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 2012

Here it is… my long awaited (?) top 5 albums of 2012 list. Contain yourself. Here we go.

5. Rush — Clockwork Angels

It may not have made the biggest splash in the musical world, but for Rush fans this album was a long time coming… the band’s first true full concept album (no, really), their best music in decades (we really mean it this time), and it was followed by a tour featuring an 8-piece string ensemble (!) and their long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (!!). It also features what is arguably the most genuinely beautiful piece of music in the band’s career, the closing track “The Garden.”

In many ways, the concept of Clockwork Angels is a steampunk-inspired, 21st century reinterpretation of their 1976 classic 2112 (note the time on the clock on the album cover), with less Ayn Rand and more first-hand wisdom. It’s also a clever retrospective and reflection on the band’s career itself. I don’t know if Rush will ever record any more albums, but I think this would be a good place to stop.

4. Aimee Mann — Charmer

Charmer is full of infectious melodies and perfectly crafted pop, but much like the best work of Steely Dan, beneath this sonic veneer lies a dark core. These songs explore, with… not quite cynicism, but perhaps a tired resignation, the more deplorable aspects of human nature. Which doesn’t make the songs any less catchy.

I have to confess that up until now I haven’t been a huge Aimee Mann fan. It’s not that I had anything against her music; I just never really gave her much of a chance. I also have to confess that the main reason I changed my attitude about her was her outstanding deadpan performance on an episode of Portlandia where she, being a struggling musician, was found working as Fred and Carrie’s housekeeper. There wasn’t much of her music in the show, but she was so natural in her performance that it really got my attention. I’m glad it did, because her music is fantastic.

3. The Darcys — Aja

Speaking of Steely Dan, how would you like a dark, noisy, post-rock reinterpretation of their entire 1977 classic Aja? Toronto-based indie band The Darcys have achieved something amazing with their stark, haunting, brooding take on the yacht rock classic (and one of my favorite albums of all time). At turns ethereal and icy, then erupting with white-hot rage, this album manages to do with Steely Dan’s music what they could never do themselves — match the darkness of their lyrical content.

At first I found this album hard to listen to, but as I allowed it to unfold and reveal itself, it became one of my favorites of the year… and I may now even like it more than the original.

2. Air — Le voyage dans la lune

Hugo was my favorite movie of 2011. With its focus on the legendary, and nearly lost, works of silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, specifically Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), it was also a perfect set-up for this year’s release of Air’s new score for the 1902 film.

The album came with a video of the restored, hand-painted color version of the film with Air’s musical accompaniment. It was a great way to see the full film for the first time, and I think despite over a century’s distance, and playing in styles (and with instruments!) that wouldn’t yet be invented for decades when the film was made, it works perfectly. The album also stands well on its own apart from the film.

1. Com Truise — In Decay

It’s funky, it’s weird, it’s overflowing with ’80s synths and drum machines. In short, it’s pretty much exactly the album I wish I had recorded myself in 2012.

This is definitely not an album for everyone, but I find it manages to perfectly balance my own penchant for weird noises and unpredictable song structures with an approachability that doesn’t make me embarrassed to be caught listening to it. (Yes, this is a serious concern for me a lot of the time.) It’s not as “out there” as Boards of Canada, but it’s got a fair amount of that IDM vibe (if we must put such a pretentious label on it). It never lets experimentation get in the way of a good groove however, and — despite being entirely instrumental — captures a lot of the nostalgic ’80s synth pop sound people of my generation just can’t quite seem to let go of.

Would I say Com Truise (great name, by the way) has recorded “objectively” the best album of 2012? Despite the fact that there’s no objectivity in art, I would still probably say “no.” But it’s the one album of the year that I just couldn’t stop listening to. Besides my own, anyway.

Top 5 Albums of 2012: The Contenders

It’s that time of year again. Looking back through my library, I am reaffirming what I observed when I checked out The Current’s Top 89 of 2012 polling the other day: I really have not been following new music this year.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been much more wrapped up in my business, too busy making my own music (currently working on my third full-length album of the year), or just disinterested in what I’m hearing on the airwaves, but the numbers don’t lie: in 2011 I bought about 50 new albums. This year the number is around 20.

In the past I have eschewed self-published albums here, but as the quality of self-published music increases, and the barriers to self-publication fall with new Internet tools, the idea of signed acts being of inherently higher quality than indie stuff is more ludicrous than ever (and, truly, it always was). I’m still considering the vanity factor and leaving my own albums out of the running, but there’s some other great indie stuff I need to put on equal footing with the kinds of music you can buy on CD at Target or Best Buy. I’m also eliminating my previous restrictions against EPs and live albums, if for no other reason than to pad out this list just a bit.

So, here’s the list. The top 5 itself will be selected from this esteemed group of artists and albums:

  • Absinthe & The Dirty Floors: Side 2
  • Aimee Mann: Charmer
  • Air: Le voyage dans la lune
  • Andre LaFosse: Do the Math
  • Andre LaFosse: The Hard Bargain
  • another cultural landslide: last days last days
  • The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made the Radio
  • Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind
  • Coheed and Cambria: The Afterman: Ascension
  • Com Truise: In Decay
  • The Darcys: AJA
  • Donald Fagen: Sunken Condos
  • Field Music: Plumb
  • Grizzly Bear: Shields
  • Muse: The 2nd Law
  • Pinback: Information Retrieved
  • Return to Forever: The Mothership Returns (Live)
  • Rush: Clockwork Angels
  • The Shins: Port of Morrow
  • The Shiny Lights: Morocco

OK, I can be honest and knock a few contenders out right now: there is no way That’s Why God Made the Radio or The Sound of the Life of the Mind will make the list.

This new effort from the Beach Boys is surprising mainly in that it doesn’t completely suck like I expected it to. No, the main reason it’s surprising is that Brian Wilson and Mike Love managed tolerate each other long enough to finish the album (but not the tour). But that shock aside, there are a couple of outstanding tracks, along with a couple of truly appalling ones. (All of which were written by Brian Wilson; the rest are merely mediocre and pointless.)

The Ben Folds Five album is certainly my biggest disappointment of the year though. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it’s mainly just that in the decade-plus since the band’s previous album, my musical interests and those of Mr. Folds have gone in exact opposite directions. Either that or he’s just become a humorless middle-aged hack musical competition judge. Or both. (Full disclosure: I haven’t even listened to the entire album yet. Much like with the last two Phish studio albums, I just can’t do it.)

I’m also going to eliminate the Muse and Coheed and Cambria albums. I just haven’t listened to them enough to be able to judge them properly, but I suppose my lack of enthusiasm for them says enough anyway.

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.