Friday, January 24, 2014

My Best 53 Albums of 2013

It was an odd year in music: lots of great music, but very little that rose significantly above anything else. Hence a top 53 instead of a top 50: with only 10 points separating #1 from #50, I had a lot of ties! I used a formula that gives up to 30 points for creativity, 20 for chops (musical ability), head bobbing (melody), and overall feel, plus 10 for lyrics. (Click here to see who didn't make it!)

#50 (tie): Chvurches,  The Bones of What You Believe

The buzz over this band caught even my attention. (Normally I’m “buzz-resistant.) I picked up the Recover EP. I liked it, although it wasn’t the Second Coming. That same description applies to this, their first full-length LP: it’s good, with some great well-crafted electronic pop (e.g., “The Mother We Share,” “Recover” and “Night Sky”), but it doesn’t leap out, if only because there’s a sameness to the album that doesn’t disappear on repeated listening. (Let’s put it this way: I’m still an album guy so buying a partial album sticks in my craw, but in this case, I only bought two songs.) Still a promising debut and I will definitely check out their next offering.

#50 (tie): Neko Case,  The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight

I’m a huge Neko Case fan, but this album didn’t grab me right away. It’s only because I am such a believer that I kept listening – and the album’s gems eventually revealed themselves, although it does seem a tad forced in places. As always, she favors the vaguely sad 3/4 waltz time (the lilting opener “Wild Creatures,” and both “Night Still Comes” and “Local Girl” with their fabulous choruses), but the straightforward rocker "Man" is the highlight – and as good a declaration as ever of what she stands for.

#50 (tie): Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,  Push the Sky Away

Cave is the master of music that is mellow on the surface, but carries an underlying menace. The words and the half-spoken vocals (often in the tone one would expect from a con man or deranged preacher) help form this impression, but the band’s musical choices support this, too. The opening track, “We No Who U R,” for example, has a flute countermelody that’s just a little “off”: rather than the normal pastoral sound one might associate with this instrument, it instead hints at a funeral dirge. The violin sawing away on “Water’s Edge” provides the same effect. Not music to listen to in a darkened room when you’re alone, unless you like being frightened.

#50: Frightened Rabbit,  Pedestrian Verse

In sharp contrast to this band’s name, their music is bold and big, crashing, driving, uplifting and passionate (much of the latter thanks to singer/guitarist Scott Hutchinson’s vocals, delivered in a noticeable Scottish brogue). This album captures the band in full throttle with a particularly strong performance from Scott’s brother Grant thumping away on drums and percussion.

#49: Boy & Bear,  Harlequin Dream

An eclectic mix of styles on the second full-length album from this Australian indie band. You’ve got the slow menace of “Back Down the Black,” the country swing of “End of the Line,” the Southern twang of “Real Estate” or the Van Morrison soul of “Old Town Blues.” It all adds up to a very satisfying collection of soulful folk-rock.

#48: London Grammar,  If You Wait

Trip-hop is alive and well, if this album is any indication with its subtle electronic beats, echoing keyboards, and Hannah Reid’s plaintive vocals. Highlights include the pleading “Wasting My Young Years” and the dramatic “Strong.”

#47: Rhye,  Woman

A Canadian and a Dane met in Los Angeles… No, not the premise for a joke (which would have to be very bad) but the story of Rhye, a mutual appreciation society that led to this recording, a very sexy record of modern soul with smooth, languid and androgynous vocals. (For the record, they’re both male.)  

#46: Russian Circles,  Memorial

Instrumental music seems to be going through a bit of a revival. I don’t think it’s ever going to top the charts, but whether it’s Godspeed! You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, F*ck Buttons (#37) or this threesome, more and more artists are deciding it’s okay to eschew vocals and let the instruments do the talking. Memorial is heavy, churning and grinding, like the soundtrack to a dark and epic film.

#45: Haim,  Days Are Gone

Sunny pop-rock with great hooks and voices that mess together like, well, family, which makes sense for a band of three sisters.

