In terms of notable life events, I'd say that 2013 was probably the most important year of my life. I won last-minute scholarships and awards. I graduated from college. I left my hometown - and state - behind, all to search for post-university opportunities. I moved in with my girlfriend. I got my first job. I quit my first job. I took up a career as a freelance writer. I stopped being a freeloader and became a (mostly) self-sufficient human being. I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes. I started planning my wedding. I turned 23. I listened to over 200 records. I wrote tens of thousands (and perhaps even hundreds of thousands) of words, spanning all manner of different subjects. I wrote 60 reviews for Absolutepunk.net. I wrote 10 "My Back Pages" features with my bud Chris Collum (look for more of those in 2013). And I wrote the 13,000 words that you are (hopefully) about to consider reading. I'll reiterate my offer from last year: if anyone reads this whole thing, I'll give them a cookie.
Suffice to say that it's been a remarkable year. It wasn't always easy and it wasn't always fun, but in the moments of triumph and strife alike, I had this year's host of terrific albums at my back, spurring me forward. I frankly can't remember a year more stacked with great music than this one. And I probably say that every year, but I think the fact that I wrote 60 blurbs below (50 for LPs, 10 for EPs) speaks to just how much notable material found its way to my ears in 2013. Some of those records were populist radio-ready selections; others were critically-acclaimed indie favorites; a few were cut from the cloth that has served as this scene's bread and butter for years; and still others were written by complete or relative unknowns. I like to think my list spans quite a range of different artists and genres, and I hope that, if your tastes match up with mine, you will find something new to love here.
As I look through this list one last time, after weeks spent writing blurbs, picking key tracks, and sweating about the order (spoiler alert: I'm still not quite happy with it), I think the time has finally come for me to lay my pencil down and call it a year. It's been a gift writing for Absolutepunk in 2013, and I hope that 2014 will bring as much great music and as many notable life events as this one did. Since I'm getting married in July, I have no doubt those hopes will be realized. So Happy New Year, happy listening, and let's all have a kick ass 2014.
01. Will Hoge - Never Give In
When I found out that Will Hoge was releasing a new album this year - and heard the first single, a Chevrolet ad campaign song called "Strong" - I certainly didn’t think it would end up at the top of my year-end list. Hoge’s most recent records, while good, have not lived up to the career defining work of 2007’s Draw the Curtains. But when this album showed up in my mailbox, sometime during a golden and unseasonably warm Chicago autumn, it just clicked. From start to finish, Never Give In is the best full-album distillation of Hoge’s talents that the country singer songwriter has yet captured on record. Right from the outset of "A Different Man," the towering Springsteenian anthem that opens the album, I knew I was going to love Never Give In, and the other 10 tracks certainly didn’t disappoint. Indeed, this album is an embarrassment of riches, filled with powerful storytelling, soaring hooks, towering guitar solos, shimmering instrumental breaks, forceful gospel choirs, nostalgic B3 organ, and mournful pedal steel. It was a difficult choice for my album of the year title this year, but ultimately, it just came down to likability, and frankly, I don’t think I’ve liked an album as much as Never Give In in quite some time. (Read my review here.)
Key tracks: "A Different Man," "Never Give In," "Home is Where the Heart Breaks"
02. Jimmy Eat World - Damage
Key tracks: "Appreciation," "Damage," "Please Say No"
03. The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars
Key tracks: "I Had Me a Girl," "Dust to Dust," "Oh Henry"
04. Dawes - Stories Don’t End
on my list two years ago. However, that particular Laurel Canyon folk-indebted gem didn’t prepare me for Stories Don’t End, which is easily the group’s best work to date and one of the finest records of the year. Where Nothing is Wrong painted a picture of a band living in the shadow of classic rock legacy, Stories Don’t End sees them balancing those influences with a more modern musical palette and production style. The result is not only the first record that captures Dawes’ dynamic live show energy, but also one that posits the band as torchbearers for the next phase of modern folk rather than as four guys consistently living in their record collections. Every moment of Stories Don’t End is great, from the grandiose harmony swells of "Just Beneath the Surface" to the multi-tracked vocal climax of "Most People," or from the kinetic guitar solo of first single, "From a Window Seat," to the B3 organ swells of "From the Right Angle." The highlight is "Something in Common," a stirring and poetic ballad that feels almost church-bound in scope and instrumentation. But even the minor tracks - stuff like "Hey Lover," a spontaneous Blake Mills cover, or "Someone Will," a bass-heavy piece of sunburned California country - are never anything less than infectious. (Read my review here.)
