Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2013: Favorite Albums and Honorable Mentions

For the third and final entry in this long-winded look back at the music that mattered to me this year, I present the cream of the crop – the albums that provided me with the most satisfying listening experience from beginning to end, which is a much more difficult feat than simply hooking me with a catchy song or two, and arguably a feat many artists have given up on in the age of digital music that can just as easily be released for bite-sized consumption on a sporadic schedule, rather than thought through as a fully-formed artistic statement. These albums don’t have that much in common with one another, but taken all together, they represent the weird snowball of influences that make up my musical tastes these days, ranging from old favorites who have resurfaced after lying dormant for many years, to buzz-gathering indie artists who have begun to break out of the blogosphere and into some version of “the mainstream”, to those who have given up entirely on mainstream fame and are content to Kickstarter and Indiegogo their way into fans’ hearts with no traditional support structure whatsoever. It’s all a very weird mix, but it’s all quite delicious.

MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2013:

2013_FallingUpHours1. Falling Up – Hours
I’ve enjoyed Falling Up since their 2004 debut Crashings and through the many stylistic changes since then that have found them drifting quite far from the sorta-youth groupy, sorta-artsy electronic/rap/rock sound that they started out with. Going completely independent since their brief breakup and reformation in 2010 has been a good move for this band, and for Hours, released in bits and pieces over the course of late 2012 and early 2013, they decided not only to go off the deep end and devote the entire album to one of the weird science fiction stories floating around in Jessy Ribordy‘s head, they actually went so far as to release chapters of an audiobook alongside each song. Thus, the album is the soundtrack for a movie that will probably never get made, given that it involves a group of highly evolved teenagers performing some rather eerie and impossible-to-visualize experiments involving the limits of human consciousness. You wouldn’t necessarily pick all that up from the details randomly strewn throughout the 12 songs on Hours, which in true Falling Up style, often reference events from other chapters of the story rather than the chapter they’re named for. Much like Fangs!, it’s a difficult story to piece together from the music alone, but a fascinating listen nonetheless. Musically, it’s the most consistently up-tempo album that Falling Up has done since Crashings, but in a completely different way, with their weird space-rock epics often stretching past five minutes, their beautiful, swaying melodies working their way into my brain like nothing else this year. You might as well jump in anywhere, so start with the overdriven music-box of “The Rest Will Soon Follow”, the pounding synthetic pulse of “Aeva and the Waving World”, or the captivating anthem of heroic devotion with a melody to die for heard in “Intro to the Radio Room”.

Listen: “The Rest Will Soon Follow”

2013_IronWine_GhostonGhost2. Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
There’s a very vocal group of Iron & Wine fans who want Sam Beam to go back to the simplicity of just his hushed voice, a lone acoustic guitar, and lo-fi recording equipment. I, for one, am glad that he continues to ignore such requests and paint on an increasingly wider canvas. While the sonic experiments of 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean may not have gone down easy for even some of the most open-minded fans, the smooth and somewhat jazzy Ghost on Ghost serves as the perfect antidote – a looser, lighter, and arguably more human record that finds joy amidst the layers of horns and woodwinds and strings and other assorted sounds, even when its lyrics are as haunted by past indiscretions and unconfessed dark thoughts as Beam’s words have always been. To me, this is easily his second best work after The Shepherd’s Dog.

Music Video: “Joy”

2013_Eisley_Currents3. Eisley – Currents
Sometimes a group whose best work so far was their debut album can successfully go back to the spirit of their old sound without losing the musical maturity they’ve picked up along the way. The result in Eisley’s case is an album that feels like a rebirth for the band, in that it recaptures the sense of childlike wonder heard on Room Noises, but from the perspective of new parents, with wide-eyed young ones to guide and protect and to teach about the fascinating mysteries of the planet we live on. Somehow this helps the group’s sisterly harmonies to escape the “twee pop” tag they might have been tagged with in their early days, as they’ve learned how to use them to maximum effect against musical backdrops that brood and protest just as easily as they confess and soothe. The Valley was perhaps a necessary period of mourning for the band after going through personal and professional hardships, but personally, I’m glad they’re through the valley and back to wandering freely along rocky beaches.

