Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 50 Albums Of 2013: End-Of-The-Year List of Rainbows and Sunshine

Because I had to find a way to fit in a Pentatonix reference.
Over the past twelve months, I finished high school, questioned (and then came back around to) my faith, wrote a lot of angsty teen poetry, took too many selfies, and met a lot of great people. That aside, I also lost a good deal of my hearing listening to all of the fabulous music that came out in 2013. To put it this way: the albums on this list alone run for a combined length of 36 hours, give or take a few minutes. I've listened to most of them a good three or four times, and some of the ones near the top of this list I've heard upwards of ten times. For the sake of convenience, let's assume I listened to each of these about five times, making for a total listening time of 180 hours for only the 50 albums below. Then consider that this isn't even a third of the music I've heard this year when you count all of the other albums, EPs, and singles from 2013. I would estimate I spent about 600 hours (or 25 days) listening to music this year, which is 6.85% of the entire year--an even larger proportion when you exclude the time I spent asleep. It's no surprise that when I look back on 2013, music will be an enormous part of my memories.

But even when I'm old and deaf in one ear, I won't regret a moment of the time I spent here: MuzikDizcovery has become a home for me, not just for the fantastic community of staff members but for every single one of you who read, listen and (as our site's name suggests) discover. You make this one of the best places for a music lover to be.

Clicking on an album title will take you to an album stream or, failing that, a stream of a single. Onwards!


50. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die - Whenever, If Ever

Twisty, layered emo-rock patched together from scrapbook memories; every time I listen to this album I get too lost in the flow of ideas to get a good grip, but this album is one to stick with for sure.

49. Admirers - Involuntary Memory

Admirers writes synth-pop for aimless nights spent wandering through dim alleyways and empty playgrounds. Listen for the joy lurking in every corner. My review here.

48. Trent Dabbs - The Way We Look At Horses

Introspective material from a skilled singer-songwriter with surprising staying power, thanks to the album's strong sense of place and its abundance of hooks. The radio-ready "She's My Destination" and the brooding, powerful "Midnight Walls" are the obvious standouts, but every song has something to offer. My review here.

47. Sigur Ros - Kveikur

I remember blasting this nonstop during midterm season, and for that if nothing else it deserves mention here. Sigur Ros has a way of taking dark motifs in cathartic directions, and even in Kveikur's heavier moments there is a surprisingly graceful touch.

46. CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe

This wasn't my favorite pop release of the year, but just about every song is good and there's a washed-out aesthetic to the entire album that stuck with me. My favorite track is buried at the very end: "You Caught The Light," compelling in its stark emptiness.

45. Charli XCX - True Romance

Icona Pop got all the hype this year (and not undeservedly so), but it shouldn't be long before Charli XCX gets her day in the limelight: the "I Don't Care" guest vocalist is just as good delivering oodles of sass and charm on an eclectic debut that never stops surprising.

44. Blitz Lunar - Triptunes

Favorite chiptune album of the year: a game of genre roulette absolutely packed with ideas. The opening trilogy of "You Time," "You Show," and "You Universe" alone touches on more than most artists can reach in an entire album. Strap yourselves in and go spelunking, brave explorers. My review here.

43. Vicky Cryer - The Synthetic Love Of Emotional Engineering

This has grown off me a bit from the beginning of the year, but it's still a wicked good ride with some of the dirtiest pop-rock tunes in recent memory. My review here.

Serph - el esperanka
42. Serph - el esperanka

Thank you to my friend Logan for introducing me to Serph: the Japanese electronica artist offers up textures and rhythms galore on his new album el esperanka. The title is a combination of the Egyptian word for "key of life" and the Spanish word for "hope," and beneath the album's chilly vibe there's a sense of hope nestled in Serph's bustling soundscapes: the angelic chorus rising in the background of "shift," the sparkling xylophones brushing up against chaotic piano chords on "ankh."

41. Willy Mason - Carry On

Folk for the impending apocalypse; ashes blowing over scorched skies, Mason's burnt voice reflecting on the ruins over campfire guitar and barren drum programming. My review here.

