Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

Favourite Records of 2013

Happy end-of-2013! There was a lot of good music released this year and while I sometimes find it hard to listen to new music (I just love so much not new music, it's hard to put it away in favour of the freshly pressed stuff), I managed to hear a good portion of it. Normally my year-end list doesn't even make it to 20 records, but this year I've managed to rank 50. Not sure how I did it, but I did. The end of the year is notoriously busy for me, and though I like creating lists and ranking music I often times find it pretty hard to fit it into my schedule and end up stopping at a top 5 list. This year, though, I want to look at my favourite 15 records from 2013 because there were just that many good collections to listen to.

Here's a quick playlist of a track from each record (in reverse order):

 15. Pacific Air - Stop Talking

You'll read it elsewhere, but 2013 was a big year for pop music. Some records were unabashedly trite in their embracing of staple pop sounds, but some held the line keeping the catchiest and most pleasant parts of the genre without the sugary, superficiality that comes with commercially churned out tunes. Pacific Air (and full disclosure, my friend Dan plays drums on this record and toured with the group over the summer) takes pop artifacts from the 60s and 80s and merges them into a something that sounds completely current. Sort of surf-rocky (and the fact that they hail from California helps that along), sort of new-wavey, Stop Talking is a great middle of summer record suitable for driving around on a warm evening with the hot breeze hitting your face.

Buy Stop Talking on Amazon

14. The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law

This was a band I really wanted to see live at SXSW this year, but didn't make it out to their show. Wolf's Law is a moving record with a guitar sound I love. The driving fuzzed out riffs that slide all over the place propel the tracks forward, taking me back, instrumentally, to Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American, early Metric records, and other indie staples from that era. Ritzy Brian's urgent vocal stylings provide a compelling complement to the thick guitar tones and cymbal-ridden drum playing. But in particular, her Welsh accent being plain-as-day -- even with the vocals being mixed fairly up front on some tracks -- makes the band even more endearing.

Buy Wolf's Law on Amazon

13. Foxygen - We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

I did manage to catch Foxygen's show at Hype Hotel during SXSW this year and it was... insane. I'm not sure I mean insane in a good way or not... but we'll get back to that. We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic was one of the more surprising records I listened to this year and one of those that I ended up buying the vinyl record for after one or two listens on Rdio. Someone described Foxygen to me as if the Stones got crossed with the Velvet Underground and I think that's a fairly apt description of the sound. And it's that reverence to classic rock and roll that makes this record so interesting.

Their live show, though... I can't say they are the tightest of bands and maybe this is where more the Velvet Underground side of things comes in. Sam France is just manic in his stage presence. It is both entertaining and completely unsettling. With all of that, it kind of made me love the album even more. The songwriting and instrumentation are fairly precise and the execution on the record is sublime.

Buy We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic on Amazon

12. Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time

Why in the world do I like this record so much? I have no idea and I feel like I shouldn't like it... but it's so fun/catchy/interesting/unexpected. Sky Ferreira has this Cindy Lauper quality to her vocals and the melodies on this record support it. It's got all the weight and gravitas a modern pop/rock record should have—in line, and sometimes bigger, than the hugeness of a recent Metric record. But, most importantly, those 80s girl-rock hooks are so infectious and familiar—like on "Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)" or "I Blame Myself"—and the production so expertly executed. That's what surprised me the most. And while the lyrics on this record can be cliché at times the arrangements, melodies, and vocals completely make up for that in my book. This is definitely a record to give a chance, and at the loudest volume you can muster.

Buy Night Time, My Time on Amazon

11. Youngblood Hawke - Wake Up

Continuing the streak of excellent pop albums this year, Youngblood Hawk released one of the most anthemic albums of the year. I first heard them when my friend André of RAC remixed "We Come Running" which is arguably one of the strongest tracks on the record (listen to the remix below). I sought out the singles on Rdio and listened to them a bunch before the full-length came out in April. I liked it so much I bought this record twice—once on Amazon and then again when I found the vinyl at Waterloo Records here in Austin. It's a great dance-rock-indie-pop album dripping with huge drums, gang vocals, and massive reverb and delay. Many days were spent turning this up in the car and driving around with the windows down.

Buy Wake Up on Amazon

10. Phoenix - Bankrupt!

I didn't want to like this album. I didn't want to buy into the hype. But it's just so good. There was a gap in there where Phoenix just didn't do anything for me and so I assumed this record would be about the same. But the instrumentation is so good and there's something about a bunch of French dude singing songs in English that works. I listened to this album more times than I care to admit. It was on in the car a lot, on Rdio a lot, even on in the classroom as my students worked.

Buy Bankrupt!

9. The Black Hollies - Somewhere Between Here and Nowhere

Driving bass lines, soft vocals with shoegaze-esque reverbs, layered guitars... everything I love in a record. This year was the first I had heard The Black Hollies and they had the right mix of sounds at the right time to become one of my favourite records of the year. It reminds a bit of a more 60s version of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club... or a less Warholed version of Foxygen. This record has great vintage vibes and production and is a nice, comfortable-feeling record.

