Music serves many purposes in our lives, which is why we welcome so much of it. The records in the top 20 are like complex single malt Scotches: you can return to them over and over again for new and deepening experiences. But sometimes you want a glass of Johnny Walker Black that is going to reliably satisfy and heighten your day without making too many demands. That's not to say that the albums and songs listed below are easy listening or without depth - they're all damned good, some featuring artists at the top of their game.
Coulda Been A Contender Had I another week or two to spend with the sheer delight of Any Port In A Storm by Scott & Charlene's Wedding it might have edged its way onto my top 20. Driving, melodic songs from Craig Dermody, a transplanted Aussie who tells us he "hasn't done much changing in what I love since 1993," and who in Fakin' NYC has come up with the second great Big Apple anthem of the year. Pusha T's My Name Is My Name was nearly the great album I knew he had in him. His vision that commercial hip hop can be good hip hop was inspiring and the variety and passion of his flow was simply staggering. Maybe if skeevy Chris Brown hadn't crashed the party there would be no hesitation. Arctic Monkeys seemed to finally crack America with their fifth album AM. While I'm not sure that should have ever been their goal, there are a lot of terrific songs on AM, along with an even beefier presence for one of the best rhythm sections on the current scene.
Take It To The Stage Seeing and hearing Atoms For Peace kill on stage at Barclays Center made me realize what I was missing from the quite fantastic Amok: Dynamics. The jam-then-cut-and-paste process of making the record took some of the air and interplay out of the ensemble. It's a great record but Thom Yorke & co. took to a whole other level in the live setting. The same could sort of be said for Wayne Shorter's titanic Without A Net, which was a live album but made up of selected performances rather than a single concert. I understand the curatorial impulse - and every performance is incredible - but having heard an unofficial recording of a show in Marseilles taped earlier this year, I found it easier to lose myself in the ebbs and flows of his extraordinary band. Also, Shorter plays only a little tenor sax on Without A Net and I found myself looking for a break from the high register of the soprano.
Don't Stop The Dance A lot of people seem satisfied to take the floor to pale imitations of past glories like Get Lucky or Blurred Lines but I require an actual groove to get me moving. Luscious Jackson's Magic Hour, their first album in 14 years, was a master class in the fun and the funky. A little push to the songwriting would have found them back at the peak of Fever In Fever Out, but I know what I'll be playing at the New Year's party. I'll probably also be spinning Disclosure's When A Fire Starts To Burn - no matter that the rest of Settle was at a slightly lower temperature.
Getting Better All The Time Over a decade into their career, 65daysofstatic returned from a three year hiatus with their strongest album yet, Wild Light. Choppy electronics, soaring guitars, epic compositions - it was the full package of what instrumental rock can be in 2013 and took its place next to Pell Mell's Interstate and Trans Am's Surrender To The Night among my favorites in the genre. Yes, that was me who added 65daysofstatic to the list of instrumental bands on Wikipedia! I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Midlake, despite the reams of rock journo ink spilled on them, but it seems that all they needed to do was lose their lead singer. The reconfigured sextet returned with Antiphon, a lovely and involving album that may presage future greatness. Then what will all those music critics say?
They've Been Careering Iron & Wine's Ghost On Ghost, Amor De Dias's The House At Sea, and Juana Molina's Wed 21 were all fine albums that I returned to often but that somehow stayed in the realm of the expected, even in their little innovations on trademark sounds. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they were for fans only, but I would hope that new listeners are led back to earlier, more powerful works. Edwyn Collins also exists in this realm and his punchy Understated is another reason I'm glad he survived two(!) cerebral hemorrhages to make more of his witty and heartfelt music.
Cool And Composed The vaguely named (and defined) area of New Music spun off a few gems that I spotlit over the course of 2013. Nicholas Cords, released his debut album Recursions, a beautifully wide-ranging solo viola album, while his regular gig, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, put out another strong statement with the Gypsy-inflected A Walking Fire. Another Nicholas, Nicholas Vines served up Torrid Nature Scenes, a welcome sampling of his sometimes raucous and always complex and accomplished music. Committed performances make the case that Vines is one of the most exciting of contemporary composers. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed something of a public service by bringing the early 60's work of NYC avant gardist Joseph Byrd to light - fascinating and fun stuff. Density, by Claire Chase, contemporary flutist extraordinaire, was a sometimes challenging survey of cutting edge music for her instrument, including the forever fabulous Density 21.5 by Edgar Varese.
Words And Music Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday led to a flood of catalog releases and new recordings. Sublime tenor Ian Bostridge put out one of the best of the latter, a collection of songs including the infrequently performed Songs From The Chinese. If you're unfamiliar with Britten, start to get acquainted with one of the greats here. Simone Dinnerstein, who made quite a splash with her self-released Bach recordings a few years ago, made her first foray into the dreaded crossover space with Night, an aptly-named collaboration with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Beats the heck out of Norah Jones.
Single & EP's Supposedly we live in a shuffle-based world now, with albums having less and less prominence. Why, then, is it so much work to get great singles and EP's noticed? I'll keep trying! Breton gave a hint of the larger canvas of their second album, due early next year, with the four song Force Of Habit, featuring the bouncy (for them) Envy and the doomy Got Well Soon plus two non-LP songs. Holly Miranda also set the stage for her sophomore release with the magnificent Desert Call/Everlasting single. I really hope 2014 is her year - been a long time coming. FKA Twigs (yes, formerly known as Twigs) collaborated with producer Arca for EP2 and the results were highly intriguing. Arca himself, aside from working on Yeezus, dropped a 26 minute mix of dazzling sounds, called &&&&&. The title hints that there's more to come from him, which will be more than welcome. Divine Fits kept their pot of brittle pop boiling with Chained To Love and Ain't That The Way, although I've heard rumors that Britt Daniel may be reviving Spoon next year. Finally, Matthew E. White re-released last year's brilliant Big Inner with five new songs - genteel and sly, funky and folky, the way only he can do. If you don't already have it, it's way past time to invest in a major talent.
Bandcamp Follower There's a wealth of free listening and downloads on Bandcamp. Two of my discoveries from 2013 are Historian and Journalism (you can make the joke about unused graduate degrees). The first makes hazy bedroom electro-psych-pop and the second comes up with catchy guitar rock that doesn't sound cheesy. When you're tired of the usual suspects, head over to Bandcamp and find something to tell your friends about.
I'm saving the spectacular reissues of the year for next time so we can all catch our breath. See you in 2014!