20. Waxahatchee – “Peace and Quiet” (Cerulean Salt)
It was practically impossible to pick one song from Waxahatchee’s fantastic second album, because there are at least six or seven songs on that album that are just as outstanding as “Peace and Quiet.” Ultimately, it came down to the track that most embodied the essence of Cerulean Salt and the brittle melodies Katie Crutchfield lays over her clean electric guitar, and there’s something about the haunted quality of this track that reminds me why Cerulean Salt was one of the best albums of 2013.
19. Serengeti – “Directions” (The Kenny Dennis LP)
My love of Chicago emcee Kenny Dennis is well known, and his monumental eponymous LP is the year's best album about hip hop problems, true love, sausage, other grilled meats, helping the young'uns, and street livin' on Chi-town's mean streets. The second half of "Directions" may sound like the secret code to a Nintendo game, but this is merely a repetitive manifestation orchestrated so that KDz can teach you a life lesson, son.
18. Basia Bulat – “Tall Tall Shadow” (Tall Tall Shadow)
I’m a huge sucker for Rhodes piano, and the opening notes of these songs are basically like a siren song. Luring me in, but instead of killing me, rewarding me with one of my surprise favorite albums of the year. Canadian folkie Basia Bulat is best known for knowing her way around an autoharp, but based on this big, glorious, earthmoving track I can only hope she’s on her way out of niche folk into bigger and better things.
17. The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – “Gig Life” (Whenever, If Ever)
TWIABPAIANLATD’s Whenever, If Ever is full of big, post-rock-meets-early-90s-emo reverb anthems, but it’s the downplayed road song “Gig Life” that ties that whole album together.
16. Neko Case – “City Swans” (The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You)
The most immediately satisfying track on Neko Case’s triumph of a new record. The low notes that accompany the line “I can’t look at you straight on” drive that line right down into my gut every time.
15. Hospital Ships – “Come Back to Life” (Destruction in Yr Soul)
The most perfect sonic realization of sun shining through cloud coverage. Also caused a Pavlovian longing for Lawrence every time I listened to this song in Minneapolis.
14. Jim Guthrie – “The Rest is Yet to Come” (Takes Time)
I find something incredibly calming about Jim Guthrie’s music. This standout from Takes Time was the most uplifting and Jim Guthriest of the lot.
13. Yo La Tengo – “Ohm” (Fade)
It’s Yo La Fucking Tengo, goddamnit. This band has been around longer than I’ve been alive and they are still making some of the best records you’re ever gonna hear.
12. Deafheaven – “Sunbather” (Sunbather)
Title tracks often encapsulate the essence of an album, and never is that more true than on Deafheaven’s towering sophomore effort. The group’s synthesis of black metal, shoegaze, and post rock absolutely fucking shimmers on “Sunbather.” The ringer this track put me through was one of the most intense musical experiences I had all year.
11. Superchunk – “Low F” (I Hate Music)
Speaking of bands who have been around longer than I’ve been alive…Ok, I was 4 years old when Superchunk’s eponymous debut came out, but they’ve been around for forever and are still basically the champions of indie rock. They won. I Hate Music is a slow burn joy end to end, but the way the guitars chime in the chorus of “Low F” kills me the most.
10. Mixtapes – “Like Glass” (Ordinary Silence)
Part of what makes Ordinary Silence such a spectacular album is that there are at least 8 songs from that album that could occupy this spot on the list. The songs are built on pop punk structures with brainmeltingly catchy hooks and pack a surprising emotional punch, and I think “Like Glass” does it the absolute best, but ask me again in ten minutes.
9. Moonface – “November 2011” (Julia With Blue Jeans On)
Spencer Krug could make an album that was nothing but a synthesizer programmed to pitch-shifted farts and I would still probably call it a masterpiece because of course he would find a way to make it beautiful. Not that he did something that drastic on Julia With Blue Jeans On, but he’s had a habit of inhabiting different genres and styles on his Moonface records, and this one, which consists solely of piano and voice, is his best yet. It’s an incredibly romantic album, and while most of the tracks dabble in Krug’s standard crypticisms, “November 2011” makes this album’s love story sound like the most motherfucking epic love story of all time. “You can stay as long as you would like to stay,” Krug sings in the song’s final lines, and considering the amount of passion poured into those lines I can’t imagine how the song’s target wouldn’t want to stay forever.
