Author Archives: Darren

2014 Music Review

This year I decided to do a top 10 list of my favorite albums rather than a top 25. For me there weren’t enough solid albums to be able put together a top 25, plus it takes a long time. But before I get to my top 10 I did want write about a few albums that didn’t make my list.

My two favorite albums in 2014 that came out in 2013 were Lorde’s Pure Heroine and Haim’s Days Are Gone. These two albums are a lot fun and come from artists who are just getting started. I’m really exiting to see what Lorde and Haim end up doing next.

Weezer released an album this year… and it’s not bad… seriously! In fact it’s their best album since Pinkerton. Everything Will Be Alright in the End isn’t ground breaking by any means, but it’s thoughorly enjoyable. If you’ve given up on Weezer, trust me, this one is worth checking out.

Sucre released a phenomenal EP back in September titled Loner. I was really hoping for a full length, but I’ll take what I can get. Loner is a lot more bombastic than their debut album and it really works. If you were a fan of their first album or a fan of Eisley or just a fan of music in general you need to give Loner a listen.

Great worship music continues to come out of the Pacific Northwest with Citizens & Saints (formerly Citizens) putting out Join the Triumph and Kings Kaleidoscope putting out Becoming Who We Are. While neither of these albums made my top 10 they are right up there with my favorite worship albums. If you’re looking for some upbeat worship with great lyrics, look no further.

Comeback Kid’s Die Knowing and Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There just got edged out of my top 10. Die Knowing is one of the best hardcore albums I’ve heard in a long time. It’s thoroughly heavy, catchy as hardcore goes, and has those great fist pumping positive lyrics Comeback Kid is know for. Are We There is Sharon Van Etten at the top of her game. The lyrics are dark and moody while the music is stunningly beautiful. It’s not hard to get completely immersed in this album. An another note, I’m pretty sure this is the first time ever Comeback Kid and Sharon Van Etten have been written about together.

And now with out further adieu, my top 10!

10. ’68 – In Humor and Sadness

I love heavy music and I love two piece rock bands. This year the band ’68 filled both of those criteria with their debut In Humor and Sadness. ’68 is fronted by Josh Scoggin formerly of The Chariot and Norma Jean and is know for adding a healthy dose of insanity to his music. This is true for the ’68 as well but being a two piece there is also an incredible amount of restraint on this album. And it’s the interplay of boarding on insanity and restraint that make this album so good. They sound like what the White Stripes would sound like if you set them on fire.

9. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Upon first listen I wasn’t feeling Lykke Li’s third album I Never Learn. However, I decided to revisit it later in the year and realized my first impression was way off the mark. I Never Learn is arguably Lykke Li’s best album to date. She sings about heart break in a way that feels cinematic and provocative. Musically, I Never Learn is more striped down and raw than Lykke Li’s previous albums, but is still full of great pop hooks.

8. Real Estate – Atlas

I nearly dropped Real Estate’s Atlas from my top 10, but I remembered this is the one album I’ve probably listened to the most this year. Atlas is a very listenable album. It’s great background music and you could keep listening to it over and over and not get sick of it. Those characteristics don’t necessarily make for a top album and could possibly be seen as criticisms. However, what makes Atlas great is the attention to detail. Each instrument sounds perfect, from the guitar tones, to the precision of the drums and the mix is spot on. Not to mention each song is catchier than the next.

7. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

Cloud Nothings’ Here and Nowhere Else is the best rock album of 2014, period. If I needed to get motivated or get my blood pumping this was the album I turned to this year. Cloud Nothings combine early punk with indie rock and even a little hardcore; throw in smart lyrics and you have an album that will keep you coming back for more.

6. Manchester Orchestra – Cope/Hope

Earlier this year one of my favorite bands Manchester Orchestra released their fourth full length album, Cope. Cope is a loud rock album that hits you in the face with a wall of guitar sound on every song. Conceptually the album is about the various ways in which people cope. I enjoyed the album, but it felt a little one dimensional especially compared to their previous work. Then the band did something rather unexpected, they released a second album later in the year titled Hope. Hope is reimagining of the album Cope. The songs and lyrics are the same, but the arrangements are completely different. Hope shows off Manchester’s softer side, with acoustic and piano driven songs. I loved Hope when I first heard it and kind of pushed Cope aside. Then I went back to Cope after having spent a lot time with Hope. I found that Hope made me appreciate Cope even more and that the two albums play off each other in a really cool way. In the end I felt like both albums work best as one body of work, which is the reason I put them together on this list.

5. Lecrae – Anomaly

Christian hip hop is not a genre I typically gravitate toward, but I’d heard a lot about Lecrae’s current release Anomaly, particularly that it hit number one on the Billboard charts. I decided it was worth giving a listen and it did not disappoint. Lecrae has managed to combine his faith and music in a way that diminishes neither. Despite being 15 tracks long the album never gets boring. The production is great and features a number of standout rappers and vocalists. Lecrae explores topics from politics, love, race, and his own personal struggles. His lyrics are honest, never preachy or cheesy and are delivered flawlessly.