Buy Somewhere Between Here and Nowhere on Amazon

8. The Lone Bellow - The Lone Bellow

And now we're finally getting in my country obsessions this year. When I use the term 'country' I mean real country (and western) music and not the cheap pop drivel you hear on the radio. The Lone Bellow is roots/country/americana, coming from Southerners that now live in Brooklyn. So... hipster country? But this isn't a rip off of Mumford and Sons where every song has to have a weak banjo solo in it. It's more drum, guitar, and mandolin driven with gorgeous lap steel. The strong, emotional lyrics fit well into the canon of this sort of music and the gorgeous harmonies woven into these tracks are haunting and beautiful.

Buy The Lone Bellow on Amazon

7. Patty Griffin - American Kid

I was looking forward to this album so much and Patty sure didn't disappoint. She's got one of my favourite voices in country music and this record is so soulful, personal, and beautiful. Most interesting in the path of trails it takes the listener on across the US. It's history, geography, context, emotional, nostalgia... It's an album that makes me want to get in the car and drive across midwestern cornfields... which isn't possible because I live in Austin. I love this album, and it's certainly Patty Griffin at her finest.

Buy American Kid on Amazon

6. Haim - Days Are Gone

I wasn't supposed to like this record. It was too popular, too listened to. I think as I grow older I realize how much elitism is owned by youth. The Haim girls have amazing voices and impeccable songwriting skills. The production on this record is worth a top 10 spot on its own, but as a package this is a perfect pop record.

Buy Days Are Gone on Amazon

5. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm

This was my first introduction to City and Colour and I think it came at the right time of the year. Green's falsetto is beautiful and the instrumentation is lilting and forward-pushing. The lyrical content may not be deep, but there are great gems of societal and relational commentary that serve of great reminders. Best of all, I love putting this record on while working and just driving through a pile of projects. The Hurry and the Harm has that rare ... ethos? ...  that makes me want to be creative, write songs again.

Buy The Hurry and The Harm on Amazon

4. The Colourist - Lido EP

I happened to come across The Colourist here in Austin when they opened for Metric. We ended up leaving the concert early (because Metric is so boring live) but not before I had written down this band's name. As soon as the EP released, I bought it. The Colourist is another in the string of bands putting out happy pop anthems. Great vocals, catchy tunes, and a drummer who sings AND is a woman. Can't go wrong. I'm really looking forward to their full length release, but Lido will keep me pacified until that happens.

Buy Lido on Amazon

3. Boy & Bear - Harlequin Dream

I bought the first Boy & Bear album several years ago at the suggestion of a friend, listened to it a couple of times and then dismissed it. I didn't really think it was anything great at the time. Then I added to the iPod I keep in my car about a year ago and it seemed like Jessica and I were constantly asking each other, "Who is this?" and then seeing that it was Boy & Bear. Harlequin Dream grabbed me right away, a lot quicker and more powerfully than that first record did. The songs are catchy and the album as a whole has a great flow to it. It's a pretty refined version of alt.country—sort of a higher fidelity My Morning Jacket at times—and hailing from Australia, it might be that particular Aussie brand of country & western that makes this band so effective at feeling familiar and standing out at the same time. And that suits me really well. Most importantly, the album as a complete work is really cohesive with really tender moments and some pretty huge moments, too. I love Dave Hosking's voice and I feel like on Harlequin Dream Boy & Bear have really nailed their art. I'm looking forward to more from them.

Buy Harlequin Dream on Amazon

2. Lorde - Pure Heroine

Pure Heroine was another album my arrogance wouldn't let me listen to for months. Actually, this one had me curious. My wife had heard one song from a live set that Lorde did and was not impressed... until I started listening to this record non-stop while working. A crazy, exciting, catchy, moving, deep piece of musical artistry from a child. Just. Incredible. It was on every list this year, practically, and I think there's a very good reason for that. This record is so good. Production is killer, songwriting is an apt critique on modern consumer culture, and Lorde has a killer voice for being as young as she is. If you haven't listened to this album yet for some reason, you really should.

Buy Pure Heroine on Amazon

1. The Head and The Heart - Let's Be Still

Ranking these records is really difficult, and I'm not entirely sure why Let's Be Still took my number one spot. The top 5 records here, at least, were listened to a lot and probably jumped up and down this list at various times throughout the course of listening. But something about this record just stuck with me. The Head and the Heart has fairly minimal instrumentation, but they wield their instruments in profound ways. "Another Story" is one of my favourite tracks of the entire year. It feels like a track that should be picked for a Cameron Crowe soundtrack. But the entire record is kind of that way for me. It affects me on some emotional level that I find extremely rare these days (see my post about music emotion to read more on that). In any case, Let's Be Still found a way to become my favourite record of the year.

Buy Let's Be Still on Amazon