So we had so much fun putting together our Top Albums list, we decided to go ahead and make a Top Songs list too! Hopefully this kind of makes up for not posting all year! This list basically collects the songs that really killed us this year, whether they were world-conquering disco anthems, churning electronic chamber pieces, Billboard Top-40 hits, covers of Billboard Top-40 hits, or slowed-down versions of Dolly Parton classics – these are all just amazing songs.
Our rules for inclusion were simple: only one song per artist (Sorry “Afterlife”!), songs could come from one of our Favorite Albums, but couldn’t have been included in our Favorite Album post (Sorry “Holy”!), and finally, every song had to be unequivocally awesome. I promise they all qualify.
They’re listed below in alphabetical order by artist, because we don’t hate ourselves and weren’t about to rank these in any kind of favorite order. That being said, my favorite song of the year was hands-down “Song For Zula” by Phosphorescent. That song is my 2013 jam. Here’s hoping you find your 2013 jam below.
Well another year has come and gone, and we still haven’t been writing too much around here. We’re still listening to tons of great music, of course, but for some reason the urge to write about it hasn’t been there. Maybe it will strike again someday, but maybe it won’t. It’s hard to say.
One thing’s for sure though, we still very much enjoy putting together this year-end list. It’s become one of our favorite things each November to start emailing back and forth some of our preliminary thoughts on what should and shouldn’t make the list, and then spending a few weeks listing and re-listing, then splicing our lists and figuring out who will write what. It’s a lot of fun, and while we’re fairly certain at this point we’re at an all-time low for potential readers, we still like to think there might be somebody who’ll enjoy reading about what moved us this year.
But if not, that’s ok. We probably get the most out of this anyway, and at least we’ll have something to look back on when we’re telling our grandchildren all about what we listened to before we all got Google Glasses implanted in our heads and all the music ever made was constantly streaming right into our frontal lobes. They’ll probably think it’s quaint how we tried to quantify our favorite music of the year. And it probably is. But maybe we are quaint in our sleepy little corner of the internet. At least we’ve got great music here.
by Rilo Kiley
[Little Record Company]
Ever since Rilo Kiley’s quiet demise a few years ago, there’s been fevered talk among fans of a collection of rare and unreleased material, and that collection finally saw the light of day this year in the cheekily titled Rkives. Considering that this may be the last we’ll ever hear from this remarkable band, I was probably going to enjoy it no matter what – but here’s the thing: this collection is so good you don’t need to be a RK devotee to thoroughly enjoy it. Frankly, the whole thing is miles better than any odds and ends collection has any right to be. The first half – from Jenny Lewis’s baleful ode to LA “Let Me Back In”, through the vintage-Rilo Kiley wordy-rockers “It’ll Get You There” and “Runnin’ Around”, all the way to the power-pop sing-a-long “I Remember You” – is as good as any stretch of recorded music I’ve heard all year. In the middle of that stretch is a Blake Sennett number that, in my opinion, is better than any song he contributed to any of their proper releases, and its blistering guitar outro is worth the price of admission alone. The second half isn’t as consistently impressive, but it still yields some gems, like the Execution of All Things b-side “Emotional”, before it closes with one of RK’s oldest and most iconic tunes “The Frug”. That song, from the band’s 1998 debut EP, is probably still the most concise encapsulation of everything that made this group so special – from the wry humor and playful guitar, to Jenny’s beautiful alto and subtly devastating lyrical confessions (“I can take my clothes off/I cannot fall in love”). For this Rilo Kiley fan, I couldn’t have asked for much more than this. -Chris
Okkervil River has never appeared on a WiAC year-end list. The closest they got is their collaboration with Roky Erickson (and boy, that’s still such a good album) but that doesn’t really count as a proper OR album. I don’t expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of our lists, but if I were you, I would have bet money that The Stand Ins or I Am Very Far would have showed up. Nope. Well it’s time that oversight was remedied. Talk about a slow burn though. If Chris questions the inclusion of any album on this list it should be this entry. When he asked me what I first thought of this album I was pretty dismissive, “Eh, it’s ok.” I liked it, but when I held it up to earlier albums, it just didn’t move me. It took a solid amount of time before I realized The Silver Gymnasium is its own beast entirely. A beautiful, moving beast. Let me sum it up so you can get to the next entry: the music is triumphant, the lyrics are tragic, but ultimately, the past is the past. -Logan
I was going to write about how this was exactly the record I didn’t know I needed this year, how an over-the-top disco kitsche-fest pushed the exact groove buttons I didn’t even know I had. And I was going to write about how I was initially disappointed that the whole record didn’t sound like “Get Lucky”, until I realized that one “Get Lucky” is probably all the “Get Lucky” the universe could contain. And I was going to write how much “Motherboard” sounds like Daft Punk collaborating with Philip Glass and how much I love that. But then I realized that everything I feel about this record is pretty succinctly expressed in thesetwo videos. So just watch those and you’ll understand. -Chris