40. Jordan Klassen - Repentance

Jordan Klassen's music is so adorably sweet it could be packaged and sold in bakeries, but he infuses each song with a vulnerability that sticks with me even after I lick the powdered sugar off my fingers. My review here.

39. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience, Part 1

For some reason, 2013 was the year for pop stars of yesteryear to drop albums out of nowhere and scare the lights out of all of us (see also: Beyonce, Fall Out Boy). When the result is an album as ambitious and exciting as this, though, I'm not complaining.

38. Misha Mishenko - strákur sem spilar með vindi

Like many aspiring writers, I take the weather far too seriously; this album sounds exactly like that moment in late March where you see the first flowers peeking out of the sidewalk concrete. My review here.

37. Ariana Grande - Yours Truly

"Our next Mariah Carey is here," everybody rejoiced as Ariana Grande made her debut in September, but Ms. Grande is more than some diva's mini-me. On Yours Truly, she is wide-eyed 90s revivalist ("Baby I"), snarky songstress ("Piano"), and raver in prom getup ("Better Left Unsaid"), and she's compelling in every role.

36. Marques Toliver - Land of CanAan

Toliver has an absolutely beautiful voice, but his strength is in how he uses it to bridge classical music and more modern sounds. My review here.

35. Little Suns - Normal Human Feelings

Adventurous, spirited folk music with the scope of a world-class band in the making. My review here.

34. Migrant Kids - Migrant Kids

2013 was kind of the year where I came to terms with my love for emo-rock, and albums like Migrant Kids' debut made that transition all the more natural. A force of nature. My review here.

33. The Sounds - Weekend

Weekend is refreshing, both as a return to the basics of rock and as an expansion of that sound. My review here.

My choice for Korean-pop album of the year, Modern Times transcends its influences: its showtune spirit evokes days long gone, but the way IU delves into romance, nostalgia and maturity is timeless, grounding her fairy-tale tunes in something heartfelt and real.

31. Beyonce - Beyonce

Thanks, Beyonce. Not just for dropping your motherlode two weeks before the end-of-the-year, ruining the list I had just managed to finalize, but also for knocking me off my feet with some of your most honest, bold and moving songs to date. We treat you as a symbol of success, femininity and power, but here you become something far more compelling: a flesh-and-bone human being.

Maria Mena - Weapon in Mind
30. Maria Mena - Weapon in Mind

Maria Mena is a fine singer-songwriter, but Weapon in Mind's prime strength is that it makes no effort to sound like a singer-songwriter album. It wears its electronic influences on its sleeve, and Mena gives Popeye a run for his money with her mouth (in fact, one of the album's best songs is the gleefully empowering "Fuck You"). It's at times jarring, synthetic, ugly; the sound of a young woman working through her issues in detail. Yet it also leaves moments for comfort, for grace and redemption and healing; the takeaway is that happiness may be hard, but it is never out of reach.

29. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

You are so fab, Janelle Monae. You never let anybody stomp on your happiness; you dance all over anybody who dares rain on your parade. Everything you release is a bit of a doozy, but I love every second of this album and I'll be back for more soon.

28. ON AN ON - Give In

How can something so sad sound so beautiful? My review here.

27. Shnabubula and Gabe Terracciano - Americana Dawn

Ever dream of being a settler on the American frontier? It's too bad, but at least there's this badass improvisational orchestral album to indulge your imagination. It's a rearrangement of an upcoming RPG soundtrack, so you know it's going to be epic. It's also free. Have I convinced you yet? If I haven't, my review is here.

26. Brother Dege - How To Kill A Horse

How To Kill A Horse is as gruesome as its title suggests, but Brother Dege has a way with words and a scorched-earth voice that holds me rapt. My review here.

25. Rare Monk - Sleep/Attack

I'm a sucker for any band that finds innovative ways to use orchestral instrumentation, and Portland indie-rock Rare Monk is one of the most interesting hybrids I've heard this year. Here the strings burst into each song with violent abandon, sweeping me into a crushing embrace. Absolutely stunning.

24. Lights & Motion - Save Your Heart

Very good post-rock album: heavy on the emotion but never contrived. This has gotten me through some cold nights. My review here.

