Tuesday, December 31, 2013
2013 seemed destined at first to be a slump year, one of the first with a smaller number of releases in nearly two decades, until a mad rush in the fourth quarter pushed the number of worthy albums into the three-figure bracket. Once more, women dominated the playlists, particularly in the categories of truly memorable work. A handful of stellar works by Laura Marling, Civil Wars, Richard Buckner, Circus Devils, were balanced by dozens of decent but less remarkable works. There was definitely a feel of “reunion fatigue” in the air, with few reunions of old-timers outside of The Replacements causing much excitement.
Two releases were kept off on purpose. Sky Ferreira got ranking from several critics in 2013, but her “Night Time Right Time” album has an official street date of Jan. 7, 2014. Come back next year for a ranking. Beyonce got a lot of downloads for her December “secret” album, but I only go so far in following divas. (And as for R. Kelly, well he’s just vile.)
Our Specials section, as always, does not list reissues that do not add new content. I didn’t include Swans’ Not Here Not Now because I couldn’t score a copy – too rare.
Please remember that close to a thousand mainstream and indie albums are released annually, and this 150 or so represent the ones worth hearing. Sure, there are quality gradients between the top ten and bottom 20, but anything that makes this list is worth your perusal.
Next year should start out righteously with new releases from Springsteen, Mogwai, A Silver Mt. Zion, Xiu Xiu, and hopefully the long-overdue Psycho Sisters release. Let’s make a passing toast to the incomparable Lou Reed and all the others who left us in a year that may not have been stellar, but definitely had its moments.
1. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle – This was a shoo-in for the top slot from the first listen. Marling is only 23, but has three previous albums to her credit, all decent in their own right. But this time, she collaborated with Ethan Johns to create song cycles and medleys in a Kate Bush fashion, using a husky voice midway between Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. And the songs – most songwriters don’t have the maturity to write like this when they’re 60. An astonishing work.
2. The Civil Wars, s/t – This album apparently is a last will and testament for a stunning duo, though Joy and John Paul still may find a way to work together in the future. The inclusion of a few cover songs means they might have had to scrape the bottom to complete a full album, but what the heck, we needed a studio version of Civil Wars’ cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” anyway.
3. Richard Buckner, Surrounded – Buckner’s traditional cryptic lyrics and plaintive cries get some great engineering treatments from Tucker Martine, with the result being his oddest and maybe greatest since Impasse. It really doesn’t matter if we can’t figure out what the hell he’s talking about, as long as it sounds great and makes us cry.
4. The Invisible Hands, s/t – Alan Bishop/Alvarius B of the Sun City Girls gets together with some Egyptian musicians to produce an album that is surprisingly melodic and anthem-rocking. It is imperative that you hear the double-album of English and Arabic lyrics, so you can appreciate just what a special band this is.
5. Julia Holter, Loud City Song – OK, now I’m going to have to go back and find her bedroom tapes, because this woman is just scary good. Nothing to compare her to, really – Laurie Anderson? Amy X. Neuburg? Nah, not really. Julia is outer-galactical free-jazz vocals. She may get ethereal from time to time, but the dream-wave cover of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” forgives all sins. Seems like a mighty long time.
6. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots – The once-great duo had been diddling around between kids’ albums and not-so-great adult albums for the last decade or so, so it was almost shocking to hear a topical album with great riffs that comes close to rivaling the 1990 classic, Flood. What a treat to have memorable TMBG releases again.
7. Johnny Marr, The Messenger – We could give Johnny demerits for waiting 25 years to do a solo album, but when the lead guitarist of The Smiths and second-lead of Modest Mouse finally gets off his butt to go solo, you just know it’s gonna be good. And it is.
8. Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold – How is it possible for a band to sound like The Jam, Trumans Water, and New Fast Automatic Daffodils all at once? When they’re as flat-ass crazy as Parquet Courts. It’s exciting when a new band can scare and impress you this much.
9. Pere Ubu, Lady from Shanghai – The demos released at the Ubu web site already gave us a taste of what this would be like, but the fully-realized studio album shows us that David Thomas continues to have fresh ideas about where to take the classic band of the avant garage. It’s Ubu for another century.
10. Low, The Invisible Way – Some found the new album not quite as compelling as the last one, but the decision to feature Mimi on most vocals made this one stand out for me. And it’s hard to point to Low ever making a mediocre album, anyway. Bonus Edition Handicap: Copies with the bonus EP, The Visible End, are worth the search, though the EP will get its own coverage under singles.
11. Bill Callahan, Dream River – Bill’s rich baritone was always the key to making Smog albums special, but his solo work took on a new dimension when he added woodwinds a few years back. Now he’s into a certain scat-singing style and happy lyrics, which give the Callahan sound a suggestion of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece – except on Prozac.
12. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse – For a while, it seemed that Scott H. and friends were making conscious efforts to take the crown of “depressing Scottish indy band” away from the dearly departed Arab Strap. But with the new album, Frightened Rabbit has emerged as the undisputed champion of crying in your pint at the pub. Listen to songs like “State Hospital” and see if you don’t agree.
13. !!!, Thr!!!ler -- !!! has come out with a few albums, such as Myth Takes, that might be called the quintessential !!! dance album – except that this one really deserves the title. There are plenty of electronica-driven dance bands these days, but none revive the dirty funk of past eras as much as the mighty, mighty !!!.
14. Circus Devils, My Mind Has Seen the White Trick
15. Circus Devils, When Machines Attack – It’s hard to say whether Robert Pollard intended the dual releases of Circus Devils to be his most groundbreaking releases of the year, outshining Guided by Voices and solo releases. The Circus Devils project with Todd Tobias always was a repository for Pollard’s odder and more experimental works, but these two albums both rock and weird-out with a fervor, like a Broadway show from a surreal nightmare. Both albums are quite different from each other, both utterly fascinating.
16. The Arcade Fire, Reflektor – I don’t care how cool it is to hate Win Butler (and yes, the man can be pompous), Arcade Fire usually does overblown arena-rock right, and the decision to move to a disco-dance apocalypse simply gives this double-disc monster the feel of Bowie’s Station to Station. It’s fun, it’s epic, and it’s hard to find a 2013 rock tune as good as “Normal Person.”
17. Sleigh Bells, Bitter Rivals – After a second album that meandered too much into overkill, Alexis and Derek have gotten the balance back by adding cartoon overdubs and silly sounds. A fine album of irrepressible joy.
18. Skylar Grey, Don’t Look Down – The mysterious former folk-singer behind Eminem and Dr. Dre might have been expected to come to the fore with hip-hop, but she opted for a hybrid pop sound that fit her sensibilities perfectly. Great job of coming out from the shadows and into the light.
19. Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana – There’s something naturally appealing about Sadie Dupuis’ angular and occasionally dissonant style, bringing to mind Bettie Serveert, Breeders, Pavement, Throwing Muses, and more esoteric sources. A step forward from The Death of Speedy Ortiz.
