Monday, December 23, 2013

The #HigherEdMusicCritics top albums of 2013 (part 1)

Playlist below.

As certainly as Punxsutawney Phil's handlers will roust that rodent from of his hole every Groundhog Day, so the collective of music lovers known as the Higher Ed Music Critics will make their annual proclamations of the year's finest albums every December. Our cadre of reviewers has grown in recent years, and represents a more diverse perspective on the music world than ever before.

This year, 14 of us weighed in on our picks for the best musical offerings of a very good year, musically. The result was a broad range of styles and artists. Limiting ourselves to no more than 50 albums each, we came up with a grand total of 307 ranked records. Most years, we share only our collective top 50. This year, we decided to expand to the top 100 albums of 2013. (Actually, we ended up with 101 albums, due to a four-way tie for 98th place in our rankings.)

Here, we present the bottom half of the list, with commentary and some of our favorite tunes from each album. Feel free to offer commentary of your own. And by all means, feel free to disagree with our picks. That's the best part about talking about music -- the arguments.

Enjoy part 1. Part 2 is coming soon.

98.  Kiln - meadow:watt

I said it after 2007's Dusker and I’ll say it again: there is no better music to listen to if you want to focus and get shit done. This album stimulates my creativity unlike any other and helps avoid distractions. Pulsing. Rhythmic. Put it on in the background and knock out your to-do list. So thankful they finally put out another album after all this time. Highly recommended. Essential tracks: Roil; Star.field; KopperKosmo - SB

98. BT - A Song Across Wires

With all the up-and-coming DJs emerging, maybe it's too easy to take Brian Transeau (better known by his initials) for granted. Then he drops something with the cinema-scale virtuosity of "A Song Across Wires," and we remember. It comes packaged as 12 individual edited tracks (per record company request) plus its intended nearly 80-minute continuous play mix -- the latter non-stop fantastic voyage the recommended method of consumption. - TN
98. Typhoon - White Lighter

Typhoon offers an interesting potential path for the future of Christian-ish music. It’s thoughtful, angsty and honest – with lyrics heavily focused on death due to frontman Kyle Morton’s series of near-fatal illnesses as a child. Typhoon’s 11-piece ensemble (seriously) lives and tours together, all sharing a belief in communal living. Love what they’re making. Excited to see what they make next. Excited for this potential future of thoughtful rock. -EO

98. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold

Reminiscent of the Strokes of the Is This It? era, Parquet Courts delivers street-smart New York punk with spare, catchy hooks. Let's hope their future efforts hold up better than anything the Strokes put out after their debut. - AC

Parquet Courts didn't make my ballot due to a clerical error on my part. A clerical error I deeply regret. - dw

97. Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown - Wild Child

You like guitars? Rocking your face off? Then this is the record for you. Aerosmith wishes they wrote a record like this. (Guitarist Graham Whitford is Brad Whitford's son.) - CD

96. The Neighborhood - I Love You

95. Sigur Ros - Kveikur

As the music critic for the Buffalo News said - “Kveikur” sounds like the greatest pop album ever recorded on a planet other than Earth. Not for everyone, but one of my top 10 for 2013.  MG

94. Superchunk - I Hate Music

Same old Superchunk, back with solid melodies. I liked this record for putting on in the background and working on other stuff. There's more maturity in the lyrics and content than past offerings from the band, but I felt it was a little better than many of the other reunion records released in 2013. - JG

93. Blue Stahli - Antisleep Volume 3

92. Jessie Ware - Devotion
Jessie Ware is the best import the UK has sent us in a long time. In a genre that's looking a lot different than it did in the 80s and 90s, R&B/Soul has another face with the pipes to match. On "Devotion", we get an homage to the soul music of the late 80s when radio ruled the land. It doesn't feel or sound dated. Standout track includes "Sweet Talk." - RB

91. Arca - &&&&&

90. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories

Part of the new wave of female country singer-songwriters, Brandy Clark, along with Kasey Musgraves, is chronicling a new sort of "hard" country. But the honky tonks of old give way to moms rolling fatties in their kitchens, praying to Jesus and playing the lotto, and contemplating murder. These tales of downward mobility reflect a part of the new America you won't hear in any Carrie Underwood song. If you like Kasey Musgraves (as several of my fellow reviewers do), give 12 Stories a try. You won't be sorry. - AC

89. The Colourist - Lido (EP)

I happened to come across The Colourist here in Austin, TX as they opened for Metric. I ended up leaving the concert early (because Metric is so boring live) but not before I had written down this band's name. As soon as the EP release, I bought it. The Colourist is another in the string of bands putting out happy pop anthems. Great vocals, catchy tunes, and a drummer who sings AND is a woman. Can't go wrong. I'm looking forward to their full length release. - JG

