Best Of 2013
(strictly for fun ... and heated argument)
by Peter Jesperson
1 - David Bowie - The Next Day
Here’s my theory: The only thing standing between the uninitiated (or a doubter) and recognition of this album’s abundant greatness is one listen at a loud-ish volume while following along with the lyrics. Once I did that, it was all over. I was completely swallowed up by this masterpiece of a record. I agree with first responder, British journalist Andy Gill, who wrote in The (London) Independent – “in terms of quality, it stands alongside Bowie's best work.”
Like many, I was surprised the morning of Jan 8th to wake up and find a brand new David Bowie song and video had hit the internet. There had been no advance word. Was it really a new recording? His last one had been 2003's 'Reality.' It was commonly thought he'd retired. There were even rumors that he was in bad health. But one listen to the track was all it took, a beautifully sung ballad called "Where Are We Now?," lyrics filled with Berlin locales. I fell for it instantly. One of the things I especially loved about the roll out of this record was the complete fake-out of issuing this song first - a slow, pretty, melancholy ballad which we would soon find in the midst of jagged rockers, frenetic rhythms and some of the most startling, unsettling words he’s ever penned.
The Next Day was recorded in complete secrecy over a two-year period in New York, allegedly including non-disclosure agreements for all the participants. Bowie didn’t talk to the press one iota but, after the album was released, his longtime producer Tony Visconti and some of the players did. Earl Slick (who’s played with Bowie off and on since Station To Station in 1976) told one interviewer that sometime during those two years he and guitarist Gerry Leonard had coffee and neither mentioned the album or even knew they both were involved in the same clandestine project!
Two singles were issued ahead of the album’s March release – the above mentioned and "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)." I loved them both but, still, I was not prepared for how earth shattering this album is. The lyrics seem to be non-fiction on the one-hand, referring to the world today (again, Gill: “brutal commentaries on contemporary events”) and fiction on the other. According to producer Tony Visconti, Bowie had recently binged on medieval literature, which may be responsible for bringing some unusual subject matter to the table (one song quotes a chant apparently used in bayonet practice - “How does the grass grow? / blood blood blood!”). The sessions yielded a consistently strong and large body of work - 14 tracks on the regular version of the album plus eight bonus tracks in all. There are glimpses of past records; we hear the “Five Years” drumbeat at the end of one song; his voice references several different eras; I hear lots of Lodger-esque moments. When taken as a whole however, it becomes its own unique chapter. Remarkably, in 2013 David Bowie snuck up on us and delivered one of the finest albums of his career. Infinitely inspiring. Breathtaking. A true triumph of art in rock!
2 - Bob Dylan - Another Self Portrait
Volume 10 of the ongoing Bootleg Series, this release covers the years 1969 – 1971, mainly sessions for the albums Self Portrait and New Morning. Many of the tracks are stripped down affairs of songs from the Public Domain recorded as a trio with David Bromberg and Al Kooper and they are the ones I’m most taken with (“This Evening So Soon,” “Thirsty Boots,” “Tattle O’ Day,” “Pretty Saro”). But many of the demos and alternate versions of songs we already knew are real ass-kickers too (“Went To See The Gypsy,” “All The Tired Horses,” “New Morning” with horns)! Adding the missing pieces to the larger Self Portrait puzzle 43 years later is so enlightening that the unheard songs kind of re-color the old ones and, at times, I almost feel like I’m hearing the originally released songs for the first time.
Part of why this set is having such a huge impact on me might be because it’s a vindication of sorts. I was 16 when the original Self Portrait was released and, though I recognized at the time that parts of it were substandard, there was something about it overall that just clicked with me. In part, admittedly because in the late winter of 1970 I had just gotten my first tape machine, a reel-to-reel, and recorded my brother’s copy of Self Portrait. I was so enamored with this exotic, new addition to my stereo system, I’m sure I listened to the album more than I might have otherwise. Either way, I played it a ton, it got under my skin and I have always loved it unabashedly. Now, in this new context, hearing other tracks recorded in the same time period, we’re given a perspective that helps us understand a bit more what Bob may have been doing; that he was maybe, in some ways, trying to find his way forward by looking back.
