Top 10 Albums of 2013
“Every year I seem to say the same thing with regards to there being less good new music than ever for me to compile an annual top ten list from, although that is primarily a function of the fact that as I’ve gotten older, gotten married, started a family, etc., my life has grown ever busier, leaving me less time to seek new music out. Additionally, it’s only natural for one’s taste in music to continually evolve, and as a result albums I thought I might have enjoyed at one time haven’t quite been getting the job done.”
The above is how I kicked off last year’s Top 10 albums list. And those words rang even truer in 2013, which was probably my least-new-music-filled year of existence since I became a rabid devourer of preposterously catchy tunes following the life-changing release of 1994’s “Dookie.” In fact, one of my highest-ranking listens from 2013 didn’t even come out in calendar-year 2013 — oh well. Even more unfortunate, now that I have eschewed NYC for suburban Houston life I have to rely solely on my car for transportation everywhere, which means I’ve been listening to music more frequently than ever before! Oh, the irony. Still, I am nothing if not a slave to tradition, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give huge props to the 10 terrific artists below that helped carry me through many a long jog/highway commute this year.
10) The Nines (self-titled) – Not as strong overall as 2007’s “Gran Jukle’s Field,” but any new music from Steve Eggers is always welcome.
9) Secret Friend: Time Machine – Power-pop supergroup albums can be exceptionally hit-or-miss, but thankfully Secret Friend came through with arguably the strongest collaborative album in the genre since LEO’s “Alpacas Orgling” in 2006. Predominantly sung by the always-welcome Willie Wisely, Time Machine’s batch of tunes is a breezy, easily digestible set that hits all the right power-pop hallmarks without being overly devotional or derivative.
8) Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals – I loved 2011’s “Comeback Kid” but the rest of “Reign of Terror” sounded mostly like noise for the sake of noise. “Bitter Rivals” makes good on the promise shown on the previous record with a brisk set of tunes boasting enough hooks — and the always mesmerizing, dreamy vocals of Alexis Krauss — to keep things interesting until the very end.
7) Jackdaw4: Dissectitude – Among the finest purveyors of 21st-century power-pop, Jackdaw4 sadly disbanded this year, but not before giving us another terrific hook-laden album, filled with the Jellyfish-style baroque pop power-poppers know and love.
6) Dot Dash – Half-Remembered Dream – This was a breath of fresh air, and I almost would’ve missed it if not for a brief mention on Aaron Kupferberg’s essential PowerPopaholic.com. “Half-Remembered Dream” feels like a friend you’ve known for years, kicking off with “Here’s to the Ghosts (of the past)” and rifling through its 10 ultra-melodic tunes so quickly that you wonder where the album went — in the best way possible. Interestingly, the band’s Bandcamp page describes their sound as “post-punk-pop,” which I’m not sure is a genre I’ve ever heard of, and so I was expecting this to perhaps be a bit more up-tempo, but it is very much a traditional mid-tempo power-pop album. Really top-notch stuff here throughout.
5) Pretty & Nice: Golden Rules for Golden People – This was easily the most unique album of the year for me, reminding me to an extent of Electric Guest’s “Mondo,” even though stylistically it is a very different album. There is something about the way this band arrives at its melodies that was intoxicating, and their distinctive songwriting sets them well ahead of the pack. Highlights include “Stallion & Mare,” “Q_Q” and “Yonkers,” but really the entire record is an energetic breath of fresh air. Also, the video for “Q_Q” has a Whataburger in the background, which is awesome.
4) Lorde: Pure Heroine – “Royals” has been the single of the fall for me, and this record will undoubtedly be on every mainstream critic’s year-end best-of list, and there’s a good reason why: it’s really great. “Pure Heroine” is so self-assured it sounds like the work of a 20-year industry veteran, and yet somehow was co-written by a 16-year-old phenom. Every now and then an album comes along that seems to perfectly capture a mood or a feeling — in this case I would describe it as a mix of both gloomy and optimistic — and with the unfettered production and relatively minimalist arrangements, New Zealander Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor really nails it here. Nearly every song on this album could be a single; that’s how good it is.
3) Five Iron Frenzy: Engine of a Million Plots – This ’90s ska/punk band reunited for its first album of original material in 10 years, and churned out a catchy masterpiece. I was not familiar with any of their previous work, but I am quite familiar with bassist Scott Kerr’s, the frontman of gone-too-soon power-pop beasts Yellow Second and author of my favorite record of the aughts. Given Kerr’s involvement there was little chance I wouldn’t like this record, and I was extremely pleased to find that the songwriting is top-notch — no surprise given that Scott co-wrote 11 of the album’s 12 songs — with hooks aplenty, huge power-pop-punk energy, smart arrangements (while the brass section plays a key role in the band’s sound, it also doesn’t overwhelm it) and outstanding musicianship. Things kick off in high gear with “Against of Sea of Troubles” and “So Far,” and the band — led by a tour-de-force vocal performance from lead singer Reese Roper — never lets up, lending a blissful feeling of endless infectiousness to the proceedings. There are also a couple of neat easter eggs for Yellow Second fans — the incorporation of a previously unreleased YS song into the second half of “Zen & the Art of Xenophobia;” and album closer “Blizzards & Bygones” was originally written by Kerr for Yellow Second, and is unmistakably his.
