Having said all of that, I still do not hesitate to give you a list of 10 albums released in 2013 that I thoroughly enjoy(ed):
10. Houndmouth - From the Hills Below the City
I'm a sucker for debut albums and this is easily my favorite of the year. Houndmouth may be the best thing out of Indiana since Reggie Miller. Houndmouth couples a gritty rock 'n' roll sound with Bob Dylan-inspired lyrics. As my buddy summed it up, "they sing about drugs a lot." Both Matt Myers and Katie Toupin steal the show on vocals, often together in mighty good harmonies. I saw them live, and the show was an outrageously good time as the band has an incredible amount of energy and Katie sang until her vocals were shot...
Notable songs: Penitentiary, Ludlow, Come on Illinois
9. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Listeners approaching The National are most rewarded by multiple listens. I gave High Violet several listens before chalking it up as alright, but nothing special...only to come back to the album months later and realize its brilliance. I did not make the same mistake with Trouble Will Find Me. Trouble may be less immediately accessible than High Violet, but the album finds The National at its finest. With frontman Matt Berninger being the insane perfectionist that he is, the arrangements, hooks, and harmonies of each song are crafted to near-perfection. Likewise, Matt's neuroticism fills the honest, often dark, sometimes cryptic, but certainly raw lyrics.
Notable songs: Don't Swallow the Cap, Sea of Love, Graceless, Pink Rabbits
8. Josh Ritter - Beast in Its Tracks
While I lost a lot of respect for Josh Ritter this year due to his shenanigans with Messiah College (at least have your manager do research before booking gigs, dude), Beast is undeniably fantastic. The album, in its bare minimalism and raw lyrics, finds Josh in his darkest moments as he reels from the pain of his recent divorce. For that very reason, some have compared the album to Dylan's spiteful Blood in Its Tracks, perhaps because both songwriters focus little on their own relational faults. But Josh's darkest lines, such as "if you're sad and lonesome and you've got nobody true, I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me happy too" don't come close to approaching the vengeance of songs like Idiot Wind. Josh sings about his real, honest pain, but also recognizes that his past relationship was something worth having. Joy to You Baby contains one of my favorite lines: "There's pain in whatever we stumble upon. If I never had met you, you couldn't have gone. But then I couldn't have met you; we couldn't have been."
Notable Songs: Hopeful, Joy to You Baby, Lights
7. Dawes - Stories Don't End
Notable Songs: From a Window Seat, Most People, From a Right Angle
6. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
It's a testament to Case's talent that, despite collaborations with M. Ward, Jim James, the New Pornographers, and Calexico, the most powerful musical weapon on every song is Case's powerful, nuanced, pure, and versatile voice. In the album opener, Case sings "I'm not fighting for your freedom, I'm fighting to be wild." From that moment on, her voice fights for this wildness in every song, often jarring the listener with hooks and in-your face lyrics. The minimalist nature of the instrumentation on the album turns tiny details--ringing bells in Local Girls, tumbling piano in Wild Creatures, sonar blips in Where did I Leave that Fire?--into album landmarks and makes the sonically-lush Ragtime a perfect album closer.
Notable Songs: Man, City Swans, Ragtime
5. Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse
Looking to imitate the non-stop music frenzy of Newport Folk Festival, my buddy and I saw Man Man and Frightened Rabbit on back-to-back nights in October. While Man Man was entertaining, Frightened Rabbit, and their rabid fans, put on an unforgettable show. Almost every song on Pedestrian Verse is crafted for a live audience, from the slow, tragically triumphant opener Acts of Man to the baseline-driven Holy to the anthemic Late March, Death March. The outstanding musical arrangements of each song is paired with vivid, brutal, and honest lyrics. As Scott (FR's frontman) is an atheist who has suffered bouts of depression, these lyrics--at their worst--highlight the tragic, suicidal state of mankind (Acts of Man, Nitrous Gas) and--at their best--offer a "light at the end of the tunnel" as hope in these disastrous times (Oil Slick). All that's to say, I can't stop listening to the brilliant music of FR without wanting to sit down with Scott and have long, meaty talks about God, hope, and life.
