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Sunday, December 22, 2013

2013 Top 30: My Favorite Albums of 2013

2013 was another really good year for new music. I listened to a lot of really good records this year, and there were loads of things on my "must hear" list that I just couldn't get to. An over-abundance of good albums is always a problem worth having. I'll still be catching up 2013 albums I didn;t get a chance to hear well into next year.

This isn't any kind of crictical analysis of what the best albums of the year were. These are my personal faves - the albums I played the most and thought about the most during the year. Two of them I even admit might not actually be very good, but they struck a chord with me. Your mileage may vary. 

Although it was a year of really good albums, I don’t think there were many great albums – the kind that end up on a list of all-time favorites down the road. The number rankings were a bit more fluid this year, with records shifting position up until the very last second. That said, I enjoyed so many albums this year that I’ll put 2013 in the win column.

1. JOHNNY MARR - the Messenger - After more than two decades of side projects and hired gun sessions Johnny Marr finally steps into the front-man role with a diverse collection of songs that wonderfully showcase his guitar and songwriting chops. Hearing how effortless his first official solo album feels, it seems odd to that it took him twenty five years after the Smiths break-up to get around to making it. It has a youthful energy, but is crafted in a way that only a skilled veteran could pull off. If you're looking for bright jangly Britpop loaded with infectious melodies, the Messenger is the place to start. This is the record that Smiths fans have been waiting for for many years. But it's so much more than that.

2. WAVVES - Afraid of Heights - The San Diego band's fourth album is an adrenaline rush of angsty guitar charged pop fun and hyper melodies. Their supercharged slacker punk pop sounds like a more reckless version of Weezer.

3. SUPERCHUNK - I Hate Music - Superchunk's 10th album is a fine follow-up to 2010's Majesty Shredding (my favorite album of that year). The band return again armed with the exuberant melodies and oversized hooks that have made them one of my favorite bands of the past 25 years, but with just enough maturity and growth to not make them sound like just another band trying to cling to past glories.

4. EDWYN COLLINS - Understated - Edwyn's eighth solo album is a joyous occasion, filled with bright melodies and toe-tapping rhythms. His sweet spot has always been the intersection of post-punk indie pop and Northern Soul, and that's exactly where Understated hits. The spirit and vintage sounds of Motown and Stax are deep in the grooves, but he never actually copies any specific reference point, so it sounds fresh and natural.

5. DAVID BOWIE - the Next Day - This is David Bowie playing to all of his strengths and ending up with one of his most urgent and consistent albums in decades. He's not so much innovating this go around as he is revisiting sonic elements and styles from his whole career and effortless combining them into something new that's right in his comfort zone. There's everything a Bowie fan could hope for: some arty weirdness, a bit of glam rocking, some slow burners, brilliant production (thanks Tony Visconti!), and a bunch of fantastic pop hooks.

6. NEKO CASE - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You - One of my favorite things about Neko Case is how hard it is for me to describe her sound or why her records are so damn special. The last two Neko albums both came in at #1 on my year end lists (Fox Confessor has become one of my all-time favorite albums) that stuck with me the way a great book does. She creates a world that is curious and otherworldly, full of vague imagery that I don't always fully understand but find utterly captivating. Add to that her remarkable voice and arrangements and delivery that are so unique that they could only work on Neko Case records (in the same way only Tom Waits can make a Tom Waits sounding record). This record is wonderful, but just slightly misses the mark of the previous two.

7. BAD RELIGION - True North - On album number 16 Bad Religion proves to still be one of the most vital and engaging punk bands making records, with more power and relevance than band's half their age. True North is the strongest album from Bad Religion in almost 20 years (1994's Stranger than Fiction being the last Bad Religion album I've loved start-to-finish). Everything I love about the band is represented here in force: giant melodies, relentless energy, aggressive guitars, a pummeling rhythm section, hyper-intelligent lyrics, and those well placed backing "oooh-oh" vocals (Bad Religion are second only to Naked Raygun in harnessing the power of "whoah-oh" harmonies).

8. the DIRTBOMBS - Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey! - This is straight out dumb fun that works against all odds. A bubble gum pop album from a Detroit garage band could easily have ended up being a kitschy one-joke affair, but Mick Collins took the task seriously and obviously has a genuine love for the genre. He incorporates just the right balance of bubblegum staples like handclaps, "oooh oooh oooh"s, deceptively simple hooks, and references to sugar and candy with garage rock sensibility, some killer guitar riffs, and great use of the band's duel drummers.

9. JACCO GARDNER - Cabinet of Curiosities - Baroque pop debut from a Dutch multi-instrumentalist and home studio wizard that conjures up spirit and sound of the Zombies, Left Banke, and Sagittarius. He has so perfectly captured the sounds and spirit of the era that it could easily be mistaken for the genuine article. Jacco deals in lush Baroque pop and pastoral psychedelia filled with Mellotrons, harpsichords, organs, and other gentle period embellishments throughout.