I don’t have much to write here that hasn’t already been written elsewhere. Three sisters play in a family rock-n-roll cover band as kids, obviously take great notes, come up with a perfect amalgamation of everything that was great about popular rock in the 70’s and 80’s and then unleash it on the world in the form of songs like “The Wire”, “Falling” and “Don’t Save Me”. Their musicianship is fantastic, their hooks undeniable. If anyone has a problem with these girls, it’s because they must hate fun and probably murder kittens for a hobby. Just kidding, they probably just listen to the hype more than to the music, because this is some great music. -Chris
I remember a reggae-heavy record shop in Laguna Beach I visited sometime in 2010. No real treasures until the twice-baked owner showed me to a random box from the back that was like the Room of Requirement. Think about an album and it appeared in a puff of bubonic chronic smoke. I walked away with three or four albums, one of which was Total Life Forever, which would be my first real introduction to Foals, and it is still such a great album. Now if Tim McGraw has taught us anything, it’s that the memory of your first love never fades away, and I will always love TLF, but Holy Fire outshines it in just about every way. Guys, the beginning of this album is something else. Listening to the prelude and the first few minutes of “Inhaler” you think, “Oh this is going to be a great Foals album” and then Yannis Phillippakis screams “and I can’t get enough…SPACE!” and you’re whole world stops existing. But you’re fine with it; ‘cause in its place is distortion, rock, and the unsent spirit of grunge. -Logan
So I have a difficult relationship with digital music, and my experience with Yo La Tengo’s gorgeous new album illustrates perfectly my fraught relationship with recorded music when it’s divorced from physical media. I finally signed up for Spotify this year, and Fade was probably one of the first records I used my new-found account to listen to back in January, and I actually listened to it quite a bit. But I didn’t fall in love with it. I knew I liked it and that it was very good, but I didn’t have any real emotional connection to it. It wasn’t until very recently, when I bought it on vinyl at my local independent record store, that I really fell for this record. So why is that? The music hadn’t changed – the only thing that changed was how I interacted with it. I think there’s something about the commitment that physical media demands – that act of saying “I Choose You” to a record and then going out and buying it – that makes the difference. That act of choosing tends to focus my attention and tastes so that I really do end up liking something more than if I’d just streamed it 30 times. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m such a visual person and album art plays such a huge role in how I interact with a piece of music (and man, does Fade have some gorgeous album art). When I can’t flip through liner notes or lyrics I always feel like the artist is keeping me at arm’s length, and I can’t develop the same relationship with it. And then there is something about the physical act of putting something on the turntable/CD player/cassette deck that somehow makes the relationship between me and the music more permanent – like that physical act just brought our relationship into the real world. It’s like that Perro Del Mar song, “you gotta give to get” – even just the very minor effort required to turn a record over somehow imbues emotional resonance to what I’m listening to, and that opens me up to really be moved by what the music has to offer. And so far, I just can’t have that same experience with on-demand stream-whatever-you-want digital music. So in conclusion: Yo La Tengo’s Fade is a beautiful record and you should listen to it on some kind of physical thing that exists in the world. -Chris
Electronic music can sometimes be pretty cold. That’s nothing new. But more and more, electronic musicians seem to be finding ways of letting in the heat. Not the four-on-the-floor club-anthem kind of heat though – but the human touch kind of heat, the warmth you feel whenever you can tell something was labored over and loved into existence. Jon Hopkins is the master at this kind of heat. On Immunity he explores a remarkable breadth of ways to express it, like in “Collider” when he leaves in the sound of someone speaking… not the actual words they spoke, but the sound they made when they spoke them, the sound of air leaving their lips. Or like halfway through “Breathe This Air”, when the swirling bass falls off leaving just Hopkins’ piano and the sound of… something falling in the hall? Or maybe it’s someone walking into the room? I’m not sure what it is, but it’s entrancing. Immunity is full of little touches like that, where the music is wrapped up in the sound of the space it was made in, so much so that the space is as much a part of the record as the actual music. Nowhere is this more true than on the eponymous closing track, featuring King Creosote (another one of my year-end favorites), where the song itself seems to expand and encompass whatever space and time you happen to be listening to it in… it’s breath-taking, and might just be one of the prettiest pieces of music released all year. -Chris