88. Bad Religion - True North

I didn't rank this album, but as a longtime Bad Religion fan, I appreciated what they did here and was happy to see them back together with new material. It's a fitting addition to their catalog, even as it's not on par with say Stranger Than Fiction. - RB

This, I think. I love Bad Religion in the mid-90s during my college radio days, and they've been off my radar. But I liked "The Dissent Of Man," and this is more of that. - CD

87. The Dillinger Escape Plan - One of Us Is the Killer

Everything I love about my favorite Dillinger records — Miss Machine, Ire Works, and Option Paralysis — thrown into a blender then seasoned with their earlier work. Powerful results. Greg Puciato remains the baddest motherfucker in music. My essential tracks are relentless, so brace yourself: Prancer; When I Lost My Bet; Hero of the Soviet Union - SB

86. Matthew Good - Arrows of Desire

You can almost set your watch to the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter putting out 10 tracks of compelling rock every other year, and they always land in my top 10. The outspoken singer-singwriter's tracks meander between personal and political, rock and pop, but killer melody lines in songs like "Via Delorosa," "Had It Coming," "Garden of Knives" and "Guns of Carolina" make this worth many listens. - TN
85. Night Beds - Country Sleep

I’m a sucker for a great voice. And Winston Yellen’s sure got one. In a year full of great new bands doing the Ryan Adams “folk rock” thing, they might be the best to try. Plus, Even If We Try is arguably one of the best/most troubling music videos of the year. -EO

84. Neil Young - Live at the Cellar Door

I was blindsided by this one, and already had my list in order by the time Mark Greenfield pointed out this wonderful live recording. Had I known about it sooner, I would've made room in my list for this timeless, spare recording of some of Mr. Young's best pieces. - AC

Solo Neil Young from the early 1970's can't be beat. While not as good as "Live at Massey Hall", it still captures the essence of Neil at his peak creative period. - MG

83. Boy & Bear - Harlequin Dream

I bought the first Boy & Bear album several years ago at the suggestion of a friend, listened to it a couple of times then dismissed. Then I added to the iPod I keep in my car about a year ago and it seemed like the wife and I were constantly asking each other, "Who is this?" and then finding that it was Boy & Bear. Harlequin Dream grabbed me right away, a lot quicker and more powerfully than that first record did. The songs are catchy and the album as a whole has a great flow to it. It was a great late-summer listen for sure. Now to track down the vinyl record... - JG

82. Sevendust - Black Out the Sun

81. Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

I immediately heard this long-awaited album from probably the best lyricist amongst the Odd Future rap troupe and fell for it. Sweatshirt is vulnerable throughout. It's not a happy record, but if you're looking for introspective rap without it sounded too emo or backpack, Doris more than gets the job done. It's a coherent listen from start to finish, too. One of my favorite albums of the year. - RB

80. My Bloody Valentine - mbv

I pre-ordered the vinyl record for mbv and when I got the download and record, listened to it for a bit, put it on in my car, and then decided that it was too one-dimensional for me. I love shoegaze stylings in most situations, but mbv just left me a little bored. - JG

We waited a generation for it, and for once a generational album delivered (unlike, oh, Chinese Democracy). Admittedly, you had to be there in the early 90s to really get why this is such a big deal, but mbv is surprisingly relevant for an album that feels at times like the extended version of Loveless. - dw

Wanted to love it. But it mostly bored me. - RB

So it's a boring record, but it's on our Top 100. You're killing me, people. - CD

79. Stara Rzeka - Cien chmury nad ukrytym polem

78. Mowgli's - Waiting for the Dawn

The Mowgli's are a collective of about 14 zillion boys and girls who sing enthusiastically happy, chirpy, trippy tunes in unison about things like being in love with love and the idea of. They sing with verve. They'd probably like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Their album Waiting for the Dawn is full of upbeat, uplifting tunes, and lots of jangly guitars that underscore explosions of "whoos!" and "oooohs!" and occasional whistles, and of course effervescent, happy-go-lucky choruses that gush with a spirit of innocence and positivity that makes me believe, if only for the moment in which I'm captivated by their musical spell, that the world is going to be a better place one day. Whenever I had a low day during the past year, this was my go-to record to lift my spirits, just as the dawn erases darkness. Thanks, Mowgli's. (But I wish you'd learn proper punctuation.) - AC

