Ah, 2013. How unusual of a year you've been. I barely remember you, and yet I have so many memories within you. So many people have remarked how you were a glut of great new music, but I experienced you in a different way. Instead of being overwhelmed by your volume, this year's best albums were like lightning in a storm; flashpoints in milieu thick with life experiences unrelated to music.
My son was born in mid-January 2013 under non-routinue circumstances. I remember spending time thinking through which song I'd want to play on the way home from the hospital. But instead, under the stress of his birth and terror of new parenthood, my wife and I went in the opposite direction: Our ride home from the hospital was soundtracked only by silence.
It set the tone for the year at Given and Taken in Ink - moments of flurried activity between periods of prolonged silence. This was the hardest year of GTI's existence, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do when our domain and hosting subscriptions are up in the spring.
Still, hindsight has a way of revealing the best in things. This really was a great year for music, which I think our annual Best Albums list captures quite nicely. Take a look, take a ride. Hopefully it will not be in silence this time.
Given and Taken in Ink's Top 30 Albums of 2013 (with commentary for #1 through #10):
City Reign's career has been fascinating to cover. I've watched the band grow from its earliest days, releasing demos of "Making Plans" and "Out in the Cold" back in 2009. Since then they've put out an impressive string of singles and EPs, culminating in the band's first full-length album this year. I could not be happier to see how well Another Step turned out. As I said in GTI's review, City Reign is the next great British rock band.
I tried, I really, really tried...but I just could not get into Okkervil River's last album, I Am Very Far. I can understand what the band was going for, but it was still possibly the biggest music-related disappointment I've experienced in several years. The Silver Gymnasium is not that album, and indeed, it might be the most accessible entry in the band's career. This is such a wonderful return to form that I cannot help but smile whenever I listen to it.
After Yuck's lead singer and co-songwriter Daniel Blumberg left the band to pursue a solo project (named Hebronix, #11 above), I assumed the new Yuck album would at least sound like old Yuck. After all, the entire rest of the band remained, including co-songwriter and occasional vocalist Max Bloom. That couldn't have been further from the truth. Glow & Behold is a massive departure from the band's raucous, Dinosaur Jr-inspired debut. But after getting over the initial shock (something I don't think most critics let happen), the new Yuck stands firmly on its own merits. It's "organic," if that makes any sense, and certainly more mature. And it has one of the best damn songs of the year in "Middle Sea."
After the wild mess that was Angles, the Strokes seem to have found their groove again. Comedown Machine is easily one of the band's best albums. Rather than completely abandon the sound that made them famous, or futilely trying to recapture what once was, the Strokes have found the sweet spot between their past and present. I haven't simply enjoyed a Strokes album this much since their debut.
This might be a slightly unfair ranking to the albums immediately below it (#7-10 or so), because so much of my appreciation for Pedestrian Verse is connected to the shit-ton of b-sides and bonus tracks released at the same time. The EP-single for "State Hospital" included the wonderful "Home From War," the deluxe edition of the album had "If You Were Me," and the "Backyard Skulls" EP-single had a great slowcoustic version of "Holy." These are important to the full experience of Pedestrian Verse, and I highly suggest tracking them down. And that doesn't even begin to address the album itself, which is such a brilliant window into the world of mental illness (whether that was Scott Hutchison's intention or not), it deserves so much more attention than it received this year.
The Lonely Wild was my dark horse band in 2013. I was screwing around with the on-demand functionality of my cable TV provider, watching some random music videos, when I caught a commercial for The Sun As It Comes. My wife, probably thinking of Lord Huron or Fleet Foxes, said something along the lines of, "What's with everybody doing the Western thing?" Luckily, my curiosity overcame that dismissive introduction, and I discovered an album that quickly worked its way into a near-permanent status in my music rotation. Whenever I have one of those moments when I need just the right album to fit a particular mood, it's usually captured somewhere within The Sun As It Comes. Every time I hear the title track, I can't help but think, "If I made music, this is the kind of music I'd like to make."
The novelist/poet/playwright/translator Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked, "The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity; so have some little frocks; but they are both not the kind of thing you can run up in half an hour with a machine." Likewise, Mikal Cronin's second solo album is deceptive at first. You might be inclined to think, "Oh that's nice. He's got the catchy, lo fi-ish guitar rock thing going on that I've heard countless other bands do." But on MCII, Cronin just does it better than everyone else. Repeated spins reveal the album's depth; it's in Cronin's attention to detail and his mastery of songcrafting. There's really a lot to love here.
I spent a few moments talking about my burgeoning love for Owen here. Chicago-based singer/songwriter Mike Kinsella (for whom Owen is a mostly-solo project) has crafted an album for when we need to just calm down; it is a tonic to an otherwise chaotic and unrestrained world. L'Ami du Peuple is a tremendous album. I have a feeling it will be tragically underrated at the end of the year by most other list-making writers, yet sometimes I wonder whether I'm actually selling it short by not giving it the top spot here. As I said about "I Got High," which also describes the album as a whole: "It doesn't grab your attention immediately or hit you over the head with how great it is. It just is. It puts itself out there with a sort of humble beauty, and lets you take it or leave it. These are the songs that work themselves into your brain and never let go."
I am fascinated by Laura Marling's career. The maturity of her voice belies her age (23), but her work is so much more than that of just a strong vocalist. With four albums under her belt, Marling has already established herself as one of the best singer-songwriters recording music right now. And with Once I Was An Eagle, she has created something that not only defies her age or genre, but its place in time. This is an album that will influence upcoming singer-songwriters for decades.
I came at Southeastern in an odd way, especially for a best album of the year. Seeing that Jason Isbell put out a new album, but for some reason not interested or ready to listen all the way through, I scanned the track list and somewhat randomly picked a song to play. "Yvette" was that song, and it instantly drew me in. The story of sexual abuse between a father and daughter, and the narrator's steps to right that wrong, "Yvette" grabbed me in a way that at first prevented me from appreciating anything else from Southeastern. All I wanted to play was "Yvette." Hell, we didn't even review the album here, only including "Yvette" on a seasonal playlist. Luckily, I eventually decided to start from track 1 and give the rest of it a go. And damn, I'm glad I did. Jason Isbell reasserts his mastery of songwriting on nearly every track of Southeastern. With highlights like the sweet "Stockholm" and gut-wrenching "Elephant," Southeastern is a masterpiece throughout.
I'm not even sure anymore whether "Yvette" is the best track on the album. Each trip back to Southeastern reveals new gems, new moments of brilliance. Lately it's been "Relatively Easy" that has captured my attention. Ultimately a love song about putting life's troubles into perspective and finding peace, Isbell tells a series of rich stories with only a few words for each. He spends only four lines capturing the dissolution of a marriage and the husband's ensuing suicide, before offering a moving eulogy to the man: "Not for me to understand / Remember him when he was still a proud man / A vandal's smile, a baseball in his right hand / Nothing but the blue sky in his eye." It's just one verse, but I can see that man, and I can hope that he has finally found himself in a better place.
And, finally, I think it's important to mention that Jason Isbell has serious GAME. Take album-opener "Cover Me Up." With lines like "So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room / Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom," I imagine Isbell has no trouble making the ladies swoon. (If not for being married and all...) If you can have tearjerkers like "Elephant" or "Relatively Easy," and still get the swagger of "Cover Me Up"...friends, then you are listening to the best album of 2013.