Lucy Out Loud’s Top Albums of 2014

Our Senior Writer and Photographer, Eric Riley, has put together his top 20 albums of 2014. Click “Read More” to see his list and read why each of these albums made his year!

20. Nick Santino – Big Skies: On his first true solo record without an added title or tag, the ex-A Rocket to the Moon frontman showcases an impressive blend of bluegrass, country, and pop. Filled with lyrics that tell both sides to a life on the road, whether the sense of freedom that it brings or the longing for a familiar spot, Big Skies brings big, cheery hooks and bittersweet stories of love, loss, and looking for a place to call home.

19. Chiodos – Devil: As the first release following the return of Craig Owens, Chiodos knew to make this record a homecoming and a comeback, not just a follow-up or a continuation. Not ten seconds into the first (full) song on the record, the first trace of vocals we hear is a mad cackle from Owens behind dueling guitars. The balance of grandeur and grime that we’ve grown to love is present and in full force here, with “Why the Munsters Matter,” “Duct Tape,” and “Sunny Days & Hand Grenades” blending the cinematic with the creepy. “3AM” draws from Owens’ time in Cinematic Sunrise, and “Looking for a Tornado” grows from an acoustic introduction into a powerful full-band gem. Though the lineup has had its changes and continues to be a revolving door at times, it’s not a stretch to believe Chiodos are on their way back to the top.

18. Taking Back Sunday – Happiness Is… : Taking Back Sunday have leaders within this music scene for more than a decade. During this time, the band has faced its fair share of adversity and trouble, but they’ve always managed to persevere while remaining relevant and impressing. With Happiness Is…, they continue to dig deep. With Adam Lazzara’s lyricism as strong and severing as ever (see: the brutal “Better Homes and Gardens”), the album is a promising step on a band’s path that seems to always head forward.

17. Rise Against – The Black Market: There are very few who can captivate as wholly as Rise Against can, whether live or on record. After heavy, fierce beginnings, the group has grown and polished their sound further with each record. “Tragedy + Time” and “Sudden Life” showcase the cleaner work that the band can produce, as “The Eco-Terrorist In Me” proves they still have their original bite. Meanwhile, “Zero Visibility” shows them taking successful chances and “People Live Here” gives McIlrath’s songwriting skill a beautiful, chilling platform to present itself upon. There are always the Rise Against “purists” who long for a regression to the older albums, but this is some of the strongest stuff we’ve ever had from these guys.

16. We Are the In Crowd – Weird Kids: Barely sneaking Weird Kids into the Top 20 was a tough choice. As the earliest album on the list (released mid-February), its lasting value is what impresses me most. From the first notes of huge lead-in “Long Live the Kids,” the group’s growth is evident. Meanwhile, “The Best Thing (That Never Happened),” “Attention,” and “Manners” could all have arguments made to list them as some of the strongest pop-punk tracks from the year. We Are the In Crowd had a huge 2014, and it’ll be full speed ahead for them next year.

15. PVRIS – White Noise: I don’t think a band arrived in the same fashion as PVRIS did this year. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, it didn’t take long for them to grab focus. A sound this huge achieved by a three-piece band on a debut album is unheard of and deserves applause. The band benefits greatly from Blake Harnage’s (Versa[Emerge]) production skill, as his time spent alongside Sierra Kusterbeck surely helped in harnessing Lyndsey Gunnulfsen’s vocal power. The fact that this band is delivering this great of quality already is a good sign, but to think of what they could do next is what really has me excited.

14. Circa Survive – Descensus: For as long as I can remember, Circa Survive have been doing special things. Now, after ten years and on their fifth record, they show no signs of stopping. Their aggression, as always, is more than just loud noise, but rather their clever guitarwork, huge sound, and Anthony Green’s unrivaled vocals. Opener “Schema” does kick things off in heavy fashion right out of the gate, while “Only the Sun” and “Nesting Dolls” have Circa doing what they do best. 

13. The Ghost Inside – Dear Youth: The Ghost Inside are easily in the top-tier of live bands that I’ve ever seen, and 2012’s Get What You Give was one of my favorite hardcore records of that year. Now, two years later, two years wiser, and two years stronger, The Ghost Inside return for more. Jonathan Vigil’s passion and heart have always shone through in his lyrics and his performance, and here is no exception.

