Saturday, March 1, 2014

My Top 10 Albums of 2013 (Part 2)

5.) Gungor - I Am Mountain

Sometimes, I don't know who I am, where I am going, or what I am doing. Sometimes nothing makes sense. Sometimes faith leaves only questions. Sometimes there are very few answers to be found. When a person of faith has a struggle with doubt, G-d can seem awfully far away. This is a good starting point for discussing Gungor's newest album I Am Mountain. Many of the songs stem from husband and wife Michael and Lisa's period of soul-searching over the past few years, seeking definition to haphazard humanity. While IAM translates into their least "church/congregation friendly" record to date, it is certainly one of their most honest, earnest, and introspective. When the pillars of faith rattle, does G-d still stand? When lifelong truths seem to slip as sand through fingers, does G-d still reign on His throne? Gungor wants to journey into these questions and take us all with them. Through poetic storytelling, stripped down ballads of yearning and wandering, and even some purposeful (dare I say tasteful) autotune, I Am Mountain delivers.

4.) Volcano Choir - Repave

I get it. No one thinks Justin Vernon is cool anymore. I get it. He's overexposed. I get it. Bon Iver is not hipster or underground anymore. Whatever. Trends are stupid, when the music is this good. This record is absolutely gorgeous. Whereas Volcano Choir's first output (2009's Unmap) felt more like a collection of samples and sounds loosely structured into songs, Repave clearly took some time to meticulously contruct. The members let the songs ruminate over the course of three years, layering dense instrumentation or pulling back for an ethereal echo. There is a lush dreamlike quality, swelling and building (as displayed on the perfectly chosen album art). Likewise, Vernon's vocals are so tender and held, but then, at the right moment, the dam breaks and he erupts. The organ, piano, and guitar work here are intricately woven into masterful rhythmic soundscapes with crashing drums. With only 8 tracks, the album leaves me wanting more, and that's the mark of not overdoing it. 

3.) Buried Beds - In Spirit

Buried Beds knows their way around a fable. They enjoy spinning yarn from storybooks, lifting their inspirations from tales of old or introducing some new ones of their own. In Spirit picks up right where their EP Small Stories left off. Where the EP was a live introduction to several of these songs, In Spirit places them inside a whole world of myth, full of love, death, deception, fantasies, and more. The Philadelphian band pulls out all the stops expected from a chamber pop indie rock ensemble. Leaders Brandon Beaver and Eliza Jones elegantly blend their voices in harmonies rivaling something celestial, over multi-instrumentation and unique but catchy melodies. Buried Beds still has fun, like the radio-ready “Stars” or the pulsing ditty “Future Ghost” where Jones tells it like it is: “Of all the men I’ve loved, you were never one.” As any good story, this one closes with a drum-driven climax on “1000 Acres” followed by the settling whimsy of “Your Bow May Bend.”  With another remarkable record from Buried Beds, I wouldn’t expect them to stay small for much longer.

2.) Listener - Time Is A Machine

Listener is now a full fledged band. Once the rap pseudonym of frontman Dan Smith, Listener has evolved into a talk music trio, including guitarist (and laundry dryer slammer) Christin Nelson and drummer Kris Rochelle. This upgrade of performers changes the dynamics of the band into a more rock-oriented outfit for Time Is A Machine, but you will still find the heavily introspective poetry of Smith, spoken and shouted over the crashes of splashy cymbals and twangy, fuzzy, and distorted guitar. You also will find the same beautiful observations about surviving, winning, losing, hope, loss, life, and death; big picture stuff in manageable and thoughtful doses. Across this short 8 track/half hour record, Listener passionate spills out their heart and talent, an ensemble effort where the lyrics take center stage, but does not upstage the atmospheric crescendos and moody, pensive instrumentals. Each word is chosen carefully to truly encapsulate its intended purpose, drawing me as the listener into a world that begs to trust more, hold onto hope, and have confidence that things will all happen the way they should, even when it feels like I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel. I needed to understand this a lot this past year, so I thank you Dan, Chris, and Kris for your confidence through these songs. It means a lot.

1.) Five Iron Frenzy - Engine of a Million Plots

To be honest, it is almost by accident that this makes the top spot on my list of albums for 2013. I don't say that as a jab or slight against FIF or this record. But it isn't the most technical or talent-heavy record of the year. It isn't the most catchy album I heard this year. It isn't a typical FIF album (if there is such a label). It isn't a lot of things. But what it is, to me, is much more important. It is honest and assuring and hopeful and doubtful and important and big. Engine of a Million Plots resonates with me on such a level, that once it presented itself to me, it took hold and hasn't let go. It's weird to describe music that way, to personify it, but that is what I feel. A set of songs, crafted with intent to speak truth, can do just that. Like a flower among the wintry wasteland alluded to throughout EoaMP, these songs, melodies, silliness, seriousness, all of it, unfolded and bloomed. They grew on me. I can relate so much to the difficulties and triumphs of faith that Reese Roper, Dennis Culp, and Scott Kerr write about. I've spent many nights with a waning hope, begging G-d to give me a sign, a spark, a warmth to see me through. Sometime it came, sometimes it didn't. But even through those winters where it feels like I can't stand the weather, chilling me to the bone, my only hope is that G-d cannot not be real. And hope still flies.
I'll shut up now. But this record means a lot. I've sung it so many times at the top of my lungs. I've laughed at humor in the lyrics. I've cried when I needed to hear something and the lyrics spoke to me. FIF isn't ska. They are more than that. The end.

Well that's it! Here's a few honorable mentions if you made it this far, and want some more music recommendations from 2013:

- Wilderman - Learn to Feel
Touché Amoré - Is Survived By
- Joshua James - Well, Then, I'll Go to Hell
- Youngblood Brass Band - Pax Volumni
- Arcade Fire - Reflektor
- The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My Top 10 Albums of 2013

10.) Shone - Heat Thing

This album got a lot of crap because it was (a little) overhyped with a massive viral marketing campaign, full of mysterious videos with hidden clues and codes, backwards music, spooky letters and packages dropped off at people's houses, citywide scavenger hunts, and more, all at the (slight) deception of the rabid Brand New fan base. What we got was a spinoff record by a side project called Shone, with Brand New's drummer Brian Lane, guitarist Vinnie Accardi, his brother Andrew (of Robbers fame), and some other friends. All that aside, I enjoy this quirky, alternative, jazzy, enigmatic, sometimes aimless and flawed rock album for whatever it is. With spacy synth and keys, double drum sets, and some heavy fuzzed guitars, Heat Thing charges along in pseudo-conceptual style, matching the dark tone of the viral campaign with grisly lyrics about murder, vengeance, and a man with a "brain not screwed on tight enough" who wants to rid the world of all of its any means necessary. If you're looking to be in a chipper mood, this isn't the record for you. But, for a unique half hour listen, Shone brings the energy by a talented cast of musicians.

9.)  Cloud Cult - Love
 File:Cloud Cult - Love Album Cover.jpeg

I love Cloud Cult. I'm not sure they could ever disappoint me with a record. Nearly their entire discography as a band is well-listened on my computer/in my car/on my home stereo. While this new offering isn't Advice From The Happy Hippopotamus part two (swoon), Love is hopeful, shedding any small traces of melancholy from their early history. They take the questions and searching from 2010's Light Chasers, and attempt to answer them with as much joy as possible. Craig Minowa and company stretch their eclectic folk indie rock prowess to bring encouragement to a broken heart and broken world. I don't think their ambitions are that high necessarily, but I don't doubt that the members want to illuminate in their listeners a sense of wonder of this world, a sense of place, courage, and gumption to continue on fighting the good fight despite any setbacks and get in their way. If you can find a more determined and optimistic band, I would love to hear it. In the meantime, listen to Love and fall in love.

8.) Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve

Hot on the heels of their previous album.... haha, I couldn't finish that sentence, even as a joke. Before Hands..., Streetlight Manifesto hadn't released an album of original music since 2007. I was a sophomore in college! I get that they have a lot of members, perfectionist tendencies, and an ongoing quarrel with their record label, but seriously, six years! But, it was well worth the wait. The ska punk pirate gypsies from New Jersey put together another stellar set of songs. While they didn't reinvent the SM wheel, they didn't have to because they are the only band who does what they do. Tomas Kalnoky is the leader, weaving fast-paced tales of resistance, strength, and victory. However, the true might of SM lies in their drums and horns. The brass here is as sharp, focused, and aggressive as ever, while the drums have quite the chore keeping up with the frequent time signature and dynamic changes. Each gets their turn to shine, with plenty of the signature breakdowns and solos. I hope it isn't another 6 years before we see more music from Streetlight.

7.) Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

I love most everything about Janelle Monae. I love the myriad of influences that pepper each of her releases, from funk, rock, rap, r&b, pop, gospel, and jazz. I love the science fiction concept series following Monae's alter ego Cindi Mayweather's robotic adventures in a futuristic cityscape. I love her gender shattering fashion choices. I love her voice. I love her dance moves. She just exudes originality and poise, while not trading in her artistic integrity for what's popular. The Electric Lady is bold and grand, with suite pieces of layered strings, ballads that showcase Monae's remarkable range, pop songs that keep my head bobbing, and guest artists from the likes of Erykah Badu and Prince (!). Each song is different from the next stylistically, while somehow being cohesive in the world in which it is set. Janelle Monae deserves much more credit than she gets, but I wouldn't want her to change to sell more records. Do what you do, Mayweather.

6.) Typhoon - White Lighter
Portland, Oregon's Typhoon has been around the scene for a minute, forming in 2005, but they really haven't much burst through the scene until this year with their full length White Lighter. Many of their songs dwell on mortality, dreams and hopes from boyhood, with the inspiration often stemming from the band's leader Kyle Morton's childhood struggle with Lyme Disease. However, Typhoon's music is anything but defeatist or mopey. With soaring choruses, gang vocals, layered harmonies in choir, the band builds anthems with indie rock mentality and orchestral arrangement. While many songs begin with the typical light folky guitar and drums, they often evolve into bold territories with horns, strings, and fun time signatures brimming with floor drums, handclaps, and more. The band boasts 11 members, so they are many hands of many talents, almost a collective making playful and catchy triumphs. With a cheerful vibe of long summer days throughout White Lighter, Typhoon sun is certainly nowhere near setting.