10. PALMA VIOLETS - 180 - On their debut album, London foursome Palma Violets tread where many bands have gone before, playing punchy rock with a little sleaze and a lot of laddish energy. They play a no-frills brand of garagey indie rock with a simple (and a bit sloppy) drum/bass/guitar attack. But what really separates them from the pack is the fuzzy psychedelic organ that fills out the sound and takes them from being just another Libertines to bringing in bits of Modern Lovers, Stranglers, and Caesars.

11. FRANZ FERDINAND - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action - If there weren't already three other FF albums, this would have ranked higher. The main fault of RT,RW,RA is that it sounds so much like their previous albums. The rhythms are ramped up to an even more danceable level this round, but the individual songs aren't quite as distinctive as previous FF songs. The band pretty much sticks to their well proven template. It's a great template that still results in highly likable songs, but it feels a bit less urgent at this stage. Although seeing them live on this tour, the new songs fit in seamlessly with rest of their catalog.

12. TRAAMS - Grin - Armed with some twisted Krautrock grooves and distorted indie-pop melodies, this West Sussex trio combines Television influenced guitar, aggressive sonic experimentation, and Swervedriver's massive driving rhythms.

13. OMD - English Electric - For their second album since reuniting the classic line-up, OMD deliver a "give the fans what they want" album, featuring songs that highlight the strengths of their glory days while still sounding fresh. There's a nice balance of deceptively simple electropop, moodier downbeat melancholia, and big mainstream pop numbers with instantly catchy melodies. It's a very familiar sounding album with at least a few songs that would right at home on that first Best of OMD singles collection. Or on the soundtrack to an imaginary John Hughes movie.

14. the RESONARS - Crummy Desert Sound - Swinging Merseybeat influenced power pop with loads of harmonies, ringing guitars, pounding drums, and an abundance of infectious melodies. Matt Rendon (the driving force behind this Tucson band) expertly crafts 3 minute guitar pop songs with the energy of the first few Who albums.

15. the SADIES - Internal Sounds - My favorite Americana band actually comes from Toronto. The Sadies play psychedelic alt-country with bits of power pop, garage, and smatterings of surf guitar thrown in for good measure. They really don't sound like anyone else, although I hear elements of Gene Clark, the Meat Puppets, Roky Erickson, Wilco, Mike Nesmith, and Steve Wynn. This is a distinctly original band that's tight enough to take chances and make it sound effortless.

16. KARL BARTOS - Off the Record - Karl Bartos was one-fourth of the classic 1975-90 Kraftwerk lineup (Radio-Activity through Electric Cafe), contributing writing, electronic percussion, and the occasional vocal. This album, Bartos' second solo, started as a collection of unused ideas from the Kraftwerk days updated for 2013. The sound and feel of the entire album is Kraftwerk circa 1980, but there's just enough modern production to keep it from sounding like a collection of Kraftwerk outtakes. It’s probably more style over substance, but this is one of the architects of that style and it feels like a bit like having a few new Kraftwerk songs.

17. BLEACHED - Ride Your Heart - With a base of punk attitude and girl group melodies, LA's Bleached mix high energy fuzzed up rockers with jangly summer pop. Along with some surfy guitar lines and sugary choruses I hear bits of the Ramones, the Donnas, Tuscadaro, and a California take on the Shop Assistants.

18. HOUSE OF LOVE - She Paints Words In Red - House of Love deliver beautiful jangly psychedelia with rich pastoral melodies and their best album since the 1990 self-titled album (aka Fonatana/Butterfly). Middle aged House of Love are mellower. Acoustic guitars play a larger role now than ever before. But that only adds to the elegant pastoral sound that hits right in Guy Chadwick's sweet spot. There are still plenty of shimmering guitars, but they're more relaxed and organic. I hear bits of Rain Parade and the Church on much of the album, with a few songs dipping into the same terrain as Robyn Hitchcock or mid 80's REM.

19. TOMMY KEENE - Excitement at Your Feet - Tommy Keene is a power pop institution and one of the most reliable songwriters around. But he's also had impeccable taste in covers, so it shouldn't be a total surprise that he'd eventually release a covers album. And it should also be no surprise that his choice of covers would be eclectic - including lesser known Who and Stones songs, Guided by Voices, Television, Donovan, Mink DeVille, Roxy Music, and Randy Newman. Tommy pays loving tribute to his favorite songs, but he also takes ownership of them and makes just about everything sound like one of his own. My two personal faves are his versions of the Bee Gee's "I Laugh in Your Face" and a faithful version of Echo & the Bunnymen's "the Puppet".

