Indie-Pop Albums That Make The Cut Are More Than Mere Collections

This week we're looking back at the year in music with a peek at NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums of 2013. It's the annual list assembled by our in-house experts, including NPR music writer and editor Stephen Thompson. He tells Audie Cornish about his picks in the world of indie pop.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At NPR Music, they're wrapping up the year the best way they know how, with their hotly contested list of their 50 favorite albums of 2013. Now, all this week, we'll get a peek at that list from our in-house experts, including NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson, whose beat is the ever amorphous indie pop, which - Stephen, what exactly is that these days?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I have absolutely no idea. It used to mean accessible but unpopular.

CORNISH: OK. So...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: But even there - even those lines have gotten blurry.

CORNISH: All right.

THOMPSON: It's rock. It's pop. It's folk. It's engineered to be unpopular and yet it's popular. I don't know what to say.

CORNISH: OK. So would Vampire Weekend count?

THOMPSON: You know, I think so. I think they're definitely on the popular end of that spectrum but also very accessible. Wonderful record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEP")

EZRA KOENIG: (Singing) Back, back, way back, I used to front like Angkor Wat, Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam. While home in New York with champagne and disco, tapes from LA, slash San Francisco. But actually...

THOMPSON: You know, I've never been a gigantic fan of Vampire Weekend, but I love this album. The songs have gotten more sophisticated and much more heartwarming and more personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEP")

KOENIG: (Singing) I'm stronger now. I'm ready for the house, such a modest love. I can't do it alone. I can't do it alone.

CORNISH: We're going to move on to an artist who doesn't fit into any genre, Laura Mvula.

THOMPSON: Yeah. She is terrific. She put out a record this year called "Sing to the Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE")

LAURA MVULA: (Singing) She walked towards you with her head down low. She wondered if there's a way out of the blue.

THOMPSON: It's coming from about five different genres at once. You know, it's very soulful. It could have come from not only any era in music but any place on a map.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE")

CORNISH: That song is called "She" by Laura Mvula. And, you know, it's interesting. It seems like a lot of the albums that made the list were debuts. And one that I noticed was the group Rhye. Tell us about them.

THOMPSON: This is this very interior, quiet, thoughtful record. You know, there are bands that make love songs and there are bands that make sex songs. These are intimacy songs.

CORNISH: You call this a sexy-as-hell collection of affectionate love songs.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: That just about sums it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FALL")

MILOSH: (Singing) Ooh, make love to me.

CORNISH: People may not realize that they are listening to a man singing right now.

THOMPSON: Yeah. It's a very androgynous record. You don't see pictures of them. It's designed to be as mysterious as possible and to exist entirely as a sound world.

CORNISH: And the album is called "Woman."

THOMPSON: It's called "Woman."

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So that probably adds to some of the mystery or confusion there.

THOMPSON: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FALL")

MILOSH: (Singing) Don't slip away, my dear. Don't run away.

CORNISH: All right. Last but not least, Stephen, an album that - to quote your email to me about this - made the list after you, quote, "tipped over the table and threatened to set yourself on fire."

THOMPSON: That's - now, that should be taken figuratively.

CORNISH: OK. It's Laura Marling's "Once I Was An Eagle."

THOMPSON: Yeah. She's 23 years old. And this is - it opens with this incredible five-song suite. And the whole record has this overarching story about coming out of a failing relationship. And it's just - it's a very bold record. It's not a milquetoast folk-pop record. It's got some gristle to it. It's got some guts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER HUNTER")

LAURA MARLING: (Singing) You want a woman because you want to be saved. Well, I tell you that I've got a little lot on my plate. You want a woman who will call your name. It ain't me, babe. No, no, no. It ain't me, babe.

THOMPSON: These records all have unifying theories and unifying ideas behind them. They really adhere to a central idea, a central notion, whether it's an uncompromising sound, whether it's a theme. And I think when you're looking at the best albums of the year, they can be just collections of great songs, but I think these are still albums that hang together as album-length statements.

CORNISH: In an age when we're all just listening to one song at a time, right?

THOMPSON: In an age where we're all just grasping at three minutes here and three minutes there, something that hangs together as a full album-length work is really exciting.

CORNISH: That's NPR's music writer and editor Stephen Thompson. Stephen, thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: And you can see the full list of the top 50 albums of 2013 at npr.org/music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER HUNTER")

MARLING: (Singing) They don't have a hope in hell. You see the thing is we are so alone. There's nothing we can share. You can get me on the telephone, but you won't keep me there. No, no, no. You won't keep me there. Take me somewhere I can grow. Give me something. Let me go. Tell me something I don't know. I have some news. I have some news.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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