These things keep coming later every year, don’t they? I’ve never been the most motivated writer (at least since I was in 8th grade and wrote a 30-page long fantasy short story and thought for a while that I was the best writer ever) and it just seems to come harder and harder every year. The hardest part is the first sentence I think–finding a way in is at least 75% of the flopsweat of writing to me. But I have to write a first sentence for each of these 20 albums and it breaks my brain every time. Plus the older I get, the less free time I have, it seems.
But anyway, here we go with my 20 favorite albums of 2013. Last year I called my process a “highly unscientific semi-random pseudo-bubblesort method.” Which is still true. But while I usually make a caveat that these are not the “best” albums of the year but rather my favorites, this year I’ll add to that an observation that I’m not sure “favorites” is even right. What they are more than anything are the albums I’ve engaged with the most, spent the most time listening to, with the exception of a few that jumped in at the end of the year and grabbed my attention enough to fight their way onto the list.
Again this year, I find myself listing a lot of artists past their “best by” date who happened to release albums this year that I really liked. Bowie, Polvo, Sebadoh, Bad Religion, etc. But as you’ll see at the end, ex-Husker Du members fared much better this year than last 🙂
My song selections aren’t always the strongest songs on the album, but the ones that I feel fit into this mix the best. So if there’s a band that you kind of almost like based on the song I chose, feel free to ask for further recommendations in the comments. Or to just check out the album–I’ve provided helpful links that should get you to more information about each band. And of course I’d be delighted to read any feedback you have about this list or the post accompanying it.
Or right-click, Save As if you want. And again, I’ll put an 8tracks player at the bottom of the post, even though I went to all the trouble of putting together this nice big MP3 for you.
|20. Baptists – Bushcraft
Song: Bullets (00:00-03:31) There’s no Converge album for me to gush over this year, but there’s this, the debut full-length album from this Vancouver band, put out by Southern Lord and produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou. It’ll do for now. Absolutely bristling with aggression, it doesn’t stray too far from the blueprint established by their predecessor, but does seem to take things as far as they can absolutely go within those constraints. Fast, crushing, brutal.
|19. Sebadoh – Defend Yourself
Song: I Will (03:31-07:27) Sebadoh is another project of Dinosaur Jr.’s bassist Lou Barlow, and an old favorite of mine. The songwriting split between Barlow and his collaborators has generally produced some schizophrenic output (though the wildest stuff stopped coming when Eric Gaffney left the band 20 years ago), but this time around it’s pretty much Lou Barlow’s show, which means a focus on strongly melodic pop that honestly could use a few of the noisy freakouts they used to throw in from time to time. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love most of this album.
|18. Polvo – Siberia
Song: Light, Raking (07:27-11:58) Polvo is yet another great 90s indie rock band in the midst of a comeback. Their revival started several years ago though, and this is the second album they’ve released since reforming. Siberia is an album (far from the only one but a stellar example) that proves a band can mature without losing the energy & vitality that made them great. Arty & complex but human, dense and layered, it’s mathy without being robotic.
|17. JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound – Howl
Song: Ordinary (11:58-15:18) JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound are a local Chicago band that first caught my attention a few years ago with their outstanding cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”. I was excited enough to preorder this album, which for me was a slower burn–I didn’t get caught up in it as immediately as I did the last one. But the CD has never been far from my stereo, and whether its true merit has taken longer for me to see or I’m just a victim of audio Stockholm Syndrome, it’s become one of my favorite of the year.
|16. Bad Religion – True North
Song: My Head is Full of Ghosts (15:18-17:03) Man I used to love Bad Religion back in the day. At some point, I lost track of them, so it was kind of a surprise to me when this album came out to learn they were still making music. (Though not as big a surprise as when they released a Christmas album later in the year!) I listened to it and it’s classic True Religion, chock-full of social commentary ranging from the blunt to the bludgeoning, and musically as strong as anything they’ve ever done. And to a fan, it’s fantastic that they’re still able to put out albums of this quality.
|15. J Roddy Walston & the Business – Essential Tremors
Song: Black Light (17:03-20:03) These guys blew up my 2010 list with the rawdog straight up “fuck you” rock ‘n roll of their self-titled album. This year they’ve got some more for you, and while it’s great too, if I had a complaint it would be that it’s a little less raucous and a little more polished than the previous. Still, if you want a band with the energy of punk and the swagger of cock rock stomping their way through a set of bar band rock, blues & soul, these are the guys.
