“Time to close the songbook on 2013…,” says the boy begrudgingly with an air of remorse and uncertainty. “After all the year is nearly at an end and it is the hour to reflect on the records that really moved the needle on the record player. What a great year of music it was especially for female songwriters (!!!), electronic DJs/composers, brooding and clever storytellers, and youthful regression(s).”
Regardless of how much time, I spend rummaging the “airwaves”, falling down rabbit holes filled with tangerine trees and marmalade skies, abutting against the dark edge of the internet (not really, I’m not savvy or circumspect enough), there will always be omissions on this list, things I’ll discover in 2014 that would’ve filled 2013 with radiant joy or at the very least a good beat. But, with that caveat, here are the 30ish records that really left a last marking on me in the past year (with some additional favorites by genre). In an era of short attention spans and 140 character communications, the quantity of thematically whole albums has diminished and become a scarce commodity. The records atop my list all share one common quality: they are best experienced as a whole, building on narrative themes and musical motifs that reappear throughout. Get your headphones on and your stereo ready…
As always, links to the albums are embedded in the title and grammatical errors are careful oversights or intentional, you decide. Also a concise list with just links to the albums below is here.
Since Alligator, the gentlemen of The National have released album after album of increasing narrative and emotional brilliance. Unlike its predecessors The Boxer and High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me took a little longer to unfold its complexity, darkness, and disarming honesty. On the surface there is no moment of unbridled catharsis but rather an ever-evolving brutal insight into the daily challenges, the mundane epiphanies, and the fleeting, bittersweet euphoria of everyday life. Often there is an overwhelming veneer of sadness and darkness, yet, this is in part because the songs (and their authors) have such a profound appreciation and love of their subject and craft that they feel deeply the slings and arrows of fortune (to paraphrase the melancholic Dane). For me, The National to present an image of what it is like to truly see and replicate life for what it is: all sorts fascinating screwed up, transcendent and complicated beauty. If we stay here, connected to and immersed in life, trouble will always find us.
Sometimes a record can evoke a time and an era so perfectly that it is as though it’s been with you all along. Cerulean Salt takes me back to being on the brink of “adulthood” (whatever that word means). It is a raw, stripped down, and emotionally aggressive record filled with powerful pulse of angst and idealism. It shifts between lo-fi folk and distortion heavy punk-pop, but the constant is Katie Crutchfield’s searing lyrics and puncturing vocals. Although only 32 minutes in length, the record feels like a lifetime of anguish and discovery that leaves the listener awash in a plethora of emotions.
It will not come as a surprise to folks that the new Volcano Choir (another side project of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) record is high on my list. What folks need to understand is that this is not a Bon Iver record repackaged even if there are times when there are hints of Vernon’s last record, specifically, rich intricately and ornately layered soundscape and epic production elements. Repave is both a whimsical dream and a musical stream-of-consciousness improvisation. It is an ornate and baroque wave of musical textures that drags you into the current of its harmonic and confounding bliss.
It has been a long time since I listened to a record that was filled with such unrelenting aural sensuality. Rhye create sultry, sexy R&B tinged rock music with a delicate vulnerability that filters through every note and word. Milosh’s vocals disarm you with their falsetto sweetness and then pierce with their callous directness. This is the soundtrack of amor fou – the alluring and destructive power of passion.
Not all my favorite albums were filled with dark and difficult emotions. These next four albums reaffirmed my faith that artists can still make great pop records that don’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator or eschew art and quality songwriting. What also unites them is the fact that they all feature women as either the lead, main, or sole songwriters. In a year where the most popular radio hit was about as overtly and obnoxiously misogynistic, these ladies provided a pleasant response that quality pop music can still be powerful, meaningful, and relevant. 2013… the year of FemPop.
Whether it is heart-on-sleeve folk rock or infectious electronic pop music, Tegan and Sara have always been able to write songs that bring joy and release in spite of or inspired by pining, heartache, and amorous misery. On Heartthrob, the themes retain their complicated quality but the voice is self-assured and defiant, at times questioning the ex-lover, asserting one’s independence, or relishing in love. Throughout there is no doubt that these sisters are enjoying themselves and making great music.
From the moment I heard “Falling”, I became obsessed with these sisters. They have an uncanny ability to write perfect pop songs that plucks from and reference 70s folk rock or 80s R&B/Pop. The songs are catchy and emotionally resonate. Like with Tegan and Sara, these songs are filled with confidence and maturity. These ladies aren’t waiting for life or love to find them but they are affirmatively going after what they want. I’ll be honest I struggled to narrow my top tracks of 2013 to just two Haim songs because this record is almost flawless. (And, for those that take issue with the literary quality of their lyrics, I would remind you that pop music is a language of broad themes and emotion not idiosyncratic reflections on the state of the world.)
