The Best Albums of 2013

The Best Albums of 2013

2013 was an awesome year for music. There were many great albums put out by some of my favorite artists, and there were several outstanding albums put out by artists I’d never paid much attention to in previous years, and a few by brand new artists. That said, let’s get to the number one album of the year:

1. Nick Cave and the Bad SeedsPush the Sky Away. This is the album I listened to the most during the year. It is a quiet follow-up to the cacophonous noise of Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! released five years earlier. The album sounds as spacious as the brightly lit room on the cover, but sounds much darker and as beautiful as the model on the cover – his wife, Susie Bick (in the nude!). Key tracks are “Jubilee Street” and “Higgs Boson Blues“. Here’s video about the making of the album.

2. Valerie JunePushin’ Against a Stone. I first heard Valerie June on Greg Vandy’s show, The Roadhouse, on KEXP. I was captivated by her arresting voice and the expert blending of folk, country, blues, and country music. Her album was released in Europe early in the year, and you could watch videos and listen to it on the web, but it wasn’t released in the US until August. The album was coproduced by Kevin Augunas and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who no doubt drew some extra attention from the press, and received great reviews in many major music publications. I bought it the day it came out and have been listening to it ever since. Key tracks are the title track and “Workin’ Woman Blues”. Here’s a video about Valerie and her debut album.

3. Holly WilliamsThe Highway. Prior to this year I had only heard Holly Williams singing her rendition of her grandfather’s, (Hank Williams, Sr. – she has the blood of Hank in her, and it shows) “Blue is My Heart” on the excellent album project titled The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. I was hooked on her voice and her style after hearing the song, and then I read a great review of The Highway in Uncut Magazine and went looking for the album to buy. I ended up buying it from Amazon, and I have yet to see it stocked in a brick-and-mortar store. That’s because it was independently released on her own label Georgiana Records, which apparently wasn’t picked up by any distributors. That’s a shame, because this album is a real gem. Holly’s voice sits front and center of a mostly sparse and acoustic production. The songs are of the south and of her family. Key tracks are the opener, “Drinkin'” and the closer, a song about her grandmother June Bacon White, “Waitin’ on June”.

4. Kurt Vile and The ViolatorsWakin’ on a Pretty Daze. If you like guitars and catchy melodies, you’ll love this album. It reminds me of some really great Neil Young albums I’d listened to very loud while driving around on a hot summer day. Go read Tulip Frenzy for a review. Key tracks are the title track and “Snowflakes are Dancing”.

5. Low The Invisible Way. I first learned of Low when they opened for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at The Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle way back in 1998. The house was packed with people anxious to see Nick, and Low was kind of a quiet shoegazer band at the time, but I really like what I was hearing when I was able to hear it over the very loud man talking behind me. (I asked him to be quiet or leave. He stayed, but he was quiet.) Since then I’d heard them on the radio and liked the music, but never really got into them until this year. The Invisible Way was produced by Jeff Tweedy, and he has a way about bringing out the best in people. The album opens with a very humorous song, “Plastic Cup” sung by Alan Sparhawk. Mimi Parker sings backup on this one, but she takes the lead vocal on several songs on the album, including “Just Make it Stop“, another standout track.

6. DaughterIf You Leave. Elena Tonra is the leader of this London trio. I was hooked on this band the moment I first heard “Youth” on KEXP. The sound of their debut album is sparse and hypnotic, and the lyrics take you inward to a claustrophobic space. Beautiful record that I listen to all the time. “Amsterdam” is another standout track.

7. Jason IsbellSoutheastern. The Drive By Truckers kicked their best songwriter out of the band because he was a drunk. A goddamn good drunk if you ask me. I saw him perform with the band several times and, for me anyway, he was the star. He writes great ballads that are very Springsteenish, and he has a great voice. He has since given up the bottle and hooked up with Amanda Shires, a very talented fiddle player. Together they make beautiful music on what is Jason’s best solo effort. There are some great stories on this album, and some of them like “Live Oak” don’t end so well. Here he is with Amanda on Austin City Limits performing “Cover Me Up”.