#44: City and Colour,  The Hurry and the Harm

A collection of well crafted folk-rock from Dallas Green, the former singer from Alexisonfire. Like many singer-songwriters I like, Green doesn’t dress up or over-produce the music, but instead let’s the strength of the songs stand by themselves with simple, mostly acoustic arrangements. His expressive voice (like Dashboard Confessional without the over-the-top angst) carries the songs onto a higher plane.

#43: Mikal Cronin,  MCII

Crunchy, catchy garage pop with great melodies. Reminiscent of a softer Foo Fighters or a more consistent Matthew Sweet!

#42: The National,  Trouble Will Find Me

Every time the National releases a new album, I think, “This sounds just like the last album.” But then I keep listening, because there’s always something about the feel they create – call it the atmosphere or vibe – that draw me in. Eventually I realize it’s not exactly the same – and even if it is, they’re still pulling off something unique. (Yes, that’s a paradox.) Such is the case with this, the sixth outing from the Brooklyn-based indie rock band. The murky lyrics, the baritone voice, and the strong supporting music all come together to create a great mood piece.

#41: Glasser,  Interiors

Not as strong as her debut (lacking the more experimental and creative feel of that album), but still a strong collection of electronica “with heart.” Her voice remains ethereal, supported by lots of background soaring and sighing.

#40: John Grant,  Pale Green Ghosts

John Grant produces a kind of folk electronic music: lots of techno loops and synths, but a very non-electronic, folky voice. Confused? You’ll just have to listen! And make sure you check out “GMF” (yes, the “MF” stands for that particularly bad word), which has to be one of the strangest love songs ever written. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I listen to it.

#39: The Knife,  Shaking the Habitual

I’m a Margaret Atwood fan so I’ve got to appreciate two instrumentals called “Oryx” and “Crake” (although, at the same time, I could do without the 19 minute “instrumental” in the middle, which makes me think of that song on A Ghost Is Born that everyone skips). This is highly original electronica with quirky vocals and a strong Bjork-like sense of playfulness.

#38: Keaton Henson,  Birthdays

A very affecting and moving album: Henson’s music feels like peeking around a corner and watching someone perform without him knowing you’re there. His music is that intensely personal, an effect that’s made even greater by his high-pitched voice, which almost sounds strained, as if he’s fighting to get the words out.

#37: F*ck Buttons,  Slow Focus

The second instrumental album to make my top 50, this album is as heavy as Russian Circles (#46), albeit with less focus on guitars and more on electronica and industrial noise. The throbbing tom work on the first track, “Brainfreeze” (a great title, by the way!), starts things off with a martial bang, and it builds from there with seven tunes (two just over 10 min. each) that throb, grind and expand.

#36: Pearl Jam,  Lightning Bolt

Thank God for a band that just kicks out  awesome head-banging arena-ready rock without giving a shit whether it's trendy, popular or new. Over 20 years and still going strong!

#35: Kacey Musgraves,  Same Trailer Different Park

Gulp…a mainstream country record on my list? Yep, it’s true. Much as I don’t care for most mainstream music at all, at the end of the day, I could care less about the genre if the songs are well crafted, and they’re sung with heart and belief. That's certainly the case with Kacey Musgraves.

#34: Eels,  Wonderful, Glorious

Eels, the rotating band of musicians around “E” (aka Mark Oliver Everett), are well-named: like the namesake fish, they’re impossible to pin down, each album different from the previous. This, their 10th outing, finds them in ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll territory with a hint of grunge, from the churn of “New Alphabet,” to the grungy slabs of guitar on “Peach Blossom,” to the "Dream On"-era Aerosmith-like ballad of “True Original.”

#33: Hiatus Kaiyote,  Tawk Tomahawk

This has got to be the shortest album to make the list: I’m guessing it’s barely 30 minutes but there’s a lot packed into this collection of jazzy beats and unusual rhythms. Definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the imagination this Aussie band displays.”Nakkamura” is the most straightforward track and therefore a good place to start

#32: of Montreal,  lousy with sylvianbriar

One of the most original bands around today, of Montreal have their hearts firmly in the ‘60s on this particular album. It’s psychedelic-folk with mischievous lyrics and a strong, playful sense of melody.

