Best Albums of 2013 (According to Math)

Note: On this first day of the new year, we bring you a post from yet Another J, my college roommate, economist extraordinaire, and runner supreme. Not only has he been kind enough to provide musical hints that have turned into blog posts, but he has also been patient enough to tolerate his stories being fictionalized and told in other posts. Here, he tries to bring some rigor to the squishy practice of annual rankings. Read it. Love it. Debate it. Or something like that.

After three years of reading this blog and seeing my adventures, superior musical taste, and mediocre musical talent alluded to many times, I have finally taken the plunge and decided to contribute in a public way. The ElderJ has asked me to contribute many times and I have started many posts in my head but the topics seemed either too small or obscure to use to introduce myself to the thousands (millions? hopefully double digits?) of readers of this blog. So I decided to start with something more interesting: a music rating algorithm to rate the top albums of 2013.

I wanted to be like all the cool kids and create a list of my favorite albums of 2013. However, that is much harder than it seems, especially this year. It seemed like there were many good to great albums released in 2013, but very few truly stood out. My top few albums were obvious, but what about albums 4 through 100? I needed a way to quantify the merits of each album to accurately rank them.

The algorithm, a fancy term for math used to impress people, came to me driving to work on a random snowy day. The idea is simple: the best albums ever made consist of the best songs, the worst albums are made of the worst songs, and all of the rest fall in between. Between the best and worst albums ever exist albums that have one transcendent song and 12 other tracks of garbage, but also solid albums that do not have one “great” song but 12 “very good” songs. The algorithm provides a way to quantify that so that I could see the relative strength of each album.

To rate albums, the Music Ranking Algorithm factors in the percentage of the album that is good (i.e. the artist’s peak of the album) and how great that peak is as well as how much of an album is filler (or at a lower level than the best stuff) and how good that is. I also included a subjective “critical adjustment” to factor in how well the album met (from my perspective) expectations/hype, the introduction of new styles or elements, and how the album fits along the artist’s growth path. Sometimes releasing the “same” album twice is just what I want, but other times I expect something more or different, so I wanted to be able to account for that. When written out, the algorithm looks like this::

Rating = ((% Peak x Peak Rating)+(% Filler x Filler Rating)) x Critical Adjustment

The Peak and Filler Ratings each use a scale of 0 to 10, where:

0 = I could not finish the song because I was running to the bathroom to puke

1-2 = Will never listen to this again

3-4 = Might keep it in my iPod, but will likely skip it if it comes on.

5-6 = Will probably keep it in my iPod and may listen to it if it comes on.

7-8 = This will be in my rotation this month. Will listen or skip depending on mood.

8-9 = This will be in my rotation this year. May sometimes skip the track.

10 = This will still be in my rotation several years from now. Will almost never skip the track.

This one got a 10.

The Critical Adjustment Rating is based on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is low, 7 is high, and 4 is neutral, and the rest is…subjective. A score of 1 creates a critical adjustment factor of 0.97 (or -3%) and a score of 7 adds 3%, with the other possible scores falling in between. This allows a subjective tweak to the rating, but doesn’t change the overall score substantially.

With all of that out of the way, below are the top 17 albums I have listened to in 2013, fed through the algorithm. (This list consists of the albums that I have listened to more than a few times, so that I feel like I can give a solid review.)

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

2. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

3. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

This song obviously isn’t on the Electric Lady, but is just an example of how fun Janelle Monae is live.

4. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

5. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

6. Mike Doughty – Circles…

7. The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still

8. Kopecky Family Band – Kids Raising Kids

9. The Mowgli’s – Waiting for the Dawn

10. Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends

I really like this song, but the video is very creepy.

11. Little Green Cars – Absolute Zero

12. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

13. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

14. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

15. HAIM – Days Are Gone

16. The Dodos – Carrier

17. Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Looking at the list, it seems like the algorithm did a pretty good job. The albums fall into an order that fits my appraisal of them and there are only a few surprises. I loved the Vampire Weekend album and thought it was one of the best I’ve heard in years. As the Elder J has mentioned, the latest Frightened Rabbit cd is not their best, but is very good. I really like Janelle Monae’s album and keep finding new favorite parts. Autre Ne Veut has some very strong songs but is scattered, so I’m really looking forward to his next album. Mike Doughty recreated some of his best Soul Coughing songs with mixed success. The Head and the Heart and Kopecky Family Band were both pleasant finds for me this year and both have a similar boy/girl vocal mix. The Mowgli’s, Portugal. The Man, and Little Green Cars are all fun and have some strong songs good for listening to with your windows down. Pearl Jam’s latest was solid, as usual. I was disappointed in the latest output from both the National and Arcade Fire. The former didn’t take enough risks, the latter took too many. I have enjoyed most of Phoenix’s work in the past, but Bankrupt was pretty terrible.

I was most surprised with the rankings of HAIM and the Dodos. HAIM’s songs are just pure sugar coated rock, but some of their songs are really really good and really really catchy. The Dodos’ latest album was one of their strongest, but apparently lacked enough truly great moments for the robot to rank it higher.

I’m looking forward to putting new albums through this test to see where they rank and to fine tune the process. Any ideas?

Thanks to the J’s for letting me share their platform. I already have some topics for future posts that should be slightly more exciting than a “best of” list. Until then, Happy New Year!

