2013 Listening Round-Up

I enjoy reading year-end lists. It makes me think about the past year in various ways (what movies did I see? great meals I had? etc.), and I especially like carving music into years. Music evolves irrespective of the calendar, but we do recognize broad movements associated with moments in time. 70’s disco (shudder). 80’s new wave and punk. 90’s grunge.

Slicing the musical landscape into years brings focus to the best moments that may not be enduring great moments. It gives us all a “Yeah, I liked that too” chance, that ultimately fades into our personal histories.

I abhor trying to name the BEST of a year, though. That’s truly impossible, especially in music. Listening to The National is very different to listening to The 1975. The year’s best is a group of the standouts that year, not a countdown to a presumed pinnacle of artistic achievement.

So, on to the best listening I enjoyed in 2013 in no particular order:

  • Stephen Crump's Rosetta Trio Stephen Crump’s Rosetta Trio, Thwirl – My one reader from 2010 might remember me waxing poetic over Stephen Crump/Rosetta Trio’s outstanding Reclamation – still a great release. Thwirl is one of the year’s best jazz releases, period. This unusual trio of bass, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar makes intricate, spacious, elegant, melodic music that follows the best traditions of jazz improv. Thwirl has more structure than Reclamation, yet it retains the big open space in their sound. If you’re into jazz, and interested in current, young, upcoming musicians, then don’t hesitate to listen to this. Very, very highly recommended.
  • Steven Wilson, Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories) – I’m a big fan of Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, and his latest work has become incredibly rich with the absorbed influences of the great prog rock masters of the past: King Crimson, Genesis, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Jethro Tull, etc., yet completely sounding like himself. He has been making new prog that builds on the past legacy, not aping it. The new ensemble for The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories) display a mastery of those influences … including that of Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree. This may be one of the best prog releases in the new century. It distills the sweep of Grace For Drowning down into concise compositions. And like the best prog, the production is pristine … given the assistance by none other than Alan Parsons.
  • The Boxer Rebellion, Promises – I wrote about this release in a previous post, and it continues to grace my playlist.
  • The Cave Singers, The Cave Singers, Naomi – The Cave Singers continue to stray away from the folk/Americana of their first two releases into more accessible, popular song constructs. This is altogether the most polished in production that they have released, and the cuts are “radio friendly” in that they immediately hook with a melody. The addition of guest bassist Morgan Henderson from Fleet Foxes adds a driving, bouncy rhythm throughout. This really grew on me over the year, and I think is better than No Witch, which was a little darker and grittier than Naomi (Welcome Joy remains one of my top favorite releases of all time).
  • The National, The National, Trouble Will Find Me – The National have struck gold three releases in a row: Boxer, High Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me. They are one of the best bands this century. In recordings they have a deep sound that adds touches of abstraction to create complex tapestries behind the lyrics. The lyrical subtexts are often about melancholy, failure, shallowness, etc., of high society that we somehow all can relate to. In concert they add a rawness that makes the music powerful and fun. Trouble Will Find Me continues the trend sonically of polished, orchestral, lush pieces by The National … kind of like Roxy Music circa Avalon or Bryan Ferry’s solo albums Boys and Girls, Bête Noire, and Mamouna. So highly recommended.
  • The 1975, The 1975, The 1975 – Okay, I like this release. I admit it. It is one of the best pop releases since ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love. It takes incredible talent to write pop songs, ones that immediately give you a hook, and are memorable to the point of distraction. Every one of the cuts on this release is well-crafted. In the car, on the dance floor, party, etc., this gets people moving. The 1975 use 80’s guitar new wave as a base and update it with a 21st century sensibility. Excellent production too. This is nothing but a fun release, and music needs to be just fun sometimes. Oh, and don’t worry about that silly “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” sticker; it’s all harmless.
  • Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires in the City – Vampire Weekend’s first two releases are classics. This release shifts musical gears for them. It isn’t immediately as accessible. The Soweto influence is muted in deference to 50’s and surfer pop touches. The pacing of the cuts is decidedly for listening. This was another release that has grown on me the more I listen to it; it wasn’t a “hit” right out of the gate on first hearing. Still, Vampire Weekend are superb musicians, and their song-writing craft is amazing. It is hard to know where their next release will lead to, but that is the hallmark of the best bands – each release is a discovery along with them. Give this a chance if you liked their past two.
  • Richard Thompson, Richard Thompson, Electric – An old favorite of mine made a real comeback in 2013 with Electric. I loved his work throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but I have to admit that I feel there has been a creeping sameness to his work lately since Rumor And Sigh – and I know a lot of Thompson fans would wholeheartedly disagree with me and take me to task. But let’s agree on Electric – this is a really great return to form. Thompson certainly wields the electric guitar on this release, but that isn’t what makes it a notch above his last several in my book; it is the rougher production of Buddy Miller capturing a truly alive feeling (not live) that brings out the best of these songs. Thompson’s writing is always top notch, his guitar playing astounding, and his voice keeps getting better with age. And go see him play live! His all-too-short performance at the 2013 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was, well, electric! He didn’t shy away from being the guitar god that he is, gracing us with a jaw-dropping solo for the classic, “Shoot Out The Lights.”

There are some other releases that I feel deserve mention:

  • Bill Frisell, Big Sur
  • Gary Burton, Guided Tour
  • Volcano Choir, Repave
  • Junip, Junip
  • Arcade Fire, Reflektor
  • Deep Purple, Now What?!

The above are either really new (Arcade Fire), just plain catchy (Junip), or are in my Spotify playlists … and I don’t get to listen to them enough for me to be definitive about them. I do find myself gravitating to them when I’m sitting at my PC with Spotify open. Now that Spotify is letting us freeloaders listen on mobile … well they may well be upgraded into the best of the year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. On to 2014!