Even without the exceptional songwriting, the music could stand on its own. Heavy, melodic, and unrelenting, the album takes as many chances as I’ve heard a hardcore album take in a long while. “Phoenix Flame’s” shrill guitars echo throughout the song’s conclusion, leaving you in a quiet haze. Meanwhile, the breakdowns that you would expect to hear in every track on a heavy record are instead scattered, used sparingly to increase force (the second half of “My Endnote” proves the point).

Dear Youth took a listen or two to grow on me, as did Get What You Give. But I’m glad I gave it the time I needed and the time it deserves. This is the upper class of melodic hardcore.

12. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness: No matter the moniker, I will always expect something phenomenal from Andrew McMahon. Something Corporate’s Leaving Through the Window was my high school soundtrack (admittedly, nearly a decade late) and Everything in Transit is still one of the most perfect records I’ve heard to date. So now, on his first outing under a new name, I was equal parts intrigued and anxious for what was to come. Luckily, there is plenty more of what we’ve grown to love.

His trademark piano-pop is as sharp as ever, with his voice strong and crisp. Lyrically, there are still heartbreaks, memories, stories. But, where we had only heard the smooth synths in bits and pieces in previous works, they play a larger role here, adding a different feel to the style McMahon has always done so well.

… In the Wilderness is both a continuation of McMahon’s brilliant career and a new start to the next chapter. I have no doubts that whatever may come next will be just as special. 

11. Anberlin – Lowborn: 2014 brought us the end of one of hell of a band. On their swansong, Anberlin said goodbye on their terms, leaving when they felt it was time and that they still had what it takes to leave a mark. Lowborn is not a perfect record, but it is a very solid farewell from a consistently exceptional band. Opener “We Are Destroyer” leads off the album with one of its better songs, aggressive and powerful. “Atonement” and “Armageddon” are both highlights in their own aspects – dark and moody rather than loud and fast. Closing with the eerie “Harbinger,” the record (and the band) comes to a close with Christian singing “I don’t wanna go now, but I know I’ve got to / For you to remember me.”

We didn’t want them to go either, but we’ll be sure to remember this band.

10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent: For her 4th LP, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) takes some wild chances and achieves them all spectacularly. Firstly, a self-titled 4th LP will always seem like a risky choice to me, for some reason. But, if you can pull it off, it’s this way of self-identifying who you are rather than giving others the chance to (see Paramore’s S/T last year).

The aptly-titled “Rattlesnake” convulses the record into fruition, while “Birth in Reverse” and “Digital Witness” are electric, lush and extravagant. When she slows things down, like on the eerie “Prince Johnny” or with the beautiful “I Prefer Your Love,” Clark shows that she doesn’t need upbeat hooks or busy synthwork to electrify.

St. Vincent is dreary and upbeat, elusive and tangible, unsettling and irresistible, but above all, bold, brave, and unapologetic. 

09. Taylor Swift – 1989: Did you see the Saturday Night Live skit where people had a sudden realization over how much they liked Taylor Swift and it hits them like vertigo?

Yeah. That’s what 1989 feels like. Now, finalizing her transition from country singer into full-fledged pop superstar, Swift welcomes the genre with open arms, carrying along a handful of #1 hits. “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Blank Space” have dominated since their releases, while “Style” is instantly catchy and resilient closer “Clean” shows off her songwriting chops. Taylor Swift is, hands down, one of the biggest icons around and there’s every reason for that.

08. iTCH – The Deep End: Vocalist of the disbanded The King Blues, iTCH exported more of his ferocity and rage over from the UK to bring us one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. With help from a few friends, including producer John Feldmann’s soaring vocals through the chorus to “Life is Poetry,” Megan Joy’s doo-wop contribution to “Another Man,” and Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzara on lead single “Homeless Romantic, iTCH makes The Deep End a team effort. Where the album shines brightest are in its darkest, grittiest moments – the hold-nothing-back exposure of “Not My Revolution,” with BC Jean helping iTCH battle his personal demons, or the dirty, racing “Like I’m Drugs” to get the blood rushing. It’s impressive to hear an artist attempt a handful of wildly varied sounds within the confines of the same album and manage to succeed this well. 

