Favorite albums of 2013

Does the world really need another best-of-2013 music list? Of course not (which is why my sense of urgency was low enough that I didn’t get around to finishing it until just now), but I wrote one anyway. It’s a top-28 list, because that was where I decided I was done.

I’ll start with #1 momentarily, but first, here’s a Spotify playlist to listen to while you read (or to listen to instead of reading, if you want, I’m not your mom).

1) Janelle Monae, “The Electric Lady”

I appear to be a sucker for eclectic funky-soulful-jazzy ladies (see also #10 and #18). Many friends had recommended her earlier album “The Archandroid” to me, but I still managed to miss it (I think I was underwhelmed by “Tightrope” when I heard it on the radio and so didn’t go out of my way to hear more). Anyway, this album is all over the map in the best way, and I liked it so much I even overlooked that it has SKITS, usually a guaranteed demotion. It’s also possible Janelle is the beneficiary of my having bought her entire oeuvre all at once, leading me to overrate this album slightly based on my collective enjoyment of all 2.5 albums … but what the hell, this isn’t an exact science.

2) Prefab Sprout, “Crimson/Red”

Prefab Sprout have been mostly on hiatus for a while, and the last album they did release was a spruced-up unreleased album, so hooray for this one, which is all newly recorded but sounds like it could’ve been released alongside any album from their prime and fit right in. Some of these tracks feel like little master classes in how to write songs, particularly “The Old Magician.” Not available on Spotify, so you’ll have to head over to YouTube to hear samples.

3) Eleanor Friedberger, “Personal Record” / Wesley Stace, “Self-Titled”

I hadn’t been following Eleanor Friedberger’s solo career because I’d tried out her former band, the Fiery Furnaces, and never much liked them. On paper, the Fiery Furnaces seemed like just the sort of brainy overcomplicated thing I usually love, but despite multiple attempts, only a few of their songs stuck with me. But then I heard that Eleanor’s new album entirely consisted of collaborations with one of my favorite songwriters, Wesley Stace (formerly known sometimes as John Wesley Harding), so I had to give it a shot — and holy crap, what an album (and what great 70s-sounding production). Later I looked into it a bit more and realized that most of the Fiery Furnaces’ songs were by Matthew Friedberger, So, apparently I only like one Friedberger sibling. Meanwhile, two of the Stace/Friedberger collaborations appear in alternate versions on Wesley Stace’s first album under his own name, another excellent album in a recent string of same (“Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead,” “The Sound of His Own Voice”). His album also shares her 70s-radio ambience and confessional subject matter, solidifying all the more my brain’s opinion that these two albums ought to get filed together.

4) Paul McCartney, “New”

Well, Paul McCartney, he’s pretty good, I suppose. “I Can Bet” reminds me of something from “Press to Play” but I haven’t figured out what.

5) Neko Case, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You”

Neko Case’s voice is pretty much always transcendent, but sometimes her albums shoot me right in the heart (“Fox Confessor…”) and sometimes they glance off (“Middle Cyclone”). This is in the first of those groups, and has the added benefit of rocking out a little more than usual (on “Man”), something I’d been hoping to hear.

6) David Bowie, “The Next Day”

After the dead zone that was Bowie albums for a long time (“Earthling,” “Outside,” “Hours” … meh), “Heathen” and “Reality” were a huge relief, proof that he hadn’t lost it. Going back to them now, they’re still good, but I find them a little unexciting. Especially compared to this one, which is (let’s all say it together) the Best Bowie Album Since … “Black Tie White Noise!” (Oh, sorry, I probably ruined the unison there, because I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority in loving that one.) There are a couple of sleepy tunes here, and it’s tempting to downgrade this for the asshole move of releasing a special bonus disc edition mere months after the original release (which itself had a regular version and a deluxe version), but I can’t do it, it’s too good.

7) Bryan Ferry Orchestra, “The Jazz Age”

What’s that? Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry songs rearranged for 20s-style jazz band, recorded on vintage equipment? You would have to lock me in a box and bury it deep underground to keep me from acquiring that. I hope this stuff is making the rounds on the swing dance circuit.