To me, my love of James Blake is a continuing mystery. Those of you that were with us in 2011 will remember Mr. Blake’s self-titled album appeared on my year-end list. I didn’t know why I liked him so much then and I still don’t know why I like him so much now (my friend Rachel says that all of her gay friends are obsessed with James Blake… I’m not going to read into that). Maybe I unknowingly love Romanticism and the poetry of William Blake. I’ll let my brother Ty explain: “Can’t believe he [James Blake] is only 24 though, that is the age when you’re most prone to High Romanticism. I always loved the English Romantics, Byron, Shelley, Keats et al. I’d like to assume you know what I’m talking about but none of those dudes I just mentioned wrote Lord of the Rings so you probably don’t. I can’t believe BYU is a real school. Anyway, yeah, James Blake is maybe the spiritual ancestor of William Blake.” Oh well, maybe I’ll never know why Overgrown is so great, but with songs like “Digital Lion” and “Retrograde” it is undeniably one of the years best. (And yes, I am excited to see the new Hobbit movie. Screw you Ty.) -Logan
It was a good year to be a Mark Kozelek fan. The man released three whole albums of new music, not to mention a Phish-like deluge of live records, plus a few singles teasing an early 2014 release – it was a lot of music to unpack, and frankly it’s all worth your time. But of the recent bounty, I’ve gotten most lost in this, his collaboration with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle – whose electronic blips and boops add a subtle new dimension to Kozelek’s stories, somehow managing to make them even more spacious and ethereal. Not that the music is that different from your average Sun Kil Moon fare – LaValle’s synthetic backdrops are not particularly lush or elaborate, but instead rather sparse arrangements of beats and midi melodies, essentially the electronic version of “the-man-and-his-guitar” sound – but they strike just the right note for this batch of Kozelek’s ruminations on nostalgia, aging, family, love, and death. The record is long (most songs clock in over seven minutes), but the songs are varied enough and so uniformly excellent that the length is just an invitation to get lost in Kozelek’s world. Ranging from the complicated have/have-not morality of “Gustavo”, to the stream-of-consciousness anti-lullaby of “Ceiling Gazing”, to the grand, conflicted affirmation of “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails”, there is not a slight song on here. They are all beautiful and thoughtful and should be a part of your life. -Chris
True confessions: the reason I started listening to Marnie Stern was because she went off in an interview about how much she hated the ending of LOST, and how she was more upset about the end of that show than about her last break-up – and I thought “YES! THAT IS EXACTLY HOW I FEEL!” (Just ask anyone who’s inadvertently brought this topic up with me over the last several years – I promise they regret it.) It turns out her taste in television is not the only thing to love about Marnie Stern – because she happens to make fantastic music. She reminds me a little of early Mates of State – the manic energy, the lyrical free-association, the frenetic melodies bouncing around like an ADHD kindergartener – just replace the Korgs with some serious guitar slaying and you’ll start to picture what’s going on here. This record is just fun from front to back, and unlike some TV shows I can think of, I can recommend it without reservation. -Chris
Oh boy, oh boy, I LOVE Evil Friends. My love notwithstanding though, I won’t let me nieces and nephews listen to this album, and I dread the day when my future children (Ha! Not likely!) discover this album in a dusty box in the basement. All of my parenting about only listening to obscenity-free music will go straight out the window (kind of like when Chris discovered one of his Dad’s records had the f-word on it… that record was James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. I don’t look forward to destroying Evil Friends just to prove a point.) Really though, this album is just perfect. It has that perfect combination of funk, psych, and rock that I’ve craved all year. “Modern Jesus” is maybe one of the best Portugal. The Man songs ever, “Waves” makes me want to protest something, even if I’m not sure what, and “Creep In a T-shirt” is so darn catchy I can hardly stand it. However, if I had to pick a favorite song, it would be “Smile”; if I could write music, I would have written “Smile”. To a great degree, it’s exactly what I want out of life. Is that selfish? Probably. I get news-fatigue. I get tired of the bickering politicians, reports on how fat, poor, and stupid we’re all becoming, and yes, I get tired of hearing about starvation, genocides, and the general suffering of humanity. It’s nice to forget the world sometimes. -Logan
