Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10 CDs of 2013

Well, 2013 has come and gone, and I have one blog to show for it. This isn’t going to be some ramble through the changes I experienced in 2013, the job shifts, the waking up with a beautiful wife in my bead and then hearing one of my new step-kids yelling, “CAN I WAKE-UP NOW?!?” It’s not about any of that. It’s about the one thing that will make me take a step-way from my ever evolving life and reflect on the music that moved me in 2013, my Top Ten CD of 2013.

#10 – Paramore – Paramore:  No one is more surprised to see this album on my Top 10 than me. Not that I do not like Paramore or one of their previous albums didn’t make its way onto one of my lists, but their self-titled fourth album was not their best, and that is something that often affects my decision. Several albums found themselves in the teens and 20’s this year because they did not compare to their preceding efforts. I am not saying it is a bad album; it’s just not profound. Paramore moved in different directions, pushed themselves, and delivered a very likeable and spin-worthy disc. For that post rough-day-ride home, you can never go wrong with popping it in and letting that teenagey, band break-up, angst wash over you until you are smiling; doing a little seat-salsa; and have forgotten you are closer to 40 than 30; driving a mini-van; spend more time at work than you do anywhere near your house; and will probably never be what you dreamed of being…oh, wait…is that just me? Very well then, carry on.

#9 – Patty Griffin – American Kid: If you know me, there are going to be several albums on this list that you probably could have predicted, this being the first. Patty can do no wrong. Her voice is my favorite of all the voices that have ever whispered to me, screamed at me, or sang their heart’s song to my empathetic ears. American Kid is personal, yet accessible. The instrumentation is honest and perfectly pairs to the lyrics creating Americana tales that remind us we are a nation of amazing immigrants. As you would expect, Patty’s voice melts you with every emotionally charged phrase. For me the strength of the album lies in the middle: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” “Faithful Son,” “Highway Song,” and “That Kind of Lonely” gives you everything you need to know you are listening to something special.
#8 – Samantha Crain – Kid Face: As a nod to my predictability, Samantha Crain has not put out an album that hasn’t ended up on my end of year list. She is brilliant, and I should stop there because that is all that really matters, isn’t it? Her voice is quite possibly the most distinct I have ever heard. There is just no mistaking it, and it shines on this CD. What excites me most about Kid Face is Samantha’s continued evolution. She pushes herself in new directions with some of the musical directions she chooses while not losing her sound. It’s not Samantha doing Paramore; it’s Samantha doing Samantha with a thump that you can feel in your chest as her voice haunts your head. Standout tracks for me: “For the Miner,” “Churchill,” and “Sand Paintings.”
#7 – Amos Lee – Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song: This is really the best version of Amos. Since 2005 Amos has been pushing out CDs, showing different sides of himself, but Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song strikes the perfect balance of all the things I love best about him. His voice is clear and passionate; his instrumentation merges country and soul; and his words are intelligent and inspired. He is telling us about his world without forcing us to search for the meaning or beating us over the head with it. It’s an album that you can think through while shaking your ass. “Stranger,” “Chill In the Air,” and “Scared Money (bonus track)” will be enough for you to understand why this album is on the list.
#6 – Water Liars – Wyoming: A late add, like super late, like someone bought me the CD from my Amazon List for Christmas, but from the first harmony, which happenes 25 seconds into the first song “Sucker,” I knew a CD was going to get booted. Of all the albums on this list, I would say the guitar tones captured on Wyoming are my favorite. That crunchy overdriven sound of cheap guitars (well, cheap when they were originally released as Sears and Roebuck specials somewhere around 1956) through old amps is like heaven to my ears, but it is the rawness of “Fake Heat” that stops my mind from wandering and makes me realize just how talented Justin Kinkel-Schuster and Andrew Bryant are. And that is just track number two. The CD never lets up, never offers a throw away, just great song after great song. 

