This year pretty much ruled. We got the "Bound 2" video, cronuts, Snapchat, grumpy cat, the Seth Rogen/James Franco "Bound 2" video parody. The list just goes on and on. Nothing quite rules as much, however, as new music. Let’s face facts: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more talented music community than the one we host in America’s Finest City. Sure, our bustling metropolis has a lot to offer from all the arts, but our music scene is unmatched, as far as I’m concerned. And 2013 proved to be undoubtedly rich, as some of our favorite bands released their best records to date, and other new bands stepped up to the plate and blew our minds wide open.
Even though it seems like cute EPs or a one-off song or two are the hip way for most local bands to release new music these days (I feel like an ornery grandpa whining about kids on his lawn), I’ll be using this year-end list to focus only on full-length albums. They're works of art (the good ones) and take longer to create; they’re harder and more intensive to record, and they generally demand a lot more energy and effort than any other kind of release.
While it's true I'm an associate editor at SoundDiego, I want to stress that these picks are my personal faves and are by no means a definitive list -- or representative of the rest of our our staff's picks, for that matter. This is just the stuff I like. So, without further adieu, here is my list of the Top 13 San Diego Albums of 2013 (in alphabetical order):
- Buddy Banter, Paradise Thrillz (released on Oct. 21): Co-produced by Mrs. Magician’s Tommy Garcia, Paradise Thrillz sounds like the epitome of fun. The tracks "High With Me" and "Little Devil" pair vintage garage-pop melodies with Steven Oira’s tongue-in-cheek lyricism ("I love the way you cook mac n’ cheese/Mmmm/I’ll kiss the lipstick off your teeth") and the trio's overall playfulness. The highlight of the album is "Insane," with its fuzzy, sun-shiny coolness; it’s probably the song of the year, folks. This isn’t your grandma’s pop -- although they’d probably love kicking it with her.
- The Frights, s/t (Oct. 31): Also produced by Garcia (I’m sensing a theme here), this band’s debut album is bonkers right out of the gates. One of San Diego’s most promising young bands (yes, they're literally "a young band" -- these guys aren't old enough to get into most shows), their live show energy is infectious, and this album is the perfect showcase for it. While their songs hop along with a charming, full-speed-ahead surf pop -- these kids want to party. And we want to party with them. Key tracks: "C&C" and "Melissa."
- Gayle Skidmore, Sleeping Bear (Sept. 15): The 2013 San Diego Music Award winner for Best Singer/Songwriter makes the kind of music you can't help but like. It's not too out there, but it’s strange -- or maybe ornate -- enough to draw people in. Most of the songs on Sleeping Bear are lush arrangements of complex pop with dense flourishes of orchestral accompaniment (see the title track), rich vocal harmonies ("Don’t Let Me Go"), catchy synth lines ("Tourniquet") and subtle placement of banjo, mountain dulcimer or the billion other instruments Skidmore is trained on. Sitting around and longing for another Sufjan Stevens record? Just put this on and move on with your life already.
- Gloomsday, Paradise Tossed(May 2): This duo's dense "doom pop" (as they refer to it) just gets better and better. Their 2011 debut was rough, raw and the sound of two people just having a good time writing garage-punk nuggets. On this release, however, they dial up their songwriting chops on tracks like "Brain Dancing & Rain Ceremony" and "Mormonaut," all while getting more technical as well. This band slays, and hopefully Paradise Tossed is just a sign of a lot more things to come.
- The Heavy Guilt, s/t (April 2): The Heavy Guilt are a band who came out with their best work yet in 2013, all while going through a lineup change. With the recent departure of their energetic -- and enigmatic -- lead guitarist, Sean Martin, you could consider their third studio album an odd end of an era for the newly minted quintet. If that’s the case, though, the era ended on an extreme upswing: The stomping, experimental indie rock band saved its best, and hardest-hitting, numbers for last: "Goin’ Home" and "Summer Came."
- Hills Like Elephants, Feral Flocks (March 26): Feral Flocks kicks off with three of the catchiest songs you’ll hear all year: "Ninjavitus," "Splendor" and "Foreign Films." Lead singer Sean Davenport has described his band as "Motown with drum machines," and strangely, that’s a fairly accurate statement. After playing countless shows after the 2011 release of their debut album, The Endless Charade, the band returned this year with a slightly more refined groove on an album that features their best indie pop songs to date, while also delving into experimental electronica. San Diego musical chameleons Davenport and lead guitarist Andrew Armerding may garner a lot of the attention in the band, but their unsung hero is definitely bassist Daniel Gallo, who anchors these songs with the subtle melodicism they require.
