Here we are at the end of another year, and all I can say is this: I hope your 2013 was as good as mine.
Personally, professionally and musically, this year was pretty great for me. In fact, if I were ranking a top 10 list of years instead of albums, it would likely rate pretty highly. I end this year even happier than when I began it, and that was pretty damn happy. I can’t decide if it’s because my life is actually better than it was this time last year, or if I’ve just grown better at being happy. It’s probably a combination of both. But if you’ve been reading the ups and downs of my life with this column for the last 13 years, know that I am in the best place you’ve ever known me to be.
But enough about real life. How was the music of 2013? Quite frankly, it was all over the place, and those are the most exciting years, as far as I’m concerned. While the highs were not as high as those of the past few years – there’s no A Church That Fits Our Needs, no The Age of Adz to make compiling this list easy – the lows were not nearly as low. The 2013 list contains 10 solid records, in 10 totally different genres. (And that number one record is in 12 different genres all by itself.) There was no rhyme nor reason to it, but for a musical omnivore like me, these are the best years.
Before we hit the list, let’s go over the rules again, just in case you’re new to this game. This list contains only new full-length studio albums released between January 1 and December 31. (Well, December 18, but there’s nothing amazing scheduled for the rest of the year.) No live albums, no EPs, no best-ofs and no covers albums allowed. As I mentioned last week, these rules kept out a couple of my favorites this year, including Shearwater’s Fellow Travelers and Peter Gabriel’s And I’ll Scratch Yours.
But it did leave room for these 10 extraordinary records, all of which moved me and thrilled me this year. There are some real surprises here, even to me – I did not see my top pick of the year coming, for example, and I first heard the album at number nine about two weeks ago. Anyway, ain’t no list like a tm3am list, so let’s get to it.
#10. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero.
Three of the albums on this list are new discoveries for me, which may be a record. This is the first of them. This Dublin quintet is my favorite new band of the year, and their debut album is a remarkably assured trip through beauty and pain. It kicks off with “Harper Lee,” one of 2013’s most infectious singles, so you know it’s going to be good right off the bat. But what you won’t expect is the depth of feeling the band brings to songs like “The Kitchen Floor,” or “My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me.” Everyone in the band sings, and they make the most of it, trading off lead vocals and harmonizing like angels. Absolute Zero is a deceptively dark record, but it’s one that points to a bright future for a startlingly good new band.
#9. Jason Isbell, Southeastern.
I owe Tony Scott for this one. Two weeks ago, I’d never heard Jason Isbell, and now, I can’t get his haunting, powerful songs out of my head. Southeastern is his fourth record since splitting with the Drive-By Truckers, but it’s his first since getting out of rehab, and every line pulses with fresh perspective. Isbell has crafted the finest set of lyrics I encountered this year, from the glorious love-saves-us opener “Cover Me Up” to the regretful “Different Days” to the shocking “Yvette,” and to the year’s most devastating song, the cancer lament “Elephant.” Isbell’s tales are remarkably well observed, elevating his fairly traditional tunes. No modern Americana artist made a better record this year (or last year, or the year before) than Jason Isbell.
#8. Fish, A Feast of Consequences.
Fish used to be in Marillion, and that’s the only reason I started following the big Scotsman’s middling solo career. Amazingly, though, he’s been on a stunning upswing since Field of Crows in 2005, and this is the apex. I did not expect it, but A Feast of Consequences – funded entirely through fan pre-orders and produced and released on his own – is Fish’s best solo album. The centerpiece, of course, is the five-song “High Wood” suite, in which Fish delves into the horrors of World War I with some of his most dramatic music. But the six songs that round out the album are all consistent and top-notch as well, particularly the heartbreaking “Blind to the Beautiful” and the 11-minute opener, “Perfume River.” Fish has never made an album this consistent, this thoughtful before. A Feast of Consequences is the best kind of surprise, and if it ends up being his last, it’s a terrific way to bow out.
#7. Daniel Amos, Dig Here, Said the Angel.
This record as well could be its authors’ grand finale, and though I would mourn one of the greatest bands of the last 40 years, I’d be all right with this final statement. Terry Taylor and the band funded their first new album in a decade through Kickstarter, and took in thousands more than they asked for. They used that money to create a lush, elegant, rich album about mortality and faith. From the ravages of age that infuse “Jesus Wept” to the dark spirituality of the title track to the celebratory post-mortem “Now That I’ve Died,” death is on Taylor’s mind here, and his perspective is, as always, compelling. The band matches him with some of their sharpest and loudest material, and then caps the album with a glorious singalong called “The Sun Shines on Everyone.” You probably didn’t hear this record, but you definitely should. It’s a tremendous capstone on an amazing career. Go here.
#6. Tom Odell, Long Way Down.