3 - Eisley – Currents
This is the mature record I knew Eisley could make. At a total running time of 51:08 it’s significantly longer than any of the first three and I think that speaks volumes. Apparently, they were especially inspired this time! On first listen it was readily apparent that this exceptional new Eisley album is highly informed by sister/co-lead vocalist/keyboardist Stacy DuPree King's formidable 2012 side project, Sucre. Bringing in Sucre keyboardist/arranger Jeremy Larson to chart the numerous string arrangements was a brilliant move that brings a true elegance into the picture. There’s always a lot of love and fairy tale-ish subject matter in Eisley lyrics and that’s the case again on Currents. But, where parts of the last album were disarmingly open about real life broken relationships, this one often references things like family, warmth and protection (not surprising considering four of the band members had kids in remarkably close succession). As with all Eisley records, what decisively sets them apart from the mere mortals is the singing. There are countless moments where the vocals give me shivers and goose bumps. On the album’s 12 songs, the leads are split evenly between the primary singers. Stacy and sister/rhythm guitarist Sherri DuPree Bemis take five each. On one (“Wicked Child”), they split duties; and with “Millstone,” sister/lead guitarist, Chauntelle, handles her first, full-on lead vocal with natural flair and confidence (someone, please get this song to Taylor Swift, I bet it would fit her like a glove!). Here are just a few of the many, many standout moments: The multi-layered, choral vocals on “Save My Soul”; two especially excellent choruses that Stacy has come up with (“Drink The Water” and “Real World”) that make me think they could have a bona fide radio song one-a these days; and a pair of career vocal high points for Sherri - “Find Me Here,” one of the six or eight finest Eisley recordings to date (when Stacy joins in, they sing in rounds, something I don’t hear a lot of in popular music these days, it’s positively magical); and the deeply emotive “The Night Comes.” There’s a palpable ache in her voice that just totally sends me. And, oh, the drumming is to die for - brother Weston, outdoes himself, delivering a perfect combination of precision and feel.
I love all four of Eisley’s albums but Currents is right up there with Room Noises, their first and my longtime favorite. It’s certainly their most fully realized work to date. And singing just does not get better than this!
3b - Perma - Two Of A Crime – a low-fi, charming and totally fun side-project by Eisley’s Sherri DuPree Bemis and husband Max. Anything that Sherri sings on has got to be in my music collection.
4 - Paul McCartney – New
A great McCartney album, indeed, though all the hoopla implying it's some kind of major “comeback" is surprising to me as I think Paul's made several records of this quality in the last 16 years, beginning with 1997's Flaming Pie. The things that work best about New are the performances and the production; Paul’s in mostly excellent voice and the playing by all is outstanding; the four diverse producers are uniformly excellent and bring freshness to many of the songs. As with most of Paul’s post-Beatles work, the weak link is the lyrics, some of them sound just plain amateur (fer godssakes, why doesn’t he get his brother Mike to write words again sometime, as he did for their brilliant 1974 collaborative album McGear?!). When you really get down to it though, there are only two true clunkers here: the hidden track “Scared” and “On My Way To Work.” The former is just plain bad; the latter is merely weak … and unnecessarily redundant, because it retreads early Liverpool reminiscences, which Paul handled infinitely better on “That Was Me” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full (another song on the album, “Early Days,” does the same thing but works because it’s better written). The good news is the lion’s share of the album is a gas. It’s diverse and mostly well thought out. Lots of rockers, some cool ethereal stuff, a couple of stripped down acoustic numbers. “Everybody Out There” is custom-tailored for the live show; “Queenie Eye” is classic and catchy; “Appreciate” covers some new sonic ground; the title song is wonderfully ‘Pepper-ish’; And the last song on the deluxe edition, “Get Me Out Of Here,” has one of my single favorite moments in music all year - in a seemingly spontaneous aside, Paul talk-sings “I’m a celebrity, someone get me outta here!” (http://www.paulmccartney.com/)
5 - Wire - Change Becomes Us
