Top Ten Albums of 2013

I listen to a pretty fair amount of music. Not as much as when I was a young lad, back in high school or college or even graduate school, but I’ve still got my finger on the pulse of…well, not current trends in popular music, but something. I know what I like, and I usually find plenty of stuff to listen to each year.

This year, it was a little tricky to come up with ten albums that I actually really liked. There were lots of disappointments for me (hello, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor), but I still managed to find ten albums I really enjoyed.

the-national-trouble-will-find-me-608x608-136871505110. The National, Trouble Will Find Me: This album didn’t feel as strong as High Violet, and there were plenty of songs that I feel just fell flat, but the songs that are good (“I Should Live in Salt,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” and “I Need My Girl” all jump immediately to mind) are really, really good. And the album works really well in a live setting, I can attest. I hate to use the term, but Trouble Will Find Me is one of those albums that’s just a grower. It honestly just gets better with every listen. Even just in the few months this album has been out, I’ve already found a half dozen tracks on it that I absolutely love. In time, as with all other albums by the National, I’m sure it’ll be one of my favorites and something I put on all the time.

NEWWEST62729. Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway: This album mines the same vein of Americana Steve Earle’s dug in to for the past several albums, but I’m not complaining. I mean, why fix what ain’t broke? There’s still plenty of mileage left in what he’s doing here, if you ask me. I really wish more country musicians would go this route, mining not just country but folk and other branches of American music for their inspiration (because, seriously, the dudebro country that’s so popular right now really, really needs to go away and never come back. I don’t care how many parties you’ve been to down at the ol’ swimmin’ hole; country music can have way more depth than that, dudebros).

SheAndHimVolume3Details8. She & Him, Volume 3: This album finds M. Ward and Zoey Deschannel in fine form (actually, much better form than the mediocre Volume 2 from a few years ago), and Zoey’s vocals much stronger and more interesting than last time around. The songs are by turns bright, bouncy, and bittersweet, and the duo prove there’s still plenty of good stuff in the tank. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” is one of the most infectious slices of pop songcraft I’ve heard in absolute ages, and it’s just fun to listen to, and just about every single track is jam-packed with retro-style arrangements and good, old-fashioned pop songs that you can’t help but bop along to. The world needs more fun music, if you ask me.

billiejoenorah-13848753357. Billy Joe + Norah, Foreverly: Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones doing duet covers of old Everly Brothers tunes? Who thought this was a good idea? And where can I find them, so I can shake their hand and tell them they were right? Holy crap, I wouldn’t have given you ten to one odds this would’ve worked, but it totally does. The two of them have voices that meld together well, and the playing is understated but effective. These are simple songs from a bygone age (I’m not about to call it a simpler time, because that’s just stupid), and the duo give the songs a reverence, a sense of awe and beauty and wonder that you don’t get to hear all that often in contemporary music. It’s in sharp contrast to the bright bubblegum retro styling of She & Him, but coming from a similar love of the classics.

81MlMGCPEwL._SL1500_6. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: As Neko Case becomes harder and harder to classify musically, the more I find myself enjoying her work. Sure, there’s something to be said for those early hard-driving alt-country albums, but her last three records have become increasingly impossible to pin down, and she seems to revel in the violation of genre conventions. And damn, can that woman sing. “Man” is a fast-paced, exciting song that I find dangerous to drive to (unless you’re okay with doing 90 mph down the highway), while other tracks like “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” are slower, more-thoughtful ruminations on filial relations and how those can really screw us up. Like, really screw us up.

The-Flaming-Lips-THE-TERROR-1024x10245. The Flaming Lips, The Terror: This album lives up to its title. Full of jittery, nervous tunes, a dark sense of foreboding, and lyrics that are something like the sinister flipside to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Terror leaves you feeling ill at ease. But it’s also a damn good set of songs, which is to be expected from a group that’s been going for about thirty years and shows no sign of slowing down or settling into a rut. While I didn’t enjoy this album as much as Yoshimi or At War With the Mystics, it’s still a solid offering, and one that I’m likely to return to somewhere down the line, when I’m more comfortable with getting creeped out and unnerved by music. It, um, might be awhile, though.

b4b022387dd2106b3d93a5485957a599_large4. Toad the Wet Sprocket, New Constellation: Holy cow, a Toad the Wet Sprocket album? Is it the ’90s again? I wouldn’t have thought this would happen, but they did a Kickstarter campaign and funded their first new album in 16 years. What’s interesting is that they managed to sound like Toad without sounding like they were frozen in carbonite back in the late ’90s. Instead, they sound like they kept playing in those intervening years and kept growing and developing as a band, and this is the record they happened to put out. It’s pretty great. There are lots of achingly beautiful songs, Glen Phillips sounds just as good as he ever did, and the band sound like they never broke up. It’s really everything you could possibly want out of a Toad the Wet Sprocket album in 2013.

