2013 offered a very diverse set of albums from some unlikely places. Here’s Part 1 of my list of the year’s best offerings.
Before we get started, I’d like to offer a quick introduction. Year-end lists, even ones that – ahem – take an extra month to finish, are not the easiest things to write. It’s difficult to whittle down a year’s worth of music from dozens of genres into an easily digestible ranking, and with each entry, I found myself fighting the urge to do a full review of the album I was spotlighting. I also confess a little bit of hesitancy putting this out, knowing that some of the names here might not be what you’d expect. But mine is a list based on a very simple measurement of what an album aims to do and how enjoyable it plays in pursuit of that aim. It might not be the hippest list available, but it is, at least, sincere. Give it a chance, and I suspect you’ll find the music here has a lot to offer. [Part 2 will be posted later this week.]
10. Lanterns, Son Lux – key track: “Easy”
I heard a lot of albums in 2013. None of them sounded anything like Son Lux’s Lanterns. The nine songs here are the work of a mad genius, as Ryan Lott toils feverishly to produce cohesive and progressive pieces that incorporate a wide array of disparate elements. Horns leap suddenly to the foreground. Ghostly hand claps echo in the background. Reversed vocals fade in and out like smoke dissipating in a room. Lott incorporates so many pieces in his songs, but nothing ever sounds like excess. He’s a composer through and through, and each track is dropped with deep purpose and consideration. And as lofty as his musical ambitions are here, his thematic purpose is even more ambitious. Lanterns aims to be a charge, a call to arms to “leave the wasting world behind us.” Opener “Alternate World” sets the tone well, the narrator looking into a distant hopeful future where we can all “shed our skin” and “walk the other side.” By the time you reach the closing title track, you’ve walked through the nightmare sounds of a broken world, and the decision’s been made. The machines left behind, the escape planned, all that’s left to do is follow the light.
9. Howlin’, Jagwar Ma – key track: “That Loneliness”
Maybe 2013’s most fun album, Howlin’ is a great trek through the swing and bounce of early Britpop. It’s a throwback, for sure, but there’s enough flair throughout to make the Australian group’s debut something uniquely modern. And while it’s not surprising that something so distinctly Britpop would receive a big endorsement from no less an authority than Noel freakin’ Gallagher, Howlin’ has less in common with the anthemic arena rock of Oasis, finding its true rhythms in the jangly hooks of early Blur. It was only a matter of time before bands began attempts to revive Britpop, but Jagwar Ma’s debut is special in that while it would have fit perfectly in the early 90s, it’s confident and polished enough to be enjoyed on its own. The material here isn’t groundbreaking, but that’s fine. Songs like “Man I Need” and “Come Save Me” don’t aim to win any literary awards. They want to make you dance, and on that note, Howlin’ is a huge success. It’s impossible to listen to anything on it without moving something.
8. Country of Illusion, William Tyler – key track: “Cadillac Desert”
It seems improbable, but from the first strum of the title track, William Tyler has you hooked. There’s a longing in that opening chord, established with its first ring, that Country of Illusion never really shakes. Before you know it, you’ve listened to half the album, ensnared by the complex movements and dynamics Tyler paints across his tracks. You might think a wordless album where the average track stretches past the six-minute mark would lose your attention, but Tyler’s feel for his music is masterful. The scope of Country of Illusion is practically cinematic in its reach, carrying listeners through moments of deep despair and euphoric joy. Tyler composes from his electric guitar with the craft and command that John Williams or Hans Zimmer might with a full orchestra, but he never loses the intimacy of that opening strum. The album’s best track, “Cadillac Desert,” is one of the most affecting, emotional songs released last year, a dazzling and gripping work of subtle beauty and grace that provides the perfect snapshot of the album’s power.
7. Orange Morning, NEØV – key track: “Otherworld”
When My Bloody Valentine made their triumphant return and released mbv, the response was immediately positive. Because reunion records, particularly ones that spend over a decade in gestation, are rarely successful, it was a big relief to find that the album was really good. For obvious and justifiable reasons, mbv was the most popular shoegaze album of the year, but it was not the best. I know it sounds heretical, but the most satisfying shoegaze album of 2013 was undoubtedly NEØV’s Orange Morning. The Nordic band’s debut arrived with little fanfare and has received shockingly little coverage. (To my recollection, I’ve only seen one review of the album, over at Prefix.) One listen, and you’ll realize why that lack of buzz is so unfair. From the lush, reverb-laden instrumentals to the sleepy vocals, NEØV immediately recalls bands like Slowdive and Ride. But the band has taken just as much cues from its shoegaze heroes of the past as it has from the slow burning ambience of bands like Sigur Ros and Hammock. There’s a place Orange Morning has carved for itself, halfway between My Bloody Valentine’s layered distortions and Mew’s delicate sparseness, where the songs hit you like a rushing wave but leave you with gentle moments for recovery. It all feels like a free flowing dream (complete with the occasional nonsense lyric), each song bleeding its haunting moments into the next, but the album never drones. It’s a remarkably confident debut, one that earns a full listen, and hopefully it garners the band some coverage when the follow up is released.
6. San Fermin, San Fermin – key track: “Bar”
This is not meant to detract in any way from their strong debut, but San Fermin wouldn’t exist without The National. The gravelly baritone of the male lead, the rich string compositions, the surprisingly optimistic melancholy – the elements most associated with The National, one of the world’s biggest indie bands, find tribute in the sound of San Fermin’s dazzling self-titled debut. That’s not a bad thing, of course. If your Brooklyn-based band is looking for some daps, winking at The National is probably the best place to start. But composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone and his phenomenal team of musicians and vocalists do a good job of separating themselves enough from these similarities to craft something unique, an explosive set of songs that combine elements of indie rock, opera, and baroque pop. Songs like “Renaissance!” and “Daedalus (What We Have)” start in easily categorized and identifiable territory only to throw the listener off with a sudden blast of saxophone or a quick shift into a different meter. Everything on San Fermin is incredibly precise, as the band twists and turns into surprising territory at just the right moment for change. Nowhere is this more apparent than on their breakthrough, “Sonsick.” The female lead on the song – and throughout the album – (provided in studio by Lucius and on tour by the beautiful Rae Cassidy) is something to behold, an instrument to itself, capable of traversing crazy range in splitseconds. It’s the perfect foil for Allen Tate’s deep, arresting baritone. San Fermin finds its strongest footing in starkly contrasting elements like these, and their fantastic debut stands out for its ability to find cohesion in the seemingly incompatible.