(feat. track – Kitten – “I’ll Be Your Girl” [spotify] from Like A Stranger)
Tomorrow, I’ll unveil my #1 album of the year. In the meantime, here’s a whole lot of stuff that didn’t quite make my Top Ten Twelve but still left a big impression in 2013.
My Best Of The Rest list seems to grow longer every year – this time out, it’s a semi-ridiculous 37 (in a row?) albums, and that’s after some serious paring down on my part. But the bottom line is, there’s a ton of music released each year, and a whole lot more than twelve of those album are worth giving a serious listen to. Most of these albums, under different circumstances, could have cracked my Top Ten Twelve, and I have no doubt that, looking back five or ten years from now, I’ll hold some of these in higher esteem than some albums that made the final cut. So what I’m saying is: this stuff is worth your time too.
Any writing I’ve done on any of these artists in 2013 is noted. Spotify (or other streaming source) links have been included, where available.
Alkaline Trio – My Shame Is True [spotify]
At this point, Alkaline Trio have settled into a steady mid-career groove – there really aren’t many new tricks left up their sleeves, they do what they do and they do it well. Still, My Shame Is True is a stronger set of songs than 2010’s This Addiction. If nothing else, tracks like the bouncy “She Lied to the FBI” and the Good Mourning-esque “The Temptation of St. Anthony” go a long way toward reassuring me that 2011’s weird semi-acoustic rehashing of old tracks, Damnesia, wasn’t an sign that the band had run out of ideas. A solid album from an old favorite, albeit one I haven’t felt much need to return to.
Allison Weiss has a songwriter’s playbook and a punk’s sensibilities. Say What You Mean gets mucked up a bit by production that smooths where it should crinkle, but Weiss’ songs are strong, and terrifyingly catchy, enough to shine through the occasional excess goop.
Balance & Composure – The Things We Think We’re Missing [spotify]
The Things We Think We’re Missing didn’t grab me immediately in the way the Separation (my #8 album of of 2011) did. It’s less song driven, less melody driven, less heterogeneous, and trades angry aggro for a more melancholy slow burn. But for what it is, it’s undeniably good. One I should have spent more time with this year.
Betty Who – The Movement EP [spotify]
The obvious gem here is “Somebody Loves You,” a Whitney-Houston-by-way-of-Robyn jam of a dance-pop record. But The Movement has a certain charm throughout – quirky production touches like the Passion Pit-y vocal synths of “You’re In Love” and warm beats like those that burble underneath the daydreamy “High Society” make for a thoroughly breezy listen.
Boys – Demo 2013 [bandcamp]
Four tracks of skittering, sloppy, scrappy Lookout!-style pop-punk done right. The part of the ‘90s you wish people were busy remembering.
Butch Walker – Peachtree Battle EP [spotify]
Butch Walker’s last LP, The Spade, was the most straightforward rock record he’s released in nearly a decade. Peachtree Battle takes a step away from that ledge in favor of anthemic balladry and midtempo twang, placing the focus back on Walker’s exceptional chorus-crafting and smart lyrics. Walker’s an underrated acolyte of the rock-as-gospel school – something that was only reaffirmed for me at a whopper of a SXSW showcase at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church. Even on record, his zeal for life’s twists and turns shines through.
Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe [spotify]
Spry synth-pop with some serious emotional range and a powerhouse frontwoman that deserved every bit of hype it received, and probably more . Sure, it was an underground hit, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t have been an overground one too. One of those albums I wanted to spend more time with but never quite found the time to; I suspect if I had, it would have cracked my Top Ten Twelve.
The Front Bottoms – Talon Of the Hawk [spotify]
One day, the Front Bottoms will wind up with an album that captures the raucous, edge-of-control spirit of the bummer-punk duo’s live set. Today is not that day. But even if Talon Of The Hawk doesn’t distill what’s best about the band, the parts that it does manage to show off are pretty great all on their own. Brian Sella’s lyrical skill remains a marvel, and the exquisitely buoyant “Au Revoir” is the band’s best track to date.
Haim – Days Are Gone [spotify]
The not-talked-about-nearly-enough soft-rock revival continues! Haim were one of 2013’s buzziest bands, and all that buzz was merited. Days Are Gone is a wonderfully addictive update of Tango In The Night-era Fleetwood Mac, packed full of catchy hooks, smart melodies and a delightfully chippy vocal delivery. Tracks like “The Wire” and “If I Could Change Your Mind” were some of the year’s most welcome radio fodder.
