My Best of 2013 List (5-1)

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.  

My Best of 2013 List (10-6)

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10. Good God! Apocryphal Hymns by Various Artists

In my last post, I cheated when I included Purple Snow: Forecasting The Minneapolis Sound on my "Best of 2013 List."  After all, one doesn't really think of 70s and 80s funk/soul rarities when discussing music from this year.  But since I have no one to report to besides my own gut, I have no problem subbing old music released in 2013 for new music released in 2013.

I'm cheating again with Good God! Apocryphal Hymns, which is a b-sides compilation of rare gospel performances released on small labels during the 1970s.  I highly recommend this collection to anyone who has never listened to gospel music or has only listened to Mahalia Jackson or The Dixie Hummingbirds.  It's not typical "scream at the top of your lungs" gospel music.  Rather it's a mellow sermon of church organs, light percussion, electric guitars and Motown-esque vocals that borders on the psychedelic.  Even when the performances are high energy, they nevertheless exist in a pool of quicksand and molasses.  The result is consistently relaxing music—making it enjoyable for believers and non-believers.  It's surreal, but not druggy.  It's clearly worship music singing to the heavens and Jesus Christ.

The music on this collection may not blow your mind—but serious music listeners should take note.  This is definitely worth hearing.

9. No Beginning No End by Jose James

With No Beginning No End Jose James became one of the most-talked about R&B/Jazz artists of 2013.  He hit number one on the jazz charts for the first time in his five year career and he even crossed over onto The Billboard 200 into the not-too-shabby number 91 position.  He'll probably be nominated for a Grammy for this one and even if he doesn't win, the album's 11 tracks are so satisfying that his credibility is 100% self-evident.  James clearly deserves to have the Blue Note moniker stamped onto No Beginning No End's album jacket.  With such stand-out tracks like "It's All Over Your Body," "Trouble," "Vanguard," "Come To My Door" and "Heaven On The Ground," it's also clear that James deserves at least 100,000 more Facebook fans than the 40,000 he has already been blessed with.  

8. Lesser Evil by Doldrums

Before you listen to Lesser Evil by Doldrums, I highly recommend you take a minute to sit and stare at its corresponding album artwork.  Doing so will tell you quite a bit about what cocktail you're about to swallow.

Under the abstract wash of inky, blue, food coloring-like stains and violet flourishes is a human face.  Let's say the face is equivalent to the concept of familiar and agreeable music.  Everything else is a bizarre, sour candy coated, electronic fabric.  Too much of electronic indie rock only gives you the "everything else."  But, sometimes you get the familiar and the agreeable music and the everything else together in one double shot.  This combination is quite addictive when it's done really well.  

Releaesed in February 2013, Lesser Evil is done really well.  Almost perfect! 

If you're going to chill out, you might as well put on some good music and Lesser Evil will more than suffice.  On tracks like "Lesser Evil" and "Lost In Everyone," Doldrums make some of the finest Indie Rock I've heard all year.  Enjoy this underrated masterpiece.

7. Sticky Wickets by The Duckworth Lewis Method

Thanks to a recommendation from Paul Pearson of the fantastic and appropriately titled blog  Song Of The Day, I checked out Sticky Wickets by The Duckworth Lewis Method and thought it was terrific.  Then I listened more and more and I thought it was beyond terrific.  Then I listened even more—and look, now Sticky Wickets sits at number seven! After beginning with the title track—which I'll admit is just-okay and nothing special—The Duckworth Lewis Method are off and running with an orchestral pop masterpiece.  There's a lot of Brian Wilson to Duckworth's arrangements and a lot of Todd Rundgren to their experimental humor, but it's very much an album that Ringo Starr would love to have written and crafted—with help from Jellyfish and 2010-era David Bowie.  It's like a swinging circus that takes place while the most visually captivating cricket match occurs on fake grass next door.  What does that mean?  I don't know.  But what I do know is that Sticky Wickets is an odd record that takes many chances and risks and works due to relentless craftsmanship, creativity and, yes, a better-than-average knack for melody.  