2) You, Me & Everyone We Know: Entire Catalog – I first discovered YM&EWK at the end of last year, stumbling across the “A Great Big Hole” EP on Bandcamp. I subsequently wore the title track out like nobody’s business this year. The sad tale of singer Ben Liebsch’s rise and hard fall with his bandmates (all of whom eventually quit due to Liebsch’s alcoholism; he has been sober ever since) is laid bare in one of the most preposterously catchy three-and-a-half minutes you’ll ever hear. The awesomeness of “A Great Big Hole” forced me to dig up YM&EWK’s entire catalog, which unfortunately only consists of one full-length — 2010’s “Some Things Don’t Wash Out” — and a handful of EPs. The good news is that Liebsch has cleaned up and is hard at work on a new LP, while continuing to produce EPs to tide fans over in the interim. I really can’t stress enough what kind of achievement “Some Things Don’t Wash Out” is. In any other year it would have been an easy choice for my album of the year; one of the only things keeping it out of the top slot is that it came out three years ago. That, and Wyatt Funderburk made an all-time record for the ages. Still, “Some Things” will go down as one of my favorite records of all time — I certainly listened to it enough times this year. It seems crazy to say, but Liebsch & company somehow seemed to rewrite the playbook on absurdly catchy pop-punk, both channeling their various influences while putting their own unique spin on what can be a pretty limiting genre. Pop-punk records are a dime a dozen, but when they come with this much innovation, bombast, guts, hooks and gut-wrenching, leave-it-all-on-the-field pathos — seriously, I’ve never been one to listen to music for the lyrics, but I was utterly riveted by Liebsch’s various tales of woe throughout this LP, despite the words being completely unrelatable to my own life — you can’t help but pay attention, and hope that a talent like that continues to be nurtured. It’s rare to come across a record with the punch-in-the-face adrenaline-pumping opening trifecta of “Shock & Awe,” “Losing Weight for You” and “Livin’ th’ Dream,” and it doesn’t end there. Not even close. The entire album features hugely hooky earwork after earworm, with the only misstep being “James Brown is Dead.” Anyone who went through a huge jeans, buy-every-album-Fat-Wreck-Chords-put-out-even-though-99%-of-them-sucked long-haired skater phase in the mid-90s owes it to themselves to get their hands on this record, but it’s no blast of nostalgia — this is the sound of pop-punk for the 21st century.
1) Wyatt Funderburk: “Novel & Profane” – In 2005, my musical life changed. I discovered both the aforementioned “Altitude” by Yellow Second and an EP called “Greetings from Mount Rockmore” by a band called Second Saturday. All five songs on “Rockmore” were utterly mind-blowing (“Arianna” and “The Fox” are still among the catchiest songs of all time), and I immediately sought out whatever else I could find from the band. That turned out not to be much outside of their debut LP, issued a year prior. While I wore the hell out of “Rockmore’s” five tracks, I waited patiently for new music from the band, even contacting frontman Wyatt Funderburk to let him know how much I enjoyed his work and how eager I was for more. Funderburk teased us with “In the End,” a tantalizing demo on Second Saturday’s MySpace page, but it was not to be. Fortunately for music-lovers, Wyatt managed to carve out a successful career co-writing and producing some of power-pop’s biggest names – including Kurt Baker, whom he joined on tour last year — so he didn’t completely disappear, never to be heard from again like so many others, but it seemed for a time that we might never hear original Funderburk compositions again. Until now.
“Novel & Profane” kicks off with a 40-second cut of classic Funderburkian harmonies and wistfulness with the longing “Wondering,” which tees up “Summer,” probably the most pure power-pop song on the album, not to mention one of my favorites. “Summer” is a brilliant showcase for Funderburk’s mastery of the art and beauty of both classic pop songwriting and the unconventional: ultra-catchy verses? check. Ridiculously catchy bridges? Of course. However, the craziest part about “Summer” is that it kind of just keeps going with very little acknowledgment of the chorus — the chorus is in there, and catchy as hell, but Funderburk drops so many musical earworms into this song that you can almost miss it. Madness. “You Know What to Do” slows the pace down but not the hooks; “Mandolin” ramps the pace back up with what is probably the fastest, most pop-punk-style song I’ve heard from Wyatt; and “Feeling Good Tonight” is probably the best alt-country song I’ve ever heard, at least until the album nears its close with “North on 65.” The album hits another high point with the emotional ballad “Nights Like This,” a song that perfectly anchors the album and represents a true closing to the first half if this were an actual physical record with Side A and Side B. “Side B” kicks off with “Love Will Lead the Way,” which was selected as the first single, although it’s a bit too by-the-numbers for me (which is likely why it was chosen to try to get Wyatt in front of the widest number of people. I know how it goes). Still, even an ever-so-slightly less compelling effort on this album is still stocked with the requisite hooks. The synth-driven “Try to Be” is perhaps the perfect space-rock love song, and will wind its way into your brain in mere seconds; “Never Seen the Sun” sounds like it should’ve been the 15th song on “Rubber Soul,” and “Right Now” and “If I Ever Wanted Easier” are just straight-up slices of pure power-pop hypercatchy euphoria that bring the album to an incredibly satisfying close yet want you leaving more, much more. And in addition to world-class songwriting, Wyatt’s singing on this record is as fantastic as ever. I think it’s probably implied that the vocals are great by virtue of the no. 1 ranking, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge an overall outstanding vocal performance, highlighted in part by some killer high notes at the end of “Feeling Good Tonight,” and that extra-long hold in the coda of “Nights Like This.” Epic stuff all around. Hats off to Wyatt Funderburk for crafting one of the purest examples of power-pop songwriting and craftsmanship I have heard in long time, and hopefully it won’t be another near-decade between releases.