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
MGMT — MGMT
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.

Top 5 Albums of 2011

And now the moment you’ve all possibly been waiting for… my top 5 albums of 2011! (*crickets*)

It’s been tough for me to narrow down my 8 nominees to a final list of 5, much less to rank them, especially when I’ve found myself listening more lately to albums that didn’t make the original 8, such as Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, not to mention the late entry by last year’s winners, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, in the form of another amazing soundtrack album, this time for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

So, what are the top 5, then? Here you go.

5. Foo Fighters: Wasting Light
I’ve gotten flak for saying this before, but I’ll stand by it, at least as an opinion (not an objective fact): I think Foo Fighters are way better than Nirvana. Sheer instrumental skill aside, I prefer Dave Grohl’s worldview over that of his late Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Kobain.

Foo Fighters have become the torchbearers for straightforward hard rock. They’re pretty much the only popular band left playing this style who still seem to have something new to say. Great riffs, clever lyrics, an overarching theme and amazing (purely analog) production make this album a strong contender for best album of the year. And without a doubt, “Rope” is my favorite new song of the year.

4. Adele: 21
I’d like to rank this album higher than I have, because when it’s good it’s great. The problem is its inconsistency. For every infectious, instrumentally inventive track like the hits “Rolling in the Deep” or “Rumour Has It,” there’s a corresponding dull, plodding, derivative track like “Don’t You Remember” or “Take It All,” a tired and predictable ballad made almost unlistenable by strident vocals. Overall, the energy flags in the middle of the album, despite a few high points like “I’ll Be Waiting” and my personal favorite track, “He Won’t Go.”

The album is almost destroyed for me by the annoying (and annoyingly ubiquitous) ballad “Someone Like You,” co-written by Minneapolis native Dan Wilson, who has already befouled the world’s eardrums with the worst song written in the past 20 years, “Closing Time.” Ultimately, we’re left with a half-great, half-mediocre album, but it’s still strong enough overall to make my top 5.

3. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
I don’t think I liked the music of the ’80s while I was living through the decade nearly as much as I like the way it’s reimagined by Anthony Gonzalez, a.k.a. M83. I became a fan with M83’s previous album, Saturdays = Youth, but this year’s sprawling double album is even better. It’s a perfect blend of synths, big drums and atmosphere to create a sweet nostalgia for my childhood that’s even better than the real thing.

2. Joshua Wentz: Look/Look
Speaking of synths and atmosphere (though not big drums, so much), one of the best albums of the year is one you probably haven’t heard, by the Chicago-based independent musician Joshua Wentz. I befriended Josh a few years back after participating in the RPM Challenge, and his work just keeps getting better and better.

Even though I’m an “independent musician” myself, I often find it easy to look at unsigned artists as somehow inferior to major label acts. These days, however, with computers and gear that allow home studios and small budgets to produce work that sounds just as good as something that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and pro studio time, and the Internet eliminating the need for traditional distribution and marketing, there’s no reason not to take someone like Josh just as seriously as the other artists on this list, because his music is every bit as good.

Look/Look presents a sprawling soundscape, mixing digital synths and acoustic instruments with delicate vocals and introspective lyrics. Much of the music is instrumental, and would probably be labeled “electronica,” but Joshua Wentz rejects genres and labels, and the diversity of sounds and moods on the album reflects that attitude.

And the winner is…

1. Steven Wilson: Grace for Drowning
I’ve been a huge fan of Porcupine Tree since 1999’s Stupid Dream. This is Steven Wilson’s second “official” solo album (most of the early PT recordings were, in fact, Steven Wilson alone), and it builds on both the Porcupine Tree sound and the jazzy tangents of King Crimson’s 1970 album Lizard, inspired by Wilson’s recent work remixing Lizard for 5.1 surround sound. A number of prog rock legends and ace jazz musicians contribute instrumental parts to this album which can probably best be described as “overwhelming.”

It’s a huge double album, featuring a 23-minute epic, along with four other tracks that clock in over 7 minutes and a handful of shorter songs. As with Porcupine Tree, the album could be labeled “progressive rock,” but the sound is much more diverse than what could be found on the last several PT albums. There’s plenty of heavy guitar riffing, but also extended sections with a mellower, freer, jazzy feel. As is typical for most Steven Wilson projects, the album’s lyrical content primarily explores the dark corners of the human psyche. Steven Wilson’s music is rarely light listening. And yet throughout there is enough of a glimmer of hope to keep the listener from drowning… or, at least, to make that drowning graceful.

Top 5 Albums of 2011: The Nominees

Here’s a follow-up to my recent post introducing (in cover art form) the albums under consideration for my upcoming “Top 5 Albums of 2011” post.