I can't believe I left this off my list. Oops. - CD

77. Meat Puppets - Rat Farm

The Pups and I go waaaaaay back to college, when they opened for Blind Melon on campus almost twenty years ago, well before Nirvana's "Unplugged" show and the success of "Backwater" brought them into the mainstream. The music's not pretty -- Curt Kirkwood has as distinct a voice as you'll find in rock -- but it's catchy and engaging and I find myself coming back to this record a lot. - CD

76. Kodalline - In A Perfect World

This Irish band has created a lovely, anthemic and highly singable album. Often compared in sound to Coldplay, their acoustic version of the beautiful ballad Love Like This will warm you up this winter. -EO

75. Tedeschi Trucks Band - Made Up Mind

The husband- wife team of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi continue to set the standard for blues rock.  For the uninitiated, think Allman Brothers meet Bonnie Raitt.  Trucks continues to redefine the slide guitar. - MG

74. Living Sacrifice - Ghost Thief

73. Fuzz - Fuzz

72. Paul McCartney - New

Oh, the audacity! Sir Paul refuses to fade away like the has-been a lot of people wish he would become. With New, McCartney produces a fine, if uneven, album that looks back without becoming sickeningly nostalgic. A few of the tunes are mediocre at best (including the title track, which can go into the trash heap along with "Silly Love Songs" and "Spies Like Us"). But "Queenie Eye" is a track that could have fit right in to Sgt. Pepper's, and "Early Days" is a melancholy and touching address to those who continue to try to deconstruct the Beatles. The entire album hints at a wistful look back at a legendary life, and the lyrics of many of the songs here seem to hint at a conversation McCartney wants to have with his long-departed co-writer, John Lennon. With New, this legendary songwriter redeems himself. He can finally step aside with dignity, if he so chooses. - AC

Wanted to like this, but Macca just sounds old. - CD

71. Butch Walker - Peachtree Battle LP

SERIOUSLY. WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET YOU PEOPLE TO BUY A FRICKING BUTCH WALKER RECORD?!? Butch lost his father this year, and wrote an EP of tunes that he wanted his dad to hear before he passed. Five tunes, all of which go on steady repeat for me. - CD

C'mon Chris, I own three Butch Walker records (three if you count his Marvelous 3). Which means I need to listen to this record. - TN

70. MS MR - Secondhand Rapture

69. Sleeping At Last - Atlas: Space 1

This album completely caught me off guard, and ended up as my #1 record of the year. All my punk rock friends went to this guy’s shows growing up. 10 years later, Ryan O’Neal has evolved his sound to be a showcase for his buttery smooth voice. The album is gorgeous and challenging. I didn’t hear anything better this year. -EO

68. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing

Progressive rock still has a place for me.  This is an album in the truest sense that was menat to be listened sequentially in one setting. Impeccable production make this my number one album of 2013. - MG

67. Amon Amath - Deceiver of the Gods

66. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II

Another one of those albums that I ranked highly and everyone else didn't. It's hard to explain what this album is. It's certainly trying to sound like a 70s proto-rock album. It's the brainchild of someone who spends a lot of time listening to Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and a lot of underground Detroit soul from the 70s, as it bears a striking resemblance to all of these things at once. In a fair world, I envision Mick Collins (The Dirtbombs, et. al.) and Ruban Nielson (Unknown Mortal Orchestra) getting together to produce a magnum opus. This album isn't going to be everyone's cuppa, but what Unknown Mortal Orchestra manages to do is produce a sonic array of unique tunes in a world of music that sounds the same. Check out So Good At Being In Trouble, Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark) & From The Sun.

I've never heard of this, but I'm intrigued. - CD

65. Jay Z - Magna Carta ... Holy Grail

On January 1, I never would have predicted this as my top album of the year. I like Jay Z well enough, but I’ve never been a super fan. But with this album -- which I caught up with a bit late, due to the baby and all -- there was always a new track to obsess over, from the Justin Timberlake-helmed torcher “Holy Grail” to the jazzy “Somewhereinamerica” to the infectious “BBC.” I’ve always known Jay Z was a talent, but in consuming this album, I came to appreciate the fact that he’s really one of the best musicians out there today. - GC
64. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator

63. The 1975 - The 1975

This is a killer record. It so full of awesome vocals, digital effects, huge drums and catchy melodies. Just some great, solid pop with amazing energy. -JG

Very surprised this didn't make the Top 50. Odd juxtaposition on this one for me. It's not a kids' record -- curse words, adult themes -- which is really too bad, because I feel like my kids would love singing along to some of these tunes in the car. - CD

62. Yuck - Glow and Behold

I like Yuck because they take me back to the 90s when I was a teenager. That's pretty much the appeal for me. - RB

