Well, I figured this was as good an opening as any to get back into the blogging/public writing/internet tomfoolery game as any other. New year, and all that.
Let’s get down to business, shall we? We will start at #12, because this is America. France can take their metric system and shove it in their croissant.
12.Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – The Speed of Things
I was going to have a separate section for “2013’s Best 2011 Album” specifically for the pop masterpiece that is “It’s A Corporate World”, but was spared the indignity when The Speed of Things dropped in early October. Not the strongest contender on the list, but it survives on the strength of singles like “Beautiful Dream” and “Run” (which is damn near perfect).
11. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
I always felt like I should like Drive By Truckers more than I actually did, if that makes sense. Thankfully, I did not have that reaction to Jason Isbell’s latest solo foray, Southeastern. The unfortunate stereotype is that alcohol serves as a muse to artists, giving them the experiences to write about, as well as the openness to do so. This may be true, but Isbell’s album, written is his first period of sobriety in many years, is full of hard-fought wisdom and painfully true-to life observations, and many songs, particularly “Cover Me Up” (the first, and best, song on the album) are absolutely beautiful as well.
10. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
If you were on their wavelength (which I most certainly was), Arcade Fire was everything I wanted them to be throughout the 2000’s; bombastic, pretentious, excessive, emotive, with hearts firmly on sleeves and hands high in the air. The only reason Reflektor is lower on this list is that it’s so..well, different than their other releases. Different isn’t bad…per se. It just took me a while to warm up to this glam-rock, disco floor, island-jam fever dream of an album. In some ways, it’s inclusion is a vote of confidence. It’s growing on me, and I like where it’s going.
And if you were still wondering? Yes, they are still pretentious as hell, and I LOVE it.
9. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
I have been flogging this band to anyone who will listen since I first fell in love with Midnight Organ Fight in 2007. Pedestrian Verse does not disappoint, from the gut punch opener “Acts of Man”, to gloomy anthems “Backyard Skulls” and “The Woodpile”. My favorite song by far, though, is “State Hospital”, also in the running for “Best Song To Listen To When I Need A Good Cry”. I don’t know if it is because I work every day with the sorts of girls the song so achingly portrays (“she’s accustomed to hearing that she could never run far, a slipped disc in the spine of community”) but it tears me apart every time.
Well played, beardy Scottish man. Well played.
8. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Did I mention that 2013 was the year I realized I liked pop music.?And that it was ok to do so? Plenty of the credit for that revelation lies squarely at the feet of Tegan and Sara who, after 6 well received but not (in my opinion) exceptional albums, apparently decided, “You know what? Eff it. We’re making the best 80’s dance pop album we can, and no one’s gonna tell us otherwise!” And bless their hearts, they did. Heartthrob is like the best John Hughes soundtrack ever made, full of unabashedly grandiose statements about love and shimmery production that wouldn’t be out-of-place beside Lisa Lisa and Cindy Lauper. Just imagine every lyric written in a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper by a 16-year-old in a scrunchie and leg-warmers…and it all falls into place. Embrace the cheese. Embrace it.
7. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
One of the two albums on this list that most took me by surprise, Muchacho by Phosphorescent was like a little Christmas present, full of sunshine and pathos. In many ways, it feels like a quintessentially American album, full of mariachi horns, pedal steel, upright piano and violin. It sounds like back alleys and front porches, dusty roads and lonely stages. At the heart of it, though, it is a thoroughly humane, hopeful album, with lines like “See I was slow to understand/ This river’s bigger than I am/ It’s running faster than I can, though lord I tried” pointing a way to a sense of humility. That’s something I can get behind.
It also reminds me, at several points, of The Joshua Tree by U2. That is a very good thing.
6. Haim – Days Are Gone
The buzz. The bass face. The SNL appearance that I, quite frankly, could barely stand. All reasons why I should have hated…HATED Haim.
I would have been wrong. Days Are Gone is so, so good you guys. No, it’s like really good. Like the best Stevie Nickes, Nu Vogue mash up you could possibly imagine. Maybe you can’t imagine it, and that’s OK too, but if “If I Could Change Your Mind” had released in 1992, it probably would have sold a million copies. Just listen, and tell me I’m wrong.
5. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend was always…fine, I suppose. Pleasant. Never actively offensive. But it never really did much for me. Much of that could probably be chalked up to the snooty, Ivy-League/Afro-Pop persona they had, but never mind that. They really came into their own this year, and Modern Vampires of the City is testament to that. It still feels like the product of four East Coast blue bloods, but more generous, more lived in, with near perfect production. Just listen to “Step” with it’s intricate wordplay, shuffling beat and lovely harpsichord melody (yes they still use harpsichord; it’s a culmination, not a reinvention) and tell me you don’t feel better already.
4. Son Lux – Lanterns
My brother introduced me to Son Lux (stage name of producer Ryan Lott) in 2009, and At War With Walls and Mazes is still a fantastic pastiche of found noises and ethereal samples. I have a very hard time seeing how his most recent effort, Lantern, has gotten so little traction with the music press, especially since he collaborates with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and The Antlers and composed and performed the soundtrack for Looper. Put that aside…this album is the real deal.
By that I mean it is a singular vision; unsettling, overwhelming, ominous, disorienting even. But throughout it all of is a core of transcendence, even celebration, and I loved it, even when I was frustrated. My favorite song (“Lost it For Trying’) is the least representative of the album as a whole. It is also completely, unrepentantly awesome. Listen to that one minute intro…wait for it…SEE?
3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
It would be easy to criticize The National for releasing the same album of mopey, bariton-ey slow burners time after time. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.But you would also be totally wrong. Sometimes limitations lead to the finest art, and in this case they lead to a gorgeous, melancholy masterpiece. And just like Boxer and High Violet, give this one a few listens. The line between boring and essential is sometimes smaller than you think.
Plus the music video for “Sea of Love” is adorable.
2. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
It all started in January with a Buzzfeed post, pairing this gif…
with this song…
and a love affair was born.
Seriously, you guys. Until December…that’s the whole year, I didn’t have a band that I loved more. The Recover EP came out in March, and I rejoiced. Little did I know how good it could get. The Bones of What You Believe released in September and it was all over. The best opening 5 songs…maybe ever? Lyrics that acknowledge how messy relationships are without once dropping into cynicism? The best synthpop this side of Depeche Mode (who they actually toured with)? A lead singer who is adorable? Somehow making the line “I’ll be a thorn in your side, till you die,” romantic? Superlatives fail me.
A couple of weaker songs in the back half is the only thing holding it from number one. It is just that good. And “We Sink” is my song of the year. Enjoy.
1. Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond
So…remember that one time I said Chvrches was my favorite 2013 band until December? Remember also that other time I said there was another album in 2013 that took me by surprise?
Well…you want to meet the other album?
Love’s Crushing Diamond is the debut album from Mutual Benefit (multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee) is only about 30 minutes long, but it is as perfect an indie gem as you are likely to find. If I had to point to one thing that I love, it would be the warmth in this album; it is generous to a fault, and it feels human, and lived in, and poignant, and emotive. At the end of this (admittedly very long) blog post, it’s easy to see that I am a sucker for artists with their hearts on their sleeves, but Mutual Benefit does it better than the rest. It is one of the few albums where I would say you owe it to yourself to listen straight through at least once. It is absolutely worth it.
Happy New Year! May it be a good one.