Best Albums of 2013 Pt. 4 (10-1)

10. Childish Gambino – Because the Internet

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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.

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Best Albums of 2013 Pt. 3 (20-11)

#20. Haken – The Mountain

Haken-MountainI am starting to get bored with a lot of progressive music these days. It takes a lot for a progressive band to stand out to me, especially if I have never listened to them before. I passed over the new Haken album a few times when it was presented to me by my various “you may like this!” applications and processes I use to discover new music. Every time I saw it, with that tag of progressive on it, I just thought…ugh, does the world really need another prog band. Then, one day I was having a conversation with my friend Pete about how disappointing the new Dream Theater album was. We were talking about our waning interest in the genre in general, when Pete brought up the band Haken. He told me I had to check them out. So, I went back and found their album and gave it a listen. I instantly loved it. Yeah, it had that metal tinged prog style that bands like Dream Theater have been riding for ages, but there was something unique about this album. It was refreshing, unique, and really enjoyable to listen to. I think the most important thing for me, when it comes to progressive music in general is necessity. Prog Rock is a genre of excess. It’s all about insane guitar solos and intricate time changes. But, if those things come off as arbitrary (like the new Dream Theater album) it makes the music seem masturbatory. Yeah, we get it, you can play really intricate and complex parts, but why? Why are they here? Now, I know this concept is extremely subjective, but on The Mountain, everything has its place. The leads seem like the need to be where they are, rather than just being done for the sake of being done. I also love the art-prog, Gentile Giant influence as well as the really cool electronic glitch part on “Because It’s There”. Overall, this album gave me hope for a genre that was losing my interest, quickly.

19. Milo – Things That Happen At Day // Things That Happen At Night

"How can anyone be certain that  they're not Levar Burton?"

“How can anyone be certain that they’re not Levar Burton?”

Hey, look! It’s a hip-hop album on my list. There are actually two that made my list this year (if I had heard Oddisee before finalizing my list there probably would have been three). Milo is a geeky, wrestling obsessed, vegetarian who raps about Schopenhauer, veggie bacon, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. His lines switch back and forth from nerdy geek culture references to philosophically deep ramblings and I love it.  I love that he references Hegel and Teamspeak and Legends of the Hidden Temple. He takes the concept of nerdcore hip-hop and legitimizes it to something that is more than novelty. That being said, I wish I could have put this album higher on my list. It’s unique and different and deserves to be listened to. It’s lyrics are compelling and interesting and extremely deep, which is why it is my #19 album. That being said, the album lacks direction. I know this is technically two EP’s combined into an album, but it seems to meander rather than flow. Even the separate EP’s lack something that would make them conceptually whole.  The beats are minimal, which allows the lyrics to stand out, but they are also boring at times. I want to see where Milo goes, because hip-hop needs more minds like his, I just wish this album had a little bit more to it in terms of production.

18. Marijuana Deathsquads – Oh My Sexy Lord

marijuana-deathsquads-oh-my-sexy-lord-artwork-smallThis band may well be my favorite discovery of 2013. They are an experimental, noise rock super-group from Minneapolis. There music is largely improvised, chaotic, and infectious. It has a groove to it that just takes you over. I think the best way to describe them is this: Take Mars Volta, remove the guitars and replace them with electronic instruments. They have this tribal groove that caught my attention from the first listen, and I just can’t get enough of this strange band. I’d like to think they are making the music I would make if I had more confidence to do stranger things. The two drummers adds to the groove of the album, and even though I tend to be adamantly against vocal effects, they work well with this band. This is a studio album, and I think the only negative thing I can say is that it loses some of the intensity that their live performances have. That being said, the album flows extremely well, and I am always caught off guard when it’s over. I hope these guys keep making music together, because I seriously can not get enough of their strange, hypnotic noise jams.

 17. Message to Bears – Maps

a3413736770_10My wife originally sent me a song from this band, a couple of years ago. They had this chill, folky charm to them that made me keep my eye out for more. When I downloaded their latest album, I was surprised to hear the overwhelming electronic presence on this album. It seems Message to Bears was also hit by the electro-tinge of 2013, and boy they do it right. This album takes the ambient, relaxed folksy sound of previous Message To Bears albums and incorporates the electronic parts in such a fantastic way. They really meld well together, to make a unique ambient experience that reminds me of all the things I used to love about The Album Leaf. I love the way the natural instruments work so well with the electronic production, and the repeated use of what I can only assume is a theremin is expertly done.  The hushed vocals add depth without being overbearing, and the use of auto-tune is artful and not overdone. I can’t stress this enough. I love auto-tune when it is used in an artistic fashion, rather than a clutch, but this year especially, too many artists have overdone it. This album uses the tool in a unique way that I can only compare to James Blake, except it doesn’t annoy the hell out of me. It’s a quiet, atmospheric experience, and I highly recommend it.

16. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

rsz_jon_hopkins_immunityI am very picky about electronic music. I am picky about how it is used when it is incorporated into other music, and I am even more picky about pure electronic music. This album was a late comer to the mix, and was added because I realized that one album on my list was not nearly as good as I had originally thought, and I had an open spot. I had a few albums that I thought deserved to be on my list after I made it, and this one was the one that got on. Normally, the mind numbing repetition of traditional techno and house music turns me off to it, but there was something in this album that helped me to see past the droning nature of some of the songs and see the details that were occurring underneath. I was originally drawn to the album for its more ambient moments, but surprisingly, the acid-house influence actually grew on me as I continued to listen. I love the glitchy rhythmic parts, over the chill ambient music. I particularly enjoy the sparse piano and guitar lines that lead the songs from ambient haze into a quiet, pulsating techno beat. Even though I tend to avoid favorite tracks when dealing with a list of best albums, I have to point out that Form by Firelight was one of my favorites and inspirational in the way it melded ambient music with almost Adventure Time-y glitchiness. This album is an ambient album that helped me to appreciate another style of music more, and that makes it very special to me.

15. The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still

album-1382038841I remember when all the cool bands were indie-folk. It was a cool time. Back before EDM made its way into everything. Bands like The Head and the Heart could make it on their beautiful harmonies. Well, now its 2013 and The Head and the Heart have released their sophomore effort, and it is extremely strong. It’s more indie than folk, but that is not a bad thing. It has the occasional synth (because no album released in 2013 was allowed to be released without at least one synth track). But the most important parts from the indie-folk scene are there. Gang oohs and ahhs in wonderful three-part harmony. Deep lyrics that really speak to the deepest part of you. This album actually reminded me of classic The Wallflowers. The Head and The Heart really did a great job of solidifying their sound in one of the strongest albums overall of the year.

14. Hey Marseilles – Lines We Trace

D3001Speaking of indie folk, lets talk about Hey Marseilles. I loved their first album. They were an indie-folk group in the same vein with The Decemberists and I just loved their charming sound. On their second album, they stepped it up, especially on the orchestral side. The use of trumpets, bass clarinets, strings and more make this album a truly magical experience. The songwriting is incredible, from the lush arrangements to the lyrics. Especially with The Decemberists choosing to pursue REM style boring rock, it’s nice to see a band that is not afraid to keep up with the orchestral arrangements in indie rock.  This is another album of what I would consider walking music. It is music that gives your steps purpose. It makes you look around and notice the magic that surrounds you. It’s the kind of music that helps put you in a better mood, and see the beauty of life.

13. Sigur Ros – Kveikur

kveikur-1000Sigur Ros is one of my favorite bands. So, when they release a new album, there is a good chance that its going to be on my list. Sigur Ros returned, less than a year from releasing one of my favorites from 2013 “Valtari” and this time it was more structured and decidedly more dark than both Valtari and most of their work. This album is by far Sigur Ros’ most concise album, with only one song breaking seven minutes, and normally that would scare me. I like My Sigur Ros atmospheric and rambling. But for this album, it actually fits quite well. I love the way that Sigur Ros created a darker album in their own terms. It’s distorted, but angelic. It’s harsh, but beautiful. It’s loud, yet subtle. It’s an album that only Sigur Ros could do, and they did it wonderfully.  It definitely stands out for me in their collection of incredible music. You can read my full review of it here: http://doesitsuckreviews.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/sigur-ros-kveikur/

12. Marijuana Deathsquads – Music Rocks I & II

18Hey look, it’s this band again. This album was released for free from their website (Link HERE) and it is actually two EP’s combined into one album. The reason this album beat out their full length studio release is because the second half of the album (the second EP) was recorded live and really captures the intensity and energy of this band. The thing I love most about this band is watching and listening to them perform. My favorite thing they have done is a youtube video of one of their residences where they just go for almost a half hour straight. The themes weave in and out, repeating grooves and absolutely stunning percussion from the bands two drummers. This album captures that so well. It’s less structured than their full length, but its in that chaos that I really fall in love with this band. It’s improvised, frantic, spastic noise jams that I am addicted to, and this album was exactly that.

11. The Dear Hunter – Migrant

MigrantThe Dear Hunter is another of my all time favorite bands. Casey Crecsenzo is one of my favorite song-writers out there. I love his grand scheme concepts (The six act story he is currently three acts through, or The Color Spectrum). This album actually surprised me because it was a departure from his crazy concepts. I am really happy he decided to just make an album with no preconception, just write songs as they seem fit, because it is some of his strongest writing to date. This album is full of energy. Songs like “Whisper”, “Let Go” and “An Escape” are wonderful, anthemic rock songs. The album is more straightforward than previous works, and reminds me most of the orange and red EP’s from The Color Spectrum. It’s rock, but it has these moments of orchestration and writing that really make it stand out. I think it is this more subtle genius that makes the album one of the strongest things The Dear Hunter has done. One thing I have to point out, “Shame” will always remind me of “Lover I don’t Have to Love” by Bright Eyes. Yeah, the chorus is different and really makes it its own unique song, but man…especially at the beginning. I thought he was covering Bright Eyes the first time I heard this song.  But, other than that one little “issue” this album is full of incredible moments and on a whole is an incredible journey of music, from start to finish.