Every January, I take the month to go over my document list of albums and songs I jotted down over the previous year as having liked or loved. My 2013 list of favorite songs is ridiculously long and an article on that will have to wait another day or two (at least). But after discovering some ’13 releases this month that I missed out on and previously didn’t know about, and after listening again to many of the 50+ new releases I did have, it’s time to call it a year and give you all the ultimate list of what I dug in the year that just passed.
2013 was the year of the comeback, from My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, to Carcass, Deep Purple, Boston (mainly Tom Scholz), and Black Sabbath (with Ozzy). It was also the year of some overhyped releases that you won’t see on my list. (ex. Deafheaven and Kanye West’s albums. You know what they are, most likely.) What you will see below reflects my personal taste only and is not to be thought of as a “best of” list.
And with that, here’s my favorite 20 releases of 2013, followed by a big list of Honorable Mentions.
20. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Case just keeps getting weirder and weirder with her song lyrics and now album titles. That said, she is a consistently entertaining songwriter who can put out an album with fairly loud rock numbers like “Man (f/M. Ward)” and blissful quieter tunes with ease.
19. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
I know that “Sirens” is a pretty divisive song. Yeah it’s sappy but so is “Wishlist” and “Last Kiss.” Don’t let that sour you on the rest of the album though. Besides a couple of numbers towards the end, it’s a solid album, their best in years.
18. Johnathan Rice – Good Graces
Anything with Jenny Lewis involved gets my attention. Besides that, this collection is full of jangly pop and folk pop tunes, with “That Summer Feeling” being the biggest standout.
17. Dream Theater – Dream Theater
The 12th studio release by one of the best progressive metal bands of all time is yet another ace album. John Petrucci, with his 6-string and 7-string guitars, leads the way through monstrously thrash-heavy tracks like “The Enemy Inside” and other tightly crafted songs that sometimes feature dramatic (and keyboard-aided) downturns, only to come back to more blisteringly heavy riffs and supreme lead sections. Highlight: The Rush-like rocker, “The Looking Glass.” Almost 25 years after releasing their debut record, these Boston-based metalheads, even with some lineup changes over the years (most notably the departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy), are still at the top of their game. Featuring Berklee-educated musicians, you can count on musically intelligent releases from Dream Theater for more years to come.
16. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Honestly, I didn’t like what I heard from this release (the band’s fourth album already) when it first came out. Given the title track, I thought the rest of it was going to sound too synth/dance pop-happy (in the vein of “Sprawl II…” from The Suburbs) and that the group was trying to be the next Talking Heads (perhaps a club version of them, or something). But after streaming the whole record on YouTube and hearing atmospheric tracks like “Supersymmetry,” my personal favorite, and digging the “Billie Jean”-ish rhythm section of “We Exist,” the rock solid “Normal Person,” and the dub-inflected “Flashbulb Eyes,” I eventually came to the conclusion that it was not one-dimensional after all. The band took some risks here musically, and though not all of it is to my liking, the group deserves some points for that. Reflektor may not be up their with Funeral and their other excellent releases but it’s still a high quality album.
15. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Light on production, heavy (guitar tuning-wise) and an easy indie rock record to get into.
14. Washed Out – Paracosm
I don’t care for a lot of ’80s-rehashing, but this retro-sounding synth pop group has yet to make a full-length or EP that I don’t like.
13. Lenny Lashley’s Gang of One – Illuminator
Now a guitarist in the Street Dogs (which features former Dropkick Murphys singer Mike McColgan), the former frontman of beloved Boston area punk group Darkbuster goes it alone these days, though can often be seen playing live acoustic shows with one or two other musicians, including the multitalented Matt Charette (guitar/harmonica/mandolin/accordion). True to form, Lashley wears his heart on his sleeve on this release, which is an album of straight-ahead rock and roll tunes like the reflective “Hooligans,” some post-punk (“U.S. Mail”) and for a moment, it even features him as an outright sad folkster (“Heaven’s Gate”). I loved everything Darkbuster, and dug his country group Lenny and the Piss Poor Boys, but this is my favorite album of his to date. It just has a practically perfect blend of rockin’ and relaxing tunes. And, you can never go wrong when you add well-placed organ sounds to your songs. You just can’t go wrong with anything Lashley. Period.
12. Run the Jewels – Run The Jewels
If I’m going to have one rap album on my list, this collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P is it. Unlike Yeezus, I actually enjoyed every track on this release and didn’t skip a single track the first few times I played it. Maybe I’m just not used to big-time experimentation in rap, but the phrase “and you don’t stop” should easily apply when listening to great hip-hop records. This RTJ album definitely is an instant classic.
11. Here We Just Dream – Here We Just Dream EP/Wind with You EP
Living in the Boston area, I get to see a ton of shows each year, including favorite national acts and local bands. So you’re bound to discover new, awesome bands if you go to enough concerts. Though their newer (and short) Wind EP gives you an updated flavor of what they are all about, my mind was officially blown when I heard this Boston group’s self-titled 2012 EP opener “Birds Fly Information” and then “Never Now Never Again” streaming from my speakers last summer. Their vocals at times recalls Brandon Boyd of Incubus, but their intensely melodic and math rock goodness is no doubt influenced by classic progressive rockers like Genesis/Yes. Pay attention to these guys; they are definitely a band to watch in the year or so ahead.
10. William Tyler – Impossible Truth
I found this Merge Records artist and Tennessee native via SPIN‘s own list of top 2013 releases. Then I found out that the guitarist is not only a member of Lambchop but in the Silver Jews too. Those are all pretty impressive credentials. That said, this second solo album of his is a gem of peaceful, oftentimes heavily downtuned, timeless folk. More than that, it shows that a solo guitar instrumental album of long songs in this day and age is far from a hopelessly boring and self-indulgent exercise. It’s one of those albums that reveals more pleasantries to the ears the more you listen to it. My highlight is “Hotel Catatonia” due to the intricate fingerpicked improvisation Tyler does on his clean electric guitar on the upper strings while keeping a droning sound throughout (via hitting/ringing the open low E string). It’s very reminiscent of my favorite John Butler tune, the epic instrumental “Ocean.”