Spurred by seeing a powerful, riveting, hypnotic, at times downright spooky live show at The Echoplex in October, I picked this record up and, three months later, I still can't stop playing it. I was a mad fan of theirs from the first album in 1977 on but had not followed the reunion work. It really does sound like they haven’t missed a beat from their heyday. Dark music with a dry sense of humor. And I’d forgotten how wonderfully ‘Floyd-ey’ Wire can be at times! (http://www.pinkflag.com/)
6 - Tegan And Sara - Hearthrob
For me, this was the first great record of 2013. We could see them leaning this direction since 2004’s So Jealous but Hearthrob is completely over the top, well-crafted, slickly produced, uber-catchy commercial pop music at its very best. (http://www.teganandsara.com/)
7 - Tristen - Caves
A new-ish artist I've been enamored with for a couple of years now. This record is so brilliant in so many ways it's astonishing to me that record labels aren't falling all over themselves to sign her. Cutting edge artistry with poetic and strikingly original lyrics, a balancing act that maintains integrity while deftly using pop elements, thoroughly steeped in a whip-smart sense of humor. A live show with full band at The Satellite revealed more layers and strengths than I had previously given her credit for, my appreciation increased tenfold. One of my very favorite new-ish artists. (http://www.tristen.com/)
8 - The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Their previous record, High Violet, is the one that hooked me on these guys. This one stands up with their best work though, if I had any criticism, their sound has a repetitive quality that on occasion makes some of the songs run together in my mind. (http://americanmary.com/)
9 - Tommy Keene - Excitement At Your Feet
This record of cover versions is a knockout from top to bottom. Talk about eclectic! The song selection runs the gamut from Television to The Bee Gees, Donovan to Guided By Voices. My personal fave might be Tommy's rendition of Mink Deville's "Let Me Dream If I Want To." It further cements the fact that these days Tommy Keene is making some of the best records of his career. (http://www.tommykeene.com/)
10 - Broncho - Can't Get Past The Lips
Lead by the ever-resolute Ryan Lindsey, this is contemporary, catchy, punk rock at its best. Reminds me of things like The Buzzcocks, Modern Lovers and Replacements. (http://bronchoband.com/)
11 - The Suburbs – Si Sauvage
A real blast of a “comeback” album from the band that ruled the roost in the Minneapolis scene in between The Suicide Commandos and The Replacements. A strong and delightful collection of songs, many of which could’ve have been on albums from their heyday. “Turn The Radio On” is one of my favorite songs of the year and I still smile everytime I hear the line “Watch you move around the kitchen” … there’s just something so real about it! (http://thesuburbsband.com/)
12 - Nic Armstrong - Pocketless Shirt (EP)
Nic’s first release since 2006’s If We Can’t Escape My Pretty (under the name IV Thieves). As good as anything he’s ever done, I hope he kicks things back into high gear with a full length and, hopefully, tons of touring. If you’re not familiar with Nic, be sure to also check out his first album The Greatest White Liar (as Nic Armstrong & The Thieves). (http://nicarmstrongmusic.com/)
13 - The Parson Red Heads - Orb Weaver
The best PRHs album yet. Smartly produced by Scott McCaughey, it really showcases their top shelf vocals/harmonies on a terrific batch of songs. (http://www.theparsonredheads.com/)
14 - Midlake - Antiphon
This record took a while to settle in. With lead singer Tim Smith leaving the band during the sessions, guitarist/backing vocalist Eric Pulido moved into the front seat and, along with the rest of this gifted group, pulled a rabbit out of a hat and made a solid and beautiful record. (http://www.midlake.net/)
15 - Jason Isbell – Southeastern
A songwriter I’ve loved since his days with the Drive-By Truckers. Some of the best Americana-style songwriting by anyone these days. This is his best album yet. (http://www.jasonisbell.com/)
16 - Nathaniel Rateliff - Falling Faster Than You Can Run
A late-in-the-year release by a vocalist and songwriter that I could not admire more.
17 - Sonicboquet – Bloom
Fabulous, rough and ready power-pop from Minnesota. One hears traces of everything from The Replacements to Oasis. Excellent production from longtime MN sound engineer extraordinaire Monty Lee Wilkes. (http://sonicbouquet.bandcamp.com/)
18 - Son Of The Velvet Rat – Firedancer
I’m a huge fan of the many records this beguiling group from Austria have made but this one takes a leap into some new territory. Frontman Georg Altzeibler has fashioned a record that’s less morose and more fleshed out. Beautifully produced too.
