In 2013, perhaps more than any in the previous five years, I failed to listen to my usual amount of new music. In part that had to do with finally forsaking Exclaim! as I can no longer stand what has happened to what used to be an important institution in Canadian and independent music. (Ke$ha needs your coverage? Psy?) So I stopped listening to their music previews and my main source of newly released music dried up. Added to that, I’ve been getting ever more into the rabbit hole that is borrowing CDs from the library, and the vast majority of the music I listen to via that source was recorded prior to this century. So I feel like this is probably the worst I’ve done at making a “best of” list in a few years, though I feel like I say that every year. I have attempted to supplant Exclaim!’s previews with NPR’s, but I have yet to be consistent about it. And I have failed to purchase new releases by a number of bands I normally support, so the results are, well, odd.
1. Hilary Hahn: In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores (9/10)
What I said at the time: It’s a wonderful thing that there are “classical” musicians in the world who don’t want to be stuck in a tradition that elevates the past over the present. I have always been intrigued by “classical” musicians who want music to live, who don’t just want to stick with how things have been done by their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. It was once a great thing for soloists to commission music (or to have it dedicated to the soloist); it was once an integral part of how an important part of the great music of western history was written. But somewhere along the way many musicians got caught up in only playing works by dead composers, as if modern composers had little to no value, or if they were only for certain types of musicians.
December 2013: Vital, interesting, anti-establishment (in the sense of the classical music establishment, which can be artistically suffocating) and just as musically excellent as one of these surveys can be. Fantastic.
2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Brooklyn Babylon (9/10)
FYI, I haven’t seen the accompanying visuals, so this is a bit like judging a soundtrack without seeing the film. Alas…
I don’t believe this is actually jazz, though it is clearly heavily influenced by jazz – I figure much if not all of it is written out ahead of time – but that really doesn’t matter. This is a great album, even without whatever narrative is supposed to be conveyed by the visuals, especially for lovers of big bands. There is a lot going on here, almost too much to take in after only a few listens. There are numerous ideas and references. It’s like po-mo big band.
3. The Dillinger Escape Plan: One of Us is the Killer (8/10)
I got into DEP with Ire Works as a kind of impulse buy when I was actually looking for Irony is a Dead Scene, which I have since acquired. I didn’t know what they used to sound like prior to that, beyond a couple tracks a friend had sent me. I know there is a group of fans out there who wish they still sounded like that. I have no idea really whether that’s valid or not. I suspect it’s not.
4. The Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea (8/10)
Halvorson first came to my attention nearly a decade ago as a member of Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant. At the time I was absolutely blown away by her playing. But due to my somewhat expansive music tastes it has taken me this long to seek out one of her sets as leader.
5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Push the Sky Away (8/10)
What I said at the time: I greeted Grinderman with a fair amount of joy. Though it certainly seemed a little as if they band was trying to relive the past glories of the Birthday Party, enough of it felt different to let myself go with the renouncing of decades of personal musical history. But when it came to the Bad Seeds’ last album it seemed like it had been infected by Grinderman – which makes sense, given the presence of all of Grinderman in the Bad Seeds. Though the writing process was supposedly entirely different, the musical results weren’t so different – though different enough – and there certainly seemed to be a major lyrical theme running through both Grinderman albums and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! Basically, the last Bad Seeds album felt like they were trying to tame Grinderman for their audience. And it didn’t make me happy.
December 2013: Cave is perhaps more conservative / reactive lyrically on this record than ever – and that’s getting harder and harder for me to take – but fortunately this record really does stand out in his canon as fairly unique in its arrangements and production. And that’s great: it’s nice to hear something familiar wrapped in something different.
6. Deafheaven: Sunbather (8/10)
7. Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vol. 1 (8/10)
Rabbit Rabbit is a duo (sometimes augmented) of two of the members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, perhaps the best avant rock band of the early 21st century. Rabbit Rabbit Radio is their “song a month” internet “radio” service and this disc collects the first 11.
This band is considerably less unhinged, considerably less over-the-top, and considerably less genre-hoppy than SGM – only one of the tracks really reminds me of them – but the songs manage to balance strong melodies with (mostly) off-kilter arrangements that almost sound like SGM doing chamber pop.
It’s great stuff and I look forward to catching up with the rest of it.
8. Julian Lynch: Lines (8/10)
This was sold to me as some kind of “investigation” of American folk music. It’s hard to really see it as such. There are certain elements of it that are influenced by American folk music, but it’s hardly a dominant thing. (It also depends what you mean by “American folk music.”) But the label is kind of irrelevant. There is a lot going on here and it is interesting whatever its pretensions. The songs could be stronger, but everything else is pretty great.
December 2013: It’s a shame that I don’t remember this one iota. I shall have to find it again and hear it anew.
