Best of 2013: Albums of the Year–Non-Worship Category

Alright, time for my favourite albums of the year.  Some guidelines:

1. Again, I listen to what I listen to and I haven’t heard a lot of other stuff.  There are albums on everyone’s Top 10 this year that I’ve never heard.  So these are my favourites from my own listening.

2. I’m excluding worship music because I feel like it has become its own category.  So this list of albums includes both music by Christians and music by people who don’t believe, but music specifically designed for personal or corporate worship will get its own category.

3. The concept of album is an important one to me.  I heard a lot of great songs this year from bands who weren’t even considered for this list, because to me, an album is a cohesive statement, a single unified work of art.  There are lots of records with a small handful of fantastic songs and some filler, records that feel like collections of singles.  Those, to me, aren’t really albums.  In the age of mp3 and instant download this is somewhat of a lost art, and bands are trying new ways to release their music to the masses (see, for example, Sleeping At Last’s Atlas and Yearbook projects).  But everything on this list feels like a full album to me.

We’ll do a few by category, leading up to the actual Album of the Year category.  So without further ado:

1. Best Debut: The Lone Bellow by The Lone Bellow.  Many of you have probably heard the story: Zach Williams, who is also a worship pastor (or was at some point), began writing music out of journal entries he had written whilst processing a horrible accident his wife was in that they thought was going to leave her paralyzed for life.  The heart of the band is he and two other singers, and the three of them make harmonic magic together.  It’s a great album top to bottom on themes of loneliness, loss and faith in the midst of trial.  Their sound is something like a sped-up Civil Wars hung out with Mumford and Sons and decided to make their music 25% more country, by way of Brooklyn.   Powerful lyrics, powerful music, and apparently a killer live show which they are bringing all the way to Sheffield this year.  Can’t wait!  Here is one of their more hopeful numbers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu-xtzS_4rc 

2. Best Hip-Hop Album: Instruments of Mercy by Beautiful Eulogy.  This, THIS is what hip-hop should and could be.  Recorded organically with lyrics that are wrestled over and debated before finally settled.  The title describes the theme beautifully, and the two rappers trade verses back and forth, parsing Biblical theology about mercy.  It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s deep.  It’s Truth.  And it’s free!  And I don’t even agree with every song (I’m looking at you “Signs and Symbols”).

Runner-Up: Heath McNease’s The Weight of Glory: Second Edition Heath McNease, a singer-songwriter and rapper (depends on which album you listen to), put out two albums of songs on the works and themes of C.S. Lewis.  The first is singer-songwriter stuff and it’s good.  The 2nd takes all those same songs and tracks and adds hip-hop remix, and the result is at times powerful, a meditation on mortality and immortality.  A handful on the songs on here were in constant rotation in my head in the weeks following our friends’ accident this year.  Not all of it works for me, which is why it is only given runner-up status.

3. Best Album You’ll Be Surprised To Hear that I Have: 20/20 Experience (Volume 1) by  Justin Timberlake.  Um…yeah.  So, there was this one day that UK amazon was selling this really cheap, and I already had some credit, so I got it for like $3.  I had never listened to or wanted to listen to him before, but I’d heard a review of it on a podcast talking about the old-school soul sound and the long meandering songs that weren’t really packaged for radio, and I was intrigued.  I’ve really been interested in soul these past two years, so I bit.  And guess what?  There’s some great stuff on here.  Mirrors.  Tunnel Vision.  A handful of songs I really like.  And some that I don’t.  I gave Part 2 a listen and found it so offensive that I turned it off after 10 minutes.  But yeah…JT.  Talented dude.

4. Best Palette Cleanser From That Last Choice–Magpie & the Dandelion by the Avett Brothers.  I love the Avett Brothers.  You knew that.  And they had an album this year.  It’s different from their past couple of releases–more mellow songs than upbeat.  But think about those songs–Vanity, the Ecclesiastes-inspired number, or Open-Ended Life, or any of the others really, instead of that JT album.  Thanks.

5. Biggest Disappointment that I Wasn’t Disappointed In–Reflektor by Arcade Fire.  I never really get Arcade Fire.  I have tried to love Funeral and Neon Bible, but nothing doing.  Suburba got me–Ready to Start is such an amazing song, and the album closer is beautiful as well.  And then Reflektor, with its 70s vibe and its long songs and weird videos and way-too-much marketing, came along and everyone was psyched and then disappointed.  I had some music credit on this one website and couldn’t find anything else that I wanted that they had (choice was limited) so I got this.  And you know what, I like it, especially the 1st half.  I think their attitude, especially the lead singer’s, is horrible but there are some good tunes here.  In fact, combine half of #3 with half of this and you’d have one incredible (but really bizarre) album.

