As the tape marked “2013″ runs off the end of the reel, I thought I’d post a little list of stuff I liked this year. I thought about not doing this at all. I pictured myself having to argue about or defend the choices, or the omissions, in my list. I thought about how much I loathe most of today’s armchair rock criticism, that’s not to say the actual music journalists I look up to and admire. I’m talking about the list mentality, this album good, this album bad, who’s hot, who’s not. That’s a game and a trap and it’s so far away from music that I find myself resisting it like a cat over a bathtub. (I miss my cat).
Another disclaimer, I decided that this was the year I gave up caring about whether I was a good “rock critic.” Maybe another year, I will, but this year I only had an arms length interest in the things that my colleagues were writing (wonderfully eloquent stories) about. So yeah, Lorde seems promising, Haim are really fun, that Beyoncé surprise album was a huge success, and Drake and Yeezus all took up a lot of music journalists attention. Oh and who couldn’t get into “Get Lucky,” Daft Punk’s jam with Pharell and Chic supremo Nile Rodgers? It was the song of the summer. SO you’ve likely read about these guys, all over the place. So you don’t need to hear about them from me.
I’ll admit that much of what I hear in a year comes from things like the MOJO magazine free CDs, and the musical guests on TV shows, and the best being Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Later With Jools Holland. Pretty much anything that has already made it through their filters is something that I usually don’t mind at all. For instance, after reading about her forever, I only heard Laura Marling really clearly on Jools’ show, and I liked what I heard.
When I listen to other people’s albums, it’s usually in our little 2 door Toyota Echo as I drive from Berkeley, into San Francisco. This year, we finally got the new span of the Bay Bridge which is very cinematic, then there’s a tunnel at Treasure Island. The music is playing as I emerge from the tunnel and take in my first view of Alcatraz and “the city” on my right, the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower and Sutro Tower atop the rolling hills of one of the most picturesque places in America. With such visual stimulus, the music, if it’s right, tends to burn into your brain, locked to picture if you will.
Anyway, I did start to make a top ten list, but as I thought more about it, I figured I’d simply tell you about some of the most memorable 2013 release from these commutes.
Like me, this list is neither important, nor significant, and the list is certainly no time capsule for future generations to study. It’s just stuff that made me really happy on the bridge.
DAVID BOWIE: THE NEXT DAY
Early in the year, on January 8, Bowie’s birthday, the old diamond dog proved he could learn new tricks, issuing the surprise single, “Where Are We Now?” It was wistful, elegant, melancholy even, and Bowie’s voice was older sounding, showing cracks around the edges. The song seemed to say, “Hey guess what? I didn’t die, but I am older now, and you know? I kind of still have something to say.” He was talking about Berlin, which was fine with me as I’ve always had an affinity for his Berlin trilogy, and by the March release of The Next Day album (reuniting him with producer Tony Visconti), it was clear that he was back, for real, a more mature Bowie, but rocking harder than the single indicated. I probably listened to this album for many more months than usual, and repeated listenings rewarded me with deeper experiences, and standout tracks like “Love Is Lost,” “I’d Rather Be High,” “Dirty Boys,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” and the title track. It helps that I attended the David Bowie Is retrospective art exhibit at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and that multi-media warehouse of Bowie-nalia solidified my bond with Bowie’s work and legacy. In 2013, David was still an event in himself. No small feat for the man who sold the world.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ROOTS: WISE UP GHOST
Early this year, Elvis Costello and The Roots confirmed publicly what Roots producer Steven Mandel had told me the year before, that they were collaborating on an album and that it would be out in the fall. Eventually, we learned that the album would be called Wise Up Ghost. As a longtime fan of Costello, and a relatively more recent fan of The Roots, I had high hopes that the album would be a true merging of their approaches. By the fall, it became evident that the sound of Wise Up Ghost contained the acerbic with and snarling bite of Mr. Costello and the cinematic funky jazz (and hip hop underpinnings) that epitomize The Roots. Songs like “Walk Us Uptown,” “Sugar Won’t Work,” or “Refuse To Be Saved,” could have been from an early Attractions album, but they wouldn’t have sounded quite as fashionably funky. Costello had initially planned to rework some old tunes with The Roots, but Questlove and Mandel had other ideas and luckily Costello was sympatico to their Frankenstein reanimation of the Elvis canon on songs like “Tripwire,” or “Stick Out Your Tongue.” It works, and new ground was broken for both artists in the process. This is another album that I keep coming back to. Side note: This album also seems to divide some of my fellow Costellophiles, as much as I have championed, I’ve felt push back from some of my friends who just don’t “hear” it. You can’t please everyone, but I’m glad that these guys pleased themselves, and me.
