I took the picture above in our front yard this morning. Overnight, we got the ‘great ice storm of 2013,’ 12 hours of freezing rain. It downed tree limbs and whole trees, took down power lines, destroyed cars and eavestroughs and roofs. We were mercifully spared any real damage (at least so far — we’re not entirely sure it’s over yet); we have electricity and our internet connection is working. Even though I’m feeling lazy on this last weekend before Christmas, I thought I’d translate my thankfulness into the first of two annual blog posts showcasing the best music I heard this year.
On the whole, it was a year of mixed musical blessings. The general trend continues where I explore my niche-y interests and largely ignore most major label, ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ releases, skirt the alternative underbelly of r&b and hip hop instead of the mainstream and generally mine the more interesting marginal releases in acoustic music, jazz, blues, folk and so on. Paid digital downloading continues apace — even though I still occasionally go into HMV (old habits die hard), I rarely come out with anything at all and often tell myself, “There’s nothing here. This place is cooked. Don’t bother coming back.” (It’s the same with bricks & mortar bookstores. Can’t entirely stay away but rarely buy anything anymore. Most of my physical CDs come from Amazon now, whose Prime shipping subscription would make it foolish not to order from there.)
Of course I make an effort to hear the year’s truly major releases from artists I’ve admired before. So I did hear Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, Beyoncé’s Beyoncé, even Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and any number of others. (Two of the above are quite good.) But one of the criteria for making it onto my annual list is the test of time: do I listen to it repeatedly? Do I haul it out again from the depths of iTunes? Does it make it onto my phone to be played in the car? (Arcade Fire and Beyoncé did. Arcade Fire didn’t really hold my attention. For Beyoncé, it’s too soon to tell.)
Here, then, is the list, in alphabetical order, with brief commentary:
Arctic Monkeys — AM : One of England’s best rock bands releases another outstanding record. I admire their handy turns of phrase, both musically and lyrically. They have weight and stomp without being really heavy, and there’s more than enough here musically to hold the ear and get the feet tapping. A certain fearlessness results from high technical achievement: it’s obvious they’re all outstanding musicians, and it sets them free to play complicated arrangements — which they occasionally do with prog rock abandon. They lack the darkness and sludge of Queens of the Stone Age but they don’t lack crunch. (This is one of a string of outstanding records which are all worth exploring.)
Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite — Get Up! : This is a lovely return to form for Harper, who could sometimes sound a little un-anchored and same-y on his efforts immediately preceding this. Musselwhite is a blues harmonica legend and serves here to root Harper’s outstanding songwriting chops in something a little earthier. There’s also a palpable sense that together, they managed to unlock a higher degree of experimentation than Harper managed to achieve on his own. A short record, and uniformly excellent.
Blue Rodeo — In Our Nature : On one hand, this is clearly a continuation of Canada’s pre-eminent country rockers’ carefully-crafted autumnal songcraft — it has unparalleled detail and is very grown-up. On the other, this feels fresh, as if something has been unblocked, dusted off. It’s no rockier than its immediate predecessors (they’ve been in this mode for years) but the way it sounds suggests a new energetic flow, a warm summer breeze in the music. This is the alt-country band that’s figured out how to age gracefully, and they’re going to keep doing it. We all benefit.
Bombino — Nomad : Fantastic second international release from Niger’s Tuareg guitar hero. This was recorded in the US by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (whose music I generally don’t like at all). Bombino’s music benefits from a more “rock” treatment: a Hammond organ here and a steel guitar there break up the repetitive lull of this desert blues somewhat without diminishing it in any way. West African music tends to sound like what the blues grew out of if left in its more acoustic form (Ali Farka Touré, etc.). The ‘rock band’ environment here, weirdly, gives it the appearance of a postmodern re-tracing of when country blues initially took a turn into electric ampification (John Lee Hooker, etc.).
Bukuru Celestin & Snarky Puppy — Amkeni : Snarky Puppy is a Brooklyn-based ‘big band’ of highly skilled musicians who typically perform music that’s somewhere between jazz and r&b. Often misrepresented as a ‘jam band,’ they actually create immensely detailed arrangements worked out and rehearsed to the last note. Lately, they’ve started to partner with vocalists (cf. also Snarky Puppy — Family Dinner Volume 1 ), allowing them to create records that offer the ear slightly more to hold on to. This record features music written and sung by Bukuru Celestin, an Afrobeat gospel singer from Burundi (who now lives in the US). It has an essentially note-perfect, idiomatic pan-African sound (somewhat like Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa, perhaps), outstandingly played by Snarky Puppy who seem to have no musical limitations at all.
