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Thursday, 02 January 2014 11:15

Best of 2013: Top 10 albums (emotional road map edition)

The Head and the Heart The Head and the Heart subpop.com
Written by Janet Noe
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A year can only be what you make of it. In 2013 the artists behind these 10 albums chose to dig deep and offer up music that provides a map to navigate one's own emotional landscape.

It began about a week ago; so many of my friends expressed through social media their delight to kick 2013 to the curb. For many of us it has been a year of trials and hardships. That said, each year also brings its own joys; new friendships or re-connections with old friends, rich experiences and lovely moments.

The 10 albums I chose for my end-of-the-year list each taught me something valuable about life. So instead of bashing 2013 over the head, I am choosing to learn what I can from it and greet 2014 with open arms, ears, mind and heart.

Basia Bulat - "Tall, Tall Shadow"

There is no possible escape from falling in love with both Basia Bulat's music and her spirit. At her recent performance at Off Broadway she charmed the wits out of us all with her nearly ever-present grin, the strumming of her autoharp, the clicking of her heels against the floorboards and that spectacular voice of hers. This premiere release from Bulat was written in a year where she dealt with the sorrow of losing a close friend. The songs she crafted in that time of mourning are like golden shafts of light pouring through the darkness. Favorite Track: "Wires"

Bell X1 - "Chop Chop"

I feel very huggy/squeezy about Bell X1. For over a decade now, they have been putting out songs that never fail to have an interesting take on a subject, a poetic turn of phrase and a flair for the dramatic within the compositions. There's always a surprise somewhere; an unexpected phrasing, a melodic turn and often a well placed drumming segment. They are craftsmen of the highest order. On this latest release they've gone with a simpler, stripped back sound that allows Paul Noonan's vocals a beautiful space to make magic. Favorite Track: "Diorama"

City and Colour - "The Hurry and the Harm"

Dallas Green's approach to song arrangement takes a new direction on this latest LP. The focus is still on acoustic guitar, catchy choruses and the man's beautiful vocal range. Those elements are now supported by increased instrumentation including keyboards, synthesizers, backing bass and drums. Lyrically, Green has not strayed from dealing with the weighty matters of human existence and in doing so, continues to earn sizable chunks of the real estate of my heart. Favorite Track: "Two Coins"

The Head and the Heart - "Let's Be Still"

On the title track, Jonathan Russell sings "The world's just spinning a little too fast. If things don't slow down soon we might not last." The last two years of the band's life have been an absolute whirlwind of touring and increasing recognition and acclaim. It was wise of the band to take their time on their sophomore release and to be sure that it was a truly collaborative effort of all six members. It feels a little like a love letter to what they've created together and I, as an uber-fan, hope I'm right in thinking that it is a romance that will stand the test of time. Favorite Track: "Josh McBride"

Lucius - "Wildewoman"

Lucius is like hitting the jackpot. If you thought they were going to be a one-hit wonder because all you've heard is "Go Home" being played on a constant loop by your tear-soaked, recently dumped friend, then you are most mistaken. Lucius is the real deal. Please note: you will never be able to see them at a small venue like The Duck Room again. Favorite Track: "How Loud Your Heart Gets"

Laura Marling - "Once I Was an Eagle"

Marling just keeps securing her position as one of my favorite songwriters with every album she releases. Her songs are where I go when I need to think, need to feel connected, need to be calmed and/or inspired; her voice is a sacred place. On "Once I Was An Eagle", as she has done on every other one of her consistently remarkable offerings, she enrages, enraptures, soothes and questions with mastery. Favorite Track: "Breathe"

The National - "Trouble Will Find Me"

Confession: I am a newly minted fan of The National. For years, people have been telling me that I would love them and I feel like a fool for waiting so long to take that advice. It's difficult for me to compare their latest effort to the past work that I am just becoming familiar with but it does seem like there is a relaxed easiness about the songs on this album despite the heavy subject matter. Matt Beringer delivers even the most razor sharp of lines with his rich, soothing baritone and I am pretty powerless under it's spell. Favorite Track: "Pink Rabbits"

Phosphorescent - "Muchacho"

The entire album is magnificent but let's focus for a moment on the shining star here; "Song For Zula" is kicking the ass of every other song that came out in 2013. It is not possible for me to listen to that song just once. It must wash over me at least twice, if not three times in a row. This album was born from Matthew Houck's self-imposed isolation in Tulum Mexico. Solitude can often be the way to greater understanding and self-acceptance which is exactly what seems to be at the heart of "Muchacho." Some folks might call it "shoegazer music" and they would be so wrong. These songs are looking you straight in the eye. Personal Favorite Track: Let's give another song a chance. . . "Ride On/ Right On"

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down - "We the Common"

One cannot help, nay one must move thine booty to Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. What makes it better is that this isn't just fluffy club music. Nyugen's latest album is very much a modern protest album inspired by women prisoners in the state of California. Percussion and horns punctuate her thought provoking lyrics. Dance and think at the same time? Why yes, I think we are capable of doing both. Favorite Track: "The Feeling Kind"

Water Liars - "Wyoming"

While I chose to organize this list alphabetically rather than to rank them, there is no question as to what album of 2013 owns top honor. Water Liars have crafted an album that speaks to me in every conceivable way; sound, substance and style. That punk influenced, fuzzed out reverb married to an alt-country sensibility is a magic concoction. They've stated repeatedly that their goal is to treat the songs simply and nothing here is overdone. Each song is it's own little world but they all hang together, a suspended solar system of sonic perfection. Favorite Track: "Fire"

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