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27 Best Albums You Didn’t Hear in 2013

The best of what flew under the mainstream radar

Do you know anyone who insists that "it was a bad year for music"? That person is always wrong — and especially wrong if they’re talking about 2013. The deeper you dug for new music this year, the more treasures you found. So in that spirit, check out this list of country duets, noise-assault donnybrooks, Fela Kuti tributes, smooth-tronic British electro-pop, and 23 other examples of under-the-radar brilliance. 

By Jon Dolan, Caryn Ganz, Joe Gross, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard and David Marchese

AlunaGeorge, Body Music

Courtesy Island Records

AlunaGeorge, ‘Body Music’

Recently, Britain has produced a lot of electronic soul duos in the tradition of Yaz and Erasure. This one adds some hip-hop to the mix; it's the sound of London after dark. Aluna Francis purs over producer George Reids' smooth-tronic beats and breaks. For maximum nostalgia factor, the group covers Montell Jordan's "The Is How We Do It" like they were taking a swing at an Otis Redding tune.

Richard Buckner, 'Surrounded'

Courtesy Merge Records

Richard Buckner, ‘Surrounded’

A country-folk-rock modernist with an intoxicating tenor and a heart-wrenching sense of poetics, Buckner chiseled these nine spare songs from a single story, telegraphing narrative through flashes of dreams and dug-up memories. With drones and odd instrumentation (hello, Suzuki QChord electronic autoharp!) swarming his minimalist acoustic guitar work, the emotions seem both simple and confoundingly elusive. Ain't life like that sometimes?

Andrew Cedermark, 'Home Life'

Courtesy Underwater Peoples

Andrew Cedermark, ‘Home Life’

The stirring, deeply relatable vignettes on Home Life, the second album from former Titus Andronicus guitarist Cedermark, render moments of regret and resolve as lovably ramshackle, folk-inflected indie-rock. "Train Window Man" attains some of the skewed poetry of the Silver Jews, and "On Me" reworks Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" into a humble triumph of regular guy fortitude. 

Ceremony, 'Zoo'

Courtesy Matador Records

Ceremony, ‘Zoo’

"It's getting hard…to stay human," frontman Ross Farrar hollers on this Bay Area hardcore band's first LP for Matador Records. Zoo’s nail-gun attack often recalls the post-punk of Joy Division, the Fall and Wire – if those bands had spent more time in weight rooms than art galleries. Farrar's vein-popping rants stick with you because they're so refreshingly pure-hearted: "I caught the world flu/I saw the world blue," he self-diagnoses. It's hard to resist the urge to barf along.

Mikal Cronin, 'MCII'

Courtesy Merge Records

Mikal Cronin, ‘MCII’

With its crisp guitars, winsome melodies, and gently searching lyrics, Mikal Cronin's second full-length sounds as if it could've been written nearly anytime between, say, 1965 and now. Therein lies MCII's classicist charm. The surging "Shout It Out" and chiming "Am I Wrong" are all about the questions asked by those of us who are belatedly, and maybe reluctantly, entering into adulthood. But they also provide at least one clear answer: Cronin is a major talent.

Deafheaven, 'Sunbather'

Courtesy Deathwish Inc.

Deafheaven, ‘Sunbather’

Part black metal scream, part shoegaze blur, all emotional overload, complete with a pink cover and a title implying that the musicians therein do, indeed, go outside, Sunbather was a mind-blower, bowling over innocent listeners with fist-pumping hooks that wouldn't sound out of place on whatever U2 is finishing up. To paraphrase their sonic forefathers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Sunbather" raise its skinny fists like antennas to heaven, while keeping a toe in hell.

Fidlar, 'Fidlar'

Courtesy Mom + Pop Music

FIDLAR, ‘FIDLAR’

These California braincall-haters play beachy punk rock at its most happily regressive, packing this blazing album with songs like "Cheap Beer," "Wake Bake Skate" and "Max Can't Surf." Sometimes a little California guitar chiming pokes through the stoner-thrash haze. Mostly, though, it's all blitzkrieg slop all the time.

John Grant, 'Pale Green Ghosts'

Courtesy Bella Union

John Grant, ‘Pale Green Ghosts’

Richly textured, both musically and emotionally, the second album from John Grant airs his post-breakup angst over a guy "with a black belt in bullshit" over sleek, low-key disco. Grant’s desolate lyrics can read like drunk-emails ("it isn’t complicated you just don’t care/You attack by not saying anything" on "Vietnam," which compares his ex's silence to Agent Orange). Set against stark strings, drifty beats and forlorn synths, they hit like the work of the best diva in emo.

Hunters, 'Hunters'

Courtesy Union Label Group

Hunters, ‘Hunters’

Arguably the best band born in a New York City arcade, Hunters are a couple of Nineties revivalists from Brooklyn whose fuzzy, shouty squall recalls Pixies and the Vaselines mixed with the plush melodicism of Autolux. Izzy Almeida and Derek Watson landed on the cover of NYC local the Village Voice before they'd landed a label deal, but their first full-length isn't the product of overblown hype; it's a compact 10-song run of spiky riffs wrapped around surprisingly pop-savvy vocals that'll burrow directly into your cerebellum.

