Updated Mon, Dec 9, 2013 10:26 am
This is the second in a series of year-end blog posts by WOUB staff, volunteers and contributors. Check out all of this year's lists at this link.
Well, here are my favorite albums of 2013. We were so awash in fine pop records this year that it was hard to pick my top choices.
And in compiling the list, I noticed a couple of odd trends:
Several of the records I liked in 2013 were not sung in English (see Juana Molina, Shogu Tokomaru, Bassekou Kouyate, Natalia Clavier, Omar Souleyman), so it seems a bit of a paradox that I responded to them so strongly.
Not sure why that is, but it does indicate the very healthy state of pop music around the world, and supports the notion that the key to great lyrics is how they sound in the context of the song and the emotion behind the singing, more than the actual meaning of the words themselves. If the words convey deeper meanings as well, then so much the better.
Also, the release of very strong records by some of the elder statespersons of pop (Robyn Hitchcock, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Elvis Costello) was also a bit of a revelation. Popular records used to be thought of a young person’s game, but these and other records released this year prove that great pop music is both timely and timeless, and doesn’t discriminate because of age.
Speaking of age, another trend was the release of fine records by young artists—some of them kids, really—such as Jake Bugg, Avicii, Haim and the preternaturally talented Lorde. These and other records show that the future of popular music is in very good hands.
In any case, I narrowed it down to my 13 best of 2013 (see what I did there?), with sub-lists, some special categories and honorable mentions following the main list:
EDDIE’S TOP 13 FOR 2013
1. WED 21, Juana Molina (Crammed Disc) Producer: Juana Molina
It’s been five years since Argentinian Juana Molina’s last album, and this stunner was worth the wait. Envision Bebel Gilberto and Brian Eno throwing a trance-dance party in Pan’s Labyrinth, and you get some idea of the otherworldly spell Molina conjures with her music. A true solo effort (produced, recorded, sung, sampled and played by Molina) it richly rewards repeated listenings. Wed 21 manages to sound both minimalist and lush all at once—a true tour de force. This mesmerizing, dreamlike record sounds like no other released this year.
2. IN FOCUS? Shogu Tokumaru (Polyvinyl Record Co.) Producer: Shogu Tokumaru
Imagine a Japanese version of Come On Feel The Illinoise-era Sufjan Stevens, and you get some idea of what Tokumaru pulls of on this enchanting disc. In place of Stevens’ trademark banjos and flutes, however, we get shimasen and shakuhachi, along with the requisite toy pianos, lilting melodies and heartfelt, harmonized vocals. Beautifully crafted modern pop by an artist who knows what the hell he’s doing.
3. JAMA KO, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba (Out Here Records) Producer: Jay Rutledge
Kouyate’s main instrument is the ngoni, a type of Malian lute, and in a word, this guy shreds. He weaves the instrument (sometimes acoustically, sometimes amplified) through his songs in a fashion that recalls Jimi Hendrix and his expressive use of the guitar as a second voice in his music. Great songs and melodies, too. A star in his home country of Mali, he and his band Ngoni Ba are receiving well-deserved worldwide attention. The music is exotic, melodic, moving and very rocking.
4. LOVE FROM LONDON, Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc Records) Producer: Paul Noble
Released on the occasion of his 60th birthday, Love From London gets in your bones like a fog slithering off the Thames as you walk down an alleyway in Chelsea on your way to grab a pint at your favorite pub. Hitchcock disguises his keen observations of life, mortality, loss, love and other inconveniences in lyrics that are deceptively whimsical, almost childlike, and wrapped in chiseled arrangements that channel The White Album and The Madcap Laughs. Another fantastic record by The Master of psychedelic pop.
5. SOUTHEASTERN, Jason Isbell (Southeastern Records) Producer: Dave Cobb
Isbell has done great work with the Drive By Truckers and in his own solo career, but this record is his first masterpiece. His expressive voice is up front, the arrangements are pitch perfect, the sounds are warm, and what songs! Isbell spins tales that make you feel the soul-sapping loneliness of being on the road, the tongue-in-cheek angst of not wanting to die in a Super 8 motel, and the bittersweet memory of a former lover singing in the shower. While Mumford and Sons and their ilk tub-thump their way to Americana fame and fortune, this record reminds us of what the genre is really all about.