8) The Dismemberment Plan, “Uncanney Valley”

A critically unloved comeback by a critically beloved band. I don’t really get what’s not to like here, really. Sounds like the Dismemberment Plan to me! I suppose there are a couple of places that have a little feel of “we’re trying to figure out exactly how we used to do this” that’s probably going to be inevitable when you have a group that used to do this for a living ten years ago and is now doing it on the side in between having regular jobs, but come on. At least half of this is great and the rest is certainly all songs I would much rather have existing in the world than not.

9) Ghost Train Orchestra, “Book of Rhapsodies”

I discovered Ghost Train Orchestra by happenstance, while looking up the Raymond Scott Orchestrette to see what they were up to — which turned out to be opening for the Ghost Train Orchestra at a CD release show. I wasn’t able to make it to that show, so I just bought the CD instead, which, I reasoned, was a lot like a concert that didn’t require standing up for two hours. Anyway, this album features a few Raymond Scott tunes, but also the works of some lesser-known eccentric bandleaders not far from the Raymond Scott aesthetic, played to perfection. Those pieces were the main attraction for me but I was also pleasantly surprised to find the Raymond Scott pieces to be inventively reinterpreted (particularly “Celebration on the Planet Mars,” stretched out to like four times its usual length).

10) Alice Smith, “She”

Alice Smith’s 2007 debut, “For Lovers, Dreamers & Me,” was a great, eclectic soul album that made me look forward to what she would do next … but unfortunately, what she would do next would apparently be “have record label troubles,” leading to a six-year hiatus before her follow-up emerged. But hey, better late than never. At first it didn’t grab me quite as immediately as the first album, but it’s been growing on me steadily. Now I’m ready for more again. One option: everyone buy this album and make Alice Smith a huge success, and maybe the unbelievable asshats at Sony will change their minds and decide to release the completed but inexplicably shitcanned Alice Smith album they’ve been sitting on for years.

11) Julia Holter, “Loud City Song”

This is either as eccentric and jazzy as you can get while making dreamy pop, or as dreamy and poppy as you can get while making eccentric jazz. Reminds me a little bit of Kate Bush, but reminds me more of one of my favorite albums of last year, Mimi Goese and Ben Neill’s “Songs for Persephone.”

12) Daughn Gibson, “Me Moan”

This is one of those albums where if you describe its contributing elements, it does not quite sound like a thing that should work. Country music riffs sampled, chopped, and spliced in a sorta-hip-hop way, plus a deep-voiced singer who kind of sounds like he’s doing a caricature of a country crooner’s vocal tone (or maybe it’s more like Ian-Curtis-as-country-singer). You made your own genre, sir! Good show.

13) Robyn Hitchcock, “Love from London”

Well, if you know Robyn Hitchcock, you kinda know what to expect from any new album. You know it’ll be, at the very least, decent, and it will probably mention fish at some point. I tend to prefer (lately, anyway) his more acoustic, harmony-heavy releases, like “Spooked” or this one.

14) Elvis Costello & the Roots, “Wise Up Ghost”

I’d like to extend a personal thank-you to Questlove for helping to make Elvis Costello interesting again (a service Elvis Costello has himself provided to other songwriters in his day).

15) Johnny Marr, “The Messenger”

Johnny Marr has one of the greatest guitar sounds ever, so while I’ve enjoyed plenty of his post-Smiths work (Electronic, his guest appearances with Pet Shop Boys), it’s been odd how rarely his guitar has really been front and center. I mean, what was that shoegaze crap he was doing with the Healers? Yeesh. Anyway, this album sounds very Smithsy-sans-Morrissey, and although Morrissey’s entertainment value is undeniable, I am kind of sick of his pissy shenanigans, so it turns out Smithsy-sans-Morrissey is juuuuuust right for me right now.

16) Ethan Lipton, “No Place to Go”

This is a jazz song cycle about a company relocating to Mars, and the plight of the workers who don’t want to relocate to Mars and are left behind, jobless and drifting. One of the songs is from the point of view of the last sandwich left over from a catered meeting. That probably gives you enough information to know if you want to hear this.

