Some Really Great Albums From 2013 That I Liked A Lot

Alright, so here’s a non-exhaustive completely subjective list of some albums I really dug this year. I slept on a lot of good albums, and just didn’t listen to a lot of stuff- tell me what I missed. But these are the ones that really got me this year. I present them order kind of on sound/genre. Except the first one. That was my favourite.

I didn’t think I paid as much attention to lyrics as my thoughts below seem to suggest. So that’s a nice surprise.

Kurt Vile :: Wakin on a Pretty Daze

It took me a while to get into Kurt Vile. His earlier albums never really clicked for me, but man, this album. I don’t know why it took me so long. Vile’s mix of Americana, psych., and Big Star-ish nostalgia is right up my alley.

The album opens with the 9:24 semi-titular track “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” and dwells in pity and loneliness and alienation, but also affirmation and celebration.

The opening track finds Vile alone and alienated:

Wakin on a pretty day
For any place
No use sayin nothin
To explain it
To my loved ones today

And “Shame Chamber” is about alienation and unmet expectations. It finds Vile dwelling in self-pity and let-down:

Everyone’s sayin’ I should probably give up
And hey, I wouldn’t wanna waste no time
How can I even look myself in the mirror
Then again, why would I?

It’s just another day in the shame chamber
Living life to the lowest power
Feeling bad in the best way a man can

But it’s the juxtaposition of pity and affirmation, alienation and love that really works for Vile. “Was All Talk” takes on a past of big promises and expectations in a much more affirmative tone.

There is a time in my life that is
Gone I sometimes still go back to
Not to be all stalkin’ myself too much
When I get the upper hand
Here, in present days
Now take a look at my hands
Watch em go, watch me go
Yeah I’m goin… yeah I’m gone

And

Freak in the fog
In the sea of the storm
Makin’ music is easy:
Watch me

Sure, this might be the empty gesture of Vile trying to trick us (and himself) with false confidence. You know, they way you might say to an ex-lover that ‘ya, I’m great. Look how awesome I am.’ But I don’t think so. Vile is right at home balancing self-pity and affirmation. In “Snowflakes Are Dancing” he has found some comfort in music despite constant oscillation:

There is but one true love, within my heart
There is but one man, that I am
When I’m away out there, I wanna go home
When I am home, my head stays out there

Snowflakes are dancing, this man is pumping
Headphones are loud, chilling on a pillowy cloud
Comfort of codeine, and Springsteen pristine
You should sing just whatever

And the album’s final track, “Goldtone” re-asserts that music is where Vile finds his peace:

In the night when all hibernates I stay awake
Searching the deep, dark depths of my soul tone
Golden tones

I might be adrift, but I’m still alert
Concentrate my hurt into a gold tone

All that and it sounds pretty great too. So ya, I liked this album. Here’s a couple videos to look at.

Phosphorescent :: Muchacho

Matthew Houck blew me away this year. I had no idea who he was. But between this album and his earlier Songs to Willie, I was stunned. Muchacho is a thoroughly American album. And it’s no surprise that Houck is from Alabama and counts Cash, Nelson and other country greats, as well as the Muscle Shoals tradition, among his influences. Hell, the album opens with a rip on Johnny Cash and announces that while he holds this tradition dear, it in no way limits him:

Some say love is a burning thing
That it makes a fiery ring
Oh but I know love as a fading thing
Just as fickle as a feather in a stream
See, honey, I saw love,
You see it came to me
It put its face up to my face so I could see
Yeah then I saw love disfigure me into something I am not recognizing.

 

“Song for Zula,” might be one of the best tracks of the year, and but it’s “Terror In the Canyons” where Houck really lets us know who he is as a singer, songwriter, and man.

 

You can tell this is a guy who’s got his sound down, and you can really hear Nashville and the craftsmanship of country greats in the crescendos and flourishes in that track.

Bonus: Check out Houck’s intimate, solo performance at NPR’s Tiny Desk.

Yo La Tengo :: Fade

I have nothing left to say about YLT; or at least I have too much to say. They just keep doing it. I seriously think they are one of the best, most consistent bands of the century so far. These guys (and girl!) are true lovers and historians of music. Every year they put on a fund raiser for public radio station WEXP in NY where donators can request YLT play songs live. And they do a pretty great job.

They’re just cool too. They played out a legendary record store in Seattle- Easy Street Records- that was closing. The day before that Ira showed up at Seattle’s KEXP public radio to guest DJ a session using only albums and 45s he had bought while shopping in Seattle that weekend. I have a YouTube playlist of some of what he played. Get at me and I’ll send some links over.

Of course, all this says nothing about the record, which is great. I’ll stop gushing, here’s a video.

Mikal Cronin :: Mcii

I think this year had two big trends. Pop music went to the 80s and pulled out all of MJ and Madonna and Blondie’s tricks, and Rock music hit the 70s borrowing from Big Star, T. Rex, The Who, and oh so many others- let’s call the general idea ‘Power Pop.’ Like Wakin on a Pretty DazeMcii is something of a maturation album. Cronin sings about aloofness, confusion, and that general feeling of ‘what?!ness’ that many of the rest of us suddenly-something-like-adults-maybe? feel. The chorus of “Shout It Out” has him asking very familiar-feeling questions;

Do I shout it out? Do I let it go?
Do I even know, what I’m waiting for?
Oh no, I want it now,
Do I need it though?
Shit goes on and on and on and on and ooon, uhh.

