Top 20 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year again, folks, when I post my favorite albums from the preceding 12 months for your perusal, edification, and (hopefully) entertainment. This is the 22nd consecutive year that I have published an “Albums of the Year” list, in either (or both) print or digital versions. For background, if you want some preview perspective on what you might expect to see on the 2013 roster, here is the complete list of my number one albums each year from 1992 to 2012:

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: Björk, Post

1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi

1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch

1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac

1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Björk, Vespertine

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Wire, Send

2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)

2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything

2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom

2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Planningtorock, W

2012: Goat, World Music

A good number of those former titlists actually put out new music in 2013, so we could see a repeat winner this year. Or we could follow the trend of the last two years, in which amazing debut albums carried the day. In some ways, that’s the more exciting outcome, since it means that we’re not ossified and stuck listening only to the things that we discovered when we were younger.

Normally I just announce my album of the year, and then list the other contenders afterward. Just to mix things up (for you and me alike), this year I’m going to do a countdown, from Number Twenty to Number One, so you can see the worthy contenders that moved me throughout the year before the final big reveal of my biggest album of 2013. Or, of course, you could just scroll down and peek at the outcome, but where’s the fun in that?

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: this list is obviously based on the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t enjoy, and they’re generally not going to be represented in my year-end list. So please resist the urge to write me a scathing comment telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard whose taste is all in my mouth because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Uzbekistan free jazz nose flute collective. I am glad to know that they will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.

20. Superhuman Happiness, Hands: A lightweight, but fun, album from Brooklyn scenester Stuart D. Bogie, assisted by a bunch of other Brooklyn scenesters of varying degrees of demi-fame and collective connections. This one stands out among its herd for its immediately catchy tunes and interesting rhythms, often featuring hand jive, shouts and clattering kits.

19. Hawkwind Light Orchestra, Stellar Variations: A side project featuring one-half of the current touring version of legendary spacerockers Hawkwind, with founder-singer-guitarist Dave Brock being assisted by stalwart drummer-singer Richard Chadwick and guitarist-bassist-electronics man Niall Hone. The trio seem to have a good bit of fun on this album, adopting some vocal and instrumental styles and personae that might have seemed out of keeping with the big version of the band.

18. Voivod, Target Earth: Voivod’s new album reunites founding members Michel Langevin (Away), Denis Belanger (Snake) and Jean-Yves Theriault (Blacky), with new guitarist Daniel Mongrain (Chewy) replacing the late, great Denis D’Amour (Piggy). You get the expected highly-technical metal anchored by Langevin’s insane drumming, but also a bit more stylistic variety and dynamism than we’ve seen from Voivod in quite some time, which is refreshing.

17. Clutch, Earth Rocker: The two lead singles off this album, “Earth Rocker” and “Crucial Velocity,” are among the punchiest, most potent songs Clutch has released in some time. The rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the lead tracks, but it’s a welcome addition to their canon, nonetheless, offering a bit more of a straight-up rock attack than some of their blues-infused recent albums.

16. Melvins, Tres Cabrones: Melvins remain, as always, a study in perversity on their latest disc, where they reunite with their original drummer (who never recorded an album with them), pushing long-time skin-man Dale Crover over to bass guitar, to play a collection of old songs and weird covers (“Tie My Pecker to a Tree,” “You’re In the Army Now,” and “99 Bottles of Beer” among them). Like most things they do, it shouldn’t work, but it does. So there.

15. Sin Fang, Flowers: Another evocative and emotional disc from Iceland’s Sindri Már Sigfússon (also of Seabear), featuring a dynamite opening cut called “Young Boys” which will become a guaranteed indie hit as soon as some television or film producer realizes that it’s one of those “made for a soundtrack” songs that will have audiences clamoring for more, more, more as soon as they hear it. If you are a film-maker, consider yourself notified. If you miss this chance, you have no one to blame but yourself.

14. Pere Ubu, Lady From Shanghai: Another grand offering from the current incarnation of Cleveland’s longest-standing art-noise-rock ensemble, with David Thomas, Michele Temple, Keith Moline, Steve Mehlman and Robert Wheeler from the group’s prior studio album being complemented by the additional digital stylings of percussionist-turned-soundman-turned-electonicist Gagarin. Lady From Shanghai benefits from what would seem to casual outsiders to be a truly bizarre, yet somehow wholly effective, approach to intra-band collaboration and improvisation (within a frame of composition), as fully laid out in the 100-page “missing manual” Chinese Whispers. Few bands merge the visceral with the cerebral as well as Pere Ubu do, and few front-persons are as relentlessly, delightfully and unusually engaging as Ubu’s David Thomas. This surprisingly accessible album is a great intro into the long and important Pere Ubu canon, if you have yet to get a foot into that door.

