Spin Down: Best of 2013

From Seacoast favorites to metal from across the state, The Wire picks its favorite albums and tracks of 2013.

from Craig Robert Brown:

This was a great year for music—so great, in fact, that when asked to pick my top five releases, I was relentlessly conflicted. I made lists in my head at the grocery store, in the shower, and prostrate on the couch with an early winter cold. And though my official list is below, my list unofficially includes an additional five albums: “Wandering Time” by Tristan Omand, “Faulting, and Uplift” by Fiveighthirteen, the self-titled debut by The Landladys, “Bone and Marrow” by Alcoa, and “Normal Life” by B.A. Canning Band. Seek them out immediately, along with the rest of the albums on the list.

MUSIC_spindown_tanvampires“Ephemera” by Tan Vampires: I’ve been a Tan Vampires fan for years and in 2013, the rest of the country started to catch on. They’ve received accolades from NPR Music and countless music blogs and with good reason. The mustachioed and bearded men of Tan Vampires write some really great songs. Their EP “Ephemera” is a follow-up to their debut full-length album, “For Physical Fitness,” and is an exciting taste of where the band is taking their sound. “Ephemera” is full of shimmering guitar work and haunting keyboards and digital instrumentation, set against singer Jake Merhmann’s lonely, catchy, and ultimately comforting, lyrics. On the EP, the band feels looser, more relaxed, and confident. Favorite tracks: “Into the West,” “Paper Cranes,” “The Season Has Come.”

MUSIC_spindown_berry“The Magician’s Wife” by Clara Berry & Wooldog: “Air Traffic,” the first track on “The Magician’s Wife,” begins with just Berry’s vocals and a piano. It’s an arresting, gorgeously arranged song that went to the top of my best-of list the first time I heard it earlier this year. “The Magician’s Wife” is part cabaret, part Regina Spektor, and part Fiona Apple, conveying haunting images that stay with you long after the album ends. Many of the songs on the record exist in a confined dark space, somewhere in the corner of a room, where they glowed like warm candles. Favorite tracks: “The Magician’s Wife,” “Miss Molly,” “The Bad Guys.”

MUSIC_spindown_hotelalexis“Raised on Fire”  by The Hotel Alexis: “Raised on Fire” is a beautifully dark album. Each song is a brief romantic tragedy written against a dreamscape of loneliness and searching. The album is elegantly crafted, its pacing slow and measured, but it never gets caught up in itself. The tracks feel as private as diary entries but have a sound that could fill a room. And yet, “Raised on Fire” is not overwhelming; it’s an album that invites frequent, thorough listens. Though no longer from New Hampshire, this band helped launch the current indie songwriter scene. Favorite tracks: “Gold Tonight,” “Michael Where,” “For Dallas.”

MUSIC_spindown_zachjones“The Days” by Zach Jones: “The Days” is a feel-good album with substance and soul, a deft blend of McCartney-esque pop and a ’60s soul sound. Each song on the album is searching for solace or love, and Jones’ carefully crafted lyrics are laid bare against buoyant, thoughtful music. Jones’ falsetto and piano work give us something to dance to without feeling self-conscious. Any other album like this could’ve been polished to a sugary dust, but “The Days” sounds raw and authentic. Favorite tracks: “Not Meant to Be,” “Time for a Change,” “Carry.”

MUSIC_spindown_soggy po boys“Seedy Business” by Soggy Po Boys: There is a Gnarlemagne-sized hole in my heart that only the Soggy Po Boys can fill. Stu Dias’ gruff voice first drew me to the recently disbanded Gnarlemagne, which in turn led me to the Soggy Po Boys, comprised of Dias and an all-star line-up of local musicians. “Seedy Business” is their album of New Orleans-inspired spirituals and standards and original compositions. The album captures the raucous energy of a Po Boys live show and puts a contemporary spin on classic standards. This is a rebirth of sound forgotten by some and never heard by many. Favorite tracks: “Dick Cheney,” “John the Revelator,” “Touch the Hem of His Garment.”