9. Dave Holland: Prism (8/10)
10. Tomahawk: Oddfellows (7/10)
What I said at the time: Tomahawk’s latest is a return to their original, ‘alt metal’ style after 2007’s Anonymous. (As an aside, I remember the curveball that album was to many fans, even though it is one of my favourites of the new century.)
The album gets off to a good start with the title track, which reminds me of early Tomahawk. It’s practically Frippian in its conclusion, with some of Denison’s most frenzied guitar playing. So far it’s clearly the standout for me. “Stone Letter”, the ‘single’, is significantly less ferocious and sounds like it might have been on the radio sometime in the mid ’90s only its bridge is just too weird. “I.O.U.” is a ballad fairly atypical of the band; rather it is atypical in that it never explodes like we would expect it too and its smothered in the kind of backing vocals we might expect from late-period Mr. Bungle. “White Hats / Black Hats” is more in the mode of traditional Tomahawk until those backing vocals come in. “A Thousand Eyes” is another atypical one, not so much in the sound, which Tomahawk has attempted before, but rather in the lack of anything we can readily identify as “metal” in the chorus. “Rise up the Dirty Waters” starts off sounding like some kind of bizarre fusion of alternative, loungy bop and surf until the chorus, which definitely brings the song into late Mr. Bungle territory (well, almost…it’s not quite spastic enough). “The Quiet Few” is perhaps one of the most Tomahawkian tracks, as it sounds like a more restrained version of the Jesus Lizard meeting late period Faith No More with a little bit of Helmet thrown in, which is essentially what Tomahawk is. ““I Can Almost See Them”” is almost reminiscent of the last album in its arrangement if not in the actual song but it’s certainly not related. It feels like a different band entirely than the rest of the album to this point. “South Paw” begins as one of the most straightforward punk-influenced alternative rock songs on the album until the drastic left-turn into the verse-proper, which that description doesn’t fit at all – it retains the drive of the intro but features a pop vocal and sparse guitar, perhaps out of a film soundtrack. But the chorus returns to the straight-ahead rock music. The song concludes with more frenzied guitar playing from Denison. “Choke Neck” has a deliberate, almost loungy verse with hard / alternative rock guitar fills that burst out in the chorus – one of the band’s favourite devices. “Warratorium” has a typical Denisonian chorus riff, but the verse almost sounds like it belongs to Peeping Tom or something (this coming from someone who has barely heard Peeping Tom). “Baby Let’s Play ____” has a similar Lynchian lounge / surf vibe to a lot of what appears on the album. As does the intro of “Typhoon”, until it picks up for the verse and chorus, which feel a lot more like classic Tomahawk.
On the whole, the album is significantly less “alt metal” than their first two albums, even though in its sound it somewhat hearkens back to those releases. It feels as though the band has entered a new phase, with enough music reminiscent of their early days to remind fans of what they once were, but with a significant change of direction that at times reminds me of late Mr. Bungle – albeit far less manic, as I said before – merged with some kind of Jesus Lizard thing, only with far more elaborate arrangements than the latter reference would suggest. I was certainly skeptical of this style at first: I loved Anonymous and I generally love the early albums and I do miss the “metal” aspect of those. But on the other hand I feel like this is a fairly new thing; though I was originally tempted to throw this in with other art-musicians-reviving-alternative-rock projects like Dunn’s MadLove or Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, but as this does revive ’90s alternative rock, it does so in a unique and musically interesting way that remains compelling even without the all-out attack present on so many classic Tomahawk tracks from the early ’00s. The more I listen to it the more I like it. I doubt I will ever love it like I love the rest of their oeuvre, but it’s still pretty good.
December 2013: I haven’t listened to it since. I am not one to constantly revisit an album but my lack of desire to put it on does suggest to me that it never captured me like those early Tomahawk releases. That being said, I have gone all iPod on myself this year, and rarely on whole albums that I own at the moment. But this is their weakest album, even if it is still pretty good for whatever “alternative rock” is supposed to be now.
11. Palms (7/10)
I try to be careful with hype, I really do, but every so often I’m fooled by it anyway. And the worst part is that I don’t know the Deftones at all, and barely know Isis.
This is being called “post metal” by a lot of people but I’m sure if that’s because Palms a bunch of metal musicians playing music that is decidedly not metal, at least in any conventional sense – or because it’s somehow considered the metal equivalent of post rock. The former is certainly more true than the latter.
I don’t know what I thought I was getting, but whatever it was, it wasn’t this. And so it took me a while.
But now that I have finally got over this thing as a “metal” album, or as post rock, I can actually say that I kind of like it.
I’ve finally heard something where the term “blissed out” makes sense to me; and I’d rather listen to something like this because there’s real rock muscle behind it, as opposed to so much shoegaze, where the muscle feels like it is put on, almost as a disguise for the melodies. Here, if anything it feels like the melodies are the disguise for the muscle and for the desire for the band to just play slowly for a really long time.