20. Kanye West, Yeezus – Of course he’s an annoying asshole, but Kanye has been taking bigger risks and making more interesting music than Jay-Z, Drake, Kid Cudi, or dozens of other multi-million-selling hip hop artists. By turning to a strange industrial-punk sound, Kanye really challenged his fan base, and made it clear who was the real genius behind the Kanye/Jay-Z duo album, Watch the Throne. As much as it pains me to say it, it certainly wasn’t Jay-Z.
21. Haim, Days Are Gone – Three sisters who sound a little bit Roches, a little bit Bangles, a little bit New Order, a little bit Kimbra or Suzi Quatro, which adds up to a whole lot of fun. Maybe not perfect in every track, but a dazzling debut album.
22. Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up from Bones – On her first album, she was still the wide-eyed teenager discovered on Prairie Home Companion. By her sophomore album, it was clear she could write and arrange amazing folk-country pieces. For her third, Jarosz emerges as a master, both in the songs she writes, and in her covers of Dylan and Joanna Newsom. Simply wow, with several exclamation points.
23. CocoRosie, Tales of a Grasswidow – Their sound has been moving away from 1930s weirdness to more 21st-century beatbox, but the Casady sisters still write an ethereal dream music that sounds like nothing else on the planet. This one grows on you, and then won’t let go.
24. The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law – Ritzy sure has adapted to becoming an international star without posing or preening, but simply playing damned good guitar, writing stunning rock songs, and being as genuine as can be. Good to see JF receive the attention it deserves.
25. M.I.A., Matangi – M.I.A. continues her political invective, but adds Bollywood-raga hip-hop and some suggestions of a past-lives circle of reincarnation in her single “You Always Live Again.” That’s not merely relevant, it’s transcendent.
26. Flaming Lips, The Terror – At least we can credit Wayne with playing the Heraclitus game of never stepping into the same river twice. After a couple jam-session albums that were fun and loose, FL returns with a dark, somewhat scary album that serves to remind us why the band’s influence lasts and lasts.
27. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get – We know from albums like Middle Cyclone and Fox Confessor that Neko saves her most eclectic songwriting for her solo albums, reserving more mainstream pop for New Pornographers. The new one continues in this vein, offering a capella voice experiments and very stark lyrics in a fascinating potpourri. Bonus Edition Handicap: The expanded edition is worth it for both the hardcover book of art and the duo with Eric Bachmann.
28. Lorde, Pure Heroine – At first listen, some might wonder if the world needs a teen Kiwi version of Lana Del Rey, but on Prozac. Then you realize that most 17-year-olds in music are making dancey tween-pop, and Lorde is on to an intelligent mix of urban smarts and odd musical arrangements. Surprisingly good stuff herein. The voice sometimes takes on an Ellie Goulding quality, but the musical arrangements are more adventurous.
29. Beer Damage, Hobo On the Face of Music – Pete Swanson is probably on a bigger roll than any other experimental musician of the last few years, and this outing with Brian Sullivan might be his best this year – or is it the Punk Authority EP? This release has all the mystery and weirdness of the best Yellow Swans releases, but with the humor and sense of play turned up to 11.
30. Janelle Monae, Electric Lady – If we ignore the fact that the concept albums are a little too over-staged, with this one giving us superfluous DJ radio patter, Monae is just as amazing on her second album as she was on her first. Bringing sci-fi to the soul world is tricky enough, but pulling in influences from Aretha Franklin to Gloria Gaynor makes it twice as stunning. And does it translate to live performances? Oh yeah, with emphasis. Quite the trick for a working-class girl from Kansas City.
31. Califone, Stitches – Califone took a break after the mighty Funeral Singers release and film in 2009, and Tim Rutili took the band on a series of house concerts in the fall of 2013. This album has a fuller sound than those wonderful stripped-down acoustic shows, and gives Califone a sense of almost country or Latino weirdness.
32. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away – Something about this haunting work makes it one of Cave’s most compelling works in a couple decades. Heavier suggestions of Leonard Cohen and Mark Lanegan, but still Cave through and through.
33. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up, Ghost – This unusual collaboration has some of Elvis’s hardest-hitting political and cultural lyrics of this century. The only thing keeping the album from the top ten was that ?uestlove elected to give us the Roots sound from Jimmy Fallon, rather than the Roots sound from earlier albums. Still, even smooth Roots is a nice mix with Costello. Bonus Edition Handicap: As with Neko Case, get the deluxe one both for the fancy book and for the extra tracks, a worthy investment.
34. The Dead C, Armed Courage – The triumphant return of New Zealand’s Dead C, with two 20-minute tracks designed to drill holes in the brain. Note that the Dead C vs. Rangda album in the Specials section was recorded several years ago, while this album is brand new.
35. Tired Pony, The Ghost of the Mountain – Would there be a way to get Gary Lightbody to dispense with Snow Patrol and spend all his time with this relaxed, country-style side project? Peter Buck from REM has a lot to do with how good this sounds, but Lightbody’s singing and lyrics also make it a treasure – and far less prone to tedium than Snow Patrol.
36. Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus – There are many decent instrumental dance and drone bands out there, but Fuck Buttons continuously remains at the top of the heap due to their complex, strident, and compelling sounds, suggesting elements of Godspeed or King Crimson. This one will grab your ears and not let go.
37. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe – Is there a soul in modern synth-pop? This Scottish duo will make you a believer, sort of a lyrical companion to Fuck Buttons.
38. The National, Trouble Will Find Me – Many fans considered this a step down from High Violet, though I was convinced there was a lot to like here, as Matt got more personal and cryptic. Still, repeated listens couldn’t propel it into the Top 10, where The National often ends up.
39. Jucifer, No Life Beyond the Volga – Few people realize what a great amateur historian Gazelle Amber Valentine is. She and Ed went all-out to create a history of the WW2 defense of Stalingrad, getting narrative and a-capella singing voices in Russian (curated directly from Volgograd) to flesh out this monster of a sludge-metal album. The only frustration is that Amber sticks to her heavy-metal growl throughout the album, offering none of the melodic acoustic ballads from L’Autrichienne and other albums. Still, a necessary element of the Jucifer canon.
40. Polvo, Siberia – As its title suggests, this moody ice album is a little more cryptic and hard to break into than 2009’s In Prism. If you’re willing to put up with uncertainty and shivery nights, though, there’s a lot to like in this album.
41. Guided by Voices, English Little League – By taking a bit more time and being a bit more judicious with the GbV title than in the three separate albums released in 2012, Robert Pollard has given us some distilled GbV whiskey. The only problem is that the immense greatness of this year’s dual Circus Devils albums pushed the GbV entry down slightly.
42. Paul McCartney, New – The only reason this wasn’t in the Top 20 or so was because it’s just hard to compete with whippersnappers when you’re 70. Still, this album is nothing short of amazing, sounding quite a bit like The Beatles while not intending to. The best songs are not the ones reminiscing on the Quarrymen years, but the ones in which Sir Paul is thoroughly 21st century. A gem. Bonus Edition Handicap: Of course you need to get the extended version. Every additional song by McCartney is worth it.