Since falling fast and hard for Diamond Minea couple years ago, I’ve dived head-long into the rabbit-hole of Kenny Anderson’s (AKA King Creosote’s) discography, and it’s been an experience. Over the past decade and a half the guy has released something like 50 records, ranging from proper studio releases to self-made CD-Rs to locally distributed vinyl records, and so much of it is so genuinely fantastic that it’s pretty overwhelming. For instance, this year’s That Might Well Be It, Darling was originally released last year in the form of three vinyl-only EPs, which were themselves re-recordings of 2010’s tour-only vinyl record, That Might Be It Darling, which was the follow-up to 2009’s performance-only record, My Nth Bit of Strange in Umpteen Years. You see what I mean? This guy is nuts. Sonically, Darling strays far from the incubated intimacy I originally fell for on Diamond Mine – instead showcasing the raucous bandleader and wry songsmith that’s spearheaded the close-knit Fence Collective in Scotland for years, and it legitimately feels like a clutch of good friends hammering out a solid set to a sold-out hometown crowd, and loving every minute of it. Book-ended by sing-along barnstormers “Little Man” and “Going Gone”, the record contains everything from bright folk-rockers to tears-in-your beer torch songs to an 11-minute showcase of what Kenny Anderson can do with that voice and an indelible melody. This is yet another great entry into an already pretty overwhelming discography. -Chris
I just love this record so much. It’s fuzzed-out garage rock for people with feelings, or maybe just people who really love a good pop song. Because seriously, Cronin’s stuff is right up there with any of the classic pop songsmiths – Wilson, Davies, Nilsson, you name it and I hear their peer on MCII. Every one of these 10 songs is a 3-4 minute punch of unbelievably concise songcraft – unveiling brilliant melody after brilliant melody, every one gilded with hooks and bridges and codas that add just enough weight to what might have otherwise been just another good garage record. Cronin also expands on his composition skills here, using a clutch of strings and keys to complement that ever-fuzzy guitar. And oh man, can we talk about that guitar? Because that unapologetically overdriven monster has soundtracked many a roadtrip for me this year, so much that I can hardly hear the hook on “Shout It Out” and not reach to roll down the windows. -Chris
In years past, I didn’t want a concert to influence how much I enjoyed an album, I wanted the album to stand on its own instead. Now I can understand why I tried to do that then, but like most of the decisions I made in my early to mid-twenties, I’ve come to realize that was stupid. That isn’t to say if you haven’t seen Local Natives in concert you won’t get why Hummingbird is so incredible and totally deserving of being one the best albums of the year, but if you haven’t seen them, you may not get why I’m so deeply in love with it. Really, this album is the best and this band is the best, and you should see them (preferably you should have seen them when they were touring with Frightened Rabbit AND the National this year. Oh man, just thinking about that lineup…). We’re not talking about concerts though, we’re talking about albums and this one got to me right away. I enjoyed Gorilla Manor, but Hummingbird is quite a different experience. It’s a little…darker, I guess? Not as poppy for sure, but it seems to have traded that for some depth. “Wooly Mammoth” blows it out of the water. Starting off with that chunky guitar and drums and then the transition into the smooth and soaring chorus… sublime. -Logan
I’ve slept on Low for years. But something finally clicked about a year ago and I finally started my descent into the annals of their 20-year career – and man, has it been wonderful. Fast forward to this past March: we took an impromptu road-trip to the Shawnee National Forest in the southern tip of Illinois, which if you didn’t know, is gorgeous (see: Exhibit A). We explored ancient rock formations, Ohio-river pirate caves, and Native-American ruins. It felt kind of surreal, like we were discovering this magical other world, one that had existed for years right under our noses but no-one knew about it. During that whole trip we listened to a mix I’d made of Low’s music, and thinking about it now, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate soundtrack for the understated grandeur of that little corner of the Midwest than the gorgeously understated songs of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, themselves natives of another little corner of the Midwest. That mix ended with “Just Make It Stop”, a chugging highlight from The Invisible Way, Low’s most recent record. I know I’m speaking as a recent convert here, but I think this album is a perfect encapsulation of what Low does so well. The production (leant by Jeff Tweedy – yet another Midwestern native) is especially warm – often you can literally hear the space they’re recording in, their voices and piano chords bouncing back off the walls. But something is still slightly, even inexplicably, distant… like you’re just peeking in on some magical other world, one that you may have just found, one that isn’t going to give up all its mysteries just yet. -Chris
