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



The Replacements (on probably the only non-snowy day in Minnesota)

"Nightclub Jitters" is a song like no other in The Replacements normally loud-ish catalogue.  It's an underrated cut and  one of the most effective tracks bandleader Paul Westerberg ever wrote.  With its saxophones, high-hat sparklings and inclusion of hilariously inoffensive audience applause, some call it a satire on lounge music.  In the context of the groups overall sound, I suppose that interpretation has some merit.  Me? I'd like to think of it as confessional songwriting.  

Though the lyrics tell a story which lacks details and is, for the most part, ambiguous, I personally believe "Nightclub Jitters" shows a very self-conscious side to Paul Westerberg.  The song doesn't convey the life of a homebody, but it doesn't make you believe he wants to go out that much either.  As he notices the "nightlife critters," you can't help but sense that he feels alienated from the people he's watching.  He doesn't feel contempt for the "critters."  It's just that he doesn't feel a connection to any of them—"It don't matter much, if we keep in touch".   When Westerberg poses questions such as, "What's the cover?  Where should we park?" he sounds so nervous that it's as if this his whole night is about passing checkpoints with ease.  In other words, going through the motions of the routine matters more than enjoying the time he spends.  

Another possibility is that I am totally wrong....and wouldn't that be a bitch?

"Nightclub Jitters" by The Replacements