43. Cate Le Bon, Mug Museum – Cate ranks a little lower than some women mega-stars, but only because of her proudly eclectic nature. In her U.S. tour at the end of 2013, Cate proved how she can combine a strident rock-star sensibility with odd and dissonant mixes of keyboard and guitar. The songs here are more mature and reflective than in her first two albums, and it’s about time everyone started paying attention to this weird Welsh wiccan.
44. Jason Isbell, Southeastern – It’s hard to directly refute those who would place this album at #1 for the year. (OTOH, it’s easy to refute Pitchfork for putting Vampire Weekend at #1.) Isbell writes some of his best material here, better than anything he’s done with Drive-By Truckers. And in some songs like “Elephant” and “Songs That She Sang in the Shower,” he confronts subjects almost too difficult to set to lyrics. The arrangements are good, but they’re standard Southern rock and acoustic country. Maybe for my Top Ten, I want something a little more unexpected a la Laura Marling or Richard Buckner.
45. Sebadoh, Defend Yourself – Wow, did Lou Barlow come back with a vengeance! Yes, he’s playing with the reunited Dinosaur Jr., but I’ve always thought his work with Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion was more important. This album scarcely has a weak cut, just Lou at his strident, nasal-vocal best. Bonus Edition Handicap: The vinyl version comes with a single of two non-album tracks that are as great as anything on the album itself.
46. Bettie Serveert, Oh Mayhem! – This comes down a notch from Bettie’s last effort, 2010’s Pharmacy of Love, if only because the riffs were a little less original. Still, it is amazing that Carol van Dyk keeps cranking out album after remarkable album. She lets her voice take her in new and strange directions for this one. At least The Netherlands treats Bettie Serveert as a national treasure, but it’s well past time the U.S. and other nations begin giving the band the respect it richly deserves.
47. Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium – This is Will Sheff’s personal bit of surreal teen history, almost an indie rock version of Quadrophenia. This probably deserves higher ranking, with stunning songs like “Walking Without Frankie” and “Down Down the Deep River,” but it’s an odd jewel to fully comprehend.
48. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City – Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that Vampire Weekend has grown out of college preppiedom, and are no longer making the same album over and over again. This album is interesting in many coming-of-age ways, but it certainly didn’t deserve the album of the year ranking it got from Pitchfork – not even a Top 10. There’s simply nothing as clever as “Oxford Comma” or “M79” within.
49. Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt – Hey, give Eddie some love! This is good! Seriously, there seems to be a cottage industry of picking on Vedder these days, which makes it hard for some to realize that this is a fine album.
50. Cage the Elephant, Melophobia -- These Kentucky young-uns started out trying to be a more intellectual version of Blink-182 for a 21st-century crowd, but have matured over three studio albums and a live CD/DVD into being a fascinating band that takes influences from everywhere, melding them into a very unique whole.
51. Pissed Jeans, Honeys – More so than their first two albums, or than most strident punk bands outside Dillinger Escape Plan, PJ is all about making frantic work.
52. Rhye, Woman – Nice falsetto R&B stylings from Canadian singer Milosh, though it works better in a mix with more strident material. Good after-midnight wine-drinking music.
53. Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost – The problem with being as adventurous as Sam Beam is, is that sooner or later you have to make an album that sounds a little like what has gone on before. But when Sam can reach for works derivative of something as fine as Kiss Each Other Clean, even a release that is a bit repetitive is still worth many, many listens.
54. Melt-Banana, Fetch – They’re baaaack, the heroes of Japanese Dadaism. Now incarnated as a duo, M-B still can crank out crazy sounds like no-one’s business, thanks largely to Yasuko Onuki’s powerful voice and surreal lyrics.
55. Robert Pollard (Teenage Guitar), Force Fields at Home
56. Robert Pollard, Honey Locust Honky Tonk – Bob gave us dual summer releases, of which HLHT was supposed to be his foray into country. Don’t believe it, these are straightforward great Pollard pop tunes. But his home-recorded, single-take tunes under the name of Teenage Guitar are more interesting in bringing back the early days of lo-fi GbV. Pollard is like no one else in his ability to crank out necessary music.
57. Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone – VJ started her career as a music traditionalist in the manner of Carolina Chocolate Drops, but this album finds her bringing more Motown and Stax sounds into the mix, with great results. This woman is on a rocket to critical acclaim, if not mega-stardom.
58. Savages, Silence Yourself – Let’s be clear: This British quartet of angry women define a sound that brings to mind 1978-era Siouxsie and the Banshees. That alone makes their work critical. But their posturing to be the Dadaist, anti-marketing equivalent of Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, or The Slits, just doesn’t seem legitimate, as though it’s anarchism as a T-shirt slogan. A lot of people place Savages in their Top Ten. I can’t do that, but I’d recommend the album to anyone.
59. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris – This precocious teenager may not be as groundbreaking as Tyler the Creator and other Odd Future members paint him to be, but Sweatshirt offers up better hip-hop poetry, loaded with unique imagery, than most artists 10 or 20 years older. Sweatshirt is a lyricist to watch.
60. Maria Taylor, Something About Knowing – The post-baby, post-marriage Maria hasn’t sunk into connubial bliss. This album has a more conscious intent to cross rock, folk, and country boundaries than any of her previous work, solo or with Azure Ray. This may seem to be ranked low, but Taylor deserves to be recognized as one of the premiere women vocalists of the South (or worldwide).
61. Bardo Pond, Peace on Venus – As I mention in the Specials list, BP seems to have a legion of detractors today, saying the band is lost in its magic mushrooms. This is great material, just like the last s/t studio album, so stop with the bashing.
62. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt – Katie Crutchfield is so admired for her DIY bedroom-tapes roots and anti-commercial posturing, she was treated as the darling of SXSW and is a favorite of NPR radio. But Waxahatchee is still a work in progress, a fine effort, but maybe not the Top 10 caliber some critics suggested this year.
63. David Bowie, The Next Day – We can be thankful for Bowie’s mere return to the planet Earth, and long-time fans were crowing that this was a classic work, but the more honest listeners would admit after a few listens that The Next Day more closely resembles his uneven 1990s albums. A worthy effort, to be sure, but not up to his 1970s classics. Bonus Edition Handicap: The longer album is a must for all true Bowie fans, though the extra songs are not essential for the casual listener.
64. David Rovics, Meanwhile in Afghanistan – The anti-commercial folkie creates his first full-sound concept-rock album, and it pulls no punches. An album to wake us all up.
65. Alela Diane, About Farewell – Her best album yet covers the varieties of breakup, divorce, heartbreak, etc. She’s tough, but this is a challenging album.
66. Phoenix, Bankrupt! – Phoenix has made a career out of shapeshifting, but with Wolfgang Amadeus, the band found a Talking Heads/Tapes & Tapes type of sound it could live with. The new one may not reach the heights of Phoenix’s last go-round, but at least Thomas Mars has dropped that silly dance phase he went through with Alphabetical.
67. Astral Social Club, Electric Yep – The only reason for putting this release in Studio and Destination SNFU in Specials is because the latter was released only on cassette. In all ASC 2013 work, we get a taste of Neil Campbell’s new efforts to mix ambient-drone-noise with happy beats and an alleged love for 1970s pop. It all sounds weird, but it all sounds as good as ASC’s Happy Horse.