Paul-McCartney-NEW-Deluxe-Edition3. Paul McCartney, NEW: Seriously, is this just the year of guys you thought were done doing anything interesting surprising you? ‘Cause I wouldn’t have thought a latter-day McCartney album would be anything to write home about. Sure, some of his stuff in the past decade and a half has been good (I loved Run Devil Run, and Flaming Pie certainly had its moments, but Memory Almost Full? Driving Rain? Ugh), but to come across a McCartney album this good, this vital, this current, in 2013? If you’d told me about it ten years ago, I’d’ve called you a liar. And then asked you how you’d managed to time travel to 2003. But you get the point: the album’s title isn’t just laziness, it’s a declaration of artistic relevance as McCartney settles into his 70s. There are musicians out there in their 20s who aren’t being as creative as this guy is right now, and that’s damned impressive. McCartney always seemed to rely more on craft than anything else, but this album shows he’s willing to learn some new tricks and move with the times a bit, all while remaining resolutely Paul McCartney.

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F2. Josh Ritter, The Beast in its Tracks: I wasn’t so fond of So Runs the World Away when it came out. I thought it was overproduced and a little too thick with layered instrumentation. This album feels like a direct response to such criticism. It’s much more stripped-down, with a greater focus on guitar rather than piano, and a bunch of songs that apparently detail the collapse of Ritter’s marriage. None of that matters, though, because it’s probably his best overall set of songs in years, with its fair share of wit, warmth, sadness, and cleverness, all wrapped up in arrangements that aren’t too busy or too fussy. It’s exactly what I want out of a Josh Ritter album.

Unknown1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait: What do you get when you put together a few dozen outtakes and alternate versions of songs from one of Dylan’s most controversial (even reviled) albums? Um, a great freakin’ collection, that’s what. While Self Portrait is overwrought and undercooked, possibly purposefully so, this collection reveals the bones of the work, often just Dylan with a guitar, and it’s a fascinating look at what he was trying to accomplish in the early ’70s. That the collection also contains tracks from what became New Morning (a much better-received album that Self Portrait, though really of a kind with it in many ways) and some live stuff with the Band only makes this one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

The Top 25 Most-Played Songs for 2009

I always reset the play count on all the songs in iTunes at the beginning of a new year, but first I like to look back at the songs that received the most play over the course of the year. Here they are, along with the final play count for 2009.

1. The Replacements, “Alex Chilton” – 38
2. Steve Earle, “More Than I Can Do” – 37
3. The Gaslight Anthem, “Say I Won’t (Recognize)” – 36
4. Jakob Dylan, “Will It Grow” – 33
5. A.C. Newman, “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” – 32
6. The Gaslight Anthem, “Senor and the Queen” – 32
7. Daniel Lanois, “Where Will I Be” – 31
8. Elvis Costello, “Pump It Up” – 29
9. The National, “So Far Around the Bend” – 29
10. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love” – 28
11. Neko Case, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” – 28
12. Death Cab for Cutie, “The Sound of Settling” – 26
13. Statler Brothers, “Flowers on the Wall” – 26
14. Creedence Clearwater Revival, ” Wrote a Song For Everyone” – 25
15. The Grass Roots, “Temptation Eyes (Original)” – 25
16. Modest Mouse, “Satellite Skin” – 25
17. Band of Horses, “The General Specific” – 24
18. The Submarines, “You Me and the Bourgeoisie” – 23
19. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” – 22
20. A.C. Newman, “Take On Me” – 21
21. Bruce Springsteen, “All the Way Home” – 21
22. Michael Andrews & Gary Jules, “Mad World” – 21
23. Bellamy Brothers, “Let Your Love Flow” – 20
24. Bon Iver, “Blood Bank” – 20
25. The Envy Corps, “Story Problem” – 20