ARCTIC MONKEYS: AM
Ever since I heard Arctic Monkeys earliest single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” in 2006, I was convinced that Alex Turner could be one of the greatest British rock lyricists and lead singers of all time, a blend of the poetic swagger of John Cooper Clarke or Mark E. Smith, with the social eloquence of Paul Weller, the sneer of Liam Gallagher, the mischief of Morrissey and even a hint of the post-rock brit-rapper Mike Skinner from The Streets. I have always liked Arctic Monkeys, but on this year’s AM, it has become clear that not only has Turner fully delivered on his initial promise, but the whole band, including Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley, and Matt Helder, has also grown into a muscular but nimble strike force. On songs like “Do I Wanna Know?.” “R U Mine?,” “No. 1 Party Anthem,” “Mad Sounds,” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” the Monkeys show extreme sonic confidence, bolstered by guest contributions from Josh Homme, Bill Ryder-Jones and Pete Thomas. There’s even one track, “I Wanna Be Yours,” co-written with John Cooper Clarke, himself. Here’s a clip for “R U Mine?”:
PAUL McCARTNEY: NEW
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It often seems that whenever McCartney releases an album, the faithful among us all rally and say “Paul’s still got it” and “This is a return to form,” but in truth it isn’t always the case, and I never even bought Memory Almost Full or Kisses On The Bottom. New actually has more in common with Chaos And Creation, and just as with David Bowie, it’s the sound of a man raging against his own legacy, while also aging gracefully as he embraces the pop language they created. If he sounds like Wings on “Save Us” or the Beatles on “Queenie Eye” are you really going to call him a copycat? Maybe you are, but I say he’s earned it and I love that he’s still got the spark. I think part of it is that he’s still living his catalog, putting on a fantastic show with his current band, who’ve been with him the longest of any of his backing bands, and (check this for me) possibly as long or longer than the Beatles were even together. For this reason, I think the past lives within him in the present, he’s always in touch with his whole catalogue, and has a band that can ground him, so he’s very much in the present and likely will be in the foreseeable future. McCartney recorded tracks with four distinct producers: Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles Martin who was also executive producer. Martin and Johns are both the sons of men who produced the Beatles (George and Glyn), so for sure the title track may be a bit too on the head Beatle-wise , but in context of the more naked songs like “Early Days” (his voice cracking in a way that reminded me of Johnny Cash’s American recordings) or the hidden track “Scared,” this album could even be compared to his earliest solo works, such as Ram or the sanctified Band On The Run. I’ve come back to New many times since it came out in October and songs “Save Us” or “Appreciate” still have power.
