As if I don’t have enough to do during the holiday season, for the last twenty years I’ve spent a good portion of December creating my own list of the best releases of the year. It’s inevitable that my already-messy house becomes just that much closer to Hoarders status, as every room features piles and piles of CD’s. (Yes, I still purchase the physical version whenever possible.) In this corner, I have all of my box sets and reissues. On the other side of the room, there’s the dozens of albums that didn’t make the cut. Spread out in my living room are those that did make this list.
I understand that a list such as this one is nothing original, and is close to becoming a cliche. Oh well. I enjoy doing this, and it’s a great way to reacquaint myself with albums that came out in the earlier part of the year.
For those that have never seen my previous lists, here’s a word of warning. My lists aren’t anything like what you’ll see in Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, or most publications that do this type of thing. There’s no mention of twerking; there’s no Dr. Luke productions. Nobody associated with a Kardashian is eligible. Some of you may use the typical insults - music elitist, “rockist”, “too cool for the room”, etc. - but these are honestly the albums that turned me on this year, and by sharing the list I’m hoping that some may discover music that they’ve never heard before.
Also, if there’s anybody out there that puts together their own compilations, please feel free to contribute. Attach it as a comment, or email it to email@example.com.
Best Albums of 2013
1. Superchunk, I Hate Music. Traditional, guitar-driven indie rock is supposedly dead. Music magazines certainly keep proclaiming this as fact, and SiriusXM’s channel devoted to this genre has disappointingly switched to mostly dance-oriented music. This is why the world definitely needs Superchunk, the best indie rock band of the last twenty years, and also why this album is so fun and refreshing. It’s energetic. It’s catchy. It’s also possibly the best album of their career.
2. Two Cow Garage, The Death of the Self Preservation Society. Two Cow Garage began their career as proponents of the more rockin’ side of Americana music, ala Lucero and Drive By Truckers. For their sixth album, which was funded via their fans on indiegogo, they’ve turned their amps up to the max for a winning album that’s somewhat similar to the better moments of Titus Andronicus.
3. David Bowie, The Next Day. Leave it to Bowie to make a triumphant comeback around the time that EVERYBODY was predicting he’d never record again. It had, after all, been exactly ten years since his last album, Reality, and he hadn’t appeared on a stage since 2006. He’s back, though, with an extraordinary album that is at times reminiscent of the legendary “Berlin” period of the late 70’s.
4. Eels, Wonderful Glorious. After a trio of minimalist, lo-fi recordings, Mark “E” Everett’s returns with a fuller, punchier sound. Perfectly fitting the crunchy guitar work of , Everett’s lyrics are decidedly more upbeat than on recent efforts.
5. The National, Trouble Will Find Me. Little changes between each of The National’s albums, but somehow their winning formula of dark, melancholic indie rock never gets old.
6. Jake Bugg, Shangri La. Forget what the Grammy nominators say, Jake Bugg is the true “Best New Artist”. Still in his teens, he’s already released two fantastic albums. While his self-titled debut was a Billy Bragg-ish solo soulful folk album, Shangri La sees him paired with legendary producer Rick Rubin. Aided by the likes of members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Elvis Costello’s Attractions, this record introduces elements of power pop, folk-rock, and, most importantly, a bit of swagger.
7. Mind Spiders, Inhumanistic. What happens when you combine fuzzy garage rock with the early 80’s synth sounds of Gary Numan and Devo? You get this third album by the Mind Spiders.
8. The Men, New Moon. For their fourth album, New York’s The Men expand their sound from their innovative shoegaze-ish punk rock to include elements of folk and country. The explosive energy remains, but it’s still their most laidback album to date.
9. Fidlar, Fidlar. Featuring the sons of T.S.O.L. keyboardist Greg Kuehn, along with the son of famed surfboard designer John Carper, it’s probably no surprise that this trio cares about little besides punk, beer, girls, and surfing.
10. The Dirtbombs, Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-blooey. There’s no way this record should be as great as it is. A concept album dedicated to their love of early 70’s bubblegum pop? Yet it works oh so well. The melodies are pure sugar, accompanied by just enough fuzz guitar and driving drums to keep the material from being cliched parodies. Easily the most fun album of the year.
11. The Strypes, Snapshot. Championed by The Who’s Roger Daltrey and managed by Squeeze’s Chris Difford, this Irish four-piece is a blast from the London clubs of the mid-60’s. Still in their teens, their mix of originals and classic covers adds a punch and drive that garage-y R&B has lacked for some time.
12. Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin. The best description I’ve found for this band is “the Summer of Love on speed”. That’s pretty accurate for this band’s combo of psych, garage, and punk, and this album sees the band relying more on the heavier side of their sound.
