My Top Albums of 2013 — A Fact-Based and Self-Promoting Approach

This year I’m keeping things the same as my 2012 list for my annual “Top 30″ list. I am again ranking the albums in order of iTunes play counts and then playing at least a few minutes of one of the songs on the piano for no other reason than because I can. What else makes my list different is that I’ve also considered albums that came out in the month of December. In full disclosure, no albums from December are represented below, but they were considered. The following are the top 30 albums by my personal iTunes play count for 2013:

1) Aoife O’Donovan “Fossils”

There were a few hidden clues to suggest that Aoife has become a brilliant song-writer. First, I convinced myself that “Thursday’s Child” was a cover and upon googling it I discovered a David Bowie song by the same name. Being the all-star detective that I am, I considered the case closed and assumed she covered a David Bowie song. Only later did I realize the songs are only similar in name. I also heard the song “Red & White & Blue & Gold” play at the Black Dog shops in Martha’s Vineyard proving she’s marketable to rich people on vacation. There’s no debate that she’s now become a brilliant songwriter. However, I can’t help but feel that she’s a bit of a handful.

2) Dream Theater “Dream Theater”

I don’t think Dream Theater will ever put out an album that makes me go “yes, that’s as good as the music they made when I was 19″. I put everything after “Six Degress of Inner Turbulence” into this category. However, I did fully enjoy this one as their best post-Portnoy release.

3) “Hands on a Hard Body” Original Broadway Cast Recording

I don’t know why this musical failed so miserably. It has all the ingredients of a successful and fun show while being completely original (not a re-do of something from musical theater’s past). Maybe the venn diagram for the intersection of fans of both Broadway musicals and country music is too small to fill a theater every night. Had I not heard that this was written by Trey Anastasio of Phish I would have never guessed it, though it shows in his guitar noodling towards the end of the album.

4) Queensryche “Queensryche”

Everything that Queensryche did in the 80s and 90s is pure gold in my mind. Even “Hear in the Now Frontier” is very listenable. But, the 2000s happened and Queensryche became a brain-damaged relic of the band I once loved. The album “Tribe” made me wonder if they actually let anyone listen to the album before it went out. With Geoff Tate now gone I was willing to give them another chance and this is by far the best Queensryche album of the millennium. I have no care about who will own the Queensryche name going forward or who was more of a jerk in the split with Tate. Musically speaking, this album was enough to convince me that Tate was the musical poison in the band. My guess is they’re all jerks.

5) Della Mae “This World Oft Can Be”

These ladies have made it big in the hip and young progressive bluegrass scene in the last few years. Boston couldn’t hold them so they retreated to Nashville and no doubt have a successful career ahead of them.

6) Serenity “War of Ages”

Kamelot and Epica didn’t have albums out this year. Serenity filled the void nicely. “Fairytales” seemed like the obvious choice to play at first, but I opted for the more interesting “For Freedom’s Sake”. I realize that I skip the key change, and transpose the whole thing up a half step to put it all in C minor.

7) Steve Martin & Edie Brickell “Love Has Come for You”

At first I thought this album was a bit boring; too much claw-hammer and not enough aggressive picking. However, it quickly grew on me. The lyric about the doggie waiting for him to come home is heartbreaking.

8) Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott “Memories and Moments”

Somewhere in the books of Americana and Folk law it is written that these 2 cannot put out more than one album per decade. If they were to do so it would render all other music useless.

9) Ayreon “The Theory of Evolution”

Ayreon’s latest effort is exactly what I wanted. A 90 minutes epic album with interesting guests (my favorite being John Wetton). I purchased the album on iTunes, as I typically do, but it came with an unusual error. The song “Potential” was cut off after the first minute. iTunes eventually fixed this, as I expected, but during the frustration I tweeted Arjen Lucassen who expressed his apologies and thanked me for buying his album. John Wetton even re-tweeted my thanks back.

10) Dawes “Stories Don’t End”

What I read about this album before it came out concerned me. Dawes referred to previous criticism that their albums sounded too old-fashioned with the stench of classic rock. They promised a more relevant and modern album in 2013. I worried briefly that they’d succumb to the blandness of Mumford & Suns but that worry lifted after the first few minutes of the album. The whole album still plays like a classic rock album but only because it’s so genius that you assume it was written years ago. I love that you can get the guitar solo to “From a Window Seat” stuck in your head or hum along to it in the car. You really can’t say that about many songs today.

11) Lori McKenna “Massachusetts”

Finally, Mark Erelli gets to be in the liner notes of a Lori McKenna album. “My Love Follows You Where You Go” ended up being my least favorite, which is a song she co-wrote for Allison Krause. It’s telling and a sign that she’s best on her own and not corrupted by the Nashville garbage.

12) Soilwork “The Living Infinite”

This was my surprise metal favorite of the year. A double album that doesn’t grow tired. What really helps is the guest vocalists, especially Mikael Åkerfeldt. Disc Two starts strong with Entering Aeons, but I can’t help but think of Black Diamond by Kiss.

13) Dark Tranquillity “Construct”

This was a Dark Tranquillity album. That’s about the best review I could give this. What made it interesting for this project is there was no simple or slow song to chose to make a solo piano arrangement for. It represents the first time my playing represents the growling death metal vocals.

14) Sound of Contact “Dimensionaut

No review of this album can be written without mentioning that the singer in this band is Phil Collins son. I doubt I would have purchased this album has that not been the case, but the album is good enough to stand on its own.

15) Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer “Child Ballads”

This album was less challenging to get into than the last few solo Anais albums. However, the simple melodies were made extremely interesting by this duo.