Christian Muthspiel 4 — Seaven Teares (Tribute to John Dowland) : European experimental jazz outfit mines the Renaissance music of John Dowland (only the basic melody was notated until the early 17th century) to create an interesting old/new hybrid, highlighting and exploring the parallels between what we assume performance practice looked like in the Renaissance, and jazz improvisation. It sounds a little weird but it pays great returns on a minimal investment of listening effort.
Daft Punk — Random Access Memories : I like this — as does pretty much everyone else. Not sure there’s anything else to say about it.
David Lemaitre — Latitude : David Lemaitre is from La Paz, Bolivia and now lives in Berlin, Germany. I’m pretty sure nobody in North America has ever heard of him, but he’s getting quite a bit of exposure in Europe. His light and airy songs are both elegant and substantial (if that makes any sense). An outstanding songwriter, somewhat on his own trajectory.
Fleetwood Mac — Extended Play : Most people wouldn’t have even picked up that the Mac stirred in 2013, self-releasing a 4-track EP on iTunes. As a formative influence on my listening (and many others’, I think), Fleetwood Mac will always occupy a special place in my heart. It’s unmistakably the Mac — the songcraft is there, the giant pop choruses, that unmistakable urgent drumming that sounds like nobody else. The music sounds unfinished (but certainly not experimental). I don’t really know if this EP is significant, or if a new album is eventually going to emerge from this… for all we know, these four tracks could be the last stirrings of a dying giant of popular music. But what stirrings they’d be.
Gregory Porter — Liquid Spirit : Mr. Porter is the breakout jazz vocalist of 2013. There were two previous albums on an independent label (both outstanding) and now this, on Blue Note. Before you skip over this (because, really: ‘jazz vocalist’?) let me assure you that this mostly sounds like really good old-school acoustic r&b from the 70s — in an alternate universe where such a thing would have existed. The songs are outstanding and so’s the singing. Really worth hearing.
June Tabor, Iain Bellamy, Huw Warren — Quercus : June Tabor is the grande dame of English folk music, now 65 years old. Her voice has darkened but also become more powerful. Here, she performs experimental arrangements of carefully selected pieces from the history of English folk, together with a jazz saxophone player (who mostly improvises) and an amazing pianist to tie it all together. It’s an ECM release, so the audio quality is outstanding (even though this live show was actually recorded a few years ago, long before ECM picked it up for release).
Kanye West — Yeezus : Not too much to say about this either. I think it’s safe to say that this is where hip hop is going (whether you like it or not). Kanye may be crazy (as evidenced by his frequent uncomfortable publicity stunts), but he seems to be crazy-like-Prince rather than crazy-like-Dennis-Rodman, and I think that’s probably okay as long as he keeps pushing the music envelope like this.
Mark Ernestus Presents Jeri-Jeri — 800% Ndagga /Ndagga Versions : I know very little about this. What I’m able to work out is this: German DJ/producer develops an increasing interest in African music and collaborates with Senegalese Sabar drummers and Mbalax musicians, gets a number of ‘big name’ Senegalese vocalists to contribute and eventually releases two albums: one with the vocal tracks, one with instrumentals. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s some of the most exquisitely groovy, well-produced African music you’ll ever hear: complex, pliable, rhythmically amazing, jubilant.
Max Herre — MTV Unplugged KAHEDI Radio Show : One of Germany’s biggest hip hop stars (yes, he raps in German; yes, there’s a thriving German hip hop scene; no, it’s not terribly interesting unless you understand German), Max Herre started in the mid to late 90s with a band called Freundeskreis (circle of friends) and has spent the 2000s so far being a successful, introspective, ‘conscious’ rapper. This album is a career retrospective of sorts — many of his former cohort guest, as does German r&b singer Joy Denalane (his wife), German reggae star Gentleman and Gregory Porter — and has an outstanding ebb and flow created (as per MTV Unplugged requirements) entirely by using ‘real’ instruments. They sound at least as good as The Roots (and that’s high praise).
Pillowfight — Pillowfight : A ‘minor’ record that documents the collaboration between electro-folk singer Emily Wells and Dan ‘the Automator’ Nakamura. Some critics panned it, and I think that’s almost entirely unjustified. The synthesis presented here somehow arrives organically in the same place Massive Attack and Portishead arrived in the early 90s. ‘Derivative’? Certainly. Enjoyable? Definitely, and to a surprising extent. I’m sure that if I were to really think this through (like I’m sure the Pitchfork reviewer  did), I wouldn’t like it as much as I do. But I do, and it’s great. And you should hear it.