The History of Apple Pie – Out Of View [spotify]
Every two to three years, I manage to fall for some random nu-gaze album. In 2008, it was Airiel’s The Battle Of Sealand; in 2010, Amusement Parks On Fire’s Road Eyes. This time around, it’s Out Of View. The band’s full-length debut starts with Sarah Records style cooing and lays a mound of cotton candy fuzz over the top, or maybe vice versa. I had the good fortune of catching The History of Apple Pie live at CMJ, and while their barebones setup didn’t provide for quite the volume of brainbending noise I had been hoping for, the songs more than held their own.
I Is Another – I Is Another EP [spotify]
This collaboration between longtime favorite Jonah Matranga (Far, Gratitude, Onelinedrawing) and Rival Schools’ Ian Love deserved way more attention than it garnered this year. Matranga hasn’t sounded this fired up in a long time; Love’s riffwork – alternately pummeling, warped and oblique – leave scuffmarks on some of the prettiness that Matranga’s been locked in to for his last few releases – in a lot of ways, I Is Another feels like picking up on where Far left off in the 90s, much more so than that band’s polished 2010 comeback album. As “Shake” and “Dear Departed” remind us, Matranga’s as compelling when screaming himself raw as he is while cooing quietly thoughtfully.
After Every Avenue split, guitarist Jimmie Deeghan made his way down to Nashville, and that city’s influence is written all over Cheap Therapy. Deeghan already had evinced a penchant for traditionalist, Americana-laced pop-rock; this time around, the songwriting has caught up with the sound. “Sad and Blue,” in particular, showcases his equal dexterity with a story and a hook.
The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law [spotify]
I kind of wrote off The Joy Formidable after catching an especially mediocre mid-afternoon performance by the band at 2011’s Bamboozle, but all is forgiven with the massive Wolf’s Law. “Maw Maw Song,” the album’s multi-movement seven-minute-long monster of an anchorpiece is a marvel unto itself.
Justin Bieber – Believe Acoustic [spotify]
The Biebs spent most of the year making all the wrong kind of headlines, so much so that it’s easy to forget this release even came out in 2013. But acoustic versions of tracks like “As Long As You Love Me” and “She Don’t Like The Lights” reveal the truly great songs that were hidden under the original versions’ (excellent) studio production. One day, when Bieber has put his youthful foibles behind him, he’s gonna release a back-to-basics singer-songwriter album, and it’s gonna be great. Bank on it.
Katy Perry – Prism [spotify]
In a year full of hit-or-miss superstar album releases, Prism is a high water mark for consistency. Beyond the album’s three excellent singles to date, tracks like the discofied romp “Birthday,” housey “Walking On Air” and breezy synthpop ballad “This Moment” have “future hit” written all over them. An eminently enjoyable full-album listen.
Kitten – Like A Stranger EP [spotify]
I got turned on to Kitten when my friend Keaton hooked on to do their merch while they toured with Paramore this spring. Like A Stranger doesn’t quite capture the incendiary dramatics of the band’s live set – for one, it lacks their positively scorching cover of “Purple Rain” – it’s still a solid slab of dusky revivalist new-wave. “I’ll Be Your Girl” didn’t get the critical attention, but it’s as good as anything Chari XCX or Betty Who put out this year. I had them pegged as future superstars, but recently singer Chloe Chaidez split with the remained of the band, so we’ll have to see what the future holds. (This actually happened once before, with the ex-members forming FIDLAR, so if the past is any indication, there’s a decent chance we get two great new acts out of the rift!)
Lacey Caroline – Songbird EP [spotify]
To quote myself:
Songbird largely avoids the grand gestures and anthemic bludgeoning of arena country and Mumfordcore clap-n-stomp in favor of quieter, more confessional fare — if it lacks the bite of a Kacey Musgraves or Ashley Monroe, it at least avoids the oversung mawkishness of fellow pop-punk-gone-country Cassadee Pope. The mandolins and chiming acoustic guitars of tracks like “Run Away” and “Anything but Me” pair surprisingly well with her songwriting sensibilities. Caroline’s voice — clear, pure, a little thin at the top of her range — only carries the slightest touch of a twang; close your eyes and you can hear Jewel (another singer who’s made the leap to country). Her vocals feel natural, unforced; they present themselves, rather than pushing themselves on you.
The Maine turned to Brendan Benson to produce Forever Halloween, and the result is the loosest album from the band to date. The Maine continue to push in a more rock-and-roll direction (this time it’s a little more stripped down than amped up), and while Forever Halloween is the first time the band have put out an album I’ve felt a little let down by – lyrically, it’s a hot mess, with John O’Callaghan’s attempt to write more personally mostly adding up to stacks on stacks on stacks of weak cliches – a lesser Maine album is still head and shoulders above most other bands’ best work. Tracks like “Love And Drugs” and “Run” are as good as anything they’ve done to date.
Imaginary Numbers is an EP of spare, moody acoustic originals. It’s the most emotionally raw work The Maine have done by a long-shot – there are shades of Ryan Adams at his most depressive.
