10. Childish Gambino – Because the Internet
Childish Gambino has always had a way of taking styles of rap I find annoying and uninteresting, and making it amazing. Perhaps its his hyper self-awareness. Perhaps its the geeky references that he laces between more typical pop rap rhetoric. Whatever it is, Donald Glover has captured my interest. Because the Internet shows a huge leap in tone from 2011’s camp. Although it is still deeply introspective, it has confidence. He no longer needs to rely on his geeky references or self-depreciating lyrics. Where Camp was an enjoyable, at times novel, album that was defined mostly by a few key moments, this album is a staggering collection of extremely well thought and confident songs that work together to paint its concept. Broken into five parts, this concept album has all sorts of themes of loneliness and popularity weaving between the songs. The lyrics have just enough intelligent moments and references to excuse the more typical rap moments. The beats are darker and more experimental. Again, Gambino manages to take styles that I normally find frustratingly bad and make them interesting and enjoyable. “Worldstar” manages to elevate that southern hip-hop style with just enough twists and turns, and wonderfully crafted pitch modulated sax solo at the end. All in all this album is a bold step for Childish Gambino, and it is one that I will enjoy listening to many more times.
9. Darkside – Psychic
This album was one of the last albums to be added to my list. I saw it pop up on many other best albums lists, and decided to give it a shot. At first I judged the album purely on its itunes previews (which is the worst thing you can do to an artist)) and it just didn’t seem like an album I would listen to. I tend to not always see eye to eye with the more popular review sites, so it’s not that surprising that a commonly accepted “best album” would not be one of my personal favorites. I don’t remember what compelled me specifically to give this album a full listen through, but I am so glad I did. This is an album that refuses to be labeled. You can hear some psychedelic 70’s rock. You can hear electronic and dance influence. You can hear soul and R&B. You can hear some funk and disco. It’s all over the place, and yet extremely coherent. Of all the weirder, droney, electronic albums that are claiming the top spots of many top album lists, this was the only one that really stood out to me. I am always hesitant to compare a band’s sound to that of Pink Floyd’s, but this album really captures the spirit of some of my favorite Pink Floyd moments (the more drawn out, slow building moments, like Echoes). At times it reminds me of the soundtrack to Hotline Miami. Other times it almost has a Radiohead vibe. Yet, for all the comparisons I can make, Darkside absolutely makes it their own, crafting a sound that is greater than the sum of its inspirations and genres.
8. The Hawk in Paris – Freaks
The Hawk in Paris is the dark-electro-pop side project of Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay, and it is just tasty. Since I have been following this band since their conception, I had already heard most of the songs off “Freaks” on various EPs, but that does not discount the quality of this album. I love the variety of electro-pop sounds that are covered in this album. It helps with replay-ability, because you never feel like they are overworking a sound or an idea, which tends to be my issue with electro-pop music. There were lots of bands that I thought about including on this list that do similar style music, but due to the variety of the sounds, the cohesion of those sounds into a greater album, and the deeper lyrical content, this album soared above those other releases. It’s nice to hear the darker and sadder emotions that are hinted at in Jars of Clay being fully expressed in this album. Every song on this album is incredible, and they work so well together as an album, but I really want to point out the song “Cannons”. This song is just masterful. I love the 10/8 feel to the song. I love the guitar that comes in on the second verse and the way the drums start to fuzz out by the bridge. The instrumentation is great, the lyrics are great. The composition is incredible. And like I said, the whole album contains these elements, just this song executes them perfectly. All in all an incredibly strong release from a band that I hope continues to make more music in the future.
7. Son Lux – Lanterns
I first heard of Son Lux when he collaborated with Sufjan Steven on the SSS EP. I loved his production on this little release, so I made sure to keep an eye out for new music from him. What surprises me the most is how much music is contained in this nine song, forty minute album. Normally, when albums don’t break that 45 minute mark I feel like I was cheated of music, but that is not the case with Lanterns. Every second of this album is jam-packed with wonderful. The arrangements on these songs is just phenomenal. The saxophones go from the chaotic, frenzied runs on “Lost it to Trying” to the jarring, off beat bass rhythms of “Easy”. With the intense changes in tone and unique orchestral arrangements, its easy for one to compare this album to Sufjan, and as much as I try to refrain from comparisons, I feel like making the comparison as a compliment is needed in this situation. I am very happy that a band with a similar style to one of my favorite songwriters of all time released this incredible collection of songs this year. The upbeat songs are full of life and never let up. The slower songs use space perfectly, and its this juxtaposition of sounds that makes this album such a great experience. And then with this impressive juxtaposition, comes a wonderful marriage of electronic and natural instrumentation that just blends perfectly. It has both contrast and blending. On a side note, why is this style of black and white album art so dang popular this year? Too many of my favorite albums had art that was extremely similar.
6. The World is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Whenever, If Ever
I wrote a review of this album earlier this year (Read it HERE) and in the wrap of for that album I made the claim that it may be one of my favorites of the year, and you know what…it was. To quickly sum up, this band has that classic early 90’s emo style with some amazing instrumentation from cello and synths that makes it really stand out for me. The vocals are emotive and powerful and if you got into emo or indie rock from that time period, this band is definitely one to check out. If you want to know more about it, go read the review…or even better, just go listen to it.
