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.