I had one job and I completely fucked it up. I wanted to be like all the pro music journals and get my complete Best of 2013 list out before the end of the year. But it wasn't meant to be. Now if I was savvy, I would give you the old "I wanted to wait to make sure nothing amazing came out in the last week of December" excuse. But, that wouldn't be honest. I've just been busy with work and the last thing I felt like doing was writing. I don't even feel like writing now. I'd rather just relax and enjoy my Sunday. I suppose since nobody reads this blog anyway I could just throw my "Best of 2013 List" right in the can. But, in order to move on with my blog—and my life—I just have to take care of this. That, and if you're reading this right now, you're obviously just a little bit curious. So, let's just knock this baby out!
5. Live at The Cellar Door by Neil Young
I have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young. In fact, I love and hate Neil Young to the exact same degree simultaneously. I think he is a talented songwriter and guitarist and a competent, if not interesting, vocalist. But as influential as he is, and as great as many of his albums are, I don't think he is a genius. Paul Simon's a genius. So is Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, etc. Paul Simon would be laughed out of the the Warner Bros. office if he turned in "Southern Man" or "Out On The Weekend." Paul McCartney can write "Tell Me Why" in his sleep. So could Nick Lowe. So could Marshall Crenshaw. So could (England) Dan Seals. So could John Mayer. These are good songs, but they aren't the melodies and compositions that a truly amazing songwriter writes. Incidentally, Neil Young is my least favorite member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. C,S and N write spellbinding songs. Neil Young writes intriguing songs and from time to time he also turns in really great ones, too—most notably "Lotta Love."
So, I hate Neil Young. He is overrated. But, I also said that I love him, too. I do! To all the die-hard Neil Young fans out there, I'm just like you. I only have an asterisk next to my love. Live at The Cellar Door continues Neil Young's terrific live-archive series. This time Young and Reprise Records unearths a terrific concert from 1970. Here he debuts "Old Man" and shines on many other classics like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down." It's not quite as good as the Massey Hall concert released a couple years ago, but it is definitely a treat. Me, I appreciate the inclusion of many Buffalo Springfield classics like the slightly beautiful "Expecting To Fly." But, Cellar Door contains one of my favorite Buffalo Springfield/Neil Young songs, "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong"—the closest Neil Young came to writing and approaching the greatness of a Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition. As it stands, Cellar Door is both a riveting listen and an essential historical document from the early 70s.
4. Chance of Rain by Laurel Halo
Electronic music producer Laurel Halo absolutely blew me away in 2012 with her debut album Quarantine. She is a totally gifted artist who unfortunately creates music that is simply a little too esoteric to reach a wide audience. But I definitely "get" her and would absolutely pay to see her live.
Quarantine was my second favorite album of 2012—just behind Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. When I heard she was working on a new album, it instantly became my most anticipated release of the year. That album is Chance of Rain and it was released on October 28, 2013. It received generally outstanding reviews—most notably a perfect score by the reputable Tiny Mix Tapes.
Quarantine is a challenging listen, but it is straight-up pop compared to Chance of Rain. The latter contains none of her eery vocals but is about as terrifying as the move Alien. Chance of Rain contains none of the listless meandering, which waters down many solid indie/electronica releases. Rather, its craziness sounds highly orchestrated and becomes more understandable with every listen.
Chance of Rain is perhaps an inappropriate title. Believe me, the rain is already happening and the precipitation can move from calm to violent with very little warning. There are many storms in Laurel Halo's nine mini-epics and, like an actual thunder storm, it is both fascinating and fun to pay attention to.
