I’m not sure you need me to tell you about the 2013 records by Kanye, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire. They were unanimously fawned over, richly produced concept pieces that actually hang together. Instead, I’ll focus on the handful of albums (yes I still tend to listen to albums – albeit in a digital form) that stood out and made 2013 another great year. Perhaps I am getting set in my ways, but I consume music through the following devices and platforms: Spotify, Sonos, Songza, Rdio, Jambox, Pandora, Sirius/XM, an iPhone, car CD player and an ancient B&O turntable. Ultimately, as long as you are listening to music that makes you happy and discovering new music every once in a while, it doesn’t matter how you consume it.
1) Junip – Junip (Mute)
Swedish folkie Jose Gonzalez has long been a one of the best modern folk singers of our time, as a soloist, band leader (Junip) and occasional vocalist for bands like Zero 7. He has a beautifully calm and confident voice. His acoustic guitar playing is incredibly precise, almost Nick Drake-like its complicated simplicity. But with Junip, Gonzalez’s fully realized band, the results are sturdier, rockier, and generally serious songs filled with hypnotic grooves.
Although perhaps tapping into the Americana roots resurgence, Junip doesn’t aspire towards Mumford; they seem to be mining a darker more introspective place, but somehow still in the same tradition. Standout tracks like “In Every Direction” have every bit the groove of their American peers, but without any of the rootsy whimsy. Almost nothing struck me like this record this year, but then again I expected greatness.
2) Midlake – Antiphon (Bella Union)
For those paying attention, for nearly a decade Midlake has been an unheralded giant in the renaissance of big Americana rock music. Like a younger, rangier My Morning Jacket, the Denton, TX band creates sprawling guitar rock that tends to be cut more from their jazz roots, than the blues.
“Antiphon” is the first record made after the departure of lead singer Tim Smith, and is both less precious than its prior effort “The Courage of Others” and perhaps more original sounding than their brilliant “Trials of Van Occupanther” Fleetwood Mac inspired masterpiece. What it is, however, is a deadly serious, mightily compelling roller coaster of an arena rock classic. Lushly produced and orchestrated, this is music to be savored as a complete record, not as songs to be tossed randomly into a playlist. This is something very special.
3) London Grammar – If You Wait (Warner)
I’m not sure how big “If You Wait” will be by the time you finally get around to reading this, but even if it doesn’t end up filling the void left by an Adele/Florenceless year, I will still love it. It is the obvious bastard stepchild of The XX and Florence, with songwriting and production that is every bit as slick and seductive, but more than anything it all rides on the capable shoulders and vocals of Hannah Reid.
Even when you wean yourself off the hopelessly addictive “Hey Now” single, the rest of the album is a lush, sexy, smoky effort, reminiscent of the lovely trip hop of the early 90’s (Zero 7, Morcheeba, and even the 90’s 4AD roster). Driving music, head phone music, winter music, and summer music. A great record is always all of those, and so is this.
4) Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends (Atlantic)
Take all the anthemic brilliance that was the mid-90’s Oasis, wrap it in Portlandia hipsterism, and let Danger Mouse spin the dials and you have one of the finest albums of the year. Almost every song here is some kind of infectious groove mixed with a chorus that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to take notice.
On “Plastic Soldiers,” as with most of the songs on this album, things start innocently enough but eventually acoustic guitar strums morph into big chorus driven walls of melodic sound: “Could it be we got lost in the summer / I know you know that it’s over …” In the age of singles, it is great to hear albums created by bands that realize that singles are ephemeral, and that albums are forever.
5) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)
There isn’t a more distinctive straight-forward female voice in modern music than Neko Case. Perhaps PJ Harvey used to hold the torch, but Case has been making country-tinged solo records for years, and has been a card carrying New Pornographer since the beginning. She is a legitimate force of nature with her long red hair and silky voice.
This time out Case is less country (which is good) and more good old fashioned rock, rounded out with a super group of guests from Calexico, Mudhoney, MMJ and others. Songs like “City Swans” showcase what she has been doing for a decade – belting out endlessly catchy choruses and just letting her voice sail into some beautiful sunset. This is truly a special album. [Read more…]