SAM PHILLIPS: PUSH ANY BUTTON
“It’s easy to change your name but hard to change your life,” sings Sam Phillips in “Pretty Time Bomb,” one of 10 slices of hard fought wisdom from her tenth studio album, Push Any Button. And Sam should know a thing or two about change, her career path is a textbook story of change and reinvention. Phillips is stretching out and doing things her way on this album, her unique voice draws you in to hear her clever wordplay, and her production with The Section’s Eric Gorfain is elegant and refined but never laid back. The gentle chug of “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” unfolds a laundry list of revealed knowledge, while the galloping gait of “When I’m Alone” makes it kind of an anthem for individualism. The backing horns on “All Over Me” are playful and boisterous, and the extended string coda on “See You In Dreams” reminded me a little of the strings on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” After learning the ropes when she was with T Bone Burnett, Sam is finally taking control of the sound, and proving that it may not always be easy to change, but if you’ve got the talent and the voice, it can be done. This audio-only YouTube clip showcases Gorfain’s strings on “See You In Dreams”:
THE ORANGE PEELS: SUN MOON
I know I am duty bound to full disclosure in that Allen Clapp of The Orange Peels recently co-produced The Paul & John’s forthcoming Inner Sunset album, a collaboration between myself and John Moremen, also of Orange Peels, but I really must say that Sun Moon is a remarkable achievement for this Sunnyvale, California based band, and a worthy addition to my list or anyone’s 2013 list for that matter. Clapp’s been the leader of the band since its inception, and there’s been a bit of a revolving door policy with his band members (save for the constant bassist Jill Pries ) which often made it feel more like an Allen Clapp solo project. But over the last few years, the addition of drummer Gabriel Coan and the repositioning of John Moremen to straight up lead guitar has given new heft to their sound, providing an earthy foundation to Clapp’s naturally ethereal chamber pop / sunshine sound. And on Sun Moon, the band were invited to collaborate fully on the songwriting, meaning that this year’s Peels is not just a real band, but the grooviest and rockingest Peels ever. So in addition to more traditional Peels fare like “Grey Holiday” or “Watch Her Fly,” Sun Moon also ventures into prog rock mayhem on “Yonder,” reveal trace elements of Zeppelin on “All At Once,” and trip subtly into Big Star turf on the short opener “The Words Don’t Work”:
THE BEATLES: ON AIR – LIVE AT THE BBC, VOLUME 2
How smart of Kevin Howlett, Jeff Jones and Mike Heatley, executive producers of this project, t0 include all the announcer banter and band introductions on this 37 track compilation of various Beatles radio performances for the BBC between the pre-Beatlemania of March 1962 and June 1965, a year before they stopped touring altogether. The cumulative effect is that The Beatles: On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2 feels like one big radio show, conveying the personality of the band, the nation’s embrace for them and, significantly, just how good the band who later came to epitomize the idea of studio-only recording, could actually be without any of the studio overdubs or trickery. Also kudos for the (I have the CD) packaging, with a nifty booklet, proper liner notes, annotations, bonus interviews, and a fairly generous written introduction by Paul McCartney. Beatlemania was real, folks, and On Air provides another historical glimpse at it, in progress.
THE MILK CARTON KIDS: THE ASH & CLAY
I bought this CD at The Milk Carton Kids mid-November gig at Freight & Salvage, here in Berkeley, which I attended at the invitation of my friend David Owen. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to go, it was three days after we had just euthanized our beloved cat Buddy, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for it. But it turned out to be just what I needed, and I was soothed and captivated by the tight acoustic duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, whose songs neatly pack a ton of musical sophistication into the two voice, two guitar format. This is a warm bath of delightful songs like “Hope Of A Lifetime,” “Honey, Honey,” “Whisper In Her Ear,” and the title track. So I really have to thank David for inviting me to see this show, I’d see these guys anywhere they play. One minor quibble about The Ash & Clay, though, the recording shows the band to be serious, forthright and evocative of Simon & Garfunkel by way of Nickel Creek, good things to be sure, but their onstage banter is witty and hilarious in a way that I haven’t seen since Nixon drove the Smothers Brothers off the air. So, I tend to agree with James Christopher Monger who wrote on All Music Guide: “…the singin’ and pickin’ is so good that it’s hard not to submit, but one wishes that the pair had decided to infuse the collection with a bit more of their signature wit, as much of The Ash & Clay feels a bit like a serious Flight of the Conchords.”