|14. Big Harp – Chain Letters
Song: No Trouble At All (20:03-24:23) Big Harp is a husband-wife Americana duo out of Omaha, Nebraska (though I guess they’re living in LA now?). From what I can tell, they split their duties thusly: he plays some instruments, she plays some instruments, then he does this wicked deep thing with his voice that has you reaching for the bourbon while you try to smother the chill in your spine between your shoulder blades.
|13. Sandrider – Godhead
Song: Godhead (24:23-31:14) Two of Sandrider’s members come from the (now defunct) hardcore band Akimbo (you’ll be reading about them in a minute), but Sandrider’s sound is more ambitious, big, sludgy, bordering on progressive, bringing in clean vocals and even vocal harmonies and a ton of the kind of “big riff moments” that make this kind of sludge/post-metal so rewarding. Not so much LOUD-quiet-LOUD as LOUD-Less Loud-LOUD-EVEN LOUDER. Sadly, I’ll never get to see one of Akimbo’s legendarily drunken shows but word has it Sandrider is continuing the tradition.
|12. Akimbo – Live to Crush
Song: Equal Opportunity Asshole (31:14-35:06) And here’s Akimbo, from the ashes of which Sandrider rose. That’s not entirely accurate, as Sandrider came around before Akimbo called it quits. Anyway, Akimbo came to my attention (though they’d been around far longer) with their 2008 concept album “Jersey Shores” about a series of SHARK ATTACKS off the shore of New Jersey in 1916. That was a sludgier, yet still crushing hardcore than this, their posthumous swan song. As much as I liked the previous album, I’ve come to understand that it was a pretty big departure for them. Live to Crush is just under 40 minutes of titanic riffage that, to put it frankly, does not fuck around, and that focus definitely pays off.
|11. Russian Circles – Memorial
Song: Lebaron (35:06-39:40) If you’ve followed my irregular podcasting career at all, you’ve probably heard the name Russian Circles before. They’re Chicago post-metal band who hit my top 20 in 2011 with Empros and in 2009 with Geneva, both of which were great, but neither of which can touch Memorial. The more I listen, the more convinced I become that Russian Circles are the best band working instrumental post-metal today.
|10. Milk Music – Cruise Your Illusion
Song: No, Nothing, My Shelter (39:40-43:28) The rules I set for myself a few years ago when I started doing these year-end lists are pretty simple. New, full-length albums. No compilations, no rereleases, and no EPs. Which is why Milk Music hasn’t appeared yet, as this is their first full-length album. But I’ve been eagerly anticipating it since I heard their EP Beyond Living a few years ago. This is warm fuzzy (as in analog, not comfy socks) punk rock, informed by classic rock, psychedelia & noise, with thin but sincere vocals that recall old Dinosaur Jr. as much as the guitar tone. Cruise Your Illusion is a hell of a fun listen.
|09. Mouth of the Architect – Dawning
Song: Sharpen Your Axes (43:28-50:24) By this time in the mix, you are probably getting a little tired of sludgy post-metal, so HERE’S SOME MORE. Mouth of the Architect has a full range of sounds in their toolbox, the big downtuned riffs, the high wavery leads, quiet moments, loud moments, death growls & hypnotic group vocals. Dawning is an immersive journey that should really be experienced in full, and I encourage you to listen to the full album if you can, but I can only present a piece of it here for you. Sharpen Your Axes is an anxious slow burn that builds fitfully toward a sudden and crushing conclusion.
|08. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Song: Traveling Alone (50:24-54:52) As much as I love Jason Isbell’s music, and I do, a lot, I have a complaint about him which hasn’t changed much since I wrote about him in 2011, namely, that he could stand to record a few more balls-out rockers and a few less sadbastard songs. And this album has continued that trend–the only real rocker it boasts is Super 8. But what a songwriter this guy is! even if he’s a sadbastard songwriter all the time. This song, Traveling Alone, is stunningly good, a seeming road lament that turns into a lovely duet with violinist & vocalist Amanda Shires (who also happens to have married Jason Isbell, so I hope we can look forward to more of their collaborations)
|07. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart
Song: Time Machine (54:52-58:09) I really should have had Frank Turner’s 2011 album England Keep My Bones on my 2011 list. By the end of that year, I really liked that album, and it’s stuck with me a lot more than other albums that I did recognize. However, I’m not putting this album on my list to make up for that, as it’s nearly as good. Turner used to be the singer for a post-hardcore band called Million Dead, and while he split time in those days between clean singing and hardcore screaming, these days he’s pretty firmly in singer/songwriter territory, though more of an uptempo bar rock singer/songwriter. I should mention that the song I’ve chosen is an outtake that’s only available on the Deluxe version of this album but I’m a sucker for Delorean references so I’m using it. I hope you like it anyway.