#31: Anna von Hausswolff,  Ceremony

With a voice like Kate Bush, although fuller and less reedy, and more than a little talent on keyboards, Anna von Hausswolff can bring it! The album cover shows grey toned organ pipes, an appropriate image for an album with several songs riding on dramatic organ sounds that wouldn't be out of place in a recital hall. Flourishes of slide guitar, the classical influence, handclaps and electronic effects all come together to produce a rather mysterious kind of music.

#30: Tegan and Sara,  Heartthrob

This is a full-on, top-shelf, glitzy production that loses none of the intimacy and energy of their earlier releases. (Of course, I rarely buy into the "So-and-so was so much better on their earlier records." They weren't better: you were just young and drunk.) Their voices still mesh beautifully and the melodies are lush and lovely. The big hit is "Closer" but "Drive Me Wild" is my favorite.

#29: The Lone Bellow,  The Lone Bellow

This is a great band name although I do have one complaint: this isn't a lone bellow but a spectacular group bellow. Right from the opening track, "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold," this album just demands your attention with terrific songwriting, fabulous harmonies and a seamless blend of country, folk and rock 'n' roll.

#28: St. Lucia,  When the Night

2013 was a great year for synth-pop bands and St. Lucia makes a wonderful addition to the genre with its (really “his” since it's essentially a solo project for South African-raised, Brooklyn-based Jean-Philip Grobler) debut long player. Delicious hooks and great synth pads make for great head bobbing enjoyment.

#27: Valerie June,  Pushin' Against a Stone

What a find! Dozens of years of American musical history (Motown, blues, country and gospel) thrown into the blender, and spit out with grit and talent. The opening track catches the vibe here as well as anything: seems like standard country blues but the time signature and rhythm feel Malian, and the horn breaks could be jazz.

#26: Cults,  Static

The cover of the second Cults album looks very much like the first: guitarist Brian Oblivion and singer Madeline Follin in the throes of onstage thrashing ecstasy. But there's a crucial difference: this time they're facing away from one another, as apt a metaphor as any since they broke while recording this record. The result is a terrific rock 'n' roll break-up album full of great hooks and a strong influence of early-'60s girl groups.

#25: Telekenesis,  Dormarion

Twelve tracks of glorious, energetic power pop. What more could you ask for?

#24: Lucius,  Wildewoman

Some voices just mesh together perfectly. That’s the case with Lucius’ Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig. The harmonies and interplay of their voices powers this collection of lively pop, reminiscent of ‘60s girl groups and Mamas and Papas California pop. Lots of highlights but the final track, “How Loud Your Heart Gets,” gets right under my skin.

#23: Okkervil River,  the Silver Gymnasium

A gorgeous ode to songwriter Will Sheff’s hometown in NH, this song cycle is thematically unified not just by the location but by the range of concerns and memories captured, making it very much a universal message: if you’re from a small-town just about anywhere, you’ll find something to relate to here. To top it all off, the music is uniformly perfect for the lyrics, from the Springsteen-like “Down Down the Deep River” with its horn riff, passionate vocals, and chanted background vocals, to the dirge of “Lido Pier Suicide Car.”

#22: Lorde,  Pure Heroine

She was, what, like 16 when she wrote and recorded this? This is surely one of the most stunning debuts ever (not to mention the most mainstream album that’s ever made my top 50). From the slink and veiled threat of “Tennis Court,” through the smash “Royals,” to the slow build of “A World Alone,” her voice rises and falls over a minimalist (yet slick) electropop bed – and with preternatural assurance. Let’s hope she maintains this level of talent as she “ages.”

#21: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down,  We the Common

This is rootsy, rocky Americana played with great skill and heart. Thao Nguyen has one of those perfect Appalachia-tinged voices that sounds like it was created just to express this kind of music. This is one of those albums for which it's hard to pick sample tracks: they're all uniformly awesome.

