Monday, July 1, 2013

The best of 2013 (so far) - Andy's picks

Six months into 2013, and here are the 10 releases I would consider my favorites.

10. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt

Katie Crutchfield, dba Waxahatchee, is the latest in a line of fine female singer-songwriters who excel at keeping it simple. (Think Liz Phair, PJ Harvey and Cat Power.) Raw-throated vocal delivery of prose-poems over lo-fi guitar riffs. Rinse and repeat. A few of the songs drag a bit, but all in all Cerulean Salt is a worthwhile listen.


9. Johnny Marr - The Messenger

The Smiths’ guitarist comes through with a tremendous solo work. The same sharp, angular sounds that complemented Morrissey’s vocals so well on Smiths albums works wonderfully here as well.


8. The Thermals - Desperate Ground

Do you know how hard it must be to write 3-minute punk songs, one after another? Neither do I. But the Thermals do, because that’s all they do. (I think the longest song on this album is 3:15, and some clock in at under 2 minutes.) But they make the process sound simple. Desperate Ground is another solid effort from a hard-working band that doesn’t get enough credit for doing what they do.


7. Free Energy - Love Sign

Just a fun throwback to ‘80s power pop. That’s all this album is. But that’s enough.

6. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from Daft Punk. Random Access Memories marks their glorious return to relevance. The disco-influenced synth-heavy album sounds like music made for androids, but it’s extremely likeable. The album is bit self-indulgent at times (track 3, “Giorgio by Moroder,” begins as a monologue before the groove finally -- finally! -- breaks through). But overall it’s an enjoyable bit of space-age disco.


5. Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses - The Low Highway

A true troubadour, Steve Earle has traveled the red and blue highways across this land. In The Low Highway, Earle and his merry band of Dukes and Duchesses describe other highways -- an underbelly of the homeless (“Invisible”), meth heads (“Calico County”), the disillusioned (“21st Century Blues”) and the forever hopeful (“Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”). Earle continues to preach about the struggles and trials of America’s underclass in a way that should wake us all up.

4. David Bowie - The Next Day

Maybe the Thin White Duke’s best days are behind him. Or maybe Mr. Space Oddity/Ziggy Stardust/Star Man/Aladdin Sane is reinventing himself once again. The album cover, a retake on Heroes, would seem to suggest that. But with Bowie, you never know. No matter. The Next Day is a terrific album, his best since Scary Monsters. Bowie’s voice is more unsteady nowadays (at age 66 now), but he’s still capable of creating songs that remind us of the oneness and hugeness of everything (“The Stars Are Out Tonight” is a perfect example). Bowie still comes across as some alien creature observing our world but not really of it. That's part of what makes Bowie Bowie.


3. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell - Love Has Come For You

Hearing the initial, spare clawhammer plunks of this album’s opening track, “When You Get to Asheville,” I immediately think I’m in for some old-timey O Brother Where Art Thou?-style banjerpickin’. But then Edie Brickell sings, “When you get to Asheville/Send me an email,” and I’m transported back into the present. They didn’t have email back in the Soggy Bottom Boys’ day. Martin and Brickell make an odd combination, and I picked up this album first as a curiosity. (I knew Martin was a talented banjo player, and I respected Brickell’s singing talents from her time with the New Bohemians.) But as I listened to each tune, the simple songs and storylines grew on me. Brickell’s writing is as spare and clean as Martin’s banjo licks. Her tunes are also witty. (Favorites are the hoedown-hookup “When Are You Gonna Wake Up?” and the breakup song “Siamese Cat.”) It’s an unlikely pairing that turned out a very likable and playable album.


2. Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends

If you can get past this hipster band’s annoying name, you’ll find that Portugal. The Man is making some of the most interesting music around these days. In a sense, Evil Friends is a pastiche of modern indie sounds -- a mashup of Foster the People, MGMT and the like. But the band draws on a deep well of musical influences. The title track segues into a surf-garage guitar riff a la the Black Lips. “Hip Hop Kids” channels NIrvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And that horn section that comes crashing through the acoustic strumming of “Sea of Air” is pulled straight out of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

So, the sound of Portugal. The Man’s new album may not be fresh or entirely original, but neither is the idea of making art from fragments of past works. Aided by master producer Dangermouse, Portugal. The Man has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable album that stands on its own. One day, the riffs on Evil Friends may very well serve as foundational snippets for future musicians.


1. Jason Isbell - Southeastern

With each new release, former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell seems to be on the verge of breaking through and producing a masterpiece. But with each of his previous three studio albums, something was always missing. With Southeastern, everything falls in place for Isbell. Maybe it’s because Isbell quit drinking and decided to write more honest, autobiographical songs. (“I sobered up/And I swore off that stuff/Forever this time,” he sings on the first track, “Cover Me Up.”)

Whatever it was, it worked. Southeastern is the singer-songwriter’s best work to date.

With one notable exception (“Super 8”), every track on Southeastern showcases Isbell’s at his most elegant and melancholy. Track after track weaves together stories of heartbreak, loneliness and love lost. “Elephant,” about a couple’s struggle with cancer, is the masterpiece. I choke up every time I hear it. Even with the incongruous “Super 8,” a modern retelling of sorts of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps,” Isbell’s sharp eye for detail and brilliant lyrical storytelling shines. Example: “Then a big boy busted in/Screaming at his girlfriend/Waving around a fungo bat/Bass player stepping up/Brandishing a coffee cup/Took it in the baby fat.” Southeastern is an unexpected, pleasant surprise among this year’s musical offerings. For my money, it’s the best album of the first half-year.



  1. Well done! You've given me some things to listen to. I'll post my midyear list too.

    1. Looking forward to seeing your list, Chris. If you haven't listened to Free Energy yet, I think you'll like it.