Music Video: “Currents”

2013_TheReignofKindo_PlaywithFire4. The Reign of Kindo – Play with Fire
The “jazzy-ish” rock band from Buffalo continues to evolve their complex and incredibly classy sound on their third album, which finds them pontificating on such things as judgmental religious folks and the man they claim to be following, the wonder that we exist at all in our tiny slivers of eternity on this miniscule speck of a planet, and even the joy of great music itself (as well as the pain of awful music – see the humorous angry rant “I Hate Music”). It’s easy to peg their sound as “romantic”, and the group has done plenty of swoon-worthy love songs in the past, but it’s worth noting that the lone romantic love song on this project – “Feeling in the Night” – is also one of the group’s most up-tempo and convoluted, time-signature wise. And that was the single. You gotta respect that.

Live in Studio: “Help It”

2013_TheHawkinParis_Freaks5. The Hawk in Paris – Freaks
Putting this ahead of the new Jars of Clay album was a tough call. I love both records dearly. But this throwback synthpop record made by Dan Haseltine and his buddies Jeremy Bose and Matt Bronleewe, both experienced producers of various forms of pop music over the years, got off on the right foot by including six already excellent recordings from 2011’s His + Hers EP and fleshing the album out with six brand new songs of similar quality, some quite up-tempo and danceable, and some surprisingly introspective and unique given their chosen genre. While Inland was no slouch in the honesty department, this one might just slightly edge that album out with its almost painfully honest glimpses at the challenges that can sneak in and sour even some of the most long-standing relationships when two people become complacent and assume they’ve got this thing called “love” all figured out already.

Listen: “Wake Me Up”

2013_JarsofClay_Inland6. Jars of Clay – Inland
Sort of a hybrid between the seemingly simple “pop fluff” of The Long Fall Back to Earth and the earthier struggles of Who We Are Instead, this record aims to redefine what Jars of Clay are all about and who they’re about it for. It may not be as radical of a shift in tone as Dan Haseltine was worried it would be perceived – its tales of doubt and youthful indiscretions and bouts of depression certainly come with fewer clear references to our Maker making things right in the end than you might hear on past Jars albums, but then this group has shied away from the use of clear, Christian-ese language for most of their career. From the stomping rocker “Loneliness & Alcohol” to the tranquil pining of delicate ballad “Fall Asleep”, and through many smartly arranged folksy pop songs scattered elsewhere on the album, the group takes a step back from offering answers and simply aims to show up in the middle of the heartache and say, “We get it, and you don’t have to hide your pain for anyone else’s sake.”

Live in Studio: “Loneliness & Alcohol”

2013_TheCivilWars_TheCivilWars7. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
The music industry, just like the film industry, loves a good feud, or at least a good breakup story, and so it’s not surprising that news of Joy Williams and John Paul White‘s apparent inability to see eye-to-eye on much of anything has eclipsed most discussions of the music itself. Shoot, the duo may have knowingly contributed to this perception with the disarming single “The One that Got Away”, which trades some pretty sharp “I wish I’d never met you” type barbs back and forth, to the point where you just want to get these two to a couples counselor even though they’re not romantically involved and are married to other people. Looking past this not-quite-a-feud of theirs, their second (and most likely final) album contains a lot of the same sparse but beautiful folk arrangements as their first, designed to let their two voices intertwine and set listeners’ hearts aflutter, but there’s also some edgy experimentation with electric guitars in the first two tracks, a surprising Gospel song midway through, stripped-down covers from such unlikely sources as Etta James and Smashing Pumpkins, a gorgeous ballad in French, and even a bittersweet closing number recorded in a single take on an iPhone. Some of this might annoy purists who thought the sound of Barton Hollow was best left un-tinkered with, but I think it’s a worthy companion to that album, and in any case, it’s one more album than I expected to get from the duo.

Live in Concert: “From This Valley”

2013_ViennaTeng_Aims8. Vienna Teng – Aims
Vienna Teng made it pretty clear when she embarked on her graduate-level study of environmental sustainability four years ago that her break from making music would not be a permanent one. I’m glad she made good on her promise. Her new album, proudly featuring an infographic of her new hometown of Detroit on the cover, is not an afterthought compiled in her free time during grad school, but rather a bold new collection of songs informed by her studies, taking on broader concepts such as social change and corporate greed and what the Earth and the industry and technology developed by its inhabitants would say to us if they were self-aware entities. A few moments of the intimacy we’ve come to expect from her previous albums do surface here and there, but for the most part, this album is Vienna’s playground, where she gleefully throws electronic influences into her usual approach of trying things that are unfamiliar to her. The tranquil days of simple piano ballads as heard on Waking Hour are long gone, but that’s OK – the one thing I’ve come to expect from this artist is change, and since she does it while writing consistently brilliant lyrics and keeping audiences entertained with her slightly geeky charms, I’d be way out of line to complain. Vienna has accomplished a feat that no artist on any of my year-end list ever has – she’s made five “A grade” worthy albums in a row, each one made by subverting her previous approach in some profound way.