4. Copeland – ixora

Copeland called it quits back in 2010, but left things open to possibly recording again in the future. The future turned out to be 2014 which found the band reuniting to record their fifth full length album titled, ixora. The time apart served the band well. They seemed creatively tapped out on their previous release You Are My Sunshine, while ixora finds the band reinvigorated. The music has a dreamy quality to it with each song building on the next. Lyrically the focus is love and works beautifully with the music.

3. Propaganda – Crimson Cord

If Lecrae is representing Christian hip hop in the mainstream Propaganda is representing Christian hip hop in the indie scene. Propaganda’s lyrics are smart, witty, and flow perfectly thanks to his background in spoken word. At times he’s straight up preaching the gospel and yet never sounds preachy. On the flip side he still knows how to get in your face on tough issues such as education and race. Propaganda’s passion is contagious and makes for great hip hop. Production by Beautiful Eulogy is once again incredible, which is the icing on the cake of an excellent album.

2. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is the solo project of The Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell. His debut album We Don’t Have Each Other is a concept album rolling a fictional character, Aaron West through a very tumultuous time in his life. The album is told from West’s perspective featuring very lyrical lyrics, which read much like a diary of sorts. Concept albums and literal lyrics don’t tend to work for me and yet Campbell has pulled off a story that is deeply compelling and moving. If you didn’t know the lyrics were fictional you’d think Campbell was singing about his own life. Thankfully he isn’t, as the story involves Aaron West losing his dad, he and his wife losing their baby and eventually divorcing, and his subsequent spiral into alcoholism and depression. Campbell brings so much emotion to the character through the lyrics and vocals. I found myself at times tearing up listening to this album. Musically the album is mostly acoustic which lends itself well to the story. This album is quite frankly really sad, however from what I can tell, the story has a happy ending. Maybe that’s just my interpretation, but either way you can’t help being kind of blown away when you get through the last song.

1. Switchfoot – Fading West

Fading West is Switchfoot’s ninth full length album and I think it’s their best yet. Switchfoot are known as a rock band, but on Fading West they indulge their every pop whim. I love it when bands reinvent themselves and not every band can pull of a transition to pop music without sounding ridiculous, but Switchfoot totally made it work. Each song is upbeat and filled with great pop melodies and hooks. While some pop music sounds simplistic, what Switchfoot have done on Fading West really shows off their experience as musicians and song writers. In addition to the great music this album finds frontman Jon Foreman at the top of his game lyrically. His lyrics are moving, inspiring, and up lifting. This album was exactly what I needed when it came out and continues to have the same effect on me every time I put it on.


The story of letterpress

Whenever you make something by hand a story is told. The story may be simple or it may have many layers. The same is true for letterpress. A few weeks ago I was working on a small letterpress project Rachel came up with and I invited Rachel’s brother Andy to join me. He ended up filming the whole process and edited the footage into the short video below, which I think turned out great! On the surface the video tells the story of hand setting type, cutting paper, and ultimately printing on a small platen press. However, there is also a more involved story behind what I was printing (perhaps we will share more on that at some point). Additionally, there is the store of the video itself, which is Andy’s first video. I enjoy hearing stories, telling stories, and being a part of them. In it’s simplicity and in it’s complexity, this was a cool story to be involved in along with Rachel and Andy. I hope you enjoy it!

Empty Book Shelf Challenge – Darren Book #2


Title: What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Author: Rob Bell

What’s it about: Bell looks at how the world has historically talked about God and how Christians have historically talked about God and says, let’s reevaluate and make sure we’re talking about who God really is.

Why did I read it: I’ve followed Rob Bell for many years and read most of his books, so it seemed natural to read his latest work. Also, I felt his last book was a bit off track and I wanted to see what direction he would go. I really like where he went with this one.

Favorite idea: In one of the chapters he talks about how big the universe is and how small the universe is (he really gets into the science of all that and my mind was totally blown) and how God is present in all parts of it. Similarly he wraps up the book talking about how God is everywhere and in everything. That is really beautiful to me and something I need to be reminded of.

Bad Days and Miracles


On January 31st Rachel and I welcomed our second son into the world, Oliver Bruce Johnson. Bringing a child into the world is beautiful, miraculous, joyous, and mysterious. But newborns are challenging and we’ve experienced more than we bargained for. Rachel had some complications during the delivery, which I won’t go into now, but it’s left us experiencing an array of contrasts over the past week or so. There has been profound joy side by side with suffering. Pain, frustration, exhaustion, anger, longing, sadness, anxiety have all been swirling around in our hearts and minds. We’ve had bad days, yesterday was particularly challenging and yet despite all that, God has been faithful and held our spirits aloft. We’ve been trying to take each day one at a time and there are so many reminders of God’s love; sun shinning into apartment, Rachel’s mom helping out, friends and family visiting, friends bring meals, good food, good coffee, the Olympics, frangipane, laughter, music… all miracles. And the greatest of miracles: our children. Archie our first and Oliver our newborn certainly test our patience at times, though never cease to bring us joy, lighting up even the darkest of moments. God is good, in the midst of suffering, God is good.