Junip, 'Junip'

Courtesy Mute Records

Junip, ‘Junip’

On the second album with his band Junip, Argentine-born Swedish folkie Jose Gonzalez is a wintry pastoralist, undercutting his kind melodies and low-talking tenor with haunted drones and restless rhythms. On the free-form he advices "look through your dark corner," and throughout Junip he practices what he preaches.

Ka, The Night's Gambit

Courtesy Iron Works Records

Ka, ‘The Night’s Gambit’

This Brooklyn rapper flowed with grit and grace on his third album, recalling Nineties hip-hop greats like Prodigy and Mobb Deep. Over self-produced beats he takes on the realities of being a street-level MC in his forties: "a man now, stand down, sick of bleeding, I'm into reading," he raps on "Our Father." "Enough point work, joints hurt, and my shit's receding."

Kelela, 'Cut 4 Me'

Curtesy Fade to Mind

Kelela, ‘Cut 4 Me’

A D.C.-raised, L.A.-based R&B singer hooks up with some U.K. dance producers to make one of the year’s freshest underground-meets-mainstream coming out parties. On this mixtape-album, the beats are at once stark and sumptuous, full of alluring empty spaces, blips, twists and turns, giving Kelela tons of room to work a versatile voice that can be airy and vulnerable or as authoritative as any ballad-belter out there.

Kvelertak, 'Meir'

Courtesy Roadrunner Records

Kvelertak, ‘Meir’

Two minutes and 45 seconds into "Bruane Brenn," the Norwegian sextet brings its maelstrom to a halt and lets some light in, as the guitarists Vidar Landa, Bjarte Lund Rolland, and Maciek Ofstad let loose some major key licks — it's as heroically epic a moment as rock delivered in 2013. That sort of savage beauty is all over Meir, the band's second effort. Even when frontman Erlend Hjelvik is growling and roaring, as on "Evig Vandrar," the band injects a glorious AOR approachability. It may not be pure, but it's purely thrilling.

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, 'Child Ballads'

Righteous Babe Records

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, ‘Child Ballads’

An ambitious folk-rocking pal of Ani DiFranco, Mitchell puts down her pen here to tap the vast song collection of scholar Francis James Child, the 19th century Alan Lomax. Simply arranged and delivered in close, clear harmony with singer/songwriter Jefferson Hamer, the set brings a freak-folk tartness to some British folk revival gems, notably "Willie Of Winsbury" (see: Pentangle), "Geordie" (see: Maddy Prior and June Tabor), and "Tam Lin" (see: Fairport Convention). Only flaw: at seven songs, it leaves you hungry for more.

Mutual Benefit, 'Love's Crushing Diamond'

Courtesy Other Music Recording Company

Mutual Benefit, ‘Love’s Crushing Diamond’

The finely wrought debut from Brooklyn songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee works a fragile indie-folk intimacy that will remind many of Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver – especially in its lush yet spare orchestral intimacy. Nature-loving songs like 'Advanced Falconry" and "Strong Swimmer" will make your next walk in the woods an especially tranquil experience.  

Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon

Courtesy Columbia Records

Laura Mvula, ‘Sing to the Moon’

A conservatory-trained British soul singer who separates herself from Adele Nation (and, frankly, raises the stylistic bar on Ms. Adkins) with sheer diversity: "Sing to the Moon"draws on and smoothly amalgamates jazzy melodies, pop ballads, orchestral doo-wop and smart gospel. There doesn’t seem to be anything she can't sing, belt and make her own.

Oneohtrix Point Never, 'R Plus Seven'

Courtesy Editions Mego

Oneohtrix Point Never, ‘R Plus Seven’

On Oneohtrix Point Never's most eerily affecting album so far, not only have the machines learned to think, they've learned to feel. There's a yearning beauty in the way OPN mainman Daniel Lopatin sets his cybernetic sequencers dancing gracefully around solemn church organ, and a deep melancholy in the disembodied vocal samples voices floating amidst programmed rhythm tracks. When the robots take over, this is what they'll be listening to when their emotion apps needs an update.

William Onyeabor, 'World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor?'

Courtesy Luaka Bop

William Onyeabor, ‘World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor?’

Answer: An Igbo chieftain from Eastern Nigeria who produced eight funky, spacey synth-disco LPs in the late-Seventies and Eighties before embracing Christianity and dropping off radar. On the year's most thrillingly left-field reissues, the man's catalog gets cherry-picked by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label for a killer party mix combining Fela Kuti's extended-groove trance states and call-and-response vocals with P-Funky grooves and primitive drum machines. And songs like "Why Go To War" and "Atomic Bomb" suggest dude was always a hell of a preacher.