61. Patty Griffin - American Kid

I love Patty Griffin and American Kid is a great journey across the U.S. serenaded the entire time by her beautiful voice. The songwriting is amazing, the instrumentation is spot-on, and the flow of the record is great. Patty is still one of the greatest voices is folk-country. -JG

60. Minor Alps - Get There

A real surprise of an album, matching up the minds behind two of the great bands of the 90s -- the Blake Babies and Nada Surf. - dw

What happens when Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and Juliana Hatfield get together and put out an album? You get a heartfelt collection of pop songs rich with sweet harmonies, classic melodies, incredible songwriting, and an electronic shimmer that makes the whole thing glow. This collaboration is really a delight. - GC

59. Best Coast - Fade Away

There's just something about Best Coast lead singer Bethany Cosentino's vocal delivery that enchants me. I think I could listen to her read the phone book. - AC

I hated the last Best Coast record. Hated it. It was terrible. This was redeeming. The songwriting is actually decent and the entire record didn't feel made for being picked up for commercials. I was surprised to hear it and even more surprised that it made it onto my top 50 list. -JG

I didn't love this at all. I like Best Coast in fits and spurts, but...I liked the old one a lot more. - RB

58. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest

It’s tough for me to understand exactly why I put this album so low in my personal list (14). I love Boards of Canada immensely. Geoghaddi is one of my favorite albums of all time. So much time off (eight years since their last full-length) should had made this album an automatic top five, but in a year with so much good music it wasn’t close. This wasn’t just about the 2013 competition, though. Tomorrow’s Harvest doesn’t differ enough from their other work for me to really get into it. Everything you ever loved about Boards of Canada is basically here, but there’s nothing else. It’s too expected and it sounds… exactly the same? Their sound in general remains unique and easily identifiable but I craved something more. It doesn’t move forward enough. OK, that was an awful lot of negativity for an album I really like. Essentials: Reach For The Dead; Palace Posy; Uritual - SB

57. Queens of the Stone Age - Like Clockwork

Through this their sixth album, front man Josh Homme has been the only consistency of the band. And it's his gritty vision that pushes the band, and this aptly titled album, continuously forward. Aided by a variety of other musicians, from Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl to Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner -- Homme weaves together a tremendous rock and roll record. - AC

Holds up well. Nothing remarkable about it in the sense of "I'll be listening to this a decade from now," but surely one of the best rock albums of 2013. - RB

56. Pusha T - My Name Is My Name

As I've apparently turned into the hip-hop correspondents for the nerds amongst us, I'll say that crack rap isn't to everyone's taste. With his Clipse parter-in-crime brother trading his paeans to cocaine-dealing to appearing on The 700 Club and rapping about Christian salvation, Pusha T has to hold down the family name on his debut solo release. He does an admirable job helped by solid beats and characteristically slick flows. Few in the rap game right now can weave a story as well as he does and it shows on one of the best rap records of the year. It'll hold up well. - RB

55. Capital Cities - In A Tidal Wave of Mystery

Yes, they're jingle writers. Yes, every song could be on your favorite commercial. But in a year when pop music made a huge comeback, their craftsmanship shows. And "Farrah Fawcett Hair" is such over-the-top, eccentric greatness. - dw

Now this is what I call fun. This electronic pop duo has released an album -- anchored by the rightfully ubiquitous single “Safe and Sound” but also fleshed out by blippy jam “Kangaroo Court” and the dance floor gem “I Sold My Bed, but Not My Stereo” -- that works as well for day drinking as it does for night moves. - GC

54. Aoife O'Donovan - Fossils

Former Crooked Still lead singer puts out a fine debut album. - dw

She’s been a featured singer on collaborations with Chris Thile and Yo Yo Ma, but finally gets her own solo record to showcase her silky smooth voice. You’ll know within 20 seconds of Lay My Burden Down if she’s for you. -EO

53. Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses - The Low Highway

The Low Highway captures a poignant, grim view of America -- an underbelly of the homeless (“Invisible”), meth heads (“Calico County”), the disillusioned (“21st Century Blues”) and the forever hopeful (“Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”). Earle continues to preach about the struggles and trials of America’s underclass in a way that should wake us up, if we dare listen. - AC

52. Johnny Marr - The Messenger

All the beautiful, angular guitar riffs of the former Smiths guitarist without the annoying crooning of Morrissey. What could be better? - AC

I never got into the Smiths because I couldn't get past Morrissey. But this is a solid, honest-to-goodness guitar rock record. Dig it. - CD

51. Savages - Silence Yourself

I can't really say what about this appealed to me specifically. I just know that I liked it and found myself playing it a lot. - RB

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