“Hope Of A Lifetime”:
ARCADE FIRE: REFLEKTOR
Haters gonna hate, I guess, and I can’t believe how divisive Arcade Fire’s newest album was among my friends and colleagues. But for me, coming in the year of me reaffirming my Bowie worship, the Bay Bridge drive with Reflektor evoked memories of the thin white duke, but also Echo & The Bunnymen, Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem. It’s really neat to see them embrace new textures, and new styles within their huge collective sound. Again, glad I’m not a “rock critic” so I can just come to this without prejudice. Is it the greatest album of all time? Of course not, but for me it was definitely a memorable moment in 2013. Win and Company kept my car running, so to speak.
I saw the touring band version of Michael B. Lerner’s group Telekinesis twice this year, most recently a couple of weeks ago at The Fillmore, and every time I see them, I leave the show beaming. The Seattle based crew seem like happy people and they make a joyful noise that makes me want to jump up and down, fist pump and sing along. Lerner’s the drummer and singer, so he plays the kit out front when they play live, and on Dormarion, produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno , the drums, drum machines and synth sequences are also out front, but never overpowering the humanity of the vocals or guitars, particularly on the Chris Bell-ish solo acoustic number “Symphony.” Standout tracks are the slow anthemic “Ghosts And Creatures,” and raucous jams like “Dark To Light,” the 80′s New Order vibe of “Ever True” and the pure rock and roll of “Power Lines” which zapped into my brain earlier this year as I was clearing the toll plaza about to hit the Eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Go see ‘em live, but don’t miss Dormarion either.
“Ghosts And Creatures”
FRANZ FERDINAND: RIGHT THOUGHTS, RIGHT WORDS, RIGHT ACTION
This album came to me as an advance download from a friend of the band, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted it. I’d liked their first album, back in 2004, but hadn’t really kept up with them. I took a leap of faith and burned the file onto a CD for the car, and took it for a test drive. Soon I was remarking, to myself, that the band were tight, the songs were catchy and singer Alex Kapranos had retained, and refined, his mildly effete, yet confident and playful post-Bowie charm. Best songs out of the gate for me: “Right Action,” “Fresh Strawberries,” “Evil Eye,” and “Love Illumination.” Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t breaking new ground, but it was a fun listen and sounded great on the drive into the city.
VAN DYKE PARKS: SONGS CYCLED
It was my musical collaborator John Moremen who gave me a CD copy of Songs Cycled. Like me, John is a big fan of Van Dyke Parks, who as you may know is a master arranger, innovative composer. Unlike me, John took to Songs Cycled immediately, whereas for me it was a longer road. The first time I went out in the car with it, I couldn’t find an entrance to this lush, often chaotic music. In fact, in the case of the opening track, “Wedding in Madagascar (Faranaina)” I couldn’t even find the “one” beat on my first listen. But I have such respect for VDP, that I did that thing that we sometimes forget to do, try again. You know this man is one of Brian Wilson’s best collaborators, and as it happens, Songs Cycled is purportedly Van Dyke’s first full album since his 1995 Wilson collaboration Orange Crate Art. Regarding this long wait to 2013, I found Van Dyke’s comments to Sonya Singh, to be telling:
“I realized,” Parks said, “I couldn’t get bookings as a performing artist on the road, as it were, I could not make a living in music without going on the road, but I couldn’t get booked without a new product. People say, “Where’s your new album?” Well, I have no new album, and I’m not going to have a new album. They said, “What are you doing?” I’m performing music that I’ve done my entire life that I’ve never performed, and I’m promoting material that I haven’t promoted. They have not considered that opportunity, but I decided I needed to embellish this somehow and convince people that I have a contemporary attitude that’s affected by contemporary results.”
It’s dense, it’s lush, it’s melodic, and rich. It’s Van Dyke Fucking Parks, so put on a bowtie and come to the table, it’s worth your time to try and find this music.
“The All Golden”: