I run a music blog. I’m practically obligated to write an end of the year list. So here’s my top 15 albums of 2013. You can also listen to a playlist of some of my favorite songs from 2013 (including tracks from artists who didn’t make this list) over on spotify.
15. Heartthrob – Tegan and Sara
Its hard to believe the Quin sisters have been in the business for almost twenty years. Every album they put out has a completely different style and sound from the one before it, while still managing to stay true to their core values. For their latest album Tegan and Sara tackle a more synth and pop based sound, toning down the guitars and turning up the keyboards. Some might criticize the duo for selling out, but then they would be missing the whole point. It’s an evolution in sound but not a complete departure; an important distinction. It might be a surprising path for them to have taken, but its certainly not a bad one.
14. If You Leave – Daughter
Truly, one of the most poignant and beautiful albums to come out in 2013. Elena Tonra’s voice is stunning, and its striking to have her voice framed by a backing band, unlike her previous releases. There was a song she had previously released on an EP that was rereleased on this album that came out at a time when I was really struggling with the death of someone close to me. Now I can’t listen to the song “Youth” without thinking of her. The album is dark at times, yet enchantingly so.
13. San Cisco – San Cisco
Its an impressive debut album, especially when you consider the fact that most of the band members are barely out of high school. Some of the melodies are childish but manage to be completely infectious at the same time. Where the album shines most, however, is in pure potential. Combine pure talent with brilliant live sets and its plain that this young band is only going to continue to improve. If you haven’t already heard of the band, look up their song “Awkward”. After you stop cursing me in a week for getting it stuck in your hear, you’ll thank me. I promise.
12. Heart of Nowhere – Noah and the Whale
Noah and the Whale have always been one of those bands that are at their best for their live performances. So deciding to record their fourth album live was a natural decision for the band and it certainly paid off. The album is fuller, more vibrant than their previous albums, giving it a more mature sound. Its a more honest and personal album for Fink and for that reason it resonates more deeply with listeners. Many tracks are backed by a lush orchestra in addition to Hobden’s fiddle, creating a sweeping sound that one can perfectly imagine as the soundtrack to a movie (which in fact, it is).
11. Trouble Will Find Me – The National
Without even noticing it this album has kind of become the soundtrack to my writing. Trouble Will Find Me manages to sound utterly effortless from track to track and is proudly confident without coming across as boastful or contrived. During the recording process the band’s recording studio lost power, and band members found themselves taking part in an impromptu acoustic jam session. Something of that session shows through in the quieter tracks, such as “I Should Live in Salt” and “This is the Last Time.”
10. Country Mile – Johnny Flynn
A couple of the albums on this list have been recorded live (both Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale have chosen the technique in their latest records), but Johnny Flynn has taken the idea to a different level. Not only are most of the tracks recorded live, but the “final” versions that have made it onto the album are often demos. The rougher and more organic sound to the tracks certainly suits Flynn, who looks at home in a rustic sweater and a guitar in his hands. His lyrics are quaint with the occasional archaic turn of phrase (he is a Shakespearean actor after all). The most compelling track on the album, “Einstein’s Idea” is a lullaby written for Flynn’s two year old son. The lyrics might be a little dense for a two year old, fancy trying to explain the Theory of Relativity to a two year old, but one can easily picture Flynn singing it to his son with its hushed words and muted chords.
9. Such Hot Blood – The Airborne Toxic Event
Although The Airborne Toxic Event may have largely ditched the orchestral sound in favor of a more pop rock sound, Such Hot Blood manages to be just as catch as the band’s previous two albums. The common themes of the album are familiar as well; love and loss. “Timeless” is a heartfelt anthem that anyone who has ever lost someone close to them can instantly relate to. “Just help me through this moment / after everything I told you / how the weight of their loss is like the weight of the sun / I see their faces near me / I hear their voices calling / it was like their lives were over before they begun” Jollett sings in the bridge. The words have the potential to be cheesy and cliché, but Jollett delivers them with such passion and conviction that one immediately senses the truth in them. “True Love” features a mandolin as the driving instrument, lending a quirky sound to the track. And the tongue in cheek “Elizabeth” provides the perfect ending to the album.
8. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend
I’d always been a casual Vampire Weekend fan; I knew the hit songs and I loved their unique music videos, but I never listened to an album start to finish. MVOTC was their first album I really fell in love with. It has a more mature sound than their older stuff, though the lighthearted silliness hasn’t been abandoned either. The album plays around with various sounding styles as well as recording techniques. The first single, “Diane Young” was a perfect representation of what the rest of the album would be like.
7. Bad Blood – Bastille
Sometimes an album comes along that sounds fantastic recorded, but I hesitate because I wonder how well that sound will translate live. In the case of Bastille, the answer was that they just might sound better live. Group backing vocals help to make the songs sound epic and lush. Though their song Pompeii might have been overplayed on the radio (one of the reasons I am not sorry that I don’t listen to the radio), they have plenty of other songs that are just as good.