Empty Book Shelf Challenge – Darren Book #1


Title: The Casual Vacancy

Author: J.K. Rowling

What’s it about: It’s basically about small town politics and the lives of the people involved. A seemingly boring topic that Rowling makes very interesting. I didn’t love the book because of it’s dark nature, but it features all the best things about Rowling’s writing.

Why did I read it: I couple years ago a read the Harry Potter series for the first time and loved it and loved it Rowling’s writing, so I thought I’d give her first non-Harry Potter book a shot.

Favorite idea: This books is pretty bleak, but it does have some redemptive qualities. It definitely reminded me of how much we need to love and to be Christ to the marginalized.

See the previous post to learn more about the Empty Book Shelf Challenge.


Last year Rachel and I started keeping track of the books we read. It was nice because throughout the year it can be hard to remember what you have and have not read. I sadly only read four books last year, Rachel read like a million. Anyway, I thought this year it would be fun to share what we’ve been reading on the blog and I came across a fun way of doing so. Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like fame started the “Empty Book Shelf” challenge. The idea is that you empty a book shelf and fill it with the books you read. Additionally he’s posting a little review of each book in the following format:



What’s it about:

Why did I read it:

Favorite idea:

I don’t think we’ll do the bookshelf part because we get some of our books from the library, plus we lack adequate shelf space. But we will do the review format and maybe snap a picture of the book. I already have two books under my belt, which is awesome for me. I’ll post my first one tonight as long as Rachel doesn’t go into labor… could be any time now!

Excuse the Mess Recommends: Top 25 Albums of 2013

I’ve been doing annual top 10 or 25 lists of my favorite albums for the past six or seven years now. I’ve had a couple other blogs I used to post my lists to, but since I’m not maintaining those blogs anymore, I thought this year I would post my list here. So, without further adieu, my top 25 favorite albums of 2013:

25. Jimmy Eat World – Damage

On their previous effort, Invented Jimmy Eat World added more acoustic guitars creating a stripped down sound with mixed success. On Damage they pick up where Invented left off, but did a better job of melding their acoustic side with their rock side. The result is classic Jimmy Eat World only a little softer around the edges. Frontman Jim Atkins has said his lyrics were inspired by the theme of an “adult breakup album”, which to be honest is a little hard to stomach. Overall though, the lyrics don’t ruin what is a solid album front to back.

24. The Digital Age – Evening : Morning

In the six years or so since I started compiling annual “best of” music lists, I’ve never had a worship album make the top 10 or 25. This year is different. The Digital Age’s Evening : Morning is the first of three worship albums on my top 25 list this year. There is a new breed of worship artists who are making not only good worship music, but music that holds up against Christian and secular artists alike. Additionally, the lyrics aren’t cheesy, rather the lyrics are well written and evoke emotion. The Digital Age are one of the bands leading the charge in this new age of worship music. On Evening : Morning they combine power pop and post rock that is loud and up lifting. The members of The Digital Age are all former members of The David Crowder Band. Coming from a band with such a notable frontman they’ve managed to form a band that feels purely like a band. There isn’t a distinct leader, instead their voices and instruments come together as one creating a united sound that is refreshing and fills empty space with joyous praise to our creator.

23. Norma Jean – Wrongdoers

The metalcore genre is on time has not treated well. It’s dramatically decreased in popularity and has become bored, lacking in progression. Then you have Norma Jean. While many of their peers have called it quits, Norma Jean are still going strong. They haven’t really ever put out a bad album and the is true for their latest, Wrongdoers. While it doesn’t necessarily break new ground, it finds Norma Jean at their best. The album combines the ferocity you expect while also being very catchy and delivering some really nice quieter moments as well. Vocalist Cory Brandon has never sounded better with his signature vocals that at times are as devastation as they are melodic.

22. Perma – Two of a Crime

Perma is the literal and figurative marriage between Eisley’s Sherri Dupree-Bemis and her husband, Say Anything’s Max Bemis. As they courted one another earlier in their relationship they would write each other songs, songs that were meant only for each other rather than for their respective bands. They eventually decided to create a new band from those love songs, thus Perma was born. Perma’s debut Two of a Crime is a duet album featuring both Max and Sherri singing to and responding to the other. The result is a cute pop album combining the quirky pop punk elements of Say Anything with the whimsical sounds of Eisley. I’m generally not a fan Max’s vocals, while I’m a huge fan of Sherri’s. With Perma their voices work surprisingly well to together. And it’s really unique to hear an album of genuine love songs especially one by a happily married couple.

21. Citizens – Citizens

Citizens self titled full length debut is the second worship album on my list this year. If Citizens wasn’t a worship band their song “Made Alive” would have been the song of the summer and for that matter they would have been one of the biggest indie rock bands of 2013… eat your heart out Phoenix. Citizens is chalk full of hooks, driving guitars and well placed synths. This is unlike any worship album to date with possibly one exception. The lyrics are powerful, original, and full of truth. Citizens also do a great job of exploring both the joyful and sorrowful side of worship. Even if you aren’t a Christian, this album is worth a listen for the music alone.

