Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Top 40 LPs of 2013

Well, another year of music in the books. With the sheer volume of stuff coming out in any given year, of course there is plenty of good stuff. This year, I didn't find many definite classic albums, but scads of good ones. Which is why I think I ended up ranking 40 of them. I think I listened to roughly 130 or so albums this year, and maybe 10 or 20 more, to give you an idea of the pool I drew from. As always, the rankings are less fine tuned after 15, and even more so past number 25. It's just fun to list and write about the records I enjoyed the most. So let's go from the bottom to the top, Casey Kasem style.

40. Corin Ashley -- New Lion Terraces: A big step up from the former Pills member’s fine debut album. This is classic power pop in the vein of Badfinger, Big Star, Emmit Rhodes and others, primarily driven by shimmering acoustic guitar playing. Ashley has become one heck of a singer and his songwriting gets more sophisticated and compelling. As good as this is, the best is yet to come.

39. Franz Ferdinand -- Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action: On album number four, the Scotsmen get back to the basics on a sleek album of slightly funky post-punk pop. This is another band who have a sound that is just immediately appealing, from the angular structures to the danceable rhythms to the guitar interplay. It’s a uniformly good set of songs, which is why it ranks. A couple of killer tunes, this would have been much higher.

38. Nightlands -- Oak Island: This is a side project for Dave Hartley of War On Drugs. This is atmospheric, keyboard dominated indie pop that touches upon psychedelia, while at other times gravitating a bit towards the spooky AM radio from a parallel universe sounds of Ariel Pink. The album floats about in the most appealing fashion.

37. Robbie Fulks -- Gone Away Backward: Fulks’ first physical release in a number of years leans towards an acoustic bluegrass approach, though I wouldn’t quite call it a bluegrass album. The approach is the most somber since his classic Couples In Trouble album, with only a few songs showing the wittier side of Robbie. This is yet another high quality album, but I realize that I prefer Robbie Fulks when he’s in more of a honky-tonk or countrypolitan mode.

36. Goldfrapp -- Tales of Us: On this album, Goldfrapp steps away from their keyboard dominated sounds for starker instrumentation, augmented by strings. Alison Goldfrapp is up to the task on this intimate album that is a fine change of pace for such a reliable act. In changing this approach, the songwriting is folkier, and works well. Still, the best songs have that classic Goldfrapp melodic approach.

35. Laura Marling -- Once I Was An Eagle: After delving into fuller sounds on her third album, it’s pretty much Marling and her guitar and she shows what a commanding performer she has become. This album at times sounds like the mid-point between Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey, and that’s a cool place to be. The only reason this doesn’t rate higher is that a few songs should have been pruned from it, as things get a bit samey at times, but the high points are very high.

34. The Features -- The Features: On the band’s fourth album, they explore less frenetic territory. The new wavey sounds and Sparks/Roxy Music glam dynamics are still there at times, but it makes sense that the band wanted to try another approach. When it works, it is fantastic, but as good of a songwriter as frontman Matthew Pelham is, the album doesn’t fully play to the band’s strengths, so it’s merely very good rather than great.

33. David Bowie -- The Next Day: After 10+ years of constant innovation, David Bowie’s career since Let’s Dance has found him having a hard time gaining a foothold, with duds and decent discs littering his catalog. This return to form finds Bowie focusing on his strengths, meaning this sounds like songs that could have made various ‘70s albums. Bowie seems to recognize this, and while his voice is a bit weathered by age, he really locks into the material.

32. Milk Music -- Cruise Your Illusion: This Olympia, Washington band has garnered Dinosaur, Jr. comparisons. and the loud, distorted guitars merit that designation. But there’s more than late ‘80s/early ‘90s alt-rock revivalism going on here. The lead singer has a bit of a Jeffrey Lee Pierce thing going on, and there’s some underlying bluesy riffing that makes this band sound like a possible successor to The Gun Club. And that’s a real good thing.