Music Video: “Level Up”

2013_FiveIronFrenzy_EngineofaMillionPlots9. Five Iron Frenzy – Engine of a Million Plots
The past few years have been littered with stories of old favorite bands who broke up for various reasons attempting a comeback via directly fan-funded efforts such as Kickstarter. it’s a mixed bag – sometimes it’s great for fans to directly support total artistic freedom for the performers they admire, who perhaps couldn’t have continued to survive in a fully label-driven climate, and sometimes you end up observing why such a band needs a little supervision in the studio. But in Five Iron Frenzy’s case, the results are nothing but triumphant. They were pretty adamant back in 2003 that they were calling it quits for real, much to the dismay of die-hard fans who had come to consider them a special oddity in the landscape of both Christian music (where they sometimes ruffled feathers by pointing out hypocrisy within the walls of the church, when they weren’t busy being embarrassingly goofy just for the sake of it, of course), and the quickly dying genre of ska, which they managed to keep working in their favor due to the punk and mainstream rock and other influences that kept listeners guessing and kept their albums from falling into a timewarp (largely because, at least after 2000 or so, they were intentionally out of step with popular culture when they were brand new). Their reunion in 2011 came with a Kickstarter campaign that was more than fully funded within mere hours, but the group took their sweet time on a comeback album, and thankfully, it was worth the wait. Engine may be their hardest-hitting album yet – it’s not without its shades of silliness, but the group clearly understands that they’re a “rock band with horns” and they push that aspect of their sound up to eleven here, while Reese Roper‘s songwriting and vocal delivery are in top form despite the band’s ten year absence. I was more of a casual fan who didn’t come to fully appreciate the band until their breakup, and I still think their old albums are kind of hit-and-miss, but if this new chapter of the band’s history continues to be as solid as how it started out, then I’ll be happy to count myself among the FIF diehards.

Music Video: “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”

2013_ArcadeFire_Reflektor10. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
The critically acclaimed, but sometimes slightly overbearing, gang of misfits from Montreal took an unexpectedly fun turn on their fourth album, turning in a lot of their “old-timey instrument” shtick for an album that gleefully delves into retro dance music, visceral rock & roll, electronica, a bit of Afro-Caribbean influence, and some other generally unclassifiable stuff. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice provides a loose lyrical framework for the album, adding tragic seriousness to even some of the most fun songs on the album, but even when Win Butler‘s outlook is grim, he’s learned how to balance it with the sonic party that his band capably provides. Due to it being a double album and a radical stylistic shift from their past work, it’s inevitable that some folks would write it off as “pretentious”, but I’m pretty consistently fascinated by this one – it may be their most solid album yet.

Music Video: “Reflektor”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

2013_Hellogoodbye_EverythingIsDebatable11. Hellogoodbye – Everything Is Debatable
Existential angst hasn’t been this catchy since… okay, since the last Passion Pit album, which really wasn’t that long ago at all, but Hellogoodbye is in good company there. Much like on their 2010 album Would It Kill You?, the band runs through a crash course of unbelivably fun and occasionally beautiful power pop numbers that try a heck of a lot harder than the MySpace in-joke subject matter of their early days. If Would It Kill You? was there to prove they could function as a genuine band without the overbearing electronic elements, then Everything Is Debatable is here to prove that they can bring the electronic stuff back into their sound in tasteful and inventive ways, at times bringing along unexpected things like horn arrangements or introspective piano ballads just to keep us on our toes. it all flows together so beautifully that it’s hard to believe the whole thing ends as soon as it does.

Music Video: “(Everything Is) Debatable”

2013_BrookeWaggoner_Originator12. Brooke Waggoner – Originator
The cover art may paint her as some sort of super-serious medieval princess, but Originator reveals a playful songstress who can be peaceful one minute and roaringly aggressive the next, working delectable choral arrangements and bits of classical instrumentation into some of her fiercest piano-pounding rockers. The two sides of her persona effectively split this album in half (though there are a few noticeable “breather songs” in the first half as well), so it’s a bit of a lopsided listen at times, but I always find myself impressed at her stylistic range and her colorful turns of phrase. I could see fans of Vienna Teng or Tori Amos getting into this.

