Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smooth Sailing: The Best Albums of 2013

Editor's note: You can hear me and Jay Breitling go over our choices for top music of the year in a CompCon trilogy that concludes this week (listen to parts 1, 2 and 3), and I played two hours of my favorite songs of the year on last week's Stuck In Thee Garage radio show.

It has been interesting to watch the continuing evolution of music formats. I didn't buy a single new CD this year, although I did "borrow" a few from the local library. I bought plenty of albums via Amazon MP3 when they were deeply discounted. I also purchased a new turntable and occasionally made vinyl purchases. But it's amazing how little music "ownership" means to a whole generation of music fans. Streaming services like Spotify, Bandcamp and NoiseTrade now let you listen to just about anything any time you want, so it's very possible to be extremely well-versed in new music without spending a penny. I still like to own music, even if it's digital, so I can put it in on my iPod or iPhone or play it in my radio show or podcast.

I'm pleased to report it was another good year for new music, so without further ado, here are my top 15 albums.

15. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave has been making fine music for more than 30 years now, but he's impressively remaining vital and interesting into his late 50s. I'm late to the party, getting into his last few Bad Seeds and Grinderman releases, which have been more on the rocking side. This album is quieter but still very powerful.

14. Diarrhea Planet - I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
An excellent band with a terrible name, Diarrhea Planet is a Nashville act that is renowned for its wild live performances and its triple-guitar attack. I haven't had the good fortune to see them yet, but this long player is full of fun rockin' jams from a band that doesn't take itself too seriously, or even seriously at all. 

13. Mudhoney - Vanishing Point
I loves me some Mudhoney, even the post-Lukin version of the band that has valiantly forged on for the last decade or so. But I haven't felt the need to buy any of their new material since 1998's Tomorrow Hit Today, which was their last for Reprise before getting dropped. But I checked out the MP3s Sub Pop had given away for the new album and they were pretty kickass, then listened to the album on Spotify. They still sound like Mudhoney, as loud and snotty as ever but with an additional layer of world-weary cynicism that I can certainly relate to. Mark Arm, Steve Turner and crew still sound great to me.

12. Swearin' - Surfing Strange
Swearin' is a band I knew virtually nothing about before I checked them out, essentially on the recommendation of friends whose opinions I respect. The Philly band is led by Allison Crutchfield, who sings most of the songs here (her twin sister leads the band Waxahatchee). Swearin's main export is uneasy indie rock, and they do it well. Picked this up late in the year, but I really dig it.

11. Iceage - You're Nothing
There was plenty of hype around this Danish punk band when they first emerged in the late '00s as teenagers. This album is their debut for Matador and it's raw and powerful. Twelve songs, 28 minutes, no bullshit.

10. Barrence Whitfield and the Savages - Dig Thy Savage Soul
I've got a personal connection to Barrence, an old-school rock n' soul belter who lives right here in Beverly, Mass. I first became aware of him in the mid-'80s when he was getting airplay on WBCN for his James Brown-esque shrieks, which were combined with the garage rock flair of the Savages. The last few decades, he's explored roots and country sounds, but he reunited with Savages for this sizzling return to form.

9. Ovlov - am
This brother act from Newtown, Conn., (yes, THAT Newtown) came out of nowhere (at least for me) with this stunner of a debut album on Exploding in Sound, a label that had a sick year in terms of breaking hot rock. Strong '90s-influenced fuzz rock that echoes Dino Jr. at times. Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis guests on two songs, which makes a good thing even better.

8. Future of the Left - How to Turn Off Your Brain in an Accident
In a year dominated by bubblegum pop, sometimes you just need a kick in the teeth and Future of the Left is just the band to deliver that kick. Ex-McLusky fronter Andy Falkous is the driving force behind this relentlessly sardonic and pummeling band. Record company weasels, slimy DJs and sexist pigs all get their comeuppance on FoTL's fourth album. Loud, hilarious, exhilarating. 

7. Savages - Silence Yourself
Savages is another band that seemingly emerged fully formed, dropping a stunning debut only 18 months after joining forces. Led by French singer Jehnny Beth, the London-based four-piece rips through 11 songs that sound like Siouxie Sioux fronting Joy Division. Powerful, driving and thrilling post-punk.

6. David Bowie - The Next Day
On his first album in a decade and 24th studio release, 66-year-old Bowie sounds rejuvenated. Recorded secretly over the last two years, Bowie reunited with longtime producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Earl Slick to make an album that sounds energized and youthful. He's not breaking any ground, but Bowie sounds great and, well, like Bowie.

5. Superchunk - I Hate Music
Superchunk's second album in the last three years since taking a decade off has plenty of classic 'Chunk moments--upbeat power punk-pop--but there are also moments of reflection on songs like "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo," "What Can We Do" and "Void." Singer Mac McCaughan sounds as young and peppy as ever (dude's 46 but still sounds like he's 22) even as he's singing about getting older. 

4. Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana
What started as a solo project for Sadie Dupuis turned into the breakout indie rock band of the year with the release of Major Arcana. The album combines Dupuis' sharp lyrics about sexual politics with a singular Pavement-esque guitar sound to create a sound that moves well beyond its '90s influences.

3. Kurt Vile - Wakin' on a Pretty Daze
Philly-based Vile has been around for a while now, making music on his own and with The War on Drugs, but this album really brought him to the indie rock forefront. Wakin' on a Pretty Daze is a sprawling, chill record that isn't afraid to go long (six songs are over 6 minutes) when it has to. Filled with shimmering guitar and spacey lyrics, the album was a great spring and summer driving companion, although it sounds pretty damn good in the winter, too.  

2. Arctic Monkeys - AM
Arctic Monkeys have explored many different sounds since their debut in 2006, going from punk pop to hard rock to stoner rock. On their fifth album, the Alex Turner-led quartet incorporates a strong groove and pop sensibility while still maintaining a rock guitar base. The result is their catchiest album to date, with "Do I Wanna Know? and "R U Mine?" proving to be especially earworm-inducing. Given that Turner is only 27 and not prone to sitting still, it's going to be interesting to see where the band goes from here.

1. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
As the buildup increased to QOTSA's first album in six years, it sounded as though Josh Homme was reuniting the lineup that made 2002's masterful Songs for the Deaf album: Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan and even Nick Oliveri were all on board. As it turned out, Grohl only plays drums on a handful of songs while Lanegan and Oliveri contributed backing vocals to a few numbers...and it doesn't matter. Informed by Homme's near-death experience following a routine surgical procedure, ...Like Clockwork explores emotional depths only hinted at on past QOTSA albums. There are rockers, but it's the slow stuff that really hits home: "The Vampyre of Time and Memory," "Kalopsia," "I Appear Missing" and the title track are as gut-wrenching as anything released this year. 
UPDATE: And, a Spotify playlist as well...

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