Friday, January 24, 2014

All Around Sound's Favorite Albums of 2013

It may not actually be true but this year at least seemed to be extensively stacked with follow ups from returning artists rather than a year which overflowed with impressive debuts. Whether those bands/artists had essentially released an album not too long ago (Alessi's Ark, Teitur), followed the traditional release schedule of an album every other year (Arctic Monkeys, Telekinesis) or appeared after a lengthy hiatus (Basia Bulat, Johnny Flynn), 2013 was filled with an impressive series of releases from more established acts. That's not to say there weren't impressive debut records to be found this year but rather, there was deluge of excitement-stirring announcements from bands newly out of the studio or that had finally gotten the go ahead from their label and/or distributor to make this their year. This year's list, like last year's, features a collection of my favorite records released this year in no particular order other than how they came in to memory.

The Dodos - Carrier
San Francisco duo The Dodos might very well be one of the most underrated "popular" bands going right now. Around the release of their albums, there's a justifiable buzz of interest that always seems to fizzle out a week or two after the record. Maybe that's just in my circle but they're a band with an incredible level of consistency while also offering up remarkably good ideas. 2011's No Color was an all around winner and this year's full length Carrier ups the ante a bit. In part a tribute to the recently departed Chris Reimer of Women, the guitar stars on Carrier in a way that it hasn't really been spotlighted before. Sure, there's still the percussive momentum that galvanizes the duo's oddly accessible guitar rock stylings but strives to be and achieves the goal of being the duo's most introspective album. Each of the album's tracks has absolute magnificent moments of beguiling melodic work and Meric Long's expansive experimentation with different guitar tones and curtails Kroeber's energetic drumming for emotional depth and a much more lyrical focus. It's an album that takes what worked well on No Color (backing vocals and strings) and utilizes them again while expanding them and pairing them up with new ideas. Carrier perfectly balances those moments of quiet, rumination ("Relief", "Death", "The Ocean") with moments of liveliness and jubilation ("Substance", "Confidence", "The Current") sometimes doing so in the same song ("Transformer", "Destroyer").

Lucius - Wildewoman
I still remember my initial discovery of female-fronted Brooklyn pop rock quintet Lucius - it was perhaps my most visceral response to live music in my entire history of attending live shows. Normal show etiquette seemed an unfathomable burden to me. Who was this band? Where did they come from and how was I only now discovering them? How the hell were they so damn good? These are the questions I wondered aloud in a crowd of showgoers who probably wanted nothing more than for me to shut the hell up and enjoy the show. Lucius, with their 60s girl group retro rock vibe and infectious melody and head-spinning harmonies, were easily one of my favorite new bands and their live energy was unmatched. While I lamented that last year's self-titled EP failed to capture the true spirit of their live show, I had hope that when the fivesome finally put their debut album into the world all would be well. They didn't. Wildewoman, while featuring all five members as a band instead of focusing merely as a spotlight for Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig future separates the group from their electric live energy. The songs that carried over from the EP are remixed, reproduced toward a far less organic center. "Hey, Doreen", the album's true pop behemoth is a multitude of layers that's notably difficult to pull off live. And yet, even with its production choices, Wildewoman is a gem of an album. The new tracks full of Lucius' trademark smiling, winking charm ("Wildewoman", "Nothing Ordnary) or resonant emotive core ("Tempest", "Monsters").  While others like "Two of Us On the Run" "Until We Get There" and "How Loud Your Heart Gets" spotlight the ladies' ferocious and soulful vocal prowess while relying very little on the group's formidable pop chops. Wildewoman is a balanced effort which feels a whole lot more inclusive than last year's EP. It's a debut album of practically overwhelming strength even if it neglects to make proper use of the band's full potential.

Steve Gunn - Time Off
I would've missed the boat entirely on Steve Gunn's excellent, excellent record Time Off if it didn't come with the highest of recommendations from Daughn Gibson when I tapped him to participate in this year's blog birthday playlist extravaganza. Steve Gunn has and will probably continue to receive comparisons to all the greatest guitar players of all time and for good reason - Gunn's guitar prowess is awe-inspiring. Not in the flashy showman way of rock guitarists but for Time Off's thoughtfully spun narratives, Gunn wields his guitar as an extension of himself - indulging in a great deal of musical world building before the first verses are even sung. His melodies are vibrant and memorable, simple in terms of their pleasant ear-catchingness but complex in the dazzling array of colors he infuses his tunes with his instrument alone. Time Off is all wind-swept sketches that fully embrace less is more and is all the more impressive for it. Gunn's smooth uncomplicated rambles are paired perfectly with his effortlessly clean bluesy guitar lines and the results are pure synergistic excellence where the journey IS the reward.