17) Rhye, “Woman”

This is kind of a retro-80s new-wave-meets-yacht-rock kind of thing. Some bits remind me of Fleetwood Mac, or Sade, or maybe a little Bronski Beat. Anyway, it’s solid enough to be well worth hearing on its own merits, nostalgia value aside.

18) Laura Mvula, “Sing to the Moon”

The livelier songs on this are what got my attention at first (“Green Garden”, “That’s Alright”), but there are some amazing arrangements and harmonies throughout (“Like the Morning Dew”, “Make Me Lovely”). There are still a few tracks where my attention wanders, but this is quite a debut album.

19) TMBG, “Nanobots”

They Might Be Giants! Still great! Still throwing a ton of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, just the way I like it!

20) Agony Aunts, “Big Cinnamon”

A band I discovered via Scott Miller’s “Music: What Happened?” — though it would be more accurate to say that’s actually how I discovered the Corner Laughers, of whom the Agony Aunts are a more psych-influenced alter ego. I enjoy the lyrical constraint of the verses in “Family Drugs”, where lines recur with syllables dropped out (“You disregard what I say / I guard what I say”).

21) Mike Keneally, “You Must Be This Tall”

I love Mike Keneally, a prog-rocker who can seemingly do just about everything; he’s equally impressive on guitar and keyboards, and is a highly inventive songwriter who can somehow make a song catchy and fun despite it being ridiculously complicated. That said, this album isn’t my favorite of his, though it’s still quite good; it just feels kind of like an odds-and-ends collection, which it basically is. Really you should go hear “Wing Beat Fantastic” (his collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge), “Dancing”, or “Wooden Smoke” first.

22) John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts”

It’s possible this one is underrated here just because I only discovered it very late in the year and haven’t listened to it much. Skimming it again for the sake of this list, I’m realizing how good these lyrics are — dark, funny, and unexpected.

23) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Brooklyn Babylon”

Another late discovery (but hey, that’s a benefit of not finishing this list until the end of January). If you think big-band jazz should be more influenced by Steve Reich, here is the album for you.

24) Analog Birds, “No-Knock” (single)

I heard about this band (which, like a lot of music on this list, falls into the “oddball but catchy” category) on an mp3 blog. Their entire oeuvre-so-far is available for free download. Mixed feelings! Yes, it’s crappy that a band this good seems to have no non-tip-jar-based income, but hey, at least they exist and you can hear them!

25) Wire, “Change Becomes Us”

The current incarnation of Wire goes back and reworks some uncompleted songs from around the breakup of their first incarnation, which is to say, their prime. This isn’t quite the second coming of “154” (it would be #1 with a bullet if it were), but it’s definitely a big step up from their last few albums, which have sounded pret-ty samey to me.

26) My Bloody Valentine, “mbv”

The fact this exists at all is pretty impressive given how long the universe has been waiting for a new My Bloody Valentine album. Honestly I’m not a megafan — I agree “Loveless” is great, but it’s the kind of thing I listen to and am basically satisfied with that amount of that kind of thing instead of wanting to shout to the skies UNIVERSE GIVE ME MORE OF THIS — so I reacted to its announcement not so much by passing out from shock and joy but more by being like “oh, huh, whaddaya know…I reckon I oughta buy that thing there.” And yeah, it’s good! Now I have another thing to listen to when I want to hear this kind of thing!

27) Masami Tsuchiya, “Swan Dive” (EP)

At the same time I’ve been working on this “favorites of 2013” list, I’ve also been working on a “favorite things I heard for the first time in 2013 that did not themselves get released in 2013” list. Masami Tsuchiya, a Japanese guitarist/singer/songwriter who has worked with David Sylvian and Arcadia, among others, was on that list, and while I was looking on Spotify to figure out which of his songs to include, I saw that he actually released this EP, which I’d had no idea existed, in 2013. Well, okay then!

