Top 5 Albums of 2013

I’ve given it a lot of thought. OK, I’ve given it some thought. OK, I’m actually just making it up as I go. Whatever the case, here are my picks for the best, or at least my favorite, albums of 2013.

5. Phoenix — Bankrupt!
I really got into Phoenix right after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out in 2009 and had thoroughly explored their back catalog while eagerly waiting… And waiting… And waaaaaaaaiiiiiting for the follow-up. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t say the album is a masterpiece; it leaves me wanting something. But it’s still fantastic, with some truly amazing musical moments and some compelling lyrics that reflect on the band’s struggles with its newfound fame… you know, when they got so big that even people like me knew about them.

4. Midlake — Antiphon
Remember what I said about a band being big enough that even I known about them? That probably goes double for Midlake, a band I just learned about last weekend, when the title track of this album played on The Current as I was driving to IKEA to buy a couch. (I wish I were making this up.) Two things immediately drew me in about Midlake: the incessantly burbling drums, and the amazing harmonic detours in the second half of the song.

As soon as I parked the car I went on iTunes on my phone and bought the whole album, which I then listened to twice through while assembling the couch. It’s all great, with several sections (especially those with acoustic guitar and flute) reminding me of Trespass-era Genesis. Except without the preposterous lyrics about anthropomorphized wolves. I’d probably rate this album higher, but I haven’t known it long enough to see how well it holds up.

3. Lusine — The Waiting Room
If the ranking criteria on this list were solely based on how many times I’ve listened to an album, this would undoubtedly take the top spot. I’ve had it on heavy rotation while I work over the past few months, because its low-key grooves are just right to keep me going without being too distracting. Which is not to say it’s background music. I’d describe it as a more listenable (i.e. less weird) Boards of Canada.

2. The Darcys — Warring
There’s only been one album this year that I’ve anticipated more than Phoenix’s Bankrupt! and that’s Warring by The Darcys. The Darcys are one of the few bands that I’ve ever heard that I think might make it big that I’ve known about and gotten into before that happened. I hope it happens for them, in the right way, because they’re really great.

Or to put it another way, they’re my second favorite Canadian band of all time.

I first learned about The Darcys because their second album, last year’s AJA, was something that could have come off as a cheesy stunt. Does that name sound familiar? That’s because it’s also the title of what is arguably Steely Dan’s best album, from 1977. The stunt? This is Steely Dan’s 1977 album, reinterpreted in its entirety in Darcys style. Which is to say, much darker. There is a bleak beauty in The Darcys’ vision that in some ways better suits the desperation in the album’s lyrics than Steely Dan’s original too-smooth-for-its-own-good style. (And I say that as a huge, unabashed Steely Dan fan.)

Anyway… The Darcys released both their self-titled debut and AJA for free on their website, which definitely helped build their audience and the anticipation for Warring, which is all original material, and is utterly fantastic. Unlike Midlake’s album, it didn’t blow me away on first listen, but it only took two or three repeats before the brilliance of the album unfolded and revealed itself. You really need to hear the album in its entirety, but if you only have the patience to check out one song, I’d recommend “Horses Fell.”

1. Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
There was some criticism for Trent Reznor’s decision to work with a major label for Hesitation Marks and even more for his blunt response to anyone who might complain about it. But that can’t change the fact that it’s a pretty brilliant album.

I was never much of a Nine Inch Nails fan in the earlier, noisier days. There was just too much adolescent angst in the lyrics, and, well, just too much noise. But that all changed for me when Year Zero was released, and I have since been absolutely blown away by the genius soundtrack work Reznor and Atticus Ross did for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, enough so that I actually pre-ordered this album on CD as soon as I knew it was coming.

I saw Nine Inch Nails in concert for the first time this fall on the opening night of their current tour. It was definitely the most intense concert I have ever experienced, and quite possibly the best. The music translated amazingly well to a live setting, and the light show and energy in the performance were like nothing I could even have imagined.

For the concert experience, as much as the music itself, I have to give this album my top ranking for the year. It’s definitely left the biggest impression on me of anything I’ve encountered in the past twelve months.

And while we’re at it…

Although I would never elect any of it to my top 5 list, I actually recorded a ridiculous amount of original music this year, beginning with the January release of 8-Bit Time Machine, my semi-autobiographical sci-fi rock opera. (Yes, seriously.) That one was actually recorded in late 2012, but I followed it up with The Picture of Dorian Mode, composed and recorded entirely on my iPad over a single weekend in February. Then in April, when winter refused to go away, I recorded an EP called Soundtrack for an Endless Winter. In July I finally upgraded to Logic Pro and learned the ropes by recording another EP, cleverly (or maybe not) titled Amateur Logic. I followed that with the year’s biggest project, Falling, in September. For three weeks I sketched out at least one new song idea every day, and when I had nearly two dozen sketches, I refined the best of them into what I think may be my best work to date. (And this doesn’t even touch on the monthly “Figures” EPs I cranked out for the first half of the year.)

Top 5 Albums of 2013: The Contenders

Yeah, I’m still doing this. So let’s go!

Here are the new albums I’ve added to my collection in 2013, and are therefore contenders for this year’s list…

another cultural landslide — last days last days
Atoms for Peace — Amok
Boards of Canada — Tomorrow’s Harvest
Caroline Smith — Half About Being a Woman
The Darcys — Warring
David Bowie — The Next Day
Disappears — Era
Joe Satriani — Unstoppable Momentum
Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience (1 and 2)
Lusine — The Waiting Room
Midlake — Antiphon
Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
Nitemoves — Themes
Phoenix — Bankrupt!
Steven Wilson — The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
Toro y Moi — Anything in Return
Washed Out — Paracosm

Honestly… I’ve heard some really great new music this year, although my range of styles has narrowed in considerably on “chillwave” electronic music and surrounding genres. And while not completely homogenous, almost all of the artists are men, and almost all of them are white. I regret this, but it is what it is. And what it is, is, the music I listened to a lot this year, which is a reflection of me.

My heart isn’t quite in this whole process as much as it has been in years past. (Also, I just don’t have time.) So let’s cut to the chase. My top 5 albums are in bold above. But in what order? That will come in the next post.