Ditto “Am I Wrong?”

And am I wrong? I don’t think so
And am I wrong? I don’t think so

Where’s the sign? Where’s the sign I’m waiting for?
Where’s the cue to make it more than I ought to?
Help me out, easy now, I’m losing my mind
I’m just struggling to find what I need to

But even if these feelings don’t resonate for you, the guitar work and composition on the album is great. Cronin at least knows what he’s doing in these respects, blending surf-rock rifs and power pop nostalgia and construction.

 

Bonus: I saw Cronin twice  in one day at NXNE including one time on a boat. He kills live. Extra bonus: acoustic video with Ty Segall wailing away.

Ty Segall :: Sleeper

Mikal Cronin played with Segall for years, and still does. They’re buddies, I guess. Segall released something like 17 awesome albums last year (fact check: 3). This summer he dropped Sleeper. It took me forever to get my hands on the album, but pretty much no time to really like it. This one is pretty recent for me- it’s one of the albums I slept on this year- and so I don’t have a lot to say except that I’ve been listening to it all month.

James Blake :: Overgrown

Killer sophomore album from the 25 year old Brit.

 

Bob Boilen at NPRs All Songs Considered asked Blake about his influences, and Blake noted Sam Cooke especially. Boilen pointed out the stunning parallel between “Retrograde”, above, and Cooke’s “Trouble Blues,” especially the humming at the start and the juxtaposition of melody from the piano and the vocals.

John Grant :: Pale Green Ghosts

So we’ve moved on from the rockers to the crooners. And Grant is one of the best of those around. He’s sharp, witty, and aware. And his lyrics and consistently penetrating, though often funny. Even more often they’re funny in a way that’s supposed to point out some deep hurt. This is super effective when paired with Grant’s vocal and musical styles. Check out “GMF,” kind of a parallel to Vile’s “Was All Talk.”

Bill Callahan :: Dream River

This is another album I slept on a bit. But man, it’s real. Like Vile and Grant, Callahan knows his way around words, probably moreso than the other two. He’s been doing it a lot longer too. James Toth malaises the death of the kind of holistic approach to songs we find in Callahan in his piece “That’s a Bad Lyric and You Know It” for NPR.

All this praise for a guy who quips in the early parts of the album’s first track that “The only words I’ve said today are beer, and thank you. Beer. Thank you.” And it’s deserved praise.

 

I’ve got limitations like Marvin Gaye
Mortal joy is that way

Outside a train sings its whale song
To a long, long train long, long gone
Then silence comes back alone
High as scaffolding

‘Til the wind finds something to ping
When the pinging things finds the wind
We’re all looking for a body
Or a means to make one sing

Or the sentimental “Small Planes”

Bob Dylan :: Another Self Portrait (Bootleg vol. 10)

We’ve all assumed for ages that the 70s weren’t Bob’s best, despite some nevertheless great albums like Desire and Blood on the Tracks. He was struggling with the transition from being the kid in the 60s to being a father, husband, and man. When the original Self Portrait was released in 1970 the critics ripped it. Griel Marcus’ review for Rolling Stone asked “What is this shit?” and Cristgau gave the album a measly C PLUS.

But the bootlegs here show that while not all of Bob’s albums from this period were golden, he was still capable of making great music. The album seems to have caught Dylan between two selves, between Blonde on Blonde and Desire/Blood on the Tracks. So it’s not overly surprising that the official album missed a bit. But these tapes are is some of his best stuff, hands down. It’s a transitional Dylan, and he’s often at his best when he’s uncomfortable and looking for some sound to call home for a few years.

 

Bonus: The album contains probably the best version of one of my all-time-favourite songs- When I Paint My Masterpiece. I can’t find a legal copy on line, but email me. Or you know, get the album.

Atoms For Peace :: AMOK

I don’t have a lot to say about this album. It was pretty, pretty, pretty good. It was good enough to get me to go back to Yorke’s The Eraser from 2006 for more goodness.

 

Bonus: Their Austin City Limits show was great.

Kanye West :: Yeezus

I have a lot to say about this, but I’ve already said a lot in this post. So I’ll keep it quick.

You see it’s leaders and there’s followers
But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower

Kanye dont care what you think. We weren’t supposed to like his appropriate of white women as social capital, we weren’t supposed to like his use of Nina Simone’s version of Strange Fruit to reminisce about bad relationship. And we didn’t. Like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator and Danny Brown, Kanye’s only looking one way.   And that makes for a hell of an album.

Videos:

 

“Bound 2” was one of my favourite videos this year (that post later this week). You’ve seen it, so I’m not going to post it. But I will post “I Am A God”

Honourable Mentions

Boards of Canada- Tomorrow’s Harvest

Bombino- Nomad

Bonobo- all the stuff they did this year.

Case Studies- This Is Another Life

Chelsea Light Moving- S/T

Darkside- Psychic

King Khan & The Shrines- Idle No More

Lorde- Pure Heroine

Matthey E. White- Outer Face

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds- Push The Sky Away

Palma Violets- 180

Savages- Silence Yourself

Steve Gunn- Time Off

Thee Oh Sees- Floating Coffin

Happy New Year all.

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