My admiration for Josh Ritter is well documented. But I was a little skeptical when I first heard rumors that this record was a more stripped back affair, recorded after his recent divorce. We’ve all heard the old trope: “guy gets his heart broken, gets back to basics and bears it all on record”, and its not always a good omen. But here’s the thing, this isn’t really a break-up record. There’s no real mud-slinging, no pining, no naval-gazing. For Ritter, who’s always been interested in the grand scope of things (even the titles of his records seem to conjure the sweeping arc of history, with phrases like Golden Age, Historical Conquests, or So Runs The World Away), those things would all seem kind of slight. Instead, this is the chance for him to place what happened to him within a grander scope, and he does. Instead of dwelling on the period of heartbreak and loneliness following the break, he starts the narrative a bit later, after he’s pulled through and finds himself in a new, healthier relationship – he first describes his new lover in relation to his old (he says they only look alike “in a certain light”), but later, as the old lover’s memory begins to fade, he focuses more and more on his new love alone, essentially dedicating the records second half to her. There’s a palpable sense of moving on, of things working out. On “Hopeful” he sings “the world is as the world is, everybody’s gonna hurt like hell sometimes” over a loping gait and plinking keys, but then he adds “she’s hopeful for me, coming out of the dark clouds” – essentially laying out the thesis for the record: we all hurt like hell sometimes, but it gets better. -Chris
This year, unlike in years past, Chris and I share very few year-end albums in common. Which I think is great… sure you disagree on some things, but you’ve got fundamentals. We still need to shy away from talking about Portugal. The Man or Israeli/Palestinian relations (really Chris? The ’67 demarcation line? c’mon man)(NOTE: I don’t actually know Chris’ thoughts on this subject), but again, we agree on the fundamentals and really nothing is more fundamental than loving Justin Vernon and his projects. No question that Repave was going to be on our list. After I heard the first four tracks it was just, “Yep, this is it. Here it is guys. I found it. Everything you want is right here. I found it.” The biggest question, more than on any other album on this list, was what song to include in this entry. “Tiderays” or maybe “Byegone”? I finally settled on “Comrade” (though not choosing “Acetate” may still keep me up at night). Sure, my four most favorite songs from Repave are the first four and comprise the first half, but don’t think that I consider this a one-sided album. Start to finish this is beautiful. -Logan
I have a pretty funny story about how I ended up on a date with a married woman at a Frightened Rabbit concert this year, but it would take way too long to explain, so instead I’m going to tell you about the homemade calendar I plan on making. For real though, 12 tracks on Pedestrian Verse, 12 months in the years, and some of the most quotable lyrics ever. Yep, it’s gonna happen (and my mom said I’d never use the skills I developed in my college bookbinding course) (okay Ty, I get it, BYU might not be a real school). Each month would feature my favorite line from each track: “Acts of Man” (“I’m here, not heroic, but I’ll try”), “Backyard Skulls” (“White silent skulls are smiling at hypocrisy”), “Holy” (oh man, “Holy” guys, maybe the line of the year, “You’re acting all holy, me, I’m just full of holes”), “The Woodpile” (“Would you come brighten my corner?”), etc. Pedestrian Verse and Frightened Rabbit dominated the first half of this year and it was my most listened to album, by a decent margin too. More than anything though, this album excites me; it engages me like no other album on this list, and it’s the most exciting album of the year. -Logan
It’s become more and more clear to me over the years that the National are probably my favorite band. Which is sort of interesting, because over those same years I’ve become less and less likely to even have a favorite band at all. Generally, the older I get, the more I listen to music from a broader base, and the less I seem to obsess over any one particular group the way I did in my teens and early twenties. That is, except for the National. I kind of do obsess over them. I love everything they’ve ever done almost without exception. I collect even their 7-inches and EPs. Every time I’ve seen them perform live, the experience has been more akin to a spiritual rite than a rock and roll show. I even know every member of the band by name (even the bassist!). I cannot think of a more talented pair of guitarists/composers than the Dessner brothers, and I don’t think there has been a better low-end in rock music than the Devendorfs (I recently wrote a 1400-word treatise to a friend on how Bryan Devendorf is the best living drummer in rock right now), and then there’s Matt Berninger and his way of tying words into knots around already knotty subjects. And that voice? Just stop. The talent contained in this group is just staggering. And Trouble Will Find Me is that staggeringly talented band operating at their peak. It’s easily their most immediate, most visceral record since Alligator, but with the same poise and consistency of Boxer, combined with the fully realized production and sound of High Violet. It’s the natural culmination of everything they’ve done up to this point, taking everything they do so well and doing it, well, so well. Every song feels as if its already been part of their canon for years, and I’ve had some sort of experience with just about every single one on this record; whether it was falling in love with “I Should Live in Salt” while driving through the mountains of West Virginia in June, or getting a lump in the back of my throat while watching them perform “Graceless” in Louisville, or playing “Hard to Find” on repeat while watching the sun set behind a wintry Indianapolis skyline. I’ve returned to this record over and over again all year, and it’s continued to amaze and inspire every time. And I guess that’s why we have favorite bands – because bands like the National keep making records like this. -Chris