Underneath the orchestrations are whispers and spoken-word parts that would sound truly ridiculous if on a record by the less-talented.  But on Sticky Wickets it's charming.  The album's not all straight-up chamber pop.  In fact, on "Out In The Middle," perhaps the best song here, the sticky flourishes lie below an understated, introspective and very moving singer/songwriter ballad.  If it were on Paul McCartney's NEW, it would be the best track.  

Then there's the brilliant "Line and Length," which has multiple choruses and refrains, one being a computer-like spoken word hook and another being  a high-pitched soulful shout.  It's almost a rap song, sounding like Brian Eno was behind the mixing board.  Good stuff.

But, "Good stuff" truly describes most of Sticky Wickets which has received so little attention it hurts.  My blog won't suddenly make it a big album, but hopefully it can serve as a digital tip of the hat to this talented group.

6. Si Sauvage by The Suburbs

A great release from a classic band.  Si Sauvage offers yet more proof that great albums come out of Minneapolis as often as snow falls on the ground.  Having not released a proper album since 1984, this is obviously a different version of The Suburbs than the group that rocked the Twin Cities in the late 70s and 80s.  They're more mature and their real-life experiences, including the death of their original guitarist—not to mention the death of frontman Chan Poling's wife—seem to transfer to the band's new sound.  It's no clearer than on the beautiful and sad "What's It Like Out There?"  

Poling's new-found career of composing musicals, scoring TV shows and jazzing up classic songs with John Munson and Steve Roehm in The New Standards has also added an unmistakable influence to the sonics of Si Sauvage.  But there's plenty of welcome "smart-assery" here that juxtaposes very well with the newfound wisdom.  It makes The Suburbs return to disc-making less like a therapeutic recollection of death and more of an acknowledgement that life is hard, but it still goes on.  Si Sauvage makes a good case that The Suburbs are the perfect band to deliver that message and it's mix of melancholy and exuberance is an excellent musical experience.

My Best of 2013 List (15-11)

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15. Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound by Various Artists

Purple Snow proves that Minneapolis knew how to make a record long before The Replacements and Husker Du.  It is a sprawling two-disc, two-hour funk/soul collection that shows what the Twin Cities was up to between the departure of Bob Dylan and the debut of Prince.  Well, that's not necessarily true, because Prince does appear on record here.  Purple Snow begins with a Prince Nelson contribution.  It was 1975 and he wasn't even old enough to buy a pack of smokes.  But there he was, age 17, and sitting in a session in his cousin Pepe's band 94 East as a rhythm guitarist on "If You See Me".  And damn was he great! It's a fantastic track and Purple Snow packs many that are just as good.  

There are terrific rare tracks by R&B legends like Alexander O'Neal, but like many "various artist" compilations that have come before it, this collection showcases great tracks from mostly unknown artists.  The results are extraordinary.   In particular, the contributions from The Lewis Connection and Ronnie Robbins are very strong.  But, the real treats come from Mind & Matter which showcases a young James "Jimmy Jam" Harris—who would later form a legendary hit-making songwriting team with Terry Lewis, whose compositions can also be heard in a couple places throughout this album. There are easily 20 stand-out cuts in this 30 song compilation.  For those that like their funk and soul both tasty and historic, Purple Snow is highly recommended. 

14. Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling

Once I Was An Eagle is an intimate combination of Laura Marling's droning, sensitive—and slightly percussive—acoustic guitars, hauntingly beautiful vocals straight-out-of-a-diary lyrics and an absolutely focused vision.  And, these days, an album like this is quite refreshing—and thank God it has found an audience that appreciates it.  The four song suite that seamlessly opens the album indicates that this 63-minute LP is a body of work, which Marling effortlessly rehearsed, calculated and probably wrote in a few inspired, all-nighter songwriting sessions.  It's not quite spellbinding, but it is very listenable.  If you're a "lyric guy or gal" there is a lot—and I mean a lot—to love over repeated listenings. 

At 23 years old, the singer/songstress has received plenty of comparisons to Joni Mitchell.  Why?  Because she's a girl who sings well and feels at home playing her acoustic guitar in alternate tunings?  Is it because, like Joni, she's blue? The comparison is understandable—especially because Marling's voice has a Joni Mitchell-like cadence—but it's not really accurate.  In truth, L.M.'s idiosyncratic songwriting is much closer to that of N.D.—Nick Drake.  There's nothing on Once I Was An Eagle  that is so melodically complex and immediately compelling like the songs on Court And Spark or Blue.  But there are a bunch of moving, mini Pink Moon-like masterpieces.  There's also a gorgeous, dissonant "Interlude"—a very smart inclusion by the way—that has Jack Nietsche written all over it.  It's a cool, early 70s incorporation.

If the brilliant Laura Marling has any issue with her songwriting, it is that she seems to compose melodies sort of like Bob Dylan writes words.  Her music is very intriguing and the odd melodic directions she takes do work, but the effect only lasts as long as you listen to it.  Even if one listens to Once I Was An Eagle 10 times in a row, attempting to sing back the melodies to any of Marling's songs is like trying to write down all of the lyrics to the first five songs off of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.  Her work is great, but not that memorable or distinct.  So, here's a precaution: Anyone expecting Laura Marling's musical compositions to be as astonishing as her voice and artistry will be disappointed.  The indistinguishability of her songwriting will be the one and only reason her music may move 200,000 people instead of 2,000,000.  She has everything else within her mind, soul and voice box to become a real star.  

13. Love In Flying Colors by The Foreign Exchange

The Foreign Exchange makes a very sophisticated version of R&B/Hip-Hop that just feels so good.  It's dreamy, slick, polished music that is both life and love affirming.  I knew I loved it within a minute.  It's somewhere between an adult contemporary version of Frank Ocean and Esperanza Spalding, with maybe a little Robert Glasper Experiment thrown in.  The Foreign Exchange has received a ton of critical acclaim over the last five years and they deserve all of it.  Love In Flying Colors not only passes with flying colors, it should be on many more critic's end-of-the-year best-of lists.  

12. Random Access Memories by Daft Punk

There really isn't much to say.  I haven't met too many people who don't love this album.  I certainly love it—and I'm not someone who idolizes the ground Daft Punk walks on.  I came into Random Access Memories as a casual fan that maybe listened to a Daft Punk album once or twice every two years.  But, I played this one all the time.  It is refreshing to know that there are still really talented artists out there who have a fully realized vision of what they want to accomplish and seem to produce true classics effortlessly.  Though R.A.M sits at number 12 on my list, I would never argue if it was number one on someone else's.  

11. Aljawal by Alsarah / Débruit

"World music" has the tendency to scare some people.  Indeed, it often takes a bit of a push to deliberately listen to something sung in a language that one isn't familiar with.  For me to love it, the music itself has to be fantastic.  When it comes to Aljawal, a collaboration between the French producer Débruit and the Sudanese singer Alsarah, the music is incredibly alluring and easily transcends the language barrier.  Perhaps you automatically associate "world music" as background ambience used for relaxation during meditation or yoga.  In that case, Aljawal is only world music in its origin and would more correctly be categorized as Indie/Electronica.  It's not terribly accessible, but not quite esoteric either.  It's sort of like a combination of Beats Antique, DJ Thundercat and a not-so-top 40 Lana Del Ray.  If you have an open mind, I definitely recommend it.  This is very rich stuff and any close listening on your part will be handsomely rewarded.  

I should also note that Aljawal was selected by NPR as one of the 10 Favorite World Music Albums Of 2013