8. CapsulaSolar Secrets. Did you know Capsula is the best “punkadelic” (punk/psychedelic) rock band in the world? You should know that if you read this blog. If you want to know more about the band, read this lengthy article in the Chicago Tribune about their history and their musical influences from Iggy Pop to Television and of course David Bowie. It was Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti who produced Solar Secrets. Krian Music Group is their label, and they are lousy at distributing the records. I did find the new one at Easy Street Records, but I’ve never seen their records available anywhere else but at their shows and on Amazon. Buy their albums wherever you can.

8½. FoxygenWe Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. This is slipped in at 8½ because a few hours after I posted this I realized I had somehow missed one of my favorite albums of the year. Zippy made me buy this album while hanging out in Sonic Boom in Ballard. He said I would love it and he was right. What is it? Psychedelic rock n’ roll from California that sounds like The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground… The write-up on their label page calls it “oddball rock n’ roll”, and I think that fits. Key tracks are “No Destruction”, “San Francisco”, and the title track.

9. Elvis Costello and The RootsWise Up Ghosts. What a great combination of vintage Elvis lyrics and vocals and stellar musicianship and composition of The Roots. Key tracks are “Can You Hear Me?” (available on the deluxe edition) and “Walk Us Uptown”.

10. PickwickCan’t Talk Medicine. I knew I liked this  band from the moment I heard “Hacienda Motel” on KEXP. I didn’t know who they were when I heard it, and I didn’t know they were a Seattle soul band, because they don’t sound like any other Seattle bands I know. They sound similar to Monophonics, a San Francisco soul band. Apparently they didn’t always sound like this though. Nice transformation.

No more videos from this point on. This post is too long already.

11. Mazzy StarSeasons of Your Day. Not much has changed after seventeen years since their last album, and that’s not a bad thing. This album picks up in that open space occupied by guitars and Hope Sandoval’s exquisite vocals.

12. Sarah JaroszBuild Me Up from Bones. A grey-bearded economist named Paul Krugman turned me on to this Texan singer with Appalachian influences, and I’m glad he did.

13. Neko CaseThe Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Longest album title ever. Neko takes her music to a whole new place. This one doesn’t sound a lot like its predecessors. It’s very good though. I especially like “Night Still Comes” and “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”.

14. Johnny DowdDo the Gargon. Johnny says: “DO THE GARGON is one bootyful record. No fluff, all muff. Not looking to the future, not thinking about the past. This is a band for real–pumping out some fat grooves. Seriously, I dig this record. It captures the energy of a live performance”. With noisy guitars and drums and the lyrics, “Gargon’s balls hang like twin orbs in a fatherless sky… a motherless child abandoned in a filling station in the great state of Nebraska”, what’s not to like?

15. Nadine ShahLove Your Dum and Mad. I bought this record a couple of weeks agoa, and I’ve been listening to it almost every day since. Nadine has a very well-trained voice along the lines of P.J. Harvey and Anna Calvi and a band that sometimes sounds like The Bad Seeds. Her debut album is a dark record about desperate love and sorrowful death. Why does it make me happy to listen to it? Try it and see.

16. Laura VeirsWarp and Weft. More great music from Laura Veirs and Tucker Martine. Try “Sun Song” and her tribute to the Reverend Howard Finster, “Finster Saw the Angels”.

17. Anna CalviOne Breath. Her sophomore release is a bit heavier and darker than her eponymous debut. Her voice soars in this one.

18. LordePure Heroine. I don’t like most of the music I hear on the radio stations my fourteen-year-old son listens to when we’re in the car, but when I heard “Royals” I liked it very much. So much so that I bought the album. Lorde is a New Zealand singer/songwriter Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor who writes smart, catchy lyrics like:

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

19.  The Jim Jones RevueThe Savage Heart. Produced by longtime Bad Seed, Jim Sclavunos, this album sounds more like the music he made with The Cramps. It’s noisy and dark like The Birthday Party. It’s rock n’ roll, and I like it, and so does Gorby. Okay, here’s one more video. It looks like Jerry Lee Lewis hooking up with a fundamentalist Christian revival show.

20. Thee Oh SeesFloating Coffin. I would not have bought this album had I not read about in on Tulip Frenzy (Want to know more, go there and read this review by someone who can actually write coherently about music). Number Two on John Buckley’s list. This album has several great pop tunes. I really like “Toe Cutter/Thumb Buster”.

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