But it's finally here. I can only hope some of you still care...
I've had a devil of a time writing this round-up. Not because there were so many records I loved that I couldn't decide what to include, but because so few new recordings moved me this year that I had a tough time getting to 20. To be fair, it might be because I haven't bought as many new releases this year as in years past. But I was really only truly excited about 5 or 6 albums in 2013.
Sure, I'll use Spotify to check something new out. But generally I want the hard copy. I know that in a lot of peoples' eyes, this makes me a total sucker, a moron, hopelessly romanticizing the tropes of my youth. OK, sue me. I want my hard copy. And I want it in CD quality, not compressed or streamed to my phone. (Kids-- go to the attic, get some of your dad's vinyl records, and play them on the big stereo, of your dad still has one. Then you might get a glimpse of the sonic experience silly old men like me pine for and still seek out.)
The next three could really come in any order.
2. Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones, Foreverly
The recent death of Phil Everly has naturally lent additional poignancy to this one. I've never been much of a Green Day buff, but Billie Joe acquits himself beautifully here. A long time Everly Brothers fan, he recruited Norah Jones ("Jonesy," he calls her) to join him in recreating the 1958 Everlys record, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, song for song. Now, I'm the first guy to tell you, covering an entire album can be a pointless exercise. But where the original was just voice and acoustic guitars, Jonesy and Billie Joe layer in other textures, all appropriate for a '50s country record (pedal steel; mandolin). The result is just gorgeous. They do a remarkable job recreating the original harmonies, and capturing the harrowing darkness of these old murder ballads and songs of love gone wrong. I've long believed that Norah Jones is way better working with someone else than she is as a solo act-- reference her work with Ryan Adams, Danger Mouse, and most notably the Little Willies-- in fact, there's an entire album of some of her more noteworthy collaborations. This record is yet another notch in her collaborative belt. RIYL: The Everly Brothers, the Little Willies, harmonies, murder ballads.
3. Garland Jeffreys, Truth Serum
There are a lot of rock'n'roll records out there, and a lot of crappy ones. But every once in a while a record comes along that makes it sound so, so easy, and in the process reminds you of just how glorious and simple the stuff can be ("Rock'n'roll will never go out of style," Tom Petty said in 1999. "The design is flawless.") Jeffreys is sort of a multicultural Lou Reed (indeed they were contemporaries and friends at Syracuse University), and he's probably one of the great unsung heroes of rock. This record mixes in a little reggae and more than a little of the blues, but it's all so damned easy and tasteful. Larry Campbell, crony of Levon Helm, Phil Lesh, Hot Tuna and others, produces and lends some typically tasty, bluesy lead guitar work. RIYL: Lou Reed, Silos, Mink Deville, Willie Nile.
4. Willie Nile, American Ride
Willie Nile is another New York City rocker who in a parallel and more just universe would be a big star. I've been a fan since 1991's Places I Have Never Been. Gritty, smart, urbane; the title track could be a Springsteen song. And he covers Jim Carroll's "People Who Died," a song I would have thought uncoverable, and he just totally nails it. A class act. I'm going to ask Henry Laura to take me next time Nile is around. RIYL: Springsteen, the Del-Lords, Mink Deville, Garland Jeffreys.
5. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience Volume 1
I'd respected JT's talent from afar, but I'd never actually listened to him, because I just generally don't consume dance pop. But I caught him on the Grammys last year, previewing this record, and it was stone cold Prince. So I took the plunge, and I wasn't disappointed. Talk about jams-- seven of ten songs clock in at seven minutes or more. He had me at "Pusher Love Girl." I grabbed volume 2 as soon as it dropped, but it was all hip hop and not my thang. But this one is the best make out music I heard all year. RIYL: Prince, lush '70s soul with strings, make out music.
6. Mavis Staples, One True Vine
The deep, sultry, weathered voice of Mavis Staples (age 74) meets the deep, sultry, weathered playing and studio technique of Jeff Tweedy, and the results are a spiritual, mysterious, soulful delight. This is their second record together now, and I think I like this one better than 2010's You Are Not Alone. God and Jesus are as present on this record as Tweedy. Mavis's cover of George Clinton's "Can You Get to That?", from Maggot Brain, is the standout track for me. RIYL: Timeless R'n'B with an alt-rock sheen.