23. The Como Brothers Band - Baby Steps

Pop that is as poppy as pop can be, but it pops (I'm sorry and I'll stop now) thanks to some great songwriting and two brothers who play off each other wonderfully. A debut album is always hard to land, but Baby Steps is so relaxed and likable that it wins me over completely. My review here.

22. Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve

Songs for future uprisings. Great to have this band in my life.

CFCF - Outside
21. CFCF - Outside

CFCF composes songs that tap into something visceral, even as their murky production and sound betray little. His patience and faith in the listener's intelligence pays dividends on this thoughtful, haunting release.

20. Grandchildren - Golden Age

An album of sparkling orchestral pop gems; beyond that I cannot say much, but Golden Age is definitely intriguing and I'll be revisiting it.

19. Enemies - Embark, Embrace

Absolutely joyful math-rock, bursting with interesting rhythms and atmospheric passages. Enemies deliver every rowdy riff, moody motif and crushing climax with precision, but the feeling never gets lost in the formula.

18. Campfire OK - When You Have Arrived

Campfire OK's understated folk music grows on me with every listen. This album's psychedelic sound may be spooky, but it's also wonderfully warm, with a great collective of voices at its center and some unexpected moments of catharsis. My review here.

17. Winter Dust - Autumn Years

Autumn Years is one of the best post-rock releases of the year, blending hook-heavy songwriting with gruff rock vocals and gritty, gorgeous instrumentation.

16. Fall Out Boy - Save Rock And Roll

This album earns points just for being so out-of-left-field, but taken on its own it's a sincere, passionate call to arms for all fans of pop-rock with everything from soaring stadium anthems ("The Phoenix") to poignant love songs ("Just One Yesterday"). Fall Out Boy does everything here and does it very well.

15. OneRepublic - Native

Waking Up was an experiment in minimalism, stripping OneRepublic down to the bare basics and pushing the importance of songwriting: the practice pays off on Native, which effortlessly straddles the line between candlelight intimacy and pop power.

14. Pentatonix - PTX, Vol. 2

I make no secret of my love for Pentatonix here, and here the superstar quintet from Texas does just what it's always done: it makes acapella music dynamic, playful, and plain cool.

13. U137 - Dreamer On The Run

In a fantastic year for post-rock releases, U137 debuted with one of the best. Dreamer On The Run is as serene as a secluded lake, but a closer look reveals ripples on the surface and a thriving, colorful ecosystem of sounds underwater. My review here.

12. Air Review - Low Wishes

The wonderful thing about Low Wishes is how evocative it is; I found myself thinking of everything from Cloud Atlas to my first crush. Though the album's thematic focus is on youth and growing up, I have no doubt that everybody who listens will find something to relate to, whether the gorgeous, precisely-crafted pop tunes or the poetic lyrics. My review here (full discretion: I struggled with this one quite a bit).

11. Snowflake - We All Grow Towards The Sea

Snowflake handles brooding melodies and textures with a surprisingly deft hand, producing songs impressive in scope and sound while showing off unexpected dynamic range, colorful instrumentation, and razor-sharp hooks. We All Grow Towards The Sea rages with the force of a hurricane, but it's at its best when it's creating new sounds from its sonic devastation.


10. The Dear Hunter - Migrant

Maybe my lack of expectations (this is the first album I've heard from The Dear Hunter) allows me to be more generous, but Migrant knocks me off my feet. It's not a grand concept album, like The Color Spectrum was, or even particularly ambitious; it's just twelve songs about stumbling and picking yourself back up again. Casey Crescenzo's vocals have a creeping urgency to them, and there isn't a song here where he doesn't rattle my bones.

9. Haiku Salut - Tricolore

My review here.

Instrumental trio Haiku Salut's debut isn't wanting for personality: the group packs in a street orchestra's worth of instruments and genres over twelve tracks. What I appreciate most about Tricolore, though, and what makes it more than the sum of its parts, is a small bookend: the album opens with "Say It," a haunting melody played on a warbly synth keyboard, and closes with a response--"No, You Say It"--where the melody recurs before spinning out of control into a euphoric four-on-the-floor dance ditty. In its wild ambition, Tricolore isn't just trying to be unique; it's razing old conventions to the ground and making way for new ones.

