[Nothing can kill Guest List Week! Here's one last great Guest List from Scott Lawson, the man responsible for basically my entire legal career, and also the only Guest Listmaker to have jammed onstage with a member of the Grateful Dead. While you're listening to Scott's picks for 2013, maybe mix in a couple of his own songs as well. "Staggers and Jags" is excellent.]
Best Albums of 2013: A Few Suggestions
2013 was a pretty darn good musical year, despite the almost complete absence of a backbeat on Top 40 radio. Following, in no particular order, are a few albums I liked and a little bit on why I liked them.
Paul Cook and The Chronicles, Volume 2 (“Big Star”): I have no idea who this guy is, but this album is stunning. It’s as if Sufjan Stevens replaced Mike Love in the Beach Boys, or Josh Rouse decided to sing about something anyone else cared about. “Big Star” is a simple wonder of a song. But it’s hard to pick a single number—“On Your Side,” “Listen To Her,” and “Sweet Nothin’” are all great songs. Also check out the video for “Ships Pass,” which is striking and beautiful and captures the feel of this whole album.
The White Buffalo, Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways (“Shall We Go On”): A classic “shark-jump” moment for rock artists is the concept album. Most would be wise to look at themselves in a mirror and, if any hint of Billy Corgan smiles back, immediately reverse direction. Too often, in the name of narrative continuity, the concept album offers up 2 or 3 shoddy unaffecting songs for each decent one. The White Buffalo manages to avoid this trap. Shadows tells the tale of a couple’s slow corruption and disintegration, and does so in a genuinely writerly way, hanging a coherent and compelling story line on beautiful melodies and spare instrumentation. Excellent.
Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart (“Losing Days”): This album did for me this year what few records have done for me since I become a crotchety old bastard (the precise date of which very much depends on whom you’re asking): it made music feel new and energizing again. Too often, I bruise my shoulders bouncing between two walls: the wallowing intellectual new-Dylan alt-whatever singer- songwriters and mindless energetic rock and pop—valued (by me, anyway) as much for its production values as anything else. Tape Deck Heart was an altogether more wholly satisfying experience: heartfelt, effusive, and effervescent, but smart, pretty and revealing without dwelling on the navel or the shoes. And it is the hookiest damn record of the year too (the hooks are new and odd, like the held “mmmm” sound on “The Way I Tend To Be” or the incongruous honky-tonk piano figures in the chorus and bridge of “Recovery”). The engineering and mixing by Chris Kasych (who was involved in some way in a number of the year’s best records) is inventive and intriguing. “Losing Days” is a good example of the record as a whole, with the mandolin (which trades off on various songs with tenor guitar as a key instrumental element) carrying the riff over low-mixed fuzz guitars and thick backing vocals. Just a great pop album.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get . . . (“City Swans”): Between her solo work and the New Pornographers stuff, Neko Case has been part of some of the best, most interesting and innovative music of the last 15 years. Her latest record is no different, but it is far more personal. This is a beautiful and imaginative record with honest and evocative poetry that, by turns, rocks, grooves and descends into some pretty dark caverns. It’s hard to pick one song as exemplary of the record, but “City Swans” probably represents as many of the elements as any other single song (although “Calling Cards” is perhaps the better song). Can I also please take just a moment to complain about the “Alt-Country” moniker that is lazily slapped on all manner of music—most of which has not the slightest relationship to country? It has come to mean “music involving guitars in which the lyrics possess meaning and subtlety.” By carelessly slapping the term “country” on this supposed “genre,” a vast swath of the listening public is automatically deprived of this music because it wants nothing to do with country. Neko Case, traditionally placed in this false realm, deserves better, as do all the others so funneled. And don’t even get me started on “Americana” (HUH?!) Let’s come up with a better term—or banish all such categorizing terms to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Haim, Days Are Gone (“Honey & I”): This album falls squarely in the category of a record I very much wanted to hate. And, in listening to it, I was immediately able to come up with many ostensible reasons to hate it: e.g., it is the most derivative album of the year with the obvious exceptions of (1) One Direction’s Midnight Memories, (2) every record by any of the myriad artists putting a false catch and affected rasp in their voice to sound like Adele (and let’s pretend for now that Adele’s vocal stylings are not equally derivative of Amy Winehouse and all those artists whom Amy Winehouse herself so assiduously emulated before she spun off the planet), and (3) the innumerable sons and daughters of Mumford and their off-beat banjos, hand claps and tympani march tempos. These precocious lasses are, moreover, not threatening to be the “New Dylan”—or even the “New Donovan”—lyrically. Still and all, and in spite of myself, I really like this record. It manages to be all things for all people but somehow nonetheless feels like a natural and unpretentious expression of each of those otherwise hackneyed song types. “Honey & I” is a great example of this. It could be easily mistaken for a lost late- 80s Joni Mitchell or mid-70’s Christine McVie track, but it packs enough fantastic contemporary production values (courtesy, again, of Chris Kasych), elegant aural spacing, and utter joy that it is something more than merely an homage or a copy. I don’t know how it was done, but I’m pleased that it was.
