Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Top 30 Albums of 2013

What a year.

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 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

On their best album since 2004’s Futures, Jimmy Eat World ditch the studio sheen of their last few records in favor of the dirtier and grungier sonic palette that better reflects their live performances. Some wrote the record off for its muddy production - courtesy of first-time JEW producer Alain Johannes - but for me, the songs were too good to deny. The band channels their vitriolic punk influences on the ringing anthem that is "How’d You Have Me," their 1990s emo roots on the climactic "Byebyelove," and their poppier elements on "Damage," holding the whole thing together as a semi-conceptual piece that frontman Jim Adkins described as "a grown-up break-up album." For me, it was way more than that. Serendipitously, this album entered my life during the final weeks of college, and every song will forever be tied to the bittersweet finality of those last days. From the yearning emotion of "Please Say No" to the resigned farewell of "You Were Good," I couldn’t have dreamed up a better soundtrack for driving away from four years of friends, good times, and self-discovery, and striking out toward adulthood and whatever came with it. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Appreciation," "Damage," "Please Say No"

03. The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars

The second (and likely, last) album from songwriting duo Joy Williams and John Paul White is the closest thing to Rumours our generation will probably ever hear. Torn apart by "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition," The Civil Wars - a folk/alt-country act that looked on the brink of superstardom just two years ago - seem to be waging a war of their own on this self-titled record. The songs get more dynamic, emotional, and electric as a result, sparking with tension on explosive rock-tinged highlights like "I Had Me a Girl" and "Oh Henry," or wallowing in beautiful despair on the lonesome suite of songs ("Same Old, Same Old," "Dust to Dust," and "Eavesdrop") that marks this record’s first half as the most bulletproof musical statement anyone made in 2013. The album tapers off a bit toward the end, losing some of its taut intensity on a pair of closing tracks ("Sacred Heart" and "D’Arlene") that would have sounded more at home on the first record. But the smoky whirlwind of rootsy instrumentation on display here - and especially the tour-de-force vocal performances - still make The Civil Wars arguably the "greatest" record of the year. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "I Had Me a Girl," "Dust to Dust," "Oh Henry"

04. Dawes - Stories Don’t End

I was a big fan of Dawes’ last record, 2011’s Nothing is Wrong, which landed at number 20 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

Jason Isbell and Will Hoge (at the top of this list) are good friends who have made very similar music in the past (see "Go It Alone" from Isbell’s last record, 2011's Here We Rest, and "Just Like Me" from Hoge’s 2009 album, The Wreckage). But the inherent similarities between Hoge and Isbell as songwriters and genre contemporaries make it all the more surprising how different their 2013 works are. Where Hoge goes for bombastic production, fully-fleshed out arrangements, and lots of big classic rock songs, Isbell dials things back to a beautiful level of restraint on Southeastern, leaving little more than acoustic instrumentation and spartan, classic country production to fill out these 12 tracks. Southeastern is a record all about the lyrics, whether they are uplifting, as on album opener "Cover Me Up" ("I sobered up, I swore off that stuff forever this time," Isbell croons) or utterly heartbreaking, as on "Elephant," the year’s most perfect piece of songwriting and the best song ever written about cancer. Elsewhere, Isbell sings about the hopelessness of ongoing loneliness ("Traveling Alone"), the battle of a former serial killer to change his ways ("Live Oak"), and the power of music to bring a person back after they've walked away ("Songs That She Sang in the Shower"). Add some infectious rockers ("Flying Over Water," "Super 8") and the year's best closing track ("Relatively Easy"), and you've got the makings of a masterpiece. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Cover Me Up," "Elephant," "Relatively Easy"

06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

For a band that seemed to unite everyone with their debut record nine years ago, Arcade Fire have been releasing incredibly divisive music pretty much ever since. Reflektor, a sprawling double album where the average track length is about 5:22 – and that’s only with the blatantly unnecessary ocean of noise at the end of "Supersymmetry" excised – is the band’s most polarizing album to date. It’s also one of their best, parlaying influences from dance music and Greek mythology (to name a few) into a collection that is reminiscent of U2’s Achtung Baby in the way it departs from the band’s past work, but still keeps their core elements (stadium-sized earnestness, full-bodied arrangements, a reverence for classic rock and pop music) intact. Davie Bowie shows up on the glammy title track, "Joan of Arc" is kinetic Talking Heads new wave, and "Awful Sound" is downright Springsteenian in its escapist themes. Elsewhere, the band sets fire to the proceedings on "Normal Person," a venomous, Stones-like rocker with a blistering guitar riff, while "Here Comes the Night Time" uses Haitian grooves and spinning wheel piano chords to create a topsy-turvy carnivalesque atmosphere. Finally, frontman Win Butler provides the album’s most emotive moments on the late-album one-two punch of "Porno," an electro-pop disco ballad, and "Afterlife," a masterful gem which continues Arcade Fire’s tradition of leaving huge album highlights in the penultimate slot. None of it is as perfect or immediate as "Wake Up" or "Rebellion (Lies)," but it all does justice to the indulgent double album format in a way no other band has in years.