16) Black Sabbath “13″

I didn’t like this album before I listened to it. Everything about Ozzy’s career since his MTV show has been tainted with something that doesn’t seem very metal. It doesn’t help that all of his solo material in the past decade has been rather bland, at least what I’ve heard on the radio. I incorrectly put this release into the bland Ozzy bucket and didn’t have faith in the other masters of darkness. This is an album I listened to far more than expected and was a commendable attempt at re-creating their 70s sound and glory.

17) Civil Wars “Civil Wars”

Like their first album, their self-titled 2nd album has brilliant songs mixed in with songs that drag a bit. I may be in the minority here, but I think they are at their best when they are rocking. “Oh Henry” and “From This Valley” are some of my favorites. Their cover of The Smashing Pumpkin’s Disarm sounds almost nothing like the original, which isn’t a bad thing on its own, but it is when it’s just made to be boring. The lyric “The killer in me is the killer in you” just sounds like it was written by a 14 year old girl when sung by them. It’s the same type recursive nonsense lyric that plagued their song “To Whom It May Concern” (I’ve missed you but I haven’t met you).

18) Suidakra “Eternal Defiance”

If there’s one album on this list that’s not deserving of its position it’s this one. The sound quality was odd and there was little originality. The song that became most painful was “The Mindsong”, which is odd that it’s also the song that I chose to play. The lyric “Empire of rose…” just repeats endlessly and at times it sounds like the sound engineers did a sloppy job cut-and-pasting in the chorus multiple times. Even the band didn’t feel like singing this lyric over and over again.

19) Ghost “Infestissumam”

There was something off about this album. I knew it was musically interesting and as unique as the first album. However, I wanted to play it loud, as I would any good metal album. But something was off. It just didn’t sound right. It was as if the album took a lesson from the Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” and mixed the whole album too hot. While this was the first album I heard since Death Magnetic to be plagued by this issue, the second would be the Queensryche album already mentioned.

20) The Winery Dogs “The Winery Dogs”

Of all Mike Portnoy’s post-Dream Theater projects I’d rank this one second (behind Flying Colors and well ahead of Adrenaline Mob). When an album is described as straight-forward rock I’m often skeptical but there’s something that kept my interest about this album. It’s as if Soundgarden gained a bit of a proggy-edge to them. I hope they do release a second album.

21) Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line “Carnival”

Nora Jane was my summer celebrity crush. If ever given the change to see them live, you too will fall in love. It’s as if “Barn Dance” was written for the dance tent at summer bluegrass festivals. Bearfoot couldn’t hold her for long. Hopefully the “Party Line” is a more permanent project.

22) Steep Canyon Rangers “Tell the Ones I Love”

Not too different from the previous, and probably about the same as the next. They still put out the most consistent modern bluegrass and one of the best live shows I’ve seen in 2013. The low point for me is “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken”. It sounds too much like Railroad Earth trying to sound like the Grateful Dead. Highlights are the title track, “Lay Myself Down” and “Stand and Deliver”.

23) Children of Bodom “Halo of Blood”

I give this the same review as the Dark Tranquillity album. This was a Children of Bodom album. Nothing really stuck out to me, but overall it provided good background music during work. The cover of Roxette’s “Sleeping in my Car” was a change in feel and obviously a cover even to those that hadn’t heard the original. It made an obvious choice for the piano cover as I wasn’t about to pick out a Janne Wirman solo.

24) Flower Kings “Desolation Rose”

This album came out on the same day as the Ayreon album and it took a quick lead in what was otherwise a progressive rock overload week. The playcounts show otherwise, but it’s solid kings.

25) Stephen Kellogg “Blunderstone Rookery”

Sometimes I feel that Stephen Kellogg tries too hard to make his audience feel. In “I Don’t Want to Die on the Road” Stephen compares himself to La Bamba and Stevie Ray Vaughan while hoping he doesn’t follow in the final footsteps of a tragic, early death. “Forgive You, Forgive Me” was stolen from Tom Petty’s notebook. While 10 minutes long, “Thanksgiving” holds my interest though from other Kellogg songs we know this is not autobiographical. “The Best” is where Kellogg employs some indie cliches by adding unharmonized and over-reverbed “Oh” and “Ah”s. However, that song seemed to make the best solo piano version.

26) Milk Carton Kids “The Ash & Clay”

I’m sure I’m not he first to say this, but the Milk Carton Kids are a unique blend of the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings. Even the guitar noodling is taken out of the Dave Rawlings book of guitar noodling.

27) Blitzen Trapper “VII”

I, like many others, was introduced to Blitzen Trapper after the song Furr gained some attention. It was a somber folky song that was written to make old people cry as a series of old timey photos appear on the screen re-caping a life. This album had none of that. It is lumberjack funk and groovy in a way that suggests it doesn’t know what decade it belongs in. I may have not given this album a second spin had it not had the Blitzen Trapper name. But I did, and on repeated listens it grew on me.

28) Slaid Cleaves “Still Fighting the War”

The only Austin based alt-country star on the list takes a deep spot. “Texas Love Song” plays like a John Prine or Hayes Carll back-and-forth song, even though it’s just Slaid. It shares the humor, at least. And good thing for Slaid, lots of words rhyme with Texas.

29) Josh Ritter “The Beast In Its Tracks”

This album was a bit more striped down than previous efforts. Most songs would work fine with just Josh and a guitar, and some added reverb.

30) Larkin Poe & Thom Hell “The Sound of the Ocean Sound”

Larkin Poe released a lot of albums shortly after they formed, mostly EPs. This albums was something a bit different as it introduced a male vocalist/songwriter in Thom Hell, though it still sounded to me like a Larkin Poe album at heart. Thom did add some impressive range and dynamics to the vocals sounding like Art Garfunkel at times.