[Writing this post is sort of a milestone for me as it represents that I’ve been keeping up with this thing for a year now. Although I haven’t written as much as I’d have liked to, I have enjoyed it immensely. Thanks to everyone who has read and interacted over the last year, it’s been fun.]
Now, down to business: my much heralded, very respected, official Top Ten Albums of the Year. Just like last year, these are my favorite albums and ones that I think were the best. I’m not ranking based on a mythical “importance”.
As part of that I’ll give my very brief thoughts on the album that made the most waves this year, Yeezus. If I was ranking on importance or influence, of course it would be at the top. But as far as a great album to listen to, it falls very short. I only count a few songs that I can even get through without cringing at the production and the lyrics. I’m fascinated by the fact that the same people who loved My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy also love Yeezus. Kanye essentially said he was trying to make an album that was the opposite of Fantasy and even raps “Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you”. Yet, it didn’t seem to work. He still has the public eating out of his hands. There isn’t a more fascinating artist in the world at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that Yeezus is a good album.
Other noteworthy albums:
My Name is My Name – Pusha T: There are very few rappers alive as talented as Pusha, despite the fact that he raps almost exclusively about selling cocaine. I can’t decide if that’s a hindrance to his ability or an example of his mastery of metaphors that he’s built a career on basically one subject.
Muchacho – Phosphorescent: Possibly the very definition of a secular album worth listening to for the redeeming qualities in between the hedonism. Matthew Houck, who is Phosphorescent, sings of love and loss and the desire for more than fleeting happiness. As with all artists like him, I sincerely hope he continues the journey until he finds it, but I hope he writes about it all the way.
The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow: Despite entering an over-saturated market, The Lone Bellow stood out with their self-title debut album this year. Lead singer Zach Williams wrote many of the songs while his wife was recovering from a horrific horseback riding accident. The pain and longing can be felt throughout the album, as Williams harmonizes beautifully with Kanene Pipkin. Keep your eye on this group in the future.
Evening:morning – The Digital Age: The David Crowder Band minus David Crowder and Mike Hogan put out a great album of worship music this year. They once again proved that they are some of the few innovators in the genre, staying within what they do well while not sounding stale or repetitive.
Bring Your Nothing – Shane and Shane: I’ve had the privilege of hearing the Shanes every Tuesday night at Watermark Church. Their harmonies are unbeatable and this newest effort from the two of them has the perfect production to let their voices shine together.
10. In Rolling Waves – The Naked and Famous
I almost can’t believe I’m writing about this album. I hadn’t heard it until a few weeks ago as I really didn’t think I’d like it. The Naked and Famous became popular in 2011 with Passive Me, Aggressive You which basically sounds like an MGMT album. Like most people, I enjoyed “Young Blood”, but the rest of that first album didn’t do it for me. Where MGMT took a huge step backward with their sophomore effort that they still haven’t recovered from, The Naked and Famous improved on their style while adding more traditional instruments. Inspired by a desire to play their songs better in a live setting, In Rolling Waves keeps their electronic, keyboard driven sound but adds quite a bit of acoustic guitar. While not a perfect album by any stretch, it’s good enough to interest someone like me who doesn’t spend much time listening to synth-driven music.
Favorite Lyrics: “There’s an animal inside
There’s a fear that won’t subside
Of all the things I’ll never do
Will I ever follow through?”
9. Kid Face – Samantha Crain
I discovered this album after I started this list and it actually bumped The Lone Bellow off of it. Crain is from Shawnee, Ok and went to Oklahoma Baptist for a little while. I guess I’m supposed to say that this had a profound effect on her music, but I can’t speak to that in her life. Her voice is so unique it sounds outside of time and influence. Simultaneously haunting and inviting, Crain sings a unique form of folk music. More rooted to the traditions of folk in her writing than most folk bands popular today, Crain doesn’t shy away from modern elements in her music either. Driving bass lines move her music forward on songs like “For the Miner”. That track is by far the best song on this album. Don’t be surprised to see Crain hit it big sometime soon. This girl is wildly talented.