Top Songs of (my) Year 2013

FatherTimeSomehow, another year has turned (as the Greeks would put it) and I find myself already contemplating writing retrospective and best of the year reviews. My sense of awe and disbelief derives not from actual disbelief since I can distinctly remember my life last year and where I was when I wrote the restrospectives of a year ago. No, my surprise comes from how fast it has all gone .

The alacrity of our passing years is in part perspective (the more you do something the fast it seems to go; objectively speaking, time itself has not been altered). And yet, in addition, the rapid transit of time is still accelerated more by our myriad modern distractions (I’m talking to you, 24 news cycle, twitter, social networks, etc.) and the busyness of my time of life—early career, young children, somewhat lame blog…

Is the enjoyment of life necessarily limited by speed and quantity? My suspicion is that the answer is yes. But the fact is that I don’t really want to contemplate the answer, because the only solution is to give stuff up. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. The fullness of my life is a blessing more than a curse.

Today isn’t about the busyness or the blog. I want to celebrate the fact that I still take time to enjoy music and that another year has brought me another group of songs I will always love. So, here are the ten songs I will most associate this year with in no particular order.

“New Distributor Cap”, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities

Some how I missed this alt-folk band years back. When I discovered it when I was writing a review of the Breeders’ Last Splash, I fell into one of those “wish I had been a different person reveries”. This song is sweet, and true. The central conceit—that the singer will fix the car for the girl he likes—is just so simple and universal as to be adorable. The fact that the music and recording is low-fi only brings into relief the greatness of the song even more.

(And this made me promise myself that I’d finally get around to writing about Small Rock. Just next year)

 “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets

I wrote about this song earlier. I listened to it every day for two weeks. Hell, I’m listening to it now. It is one of those songs that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. It made me rethink Rancid. (And I’ll write about that next year.) It would be higher on the list if I had convinced my wife and children to like it.

“Dreams of Cannibalism”, Typhoon

When The Only D called me out on Typhoon and predicted I would like it, I was skeptical, but that crazy guy knows me too well. I love the album White Lighter. I love this song because it is so characteristic of how creative, dynamic and just damn musical this artist is. His songs are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

I have shed a tear listening to this music while running in the wee hours of the mourning. Thankfully, it was always in the dark.

Late March, Death March,” Frightened Rabbit

I am going to cheat on this one and add in two more songs. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most recent release (Pedestrian Verse) isn’t their best, but it is still pretty damn good.  I have gone days with the line “like mother said, less heart more head” from this song bouncing around in my head. It is now nearly a mantra.

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

Yeah, I wrote about this song. Then, my children fell in love with it. Then it exploded and Imagine Dragons turned up everywhere. (I still don’t believe that LeBron James listens to the band.) My kids call this the “clapping song”. When my daughter sings along with the last line “I’m never changing who I am”, it chokes me up. I won’t lie.

“Super Bon Bon.” Mike Doughty (from the release, Circles)

I never thought I would get so excited about Mike Doughty again, but I was really interested to listen to this release of Soul Coughing ‘covers’. When my children heard it, they loved it and were at first perplexed by the fact that there was another “Super Bon Bon” that sounded different. They named the original recording “Drum Super Bon Bon” and this one “Small Super Bon Bon.” I play whichever they ask for. So, Mike Doughty, you made the list.

“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

When Tegan and Sara released their new album I did my usual contrarian thing and reviewed what I hold to be their best album (The Con) instead. But this song has grown on me enoguh that I listen to it a few times a week. I love these artists. I will probably buy every recording they ever make.

“Let’s Go,” Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. I think that they are maknig dance music but I really like to run to it. It is memorable but not always that deep. This song is a little more complex than some of their numbers. The real reason it made it to the list is that I have ehard the song 20 times in the past five days. My daughter fell in love with it and I cannot resist when she asks for a song.

“Some Nights”, Night Riot (Used to be PK)

I grew obsessed with the song “Berelain” which I discovered just around the time I finshed the final book of the Wheel of Time series. I actually like this song more. How did it end up as the penultimate song to this list? Every time I hear it, I think, hey, I like this song. And, every time, it seems like a new revelation. That’s a pretty neat thing in a time when repetition kills everything.

“Every Time she Turns Around it’s her Birthday”, Caribou

I have written about this song a few times. I love it. But that’s not enough. No, the progressive and somewhat unstructured music is not just entertaining but it is also transformative. I haven’t heard a song that makes me feel like my state is altered in a long time. This one makes me feel, well, different. Listen.

Happy new year. May next year be even better.

Written Better Elsewhere: Mumford and Sons vs. Frightened Rabbit

So, my good friend, Another J, just let me know about a piece on the Stereogum.com Deconstructing blog discussing earnestness, indie rock, and the difference between Mumford & Sons and Frightened Rabbit. (“Deconstructing: Frightened Rabbit, Macklemore, and the Perils of Earnestness”).  I like the post, not the least because it taps into the debate my brother and I have been having about Mumford & Sons (he doesn’t like them; I do, a lot, and then less) but also because it compares the band to Frightened Rabbit, a great group I only recently learned about and have been struggling to figure out how to write about.

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Old Friends, New Friends and New Music

So, one of the interesting things that has happened since I started telling people about this blog (which I have done only sparingly and sometimes with trepidation) is that many have almost immediately asked me about bands they love. It is nice to witness people get so voluble and eager to talk about music.

This volubility comes, I think, from an honest desire to share something with someone else that each of us has found dear—by making a connection with music and seeing someone else make a similar connection (even if the content is different) we triangulate and make connections with other people (and not just the music).

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