13. Mindless Self Indulgence, How I Learned to Stop Giving A Sh*t And Love Mindless Self Indulgence: I gave MSI one of their first-ever print reviews (a strongly favorable one) for their debut EP Tight, and they nabbed my Album of the Year honors in 2005 for their fantastic You’ll Rebel To Anything. Few groups have achieved more success while actively, aggressively, openly and gleefully sticking it to their listeners, and this album takes that to a whole new level: the group raised a ridiculous amount of money via Kickstarter by refusing to release anything new until their fans forked over far more cash than was likely needed to produce this record (which I suspect was in the can already, anyway). Audacious, but effective, and a welcome blast from the full MSI band after the fantastic 2010 release Bad Choices Made Easy by splinter group The Left Rights. How I Learned is a great return to You’ll Rebel to Anything-era form after 2008’s somewhat troublesome If, with “Kill You All In A Hip Hop Rage” standing as song of the year material, for sure.

12. Death Grips, Government Plates: Another great return to form after last year’s half-baked No Love Deep Web, with Death Grips getting wild and hairy on a richly-textured album of beats, samples, rants, rages and rhythms. “Whatever I Want (F*ck Who’s Watching)” (lyrics NSFW, duh) offers a great intro into the weirdness that these guys wreak, as it bobs and weaves from drone to chaos to melody to noise in the most unpredictable, but delightful, ways. They’re challenging, but it’s worth it.

11. Japanther, Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart: This record is yet another strong one from Brooklyn’s Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly, who create great fuzzy Ramones-like rock (among other things; their catalog is deliciously diverse), using a variety of jury-rigged, deconstructed and otherwise tortured instruments and materials (e.g. old analog phone headsets as microphones). This album mixes great samples and sounds with solid songs, beginning to end. “Five Lions” is one of their best ever, and easily one of my favorite tunes from 2013.

10. No Age, An Object: No Age are sort of like Japanther’s Los Angeles doppelgangers, as another drum and guitar two-piece offering noisy arrangements of really catchy rock songs across a seemingly ever-expanding, diverse, deep and daring series of singles, EPs and albums. Lead single “C’mon Stimmung” grabbed me quickly, and the rest of the album lived up to its exceptional promise.

9. Snog, Babes in Consumerland: Snog mastermind David Thrussell unexpectedly appeared as Dee Thrussell in the credits for this album after (alleged) gender reallocation, making Snog now an “all girl” trio. Thrussell is enough of a provocateur that I’m reserving judgment on whether this is a stunt or not until I see Dee show up in some other setting, seeing as how he once claimed that he recorded an album while living on nothing but human flesh, among other fabrications. Whatever Thrussell is calling her/himself today, and whatever he/she is wearing for the promo stills, Babes in Consumerland is a worthy follow-on to my 2010 Album of the Year Last of the Great Romantics, with “Everything Is Under Control” standing as a clear highlight, on both its album and video formats.

8. The Fall, Re-Mit: “Welcome return to form” seems to be a recurring theme in this year’s list, and the Fall’s 2013 offering is probably the most extreme example of that, since their prior disc, Ersatz G.B., was to my ears one of the two worst albums they’ve ever issued in an extremely lengthy and diverse discography. Re-Mit is the fourth straight studio album by the group’s current line-up (the first time that has ever happened in their 35-year history), and it offers a well recorded, great blend of grooves, synth squiggles, vaguely-rockabilly guitar lines and, of course, the dark mutterings of the inimitable Mark E. Smith. I don’t know what it’s all about, but I like it.

7. Korn, The Paradigm Shift: Prodigal guitarist Brian “Head” Welch returned to the fold for Korn’s new album, and his presence makes a big difference, with the group offering a surprisingly accessible collection of tunes that mine their usual lyrical concerns and offer their usual percussive riffing, but it’s all somehow better, deeper and richer than it was during the years without Head. “Never Never” was a wonderfully counter-intuitive lead single, with strong melodies, quiet moments, wide dynamic sound and glorious backing vocals — all of which probably off-putting to the fan boys who were expecting nothing more than extra brutal music from the reunited Korn. It was a brave creative move, though, and “Never Never” stands as one of the best songs issued by anybody, anywhere this year. Also worth note: the highly textured, innovative and technically fluid work that drummer Ray Luzier offers throughout this album’s run. He is just a dynamite player, a great addition to a great band.

6. Che Guevara T-Shirt, Everyone That’s Dead Was Obviously Wrong: After a pair of strong albums played from a traditional drum-bass-guitar trio format, Albany’s K. Sonin and Matt Heuston set down their old axes and picked up a pair of baritone guitars in their stead, along with a new drummer, for their third album Everyone That’s Dead Was Obviously Wrong. The results are fantastic, as the string-bending pair’s customary knotty lines sound richer, fuller and more vibrant on the baritones than they ever have before. “Cop Show” is the album’s highlight, sounding like a great lost mekkanic track from Can, coupled with an adept deconstruction of one of modern America’s most beloved entertainment tropes. If you aren’t familiar with the band and their individual and side projects, it’s well worth your time to explore the No More Labels Recorders website for a lot of high quality recordings, this album first and foremost among them.

