Muruch’s Top 25 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year again! Below are my personal favorite albums of 2013. This year the list fell together fairly easily – due both to the excellence of the following albums and the lackluster nature of their competition. Though I’m shocked by my #1 album, which only recently knocked two other favorites from the top spot. The top three are really interchangeable, they are far too brilliant and too different from each other to truly rank. But I’ve been playing my #1 album on almost continuous repeat for the past three months, so it’s undeniably my favorite of the moment.

Click on the album titles to read the full reviews, purchase the albums, and, in some cases, watch videos and/or download mp3s. And please feel free to comment with your own favorite albums (or songs) of the year.

*Honorable mention to Sara Bareilles’ The Blessed Unrest, which I only heard for the first time this week – long after having compiled and scheduled my Top Albums list. It’s impossible now to choose anyone to cut just to make room for Sara, but it’s a good album nonetheless.

Muruch’s Top 25 Albums of 2013

25. Rusty Belle: Common Courtesy

…their multi-genre, multi-instrumental style runs the gamut from Americana and folk to rock, soul and blues…bluesy, sparse, soul-rock…delicious shades of Nick Cave

Buy @ Amazon


24. Ian McFeron: Time Will Take You

…What a delight this little folk-rock gem is!…produces the same immediate reaction of refreshment and affection as Adams’ Gold – though there’s more of a classic country-folk swagger.

Buy @ Amazon


23. Valerie June: Pushin’ Against a Stone

…unlike anything you’ve ever heard before…acoustic blues masterpiece swiftly carried along by Valerie’s distintive voice… exquisite marriage of a low-fi folk melody and sweet, plucky bluegrass instrumentation…grinding, funky blues-rock sound associated with bands like The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes, but Valerie’s voice and phrasing give it a soulful, gospel-folk spin

Buy @ Amazon


22. Steve Martin & Edie Brickell: Love Has Come For You

…Comedian turned bluegrass musician Steve Martin and singer Edie Brickell have joined forces…what a delight their collaboration turned out to be! Martin’s deft, delicate banjo playing is the perfect complement for Brickell’s gentle, melodious voice.

Buy @ Amazon


21. Black City Lights: Another Life

…a sexy and very moody collection. At times the band’s dark, trippy electro-pop style sounds like a mix of Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Julee Cruise, Lacuna Coil and MS MR.

Buy @ Amazon


20. One Mile An Hour

…brilliant, self-produced, self-titled debut album, which they accurately call a “complex, introverted outsider-folk record”…airy, panoramic, beautiful, unusual folk music…swirling, psychedelic folk guitar riffs, slightly raspy and softly plaintive vocals. A bit of Ray LaMontagne, a little Elliot Smith, even hints of Jeff Buckley and Pink Floyd and something totally Other – a ghostly, intangible mood. This is why I love music, why I love writing about music. This is inspiration

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19. Varous Artists: Variations on Chopin

…puts an ambient and electro-pop spin on Chopin’s classical melodies…magnificent, mindblowingly lovely…not your standard classical album…absolutely fantastic

Buy @ Amazon


18. Ours: Boxer the Ballet 1

…one of those albums I love more intensely with each listen…pure, old school American rock that often reminds me of classic Foreigner, maybe a bit of Scorpions or even Cinderella…big, theatrical voice of lead singer, Jimmy Gnecco, should also appeal to Muse fans

Buy @ Amazon

Ours – Pretty Pain (mp3)*


17. Ruth Moody: These Wilder Things

…The Wailin’ Jennys are spawning some excellent solo albums…Moody’s angelic, lilting soprano tangles with pop-polished bluegrass and folk.

Buy @ Amazon


16. Ivan & Alyosha: All The Times We Had

…comparison to The Lumineers is still fairly accurate. The two bands definitely share a certain multi-instrumental, melodic sensibility, but Ivan & Alyosha’s music is distinctively different enough to stand on its own merit…as lovely, comforting and encouraging as an old friend…somewhere between Ryan Adams and The Low Anthem

Buy @ Amazon


15. Melissa Ferrick: The Truth Is

…absolutely outstanding…instrumentation is gorgeous, lush and elegantly Southern..phenomenal, thought-provoking

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14. Rykarda Parasol: Against the Sun

…gives her signature noirish rock sound a modern polish without compromising its dark, artistic integrity…Rykarda uses her voice as much as any instrument: haunting moans and surprising ooh la la’s…echoing yelps…melodic whistles…and Mamas & Papas harmonies…the kind of richly layered album that immediately mesmerizes and still gets even better with each listen

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13. Molly Drake

…Nick Drake’s mother. Molly was a very talented poet, composer, singer and pianist whose music obviously had a strong influence on her son’s work. Sadly, Molly’s exquisite music was mostly a family secret during her life and is only now being released to the public…the entire album features Molly Drake’s unusually pretty soprano and piano in a lilting, old-fashioned parlour style of music. Her lyrics, however, delve into the same kind of elegant, poetic, somewhat melancholy introspection that her son would eventually explore