Perfect Pussy, ' I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling'

Courtesy Captured Tracks

Perfect Pussy, ‘I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling’

Punk rock revelations like Perfect Pussy don't come along often enough. They’ve got it all: great riot-feminist name, excellently miserable hometown (Syracuse, New York), ragingly chaotic live shows and a noise-assault donnybrook of a debut EP that's right up there with Yeezus among 2013's freshest headaches. Vocalist Meredith Graves' vibrant hollerings are buried under a violent hardcore scrum, but transcriptions on their Bandcamp page reveal a grueling intimacy: "My best friend is back in town/There's a bad taste in my mouth/Her eyes fell low and heavy with shame and cum." It’s the uncut truth of music that won't hold anything back.

Polvo, 'Siberia'

Courtesy Merge Records

Polvo, ‘Siberia’

Back in the Nineties, Polvo were wildly inventive indie-rock guitar benders. On their second album since reforming in 2009, they're freer and heavier than ever, stretching their songs into wry, wizardly jams that feel like they’re rocking out and melting at the same time – like what happens when Archers of Loaf go on a Wishbone Ash binge.

Omar Souleyman, 'Wenu Wenu'

Courtesy Sublime Frequencies

Omar Souleyman, ‘Wenu Wenu’

The year's most surprising EDM record came from this Syrian wedding singer, who pitches bellydance-friendly woo in Arabic, spitting fierce fricatives over hookah-bar synths that conjure hand drums and other traditional instrumentation. Produced by Kieran "Four Tet" Hebdan, who sharpens the flavors without diluting the recipe, it's a cultural salvo that confirms there's more to life than builds and bass-drops.

Speedy Ortiz, 'Major Arcana'

Courtesy Carpark Records

Speedy Ortiz, ‘Major Arcana’

Northampton, Massachusetts, indie-rockers Speedy Ortiz nail the tangled post-Pavement guitar poetry of the early Nineties. Their debut is all sharp left turns: Punky exuberance gives way to ballads, big choruses unravel into melodies that curl away like smoke. Sadie Dupuis sounds as deadpan when she's kidding as when confessing her pain, one minute mourning being dumped, the next delivering lines like "And I'm gettin' my dick sucked/On the regular."

Rachid Taha, Zoom

Courtesy Wrasse Import

Rachid Taha, ‘Zoom’

The 55-year-old French-Algerian singer’s sixth album brought along pals like Mick Jones of the Clash and Brian Eno to come up with a tough, culture-bridging album that mixes rai, rock & roll and even outlaw country into its vibrant rebel pop. The draw is the gritty, universal intensity in Taha’s Arabic singing — whether he’s covering Elvis with help from French vocalist Jeanne Added or driving home an anthem against forced marriage. 

The Uncluded, 'Hokey Fright'

Courtesy Rhymesayers Entertainment

The Uncluded, ‘Hokey Fright’

Ex-Moldy Peaches singer-guitarist Kimya Dawson and underground rapper-producer Aesop Rock might not seem like a super copacetic collaboration on paper. But their debut has an unmistakable charm. From "Delicate Cycle," a deeply personal working-class anthem to "Superheroes," a mouth-watering ode to sandwiches, to "Tits Up," where they tell us to "make us permanent fixtures on the self-help shelf of your record collection," the mix of soul-opening folk and left-field hip-hop makes for one of the year's most original releases.

Upset, 'She's Gone'

Courtesy Don Giovanni Records

Upset, ‘She’s Gone’

Featuring ex members of Best Coast and Hole, Upset play gum-smacking pop-punk and pack their songs with lyrical burns like "Queen Frosteen, she’s royalty/ She's cold as ice, she's serpentine." Bright and spare, tough and tender, their debut recalled the catchier side of Nineties grrrl-rock at its best.    

Red Hot Fela

Courtesy Knitting Factory

Various Artists, ‘Red Hot + Fela’

The second Fela Kuti tribute compilation from Red Hot, the AIDS-fighting non-profit organization, is even more action-packed than the first, using the Nigerian musician's indestructible Afrobeat sound as the template for 13 largely fat-free groove adventures. It's an all-inclusive party, as any Fela covers record should be: "Lady" brings together Questlove, Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus, rapper Akua Naru and Angelique Kidjo; Chance the Rapper, 2013's most exciting new MC, pops up on "Gentleman"; and on the 14-minute "Troubled Sleep Yanha Wake Am," a clutch of young talent-supernovas — Garbus, My Morning Jacket, and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes — extend a slow sinuous, aching jam till it feels like it could go on forever, which was always how Fela's greatest grooves felt.

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, 'Cheater's Game'

Courtesy Spunk Records

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, ‘Cheater’s Game’

A mainstream country ship-jumper in the Nineties after a brief run as a Nashville-styled teen angel, Willis came into full bloom on 1999’s "What I Deserve," then dialed it back to raise a family with husband/producer/singer-songwriter Robison. Their latest is a song swap full of top-shelf ache and well-oiled harmonies. Willis' Okie soprano still crackles like no other, and her control and phrasing makes it more devastating than ever.

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