5. Daughter – If You Leave
Daughter is a chill indie rock trio that wrote some of the most hauntingly beautiful music of the year. The guitars and layered vocals create absolutely incredible atmosphere. The drums provide powerful builds. This is what I want out of post-rock with vocals. It has the atmosphere and quiet fullness of some of Bon Iver’s earlier work, with a voice that I can only describe as “Regina Spektor, just not crazy”. These songs are perfect late night songs. This is the kind of album that you put on and drive to the coast at midnight. It perfects the art of the Mezzo-Forte build, meaning even though the parts get gradually more layered and more complex, the dynamics are never pushed. The songs build, but they stay chill. This is a difficult thing to do well, and this band does it wonderfully. This album, unlike the others on this last part of the list, is far more consistent sonic-ally from song to song, but its the kind of music you want to get lost in. It come in waves, gently moving from haunting and simple to lush and complex, yet it always stays chill and relaxed. It’s an ocean of beautiful sound, that I absolutely adore getting lost in.
4. Gungor – I Am Mountain
I am going to be honest, on first listen I was disappointed by this album. “Ghosts Upon the Earth” is still one of my all time favorite albums ever, so I think my unreal expectations for a follow-up played into that. But, as I continued to listen to this album, and as I listened more intently to the lyrics, I fell more and more in love with it. It is deeply refreshing to hear another post-modern mystic writing messy doubt filled worship music. The songs that I was initially disappointed with (Long Way Off, Best Part, Finally) grew to become some of my favorite songs on the album. The thing about this album is, thematically its messy. But, that’s kind of the point. It’s messy, a lot like life. Its full of ups and downs, heartbreak and doubt and mystery. The lyrics on the title track are, in my opinion, some of the strongest on the album. And Wandering. Oh my goodness, Wandering. Auto-tune was invented for this song. Never, have I ever heard a more perfect use of this tool. And I love that Lisa sings the final verse with no vocal effects, not only working thematically with the concept of the song, but showing that she does not need to use that, but chooses to for the aesthetic. Let it Go sounded so much like Mutemath, I had to double-check that the band was not involved in the song, and that is a really good thing. I think the only song, upon many listens, that still disappoints me is “God and Country” only because it’s uncharacteristically preachy for an album full of postmodern apophatic worship. It seems more like a B-side, that anything else. Not to say its bad, and the music is great, it just didn’t seem to fit. It’s a minor thing, because the music really is incredible on this song. “Upside Down” really finishes off the album perfectly, as far as concept is concerned. It is a slow building mess that, upon reaching its climax, fades into noise. This album is a fantastic next step for Gungor, but its one that takes many listens to really get, which we need more of in music.
3. Sleeping at Last – Atlas (Pt. 1-4)
This year I fell in love with the music of Ryan O’Neal (Sleeping At Last). I always enjoyed his music, and I found a few songs to be particularly wonderful, but I did not get really into Sleeping at Last until the Atlas project. This is actually a series of six EPs that were supposed to be released throughout the year. Four of them have been released so far, and they were too good not to be included on this list. I actually originally had them listed as two separate spots on the list since each set of two EPs work really well as an album, but I needed that extra spot for another album to be included, so I just put them all in one spot. I have never had music speak directly to my heart in the way these albums did. It’s like he found a way to perfectly communicate so many things that I have been wrestling with, while instilling peace and hope. These lyrics just cut right through me, reducing me to tears on several occasions. Sometimes they were tears of joy, realizing the beauty of our place in the universe. Sometimes they were tears of heartbreak, specifically on the song “Uneven Odds” which tears me up just thinking about it. “We are infinite as the universe we hold inside.” Lines like this are exactly what I need at this time of my life, and I am so happy that Ryan O’Neal is writing them. Ryan, if you read this, PLEASE RELEASE THESE ON VINYL. Also, I would love to talk to you about music and life and G-d and the inspiration for the lyrics and music, because you seem like an amazing person. Your music inspires me on a daily basis. You write some of the most poignant, worshipful, deep lyrics and songs out there. Anyways, these EP’s are fantastic. Go and get them HERE. Seriously. The final two are supposed to be out soon, and I can not wait.
2. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing
This album is everything I want from a prog band. Seriously. This album may be my perfect idea of what a progressive band should sound like. It really captures everything that was right with 70’s prog, before new wave ruined it. It grooves. It jams. The riffs are interesting and challenging, but they never seem out-of-place or arbitrary. The bass lines are just, kick ass. Never do you feel like you are participating the musical equivalent of masturbation (AHEM Dream Theater). From the organs to the flute solos, this album perfectly captures classic prog and presents it amazingly. This is, by far, my favorite progressive album I have ever heard. It win that award. Steven Wilson really hit it out of the park on this. Check it out if you ever enjoyed prog. And seriously, the bass lines. Yum yum yum.
1. Jars of Clay – Inland
As I said in my review HERE, this album is a subtle masterpiece that demands you listen to it carefully. Every slight change or choice of instrumentation expressing something intentional and beautiful. It throws away the conventional musical ideals of to the wall mixing everything hitting you in the head. Some of the most genius musical choices are almost downright hard to hear, and it forces the listener to really engage it to get the full experience. Some might see this as a negative, but I think its powerful and beautiful. The album’s themes are powerful and spoke deeply to me. I can say more, but I really would be repeating what I said in my review. This album is a masterful album from one of my favorite bands, and its my favorite of the year…if you haven’t listened to it, go do that. If you played it, but didn’t really listen, go back and listen.
Thank you for going through this sonic journey of 2013 with me. Anything you think I left out? Feel free to comment and discuss in the comments. Next I will have my honorable mentions and biggest disappointments of 2013, as well as weekly reviews.