The third new discovery on this list, and my favorite. Odell is only 23, and Long Way Down is his debut, but you’d never know it. This album is so accomplished, so assured, that it feels like the work of a man 10 years Odell’s senior. With “Can’t Pretend,” the British piano-pop wunderkind wrote one of the year’s finest songs, packing more soaring drama into four minutes than most manage in a lifetime. The album that surrounds it is similarly wonderful, with standouts including the exuberant “Hold Me,” the delicate title track, and the absolutely soul-lifting “Heal.” Odell’s voice is huge, rich and full, and it carries this record into orbit. He even gives us a tender, respectful cover of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Of all the new artists I heard this year, Odell’s career is the one I am most excited to follow.
#5. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse.
This one grabbed hold of the list early and never let go. The absolutely crushing fourth album from this Scottish band is their finest work, all crashing guitars and the literate, bile-filled lyrics of Scott Hutchison. While their frontman turned his gaze inward, penning songs about his own propensity for darkness and the futility of change, the band turned outward, writing for the rafters. This is an album of full-on powerhouses from start to finish – if you can listen to the one-two-three punch of “Backyard Skulls,” “Holy” and “The Woodpile” and not move, something’s wrong with you. Pedestrian Verse is the year’s best rock record, one that disguises its sickness with sheer force.
#4. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories.
Yes, “Get Lucky” was everywhere, and yes, it’s a great earworm. But it only tells a small part of the story of Random Access Memories, this French duo’s finest effort by a long way. Pulling in real musicians for most of the tracks, including the great Nile Rodgers, was a masterstroke, infusing this record’s throwbacks with real soul. Song for song, this is a tremendous album, one that makes room for a nine-minute electronic stomper in the style of Giorgio Moroder, an operatic powerhouse, an electro-pop collaboration with Julian Casablancas, and a smashing tribute to old-school Hall and Oates. But it’s hearing these tracks in sequence that truly shows the breadth of Daft Punk’s ambition. Only one band made a more diverse album this year, and they’re at number one. Daft Punk have always been inventive, but Random Access Memories is on another level entirely.
#3. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady.
This woman is an absolute genius. Her second full-length comprises Suites IV and V of her ongoing robots-in-love science fiction drama. It also fully cements her reputation as a winning combination of Erykah Badu and Prince, both of whom guest on this album. Her brand of soul-pop is wide enough to encompass the down-and-dirty guitar jams of “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love,” the full-on party of “Dance Apocalyptic,” the raise-your-hands stomp of “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the honey-dripped balladry of “Look Into My Eyes” and the epic almost-prog of “Sally Ride.” This is a big record bursting with big ideas, and Monae pulls them off with a rare and striking confidence. If I had the ability to put the future of pop music in her hands, to guide and shape, I would do it. The Electric Lady is that good.
#2. Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World.
I end this year feeling contented, so it’s natural that I was drawn to this, the most comfortable and beautiful album Over the Rhine has made. It’s split into two distinct discs, but taken together, it’s a delightful document of peace, of arriving at a special place and just sitting down and taking it all in. The album was inspired by the farmstead Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler have shared for years, and it’s rustic and earthy in ways this band has never been. Bergquist still has one of the finest voices of our time, but Detwiler comes into his own as a singer here as well – listen to them trade off on the tremendous “All Over Ohio.” The songs are glorious, the playing and singing sublime. But it’s the warmth that radiates out of every groove, the sense of reflecting on a life well lived and loved, that makes this album truly shine. It’s my favorite Over the Rhine album, and that’s saying a great deal.
But it wasn’t the best thing I heard. This year’s number one flew at me out of nowhere, and it continues to hold me captive. I can’t stop listening to it. I’m as surprised as you are, I promise.
#1. Gungor, I Am Mountain.
I like inventive church music, so I’d been keeping up with Gungor for years. But nothing prepared me – and, I’m sure, the band’s longtime fans – for the wondrous insanity that is I Am Mountain. Every one of these 12 songs takes the band down a different musical path, one they’ve never traveled, but it’s the way this album flows, the way Michael and Lisa Gungor shaped it out of these disparate parts, that really drives this home. Gungor has evolved tenfold in the space of one album, ditching the liturgical concerns that have driven the band in favor of something darker, more doubtful, more grounded. But it’s the music that will drop your jaw. One moment they’ll be delivering a Sufjan Stevens-style acoustic epic with a soaring chorus, the next grinding it out like Jack White, and the next using Darth Vader’s breathing sound as a percussion instrument to elevate a Portishead-style synth aria.
Diversity is one thing – and this album is the most wildly diverse I heard this year. But to corral that diversity into an album that draws you through from one end to the other is just magnificent genius. The finale of this record is an eight-minute stunner called “Upside Down,” and listening to its buildup and crashdown is just astonishing. I Am Mountain contains many of my favorite songs of the year, but it also connects them into my favorite full-length experience of the year, and that’s a feat worth celebrating. It’s just an incredible listen, the band’s most fully realized effort, and the best overall record of the year.
So that’s it. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then we’re done. I want to thank everyone who read along this year, and who sent me emails and encouraging thoughts. You’re the reason I keep doing this. I’m about to start my 14th year, and it remains worth it. Thank you, all of you. Come back next week to wrap up Year 13.
See you in line Tuesday morning.