12. Tom Harrell: Colors of a Dream (7/10)
This is a surprisingly bold “modern jazz” recording, featuring two basses, three horns and plenty of competing influences – more progressive post bop, R&B via Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, and some other things. Though it is absolutely mainstream jazz, it has a lot going on, more than I was expecting.
When I read about Harrell I was worried I was getting into something I wasn’t going to like. But I find myself pleasantly surprised. This is a unique record that manages to sound not that much like the mainstream which it is firmly part of.
13. Tim Hecker: Virgins (7/10)
Hecker is another artist I have never heard of until this moment, so I can’t say how this fits in with his catalogue. But I can say that I often find modern “ambient” to be boring. It’s just one of those genres that doesn’t do a lot for me. I appreciate it as a counter to what was going on in the rest of the musical world when Eno “invented” it, but for the most part I find it only valuable as background and that isn’t enough for me to like something.
But Hecker’s music, or at least this album, is different. I’m not even sure it’s fair to call it ambient as there is too much going on to hold the listener’s interest (including what sounds to my ears like a didgeridoo!). I’d say this is more minimalist than ambient, but whatever; semantics. Regardless of how we categorize this, it is thought provoking and nice to listen to at the same time.
The only thing that keeps me from rating it higher is that it is a little repetitive – which of course it should be. That’s hardly a rational criticism, but we like what we like.
December 2013: I really don’t understand the hype over something like this; it is very enjoyable and definitely an alternative take on whichever genre we’re lumping it into, but it’s not that path-breaking. It’s quality music but it didn’t change my life.
14. Mike Patton: The Place Beyond the Pines Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (7/10)
I had always assumed that Patton’s biggest film-music influence was Morricone, as Morricone’s influence is all over (some) Fantomas and Patton has even put together a Morricone anthology. But here, the big influence is Angelo Badalamenti. This is like a Twin Peaks score only without the cheese, and with the occasional dose of Sunn O))). That’s a good thing in my mind. The tracks that flesh out his score are all interesting enough and I may actually have to rethink what I think of Bon Iver.
December 2013: I really enjoy this and not just because I am far too fond of Patton. This was a legitimate surprise for me and an honest-to-goodness left-turn for Patton, I believe. Yes, we know Patton likes Badalamenti (Fantomas has covered him) but this score really does make me once again ponder what it is I think Patton does. And he does it well here. And frankly that’s what I want out of artists I keep tabs on; I like surprises.
15. Cass McCombs: Big Wheel and Others (7/10)
What I said at the time: This is my first experience of McCombs and I have to say I am impressed. He has a good but idiosyncratic sense of melody, he’s got his aesthetic down, and his lyrics are strong, which is probably the most important thing with someone like this. His lyrics make use of all sorts of traditional tropes – I’d almost call them clichés – but he rephrases them or changes them enough that he’s actually put some thought into it. The odd turn of phrase reminds me of early Dylan, even if nothing else about the record does.
16. DJ Koze: Amygdala (7/10)
I don’t know anything about this kind of music, which I guess means it’s a good thing that I’m listening to it. I can’t judge it based on this guy’s career or what the genre does or is supposed to sound like. I really have no idea about context here. All I know is what I hear.
So this is reasonably interesting stuff. There is a fair amount of variation to keep one interested. And the sounds are drawn from all sorts of sources. It’s easy to see why some people really like this stuff.
But on the other hand it is long. Like insanely long. And frankly it was a chore to listen to it three times in a day and a bit. That’s 6 hours of this out of the last 30 in my life. Wow.
I can certainly appreciate it, but I can’t say I love it..
December 2013: Most electronica does nothing for me. This was reasonably interesting but the man needs an editor.
17. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell: Old Yellow Moon (7/10)
This is as traditional as country gets in 2013. The aesthetic is great and the song choices are all excellent. And they’re different enough. For example: their version of “Blue Bird Wine,” which Harris has been performing for 40 years – and which helped launch Crowell’s career, if I’m not wrong – is different enough from her original that it sounds a little like a new song.
I really have no criticism of this record, save that it’s traditional country in 2013. It’s great stuff, but it’s very, deliberately old school. And so I cannot rate it any higher.
18. Wilco: Live at the Solid Sound Festival June 21, 2013 (6/10)
What I said at the time: So back in June Wilco performed two shows at whatever the Solid Sound Festival is, a festival they seem to have something to do with creating. In any event, their first show on the opening night featured an interesting little gimmick: (almost) all covers. I say almost because they did perform one of their own songs (as well as an Uncle Tupelo song). In addition, they may or may not have brought in an element of randomization by having a few songs picked for them on stage, both by numbered-ping-pong-ball and by fan request. Whether or not it was actually random doesn’t really concern me.
