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.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

I am, as anyone who has spent ten minutes talking with me knows, a bit obsessed with music (also, comic books, but that’s a totally different post). I try to keep up with new stuff, but there’s always just so much coming out, and all the old stuff I’m discovering that I hadn’t heard before, and all the other stuff I had heard before but really liked and wanted to hear again and again…it’s tough to keep up. That being said, there were a couple of albums I just did not get to this year that I really wanted to listen to. Stuff like They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, Calexico’s Selections from Road Atlas (1998-2011), or Deer Tick’s Divine Providence. I’ll get to them eventually, especially now that we’re in that dead time of new music releases that is the post-holiday time, but in the meantime, here’s the stuff I really liked this year.

Honorable Mentions (things I listened to and rather enjoyed, if not enough to really gush about):

William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs: A pretty solid album, though not as engaging as Ashes to Dust (still my favorite of his).

Cake, Showroom of Compassion: It’s kinda nice to see these guys, fifteen years later, still doing their thing their own way. Sure, John McCrea might actually almost sing once in awhile now, and there’s occasionally no irony in his delivery, but it’s pretty much the same as it ever was, and what it was wasn’t broken.

Tom Waits, Bad As Me: A new Tom Waits album is always welcome, and this one hit some pretty sweet spots, but it just didn’t have the oomph that I wanted it to have. There really wasn’t a standout track for me, which is probably why it didn’t make my top ten.

The Submarines, Love Notes/Letter Bombs: These songs feel like they were custom-made for iPod commercials. Take from that what you will.

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive: A solid outing from Earle, the only tragedy being that the standard version of this album does not include his cover of the title track, a wonderful rendition of the old Hank Williams tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs: I think somewhere along the way, Radiohead and I headed off in different musical directions. I’m not sure which of us went wrong, but I’m not sure I really want to follow where they’re going anymore. Didn’t they used to play guitars and stuff?

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now: The final album from these guys isn’t too shabby, but it’s not really anything spectacular. Not a whimper, not a bang, but somewhere in-between.

The Top Ten (the albums I couldn’t stop listening to):

10. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Volume 2: Picking up where last year’s The Grand Theatre, Volume 1, left off, this finds the band in fine form, cranking out poppier songs than were found on the first disc. You can hear them having fun with their music, which is always appreciated.

9. The Black Keys, El Camino: This picks up right were Brothers left off, sonically. They’re mixing in more old-school soul and whatnot with their standard minimalist blues, and it really adds some depth to the sound. It’s highs aren’t as high as on Brothers, but it’s a leaner record without a lot of the filler that weighed down the middle part of the earlier record.

8. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots: I mentioned the song “Everybody Needs Love” from this album in my iPod list yesterday, but honestly the rest of the album is pretty damn solid, too. These guys (and gal) are great storytellers in the Johhny Cash/Merle Haggard tradition, crafting sagas of hard liquor, harder luck, and infidelity that has all of the disturbing allure and attraction of a massive accident on the side of the highway.

7. Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart: I hadn’t really heard of this guy, then discovered he was responsible for the hilarious and whimsical song at the end of the game Portal. I decided to check this album out, and feel I’ve been deeply rewarded for doing so. His songwriting is top-notch, and this album would be worth it for “The Stache” alone, his paean to fuzzy upper lips.

6. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far: These guys become more awesome with each album. I still find it entertaining that “White Shadow Waltz” is not, as one would expect, in 3/4 time. Also, drums are used almost as punctuation in these songs, sharp cracks that accent the rest of the music and the convoluted lyrics perfectly.

5. Wilco, The Whole Love: This sounds like the album Wilco has been trying to make since A Ghost is Born. There’s a little something for everyone here: “Born Alone” could have fit in alongside anything on Summerteeth or Ghost, oddly enough, while “Dawned On Me” sounds like a Ghost outtake. “The Whole Love” itself is a distillation of everything the band is right now, a mission statement along the lines of “Wilco (The Song),” only even better.

4. 8in8, NightyNight: It was an ambitious if slightly ridiculous premise: get four like-minded souls in a recording studio for 8 hours to write and record 8 brand-new songs on the fly. The final product may have fallen short of that goal (only six songs in something like 10 hours, when it was all said and done), but the music they created was fun, whimsical, and more than a little emotionally engaging. Besides, it features Neil Gaiman singing a song about Joan of Arc wandering around a park in London in the modern day, and what’s not to love about that?

3. Beirut, The Rip Tide: The is the most streamlined album Beirut’s done, and it still features so much accordion and brass that it’s not even funny. It is, however, fantastic: I remain in constant awe about how this band creates such depth in the music. It’s almost operatic in places, but not pretentious or overwrought. It’s a nifty trick to pull off, and The Rip Tide walks the tightrope perfectly.

2. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain in the Cloud: Oddly enough, I found out about these guys while sitting in a community college cafeteria over the summer. Regardless of how I discovered them, they sound like what would happen if the Flaming Lips started an Oasis cover band, and there’s nothing about that sentence that isn’t brilliant.

1. The Decemberists, The King is Dead: This may be the least-unified album thematically by the band in many years, but it makes up for that by being the most consistently great album they’ve done in years. There is a unifying concept to the record, though not in the same way there was for The Hazards of Love or The Crane Wife. For The King is Dead, they’ve stuck to a particular style for most of the record: a loose, country-ish, folky rock sound that creates a cohesion despite the lack of an overall theme. Many of the songs do share a longing for pastoral simplicity and a desire to be surrounded by good friends and family. The album came out back in January, but I’ve listened to it so many times already it feels like I’ve had it for years. I had to remind myself it actually came out this year.

So, that’s the list. Agree? Disagree (in which case, you’re wrong)? Let me know your thoughts and your favorites from this 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