07. Lights – Little Machines: For her follow-up to 2012’s Siberia and its subsequent acoustic reworking the following year, Lights returned this year to make her way back to the electro-pop throne. On studio album #3 (and now a mother), nearly every aspect of Lights’ music is sharper than ever. Singles “Up We Go” and “Running With the Boys” were both received with positive reactions, while “How We Do It” could arguably be one of the catchiest songs the year produced. In the moments when she gives her synth a rest, like the tracks that bookend the record (“Portal,” “Don’t Go Home Without Me”), her vocals and key-work are given the spotlight at very opportune times. As both the first and last encounters of the album, both songs make an impact and leave an effect. Motherhood and marriage both seem to be doing wonders for Lights, in both her personal and professional lives. When the two mesh together, Lights fires on all cylinders and jettisons to the front of the pack.

06. Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other: Few do lyrical storytelling as well as Dan Campbell. Fronting The Wonder Years, Campbell has never pulled punches in regards to his words. And here, on his first solo record, he continues to hold nothing back. Stylistically, the record isn’t too much of a departure from some of TWY’s softer moments (“There, There” or “I’ve Given You All” or even “Madelyn”). But where those records have plenty of faster, full-band tracks to support these gentler bits, this relies mostly on Campbell’s powerful voice and lyrics.

If the subject matter and the soft tone weren’t enough, Campbell’s inclusion of vivid detail pile on the impact – from the introductory “Our Apartment,” which mentions how the washing machine makes the shower run cold and how he has “enough of her hairpins to build a monument,” or drunkenly recalling the pinkish-orange color of their child’s bedroom in “Grapefruit.”

There are moments when We Don’t Have Each Other is a bit difficult to digest. Even the title speaks of abandonment and loss, and the tracks don’t offer any shelter. But for as “real” as these fictional characters’ lives may be, they give the listener the potential to have someone to relate to. Things aren’t always pretty, and Campbell doesn’t avoid speaking about the awful parts that come with life. Like I said, the record pulls no punches, and by doing so, is an absolute knockout. 

05. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt: Hey, look – The Gaslight Anthem produced a Top Five album again. Shocking. With each album this group releases, there is a constant worry over what to expect. As fans, there is always the fear that this could be their last, or that they’ve hit their peak and will start their downslide, or we’ll get more of the same. Before the release of Get Hurt, there were stirs and murmurs warning “things could get weird.” Some welcomed this, some grew worried. The previous Handwritten was arguably their cleanest album, which was a relatively noticeable shift from the nicely-unpolished sound of its predecessors. Here, the first notes of “Stay Vicious” are an instant recall to the coarseness of the band’s earliest work.

“Stay Vicious” is probably the furthest, most noticeable departure from what we’ve come to expect, and opening the record with it is an easy decision. With tracks like “1,000 Years,” “Red Violins,” or “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” leaning closer to the “classic” Gaslight sound (and “Dark Places” closing out the album nearly as well as “The Backseat” brought The ’59 Sound to and end), there are still senses of commonality or familiarity. Where the album shines, like it often did with older releases as well, are its slower pieces. The murky “Underneath the Ground” takes a page from The Horrible Crowes’ playbook, standing out as an album highlight. The soft, somber “Break Your Heart” is on-par with Handwritten’s “National Anthem,” in function, position, and impact. Both act as useful buffers between faster, heavier pieces, boosting their impressions.

Get Hurt plays, somewhat, as a culmination of the various stages of the band’s past works. Which, depending on how you think about it, could be taken as very strange – considering the reception Handwritten received, or completely understandable – taking the successful parts from past lives. It isn’t a perfect record, and it may not have been the wild departure from the norm that it had been advertised to be, but it is still a fantastic collection of songs from one of the most consistent, talented groups around. To think that there was a time where the future of the band was in question, I’ve always made an effort to look for the highlights from this band. But, with the caliber of work that they continuously put forth, we don’t need to look very far. Is Get Hurt perfect? No sir. Is Get Hurt the band’s greatest? At times, possibly. But, we end up saying this with every record. The next Gaslight Anthem album will always be the best Gaslight Anthem album. But until then, enjoy. 

