My picks for the Top 10 albums of what was an unusually deep pool of quality releases in 2013 likely won’t follow the rankings of “Rolling Stone” and other high-profile outlets. For instance, you won’t find Kanye West’s “Yeezus” (too self-indulgent lyrically, and I don’t hear anything that groundbreaking musically), Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” (the band’s move to a more synthy sound was bold, but several songs fell flat) or Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” (it just wasn’t that special), as well as much-hyped newcomers such as Lorde, Jake Bugg and Haim (their debuts were good, but not top 20 material). In any event, here’s how I see this year’s top albums.
1) Queens Of The Stone Age: “… Like Clockwork” (Matador) -- The first Queens of The Stone Age album in six years finds them sounding as inspired as ever. Epic rockers such as “I Sat By The Ocean,” “My God Is The Sun” and “If I Had A Tail” set the tone for “… Like Clockwork,” but there’s also an effectively disquieting ballad in “The Vampyre Of Time And Memory,” a wacky rocker “Smooth Sailing” and much more where that came from.
2) Arctic Monkeys: “AM” (Domino Records) --The Arctic Monkeys smooth some of the edges on its sound on “AM,” but sounds just as inventive. In particular, the Arctic Monkeys raise their game on its song writing, adding muscle to songs such as “Arabella” and “R U Mine?,” while imbuing cinematic tracks such as “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Fireside” with a grace and heft that hadn’t surfaced on its earlier albums.
3) Willie Nile: “American Ride” (Loud & Proud Records) -- Nile remains one of rock’s most under-appreciated artists. “American Ride” is full of standout rootsy rockers such as “This Is Our Time,” “If I Ever See The Light” and “Life On Bleecker Street” and lovely ballads like “The Crossing” and “She’s Got My Heart.” Nile’s lyrics remain perceptive, and by turns, provocative (“Holy War”) and funny (“God Laughs”). If you haven’t discovered Nile yet, this album is a great to start your ride.
4) Vampire Weekend: “Modern Vampires of the City” (XL Recordings) -- If sophomore albums are meant to prove debut albums weren’t a fluke, third albums are where enduring acts often prove they have staying power. “Modern Vampires of the City” suggests Vampire Weekend will be around a long time -- and the music scene will be the better for it. The group builds on its precocious pop sound, showing new levels of imagination and maturity on songs such as “Diane Young,” “Unbelievers” and “Step.”
5) David Bowie: “The Next Day” (Columbia Records) -- A decade after his last album, Bowie suddenly resurfaced with one of his better albums. “The Next Day” sounds thoroughly contemporary -- even visionary in places -- as Bowie shows he can still rock convincingly on “(You Will) Set the World On Fire,” “Boss Of Me” and the title track, summon elegance and beauty on ballads such as “Where Are We Now?” and find room for lots of hooky ear candy throughout the album.
6) John Fogerty: “Wrote a Song for Everyone” (Vanguard Records) -- Normally covers albums, live records and CDs where artists re-do past hits (as Fogerty does on “Wrote a Song for Everyone”) seem like they shouldn’t be considered for year-end honors alongside albums of newly created material. They seem easier to make than albums of new original material. But Fogerty, with the help of some cool collaborators, did such a great job of reinventing this set mostly consisting of Creedence Clearwater Revival hits that these songs almost feel like new compositions.
7) Kasey Musgraves: “Same Trailer Different Park” (Mercury Nashville) -- Musgrave doesn’t conform to the rocked up sound and red state values of mainstream country on “Same Trailer Different Park.” Instead she favors mostly an acoustic-centric, rootsy sound and lyrics that often tell stories about the frustrations and small triumphs of people living in the real world -- not the clichéd tales of love, pickups and partying so common in country.
8) Paul McCartney: “New” (Hear Music) -- Most of McCartney’s solo albums have been mixed bags, but “New” is one of his most consistently satisfying efforts. His melodic gifts -- always apparent -- are on full display here. There’s also a depth to McCartney’s lyrics that too many of his solo songs have lacked. On tunes such as “On My Way To Work” and “Early Days” he creates thoughtful tales that have a perspective that seems appropriate for someone now in his 70s. The former Beatle indeed sounds fresh on “New.”
9) The National: “Trouble Will Find Me” (4AD Records) -- Possessing one of the most distinctive sounds of any band, the National is back to its usual tricks on “Trouble Will Find Me,” turning out another collection of burnished, inward looking songs. The dark mood could drag down a lesser album, but the melodies are graceful enough to keep “Trouble” from turning into a dirge.
10) Pearl Jam: “Lightning Bolt” (Monkeywrench/Republic/Virgin/EMI Records) -- Pearl Jam may not break much new stylistic ground on “Lightning Bolt,” but this album doesn’t sound like a retread. In fact, it is one of the group’s most consistently enjoyable efforts, with plenty of first-rate rockers and other, more measured and introspective tunes.
Caitlin Rose: “The Stand-In” (ATO Records); Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell: “Old Yellow Moon” (Nonesuch Records); Smith Westerns: “Soft Will” (Mom & Pop Music); Buddy Guy: “Rhythm & Blues” (RCA Records); Richard Thompson: “Electric” (New West Records); Tedeschi Trucks Band: “Made Up Mind” (Sony/Masterworks); Nine Inch Nails: “Hesitation Marks” (HALO Records); Eminem: “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” (Aftermath Records); Neko Case: “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You” (Anti- Records); Ashley Monroe: “Like A Rose” (Warner Bros. Records).