Favorite Lyrics “Did you get used to it, or are you still up with the demons all night?
Did you get used to it, or do you still feel that the world is unkind?”
8. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
Sometimes self -titled albums seem like the artists couldn’t decide on a name. And other times, the name couldn’t be any more perfect. This is the latter. Joy Williams and John Paul White mix so perfectly together that it would be easy to assume they are married. But the two are actually married to other people. And they are also now on an indefinite hiatus, breaking the hearts of many who love their music.
Which leads to this album. Maybe I wouldn’t be viewing it through a lens of heartbreak and strife if they weren’t on hiatus, but that’s exactly how I hear it now. A much more hard-driving album than their debut Barton Hollow, this self-titled album has a definite mean streak to it. Although many songs are folk inspired in their subject matter and likely have nothing to do with the Williams and White, it’s very hard to separate the two anymore. Standout tracks like “Oh Henry” and “The One that Got Away” deal with strife and heartbreak, but they aren’t downer tracks. The group’s second effort does a much better job keeping songs upbeat and moving in between the slower efforts than their debut did.
They also have the coolest album artwork that I’ve seen this year. These bonus points helped them jump just above Samantha Crain.
Favorite Lyrics: “Oh the caged bird dreams of a strong wind
That will flow beneath her wings
Like a voice longs for a melody
Oh Jesus, carry me”*
*”From This Valley” is covered on the most recent Pine Cove album with the incredible Rebecca Harris singing. I believe Rebecca’s version is even better than The Civil Wars.7. Heatstroke/The Wind and the War – KaiL Baxley
From the first notes on Heatstroke/The Wind and the War you know KaiL Baxley means business. Not much information is available on Baxley, but I think you can get all you want from listening to one song. The album is really the combination of two EPs with very different personality. Equal parts grooving soul, country, and gospel this album does not mess around.
Baxley’s voice is one of the most refreshingly unique and strong voices I’ve heard in recent years. Some songs, like “Boy Got It Bad” he carries solely with his voice and clapping like Son House. Other times like on “Heatstroke” he sings along with an upbeat piano riff and seems just as comfortable. I’m excited to see what Baxley does in the future, but for now his debut album is about as good as they come.
Favorite Lyrics: “Lord won’t you help me change
Scream to the heaven’s in vain
Follow the road to the sea
Still there’s no place for me”
6. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
His name isn’t even Edward Sharpe, I have no idea what a “magnetic zero” is, and none of this matters. The latest effort from the psychedelic hippie inspired musical movement known as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is consistent with everything else they have done up to this point. Edward Sharpe is like the fulfillment of every Beatles’ dream, but it would be too easy to dismiss the band in this way.
That said, they do look like a full hippie commune on stage together. I think I counted 13 people when I saw them in September. This year’s album is full of the same whimsy that’s made them famous, but also has that same depth in lyrics that will keep you thinking. “Life is Hard” is a rumination on the difficulties of life, but instead of a lament it is a celebration of life. “If I Were Free” contemplates what freedom truly means and what we would do as humans if we were totally free. Another solid effort from Edward Sharpe and the Magenetic Zeros in 2013.
Favorite Lyrics: “It’s getting lost and getting found,
To growing up and getting round
It’s feeling silence, feeling sound
It’s feeling lonely, feeling full
It’s feeling oh so beautiful!
Life is hard”
5. Good Man Down – The David Mayfield Parade
David Mayfield has somehow remained thoroughly under the radar despite having some famous musician fans and collaborators. Mayfield has played with some big time musicians, working with Dan Auerbach and even touring with Mumford and Sons with his former band, Cadillac Sky. His friendship with the Avett Brothers led to them encouraging him to make albums on his own.
