I’ve been away for a while, I know, but there’s been a lot going on between being back at work and grad school and everything like that. Suffice it to say, for the most part things have been good busy, but they’ve been busy nonetheless. Regardless, I’ve been listening to music as I always do, so it’s time to hit you with that all-important top albums of the year list. So, without further ado, here you are, with a few new features of 2013!
Top Albums of 2013
1. Dustin Kensrue- The Water and the Blood
Dustin Kensrue’s music is no stranger to the top of my end-of-the-year albums list. His band Thrice has been atop this list before, most notably with their as-of-now swan song, 2011’s Major/Minor, but his jump to the top of this year’s list was a little surprising, even for someone who was excited for his change of musical direction. While Kensrue has caught a great deal of attention amongst his fans for his move to take over the music ministry at Mars Hill Church, both good and bad, I applauded his desire to follow his heart and do what he felt God was calling him to do, even if it meant alienating a large portion of his fan base. That was clear from the release of the track listing for The Water and the Blood, as fans ranged from accepting to angry regarding what they felt was a giant departure for Kensrue. Technically not a follow-up to his 2006 solo release Please Come Home, this album is all about songs written for the church (save for “It’s Not Enough,” a powerful song that Kensrue says was originally a song intended to be used for a Thrice album), but doing so with songs that bridge the gap between his days in Thrice and the acoustic folk of Please Come Home. The Water and the Blood is actually a musically heavier album than I expected, as songs like “Suffering Servant” and “The Voice of the Lord” feature moments that sound exactly like Thrice songs. But there are also softer moments, like on “God is Good,” “Come Lord Jesus” or opener “Rejoice,” but no matter what, the intention of the album is clear: this is a worship album through and through. It’s far from conventional in terms of worship music, as it’s very far from the usual things you’ve heard from the likes of Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman, but more often than not The Water and the Blood is successful at doing exactly what Kensrue wanted it to do, and that’s to lift up the name of God and give his congregation new songs to sing. This is what makes it the Album of the Year for me. It combines all the elements of music that are most precious to me—heavier, rocking sounds, thoughtful, intelligent lyrics and the ability to honor my God—and finally allows them to be present on one album. It might be a bit of an under the radar choice, especially for a person seeing this who doesn’t understand/agree with Kensrue’s decision to do what he’s doing, but for me, it is the perfect album to sit atop this list, and one that I believe I’ll be coming back to even years from now.
2. Citizens- Citizens
Personally, whether I’ve expressed it aloud or not, I’ve always wanted an indie rock worship album. It’s always been the difficulty I’ve had with most CCM/worship music: there’s just not enough ingenuity or chances being taken. Granted, I understand that artistic excitement is not the number one goal there, but I always yearned for something a little bit more in terms of musicality of worship music. Citizens, and Mars Hill Music as a whole really, have helped with that. The band’s debut full-length is indie rock with Biblical substance, songs that can both be interesting to fans of the musical genre and also good to sing at church, a rare combination that I cannot express my gratefulness over. “Made Alive” is already on regular rotation at my church, and other songs such as “In Tenderness,” “Hail the King” and “Jesus!” are just as solid, as well as the gorgeous closer “Oh God,” a song that finds its way onto both of my top two albums of 2013. Say what you will, but there are great things coming out of Mars Hill, and the music is just one of the impactful things that they are doing up there in Seattle. Looking forward to seeing what comes next.
3. Leagues- You Belong Here
I’d heard Thad Cockrell’s voice before I ever heard of Leagues, the Nashville-based band he fronts, as he was a guest vocalist on a few songs on Jars of Clay’s 2010 album The Shelter, and was told at the time about Cockrell’s fantastic local band out in Tennessee. I didn’t think they’d be this good. Simply put, You Belong Here has stayed with me throughout 2013 because it is an honest, catchy album from a band that knows exactly how to craft a indiepop song worth listening to. The world, it seems, is taking notice, too, as songs like the infectious “Spotlight” and bluesy “Magic” are starting to make their way into television commercials and movie trailers. That Cockrell’s voice is one of the more original in music today and that his lyrics are not simply pop music filler (check “One Hand” or the beautiful closer “Friendly Fire” for just a few examples) are just further reason to like this album. It’s a shame it took so long for the members of this three-piece band to be recognized, but now that this fantastic work of art is out there, I’ve no doubt they’ll be around for a long time to come.