Key tracks: "Normal Person," "Porno," "Afterlife"

07. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

As someone who has always liked the National, but never quite understood the Messianic praise they receive, Trouble Will Find Me was a surprising record for me. Right from the moment the gorgeous hum of "I Should Live In Salt" crackled through my speakers, its dark, lovelorn vibe recalling "Sweetness Follows" from R.E.M.’s seminal LP, Automatic for the People, I knew I was going to feel differently about this album than I had about past work like High Violet or Boxer. It’s a long LP - potentially longer than it needs to be at 55 minutes and 13 tracks - but the unhurried ebb and flow of these songs is something that not a lot of bands today can muster. Maybe it’s all because of Matt Berninger’s booming baritone - so beautifully displayed on early album stand-outs like "Demons" or "Don’t Swallow the Cap" - and how it never sounds strained or inadequate, even on songs that rely on dynamic and explosive crescendos ("Graceless," "Sea of Love"). Ultimately though, it’s the back half of the record that gets me, from the low-light slow burn of "Humiliation" to the never-ending swell of "Pink Rabbits," all the way to "Hard to Find," the warm and inviting lullaby of an album closer. (Read the staff roundtable discussion here.)

Key tracks: "I Should Live in Salt," "Pink Rabbits," "Humiliation"

08. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart

It figures that Frank Turner’s most consistent and focused album to date comes as the result of heartbreak. On Tape Deck Heart the famously scattershot British songwriter is at his very best thanks to the break-up album theme, slinging monstrous hooks ("Recovery"), Counting Crows-esque folk rock ("Losing Days," "The Way I Tend to Be"), and poignantly lonely dirges ("Broken Piano," about an instrument that can only play minor chords) for a record that is both sobering and blisteringly uplifting. On album highlight "Good & Gone," Turner blames Hollywood and Motley Crue for giving him an unrealistic portrait of love; on "Plain Sailing Weather," he envisions himself as the guy who can "fuck up anything," and on "Tell Tale Signs," he compares an oblivious heartbreaker of a girl to a scar that never quite fades away. Of course, Turner can’t quite resist his knack for eclecticism: "Four Simple Words" blends baroque musical theater with pirate punk rock for an anthem clearly meant for live show performance, while "Oh Brother" is about the unbreakable ties of a tight-knit friendship. But when the sun breaks through the clouds - on songs like "The Fisher King Blues," an ode to a life without constraints, or "We Shall Not Overcome," a resilient b-side that remind us how we’re all figuring things out as we go - the album gains a whole extra layer of thematic force.

Key tracks: "Recovery," "The Way I Tend to Be," "Good & Gone"

09. John Mayer - Paradise Valley

John Mayer’s weakest album in over a decade is still a terrific collection of songs, playing off the 1970s California folk of last year’s Born and Raised - a top 5 finisher 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

Sometimes, music just has perfect timing. In any other year, the 1975’s full-length debut album probably wouldn’t have cracked my top 10. I would have considered it a solid pop album with strong hooks and terrific production, but it likely would not have had the personal resonance necessary to rank above 15 or 20. But then serendipity played a role. The day this album streamed for the first time was the day before I asked my girlfriend of three years to marry me. A hastily downloaded webrip ensured that I had the album on my iPod for the five-hour drive to our hometown that Friday evening. The next day, the album soundtracked my life the next day as I drove around my childhood hometown, picked up an engagement ring I’d had made at a designer jewelry store downtown, and traveled the sun-drenched waterside roads to my soon-to-be fiancĂ©e's house. After I’d popped the question, we shared a glorious end-of-summer evening out on the town with our families, along the way dispensing our big news to friends, relatives, and loved ones via phone calls and text messages. The whole day was perfect, and the way this album framed it all is something I will never forget. From triumphantly driving past my old school late that night while the emotional climax of "Robbers" rang through my car to reconnecting with my absentee father and picking a best man on the same weekend that songs like "Is There Somebody Who Can Watch You" and "Menswear" came into my life," this entire album felt like it was written for me on that specific day. You can bet that I’ll hold it near and dear to my heart for the rest of my life as a result.