20. WIRE - Change Becomes Us - Using unfinished 30 year old snippets as the starting point, the post-punk legends make a very current sounding album that seems to have recharged their batteries. As with the other post 2000 Wire releases, my early faves are the ones where they rock the fuck out. And they do that quite a bit this time round. But ultimately it's the slow burn of the more atmospheric pieces that showcase what Colin Newman, Robert Grey, and Graham Lewis (along with new guitarist Matt Simms) do better than anyone else.

21. DISAPPEARS - Era - The 4th album from Chicago's Disappears is stark and less immediate than last year's fabulous Pre Language, but the icy minimalistic textures they weave are captivating. This is an album that is sequenced perfectly for maximum effectiveness and works better as a whole rather than having any dominant single song. It's even better with headphones on, the volume cranked, and the lights out.

22. SAVAGES - Silence Yourself - London's Savages are an intense post-punk assault of Bauhaus-esque guitars and sonics, powerful Killing Joke-like rhythms, and vocals that sound like an edgier Siouxsie Sioux. Yet they don’t sound like a rehash of early 80's bands. Savages meld those influences into something totally new. The record sounds absolutely mammoth - a huge wall of sound built around dark atmospherics and relentless energy.

23. BEACH FOSSILS - Clash the Truth - For the second Beach Fossils album Dustin Payseur combines melancholy dream pop with jangly guitars and a generous amount of reverb. Heavy on mood and atmosphere, they take a hook and ride it into a groove that's almost shoe-gazer. The band is from Brooklyn, but they remind me of British bands of the late 80's and early 90's that put out records on Creation and Sarah Records. But with an American indie rock twist.

24. LEE RANALDO and the DUST - Last Night on Earth - Last year's Between The Times & The Tides might have been my most played album of the year and that continued into 2013, so I've become very comfortable with Lee's voice and approach. Enough so that I keep playing this follow-up, even though I'm pretty sure it's not really that great of an album. There's less focus this time and the songs are a bit trippier and go on longer (7 of 9 songs are over six minutes long). But I love Lee's relaxed, almost hippyish songs combined with his weird arrangements and sonic flourishes. I can't confidently recommend this album to others, but damn I really enjoy it.

25. PHOENIX - Bankrupt! - Like their 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Bankrupt! is full of slickly produced synth pop. But rather than try to ramp up the accessibility of that surprise hit album, Phoenix have opted to ease up on the radio-friendly gas pedal and experiment a bit more They don't deviate that far in sound, and this record is just as likeable as the last, but there are more subtle pleasures to be discovered with multiple listens.

26. KINGSBURY MANX - Bronze Age - Album number six from the Chapel Hill folk pop group turns up the psychedelia as they evolve into a more upbeat version of their earlier records. At times Kingsbury Manx remind me an American take on Belle and Sebastian, exceling at folk rooted songs built up with intricate pop hooks and an eclectic palette of flourishes.

27. SUEDE - Bloodsports - Brett Anderson and company are stunningly strong on their first album in over a decade. I love a lot of Suede songs, but this is the first time I've loved an entire album from them.

28. WILD BILLY CHILDISH and CTMF -  All Our Forts Are With You - With well over a hundred albums released under various names over the past 35 years it's easy to lose track of Billy Childish and quit trying to keep up. But if you're looking for the right spot to jump back onto the Childish bus, this is it. As with most things Billy, the facts are a bit vague, but these songs were allegedly written in 1977 for one of his first bands, CTMF, and abandoned when that band broke up. He's reformed that group (I think?). This is classic Billy Childish - minimally produced one-take (my guess) primitive garage rockers with simple but solid stop-and-go riffs and the distinctive Childish vocals. I think it's fun as hell, but if you're not already comfortable with some of his previous work, it might give you a headache.

29. the WOGGLES - Big Beat - Supercharged party rock from one of the most reliable garage revival bands working today. The Woggles capture the spirit of the first garage bands playing frat parties and teen dances when the main objective was making the kids dance and to have a good time. Few bands seem as committed to keeping that spirit alive as the Woggles are.

30. CHELSEA LIGHT MOVING - Chelsea Light Moving - With his new band Thurston Moore delivers a sludgier and much looser back-to-basics take on the Sonic Youth template. My original complaint with the album was that there was too much dicking around, but I've warmed up to free-from casualness that makes it feel a bit like a noisy post-punk prog album. Occasionally they edge close to self-indulgent jamming, like one of Greg Ginn's many SST projects, but they never actually cross that line. Much of the album is heavier than anything Moore has tackled in the past, at times veering into the sludgy territory of Mudhoney or Melvins. Chelsea Light Moving isn't a great album, but it's solid enough to merit repeated listens and could be the start of a great new chapter in Moore's career.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely dig Beach Fossils, Disappears and Jacco Gardner. If you are interested, please check out my "Favorites of 2013" list on Eclectic Grooves.