His second effort continues what he started with his self-titled 2011 debut. A mixture of country (not the radio kind), bluegrass, and even some hard rocking efforts, Good Man Down feels like a classic Americana album. With guest appearances by Dierks Bentley (“Tempted”) and Seth Avett it really is a wonder this hasn’t been talked about more. Check out “Love Will Only Break Your Heart” and “Was It Only Me?” to get a feel for Mayfield’s different styles.
Favorite Lyrics: “Your heart’s as black as the Bible on your shelf
If you’re gonna take it down better read it to yourself”
4. Let’s Be Still – The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart hit it big with a self titled debut in 2011, somehow rising above the rest of the new folk bands. The way they were able to do it is with incisive song writing, perfect harmonies and just downright catchy tunes. Lead singers Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, along with vocalist and violinist Charity Rose Thielen work perfectly together. Johnson and Russell’s voices are actually so similar that it can be hard to tell who is singing sometimes, but they make it work extremely well.
The title of this album is significant in a world moving at a million miles an hour, The Head and the Heart want to focus on just chilling out for a second. And they have provided the perfect album to do just that. As the artwork suggests, this is best listened to in a field with the sun shining and everything seemingly in place. Interesting that a quintessentially Seattle band produced the perfect sunny day album. With Let’s Be Still, The Head and the Heart have written a manual on how to follow up a surprisingly successful debut.
Favorite Lyrics: “The world’s just spinning
A little too fast
If things don’t slow down soon we might not last.
So just for the moment, let’s be still.”
3. AM – The Arctic Monkeys
Oh, the Arctic Monkeys. Veteran alternative rockers, vulgar, fun, and everything you’d ever expect from a British rock band. They have been nothing but consistent in their career, now seven years since their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. But things are different with AM, and not just their shirking of super wordy song and album titles.
AM has a mean groove to it unlike anything else the Arctic Monkeys have ever done. Like the British band that they are, you can clearly feel the Hip Hop and R&B influence in their bass lines, drum beats, and even in the writing style of some of the lyrics. “R U Mine?” came out in 2012 as a single, and it is one of the absolute best rock songs to be released in a decade. The only proper description of it that I can give you comes from a 50 year old lady in the front row with me when they opened for the Black Keys in Tulsa last year, “That song is absolute fire.” And then she proceeded to ask security to remove a drunk girl near her the rest of the show…But I digress, you won’t get deep life insights from songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” but you shouldn’t be looking to the Arctic Monkeys for life advice.
AM is the best pure rock album of 2013 and the most complete effort that the Arctic Monkeys have produced to this point.
Favorite Lyrics: “She’s a silver lining lone ranger riding
Through an open space
In my mind when she’s not right there beside me”
2. Dear Miss Lonelyhearts – Cold War Kids
This album is very special to me because it is the culmination of six years of working to find their voice for one of my favorite bands. Cold War Kids became indie favorites in 2006 with their debut Robbers and Cowards despite that albums disjointedness and some downright awful songs (“Pregnant”). That was followed by Loyalty to Loyalty, another album with some good mixed with some bad. Fans stuck by them because their eccentricities produced some incredible songs like “Hang Me Up to Dry” and “Hospital Beds” that are completely unique to this group from Long Beach.
After a failed attempt at reaching more of a mainstream audience with Mine is Yours, Cold War Kids finally put it all together with Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. The second I heard the driving piano of “Miracle Mile”, the first track, I knew they had figured it out. Returning to their eccentric roots, but with some of the anthemic elements of their previous effort, DMLH is the album they’ve been trying to make since their debut. There isn’t a bad song on the album, even songs that aren’t as listenable serve a strong purpose. Conceptually, I hear the whole album as a picture of the month of April. Some days sunny and carefree, some days stormy and scary, and some days just downright bleak. It culminates in “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts” with lines like “wonder why you don’t like April, wonder why you hate the Spring” and “Bitter Poem” with lead singer Nathan Willett belting out “I can’t hear you, did you say that you’re happy for me?” One can’t help but feel he’s singing out to the critics and those who have dissed their albums in the past. It’s sad for me that most critics never gave this album a chance, dismissing it because of their previous disjointed efforts. It shouldn’t matter to Cold War Kids though, it seems they have learned to stop trying to make the albums that they think people want. DMLH is proof that people are willing to listen to the music they want to make.