Key tracks: "Sex," "Robbers," "Menswear"

11. Night Beds - Country Sleep

Released on February 5 - and leaked to the internet significantly ahead of that date - Night Beds’ Country Sleep was 2013’s first great album. 10 months later, it still stands up as one of the best records I heard this year, marked by yearning reverb-drenched vocals (the a cappela mood-setter that is "Faithful Heights"), Ryan Adams-esque heartbreakers ("Cherry Blossoms"), and surprisingly infectious pop singles ("Ramona"). Quite often, it’s easy to write off Winston Yellen - the mastermind behind the band - as little more than the sum of his influences. Adams is the most obvious parallel - from the driving nighttime folk of "22" to "TENN," the semi-autobiographical closer - but traces of Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, and Bon Iver abound elsewhere. Ultimately though, the album transcends homage, simply because it’s virtually impossible to pick a track where Yellen sounds anything less than completely genuine. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: “Ramona,” “22,” “Cherry Blossoms”

12. Matt Nathanson - The Last of the Great Pretenders

Matt Nathanson has long been one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and his latest record - while it largely forsakes his usual hook-heavy pop songwriting territory in favor of more exploratory pastures - did nothing to change that. Where 2007’s Some Mad Hope began with a chiming anthem in the form of "Car Crash," and where 2011’s Modern Love kicked off with the heartthrob teen pop of "Faster," this year’s Last of the Great Pretenders opens in a markedly more menacing vein. "Earthquake Weather," the record’s first taste, is a scathing shot of adrenaline, marked by unsettling piano keys and beat-heavy production. "Mission Bells," the second track and lead-off single, reprises the same hip-hop ready production and partners it with a Mat Kearney-esque chorus. And "Last Days of Summer in San Francisco," the album’s finest hour (and one of the best songs of the year) splits the difference between a classic Nathanson pop song and a soaring U2 anthem. The album is never as strong as it is on those first three tracks, but plenty of other moments, from the Cheap Trick-flavored power pop of "Annie’s Always Waiting (For the Next One to Leave)" to the classic singer/songwriter vibe of "Sunday New York Times," all the way to the stirring New Year’s finale that is "Farewell December," sound like mixtape standards in the making. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: “Earthquake Weather,” “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco,” “Sunday New York Times”

13. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

Before The 20/20 Experience became a sprawling double album, it was the ambitious comeback project of a guy who had been away from the music game for the better part of seven years. The album’s first single, the sultry "Suit and Tie," played the return safely, steering toward Timberlake’s wheelhouse dancefloor pop and getting one of his famous friends - an out-of-place Jay Z - to endorse it with a guest feature. However, from the moment The 20/20 Experience started streaming on iTunes, it was clear that this JT was a different one than the guy we’d left in 2006. Gone were the urban rhythms and dark atmospherics of FutureSex/LoveSounds, replaced here by swooning neo-soul on the classic-soundtrack-worthy opening track, an eight-minute melange of orchestral string sections and gorgeous falsetto lines called "Pusher Love Girl." The rest of the record was every bit as ambitious, with an average track length of seven minutes and with songs that featured towering eighties-style guitar solos (the Prince-aping "Spaceship Coupe"), hip-shaking Latin grooves (the steady crescendo of "Let the Groove Get In"), and arena rock textures ("Mirrors"). Sure, Timberlake can still swing a perfectly simplistic pop song without breaking a sweat (see "That Girl"), and his vocals have never been better than on the sobering and restrained "Blue Ocean Floor." But in an age of boring blockbuster pop albums, filled to the brim with lyrical cliches, cookie-cutter melodies, and repetitious production techniques, Timberlake proved that he could still be a relevant industry modern fixture not simply for his voice, hooks, or looks, but also for his willingness to push the envelope and create music that is at once challenging, creative, and cool. (Read my review here.)