Queens of the Stone Age — … Like Clockwork : Perhaps my favourite contemporary North American ‘proper rock’ band. From their erstwhile desert jam session sludge rock, somehow Josh Homme and his band have become one of the most important creative forces in American rock music. They have studiously managed to avoid becoming too grandiose (or, perhaps, too successful), and each new album is a rock ‘n’ roll event of sorts. In the last few years, the extreme sludge of their original sound has receded somewhat in favour of distinct songcraft. Outstanding.
Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City : I admit I didn’t see this coming. Vampire Weekend’s previous efforts were accomplished and enjoyable but always felt too derivative and self-conscious to really make me love them. Modern Vampires of the City breaks out of that mold and experiments more; they seem to have arrived in a place where they feel secure in who they are and what they can do. This is a really great album with varied dynamics (the ups and downs that make a good album), filled with great songs.
Vienna Teng — Aims : I’ve been a big Vienna Teng fan for years. She’s an American singer/songwriter who has — until now — mined the seam of mostly acoustic story songs, often written from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, exquisite in their detailed, musical arrangements and underpinned by her strong piano playing. An excellent live performer, Teng had over the years developed a particularly handy way with one of those vocal loopers that allowed her to sing her own backing vocals live, and her albums typically featured a few songs that were clearly created specifically to support this kind of breathtakingly risky interactive ‘building’ on stage. This new record is somewhat of a departure for Teng: it’s an electronic pop record (albeit a ‘serious’ one) with more accompaniment and a richer (wall of) sound. Moments may remind you of Goldfrapp or Robyn, yet it somehow blazes its own trail. And, remarkably, she ends up sounding like a young Laurie Anderson on the album’s best track, “The Hymn of Acxiom,” a darkly beautiful choral number (performed entirely by herself) that leans on 21st century Scandinavian and American choral music to bemoan this electronically surveilled world of ours. Song of the year, I think.
Remasters or Catalogue
The Clash — Sound System : Fantastic-sounding new remasters of all the studio albums. Must-own. It sounds like the cobwebs have been removed — and has the dynamics of the original vinyl releases.
Keith Jarrett — Concerts Bregenz/München : This is a ‘first-time-on-CD’ compilation of a release that used to exist on vinyl. It’s great — Keith Jarrett in the original, Köln mode.
Van Morrison — Moondance (Deluxe) : A wonderful, flawless, essential record — now available on a CD that sounds like the original vinyl. (Not sure that anyone needed the additional outtakes, but there they are.)
Arcade Fire — Reflektor : I like this, but I’m not sure I like it enough as an album for anything other than an honorary mention.
Beyoncé — Beyoncé : Time will tell, but seemingly quite brilliant.
Billy Bragg — Tooth & Nail : A very good record.
Bobby McFerrin — Spirityouall : Any sign of life from McFerrin is a welcome thing. I do wish that someone would record and release one of those solo live shows with audience involvement that are all over Youtube. Now that would be a great release.
Diane Birch — Speak a Little Louder : The beginning of the transformation of Diane Birch — from superbly talented writer and singer of songs that sounded like classic early 70s, r&b-tinged Carole King to something more modern, darker and more independent. I don’t think it’s quite there yet, even though there is plenty of truly superb material here. She’s one to watch and might, in time, become another Adele.
Elvis Costello & The Roots — Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs : Didn’t like this at first, but it has undeniable musical merits. It’s weird throughout and probably deserves more time than I gave it.
John Legend — Love In the Future : An excellent but conservative r&b album. He’s a great vocalist and has impeccable taste. But unlike his friend and erstwhile mentor Kanye, he’s not a risk-taker. I wish he were.
North Mississippi Allstars — World Boogie is Coming : This record is a welcome return to form from NMAS who present here the same kind of dirty boogie ‘n’ blues that we all loved on their first two records. It feels ever so slightly like ‘too little, too late’ (the indie rock excursions lasted a bit too long) but it’s good.
Various Artists — Sound City: Real to Reel : The movie (Dave Grohl’s story about buying the mixing board from the old Sound City studio in LA and installing it in his own studio) was fun, the soundtrack album is a collection of all new music recorded by Grohl & a varied group of friends using the board. Featuring an incongruous assembly of luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Josh Homme and Trent Reznor, it weirdly embodies what the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll might be in 2013. (It is also all over the place. But hugely entertaining.)