Listening Notes: 2013 Top Forty Edition


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The Best Of 2013

Top Twenty

1) Rachid Taha, Zoom     (Wrasse)

There are probably any number of good reasons why this fairly amazing ninth album by a French-Algerian icon has yet to claim a review by the tireless folks over at Allmusic, and they may well be the same reasons Taha claims no presence over at Metacritic. German import release, exotic name, sings in some weird moon man language - all qualities still capable of sending even the most cosmopolitan American pop fan sauntering towards the soothing landscapes of Daft Punk. So don’t be offended if I insist Taha is more cosmopolitan than you (and me). Set aside the fantastically bombastic and omnivorous raï vibe propelling more than a few of these short tunes, and ignore for the moment an irrepressible ode to “Star Of The East” Egyptian legend Oum Kalsoum. Western rockists should take note of a five-song fusillade literally encompassing this album’s center, a blast of international pop as varied and fun as any similar five-song stretch in notable wide-ranging canonical rock statement London Calling: ominous darkwave synth-pop espousing progressive gender politics (“Jamila”), an English language-graced indie-Arabian folk take on Elvis Presley’s version of “O Sole Mio” (“Now Or Never”), Clifton Chenier-style zydeco meltdown as Francophone tribute (“Fakir”), Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two transplanted deep within the Saharan sands (“Ana”), John Lee Hooker stomp studded with peerless boast “I am nothing, baby” (“Les Artistes”). And that’s not even mentioning the dub/reggae one with Mick Jones or the spaghetti western skip of “Galbi” or the nth version of the artist’s own big hit “Viola Viola,” here featuring Brian Eno doing his noise-funk thing. See, I told you Taha was more cosmopolitan than you (and me).

2) Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City (XL Recordings)

A sustained argument in favor of studio overkill as a means of highlighting melodic songcraft, so hands-on and fussy the first few casual listens reveal little more than overburdened merriment. Willingly accept piano codas, reggae organ, uilleann pipes, and Grover Washington in place of guitar lines. Cede this multicultural crew their right to sample “Keep Cool Babylon” and swipe lyrics from Junior Reid. Celebrate Koenig’s erudite yet earnest grapples over an agnosticism he can’t stop worrying about (“born to live without You”). And acknowledge how rare it is for a supposedly overburdened studio concoction to transmit such simple pleasures as the east coast/west coast divide of “Hannah Hunt” (“I miss those freezing beaches”) or complex meditations like “Hudson,” which thinks aloud about place-naming, real estate as act of genocide, and melting pot agony/ecstasies, amid an ironic embrace of flag and country softly echoing ee cummings’ song of Olaf. All this plus tunes. Baroque and roll! 

3) Ashley Monroe, Like A Rose     (Warner Brothers)

Nine songs, thirty-one minutes, opening line “I was only thirteen when daddy died” - hoo-boy, does this look like Nashville product. Only that line about family tragedy is autobiographical, and that realization lends itself to every non-autobiographical story this Pistol Annie relates. Operating calmly within the tradition, singing directly about the lives folks lead, she crafted the first great song cycle of this year. Extra points for a title reminding us why we love Nashville product: “She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind”.

4) Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Slippery Rock     (Hot Cup)

Don’t mistake these committed improvisers for court jesters - this is playful, not silly, as befits an outfit named after a Joseph Stalin attribution. Think Art Ensemble Of Chicago with little instruments swapped out for Kevin Shea’s big beats. Stubbornly acoustic even while locking into sick funk beats, swaggering as freely through solos as they navigate tightly across themes, this is inside/out that for once makes no concession in either direction. Which is to say, this really does cook. Er, rock. Swing!

5) No Age, An Object    (Sub Pop)

Of course this latest dispatch from L.A.’s finest art-punks is “about art” - it’s art-punk, that’s what art-punk is always about. If clipped and even muted noise bum-rushed into subservience to vaguely poppish compositions doesn’t seem all that radical, you can hone  in on something else this album is about: the ways in which semipop culture informs a common language, which is why the song about indie touring explicitly references Smokey Robinson.

6) Sleigh Bells, Bitter Rivals     (Mom & Pop)

If you’ve always found loud to be its own reward, the twenty-nine minutes of brisk bombast herein might restore your faith in indie’s capacity for unreasonable noise. Step back as Alexis Krauss asserts her rock goddess bona fides, channelling pure heartache on “To Hell With You,” throwing shade, thinking in symmetry, with a heart so dark it makes dirt look clean, chewing over “make like a banana / and split” just like she’s David Lee Roth. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

7) M.I.A., Matangi (Interscope)

I love the “bad” puns (“Karmageddon,” “Sexodus”), dig the way she rhymes “cointreau” and “poncho” with “Castro,” think YALA is no dumber a personal philosophy than YOLO, and insist she aims her ire at proper targets - “it’s not me and you / it’s the fucking banks,” indeed. She updates “Dancin’ In The Streets” and names it “Matangi” after herself. She sticks a nearly two-year-old single in the album’s midst and wonders why you care. She reminds you “it’s so simple / get to the floor” as the dubby beats pound and pound and pound.

8) Gogol Bordello, Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO / Casa Gogol)

Once again poised to crash your staid American wedding (still no marinated herring?), propped up via Sergey Ryabtsev’s fiddle swoops and Yuri Lemeshev’s accordion runs, Eugene Hütz strums acoustic intros only to lurch into the double-time lingua franca of polka/hardcore, shunting mariachi horns onto multilingual Balkan square-dances and penning a rousing sea shanty that brings to mind the Pogues swilling horilka rather than Guinness.

