Welcome to the annual exercise in proclaiming preferences, Open ‘Til Midnight’s Top 13 Albums of 2013!
This year was particularly challenging. The best albums ran a furious race to the top and in the end, one could consider the top 3 as albums 1a/1b/1c; I think that highly of them. There were also several wonderful EPs released this year and while they could have been slotted into this chart, in the end, I elected to set them apart in their own spotlight. There’s something to be said about the power of song in concentrated form, an art to it.
As with last year’s Top 12, the following criteria were utilized in determining the final list:
- Overall Impression: My core reaction as a music fan. Do I love it?
- Staying Power: Did I want to hear it again after the initial “new album smell” faded? Do I feel I will still be playing it years down the line?
- Coherency: If a concept album, is the message clearly conveyed? If not, do the songs make some sort of sense in being on the same album?
- Emotional Impact: Do the songs elicit an emotional response from me, be it joy/sorrow/wonder?
- Complexity: Do elements like instrumental experimentation, vocal shifts and the like keep things interesting? Do all of the songs sound the same?
- Significance Of Contribution To Music: This is where an album I might independently rate lower could push higher. Is the album taking a genre to a new place, capturing history in a powerful way or inspiring other artists?
- Production Factors: Polish, clarity of sound and vocals, balance/mix and the like.
- Tracklisting/Flow: Do the songs feel right in the order presented from a sonic and/or lyrical perspective?
A simple truth that remains as true as last year: a Best Of list is a way to examine the year in retrospect and highlight, for one last article, the albums that one really wants to see succeed. Before 2013 fades away in memory, be sure to bring these albums with you for the start of 2014’s journey.
Top 3 EPs Of 2013
3. Shout At People – beekeeper
On their latest EP, Shout At People, Vancouver-based post-pop trio beekeeper manages to be both heartfelt and hilarious, angsty and devil-may-care. From the overly cheery in sonic spirit “It’s The Blood” to the grunge-honouring “I Don’t Need Hope, I Need Whiskey”, theirs is a 5-point-palm-exploding-heart technique of an album, perfectly executed in the hands of musical Black Mambas.
2. Witchrock – Magneta Lane
From the full-tilt rock of opener “Burn” to the rock almost-ballad “Leave The Light On”, Magneta Lane have created a quartet of songs worthy of the best alternative rock has to offer. Think Celebrity Skin-era Hole, or perhaps Louise Post without the dramatic love quadrangles sullying up the works. Polished, mature, yet real: Witchrock casts a spell.
1. The Pop Underground – Andrew McMahon
Shedding all other monikers (Something Corporate; Jack’s Mannequin), Andrew McMahon‘s first release as a solo artist is a four-track celebration of music and life. McMahon’s influences elevate the well-crafted pop songs to a place of deeper meaning, one that embodies the article for Huffington Post that coined the EP’s title: “I am proud that night after night and album after album, a mass of humanity I now refer to lovingly as the pop underground, come together and sing. Whether it’s in theaters and concert venues around the world, in the privacy of our own homes or the constantly shifting landscape of social media, we are a scrappy tribe and we stand for something: music that is found, shared and cared for despite access to traditional outlets; music that lives virally and through word of mouth; music that tells a story that people want to retell.”
The Top 13 Albums Of 2013
This year’s artists span all genres and multiple continents, but all speak the same language: powerful music worth spinning.
13. For Esmé – For Esmé
Toronto band For Esmé dwells within the intersections of folk, pop and rock, marrying darkness and light in fascinating form. A sprawling expanse of landscape unfurls within the tracks of their self-titled debut, a world of heartbreak and fear, but also hope and survival. An almost-carnival peers out between the harmonies, adding an otherworldly feel to vocalist Martha Meredith’s words.
12. The Hurry and The Harm – City and Colour
St. Catherines artist City and Colour (helmed by Dallas Green) may have found fame as part of the punk outfit Alexisonfire, but he was clearly meant for folk rock. On his latest release, The Hurry and The Harm, Green delivers another solid album of at turns poignant and precision-jabbing songs. Exploring what it is to be known, to be forgotten or even ignored, this may be their finest hour.
11. Black Tie Elevator – The Cliks
As if the formidable talent of Lucas Silveira, front man of The Cliks, wasn’t enough on its own — a blend of old-school rock and blues worthy of standing alongside Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and other greats — the man himself has taken a tremendous journey under the harsh spotlight of celebrity. The culmination of that journey is their latest release, Black Tie Elevator. Brimming with soulful vocals and layered compositions, it’s easily the album Silveira’s been destined to make.
10. Pure Heroine – Lorde
New Zealand teen Lorde hasn’t exploded onto the scene merely because of her age, although one imagines that adds to the hype around a polished debut like Pure Heroine. What Lorde manages to do so brilliantly is blend the best of hip hop, electronic and pop into her searingly honest glimpse into the world of working class teens growing up in our celebrity-obsessed, social media worshipping culture. Whether you’ve lived the worlds of “Royals” or “Tennis Court” or perhaps never once questioned your privileged, sunny youth, Pure Heroine is infectiously sincere.
9. The Remedy – Noel Johnson
Toronto-based folk artist Noel Johnson has hit his stride on his latest album, The Remedy. With the forthright storytelling and honesty of the likes of Tom Petty circa Wildflowers or Tom Cochrane, Johnson delivers universal truths with warm, rich vocals that feel like the embrace of an old friend, at times soaring to a passion reminiscent of Bono’s best years. Guitar riffs and lines effectively punctuate and bring key lyrics into focus, a testament to a man who’s honed his craft.