04. Bleachers – Strange Desire: I can admit that, at first, I was guilty of referring to Bleachers as a side-project. But, to refer to it as such would lessen the importance or the impressiveness of it. After two consecutive years of receiving Grammy nods in one way or another (fun.’s Some Nights getting recognition in 2012 and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” last year, which he co-wrote), Jack Antonoff shifted to center-stage to front Bleachers. Though it isn’t his first rodeo, clearly, it’s his first run as frontman. If that worries him in real life, it doesn’t seem to faze him on record.

Strange Desire is as crisp and clean of a pop album as you could hope for, and its mid-summer release date certainly did no harm. While lead single “I Wanna Get Better” was probably the best song you heard this summer, its success and hook don’t overpower the other bright spots here. “Shadow” and “Rollercoaster” are each killer pop anthems on their own, and the echoing “Wild Heart” kickstarts the record after only a few seconds.

I’m not sure what else we’ll hear from Bleachers following their next tour (with new music from fun. surely in the works), or if this is Antonoff making a “one-and-done” type statement, but I’m sure that this won’t be an album that goes away any time soon. 

03. La Dispute – Rooms of the House: There has always been this sort of haunting, almost uncomfortable beauty that comes along with La Dispute’s music. Sometimes voyeuristic, other times violent, always relentlessly captivating, this is a band that has always left everything on the table.  Jordan Dreyer’s ability to pen stories of heartbreaking accounts and tragic events is nearly unparalleled, and is as extraordinary as ever, if not more. Here, the accounts are varied and more succinct, with the album clocking in around ten minutes shorter than their two previous releases without sacrificing an ounce of power.

The band’s music has always forced a reaction from its listeners, and Rooms of the House continues to demand it. “The Child We Lost 1963” is a brutal story of a child learning of a stillborn sibling. “35” recounts the events of a bridge collapse in 2007, repeating rewritten lyrics from opener “Hudsonville, MI 1956.” Recalling a horrific event such as this is no new endeavor, bringing up thoughts similar to that of “King Park” from Wildlife. “Woman (in Mirror)” and “Woman (Reading)” follow the same formula, both narrated by a man surveying, studying his wide. Neither are as frantic as the rest of Rooms, but both still possess a certain chaos, this time domestic and internal rather than environmental.

I always need a listen or two to really begin to appreciate the work these guys produce, and Rooms of the House continued that trend. At first, sure, it was good and it sounded like what I’ve always liked from La Dispute. But, just as it always goes, each listen began to bring out bits and pieces, certain lines that would get heard after being missed the first time through. This is what I have always admired about La Dispute – on the surface, they’re a great band. But as you listen deeper, they grab hold and there is no letting go.

02. The Collection – Ars Moriendi: My first time listening to this album broke my heart. Written in the aftermath of a friend’s death, the North Carolinian group composed one of the most emotional, impactful, honest albums I’ve heard to date. The title shares not only the name of Latin texts from the period of the Black Death, but also the values – both works detail the instructions for dealing with death and “dying well,” for finding the positives within tragedies, for recognizing the chance at redemption and consolation and growth. It’s the art of dying.

The band itself, which can feature upwards of thirty members at any given time, produces one of the largest, most intricate sounds around. On the first real standout, “The Borrowers,” you’d be hard-pressed to find something lacking. It features a male/female duet, shouted gang vocals, swirling strings, stomping drums, and whatever else they could throw at you. There are interesting uses of instrumentals throughout, often given more focus than the vocals and lyrics. This, however, is no dig at either. David and Mira Wimbish’s performances are both spectacular at each turn, no matter the backing music. They never overshadow, nor are ever truly washed out. “The Middle One” is a perfect example of this – a 5-and-a-half minute explosion of sound, both vocalists are given spotlight before a minute-long instrumental avalanche midway through.

It’s a good thing that the best song on the album happens to be the shortest, because it is also the most brutal. On “Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing,” after an album that uses a cheery atmosphere packed with upbeat tempos and joyful music to help ease the blow of its painful subject matter, the band strips away the curtain. With a nothing more than slammed piano keys, jagged violin, and a broken voice, Wimbish cries “So carry my heart home or just leave me alone / just don’t be in between reality and me. … if my friends rise from graves, will they still have to die again a second time? / Or will we rejoice when they rise?”