4. Vampire Weekend- Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend always struck me as entirely too pretentious for their own good, and the snarky thing really turned me off of their music for the first few albums. That being said, Modern Vampires of the City, while an odd title that doesn’t honestly fit the record, is one of the best albums of 2013. It’s honest throughout and often sad, an album focused on getting older at a time where I don’t need reminders that I’m getting older, but like to see that I’m not the only one pontificating on such things. The lyrics are clever and possess a dry wit, while the music is all over the inspiration map, parts indie rock, parts folk, parts Afro-pop, but all in all the coherence and skill present here is what kept bringing me back to this album. Standout tracks include “Step,” which makes liberal use of auto-tune, “Diane Young” (say the title fast and you’ll hear the pun), “Ya Hey” and “Hudson” songs that couldn’t be stylistically more varied, but somehow work unbelievably well together. Vampire Weekend certainly have my attention from here on out.
5. Balance & Composure- The Things We Think We’re Missing
I’d never heard a note from Balance & Composure before catching a few tunes online prior to the release of The Things We Think We’re Missing. But those tracks sounded good, so I got the album and listened to it a few times. Something was stirring inside those tracks, so much that it was one of the first vinyl records I bought upon getting my record player this summer. I’ve since bought the band’s 2011 debut Separation, as well as their Acoustic EP and the recent split they did with Braid on vinyl, making it pretty clear that I’m in with this band for the long haul. The melodic hardcore present on this album is some of the best I’ve heard in a long time, as vocalist Jon Simmons scream/sing delivery is a both a little unorthodox and terribly moving. Songs like “Back of Your Head,” “Tiny Raindrop,” “Cut Me Open” and “Keepsake” are incredible tunes, and some of the best I’ve heard this year. While admittedly this album is not for everyone, I think it’s well worth a listen for anyone who is fan of harder music with a melody.
6. Conditions- Full of War
This Richmond, VA rock band did quite well with its debut, 2010’s Fluorescent Youth, and to be quite frank, Full of War is an improvement on that album in almost every way. The guitars and drums are bigger. The vocals are stronger and more melodically interesting. The lyrics continue to tackle tough subject matter, such as materialism and being stuck in bad relationships. The improvement is expected the second time around, but it’s also rare that a band can fulfill on the promise of a debut with such dexterity and panache. Yet Conditions does so in spades, setting themselves up for continued success as a band. Tracks like “Best Mistake” and “Wonderful Lie” should set the band up for recognition outside of the indie scene, and it would certainly be a disappointment if nobody paid attention to what this group is doing.
7. The Hawk in Paris- Freaks
If you had told me before the start of 2013 that Dan Haseltine would be the vocalist for one of my favorite albums this year, I would not have been shocked, as Jars of Clay, Haseltine’s regular vocalist gig, often produces some of my favorite music for a given year. If you’d mentioned that it wouldn’t be a Jars album, I’d have been skeptical; but I believe that Freaks is definitely a fresh, exciting album, and might have more staying power than Inland. Wearing its 80’s electronic bands like Depeche Mode and the Eurythmics on its proverbial sleeves, Freaks is a moody dance album, and an opportunity for Haseltine to approach subject matter not usually present in Jars albums. At the same time, many of the songs work as songs about creating music, a sort of meta-album that is a great success.
8. HRVRD- From the Bird’s Cage
Charlotte natives HRVRD (formerly spelled like the university, but changed due to legal ramifications, why Harvard would hate the free publicity I can’t tell) might be considered my bridge into the hardcore rock that makes its presence known on this year’s list (see: Citizen, Polar Bear Club, Balance & Composure) as they combine elements of a harder, edgier rock with the atmospheric sound of bands like Circa Survive and the math-rock of Minus the Bear. While I gave only a few passing listens to their debut release (2009’s The Inevitable and I), From the Bird’s Cage caught my attention early and often this year. The music is tight and moves time signatures and tempos with adept skill, and lead singer Jesse Clasen delivers a wild, fury-filled performance. Having had a chance to hear many of these songs live this year, I can say that the wildness is not just studio magic—the songs carry over perfectly to the live setting and Clasen is wide-eyed and focused throughout the set. HRVRD are often touted as one of the hardest working bands in Charlotte, and the music makes that evident. Definitely worth a spot in this year’s top-10.