68. Robert Pollard, Blazing Gentlemen – And to make Pollard’s 2013 excursions an even half-dozen, we get this December release which provides us with classy power-pop and few wasted tracks. What a year.
69. Franz Ferdinand, Right Words, Right Thought, Right Action – A worthy effort to inject new energy into the FF version of power-pop. The band runs into the same problem as established acts like The Strokes – how do you sound fresh and keep to a style at the same time? A fun album in any event. Bonus Handicap Edition: The two-disc version with a live album, Right Notes Right Words Wrong Order, is an absolute gem.
70. John Vanderslice, Dagger Beach – It goes without saying that a breakup/divorce can focus the mind like the prospect of a good hanging, and Vanderslice gets some interesting if painful mileage out of his wife suddenly leaving him. Straightforward and experimental at the same time.
71. Deerhunter, Monomania – Never was as nuts about Deerhunter (or any of Brad Cox’s projects) as some people are, but I have to give these guys credit for shaking it up by creating a grungy punk album. A definite move to diversify, with good results.
72. Linda Thompson, Won’t Be Long Now – No intent to place our favorite female folkie so far down (hell, her ex-husband is even further down). It’s just great to have Linda back among us. This is an odd mix of tunes of recent vintage and a couple older recordings (one from Gangs of New York soundtrack), proving that Linda still has her voice, her wry songwriting ability, and her good sense in picking out traditionalist songs to cover.
73. Dawes, Stories Won’t End – This L.A. band has the Jackson Browne late 70s thing down perfectly, and can write damned good songs besides. Perhaps this should have been higher, but I have the sense that Dawes tries too hard to bring back a Southern California mentality that is of dubious value.
74. Quasi, Mole City – It’s great to have go-go divorcees Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss back together as a duo again, and this one has a lot of fine drumming and Who-flavored sounds, but nothing quite as memorable as American Gong here.
75. Deer Tick, Negativity – John McCauley made a decent recovery from Deer Tick’s crappy last album, Divine Providence, and is now set to marry singer Vanessa Carlton at the end of 2013 (she shows up on this album). It’s the richest of any Deer Tick albums except perhaps Black Dirt Sessions, but I couldn’t get it up to even the Top 50, which is maybe all my fault and not McCauley’s.
76. Future of the Left, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident – Something seemed a little withheld or repetitive in this year’s album compared to previous FotL, but still worth a listen.
77. The Strokes, Comedown Machine – I actually feel sorry for Julian Casablancas and friends, since they’re trying to make their music sound fresh, but they’re still stuck under the shadow of 2001-era Strokes. What to do?
78. Magik Markers, Surrender to the Fantasy – It’s great to see Elisa Ambrogio and her posse get the benefit of another commercial release from Drag City, though it rarely hits the highs of 2009’s Balf Quarry. Magik Markers dwells in an odd space of underground releases which make no compromise in their noise roots, and commercial releases that throw in a little melody, though this album has its own degree of weirdness.
79. Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Record – It’s pretty obvious Fiery Furnaces won’t be getting back together soon, so we should judge this album against Eleanor’s last solo release. She opted for a more focused and defined effort to capture a 1970s sound, yet it doesn’t always display the simple nostalgic joy of Last Summer. Still, her music is always a pleasure.
80. Wire, Change Becomes Us – This was billed as material from the 154 period of Wire, dredged and re-recorded in 2012. Some people swear by it as some of the most amazing Wire material ever, I think it’s interesting and adequate but scarcely earth-shattering.
81. Sigur Ros, Kveikur – This album was described as the alter ego of 2012’s Valtari, and ends up sounding a bit like Mogwai as a result, and that is very cool. Still, Sigur Ros’s singing in their imaginary language is self-limiting for the band after a while.
82. Blitzen Trapper, VII – I like BT a lot, particularly when I compare them to other Dylanesque bands like Avett Brothers, who seem to be more popular. While 2010’s Destroyer of the Void was wildly experimental and 2011’s American Goldwing was a Southern-rock sendup, this year’s album is a mixed bag with a lot of traditionalism thrown in. It may not be profound, but it’s a lot of fun – more fun than the new Avett Brothers, to be sure.
83. The Dismemberment Plan, Uncanney Valley – It’s so nice to have Dismemberment Plan back, it pains me to rank the new studio album this low. But let’s face it, the band always was more uneven in the studio than live. Travis Morrison is able to write astonishing lyrics at times, but at other times, like in his solo album, he can get very maudlin. The new one has great moments, but more maudlin ones.
84. The Dillinger Escape Plan, One of Us is the Killer – DEP can be a unique growler of a post-punk band, but this one has the group reaching to gain a little diversity, and making some very interesting music as a result.
85. Chelsea Light Moving, s/t – It’s nice to see the post-Sonic Youth Thurston Moore get involved in a simple and straightforward rock music project, but this isn’t as interesting as his noise/poetry work with Anne Waldman and Clark Coolidge. Maybe Moore has dwelled too long in weirdo-land to be considered just another punk rocker.
86. The Haunted Windchimes, Out with the Crow – Pueblo’s favorite old-timey traditionalist band pull out a full-length set of super songs, though it still is an acquired taste for those into a 1930s scat-country revival.
87. Lee Ranaldo and the Dust, Last Night on Earth – Hard to determine whether I like the riff-poppy or Neil-Young-jammy side of Lee better, but this album didn’t grab me as much as last year’s, despite its similarity to Crazy Horse.
88. Cults, Static – Madeline Folin can write some very nice tunes of the Best Coast/Tennis/Dum Dum variety, but her partner Brian Oblivion layers it in the type of fuzz favored by Trailer Trash Tracys. Nice, but covered in a cotton-candy gauze.
89. Pond, Hobo Rocket – It takes an odd talent to make parody rock that also worships the eras and genres it lampoons. These knuckleheads from Western Australia get the mix just right. You could even listen to this album in a straightforward fashion as a fine party mix.
90. Kings of Leon, Mechanical Bull – Make no mistake, it’s great to see Caleb Folowill out of rehab, and I’m happy to get a new KoL, but the band deliberately decided to work its way back up to stardom slowly, with an instrumentally-favored album in the grand Southern rock tradition. A fine jam session, but without the typical pop riffs that made KoL the champions of a pre-meltdown era.
91. Jim James, Regions of Light – Speaking of grand Southern rock traditions, I was expecting an overly-precious and precocious album from My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, but instead we get a sincere and well-arranged selection of Southern ballads and complex weirdo gospel. Probably ranked lower than it deserves to be, as James put his heart into this one.
92. The Stooges, Ready to Die – This actually had more moxie than Iggy’s last foray with his new Stooges lineup, but you can’t help but feel that Iggy really is having a near-death experience, as he’s going through the motions of the old Stooges.
93. Arctic Monkeys, AM – What I said about The Strokes holds equally true for Arctic Monkeys. Two albums ago, AM tried to shake things up by sounding a little more like The Doors, now they’re trying to meld different Arctic Monkey periods into one unified sound. Decent work, but nothing bowled me over.