Notable Songs: Acts of Man, Woodpile, Oil Slick
4. Jars of Clay - Inland
If you're me, you saw that Jars of Clay released a new album and you could care less. Then you saw that it was their first independent album; with the goal of reaching a larger audience with their message of hope. From that mild intrigue, you spotified Inland, didn't think it was anything special, got to the last song...and put that song on repeat for days. After listening to Inland countless times, I still think the album starts slow. But the band's versatility, talent, and Dan Haseltine's ever-improving voice kick in around track 3 and go full-throttle for the last 3 tracks, which are 3 of my favorite tracks of the year. And, unlike FR, the lyrics on Inland are infused with substantial, God-centered hope and love in the midst of the confusion and tragedy of today's world.
Notable Tracks: Reckless Forgiver, Skin & Bones, Inland
3. Hello Seahorse! - Arumina
Denise Gutiérrez (lo blondo) has a uniquely distinctive soprano-rock voice that defines Hello Seahorse's sound. On their previous album (Lejos. No Tan Lejos), Seahorse went to a dark place, experimenting with their sound that gave lo blondo's voice an opera-esque sound at times. Here, Seahorse goes for a fuller, lighter sound that still features lo blondo's voice front-and-center. Ripple synths and drums open Buen Viaje, which has a double meaning: the lyrics wish 1) a departed lover a good trip and 2) that the listener would have an unforgettable trip through the album. The rest of the album delivers on this promise; with the lush sounds and heavy synths of Seahorse, along with lo blondo's squeels, yelps, and other throat trickery, providing an unforgettable journey. La Flotadera is one of my favorite songs of the year, as the band perfectly drapes lo blondo's voice over dreamy synths to craft the trance-like state she sings about (le dije ando en la ceguera, ligeramente desprendida de mi cuerpo y de me esencia, flotando entre materias de carne y hueso).
2. Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium
Frontman Will Sheff is a story teller at heart; one whose story-telling songs tend to be verbose, cryptic, and graphic. For Silver Gymnasium, Sheff wanted to get autobiographical with his songs focusing on his childhood in 1980s Meriden, New Hampshire. The songs on Silver Gymnasium are (slightly) less cryptic than usual to attract a wider audience and contain heavy synths to transport the listener to the 80s. The band promo'd this album hard; recording songs in Sheff's high school, making an 8-bit computer game, and drawing an elaborate map of Meriden to serve as the album jacket. The result, while not Okkervil's best, is an album that features an extraordinary range of emotions (extreme sorrow as Will struggles with the death of a buddy on Down, Down the Deep River; frustration with how horrible Will, despite wanting otherwise, can treat people on Everyday All the Time; the reckless abandon and love of teens in Stay Young) and some of Okkervil's finest musical tricks (the bouncy piano of It Was My Season; the opening build of Pink-Slips; the triumphant end of the slow-burner Lido Pier Suicide Car; the pulsating rhythms of White).
Notable Songs: It Was My Season, Down Down the Deep River, Pink Slips, White
A perfect album on a level that none of the other albums on this list comes close to. If you've read the news at all, you will know that Venezuela finds itself in a tumultuous state moving on from the death of Chavez and out of the dark blanket of his reign. This four-piece band from Venezuela captures this tumultuous, volatile, and confusing time almost perfectly. First, the adjective experimental applies immaculately to Será, giving the listeners a sliver of the "on-edge" feeling permeating Venezuela. The album begins with the horns and synths on Cementerio del Este making the song bombastic and urgent, before the song takes a 180 and blends into Cementerio del Sur, a funereal march highlighted by acoustic guitar and wailing vocals. The rest of the album features a dizzying array of styles; flirting with punk rock (Hornos de Cal), melodious pop (Bestia), disco beats (La Piel del Mal), merengue and hardcore (Viernes Negro), folk rock (Aún), cabaret (El Futuro Funciona) and industrial beats (Antes Era Mejor). Second, the lyrics capture a range of states, feelings, etc. permeating Venezuela: from sombre and funereal in Cementerio del Este/Sur (cubran los vahos con capillas y césped que siga creciendo el cementerio del este) to anger at corruption in Viernes Negro (¡ya no creemos en ti!), to how to move on from "sins of passivity" in La Piel del Mal (Hoy mi Dios me obligó a oir y oí el horror que negué por años y a pleno luz permití...¿como ser quién debes ser?) to hope for the future in El Futuro Funciona (he visto el futuro y funciona). In sum, Será is a concept album you must get your mitts on.Notable Songs: La Vida Mejor, La Bestia, La Piel del Mal, Hornos del Cal