Music Video: “Rumble”

2013_VampireWeekend_ModernVampiresoftheCity13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The “difficult third album” proved to be a challenging one for Vampire Weekend, but it’s one that grows their sound in interesting ways, seeing them experiment more with minimalistic, almost dub-like textures, and also having a field day with the pitch-shifting and other electronic effects, somehow without losing their knack for wry, worldly observation. While Contra is still my favorite of their albums, and I don’t necessarily love every track here, I’m glad that the band continued to push their boundaries instead of falling back on the built-in crowd of so-called “hipsters” that their detractors assume would eat up any number of repetitions of the sound heard on their first two discs. What I’m most surprised by is how this album wrestles with questions of death and theology – not necessarily in the most comforting ways, but definitely in ways that give us food for thought about what it’s like to be on the outside of a religious institution, looking in and wondering what makes it tick.

Music Video: “Diane Young”

2013_SigurRos_Kveikur14. Sigur Rós – Kveikur
Sigur Rós has just about the weirdest trajectory of any band I can think of – just when you think they’re starting to become about as mainstream as an Icelandic band with androgynous vocals in a largely made-up language can get (by way of several film soundtracks, at least), they go and disappear for several years and come back with a disappointing, dead-in-the-water wasteland of an “ambient music” album. This isn’t that album. This is the follow-up to Valtari that does a total 180, bring in bone-crushing bass and drums that almost put a “death metal” spin on the band’s well-established droning, wintry sound, and then just as you’re recovering from that surprise, also coming up with some of their most joyous and fully realized up-tempo material as well. It’s the band’s densest record thus far, and while it could potentially benefit from a few more moments that tap on the breaks a little, it’s definitely the most I’ve been moved by a Sigur Rós album since Takk… eight long years ago.

Music Video: “Brennisteinn”

2013_PearlJam_LightningBolt15. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
It’s hard to believe that Pearl Jam’s self-titled album was seven years ago… that was the album that got me into the band, and while I realize that makes me one heck of a latecomer, I’ve gone through and learned to respect most of their discography even if I don’t love more than a handful of their albums. But this one surprised me. It may be the first Pearl Jam album that I liked right away (I’m not counting Ten here because I had already heard its biggest hits a billion times by the time I finally gave the entire album a listen from end to end). Like most of their latter-day output, it’s a genre hodgepodge – a bit of punk influence here, some classic rock a la Pink Floyd there, a stray blues number, and heck, even a bit of country influence on a track or two, which works better than you’d expect. Admittedly a lot of this album is more mainstream than a lot of diehard PJ fans would care to admit, but this is a group that spent quite a long time trying to buck the mainstream, so one gets the impression that when they do something more easygoing and melodic, it’s because that’s the mood Eddie Vedder was in that day, and they no longer feel the need to suppress that side of their personality because they have so much else going on that ensures they’re far from total conformity. I like the mix of harsh and gentle sounds on this one – as an album, it all hangs together a heck of a lot better than Backspacer did.

Music Video: “Sirens”

2013_TheLastBison_Inheritance16. The Last Bison – Inheritance
This Virginia based indie folk band was so rough around the edges on their debut album Quill that I was quite surprised to hear they’d scored a deal with Universal South, and that some of the clearest statements of faith on that album came through unfiltered in the more refined reworkings of those songs for Inheritance. While there are a few moments (mostly in remakes of older songs)  when I feel their musical exuberance shouldn’t have been held back, the tightening of their sound is mostly a good thing here, and some of the new songs presented are surprisingly lush and thought-provoking. Ben Hardesty‘s raggedy growl is going to be an acquired taste even for the most seasoned of folk music aficionados, but it serves as an interesting counterpoint to the rich classical instrumentation that backs several songs. I still wince when people compare them to Fleet Foxes or Mumford & Sons, because I feel that sets expectations a bit too high, but to be fair to The Last Bison, those other bands are just visiting the Appalachians, and these guys pretty much have them as a backyard.