Little Tybee - For Distant Viewing
Little Tybee's third full length record is a true testament to taking your time to really allow a record to gestate. Originally slated for a release right on the heels of 2011's Humorous to Bees, circumstances caused the album to be delayed and a strong argument can be made for the positive in that. Each song on For Distant Viewing seems to take its time, stretch its legs and hang around for awhile - from its eponymous opening track which luxuriates in its rapidly shifting musical ideas and multitude of layers so much that its climactic "Get down!" is like a jolt to the system, galvanizing not only the track itself but your interest in it. Little Tybee are a band of incredibly competent musicians and For Distant Viewing probably more than any other album gives the band the space to truly display their individual talents as well as the ensemble as a whole - featuring a series of rousing instrumental breaks and intense jams.

Typhoon - White Lighter
Forgive me if it sounds like I'm gushing but bands like Portland's folk rock collective Typhoon are a rarity. Boasting a bewildering 11 member roster, they're stunningly agile - utilizing their members not only effectively but also efficiently refusing to let anyone fall by the wayside or be deployed solely as an ornament. While Kyle Morton's songwriting talents are ultimately beyond reproach, the band gathers around them like moths to a flame letting their talents mingle with his in such a way that Typhoon never feels like just a vehicle for Morton. White Lighter continues the band's life-affirming, soul-rousing brand of highly literate rock while also polishing it in a way it wasn't on previous full length Hunger and Thirst. White Lighter plays with it's own established themes, lyrics, and melodies - recalling them cyclically and climatically with greater purpose than if it discarded them when first applied making White Lighter a much more resonant album than most. It's an album of passionate epiphanous moments freely given though filtered through a rock lens so you're not really aware you've learned anything at all. But Morton's open-armed embrace of sickness, weakness, and death and Typhoon's verisimilitude make White Lighter and album that'll stick with you long after it's done playing.

Golden Suits - Golden Suits
When I heard Fred Nicolaus from Department of Eagles was working on a solo record, I was excited. When I heard Daniel Rossen was assisting with it, I was ecstatic. You see as someone who's been carrying a major torch for Department of Eagles, this was a dream come true. A potential reunion of sorts. But Fred Nicolaus' first solo record under the name Golden Suits isn't a Department of Eagles record. Not in the slightest and that is perhaps it's greatest strength. Alone, Nicolaus' talents are far more out in the open. While Golden Suits follows in a long trend of heartbreak-fueled records, it manages to distinguish itself due to Nicolaus' excellent lyrical gifts, guitar prowess, and uncanny knack for melody. Each track on Golden Suits is composed of a little memorable extra that elevate it from good to great. Considering Fred Nicolaus is no stranger to the music industry/music-making in general, it's not really a shock that the man can craft of considerable worth but what is, and pleasantly, is its subtlety and gentleness in asserting itself as such. The song Cheever-inspired character sketches frankensteined with real life inspiration that never lets itself wallow. Golden Suits is an album of half-smiles, self-aware chuckles, and the occasional frown or two but it's an album that embraces the positives of emotional devastation and starting over again. The songs are casual reflections - never ascending to "baby come back!" level of pining and reverberate with a quiet cathartic strength even as Nicolaus rattles off the occasional self-deprecating lyric. It's also features damn good arrangements that heighten everything from narrative drama to aural pleasure.

Villagers - {Awayland}
There's always talk of singer/songwriters particularly those of the folk variety of being poets but for few people is this actually true than of Conor O'Brien of Villagers. And yet, the simple, quiet resonance of 2010's Becoming A Jackal had clearly done its damage - when O'Brien and company returned late year the game was clearly renaissance. "The Waves" and "Passing A Message" with electronic-stitch sonic tapestries and grooves were a statement of purpose and yet even despite the unexpected 180, O'Brien's narrative voice - of pitch-perfect descriptive lyricism was present if not honed. {Awayland}'s songs cover a dramatically different scope of emotions - no doubt born from the live energy cultivated from a touring behind the first record but also filled with an excitement of new paths tread. {Awayland} manages to keep what has worked well with Villagers in the past while also engaging in a great deal of reinvention. O'Brien's lyricism is clearer, more eloquent, and far more visceral that comes off as a very natural progression for Villagers.