Key tracks: "Most People," "Something in Common," "From the Right Angle"
05. Jason Isbell - Southeastern
Key tracks: "Cover Me Up," "Elephant," "Relatively Easy"
06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Key tracks: "Normal Person," "Porno," "Afterlife"
07. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Key tracks: "I Should Live in Salt," "Pink Rabbits," "Humiliation"
08. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart
Key tracks: "Recovery," "The Way I Tend to Be," "Good & Gone"
09. John Mayer - Paradise Valley
on my 2012 list - for another venture into roots-based music. The style isn’t as consistent this time around, flitting from throwback AOR ("Wildfire") to folky arena rock (the wordless climax of "Dear Marie"), and from guitar-oriented blues (the slightly unnecessary, but wholly enjoyable cover of "Call Me the Breeze") to redneck country music ("You’re No One Until Someone Lets You Down). In between, Mayer hits the soft-rock palette his radio fans appreciate, on numbers like the Taylor Swift-referencing "Paper Doll" or the Katie Perry-featuring "Who You Love," but his best moments come when he goes for more lyrical, personal territory, like on the soul-searching lullaby that is "Waiting on the Day," the wandering cowboy treatise of "Badge and Gun," or the poetic end-of-summer hymn, "On the Way Home." Best or not, Paradise Valley is the sound of a guy who has never made a bad record and isn't planning on doing so anytime soon. (Read my review here.)
Key tracks: "Dear Marie," "Badge and Gun," "On the Way Home"
10. The 1975 - The 1975
Key tracks: "Sex," "Robbers," "Menswear"
11. Night Beds - Country Sleep
Key tracks: “Ramona,” “22,” “Cherry Blossoms”
12. Matt Nathanson - The Last of the Great Pretenders
Key tracks: “Earthquake Weather,” “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco,” “Sunday New York Times”
13. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience
Keys tracks: "Let the Groove Get In," "Mirrors," "Blue Ocean Floor"
14. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
Key tracks: "We Sink," "Lies," "You Caught the Light"
15. The Lone Bellow - The Lone Bellow
Key tracks: "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold," "Tree to Grow," "Bleeding Out"
16. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Key tracks: "Unbelievers," "Step," "Diane Young"
17. Los Campesinos - No Blues
Key tracks: "Flotsam Jetsam," "What Death Leaves Behind," "Avocado, Baby"
18. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park
Key tracks: "Merry Go Round," "Keep it to Yourself," "Follow Your Arrow"
19. Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest
Key tracks: "Manhattan," "Satellite Call," "Islands"
20. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Part 2 of 2
Key tracks: "Take Back the Night," “Drink You Away,” “Amnesia”
21. The Dangerous Summer - Golden Record
Key tracks: "Catholic Girls," "Miles Apart," "Anchor"
22. The Head and the Heart - Let’s Be Still
Key tracks: “Homecoming Heroes," "Josh McBride," "Gone"
23. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm
Key tracks: "The Hurry and the Harm," "Two Coins," "Take Care"
24. Haim - Days Are Gone
Key tracks: "Falling," "Days Are Gone," "My Song 5"
25. Josh Ritter - The Beast in its Tracks
Key tracks: "Hopeful," "New Lover," "Joy to You Baby"
26. Have Mercy - The Earth Pushed Back
Key tracks: "Hell," "Let’s Talk About Your Hair," "Living Dead"
27. Goo Goo Dolls - Magnetic
Key tracks: "When the World Breaks Your Heart," "Last Hot Night," "Keep the Car Running"
28. The Summer Set - Legendary
Key tracks: "Jukebox," "Heart on the Floor," "Someday"
29. Jeremy Porter - Partner in Crime
Key tracks: "Castaways," "Partner in Crime," "Barely All the Time"
30. The Wonder Years - The Greatest Generation
But then, I took the wrong job, and everything went to hell - this record included. I guess it figured. I played this album on my commute the first morning of that new job, acting as if songs like "Passing Through a Screen Door" or "We Could Die Like This" or "Teenage Parents" or "Dismantling Summer" were bona fide anthems, even though their lyrics spoke of stagnation, heartbreak, and failure. Two weeks, a car crash, and plentiful frustration and misery later, I quit that fucking job and drove what was left of myself back from whence it came. I still had my whole life ahead of me, I still had possibilities, and I still had the girl I was going to marry. But listening to "Passing Through a Screen Door" in the wake of those disastrous two weeks and hearing the climactic lines ("Jesus Christ, I’m 26, all the people I graduated with/All have kids, all have wives, all have people who care if they come home at night"), it made me feel about as low as I’ve ever felt. I still love this record: I think it’s the best thing these guys have done by a long shot, and it would have been dishonest for me to leave it off this list for how big a part it obviously played in my 2013 soundtrack. But suffice to say that I’m going to need a little more time before this one goes back into regular rotation again.
Key tracks: "There, There," "Passing Through a Screen Door," "I Just Want to Sell out My Funeral"