December 31, 2013

Best of 2013

As I brainstormed about writing this post, a tweet appeared in my timeline that summed up my thoughts: "My favorite albums of 2013 were all released before 1997"

I do like a lot of music from this year, and followed music just as closely as I have over the last 5 years, but the albums and songs aren't grabbing me as much. Some of it is just a matter of time--meaning time I don't have. Being married with 3 kids and having a consuming job--all of which are awesome--leaves little time for really investing and giving albums as many spins as I did 10 or 20 years ago. I doubt I will ever like any year of music as much as 1997, or any year in the 90's. (1995 is actually my favorite year musically.)

February 2, 2017 update: Order after top 2 was radically changed, as this list had been organized thematically until now. All comments from late 2013 though, no new text.

Top-20 albums of 2013:
1. Tegan and Sara- Heartthrob** 
In 2005 my wife and I went to a free Cake concert in downtown Nashville. Tegan and Sara opened. Nothing wrong with Cake's performance that night, but it was the opening act that truly impressed. And these twin sisters have been impressing me ever since. On first listen of this album I was a little shocked over the 80's poppy sound. Upon second and third listen, the songs were all so catchy that I fell in love and sang along to ever word. Every song here is a hit, and had they been recorded by any artist in the 1980's they would have appeared on Casey's Top 40.
2. My Epic- Behold* 
I had never even heard of the band My Epic until I read a tweet that compared them to False Cathedrals-era Elliott. That was enough to pique my interest, and I streamed My Epic's Behold on Rdio for a week straight at work. (Also the first time I have used Rdio.) I was so impressed with my first 5-6 listens through this album that I bought My Epic's entire discography (4 CDs for $30 including shipping from MerchNow, which was too good an offer to pass up as I considered buying Behold on double vinyl for $20 plus shipping). While the comparison to Elliott was a good one, My Epic definitely has their own expansive rock sound while reminding me of the music I love so much from 1997.


3. Sleeping at Last- Space**
While not truly an album, Sleeping at Last released FOUR (!) EP's in 2013. With the overall title of Atlas, and then subtitles of Light, Darkness, Space 1, and Space 2. The Space EP's are especially outstanding. The band is using a unique subscription model in which you pay up front and get digital downloads earlier than the actual releases. The model is outstanding, as they have put out about 20 songs per year for 3 years and running.
2016 update: "Space" has since taken on a life of it's own as an album, rather than from a series of EPs, and has been released as a stand-alone beautiful vinyl set.


4. Eisley- Currents** 
Side A of the green- and blue-swirled vinyl record is perfect. Side B is OK. Together it makes up Eisley's best and most complete album. Eisley goes how it's three sisters go. Eisley's last album was full of shallow lyrics, mainly due to negative, broken relationships. Now that all three are happily married (and with babies), the songs are much more mature.. Musically there is also a lot of maturity, but they keep their aggressiveness.
5. Minor Alps- Get There*
This is 1/2 Juliana Hatfield, 1/2 Matthew Caws of Nada Surf. Most of the time both sing together with terrific harmonies. The upbeat songs sound like Nada Surf with female vocals added, but the best part of the album is the slow, quiet numbers. I have followed Nada Surf closely throughout their career and own everything they have done on vinyl. But I know almost nothing about Juliana Hatfield. I really want to explore her immense back catalog (which began in 1987 with her band Blake Babies and her first solo album in 1992), but I don't know where to begin. If you are a fan of hers, post your favorite album of hers in the comments.

6. Chvrches- The Bones of What You Believe* 
I didn't discover this album and band until pretty late in the year, despite being talked about all over the internet. Believe the hype; a terrific electronic rock band.






7. Arcade Fire- Reflektor**
Everything Arcade Fire has done is outstanding and sometimes ground-breaking, and this is no exception. What is different than their past works (and my #1 album of 2010, the Suburbs), is that is hasn't grabbed me. I think it is excellent, and I like everything I hear, but I don't find myself wanting to listen that often. I will say though that many of the lyrics are fascinating and have provoked thought and discussion. Over the next 10 years I expect to listen to this album more than many on here, and I expect my interest in it to rise.



8. Frightened Rabbit- Pedestrian Verse*
When Mumford and Sons rose to popularity, I couldn't understand it. I still don't. Part of that is because the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit already existed and did what Mumford did better. At the time, I called Mumford and Sons a watered-down Frightened Rabbit, as the latter is more intense both musically and lyrically.  I discovered the band in 2008 with their 2nd album, but 2013 was the first year I truly listened to them a lot. The song "Holy" is one of my top tracks of the year.



9. Tess Wiley- Little Secrets 
It is no secret that I am a huge Tess Wiley fan, possibly one of the biggest in the world. I am probably one of only a handful of people who has followed her super-closely for her 18-year career that has had a few full albums (this is her 4th LP; while there are nearly 100 songs by her in my iTunes database). This has a chance to give her more notoriety than anything else she has ever done. The album is a dichotomy as half the songs are about a horrible divorce, and the other half of the songs are tender towards her two boys. It works and you feel both her pain and love. She has come a long way from her first LP, a 1997 covers album. But her voice sounded great then and better now.



10. Haim- Days Are Gone* 
See comment on Chvrches. Got the album for Christmas, so I have listened to it very few times.
11. Patty Griffin- American Kid 
Her last couple albums were very over-produced to my tastes. This album is much more folky and stripped down, which has resulted in her best work in years. It probably bears more resemblance to 1996's Living With Ghosts than anything she has released since. The opening track, "Go Wherever You Wanna Go", is my favorite and was the them of a mix I made in May and distributed to graduating seniors.

