I listen to too much music, so I am not going to try to list everything I liked in 2013, but I would like to highlight a few of the recordings that have stuck with me. They are unranked.
Hem- Departures and Farewell
Closing time. The final car to pull away from the gravesite after the memorial service. A stage manager locks up the quiet theater the night of the last show. Dusk. The uncertainty of what lies ahead. These songs are places of letting go and looking forward, each under the guidance of the entrancing vocals and natural strength of Sally Ellyson. This album was a pleasant surprise since they had been on what I thought was a permanent hiatus. I hope it is not their goodbye.
Favorite tracks: “Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing” and “Tourniquet”
Son Lux- Lanterns
The digital age is a mess on many levels, so it is no surprise that the desire to escape and the opportunities for it seem to be more prevalent than ages past. That is probably a gross oversimplification, but I am going to stick with it for the sake of touching on the theme of this record. Like Departures and Farewell, Lanterns takes a hard look at what has been lost, in this case by “progress”, (“I’ve had enough of our machines”) and casts a hopeful vision for transcendence (“We rise in the dying” or “I’ll keep my lanterns lit”). That being said, this is the album of the year in my book. Every time I pick it up I have to listen all the way through; it is masterful. While Ryan Lott is still working within the bounds of pop, he stretches them in the best ways and seems to accomplish exactly what he set out to do. This is much more of an experience than a collection of songs.
Favorite tracks: “Lost it to Trying” and “Pyre”
Susanne Sundfor- The Silicone Veil
Susanne Sundfor sings alone in an abandoned digital cathedral of synths and strings. She desperately labors to bring heat and meaning into the cold and cruel. Sometimes it feels as if she is trying to knock down the walls with throbbing electronic heart beats and her desirous, fitful vocals. A less figurative way of describing “The Silicone Veil” would be to say that her sound combines a voice that reminds me of a more desperate Rufus Wainwright with Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack. Clearly I should review music for a living.
Favorite tracks: “White Foxes” and “The Silicone Veil”
Vampire Weekend- Modern Vampires in the City
Being a band of such a distinct sound, it was encouraging to see them expanding their bounds and doing so successfully. Enough has been written about this CD, which made Rolling Stone’s number one album of the year, so I am just going to make a random comment. Oddly, there are several places where this album makes me think of Randy Newman. The deliberately blasphemous tone of “Ya Heah”, openly mocking the name “Yahweh”, reminds me of Randy Newman’s “God Song”, in which Yahweh, the speaker in the song, sounds like a twisted villain. They are both uncomfortably clever and catchy criticisms. Also, something about “Hudson” always reminds me of Newman’s “In Germany Before the War”, though I can’t put my finger on why. Do you hear it?
Favorite tracks: “Everlasting Arms” and “Hudson”
Mavis Staples- One True Vine
This second collaboration between Staples, a gospel legend, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo captures the essence of Staples’ voice and songs while backing them with Tweedy’s minimalist alt. country/blues arrangements. I struggle with most religious records; I have a tendency to keep most of them at arm’s length with an unshakable suspicion, but something about her voice invites me to sing along and mean every note.
Favorite tracks: “Every Step” and “Far Celestial Shore”
Bifrost Arts- He Will Not Cry Out
This is not a pragmatic worship album, aiming to build towards an arena rock version of romantic, emotional, God loving catharsis. Instead, Isaac Wardell’s third project stirs worship through complex, beautiful melodies and production, as well as complex, beautiful theological texts. Its aim seems to be to worship through stillness, contemplation, beauty, and community. I believe this is their first shot to move beyond interesting arrangements of old tunes to creating fully original liturgy. It is definitely their strongest project to date. As usual, even if you are not a fan of religious music, the songs, production, and performances would be irresistible to any indie-folkies.
Favorite tracks: “Restore Us, O Lord” and “His Wounds”
Ron Block- Walking Song
Ron Block has long been an acknowledged master of his instrument. Google him and you will see what I mean. In Walking Song, Block, with the partnership of Rebecca Reynolds, is on the road to mastering the craft of songwriting as well. This album exudes confidence, joy, and freedom. The lyrics, the melodies, and the performances are the perfect blend of classic and fresh, old timey and brand new, and it is all quite catchy.
Favorite tracks: “Nickel Tree Line” and “Sunshine Billy”
I would also like to include the new records from The National, The Arcade Fire, Jason Isbell, and Andy Gullahorn. I have listened to them enough to include them, but I need a little more time with them before I write more. There are also a few on my wish list (Josh Ritter, Laura Marling, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Caleb Burhan, Night Beds) that I hope to catch up to once I have the means.