9. City & Colour- The Hurry and the Harm
I’ll begin by saying that Little Hell, the last album from the former Alexisonfire front man, is a stronger album than The Hurry and the Harm, but that this year’s effort is still incredibly good. Little Hell was the first City & Colour album that was starting to feel less like a side project and more like a full-time gig, and The Hurry certainly builds on that element, as it’s clear that Dallas Green is really starting to understand what he wants C&C to sound like. That being said, Green is not afraid to experiment and play with that sound, a tribute to his skills as a musician and songwriter. There’s a lot to like here—“Commentators,” “Two Coins” and “The Golden State” are just a few of the standout tracks—and a lot to look forward to as Green continues to define himself as an artist.
10. Paramore- Paramore
Paramore have undergone a great deal of change over the last year or so. In many ways, this album feels like the album the band had to make amidst the turmoil, as it showcases a maturity of sound and adept vocals of lead singer Hayley Williams. By far the longest, most sprawling work of the band’s career to date, and with influences all over the map, at the very least it is impossible to accuse Paramore of repeating themselves. Williams is probably at her best at times throughout this album, rightfully self-titled as the band seeks to reinvent themselves, especially on deeper cuts like “Part II,” “Be Alone” and the moody but wonderful “Future.” The singles here don’t really do the album as much justice as they should—although they are solid songs, especially No Doubt-influenced “Now”—but whether this turns out to be the magnum opus for Paramore, this is without a doubt the album they needed to make at this point in their career.
11. Jars of Clay- Inland
Jars of Clay are about as tried and true as band as I have in my musical catalog, and Inland is yet another wonderful inclusion into the band’s discography. A lot of the press about this album is about how the band wanted to make sure that they still had things to say rather than just making music for the sake of making a living, and I’ve no doubt they still have things to say here. Love is at the heart of Inland, as Dan Haseltine uses these songs as opportunity to inspect love in all its manifestations. Young love is there (“Age of Immature Mistakes”) as well as more mature love (“After the Fight,” “Love in Hard Times” and “Pennsylvania”), giving the album the necessary weight. The sound is vintage Jars, and this album is sonically on par with The Long Fall Back to Earth mixed with the debut, two of the best albums of the band’s career.
12. Fall Out Boy- Save Rock & Roll
After a few listens to this upon its release in April, I was ready to call for Fall Out Boy to give up on saving rock and roll and just disappear into the sunset. The more I listened, though, the more the album grew on me and before I knew it, I realized that it was one of my favorite releases of the year. The experimentation and genre-bending of the band’s last few albums, especially 2008’s Folie a Deux, is still here to an extent, but as the album’s title suggests, this one is a lot more rock and roll than they’ve been in a while. There are still some punk elements here, and there’s a lot of collaboration, but overall, this might be some of FoB’s best work from front to back. The only reason this isn’t higher is the dreadful inclusion of Courtney Love on the otherwise fun “Rat-a-Tat,” a one-two punch featuring one of my favorite songs from this year (“Young Volcanoes”) and Love’s unnecessary cameo.
13. Derek Webb- I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You
I’ll admit I fell off the Derek Webb train a long time ago. It wasn’t that I didn’t like his stuff; it was just that I often found music that interested me more and that didn’t seem to be always dripping with so much controversy. I always liked Webb’s style—his songs were usually the tunes on his albums with Caedmon’s Call that I like the most—but his solo albums felt like they couldn’t decided what Webb wanted to be (is he an acoustic artist? An electronic wizard?), which is why, in many ways, I think his latest finally connected with me again after all these years. It’s an unapologetic indie rock record, with hints of his previous sounds drizzled here and there, while continuing Webb’s commitment to honesty about the church and the world around him.
