Favorite Albums of 2013

I’ve never been in the habit to write about my favorite songs or albums that I post up here annually for two reasons:  I generally think most people don’t care about what I have to say about songs and albums I like, and secondly, I’m not very good at writing about  music.  This year though I’m taking a stab at writing about my favorite albums of 2013 because I think that some (if not quite a few of them) have been overlooked by folks in what has become a boring and orthodox music press.  I hope that anyone who stumbles across my humble list will give something new a listen and hopefully enjoy it.

11.  Electric by Pet Shop Boys

Pet Shop Boys ElectricI haven’t cared about a Pet Shop Boys release since 1993 and admittedly wouldn’t have cared about this one if I hadn’t for whatever reason read Drowned In Sound’s review.  It’s really quite good, really quite funny, and really quite biting:  everything the Pet Shop Boys have done really well in the past and execute very well here, no more so than on Love is a Bourgeois Construct.  There’s also the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s The Last to Die which is damn good, in fact quite a bit better than the original.  If every pop record sounded half as good as this one I might find myself listening to more pop music.

10.  The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case

Neko CaseThis one has definitely grown on me since I first listened to it, and each subsequent listen has revealed something I didn’t notice before, making it a rewarding album worth the effort I’ve put into it.  I don’t normally pay that much attention to lyrics, because let’s face, most lyrics kind of suck or have absolutely no relevance to my life.  But with Neko Case the vocals stand out so much in the mix you’re obligated to listen to what she’s singing about.  And at the risk of sounding like a late 30-something fuddy duddy, it’s nice to hear an adult singing about adult stuff.  Calling Cards and City Swans are two great examples, and two of my favorite songs here.

 9.  Seasons of Your Day by Mazzy Star

Mazzy Star Seasons of your dayI like the fact that Mazzy Star release their music on their own terms, I just wish it were a little more frequent than once every 17 years.  The organ of opening track, In the Kingdom, picks right up right where they last left us in 1996 with Look on Down From the Bridge.  Hope Sandoval’s voice seems impossibly unchanged in all these years.  And I know some of the criticism of this album was that it sounded exactly like it could have been released as a follow-up in 1998.  But is that their problem or ours?  I respect their commitment to living normal lives as well as writing music that still has relevance 17 years later.

8.  Free Your Mind by Cut Copy

Free your mindThis may not be Cut Copy’s best album but it’s their funnest.  And given the really shit year I’ve had it’s nice to have some fun and dance with my baby girl in my arms, raising our hands in the air as we’re implored to do throughout.  The other cool thing about this album is all the references to late-’80’s and early-’90’s electronic and dance music: Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, Orbital, The Orb, New Order, K-Klass, 808 State and so many more.  It’s not groundbreaking or going to make you re-think your outlook on life, and every once and a while that’s just alright.

7.  Optica by Shout Out Louds

OpticaOur son’s favorite band, Optica provided much of the soundtrack to our lives for the early part of the year.  It’s not necessarily that Optica is that good of an album, though it does have its moments.  When I hear the wobbly guitar that starts the record, I’ll forever recall the memory of putting this on the record player and assembling a train track while Lindsay bounced and danced in her Johnny jumper.  Walking in Your Footsteps contains some prescient lyrics given the difficulties our family has faced this year, from the urging “Nevermind what’s ahead, just don’t stop, just don’t stop”, to “This road is not your own, it’s been covered, it’s been charted so many times”, and the hopeful “Turn your dust into diamonds”.  Ultimately an album of some really very good songs (the aforementioned Walking in Your Footsteps, Illusions, 14th of July, Chasing the Sinking Sun) but lacking in cohesiveness, it’s the record I’ll most associate with 2013.

6.  Wildewoman by Lucius

WildewomanI fortunately agreed to see Lucius live a few months ago after some moments of waffling, and I’m so glad I did.  There’s little doubt that seeing them live made their debut record sound even better, and they are a rare band these days in that the live performance was better than the recorded one.  Sure, the cover looks like it belongs on the front of a Red Hot Chili Peppers record; let’s hope they’ll make better aesthetic decisions in the future.  But the music is definitely worth overlooking the sophomoric cover art.  The vocals are clearly what make this record and this band.  It’s a cliché, but this record is indeed a breath of fresh air.