Keys tracks: "Let the Groove Get In," "Mirrors," "Blue Ocean Floor"

14. CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe

While The Bones of What You Believe is actually the third debut album on my list this year - after the 1975 and Night Beds - I would argue that no artist took me more by surprise in 2013 than CHVRCHES. From the get-go, Night Beds was a slam dunk (Sad bastard folk music? Sign me up!), while the 1975 could win over just about anyone with an anthemic single like "Sex." CHVRCHES though, with the way they straddled the boundaries between electronic and pop music, were a bit outside my wheelhouse. I initially dismissed this record after a single listen, but repeated praise for it from publications I read and listeners whose opinions I trust brought me back to it. I’m glad they did. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry is great at handling soaring hooks when the band decides to play up the "pop" side of their electropop genre distinction (as on album highlights like "The Mother we Share" and "We Sink"), but the band is actually more interesting when they embrace the inherent darkness in their sound. For instance, the fragile "Lies" seems to find Mayberry about one verse shy of breaking down in some dim and hazy nightclub, while the album closer, a luminescent and lush ballad called "You Caught the Light," brings synth player Martin Doherty to the mic for an M83-esque slowdance.

Key tracks: "We Sink," "Lies," "You Caught the Light"

15. The Lone Bellow - The Lone Bellow

Joy Williams dominates most of the second Civil Wars album from a vocal perspective, and she absolutely kills it. But since I always preferred John Paul White on the first album, I found myself longing for a bit more of his soaring emotive vocals. While The Lone Bellow don't quite fulfill that desire - to be fair, this band is not a John Paul White side project - they certainly come close. Lead vocalist Zach Williams is the band's secret weapon, singing with hushed subtlety in the quieter moments and belting with the same reckless abandon as other emotive folkies (John Paul White and Glen Hansard are the names that come to mind right away) for the album's triumphant peaks. The Lone Bellow, like so many other bands this year, expend their best song in the opening slot, a rousing, instant-classic folk anthem called "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold." But the steady crescendo of "Tree to Grow," the gentle restraint of "Two Sides of Lonely" or "You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional," and the kinetic Fleetwood Mac feel of "Bleeding Out" all do their part to posit this band as one worth watching. Less mainstream and more traditional than the current crop of popular Americana bands, but with the talent and promise of acts twice their age, it's hardly surprising that critical acclaim was there to meet this trio upon their January arrival. And with Charlie Peacock, the producer of The Civil Wars, behind the boards, it's fair to call this album a perfect companion piece to the near-fautless record I placed in my number 3 slot.

Key tracks: "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold," "Tree to Grow," "Bleeding Out"

16. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City, the internet's favorite album of the year, very nearly missed my top 30. For the entire summer and most of the fall, this was a record that I liked a pleasant amount - especially considering my previous distaste for Vampire Weekend - but one that I didn't love nearly as much as everyone else seemed to. But a late-year gravitation to this album's breezy and resilient indie-pop sound caused me to reconsider. Track after track, hook after hook, from the smoggy New York City sunrise of "Obvious Bicycle" to the pastoral lullaby of album coda track, "Young Lion,"Modern Vampires of the City serves up one infectious and unforgettable musical feast after another. Frontman Ezra Koenig's pristine vocals on huge pop songs like "Unbelievers" and "Diane Young" are, quite literally, only the tip of the iceberg here. Arguably the most impressive aspect of this album is how it blends an array of organic instrumentation - tinkling pianos, pounding drums, and ringing organ - with studio flourishes and unique orchestrations. Explosive synth lines, warped electric guitar, weird vocal effects (all over album highlights like "Step" and "Diane Young," and veritable bursts of sonic force (on the rapidfire patter song that is "Worship You") add a ton to this album, but do so without ever sacrificing the effortless feel of the songs.

Key tracks: "Unbelievers," "Step," "Diane Young"

17. Los Campesinos - No Blues

Prior to this year, I'd never listened to this band, a six-piece indie pop act hailing from Cardiff, Wales. But after spending a lot of time with the catastrophically catchy hooks, grooves, licks, and vocal inflections of No Blues, their fifth full-length album, I know I'm going to have to correct that oversight. From the unspooling tape deck surge of opener "Flotsam Jetsam" to the infectious hook of "Avocado, Baby," and from the synth-layered darkness of "What Death Leaves Behind" to the euphoric back-up vocal congregations of "As Lucerne/The Low," this record's songs somehow manage to be sugary without being cheesy, hook-filled without ever feeling like pop radio, and funny or ironic without ever sacrificing the epic sweep of their arrangements. Like the bubblegum pink smoke cloud on the cover suggests, this album is a colorful experience from start to finish, and it frankly has to be heard to be believed.