6. AM – Arctic Monkeys
2013 will forever be known as the year I finally started listening to the Arctic Monkeys. And believe me, I’ve been kicking myself ever since. AM might just be their best album yet. Its smoother, bolder, and more mature sounding. The band experiments a little with an edgier, hip hop influenced sound that is most obvious on songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”. Turner’s vocals are clearer then ever, with none of the raspyness of previous albums. The best song on the album is actually a throwback from Record Day 2012; R U Mine?. The album delivers hit after hit without a single weeks spot. Looking back at their past albums its amazing to see how far a band of teenagers from Sheffield have come. Even their B-sides wouldn’t sound amiss on the actual album itself and the band has released three paired with three singles off of AM.
5. Back Down – Ben Marwood
Armed with just an acoustic guitar and a passionate voice, Ben Marwood has often been compared to label mate Frank Turner. I don’t really think that’s a fair comparison, though I love both artists greatly. Ben’s sound is simple; with no backing band (at least at this point in time), its just him and his guitar. But that’s all he needs to draw you in. His songs are brutally honest at times, to the point where he acknowledges his flaws unflinchingly. “I’m past the cusp of thirty and I swear I’m getting fatter by the day” he sings on the cynical track “This Industry Eats Its Young.” But there’s a measure of hope in his songs as well. He’s a man who loves what he does, though it might not be the most profitable profession, and that shows. “If I had a point I don’t know what it was / some days I stand on stage for little reason but because / and though I’ve wasted days you know I won’t take back these nights,” he sings on “We Are No Longer Twenty-Five”.
4. Birthdays – Keaton Henson
There’s just something about this album that draws a listener in. At first, I was quick to dismiss the album as being too mellow, but the more I listened the more I came to appreciate it. Its true most of the songs are just Henson and his guitar, but the tracks build in intensity, culminating in the heavy double punch of “Kronos” and “Beekeeper.” Most of the lyrics are utterly heartbreaking and are delivered with obvious passion and conviction. The melodies are hauntingly melancholic but beautiful at the same time. One listen and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Henson is a poet who gets so nervous about performing live that he rarely does so; only playing in small venues and museums from time to time.
3. Don’t Forget Who You Are – Miles Kane
Don’t Forget Who You Are is the album that you put on before you go out on a Friday night. Its catchy riffs and upbeat rhythm at time mask darker lyrics, and its only on closer inspection that one would notice the melancholy that threads through various tracks on the album. The overall theme of the album is about being proud of where you’ve come from and never forgetting that; no matter where that might be. Miles has been a member in several successful bands over the years: the Little Flames, The Rascals, and, most famously, the Last Shadow Puppets. But its only as a solo artist that he’s really made a sound of his own and started to realize his full potential. Although his debut album might be considered by some to be his better technical work, Don’t Forget Who You Are is a better representation of his character. Its a very empowering album.
2. Tape Deck Heart – Frank Turner
There are some artists who just keep getting better and better. With every album they release you think to yourself, “this is it. They can’t possible top this.” And then they do. Frank Turner is one of these artists. Since going solo in 2005 every single record he’s put out has been fantastic, but 2011’s England Keep My Bones was his crowning achievement to that date. I didn’t think it was possible for him to put out a better album. And then Tape Deck Heart was released. I think I’ve said just about all I can say about the album throughout the course of the year, but Tape Deck Heart really is his best album yet. It’s raw and honest and has passion pouring from every note and chord. The slow songs (“Tell Tale Signs” and “Anymore”) will break your heart, but the punk anthems of “Four Simple Words” and “We Shall Not Overcome” will have you dancing around the room belting out the words. Its a typical Frank Turner album that delicately balances highs and lows with both wit and precision. His lyrical ability is at the top of his game as well; look up the lyrics for “Broken Piano” if you have the time (I’d paste it here but there’s not room for me to paste the entire song).
1. Once I Was an Eagle – Laura Marling
At this point in her career I’m convinced that Laura Marling can do no wrong. For her fourth studio album Marling has ditched her backing band and once more struck out solo. The resulting masterpiece is easily her best work yet and once again affirms her stunning talent. The album is roughly divided up into two parts, separated by the instrumental track named, simply, “Interlude”. The first half is notably darker, and most of it is taken over by the “medley”: four tracks that Marling wrote and polished separately but eventually weaved into what basically amounts to one long song. The tracks are separate songs, however, and are titled individual. Marling often plays the tracks live and individually as well. The dark and haunting first half of the album is perfectly balanced by the second half which is cautiously optimistic. Some fans might wish for a return to her earlier music, but Marling has clearly matured since she released her debut album just six years ago at the age of eighteen. Having recently left England to live in LA, one can only imagine what Marling will do next. I, for one, can’t wait to see.