While it doesn’t include either of these albums, I spent a lot of time writing about The Maine this year – see the links below for more.
Mansions – Doom Loop [spotify]
Two years ago, Mansions’ Dig Up The Dead ranked #3 on my yearly list. Doom Loop is less immediate than that album – it’s louder, crankier, more prone to lashing out than in. It also came out too late in the year for me to really give it the time that a new Mansions album deserve. Two months from now I might well be kicking myself that it didn’t crack my Top Ten Twelve; even now, I listen to tracks like the searing, accusatory “Two Suits” and wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake.
Pentimento – Inside The Sea EP [spotify]
Inside The Sea comprises the four most powerful, catchiest, most cathartic, flat-out best tracks from the young band to date. Pentimento’s name never seems to come up in #emorevival discussions, but Inside The Sea injects a heavy dose of midwestern pathos into the band’s sound, overwhelming their earlier pop-punk leanings. It’s a change for the best.
Like everything great in this world, Puig Destroyer started as a joke – an off the cuff remark during a Productive Outs podcast. It still might be a joke, kind of. Who’s to say? Not me; I don’t know a grindcore from a grundle. But I do know awesome, and the psychotic howls and brain-pureeing blastbeats that comprise Puig Destroyer and Wait For Spring are fucking awesome. 80 power, 20 control makes for one hell of a fun prospect.
Real Friends – Put Yourself Back Together EP [spotify]
2013 was a breakout year for pop-punk kids Real Friends. The show of theirs I caught at the Studio at Webster Hall a few months back was one the craziest I attended all year – the sheer bizzonkers enthusiasm of the crowd reminded me of that for The Story So Far and The Wonder Years right as each was on the edge of blowing up. Real Friends’ sound borrows from both of those bands, but leans more heavily on the poppier sounds of the mid/late ’00s; perhaps that’s why I like Put Yourself Back Together so much.
Rhye – Woman [spotify]
Upon first listen, in early 2013, I mentally penciled Woman into my “good, but not Top Ten good” column. At the time, I presumed that it would garner that sort of year-end accolades from the more indie-leaning music sites. Seems that, as time went by and the hype cooled, those sites wound up closer to my position than I had anticipated. That shouldn’t take away from Rhye’s enjoyability, though. Delicately romantic, if not altogether memorable, post-Sade pop, Woman is a good example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the soft-rock revival.
Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines [spotify]
Between the debate over whether “Blurred Lines” is “rapey” (I generally take the Maura Johnston line, though I’m not sure that, as a guy, I’m exactly capable of an informed opinion) and the controversy over whether it ripped off Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” (dirty secret – it’s better than that Marvin Gaye track. There. I said it.), there’s been more ink spilled on “Blurred Lines” than maybe any song this year, and while it’s a deserved smash, that chatter has unfortunately overshadowed how excellent the remainder of the album is. Tracks like “Give It 2 U” and “Ooo La La” (no, not that one) should be launching the (already successful, lest we forget) Thicke to extended stardom; instead, odds are strong he winds up as 2013’s Carly Rae Jepsen.
roboteyes – roboteyes EP [bandcamp]
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I find the 80s revival way more interesting than the emo revival. roboteyes are a great example of why – their ebullient vocals and buoyant melodies carry every bit the emotional sway of their glummer counterparts, and even in their drollest moments, vocalists Kate LeDeuce and Ryan Ford sound emotionally engaged.The lovely melodies only add to the enjoyability.
Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals [spotify]
Bitter Rivals garnered wildly mixed reviews on its release; I find that strange, because to me, the album seems like a quintessential Sleigh Bells album. It the combination of redlined riffs and cheerleader chirping no longer feels as wildly inventive as it did the first time out, 2010’s Treats, the band have still applied enough little twists to their formula here to make Bitter Rivals worthy on its own merits. Even if they were merely doing what they’ve always done, there’s value in what Sleigh Bells do beyond the once-groundbreaking nature of their sonics. And the title track here is as good as anything the band have done, period.
Smallpools – Smallpools EP [spotify]
Sean Scanlon, the voice behind faux-indie dance poppers Smallpools, made this Top Ten in 2009 as the lead vocalist/songwriter/keyboardist for piano poppers Making April, and if Smallpools doesn’t share much in common with that group’s musical sensibility (nor their melancholy), it carries with it the same penchant for big singalong choruses and bright melodies. “Dreaming” was a minor breakout hit for the band this year – the popular notice is both well deserved and a long time coming.
Sombear – Love You In The Dark [spotify]
Sombear doesn’t sound anything like Now, Now, the day gig of Brad Hale (and the authors of my #7 album of 2012). Hale’s one-man electronic project is as expansive as that band is insular; Love You In The Dark runs the gamut from shimmery Transatlanticism (“Incredibly Still”) to piston-pumping NINtronica (“LA”) to Daft funk (“Never Say Baby”). But just like with Now, Now, there are hooks for days in Love You In The Dark; if they’re maybe not as sharp, they’re a whole heck of a lot quicker to reveal themselves.