5.  Wait to Pleasure by No Joy

No Joy Wait to PleasureI love the sense of discovering something new and totally unexpected:  I recently stumbled upon this band and can’t even remember how.  I know they’re from Montreal and that’s about it.  My favorite track of the year, Slug Night, is on this album.  The opening track, E, is pretty kick-ass too.  The production and overall sound is clearer and more focused than on their first album, which tends to be bathed in more feedback and reverb, but the vocals are sometimes low in the mix here as well.  And there’s definitely a sense of déjà vu when I listen to this, reminiscent of Darklands by The Jesus & Mary Chain, Pale Saints and Prolapse at times, except that it was released this year, and not in the early-90’s.

4.  Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend

Vampire WeekendThere probably isn’t much I can write about Modern Vampires of the City that will shed any light on what many people have already recognized to be one of, if not the, best of the year.  There’s not a dull or unoriginal moment here.  Hearing many of the songs will evoke the fond memory of driving through the rolling hills of the Piedmont with the kids in the backseat on the way to and from Nate’s preschool, with him laughing every time the auto-tune plays with the voice at the end of StepHannah Hunt is my favorite song here, and captures best what Vampire Weekend have done so well throughout, which is to leave an ample amount of space in each song, not overcrowding it with too much, allowing there to be space reflection as we grow older and presumably wiser.

And a three-way tie for my favorite albums of 2013.  I simply could not decide which was my favorite:

1.  Paracosm by Washed Out

ParacosmErnest Greene does a pretty darn good job of creating an alternate, all-encompassing fantasy world on Paracosm,  as the title would suggest.  The first several times I listened to Paracosm, it was difficult to tell when it began and when it ended on my mp3 player; it just seemed to loop nicely back around on itself, and I would say to myself “I think I’ve heard this before”.  When I finally received the vinyl version it was kind of jarring to have to flip it over at the midpoint.  This is a much more ambitious project than his previous works, and it shows (hell, even the lyrics are printed on the sleeve, so he must actually want us to know what he’s singing!).  Throughout the listener is pushed forward, the songs melding together with no discernible beginning or end (or so it would seem):  It All Feels Right, when played from the very start of the record does this, as does All I Know and the title track, Paracosm.

1.  Wakin on a Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile

Kurt VileAs other commitments slowly consume ever more of my time I find myself increasingly cherishing the time I have to myself.  This is one of two records that I put on when I’m alone, laying on the couch and reading a book, whether it’s in the middle of the day after I’ve completed all the chores and errands I needed to do and the kids are still napping, or late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.  This is an album that meanders and is no hurry to take the listener anywhere in particular (as best exemplified by the opening track, Wakin on a Pretty Day, that prettily ambles along, vocals and guitar taking turns with occasional tempo changes for nine and a half minutes).  One could argue that it’s nothing more than background music, and to some extent it is.  But it’s also an album that holds can hold my attention when I want to do nothing more than listen to music.  And as the year has dragged on I’ve found myself listening to Wakin on a Pretty Daze more and more.

1.  Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO by The Besnard Lakes

Besnard LakesThis is the other record that I put on when I’m alone, and a record I feel has been completely overlooked by the music press.  If there can only be room enough in our minds (or listening habits) for one band from Montreal, for me it’s The Besnard Lakes (though there is the excellent No Joy a few places down on this list).  The songs here are arrestingly beautiful; listening to the album in full is sort of therapeutic for me, from the opening whispiness of 46 Satires to the fadeout of Alomogordo.  When it’s over I feel relieved of stress, calmer.  I’m not sure I have a favorite song per se on this album:  when I listen to 46 Satires say, it’s my favorite, but then it’s People of the Sticks, The Specter, At Midnight, Catalina and Color Yr Lights In.  In short, this is an album, not just a collection of songs put together for the sake of selling a product, and it deserves to be heard in full.

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