13. Deerhunter, Monomania. After the stunning success of 2010’s Halcyon Digest, the pressure was on for Bradford Cox’s self-proclaims “ambient punk”. Instead of attempting to duplicate the previous album, Cox wisely opted to sort of let it all hang out on this record. The results are dirtier, darker, and less fussed-over…which I find admirable.
14. Steve Earle, The Low Highway. Shortly after this record’s release, Earle told numerous interviewers that this collection of songs came about while travelling the country last year. As always, the music jumps around from bluegrass to soul to power pop, but lyrically the tracks look at the social and economic issues surrounding the working class.
15. Grant Hart, The Argument. A concept album based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost? Certainly, this can’t possibly work. It does, though, and that’s primarily due to the former Husker Du drummer’s passion for Milton. Some tracks certainly work better than others, but overall this is a clever, inspired, and playful record.
16. Mikal Cronin, MCII. The Ty Segall collaborator/sideman’s second album is a scintillating collection of melodic guitar pop.
17. Jason Isbell, Southeastern. I recently described this record to a friend as Isbell’s Blood On the Tracks. While Dylan’s classic detailed a failing relationship, Isbell’s is all about rediscovery. The similarity between the two records is that they both contain the most personal songs of their lives. Recorded after a stint in rehab, Southeastern is full of self-reflection and the study of human flaws.
18. Telekinesis, Dormarion. Produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno, the third album by Michael Lerner’s one man band is pure power pop with just a bit of heaviness missing from the previous releases.
19. Phosphorescent, Muchacho. Around the time this album was released, Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck was quoted as saying this album came about because “I lost my girl and lost my mind”. Adding to his misery, he also lost his recording studio, and his pain is perfect for this collection of soulful Americana.
20. Ty Segall, Sleeper. The busiest man in rock and roll not only released two solo albums this year, but was a major part in at least two other releases. Unlike other over-extended artists such as Jack White and Robert Pollard, Segall somehow manages to keep the quality control at maximum level, but this album stands out because it’s primarily acoustic backing is such a left turn from his usual garage-rock fuzziness.
21. Bad Sports, Bra. This Texas garage-punk trio channels the spirit of classic late 70’s New York on their third full-length release.
22. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. At this point, is there any need to describe a Nick Cave album. It’s dark, minimal, and full of malcontent. In other words, it’s a typical Cave record, but also one of his better recent releases.
23. Joan Jett, Unvarnished. After a seven year hiatus, and with a little help from the likes of Dave Grohl and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace, Jett returns with her usual brand of guitar-oriented, working class rock ‘n’ roll.
24. Warm Soda, Someone For You. Formerly of Bare Wires, Matthew Melton’s gritty, bubble-gum inspired power pop is like a strange blender of Cheap Trick, the Soft Boys, and the Buzzcocks recorded on a four-track that’s seen better days.
25. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up Ghosts. After growing a rapport from multiple appearances on Jimmy Fallon’s show, Costello and Questlove hit the studio to see if they could create together. While the initial plan was to re-record some old Costello tracks for fun, the sessions went so well they decided to create a full-fledged new album. Costello always responds well to unusual collaborations, and this record is a perfect example.
26. Dr. Dog, B-Room. For their third release on Anti, the veteran soulful Americana band went for a looser, live-in-the-studio feel than on last year’s Be the Void. The result is their most playful and varied album of their career.
27. Swearin’, Surfing Strange/Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt (tie). Is there a more talented pair of twins than the Crutchfield sisters? Allison Crutchfield heads Swearin’, whose second album is full of Japandroids-ish guitar-driven indie rock. Katie Crutchfield, meanwhile, records heart-wrenching lo-fi pop under the name Waxahatchee. While not as lo-fi as her debut, American Weekend, Cerulean Salt is still powered by Katie’s raw vocals.
29. Kurt Vile, Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze. The former War on Drugs band member keeps getting better and better with each of his releases. Not only are his guitar playing and songwriting skills improving, but his producing skills are becoming more and more elaborate on each album. While overlong at close to 70 minutes, this is the type of lush record that sounds like it was recorded on a multimillion budget in the late 70’s.
30. Johnny Marr, The Messenger. It’s incredible that one of alternative pop’s most gifted songwriter/guitarists has waited so long to release his first solo album. The Smiths broke up way back in 1987, and since then Marr has been content to be a collaborator in bands such as Electronic, The The, and Modest Mouse. While he doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world, his exquisite, and varied, guitar skills are present all over this record.