|06. Church of Misery – Thy Kingdom Scum
Song: Brother Bishop (Gary Heidnik) (58:09-65:26) Man, I like this band so much. And I bet you’ll never hear a better Japanese serial killer themed stoner doom metal band. This new album is, I think, their best since 2001’s Master of Brutality.
|05. Diarrhea Planet – I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Song: Emmett’s Vision (65:26-68:46) I’m not going to try to make excuses for this band’s name. This band is a bunch of kids who got together to play fun music that sounds like a bunch of kids playing fun music (pop punk frontloaded with a big dose of cock rock basically), only they also happen to write really good songs. They remind me at times of Japandroids, except where Japandroids were two guys making the noise of about 6, this is actually 6 guys, only 4 of them are playing guitar. Are you getting this? This band has 4 guitarists. I just, I don’t know, just listen to them.
|04. David Bowie – The Next Day
Song: Valentine’s Day (68:46-71:48) “David Bowie released an album in 2013. That album cover is not a joke.” These are things I had to repeat to myself a few dozen times before they really sank in back around a year ago when this album was first announced. And though the album cover adapts (or defaces, take your pick) the cover of his 1977 album Heroes, the music gives me more of a Scary Monsters vibe. There are hints from every Bowie period/persona though, from the glam rocker to the crooner to the thin white duke.
|03. Superchunk – I Hate Music
Song: Trees of Barcelona (71:48-74:57) Will Superchunk ever make a bad album? This album at first felt like a bit of a letdown after their brilliant Majesty Shredding in 2010. After a few more listens, I decided that yeah, there were a few really strong songs and a nice, midtempo middle section, and that it was OK for a band like Superchunk to follow up a work of genius with an album that was “merely very good.” (I used those words at the time) The more I listen though, the more I get that everything that makes Superchunk Superchunk is still there, but they’re taking it in a different direction, a bit more inward-looking, a bit less fist-pumping pogoing shouted singalong (though of course it’s still Superchunk, you’re still going to be singing along and air-drumming). This is another great album, from which I’ve chosen a song from that “nice, midtempo middle section” to play for you. Please listen to more as it will be worth your while.
|02. Kvelertak – Meir
Song: Bruane Brenn (74:58-79:02) OK, I hear some trve black metal guys say this band isn’t kvlt enough for them or whatever (to wit: http://waldemardaninskyjr.blogspot.com/2011/06/black-metalhipstersnirvana-kvelertak.html), but you gotta figure, with the prevalence of black metal in the Norwegian scene, that if you get a bunch of Norwegian guys together to make some party metal, you’re going to hear some shrieky vocals and blast beats. Really though, if there’s one thing this band’s music is about more than arena-ready party jams, it’s not black metal trappings, it’s hooks. Hooks around the world, riffs that keep going and going until you’d think you want them to stop but you really don’t. These guys can ride a single riff for the length of a 7-minute song and when it’s done you’ll want to listen to it again right away. If you are suffering from whiplash or some other neck injury, this is the point at which I advise you to stop listening, because heads will bang.
|01. Grant Hart – The Argument
Song: For Those Too High Aspiring (79:02-82:42) Grant Hart, better known as “that other guy from Husker Du,” has not had as well-known a solo career as his former bandmate Bob Mould. Between his band Nova Mob and his solo albums he released a good half-dozen or more records through the 90s–none of which, it should be noted, I have heard. Nor did I ever listen to his well-received 2009 solo album Hot Wax. So I was coming at this album solely on the basis of, “Hey here’s a concept double-album about Milton’s Paradise Lost as filtered through William S. Burroughs!” Which is maybe as ambitious an album idea as I can think of at the moment. And while I’ll admit that this album isn’t without flaws (a few of which are pretty typical concept album issues though–a little filler now then then to get the story from here to there, a stunningly conceived song presenting an idea central to the story that in execution is a bit of a struggle to actually listen to), it’s the album that I’ve spent the most time in 2013 listening to, whether enjoying it or struggling with it. Musically, you can find something for just about anyone in this album, from the expected poppy punkish rock tunes to driven uptempo 50s style rockers, old-timey ukelele, wacky circus music, noise, ballads, you name it (I wrote elsewhere that it “sometimes sounds like David Bowie fronting Guided By Voices, but mostly doesn’t), so if this song doesn’t do it for you, sort of a 90s lo-fi indie style thing, check out the rest of the album and I’m sure you’ll find something that does.