Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Best of 2013 (So Far)

Bowie's back on top.
Typically, I'm the first person up in my house, getting up at about 5:00am to move the car, make the coffee, pack the lunches and clear the sink. I often catch up on favorite podcasts (like Soundcheck, Studio 360 or Sound Opinions) as I make these rounds but the morning of January 8th was different. I swiped open my iPhone to find a link cryptically shared by a friend of mine who lives in France. It seemed to be a new video by David Bowie - or about him - but I couldn't be quite sure. I broke from routine by tackling the sink first with the iPhone propped on the shelf in front of me, pressing "play" before turning on the water. My first thought was that the video for Where Are We Now? was a brilliant parody, that the need for new material from the Thin White Duke had inspired the internet to spew forth something that would cruelly taunt us fans. A minute into listening to the gorgeous, elegiac ballad and watching the intriguing visuals I knew: it was simply too good to be anything but the real thing. I could scarcely contain my elation at hearing something new from one of my heroes.

I also felt this was a good omen for the music of 2013 and that has been borne out by one great record after another. I'll attempt to corral it all in a preliminary Top Ten (which could become a Top 20 by year's end) and a few other lists.

1. David Bowie - The Next Day Here's why.

2. Kanye West - Yeezus Another masterpiece.

3. Jenny O. - Automechanic Great songs, great singing, deal sealed by Jonathan Wilson's brilliant production.

4. Jon Hopkins - Immunity Composer and producer Hopkins first came to my attention in 2010 as a collaborator on Small Craft On A Milk Sea, Brian Eno's finest record in many a year. Investigating further turned up some ok but not particularly characterful collections of electronic and ambient sounds. So my ears were open if not exactly primed when Hopkins appeared on Soundcheck earlier this year. His performance of Open Eye Signal quickly had me at full attention: Thick slabs of artfully arranged sounds welded to a groove of tectonic proportions built a composition that drew me in and engaged me completely. The rest of the album maintains the promise of Open Eye Signal, from glitchy tracks like Collider to the intimate ambient of Abandon Window and the title track. Electronic album of the year.

5. Jace Clayton - The Julius Eastman Memory Depot I would be mourning the death of Mudd Up much more if not for this dazzling record, which firmly establishes Clayton as a major proponent and participant in the avant garde.

6. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold It was great to hear Greg Kot revise his already high opinion of this endearing record. At first he had focused on the "ramshackle vibe" and "casual surface" but further listening revealed the craftsmanship behind the songs on this "supremely well-done record." I don't usually quote other reviewers, but I really couldn't have said it better myself. Great stuff with a real New York attitude. Think it's as easy as it sounds? Fuggedaboutit. I can't wait to see them in concert again.

7. Daniel Wohl - Corps Exquis Based on the company he keeps in the new music scene in NYC and elsewhere, it was only a matter of time before I ran into Daniel Wohl's music, and based on the bracingly original and stunningly beautiful sounds on his debut album, I'm glad it didn't take any longer for me to get acquainted. Corps Exquis, performed to a tee by the quintet Transit and featuring valuable assistance from Julia Holter, Aaron Roche and So Percussion, is actually the soundtrack to a video and performance piece but stands completely, entrancingly, on its own. The melding and merging of electronics and acoustic instruments sounds so uncannily inevitable in the nine compositions that the mind ceases to worry what is making which sound. This is also richly affecting music that touches on a variety of emotional colors. Don't wait for the show to come to your town - just get this album.

8. Wire - Change Becomes Us Post-punks never die, they just get smarter.

9. Mystical Weapons - Mystical Weapons In which Sean Lennon and drummer Greg Saunier (of Deerhoof) prove that the vision of Miles Davis's electric period was never about virtuosity (although they are both virtuosic musicians), but rather a musique-concrete-esque coming together of improvised sounds and textures. Seeing them in concert was like witnessing telepathy. One thing they get right that a lot of similar freak-outs don't is dynamic range. Lennon and Saunier seem to think more like co-composers than co-improvisers, resulting in a record that is consistently more rewarding with each listen. Lennon's wandering career is such that this could easily be a one-off but that's fine - it's hard to imagine them bettering it.

10. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap This free mixtape is an ambitious, sprawling, and almost cinematic collection from 20 year old Chancelor Bennett. Caught between adolescence and adulthood, he raps in a reedy voice about falling in love, falling into bad habits and missing his mom's cocoa butter kisses. He sometimes sings lines and his signature sound is a little shriek that can convey frustration, joy or anger. There's a rhythmic flexibility to Chance's flow that meshes perfectly with the jazz-based grooves on some of the songs. There are plenty of guests on Acid Rap but Chance is in full command and I predict a bright future for this brave and intelligent new voice.

Bubbling Under

Rock-Type Stuff: Both Comedown Machine by The Strokes and Ghost On Ghost by Iron & Wine received a lot of blowback but I like them both and return to their wells of emotion and musical ingenuity often.

Amok by Thom Yorke's Atoms For Peace sounded much as expected - terrific - but I can't help feeling that this material is going to really take off onstage. I've got tickets for one of their shows at Barclay's Center so I'll find out in September.

The Mavericks are back with In Time - and dare I say "better than ever"? The sheer sound and power of these master musicians and the makes it easy to overlook the moon/spoon/June lyrics and (Call Me) When You Get To Heaven brings a new operatic flavor to the picture.

Amor De Dias returned with a second album, The House At Sea, and it's just as gorgeous as the last one. Any year with something new from Alasdair MacLean is a good year.

Pere Ubu secured their legendary status for their first three records alone but they occasionally pull together and put out something new that proves the continuing relevance - and edginess - of their approach. Lady From Shanghai is an uncompromising example.

Disclosure is the duo of Guy and Howard Lawrence, brothers who seem to have absorbed practically everything about the last 20 years of dance music - and they're only in their early 20's - and figured how to refresh and revive it on Settle, their debut full-length. When A Fire Starts To Burn is the standout track and an instant classic floor-filler, but no one at your party will complain if you just leave the whole album on.

Hip Hop: Jonwayne has been on my radar since 2012's Quakers collection. Passing Fancies is merely the best of the quirky songs he's been releasing on cassette over the last couple of years. Can't wait for his official debut.

Prodigy & Alchemist's Albert Einstein is great, if not quite at the level of Return Of The Mac. Essential 2013 hip hop.

If Pusha-T can maintain the level of Numbers On The Boards for a whole solo album, we might stop wondering when the next Clipse album is coming out.

Jazz: I probably keep up with new jazz the least of all the kinds of music I listen to. If there were more records as bold, expansive and thrilling as Without A Net from the nearly 80-year-old Wayne Shorter, that would change in a heartbeat. Recorded at several live performances and featuring several compositions from his past as well as Pegasus, a new work performed with Imani Winds, Shorter and his blazing quartet splash around on stage like whales in a bathtub - its joyful but you feel disaster could be around the corner. It's called "without a net" for a reason.

Classical: The world of Brooklyn Rider produced two great albums so far this year: A Walking Fire, which features Bela Bartok's Third Quartet bookended by contemporary gypsy music and a new composition from violinist Colin Jacobson; and Recursions, the wonderfully wide solo debut by violist Nicolas Cords.

Benjamin Britten's centennial has produced one new classic recording amidst all the reissues and repackages: Britten Songs by tenor Ian Bostridge, accompanied by the piano of Sir Antonio Pappano, and, on five songs, guitarist Xuefei Yang. It's sublime.

Out Of The Past: Speaking of reissues, Light In The Attic has packaged Bobby Whitlock's first two solo albums as Where There's A Will There's A Way and it burns. Anyone who has been moved by his vocals on Derek & The Dominoes tracks will want to dive into his emotionally profligate way with a song. Big, bold arrangements performed by an all-star cast (Harrison, Clapton, etc.). 

Another great label, Strut, has done something of a public service by exhuming the work of Romanian progressives, Rodion G.A. A touch of Krautrock, a touch of psych - it get's better with every listen. Thankfully The Lost Tapes are lost no more!

The wonders of the Miles Davis Bootleg series continue with volume two, Live In Europe 1969, which features a line-up that never recorded in the studio. Four concerts, one on DVD, and you won't want to miss a note.

Finally, more Hendrix is on sale. Again. But fortunately, People, Hell & Angels is as fresh and energetic as Valleys of Neptune was slack and rehashed. The remixing might be slightly aggressive but it's great to hear his guitar jump out and transform the air around you. Supposedly, this is the last new collection of studio material. I assume that means that the Experience Hendrix folks will be concentrating on live recordings, so I'll put my vote in for a professionally mixed release of the storming set at Randall's Island in 1970.

What 2013 releases are still in rotation around your way?

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