Much of this record came to be after something unspeakable. In a time of uncertainty and doubt and heartbreak, something beautiful and triumphant arose. The record is a metaphor of itself – the songs preach lessons on facing life after death, and doing so with honor and bravery, which is what the artists had to do in order to create it.

There are plenty of reasons this was the highest rating I handed out this year.

Ars Moriendi is more than just a brilliant album. It is an album that needs to be heard.

01. LP – Forever for Now: For a second straight year, a female solo pop artist earns my Album of the Year crown. Following Sara Bareilles’ The Blessed Unrest last year (and yes, I am still bitter about the Grammys), LP (Laura Pergolizzi) took her major label full-length debut and knocked it out of the park. And then into another park, and out of that one as well.

After little success with two previous albums, LP spent time as a songwriter for other well-known artists, notably Rihanna, Christina Aguilera. and the Backstreet Boys. With Forever for Now, she decided it was her time to shine.

Right away, as the booming “Heavenly Light” begins, there is an immediate hook that never lets go. Pergolizzi’s voice is a lethal combination of sharp, strong, and unique. This, coupled with the bright, thumping music, starts the record on a high. Leading directly into the stomp-along “Nights Like This,” she lets simple songwriting guide a chorus that engrains itself after one listen, helped along by charming whistles and a trouble-free doo-doo-doo.

Just as the first two tracks are close in hook and tempo, yet still each their own, “Tokyo Sunrise” and later “Your Town” share similar traits, but are distinguishable from one another. The first, an acoustic track with swirling violins and ukulele, features Pergolizzi’s voice at its finest to this point in the record, while the latter starts gently before dropping into a booming chorus.

Midway, “Levitator” is a standout in every aspect, placed between the racing “Free to Love” and the sweet “Someday,” whose message of staying youthful matches its bubbly sound. As the album closes, it brings along two of the most interesting, most notable pieces.

“Into the Wild” is the best all-around performance on Forever For Now. Soft and contained, it starts with a simple ukulele strum before Pergolizzi counts down into a massive chorus that bursts through the speakers. Untamed and huge, the song soars, with much thanks given to her spectacular voice. As the song comes to a close, “Forever For Now” carries over its predecessor’s playful whistling, darkening it into the weakened cry of a caged songbird. Pergolizzi softly sings “Hush, hush, don’t say a word” as eerie, ominous piano keys dance in the background. The freedom and limitlessness that “Into the Wild” boasted has been confined and condensed, now presenting to the haunting rise and fall of her shrill voice. The album ends with the faint echo of a single piano key, leaving you shaken and a bit troubled. It’s a stunning close to the album, though not conventionally beautiful.

From start to finish, Forever For Now tackles new territories without missing a step. This may have flown under a lot of radars, but it should make some serious waves if it gets the chance. 

Lucy Out Loud’s Top Albums of 2013

Our senior writer and photographer, Eric Riley, has put together his top 20 albums of 2013. Click “Read More” to see his list and read why each of these albums made his year!

20. LIGHTS, Siberia (Acoustic): Let’s skip over the whole “this is a re-release blah blah blah” thing. Okay, cool. When the original Siberia was released back in 2011, LIGHTS took her synth-pop sound and greatly strengthened it. On these acoustic versions, she continues to grow, now demonstrating just how powerful her vocal abilities are. The title track ditches its original ethereal swirls and replaces them with soft piano, transforming the track into a beautiful, delicate duet sung alongside Arkells’ Max Kerman. “And Counting…” maintains its yearning and heart, this time with smooth violins rather than eerie Theremin. The record uses the same bottle to capture an entirely different bolt of lightning. 

19. Echosmith, Talking Dreams: One of this summer’s stand-outs, Echosmith burst into the music world in 2013. Following their extended stint on Warped Tour, they released their first album, held a solid opening act position throughout the fall, scored a handful of television promo spots, as well a slot as an iTunes’ Free Single of the Week. All eyes on this band in 2014. 