6. Most Puzzling Album–I Am Mountain by Gungor.  Towards the start of the year, Michael Gungor announced that his band would put out albums under two names–the already-established Gungor and also as something called “The Liturgists.”  These albums might even contain some of the same songs, but one would be just for listening and the other for worship.  There has been no news of an actual Liturgist album as of yet, but he wasn’t kidding about the other part.  After a fantastic worship album (Beautiful Things) and a worshipful work of art (Ghosts Upon the Earth) comes this one.  With songs from mythology and with auto-tune and hard-to-follow lyrics and poetry.  I was unimpressed at first.  But I gave it time, since I’d already spent the money.  And it’s worth it.  Some really good music, and it does feel like a cohesive whole.  I just don’t fully get it.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes art is like that.

7. Comeback Album–Engine of a Million Plots by Five Iron Frenzy.  Yes, Five Iron Frenzy.  We live in the age of Kickstarter right now, and one of the side effects of the Kickstarter phenomenon is that tons of bands whose days had seemed to past are coming back by raising album money on Kickstarter.  Supertones have done it, The Choir, Steve Taylor, Gungor, many others.  Five Irons’ money was raised in less than 24 hours two years ago, and the album finally dropped.  I think the mix is a little weird, with the vocals hard to make out,  but the whole album is really good.  Largely abandoning the ska sound for more of a rock-with-horns approach, this album doesn’t feel like a “trying to capture old-magic to fulfill our Kickstarter” thing that some of these projects have, but instead feels new and vital.

8. Some Other Good Records that Didn’t Fit in Any Categories–I also recommend the latest from Sigur Ros (Kveikur), Iron & Wine’s largely forgotten Ghost on Ghost, and the 2nd album from the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley, Victim of Love.  If you don’t know his story, look it up.  It’s a good one.

Which leads us to…

9. Best Overall Albums of the Year (a tie)–Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend and Electric Lady by Janelle Monae.

I’ve already written in a recent entry about my love for Ms. Monae.  Her second full-length album came out this autumn, and it is a winner from beginning to end.  Except the “skits”.  This is a tradition in certain types of music that I could do without.

It’s worth saying that this CD took awhile to digest, and I didn’t love it on first listen.  But after three or four, I was hooked, and for me, there aren’t even really any skips.  Granted, the second half took longer to absorb than the more traditionally upbeat first half, but this is a fantastic record all the way through.  Everything works–the vocals, the quirky songs followed by more traditional ones, the horn section–oh, that horn section.  Simply fantastic top  to bottom.  Come to the UK, Ms. Monae, please?

And now Vampire Weekend.  This one’s a surprise to me.  There are many albums and bands that I’ve just never had time or extra money for that I always suspected I’d like.  I’ve never heard Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie, but I suspect I’d love it.  Through their first two albums, Vampire Weekend intrigued me but I just never gave it time, never bought it or listened to it on Spotify.

And then this came out, and the reviews were stellar.  I decided to give it a spin on Spotify, and man, oh, man, what an album.  This collection of songs, like Ms. Monae, is worth giving some headphone time to, because there is so much going on in the music.  The band builds layers of sound, with different elements weaving in and out or hidden in the background.  That pulsing halfway through the first song; the haunting choral vocals scattered throughout.  Some songs rock, others are quiet and pensive; some sound brand new, others (like that closer, with whatever effect or filter they put on the piano) sound old but timeless.  Not a single skip in the bunch–every track remains on my iPod.

It should be said, however, that this is not a happy or encouraging album.  It is largely a collection of songs in which these four men wrestle with God and their lack of belief in Him.  What’s interesting is that usually when you get people wrestling with God, they are wrestling with the Christian notion of God.  In this case, they seem to be wrestling with the Jewish notion of God.  And they don’t ever reach any positive conclusions.  So not a very helpful record in that sense.  But the craftsmanship, originality, passion and power in these songs is undeniable.  And some of the statements they make and questions they ask about the things we value in life actually are helpful.

So that’s that.  What were your albums of the year?  Coming soon, Best Songs, Best Worship Music, and maybe best Live Gigs or people to follow on Twitter or glasses of root beer or anything else I feel like writing about.  But at least those first two.  See you soon.

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