The Heligoats - Back to the Ache
The Heligoat's frontman Chris Otepka has always had a way with the English language - elevating mundane details to high revelance due mostly in part to his own fascination with them and an ability to deftly use his words to make them something of interest. While Goodness Gracious dealt with a lot of the bigger questions we ponder - Back to the Ache shrinks down the focus to a molecular level. While also taking Otepka's curious attention to the details and employing in on whole level entire - that of his band. Back to the Ache functions far more as a band record than Goodness Gracious with those songs not likely to suffer if stripped down and played solo (which Otepka has done) in the latest album, there's an feel that would no doubt be lost. The album is really good old fashioned indie rock - strongly so with the added benefit of Otepka's lyricism. That's essentially what makes the album - the inclusion of a noticeable full band sound while retaining Otepka front and center.

Camp Counselors - Huntress
I'm a sucker for a good, original concept and an album inspired by old horror movie soundtracks was certainly original enough to pique my interest. That it was another effort from Cemeteries mastermind Kyle Reigle was another. Huntress, the debut record from Reigle's offshoot project Camp Counselors manages to create a distinctive brand of accessible synth pop while staying true to its initial inspiration - the lyrics are dark and mysterious, the aura eerie and otherworldly, and the beats undeniable. Huntress is a record as methodically established and embellished as the rules of the genre it sees to emulate. It's the perfect example of how an simple idea - in this case Reigle's lifelong obsession - can flourish into something truly spectacular. A great concept album doesn't have to be epic - it just needs the right mix of ambition and excitement and Huntress is a testament to that. Tremendously enjoyable in its own right while laying the groundwork for Reigle's further experimentation distinguishing it as far more than a fun throwaway and more as a benchmark of innovation.

Son Lux - Lanterns
There's something to be said of composer/arranger Ryan Lott's third outing as Son Lux. Lanterns encapsulates so much about what Lott such an interesting artist. It's no so much that Son Lux has fallen into a consistent groove as it is Lott continuously pushes the boundaries of his own creative process while offering works that are boldly experimental but still intensely engaging. Lanterns is a remarkably complex record, of that there's no question, but it's not a record that requires a lot of superfluous mythology or is challenging enough that its enjoyment isn't immediate. That's essentially my favorite thing about Son Lux and his creative process. There's a hell of a lot going on behind the scenes - as Lott cut, pastes, rearranges, and otherwise toys with the concept of linear songwriting but the end product is always something that is unquestionably beautiful but appears effortlessly so. Lott isn't the kind of experimentalist that thrives on exclusion or inaccessibility and that's always an endearing feature of his works of which Lanterns is no different; even carrying over the illumination theme of lanterns from sophomore effort We Are Rising's "Flickers" and expanding it in a whole new set of ways.

Young Man - Beyond Was All Around Me
After discovering singer/songwriter Colin Caulfield's Young Man project during the last quarter of 2012, I approached Beyond Was All Around Me, the final installation of Caulfield's Young Man moniker, with both a sense of tremendous anticipation and dread. There were, to me, so few male singer/songwriters actually discussing issues that were uniquely pertinent to a twenty-something male and I was both sad to see the project go and exciting as how Caulfield would tidy the whole thing up. One the last full length of the project, Caulfield plunges forward both in terms of his newly implemented band who imbue the album with an immediacy and spirited delivery we hadn't seen before. While Caulfield excelled at thoughtful, careful plotting on previous releases, there's no denying the excitement inducing fast-pacing. Caulfield's approach to the tail end of his saga is delighfully open ended but not frustratingly so. His future may take the form of an eternal ellipses but he does engage in a far bit of speculation. What's more, there's an incredible sense of closure gained from Caulfield's incorporation of many of the hallmarks of his other records - namely the return of string arrangements and themes. Beyond Was All Around Me is not only a perfect end to Caulfield's ruminations but also a stellar record on its own merits.