5. The Weasels, AARP Go the Weasels: Albany in the house again, with the Capital Region’s greatest studio band (think Steely Dan, before they started diluting the brand by taking it on the road again annually) offering one of their rare, exquisitely-crafted gems of wonder and weirdness. On this, their sixth studio album, core members and songwriters Roy Weasell (guitar and sundries) and Dr Fun (vocals, sax and keys) worked with the same rhythm section (bassist Jon Cohen and drummer Al Kash) throughout, bringing in an assortment of A+ caliber keyboardists and lead guitarists to add their magic. (Again, think Steely Dan, plus a little Frank Zappa). To add to the craziness, Dr Fun has produced a series of six videos for songs culled from AARP Go the Weasels, all of which are available at the group’s website. I like “Invasion of the Body” the best.

4. Paul McCartney, New: Sir Paul continues to astound, with an incredible late-career run of new studio material now spanning the awesome Memory Almost Full, Electric Arguments by The Fireman, and now the new New. (I’m going to pretend that I don’t know about his jazz standards cover album Kisses on the Bottom from a couple of years ago; it’s good, for what it is, but, uhhh . . . . yeah). Like most great McCartney albums, New grabs you quick with hooks galore, great vocal and instrumental performances, and great studio sound, in this case courtesy a posse of young, hip producers, which worried me up front (anything associated with the word “Adele” gives me the heebie jeebies), but which paid off handsomely in the end. “Queenie Eye” gives a sense of the fun that this album evokes, both musically and visually. If Adele is in that crowd of celebrities somewhere, though, please don’t tell me.

3. Karl Bartos, Off the Record: Kraftwerk’s greatest albums were recorded during the period of time when Karl Bartos was working with the group as a percussionist, songwriter, programmer, vocalist and producer, though he left Kraftwerk in 1991 following a prolonged period of inactivity and distraction from band overlords Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider-Esleben. He’s issued a few solo and collaborative records in the years hence, but none as great as this one. While you get the processed vocals and analog sounds that you’d expect from someone so closely associated with Kraftwerk’s best years, they’re blended with warmer words and a deeper sense of sense of musical freedom and experimentation than Ralf and Hutter ever allowed post-Autobahn. Listen to the squealing synth solo at 1:58 in “Atomium” to cite but one example (it’s more Eno than Robotnik), and also appreciate the entirely un-Kraftwerkian lyrics to family favorite song “The Tuning of the World.” A great and unexpected record from an under-appreciated contributor to some of the most important electronic records ever made. Bravo.

2. Wire, Change Becomes Us: Wire’s latest album offers an interesting blend of the old and the new. Most of its songs were first sketched out in performance in the late 1970s, some of them ending up on the willfully difficult live album, Document and Eyewitness, issued after the group had fractured for the first time. The new versions of the songs are radical reinterpretations, with just enough familiar to pull the serious Wire geek in, and just enough brand new to keep this from seeming like a compilation album or regurgitation of past glories. Change Becomes Us also marks the studio debut of guitarist Matthew Simms, after a pair of single-guitar trio albums from Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Grey. Simms is a worthy foil for the band, and his presence seems to have given his bandmates a renewed sense of vigor and enthusiasm. In many years past, this record would have been my clear number one album for the year, as it marks a career highlight for a group I admire tremendously, and it was supported by a series of incredible concert experiences, some of them involving Tim Lewis (a.k.a. Thighpaulsandra of COIL, another of my all-time favorite musical artists). The shimmering “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel” is likely to be the most-played song of 2013 in our house when I reset the iPods on December 31, and a whole bunch of other Wire songs are right there behind it, with all three members of the family listening and loving them regularly. Awesome, admirable, amazing. But one record still out-performed it for us . . . .

2013 ALBUM OF THE YEAR: David Bowie, The Next Day: What an absolute shock it was to hear and see David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” when it unexpectedly dropped in January, with nary a peep about its creator being creative again having leaked through the normally porous interweb tubes. The song harkened back lyrically to Bowie’s acclaimed days in Berlin (with Iggy, and Eno, and Fripp, and Visconti, among others), and when the art for The Next Day, the full-length album which “Where Are We Now?” presaged, was released, its desecration of the famed “Heroes” cover made that connection all the more explicit. Which was terrifying, on some plane, for someone (like me) who adores those Berlin-era albums almost above all others, since a klunker of a re-boot would, by association, mar the memories of the earlier works. But, thankfully, blissfully, amazingly, The Next Day was the real deal, a tremendously well written, played and produced disc that (as has been noted several time above already) proved itself to be a welcome return to form. Never again will another David Bowie disc have to be critiqued as “the best since Scary Monsters,” since The Next Day now sets the bar a notch higher. Perhaps absence made the heart grow fonder, perhaps the surprise marketing tactics worked their magic, perhaps the connection to those Berlin albums made me more receptive to this new material . . . but even if all of those things are true, they don’t diminish the sense of greatness and wonder and joy that this record produced in me when I first heard it, and the pleasure that it continues to provide me nearly nine months later. About a month ago, I was sitting in my office typing away at something, and Marcia walked in out of the blue and said “the David Bowie album is the album of the year this year, no question,” and then left again. She was right, and I’m happy to endorse her pick as the Indie Moines album of the Year for 2013.

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