18. City and Colour, The Hurry and the Harm: This was Dallas Green’s first C&C album after the official disbandment of Alexisonfire, and he used this chance to produce one of the most emotion-filled and gorgeously-sung albums of the year. His voice transitions seamlessly throughout the highs and lows of his impressive vocal range, and tracks like “The Lonely Life,” “Thirst,” and the beautifully painful “Two Coins” each display a differently-stylized presentation, while carrying honest and introspective lyrics along with them. 

17. Demi Lovato, DEMI: I don’t use the term “guilty pleasure,” and I certainly won’t start doing so with Demi Lovato. Because there is no need for guilt here. I have always been a huge fan of her as an artist, and DEMI gives even more reason to be – it’s an emotionally-grand pop gem that keeps Lovato at the top of her field, while boasting her vocal skill, her growing maturity, and strength, both artistically and personally.

16. The 1975, The 1975: Not many bands broke out in 2013 to the degree that The 1975 did. Their quite lengthy full-length managed to hold listeners’ attention throughout sixteen danceable, singalong-able, more-than-enjoyable tracks packed with a sound that sets them apart from most. It’s going to be all systems go for this group next year, and it’s going to be fun to see just how far they’ll get. 

15. Panic! at the Disco, Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!: If past trends are to be taken into any consideration, then we all should have expected something completely different from Brendon Urie and Co. this time around. And the dark, moody gloom-pop that we were handed on Too Weird to Live… didn’t disappoint.  The album takes countless chances, combining the multiple sounds and styles that the band has created over the years, and consistently hits its mark. Though the group’s sound changes with each record, “This Is Gospel,” “Collar Full,” and closer “The End of All Things” lend a feeling of uniformity, assuring us that despite all of the changes, they’re still the same band. 

14. Golden Youth, Quiet Frame; Wild Light: Golden Youth may have the shortest album on this list, only seven songs (six, not counting the brief introduction), but that’s no reason to think that it’s anything less than spectacular. The combination of Stephanie Lauren’s angelic vocals and heavy use of unconventional instrumentation provides for an end result that is truly outstanding.

13. The Rubens, The Rubens: As the furthest traveled band and album on here, hailing all the way from Australia, The Rubens literally came from half a world away. With them, they brought a soulful, brooding sound that hits you from the moment “The Best We Got” begins. “My Gun” and “The Day You Went Away” are infectious enough for widespread success, but still unique and recognizable. The real highlights come when the band slows the tempo, with “I’ll Surely Die,” “Look Good, Feel Good,” and stand-out ballad “Never Be the Same.” If you missed out on these guys this year, don’t worry: with this much ambition and talent, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in some spotlights next year.

12. Bastille, Bad Blood: Saying that Bastille’s mega-single “Pompeii” helped them erupt onto the music scene this year is an awful pun. And is also one that I am gladly making, because it makes me laugh. But, in all seriousness, Bad Blood is both simple and intricate, reserved and enormous, gritty and gorgeous, something we didn’t expect yet something we were certainly missing. 


11. NGHBRS, Twenty One Rooms: For two months near the end of 2012, NGHBRS chose to lock themselves away within the abandoned estate of journalist/poet William Cullen Bryant. During this time, the band reclused themselves inside of the rumoured-to-be-haunted mansion. This lingering sense of eeriness, accompanied with a bundled isolation, timelessness, vacancy, and history can be heard throughout Twenty One Rooms. Upon a first listen, it’s good. Hell, it’s very good. But the more you listen to it, the more these intricacies stand out, the more you hear the little things that make it a special record. NGHBRS deliver an album that has something for any occasion and any taste. 

10. Lorde, Pure Heroine: While her triumphant “Royals” dominated Top 40 radio stations all over the place and first introduced us to her, it was the coupling of Lorde’s timid voice and lavish attitude throughout the rest of Pure Heroine that made for an undeniable sound. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the success of the single; there’s a sweet ambiance that is nothing short of addictive.

09. Dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip, Repent Replenish Repeat: While everyone was focused on Jay-Z’s viral marketing and Kanye West being “the Morrissey of hip-hop” (which is probably the greatest thing I read on the Internet this year), this English duo flew in so far under the radar that they barely blipped. Unfortunately, there is a large market of listeners out there who most likely missed out on Repent Replenish Repeat, an album which seeps pure poetry out through every note and word. Their spoken-word pieces and the hip-hop tracks both land with heavy impact – whether it’s the swirling, drug-fueled love story of “Terminal” or the aggressive and vengeful grit of closer “You Will See Me” (both spoken), the grinding echoes of “Stunner” or “Gold Teeth” calling out the narcissistic and the materialistic, we’re treated to some real genius. This will probably be seen as blasphemous, but here goes: this is some of the best hip-hop from 2013.