Music Video: “Switzerland”

2013_TheLoneBellow_TheLoneBellow17. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
Somewhere between the rootsy revival of stripped-down Americana given a popular face by outfits like The Civil Wars and Mumford & Sons (as well as several veterans who have been doing it for far longer), and the slicker, more mainstream country music of groups like Lady Antebellum, sits the preferred musical style of The Lone Bellow, a vocal powerhouse trio hailing from Brooklyn, with its individual members all having Southern roots. At times this one can get a bit sleepy and ballad-heavy, but wait for the climaxes, and you’ll hear just how powerfully they can belt it out. Just enough up-tempo numbers are there to tip the balance and give them something striking to open and close concerts with, and they do the more modern country-rock thing about as well as they do the old-school sorta-Gospel-ballad thing, so there’s a lot of hope and heartache to for quite a variety of musical tastes to indulge in here.

Live in Studio: “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”

2013_Gungor_IAmMountain18. Gungor – I Am Mountain
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of “worship bands” slowly break out of the expected mold and start to write songs on more general or esoteric subjects. But I can’t recall any who have bucked expectations as drastically as Michael and Lisa Gungor did with this album. They already said “thanks, but no thanks” to youth-group rock worship anthems on the beautifully orchestrated Ghosts Upon the Earth, one of a few “modern worship” albums that makes a strong case for slow-burning liturgical grandeur to replace old-hat pop choruses grand-standing rock pyrotechnics in our Sunday morning worship sets. But I Am Mountain defies even those expectations, instead daring to open up and explore the doubts and questions experienced by a lost and wandering soul. The album is designed to be stylistically jarring, dropping blaring synthesizers into otherwise earthy indie pop songs, allowing Lisa’s voice to get lost in increasingly unnerving layers of Auto-tune for a track, making a few references to Greek mythology and “the gods” where you might have expected clear endorsements of “capital-G God”, and even ending the entire album on a skewed question mark of a song that drops all certainty out from underneath the listener. This is not an album designed to give pat answers or easy comfort. It’s an album designed to let you eavesdrop on the whole “dark night of the soul” experience. And while I don’t love every aspect of it, I thank the group for being willing to challenge even folks like me who thought I had already figured out when and how it was appropriate for a “worship band” to put a new spin on the genre.

Music Video: “I Am Mountain”

2013_TheDigitalAge_EveningMonring19. The Digital Age – Evening: Morning
On the flipside, sometimes there are worship bands who shoot straight up the middle of the road and still manage to create something that tries a little harder than most of their peers. That’s to be expected when everyone involved is a former member of the David Crowder Band – imagine the DCB with different vocalists, a little less genre-hopping, and a lot more rocking out, and that’s basically this album. While sometimes it falls guilty to the goofy cheerleading and stock musical tricks employed by a lot of bands currently getting rotation on Christian radio, the musicianship involved kicks everything up a notch, and at times when a really strong guitar solo or a bit of electronic/dance influenced kicks in, I’m reminded of the DCB’s magnum opus, Church Music. This group still has a ways to go to recapture the visionary spirit that Crowder himself infused nearly all of his albums with, that brings everything together thematically in a satisfying way, but they also demonstrate that Crowder alone was not the sole person responsible for the success of their former band.

Live in Studio: “All the Poor and Powerless”

2013_Snowden_NoOneinControl20. Snowden – No One in Control
Another entry on this list that basically took an EP from a few years ago and expanded on it, this one was the result of a seven-year labor of love for frontman Jordan Jeffares, who sought to balance the dance-heavy spin on sad-sack indie rock heard on 2006’s Anti-Anti with more spacious and introspective material. The Slow Soft Syrup EP that gave us our first glimpse at five of this albums songs may have veered a little too far in that direction, but this album reigns it in with a strong balance between eerie electronic ambiance and killer drum beats. Snowden’s still a bit of a downer even in their catchiest songs, so this is more of a “tune the world out” type of album than a “lift your spirits” type, but that sort of detached escapism can have its merits from time to time.

Music Video: “The Beat Comes”

COMPILATIONS, EPs AND SO FORTH:
The following releases are all of impeccable quality, and are only disqualified from the list above for not being full-lengths albums, largely consisting of previously released material, or still being a work in progress. As such, I can’t really rank them among the others, but I wanted to give them all a hearty recommendation nonetheless.

2013_TrailsandWays_TrilingualEPTrails and Ways – Trilingual EP
Just a couple fellas and a couple ladies from Oakland, California, making sunny indie pop that mashes together the sweet, sweet vocal harmonies of the sixties and seventies with retro electronic beats and a teeny bit of Latin American influence, seen most prominently in the songs that feature Spanish and/or Portuguese lyrics. Only five songs here, but they are all sublime, and I drool in anticipation of an eventual full-length album.