94. Cut/Copy, Free Your Mind – These folks have that dance-psychedelia thing down well, and this may be the most representative of C/C albums, but Dan Whitford’s too-cute tenor reminds me of why the band could never be !!! or Fuck Buttons. Then again, I’d rather listen to Cut/Copy than Daft Punk.
95. The Dodos, Carrier – Maybe I should respect the fact that Meric Long intended this album as a concept memorial to deceased Dodo Chris Reimer, but somehow, without the backing vocals of Neko Case that graced the last album, the music seemed to meander.
96. Body/Head, Coming Apart – Seems that many people wanted to place this high on their avant-garde music list, if only to make sure that Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth was seen as every bit the innovator as her ex-husband Thurston Moore. Problem is, this album aspires to be weird and experimental, but is not exceptional at what it does. I’ve always liked Kim, but didn’t find a lot to like in her new duo Body/Head.
97. Local Natives, Hummingbird – On the plus side, this band experimented with a lot more layered sounds than were present in Gorilla Manor. But in so doing, they lost that early Talking Heads sound that made them fascinating, and ended sounding more like 1970s-era progressive rock. In my mind, that is not a good thing.
98. Steve Earle, Low Highway – At this point, anything Steve Earle does in his career will get my approval, but these songs seem to be a bit also-ran.
99. Mt Eerie, Pre-Human Ideas – Hard to decide whether this belonged in studio or specials albums, as it is a remix of sorts. Phil E. comes up with some good and some odd ideas. This one mostly works, but is an acquired taste.
100. Lady Gaga, Artpop – Is this the most diverse and intriguing Gaga album? Absolutely. Is it maddening and annoying? Absolutely. Despite her promise and desire to be avant garde, the Gagster can’t stop talking about her big bad self, and what a slutty sex symbol she is. At a certain point, you’ll be throwing up in the back of your throat, all thanks to Lady Gerdga. Still fun to hear every once in a while.
101. Grant Sabin, Anthromusicology – Only ranked this low because he’s still a Southern Colorado local trying to break into the blues bigger time. A fine collection of originals and covers, exquisitely mastered.
102. Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork – Many swear by this as a milestone in Queens work. Maybe my skepticism is because Josh Homme is starting to wear on me. A worthwhile effort, but not a clock-stopper.
103. Son Volt, Honky Tonk – When some people say, “This is my country album,” it means the album is less interesting than others in the canon. This is certainly true of Sheryl Crow, who did not even rate an entry this year with her country album. Unfortunately, it’s also true of Jay Farrar and Son Volt, who only started some mellow fires with this one.
104. Richard Thompson, Electric – Some fans may kill me for having the mighty R. Thompson this low, and well below his former wife. This album has some great individual tunes in it, but it doesn’t have that special bite of Thompson’s best work. If you’re already a fan, you’ll want it anyhow.
105. Yoko Ono, Take Me to the Gates of Hell – I admire the hell out of Yoko for making music this powerful when she’s 80 years old. My only gripe is that this was intended, at least in part, to be a traditional, commercial pop album. When she really lets loose with crazy shit, as in last year’s collaboration with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, she gets much more interesting.
106. Fuzz, The Fuzz – Some people are fanatically obsessed with anything Ty Segall does. He seems to be me to be a very prolific and competent drummer and multi-instrumentalist and not much more. Fuzz is too fuzzy, too brief, too typical hard-rock.
107. Atoms for Peace, Amok – The idea of pairing Thom Yorke with Flea certainly was a good one. The result had intriguing moments, but nothing as good as Yorke’s solo work or his albums with Radiohead.
108. My Bloody Valentine, mbv – I have a confession to make. I found MBV boring throughout most of their original 80s and 90s career. Their much-heralded reunion is worth a few spins on the CD player, but reminds me of why I never had MBV on my favorites list.
109. Eels, Wonderful, Glorious – It’s been evident through Mark E.’s string of recent bipolar albums that Eels/Mark is at its/his best when in a deep depression, while the happier albums are sort of SSRI-induced Eels Lite. Which does not mean I advocate deliberate depression for better creativity.
110. Ethan Johns, If Not Now, When? – Given Johns’ excellent work with Laura Marling, and all the chatter about his solo efforts, I was expecting something amazing. These are unadorned, pleasant and sometimes intriguing songs, but nothing to startle or surprise.
111. Future Bible Heroes, Partygoing – Some of the work Stephin Merritt does under his alter egos, such as Gothic Archies, FBH, or The Sixths, is throwaway material that didn’t make it onto a Magnetic Fields album. This is better than toss-away, but not memorable.
112. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience, Parts 1 and 2 – If Justin would have stuck with a Part 1, this effort might have ranked higher, as his production was exceptional this time around. Unfortunately, he released a second album of outtakes that simply wasn’t as good as the first part, and thereby weakened the entire effort.
113. She & Him, Volume 3 – Is it due to Zooey Deschanel’s over-exposure that this album sounds tired in its execution? Not entirely, it seems that Zooey and M. Ward might be running out of good tunes.
114. Yo La Tengo, Fade – As releases go on and on from Ira and friends, I’m forced to conclude that the ethereal style practiced by YLT is simply a genre that doesn’t inspire me very well. Nice, but transient and forgettable.
115. Bad Religion, True North – Strident as always, though Greg doesn’t grab me in much of this album.
116. Devendra Banhart, Mala – DB really tried to come up with a good mix of English pop and Spanish traditional sounds, but not much stuck with the listener long.
117. Explosions in the Sky, Prince Avalanche original soundtrack – Let’s give Explosions credit for trying something completely different for this soundtrack – classical chamber music sounds! Not for every taste, but a bolder effort than trying to emulate Godspeed You Black Emperor.
118. Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest – These guys get demerit points for constructing such an odd series of puzzles surrounding Record Store Day, to build up hype for an apocalyptical instrumental album which pretty much fails to tell us anything we haven’t heard before.
119. Billy Bragg, Tooth and Nail – Always happy to see Bragg fighting the good fight, though it doesn’t compel me to get up and protest.
120. Loren Conors & Thurston Moore, The Only Way to Go is Straight Through – Nice to have Conors back for a new outing, though this duo didn’t inspire as much as I had hoped.
121. Morcheeba, Head Up High – In the 1990s, this British ensemble was like a precursor to Black-Eyed Peas. One would guess that their reunion would find them older and wiser, but it sometimes comes across as a lounge version of Morcheeba.
122. Avett Brothers, Magpie and Dandelion – Part of this ranking reflects that I’m pissed off that among the younger Dylanesque country-folk bands, Avetts have a bigger following and demand higher ticket prices than, say, Blitzen Trapper. It’s simply not deserved. There are a few good songs here, but this band is way over-hyped.
123. Octa#Grape, Red UFO – Glen Galloway of Trumans Water and Soul-Junk is back with a rockin’ band that is fabulous live. This album, however, is a rough cut demo type of affair that will be of interest to fans, but not casual listeners.
