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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

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.