31. Fuzz, Fuzz. Yet another Ty Segall-related band. This time, Segall is on the drums, although he also occasionally sings. Fuzz sounds just as the name suggests, full of sludgy, Detroit-inspired guitars with a bluesy touch.
32. King Khan & The Shrines, Idle No More. Psychedelic, soul-influenced, sweaty garage rock and roll.
33. Bill Callahan, Dream River. Callahan had an interesting goal for this record. It’s intended for late nights. In fact, he wants it to be the last record you hear before bed. Vaguely reminiscent of a younger Leonard Cohen, Callahan’s simple arrangements highlight his unique baritone.
34. The Bronx, IV. My token fist-pumping, raging hardcore-inspired record of this year. Sometimes one needs a record that combines abrasive sounds with bright, poppy sensibilities.
35. Low, The Invisible Way. Duluth’s greatest indie rock band headed to Chicago for their tenth full-length album. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy at his band’s loft, Low’s patented slowcore is still evident, but there’s an additional warmth that clearly comes from Tweedy’s studio setup.
36. The Julie Ruin, Run Fast. This has been a busy year for former Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna. Well, busy for somebody who hasn’t been around for the past seven years. First, there’s the wonderful new documentary, The Punk Singer, about the trailblazing riot grrrl, and now we have her first recordings under the The Julie Ruin moniker in fifteen years. The results are a combo of her straightforward work in Bikini Kill with the sample/synth sounds of her next band, Le Tigre.
37. Yo La Tengo, Fade. Almost 30 years after forming, Hoboken’s greatest band is still going strong. In fact, a case could be made that they’re stronger than ever, as their 13th album stands proudly against anything else in their catalog. There’s still a sense of experimentation in their approach, and this record flows from track to track while combining exquisite melodies with bursts of playful noise.
38. The High Learys, Here Comes the High Learys. These Australian mods rock like it’s still 1967. Garage-based rock ‘n’ roll with elements of freakbeat, psychedelia, and good ol’ R&B.
39. So So Glos, Blowout. Anthemic punk-ish rock and roll, reminiscent of many, many bands but former tourmates Titus Andronicus is the obvious comparison.
40. Babyshambles, Sequel to the Prequel. LIbertines/Babyshambles leader Pete Doherty may be a drug-addicted joke, but his songwriting skills have always been above par. Their first release in almost six years is a tad more muted (and less ramshackle) than previous albums, but Doherty’s melodic magic is still present.
Best Cover Records
1. The Replacements, Songs For Slim. I’ll be honest here. I could have created dozens of different categories to include the ‘mats. Best Comeback. Best EP. Best Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee. It was simply a great year to be a fan, but the first Songs For Slim release was a true highlight of the year. Besides covering one of Slim’s songs (along with another cover by drummer Chris Mars), Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson added covers of Gordon Lightfoot, Leon Payne, and Stephen Sondheim. Fun stuff for a good cause, and the kickoff that led to their triumphant reunion concerts.
2. Various Artists, Songs For Slim. After The Replacements reunion EP, every month saw a new 7” single of Slim covers go up for auction on Ebay. All of those covers, including ten previously unreleased tunes, were compiled into a double-disc set. Tracks by the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and so many more showcased the love for the former Replacements guitarist.
3. Tommy Keene, Excitement At Your Feet. It’s almost shocking that it took thirty years for Tommy Keene to release a record of other people’s songs, as he has recorded scintillating versions of tunes by the likes of Lou Reed and The Flamin’ Groovies over the years. On this album, Keene adds his own spin to tracks by Big Star, Television, The Who, the Stones, and many others.
4. Sloan, Hardcore Covers. It was a bit of a surprise that the acclaimed Canadian power poppers would put out a hardcore record, but it’s probably no surprise that their cover of Black Flag blew away what the reunited original band was doing to the same song.
5. Wilco, Roadcase 018. Wilco has put together their own festival the past couple of years, and this year they added a new twist. They posted online a list of covers for fans to pick for a very special performance, and then released a recording of the concert. Besides some predictable choices (Dylan, Big Star, Byrds), they also performed tracks by Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult, and The Replacements (featuring a cameo by Tommy Stinson).
Best Reissues and Box Sets
1. The Clash, Sound System. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Clash catalog has been reissued a number of times now, but it’s NEVER sounded this good. Overseen by guitarist Mick Jones and sourced from the master tapes, this box set of everything they ever released (barring 1985’s Cut the Crap) is the definitive collection that everybody should own.
