Thursday, 16 January 2014

Best 24 Albums of 2013: #24 to #21

2013 was an exceptional year for music – not just for one or two genres, but for music, period. So many artists released so many great records that it became impossible to listen to everything, and what one listened to largely depended on one’s own personal tastes. I spent most of the year with indie-rock and -pop records while indulging a long-time passion for folk music and Americana. There are quite a few albums I know I missed, and while I feel some regret that I didn't get to them, well, that's what 2014 is for.

Honourable Mentions:
Federal Lights - We Were Found in the Fog
Josh Ritter - The Beast in Its Tracks
Los Campesinos! - No Blues
Nataly Dawn - How I Knew Her
Royal Canoe - Today We're Believers

24. Diane Birch - Speak a Little Louder
Diane Birch’s first album Bible Belt was widely acclaimed as not only one of the most assured debuts of 2009 but also for the way Birch incorporated influences from the ‘70s singer-songwriter pop of Carly Simon and Carole King into her own fully-formed aesthetic. Four years later, Birch has returned with Speak a Little Louder, a record still grounded in the music of her debut while owing more of a debt to Elton John and Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush. This stylistic shift, to her credit, doesn’t sound like selling out – rather, it feels like a natural evolution from one of this decade’s most promising young artists.

23. Brendan Canning – You Gots 2 Chill
The first word that comes to mind when I think of You Gots 2 Chill is ‘mesmerizing.’ Brendan Canning has constructed an intricate record that still feels organic, as the oddly danceable "However Long" and the quiet intimacy of "Late Night Stars" aptly demonstrate. Easy to dismiss as ‘bedroom music’, You Gots 2 Chill becomes more compelling with each listen.

22. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
Thankfully, despite its lengthy and complex origin and development, Sky Ferreira’s debut was worth the wait. The best songs on Night Time, My Time are remarkably perceptive; they’re potent distillations of the messiness within the human mind and heart.

21. Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft 
Singer-songwriter Laura Veirs is one of American folk music’s best-kept secrets. She’s been releasing consistently strong records over the past decade – her last two were the sublime July Flame (#7 on my 2010 best-of list) and the refreshingly unsentimental children’s record Tumble Bee  with increasing critical and commercial success. Warp and Weft, her eighth album, is one of her most eclectic releases yet, ranging from the Americana of “Sun Song” and “Shape Shifter” to the haunting, electric guitar-driven lamentation “Dorothy of the Island.” All in all, an excellent addition to Veirs’ already impressive discography.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Best Songs of 2013: #15 to #1

The first part of this list, which includes songs #25-#16, can be read here. 

15. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
I’m not sure if “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the instant classic some say it is; the song works best as part of Nothing Was the Same’s overall emotional arc, where it has a proper fadeout instead of the single version's strangely abrupt ending. There's no denying Drake's suaveness and charm, though, or how the song immediately makes you want to dance. 

14. Lana Del Rey – “Young and Beautiful”
It's probably for the best that "Young and Beautiful" was only briefly featured in Baz Luhrmann's mixed-bag adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Lana Del Rey's song deserves to heard separate from the film it was written for - a sweeping ballad showcasing Del Rey's nuanced vocals. Free of the heaviness that occasionally dragged down Born to Die, “Young and Beautiful” shows why listeners were drawn to Del Rey’s music in the first place. 

13. Matt Pond – “Love to Get Used”
The first time I heard “Love to Get Used,” I honestly assumed Matt Pond was Canadian – the opening lines mention Athabasca, but more than that, I couldn’t figure out why this song wasn’t getting more exposure. Since then, I’ve learned that Pond hails from New York and has been active for over a decade as the frontman of the indie rock band Matt Pond PA, but that doesn’t dampen the song’s impact. “Love to Get Used” feels effortlessly cool, boasts a killer chorus, is subtle but tuneful, and has a perfect bridge - and yet it's the sum of all these parts. 

12. She & Him – “Turn to White”
Zooey Deschanel has written many songs influenced by the music of the 1960s and ‘70s as a member of She & Him, but “Turn to White” is one of the few that feel like a genuine lost classic, gentle as a summer breeze with lyrics that are at once melancholy and upbeat. Deschanel's wistful delivery, along with M. Ward's stellar guitar work, make "Turn to White" one of the duo's finest compositions to date. 

11. Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball”
The visuals associated with a song have always had some degree of impact on the song itself. However, since the birth of YouTube in 2005, visuals have become so inextricably linked with music that a video frequently draws more attention than the song itself. If there was ever a song that deserved to be heard on its own, outside the context of its accompanying music video, it's "Wrecking Ball." The song's emotions and imagery may not be particularly subtle, but there's enough grit and humanity in Cyrus' voice to separate "Wrecking Ball" from its bombastic, over-processed kin. 

Head below the fold for #10 to #1. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Best Songs of 2013: #25 to #16

2013 was full of great songs, so many that I decided to expand my list to include twenty-five tracks this year. I've also included some honourable mentions, as well as a 'Special Jury Prize' given to a song that didn't quite make it into the Top 25 but deserved more than just an honourable mention. Hope you enjoy.

Honourable Mentions

Special Jury Prize: Royal Canoe "Birthday"

25. Mariah Carey (ft. Miguel) – “#Beautiful”
Yes, that hashtag in the title is wholly unnecessary, and yes, Miguel is more than just a featured artist here. Still, “#Beautiful” might have been the most pleasant surprise of 2013: its opening guitar immediately recalls warm summer nights, and Mariah Carey and Miguel seem to actually be enjoying themselves, making the song feel like a genuine collaboration. Instead of hurling hooks at the listener, “#Beautiful” relies on the chemistry and charisma of its two vocalists, and is all the better for it.

24. The Darcys – “The River”
The opening notes of "The River" both draw the listener in and hint at ominous things lying ahead. What starts out as a straightforward rock song is elevated by its lyrics' eerie imagery, the song's haunting, almost primal rhythms and the growing desperation in Jason Couse's vocals. "Are you reaching out?" he calls, and as the other instruments rise to engulf his voice, we get the feeling he already knows the answer. 

23. Diane Birch – “Tell Me Tomorrow”
As with many great pop songs, “Tell Me Tomorrow” contains moments of pure euphoria – that chant of “hey! hey! hey!” was practically made to be shouted by festival crowds – but tempers, or perhaps counters, them with with a refreshing sense of weariness. Birch's stunning, soulful voice takes centre stage here, showing a range that extends beyond the '70s singer-songwriter pop of her earliest work. 

22. Lorde – “Royals”
When “Royals” first emerged, it felt a bit like a revelation due to its minimalist production and Lorde’s captivating, smoky voice. Months later, I'm still impressed by the song, mostly for the way it works effortlessly as both autobiography and anthem while avoiding the pitfalls of either genre. 

21. Laura Veirs – “Shape Shifter”
“Shape Shifter,” as with many songs from its parent album Warp and Weft, is as much about the joys of relationships as it is about their difficulties. “Winter’s on the way / I think we’re going to make it out / if we stick together now,” Veirs sings, accompanied by her own quiet but spellbinding guitar line, as Alex Guy's gorgeous violin weaves in and out with a warmth enough to melt the heart of even the coldest listener.

Head below the fold for #20-#16.