13 Presents The List: The Top Ten Albums of 2013, Volume 1: 10 – 7

The time has come to reveal the 8th edition of “The List,” my ranking of the top ten albums of the past year. The List has grown in terms of scope, design, and credibility since it’s inception, but it still serves essentially the same purpose: it is my way of sharing the music I found to be the most impressive and to have the most impact on me over this past year. That’s really all there is to it when you get down to the basics. Ranking music is always going to be somewhat subjective, so tastes will vary, and just because we disagree, it doesn’t mean that one of us is wrong about the quality of an album. I do try to use some objective means to rank these albums, but in the end a lot of it still comes down to the feelings I have in my gut. I would imagine that most music ranking lists work the same way, and if they don’t I think it might be worth questioning their legitimacy. After all, is not the most important aspect of music the effect it has on its listener?

To give you an idea of what I look for in an album, I will list a few of my qualifications. First, I think that popular music genres such as those represented on this list should be judged not only upon the quality of the music, but also on the quality of the lyrics and the message put forth by the album. Because this is a music list and not a poetry list, the music element weighs more heavily in my decisions than the lyrics do, but it is never the only quality by which I appraise an album. Furthermore, I appreciate cohesiveness. The lyrics should match the music in terms of feeling, and the songs should preferably be related to each other to make the album feel like a connected work. This second idea is not necessary for a great album, but it does make it much easier for the album to be considered great in my mind. Another common tool used for judging the quality of albums is their uniqueness. While uniqueness can affect my rankings, it is not automatically considered a good thing, nor is it considered the most important thing. I think people often fall into the trap of giving more points to something just because they have never heard it before. While this is fine and good if it is something truly great, new ideas can be unimpressive just as easily and ideas that were good before can remain good.

Hopefully that gives you guys some insight into my thought process. Now, it’s time to present the albums of the year. I love commentary, so if you like what I put on the list, comment and tell me why. If you don’t like it, tell me that too! Just make sure your comments are thoughtful. Don’t just say something is stupid. No one wants to read that.

2013 was a solid and surprising year in music for sure. Most of the albums that made this list were not on my radar to begin the year. Hopefully, if you haven’t heard them already, this will be a great introduction for you. Without further adieu, here are this year’s choices:

10. PRISM – Katy Perry

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It’s difficult for a top 40 style pop album to make the cut on The List, mostly because they don’t usually have that cohesive element that I like to see in the best albums. The songs aren’t always meant to go together, rather they are simply a collection of singles ready for heavy radio rotation, often with a decent amount of filler in between. For an album like this to be one of the best of the year, it must be packed with good songs and sparse on mere filler. Fortunately for Perry, PRISM lives up to that requirement, if only just barely.

The first 8 songs on PRISM are a mix of anthems and catchy pop tunes that make this record the rare modern pop album worth buying and carrying around with you in your car. This should be no surprise, considering that most of them are at least partially written by Max Martin, the same writing powerhouse who scored tons of top ten hits in the pop boom of the late 90’s and early millennium by writing hits for The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Britney Spears. Perhaps the most interesting cut on the album is “Dark Horse,”  which takes a common trap-rap beat and puts an interesting spin on it by actually pairing it with catchy singing instead of repetitive rap chants:

The album is not without filler, however. Toward the end, there are four tracks in a row which are downright boring by comparison to the rest of the album. The final track, “By the Grace of God,” is solid, but not enough to completely redeem the weakness of the album’s final third. So how does PRISM still manage to make the top ten? Bonus tracks. The three bonus tracks are all better than the album filler, and frankly I’m not sure why they weren’t selected to go on the album in the first place. All in all, PRISM is a surprisingly good effort by Katy Perry, and although lacking in lyrical depth, it is tons of fun and extremely replayable.

Other standout tracks include “Roar,” “Legendary Lovers,” “Birthday,” and “Walking On Air.”