28) Grant Hart, “The Argument”

I’m more of a Bob Mould fan when it comes to Husker Du boosterism, but hey, other guy from Husker Du, gotta say I did not expect you to come up with a half-decent concept album based on “Paradise Lost”! This might have appeared higher on the list, but when I say “half-decent” I am being fairly literal; there are a lot of songs on here I don’t much like at all. But the good songs are very good, so. Here it is.

The sweet music of the 1970s

In the hours before going to see Cheap Trick play Coney Island on Friday, I was giving “Surrender” a quick listen as a sort of vaccination against disappointment just in case they didn’t play it (which, I mean, what was I thinking? Of course they were going to play it, it was their closing song) and this got me contemplating my other favorite songs of that era and then, the next thing I knew, I was working on a list of my 20 favorite songs of the 1970s. Which is often how these things go with me. (It could also have turned into a mix CD.) This list is not me trying to weigh in on the “Greatest Songs” of the 70s in some tendentious Rolling-Stone so-it-is-written-by-the-hand-of-the-rock-god kind of thing (hence no “Long and Winding Road”, because not only is that really a 1969 song that snuck in on a technicality, but when you get right down to it, I’d rather listen to most Wings song than that song). It is just a chronicle of personal affection for these songs, which for all I know I may be good and sick of in a few years. All right then.

#20+: Various

Yes, I had more than 20. Way more. Nearly making the cut (in no particular order): “Night Fever”, Bee Gees; “What Is Life”, George Harrison; “In the Street”, Big Star; “Wuthering Heights”, Kate Bush; “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, Billy Joel; “September”, Earth, Wind & Fire; “Seven Seas of Rhye”, Queen; “Got to Give It Up”, Marvin Gaye; “Lust for Life”, Iggy Pop; “Draggin’ the Line”, Tommy James and the Shondells; “Sail On, Sailor”, the Beach Boys; “Lady Marmalade”, Labelle; and then there’s Genesis, which mostly didn’t make it because picking one Gabriel-era Genesis song is a weird thing to try to do. I go to Genesis more when I’m in the mood for “that kind of thing in general” rather than any specific song. I guess it would’ve been “Firth of Fifth” if I’d picked one, maybe?

#20: “Velvet Green”, Jethro Tull

I almost said “Thick as a Brick”, but that feels like cheating. That’s a bunch of songs smooshed together into one 40-minute “song” but you’re not fooling anyone, guys. I prefer the “Songs From the Wood”/”Heavy Horses” era anyway, that being one of the rare times where Jethro Tull were choosing an identity that doesn’t make me want to wince too much. I mean, I like their old bluesy stuff too but at that moment they were basically being the Mumford and Sons of their day.

#19: “Trampled Under Foot”, Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin is a band I’ve overlistened to, but this song is the one that, for a while, would make me go “Oh right, this song, I forgot about this song!” when I trotted out the “Physical Graffiti” album. Eventually I started remembering I liked it.

#18: “Is It a Star”, Hall and Oates

Todd Rundgren was gonna be on this list somewhere, and here he is. His songs “Hello It’s Me”, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, and “I Saw the Light” are all songs that define the sound of the 70s, but (as with Led Zep) I’ve kind of worn all of them out from overlistening. But Todd tends to pour his sound into his production work, and this combination of Rundgren-style progginess plus Hall & Oates hooks is just my cup of tea.

#17: “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”, Chicago

Oh the perfect horn charts of Chicago, mmmmmm, yes. They actually titled this “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday” but I had to do a Fixed That For You above because that is WRONG WRONG WRONG, “everyday” with no space is an ADJECTIVE as in Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” (which I was so ready to put on this list but it’s from 1968 whaaaaaat? That dude was ahead of his time), but when it is used in the sense of the adverb “daily” it is a PHRASE. Looks like Chicago should have consulted the … Chicago Manual of Style. *drops mic as waves and waves of applause, cheering, and laughter break out*

#16: “The Thrill of It All”, Roxy Music

Obviously “Country Life” is the best Roxy Music album when I’m playing it instead of 1982’s “Avalon”, which is the best Roxy Music album when I’m playing it instead of “Country Life”. When I’m not playing either one they exist in a quantum state of mutual bestness.

