I’ve never stuck with a single format for my year-end music lists. Some years it’s been songs, others albums. This year I couldn’t decide, so I went with twenty musical things. In most cases this is an album, but there are singles, or a few songs that stand out from the rest of an album, and even a genre. Which is which is clarified in each write-up.
There was a lot of good music this year, and I could easily make this 100+ entries. But that would mean something like seven hours of listening, and it’s not likely anyone is going to do that. I’m hoping that with a mix of just over an hour, you’ll be more willing to have a listen to my absolute favourites.
By the way, you may notice that for something called “Almost Mainstream”, this year’s list is pretty mainstream. I noticed that, too. In fact, I haven’t put together an episode of Almost Mainstream since August because I haven’t been sure of the point of it.
When I started, I said Almost Mainstream would be to explore “things that are almost big, things that should be big, or things that would be big if we lived in some sort of alternate universe.” In 2013 it kind of feels like that universe exists. Ten years ago groups like Tegan and Sara and Arcade Fire were these oddball underground acts, now they are a couple of the most high-profile in the industry. Even someone like Lorde, who seems like she should be this undiscovered gem, goes from a Soundcloud profile to arguably the biggest artist of the year in a number of months. And if all I’m doing is pointing people to music that is already near-ubiquitous, why make the effort?
But in putting together this compilation, I found there were still plenty of musicians I think should be getting more attention. Yes, I have Tegan and Sara, Drake, Haim, Kanye West, Mariah Carey and Lorde, but I also have Palma Violets, Rhye, Fake Shark – Real Zombie! and the most unjustly unheard of group of all, Ghostkeeper.
More importantly, if I were to expand this list to my 40 favourites there’s not a lot of other mainstream artists you’d find. Instead you’d get Imaginary Cities and Shad and Two Hours Traffic and Wildlife and Gold & Youth and all sorts of other great things. So yes, some of the music that I think is the absolute best is getting the attention it deserves but bubbling just below that is music that I think is far more worthy of your time than what you’ll find surrounding Lorde on the charts.
So that’s what I’m going to keep on doing with Almost Mainstream– play the best music I can find, regardless of its popularity. Here’s what I found in 2013. Have a listen, and if you like what you hear, stick around.
Almost Mainstream: the 2013 Mixtape
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob (album)
Whenever I make these lists, I’m worried about being biased against things released early in the year. It’s easier to get excited about something that’s only been around a few weeks than something you’ve been listening to for nearly a year. But Heartthrob, which came out in January has not become boring, despite its songs being played on, as far as I can tell, every radio station in existence. I’m still not sure if I prefer disco Tegan and Sara to guitar-based Tegan and Sara, but I do prefer Tegan and Sara to most other bands.
mixtape track: “Closer”
Mounties – “Headphones” (song)
A combination of Hawksley Workman, Ryan Dahl and Steve Bays, these guys have only put out three songs to date and the absolute best is this gem of a track about, well, wearing headphones. Bonus points for an ultra-Canadian music video that will only make sense to Anglophones who were taught French via Telefrancais.
Foxygen – We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (album)
There are many musical homages to the 1960s and 70s, but few sound like they could have actually been made in that era while still being interesting in the 21st century.
mixtape track: “San Francisco”
Mystikal – “Hit Me” (song)
Technically released in the dying days of 2012, this didn’t, ahem, hit me until the first weeks of January. And what a hit it is. Out of nowhere Mystikal comes in full-force with one of the best rap singles of recent years. There doesn’t seem to be any album to go with it with it, and the song isn’t even listed in his singles discography. Doesn’t matter. It’s fantastic.
k-Os – Black on Blonde (album)
Five albums in, it’s easy to take k-Os for granted. But the fact remains that few people so seamlessly blend the elements of hip-hop with rock and roll with practically everything else without breaking a sweat. This double album hypothetically divided itself between rap and rock, but the fact is both are too central to k-Os’ style to truly be broken apart.
mixtape track: “One Time” feat. Emily Haines
Ghostkeeper – Horse Chief, War Thief (album)
My favourite album of the year, and the only thing here that doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere else. This little band from Alberta made the most exciting guitar music in recent memory, oscillating between up-tempo indie, slow bass grooves, and guitar freak outs with electronic elements– all in the same song. There’s a vague sense of politics- lines like “the church brought troops to shoot them up and put a bad medicine in the blankets,” and “who’s the best Indian on the CBC?” speak to different phases of the Aboriginal experience within mainstream Canada, and there’s plenty of personal narrative in here as well. It’s fast, loose, and sounds like it could fall apart at any moment- something severely lacking in the polished touch of most music in 2013, and welcome anytime.
mixtape track: “Luella”
I’m not sure that I would love Days Are Gone without “The Wire.” There are lots of other good songs on there- “Falling,” “Forever”, “Honey & I”, but they are anchored by a stone-cold classic, a song that sounds like you already know it the first time you hear it, and yet doesn’t get old. Either way, great year for them.