20. Justin Timberlake  – The 20/20 Experience: Part 1

Much like Frank Ocean reinvented R&B last year, Justin Timberlake is reinventing pop music this year. Granted Timberlake has been making pop music for a very long time, but hadn’t put out a new album since 2007. That being said, The 20/20 Experience was a bit a comeback for him in terms of his music career and he didn’t disappoint. This album is a pop album through and through, but the reinvention comes in by Timberlake keeping one foot firmly planted in the box while also take one step outside of it. He builds upon his own background in the genre while drawing heavily from influences from the past such as Motown, Michael Jackson, 90s R&B, and music of the crooner era. Another interesting note is there isn’t a song on 20/20 that clocks in at less than 5 minutes putting the album in at over an hour in length. Pop music is usually quick and easy, while Timberlake manages to create epic meandering pop songs that are rarely boring. The vocals a superb, the production is solid, and features wonderful performances by all the musicians involved. This will definitely go down as one of the best pop albums of this decade.

19. Daughter – If You Leave

According to Wikipedia Daughter was originally the solo project of front woman Elena Tonra. If you watch Daughter’s Tiny Desk performance on NPR, you get an idea of what that solo project might have sounded like; beautiful, striped down songs filled with heartache. But Daughter isn’t a solo project. The addition of guitarist/producer Igor Haefeli, and drummer Remi Aguilella give Tonra’s songs a haunting vastness which works perfectly with Tonra’s stunning vocals and melancholy lyrics. It seems as though much of Tonra’s lyrics are based on a broken romantic relationship, but doesn’t feel cliché like most breakup albums. Tonra’s lyrics deeply convey her emotions. Add in the music and her vocals and you have an album that is both beautiful and devastating.

18. The Shouting Matches – Grownass Man

It’s unclear what the future holds for Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver project, the project which he’s probably most known for. However, Vernon hasn’t had any difficulty finding other projects to keep himself busy. This year he managed to release two albums with two different bands. The first is The Shouting Matches. The Shouting Matches are a blues infused garage rock band, and is somewhat of a super group. In addition to Vernon on vocals and guitar, the band features Phil Cook of Megafaun on bass and Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier on drums. The band has its origins in a show that Vernon and Moen played in Eau Claire back in 2007, Cook then joined the mix and the three recorded an EP the following year. The EP was shelved at the time due to the success of Bon Iver. Thankfully the three guys finally made time in their busy schedules to get back together and record a proper full length, Grownass Man. This album is pure fun front to back and sounds like they had fun making it. If the dirty guitar licks on “Heaven Knows” doesn’t get your foot stomping I don’t know what will. Add in the screaming harmonica and you got one of the best songs of the year! If you’re familiar with Vernon’s signature falsetto you won’t find it on Grownass Man. Vernon sings in his natural lower register and sounds great. If you like blues, if you like rock, if you like members of this band or if you’re just looking for a good time, definitely check out this album.

17. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

In my opinion Arcade Fire is the most grossly overrated band of the past ten years. This isn’t to say they are a bad band or I don’t like them, I just don’t feel the universal praise they’ve received matches their musically output, particularly on their last album, The Suburbs. Reflektor on the other hand is the album I’ve always wanted Arcade Fire to make. For me, my trouble with Arcade Fire has been consistency. They make good songs, but not great albums. This album doesn’t necessarily have great songs, but as whole is a great album. It is a sprawling seventy-five minute album which highlights the bands strengths; great arrangements, eclectic instrumentation, catchy melodies, and fun experimentation. Front man Win Butler has said the music on Reflektor was in part influenced by a trip to Haiti which is where his wife and band mate Regine Chassagne is from. While I don’t know much about Haitian music, there is definitely an exotic/world vibe on this album, giving it a fresh light-hearted feel that hasn’t been present in their previous efforts. As mentioned before, Reflektor is well over an hour-long making it a little overwhelming to take in all at once. Thankfully the album is split into two parts allowing for a much-needed intermission after the first half. Indie Rock often takes itself too seriously, which was definitely true of Arcade Fire early on, but Reflektor proves they are now free of that.

16. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

It’s safe to say Neko Case is a tough woman, and seems like the type of person who doesn’t take crap from anyone. That sentiment definitely comes across on here latest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. On the song “Man”, Case while in fact being distinctly female, identifies herself as a “man” in her toughness and moxy. She says, “I’m a man/And not just casually/I pull this barge full-time/This treehouse will not support me/I’m not the runt of the liter/Those fat-fingered bullies were no match for me/I still taste them in my teeth/I’m a man.” Her anger comes through on a song called “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” as she recounts witnessing a child being verbally abused by his mother. But Case’s soft side comes out as she consoles the child throughout the song. It’s this combination of hard and soft that really defines Case’s incredible song writing. Musically her songs weave in influences ranging from classic rock, to country and folk, but in many ways defies the genre. Though her talents are many, Case’s greatest asset is quite possible her voice. Her vocals are powerful and controlled. In her review of The Worse Things Get… Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz describes Case’s voice perfectly, in way I could not, “Case has a moonbeam for a voice: imposing in timbre, opalescent in tone and always surprising in its sheer force.” While this album is musically timeless on its own, it’s Case’s vocals that solidify the timelessness.