- Mrs Magician, B-Sides(Sept. 3) : Reports out of Magician’s camp indicate that these guys have called it quits. As a huge fan of their music, it's a huge blow. At the very least, we’ll have their 2012 debut and this year’s album to listen to. While not quite as sublimely perfect as last year’s stellar Strange Heaven, B-Sides features some of their best songwriting, with snarling songs like "Despicable Me" and "Fools Paradise." This album should have been called A-Sides. R.I.P., Mrs. Magician. You'll be missed.
- The Nformals, s/t (June 15): Kind of a new band on the scene, this trio turns in incendiary performances at each and every show. There’s a reason we listed them as one of San Diego’s 7 Bands to See at a Bar. Sounding like a mix of the Vines and Green Day, Joshua Kmak and Co. seem to have had no trouble crafting an entire album’s worth of alt-rock steamrollers. On first listen, songs like "On Me!" and "White Like a Black Shirt" sound like you’ve heard them a million times already. Check these guys out.
- Octagrape, Red UFO (Sept. 1): Fans of scuzzy garage pysch-rock, look no further. Octagrape records their albums on old school four-track tape recorders, and you can tell: Red UFO is distorted, wobbly and fuzzy (might have something to do with that time-tested analog stuff) but never overdoes it. These guys are poppy in just the right number of places (as in the Beach Boy-like harmonies in "Real Light") but get downright nasty most of the time. Visions of Malkmus, Sonic Youth and Hot Snakes come to mind when these guys blast into songs like "Prepare to Qualify" and "Kelpo Kreeps."
- Old Man Wizard, Unfavorable(11/1/13): If you've ever wondered what it would be like if Motorhead and Jethro Tull ran full-speed head-on into each other, exploded and the atoms of those glorious rockers settled and formed a new band, Old Man Wizard is basically what it would sound like. Unfavorable is a heady mix of hard-charging rock ("Nightmare Rider"), beautiful, harmony-laden, thematic wizardry ("If Only") and prog-metal ("Forevermore"). One of my absolute favorite records of the year.
- Psicomagia, s/t (Sept. 23): The first time I saw this band, which features members of Astra and Radio Moscow, I was watching them after one of my bands, Boy King, played at Soda Bar, and frankly, I didn’t like ‘em for the first 10 minutes or so. Then, all of a sudden, it clicked. They hit a strange, acid-jazz psych-rock groove and kept hitting it over and over until it was a cacophony of trippy organ soloing, bass riffage, experimental saxophone blasts and absolutely massive drums. On their 2013 debut, they somehow capture that intense dynamic, sometimes veering into atonal jams with freeform Spanish beat poetry layered on top, or changing pace altogether on the drop of a dime and bursting into jarring psychedelia. These four largely instrumental prog-rock excursions seem like strange puzzles made by some mad scientist that seem to have no common edges to hold them together but somehow fit anyway.
- Transfer, Shadow Aspect(Dec. 13): All right, so this album hasn’t been out all year long, and it probably seems like kind of a cop-out to put an album on a year-end list when you haven’t been able to listen to it over time and fully digest it, but, come on: This is Transfer we’re talking about. The hometown boys just released their first record since 2011’s Future Selves, which propelled the band worldwide a few times, and they have never been in finer form. Songs like "We Don’t Have to be Nice Anymore" and "Dark Behavior" find the band mining familiar anthem-rock territory, but they seem to kick harder and burn more intensely than before. Matt Molarius’ vocals sound warmer and more confident overall, with several tracks -- like "Instincts" and "The Widow" -- conveying a fury this band hasn’t previously tapped into. Welcome back.
- Tropical Popsicle, Dawn of Delight (March 15): Tropical Popsicle originally began as the lo-fi, psychedelic pop brainchild of Tim Hines (Lights On, the Stereotypes), but on Dawn of Delight, he’s joined by a full band with fine results. Taking slight cues from ‘60s artists like 13thFloor Elevators and Syd Barrett, the 13 songs on the album swing back and forth between trippy folk-pop jams and minimal garage New Wave. Never one genre or the other, the band is unpredictable and always compelling.