Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Favorite New Albums of 2013

By Robert Kinsler

As I noted on a recent episode of Music Worth Buying, 2013 has been a year marked by astonishing returns. Toad the Wet Sprocket, Mazzy Star, The Mavericks, Big Country and David Bowie returned with fantastic new albums after extended retreats. Rather than post a "Best Of" album list (I have not been able to listen to all of the year's notable releases including the most recent Arcade Fire disc yet) I prefer to title my end-of-year lists "Favorite Albums" since I think that while a certain album might be recognized as significant or essential in any given year it might wear out its welcome in the years ahead. The list that follows here is a subjective look at what I like and albums I'm pretty sure will sound great in 2014, 2020 or beyond… 

1. Sigur RósKveikur (XL Recordings) 
Sigur Rós returned big time in 2013, following the release of 2012's hypnotic Valtari with the more focused and aggressive Kveikur. Arguably the greatest album release of the Icelandic troupe's ever-evolving career, Kveikur blends symphonic and genre-busting industrial and alt rock styles in ways that challenge and reward listeners with each listen.  
Purchase Kveikur

2. Johnny Marr, The Messenger
More than 25 years after the Smiths disbanded, that legendary British quartet’s phenomenal guitarist Johnny Marr has finally issued his first-ever solo album. Indeed, The Messenger is so wonderful it’s easy to wonder why Marr didn’t turn down participation in post-Smiths projects such as The The, Electronic, the Cribs and Modest Mouse in order to focus on completing a solo project much sooner. At age 50, he appears to just be getting started. 
Get The Messenger here

3. Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up! (Stax)
Few pairings in blues have ever yielded the power, ambition and magical music making achieved by singer-songwriter-guitarist Ben Harper and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite on the character-centered song cycle Get Up! This is an album whose power will grow over time. 
Buy Get Up! [Deluxe Edition CD/DVD] here


4. Biffy ClyroOpposites (Warner Bros.)
Blending the artfulness of epic UK bands such as Doves and Radiohead with the firepower of Canadian trio Rush, Scotland's Biffy Clyro might be the world's first alt-prog band. The trio's latest album Opposites mixes introspective lyrics with dynamic musical breaks, melodic choruses and dynamic musical breaks.
Purchase Opposites here

5. Paul McCartneyNew (Concord Music Group)
From his days with the Beatles in the '60s  to his work with Wings in the 1970s and subsequent solo efforts, Paul McCartney has proved he has a knack for conjuring up songs that are invariably tuneful but also interesting and timeless. His latest full-length studio album, the aptly-titled New, is his first album of all original songs since 2007's Memory Almost Full. New finds Sir Paul has lost none of his magic as he chronicles the here and now via the bouncy "Queenie Eye," reflective folk song "Early Days" and electronica-pop standout "Appreciate." 

6. Toad the Wet SprocketNew Constellation (Abe's Records)
When it comes to taking a break between issuing studio efforts, alternative rock quartet Toad the Wet Sprocket has just about everybody beat. Having last issued a full-length studio effort in 1997 with the outstanding Coil, Santa Barbara's beloved Toad the Wet Sprocket is back with the brilliant 11-track New Constellation. Few groups tap into the joys and challenges of life with the songwriting depth of Toad the Wet Sprocket, as evidenced by the glorious "The Moment," probing "Rare Bird" and ambitious "Enough." Singer-guitarist Glen Phillips, guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning and drummer Randy Guss have issued one of the best albums of 2013. 

7. Richard X. Heyman(Turn-Up Records)
Power pop champion Richard X. Heyman's aptly-titled 10th album X was recorded in his home studio in New York City, "The Kit Factory." Heyman's musical talents are obvious; indeed he not only provides all the vocals but plays all the instrumental tracks too. Even more impressive are the songs, with the yearning "When Denny Dropped Out of the Scene," intoxicating "Be The One," Roger McGuinn-styled folk-rocker "Firing Line" and pop-rock gemstone "Somebody Has Finally Found Me" being among my faves.

8. The MavericksIn Time (The Valory Music Co.)
There is an explosive and joyful quality to the aptly-titled In Time, with singer-guitarist Raul Malo (whose voice draws comparisons with the soul stirring tenor of the late Roy Orbison) leading the outfit through genre-defying material that is a true mix of honky-tonk, country-western and retro rock 'n' roll sprinkled with Latin flavored sounds that is intoxicating from start to finish.