The Wire did not cover a lot of metal releases in 2013. Here, Sam Ueda remedies that with some favorite listens of the year:

This was a good year for comebacks. I didn’t start listening intently to local music until late in my high school career, but I’ve been obsessed with a lot of these bands for several years now. It’s almost like I’m reliving my past, but the production value is higher and I don’t have acne. This list wasn’t intended to have a theme, but if you give these albums a listen, you’ll know it was a loud year for me. New Hampshire has always been a hot-spot for metal and hardcore, but these albums soar above and beyond the average. My headphones are maxed out, my ears are bleeding, and I couldn’t be happier. —Sam Ueda

MUSIC_spindown_ramlord“Crippled Minds, Sundered Wisdom” by Ramlord: “Crippled Minds, Sundered Wisdom” is, without doubt, the darkest, smelliest LP to come out of New Hampshire this year. The self-classified “stenchcore” band wallows in the abyss of Portsmouth, playing shows and probably conducting Satanic rituals in their spare time. This album, like many of the others on my list, is a vast improvement in recording quality, matched with maturing, exploratory songwriting. The entire album shifts and dances like a gloomy and violent opera, each track spanning several key and pitch changes and delivering crushing blows to your speakers. Not for the faint of heart.

MUSIC_spindown_vattnetviskar“Sky Swallower” by Vattnet Viskar: Black metal is alive and well in Plaistow. With a full-length release under Century Media Records, an 8.0 rating from Pitchfork, and two U.S. tours under their belt, it’s safe to say Vattnet Viskar are doing pretty well. “Sky Swallower” is the band’s debut LP. It’s more dynamic and powerful than their earlier works; the length of the release gives itself the time and space to open itself up unabashedly to the massive blackened void of metal soundscapes. You’ll hear all the staples of classic black metal: blast beat drums, dueling guitars, and atonal feedback and growls. You’ll also hear moments of near silence, with clean guitars, blowing softly like tall grass in a foggy field. Listening to it can induce a plummeting dichotomy of overload and vacuum, like a black hole, but with more screaming.

MUSIC_spindown_oldgray“An Autobiography” by Old Gray: Old Gray have amassed an impressive international following over the past two years. Their latest album, “An Autobiography,” is their most calculated and polished effort yet, but still retains elements of their previous albums, notably drummer Charlie Singer’s spoken word interludes and Cameron Boucher’s hopeless, throaty shrieking. The opening track, “Wolves,” starts out with a somber sing-along in the vein of La Dispute or Brand New before erupting into Old Gray’s signature screams and passionate guitar licks. Other notable tracks include “Show Me How You Self Destruct” and “My Life With You, My Life Without You,” featuring a gorgeous violin accompaniment and an explosive instrumental finale. If you’ve been keeping up with the times, you’ll know that ’90s emo has reappeared in the punk scene in a big way. Bands are hashing out and redefining the genre in innovative ways and Old Gray is becoming an influential part of the movement.

MUSIC_spindown_pleasuregap“Tropical Barn” by Pleasure Gap: I’ve been telling all my friends about this band. Pleasure Gap’s songs have always traveled to the unexpected corners of song structure, and “Tropical Barn” follows suit. The album is a departure from their previous work, which unfortunately is no longer available online. “Tropical Barn” features more acoustic guitar and sonic depth, but the same eccentric wailing and immaculate songwriting the band is known for. The album also channels bizarro indie rock, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Modest Mouse, as much as it salutes the stylistic tendencies of blues and folk channeled through ‘70s-era classic rock. Songs like “Edwin” and “Edwin Part 2” could even reel in the neo-alt-country-folk crowd and make them realize there’s more to life than finding the perfect pair of suspenders to match their leather work boots.

MUSIC_spindown_blacknorse“Black Norse” by Black Norse: Stoner metal duo Black Norse came back with a vengeance this year, four years after their last original album. This is the earliest release on my list, but has been on heavy rotation for the entire year. In fact, heavy doesn’t even really begin to describe it. Their latest full-length brings in elements of 21st-century bass-heavy rock in the vein of Death From Above 1979, Big Business, and Melvins. Through Doug Tuttle’s production mastery, “Black Norse” is swamped with layers and brings the band into an entirely new realm of loudness. The first time I heard “Kill The King—Reign of Fire,” I was driving. I was so floored that I had to pull over and listen to it again. Halfway through the song, unidentified objects shatter, people shriek, and a wall of feedback attacks from all sides. Ben Troy and Ryan Harrison of Black Norse have been focusing their recording and performance efforts into their new project, Rick Rude, but Black Norse is expected to play a handful of shows in the area this year, so keep watch and keep your earplugs handy.