Laura Veirs, Warp and Weft (“Dorothy of the Island”): Laura Veirs apparently recorded this, her seventh album, in a makeshift basement studio because she was in the third trimester of her second pregnancy while recording it. Always a great lyricist, this album suggests to me that she was somehow singing to her kids—or to the wider world on behalf of her kids. There are some profound thoughts on this record, although they often pose as simple thoughts. “Dorothy” is a good example of that deceptive sophistication. The music undulates like the repetitions of moving water over rock, the angular melody a blade of sunlight splitting the coniferous canopy. Veirs’ voice and sensibility often seem so like that of Neko Case that it is possible I am only imagining Case singing on this number, but if she’s not singing on it, Veirs is channeling her. If Portland really is the more-hipster-than-thou paradise it sometimes appears to be, I nonetheless forgive it for artists like Laura Veirs (among, of course, others). She is an adult who makes music for adults. Amen.
They Might Be Giants, Nanobots (“Icky”): I’ve never really “gotten” the TMBG thing. They always seemed too self-satisfied-ironic-urban-hipster for me—the musical equivalent of the middle-aged guy who still dresses in a hoody and rides a skateboard because he’s too afraid of himself to be honest. But then I heard the song “Icky.” Hilarious, biting, and ridiculously catchy. “You got a nice pair of slacks which he takes but will only return one of them.” I love this song. The rest of the album is good as well.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern (“Traveling Alone”): After Drive-By Truckers got too crowded with great songwriters, Jason Isbell moved on to a solo career. Before this year, his solo records were uneven—moments of brilliance, but a lot of mediocre—the promise of “Danko/Manuel” and “Decoration Day” went unfulfilled. Southeastern, by contrast, has remarkable consistency. Isbell seems to have found his voice. Although you might start with “Traveling Alone,” I recommend sitting down and listening to the entire album in a single sitting, preferably with a bottle of bourbon draining itself beside you. The experience is a little like reading Wiseblood or Absalom Absalom, in that you will find yourself occupying the humid closeness, creeping vines and Spanish moss of the places Isbell takes you. Do not, however, throw this on at a party except as a Skinnerian experiment.
Johnny Marr, The Messenger (“New Town Velocity”): Why it took Johnny Marr so long to make this album I have no idea. He had largely spent his post-Smiths career hiding out in the backline of other bands. Seemingly out of nowhere he produced this great album, which has everything any lover of Britpop wants and needs. Most surprising, perhaps, is how good his singing is—not great or grand singing, but emotive, effective and (take that, Mo!) subtle. My view of The Smiths, a band I very much like, was changed this year by this album, as well as by seeing a Smiths cover band (don’t ask) featuring a good guitarist who played all the right guitar lines, but was, as you might imagine, not Johnny Marr. You don’t miss your water . . . .