9. Mark Knopfler, Privateering (Verve)
The deluxe version of singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Knopfler‘s breathtaking Privateering is a cycle of songs that blend Celtic, country folk and blues styles effortlessly. Many albums released nowadays overstay their welcome and stretch a few tracks too far. Knopfler’s first-ever 2-disc effort offers up 20 bona fide gems. Whether exploring the deepest corners of human emotion (“Haul Away,” “Redbud Tree,” “Radio City Serenade”) or simply having a blast (“Corned Beef City,” “Hot or What”), Knopfler’s artful and intelligent songs share the spotlight with his singular guitar playing.
Buy Privateering (Deluxe Version)


10. The Civil WarsThe Civil Wars (Sensibility Recordings/Columbia Records)
Although the Civil Wars (singer-songwriter guitarist John Paul White and singer-keyboardist Joy Williams) are seemingly on an indefinite hiatus, the duo followed up their amazing 2011 Grammy-winning debut Barton Hollow with the equally thrilling self-titled sophomore effort. The Civil Wars is a bit more rocking than its predecessor but the magical harmony vocals and bewitching songcraft thankfully remains. From the confessional "The One That Got Away" and tender "Same Old Same Old" to the enthralling "Evesdrop" this is an album that ranks among the strongest Americana albums released in memory. 
Buy The Civil Wars here

11. Otis TaylorMy World is Gone (Telarc International/Concord Music)
The Civil War was not the only great struggle that played out in the last half of the 19th century. The final push by the U.S. government and uncaring settlers to kill Native Americans or force them onto reservations reached its zenith in a long series of actions that had tragic consequences for the Kiowa and Comanche, Nez Perce and Apache, or the countless other tribes that comprised the indigenous people who lived here. Leave it to master Colorado-based bluesman Otis Taylor to chronicle this dreadful chapter of history with songs that display their force with the musical equivalent of a herd of Buffalo thundering across the Great Plains. My World Is Gone was inspired when Taylor and his friend, Indigenous lead singer-guitarist Mato Nanji (a member of the Nakota Nation), were having a conversation backstage about history; at one point Nanji stated "My world is gone." Those four words inspired Taylor to craft a collection of songs that doesn't preach about injustice, but simply recounts episodes that hammer home the lessons of history in spades. Against the backdrop of trance blues that unfold with power and beauty, the amazing "Sand Creek Massacre Mourning" (complete with Taylor's hypnotic banjo playing and guest Nanji's brilliant lead guitar work), "Blue Rain In Africa" and the title track "My World Is Gone" are among the essential tracks here.
Purchase My World Is Gone

12. Michael and the Lonesome PlayboysBottle Cap Sky (Blackwater Records)
Like John Fogerty or the late Gram ParsonsMichael Ubaldini crafts instantly-memorable songs that somehow blend traditional country with blues, Western swing, folk and rock into a unique sound bound by his profound ability to stir the soul with songs that are decidedly his own. On Bottle Cap Sky, Ubaldini's latest project released under the Michael and the Lonesome Playboys moniker, the cult hero continues to expertly straddle past and future. From the gospel-tinged "Walk Through Time" and blues nugget "Someone Should Put You On Trial" to the outstanding rocker "Three Cheers for Heartache," "Bottle Cap Sky" offers up literate and accessible songcraft across its winning 15-track run.
Get Bottle Cap Sky here

13. Dr. Dog, B-Room (Anti)
There is a bona fide freewheeling spirit and genuine joy of music making displayed across Dr. Dog's outstanding third full-length disc B-Room. The six member troupe out of Philadelphia juggles rousing neo-soul ("The Truth," "Long Way Down"), Neil Young-meets-Felice Brothers Americana ("Minding the Usher," "Phenomenon"), alt country folk ("Too Weak to Ramble") and indie rock ("Broken Heart," "Distant Light") on the fantastic collection. 
Get B-Room here

14. Joan Jett, Unvarnished (Blackheart Records)
Rocker Joan Jett's Unvarnished is not only her first album release since 2006's Sinner, but is likely her most confessional album to date. Without surrendering her punk-styled hard-charing approach the singer-guitarist tackles mortality ("Hard to Grow Up," "Fragile"), society's ceaseless worship of celebrity ("TMI"), survival ("Make It Back," penned in the wake of Hurricane Sandy) and loss ("Soulmates to Strangers").
Get Unvarnished


15. Phosphorescent, Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
Listening to the latest full-length disc from Phosphorescent is to be cheerfully thrust into singer-songwriter-guitarist Matthew Houck's wonderful world that blends introspective lyrics with involving soundscapes that fall somewhere between country music pioneers like George Jones with alt-country giants Neil Young and Gram Parsons. There are beautiful songs ("Song for Zula," "A New Anhedonia"), propulsive stomps ("Ride On / Right On") and tender ballads (The Quotidian Beasts").
Buy Muchacho De Lujo (Deluxe Edition)