08. The Airborne Toxic Event, Such Hot Blood: The fact that I can only fit in The Airborne Toxic Event really says something about the rest of the list, but we’ll get there. My first listen of Such Hot Blood came during a very transitional point of my life, and it served as a perfect soundtrack for it. From the first seconds of “The Secret” to the fading drums of  the concluding “Elizabeth,” the record soars. While each track gives something special, “Safe” is a true gift, wherein violist Anna Bulbrook’s strings and backing vocals stun. The longing for love and the loss of it that ring throughout are both tragic and elegant, but with them come a constant lingering of hopefulness, whether lyrically or musically or some combination of the two, that really leaves its mark. 

07. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob: At first, I forgot that this record came out this year. I don’t know why. But I’m glad that I double-checked, because it would have been a very, very big mistake if I hadn’t caught it. Keeping with their reputation, the Quin sisters released another brilliant album, it’s no surprise. Lyrically, they are as strong and sharp as ever, now swapping their guitars for a more synthesized sound, heavily dependent on keys and electronics. Combining their dim lyrics with often upbeat and lively instrumentation provides the biggest key to this album’s success. Heartthrob was something pretty different from Tegan & Sara, but there are certainly no complaints here.

06. Bring Me the Horizon, Sempiternal: The growth and progression that we’ve seen over the past few years from Bring Me the Horizon is undeniable and impressive. Following with the maturation that 2010’s There Is A Hell… showed, Sempiternal takes any remaining doubts critics could have about this band and obliterates them. Oli Sykes’ songwriting has never been stronger nor his vocal range any better. Arguments could be made about either “And the Snakes Start to Sing” or “Hospital for Souls” to name one of the best song the band has ever penned, and each would have a very strong case to support it. Stylistically, this is the cleanest album the group has ever produced. Meanwhile, their aggression and rage remain perfectly intact. The strides that this band has taken are astounding, and it doesn’t seem like they show any signs of stopping.

05. The Wonder Years, The Greatest Generation: As the conclusion to a trilogy of albums which began with the youthful-aggression of The Upsides and continued into Suburbia’s stories of a broken hometown, The Greatest Generation is The Wonder Years’ grand finale. Elementally, we’re treated to the best musical display that the band has produced to date – sharp, concise, and firing on every cylinder. From the first seconds on the introductory “There, There,” it’s clear that it will be a different record compared to the previous two. Lyrically, Campbell is exposed, confessional, and open, exposing the darker corners of his mind; the hereditary fears of “The Devil in My Bloodstream,” worries of always making the wrong choices on “Passing Through A Screen Door,” or never being in the right place at the right time on “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves.” With each passing song, the album builds to its’ powerful closer “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” – a seven-and-a-half-minute culmination of not only the album’s key lyrical and musical pieces, but the themes that The Wonder Years have always focused on – knowing who you are, fighting for all that you can, and making the ones around you proud. It’s the grand finale to an album that reveals it all, performed by a band that holds nothing back. 

04. Fall Out Boy, Save Rock and Roll: I wonder if Fall Out Boy know just how many heart attacks they gave their fans this year. Ever since their split, there were reunion rumors. And near the end of 2012, they started to pick up steam.

Then, in February, they were back.

And they broke the Internet.
They announced their reunion, but that wasn’t enough. They premiered a new song, coupled with a music video, and that wasn’t enough. They routed a two-month-long nationwide tour, and they weren’t finished. They had a new album, and it was done. When we first heard “My Songs Know …,” I think we were all still a bit in shock to fully digest it. So when Save Rock and Roll came out, it brought with it the fear and uncertainty of what to expect.