When I heard “The Mother We Share”, I couldn’t wait for more from this Scottish trio. For a country known more for sulking, sad rock and brit pop, Lauren Mayberry and the boys are a welcome electro-pop revelation. If this record doesn’t get you bouncing around the room, I’d be worried about you. Chvrches are able to find layer after layer of electronic genius and pleasure. In 2013, I saw them play live on three separate occasions and each time was impressed with how they translated the joy and energy of these songs to their audience.
For those that love rich harmonies and well-crafted songs, these Brooklyn-ites will be your new favorite band. Blending early 60s girl group, doo-wop with neo-folk and indie-baroque production, Wildewoman is a collection of stunningly beautiful dreamy pop music. They are adept at composing upbeat and catchy numbers such as “Tempest” and “Turn It Around” and then dialing it down for austere and arresting ballads like “Go Home” and “Don’t Just There.” Few albums will resonate both with the older mods and the musically hip.
Get ready to lose yourself in the music. In a year with an impressive number of electronic-downtempo dance records, Bonobo’s The North Borders is my favorite. At times, his production reminds me of an early Four Tet (circa Pause and Rounds), a series of intricate and pregnant beat mixed with eclectic samples from non-Western traditions. But really this record is all about getting into a chill groove; a perfect soundtrack/background for your end of year parties.
Okay, so in all fairness, these are EPs and not a full “album”, but so what. It is my list and I get to make the rules or not make them as the case may be. Few recordings have brought me as much joy and rekindled my youthful spirit/idealism as these songs by Their/They’re/There. The music takes me back to my late college years and early Chicago days when Emo was still a vibrant and energetic power in indie music. But then it either got co-opted into bad pop rock or needed to take a sabbatical, or perhaps I just needed to take a break. Who knows? I am just glad that this sort of nerdy, sincere indie rock music is back. Often derided for being emotionally over the top and naively idealistic, I always relished in the fact that in a culture (aka the US) where men are taught not to emote or betray vulnerability, many of these dudes formed bands to share their deep, dark, and painful emotions. In addition, this record serves as a musical madeleine conjuring up a decade’s worth of memories in Chicago (I moved here in August of 2013), of early days filled with odd jobs and work schedules, endless late night adventures, canvassing streets, building sets, colossal collapses by the Cubs, and all the amazing people that have played a parts in this narrative of my Windy City life. Sometimes a record is like a good friend coming back to say hello.
Instrumental records rarely get the attention in popular music they deserve. I cannot tell if it is a by-product of the lack of air play, an unacknowledged eschewing of anything evoking “classical” music, or the fact that without lyrics, the music feels “inaccessible”. As one who spends a meaningful portion of his music listening while doing work, I relish music that can envelope and captivate me without words to distract. Tyler’s Impossible Truth is just this type of album and so much more. The compositions are both magical and evocative of stories and journeys for the mind and heart. The album consists of a series of instrumental guitar compositions that straddle the line between Americana, Country, and Bluegrass, which I’ve discovered is called American Primitive among the music cognoscenti; think classical Spanish guitar but translated to the American context with a heavy southwestern influence. It is engrossing in the way a movie score can conjure the images and feelings from the story with just the sounds like listening to Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano, which always brings the image of the turbulent New Zealand coast line and the single piano on the shore. This is a record you will want to spend some alone time with and appreciate the genius of Tyler’s craft. (Also one of the most amazing live performers I saw in 2013.)
Mark Kozelek might be one of the more underappreciated songwriters of our day. His music is storytelling in the most mundane yet profound way possible. He unfurls narratives of stealing a valued family heirloom to get high leading to a mother’s anguish (“1936”), the story of an illegal immigrant friend who gets deported and haunts his memories (“Gustavo”), or a jilted lover killing his ex’s new lover yet failing to inflict the pain he intended (“You Missed My Heart”). Despite the often dark and difficult themes running through these songs, Perils of the Sea is a work of delicate brilliance thanks to Jimmy Lavalle’s skeletal digital compositions. In a narrative sense, it feels like the musical equivalent of Denis Jonson’s Jesus Son. This is most definitely an album to cuddle up like a good book by late night candlelight.