9. Icon For Hire – Icon For Hire

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Ariel Bloomer and co. bring a different sound to their sophomore effort, one that is not as well-polished as their debut but which still succeeds on it’s own merits. Anyone who has been to an Icon For Hire show knows that Ariel likes to rap, but her skill was not displayed on Scripted at all; that has changed here, starting with the opening number “Cynics and Critics.” There is also a stronger presence of pop hooks on this album. No worries though, IFH has not left behind its rock roots, and proves as much with songs like “Rock n’ Roll Thugs,” which is my favorite cut on the album:

Most of the songs on this album continue Ariel’s narrative of fighting against herself to become a better person that began on Scripted, but the way the story is told remains fresh, exploring the effects of addiction to pop culture and it’s values (“Pop Culture”), the healing power of writing music (“Rock n’ Roll Thugs”), and a reliance on God to hold her accountable and help her carry on (“Counting On Hearts”). This is one of those albums that can take multiple listens to fully appreciate, and in that respect it is no different from its predecessor. It’s worth it though, as Icon For Hire’s second effort continues to prove that they are an up and coming force for Tooth & Nail records.

Other standout tracks include “Hope of Morning,” “Pop Culture,” “Think I’m Sick,” and “Fix Me.”

8. The Other Side – Tonight Alive

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Tonight Alive’s sophomore effort could easily draw comparisons to Paramore circa 2007 (That’s when the breakthrough Riot! came out, in case you were wondering). Jenna McDougall’s voice sounds like Haley Williams 2.0, and her band plays a similar style. What they lack in uniqueness, however, they make up for in quality. The Other Side is every bit as good as Paramore’s better efforts, and it’s admittedly nice to have a band still delivering that sound (Paramore, while still a very solid band who put out a pretty good self-titled effort of their own this year, has grown and decided to experiment a little more.) If you like alternative rock and female voices, Tonight Alive is some of the best you’re going to find. For a taste, here is “No Different”:

Other standout tracks include “The Ocean,” “Hell and Back,” “The Other Side,” and “Complexes.”

7. Don’t Look Down – Skylar Grey

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I’m honestly a little shocked that Skylar Grey didn’t blow up in popularity this year. She seemed to have all the right tools: Multiple features with Eminem and Dr. Dre, spots on her album for Em and other well known artists, a full slate of radio ready songs that were a perfect mix of catchy and heartfelt… yet somehow, all of Skylar’s hits remained minor and Don’t Look Down flew under the radar. It’s a shame, because there is a lot to like here. Skylar bounces around popular styles, pulling off hip-hop, pop, and ballads with equal finesse. The lead track, “Back From the Dead,” with backing from Big Sean and Travis Barker, shows us the Skylar we’re used to hearing on the choruses of hip-hop hits, but from there she shows that she can hold her own, sounding like an angrier Dido on “Final Warning,” and then moving on into what might be one of the more memorable tunes of the year with “Wear Me Out.”

Don’t Look Down is actually Skylar’s second album. While most seem to think she was recently “discovered” by Eminem, the fact is that Holly Hafermann has been performing her own music for awhile now. Her first album came out nearly 8 years ago, shortly after she was featured as Holly Brook on Fort Minor’s hit single “Where’d You Go?” And lest you think that Skylar (Holly) is another “pop face” for someone else’s composition talent, think again; every track on Don’t Look Down was written by Skylar. That includes the hit “Love The Way You Lie” which was made so popular by Eminem and Rihanna 3 years ago, and to which a sequel appears on the iTunes edition of this album. The sequel was originally recorded by Rihanna for her album Loud, but here we get to hear it in it’s original stripped down form, and it’s one of the best tracks on the CD.

Don’t Look Down is one of several albums on this list to deal heavily with broken see-saw relationships where both people feel an unbreakable connection despite being wrong for each other for so many reasons. Skylar is not writing us a relationship how-to by any means, but her struggles here show the power that love has to hurt as well as to heal, and hammer home just how important it is to place your trust in the right hands.

Other standout tracks include “Clear Blue Sky,” and “White Suburban.”

That’s all for today folks! I’ll be back on Tuesday with entries 6-4. Until then, happy listening!

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