Favorite Lyrics: “I’m not the same kid, I grew up
Didn’t I? Or did I get stuck?
You get older, it gets worse
You be the good one that gives it up first
Or the bad one that never gets hurt”
1 Reflektor – Arcade Fire
If you know my taste in music well at all then this pick doesn’t surprise you in the least. Arcade Fire is the best band at the top of their game in the world right now. Yes, the Rolling Stones are still together and U2 is still making music, but this is Arcade Fire’s world right now. The Suburbs won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011, so following that up was a task that only artists of their caliber could even attempt. Reflektor is completely different from anything they’ve ever done, yet at the same time it is still uniquely Arcade Fire.
A dance album, with 80’s inspired synth beats, Haitian drums and Win Butlers scathing and insightful lyrics, Reflektor was a massive undertaking. The album itself is a double-album that spans over over 70 minutes, it’s even a massive undertaking to consume. Despite that, I’m not sure that I’ve ever listened to an album in a two month span as much as I have listened to this one. From the opening title track through the fading out of the final track, Supersymmetry, the album has something to say at every turn. Overarching themes include the disconnectedness that our society feels despite being the most “connected” society in history. Lines like, “We fell in love when I was 19/Now we’re staring at a screen” contemplate what staring at screens all day is doing to our ability to have real relationships. Other themes, and this shouldn’t surprise Arcade Fire fans, include the disillusionment of organized religions. Butler, whose wife Régine Chassagne is from Haiti, has discussed in interviews that the idea behind songs like “Here Comes the Night Time” comes from his interactions with missionaries in Haiti. Many times when he would ask why they were in Haiti they would tell him that they were teaching the Haitians about God, but in Butler’s experience, Haitians were some of the most God-fearing and religious people he had come across. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with Butler, but it does make me think about my own life when I hear lines like “If you wanna be righteous, better get in line“.
The best song on this album is a difficult thing to determine, but I believe “Afterlife” to be one of the best songs in any genre that has been released in my lifetime. It may slot right behind Arcade Fire’s first hit “Wake Up” in their catalog of greatness. A song with the dance elements that are present throughout the album, it also has an uplifting feeling to it despite the terrifyingly desperate lyrics. I’d never thought about what an “awful word” the word “afterlife” is to those who have no hope or belief in one. No band around provokes as much thought as Arcade Fire, and with this album they also get you up out of your seat dancing. To paraphrase Butler, you’ll be dancing with a tear in your eye.
Favorite Lyrics (All of “Afterlife”):
“Afterlife, oh my God, what an awful word
After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt
And after all this time, and after all the ambulances go
And after all the hangers-on are done hanging on to the dead lights
Of the afterglow
I’ve gotta know
Can we work it out?
We scream and shout ’till we work it out
Can we just work it out?
Scream and shout ’till we work it out?
‘Till we work it out, ’till we work it out
‘Till we work it out, ’till we work it out
Afterlife, I think I saw what happens next
It was just a glimpse of you, like looking through a window
Or a shallow sea
Could you see me?
And after all this time
It’s like nothing else we used to know
After all the hangers-on are done hanging on to the dead lights
Of the afterglow
I’ve gotta know
But you say
When love is gone
Where does it go?
And you say
When love is gone
Where does it go?
And where do we go?
Where do we go?
Where do we go?
Where do we go?
And after this
Can it last another night?
After all the bad advice
Had nothing at all to do with life
I’ve gotta know
It’s just an afterlife
It’s just an afterlife
It’s just an afterlife with you
It’s just an afterlife”