8. Hellogoodbye - Everything Is Debatable

Hellogoodbye has always written happy songs with sad subtexts; even when Would It Kill You? was charging its way into my prepubescent heart, I still picked up on something troubling. The band's latest album, Everything Is Debatable, gets more explicit: even as its Technicolor sound has been beefed up with electronic flourishes, lines like "All we are disintegrates" sneak their way into the album--and that's just the first song. Nothing quite sticks with me as much as the chorus of the title track, though, where Kline cries out "It's just an arbitrary line that we dance," with a hint of desperation while the song itself bursts into joyful refrain. The underlying implication is that perhaps bursting into joyful refrain is the best we can do.

7. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - We The Common

I commute (or rather commuted) to my high school via bus: every morning I stared out the window and watched buildings I knew but had never entered and people I would probably never cross paths with again. For much of March, my soundtrack was Thao & The Get Down Stay Down's "We The Common (For Valerie Bolden)," which opens the album of the same name. The song begins focusing on Thao Nguyen's worn voice, but soon it blooms into a communal cry of heartbreak--but also of resilience. This isn't your typical folksy singer-songwriter fare: each song here is scratched around the edges. The heart of the album, however, is its affection for people, perhaps best expressed in "City," where Nguyen offers harsh reflections on urban life behind a dirt-stained wall of guitar fuzz, booming drums and xylophone tinkles before extending an offer of redemption: "Rest and be strong, wash and be clean, start a new year whenever you need."

6. The Boxer Rebellion - Promises

My review here.

We grow up stacking hurt upon hurt; each betrayal, heartbreak and loss leaves us with scars and thicker skin. Sometimes it feels like maturing is a defensive process, stacking rocks around ourselves to keep from being let down again. But maturing is also about letting our walls down, about learning to put trust in people, about learning to take the hits life deals us with grace and to keep moving forward. The Boxer Rebellion has been around for a while, but Promises resonates more with me than any work it's put out to date. There is a quiet power to how it opens up, letting the pain in but ultimately bending back towards the light.

5. Morningbell - Boa Noite

My review here.

It's been a good nine, ten months, and Boa Noite still puts me at a loss for words. I've tried before, but here's the closest I can get right now: a thirty-eight minute expedition for tropical treasure off the coast of Florida, the moon peeking through emerald water the color of her eyes. Creatures coming out to play underneath a perfect summer night. Still confused? Just give it a listen. You'll have to hear it to believe it.

4. Farewell Fighter - Challenges

My review here.

I started high school listening to Farewell Fighter's EP The Way We Learn; I ended it listening to Challenges, which adds six new songs onto the former release. Though the prospect of a debut album where half the songs were already out two years ago sounds awful on paper, it works wonderfully here. I go back to the songs that got me through freshman year: the song about wanting to be a sports star or an astronaut but having no idea how to get there; the song about not knowing whether this tingling in your spine is love or lunacy. I go to the songs that I am learning to sing along to: the song about waking up completely pissed-off at the world, determined to tear it apart and rebuild it from the bottom-up; the song about falling back into bad habits even as you're completely aware of what you're doing. Here, however, instead of being neatly organized into boxes labeled PAST and PRESENT, the songs bleed into one another, and only when the album ends do I realize that while high school may be over, growing up never really ends.

3. 65daysofstatic - Wild Light

My review here.

Wild Light opens with a grim warning: "Nobody knows what is happening. Nobody knows what is happening. There is a lot of danger out there, okay?" But the dystopian tale woven here is told completely in sounds: in the flowering explosion of "Heat Death Infinity Splitter," a volley of synths setting desert skies ablaze; in the claustrophobic rising action of "Black Spots," skittering snares dashing over stairs, under bridges, through tunnels before stumbling over themselves; in the brief flickers of hope illuminated in "Taipei" before "Unmake The Wild Light" brings about nuclear devastation. Whether 65daysofstatic admits it or not, its music has always been political (after all, it is named after a Guatemalan uprising instigated by the CIA), but here it proves, as it always does, that it can speak volumes without uttering a single word.