Music Video: “Nunca”

2013_SleepingatLast_AtlasDarknessEPSleeping at Last – Atlas EPs
Lone remaining “band” member Ryan O’Neal puts out several releases a year because he can’t not do this – he got impatient waiting for his favorites to put out new albums, so he designed the Yearbook series in 2010-11 and now the Atlas series as a way to circumvent that impatience among his own fans while still putting out something that contributes to a larger, more complete body of work than your usual collection of EPs in scattered musical styles. On the four EPs released thus far in the Atlas series – DarknessLightSpace 1, and Space 2, he’s explored the creation of the universe as a metaphor for the birth of the human soul, coming forth from darkness into light, acknowledging pain and loss with his charmingly childlike sense of petic optimism, and pondering the celestial bodies around us, why they exist, and what personalities they would have if they, too, could speak to us. 2014 will see Ryan diving further into the Earth’s personality traits on the Land and Sea EPs, but what he’s already accomplished within a single year is easily twice what I’d expect from most songwriters in two or three years.

Listen: “Sun”

2013_Anberlin_DevotionAnberlin – Devotion
I’m normally not a fan of artists releasing a hyped-up super-mega-special edition of an album in order to boost its otherwise flagging sales. Quite frankly, I don’t want to have to buy the same songs all over again just to get the new material. But I’m willing to make an exception (or just get the extra from iTunes, I guess) in the case of Anberlin and their expanded version of 2012’s hard-hitting and altogether excellent release Vital – easily their best work since Cities. This double-disc collection not only adds seven songs to the main setlist, including the raging hard rocker “Dead American” and the brooding, electronic anthem “IJSW” (one of a few songs in recent memory that makes a good argument in favor of tasteful use of Auto-tune rather than using it to cover up vocal flaws), but it also includes an entire acoustic set recorded in Brooklyn that reworks highlights from all six of the group’s studio albums thus far. Since Vital was already so dense and relentless, with only a few songs that tap on the brakes, listening to all eighteen of the studio tracks in sequence can be a bit exhausting, but the seven new songs would make a solid EP all on their own. So no matter how you approach it, this one’s worth listening for both hardcore Anberlin fans and casual ones who might have let Vital pass them by last year.

Listen: “IJSW”

2013_SusanAshton_ThiefEPSusan Ashton – Thief EP
Color me surprised. Susan Ashton was one of the first “adult contemporary” artists I got into in the very early days when my musical tastes were still being form and confined almost entirely to Christian music. “Summer Solstice” still moves me in profound ways, being one of the few songs from that era that I’ve come to appreciation more and more as my own tastes have matured. But I hadn’t heard anything of hers since 1996’s A Distant Call, opting not to follow her on her failed foray into mainstream country music (which included, among other things, an ill-advised cover of the Diane Warren schmaltz-fest “Faith of the Heart”, which would later become infamous due to Russell Watson‘s version becoming the much-maligned theme for Star Trek: Enterprise). Since that venture flopped, Ashton had been mostly laying low, and this new EP marks her first collection of new material in almost a decade and a half. I expected her soothing voice, maybe a bit of rootsiness, and some warm melodies. I didn’t expect such a solid collection of folk and country songs, raging from the upbeat, toe-tapping cover of “Love Is Alive” and the raging “country rock” of “Become Myself”, to the sweet, subdued twang of “Moonshine”, easily one of my favorite songs of the year. I’m not sure whether Ashton’s hoping to regain her CCM following, take another crack at mainstream country, or be welcomed into the indie folk/Americana crowd that has embraced acts like The Civil Wars, but this collection proves she could easily tackle any of the three .

Live in Studio: “Moonshine”

LAST YEAR’S LEFTOVERS:
Last but not least, here are some incredibly strong albums from 2012 that I didn’t discover in time to include them on last year’s list.

2012_OfMonstersandMen_MyHeadIsanAnimalOf Monsters and Men – My Head Is an Animal
Technically released in their home country in 2011 (with a slightly different track listing and a much more embarrassing album cover), this Icelandic folk/rock group with their vivid, colorful sound full of accordions and horns and keyboards and such found themselves a bit of North American exposure, and what happened? Folks heard a few old-timey instruments and some exuberant gang vocals and started comparing them to Arcade Fire. Sure, AF is a great role model, but personality-wise that doesn’t describe OMAM at all, and to brush them off with such comparisons does them a huge disservice. This is one of those albums that, with its tales of travel and ancient folklore and the joy inherent in nature itself, never ceases to put a smile on my face. The alternating female and male vocals help to keep it fresh from track to track, as do the thundering climaxes of several amazing songs.