The results are fun, if nothing spectacular. The variety of the covers – such a variety that a huge music nerd such as myself didn’t know all the songs – and the looseness of the performances is really endearing. But the covers are all straight up and so they just become a good cover band. I still enjoy the recording, but it’s not like they rethink the wheel on any of these songs.
December 2013: At one level, this is great: I like the sloppiness, the sense of fun, the willingness to just enjoy themselves. But if you are looking for truly great covers, you will find virtually none here. This is a cover concert as a tribute, not as art. And the snob in me just can’t get around that.
19. The Avett Brothers: Magpie and the Dandelion (6/10)
This is all very pleasant: the songs are decent and the aesthetic is pretty convincing.
But these guys are squarely on the polished side of “alt country” – if something this polished can even be called “alt country” – or contemporary country / folk, or whatever you want to call it. And that’s probably the biggest criticism I have. If this had rougher edgers, or greater immediacy I might be more grabbed by it, but without that I focus a little too much on the songs, and though some parts of them are compelling other parts of them are squarely in the folk / country cliche department and too many of those moments are backed, musically, by pop cliches.
So it’s a fine listen, but it’s not going to open your eyes. And honestly it doesn’t make me the least bit interested in checking out their back catalogue.
December 2013: Another album I can’t figure out the buzz around; mildly diverting country and folk that is only “alt” in the vaguest sense of the word – in the sense, I guess, that it isn’t the horrible arena country or pop country being put out by Nashville as something supposedly “country.” The songs vary from decent to meh and I’m sure I would like it more if there were a few more good ones I could grab onto. But without enough great songs, and without an edge, I really don’t care.
20. Pearl Jam: Lightning Bolt (6/10)
After Backspacer I was ready to give up. Most of my friends who like Pearl Jam were too. But then I heard “Mind Your Manners” and I was willing to give it a chance, as this sounded significantly more energized – and less obviously trendy – than the music from the previous album.
So I finally found my way to it and all I can say is that, while at least some of it feels more energized than Backspacer, it again feels like lesser Pearl Jam, and not really worthy of much attention after I finish my usual three listens. Though there is the odd track to holds my attention, most of this feels repetitive – trying to relive older glories – or like unconvincing attempts at sounding modern – or “with it”, perhaps – like so much of Backspacer suffered from, though in this case there is more of the former than the latter.
21. Mother Falcon: You Knew (6/10)
I certainly like the idea of bands having extensive instrumental palettes; it adds to the range of sounds available which should be a good thing. And I’m (mostly) glad that post rock encouraged a lot of more mainstream-inclined bands to expand their instrumental palettes.
But at some point it gets kind of ridiculous. And it gets ridiculous when bands who would normally be writing pretty straightforward pop rock, power pop, folk rock or arena rock dress up their songs with orchestras.
And that’s what we have here. This band could easily exist with its anthemic songs and just a few guitars and drums and we likely wouldn’t think much of them. But put strings behind them and suddenly they’re buzzed about.
Blame it on Arcade Fire, or Badly Drawn Boy in the case of some of these songs.
Not Ranked: Les Arts Florissants, William Christie: Belshazzar (10/10) by Georg Friedrich Handel
Though one of the least well know of Handel’s oratorios, Belshazzar is, to me, the granddaddy of them all.
This thing is immense and gorgeous and full of passages to force me to rethink Handel. Parts of it almost sound modern, which just speaks to how much future opera composers owe Handel. ‘Epic’ is probably the only modern word which can give you a sense of the sheer scale of this thing. At times, while listening to it, I am at a loss for words, something which usually only Bach, of baroque composers, does to me.
Just a monumentally impressive work and, for me, the easy superior to the more famous oratorios.
Not Ranked: Wanda Jackson: The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles (9/10)
This is a compilation that, despite its title, appears to contain every single one of Jackson’s singles for Capitol between 1956 and the early ’60s. It shows off what could only be a pioneering fusion of country and rock music that I was completely unaware existed.
Not Ranked: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival  (8/10)
This is an Experience concert from the 1968 Miami Pop Festival (obviously) containing remarkably little music from either Axis or Ladyland (which they had already begun recording). Actually I don’t think there’s a single song. It’s a strong set and it shows off the Experience as a great live band, which is something we don’t always think of them as (or at least I don’t).
Not Ranked: Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell and Angels (6/10)
This is apparently the “final” official rarities collection we will get from the Hendrix vaults. These are the last previously unreleased studio tracks. It only took 40 years.
Also, I listened to Haim. Once. I couldn’t even make it to a second listen. What the fuck is wrong with everyone? (I know the answer to that, actually: it’s not you, it’s me.)