14. Frightened Rabbit- Pedestrian Verse
This Scottish band is another out-of-nowhere album for me, recommended by a friend and now a release I’ve come to over and over again this year. The crazy thing about this album is the way it is both undeniably Scottish and undeniably American. Vocalist Scott Hutchison’s voice drips with a thick accent that sometimes makes it difficult to understand his words (which are excellent from beginning to end here, by the way) while the music is definitely influenced by American indie rock bands like early-years Death Cab for Cutie or the Antlers. Terribly heartbreaking at times as well as strangely funny, this album is definitely a major victory for the Scottish group.
15. John Mayer- Paradise Valley
There was absolutely no way for John Mayer to follow up Born and Raised so quickly and strike gold twice. Part of that might be the fact that a lot of these songs were written around the same time as the tunes off of B&R, giving a few of these songs a little bit of a cast-off appeal to them. The other is that the pop sound that Mayer seemed to have ditched in favor of the more rootsy Americana feel of the last time out reappears here a little too often (“Who You Love” and the unnecessary Frank Ocean cameo on the reprise of “Wildfire” come to mind), which is sad because there are gems that would have fit perfectly on an extended version of Born and Raised (“Wildfire,” “Paper Doll” and “Badge and Gun,” for instance). Mayer is certainly a talented musician and songwriter, so I’m still on board to see what happens next. I’ll tell you this, it won’t be the same thing he gave us before.
16. Saves the Day- Saves the Day
This album took a long time to see the light of day, and to be honest, I was pretty shocked at how lighthearted and peppy this album was, given the darkness of their last three efforts (2006’s Sound the Alarm, 2007’s Under the Boards and 2011’s Daybreak), but this is considerably closer to In Reverie in sound, which is probably my favorite STD album ever. Chris Conley is at his vocal best, with his nasally delivery a little less so throughout this album, and the fun factor is much more present than it has been in a long while.
17. Jimmy Eat World- Damage
I said back in June that this was going to be a very polarizing album for JEW fans, and I am fairly certain this has turned out to be correct. This isn’t a great album, but I do wonder if I’d think it better if it wasn’t from JEW, since they have set the bar so high for what their great album sounds like (Futures for me still remains that pinnacle). That being said, I think this is better than Chase This Light and at least as good as Invented (if not better), but still struggles from the unfortunate “I want more” element that comes with having done this so well for so long.
18. Matt Redman- Your Grace Finds Me
It’s always difficult to place worship albums on a list like this—even if I top out my 2013 list with two of them—mostly because the main intention of these album is rarely ever creative ingenuity, but crafting songs that can be sung corporately by the church body. That being said, Matt Redman is still writing some of the most Biblical, well-honed tunes in the business right now, as it doesn’t take long to follow his lyrics and really get into a place of true worship. That I once again had the honor of being present for the recording of the album like I was for 2011’s 10,000 Reasons doesn’t hurt this one’s cause, either.
19. A Great Big Pile of Leaves- You’re Always On My Mind
Hands down, this is the best album about midnight snacking of all time. The latest release from AGBPoL might also be one of the quirkiest, most fun albums of 2013, so there’s that. There instrumentation is sprite and enjoyable, and lead singer Pete Weiland soars throughout, with a bit of a cynicism and sarcasm lacing his voice through each tune. But it’s an easy listen that never lacks in excitement, bringing to mind old Limbeck albums. And that is as happy a compliment as I can pay.
20. Toad the Wet Sprocket- New Constellations
Full disclosure: until this year, I’d never heard a single TtWS album in my life, so I’m not the guy to look for to answer the “how does this compare to the old stuff?” question. That being said, this is about as good a pop/rock album to come out this year, and it’s a credit to the band that they were able to do this on their own (with the help of fans via Kickstarter). While the album is a little long in the tooth (15 songs on the deluxe edition I have), this is sort of expected given the circumstances. Still, with songs like “I’ll Be On You” and “Last to Fall,” among others, here, I certainly enjoy every minute of it.
21. Anthony Green- Young Legs
The Circa Survive front man is now on his third solo album, and this has got to be my favorite of the three so far—and the margin is not that close. While 2008’s Avalon was an interesting, meandering acoustic album, and last year’s Beautiful Things never really connected with me after a few listens, Young Legs is nearest to what I’d expect from Green. The album rocks a lot more than the previous records, and sounds less like a bunch of songs that he had lying around and more like a concerted effort to craft a coherent album. As always, Green’s vocals drive the songs, and while his voice is more muted than with Circa Survive, it is still a powerful instrument that Green knows how to wield as well as anyone.