Key tracks: "Flotsam Jetsam," "What Death Leaves Behind," "Avocado, Baby"

18. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park

Reminiscent throughout of Fearless-era Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park provided a nice dose of indelible, catchy, and moving pop country in a year where Swift was busy touring stadiums. Same Trailer, Different Park doesn't have the same adventurous spirit as Swift's best work (suffice to say that there was a reason Red landed in my top 10 last year), but Musgraves is certainly cut from a similar cloth. Throughout this record, Musgraves has a remarkable ability to write songs that come across as cute, funny, and strikingly sad all at once. Case in point is "Merry Go Round,” a hit on mainstream country radio which, instead of extolling the virtues of a maverick rural lifestyle - as most of Musgraves' contemporaries do -paints the small town as a Springsteenian construct, a place that must be escaped lest you wish to burn out and fail. It's a reductive statement, to be sure, but the song's mournful banjo and acoustic guitar accompaniment, along with the gentle twang of Musgraves' voice and her clever twists on conventional childhood nursery rhymes, paint her as a young person whose dreams and naive optimism are slowly being torn asunder by a town she's outgrown. Elsewhere, "Follow Your Arrow" takes on the poisons of a judgmental society, "Silver Lining" plays as a hymn about taking risks and living life with resilient resolve, and songs like "I Miss You," "Back on the Map," "Keep it to Yourself," and "It is What it Is" make lovelorn loneliness sound prettier than it has any right to. Most of the time, Musgraves is refreshingly self-aware and innovative with her lyrics - especially for a genre that has long relied on the same generic themes - but even when Musgraves embraces the tropes of mainstream country, she is talented enough to stand apart from the crowd. I'll be surprised if, in a few years, we don't look back at this album and see it as the birth of a star.

Key tracks: "Merry Go Round," "Keep it to Yourself," "Follow Your Arrow"

19. Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest

While The Blessed Unrest, Sara Bareilles’s fourth full-length studio album and her third on a major label, doesn’t quite live up to the levels of 2010’s Kaleidoscope Heart, it still stands as one of the year’s finest mainstream pop releases. Everyone who turned on a radio this year probably heard "Brave," the album's lead-off single, opening track, and weakest moment. But The Blessed Unrest is much more than just a hit vehicle. Sure, there are other potential hits here, like the stirring piano pop of "Chasing the Sun" - which perfectly encapsulates the record’s "life in New York City" theme - or the night-on-the-town fluff of "Little Black Dress." But as with her last record, Bareilles is considerably more interesting when she is steering away from the mainstream. "Hercules" evokes Fiona Apple, "Eden" recalls Prince, and the classy jazz club piano balladry of "Manhattan" sounds instantly timeless. Bareilles also takes an active interest in production this time around, leading to stunningly lush and startlingly emotional highlights like "Satellite Call" and "Islands." Still, it’s clear that Bareilles doesn’t need the aid of the studio to sound great: just listen to her top-notch 2013 live album, Brave Enough and the innumerable stunning vocal moments contained therein. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Manhattan," "Satellite Call," "Islands"

20. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Part 2 of 2

When the first part of The 20/20 Experience hit shelves back in February, the biggest complaint surrounding it was that Timberlake was being self-indulgent, overreaching into sprawling song lengths that he couldn’t quite make work, and turning his comeback to the pop world into an overlong and exhausting listen with startlingly little pop immediacy. When JT announced that The 20/20 Experience was, in fact, a two-part album, the complaints of length suddenly got a bit more serious. After all, the combined 20/20 Experience might just be the longest double album ever released by an established artist, clocking in at a total of 144 minutes. (Comparatively, the longest double albums I have in my iTunes collection, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness and Red Hot Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium, both barely scrape past the 2 hour mark.) The 20/20 Experience: Part 2 of 2 doesn’t do much to trim back the track lengths of its predecessor, but it does bring a bit more pop accessibility to the table, with striking hooks abounding on the whiskey-drenched country of "Drink You Away," the Michael Jackson rave-up of "Take Back the Night," the 1990s boy band pop of "Not a Bad Thing," and the kinetic guitar rock of "Only When I Walk Away." There’s a greater range of quality than with the first part, with Timberlake’s best and worst qualities as an artist frequently coming to the forefront (sometimes all in the course of a single song, as with "TKO," which has a strong hook but distracting production flourishes, or "Murder," which would be a bona-fide pop smash were it not for the worst guest verse of Jay Z’s career). But when Timberlake makes contact, he hits home runs. Case in point is "Amnesia," which balances the performer’s dark dance floor roots with his propensity for dreamy vocal soundscapes. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Take Back the Night," “Drink You Away,” “Amnesia”