3. Lightning Bolt by Pearl Jam
Look at Pearl Jam! They're still making amazing albums. But they've been on an odd, if not unprecedented, streak over the last few years. Since their self-titled from 2006, Pearl Jam has been churning out albums that rank almost as good as 1994's classic Vitalogy. Credit should continue go to producer Brendan O'Brien who will go down as one of the best producers ever. Lightning Bolt shows that he just knows how to make a great rock record sound like a classic. And for Pearl Jam fans, Lightning Bolt is pretty much both. It's filled with quintessential Seattle grunge songs that could have been released 20 years ago like "My Father's Son" and "Mind Your Manners," but also plenty of softer moments like "Yellow Moon" and "Future Days," which juxtapose well with the rockers and are also some of PJ's finest moments in years. They have grown up since Ten, and Lightning Bolt proves that Pearl Jam is just as relevant—and good—today as they were in the early 90s.
2. More Light by Primal Scream
Primal Scream didn't quite shake the world like Pearl Jam and Nirvana did, but like Ten and Nevermind, their masterpiece Screamadelica was one of the best albums of 1991. Since then, they've become less relevant, having made a few pretty good albums and some pretty bad ones, too—none of which coming close to reaching the impact of Screamadelica. But, More Light is pretty much a masterpiece of the dance/indie rock merger. At almost 70 minutes, the album is a total, immersive adventure that at its best is almost hallucinogenic and tribal. There are only four tracks that don't quite move me and those are "Tenement Kid," "Goodbye Johnny," "Elimination Blues" and "Relativity." The rest is pretty remarkable. It's very much Primal Scream, but also has jazz elements from masterpieces like Let My Children Hear Music by Charles Mingus and Birds of Fire by Mahavishnu Orchestra. A John McLaughlin guitar solo would not sound out of place on More Light.
Like Screamadelica, More Light is an album that gives you that amazing "people made this?!" reaction. It's otherworldly and is absolutely one of the best albums of 2013.
1. Change Becomes Us by Wire
If you told me last year that my favorite album of 2013 would come from Wire, I truly would have laughed at you. I don't even like Wire that much! I certainly don't love their punk masterpiece Pink Flag. I sought it out purely because of its historical importance and when I listened to it I was actually somewhat underwhelmed. I liked it but I didn't love it. Same with Chairs Missing. I have plenty of respect for Wire, but they just don't do much for me.
So that's what I would have said in 2012. In 2013, I saw that Wire's newest LP Change Becomes Us was receiving pretty good reviews and since my only reference point of these British punks was from 35 years ago, I got curious and added a Spotify playlist thinking that I would listen to it once and that would be it. "This will be nice," I thought. "I can have a timely conversation about Wire with someone who really loves them."
Well, I'm sure you can ascertain that I pretty much fell in love with Wire and Change Becomes Us. This album is ridiculous. It's like the work of 25 year olds except most of the dudes are 60 or close to it. It's absurd—almost beyond comprehension—that four aging post-punkers could be so inspired that they are able to create such a terrific and atmospheric modern post-punk masterpiece.
Wire sounds okay on "Doubles and Trebles" and "Keep Exhaling," the first two tracks of Change Becomes Us. Here, they met my expectations exactly. Things get interesting on fuzz-filled guitars on "Adore Your Island," but on the truly gorgeous "Re-invent Your Second Wheel," Wire definitely impressed me. It's a brilliant, surrealistic song with an understated melody, which is terrifically produced. It sounds like it's being performed under water.
What comes next is "Stealth of a Stork," a two-minute punk exercise in which Wire neither thrilled nor bothered me. But beginning on "B/W Silence," Wire continues the atmospheric post-punk that they birthed on "Re-invent Your Second Wheel," and they sound stunning! The chord voicings here, and on many of the songs that follow, are both beautiful and unexpected.
The consistency found on the the last two-thirds of Change Becomes Us is thoroughly impressive. And when you listen repeatedly, the first third starts to sound even more interesting.
I later learned that the album's songs aren't totally new. They are new versions of rare old songs that only appeared on live albums. I suppose this is common knowledge for true die-hard Wire fans. And to some, the fact that this album isn't made up of entirely new stuff will make it less fascinating. Me, I don't care at all. I knew on listen number five or so that this would probably become my favorite album of the year. And it is.