Monday, December 9, 2013

Bubbling Under: My Favorite Other Records of 2013

More than a few people made mention of 2013 not being a particularly strong year for music. That is how I've felt every year since 1979 and yet this year I had to edit my favorites down. The Top Ten is coming soon, but for now, here are 13 releases, presented alphabetically by album title, that I really enjoyed.

Richard Thompson-Electric
My first two passes through this record left me disappointed. I blame that not on the record but my high expectations. I wanted an RT trio record produced by Buddy Miller to be the greatest record ever and it just wasn't. Once I got over that, I realized "Electric" had a lot to offer and since then it has grown to be one of my favorite Richard Thompson records.

Jonathan Wilson- Fanfare
The praise and adoration for Wilson's previous release "Gentle Spirit" was a tad unnecessary. Kudos from people like Jackson Browne, David Crosby and Elvis Costello weren't enough to sell me on an overlong collection of overproduced, overdone and overrated songs. Over. So why did "Fanfare" hit me so hard? It's similar in many ways, but in small doses, like one side at a time if you have the vinyl, you will hear four different records. For my purposes, that worked much better. And while the songs themselves may not be the calibre of the songs written by Wilson's trio of admirers, the experience of "Fanfare" is huge, evoking the best of Pink Floyd, Buffalo Springfield, and Nick Drake for starters.

Parquet Courts- Light Up Gold
From NYC, this band serves up a good chunk of what I pine for, specifically... the best sounds of 1977. "Light Up Gold" is Richard Hell, Television, Jim Carroll, Gang Of Four, and maybe even a little John Foxx-fronted Ultravox all in one exciting release.

Queens Of The Stone Age- ...Like Clockwork
QOTSA is a band I've enjoyed not liking for years. Leader Josh Homme sits at the top of my "Most Overrated" list. But it seems like he and his band matured overnight. "...Like Clockwork" has better riffs, smarter production, and more melody than any previous QOTSA release and the single "I Sat By The Ocean," sounding like ELO with balls, is one of my faves of the year.

Gregory Porter-Liquid Spirit
Finally, an R&B singer-songwriter who doesn't oversing, sing flat, or melisma his way into my trash can. Some beautifully understated music on "Liquid Spirit," sung with purity and grace by Gregory Porter.

Jules Shear-Longer To Get To Yesterday
Years go by in between Jules Shear releases and then they appear quietly. So quietly that often, one has to just obsessively Google "Jules Shear + New Music" until one gets lucky and hits something. (Yes, I'm "one.") The songwriting here is stronger than ever. Few can paint such vivid pictures of joy and heartbreak with melody and harmony the way Jules can, and "Longer To Get To Yesterday" ranks as one his very best.

Roy Harper- Man & Myth
I can't think of an artist that has kept me as busy and interested, yet so confused for so long, as Roy Harper. Ever since the day I first heard Led Zeppelin "III," and noticed a song hat-tipping Mr. Harper, I tried to dig in to his catalogue. I mean, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney and David Gilmour all love the guy. I finally got it with "Man & Myth."  This is big, sprawling, demanding, lugubrious music, but still full of exquisite melodies and dynamic playing. Maybe you have to be in the mood, but I'm happy I finally got Roy Harper.

Mikal Cronin- Mcii
This type of low-fi, DIY pop music is not usually in my wheelhouse. One of my fantasies is to punch Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices right in the nose. But Cronin serves up so many hooks on "Mcii" you won't know whether to sing, dance or go trout fishing. Short, sharp and sweet.

Aaron Neville- My True Story
Neville covers his favorite jukebox oldies with a little help from Keith Richards and it is a blast. This could have been ruined with unnecessarily glossy production, like so many of Neville's solo releases, but all involved held back and what we have instead is one of the most distinctive voices in music leading a stripped-down, soulful band of what sounds like guys having fun. Yes, records can be fun, kids.

Paul McCartney-New
(Please read Peter Carlin's review of "New." I wouldn't have said it better, and it pretty much nails my exact feelings about the record.)

"Just turn your ear for a moment to the buzz attending Paul McCartney’s latest album. His first collection of originals in six years, titled simply, New, came with the predictable oohs and ahhs. Oh, the Beatle-esqueness of it all. The warmth and steel of his 71-year-old pipes. The grace of his melodies and the unexpected shrieks, whirs and purposeful murk in its electronic japery. But in the absence of the work itself all those promises are at best meaningless — McCartney is a living legend, a hero to generations. Journalists WANT him to succeed, and frankly so do we. Particularly if it means 45-plus minutes of lovely new Paul McCartney music.

So how terrific that New is pretty much exactly that. From the album-opening rocker “Save Us,” the songs are tautly constructed, melodic and – I swear I’m not kidding – lyrically compelling. The intellectual laziness that defines so many of McCartney’s solo songs is nowhere to be found.
Instead, we get the engaging obscurities in “Alligator” and, better yet, the prosaic revelations described in the sweet, mid-tempo “On My Way to Work.”   Like for instance, and I just love this for some reason:

“On my work to work I bought a magazine/Inside a pretty girl, liked to waterski/She came from Chichester to study history/She had removed her clothes for the likes of me.”

