There’s no honest way to rank the best records of 2013, so here are simply 10 bands – in alphabetical order - that satisfied on every level.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Specter at the Feast
A new BRMC record was no sure thing after the death of soundman, mentor and father Michael Been (who also happened to be the lead singer of The Call, a band that artfully brought a faith-filtered worldview to mainstream alternative rock at about the same time U2 showed up). Fortunately, Robert Levon Been, Peter Hayes and Leah Shapiro decided to explore their collective grief through music. Specter at the Feast explores all corners of this incredible band’s repertoire in a deeply spiritual and strangely comforting way.
Blitzen Trapper, VII
On their seventh studio album, Blitzen Trapper continues to explore new ways to be an Americana band in the 21st century, and it involves gospel, drum machines and instrumental virtuosity. VII is a blast. The tracks manage to channel both hillbilly folk and club electronica. As odd as some of the sound choices may seem at first, they work perfectly within the tight compositional framework crafted by the band. A strong but subtle theme of personal redemption runs through most of the tracks.
Daniel Amos, Dig Here Said the Angel
Daniel Amos is a band of the hinterlands. Their dogged determination to push themselves artistically and craft songs that were intellectually and creatively unapologetic has assured them obscurity (at best) in the Christian music world. Some 40 years into their career, the band has delivered one of the best records of their, or anyone else’s, careers. Dig Here Said the Angel is a beautiful exploration of death and grace.
Dawes, Stories Don’t End
Dawes is just a crazy good band with heartbreaking songs. With one exception (the frustratingly juvenile and maddeningly catchy “Hey Lover”), Stories Don’t End is yet one more chapter in the evolution of a classic American band. Dawes does with lyrics what Cirque de Soleil does with gymnastics. Impossible to pick a favorite song or two as all of them remind me that God doesn’t seem to be done breathing into music just yet.
Jars of Clay, Inland
It’s so exciting to see Jars of Clay officially free of the expectations and limitations of the Christian market. On Inland, this 20-year-old band sounds brand new. It’s not that they needed to change anything. They have been creatively evolving and sharpening their songwriting skills from record to record. Here the band hits a soulful high that deserves to be heard everywhere, from hipster coffeehouses to prime-time dramas. (Although they sound best on headphones.)
Lorde, Pure Heroine
How is it that a teen indie artist from New Zealand managed to create one of the smartest, freshest pop records of the year? First Lorde dominated the Top 40 with the irresistible “Royals,” then she followed it with more of the same on her debut LP. An abiding disdain for the shallow trappings of pop culture and a determination to uncover the truly important things in life flows through this entire set.
The Mavericks, In Time
The Mavericks returned with their first new LP in 10 years and In Time is everything their fans wanted it to be. Far from softening with age, if anything the band dug deeper into their eclectic, Latin-flavored country sound. Raul Malo has never sounded better, the twang and swagger has never been stronger and “Come Unto Me” might be the coolest song of the year. Religious imagery is mostly used to add drama, but there has always been a sense with The Mavericks that their songs come from a deeper spiritual well than most of their compatriots’.
The Ocean Blue, Ultramarine
The Ocean Blue was one of those “almost huge” bands in the 1980s and early ’90s that had college radio success and a loyal following for their jangly, ’60s-inspired alternative pop laced with poetic references to their faith. The band managed to celebrate the styles of bands like The Smiths, Joy Division and New Order without sounding like a cover band. On this year’s comeback set, spiritual yearning is evoked, rather than proclaimed.
Sam Phillips, Push Any Button
Sam Phillips has long had a way of breathing something fascinating into the singer-songwriter formula with her seemingly effortless humor, inter-personal insight, imaginative arrangements and one-of-a-kind voice. In several ways Push Any Button recalls Phillips’ 1994 classic Martinis and Bikinis, but adds a funky, post-modern flair. Lots of artists create “Beatle-esque” pop, but when I imagine John Lennon still writing and recording, I like to think he’d sound something like this.
The Waterboys, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats
Mike Scott and his various Waterboys have been making a wide range of excellent music for over 30 years. On An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, Scott takes his love of British literature, Irish mythology, Christian spirituality and traditional Celtic sounds to a whole new place by setting 20 Yeats poems to music. In Scott’s hands, Yeats sounds more spiritual than ever.