Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Top Albums of 2013

The following albums are what I consider the best in music released this past year. Unfortunately, I must point out that there are a number of soundtracks on this list; a genre I usually try to keep off the list, but, because of the lack of good material released in 2013, there is a substantial amount of soundtracks on here. My picks are listed in alphabetical order by artist.

Gavin DeGraw -- "Make a Move"

Gavin DeGraw has come back after two years since his last studio release (Sweeter) with a pop vengeance! The piano man's latest release is definitely features him at his most pop rock -- with songs like "Best I Ever Had," "Make a Move," "Finest Hour," and "Heartbreak." While most fans may be wary, trust me when I say they should have no worries in regards to Mr. DeGraw's latest. DeGraw utilizes many more synthesizers and modern instruments in his latest album, but his songwriting does not suffer. The lyrics are still meaningful and poetic, while also being, at times, something to dance to. Favorite track: "Best I Ever Had"

  A Firm Handshake -- "Fix Me Up"
In 2012, Zach Sobiech formed this band with his close friends Samantha Brown and Reed Redmond. All of the material on this EP was written by Sobiech and Brown, and it proves that the two had much music to share with the world. Unfortunately, Sobiech succumbed to osteosarcoma on May 20, 2013, at the age of 18. Sobiech was a true "superman" who saw the best of his situation and lived life to its fullest. The music and voice he left behind is inspiring as well as heartfelt, soulful, and fun. Brown's voice matches most female singer-songwriters nowadays and the album's sound compares to that of Jason Mraz. Sobiech's life and music with his bandmates and friends echoes even though he is gone. But don't think this is simply some pop-coated album; listen closely and you'll hear lyrics dealing with breaking up ("Blueberries"), friends dealing with leaving -- which could be a thin metaphor for Sobiech and Brown dealing with Sobiech's terminal illness ("Ames"), and the acceptance of not being able to fix all of each other's problems ("Fix Me Up"). Favorite track(s): (tie) "Blueberries" and "Clouds"

In Memorium: Zach Sobiech (May 3, 1995 - May 20, 2013)

Foxygen -- "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic"
These guys seemed to have come out of nowhere -- and they practically have with two EPs released prior to this debut album. Foxygen's music can only be compared to the likes of The Beatles,  MGMTPink FloydDonovanThe Flaming Lips, and 1960s psychedelic/avant-garde rock. Despite all of these comparisons, it was still refreshing to hear this California band's take on 60s nostalgia mixed with modern day lyrics. My favorite has to be the song with the "Suspicious Minds"-type chorus intro: "On Blue Mountain." Favorite track: "On Blue Mountain"

Valerie June -- "Pushin' Against a Stone"
Tennessee-born Valerie June has released three prior EP albums but her mix of blues, soul, folk, gospel, country, Appalachian, and bluegrass makes her a formidable singer-songwriter artist. Her beautiful soul shines through on torch songs and ballads such as "Somebody to Love," "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations," and "The Hour." In an age where most musicians just make music to have radio hits, June makes emotionally honest, meaningful music, and I'd take one of her over 10 Maroon 5s! Favorite track(s): (tie) "Somebody to Love" and "You Can't Be Told"

Thomas Newman, et. al. -- "Saving Mr. Banks Soundtrack"
I've never been a big fan of Thomas Newman (Less Than ZeroThe Green MileThe Help) but this film's musical score is quite an achievement. I guess it should be no surprise considering the film the score accompanies. After all, one of the best films of the year calls for a great score! Newman's use of strings and woodwinds as well as every so often incorporating the genius music of Richard and Robert Sherman from the Mary Poppins music makes for an emotional and entertaining score. Favorite track: "Forgiveness"

 Pearl Jam -- "Lightning Bolt"
I have to admit that aside from Pearl Jam's debut album (Ten), I only liked a few of their songs afterward and since. So when their newest studio album released in just under four years since their last album, I felt so-so about it. However, when I heard it, all I could think was "Thank God." Released halfway through the year, when I thought all albums of 2013 were crap, Lightning Bolt gave me hope for music and for the alternative rock which was born and rose to popularity during my teenage years. Frontman Eddie Vedder has proven his mettle as a musician the past few years and it shows so eloquently on this album. If there's one rock release from 2013 to check out, it's this one. Favorite track(s): (tie) "Sirens" and "Future Days"