22. This Town Needs Guns- 184.108.40.206.0
I recall seeing the last album from TTNG and listening to it once or twice, but I assumed they were no longer around until I did some research earlier in the year and found this gem. A new lead singer doesn’t alter the math-influenced rock here, and this album feels stronger melodically than the band’s last effort, while keeping the signature sound and fun present before. This one came out a lot earlier in the year, so it’s had to fight to stay in the forefront, but it’s managed to make enough of an impact to stay on this list.
23. Polar Bear Club- Death Chorus
Another new band for 2013, but an album I’ve really enjoyed listening to. Similar in style to the harder punk of Citizen or even Sainthood Reps, I’m really beginning to appreciate the melodic opportunities here, and I think I’ll start to see myself gravitating more this way quite often. Not to beat this concept into submission, but it remains true with most of the albums closer to the bottom of this list: time didn’t allow me to dig into this one nearly as much as I’d like.
24. Sainthood Reps- Headswell
The band’s debut, Monoculture, was a surprise entry into my top ten back in 2011, and while I didn’t get to spend as much time with Headswell as I did with Monoculture, I believe this album is more of a fluid piece of work. Whereas the debut was a solid collection of tunes, this time around it feels more like a full album, coherent and focused. Again, time is the killer here, as its later-in-the-year release didn’t allow me to delve into the album as much as I’d like.
25. Citizen- Youth
A band I was not very familiar with before listening to this album, Youth is one of the albums that noted a tendency towards a different sound interest for me, with Citizen bringing along more of a hardcore punk sound that I hadn’t been drawn to before. Might have had an opportunity to be higher, but other albums often took precedence over listening to this one over and over throughout the year. Still a solid release that I enjoy each time I hear it.
Top EPs of 2013
1. Their/They’re/There- Their/They’re/There
2. Matrimony- Montibello Drive EP
3. Vocal Few- Tall Trees EP
4. Young Statues- Age Isn’t Ours EP
Biggest Disappointments of 2013
These are albums that I had expectations for coming in—either because of the band/artist’s previous work or word of mouth—and was not thrilled by.
1. Schematic- Color (N.) Inside the Lines
The former lead singer of Mae—one of my all-time favorite bands—came out with a thud here, proving he needs other people to reign in all his thoughts. Some good ideas here, but the album is overlong and uninteresting.
2. The Strokes- Comedown Machine
I’m not sure what happened to this band, but this album is a giant mess. Whether it has too many influences or too long away from one another, the ingredients just aren’t cooking together.
3. Ra Ra Riot- Beta Love
The band’s last album, The Orchard, was a surprise hit for me when it came out. This album feels like a sad attempt to cash in on the electronic rage going around and falls super flat over and over again.
4. Arcade Fire- Reflektor
I wasn’t the biggest Arcade Fire fan from the get-go, but 2010’s The Suburbs was starting to convince me otherwise. Maybe Reflektor got too much love from other places or maybe it really is too much going on and messy throughout, but either way, I don’t see myself going back to it like I would their last album.
5. Relient K- Collapsible Lung
This one hurts the most, but it’s only sitting at number 5 here because honestly it was a fun, mostly enjoyable album. It just wasn’t what I expected from this band at this point in their career. I thought they were over the silliness. And even though I argued a few months back for why it was an album the band—especially lead singer Matt Thiessen—needed to make right now, it still falls far short of what I consider their masterpiece to date, 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down.
Top Albums I Needed More Time With in 2013
These were albums that either came out too late in the year or that I liked but they didn’t get enough listens to be considered for the top list, but might have if I’d given them more time. This is in no particular order.
1. The National- Trouble Will Find Me
2. The Digital Age- Evening: Morning
3. The Wonder Years- The Greatest Generation
4. Said the Whale- Hawaiii
5. Okkervil River- The Silver Gymnasium
6. Army of Me- Searching for You
7. States- Paradigm
8. Into It. Over It.- Intersections
9. Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin- Fly By Wire
10. Editors- The Weight of Your Love
11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Jr.- Speed of Things