I realized after I wrote that post that although I’ve purchased about 25 new albums this year, I haven’t really listened to most of them very much. This is mostly because I’ve spent a large part of the year working on and listening to my own music, and much of the rest of it listening to 5by5‘s tech podcasts.

In the wake of the “contenders” post, I created an iTunes playlist that consists just of those 25 albums and have committed myself to listening only to the music on these albums. I’m listening to it mostly on shuffle, which of course shines more light on the merits of individual songs than on albums as a cohesive statement, but I figured this was the fairest way to ensure that I actually hear all of the artists.

After a few days of listening, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve definitely been neglecting these albums. There’s some great music out this year, and I’ve liked almost every song that’s come up in the rotation.

But, of course, I favor some albums over others, and so here are the albums I am most strongly considering for the top 5:

Adele — 21
I am really sick of hearing “Someone Like You” everywhere. Much like “Losing My Religion” 20 years ago, it’s a song I never really cared for anyway, but its annoying ubiquitousness pushes me almost to the point of disregarding the artist entirely. Other than that, and a couple of weak songs in the middle, though, I think 21 is a truly outstanding piece of work, with great singing and inventive re-imagining of soul sounds from the ’60s and ’70s.

Foo Fighters — Wasting Light
As with most Foo Fighters albums, this is an easy one to like, if you like hard rock. In many ways I think Foo Fighters are the last remaining standard bearers for classic rock. And “Rope” is probably my favorite song of the year.

Foster the People — Torches
I really don’t want to like this album as much as I do. There’s something about Foster the People that reminds me in a weird way of Owl City, in that it feels like something I should (and, in the past, would have) just dismiss outright. And yet every time one of these infectious songs comes on, it just sucks me in.

Halloween, Alaska — All Night the Calls Came In
I pretty much love anything Minneapolis-based jazz drummer Dave King is involved with, but Halloween, Alaska sounds nothing like his other work, and that’s turned out to be a good thing! Relatively straightforward art pop, with a slight Canterbury prog rock twist.

Joshua Wentz — Look/Look
This is the only truly “indie” (as in, unsigned) album I’m considering this year, and probably is the only one I’ve ever considered. As much as I respect DIY music (and engage in it extensively myself), and as much as I hate the RIAA and the dinosaur major labels behind it, it’s hard to let go of the old hangup of not taking it as seriously as music released by a “real” record company. But I make an exception to that hear. I know Josh and have been following his musical endeavors for a few years now, and this album is as good as anything any major label has released this year, and far better than most.

M83 — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
I became enthralled with M83 with Saturdays = Youth a couple of years ago. This follow-up is a sprawling, atmospheric double album. I can’t avoid the analogy of Fleetwood Mac’s pair of late ’70s albums, Rumours and Tusk. As in that case, I don’t really think this is better than the album that preceded it, but it’s a fascinating journey nonetheless.

Mayer Hawthorne — How Do You Do
Mayer Hawthorne could be counted among a large number of white artists in recent years who have resurrected ’60s soul music. One could cite the long history of white musicians appropriating black artists’ styles and reaping commercial benefits that the original artists never attained, and I guess I just did. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is great music, and I’m glad the style is making a comeback, regardless of who’s performing it. Plus… I had no idea Snoop Dogg could sing!

Steven Wilson — Grace for Drowning
I’ve been a huge fan of Steven Wilson’s prog rock band Porcupine Tree for over a decade. The past few Porcupine Tree albums have been great but are starting to feel a bit too familiar. Taking a break from the band was apparently just what Wilson needed to reinvigorate his seemingly limitless creativity. Enlisting the help of a number of prog rock legends and comparatively unknown but highly talented jazz musicians, he’s created his most ambitious and varied work to date.

Top 5 Albums of 2011: The Contenders

It’s become an annual Underdog of Perfection tradition (even more of a tradition than calling this blog Underdog of Perfection). The annual “top 5 albums” post. Another tradition is this preliminary teaser post, wherein I announce “the contenders”: the albums I’ve purchased during the year that are under consideration for the top 5 list.

2011 has been an odd year for me, musically. I have been more prolific in my own musical endeavors than, perhaps, any year in the past — including three albums available on iTunes: my RPM project about Minneapolis, Scenes from the Busy Northern Metropolis, my running-inspired 40-minute electronic epic The Long Run, and the remastered/remixed compilation album Room 34 (Nokomis Beach). At the same time, I have found that many of my long-time favorite artists released disappointing, or worse, irrelevant albums this year, including but not limited to: The Beastie Boys, Cake, Coldplay, The Decemberists, Dream Theater, Fujiya & Miyagi, Radiohead, Wilco and Yes.

The year’s new music wasn’t all regrettable and forgettable, however, with bright spots from Adele, Foo Fighters and Halloween, Alaska, among others. But which albums will make the top 5? Check back in December to find out!