawn)

Richard, a former (and maybe current again) member of Sean Combs' Making the Band project Danity Kane, followed up the arresting 2012 EP Armor On with a daring full album of pristine postmodern R&B. Goldenheart, the first installment of a planned trilogy, presents Richard as a woman warrior—there are references to Wonder Woman, classical mythology and history, and science fiction throughout the album—but it's the elegant arrangements and Richard's own stately voice that made this one of the best of the year. (M.E.)

Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels (Fool's Gold)

El-P and Killer Mike leapfrogged back to unexpected prominence with their respective 2012 albums Cancer for the Cure and R.A.P. Music, but their just-for-kicks team-up (released for free on the Internet, but don't call it a mixtape) shows they're at their most essential as a duo. 2013's most compulsively listenable hip-hop full-length mostly ditches those albums' seriousness in favor of infectious tough-guy posturing, with both m.c.s relentlessly tossing the ball back and forth for the duration, with occasional drop-ins from folks like Big Boi and the ever-skeezy Chest Rockwell. For all the talk of robbing & raucousness, Run the Jewels' defining characteristic is how much fun these two guys are obviously having. (N.H.)

Tegan and Sara
Heartthrob (Vapor/Warner Bros.)

Working with a gang of A-list producers (Greg Kurstin, Mike Elizondo, Justin Meldal-Johnsen), twin Canucks Tegan and Sara Quinn gave their scrappy indie rock a glistening pop makeover. Indulging their inner new wave divas, the duo goes for broke in the hooks department, abandoning sonic quirks and compositional detours. Every track is single-worthy, from the electro-pop miracle "Closer" to the arena-sized piano-ballad "Now I'm All Messed Up" and the R&B slow jam "Shock to Your System." (R.R.)

Kurt Vile
Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador)

Forget Robin Thicke or Daft Punk—there was no other album I listened to the most all summer long than Waking on a Pretty Daze. If there's better music for sitting on the porch with a drink in hand as dusk falls, I've yet to hear it. Vile's last album, 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo, had some great songs, but it pales in comparison as a full album—every song on Wakin on a Pretty Daze is pretty great. I suggest buying it now and testing it out on some sunny winter afternoons to get ready for all the spring porch nights that await. (Cari Wade Gervin)