2. Dorena - Nuet

My review here.

Sometimes the big moments come when we least expect them. It was a perfectly ordinary spring evening when I received a new album from Dorena in my inbox. "Nuet" is Swedish for "now?" That's cute, but I've never heard of these guys. I wonder if they're any good?

As it turned out, they were good. Better than good. But Nuet is so quiet, almost unassuming, that it didn't make much of an impact at first. I shrugged and moved on to the next album on my playlist.

Yet somehow it burrowed its way back into my life. First I fell in love with its rhythms: the gentle rise and fall of "Semper," the playful energy of "Her Comforting Touch," the gusty force of "A Late Farewell." Then the textures; how warm "Young Hearts Of Summer" makes me feel, how the synths in "Dandelion" sound like they might just float away. Dorena finds truth in the smallest moments, and it was in the nooks and crannies of my everyday life that Nuet snuck up on me.

So here's my advice: play it. Play it often; play it everywhere. Play it in the library as you lose yourself in a good book. Play it as you hide under your sheets past midnight as the rain pounds against your window. Play it as you walk through the city gazing up at the trees, shades of red, yellow and orange shielding you from above. This is not a trek into some dust-filled corner of somebody else's history; this is an ever-changing journey through your now as it unfolds in front of you. Nuet may not make the biggest impression, but it contains worlds in the palm of its hand.

1. Typhoon - White Lighter

My review here.

At first, White Lighter is an album about death.

It's about a lot of things, really. It's about aging, the uneasy squall of trumpets on "Artificial Light" becoming louder and louder as the child you're looking at in the mirror becomes your son. It's about disease, how it eats away at bones but also at souls, how in the desire not to hurt the ones you love you may end up missing out on the chance to love them at all. It's about regret, a motif that rings truest in the album's quietest moments. "Prosthetic Love" may soothe with its arrangement of understated guitar fuzz and sparse percussion, but the lyrics grasp at the unrest lurking beneath. White Lighter is about isolation, about exclusion, about disillusionment and confusion and having no idea how to react to a world that leaves us behind at every passing moment.

Isn't that what we all fear on some level--being left behind? Look out your window. Concrete towers, keeping out the winds howling against the walls; tall metal poles strung together with wire, 99% of our words traveling on the tightropes in between; strangers in coats traveling streets that change every day, making their way to their work or home or the subway station or the sandwich shop or whatever they've set their sights on at the very moment. We've gotten frighteningly good at building things, and build we do. What better way to keep our eyes off of the train bearing down on us, sound growing and growing before two white-hot eyes open to swallow everything we are? White Lighter understands this inevitability on a fundamental level; beneath its reverie, there is something dark looming. Something that cannot be drowned out no matter how many horns you can cram into one song.

But White Lighter is an album about other things, too.

White Lighter is about love: what it's like, in the surprisingly serene midsection of "Artificial Light," to just stare at the person sleeping next to you, the only one you've ever loved. White Lighter is about repentance. "The Lake" strings itself along one verse, a story about disease that spins more out of control with each repetition before the song collapses under its own weight, leaving only a soaring series of string melodies and a few simple words: "I'm sorry." White Lighter is about family: the back-in-forth in "Young Fathers" from child to parent, the fear that you'll corrupt this soul you've brought into a world full of sharp things and sharper people set against the hope in every newborn face, every newborn generation--the hope that this time we'll get everything right. White Lighter is about stumbling, about getting back up, about pulling yourself through a life that rarely makes sense, apologizing to the people you hurt and hanging onto the people you love. White Lighter makes celebration of confusion, and it argues that's the best most of us can do.

Every time I try to write about this fascinating, odd, wonderful album, I grasp for the right words, but maybe that's how it should be. The older I get, the more I realize that the best works of art are never self-contained. No, they evolve right along with me, revealing new insights with each return. Even after forty listens, I've yet to uncover everything, but this much I know: White Lighter is not an album about death.

White Lighter is an album about life.


I'll be back here in 2014. Have a fantastic New Year's Day, everybody.