#20: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club,  Specter at the Feast

This is slow, grinding rock, each song inducing a kind of hypnoptic head swaying. Start with the opening track: I love a good dramatic opening track and "Fire Walker" sure fits the bill. The rest of the album is equally powerful.

#19: Radar Brothers,  Eight

Eight (which, near as I can figure, is actually the 7th full length album from this veteran indie band) is great! It’s fabulous indie rock with a strong flavor of ‘60s psychedelic rock, especially in the slightly delayed delivery and tone of Jim Putnam’s vocals, swelling pedal steel, background muttering, and sudden bursts of discordant sound (just listen to the end of “Change College of Law”). It’s a tour de force.

#18: Toro y Moi,  Anything in Return

Although filled with complex loops and samples, what really gives this album its pizazz is its combination of R&B slink ("Grown Up Calls" or "So Many Details")  and sunny bubblegum pop ("Cake" or "Studies").

#17: Jason Isbell,  Southeastern

Jason Isbell sings these songs like he’s lived them. Through simple acoustic arrangements (the kick-ass “Super 8” being a notable exception), he sings movingly and knowingly of the loneliness of life on the road, drinking, and ending up in hospitals. You can hear the truth in his voice, and in his brutally honest lyrics, especially in the hard-hitting “Elephant” about a woman dying of cancer.

#16: Bastille,  Bad Blood

I've never recovered from my '80s college days: I have a weakness for synth-pop and therefore love Bastille, a fairly new band that cranks out great hook-laden synth-pop. Hooked!

#15: Junip,  Junip

Take Jose Gonzales’ classical guitar fingerpicking and restrained voice, add in a full band with lots of electronic and atmospheric effects, and you’ve got the unique sound of Junip (which actually predates Gonzales’ solo career – they went on hold after his solo success). They’re a very rhythmic band, the vocals often contributing to the rhythm of the song through a repetitive musical phrase or echo of the bass, and adding to the slow build of each song. Listen to “Walking Lightly” or “Your Life Your Call” for an example.

#14: Jordan Klassen,  Repentance

Every year it seems my list includes a couple of Canadian indie artists who I’d never have heard of if not for the R3-30 countdown. Two years ago it was Rich Aucoin, Library Voices and Said the Whale. Last year it was Purity Ring and Jason Collett. This year it’s talented multi-instrumentalist Jordan Klassen with his wide-ranging, beautifully crafted debut. He calls his music “fairy folk.” If that’s defined as “a really eclectic mix of instruments, sounds and voices that carries you aloft on magical waves of music,” then I’m cool with that label.

#13: Anoushka Shankar,  Traces of You

If your experience of the sitar is limited to George Harrison’s twanging on Beatles’ tracks, or as background music when you’re in an Indian grocery store, you’ve probably never realized (I certainly didn’t!) that the instrument can express so much emotion. Anoushka Snankar makes it mourn on this tribute to her late father, Ravi Shankar, with three outstanding vocal contributions from her sister Norah Jones.

#12: Arcade Fire, Reflektor

A big, sprawling mess of an album that never sounds less than glorious. For all the influence of producer James Murphy (“Porno” could have come from an LCD Soundsystem record), and the Haitian influence (most prominently on “Here Comes the Night Time”), this remains a rock ‘n’ roll album at its heart, albeit an Arcade Fire rock album, which means moments that soar, others that grind with punk fury, and an underlying darkness in the lyrics.

#11: Josh Ritter,  The Beast in Its Tracks

This is one of the best break-up albums ever. After three albums of increasingly ambitious Americana, Josh Ritter turned his considerable songwriting gifts to his failed marriage with stunning results: strongly melodic, sharply observational, open and emotional without sap, all balanced by intimate backing music. I challenge you not to be moved by songs like “New Lover” or “Joy to You, Baby.”

#10: David Bowie, The Next Day

How does this guy do it? He produced enough groundbreaking music in the '70s alone to guarantee musical immortality. Yet he's stuck to it and remained relevant perhaps because, unlike so many long-term artists, he rarely sounds like he's trying to be relevant. It just seems to happen. Such is the case with this, his first album in something like eight years. For all the great dissonant rockers, the highlight is the slow "Where Are We Now?" in which he wanders through Berlin and reflects on his life.