7. Josh Rouse, The Happiness Waltz
Josh Rouse is a favorite in our house. He may be guilty of making the same record over and over. But it's such a happy, breezy and likable record that we keep buying it and grooving to it. Happiness Waltz-- an aptly titled work if ever there was one-- is full of breezy, catchy, tuneful pop songs, colorful, exquisite. One of his better ones. My wife loves it and yours will too. RIYL: Power pop, The girl from Ipanema.
8. Various Artists, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
This is the music from a collaboration between writer Stephen King, musician John Mellencamp, and Producer T-Bone Burnett; the original work is a play or something with a "Southern Gothic" story I haven't concerned myself with. In fact I've only listened to the version of the album you can download, that contains only the songs and not the dialogue. What makes this interesting though is that Mellencamp's songs are presented here as performed by the likes of Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Ryan Bingham, Mellencamp himself, Taj Mahal, Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and feuding brothers Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters, who perform together on six songs, all with Crow. Which makes it a heck of a nice little assortment. I assume the concept is something like Peter and the Wolf, each singer representing a specific character; I know there are murderous brothers at the plot's core, hence the Alvins. Neko Case's tune is vintage country filly fare; the Alvin boys don't sound much like the Blasters-- or at least they sound like if the Blasters made a record today, with sparse moody production from T-Bone. Indeed Burnett's signature sound permeates and unifies the whole record, thanks in part to his usual studio mafia, notably including Marc Ribot on guitar. But it's great to hear the Alvin Brothers together again. Crow is a revelation-- indeed I think she fares better here, with the Alvins, than on her own 2013 release-- and Bingham is the real deal. RIYL: T-Bone Burnett, Cold Mountain, Americana, Dave Alvin records.
9. The Del-Lords, Elvis Club
Talk about making the same record over and over... the Del-Lords are a New York City rock'n'roll band from the '80s, straight ahead meat and potatoes rock and roll, Chuck Berry meets the F train. Three seconds into the opening "When the Drugs Kick In," it's 1984 and the great '80s roots rock revival all over again. God bless Scott Kempner and Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (also in the Yahoos) for refusing to grow up. This is their first record in 23 years, and they sill sound like Credence backing Lou Reed. And they still sound stoopid, in the best way possible. Also, style points for covering "Southern Pacific," off the Neil Young & Crazy Horse record Re-ac-tor. I thought I was the only one who bought that one. RIYL: Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile, bar bands, guitars, the Yayhoos.
10. The Dawes, Stories Don't End
They should sub-title this record, "Sad songs about girls." So it gets a little mopey. But the Dawes combine the '70s rock sensibility with songwriting chops that usually resonates well with me. Not as good as 2011's Nothing is Wrong, but nonetheless a solid outing; maybe I liked it less because they got their butts out of Laurel Canyon and moved from producer Jonathan Wilson to Jacquire King, with whom I'm not familiar, but who oversees the affair with a light touch and lets them sound like themselves. Breezy if mopey, likable catchy tunes that still harken back to the peaceful easy feeling of the '70s. "Hey Lover" was one of my favorite tracks of the year, pure ear worm. RIYL: Jackson Browne, a peaceful easy feeling, Poco.
11. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Made Up Mind
I'm of two minds about the Tedeschi Trucks Band. On the one hand, they're a great ensemble, an old time soul revue in the tradition of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, or the Family Stone, or Delaney and Bonnie's traveling circus. On the other hand, as my friend Johnny Flash has pointed out, the incandescent Derek Trucks is almost reduced to playing sideman to his (awesome) wife, and instead of an improvisational read on the jazz tune "Afro-Blue" or a 12-minute run through "Maki Madni," he's laying down 12-second leads inside a tightly constructed track. Sure, Susan is one of the best belters around, but sometimes listening to Tedeschi Trucks I end up longing to hear Derek uncaged. Then again, the caging of the pleasantly feral Trucks can, when TTB is at their best, lead to an intense tension that benefits the songs. I'm not sure this one is as good as the debut, I am sure it isn't as good as the double live release from last year, and I don't hear a track as instantly compelling as "Midnight in Harlem." But then, on a song like "Do I Look Worried," when Derek punches through and lets loose, and the missus lays her big blue voice against Derek's controlled frenzy-- yeah, that's the stuff. Unfortunately, just as it starts to really cook, they fade it out by the 4:34 mark. RIYL: Delaney and Bonnie, Derek Trucks Band's shorter songs, Bonnie Raitt.