124. Camper Van Beethoven, La Costa Perdida – David Lowry has come back to re-cast CVB as a more straightforward band with a Latino twist. It’s bright and bouncy, but missing the CVB snarky wisdom.
125. Barn Owl, V – The new kings of odd drone offer one of their weaker affairs, but still something worth hearing.
126. Eminem, Marshall Mathers LP2 – Did it take Eminem a certain amount of guts to revisit his MM character of decades past? Of course, and he deserves credit for that. But Eminem is 40 and still angry without good cause, making this album somewhat maddening.
127. Laura Veirs, Warp and Weft – It’s tough to admit it when a Colorado Springs hometown girl gets a big new audience in the Pacific Northwest, but starts releasing less interesting material. Hmm.
128. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories – Let me lay my cards down up front. This is a well-crafted and intriguing album. But these guys are way too calculated and way too into deliberate marketing tricks. As talented as they may be, Daft Punk creep me out.
129. Drake, Nothing Was the Same – Sorry, I don’t care what a million-seller Drake is and how many folks love this album, this is mostly tedious hip-hop, except for the more experimental tunes in the longer version of this album. Bonus Edition Handicap: If you must hear new Drake, go ahead and buy the longer version, because it is only within the bonus songs that Drake really strives for something outside the hip-hop mainstream.
130. Besnard Lakes, Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO – Besnard Lakes is Canada’s answer to Low, but they’ve always been a bit too precious for me. In this album, they go from occasionally profound to often annoying.
131. Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Orb – More Tales from the Orbservatory – While these two worked well together in the last collaboration, this album is mostly a series of outtakes, and is not really a full album, but a collection of remixes.
132. Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail – Hard to believe I’d rank a million-selling hip-hop album lower than Drake, but Jay-Z promised us conspiracies and political relevance, and delivered champagne swilling with his rich friends. Like Gatsby with flat champagne.
133. Gauntlet Hair, Stills – This Denver post-Goth band killed the advance hype coming out for this album by breaking up when it was released. They relied so heavily on 80s sounds we’ve heard before, it almost was a non-event they broke up.
134. Retribution Gospel Choir, 3 – Alan Sparhawk is wise to hand the microphone over to Mimi, because what he does himself with Low and with this side band has been less interesting in the past year or so.
135. Superchunk, I Hate Music – So many friends are lovers of Superchunk, it’s sort of like Yo La Tengo – I hate to admit in public the band doesn’t do much for me.
136. Washed Out, Paracosm – Some people swear by this chillwave, but I think Washed Out expresses little more than its desire to sleep.
Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.)
1. Various Artists, Absolutely Cuckoo: Minnesota Performs the 69 Love Songs – It’s been nearly 15 years since Magnetic Fields dropped 69 Love Songs on the world, and I’d been expecting an ambitious covers attempt for at least a decade. But who would have expected a collection from unknown Minnesota acts to work so well? There might be ten or a dozen clunkers out of 69, but the surprise is how many of these covers stand up to Magnetic Fields’ originals. Well done, Minnesota.
2. Diane Cluck, Live at Joe’s Pub – Diane may not have offered us studio recordings for more than five years, but this gem from NYC Taper proves that she has loads of great new material, and a new cello collaborator that enhances her work a hundredfold.
3. Hopeful Heroines, Goddamn Mess (Live) – Xanthe and Harriet are captured at a lively outdoor event, with Animus Invidious doing some fine mastering. This is the sparkling gypsy side of HH, and my only complaint is that there is little evidence of what Xanthe calls the dark and spooky side present in their first EP. I like a touch of gloomy and spooky, even in happy and hopeful heroines.
4. Various Artists, For Tom Carter (the Deserted Village/Bandcamp Benefit Collection) – In 2012, two groups of experimental musicians put out two benefit compilations for improvisational guitarist Tom Carter, who was in a coma in a Berlin hospital (he’s fine now, albeit broke). Not to be outdone, the Deserted Village collective released an 8-CD benefit in 2013 with nearly nine hours of music, this time with as much traditional-acoustic as jazzy and spacey stuff. A marvelous listen, and you get to chip in to Tom’s recovery.
5. Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads – This one falls under Specials despite being a studio album, because Anais and Jeff are covering the curated work of Francis Child, who compiled old English folk ballads. This is a stunning collection, which Anais performed from in the Black Forest in May 2013 while very pregnant with her first child. Not to be missed.
6. Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano, The Raw and The Cooked
7. Bill Orcutt, A History of Every One – Bill Orcutt, founder of noise ensemble Harry Pussy and later a specialist on the de-tuned Kay acoustic guitar, gave us two astonishing works in 2013. His live album with Corsano shows just how far acoustic music can go in spazzed-out noise, while his solo work for MIE is a set of covers of American traditional songs – though in true Orcutt fashion, it’s hard to distinguish “Onward Christian Soldiers” from “Massa’s in the Cold Cold Ground.” If you’re looking for harsh musical deconstruction, no one does it better than Orcutt.
8. Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait – Given that the first Self-Portrait caught Dylan at his nadir and was simply not very easy to listen to, it’s surprising how this double album turns out to be the best of the Bootleg series. Bonus Edition Handicap: There is a version of this album out there with four discs and two hardcover books, but that seems like overkill to me.
9. Shearwater, Fellow Travelers – Shearwater doing covers? Well, they got some help from Clinic, St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and other friends, to cover songs as diverse as Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv the Valley Oh!” to The Baptist Generals’ “Fucked-Up Life.” And as a bonus, they gave us a single with Sharon Van Etten covering Stevie Nicks, a bonus 45 covering songs by Swans and Mountain Goats, and a split 45 with Low covering Rihanna and Frank Ocean. Damn and double-damn.
10. Clinic, Free Reign II – There are Clinic fans who will tell you this LP (vinyl-only) of Free Reign remixes is better than the original album. I won’t go that far. The two versions of Free Reign are quite different, and both deserve a listen. If you are a fan of the original, you must hear the sequel.
11. Christina Carter, Texas Modern Exorcism – Christina is delving further into the spoken word as shamanist chant, and in fact published her first poetry chapbook in 2013. This album shows her transition from guitar-drone and voice-drone to poetry and story-telling, with a fascinating mix of all such styles.
12. Not for Pussies, Demon – Janette and Brian are crossing an interesting terrain with their third album, combining hypnotic drones a la Charalambides with some beautiful traditionalist singing from Janette. As a result, NfP dwells in a land of traditional and experimental which Pelt, Jayme Stone, Charlambides, and not many other bands call home.
13. Xiu Xiu, Plays Nina – A scary time was guaranteed when Jamie Stewart decided to sing Nina Simone, but what was not expected was the assistance from two giants of modern jazz, Tim Berne and Ches Smith. It appears as though Berne and Smith now consider themselves semi-regular members of Xiu Xiu, and will appear on a new studio album in February. This album polarizes like crazy, with some people despising it and some hanging on every note. Hey, it’s Xiu Xiu anti-music and it’s Nina Simone. If Jamie wasn’t pushing the envelope so hard it was ripping apart, this wouldn’t be Xiu Xiu.