6. KIDS RAISING KIDS, Kopecky Family Band (ATO Records) Producers: Konrad Snyder & Kopecky Family Band
This Nashville-based combo is the real deal, wonderfully memorable songs combined with the some of the best band-based arrangements that this year had to offer. Occasionally the mixes are a little reverb-heavy for my taste, but the tunes make you forget the studio artifice. Jangly, with equal doses of Fleetwood Mac-era Southern California pop and stomping British Invasion rock, with just enough hipster irony (they’re not really a family, you know) to keep the songs engaging from top to bottom.
7. MCII, Mikal Cronin (Merge Records) Producers: Mikal Cronin and Eric Bauer
The sound of one guy singing alone in his room while getting over a breakup, in the best possible way. What For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver might have sounded like if recorded with The Replacements. Great garage pop, in the spirit of Matthew Sweet, Sloan, Emmett Rhodes, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Three O’clock. Sometimes-band mate Ty Seagall contributes some suitably fuzzy solos to the effort. Catchy and moving.
8. VII, Blitzen Trapper (Vagrant Records) Producers: Eric Earley and Michael Van Pelt
Those cosmic cowboys from Portland rediscover their roots on this oddly funky record. The songs all have a very similar vibe, which is usually a deal killer, but Blitzen Trapper uses this to great party-record effect. Frontman Eric Earley’s obsessively rhymed couplets meet the band’s deep grooves and off-center arrangements in a very happy middle ground that channels the band’s early albums, most notably Field Rexx.
9. CORSICANA LEMONADE, White Denim (Downtown Records) Producers: Jim Vollentine, Jeff Tweedy and White Denim
Another great release from the band that defines the burgeoning Austin, Texas, psych-rock scene. Playfully conceived, well written, tautly played and adroitly mixed (by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, no less). Plus it grooves in a Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers kind of way, like a bat flying outta the Congress Street Bridge, but delivered in bite-sized, radio-friendly nuggets.
10. MEMORIAL, Russian Circles (Sargent House) Producers: Brandon Curtis and Russian Circles
Gotta include some serious dudes playing heavy music on the list, and in my book, this record is tops in that category. Instrumental rock that tells a tale without words (well, almost) yet speaks as loudly and powerfully to the human condition as the rest of the records I’ve been digging this year. Elegiac, nuanced, uncompromising and awesome. Sounds SO MUCH BETTER on vinyl than on CD, but don’t get me started.
11. LUMEN, Natalia Clavier (Nacional Records) Producers: Victor Axelrod, Adrian Quesada and Ursula 1000
This Argentinian Thievery Corporation collaborator steps out on her own and makes lovely bilingual Portishead-meets-spaghetti western soundtrack music on a groovaliciously voluptuous album that I can’t stop listening to. Clavier seamlessly mixes urban beats, Argentinean folk, reggae, psychedelic rock and whatever else her febrile imagination calls for. Witty, seductive, and fun.
12. NEW, Paul McCartney (Virgin/EMI/Hear Records) Producers: Mark Ronson, Giles Martin, Ethan Johns & Paul Epworth
A big surprise. When I heard Macca had brought on a bunch of hip young-ish producers, I thought that this was going to be some kind of contrived disaster. Instead, Sir Paul drew deep into his gut and wrote his best and most heartfelt lyrics since his glory days with The Beatles, combined with the expansive and generous melodies that are his trademark. McCartney and his collaborators have concocted some sparkling (and, yes, contemporary) arrangements which, put all together, make this one of the best of his solo career and one of the strongest records of the year. His voice may be a little worse for the wear, but that serves to add some gravitas to these well-crafted tunes. Very fresh work for a geezer in his 70s!
13. WENI WENI, Omar Souleyman (Ribbon Music) Producer: Kieran Hebden
Souleyman is originally from Syria (now in exile due to the political turmoil there), and performs a style of dance music called dabke, which is played primarily at weddings. He and his band have released upwards of 500 (!) cassettes since 1994, mostly of their live nuptial recordings. Weni Weni, produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, is his first proper studio recording, and it is a corker. Infused with techno beats, wailing synthesizers, traditional melodies, and Souleyman’s unmistakable vocals, this is Middle Eastern booty shaking music that you don’t have to be Syrian (or in a wedding party) to enjoy.
GIN WIGMORE, Gin Wigmore
MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY, Vampire Weekend
WISE UP GHOST, Elvis Costello and The Roots
WYOMING, The Water Liars
TAPE DECK HEART, Frank Turner
RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES, Daft Punk
WE THE COMMON, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down
THE MESSENGER, Johnny Marr
GUILTY PLEASURES OF THE YEAR
PURE HEROINE, Lorde
DAYS ARE GONE, Haim
THE 20/20 EXPERIENCE, Justin Timberlake
FAVORITE HOLIDAY RECORDS OF THE YEAR
QUALITY STREET, Nick Lowe
CHRISTMAS SONGS, Bad Religion
FAVORITE REISSUES OF THE YEAR
MOONDANCE, Van Morrison
KAYA, Bob Marley
HIGHER! Sly and the Family Stone
LIVE AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC 1971, The Band
IN UTERO, Nirvana
ELVIS AT STAX, Elvis Presley
ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS, The Mountain Goats
RUMOURS, Fleetwood Mac
THE ORIGINAL MONO RECORDINGS, Miles Davis
THE VERY BEST OF KIRSTY MACCOLL, Kirsty MacColl
BEST OF THE REST
SERPENTS UNLEASHED, Skeletonwitch
FADE, Yo La Tengo
…LIKE CLOCKWORK, Queens of the Stone Age
YEEZUS, Kanye West
HOWL, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound
INDIGO MEADOW, The Black Angels
GHOST ON GHOST, Iron and Wine
HEAVY FLOWERS, Blaudzun
WOLF’S LAW, The Joy Formidable
BAKERSFIELD, Vince Gill & Paul Franklin
THE NEXT DAY, David Bowie
THE ELECTRIC LADY, Janelle Monae
SHANGRI LA, Jake Bugg
THE ASH & CLAY, Milk Carton Kids
EVIL FRIENDS, Portugal, The Man
IS SURVIVED BY, Touché Amoré
LIGHTNING BOLTS, Pearl Jam
LONG AS THE SUN, Medicine
MIRACLE MILE, STRFKR
ONE TRUE VINE, Mavis Staples
SAME TRAILER, DIFFERENT PARK, Kacey Musgraves
SONGS FOR IMAGINATIVE PEOPLE, Darwin Deez
TOMORROW’S HARVEST, Boards of Canada
WAKIN ON A PRETTY DAZE, Kurt Vile
TIDES END, Minks
CUPID DELUXE, Blood Orange
LIGHT UP GOLD, Parquet Courts
LIKE A ROSE, Ashley Monroe
FOURTH CORNER, Trixie Whitley
ANYTHING IN RETURN, Toro Y Moi
PRE-HUMAN IDEAS, Mount Eerie
THE GREATEST GENERATION, The Wonder Years
AND IN CONCLUSION…
For obvious reasons, I had to disqualify the projects I worked on this year for inclusion on the list, but I was fortunate to be a part of some pretty great records in 2013, and would like give a shout out to these fantastic artists from our area:
PET DRIFTWOOD, Qiet
LEARNING HOW TO LIVE, Jeff Ellis
WHITE CURTAIN, Maza Blaska
FUTURE SPLENDORS, Brothertiger
A NEW DIRECTION, Playing to Vapors
FINE YOUNG AMERICAN MIND, NovaFlow
Best wishes to all for a high fideli-tastic 2014!
Eddie Ashworth is an associate professor in the School of Media Arts & Studies at Ohio University, where he teaches courses in record production and music industry studies. He is also a veteran record producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with artists such as Sublime, Pennywise, Unwritten Law, Slightly Stoopid, Maza Blaska and Athens favorites Mind Fish and Duke Junior & The Smokey Boots.