21. The Dangerous Summer - Golden Record

In 2009, the Dangerous Summer topped my year-end list; in 2011, they did it again. This year, with their third full-length record scheduled for a late summer release, I had no reason to believe that this band’s near-unparalleled ability to appeal directly to my emotions would wane. But for whatever reason, be it new members, the band’s propensity for causing drama, or my own transition from summers of carefree youth to summers of responsibility and adulthood, Golden Record failed to connect in the fashion that made Reach for the Sun and War Paint two of my all-time favorite records. It’s tempting for me to call this my biggest disappointment of the year, and I almost left it off this list as a result. But once the dust cleared and I was able to listen to this record with a level head, I realized that I still had a connection to the band’s music, even if it wasn’t as powerful as before. Sure, it took changing the sequencing and re-approaching the album from a different direction for me to really appreciate it (the band’s chosen track order is abysmal), and even then it’s undoubtedly the band’s weakest work to date. But songs like "Catholic Girls" and "Miles Apart" are as good as anything in the Dangerous Summer catalog, and gems like "Sins," "Honesty," "We Will Wait in the Fog," and "Anchor" display the same infectious melodies and towering emotion that turned me into a fan of this band in the first place. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Catholic Girls," "Miles Apart," "Anchor"

22. The Head and the Heart - Let’s Be Still

2012 kickstarted - among other things - a massive revival of folk and bluegrass music in the mainstream. Between Mumford & Sons' Babel - which won a contentious album of the year Grammy for its mainstream success and poppy distillation of traditionally Americana textures - Of Monsters & Men's rousing boy/girl folk pop singles, and the Lumineers' winterish, heart-on-the-sleeve brand of bluegrass, modern folk had a banner year in 2012. Cut from the same cloth is the Head and the Heart, a Seattle indie folk group who, on their second record, combine the male/female dynamic of Of Monsters & Men with the kick drum rhythms of Mumford and the wistful nostalgia of the Lumineers for an album that has mainstream potential, but never sacrifices its pure backwoods authenticity for radio appeal. There are a wealth of great songs here, from the infectious "Shake," the band's best bid for the Lumineers' slot on the radio, to the mid-tempo, autumnal drive of "10,000 Weight in Gold." Album highlight "Josh McBride" slows things down for a poignant photo album reminiscence of grandparents and simpler times, while the sound of passing trains flicker through "Gone," the album's towering, near-symphonic closer. None of it reinvents the wheel, and the people who have spent the past few years attacking bands like Mumford for their lack of creativity probably won't find much to love here. However, the Head and the Heart write songs which are warm, inviting, and memorable, and I can see this being a go-to album for brisk fall nights and dim winter afternoons for years to come.

Key tracks: “Homecoming Heroes," "Josh McBride," "Gone"

23. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm

A lot of people took issue with The Hurry and the Harm, the fourth full-length studio album from singer/songwriter Dallas Green's City and Colour project. For me, this record was the first since Green's C&C debut (2005's Sometimes) to really live up to the songwriter's penchant for desolate, lonesome folk-pop. Though it opens in a vein of gorgeous alt-country (on the irresistibly great title track) and sun-soaked California folk (the acoustic-based "Of Space and Time"), The Hurry and the Harm is actually a very dark record, from the electric scratch of "Thirst" to the cinematic late-night highway dirge of "Two Coins," all the way to the climactic heft of "Ladies and Gentlemen" or the haunting backing vocals of album closer, "Death's Song." It's not a perfect record, as emphasized on songs like "Commentators," an irritating bop that serves as the worst possible vehicle for Green's serene high tenor voice. But when Green turns to his trademark nighttime songwriting as on "Take Care," the lonely City and Colour sound that made Sometimes cuts like "Hello, I'm In Delaware" and "Day Old Hate" so wrenching feels like it's been resurrected for the first time in years. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "The Hurry and the Harm," "Two Coins," "Take Care"