Albums of the Year

Every year, I find my favorite albums and make a list of ’em, like roughly 99.9999% of the blogosphere. I’ll forgo the whole Best of the Decade thing that so many are doing, because honestly I have a difficult time remembering everything that came out that I liked this year, let alone ten years ago (besides, I was a mere slip of a thing ten years ago; what the hell did 19-20 year old me know?). You’ll notice that I tend to favor enjoyable music to challenging music (which isn’t to say challenging music can’t be fun, but you won’t see much noise or art rock on my list, and I really can’t abide by Animal Collective). Also, The Beatles box set was not eligible on account of it being totally unfair and there only being ten spots on the list, not 14 (13 albums plus Past Masters). Anyway, in a rather particular order, here’s my top ten albums of 2009…

10. Wilco, Wilco (the album): The winking smirk of the album title and the opening track (“Wilco (the Song)”) are a great indicator that this is a band that’s having some fun. With great tunes such as “Sunny Feeling” (my favorite on the album; just listen to that slide guitar) and the lovely “You and I,” it’s clear that Wilco has found their comfort zone and could churn out warm, lovely songs for the next ten or fifteen years easily without changing a thing. And I’d buy every single album they released.

9. Works Progress Administration, Works Progress Administration: I’ve always had a soft spot for anything related to Glen Phillips (he of Toad the Wet Sprocket), and throwing a few members of the progressive bluegrass mainstays Nickel Creek into the mix always works out well. This is a mellow, folky record that’s just fun to listen to; you can tell the musicians had a blast recording these songs, and shouldn’t music be fun?

8. Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk: I also have a soft spot for the Supergroup (the Traveling Wilburys will always be my favorite, of course). While this folkie indie supergroup isn’t the second coming of the Wilburys or anything, it’s still a lot of fun. It may not be a challenging listen, but it’s definitely a fun one.

7. Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next: It’s only an EP, but it was a damn good one. There’s not a bad song on here, and the opener, “Satellite Skin,” is one of my favorite songs of the year. They’re not doing anything all that different than what they’ve done on their past couple of full-length albums, but they’re doing it really well, so I won’t complain.

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Case sounds like she’s finally recording the sort of songs she wants to, a nice balance of country, indie pop, and traditional roots rock that fits right alongside what’s come before but is also a step away from her earlier sound. “This Tornado Loves You” is like a theme song for my home state of Oklahoma, I swear; who else would have the chutzpah to personify a tornado?

5. Iron & Wine, Around the Well: An odds-and-sods collection shouldn’t be this good, but Around the Well is. Looking at the leftovers and castoffs usually strikes me as a good time, and this collection is pretty rewarding in that respect. Plus, really awesome covers of the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” and the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Awesome.

4. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic: Noisier and messier than anything they’ve recorded in the past fifteen or maybe even twenty years, Embryonic sounds a lot like the record the Lips have been wanting to record their whole career. Warm and cathartic and amazing when played live, the songs from this album are great, and the loose thematic organization helps them hang together really well.

3. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca: Remember how I said I prefer fun to challenging? I also said that you could have both at once, and this album fits that. These guys and gals are clearing having a blast on this record, and making some music that is both thought-provoking and fun to just sit back and listen to.

2. Bob Dylan, Together Through Life: Dylan continues his late-career renaissance with an album that incorporates a whole lot of accordion and a heaping helping of his rusty, 40-of-whiskey-and-two-packs-a-day voice. This is also funny Dylan, as he cracks jokes, snarks a lot, and generally sounds like he has a smirk on his face the whole time. Favorite line: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people tell me I’ve got the Blood of the Lamb in my voice.” Classic.

1. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty: Usually, in a year that features not one but two Dylan albums (Christmas in the Heart being the second, which almost made the list for sheer bizarro-ness), the top spot would be Dylan. But that is not the case this year, and not because Dylan wasn’t deserving (hey, #2 ain’t bad). No, the simple fact is that A.C. Newman’s Get Guilty was the best album I’ve heard all year. I came out back in the beginning of the year (January, I think), and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since then. And there’s not a bad song on the record: everything from “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” to “Prophets” is a perfect slice of bouncy, energetic power-pop that you can’t help but shout along with. Newman has a McCartney-esque way with hooks and melodies, making them sound effortless and obvious, but he’s also got some great lyrics to go along with the tunes. Definitely my favorite album of the year, and probably one of my favorites of this decade.

Honorable Mentions: M. Ward’s Hold Time, Dark Was the Night (a great compilation featuring a who’s who of indie guitar rock), Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (bizarre and awesome), The Minus 5’s Killingsworth (getting back to the 5’s earlier, more countryish sound), The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, and Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs.