Wednesday, January 1, 2014

TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2013 (GUARANTEED VAMPIRE WEEKEND-FREE!)

Yes, it's been a really long time since I've been here, updating No Expiration. I'm going to try to return more often in 2014.  You can read a lot of my stuff here at Radio.com, the site I work for (along with a number of websites for CBS owned classic rock, classic hits and Jack stations, along with Chicago's WXRT).

I'm planning on sharing my take on upcoming music events including the GRAMMYs and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as links to some of my interviews, videos and features.  But for now, I'm  returning with my take on the best albums of the year. 

Regarding the headline, I don't really have anything against Vampire Weekend, I am not that familiar with their music (although the few times I've heard their music, it hasn't really kept my attention). I think that they are a "zeitgeist" band - a band who, through a confluence of fans, critical acclaim and an intangible "x factor," are a band who everyone who works in music is expected to pay attention to, and expected to like. That's fine. I definitely like some artists who fall into that category. 

Anyway, I've been having a hard time coming up with an actual order for my favorite albums of the year. In recent years, I've had a handful of albums that rose to the top. In 2007, it was Ben Harper, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Mavis Staples and Robert Plant/Alison Krauss. In 2008, the Foxboro Hot Tubs. In 2009, Bob Dylan, the Cocktail Slippers, Rancid and Levon Helm. 2010, it was the Drive-By Truckers and Mavis Staples. 2011: Social Distortion and Foo Fighters. And last year, Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

This year, I have a number of albums that I've enjoyed, but no clear favorites. But I'll try to put them in some sort of order here. So, let's start already!


1. Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite - Get Up! Two generations of blues artists come together. The easiest thing in the world would have been to make this a covers album. Instead, Ben (and the guys from his current band) wrote a bunch of songs that should be blues standards in the years to come. I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing them when their album came out, and that was a huge thrill. Shortly after that, I saw them playing a show at Irving Plaza (way too small of a venue for them) and it was mind-blowingly great. Check out my review, with my wife's amazing photos, here. Anyway, I'm curious to see what Ben does next: I'd love to see him reunite with his old band, the Innocent Criminals, in 2014.



2. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks This was one that I thought was really overlooked by music critics. But I realize that a white, angry guy forever connected to the '90s who looks like he could totally kick your ass isn't who critics get behind these days.  But whatever. This album was really innovative. Of course, Trent has to compete with his past, which definitely looms large. Pretty Hate Machine, Broken and The Downward Spiral were all game changers. I don't know that he has another earth shaking record in him like that again. And he isn't that guy anymore: he's married, he has kids, has greyhounds. And yet, I think he's still haunted by every artist who ever disappointed him: he doesn't want to get soft, get boring or sell out. And he doesn't. Not only was this a great album, but he supported it with a great tour: first he did the festival circuit (they pretty much blew everyone away, including Mrs. Carter, at Made In America) and then revamped the band, put together a new stage show and raised the game once again on his headlining tour. Check out my review of that, and (again) my wife's amazing photos, here. I should also mention that his album with How To Destroy Angels was great, and their concerts were amazing too. I can't wait to see what Trent does next.

3. Kanye West - Yeezus Ok, I'm with the critics on this one. And yes, I know he's a douche. I've already written about my first (and only) encounter with him, you can read about it here. Do I buy into any of his hype? No. The Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing retort to his complaints that the fashion world is preventing him from entering their world. I wouldn't look to him as a fashion icon anyway. But what he is great at is making records. Of course, sometimes he needs some help and that was the case here: Rick Rubin exec-produced this album, and I'm sure that was a big factor. But Kanye knows a great track when he produces it, and he knows who to collaborate with (he worked with Daft Punk on "Black Skinhead," a highlight of the album). And he's still a compelling MC. I even like "Bound 2" but let's not talk about the video.

4. Mavis Staples - One True Vine Mavis's second collaboration in a row with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. I don't like this one as much as their last record, You Are Not Alone, but this is still pretty great. Once again, Tweedy wrote the best song on the album. Last time, it was the title track, this time it's "Every Step." As great as the songs that Tweedy writes for Wilco are, I think he saves his best songs for Mavis. Another highlight is the cover of Funkadelic's "Can You Get To That." Mavis is the rare artist who improves with age. I went to see her in concert at New York's City Winery, and it was one of the best shows I saw all year. It made you feel good to be alive.  Thank you Mavis.


5. Queens Of The Stone Age - Like Clockwork On one hand, I really like Josh Homme and all of his projects. On the other, I don't always go completely gaga for them as some others do. I really liked the Queens circa Songs For The Deaf, when they had three vocalists: Josh, bassist Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan. I thought that they sounded too "samey" once it was just Josh. And then I saw them at the Made In America festival. I thought they were great, and that the new songs were amazing, so I checked out the album, and really loved it. "I Sat By The Ocean" is one of my favorites. Josh got bonus points for calling Jay Z out after playing Made In America. I like some of Jay's stuff, but everyone else falls all over themselves trying to be his pal. Josh comes from a different era and a different school.

6. Arctic Monkeys - AM I really thought all the critics would go crazy over this album. They've been hyping the Arctic Monkeys forever. In my mind, they're one of the few bands that the media go crazy over who actually deserve the hype.  I loved their debut album, 2006's Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, and everything since. But I think this might be their best album. It combines their tight songwriting, which has always been a hallmark of the group, but also adds a lot of the "weirdness" that Josh Homme brought to the group when he produced their 2009 album Humbug. Josh actually sings backing vocals on a couple of songs here, giving him presence on two of my top ten albums of the year. Way to go, Josh!


7. Elvis Costello and the Roots - Wise Up Ghost More proof that both Elvis and the Roots can tackle any kind of music. A lot of this album reminds me of the Specials.  Sometimes these kinds of combinations can come off a bit contrived, but you know that with this one, it was all about mutual admiration and respect. I would love to see them tour together: imagine what Elvis songs they would revisit if they had time to rework some of his classics.  (In my world, Black Thought would be part of the tour and they'd do a bunch of Roots classics as well, Elvis could play along on guitar). Anyway, I'd file this with Elvis's great collab with Allen Toussaint, and the Roots' album with John Legend.

8. Black Sabbath - 13 Like everyone else, I approached this with managed expectations. I mean, could they still make a classic? Well, time will tell, but this album seriously kicked ass. And, OK, it doesn't  quite live up to the first six Sabbath albums, but it's at least as good as Never Say Die! and is better than Technical Ecstasy.  I obviously have a lot of feelings about the band: as I tell everyone I've ever met, I wrote the liner notes to the Black Box, and a while back was interviewed by A&E for a Sabbath doc. I was not disappointed by this album (other than the fact that they couldn't get it together with Bill Ward to have a full reunion; that said, Brad Wilk did a great job on the album, and Tommy Clufetos was great live). A lot of credit is due to producer Rick Rubin (him again!) but also to Ozzy, Tony and Geezer for bringing their A+ game. Especially Tony, who was going through chemo at the time.


9. Walking Papers - Walking Papers A new band featuring Duff McKagan on Guns N Roses and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and Mad Season. It sounds like nothing Duff has done, it's really more like Barrett's bands. In fact, singer Jeff Angell sounds a bit like Mark Lanegan. It's definitely a hard rock album, but more of a dusty Tom Waits type blues vibe (not a Clapton blues vibe). I was fortunate enough to interview Duff and Jeff for a Radio.com New Music To Know (read it here) and they were super cool. But what really turned me on to them was seeing them live on the second stage at the Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar Festival (see my review and my wife's photos here). They were really great, and I bought their album right there, and then reached out to get an interview. This isn't a "side project," it's a great band, please be clear. I hope they tour in 2014, I want to see them again!


10. Valerie June - Pushin' Against A Stone I also interviewed her for Radio.com's New Music To Know (read it here). I heard about her because some of the songs were produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (one of my favorite producers) and I think I'd read about her somewhere. I checked out her album and was blown away.  It would be great if she was a "zeitgeist" artist, but she's not going out of her way to enter the conversation for anything other than her amazing singing voice and her great songs. I think music lovers will be following her career for years to come.



So, there you have it. But ten isn't enough, here's a few other albums that I feel I have to add:

  • Daft Punk Random Access Memories It has my favorite song of the year (yes, "Get Lucky") and it sees them turning their backs on the EDM scene they may or may not have created, eschewing samples and using all live musicians, including Nile Rodgers. 
  • M.I.A. Matangi It has another of my favorite songs of the year ("Bring The Noize"). She's one of the most interesting artists today, consistently. 
  • Alice In Chains The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here In which they prove that the "new" lineup, with singer/guitarist William DuVall is for real. One of the most underrated albums of the year. 
  • Haim Days Are Gone Yeah, I'm with the critics on this one, too. I don't know how it's "indie" though, it sounds like '80s era Fleetwood Mac and Genesis, and I mean that as a compliment. Especially relative to what most indie rock sounds like these days. I saw them at Made In America and they were incredible. 
  • Aaron Neville My True Story In which he revisits his doo-wop past, on a stripped down record produced by Don Was and Keith Richards. 
  • Holly Williams The Highway The granddaughter of Hank, her artistry stands on its own. She's great. "Drinkin'" is devastating. 
  • Lindi Ortega Tin Star I discovered her opening for Social Distortion, she was great. I wish the press would pay attention to her, she surely deserves it. Another artist who I covered for Radio.com's New Music To Know. A super cool chick as well. 
  • Jason Isbell Southeastern The former Drive-By Trucker (who wrote my favorite DBT song, "Never Gonna Change") announced this album by saying it was the best thing he's ever done. Well, it is pretty freaking great. Check it out. 
  • Lone Bellow Lone Bellow A great new band, when they sing together it's magic. Do yourself a favor and check them out. 
  • Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park  Another time the critics are right. Her debut is excellent, she will get my vote for Best New Artist at the GRAMMYs. 
  • Hanni El-Khatib Head In The Dirt Another Dan Auerbach production, it's great garage rock from L.A. 
  • Sara Bareilles The Blessed Unrest I'm sorry to say that I only listened to this after it got a GRAMMY nomination, and well deserved. I interviewed a lot of music writers about her, all of whom were surprised, because she's not part of the zeitgeist, or the conversation. Which is all hte more reason to check this album out. 

Well, that's pretty much it. Bring it, 2014!


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