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