What we got was the tightest, sharpest version of Fall Out Boy we’ve ever had. Patrick Stump’s vocals continue to dominate, Wentz’ penmanship holds as much wit and acumen as ever, and the end result is some of FOB’s best tracks. Guest spots from Foxes, Courtney Love, Big Sean, and the incomparable Sir Elton John (remember that thing I said about their best tracks being here? Yeah, “Save Rock and Roll.”) mix things up a bit, while “Young Volcanoes,” “Alone Together,” and “Miss Missing You” are trademark performances. There’s no question that there was a giant void while Fall Out Boy were on their hiatus. But with their return, they jumped in head first and regained their place on the throne, back and better than ever.

03. twenty|one|pilots, Vessel: It’s rare for a band in such an early part of its career to have total control over their genre. Then again, Vessel is in a genre all its own. It’s one part pop, one part hip-hop, one part piano rock, and about a dozen parts of a dozen other things. But each note somehow fits together perfectly. As “Ode to Sleep” trickles in, it sounds ready to drop into a typical pop-punk track. And then Tyler Joseph begins rapidfiring his lyrics and shatters that misconception. And then Tyler Joseph starts singing and shatters that shattered misconception. This endless series of twists and turns continues throughout Vessel’s dozen tracks, abruptly transitioning from the synthesized “Migraine” into the ukulele-graced “House of Gold.” The duo’s giftedness for these seamless shifts and stylistic changeovers keeps the listener on edge.

Not since Chronic Future has a band combined these two sounds with such a digestible success.

(Also, sidenote: no matter what sort of dance/EDM/dubstep/whatever music you listen to, I’m going to go ahead and make the claim saying that the drop during “Car Radio” was the best one of the year, just saying.)

02. Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart: What amazes me most about Frank Turner is his ability to not only write consistently-brilliant music, but his ability to grow as an artist, maintaining his humility while doing so. For years, Turner has stuck to a steady, nearly endless cycle of touring, writing, and recording. Throughout all of this, his music never misses its mark, and Tape Deck Heart keeps with that trend. His autobiographical songwriting allows a thorough look into both his head and heart, never afraid to make himself an open book. The brokenhearted “Anymore” and “Tell Tale Signs” are quiet, yet passionate, while “The Fisher King Blues” and epic finale “Broken Piano” build and grow from gentle ballads to roaring productions that could rattle arenas. Despite his calm tendencies, Turner never forgets his roots. The punk rock pledge of allegiance “Four Simple Words,” lead-single “Recovery,” and the reminiscent “Polaroid Picture” all display that Frank Turner not only remembers, but still holds dear to the places he came from and those who were there. Tape Deck Heart is darkly optimistic and painfully passionate, and Frank Turner is a true master of his craft. 

01. Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest: From my very first listen, I’ve had this album penciled in as my Album of the Year, waiting to see if contenders could come along and prove their superiority. It’s possession of the top spot isn’t due to a lack of competition, but rather there was no other record this year that could overpower what Sara Bareilles produced with The Blessed Unrest. Like she did with “Love Song” on 2007’s Little Voice, The Blessed Unrest too begins with the lead single; this time, starting with “Brave,” an enthusiastic, ebullient anthem that praises personality and self-expression.

Much like “Brave,” the upbeat tempo of “I Choose You” and “Little Black Dress” keep with Bareilles’ ability to write fun pop songs ready for the airwaves. What adds even more perk to them is their location within the album, juxtaposed against somber, heartfelt piano ballads: the peppy “I Choose You” follows the calm “1000 Times,” while “Little Black Dress” adds a much-needed lightheartedness after the side-by-side emotional hurricanes that are “Manhattan” and the dark, atmospheric swirling of “Satellite Call.”

“Manhattan” is one of Bareilles’ most impressive displays, comparable to Little Voice’s powerhouse finale “Gravity.” The song is gentle and melancholy, with Bareilles’ voice set to timid pianowork, achingly surrendering the city to her counterpart in a failed relationship.

Sara Bareilles’ early success was a double-edged sword. With the extreme popularity of “Love Song” after its release, there were the critics who believed that that was as good as it would get for her. And on Little Voice, she showed that she was more than a one-hit success. Her second effort, Kaleidoscope Heart, proved that a sophomore slump was far from a worry for her. Now, on The Blessed Unrest, she continues to not only grow as an artist, but excel. Don’t be surprised to see Bareilles hoisting a little gold gramophone for this album.