31. Pet Shop Boys -- Electric: For most of this album, the Boys adopt their heaviest techno sound yet, showing they haven’t forsaken the dance floor. The extra energy seems to have inspired a fine batch of songs, with Neil Tennant still as dry and witty as ever. The bonus is a fabulous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war track “The Last to Die” that shows the Pet Shop Boys still have bite.

30. Empirical -- Tabula Rasa: This young British jazz quartet blends traditional free jazz with subtle modern influences, putting them on the same shelf as favorites of mine such as Jason Moran and Christian Scott. On this winning two disc set, the band is augmented by strings on some songs, leading to some stirring tracks. The ensemble sound is consistently engaging, and most of their compositions really evoke moods and emotions.

29. Disappears -- Era: The drone rockers move away from the more structured accessible sound of Pre-Language to much more atmospheric territory. A few songs provide the rocking Krautrock, while others find the band exploring with longer sonic journeys. This didn’t merit as many spins as their past two LPs, but I still found this compelling.

28. Savages -- Silence Yourself: This powerful post-punk quartet has its sound down. The rhythm section is a maelstrom with a powerful frontwoman commanding attention in the midst of the organized din. The songs aren’t quite as consistent, but as long as they sound so good as a unit, they will be worthwhile, and there are a few killers on here.

27. Andrea Perry -- Four: This Texas singer-songwriter creates delectable songs that are as economically written as a Nick Lowe or Ron Sexsmith composition. This is classic sunny pop masking less happy lyrics, with immediate appeal but more melodic complexity under the surface, as at times luminaries such as Judee Sill and Andy Partridge are evoked by these tunes.

26. Midlake -- Antiphon: With leader Tim Smith leaving, Midlake abandoned its overly fussy muso approach (which was mostly Smith fueled) and the remaining members more successfully followed the band’s classic The Trials of the Van Occupanther album than the Smith-led The Courage of Others. Guitarist Eric Pulido is more than an adequate replacement lead vocalist and the band recaptures the ‘70s Laurel Canyon magic from two albums ago, while adding some slight prog touches that work wonderfully.

25. Beach Fossils -- Clash The Truth: The Jesus And Mary Chain perfected melding ‘60s candy coated pop with distortion. Beach Fossils do a variation on that formula, as their sweet pop songs meet shoegaze-cum-garage rock, finding a spot somewhere between the fuzzy girl group revivals of Best Coast, et. al., the punky pop of early Cloud Nothings and the new group of shoegazers. Of course, the songs themselves are catchy and fun, with the textures giving them a specific stamp.

24. Kanye West -- Yeezus: This is yet another musically dazzling affair from one of hip-hop’s all-time great producers. Other acts (like Death Grips, for example) have ventured into this in-your-face, industrial sounding rap territory, but none with the panache of West. The album demands attention. Unfortunately, that attention results in focus on the lyrics, which range from observant defiance to juvenile misogyny, and while some have rationalized the latter away, it keeps me from fully embracing this album as much as I had hoped to.

23. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats -- Mind Control: This is the first album I have ever purchased on the Metal Blade label, but the metal Uncle Acid touches upon is decidedly of the old school variety. Indeed, the sounds of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple waft from the speakers, and they are combined with inspired melodies that remind of everything from the late ‘60s Beatles to Supergrass. The result is an LP that bridges the gap between early metal and psych-pop, done so very well.

22. Justin Roberts -- Recess: Roberts is arguably the most critically acclaimed children’s singer of recent times, because he pens catchy rock tunes with lyrics that are easy to grasp for kids, on relatable topics that grown ups can appreciate too. With a firmly established audience, Roberts uses that freedom to broaden his musical horizons, following the sublime orch-pop of last year’s Lullaby LP with the sophisticated power pop on this album. Energetic riffs and melodies flow into sweeter Beach Boys inspired passages on songs that are currently relevant to the wee ones and evoke nostalgia for us adults. Fans of They Might Be Giants and Fountains of Wayne might want to check this one out.