John Moreland, In The Throes (“Oh Julia”): John Moreland occupies the venn diagram overlap between Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen. With a voice like an ad for Camel nons, he sings, with the kind of honesty that is increasingly rare, of small-town frustration, failures and redemptions—but not in the stilted and clichéd manner in which that subject matter has been presented by others of late. In “Oh Julia,” he sings “You gotta kill what’s been killing you” and “Tell the congregation not to waste their grace on you.” Indeed. I’m increasingly drawn to singers who, like Moreland, seem not to care whether anyone in the wider world listens to them, but who sing instead because the words have to be sung.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Fly By Wire (“Nightwater Girlfriend”): I keep waiting for SSLYBY to change its name by putting Vladimer Putin in Yeltsin’s place; perhaps Mr. Cardwell’s departure will be the time. As always, on Fly By Wire, the band often sounds like Davy Jones fronting The Replacements, but, as on “Nightwater Girlfriend,” they throw in the occasional surprise, like the Bee Gees-style middle-eight in which the lead vocal moves to a falsetto over a four-on-the-floor beat. Good record.
Cass McCombs, Big Wheel and Others (“There Can Be Only One”): McCombs has sacrificed a lot for his art, and it shows. His influences reveal themselves but don’t overwhelm him. Over drones and cool shuffles, he flatly intones Lou Reed-style lyrics. In fact, he sounds a lot like Reed, and it’s entirely possible that the main reason he shows up on this list is because I miss ol’ Lou.
Bill Callahan, Dream River (“The Sing”): I know that everyone has climbed on the improbable Bill Callahan bandwagon, but there really are some great moments on this record. Even if the whole album weren’t so thoughtful and heartfelt, he would likely have made my list simply for the lyric: “Well the only words I said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you.’" Forget the “comeback kid” narrative, this guy has a way with words. It won’t be played at Bootie or The Cat Club, but it is worth listening to—with feeling.
Jenny O, Automechanic (“Come Get Me”): I’m a sucker for pixie-singer-jangle-pop, and this is this year’s best version of it. Nice atmospherics, good songs, great grooves. The album covers a lot of ground stylistically, but there’s not a bad song in the bunch. If you can’t abide the Suzanna Hoffs/Juliana Hatfield/Julie Miller type voice, stay away, as it will begin to grate by album’s end.
Jagwar Ma, Howlin (“Let Her Go”): This is the Rascals meet the Replacements meet Sun Ra meets Morcheeba and Black Uhuru. This album will not be categorized. Put it on loud at a party. There’s a trip-hop ambient feel to a lot of these songs, but the songs themselves have a real 60’s sensibility—particularly on this track and on the single, “Come and Save Me.”
Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium (“Down Down The Deep River”): Less precious than much of their previous work, this album combines the literary sensibility but links it to a pretty consistent groove. The murk is cleared and we are permitted the occasional musical smile, while reminded of the inherent sadness in things. “Down Down The Deep River” sounds almost like World Party or The Waterboys—an exuberant, horn-filled, chanting chorus floats the expectedly dreary refrain “And it’s not alright; not even close to alright.” An anthem of despair for the 21st century.
Water Liars, Wyoming (“Linens”): Beyond the Fleet Foxes-like harmonies, this album presents a set of finely observed Raymond Carver-like tableaux. In this age of the one-off iTunes songs, it’s the kind of album that you put on and listen to from start to finish. “What I would give to be quiet beside you” indeed.
Edwyn Collins, Understated (“Understated”): 35 years removed from Orange Juice, and two massive cerebral hemorrhages later, Collins is making great albums. He writes the kind of songs one might write were one to come repeatedly to the edge of one’s mortality, which is what he did. Adult songs, for adults.
Brendan Benson, You Were Right (“It’s Your Choice”): Benson is one of the few artists whose records I immediately listen to upon release. He will never change your world view with captivating literary lyrics, but the inventiveness of his arrangements and his endlessly creative hookery are always worth hearing.
Mavis Staples, One True Vine (“Can You Get To That”): I loved the last Staples/Tweedy collaboration, but when I first heard “Can You Get To That” I was sure it was an old Staples Singers tune [Ed. Note: It's actually an old Funkadelic tune]. The syncopation, the bent thirds, the pseudo-Pops bass vocal, the frantic high-hat and snare work, and the relentless fantastic groove all announced that this artist-producer pair had hit their stride. Tweedy does real justice to the genius of Ms. Staples’ inimitable voice. The spare acoustic arrangements never intrude, but urge the vocal forward. As with the best of the Staples, the greatness of this record is as much in what is left out as in what is included.