15. Dustin Kensrue – The Water and The Blood

Dustin Kensrue spent nearly half of his life fronting post-hardcore band Thrice. While in Thrice he also recorded a country/folk solo album. In 2012 Thrice went on Hiatus and Kensrue put out a synth heavy worship EP with the short-lived band, The Modern Post. Now Kensrue is back with another solo album, but this time it’s a a worship album, and it’s quite possibly the best worship album I’ve heard. Kensrue draws influence from all his past work on The Water and The Blood making for an album that is a bit all over the place, yet works well as a whole. There’s the aggressive Thrice sounds, mixed with folk, mixed with synth sounds, and even some indie rock influences. A freshness is brought to the mix with the addition of the many musicians involved on the album including members of Citizens who were featured earlier on this list. As far as worship music goes The Water and The Blood really shines in the lyrics. Kensrue has never been shy about writing songs influenced by this faith, though it’s always been slightly veiled. Now it’s the focal point. Kensrue has said his biggest criticism of worship music is the lyrics. His worship lyrics are well written and spot on as they speak truth about who God is and his story for salvation. One of my favorite lines from the album comes from “Rejoice”, “We are children of the promise/The beloved of the Lord/Won with everlasting kindness/Bought with sacrificial blood/Bringing reconciliation/To a world that longs to know/The affections of a father/Who will never let them go.” The music also connects with the lyrics perfectly. It’s joyful when it needs to be and it’s heavy when it needs to be. I’ve been a fan of Dustin Kensrue for a long time and it’s cool to see him bring his talents and creativity to a genre in need of a makeover.

14. Fiction Family – Fiction Family Reunion

On their second Fiction Family album Jon Foreman and Sean Watkins added touring members, Tyler Chester and Aaron Redfield into the fold as full-fledged members of the band. As a result Fiction Family Reunion has much more cohesive, full band sound compared to the first album. Foreman and Watkins once again trade-off singing duties and display some really nice harmonizing on a few songs. They each play to their strengths with Foreman leaning more toward his rock roots and Watkins rounding things out with folk and bluegrass influences. The resulting sound has a jangle pop feel, reminiscent of Bob Dylan at times. Lyrically the album ranges from lighthearted love songs to songs that challenge the ways in which Christianity is sometimes misused. Fiction Family Reunion is a breath fresh air, delivering a unique style that is both easy to digest, but will leave you wanting more.

13. Sigur Rós – Kveikur

Apparently a lot of people didn’t like Sigur Rós’ last album Valtari, including Sigur Rós. I thought it was good album, but I guess expectations were really high considering their previous album came out four years prior. After the lackluster reception of Valtari the band regrouped minus longtime member Kjartan Sveinsson and quickly recorded and released Kveikur. The result is a Sigur Rós album unlike any other. Their signature ethereal sound is still intact, but this album is much darker and heavier. The opening track “Brennisteinn” is a crushing industrial number that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Nine Inch Nails album. The rest of the songs aren’t quite as heavy, but that darker theme carries throughout. One element lacking in Valtari was the pop sensibility of their 2008 album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Sigur Rós have brought that back on Kveikur with a number of songs. Some fans may be turned off by this new direction, but I think it demonstrates how committed Sigur Rós are to their art and their ability to push themselves to another level.

12. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

If you search YouTube you can find many videos of frontman Scott Hutchinson playing Frightened Rabbit songs acoustically, and it’s easy to image Frightened Rabbit being just that, an acoustic folk band. If you listen to their latest album Pedestrian Verse, you realize, Frightened Rabbit are so much more. Simply put, they’re a Scottish rock band, but upon further examination they border on the experimental side. Hutchinson’s impassioned melodies are back by heavily effected guitars, groovy bass lines, and memorable drum work. These elements work particularly well together on Pedestrian Verse, perhaps due to the more collaborative nature of the writing process. From a lyrical standpoint Hutchinson has always wore his heart on his sleeve. These songs don’t appear to hide much, what you hear is what you get. The resulting songs are incredibly personal and emotional. When listening to Hutchinson’s self-examination, it’s not hard to do the same for yourself. There’s a richness hidden in every corner of Pedestrian Verse putting Frightened Rabbit high above the bands they often get lumped in with.