A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (album)
Unlike Ghostkeeper, A Tribe Called Red got plenty of attention this year. And not just in Canada– they are making their mark on the music scene around the world, bringing their blend of traditional pow wow music and electronic beats from tiny little northern B.C. towns to major dancefloors in Europe. It’s fascinating stuff, surrounded by discussions of cultural appropriation and racial identity. Unlike anything else.
mixtape track: “The Road” feat. Black Bear
Drake – Nothing Was the Same (album)
Sometimes, a good album is really just a collection of good songs. Other times, a good album has good songs but the individual pieces don’t matter so much as the overall vibe of the thing. Nothing Was the Same feels like that to me- a vibe, and one of my favourites of the year.
mixtape track: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” feat. Majid Jordan
Palma Violets – “Best of Friends” (song)
This came out in the UK 2012, but it made its way into my ears as part of the 2013 album release 180. It’s an OK album, but this song is a great piece of garage rock that makes me wish I had a gravelery voice to sing along in.
Vampire Weekend have been slow growers on me– I’ve always been happy to have them on in the background, but never really heard anything that grabbed my attention. That changed near the end of Modern Vampires of the City when Ezra Koenig breaks down into “Baby, baby, baby” delivering what I would argue is one of the single best vocal performances of the decade. That was enough to unlock the whole album, a pleasant listen all the way through.
Fake Shark – Real Zombie! – “Paint It Gold” (song)
I don’t really know how to describe this song. Just listen to it.
Did anyone see this coming? I mean, really? I remember stumbling across her Soundcloud page in the early part of the year and listening to “The Love Club” on repeat and thinking “this should really be a huge song.” It wasn’t, necessarily, but “Royals” was, as was the rest of Pure Heroine, which oddly lacks “Love Club.” No mind, it’s all streaming online, and all worth your time.
Let’s pretend that instead of popping up on other people’s albums, Pharrell had decided to release a solo record where he collaborates with a variety of artists. He kicks things off alone with “Happy.” Then he’s with Robin Thicke and T.I. singing “Blurred Lines.” Then he’s joined by Azealia Banks for “ATM Jam” and 2 Chainz for “Feds Watching.” Maybe a Jay-Z track, and then suddenly Daft Punk show up for not one, but two songs. EP of the year.
Mariah Carey – “#Beautiful” feat. Miguel (song)
It feels really weird to be championing a Mariah Carey song as an underdog, but why wasn’t this ubiquitous? Perfect chord progression, great vocals, smooth and breezy through and through. Save it for next summer.
Rhye – “Open” (song)
I love the strings on this.
I’m not going to overthink this. Perfectly executed.
This is a bit of a cheat, but it’s tough for me to separate everything that happened in rap music this year into separate elements. There’s the oddball antics of Danny Brown and Chance the Rapper, the agressive minimalism of Pusha T and A$AP Rocky, the agressiveness of Run the Jewels, the worlds of Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and old-school throwbacks from Shad, Classified, and Maestro, just to name a few. There were artists that excited me in other genres, but no genre as a whole was a creative, diverse and exciting as rap in 2013. If you were to divide music broadly into “rock”, “pop/dance” and “rap”, rap would be the easiest one for me to make a “best albums of 2013” list for. If you’re someone who’s subscribed to the “rap is dead” worldview, it’s time to get back into the game.
mixtape track: “Fuckin’ Problems” by A$AP Rocky feat. 2 Chainz, Drake & Kendrick Lamar
Kanye West – Yeezus (album)
I found myself defending Kanye as a musician a lot this year. This surprised me. Yes, I get it, he’s saying outrageous and silly things, but it seems pretty obvious that musically he’s still advancing to new levels. In fact, I don’t think there’s any other artist of the 2000s+ who’s so consistently outdone himself from album to album– and it’s not as if he didn’t set the bar high in the first place. I mean, seriously, how did you not get shivers when you heard the opening riff to “Black Skinhead” on Saturday Night Live? And that’s one of the less agressive songs on this album. Not a false step on here.
mixtape track: “New Slaves”
The Hood Internet – “Igntion (1901 Remix) (R. Kelly x Phoenix)” (mash-up)
When the mash-up genre started, you got things like Destiny’s Child crossed with Nirvana and Christina Aguilera singing with the Strokes. But these interesting mixes soon became drowned out with the much more simple acapella rap verse over beat-matched instrumental. Then R. Kelly showed up on stage with French dance group Phoenix to peform a live mash-up of his 2003 classic “Ignition” with “1901.” Then the Hood Internet expertly recreated the experience for your listening pleasure. I hope we get another remix of Ignition in 2023.
Deafheaven – “Dream House” (song)
I’m not going to lie: I don’t have the patience to listen to the entirety of Sunbather. But I thoroughly enjoy its first nine minutes of noise turned into so much more.
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