This is yet another record from the resurgent Emo realm that has brought joy to the early 20 something boy in me. But, don’t let the classification prejudice you, this is a musically meticulous record filled with extended and epic soundscapes, lots of intricate and lush guitar compositions, and the feeling of endless possibilities (think: Explosions In the Sky with some lyrics). These guys from Lawrence, Kansas, have been making great music for a long time and to see them perform is to believe in rock music again.
From the opening note, Mackenzie Scott’s debut record as Torres will force you to pay heed to one of the most arresting new voices and her mix of insurgent country, folk, and lo-fi rock elements. While I feel head over heels for her Beth Orton-like “Honey”, it was the unwavering intensity of “When Winter’s Over” balanced against the remorse laden lullaby of “Moon & Back” that totally overwhelmed me. If you are a fan of early Tori Amos or Cat Power, then Torres will be your newest obsession.
I always fall for a beautiful voice and carefully crafted songs, especially when they masterfully paint pictures with words. Caitlin Rose is just this sort of storyteller. Reminiscent of old-time (read: not Pop) country, The Stand In feels like a lost transmission from the old am stations broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry. Whether it is the story of being lonely on the road (“Dallas”) or calling an old “one-night” lover from the days of numbers on matchbooks (“Old Numbers”), Caitlin Rose will cast her mirthful magic while taking you on a trip down musical memory lane.
When James Blake released his self-titled debut a couple of years back, I was a slow convert but eventually became a bit of musical proselytizer. Overgrown finds James Blake moving from a series of experimental compositions to a more coherent and consistent aural language. What remains constant is his falsetto soul vocals and richly, textured wall of sound. The production on Overgrown is insanely brilliant. The interplay among the vocal track, the instruments (or electronic elements), and the bass drops is constantly shifting producing a vertigo like ecstasy. Listen to “Retrograde”, “Life Round Here”, or “Voyeur” and see how he weaves a psychedelic aural tapestry. But, the piéce de résistance is his collaboration with RZA on “Take A Fall For Me” . . . bone-chilling.
A late addition to the list as I’ve recently discovered this album on a friend’s suggestion with the note “reminds me of the old Ryan Adams records”. Yes, and maybe even more arresting in parts. For example where Heartbreaker largely deals with the depths and ecstasy of love, Southeastern is a brutally honest reflection on the trials and tragedies of life. But, there is redemption in Isbell’s songs as they are all about seeing the world, life, one’s past in a new light and taking hold of the narrative of life rather than feeling acted upon. The songs on this record will feel like either a pleasant or much-needed punch to the gut. A definite must-listen.
Previously, I mentioned what an amazing year it was for electronic-downtempo music (especially given that Boards of Canada released a new record). These three albums all fall under this umbrella to my ear. These albums create engrossing aural experiences each in their own unique way. The Range falls on the more hip-hop/triphop/drum-and-bass side of the continuum evoking the late 90s/early 00s hip hop/dance sound of the UK (notably The Streets, Tricky, and Dizzie Rascal). Bibio is the most idiosyncratic of the bunch, shifting from paisley-psych dreamy reveries (“Dye the Water Green”) to folk ballads (“You Won’t Remember”) to 80s synth-art-electronica (“Business Park”) to downtempo neo-soul (“You”). Moderat sounds the most contemporary blending the slow-churn trance dance of Burial or Andy Stott with Apparat’s mix of sultry 80s blue-eyed soul. You can’t go wrong whichever way you go.
Further into the looking glass… Olafur Arnalds’ music lies somewhere in the intersection between 20th Century classical (Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet), languid atmospheric film scores, and an electro-dance tinged hybrid. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and requires a patient and understanding ear. Anna Von Hauswolff, on the other hand, draws from a more ancient tradition while bringing a decidedly modern feel to an old form: organ music. The songs on Ceremony shift from dirge-like to euphoric, using harmonious accompaniment and dissonant drone. It feels ever ancient and ever new. These two records will transport you to a completely different world and mindset and remind you that the breadth of musical production is wide and multifaceted.
I love what Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward do without apology. Yes, it is nostalgic, sentimental, carefree, and anachronistic. What is wrong with that? But, each release contains a collection of songs that are so cleverly and perfectly constructed. And, Volume 3, is I think their best to date. Where the previous albums relied on production elements to create the retro pop quality, this release uses full orchestration, backing vocals, era-appropriate instrumentation, and a latter day “wall of sound” aesthetic to capture the joi de vivre of 50s pop music. Also, until this record, I was never moved by any rendition of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” and now I get it. Or, at least Zooey and M. Ward have found the dramatic arch of the song that resonates with me.