8. Prose and Kahns – Old English
Prose & Kahns is an introspective debut album from Old English, one rich with metaphor and meaning. The nature of love — and its disintegration — plays out thematically across the tracks, with each song revealing another layer, another piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It’s aural origami: each fold or crease upon lyricist Matt Henderson’s heart builds upon the complexity of the last. The result is an album that transcends the personal experience of heartache to a contemplation of its broader forms of failed dreams and the naïveté of young lovers oblivious to the inherent risk in a lover’s dreamscape.
7. Other – Data Romance
Read OTM’s full review here.
Vancouver-based duo Data Romance have set out on their debut LP Other on an exploration of the human experiences of belonging and disengaging, whether intentional or not. From the soaring heartbreak of opener “Caves”, the equally enchanting and haunting vocals of Amy Kirkpatrick spill over the listener, echoing the battered beats of metaphorical muscle beneath the ribcage. Ajay Bhattacharyya’s precision at crafting a home for Kirkpatrick’s heavenly harmonies speaks to songwriting wisdom beyond the band’s young years. Each track lives and breathes in its own space, rising and falling as if stepping away from the proverbial mic and charging it anew in search of spotlight. Sinister at turns, maturely playful at others, it is its own voice and it complements perfectly.
6. Days Are Gone – HAIM
Los Angeles sisters HAIM have had a year filled with attention, acclaim and song, although none of this would be a first for the family. From their youth in their family’s band, Rockinhaim to stints performing with Jenny Lewis and the Valli Girls, the girls have lived music from birth. Perhaps that’s why their debut album, Days Are Gone, feels like an homage to the last three decades of sound. Eighties pop-rock meets R&B meets modern songwriting sensibilities and delivers a catchy, clever collection of tracks. But never doubt their technical skill; one need only hear “Let Me Go” to know just what HAIM is truly capable of.
5. Set Fire – The Box Tiger
Toronto-Portland band The Box Tiger‘s first full-length release Set Fire is an exploration of what it means to be the ‘Other’ and, more importantly, what it takes to break free and revel in nonconformity. It’s also an album that continues to grow on me with repeated listens, a testament to Sonia Sturino and her bandmates’ talent for crafting indie rock songs with pop-hooks fused within. Walking the tightrope between cheer and sorrow, it is an album of life — one that feels genuine and deliciously raw. Like many of us in our early thirties, The Box Tiger echo the jaded hope within.
4. Create/Destroy/Create – Goodnight, Sunrise
Create/Destroy/Create, the debut album of Toronto’s Goodnight, Sunrise is a cyclical album, the spiral antenarrative perfected. Loosely falling into three triplets, the album is woven together by themes of creation and destruction operating in tandem. From the “sampled in reverse” intro that thrusts listeners into the War Of The Roses call-and-response opener “Love Fortress #9″, Goodnight, Sunrise explores the ways we build up and destroy ourselves. Sonically, the vast array of influences meld together in a prog-classic-funk-rock fusion, yet surprisingly, there is no disparity. The band has distilled it down to a sound that is theirs, even if it defies conventional categorization. A brilliant and powerful debut.
3. Lungs – Future History
The top honours on OTM’s album list for 2012 were taken by Markham, Ontario’s Future History, and with good reason. An electro-progressive soundscape of traditional instruments and found objects, lent a chorus of stomps, handclaps and the lonely cry of a shunned whale, Loss:/self questioned everything that we take as truth, bared every lie we tell ourselves, revealing the ultimate isolation. Follow-up Lungs is the continuation of that journey, the answer, and is another tremendous artistic accomplishment. Listeners familiar with Loss:/self will immediately notice the more acoustically-driven feel of the album: from the societal machine and the static that clouds the mind and heart, the rebuilding begins from sonic basics. A worthy follow-up to Loss:/self, Lungs is the soundtrack to a much-needed uprising.
2. Hesitation Marks – Nine Inch Nails
When Interscope came knocking, seeking fresh tracks for a forthcoming NIN retrospective, the request came with a sense of introspection, particularly with respect to Reznor’s troubled 90s and the mega-successful concept album, The Downward Spiral — arguably a modern take on the themes explored by Roger Waters on The Wall. The result: an intriguing, insightful collections of songs on a comeback album that feels more like a homecoming than a play for coin. Consider Hesitation Marks the second journey down the spiral, where the exasperated anger of “Fucking hell, not again!” meets the wiser soul who clearly knows why he should live and yet, here is a blade and here is a decision to be made. It is a love letter of sorts to the troubled youth who bear the scars of that time, who have emerged from the darkness but still shadowbox their demons.It is everything a fan could hope for and, ultimately, everything that has made Reznor one of the most influential artists and producers in the last two decades.
1. Arrows Of Desire – Matthew Good
Matthew Good is an artist that consistently delivers and his latest album, Arrows of Desire, did not disappoint. An echo of the music of Matt’s youth, Arrows feels closest in kin to 2004’s White Light Rock and Roll Review with its straight-up rock approach and short, punchy tunes. Rich in imagery, the political themes of the album draw in tight upon the personal lens, and one is left with a sense that the entire album, in a way, has been more personal than a first listen reveals. Things are also more musically intense on this album, thanks to his decision to bring his current band into the studio — a move that peppers the recordings with the magic of a live performance.
Arrows Of Desire is a bit of mental origami, meant to be unfolded and creased at the listener’s whim. What you take away from it will ultimately be of your own design, but one thing is certain: it will be impossible to forget.