A new year is upon us and that means it’s time to hand out meaningless accolades to various media properties because making lists is fun! I am quite intentionally calling these “favorite” lists rather than “best of” lists because there’s a lot of games, movies, and music I didn’t experience in 2013 which no doubt deserve attention and praise, but I can’t consume everything in a year.
Can I make a confession? I’m terrible at writing about music. I lack the vocabulary, I guess. It seems to me that music is the most subjective of all the popular media and therefore is the most difficult to analyze, critique, and discuss meaningfully with others. Music reviews are a strange thing to me for that reason. All it boils down to is “I like this” or “I don’t like this” without a lot of concrete or consistent reasoning about why that is. But I’m probably wrong about that. As I said, I lack the vocabulary.
Nevertheless, here’s some music I liked. Maybe you’ll like some of it too.
Early in the year a song call “Heartbeat” caught my ear. I never listen to the radio by choice. I was on vacation in Colorado and the song came over the loudspeaker in a restaurant. I used my magical phone to find out what the song was. Later on that same trip I heard the song again. That is odd because as far as I know the song’s artist Kopecky Family Band has remained in relative obscurity. I guess some Summit County DJ just really liked the song.
I picked up their album Kids Raising Kids a short time later and happily discovered that the whole thing was pretty great. Coincidentally, the band came to St. Louis in March so I attended the show. It was one of the smallest concert venues I’ve ever been to which made for a fantastic concert experience. My friends and I stood no more than 25 feet from the band and that was only so we could be in front of the speakers.
Smaller venues and lesser-known bands are awesome for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that you can often bring detachable lens cameras to their shows. I got quite a few pictures and a video of one of my favorite songs entitled “Change.”
Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. And while 2013 did not grace us with a new Radiohead album, we did get a follow-up to lead vocalist Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album instead. Sort of.
Instead of being solo this time Thom invited some friends from outside Radiohead including the band’s longtime producer Nigel Godrich and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Together with percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, they formed Atoms for Peace an experimental, electronic, dance sort of band… I guess. But it’s definitely not a supergroup. Thom hates it when they get called a supergroup.
Their album Amok isn’t as consistently good as Yorke’s The Eraser or the average Radiohead release, but there are moments of sheer awesome as you might expect from these individuals. Check out “Default,” “Stuck Together Pieces,” “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” to hear some of the album’s best tracks.
Jars of Clay was my musical first love. They remained my favorite band for a long time, but their last few releases kinda lost me. The Long Fall Back to Earth and The Shelter just weren’t my cup of tea so my interest drifted.
Inland does a good job of getting me to pay attention to the band again. I don’t like it quite as much as older Jars like The Eleventh Hour, Good Monsters, and If I Left the Zoo, but it’s several steps in the right direction – at least for my taste. The title track is one of the best things they’ve done in years. Also check out “After the Fight,” “Age of Immature Mistakes,” and “Love in Hard Times.”
One of the biggest mistakes I made in 2013 was passing up the opportunity to go to a Vampire Weekend show. Yeah. I’ll be kicking myself about that for awhile.
I’ve constantly underestimated both how awesome and how much I like the band’s music. Truth is, I’ve been a little resistant to liking them because they’ve always seemed like the quintessential hipster band (except, of course, they’re too popular now).
And then there was the name of their new album. Modern Vampires of the City. Really? Seriously?
Whatever. It’s a dumb name, but a good album – just like their others. The thing I find really interesting about it is the production. The band did all kinds of unconventional stuff to try and give the record a different, less digital, less this-was-all-done-in-ProTools sound. Well, success. It’s a unique sounding album even among their other releases.
If you haven’t already heard it, check out “Diane Young,” one of my favorite songs of the year.
Top 3 Favorite Albums of 2013
3. Repave Volcano Choir
“Take note, there’s still a hole in your heart!”
Bon Iver might be on hiatus indefinitely, but frontman Justin Vernon isn’t. Fortunately, his output has been prolific since his Grammy-winning band decided to take a break. In 2013 he released a fun blues album with The Shouting Matches (his other band) and an album with Volcano Choir (his other, other band).
Repave more closely resembles a Bon Iver album than the band’s first effort which was highly experimental and inaccessible to the average listener. This time the band decided to bring those experimental tendencies and try to form something a little more palatable – a little more pop – out of those elements. It’s not quite as good as Bon Iver. It lacks the drive and the pacing of the album that brought us “Perth” and “Holocene.” On the other hand, this album gives us new gems like “Tiderays,” “Byegone,” and “Alaskans.” It’s glorious, beautiful stuff.
2. Reflektor Arcade Fire
“Now the signals we send are deflected again // we’re so connected but are we even friends?”
Picking my favorite album of the year was easy… until Reflektor came out. I’ve already talked about how much I like this album and I don’t have anything to add. It’s fantastic. I can understand why some longtime Arcade Fire fans have trouble getting into it. But I’m not one of them.
Although this is the sort of album that’s best taken as a whole, you should check out “Reflektor,” “Here Comes the Night Time,” “Normal Person,” “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” and “Afterlife,” if you’re just browsing to get a sense of what Reflektor offers.
1. Trouble Will Find Me The National
“Don’t have a sunny side to face this // I am invisible and weightless // you can’t imagine how I hate this // graceless”
In 2010, my second-favorite album was The National’s High Violet and my favorite album was Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. In 2013 that order is reversed. This year made it official. The National is my current favorite band.
They’ve long been described as a “grower” band. The National doesn’t particularly impress upon first exposure. Their music takes time to really get inside your head and open up. It’s an odd phenomenon to be sure. They don’t write catchy pop hooks. They don’t chart with their singles. They just make music the only way they know how.
And it’s great.
Trouble Will Find Me kept me company through some of my best and worst days of my year. It was there on days when I just wanted to listen to some good music in the car and it was there on the days when I could relate to the mournful lyrics.
There are few albums I get as well acquainted with as this. There are few albums where every song has spent some amount of time as my favorite. Actually this might be the only one.
In September, the National came to town as part of LouFest, St. Louis’s growing music festival. There were some big name acts there like The Killers, Wilco, and Alabama Shakes. But I was there for one reason. The National.
I’ve been fortunate to have seen some of my favorite bands over the last few years, but this experience was different. There’s nothing quite like seeing your favorite band live after they’ve just released the best album of their career. There’s nothing quite like knowing the words to every single song and being able to sing along just a few feet from the stage. It was pretty magical.
Like I said at the top, I have a difficult time describing why I like the music I do. There’s an intangible quality that The National has about their music – a vibe that really resonates with me. It’s music for overly-introspective introverts. For people who know life probably isn’t an enormous tragedy even though it feels like that at times.
Whatever it is, The National expresses that feeling perfectly. There’s a beauty I can’t explain to expressing the depths of sorrow. Sorrow is a potent part of life and while some people hate to dwell on it, others, I think, gain a sort of catharsis from expressing it. It can de-fang the emotion. It can sap some of its power to keep us down.
Trouble will find me in this life. It’s nice to have such a beautiful reminder that I’m not the only one.