While the music that marks this year may be remembered as the booming electro-Franco grooves of Daft Punk and the baroque hip hop of Kanye West, much of what earned repeat spins – or at least iPod repeats – for me were, with only a couple of exceptions, records with a decidedly low-key vibe. Here’s a look at my top 10 for 2013.
FRANK TURNER – Tape Deck Heart: While this British folky with a profanely punk rock heart hasn’t really broken big in the United States, his acoustic-driven songs of longing and self-discovery translate well. Check out the inspired wordplay of Recovery and the brilliant bait-and-switch of Four Simple Words.
OKKERVIL RIVER – The Silver Gymnasium: If a band with a big-rock sound unleashing a set of songs built around small-town blues sounds familiar, it’s because every act from Bruce Springsteen to Hold Steady have made it their bread and butter. That doesn’t make it any less appealing. This is a surprisingly strong record by a band finally, after seven albums, hitting its stride.
GREGORY PORTER – Liquid Spirit: I’m not sure how Gregory Porter’s music should be classified. Is it soul or jazz? R&B or gospel? Is it all of the above? The way it keeps me questioning is certainly a big part of the appeal. The way it keeps me entertained is an even bigger part. A generation ago, this guy would have been a star. Hopefully today’s notoriously fickle fans will do him this service today.
DEER TICK – Negativity: An interesting take on this band’s boozy and raucous rock, Negativity blends elements of ’70s AM pop, arena rock and deeply literate lyrics into an album that trades the bluster of previous releases for real luster. Check out The Curtain and Mr. Sticks.
ARCTIC MONKEYS – AM: A few years ago, Arctic Monkeys seemed destined to be remembered as a snotty young rock band with a single catchy song, a relatively solid debut record and little shelf life. Instead, the band has proved to be one of music’s great chameleons, shifting from poppy punk to narcotic metal to AM – an urbane rock record that feels like the perfect soundtrack to those things that only happen after midnight. Brilliant, moody and a work of real maturity.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE – mbv: It took more than 20 years for this groundbreaking guitar act to follow up on the spectacular Loveless. It may have been worth the wait. Both an exploration of this band’s established sound and an evolution of what a guitar-driven band might accomplish, it’s a beautiful record, full of nuance and subtlety best experienced when this record is played very, very loud.
DAVID BOWIE – The Next Day: While Bowie’s comeback record might not, in the long run, measure up to Low or Ziggy Stardust, it certainly stands up against most of what is out there today. Provocative, emotional and filled to the brim with Bowie’s unique vocal phrasing and songcraft, it’s a brilliant piece of art from one of rock’s greatest artists.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – Like Clockwork: This one, admittedly, is not so quiet. It is, in fact, a very big record, full of ideas and attitude and many, many riffs. Hard rock rarely sounds this smart, this sexy or this uncommonly good. Thank goodness the Queens are around and remain willing to do things differently.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ROOTS – Wise Up Ghost: What’s remarkable about this collaboration is that it feels very much like both a Costello record and a Roots release. Neither act gives up what makes its music appealing. In fact, when Costello’s pop is placed atop the more textural grooves of a Roots track, the sum result is greater than its separate parts. Super grooves.
JASON ISBELL – Southeastern: I’ve stopped waiting for Jason Isbell’s slump. Every time I feel like he has reached his pinnacle as a songwriter and performer, he releases something that makes me rethink my entire perspective. This deeply personal – and largely acoustic – collection all but cements Isbell’s spot as the South’s – and perhaps the nation’s – finest working songwriter. I double-dog dare you to find a more riveting song about cancer than Elephant, a more honest appraisal of past sins than Live Oak or a better snapshot of the redemptive power of love than Cover Me Up. Actually, don’t bother. I don’t think it can be done.