24. Haim - Days Are Gone

When the percussive indie pop of Haim's debut full-length first starts pouring through the speakers on the fantastic lead-off track, "Falling," it legitimately sounds like a record from another era. These three sisters so perfectly capture the sonic spirit of 1970s classic rock, R&B, and singer/songwriter records that it's a bit remarkable they made this album in 2013. From the steady rain patter rhythm of "Falling" to the sultry falsetto vocals of the title track, this album is a maze of infectious melodies, lush vocal harmonies, and gorgeously crisp guitar tones. It's also the rare kind of top 30 album where I neither have many specific things to say about it, nor think there are really standout tracks (though the booming darkness of "My Song 5," which blends a sludgy and muscular guitar riff with a Timbaland-esque, dub-infused groove, certainly makes a case for itself). Instead, Days Are Gone thrives on the irresistible atmosphere and flow it cultivates between track 1 and track 12. From first note to last, the spell of this record never once breaks - a feat that a lot of much older, much more seasoned musicians could stand to learn from these three young sisters from L.A.

Key tracks: "Falling," "Days Are Gone," "My Song 5"

25. Josh Ritter - The Beast in its Tracks

I’ve cooled off considerably on this record since I gave it an 8.5 early in the year, mostly because Ritter is not my favorite vocalist and I can’t return to his records as frequently as I do with some others. With that said, there’s a lot to love about The Beast in its Tracks, a collection of songs that Ritter wrote following the dissolution of his marriage. Predictably, the album’s best songs are the ones that most closely address Ritter’s heartbreak, from the narrative sweep of "Hopeful" (a song I described back in March as Ritter’s "Tangled Up in Blue") to the biting kiss-off that is "New Lover." The concise, breezy folk tracks that litter the rest of the record are still wholly enjoyable, but it’s arguably to the album’s detriment that its highlights stand out in such strong relief. See "Joy to You Baby," which effortless distills the albums themes, both thematic and musical, into the space of 4.5-minutes. The chiming, evening-time mood of that song has landed it on virtually every mixtape I’ve made this year, but its redemptive lyrical arc ("I guess it all adds up to joy in the end," Ritter sings at the end, letting go of his anger and heartbreak and resigning himself to moving on) make it essential in a way that I don’t think the full album quite is. Still, that I can say all this while putting The Beast in its Tracks as my 25th favorite album of the year only speaks volumes of Ritter’s undeniable skill as a songwriter. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Hopeful," "New Lover," "Joy to You Baby"

26. Have Mercy - The Earth Pushed Back

Three or four years ago, Have Mercy would have been a legitimate album of the year contender for me. For a long time, the music featured on this album - dark, angsty, heartbroken emo - was precisely what I wanted for muggy late night summer drives. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun growing out of this kind of music - hence the few-and-far-between nature of the emo/pop-punk/scene releases on this list. However, The Earth Pushed Back, the first full-length album from Baltimore-based alt-rockers Have Mercy, still struck an emotional chord with me, not because I can relate many of the lyrics to where I am in my life right now, but because the songs act as time capsules of sorts to a time dominated by loneliness, unrequited longing, and other patent adolescent feelings. Listening to this record reminds me of the first time I heard The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun. As with that record, it’s the diaristic lyrics and the reckless emotion of the vocals that set Have Mercy apart from a formulaic genre, with lines like "I still listen to your favorite songs/Wishing you were in my arms" ("This Old Ark"), "We laughed in the sun, we laid in the grass/And I felt the Earth pushing back, it pushed back" ("Weak in the Knees"), or "You said that you would be there when I dream/So why are you not next to me?" ("When I Sleep") hearkening back to a time when your AIM away message needed to express all of the things you could never find the words to say on your own. It’s nothing revolutionary from a musical perspective, but I’d imagine that, for those who found this record at the right time, it was still a game changer.