#15: “I’m Not Down”, The Clash

One must have rules when one sits down to make a list like this because, well, because only People Who Make Rules for Themselves are the kind of people who make lists like this. One of my rules was “one song per act”, which makes things difficult when you’ve got the Clash and “London Calling” and one of the greatest track listings ever. I could’ve picked “Hateful”, “Lost in the Supermarket”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”…but this was the one I liked best today.

#14: “Say You Love Me”, Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac in the 70s is kind of a case study in “Greatest Songs That We’re All Tiredest of Hearing”. “Don’t Stop”? “You Make Loving Fun”? “Rhiannon”? I’m looking for a new radio station to switch to just thinking about them. And this song sorta seems like it should be in the same category, but nope, can’t get enough of it. The only thing I don’t like about it is the use of the word “woo”. “You woo me until the sun comes up”? Is it just me on this? I feel like wooing is what happens before the all-night love session, the start of which is the signifier of having wooed successfully. This has been the first and presumably only installment ever of the Fleetwood Mac Usage Panel Report.

#13: “Rats”, The Kinks

From the album with “Lola” on it, this is a Dave Davies song instead of one of Ray’s. I mean, Ray Davies is legendary — who’s gonna argue with “Waterloo Sunset” — but his music-hall-style larking about gets tiring sometimes (of course it was later in the 70s that it really got intolerable) and anyway that’s not even important, the point is jeez I love the guitar in this song.

#12: “Jet”, Wings

This would probably be a few places higher but the constant string of great hooks in this song is undermined slightly by lyrics that make no sense and were clearly composed in a haze of pot smoke. And wow, I don’t remember ever seeing this NSFW artwork used for the single.

#11: “Mystery Achievement”, The Pretenders

Why hasn’t this song been resurrected? I think about it every time I’m playing a video game and see the array of “secret achievements”. (Also, it’s great, but I guess that’s sort of a given since that’s the whole premise of the list.)

#10: “Surrender”, Cheap Trick

Honestly I had kind of forgotten the existence of this song completely (and could not have told you who performed it if you’d played it for me) until it cropped up in Guitar Hero II and it was like eating a fucking electric madeleine.

#9: “See No Evil”, Television

Television’s two-guitar interplay tickles the same part of my brain as listening to Steve Reich. Runner-up song from this album was “Elevation”, with its outrageously awkward-yet-therefore-perfect overly sudden guitar accent, but “See No Evil” is more fun (if a song with lyrics that I tentatively interpret as “a hyper-intellectual expression of understanding the drive behind wanting something and not caring who gets hurt or what gets damaged in the process of getting it” can be described as “fun”).

#8: “Rosalita”, Bruce Springsteen

I’m not really even a Bruce Springsteen fan — I mean, he’s fine, nothing wrong with him — but cripes, this song. Between the total exhilaration of pre-superstar Bruce shouting “The record company, Rosie, they gave me a big advance!” and Clarence Clemons playing what I’m gonna say is alllllmost the best saxophone on this list, I just, come on.

 #7: “Close to the Edge”, Yes

This doesn’t make any more sense than “Jet”, of course, but to me the lyrics function just fine as the imagistic component of a great composition for electric chamber rock orchestra. Unlike the aforementioned “Thick as a Brick”, this is 20 minutes that’s definitely just one damn song, and a fine one it is.

#6: “Map Ref. 41°N 93°”, Wire

Hardest-to-remember song title ever, from a band of brainy post-punk provocateurs, so how is this so goddamn catchy? Here’s one thing that delights me about this song — after a convoluted, dense verse lyric about how mapmaking affects reality, Colin Newman brightly announces “Chorus!” right before the main hook lands.