21. The Last -- Danger: This L.A. band’s mix of folk and garage rock led to a unique, paisley tinged power pop on their classic 1979 debut LP L.A. Explosion and subsequent records. Brother Joe and Mike Nolte revive the band after a 17-year absence with the Descendents/All rhythm section of Karl Alvarez and Bill Stevenson, and The Last is as energized as ever, with those splendid Nolte harmonies and passionate, hooky songs.

20. Laura Mvula -- Sing To The Moon: This academy trained singer-songwriter shows amazing sophistication on her debut album. Soul and chamber pop and jazz and cabaret and other sources blend together, with dense, complex arrangements. Things threaten here and there at getting too arty, but Mvula’s stunning vocals and strong melodic skills keep the tunes just grounded enough.

19. John Grant -- Pale Green Ghosts: After his stunning debut, The Queen of Denmark, Grant gravitated towards the electronic dance sounds that he has enjoyed for years. The result is an album that is half synthesized, though not too clubby, and more of the ‘70s tinged pop associated with Grant's debut, and his extremely witty and cutting lyrics. Once I got used to the electronic sounds, I almost wish he had done the whole album that way. This is smart adult pop with a number of songs that really stick, either because they are poignant or hilarious and sometimes both.

18. Holograms -- Forever: This Swedish post-punk band brings the power of great bands of the past like The Sound and Siouxsie and the Banshees with their own specific urgency. This band just has such a great sound to it, that I found myself playing this album a lot and kick myself for not seeing them live.

17. Suede -- Bloodsports: I’m of the minority view that the post-Bernard Butler version of Suede was not that far off of the first two Butler fueled albums. On this comeback effort, Suede tries to find a mid-point between the high drama of their classic second album, Dog Man Star, and the poppier albums that followed and they get the balance right. Brett Anderson sounds as good as ever and many of the songs have strong, emotional hooks.

16. Billy Bragg -- Tooth & Nail: Bragg went into the studio with Joe Henry with a game plan: record the first take on the vocals. Bragg’s voice is a bit weathered after three plus decades of singing, but that only adds to their expressiveness. The low key backing is in keeping with the approach to the vocals, and Bragg put together a strong batch of material for this very affecting album.

15. Chance The Rapper -- Acid Rap: This Chicago rapper is on the verge of stardom. In the wake of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, Chicago seems rife with rappers who can make happy, poppy rap tunes and turn around and get serious and edgy without undermining either approach. Chance generally has a relaxed, friendly flow, but he can go into hyperspeed mode when the track demands it. The music here is always delightful, not relying too heavily on any one approach and allowing Chance’s personality to always take center stage.

14. Neko Case -- The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t connect with this as strongly as the last three Neko albums. Maybe it’s hard to put out classic after classic, and sometimes only a very, very good album results. She still sounds like no one else, and adds in a rock element on the excellent single “Man” and the a capella “Nearly Midnight Honolulu” is one of her best songs ever. Overall, the material as a whole is just a notch below her past few albums, but a lesser Neko album is still one of the year’s best.

13. Thao and The Get Down Stay Down -- We The Common: Thao’s recent collaboration with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards on the Thao & Mirah album influence some of the music on this LP, as the rhythms are inventive, along with some neat vocal arrangements. This adds more dimension to Ms. Nguyen’s mix of folk, blues and rock, which compliment her conversational songs and her insinuating voice.

12. James Blake -- Overgrown: Blake takes dubstep and other modern electronic music in a direction that is more accessible without blanding it out. Blake’s soulful vocals are certainly the key, as they evoke Mark Hollis of Talk Talk and Thom Yorke, but Blake is much warmer. Which contrasts with the electronics. Meanwhile, Blake’s compositions demonstrate melodic skill and confidence to not just stick with verse-chorus-verse formulas.

11. Run The Jewels -- Run The Jewels: Last year, not only did El-P make a terrific album, he produced an excellent album for Killer Mike. So this year, they teamed up to rap together, and it’s pretty much a continuation of their separate albums from last year. They clearly share a sensibility with slicing wordplay and staccato deliveries. Lyrically, this doesn’t quite reach the heights of Killer Mike’s last album, but these guys are having fun and the backing tracks are top notch.

