Dear, music: I am not sure if it was you or me, but one of us was off our game this year. I have never had to struggle as hard to find music that moved me as I did this year. Here's hoping that you and I find more common ground in 2014, because I don't know how to quit you.
Your intrepid blogger
So, without much ado, here are the top 7 albums of 2013:
1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Hands down, the finest album of the year and the best of Isbell’s career (solo or with the Drive By Truckers). Much has been made of the redemptive arc of the album (man quits booze, embraces love, finds himself and happiness), but Isbell’s fine eye for detail and rapier wit won’t allow for such reductive simplicity. Older, wiser, and armed with a set of tunes that would kill lesser men, this is finally proof of what we DBT fans have been preaching for years: Isbell is the real deal and has talent to spare. Take one listen to “Cover Me Up”, “Stockholm” or “Relatively Easy” and it’s apparent that Isbell’s working at the height of his powers. And “Elephant”? Jesus Christ. Quite simply, these twelve songs are a master’s class in songwriting and an embarrassment of riches for fans and newcomers alike. Well done, sir!
2. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
The best album that Depeche Mode didn’t release this year (and leagues better than the one they DID!), this is the rare blog-worthy band who delivered on the promise of their internet releases. These Glaswegians found the sweet spot between articulate longing and detached celebration and turned what could have been a case of “three-great-singles-and-a-bunch-of-filler” into a mission statement that is ready for both the arenas and the dance floor. And if Lauren Mayberry’s catch-in-your-throat trill doesn’t move you, it’s probably time for you to start picking out a cemetery plot. Here’s hoping that this is simply the first volley in a long and distinguished career.
3. California X – s/t
Sooooo much guitar scuzz! Weaned on the teat of early Dinosaur Jr (and hailing from their virtual backyard in Amherst, Mass.), California X almost singlehandedly carried the torch for overdriven, zero-fucks-given guitar rock this year – or would have, if mainstream media hadn’t slept on the release. Not that this trio likely cares…they just turn up the amps and let it rip over eight tracks of pure sonic bliss (but still have the cojones enough to throw a piano-version of the melody to opener “Sucker” on as a coda to another song). Great, simple, passionate, and made to be played LOUD!
4. Bad Religion – True North
Not quite the summative “career-overview” that was 2011’s “The Dissent of Man”, BR circles the wagons and create another fine slab of poetic, politically-minded and relentlessly melodic punk. The songwriting is shared as in the past between singer Greg Graffin (“the head”) and guitarist Brett Gurewitz (“the heart”), but never has their writing seemed as in sync and copacetic. A great many other so-called punk bands could learn a lesson or two from the deceptively-simple and humanistic “Robin Hood In Reverse” or the full-bore rush of “My Head is Full Of Ghosts”. 34 years on and still leading the pack.
5. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You
That voice. I suppose that there are worse things to be saddled with, but I am sure Ms. Neko is sick of the over-simplified awe that her pipes inspire in mediocre writers like me. That said, THAT VOICE! The fact that for a third album in a row, Case has put out a near-flawless set of songs is admirable in and of itself, but songs like “Man” are imbued with so much visceral indignation that you’re almost afraid that she might in fact be hiding around the corner from you. Such a beating would not only be deserved, but likely welcome! Case’s songs are imbued with life and serve as a reminder that success (however it may be defined) is hard won and that sticking to your guns in a world full of lies and betrayal may be the only to guarantee that you are the last (wo)man standing.
6. The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
Wales’ finest return with their brass-ring grab and it’s a stunner! Ritzy and co have never been shy about “going big”, but this is widescreen in a way that feels both natural and exciting. The guitars are thicker, the tunes bigger, and the attack even more ferocious – it’s a jump in sonic quality that hearkens back to the one spiritual forebears Smashing Pumpkins made with “Mellon Collie” (sans the bloat and the unchecked ego). It’s doubtful that this band could ever top 2010’s formative, naive but bracing mini-LP “A Balloon Called Moaning”, so going in the opposite direction and pulling out all the stops seems to be the right decision. The dichotomy between the growl of Ritzy Bryan’s guitar and her sweet, clarion-call voice is still breathtaking and well-employed on this great set.
7. David Bowie – The Next Day
He’s David Bowie and he’s still alive and making music. The fact that it’s FUCKING FANTASTIC is almost beside the point. Surprising us all with an album that is reflective of his age but not beholden to it, Bowie has made the move seemingly only he can make: staying relevant while not pandering to any particular trend or group. Bless you, Mr. Bowie. We are not worthy.