Reviews

Best Albums of 2013

Here's a little slice of the music pie I ate in 2013.

By Michael Borrelli
Published December 30, 2013

When Ryan asked me to review some of the year's best music, it occurred to me that Megan and I had consumed considerably less music in 2013 than in previous years.

Now exposed to a smaller sample of new independent pop and rock music than when we had the CFMU library at our disposal, I'd still guess we heard a lot of the really good stuff that came up through friends' recommendations and reading the odd blog (NPR's First Listen being among the best at streaming new albums worth hearing).

Anyway, instead of recounting to you a whole ordered list of the best of 2013, I thought I'd note a few of my favourites and their intersection with some of the selections of the influential list-makers. So let's start with consensus picks by some big-guns:

Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Don't fear the hype - this album is still for you. Despite leading with a huge global marketing campaign for their fourth full-length, this is still an Arcade Fire album above all else, so the critical and popular acclaim has deservedly followed.

With Reflektor, the veteran Montreal group has had their Radiohead moment - the point where a band is big and respected enough that they can just do what they want and music execs just nod and smile because the band moves units.

Maybe because they've crystallized their sound by now, this disc's best tracks are the ones where they sound like other bands, most notably The Smiths on "You Already Know" and The Clash on "Flashbulb Eyes".

Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Although Neko Case has been putting out solo albums for almost 15 years, she's probably best known for her immediately recognizable vocal contributions to Vancouver-based The New Pornographers. I think her sixth solo studio album is her best to date and it has already popped up on numerous best-of lists. Take a listen to this track, which you wouldn't be blamed for thinking is a New Pornographers power-pop standard.

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Like all albums by this NYC-by-way-of-Cincinnati quintet, appreciation grows with time - usually over repeated listenings through the deep of the winter. Maybe that's why Canadians loved this disc enough to push it to the top of CBC Music's list of best 2013 rock albums.

There are certainly enough good tracks to draw you back again and again, but if you're like a lot of people, it's this simple yet utterly devastating tune near the album's end that will keep haunting you. Watch them perform it live on CBC's Q:

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

The mavens of cool over at Pitchfork placed NYC's Vampire Weekend's contribution at the top of their top-50 list, which is surprisingly consistent for the blog that first pumped the band when they released their first LP in 2008.

Personally, Vampire Weekend's world-music and varsity antics don't do a lot for me, but Megan digs their sound and I can't deny that I sang along with more than a few tracks on this album. My fave was this one where the band borrows a classic to deliver some clever wordplay.

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

While I grumpily reject the preciousness of Vampire Weekend, I wholeheartedly embrace the impishness of this group of California lads. Their '60s throwback routine is well-timed and this album is soaked with nostalgia for psychedelic-pop. Unfairly relegated to long-lists, I think the bevy of catchy melodies and lyrics are worth your time.

Evening Hymns - Spectral Dusk

This Toronto band is centred around singer-songwriter Jonas Bonnetta and has a rotating cast of characters plucked from some of Ontario's best indie bands. Evening Hymns incorporates some neat production tricks that crank-up the atmospherics for an otherwise guitar-based folk album. Perhaps the best example is this slow-burning track:

Typhoon - White Lighter

The album I listened to most in 2013 was definitely this one by multi-instrumental Portland ensemble Typhoon. Troupe-leader Kyle Morton suffered from Lyme disease as a (slightly) younger man and this introspective disc showcases his wry reflections on the affliction.

My favourite is this cute little play on Morton's own name and a logical gap whereby he argues his own immortality into the furnace of an ever-expanding Sun.

And there's Common Sentiments, which sums up the album's theme of powerlessness with a flourish:

So there's a little slice of the music pie I ate in 2013. Music lovers should also check out a bunch of other lists so they can healthfully round out their musical meals. Happy 2014, everyone!

Michael Borrelli is a social researcher living with his family in the Hamilton's North End. He tweets @BaysideBadger.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted December 30, 2013 at 08:58:48

Loving my Christmas present...Furiosity, by Monster Truck

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 30, 2013 at 09:39:44

I liked Modern Vampires of the City, but not as much as I enjoyed their previous album, Contra. That said, my favourite track on the new album is the slow-burn "Hannah Hunt".

Here are a few albums that really stood out for me this year, listed in alphabetical order (note: a few were released in 2012 but I spent much of 2013 listening to them):

Bahamas - Barchords

The mellow, restrained, bluesy guitar songs of Alfie Jurvanen and company are very easy on the ears. It doesn't hurt that songs like "Lost in the Light" come buttressed with lush R&B backup vocals. Other standout tracks include "I Got You Babe", "OK Alright I'm Alive" and "Caught Me Thinkin".

Breach - Various Singles

DJ Ben Westbeech has had a banner year of dropping serious ear-crack. While listeners may be sharply divided on whether "Jack" is a marvel or an abomination, Breach showed that his knack for producing infectious house music wasn't just a fluke with the mesmerizing "Everything You Never Had (We Had It All)" (check out the ingenious accompanying video) and the more haunting "Let's Get Hot".