Old school rock records seem to be a dying breed. Or, perhaps rock is on hiatus while we get all the other distractions out of our system. To be fair, the Men don’t make your father’s rock music, unless of course your dad was into the Stooges, MC5, and the Burrito Brothers. Although Open Your Heart got more critical fanfare, I dig this release more because it reminds me of Uncle Tupelo Shifting between country rock ballads and distortion heavy punk-rock, New Moon will help get your blood bumping and fist pumping. The kids need to get their ya-ya’s out and this is exactly what the doctor ordered.
San Fermin – s/t: One of the most eclectic and difficult to categorize recordings; shifting from contemporary classical compositions to baroque indie pop; the songs are brooding, pensive, layered, and mesmerizing.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City: The third record from these eclectic-world pop music geniuses and they just seem to get more refined and more clever. A somber, mature, and serious record filled with philosophical musings on religion, faith, life choices, and sundry “adult themes”. Might be their best and most adventurous record yet.
Foxygen –We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic: A lost transmission from 1967 orchestrated by two 20 something wunderkinds. All sorts of psychedelic, blues-rock joy and hijinks.
Au Revoir Simone – Move in Spectrums: A gorgeous slice of pop blended with 80s synth dance beats. The vocals are intoxicating and mesmerizing. To quote Audrey from Twin Peaks, “this music is so dreamy.”
And for the final three on the list I’ll add my three favorite dance or party records (with Icona Pop getting the honorable mention last week). I could discuss these records in more depth but these aren’t albums you should talk about but talk over while shaking to their infectious beats and rhythm.
- Charli XCX–True Romance: My guilty pleasure of 2013. Goth-y dance music? Yes, please.
- Classixx–Hanging Gardens: 80s synth elements with a 90s dance club feel
- Party Supplies–Tough Love: Their name says it all; get into the groove
…okay and a list of additional records that also supplied moments of staggering genius, unfettered fun, consciousness expanding, or soul-searing records from 2013 worthy of a listen. From here on in less talk more “rock” (broken down by “genre”). Oh yeah, and I really enjoyed Drake’s – Nothing Was the Same. He’s just so good at what he does and Jay-Z’s appearance on this record is his best moment of 2013.
Neo-Folk Rock & Country
- Lady Lamb Beekeeper–Ripely Pine: Raw, stripped down, and all-out folk rock with searing lyrics
- Kacey Musgraves–Same Trailer, Different Park: Musgraves tells stories of small towns, big dreams and delusions, broken and resilient hearts, and confident, rebellious dreamers
- Neko Case–The Worse Things Get, The Harder, I Fight…. : I didn’t spend enough time with this record but Neko’s voice and musings always blows me away
- The Civil Wars–The Civil Wars: Swan song? I sure hope not.
- Brokeback–Brokeback and the Black Rock: Instrumental sprawling compositions
- Sigur Ros–Kveikur: The boys from Iceland get aggressively loud and metal-ish
- The Flaming Lips–The Terror: A philosophical concept record filtered through Dark Side era Pink Floyd; they did rerecord the record last year
- Julia Holter–Loud City Songs: Experimental art -pop
- Drop Electric–Waking up to the Fire: Expansive epic, atmospheric compositions
- Mazzy Star–Seasons of My Day: After a decade plus hiatus, a trip down memory lane with laconic, sprawling compositions, and Hope Sandoval’s otherworldly vocals
- Vondelpark–Seabed: Chill blue-eyed R&B
- Best Coast–Fade Away: Bethany C. crafts near perfect slacker/stoner/surf pop.
- London Grammar–If You Wait: Sultry and moody 4AD 80s sound
- Buke and Gase–General Dome: Sweet drone and base
- Veronica Falls–Waiting for Something to Happen: A record about growing up and looking back
- Washed Out–Parcosm: A trippy, experimental take on WO’s chillwave soundscapes
- Moby–Innocents: Vintage Moby playing with some great voices. Finally!
- Jon Hopkins–Immunity: A mesmerizing and immersive listen
- Boards of Canada–Tomorrow’s Harvest: Return of the Scottish downtempo vanguards
Enough to listen to for now? Favorite tracks of 2013 to follow…
…And remember to get out to shows to support these artists and to shop at your local record stores or soon you’ll have drones delivering your music via Amazon. Who wants that? Not I.
happy (holiday) listening,