#5: “I Zimbra”, Talking Heads

I’m a little surprised with myself that this is Brian Eno’s only appearance on the list (cowriting the music with David Byrne). These lyrics are also nonsense but this being a setting of a Dadaist poem that’s just how it is. This was Talking Heads’ first time doing the New Wave take on Fela-style African funk, done more expansively on “Remain in Light” (eternally duking it out with Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming” for the position of my favorite album ever), but I love how tight and concise this is. I sort of want to arrange this for four ukuleles.

#4: “Baker Street”, Gerry Rafferty

Some primal part of me wants to pick a fight with the rest of me for not putting this at #1. I mean, it has that saxophone, obviously the best saxophone riff of the 70s. Although what the hell, hang on, I just looked at Wikipedia and that riff is basically straight out of this Steve Marcus song (written by Larry Coryell), although I guess the argument-slash-reason nobody sued anybody is that both riffs were based on an old blues riff or something? Aaagh this new information is changing my whole universe … I don’t … HA HA HA HA THE SHOCK HAS WEAKENED FRANCIS, LETTING ME, HIS PRIMAL SELF, ESCAPE! THIS BULLSHIT DOESN’T MATTER! STOLEN RIFF SHMOLEN SHMIFF! “BAKER STREET” IS STILL THE BEST SONG! THE BEST I TELL YOU!!!!

#3: “Beauty and the Beast”, David Bowie

Must…regain…control…gnnnnnn…whew, okay, I’m back. Oh, and wait, I lied, Brian Eno plays synthesizer on this, so he is on the list twice. Anyway, David Bowie … well, obviously, picking just one David Bowie song from the 70s is the worst. The fucking worst! You could pick, oh, I don’t know, “Joe the Lion”, “Breaking Glass”, “Sound and Vision”, “Golden Years”, “Stay”, “Suffragette City”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Queen Bitch”…and I’m being picky. This is the one that most makes me want to thrash around all over the room though.

#2: “Sir Duke”, Stevie Wonder

Meanwhile, although Stevie Wonder’s catalog also contains a megafunkazillion great songs, this is not even a contest. “Sir Duke” is so obviously the best one, and is probably the best song ever written on the topic of “Isn’t music great? I fucking love music.” (Though Prefab Sprout did later try to step it up a notch with an entire album on that subject, “Let’s Change the World With Music”, featuring the thesis-statement song title “I Love Music”.)

#1: “Car on a Hill”, Joni Mitchell

I have no power against this song. If it comes up on shuffle, I always, always play it a second time after it’s finished. Sometimes a third time. It’s got so much going on — clusters of celestial jazz harmonies, easygoing horn-and-woodwind grooves that turn into rhythms so intricate I still get lost in the middle of them, evocative lyrics about emotional entanglement and distance — that there’s more than I feel I can ever actually absorb in the three minutes it takes the song to play. I have been listening to it several times while writing this paragraph and I am about to listen to it again.


#2: BAKER STREET!!!!!!!!
#1: BAKER STREET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Pericles, Prince of Tired Plots

Here’s the first installment of Klassik Komedy Jamz from ye olde blogge, a condensed version of Shakespeare’s “Pericles”, a play which I read when I was attending a monthly Shakespeare reading group (hosted by eminent raconteur Randy Cohen). It seemed more contrived than usual, but it was one of the last plays we read, so … was it really that bad, or was I just inured to Shakespeare’s standard plot devices by that point? If we’d read it earlier, would I think it was genius, and “Twelfth Night” was derivative tripe?

No, I’m pretty sure it was just that bad. Anyway, judge for yourself. I give you … Pericles.

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The plight of the ex-blogger

Blogging, man, who has the time anymore? Pretty much anything longer than 140 characters looks alien to me nowadays. And yet it seems that now and again you just need a place to put things on the internet, and so then there you are. I used to blog quite a bit, but much of it is half-baked commentary on then-current events and when I reread that stuff, I realize how much more pleasant it is to have such tediously tendentious matters relegated to the Warner-Bros.-cartoon-assembly-line generator of ephemera that is Twitter. However, there are some good bits in there too, and so I hope to relocate all of those in one place, and hopefully, henceforward, add only things that also qualify as good bits. Excelsior.