Capital Cities - In a Tidal Wave of Mystery

Yes, you're sick of hearing the irresistable-turned-unbearable "Safe and Sound" over and over again, but the album is full of gems like the menacing "Kangaroo Court", the exuberant "I sold My Bed, But Not My Stero" and the lovely "Chartreuse".

Diamond Rings - Free Dimensional

Diamond Rings' baritone singer-songwriter John O'Regan has carved out an androgynous aesthetic that hearkens back to the gender-bending fashions of the early 1980s, so it's not surprising that his music has some serious new wave stylings - albeit with modern production values. Check out the techno-inspired "I'm Just Me" and the more indie-rock styled "Runaway Love".

Haim - Days Are Gone

This group, composed of three sisters from L.A., has a sound that evokes late '80s/early '90s R&B, which you can hear on tracks like "If I Could Change Your Mind" and "Forever". But there's also a Kate Bush quality to their music that makes things a lot more interesting, for example on "Running If You Call My Name".

Is Tropical - I'm Leaving

No new ground is being broken here, but Is Tropical makes pitch-perfect 80's inflected indie pop with a male/female singing duo, metronomic guitars and just enough synth. Check out the maudlin "Dancing Anymore", the slightly dischordant "Toulouse" and the mawkish "Lilith".

Jesse Lanza - Pull My Hair Back

Hamilton singer-songwriter Jesse Lanza dropped an amazing album this year, produced by Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys (and The Brain on James North). The vocals are gorgeous and ephemeral while the music is taut, crystalline and minimal. The video for "Kathy Lee" features Hamilton's own Jed the Dancing Guy making his sweet moves around various downtown landmarks. The extreme restraint of the music is best demonstrated on the title track, while "5785021" is almost lush by comparison.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist

The super-mega-popular "Thrift Shop" is one of my least favourite moments on this album, which is packed with gems like the beautiful "Same Love", the righteous "Can't Hold Us" and the confessional "Starting Over".

Metric - Synthetica

My respect for Metric has grown steadily with each new album, and Synthetica is their best yet. With a sharp ear for melody, an inexpressible epic sweep and just enough nerdy 8-bit styling to keep things interesting, Synthetica shines with treasures like "Breathing Underwater", "Artificial Nocturne" and "Speed the Collapse".

Bob Mould - Silver Age

Fans of Husker Du and Sugar rejoiced at Mould's righteous return to form in a new album of fast, powerful, melodic songs that stand with his best work. Mould has always seemed like an old soul, and he wears his age proudly on songs like "The Descent" and the frantic "Fugue State". Yet age has mellowed him in other ways, including a seemingly newfound ability to laugh at himself: see, for example, the video to "Star Machine".

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-12-30 11:47:40

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted December 31, 2013 at 11:21:47 in reply to Comment 96390

Loooooove that Bahamas disc and have been listening to it very regularly for almost 2yrs--found a whole new-found appreciation of it after seeing Alfie live w/ a fairly large backup band/singers at Mariposa last summer.

Will have to give the Haim album a full listen based on the huge number of people who stand by it. I was initially turned off by the early-90s cheesiness of The Wire, but I'm starting to get the impression that it's the point. I'm allergic to auto-tuning, though, so it could be touch and go :P

Good calls on the Lanza and Metric.

Thanks to all for other recommendations, too!

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:33:13

Thanks for the reviews. I have to play a little catch up. It's too bad Bahamas and Metric are the only bands listed here that have played in Hamilton. What is the deal with Live Nation? If they are promoting Arcade Fire, why don't we get a tour date. Bookending the tour with ACC and Copps would be a bigger money maker than ACC and Molson Amphitheatre. What gives? We'll ignore Hamilton even if it means making less money?

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By Block4three (anonymous) | Posted December 30, 2013 at 13:54:01

I've really, really been enjoying DARKSIDE's Psychic over the past month.

Blue Hawaii's Untogether also was played on repeat for a while.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted December 31, 2013 at 13:17:06

Okay, some new stuff to listen to (thanks!), but I would have to add:

Burlington's own Walk Off The Earth - REVO YouTube

Natalie Maines - Mother YouTube

Cold Specks - I Predict A Graceless Expulsion YouTube

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted December 31, 2013 at 22:46:22

Another Hamilton/Toronto-area opinion on faves of 2013:

Music Between Friends / Indilicious on CFMU 93.3

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2013-12-31 22:48:00

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By John Sweeney (anonymous) | Posted January 05, 2014 at 10:41:01

I was really blown away by 'The Besnard Lakes' 2013 effort, 'Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO'. Conjures up images of Pet Sounds and superb production values, throughout.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 06, 2014 at 08:14:00

Derp! How could I have forgotten to mention the melodic, ebullient, rollicking hawaiii, the latest album by Said the Whale? Check out "I Love You", "Mother" and "On The Ropes".

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