#5 – Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail: By no means am I a hip-hop aficionado. Until this year my hip-hop selection consisted of The Roots, Common, Kanye West, Eminem, and Nas, but I married someone who has Jay-Z on her Friends Top-5 List. So, when I saw that there was some pre-release hype for Magna Carta, I got on the bandwagon and pre-ordered it, so Amanda could have some bumps on my iPod.  There is a moment in “Holy Grail” when they shift meters. The first time I heard it I instinctively grabbed my crotch and let out an elongated daaaammnn, while making some exaggerated gesture over my face. It was at that moment when I knew I was going to love this disc. Jay-Z’s strength has always been his ability to turn slick phrases that are intelligent. He consistently spares his listeners from victim-of-rhyme raps. That remains true throughout Magna Carta…Holy Grail. But what I love about this album is it is texturally brilliant. If the rhythms on “Tom Ford” don't make you bob, you are dead, so stop reading. 

#4 – City and Colour – The Hurry and The Harm: Admit it. You knew this was coming. I mean I purchased the special soundcheck tickets and gushed like a teenage girl at an Elvis concert when I got to meet him. In fact, you are probably surprised to see it in the middle of the pack. There is nothing about The Hurry and The Harm that prevented it from being #1 like Little Hell was when it came out. I absolutely love this album; love the recording; the instruments used; the tones captured; Dallas’s flirtation with mortality; the contemplative nature of the lyrics; the way he reveals pieces of himself to us… “Two Coins” is, without a doubt, one of the best written songs of the year. There were just a few albums that moved me in such a way that I had to put them in the top three spots. 

#3 – Caroline Smith – Half About Being a Woman: When one of your favorite folksy female singer/songwriters drops an authentic neo-soul R&B album, you take notice. I am so completely enamored with Half About Being a Woman. It pays homage the foundations of Rhythm and Blues, takes you back to when R&B was pure…when soul was less about twerkin’ and more about interpreting the world through different lenses. Recorded in New York using some of the best session musicians, the album is empowering, filled with songs that not only make me want to love my lover, they make me want to show her the respect she deserves. The title track, complete with rim shots and a bass line that sits perfectly in pocket, will have you swaying with someone special in your arms. 

#2 – Patty Griffin – Silver Bell: Did you just do a double take? Yes, you saw that name earlier on this list. This has never happened before and may never happen again. It is extremely uncommon for an artist to record two albums in one year; in reality, Patty didn’t either. Silver Bell was recorded in 2000 but went unreleased by A&M, her label at the time. What they failed to recognize was the album was full of amazing songs that would have transcended any demographic data that they had pushing them to pass on the release. As it turns out, the Dixie Chicks released “Truth #2” and “Top of the World” which both became huge hits. And I legitimately thought “One More Girl” was the best song The Wreckers ever released. Little did I know it was actually Patty Griffin’s. Erected on the strength of those tunes, Silver Bell is filled with gems that are still relevant 13 years after they were recorded. Some of the tracks have a lingering grunge feel too them, ripe with distortion and atmospheric cacophony; they are not what you have grown to expect from Patty, but they make you respect her even more as an artist who is willing to stretch herself. 

#1 – Jason Isbell – Southeastern: Released on June 11, 2013; listened to on June 11, 2013, I knew immediately this was the best album of 2013. Nothing released before or after changed that opinion for me. Jason Isbell makes me realize just how much I have to learn about being a singer/songwriter. The best part of Drive By Truckers, Jason has been on his own since 2007. Every CD he has released has been filled with songs that make me want to be a better writer, but Southeastern is on a different level all together.  I could spend hours pulling quotes from the lyrics of this album, as genius is intricately woven throughout. In each song there is at least one line that makes me wish I had written it. In truth, if I was compiling my Top Ten of All Time, right now, this would be sitting at #1, just slightly edging out Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner. And in the middle of it all, is the best song of 2013, Elephant. I remember the first time I saw someone cry at one of my shows, that feeling of connection and acceptance; knowing that they got it; that they really listened; being able to move them, was humbling and satisfying. Well, Jason, if you are reading this, know it happens nearly every time I listen to Elephant. The starkest portrayal of cancer I can imagine, yet he manages to present the tale in a way that offers a sense of strength and survival. Do yourself a favor; shut the door; turn the lights down; click the video below; and let it go. You will thank me.

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