12. Chris Stamey, Lovesick Blues
This record kind of came and went without much of a ripple at my house... and then in December I went to see Stamey and Peter Holsapple perform their exquisite unknown classic, Mavericks, at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Basking in the joyful glow of that show, I naturally went on a dBs/Holsapple/Stamey listening binge, and belatedly discovered this one. Like his best work, it's delicate, crystalline, gauzy, ringing, brittle; it's a record that uses a broad sonic palette full of color. Less rock'n'roll than orchestral, with cello, oboe, xylophone and flute used liberally throughout. Naturally the harmonies are lovely; a lot of Stamey mufti-tracked, and lots of tracks feature one vocalist providing harmonies or counter-melody. Truth be told though, it does sort of drag toward the end. Oh-- and the digital-only bonus material you can get with the code packaged in the CD includes Stamey covering Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos," so there's that. RIYL: Mavericks, Big Star Third, the dBs in their softer moments, solo Brian Wilson.
13. Gov't Mule, Shout!
Of course I love the Mule and Warren Haynes, but as is the case with a lot of the jam band set, typically you get the album, listen to it once or twice through till you know the songs, then thereafter when you want to hear the material you go to your library of bootleg live recordings, official and otherwise. There are two things that make this Mule album different. First is the fact that Haynes, perhaps because he's coming off a stint fronting the Warren Haynes Band, has written his most tuneful and melodic set of original songs yet (In concert at the Best Buy Theater in September, this was abundantly clear.) Indeed I hear an influence of new fatherhood in some of the lyrics, although it's tough to imagine Haynes trading his dark roads and deep ends for diapers and infant seats. Second, of course, is the fact that Shout! is a 2-disc set, and disc two has all 11 tunes presented again, each with an appropriate guest vocalist. Since it's still the Mule, it still carries a stubborn kick; it's a heavy record with the big dumb heavy face-melting Vanilla Fudge-meets-Duane Allman guitar work that we've come to know and love from Warren Haynes. But listening to the renditions on disc 2, with the guest vocalists, lends some color and insight into the songs. "Captured" is a 9-minute heavy minor jam when Haynes sings it; at 5:45, and with a lighter, airy guitar solo, it becomes almost a Pink Floyd song in the hands of vocalist Jim James. You may not hear the gumbo in Warren's read of "Stoop So Low," but you sure do when Dr. John sings it. And you wouldn't know that "Funny Little Tragedy" was a new wave song till you hear Elvis Costello run through it. RIYL: Gov't Mule, classic hard rock.
14. White Denim, Corsicana Lemonade
I don't have a lot of historical context for this band, because this is the first thing of theirs I've heard, and so far the only thing. I grabbed it because I was intrigued by a couple of rave reviews I saw. They're an Austin-based foursome (guitar/guitar/bass/drums) who play complex, slightly southern--tinged (very slightly) psychedelic rock. I'm impressed by how much happens in a 4-minute song here; the songs dash and swoop and make sudden left turns and fold in on themselves, although they aren't especially hook-laden, so you power popsters out there probably want to stay away. RIYL: Tame Impala, My Morning Jacket, Blind Melon, solo Jack White.
15. Cyril Neville, Magic Honey
You probably know the 65 year-old Neville from the Neville Brothers and the Meters. I very much enjoyed his turn last year in southern rock don't-call-them-a-supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood. Magic Honey is more a blues record than anything else, but with Neville, as well as guests like Dr. John, Walter Trout, Allen Toussaint, and Mike Zito, it's one tasty-ass blues record. Nothing fancy here, just N'Awlins-style blues with an R'n'B twist. RIYL: The Neville Brothers, Royal Southern Brotherhood.
16. Paul McCartney, New
Like everyone else I'm a Beatle fan, but I'm also an unabashed Paul McCartney fan. Look, some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and really, what's wrong with that? Anyway, here he goes again. Macca's voice has changed the last few years, to what I've heard one friend call his "old man voice." But the resurgence and quality of his work over the past 10 or so years has been quietly impressive. Live he's still a monster, although to be fair, he does have the built-in advantage of a back catalog of BEATLES SONGS... For me, the two highlights of his 21st century work are 2007's Memory Almost Full, and his collaboration with Flood as the Fireman, 2008's Electric Arguments. New isn't as good as either of those (if it were it would be top-5), and at times he sounds weary. But there is still enough whimsy and melody to float my boat clear across the Mersey. RIYL: Silly love songs, Memory Almost Full.