Music Video: “Little Talks”

2012_Kimbra_VowsKimbra – Vows
Also technically a 2011 release that got re-jiggered for American audiences, this New Zealander peddling her soulful brand of dance pop meets R&B meets jazzy torch songs meets meticulously looped electronic music meets everything but the kitchen sink was poised for massive crossover success after that one song she did with Gotye hit it big, but I don’t know if it managed to translate into bigger things for her on our end of the pond. Our loss, because this is one of those albums that, while it might seem to urban and “girly” for my tastes on first listen, proves Kimbra to be a songwriter who can jump back and forth between playful and disarmingly observant within the very same song, quoting old-school greats like Nina Simone in one breath while fully embracing modern hip-hop production in the next. While I have my quibbles with some of the tracks from the initial New Zealand/Australia release being cut in favor of bigger, bolder tracks for the American version (most notably the delectable “Wandering Limbs”), either version of this album is insanely addictive, to the point where I can only be fully content with it as one big, mashed-together, 17-song playlist on my iPod.

Music Video: “Cameo Lover”

2012_AltJ_AnAwesomeWaveAlt-J – An Awesome Wave
Trippy, rhythmic indie rock that somehow manages to defy the anthemic expectations we usually assign to British rock bands, instead referencing more experimental acts like Radiohead and even a few hip-hop influences without really quoting any of them in easily identifiable ways. The bizarre, addictive bass and percussion grooves on this album are a great way to get you hooked, but this group also enchants listeners in the quieter sections of their songs, with thoughtfully layered vocal harmonies and bells and chimes and such, without ever sounding like they’re trying to hop on the baroque pop bandwagon (and admittedly, I’d be a big fan even if they had tried to do that). Good luck interpreting most of their lyrics, or finding your way back to sanity if you ever do… but then again, few gradual descents into madness have been as sublime as this one.

Live in Concert: “Tessellate”

2012_LostintheTrees_AChurchthatFitsOurNeedsLost in the Trees – A Church that Fits Our Needs
It’s easy to get lost amidst the lush classical arrangements and maze-like time signature changes, but underneath it is a vulnerable and moving tribute to the mother of lead singer Ari Picker, who took her own life a few years prior. This album isn’t an easy listen, nor are any of its choruses “catchy” in a conventional way, but its musical pleas for sympathy and understanding ultimately reveal a deep familial affection, and a wish for the world to know a talented artist and kind soul who perhaps the world didn’t fully appreciate while she was still alive.

Music Video: “Red”

2012_CharliePeacock_NoMansLandCharlie Peacock – No Man’s Land
Another CCM stalwart from the olden days, who I listened to a bit in the mid-90s and then forgot about, at least as a recording artist in his own right. Peacock was revered as a sort of pop music mad scientist back when he was writing, recording, and producing his own witty little songs that aimed for something a little smarter than the average Christian radio hit, and while his attempts to reform Christian music may have been a bit ahead of their time, his efforts to discover artists who tried to think outside the box a little did manage to bring us Sarah Masen and most notably Switchfoot. In more recent years he’s received a bit of press as the man who produced (and rumor has it, playeed referee for) The Civil Wars, so the timing was just about perfect for his comeback as a solo recording artist. In the long gap between 1999’s Kingdom Come and No Man’s Land, there were a few instrumental jazz projects and a retrospective tribute album, but this is his first vocal album since then, and it’s completely different from the Peacock I remember. The lyrical wit is still there, but this time it’s much more personal, with swampy, twangy, and sorta jazzy songs all inspired by the mixed gumbo of ancestors this man came from, and the Louisiana farms and bayous they once called home. With such strong guests as Dave Matthews Band sax player Jeff Coffin (who he’s actually known for far longer than his involvement with the DMB) and Ghanaian soul singer Ruby Amanfu, among many others, this album pays tribute to many different genres of distinctly American music as it tells stories, some wise and some foolish, some sad and angry enough to include phrasing too strong for Christian radio, and some celebratory in their affirmation of life and love and the God that wove this weird, wonderful tapestry of a man together throughout those many decades of history.

Music Video: “Death Trap”

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