Pickwick -- "Can't Talk Medicine"
Seattle indie rock band Pickwick rocked a debut album that caught my attention this year! Often compared with the likes of the Black Keys, Pickwick's rock and soul makes them stand out in an age of pop music with not much -- if any -- soul. If you like Black Keys, Alabama Shakes, and/or Cold War Kids, check out this band! Favorite track: "Well, Well"

Alice Smith -- "She"
Alice Smith's sophomore album proves that the dreaded "sophomore slump" doesn't affect all musicians. This contemporary jazz torch singer dazzles with a voice that would make Joss Stone jealous! She has range beyond compare and her songwriting is one-of-a-kind. I've always been a fan of 60s girl group-type singers as well as blues singers and torch singers. And if you're a fan too, then look no further than Grammy-nominated Alice Smith. Favorite track: "Cabaret"

Tegan and Sara -- Heartthrob
I really love Tegan and Sara! These sisters are great songwriters with a one-of-a-kind sound. I have to admit that their previous two albums did not "wow" me, and I was a bit concerned when I found out they were going in a slightly different direction -- using synthesizers and electronic instruments -- with their next album, Heartthrob. They've touched on 1980s new wave rock as well as some slight Springsteen-ian sounds -- all while maintaining their own unique sound. Truly one of the paramount releases in 2013! Favorite track(s): (tie) "Closer" and "Now I'm All Messed Up"

Frank Turner -- "Tape Deck Heart"
After the brilliance of Frank Turner's 2011 album England Keep My Bones (and his 2012 re-issue of that album, with B-sides, Last Minutes & Lost Evenings), he has returned with his same punk folk rock that catapulted him to stardom in the U.K. Turner is a singer-songwriter whose lyrics are amazingly poignant but also isn't shy from utilizing a cuss word or two. Most of the album reminds me of Ryan Adams' excellent Gold album. The progression of the album contains the same production which goes into a mix tape: from fast to slow tempo. Brilliant music to listen to whether in the car or at home. Favorite track: "Good & Gone"

Various -- "The To Do List Soundtrack"
For anyone who was a teen in the 1990s, this album will take you back! The film is set in 1993 and features music from artists such as 2 Live CrewSalt-N-PepaMazzy StarNaughty by NatureElasticaGin BlossomsJamesBig Head Todd & The Monsters, and Tears for Fears. The movie was OK, but the soundtrack is awesome! Favorite track(s): (tie) "Fade Into You" (Mazzy Star) & "Stutter" (Elastica)

Various -- "The Way Way Back Soundtrack"
One of my favorite films of the year has an equally spectacular soundtrack, featuring artists such as Mr. MisterArmy NavyINXS, The Apache Relay, and Edie Brickell. The music has a great mix of thought-provoking alternative indie rock and fun pop rock. Favorite track(s): (tie) "Power Hungry Animals" (The Apache Relay) & "Alone" (Trampled by Turtles)

Gin Wigmore -- "Gravel & Wine"
New Zealand pop singer Gin Wigmore has ridden the revival wave of '60s girl group pop that was rejuvenated by Amy Winehouse, but she has produced some hits that have kept her personal stamp of pop music and a smoky, gravelly voice. You might even recognize her song "Man Like That" from the Heineken ads featuring actor Daniel Craig because of its tie-in advertising for the film Skyfall. Wigmore proves with each album that although she's not a household name yet, she should be -- and most likely will be soon. Favorite track: "Sweet Hell"

Hans Zimmer -- "Man of Steel Soundtrack"
OK. I'm a Superman fan. That's obvious. But you don't have to be a big fan to enjoy this score. Even several modern day percussionists were brought in by Zimmer to play on the album -- including Sheila E and Pharrell Williams. I was ever-so-slightly disappointed that John Williams' classic "Superman March" (featured in the original 1978 film) was not featured in the new score/film. However, I can understand why director Zack Snyder and composer Zimmer chose not to -- it would have undermined the reboot DC and Snyder were attempting. With the deluxe edition, there is even more music as Zimmer features a 28-minute-long "sketchbook" and remixes of the score by Junkie XL. The music is sweeping, epic, emotional, and action-packed -- everything a listener and fan would hope for in a Superman film. Favorite track: "What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?"

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