14. Bardo Pond, Rise Above – Way too many people ignored this Record Store Day special of BP covering the music of Pharoah Sanders and others. A very special tour de force. Bardo Pond haters can simply be dismissed as stupid, thank you very much.
15. The Beatles, Live at the BBC – No, it’s not superfluous, but it’s a collection designed for those wanting one-off informal versions of early Beatles numbers, and the covers they used to perform. Think of the mix that used to be on The Beatles cartoon show, and imagine those songs in a studio. An interesting addition to the canon.
16. Thurston Moore, Anne Waldman, and Clark Coolidge, Comes Through in the Call Hold – Probably Moore’s most important work of 2013, and a good way to introduce Coolidge’s and Waldman’s poetry to a wider audience. This album has the wacky sense of fun of Moore’s and Gordon’s collaboration with Yoko Ono. Anyone who thinks that Waldman in particular can be overbearing in her hippie sense of righteousness, Moore won’t let either poet go there – all three make righteous fools of themselves.
17. Jimi Hendrix, People, Hell & Angels – Yes, this is legitimately new Hendrix studio discoveries, and yes it’s good stuff. Perhaps the best post-mortem collection to have emerged from the vaults to date.
18. Bill Callahan, Live in Washington, DC, Nov. 14, 2013 – This NPR podcast is recorded in a refurbished synagogue, and shows why Callahan’s group he’s put together for the Dream River sessions spotlights the songwriter in his finest hour.
19. No-Neck Blues Band, Faramingo Josei – This came out mid-year as a free download of the rumored “lost” No-Neck album, but was released on a vinyl LP at year’s end. It still belongs in Specials because it is a document of a mid-decade NNCK, featuring the experimental band at its most whimsical and weird.
20. Rilo Kiley, Rkives – Not simply a collection of B-sides, but a fine series of songs recorded throughout Rilo Kiley’s varied and illustrious career. Since it has the definitive version of Jenny Lewis singing “The Frug,” it is already an essential recording, wouldn’t you agree?
21. Heather Leigh Murray, Me-Ba – Heather has suddenly dropped the pedal steel guitar and vocals of her recent work, solo and with Jailbreak, in favor of a sonic assault worthy of Fushitsusha. Are you brave enough to follow her into a land of bardos and hells?
22. Neil Young, Live at the Cellar Door – This latest installment from Neil’s continuing live recordings features a solo Neil in early 1970, just as After the Gold Rush came out. It features songs from the first s/t album, and a wonderful version of “Bad Fog of Loneliness.” The recording quality is exceptional.
23. Pelt Part Wild Gate, Hung On Sunday – A fine gamelan drone album, featuring members of Pelt, Dead C, and Part Wild Horses. Whenever Pelt decides to make a supergroup jam session, good results are virtually guaranteed.
24. Ani DiFranco, Live in Buffalo – If you were to own only one Ani live album, this double-disc solo acoustic set finds her introducing powerful new material, and digging back into her catalog to Not a Pretty Girl and older fare. A fine work.
25. Astral Social Club, Destiny SNFU – Neil Campbell played some wild games with ASC material this year, and this cassette release may include some of the best. ASC work since 2010 has been playful, confusing, ridiculous, and essential.
26. Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood, Black Pudding – It’s hard to know whether to list this as studio or special, as it’s a unique collaboration with results as unexpected as Lanegan and Isobel Campbell. Heavy on the blues for this duo out, and interesting.
27. The Replacements, Live at Riot Fest – Rather than focus on the Songs for Slim work of the reformulated Replacements, it might be more worthwhile to dig out 2013 live sets like this one, which includes some of the band’s best 1980s material, so you can fully appreciate why a Replacements reunion was important.
28. Belle & Sebastian, Third Eye Centre – B&S have so much extra, B-sides, and unrecorded material, this is by different counts either their third or fourth album of extras. That might seem excessive, but when Stuart and company go into the studio, even the leftovers beat most bands’ first-string material.
29. Dead C and Rangda, Dead C vs. Rangda – Neither band contributes what might be classed as new material, but the album is set up as a unique guitar wank-off. Great fun.
30. Wilco, Live at Solid Sound Festival – A classic Wilco double-CD set from their own curated festival.
31. Savages, Live in Washington, Nov. 20, 2013 – If you’re doubting the special nature of a Savages live show, this NPR podcast shows them at their best, even if they’re a little more contrived than they wish to appear.
32. Comets on Fire, Knitting Factory, 09/08/06
33. Six Organs of Admittance, The Lost Electric Six Organs Album
34. Purling Hiss, Live on WKDU, 2011 – Three newest releases from the Six Organs-related Silver Current Records, capture these three related bands at their finest live glory.
35. Merzbow, Kookaburra – Scary shit from Australia, but of course it is. It’s Merzbow.
36. Tom Carter, Live May 2013 – Tom is back! And in fine form! Nothing more need be said.
37. Mt. Eerie, Live in Bloomington, IN, 2011 – An interesting acoustic set where Phil introduces some of the material for his two 2012 studio releases.
38. Jucifer, Nadir – A rough-cut and somewhat frightening work, reproducing Jucifer’s first cassette demo efforts from the mid-1990s.
39. Mark Kozelek, Like Rats (covers)
40. Mark Kozelek, Live from Phoenix Public House
41. Mark Kozelek, Perils from the Sea
42. Mark Kozelek, Kozelek and Desertshore – OK, Mark is beginning to exhaust me in the Robert Pollard/Ty Segall sort of way. Which means the material is good, but how many collaborations and acoustic live renditions of Sun Kil Moon can we handle? Still, none of these albums are bad.
43. Steve Malkmus, Plays CAN’s Ege Bamyasi – An odd and appealing vinyl-only LP of Steve covering CAN’s Ege Bamyasi album in a live concert.
44. Tindersticks, Across Six Leap Years – An odd but compelling rehash of the band’s 20-year history, with reworkings of classic songs like “A Night In.”
45. Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat Expanded – This sort of qualifies as more than a re-release, since there are outtakes included in the box set. And who doesn’t need a remaster of the original Verve set?
46. Mark Lanegan, Imitations – Lanegan offers us minimalist covers of some of his favorite songs. An eclectic mix, sometimes odd, but occasionally wonderful, particularly his cover of “You Only Live Twice.”
1. Parkay Quarts (Parquet Courts), Tally All the Things That You Broke – First they grace us with a fine debut album, then PQ issues an EP under a joke name that provides more power pop and a hippie jam as the capper. What a year for this crazy band.
2. Pete Swanson, Punk Authority – Seems like last year was Swanson’s year, until he gives us this wild EP along with the exquisite Beer Damage album. Pete is defining experimental music the way his former band, Yellow Swans, did five years ago.
3. Idea Fire Company, The Terrible Comet Salt – The soundtrack to a short film from a few years back, with spoken word narrative by Darren Goss, that is almost like a twisted version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as told by Edward Gorey.