Buy @ Amazon


12. Brooke Waggoner: Originator

…an extraordinary collection…a beautiful, brilliant and absolutely enchanting album…thunderous piano crashes layered over bombastic horns and choral voices

Buy @ Amazon


11. Bing Satellites

I’m bending the rules here a bit, as Bing Satellites has released too many albums this year to narrow down to one and the ambient nature of his music makes it difficult to differentiate one track from another. I especially like his latest release, King Midas in Reverse, and Twilight Sessions: Volume 11. We at the Muruch household have a giant Bing Satellites mp3 playlist that is on almost daily rotation. Bing’s music is the perfect soundtrack for reading and relaxation.

Bing Satellites Official Site


10. Allison Crowe: Heavy Graces

…what a lush piece of work…a touch of Celtic folk in the instrumentation, haunting backing vocals and a slow building, seething tension until Allison unleashes her wail…I predict we’ll be seeing Allison Crowe not once but twice on our best of the year list.

Buy @ Amazon


9. Lucy Schwartz: Timekeeper

…a multi-instrumental, multi-genre sound that encompasses the atmospheric, high energy electro-pop of Butterfly Boucher, the folk revival instrumentation of Mumford & Sons and a dash of Hannah Fury‘s Gothic, antiquarian sensibility

Buy @ Amazon


8. Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady

…as interesting, diverse and addictive as we’ve come to expect from Janelle and finds her collaborating with Prince, Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding…artistic attention to detail combined with a gorgeous voice, a flare both for the dramatic as well as the funky and a science fiction churning imagination continue to put Janelle Monáe into a category all her own: Cyber-Soul

Buy @ Amazon


7. Elton John: The Diving Board

…finds Elton John making a welcome return to his musical roots with a basic piano-bass-drums set-up and features some of his finest piano playing in the past four decades…it’s a sadly rare album these days with lyrics that actually mean something…The Diving Board already sounds like a classic and is a worthy release for the man behind “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer.”

Buy @ Amazon


6. MS MR: Secondhand Rapture

…dramatic, bombastic, sexy, moody and utterly fantastic…falls somewhere between Florence + the Machine‘s delicious over the top theatrics and Great Northern‘s haunting melodies with a little extra rhythmic oomph…like Kate Rusby fronting a ’90s trip-hop band like Faithless or Morcheeba…basically MS MR are everything I could want in a band…absolutely addictive and will surely be on my best of the year list

Buy @ Amazon


5. Hem: Departure & Farewell

…will be battling Foxygen for my Top Album of 2013…Hem have all but perfected their “Metropolitan Country” sound and singer Sally Ellyson’s voice is truly timeless…a dazzling transcontinental journey — by air and by sea

Buy @ Amazon


4. Trent Dabbs: The Way We Look At Horses

…a masterful and exquisite song cycle that brilliantly bridges the gap between Elliot Smith’s pensive folk-pop and Ryan Adams’ rustic alt-country…I’m so happy and relieved to have fallen in love with this album. I can’t remember the last time I listened to an entire album repeatedly without skipping at least one track…moody, melodic and magnificent. It’s certainly one of the best albums of the year and one whose songs stay with you long after it ends.

Buy @ Amazon


3. Foxygen: We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

…If Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic isn’t my #1 of 2013, we have a spectacular year of music ahead of us…the rare album that truly deserves to be called Beatlesque…elements of vintage psychedelic rock, modern indie- and garage rock, a bit o’ The Animals, a splash of Elvis, a smidgen of blues and various other experimental feats that defy category. It’s unusual, innovative and totally fantastic…a sublime slice of pop perfection.

Buy @ Amazon


2. Allison Crowe: Newfoundland Vinyl

…plays like a lovely, vintage collection of traditional Irish and Canadian folk ballads, lively sea chanteys and drinking songs, parlour songs and country tunes with surprising retro, girl-pop harmonies woven throughout…full of dazzling melody and such a unique charm…Allison’s voice is so strong and spectacular, I’m afraid Foxygen has fierce competition here for my favorite album of the year.

Buy @ Amazon


1. Lorde: Pure Heroine

…more than lives up to all the hype…one of those rare song cycles that flows seamlessly from beginning to end and keeps the same level of energy throughout…Lorde’s signature blend of heavy, sporadic beats and witty, sardonic lyrics, which are often written from an outsider’s point of view in a poetic style.

Buy @ Amazon

*all mp3s, streams & videos uploaded by & posted w/ permission of artists, labels and/or their PR reps

Various Artists: Variations of Chopin

Variations of Chopin is a compilation featuring modern interpretations of works by my favorite classical composer, Fryderyk Chopin. Released by the small Scottish (by way of Poland) indie label Too Many Fireworks, Variations of Chopin puts an ambient and electro-pop spin on Chopin’s classical melodies.