17. Boz Scaggs, Memphis
If this record reminds you of Al Green, there's good reason. A tribute to classic Memphis soul, Scaggs actually recorded in Royal Recordings Studio, home of Green and his partner, producer Willie Mitchell (talk about underrated musical icons). The original Royal Recording strings and Horns are on here (arranged by Mitchell no less), and they apparently punched the whole thing out in three days, which generally augers well for this kind of record. There's an Al Green song on here, and I also especially like the cover of Willy DeVille's "Mixed Up Shook Up Girl." Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia" sounds like Scaggs invented it. Scaggs is more laconic and low key than Green-- one might even be tempted to say "mellow"-- and he brings his style to the record, which makes it smooth and graceful, and the whole thing goes down like sweet oozy molasses. If you don't know what to listen to at 2AM on a Saturday night/Sunday morning, put this on. RIYL: Al Green, Solomon Burke's gorgeous 2002 release Don't Give Up On Me.
18. Elvis Costello and the Roots, Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs
Probably better on paper than in actual fact, but then, awful darned good on paper. It's not entirely clear that Elvis's bitter word play belongs married to a hip hop beat. At times, it seems like there are two different records fighting it out for your attention. But by "Wake Me Up," the groove starts to kick in, with Costello's refrain over the funk, and things start to work. Several of the songs are reworkings of old (and generally obscure) Elvis tunes. "Tripwire," probably the catchiest thing here, finds the Roots falling in behind a lovely Elvis melody. "Stick Out Your Tongue" is "Pills and Soap" meets the Roots. Look, I wanted to like this record more than I did. But parts of it seem to stay mired in one place for too long. But the peak moments are outstanding. By the way, the remix EP is more Roots-y, and works better. RIYL: Spike, literate hip hop, Jimmy Fallon.
19. Sheryl Crow, Feels Like Home
Speaking of Sheryl Crow (we were, about 12 albums up), apparently she's decided she's a country artist now. Feels Like Home is her salvo into the country market, although mercifully she avoids the cowboy hat. A down home Missouri girl, Crow understands country music-- by which I mean the kind that gets on the radio; not the classic, Merl Haggard, George Jones, Carter Family stuff-- at it's very core. Frankly, for all her talk about fitting into the genre, it doesn't sound a whole heck of a lot different from regular Sheryl Crow records, save for the periodic if unfortunate lapse into cheesy and melodramatic lyrics (To be fair, my favorite Crow lyric is still, "I like a nice beer buzz early in the morning," from her first hit, "All I Wanna Do." Although "We'll play Jack Johnson, he's the new Don Ho," from "Easy" on this record, is a close second.) Her regular thing is really pretty darned close to mainstream country, and it's certainly country rock. "We Oughta Be Drinkin'" is tough not to like, and "Stay at Home Mother" is a sweet coda, but it'll break your heart a little. "Easy" makes you wish it were summer. Not a major work, but a damned likable one, even if the seams sometimes show on the big grabs in the choruses. RIYL: Wilson Phillips, Sheryl Crow's rock records, a nice beer buzz early in the morning, Nashville (The TV show and the sound. But mainly the sound.)
20. Sid'n'Susie, Under the Covers volume 3
I loved volume 1, wherein they assayed a choice batch of '60s covers. Unaccountably, I didn't care for volume 2, wherein they cover a bunch of my very favorite songs of all time from the '70s (my friend Ron thinks I ought to give it another chance.) Volume 3, where they take on-- you guessed it!-- '80s tunes is in fact surprisingly robust, although I am disappointed they didn't do a Bangles cover (Susie, of course, being Susannah Hoffs, the Bangle with the eyes.) Maybe it's because Hoffs and partner-in-chime Matthew Sweet are both essentially products of the '80s power pop scene (although Sweet's big breakthrough, Girlfriend, was in 1991.) Maybe these songs work as covers because most of them are less "classic" than the ones on volume 2; that is, less sacrosanct, and thus available to be covered with some impunity. Hearing Matthew Sweet's production and instrumental take on Lindsey Buckingham's classic piece of ear candy, "Trouble," is delightful; Similarly it's cheerful, big-haired fun hearing Hoffs sing a Go-Gos song ("Our Lips Are Sealed.") There are 3 bonus tracks you can get off iTunes-- a Prince, a Clash, and Marshall Crenshaw's lovely "Favorite Waste of Time." RIYL: Big-haired Power Pop, Sid'n'Susie volume 1, Matthew Sweet, the Bangles.