Young Dreams - Between Places
It's rare that I give in completely to total anticipation than I did upon discovering Norwegian orchestral pop group Young Dreams. Led to them by tourmate/champion Sondre Lerche, I was pretty much sold from fading strains of "Dream alone, wake together" and with each subsequent single release my enthusiasm rose and I became more and more certain that Young Dreams debut full length would be a truly worthwhile listen. Between Places exceeded all my possible expectations - expanding the sextet's tropical-inspired nostalgia-riden vibes into a full on masterpiece. On one end - it works as perfect collection of would be singles but also functions as a cohesive unit and doesn't steer clear of longform song structure - devoting a whopping 18 minutes and change towards the album's conclusion towards artistically plotted experimentations. As if the six songs that proceeded them weren't enough, Young Dreams go all out here - demonstrating their influences and overall musicianship pretty aptly. As a whole, Young Dreams' Between Places is musical escapism at is finest - recalling bright sunny days and balmy temperatures, and the optimism and thrills of youth without any of the poor decision making involved. It's an exceptional debut from a band bursting with ideas but fluent enough in pop to get them all out there patiently.  

Buke & Gase - General Dome
To say there are few bands as innovative and boundary-pushing as Buke & Gase seems a little obvious but also a bit of an understatement. Buke & Gase have essentially through pure ingenuity ultimately created a sound unlike any other, that was essentially the beauty of their debut record Riposte and General Dome proves that there's really no limits as far as the band's creativity is concerned. General Dome both manages to be completely unlike their debut while still sharing a common distinct sound - namely in the cacophonous energetic cerebral sprint that is Buke & Gase's form of music making. There is, of course, a grand arching concept to General Dome but that doesn't distract at all from it's accessibility - an accessibility that is actually rather surprising. While Buke & Gase are one of those truly rare bands where literally no genre can/will stick to them, there is no getting around the fact that their songs are distinct, memorable, and dare I say downright catchy.  General Dome expands the wonderfully psychological elements of Riposte to dramatically levels bordering on paranoia. The result is a heady rush of thrilling rise and falls - from manic screams to hushed whispers that never seems able to shake off its boundless kinetic energy or sense of unease until the album comes sputtering to is exhausted end.    

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle
It's almost bewildering how British folk siren Laura Marling manages to stay so incredibly consistent release after release. Her latest effort Once I Was An Eagle is both a more ambitious and more intimate spin on Marling's distinctive brand of narrative driven folk rambles. While just the first four suite of songs is enough to nominate it for absolutely everyone's surefire favorite, through stripping down Marling and collaborator Ethan Johns get downright creative with the accompaniment. As if her normal way, Marling's songs are both frustrating mysterious and boldly telling at the same time. As the line are further blended between fiction and fact, Marling stays true to a couple of her pre-established fascinations - water, scorned women, and all-consuming passion. In a weird way, it's by noticeably shifting the focus away from her to the super and preternatural that makes Marling's songwriting all the more curious. Despite the unecessary speculation of when/where Marling is talking about her experiences directly or in elaborate metaphor, Marling's songs maintain their simple poetry that remain as relatable as ever.

Mutual Benefit - Love's Crushing Diamond
There is a certain amount of balance and finesse that must be applied to musical catharsis. Too much wallowing and a whole album can feel cloying and claustrophobic maybe even the wrong kind of depressing. Too light and the endeavor can seem a tad bit trite. Like the problems presented aren't worth relating too if the singer themself isn't too bothered by them. But thankfully Mutual Benefit has no such difficultly. Where Jordan Lee and his collaborators succeed is not only in providing a valid and viable alternative to your standard pop in its articulately formed textural layering but in the rather small scale epic presentation. Love's Crushing Diamond is a journey, both of Lee's own experiences and through it's own bit of forward momentum. It's an album that's astonishing relatable; courageously vulnerable without sounding like entries out of a sad boy's diary. There's something to be said for the musicianship of it all - cyclical in its scope and played with pitch-perfect tenderness and managing to captivate not only with Lee's stellar songwriting but with its effortless use of space. Love's Crushing Diamond is a truly special record that manages to reach the perfect balance of rugged individualism and an endearing sense of universality.

Honorable Mentions:
Brazos - Saltwater

Chris Holm - Kilos

Emily Reo - Olive Juice

Friend Roulette - I'm Sorry You Hit Your Head

Genders - Get Lost

Radiation City - Animals in the Median

San Fermin - San Fermin

Secret Mountains - Rainer

Wild Ones - Keep It Safe

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