The album is bookended by interpretations of “Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 in A Major.” Neil Milton’s straightforward but nonetheless pretty piano take is a very brief 48-second opener. Thankfully, Clem Leek’s magnificent, mindblowingly lovely finale of the same piece has an almost three minute life. But we’ll get to that later.

It’s during Black Antlers’ somewhat eerie rendering of “Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 in D Flat Major” that you slowly become aware that this is not your standard classical album. Though the work’s central melody is tightly woven into the cover, there are just enough electronic embellishments to give it some extra oomph.

Miaoux Miaoux then completely abandons the classical realm for a full-on electro-pop cover of “Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1 in F Minor.” You would never guess all those beats and blips were born from a Chopin arrangement.

deSelby gives a beautiful, somewhat Baroque acoustic guitar cover of “Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E Flat Major.” Even if you don’t know the original Chopin composition, you may recognize the melody from the end of Muse’s “United States of Eurasia/Collateral Damage.

Some of the other covers are a tad too experimental for my taste, though I still admire the concept.

And then we have that spectacular finale. Clem Leek’s rendition pf “Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 in A Major” swirls with ghostly vinyl scratches, distant sparse piano, harmonica and creaky violins. It’s absolutely fantastic.

Buy @ Amazon

Khatia Buniatishvili: Chopin

Khatia Buniatishvili’s Chopin is not only my favorite of the Chopin albums released this year, it’s my favorite classical release of 2012 so far and is competing with Emanuel Ax’s Chopin: Scherzos & Mazurkas as my favorite Chopin collection of all time. Like Chopin himself, Georgian pianist Buniatishvili was a child prodigy who continues to garner high praise through her adult life. She credits the influence of Georgian folk music for the “aura of elegant solitude and even melancholy” in her playing. Her nimble fingers are a perfect fit for the classical piano master’s compositions and her selection from his work is superbly diverse. Buniatishvili’s Chopin is an absolutely exquisite collection.

The album opens with the “Tempo giusto” theme of “Waltz in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 64/2,” which was the companion piece to Chopin’s more popular “Minute Waltz.” The waltz truly glides like a graceful dancer beneath Khatia’s lithe hands. It’s a stunning beautiful yet subtle beginning to the recording.

Four of the album’s tracks are devoted to the foreboding “Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35,” a.k.a. “The Funeral March.” Khatia’s slight quickening of the tempo only serves to increase the dramatic tension of the piece.

The first movement (“Grave – Doppio movimento”) begins with a suspenseful frenetic pace, but soon melts into delicately melodic swirls before rising again like a Phoenix from the fire.

The Sonata’s second “Scherzo” movement is another favorite, as Khatia’s fingers seem to transform the piano into a whirling carousel.

The melancholy for which Khatia is so often credited (or accused?) is especially, beautifully evident in the popular third movement — “March fune’bre, Lento” — of Chopin’s elegant dirge.

I appreciate her light approach to the work. All too often overeager pianists crash their way through the main theme as if attempting to strangle the morbid drama from the piece. Yet Khatia’s soft touch elicits an almost wistful beauty and seamless flow from the inherently ominous march.

“Ballad No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52” is so very, very pretty. It could be a lullaby save for the tension that seems to lurk just beneath the surface of the melody.

“Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21” suddenly explodes into a full symphony as Khatia is joined by Orchestra de Paris under Paavo Järvi. The third movement, “Allegro vivace,” is particularly fantastic as Khatia’s chiming piano tangos with the string and horn sections of the orchestra.

The album includes a bonus video of Khatia’s short film, “Warsaw-Paris.” You can watch the video here.

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Khatia Buniatishvili Official Site

*Note: Soundcloud streams uploaded by artist, Khatia Buniatishvili

Lang Lang: The Chopin Album

Frédéric Chopin competes with Gustav Mahler as my absolute favorite classical composer, so I was very happy to see several modern classical musicians have released Chopin albums this year. The first I heard was Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s The Chopin Album. It’s a sophisticated and pretty collection, but doesn’t capture the attention as intensely as other Chopin albums.

Lang Lang’s album especially suffered in comparison to Khatia Buniatishvili’s stunning new Chopin (review forthcoming). Perhaps it is the material he selected, the album is comprised almost entirely of études and nocturnes. Of course, there’s no such thing as a bad Chopin piece. But I tend to prefer his more lively works – such as Emanuel Ax’s Chopin: Scherzos & Mazurkas. So my disappointment with Lang Lang’s album is definitely due to personal preference and not to any flaws in his performance. If you prefer your classical music to be mellow and unobtrusive background music, this is your album.

Lang Lang’s The Chopin Album includes all twelves of Chopin’s Op. 25 Études, three Nocturnes, Andante spianato, Grande Polonaise and Waltz op. 64, No. 1 in D-flat Major (a.k.a. the popular “Minute Waltz”).

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Lang Lang Official Site