Best Albums of 2013 So Far

Alright, NPR just released theirs, so I guess I better get mine out. (I make no apologies for keeping up with the public radio Joneses). I’ve been working on it and revising it since the first one of these I did in March. Some from that list aren’t there any more, and of course there have been some new ones in the last three months.

And I actually have a method to my madness! I take an informal inventory of all the albums I’ve really liked this year – multiple listens, the ones I share with friends, the ones I keep going back to. Then, as I listen to each one, I rank them on a subjective scale of 1- 10, in each category of 8 things I’ve figured out as to why I like a certain piece of music:

  • “Feeling when I hear this music” – Good vibes either on first listen or over time. Feeling of nostalgia scores highly as well.
  • “Feeling when I hear *about* this music” – When a friend mentions it or I see it online, am I super excited and feel a sense of belonging? Am I kind of “meh” about it?
  • “Each track’s integrity/consistent progression of the album” – Basically, does it have any gaps or weak tracks? Concept albums score well here.
  • “Depth/layering of instrumentation” – Can also address when the music is appropriately sparse. Does not have to be a wall of sound to score well.
  • “Harmonies/vocal uniqueness” – Taking into account the blend, the intensity, and dynamics of the vocals
  • “Energy level/ability to transcend/mood creation” – E.g. Dark Side of the Moon would be a 10 out of 10 for its mood creation.
  • “Originality/authenticity” – Is the album breaking new ground meaningfully? Connecting meaningfully to music’s heritage?
  • “Critical Universal Appeal” – Can any discerning, critical-thinking listener probably appreciate this?

Then I literally crunch the numbers, divide by 8 and then make it a percentage – the higher the score the higher up the list they fall. Here’s how it all shook out:

9. Foxygen – 21st Century Ambassdors of Peace and Magic – 83.8%

I like their vibe a lot and I feel good when Iisten to them. They lost some points for originality (there are better mod-psychedelic bands) and for my conflicted feelings when I hear about them (maybe too much hype?) But the vocals and transcendence category were top of the chart and the the whole album feels like a trip to the “other side.” Really cool.

8. The Lone Bellow – Self-Titled – 87.7%

Amazing that they weren’t in the top three, since this was my absolute top release for the first couple months of the year. Over time I started to feel a little tired of them, and afraid that they might go the insufferable way of Lumineers and Mumford. Yet when I hear “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” or “You Never Need Nobody” I can’t help but think this is the best harmony I’ve heard in a long time, and their energy is sky high as well.

7. John Vanderslice – Dagger Beach  – 90.5%

10/10 for originality and 9.5/10 for depth/layering of instrumentation. It’s experimental, in a folksy, mellow way. But definitely zany enough to keep attention. Not Zappa-level zany, but definitely not mainstream ho-hum indie by any stretch. This guy is really doing is own thing, self-producing the record analog and what not. It’s really growing on me, and that’s considering that that liked it a lot even upon first hearing.

6. Telekinesis – Dormarion – 91.6%

Again, amazing that he’s not top three. I can’t get enough of this album. Vocals are slightly in need of an upgrade, but at the end of the day, it’s a person’s voice, what can you do? He uses it the best he can. 9.5 for originality (it’s a one man show that sounds like five dudes) and 10/10 for how I feel when I hear this guy’s music. Total bliss, elation, ready to road trip to anywhere USA.

 5. Ivan and Alyosha – All the Times We Had – 91.6%

Music Millenium had a 20% off sale this weekend, all vinyl new and used. This record was at the top of my list to find and buy (which I did), and it is as awesome as I had hoped. They’re one of those groups that comes up on Songza or Google radio and I think “HOW good is this???” And I usually have forgotten who the artist is, but now I definitely won’t. I also love the fact that their band name comes from a Dostoevsky set of characters. Good on you.

4. The Thermals – Desperate Ground – 91.8%

This is a late addition – just crunched the numbers this morning– but Oh, I love punk. I just do. This guy’s voice cuts through everything, and the buzzy lo-fi approach is so, so legit and exciting. Really high energy, you’ve basically got a Bad Religion without the totally oppressive lyrical content, and slightly more palatable vocals and guitar blend, which boosts the “critical appeal” score. This is their sixth, and I wish I had known them before now. I am happy that 2013 brought me the Thermals.

 3. Jim James – Regions of Light Sound of God – 92.7%

This was a 10/10 on the “how I feel when I hear about this album” category. I was in an airport in February and had to buy the $7 Rolling Stone because of seeing Jim James on the cover. “A.E.I.O.U” is such a righteous, funky album opener, and I love his delicate vocals throughout. Also scored 10 on mood creation, and did not score below 9 in any category. Seriously folks, Jim James.

2. Josh Ritter – Beast in Its Tracks – 93.3%
I have written extensively about this album, and I think it will remain in the top five. Everything the guy touches turns to gold, and this one, despite being a breakup album, was no different. I sing “Appleblossom Rag” to my kids at night and feel blessed to be granted a window into his pain and healing. Really beautiful plodding folk masterpiece.
1. Patty Griffin – American Kid – 93.8%
Oh, son. I am a newcomer to Patty Griffin, and judging from what I’ve now heard of her previous work, I think this was a brilliant time to enter into her world. This album puts everything else of hers in perspective. And this album is the best one I’ve heard in years, of any genre. Of course it does folk/americana better than any one else doing it right now, but it also just does MUSIC better than almost anyone is doing it right now. No auto-tune, no drum-n-bass, no synth. Just that pleading, exquisite voice, a few guitars and a lifetime of memories. Check “Ohio” “Don’t Let me Die in Florida” and “Irish Boy” — try not to weep tears of joy, sorrow… tears of life.
So there you have it. Just 9 albums so far this year that I really really love. No reason to fudge it into a longer list. Granted I focus on a fairly narrow selection of new music releases anyway (Americana, folk, country, indie) but this is me, this is what I like. Listen well!

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