Key tracks: "Hell," "Let’s Talk About Your Hair," "Living Dead"

27. Goo Goo Dolls - Magnetic

Surprised? Me too, though I never claimed this list was going to be trendy. On their best album since the 1998 radio rock classic, Dizzy up the Girl, these ‘90s fixtures recaptured my attention in a way that I never thought they would again. 2010’s Something for the Rest of Us was a relatively joyless bore, without the hits or hooks that made the Goo Goo Dolls famous, while 2006’s Let Love In had a few strong singles, but mostly fell flat in the "deep cuts" category. Magnetic finds the band in an interesting position where they can probably still sell out amphitheatres in any state, but likely won’t ever again pen a genuine hit song. Frontman Johnny Rzeznik and company respond remarkably well to that conundrum, slinging songs that aren't built for the radio, but which surely sounded immaculate coming from the stages of outdoor venues on hot summer evenings. The aptly titled "Last Hot Night" is the most obvious play for that style, a driving anthem that opened all of the band’s tour dates this summer. But the rest of Magnetic sees a band that has always had a gift for hooks coming up with some of their finest melodies in years. The highlight is "Keep the Car Running," the bombastic and climactic closer, but the shameless summer pop of "Rebel Beat," the acoustic-driven "Come to Me," and the paean to undying devotion that is "When the World Breaks Your Heart" all reach mixtape gold standards by hearkening back to a time to a time in my life when hearing these guys on the radio every morning on the way to elementary school was the highlight of my day.

Key tracks: "When the World Breaks Your Heart," "Last Hot Night," "Keep the Car Running"

28. The Summer Set - Legendary

If I were to make a list of songs that should have been huge hits during the summer of 2013, then "Jukebox (Life Goes On)" would be at the top of it. If I had any cred left after including the Goo Goo Dolls, it’s surely gone with this entry, from the most shamelessly poppy pop-punk band in all the land. But you can’t fuck with timing, and these songs, which arrived in my inbox about halfway through April, had the timing part of the equation down in spades. If you had been in my situation, I reckon you'd understand. After all, hearing a song like "Jukebox" during your final weekend of college parties and your last night out sharing a beer (or five) with the guys who made your college years worth it, that’s the kind of serendipitous meeting of song and life occurrence that seems determined by fate. The rest of Legendary, which ranges from similarly anthemic night-out-on-the-town pop ("Maybe Tonight") to blissfully hooky break-up songs ("Happy for You," "The Way We Were"), fairly easily earns this record the title of "year’s catchiest album" for me. Trim this fucker down to eight or ten tracks and it’s the best pop album of the year, period, but grating missteps like "Boomerang" and "Fuck U Over" hamper the interim a bit. Luckily, the high points - from the Springsteen reference in “Jukebox” to the Dia Frampton appearance in “Heart on the Floor” - far outweigh the duds, and they left me unwilling to trim this album from my list. Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but with hooks like these, there’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Key tracks: "Jukebox," "Heart on the Floor," "Someday"

29. Jeremy Porter - Partner in Crime

One of the things I miss most about college is working at the student newspaper as the Arts & Entertainment editor. While in that post during my senior year, I spoke with a slew of really genuine, music-loving local musicians and heard a lot of great records that I'd wager a lot of the people around these parts would love. Partner in Crime, from Detroit-based throwback rockers Jeremy Porter & the Tucos, was the best of those for 2013. Blending influences from 1970s power pop, 1980s punk rock, and 1990s alt-country, Partner in Crime is a personality crisis of a record that balances Cheap Trick sugar-rush pop (the opening one-two punch of "Castaways" and "Little Miss Awesome"), Replacements-esque punk rock ("Make Out King," "You Owe Me a Heart"), and radiant Whiskeytown-flavored roots balladry ("Wandering Eye," "Partner in Crime") for a collection that loves rock 'n' roll as much as its creator. As for best songs of the year, Partner in Crime offers up a notable nominee in the form of "Barely All the Time" a dusky, electric guitar-based slow-burn whose opening lyric (“I don't need no remindin' that it's the end of summertime) earned it a closing slot on virtually every summer mixtape I made this year. (Read my review here.)

Key tracks: "Castaways," "Partner in Crime," "Barely All the Time"

30. The Wonder Years - The Greatest Generation

I’ve talked a few times over the course of this list about how music can hit you at the perfect time and become something bigger than notes and lyrics. But what about when music arrives at the wrong time and soundtracks a time of your life you’d rather forget? In some ways, that’s what my situation was with The Greatest Generation. When this record hit, it was the beginning of May. The weather was finally starting to warm up, I was a college graduate, I was living with my girlfriend of three years - finally, after too much time spent residing in different zip codes - and I had a few decent prospects for my first post-college job. By all means, this album should have been the soundtrack to the most triumphant summer of my life. It should have been the sound of a promising twentysomething finding his feet in one of the biggest cities in the country.

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"

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