9) Barry Altschul, The 3Dom Factor    (TUM)

The first solo release in twenty-five years from this perpetually spry septuagenarian drummer finds the onetime Anthony Braxton/Dave Holland/Chick Corea/Sam Rivers/Paul Bley/Billy Bang/etc. associate holding true to the philosophy first espoused back in the heady and fearsome days of Circle - “from ragtime to no time”.

10) Wire, Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag)

Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Grey remain ironists at heart, committed to viewing their back pages with skeptical eyes. As process-oriented as Marcel Duchamp, they’ve turned creaky blueprints into jumping-off points for wholly re-imagined pop tunes. Emphasis on “pop,” please: The real act of provocation here comes in the streamlining of what had been cacophonous material into a solid bag of actual tunes.

11) Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob     (Warner Bros.)

Brandishing synth hooks so capacious even Kelly Clarkson might blush, the Quin sisters deliver bridge after chorus after verse of energized songcraft with little in the way of let up until two closing numbers serve as calming salves to the workouts preceding them.

12) Jason Isbell, Southeastern     (Relativity)

A survivor’s album, certainly, laden with forgiveness, sexual exhaustion, and thoughts on the man he used to be. But it’s also an album chronicling the unsexy ways addiction wrecks the body and drains the soul, a story Isbell the recovering addict would probably note he’s very much in the midst of writing. And few survivors boast Isbell’s poetic eye.

13) Brandy Clark, 12 Stories (Smith Entertainment)

Puzzled by the institution of marriage and conflicted over self-medication, Clark worries about decisions and repercussions in a manner anathema to her many dude-bro country contemporaries, whether she’s taking an elevator to the erotic gallows or deciding crimes of passion don’t justify crimes of fashion.

14) Deerhunter, Monomania    (4AD)

Lording over everything are the compressed and tweaked mannerisms of Cox himself, John Lennon cut with a dash of Sky Saxon, funnier than he needs to be and once in a while even smart: not sure there’s been another 2013 lyric quite so droll as “For a month / I was punk”.

15) Omar Souleyman, Wenu Wenu     (Ribbon)

Give it up for keyboardist Rizad Sa’id, a virtuosic noisemaker soloing so incessantly alongside the leader he brings to mind the proggy heights of Keith Emerson, although Emerson would never dare raise so unrelenting a din.

16) Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel, Hey Hey It’s . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band     (self-released)

“Screw that jive / we’re still alive / I got all the time in the world”.

17) The Knife, Shaking The Habitual     (Rabid)

The politics inform everything here - “rewrite history / to suit our needs” is the kind of line that can equally inspire and chill, especially since rewriting history is the rallying call for any number of contemporary professional reactionaries, cultural and otherwise.

18) Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap     (self-released)

You’ll hope that boast about his 9 mm having the shits is just evidence of a self-proclaimed “literary knack,” because he’s no gangsta, not him: “lotta niggas wanna go out with a bang / but I ain’t tryna go out at all”. 

19) Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba, Jama Ko (Out Here)

The politics add heavy context - it’s remarkable enough that an album hampered by blackouts, shifting curfews, and a rebel troop-sponsored coup was made at all, let alone a gorgeous one taking form as a sustained plea against extremism in any form. But long before the politics signify, the music will draw you in, even captivate.

20) The Dismemberment Plan, Uncanney Valley     (Partisan)

If a sentiment like “I hope I’m not a mystery / to those who knew me best” strikes you as corny, perhaps it’s time to let a little cornball into your life. Or you could turn up the Slade-worthy glam stomp of “Go And Get It” and warble along with “Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight”. “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer” will be waiting for you when you’re ready.  

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Next Twenty

The Julie Ruin, Run Fast     (TJR / Dischord)

Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold     (Dull Tools / What’s Your Rupture)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Shadow Man (ECM)

They Might Be Giants, Nanobots     (Idlewild Recordings)

Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt     (Don Giovanni)

Ceramic Dog, Your Turn     (Northern Spy)

Wayne Shorter, Without A Net     (Blue Note)

Dawn Richard, GoldenHeart     (Altavoz)

Pistol Annies, Annie Up     (RCA Nashville)

A$AP Rocky, LONG.LIVE.A$AP     (A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)

Bombino, Nomad     (Nonesuch)

Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Interscope)

Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park     (Mercury)

Pet Shop Boys, Electric     (x2 / Kobalt)

Paramore, Paramore     (Fueled By Ramen)

Peter Evans, Zebulon     (More Is More Records)

Kitty, D.A.I.S.Y. Rage     (self-released)

Joe Lovano, Cross Culture     (Blue Note)

Yo La Tengo, Fade     (Matador)

Scott Neumann Neu3 Trio, Blessed     (Origin Records)

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Don’t Believe The Hype:

Kanye West, Yeezus     (Def Jam)

Savages, Silence Yourself     (Matador / Pop Noire)

Those Darlins, Blur The Line     (Oh Wow Dang)

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience     (RCA)

Arcade Fire, Reflektor     (Merge)

Death Grips, Government Plates     (self-released)

Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2     (Blue Note)

Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana     (Carpark Records)

The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars     (Sensibility Music / Columbia)

Tyler, The Creator, Wolf     (Odd Future Records)

Willis Earl Beal, Nobody Knows     (XL Recordings)

Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse     (Fat Possum)