Tuesday, December 31, 2013

13 Favorite Albums of 2013

It was a great year for music; at least the music that I like.  In recent years it's been a chore to come up with 10 albums deserving of a Top Ten, but this year I easily could have stretched the list to 20 (maybe even 25).  But it being 2013, I'll settle for 13.

Later on, I'll designate the "honorable mentions" that didn't quite make the list - albums that I enjoyed a great deal, and would likely have cracked the Top Ten in other years.  And just think - in less than two weeks, the new releases by Bruce Springsteen and Rosanne Cash will be out.  Happy New Year indeed!

Without further ado...

13) Magpie and the Dandelion, The Avett Brothers.  I may have underrated "The Carpenter," the brothers' last effort, but this felt like a return to form, with the production slickness turned down just a notch and the quirkiness of the songs a little closer to the Avett standard.

12) The Diving Board, Elton John.  This was the kind of album from a seasoned veteran that makes you wonder, "what the hell have you been doing for the past 25 years?"  Elton was never one for making perfect albums, so the consistency of this is as surprising as it is welcome.  His collaborations with Leon Russell and T-Bone Burnett have clearly reignited his creative engine, and Bernie Taupin provides a strong set of lyrics.

11) Shangri-La, Jake Bugg.  I've written about Bugg on several occasions this year.  Early on, I caught up with his 2012 self-titled release, and in November he came out with this Rick Rubin-produced nugget.  My guess is that he'll be a presence for an entire generation.

10) Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails.  I have to admit that this is the first NIN album I've ever bought, so for me there is no base for comparison. What I heard here impressed me a great deal - slow ones, fast ones, all blanketed under an atmospheric clarity recalling the best of Joy Division or New Order.

9) The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae.  The concept remains odd, and a great deal of the album has a distinct late seventies vibe, but that's part of what makes it so appealing.  I continue to believe, as I did on first listen, that her best work is ahead of her.

8) Fade, Yo La Tengo.  I'd call this the comeback of the year, except that they never really went away - I just drifted away from them.  "Fade" demonstrates why they, a small indie band that much of the country probably knows next to nothing about, have been able to make it work for nearly 25 years.

7) Wrote A Song For Everyone, John Fogerty.  This may sound silly, but what a delightful album.  It's a blessing to the world that Fogerty has fully come to peace with his old (best) songs, to the point where he's able to record a version of "Proud Mary" that owes as much to the Ike and Tina version as Creedence's.  Every time I listen, I have a new favorite song.

6) Reflektor, Arcade Fire.  This could continue to move up over time, but for now this seems about the right spot for it.  Ultimately, it feels like they tried to do a little too much.  But I once felt that way about Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," so only time will tell.

5) American Kid, Patty Griffin.  It's not likely that Griffin will ever top "1000 Kisses," her 2002 masterpiece.  That she could come this close, more than a decade later, is good enough.  At their best, Griffin's songs are a living manifestation of the Bruce Springsteen line, "Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart."

4) Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, Elvis Costello and The Roots.  Holy crap, Elvis - I honestly didn't think you had it in you.  Credit "Spectacle," credit Questlove, credit the band - whatever, it all works - the album he probably thought he was making back in 1980 when he released "Get Happy."

3) Trouble Will Find Me, The National.  With (what I call) an "atmospheric" band, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  "Trouble Will Find Me" captures a sound, a tone and a mood from the very first chords and maintains it over the course of an entire album.  Hauntingly beautiful from start to finish.

2) Random Access Memories, Daft Punk.  My wife focuses on lyrics a lot more than I do, and she thinks this one suffers from a lack of meaningful content on that side of the equation.  It's a fair point, because this is, pure and simple, a dance album.  But it's a dance album with smarts, one that creates a seamless fusion of the best of 70s disco with the best of modern-day electronica.  Any album that brings together Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams has a lot going for it.  But notwithstanding the hit that needs not be named, the album's two triumphs are "Giorgio by Moroder," a tribute/homage to the great seventies producer featuring the man himself, and "Touch," featuring Paul Williams (the short white guy, not the Temptations' bass voice) in a song that by all rights should not work, but does.

1) Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend.  Rolling Stone picked it #1.  Pitchfork picked it #1.  It's an almost certain lock to top the Pazz & Jop poll.  And it's deserved.  It's as close to a perfect album as has been released in...oh, lets say a decade.  Everything works - the ballads, the fast ones, and everything in-between.  There are a lot of people out there who can't stand this band, and when the album came out, a lot of those people were tweeting things like, "For a band that I hate, this sure is a good album."

It's hard to pick just one song, but if forced by gunpoint, I'd go with "Ya Hey," if nothing else for these lines:

Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning "Israelites"
Into "19th Nervous Breakdown"

Perfect.  Just perfect.

Coming soon - honorable mentions.  Happy New Year, everyone!

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