9. Superchunk – I Hate Music
Have these guys ever made a bad record? Hell no.
8. Yuck – Glow and Behold
I felt so bad for these guys when their frontman left to pursue another project. Now a trio, this much raved about English alterna-rock band apparently had no qualms about moving forward, and proved it could deliver another solid record. But as LL Cool J might say, don’t call it a comeback. These guys never left and aren’t going to slow down anytime soon.
7. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
You may remember that Vile was once a member of Philly indie rock group The War on Drugs. What you may not know is that he was also a forklift driver (in the early 2000s). Needless to say, even though he has been making acclaimed solo records for about five years now and gotten to perform on national TV (ex. The Late Show with David Letterman), the man is no overnight success. Daze is his most accessible album to date, even with its two 9-10-minute jams that bookend it. The singer/songwriter’s tunes are straightforward, but given the numerous instruments used, not slacker rock, and beauty, not boredom, is what you’ll find on highlights like the 10:25-long album closer “Goldtone.”
6. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
It’s Trent Reznor’s latest opus of awesomeness (and first since taking NIN out of a short retirement). ‘Nuff said.
5. Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania: Live in NYC [Blu-ray]
This release marked my first ever concert Blu-ray disc, and you always remember “firsts” like this. Besides hearing a spot-on performance by Corgan and company from a concert at the Barclays Center in New York in December of 2012, watching it in 2D or 3D gives you a stunning visual presentation. Now, if only they would release the legendary 1994 concert/documentary Vieuphoria on Blu-ray, that would be even better.
4. My Bloody Valentine – MBV
I remember in high school, when I was only starting to discover the great volumes of indie rock classics of yesteryear, writing about My Bloody Valentine around 1997. I don’t remember if that piece was ever published in the school paper, but over time, I lost hope that there would ever be a follow-up to 1991’s historic shoegaze classic, Loveless. And then, in early 2013, after a little buzz about new material being forthcoming, it finally happened! Kevin Shields, fully aware of the power of modern technology, made this self-titled return to form widely available via the band’s official site. Aside from perhaps one song that didn’t do anything for me, you couldn’t have asked for anything more than an album full of compact songs with the group’s trademark dreamy distortion, vocals, and soundscapes.
3. Red Fang – Whales and Leeches
One of my last additions, this heavy metal band from Oregon have a few albums of “stoner rock” and metal to their name, and if Kyuss or a meaner, more ferocious Queens of the Stone Age sounds great to you, so will this album.
2. Dust – Hard Attack/Dust [Reissue]
When people talk about the origins of heavy metal (the mid-’60s-to-early ’70s), it is almost always English groups that get credited, and rightly so. The likes of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and especially Black Sabbath deserve that honor, though The Beatles, Humble Pie, Cream, The Yardbirds (with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck), The Who, and Budgie also dabbled in songs and sounds that carry early hard rock or heavy metal qualities. For American bands, it’s a struggle after you name bands like Iron Butterfly, Mountain, Steppenwolf, Vanilla Fudge, and Blue Cheer. And that is really only for certain songs. Jimi Hendrix is also credited as being a pioneer of the hard rock/heavy metal sound, but not until he got out of Seattle and arrived in England.
But what about Dust? This New York group, along with fellow NYers Sir Lord Baltimore, were definitely among the first in the nation in the late ’60s/early ’70s to make heavy metal music. Sadly, even though it was Marky Ramone’s first great band (and was then just a teenager and known as Marc Bell), their legacy (aside from perhaps a few fans, including Red Fang) was largely forgotten … until 2013. Thanks to Legacy Records, their only two efforts, 1971’s self-titled debut and 1972’s Hard Attack, are available now on one CD. If you are a fan of classic rock and early heavy metal (Mountain, Sabbath), this is a must-own release. Honestly, there are songs on here that in a perfect world would’ve been classic rock radio staples had they gotten proper exposure (ex. “All in All,” and the Black Sabbath-ish “Love Me Hard”). It is definitely my favorite reissue of 2013.
You know this veteran hard rock band is doing something right when a TV station is willing to broadcast an entire concert of theirs, uninterrupted. That is exactly what AXS TV (formerly HDNet) did one night last November. It was a special show where the band played their 10th and latest album Earth Rocker in its entirety, plus old favorites. You don’t do that unless the album is at least, very good (and at most, f**king awesome).
Though mostly ignored from Top of 2013 lists by the supposedly hip and cool indie blogs and mainstream mags (Rolling Stone aside), Earth Rocker is one of those records where everyone who owns it has their own favorite track (mine being the bluesy power rock of “D.C. Sound Attack”). Even That Metal Show on VH1 Classic had singer Neil Fallon on as a guest many months ago, where one of the Eddie Trunk’s co-hosts cited the acoustic number “Gone Cold” as the song worth buying the album for alone. With an album of heavy metal (“Crucial Velocity”) and pure ballsy hard rock, Earth Rocker, in keeping with 2004 masterpiece Blast Tyrant, is a blast to listen to from start to finish and is hands down my favorite release of 2013.
Soundgarden – King Animal [2013 Reissue]
ASG – Blood Drive
Yo La Tengo – Fade
Carcass – Surgical Steel
Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Foals – Holy Fire
Black Sabbath – 13 [Deluxe Edition]
Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
Joe Satriani – Unstoppable Momentum
David Bowie – The Next Day