16. Travis, Where You Stand (Red Telephone Box)
Scotland's original kings of melodic brit-pop are back and better than ever. The band's newly-issued Where You Stand is the group's first studio effort since 2008's harder-edged Ode To J. Smith. The good news for long-time fans of Travis is that Where You Stand is full of the textured and pleasing melodies that made early efforts such as 1999's The Man Who and 2001's equally potent The Invisible Band. Standouts on the new album include the U2-tinged "A Different Room" and the infectious title track.
Get Where You Stand


17. The WaterboysAn Appointment with Mr. Yeats (Proper Records) 
There is an artistry and grandeur of scale that defines The Waterboys' An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, a years-in-the-making project from frontman Mike Scott where he has set 14 of Irish poet W.B. Yeats' poems to music. Having dreamed of completing this project since the early 1990s, Scott's glorious An Appointment with Mr. Yeats was well worth the wait. Likely the Edinburgh, Scotland-spawned troupe's best collection since 1985's "This Is the Sea" or 1988's Fisherman's Blues, the new disc finds the ensemble blending its traditional Celtic folk and modern rock with spoken word ("Song Of Wandering Aengus"), neo-electronica ("News for the Delphic Oracle"), and mystical genre-defying territory ("Sweet Dancer"). 
Buy Appointment With Mr Yeats


18. Franz FerdinandRight Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (Domino Recording Co.) Although its been nearly a decade since Scotland's brash outfit Franz Ferdinand bust out with the global smash "Take Me Out," the group's timeless sound returned big time in 2013 thanks to Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, the band's first new album since 2009. The new album, which includes '80s-styled dance rock ("Evil Eye," "Stand on the Horizon") and straight-forward indie rock ("Love Illumination," "Bullet") emerged two full years after the Glasgow troupe reportedly called it quits. 
Get Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action


19. Jars of ClayInland (Grey Matters) 
Strong songwriting shines across Jars of Clay's welcome return to action on the winning Inland. An album that boasts shining melodies, probing real-life lyrics and inventive arrangements across its 12-track run, Jars of Clay has long been one of the most original rock artists on the planet. With its mix of electronic textures, blues, experimental alt rock, folk and baroque pop, Jars of Clay has issued another masterwork. It doesn't hurt that legendary guitar great Adrian Belew adds some magic fretwork on the driving "After the Fight." The electronica-draped "Human Race" is another standout on the solid collection.
Buy Inland


Two albums tied for my 20th spot!

20. Big Country, The Journey (MRI Associated)
Thirty years after the release of their epic debut The Crossing, Scotland's Big Country has returned with the sterling The Journey. Now featuring The Alarm's Mike Peters as lead vocalist (original singer Stuart Adamson committed suicide in December 2001), Big Country's rousing anthems-styled resonance is fully relevant on the spirited "In a Broken Promise Land," "The Journey" and "Return." "Another Country" displays a punk like ferocity while the graceful "Hail & Farewell" showcases Big Country's tender side. 
Get Journey here


20. Mazzy Star, Seasons Of Your Day (Rhymes of an Hour Records) 
It is so exciting to hear new music from the talented duo of singer Hope Sandoval and guitarist David Roback that it's easy to lose sight of how truly great the songs on Seasons Of Your Day really are. Mazzy Star's fourth full-length album is the group's first new album in 17 years and was truly worth the wait. The songs here are more straightforward, with less reverb obfuscating Sandoval's haunting soprano. Roback's freewheeling acoustic guitar play (including some impressive slide work) is layered in dreamy arrangements, with pedal steel, light percussion and keyboards painting a melancholy soundscape across the 10 tracks. The sparse "California" and beautiful title track explore the quiet corner of Mazzy Star's world, while "Common Burn" showcases more tensile sonic terrain. The accessible and infectious folk rocker "Lay Myself Down" is simply a great listen.
Get Seasons Of Your Day


Honorable Mention

Deep Purple, Now What?! (Eagle Rock Entertainment)
Few hard rock bands have had the influence and staying power of early heavy metal heroes Deep Purple. On the English band's first new studio album since 2005, the aptly-titled Now What?! showcases a quintet firing on all sonic cylinders. Ian Gillan's still mighty and distinctive vocals, Steve Morse's outstanding lead guitar work and artful arrangements of all 11 songs make this a standout. The nuanced "A SIMple SOng," prog rocker "WeiRDistAN," and rousing "AbOVe aNd bEYOND" are worthy of the band's "Perfect Stranger" era.

Get NOW What?!

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