Sparks The Rescue have fallen out of the popular spotlight, and while that’s surely been trying for the (few) remaining members, it’s also freed them to expand their range without pushback. Truth Inside The Fiction explores breezy pop, plaintive folk and more – it even tries its hand at Americana, reggae and white-boy funk, often (though not always) very well. Alex Roy’s singularly distinctive vocals are the remaining constant, tying the EP back the rest of the band’s catalog.
The Secrets We’ve Kept collects b-sides, demos and unreleased detritus from throughout the band’s career, and to be honest I haven’t spent much time with it yet.
The Strokes – Comedown Machine [spotify]
I get it. The Strokes aren’t cool anymore. Arcade Fire are. How else to explain why the latter’s James Murphy-ized Reflektor rode in atop a massive wave of hype, while the similarly-discofied Comedown Machine went virtually ignored?Recognizably Strokes-y but working from a whole bag of new production tricks, Comedown Machine is the best surprise of the year, and the best Strokes album since Is This It. I didn’t think they had this in them anymore.
Tilian – Material Me [spotify]
Tilian Pearson is best know for his work in the progressive post-hardcore scene, primarily as the soaring, near-falsetto clean voice behind Tides of Man (and, soon, Dance Gavin Dance). But as well as those vocals cut through the dense, heavy arrangements of rock bands, they pair just as well with dancey electro and blip-n-loop ballads. Material Me is inconsistent at times, but at its heights, like on the irrepressible “Waste My Time,” it’s hard to imagine Pearson’s golden throat is meant for anything but pop perfection.
Touche Amore – Is Survived By [spotify]
Typically, the token hardcore record on the hip music blogs’ year-end lists makes it there precisely because it incorporates sounds and ideas from outside of hardcore’s sphere (see: Fucked Up – David Comes To Life. Or even Husker Du – Zen Arcade). Touche Amore, on the other hand, have managed it by simply making a traditional hardcore record that’s so damn good it can’t be ignored. Jeremy Bolm’s has been the best lyricist in hardcore for a while now, but on Is Survived By, he’s gone next-level.
From my review of the controversial Young New England:
Credit Transit for not burying the lede. Young New England, the band’s knotty fourth full-length, wrestles with those titular twin poles of identity — age and place — in each of its thirteen songs. […] Young New England is the stormily evocative depiction of a band working through that transitional time between legal adulthood and the real deal, as seen from the center of the maelstrom. As such, it can be a tough listen at times, but also a rewarding one, precisely because its flaws are its most interesting parts.
Futures & Sutures remakes tracks from both Young New England and past releases with new recordings and instrumentation.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I have a serious aversion to Mumfordcore clap-n-stomp bullshit, but Chris Carrabba’s new project – which also includes Suzie Zeldin of The Narrative (who made my #2 album of 2010) and Favorite Gentlemen’s favorite gentleman, Ben Homola – has its heart in the right place. Carrabba’s dabbled in this territory before – the lovely cover of Gillian Welch’s “Hard Times” on the Tour EP seems like a good indication that the project is more than conveniently-timed trendhopping – and his songwriting chops translate well.
I was also honored to score the first interview with the band, during SXSW, so I’ve got a soft spot for them for sure.
Vinnie Caruana – City By The Sea EP [spotify]
Vinnie Caruana, when he’s not fronting I Am The Avalanche, is one of my favorite solo singer-songwriters to catch live. His shows tend to be spirited, dynamic, rough-edged and drunkenly unpredictably, and by those standards the relatively staid City By The Sea, with its reserved arrangements and production shmaltz, is something of a disappointment. That said, it’s a solid little EP; tracks like “Somehow The World Keeps Turning” and “Boy You’re In Heaven” are winners, even if old favorite “To Be Dead and In Love” has been completely neutered by its arrangement.
William Control – Skeleton Strings [youtube]
A collection of acoustic covers (including a few rearrangements of his own prior work), Skeleton Strings is a reminder of why I so enjoy Wil’s acoustic material. His deep, gothy croon fits all of the material here exquisitely, and combined with the simple arrangements, the album glows with a lushly arch romanticism.
The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation [spotify]
The conclusion of the Wonder Years’ trilogy ranged further afield sonically than its predecessors, spending too much time dabbling in mid-tempo mid-90’s-style alt-rock to reach the heights of 2011’s taut Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing (my #10 album of that year.) That’s the price you pay for ambition sometimes. Still, when The Greatest Generation hits, like on “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves,” it hits hard.