This is the fourth installment in my series looking back on 2013. I have previously reviewed 2013 as it relates to television, books, and movies.
As important as music is to me, I find music to be one of the hardest categories to write about. For many audiences, a discussion of music is limited to similes, metaphors, and comparisons. Whereas one can discuss the use of color in film, to talk about “color” in music is to ensure that neither party to a conversation is absolutely certain of understanding the other. There is a lot of gesturing to be done, but not much else. People versed in musical theory and other technical aspects of music and music production may be better suited to describe music in unambiguously meaningful terms. I don’t pretend to be such a person, and so my commentary is always limited. Add to this the fact that I do not often listen to new music, and you’ll see why I struggle with this particular blog post. I stick primarily to the bands that I know and like, in which I find an expansive enough catalog that to familiarize myself with anything new requires some effort and distraction on my part. I’m busy enough that music often serves only as background noise to schoolwork and other errands. At this point in my life, I can listen to an album several times over without being able to recall a song from that album with ease. Ask me to name a song from the album and I may come up blank. Tell me a song title from that album, and there is no guarantee that a tune will begin playing in my head. This is a far cry from the kind of person I was in high school and shortly thereafter. It’s sad, I suppose, but it’s where I’m at.
Keeping the above considerations in mind, there are a few albums and/or artists that I discovered in 2013 that stand out to me as noteworthy. These truly are the highlights of the year, if only because they’ve made a greater impression on me and my memory. I can’t say with unwavering conviction that these selections are the very best I’ve discovered in the past 12 months, but they have burrowed deeper into my brain than anything else has.
Several of my favorite artists released new music in 2013. Because I was already familiar with those artists, it is easy for me to bring their newer work to mind. Canadian artists Hayden and Barenaked Ladies each released an album in 2013. Neither album stood out to me as much as previous works by the same artists, but both were enjoyable in their own rights. For BNL, Grinning Streak marks the second album since the departure of Steven Page, whose absence has had a profound effect on the band’s sound. Grinning Streak takes BNL one step closer to mediocrity, which is unfortunate. I was disappointed that Kevin Hearn (primarily on keyboards) and Jim Creeggan (primarily on bass) didn’t have a greater presence on this album. Both Creeggan and Hearn are exceptional songwriters, but they’ve contributed only a song a piece to Grinning Streak, neither of which is among the musicians’ individual bests (and in Creeggan’s case, you only got his song if you bought the deluxe edition of the album). Pearl Jam also released a new album in 2013, Lightning Bolt, which satisfies but comes nowhere near the excellence of their previous record, 2009’s Backspacer. Here are some of my favorite tracks from each of the above albums:
When it comes to new artists (or at least artists I hadn’t already familiarized myself with), one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the last year is Passion Pit. Last year, I wrote about my favorite discoveries of 2012 and included the album Feel the Sound by Imperial Teen. Passion Pit released the album Gossamer in the same year, and the similarities are striking. I think you could sneak any song from Gossamer onto Feel the Sound and few of us would realize anything was out of place. Both albums feature infectious synthpop, although Passion Pit sometimes—sometimes—flirts with sounds that are to my ear more soulful than anything on Imperial Teen’s record. (Check out Passion Pit’s “Constant Conversations” for a sample of what I mean.) But I don’t want to get bogged down in a comparison. Gossamer is an awesome album, one I’m pleased to make a regular part of my rotation. Here’s the official video for one of my favorite tunes on the album:
M83 is another great band I learned about in 2013. I had the privilege of listening to their two most recent albums, 2008’s Saturdays = Youth and 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, both of which are excellent. Keeping things simple, M83 would fall under the category of alternative rock. If you’re familiar with the musical genre referred to as “shoegazing,” that may prove a more useful description, although I’m not sure it’s perfect. Shoegazing is a kind of dreamy, ambient, almost nostalgic form of alternative rock, which fits much of M83’s music. And yet M83 is also rather synth-based much of the time, and I’m not sure that’s the case with much of what’s considered shoegazing. I’m not an expert on this stuff, folks. Probably the best thing for me to do is get on with a sample. So, here are two of my favorite tracks, one from each of the aforementioned albums:
Another great discovery of 2013 is the Scottish band CHVRCHES. I was much more taken in by their EP Recover than I was by their full-length album The Bones of What You Believe, but I’m convinced either way to keep my ears perked for more. The song “Recover” is insanely catchy. Here’s a video for it:
Capital Cities is quickly becoming quite popular, and I think they deserve it. Their 2013 album A Tidal Wave of Mystery is among the most addictive listens of the past year. Like pretty much everything else I’ve mentioned thus far, Capital Cities is a synthpop band. There’s a reason such a style of music appeals to me. It gets into your blood. Here’s a sample:
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), best known for their 1980s new wave hit “If You Leave,” released their 12th studio album in April 2013, titled English Electric. I’ve felt compelled to listen and re-listen to the album numerous times, even though there isn’t anything on the album that leaps out at me. I’m not sure what to make of that. Do I love the album? I don’t feel like I do, and yet obviously there’s something about it that makes it highly listenable. Stylistically, you can hear the new wave influence throughout, and yet it is also decidedly more futuristic—purposely so, it would seem, based on the robotic interludes that sometimes fill the gaps between songs, songs with titles such as “The Future Will Be Silent,” no less. Because there isn’t a track on the album that leaps out to me as a favorite, I’ve chosen to showcase the song that I feel will best convey the album’s dualistic retro-futuristic sound. Here it is:
2013 found me intrigued by the artists Hot Chip and Phosphorescent. From a comprehensive point of view, I’m less enthusiastic about these two than the earlier acts I’ve mentioned, and yet they have each produced songs that I absolutely love. If not for these particular songs, I might not bother to mention these artists at all. Here they are:
I’ll make mention of one final album, although I’m not sure it really counts. This year I found myself listening repeatedly to Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 album She’s So Unusual. My oldest sister owned this album on vinyl, and I remember listening to it some as a kid. But it’s been nearly 30 years since I’ve listened to it in its entirety, and I love it. Sure, a good chunk of the album can still be heard on the radio with some regularity—songs like “Time After Time,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “She Bop” (Cyndi’s famous ode to masturbation), and others. But the fact that these tunes are so familiar doesn’t preclude them from being terrific. With Top 5 singles comprising nearly half of the album, it’s hard to listen to She’s So Unusual without having a blast. It’s quite the pop record. The video I’ll post to celebrate this album is of yet another song you’re undoubtedly familiar with, but it’s a song I love—both to listen to and to sing along with. Go ahead and try it yourself. You’ll see what I mean.
A final note of thanks must be given to Chuck, the wonderful man that introduced me to much of the above music. I’m leaving last names off because I haven’t asked Chuck permission to make him famous by talking about him on my blog. But if he happens to read this, I need him to see he’s getting his due props. Thanks, Chuck.