4. Best Coast, Fade Away – Three years ago, Dum Dum Girls achieved a breakthrough with a superb EP followed by an equally impressive album. Beth Cosentino is aiming for the same type of breakthrough and to a large extent, she succeeds. BC’s first two albums were impressive enough, but this EP shoots the band into new songwriting levels.
5. Robert Pollard and Sunflower Logic, Clouds on the Polar Landscape – The best of Pollard’s short-form work this year, and an impressive understated piece of pop weirdness.
6. Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater, Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around –This Stevie Nicks cover was mentioned in the Specials section as an adjunct to Shearwater’s covers album, but deserves a mention here as a fine piece of pop.
7. The Joy Formidable, Minute’s Silence – An excellent appetizer from Ritzy and her friends to accompany the band’s full-length in 2013.
8. The Invisible Hands, Insect Dilemma – If you’ve heard the band’s debut album in either English or Arabic, you know it is essential to pick up everything they release.
9. Emily Earle, News from Colorado – Steve Earle’s 19-year-old niece puts out a damned impressive CD, proving once again that the Earle family musical dynasty will have far greater longevity than certain Duck Dynasties we could mention.
10. No-Neck Blues Band, Gitanjali – This was from a recording session that Re Bi Xibalba had been sitting on for a few years, finally released as a 10-inch record. And a powerhouse it certainly is.
11. The New Mendicants, Australia 2013 – Fans waiting for another Pernice Brothers release may have to rely on NM sounds, as Joe Pernice is apparently making this his new project. It has all of Joe’s familiar smooth vocals.
12. Low, The Visible End – Offered both as a bonus to the band’s full-length, and as a separate release, this EP packs the power of The Invisible Way in a small package.
13. Dawes, Stripped Down at Grimey’s – None of the songs on this EP may be the best version ever recorded, live or in studio, but it represents a wonderful sampler of some of Dawes’ most emotionally wrenching songs.
14. Flaming Lips, Peace Sword – It’s sort of absurd the band refers to this as an EP, since it clocks in at nearly 40 minutes, but it’s intended as a happy psychedelia answer to the full-length album The Terror. As a result, it sounds more like typical Flaming Lips than the unusual melancholy of the full-length CD.
15. Destroyer, Five Spanish Songs – You have to hand it to Dan Bejar for trying something completely different for outtakes from the Kaput sessions, though the songs aren’t startling or keepers for the ages.
16. The Replacements, Songs for Slim – Nice new benefit tunes for a very sick member of the former Replacements, but as mentioned in the Specials section, the recordings of live sessions during the reunion tour are more interesting.
17. Astral Social Club, Metal Guru – Once again, it’s hard to call this an EP, as ASC has packaged a seven-inch record with a 45-minute CD, offering what are supposed to be cover versions of T. Rex’s “Metal Guru” and Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” – though of course, with Neil Campbell’s sense of weird electronic play, the sounds within do not seem to be covers of anything at all.
18. Glen Hansard, Drive All Night – After Hansard’s lackluster solo LP following the breakup of The Swell Season, it’s good to see him come back with an impressive cover of Springsteen and three original songs, including a cameo appearance by ex-lover Marketa Irglova.
19. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up: Thought Remixes – Some fine remixes from Wise Up Ghost, with appearances by Black Thought and members of Sharon Jones’ Dap Kings band.
20. The Civil Wars, Between the Bars – With no reunion in sight for the moment, Joy and John Paul give us a 10-inch record with some fine leftover covers, most notably the title cut and “Talking In Your Sleep.”
21. Frightened Rabbit and Manchester Orchestra, Grouplove – More a split than a true collaboration, it’s good to see two wonderful and different bands as FR and MO together on one piece of vinyl.
22. Smoke Fairies, Upstairs at United, Vol. 6 – In theory, the Upstairs series should be good, particularly for a bluesy duo like Smoke Fairies. In practice, the renditions aren’t that much different from SF in the studio, but this is a necessary one for fans.
23. Tennis, Small Sounds – Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley tried the same thing Best Coast did with this EP: They’ve grown from a form of yacht rock in their first album, to a fuller sound in last year’s Young and Old, and now want to move the five songs here up another notch in order to be taken seriously. The leap may not have been as successful as Best Coast, but the effort is not a bad one.
24. Guided by Voices, Down by the Racetrack
25. Guided by Voices, Noble Insect
26. Guided by Voices, Xeno Pariah
27. Guided by Voices, Trash Can Full of Nails
28. Guided by Voices, Islands
29. Guided by Voices, Funky Minnows – The GbV singles-spinoff machine was working full tilt in 2013. Except for the first release, the multi-song Down by the Racetrack, all are two-song singles taken from English Little League, with many of the B-sides written by Tobin Sprout. So of course you have to go hear all of them.
30. Imagine Dragons, Live at Independent Records – Even if you think IR are getting far too much publicity, this live EP is a decent effort, and proceeds of the very cheap CD go to charity, so fork it over.
31. The Fuzz, Live in San Francisco 2013 – Ty Segall seems to be everywhere these days, with his grunge band Fuzz being the most popular project with which he is associated. This is a four-song EP that catches Fuzz at its fuzziest, neo-hippie psychedelic best. Doesn’t mean it’s stunning, just a bit of fun.
32. Front Country, s/t – A very impressive Sacramento-area bluegrass band with their first EP, suggesting we soon may hear a lot more.
33. Low/Shearwater, Rihanna/Frank Ocean split – Oh, come on, even if the covers are fairly silly, you have to have this single for the sheer weirdness involved, right?
34. Robert Pollard, Tonight’s the Rodeo
35. Robert Pollard, Return of the Drum Set – Two singles from Pollard’s December full-length, Blazing Gentlemen, with the latter referring to Pollard’s big spat with former GbV drummer Kevin Fennell over a $57,000 drum set offered on eBay. Some worthy music within – Rodeo has an interesting B-side in “Astral City Slickers,” though this song has nothing to do with the GbV song “Finks,” which made the phrase infamous.
36. Elephant Revival, It’s Alive – The Nederland, CO sincere hippies put out a fine little live set giving newbies a chance to find out what the excitement is all about.
37. Octa#Grape, As Long As I Forget
38. Octa#Grape, Emotional Oil – Former Trumans Water singer Glenn Galloway issued a full-length with his new band in 2013, but also two singles which seem to offer better recording aesthetics. Rough-cut stuff, perhaps, but Octa#Grape is someone we’ll be hearing more about.
39. Lorde, Tennis Court – Oh sure, you’ll want to get the extra B-side here, simply because Lorde is everywhere at once and her songs are all hypnotizing at first listen.
40. Ghost, If You Have Ghost – Dave Grohl produced this covers effort from the Swedish parody metal band, Ghost BC, who cover everyone from Roky Erickson to Abba to Depeche Mode. Fun in a very strange sort of way.
41. K-Naan, Waiting is a Drug – An impressive RSD debut for a new R&B artist who covers Dylan and isn’t afraid to add found sounds to his work.
42. Pixies, EP-1 – I’m including this at the end in deference to Pixies fans, and because the new songs aren’t bad, but lately everything Frank Black has done with Pixies has pissed me off, so this is recommended with a big grain of salt.