8. Okkervil River – “Down Down the Deep River” (The Silver Gymnasium)
Welcome to Will Sheff’s childhood. “Down Down the Deep River” is the third track on The Silver Gymnasium, but it’s most certainly the centerpiece. The crux of the bildungsroman. The cipher for the heartbreaking details of youth. I have a severe amount of respect for Sheff’s ability to spill his guts.
7. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey” (Modern Vampires of the City)
If you caught me singing to myself this year, you almost definitely caught me singing “Ya Hey.” In my perfect world, this is what all the glossy mainstream pop would be replaced with. Infinitely accessible, infectious, and inventive without calling attention to itself. I think I’m still in shock that I love love love love love Vampire Weekend’s latest album after slagging so hard on Contra, but you can’t choose who you love. Or I guess you can, but this is one of those songs where I can’t imagine how anyone throwing shade wouldn’t secretly think it was the jam.
6. Frontier Ruckus – “Careening Catalog Immemorial” (Eternity of Dimming)
The back half of the second disc of Frontier Ruckus’ indulgent coming of age opus, Eternity of Dimming, was the most impressive string of songs I heard all year. The songs (“In Protection of Sylvan Manor,” “Dealerships,” “Funeral Family Flowers,” “Open it Up,” and “Careening Catalog Immemorial”) flow together and share melodies and lyrical references and choosing just one track is tricky since I see them as one big, loving and sad portrait of suburbia in the 1990s. The seven-minute plus “Open it Up” is the album’s climax and ties together all of the loose themes that populate the record, but it’s Eternity of Dimming’s denouement that really captures the bittersweet joy of the youth detailed over the album’s 86 minutes.
5. Laura Stevenson – “The Wheel” (Wheel)
“Runner” was the single and the song on Wheel that best illustrated Stevenson’s range, charm, and ability to be an indie rock superstar, but it’s the breathtaking, heartbreaking title/closing track to Wheel that showed why Laura Stevenson deserves to be exceedingly well known for her talents.
4. Frightened Rabbit – “The Woodpile” (Pedestrian Verse)
Scott Hutchinson is an alchemist who turns Scottish glumness into solid gold hooks. There’s a little breakdown towards the end of “The Woodpile” that sort of noodles around and then suddenly (I mean, you know it’s coming but it’s like OH SHIT!) brings the track’s marvelously catchy chorus back into the fold one last time and I just sit back, hands in the air, grinning with joy before replaying the track one more time.
3. Los Campesinos! – “What Death Leaves Behind” (No Blues)
Speaking of alchemists who turn gloominess into pop majesty, Los Camp’s Gareth Campesinos is the goddamn king. When my favorite band releases a single to tease a forthcoming album, usually I’m pretty cautious. I don’t want to fall in love too quickly because there’s always a chance I’ll be let down, but man I fell so hard for “What Death Leaves Behind” I swear if No Blues wasn’t a masterpiece I probably would have died. Just spontaneously combusted or something. Fortunately, it was, and another bullet dodged, but holy fuck this song makes me want to run through a goddamn brick wall. Every part of it! Despite the mass exodus of players, Los Campesinos! have somehow only been made stronger. This band is a miracle.
2. Mark Mulcahy – “The Rabbit” (Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You)
I feel like this is the part of the list where I break the word “Captivating” out of my lexicon and use it to DEATH. At least it feels that way, but that’s the only word I can think of without cheating and hitting Shift+F7. Charming, Attractive, Appealing, Fascinating, Enchanting, Charismatic, and Entrancing are my other options, but captivating is the best on for “The Rabbit,” a sparse little number tucked away in the back half of Mark Mulcahy’s strange and wonderful Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You. Enchanting works too, I suppose, and works with the track’s magic theme, but it still doesn’t do justice to the way this song will break you down to your bones.
1. Lemuria – “Brilliant Dancer” (The Distance is So Big)