2. The Waterboys, Fisherman’s Box. After achieving success with their third album, 1985’s This Is the Sea, it looked like The Waterboys were on the verge of international acclaim. Leader Mike Scott then moved to Ireland and fell in love with traditional Irish music. Instead of quickly releasing the expected followup album, Scott spent almost three years recording a mix of originals and covers. While the resulting 1988 album, Fisherman’s Blues, is considered a classic their commercial momentum was lost. For decades, however, the hours and hours of tape built up a legend, and MIke Scott finally compiled them into a six disc box set that is a joy to dig into.
3. Harry Nilsson, The RCA Albums Collection. Inspired by reading a great Nilsson biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, I was belatedly interested in listening to his catalog. Luckily, RCA had just issued a box set of his entire catalog that showcases the ups and downs of an artist who destructive tendencies hindered one of the great natural voices.
4. Various Artists, Rise and Fall of Paramount Records. Remember when CD players were introduced before record labels had the ability to press discs? The same thing happened in the early part of the 20th century. Records were scarce, and companies that sold gramophones needed product to entice people to buy them. Paramount Records was formed by a Wisconsin furniture company, and the owners simply wanted product. They lucked into some legendary talent, though, and over the next fifteen years released 78’s by future legends such as Jelly Roll Morton, Son House, and Charlie Patton. This giant box of 800 tracks compiles most of the label’s still-surviving recordings, and is as essential as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
5. Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait. In the late 60’s, Dylan was suffering through a case of writer’s block. As he had done before when that happened, and many times since, he spent time in the studio running through other people’s songs. Unfortunately, the songs he selected for Self Portrait were sweetened by orchestras and additional musicians, and that album became known as his worst record ever. This box set, which also includes outtakes from Nashville Skyline and New Morning, unearths the original recordings, along with many more not known to exist, and sheds new light on that era.
6. Van Morrison, Moondance. Although Morrison has publicly criticized this four disc set of Moondance demos and outtakes, this is a pretty amazing document of the sessions that resulted in his most successful album. There are multiple takes of most tracks, and while they don’t greatly vary from take to take, it’s interesting to hear not only the subtle differences but Morrison’s sometimes surly attitude towards the producer and musicians.
7. The Heartbreakers, L.A.M.F. One of the classic albums of all time has never seen a decent mix. After recording the album, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers spent months mixing it to no avail. Finally, the label just put it out with an inferior mix. While there have been attempts to fix it over the years, this box set finally rights all the wrongs. Besides a new version of the album, there are tons of alternate mixes and different takes.
8. The Beatles, Live at the BBC Volume 2. It’s shocking that it took Apple over twenty years for a second volume of Fab Four radio appearances. Like the other one, this double disc is a combo of cover tunes and Beatles originals played live in the BBC studios.
9. The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies. One of the more overlooked Kinks albums gets a long-awaited expanded remaster, complete with outtakes and alternate mixes.
10. Neil Young, Live At the Cellar Door. When Neil released his mega-box set, Archives, a few years ago, we were promised that everything from his first decade of recording had been excavated. They must have missed this 1970 concert, but it certainly deserves a standalone release. Focused primarily on the just-released After The Gold Rush, this solo show also features rare stripped-down versions of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By The River”.
11. The Who, Tommy. Does anybody need another reissue of Tommy? Maybe not, but if you’re a fan you probably have a desire for newly-discovered solo demos from Pete Townshend, or the previously unreleased live recordings of the acclaimed rock opera.
12. The Band, Live at the Academy of Music 1971. This is The Band at their live peak, recorded over four shows during the last week of 1971. While some of that week’s recordings have been issued on Rock of Ages, this box includes at least one version of every song played during a stand that saw a setlist being tweaked every night.
13. Marianne Faithfull, Broken English. This 1979 release was one of the most shocking albums of the era. Besides the content of the lyrics, which wouldn’t cause any eyebrows to raise these days but was considered “obscene” at the time, Faithfull’s voice had deteriorated into a rasp that sounded like she chain smoked razor blades. Combined with a New Wave-ish musical backing, this was too much for folks used to her previous country-folk releases. Decades later, it’s clear what a groundbreaking record this is, and how it cleared the way for so many non-traditional female artists.
14. Roky Erickson Reissues. Three Roky Erickson titles from the late 70’s and early 80’s (The Evil One, Don’t Slander Me, and Gremlins Have Pictures) that are considered the highlights of his post-13th Floor Elevators career were given the remaster treatment. The Evil One is probably the highlight of the bunch, featuring Roky classics such as “I Walked With a Zombie” and “If You Have Ghosts”.
15. Nirvana, In Utero. In my eyes, Nirvana’s final album is also their best, and definitely deserved the box set treatment. However, I’m not sure of the purpose of a new “2013” version of the album. It’s still worth having, though, for much of the rest of the added material, including a concert recording and Steve Albini’s original mix of “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”.