Other things that got tons of airplay in my world
The Beatles - On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2
The Beatles - Bootleg Recordings 1963
Big Star - Nothing Can Hurt Me (sdtk)
Robert Wyatt - '68
Although these records were recorded in 1970 and '71 and rereleased in 2008 and '09 (by the good folks at Light In The Attic), I didn't get wise to them until this year, after finally seeing the documentary film Searching For Sugarman and just need to say, besides the incredible story of latter day recognition, Sixto Rodriguez made timeless music that music that moves me deeply. A very sixties sound that mixes Dylan with horns and flutes, sweeping string arrangements worthy of Glen Campbell and his vocal delivery like a hipper James Taylor or Don McLean.
Live (in LA except where noted)
Steve Earle with opening act The Living Sisters – Royce Hall 1/12
Rumer / Terry Reid – Hotel Café 1/23
Paul Kelly – Federal Bar 1/26, The Grammy Museum 1/29 and Largo 4/23
Richard Thompson and Buddy Miller – Hotel Café 1/28
Ian Hunter – The El Rey Theater 2/2
The New Standards – Largo 2/27
The Everyday Visuals – The Roxy 2/28
Frank Turner Hotel Café 3/7
SXSW – Shoes, Ronnie Fauss, Lilly Hiatt, White Violet, Daniel Romano, Dave Grohl Keynote Speech, Austin Lucas, Corb Lund, The Devil Makes Three, Max Gomez, John Hiatt, Buddy & Jim, Richard Thompson, Rodney Crowell, The Shonna Tucker Band, John McCauley, Tim Easton, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin
Lowcut Connie - - The Echo 3/25
Joe Boyd – Grammy Museum 4/29
The Peter Buck Band / Robyn Hitchcock – The Troubadour 4/30
Curtiss A (Blues Band) – The Belmore – Minneapolis 5/2 & 8/8
Wild Moccasins – The Echoplex 5/9
Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale – The Troubadour 5/14
Big Star film / Jody Stephens Q&A and acoustic performance – Grammy Museum 6/4, Jody Stephens – Amoeba 6/6, Hancock Park 8/24
Bad Company – performance/Q&A – Grammy Museum
Iris DeMent – First Unitarian Church 6/22
Patty Griffin – Wiltern Theater 6/25
Eisley – House Of Blues 7/12
The Flaming Lips – The Patio at WB Records 8/2
Howe Gelb – New West Records lobby 8/7, Hotel Café 11/20
Jamestown Revival – Room 5 8/15
Broncho – The Echo 9/7
Americana Music Conference – Nashville – 9/19 & 20 Buddy Miller, Delbert & Glen, Corb Lund, Ben Miller Band, The Devil Makes Three, Max Gomez, Howe Gelb, Nikki Lane, Rodney Crowell, North Mississippi Allstars, Peter Bruntnell
The Replacements – RiotFest Denver 9/21
Paul McCartney – on Hollywood Blvd/Jimmy Kimmel Show 9/23
The Del Lords (featuring Steve Almaas!) – McCabe’s 9/28
The Rascals – Greek Theater 10/10
Robert Ellis and Deer Tick – The Troubadour 10/26
The Parson Red Heads – The Satellite 11/6
Tired Pony – The Masonic Lodge 11/7
Tommy Keene – El Cid 11/9
Wire – The Echoplex 11/17
Tristen – The Satellite 11/22
The Living Sisters – The Federal Bar 12/15
In the can’t not mention department
Leave it to the Replacements to bring down the house before they even played a note. The band ran onstage at the 3rd of their 2013 reunion shows on September 21st at the Riot Fest Music Festival in Denver wearing matching orange cowboy hats, Paul and Tommy wearing matching pink, knee-length skirts. Everywhere I looked, I saw people doubled over with laughter. A classic Replacements move! They kicked into “I’m In Trouble” and it was off to the races. The show was a sort of greatest hits, some performances were fabulous, some weren’t, but they were clearly having tons of fun and it was infectious. The highlight for me was “Can’t Hardly Wait,” a near perfect version. As Jennifer pointed out – overall, they were much better than they were on the last couple of tours prior to the break-up in 1991. And it was indescribably cool to watch our 11 year old son, Autry, watching them!