12. Toad the Wet Sprocket- New Constellation
I never thought Toad the Wet Sprocket would ever release another album, this one 16 years after the last. They picked up right where they left off, and impressively they have progressed enough to still sound relevant. They put on one of my favorite concerts I have ever been to in 1997, and listening to this album reminds me a lot of it despite none of these songs existing then. The highlight of the album for me is "I'll Be on You," which is a reworking of the 2006 Lapdog song "See You Again."


13. She and Him- Volume 3 
Nothing really new here from the first two volumes, but Zooey and M. keep putting out beautiful albums.
14. Over the Rhine- Meet me at the Edge of the World 
I have been following OTR closely for over 15 years now, and have seen them in concert more than a dozen times (The first and second times were at Cornerstone 1997). My interest in them has waned over the past few years due to a jazz phase. This double-album has woken me back up to their talents, yet I have really only begun to listen to it all. As good as they are, nothing will ever compare to my favorite album from them, 1996's Good Dog Bad Dog.


15. Sandra McCracken- Desire Like Dynamite 
Possibly her best work: most intriguing lyrically with simple yet dynamic production.

16. August Burns Red- Rescue and Restore
I listen to very little metal at this point in my life. Part of that is that it isn't exactly good background music when I am riding in the car with my wife and kids, but a lot of is that I just don't ever hear any metal or hardcore that is any good. There are only two heavy bands I have followed closely since the turn of the millennium, Demon Hunter and the Spirit That Guides Us. And neither one of those are truly metal, as they infuse all kinds of different instrumentation and vocals. August Burns Red is the first true metal band I have appreciated since the 90's. All screaming vocals, yet melodic. The playing is super precise, technical, and impressive.

17. The Appleseed Cast- Illumination Ritual**
As anyone who reads this blog knows, the Appleseed Cast is one of my top bands of all time, and I listen to them a ton. This album is solid, but honestly a huge disappointment. I don't necessarily have a problem with it, but Sagarmatha was SO GOOD (my #1 album of 2009) and this doesn't come close. I think I am in the minority though, as most of the fanbase seems to think this album is better. Either way, no band does post-rock with vocals better than the Appleseed Cast.
18. Aaron Sprinkle- Water and Guns
No album in 2013 shocked me more than this one. I have been listening to Aaron Sprinkle for 20 years, and this was a radical departure. From the guitar rock of his bands Poor Old Lu, Rose Blossom Punch, and Fair, to his previous acoustic guitar-based solo albums, no one could have been prepared anyone for his 4th solo album to be essentially electronica. Yes, there are guitars, and the vocals in the forefront and unmistakably Aaron's, but the majority of the instrumentation is programming and keyboards. Also, all the songs are upbeat and catchy. Every time I listen to it I am surprised.
19. Josh Berwanger- Strange Stains**
One of my favorite bands of the early 2000's was the Anniversary. Even at the time, it was fairly obvious that they were unstable and could break up at any time, mainly due to the fact that the band contained so many personalities, songwriters, singers, and all-around outstanding musicians. When the band did break up after a short run, all of the members continued in music, but none of their solo projects or new bands ever grabbed me like the Anniversary did. Until this album. In 2012 Josh Berwanger launched a Kickstarter, and I had no hesitation of pledging some funds to help a fellow high school coach. It was easily successful, and in 2013 he burst back on the scene with this outstanding, brief album of modern songs a classic rock feel.



20. Jars of Clay- Inland
My relationship with Jars of Clay is a strange one. I was probably one of the first couple hundred people to even hear the band when they formed, but at the time I didn't even like them. "Flood", while a good song, was so over-played, and a big turn-off. It really wasn't until their second album in 1997, Much Afraid, that I really appreciated them. And then I had to look past the bad modern rock radio single "Crazy Times" to get in to that album. Jars of Clay is a rock band, but it is their slower numbers when they are at their best. It is the song that followed "Crazy Times", the quiet "Frail" that is probably my favorite song ever by them. In the late 90's though I lost track of them and stopped listening, even though they stayed active. I liked their Christmas album in 2007, and then 2010's Shelter was outstanding. But in 2013 they have released possibly their best album in their 20 year existence, highlighted by more slow, quiet songs, like "Pennsylvania" and "Fall Asleep".

Best EPs of 2013:
Mindy Smith- Snowed In
My wife recently said to me, "I think Mindy Smith's is my favorite Christmas album." That was an understatement.  Mindy's 2007 Christmas album contained 5 original songs, which is unbelievable. It is an achievement to write a single good Christmas song in a lifetime, much less 5. Then this year she followed up that album with a Christmas EP which contains 5 songs, two of which are more GREAT original songs. Combine all these songs with her soothing voice and there is nothing better to listen to in December.
CUSH- SP3
While working on their third spirituals EP, which took a decade to make, the concept changed from covers (like the first two EP's), to all original songs. You would never think of these songs as spirituals on first listen, as they are extremely original and conceptual, both lyrically and musically. It is awesome to hear Pricket et al. releasing new work, because it happens so rarely.
Most disappointing album of 2013:
Jimmy Eat World- Damage
I really hoped and assumed this album would grow in time, but nope. So bad and so boring. Jimmy Eat World has been so consistent for 15 years, even their worst album up until this point, 2007's Chase This Light, is WAY better than Damage. Not a single good song here. Never has an album cover been more appropriate: it looks like a project from one of my 9th grade graphic design students using Illustrator for the first time. The music sounds maybe a little bit better than that.

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