10. Lady -- Lady: The guys behind Truth and Soul recruited two gals to become this vocal group. The mission: come up with the great lost early ‘70s soul-pop album, in the vein of artists like Honey Cone, The Emotions and Natalie Cole. The two gals are both strong singers and the songs the two guys came up with make this practically sound like a greatest hits album.

9. Jonathan Wilson -- Fanfare: Wilson’s ‘70s revival magic continues and he gets the seal of approval from guests such as his sometime boss Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. In addition to the dominant Laurel Canyon vibe, Wilson mixes in some Electric Light Orchestra and prog rock on his epic tunes that never seem to stop revealing new sonic details. For good measure, he shows he can pen a tune that would have been Top 10 in 1974 with the wonderful “Love to Love”.

8. Superchunk -- I Hate Music: This pretty much picks up where Majesty Shredding, their last album left off. Superchunk finds that intersection between poppy-punk (a la Buzzcocks), power pop and alt-rock, with an endless supply of lead guitar hooks and a killer rhythm section making irresistible tuneage.

7. Pretty & Nice -- Golden Rules For Golden People: I’m a sucker for herky-jerk new wavey power pop, whether it’s early XTC or The Sugarplastic or Pas/Cal or The Features. Pretty & Nice cash in on all of their promise with forceful playing on songs that blend slightly off-beat structures with winning melodies and insistent hooks. A really fun record.

6. Rhye -- Woman: It is impossible to write about this record without mentioning Sade. Not that Michael Milosh (yes, a dude!) sounds just like Sade, but that classic quiet storm vibe suffuses all of the tracks on this supremely soulful album. I’m not sure why this didn’t do better commercially, as it is very accessible music that is instantly winning, a nice electronic oriented update on a classic sound.

5. These New Puritans -- Field of Reeds: After two albums of somewhat dissonant post-punk that often owed a heavy debt to The Fall, this band reinvented itself as a pastoral art band in the vein of latter day Talk Talk. They do this without being slavishly imitative, finding their own spin on the sound. It results in haunting atmospheres and spacious tracks that create a sonic dream world.

4. Queens of the Stone Age -- ...Like Clockwork: Josh Homme survived some serious health problems and came back with keener focus. What I love about this record is that it retains the familiarity with the core Queens sound, but there are new sonic and songwriting wrinkles that make things fresh. Oh, and the songs themselves are fantastic and Homme is so engaged in the material.

3. My Bloody Valentine -- m b v: Oft-imitated, but never equaled, the band that launched thousands of shoegazers reclaim their throne. Some were disappointed in the lack of innovation after 20+ years away. This is a bit unfair, as creating a whole new rock sound once should be enough. This album, with more all-enveloping sonic creations, shows how close to perfection they are. And the last third of the record shows that they do have some new things to say.

2. Anna Calvi -- One Breath: This petite performer packs so much punch with both her gigantic voice and dazzling guitar playing. While the comparisons to artists like PJ Harvey and Patti Smith are still there, Calvi further crystallizes her dramatic, romantic sound. A handful of songs could have been on her debut and would have ranked among the best. Meanwhile, she experiments with instruments, textures and moods on other tracks, yielding an even more well rounded album than her excellent debut, brimming yet again with passion and intelligence.

1. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady: Like many R & B/funk greats of the past, Monae consolidates the great sounds that came before her and then adds her own personal stamp. What is notable is that many of her inspirations are not female, and I think some people have a hard time dealing with that. On this album, I hear Sly and Prince and James Brown and Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, among others, put together in a new, contemporary fashion. Like her first full length, only a couple songs leapt out at me right away, but further plays found me loving more and more songs, and this generous collection has a bunch of top drawer tunes. So she tops my chart once again.

1 comment:

Popville said...

That John Grant cover is the best of 2013!