It’s that bit about waterskiing that knocks me backwards (what a weird detail, and yet exactly what dirty magazines make a point of noting). Next, a brief guitar break turns dark and driving, leading to a final verse where the ka-chunk of the office time clock brings a small vision:
“I could see everything, how we came to be/People come and go, smoking cigarettes/I pick the packets up when the people leave.

Wherein lies one of McCartney’s most valuable traits — his eye for the magic of everyday life and motion. We fancy folk don’t often turn to janitors and nudie magazines for existential philosophy, but this artist sees more than we do. The real payoff, however, comes in the choruses that reveal the narrator’s passing fascinations as a symptom of the intimacy he never found in his own life:

“How could a soul search everywhere/Without knowing what to do?”

So okay, “Everybody Out There” falls a bit short in the lyric department, but the next tune is “Hosanna,” which pits a dark melody and pulsing bass against layers of electronic drone and tape loop shriekery unheard on a Paul song since “The White Album.”
And so it goes pretty much song for song, all with their own intrigue (OMG, the texture of his aged voice when singing, a touch bitterly, about the young Beatles on “Early Days”) and delight. Those perfect melodic fillips; the layers of joy in his stacked harmonies; the irresistible sweetness in the bouncy title track, which is as heavy as helium and as lovely as a summer morning.
Does that make it (yet) another silly love song? Not even. If only for the startling assertion McCartney makes a song earlier in “Early Days”:

“They can’t take it from me if they tried/I lived through those early days/So many times I had to change the pain to laughter/Just to keep from getting crazed.”

It ain’t easy. So float away on “New” right now; consider the expressions on the faces you see and imagine what waits for them when their feet crunch back into the dirt below."

Valerie June-Pushin' Against A Stone
A gutsy, rootsy, soulful collection of country, folk gospel and blues. June's two previous releases were acoustic affairs that didn't quite nail it. But on "Pushin' Against A Stone," she gets some help from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and the results are magical.

Daft Punk-Random Access Memories
You don't have to be a fan of 70's disco or 80's electro-pop to appreciate just what Daft Punk has done here. (Ok, maybe you do.) This record is pure genius and it's a prime example of what "making records" is all about. There are plenty of hummable moments and plenty of danceable moments, but as a whole, "Random Access Memories" is an epic display of production and miraculously, doesn't feel like it's too much, which I think pretty much describes how we all felt during the 70's and 80's. Go into this one the way you would a documentary on a certain place and time.

Trigger Hippy- Trigger Hippy
"Trigger Hippy is a powerful, soul-infused rock and roll band founded by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman featuring twin lead vocals from multi-platinum recording artist Joan Osborne and singer-songwriter Jackie Greene who also plays guitar and keyboards.  Rounding out the group are lead guitarist Tom Bukovac, who co-produced the EP with the band, and bassist Nick Govrik. "

Yes, this is only a 4-track, 10" vinyl E.P. at the moment, but I love this baby and if it were at least twice as long, it may have made the Top Ten.


buzzbabyjesus said...

I was surprised how much I liked in 2013. "Fanfare" is the only one on both our lists, but I at least half of your choices, and the ones I haven't heard look interesting.
Glad you finally "got" Roy Harper.
"January Man" is my favorite from that album and it stands up well to his best material. I recommend "Bullinamingvase"(1977), especially the epic track "One Of Those Days In England" which "Man & Myth" most closely resembles.
My initial reaction to "New" was poor, but the other day I was in a store and one of the tunes came on and it sounded pretty good.

Sal Nunziato said...

this isn't my Top Ten.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Right. My list wasn't really either.
It's already changed several times.

Sal Nunziato said...

Right. I just meant you will see some of yours on mine.

Anonymous said...

I see some of my favorites on your 11-20. Looking forward to seeing who cracked the top ten.
Not only is Roy Harper's album a winner, check out his son Nick's Riven. Another favorite of mine.
A good year for the Harper family.

ReelMusic said...

Hey Sal,

I've been meaning to send you a list of my favorite releases of 2013 but (a) I'm still putting the finishing touches on it (I listen to a LOT of music throughout the year and I'm very picky) and (b) as a relative newcomer to BW I'm feeling a tad intimidated.

That said, however -- and at the risk of sounding like a total douchebag -- one of the records I listened to the most this year, and is definitely in my Top 10 or 20, was actually released in 2012. Invariably I discover music each year that I somehow missed the previous year, and kick myself for letting something great slip through the cracks. In this case I was less harsh on myself when I discovered that the record was released without fanfare in November of '12...and --drum roll please -- the record to which I refer is "Pour une ame souveraine" from Meshell Ndegeocello. It is a dedication to Nina Simone, with contributions from Sinead O'Connor, Valerie June, Cody ChestnuTT and others, and is hauntingly beautiful. If, like me, you also missed it, here is a link to a site where you can hear the whole album:

I'll leave it at that, except to tell you that this might well become one of your faves of the year, too.

Thank you for all the great music you share, day in and day out.