11. Thao and The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common

We the Common was my first exposure to Thao and The Get Down Stay Down and have to say, I’ve enjoyed the ride. We the Common sounds like front woman Thao Nguyen threw a party and while they were at it decided to record an album. It’s pure fun from beginning to end and it’s not hard to image Nguyen with a smile on her face the whole time. The well executed melodies, combined with hook after hook, and an eclectic mix of instrumentation makes for one of the catchiest albums of the year. Each song has a similar vibe to it, yet if you listen closely each song is constructed very different. The title track which opens the album is a quirky banjo driven number, the next song “City” is lead by a distorted guitar, while the third song, “We Don’t Call” is built upon a horn riff… you get the point. Aside from being upbeat the main elements in common on every song are Nguyen’s playful vocals and some great bombastic percussion. If you want a great album that will make you smile and get you moving, look no further.

10. Touché Amoré – Is Survived By

One of the defining aspects of hardcore and punk music is, less is more. The problem is, “less is more” starts to sound the same after a while. On their latest album Is Survived By, Touché Amoré stick to the hardcore ethic, while transcending the genre. Musically Is Survived By harkens back to the post-hardcore/emo scene of the early ‘00s, which is probably why Touché Amoré has been getting lumped in with the supposed “emo revival.” But honestly, as cliché as it may sound, the music does grab you emotionally, especially in the subtle quit moments of the album. It has a way of making you feel a tug in your chest and giving you chills. The guitar licks are melodic, delicate, and precisely executed rather than beating you over the head with brute force. The heaviness you’d expect from a hardcore album comes through on the bass and drums and of course the vocals. Vocalist Jeremy Bolm has more of a raspy yell rather than a scream and it fits the music in just the right way. There’s desperation and emotion in his voice as he sings his self-reflecting lyrics, lyrics which come across clearly and are never difficult to understand. Hardcore isn’t the most accessible genre out there, but Touché Amoré are well on their to changing that.

9. Poliça – Shulamith

Poliça splashed on the scene with their 2012 debut, Give You The Ghost. Give You The Ghost was a synth pop album constructed of beats, programing, and production created by musical mastermind Ryan Olsen and the heavily manipulated vocals of former Roma di Luna songstress Channy Leaneagh. After feeding off the momentum of nearly two years of touring, Poliça are back with their sophomore release Shulamith, which is far from a slump. Shulamith features the same formula as Give You The Ghost, but with more gusto. Added to the mix this time around are touring members, Chris Bierden on bass and backing vocals, and the drumming duo of Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson. The addition of a robust rhythm section gives the album more depth. Olsen’s synth centric musical stylings sound fresh and tantalizing, but I think it’s safe to say the soul of Poliça sits squarely on the shoulders of Leaneagh. Leaneagh is much more in command of her delivery on Shulamith. She’s always come across to me as shy and restrained, but Poliça has clearly become a platform for her to come out of her shell. Leaneagh still sings exclusively with the use of auto tune, but no longer hides behind it. She’s become much more comfortable and in control of how she executes each line, being clear when she wants to be and being veiled when she wants to be. Lyrically it seems Leaneagh is exercising some demons. The lyrics are dark which contrasts the mostly upbeat music. Shulamith certainly ranks as one of the more original sounding releases of 2013.

8. Shad – Flying Colours

The thing I struggle with the most in hip-hop is the vulgarity. It’s one thing to have swearing-in your lyrics, but music shouldn’t make you feel gross or ashamed. I couldn’t listen to much of what was coming out this year. Then along comes Shad. I’ve known about Shad for a while, but never took the time to dig into his catalog. I heard he had a new album and since I was very impressed with the hip-hop I’d heard this year, I decided to see what he could do. Needless to say, I was impressed. Shad is clearly influenced by the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z, he even samples Jay-Z a couple of times on his latest album, Flying Colours. Shad isn’t ruled by his influences though. He adds his own style and flair, making for a sound all his own. Shad is originally from Kenya and I recently heard him say in an interview, this is his first album where he intentionally incorporated African music. Flying Colours features a number of producers including Shad himself, making each song diverse while still fitting together as a whole. There are also a number of guest rappers/vocalist used to mostly good effect, but the true measure of rappers talent is… well… their rapping and of course their lyrics. As it turns out Shad is an excellent rapper and lyricist. On the opening track “Intro: Lost” he comes out guns a blazing, spitting out words at mach speed. Shad comes across as a real person in his lyrics, rather than a larger than life persona. On Flying Colours he explores such topics as, racism, immigration, faith, and relationships, all without a shred of filthy language, which is refreshing and honestly, progressive.

7. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

Electronica and dance music has been infiltrating Indie music with considerable success for quite a while now, but has gained considerable steam in the past few years. Bands like Passion Pit, Purity Ring, and The XX have been leading the charge. Chvrches are the new kids on the block and fit right in with the trend. One thing that sets them apart though, is the fact that their music is purely electronic. On their full length debut, The Bones of What You Believe you won’t find any guitars or live drums. The music would fit right in with music you might hear on a euro pop station or even as a soundtrack for an anime film, and yet they manage this without sounding the least bit cheesy. In fact Chvrches have managed to make some of the catchiest, infectious music of 2013. Then add in vocalist Lauren Mayberry and have you one incredible album. Mayberry’s vocals are beautiful and effecting. Her melodies perfectly compliment the music and serve her lyrics well. Another interesting aspect to The Bones of What You Believe is how they use their vocals as an instrument. The other two members of the band, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty also add backing and sometimes lead vocals. Between the three members their vocals are often looped and repeated and used as a beat or to simply add an additional layer to the song. The opening track, “The Mother We Share” starts out his way. Chvrches have proven they are here to stay with their debut, and it will be exciting to see where they go in the coming years.

6. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars

At the peak of their success The Civil Wars, composed of Joy Williams and John-Paul White canceled, what was probably their biggest tour. It’s unclear when, but presumably at some point after the tour cancellation, Williams and White entered the studio to record the follow-up to their smash debut, Barton Hollow. After the album was finished they stopped talking… and haven’t spoken to one another since. Nobody knows for sure what happened between the two members of The Civil Wars, but somehow despite whatever drama that conspired, they managed to create an incredible sophomore album, aptly self titled, The Civil Wars. Call them folk, call them country, call them what you want, The Civil Wars are all about the songwriting. Williams and White craft songs that are raw, honest, and at time devastating. Musically the songs are built upon the simplicity of acoustic guitar and piano, but on this album they created a fuller sound with addition of more electric guitar and drums. White’s southern rock roots are on display more than every while Williams takes more of lead vocally. The vocal interplay is still very much present and is what really makes The Civil Wars stand out among their peers. Some of the best creative output comes in times of adversity and that certainly seems to be true for The Civil Wars. Only time will tell if this album will be their last, I certainly hope not.

5. Eisley – Currents

Eisley have overcome a lot of adversity as a band in the ever-changing music industry, and in their personal lives as well. Currents feels like the album Eisley was finally able to make on their own terms. The band recorded the album in their own studio; they self-produced the album and pitched it to an indie record label that trusted in what the end product would be. The result is Eisley’s best album to date. On Currents Eisley has taken their brand of whimsical pop rock and brought it into chamber pop territory. The songs are bigger, brighter, and fuller and the band sounds tighter than ever. There are definitely obvious influences bleeding over from singer Stacy King’s solo project, Sucré. In fact there are a number of songs that feature string arrangements from Sucré collaborator, Jeremy Larson. Eisley’s last album was a bit of misstep, with Currents they are back to true form.

4. Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

Tegan & Sara have always had great pop sensibility, but it has never been the forefront of their sound, until now. On their latest album, Heartthrob Tegan & Sara indulge their every pop whim and pull it off without a hitch. There is nary an acoustic guitar in sight, this album is all synth and beats. The sound incorporates pop influences from the past three decades, while still sounding modern. But what makes this album stand out from other pop albums of 2013 is the solid song writing. Tegan & Sara have always leaned toward darker/edgier song writing, exploring the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Heartthrob is no different, but they manage to take a tired topic and make it sound fresh. The lyrics are still on the dark side, providing a nice contrast alongside the upbeat danceable music.

3. Volcano Choir – Repave

Volcano Choir is the second Justin Vernon fronted band to release an album this year. Along with Vernon, Volcano Choir is made up of the members of Milwaukee post-rock band, Collection of Colonies of Bees. The band released their first album, Unmap in 2009, which could have very well been their only album. It was purely a studio album, recorded without any particular intension of performing it live. The result was a very experimental album that incorporated the folkier elements of Vernon’s Bon Iver with a melting pot of electronic and rock sounds. At some point since that first release Volcano Choir decided to be a full-fledged band. On this year’s Repave they took what they began and pulled it in a new direction. Repave, is a much more concise and accessible album. The songs build and crash much like the ocean waves pictured on the album cover. One interesting fact about Volcano Choir is, as talented as Justin Vernon is as a multi-instrumentalist he doesn’t play at all on this album. He contributed vocals and lyrics alone. While I was a little disappointed that Vernon didn’t play on this album, the fact that he was able to focus entirely on his singing and lyrics makes for what is arguable his best vocal performance on an album. There’s no question Vernon is a great vocalist, but on Repave he explores his entire range more than he ever has. And while he’s never been shy about using vocal effects on other project, he uses them a lot more on this album, which fits really well with the experimental aspects of the music. Musically, Repave may be the most beautiful albums of the year, not an easy task to accomplish for a rock band. One element I hadn’t really noticed until I saw the band live was how there are several songs that are acoustically driven. It’s an unexpected feature, but works amazingly well. On the opening track, “Tiderays” after a swelling organ, guitarist Chris Rosenau comes in with this great acoustic finger picking part that carries the song as the rest of the band builds around it. There have been plenty of comparisons being made between Volcano Choir and Bon Iver. All I’ll say is, I like Volcano Choir and I’ll be perfectly happy if they keep making music.

2. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Laura Marling began her solo career in 2008 at the age of 18. Since then she’s released roughly one album per year, each one better than the previous. Now at the age of 23 she has become, in my opinion, one of the best and most prolific song writers in music today. Marling’s latest album, Once I Was an Eagle is her best album yet and most ambitious. The album is a concept album of sorts, constructed of multiple parts. The first four tracks all share the same tuning and blend together as one. The four song set blends beautifully and sets the stage for the first half of the album, which leans toward the darker side. As the album reaches the second half, the music and lyrical themes became brighter and more optimistic. Marling’s lyrics are likely autobiographical, but are told through various characters and imagery. There’s a theme of learning to understand love and understand one’s self. In some ways, Once I Was an Eagle is a coming of age story with “naivety” sometimes serving as the antagonist. I love the line from the closing track “Saved These Words.” She says, “thank you naivety for failing me again.” Musically Once I Was an Eagle is a pure work of genius. To record the album, Marling entered the studio, and played and sang all her parts front to back in one take. That is an incredible feat in and of itself, but even more so considering the length of and ambition behind the album. Also, Marling’s parts are so well executed. Her vocals are something to behold. She exercises subtlety, grace, and power in her voice and at times you can imagine her thinking out loud as she sings. Marling has always had great guitar skills, but they’ve only gotten better. As she strums and finger picks on this album it sounds full and intricate and yet sounds so effortless for her. Marling’s performance alone would make for a great album, but she once again had the help of producer Ethan Johns. Johns adds additional instrumentation, arrangements, and production giving the album a fuller sound, but is presented carefully allowing Marling to shine. I’ve been saying this for a while now, but if you aren’t familiar with Laura Marling’s music, make yourself acquainted, you won’t regret it. She’s said she’s already working on her fifth album, and has written all the songs so far on electric guitar… I can’t wait!

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend made a name for themselves on their self-title breakout debut. They avoided the sophomore slump on their follow-up Contra. Both albums perfectly displayed the band’s style and talents. They were a pop band with influences ranging from punk, to surf rock, to afrobeat. Their lyrics were clever, but never took themselves too seriously. Then along comes 2013, it had been three years since Vampire Weekend released Contra and I think a lot of people, myself included were wondering what they would do next. I recently heard a quote from a musician, that while most people talk about the second album being the hardest, it’s actually the third that is most challenging. I think this was probably especially true for Vampire Weekend. They had something prove to themselves, to their fans, and their critics. What Vampire Weekend ended up with is the album of their careers and the best album of 2013, Modern Vampires of the City. This album has everything I mentioned earlier you would expect from Vampire Weekend. It serves as a foundation, but it’s what the band built upon that foundation that makes this album great. In many ways they redefined themselves. This album is darker, experimental, and much more personal. When writing Modern Vampires vocalist Ezra Koenig and producer/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij said they would reach a point where the songs could have been finished and could have been hit singles. When they would reach that point they would take the songs back to the drawing board and reconstruct them. When listening to this album, it’s not hard to imagine them doing that. Take the lead single, “Diane Young.” It’s probably the one song that sounds most like their previous two albums. But in the middle of the song you get these bizarre distorted vocals. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s really jarring and completely transforms what would have been an otherwise straight forward song. There are similar moments throughout the whole album. As mentioned early, this album is distinctly darker than Vampire Weekend’s previous work. The tone of the music is almost gloomy and has a sleepy sort of feel. It actually perfectly reflects the black and while image of New York blanketed in smog on the album cover. Another musically element I enjoyed was the fact that Batmanglij sings a lot more backing vocals on this album, which brings the vocals in general a little more to the forefront. He also brings some great keyboard parts, whether it’s a straight piano sound or a moodier organ sound. From what I could tell, it seems drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio are involved little in the writing, but add their parts after the fact. I really like a good rhythm section and Tomson and Baio contribute some of the best drum and bass parts of any album this year. My favorite song on Modern Vampires and probably my favorite song of the year is, “Step.” It’s a sweet little slow jam that borrows lyrics from a Souls of Mischief and samples Grover Washington Jr.’s cover of the Bread song, “Aubrey”. As mentioned before, this album finds Vampire Weekend in a much darker place which is true musically and in the lyrics. The lyrics demonstrate a more contemplative side of singer/lyricist Ezra Koenig. I especially enjoy how he wrestles with the idea/person of God. As a Christian I’m really fascinated by non-Christian’s view of God, because if Christians are honest, we’ve all had or have similar thoughts. In the song “Ya Hey” (a play on the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh) Koenig talks about the character of God, even going as far to acknowledging His existence, “Oh, sweet thing/Zion doesn’t love you/And Babylon don’t love you/But you love everything/Oh, you saint/America don’t love you/So I could never love you/In spite of everything.” He then finds himself, for a moment, being drawn toward God, but ultimately turns away. Finally in the chorus we find Koenig reaching a point of not understanding who God says he is, “Through the fire and through the flames/You won’t even say your name/Only “I am that I am”/But who could ever live that way?”. I’ve had similar feelings at certain times in my life, the difference is the conclusion I came to. Modern Vampires has made a lot of top 10 lists this year and many of the number one spots. Typically I don’t follow along with the masses, but in this case I have to agree, this album is the best of 2013.