#9: Bill Callahan,  Dream River

I often have trouble describing music that affects me most, so I’m not quite sure what to say about this hypnotic, jazz-inflected collection. Callahan’s voice is certainly a unique instrument, low, gravelly yet full, and occasionally speaking rather than singing. You can picture him standing on a smoky stage somewhere, the band seated behind him following his lead as he rambles and the songs pick up steam. “The only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’…’beer’…and ‘thank you.’”

#8: Bombino,  Nomad

Omar "Bombino" Moctar is a Toureg guitarist from Niger who absolutely shreds it. His riffs combine traditional music with American rock and blues to produce a volatile and intoxicating gumbo, served very well by a lively upfront mix from producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. There are many gems here but "Azamane Tiliade" is a particular highlight.

#7: The Besnard Lakes,  Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO

Besnard Lakes and Arcade Fire have a lot in common: they're both from Montreal, both fronted by married couples, and both tend to pick up the baroque rock label. But then they diverge: the Besnard Lakes make swelling, expansive orchestral rock that's unified and lacks the obvious experimentation and "everything but the kitchen sink" approach of Arcade Fire. It's phenomenally beautiful music, the kind of tunes that can transport me onto a different plane: I imagine listening to this while watching the Aurora Borealis.

#6: Julia Holter,  Loud City Song

Holter creates exquisitely crafted modern music with an experimental flavor, mostly with orchestral instruments. The overall effect is often like low-key torch songs (in vocal delivery, not subject matter). Either way, she’s definitely produced one of the most interesting and seductive albums of the year.

#5: Laura Mvula,  Sing to the Moon

Although their music is nothing alike, I have the same problem with Laura Mvula as I have with Bill Callahan (#9): how to describe this music? It’s such an incredible melange of styles – soul, R&B, jazz, ‘30s dancehall, ‘60s girl groups, show tunes – that I brely know where to begin. Let’s start with her voice, which reminds me of Nina Simone in its boldness.

#4: Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost

Sam Beam continues the transition from lo-fi basement folk to fully realized music with this rhythmic outing. It’s much stronger than the last album (which seems like a bridge between the old and the new) and he continues to craft his own special blend of folky soul with catchy melodies.

#3: Joseph Arthur,  The Ballad of Boogie Christ

Joseph Arthur crowd-sourced this concept album (is that a dirty word?) that follows a character named Boogie Christ as he wanders through the world seeking redemption. It’s an incredible journey. Arthur’s expressive, world-weary voice is perfect for the material, and he always makes the right choice in neo-soul and rock backing music, whether it’s the chiming piano in “Wait for Your Lights,” the churning guitar on “It’s OK to Be Young/Gone,” or the backing vocals on “Famous Friends Along the Coast.” By the way: he recorded so much good music during the session that he was able to release Act II in late-Nov. This review is based on Act I only: I’ve only listened to Act II once.

#2: The Cat Empire,  Steal the Light

I challenge you to listen to this album and not find yourself dancing around the kitchen. This Australian band mixes a variety of styles, mostly Caribbean and South American, into a delicious stew. This band has great chops: the rhythm section keeps a rock solid backbeat, and the horn riffs accent the songs perfectly. And unlike so many albums, it gets better the farther you get into the album: the final songs are some of the best on the album.

#1: San Fermin,  San Fermin


I've been to Banff and it's an inspiring place, surrounded as it is by the Canadian Rockies. Ellis Ludwig-Leone must have breathed deeply of that rarefied mountain air: he went to the Banff Centre after graduating from Yale and while there wrote what became the first San Fermin album – and it's the most creative, moving and powerful set of tunes I've heard in years. As befitting someone with a degree in composition, it features exquisite arrangements covering a wide range of instrumentation, from the classical to the modern. But it's the fabulous vocals and playful tunefulness that really lifts this into the stratosphere. The fact that Lucius supplied the female vocals and that Allen Tate provided his interesting baritone helps a lot. "Sonsick" captures the vibe here perfectly.