(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Favorite reviewed albums of 2013

Everybody loves to toss out their guide to the best albums of the year, but that's a tall order for a single blogger. Despite listening to so many albums over the course of 2013, I don't feel qualified to claim that I've even heard the best albums of the year. Instead, I can share the best albums I've reviewed over that time. Reflecting my eclectic tastes, these artists vary from rock to country and experimental to pop. Each of these albums made a big impression, even if the band was not so well-known.

This list is roughly in order of my appreciation.

#10 - Whiskey Blanket, From the Dead of Dark
Local experimental hip-hop outfit Whiskey Blanket has made a big impact by throwing down beatbox/viola duets, chamber music interludes, and a rich world of atypical samples. From The Dead Of Dark proves that gimmicks don't make the band as they present their loosely structured, spaghetti-Western rap concept album. If there were justice in the world, this would open them up well beyond their Front Range roots. (original review)

#9 - Team Spirit, Team Spirit
The most frustrating thing about Team Spirit is that they leave me wanting MORE. Their EP came out early this year and caught my ear with high-energy thrash-pop and tight twin guitar riffage. Every one of the five tracks on Team Spirit is a wonderful gem, but I'm still waiting for a full length audio meal from the band instead of this little appetizer. Ex-keyboard/ex-Muse player Ayad Al Adhamy strapped on his guitar to start this new band and he's never looked back, For a glimpse of their irreverent sense of humor, check out their official music videos for the songs, like "Jesus, He's Alright!". (original review)

#8 - Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses), The Low Highway
Steve Earle has always balanced a chameleon-like expression against his rock-solid inner truth and The Low Highway continues that trend. From modern-day Woody Guthrie (the title track) to retro jazz blues ("Love's Gonna Blow My Way") to funky rock ("Calico Country"), Earle packs the album with a wide range of well-executed styles, but, more importantly, all of his characters ring true as they fill in the details of his progressive social narrative. (original review).

#7 - Sirsy, Coming Into Frame
Unlike many of their low-fi, noise-loving peers, this indie rock duo has the chops and temperament to embrace a lush pop setting for their music. Mel Krahmer's rich and sultry vocals and Rich Libutti's nuanced guitar work each take full advantage of the production, shining in the clarity. The pair channel a perfectly evolved retro-pop sensibility that bypasses all of the triteness and excess to deliver luxurious sincerity and meaningful songs. (original review)

#6 - Sigur Rós, Kveikur
Light industrial touches make this a noisier outing for Sigur Rós, but the haunted feeling at heart of their music maintains the band's emotional connection to their audience. That bond has always transcended language for their American audience and their new found power doesn't diminish the impact. Thunder resounds but breaks for dreamy interludes. Epic builds and dissonance form a skeleton that can support delicate introspection and surround an oasis of calm or two. (original review)

#5 - Arbouretum, Coming Out Of The Fog
Following up on 2011's The Gathering, Arbouretum continues their path of channeling the raw intensity of '70s super groups, rife with warm fuzz and visceral rhythms. Acid ragas and modern-primitive, down-tempo beats roll through the album like a smoldering fire. The band taps into a secret frequency of retro perfection and molds a cathartic space in the heart of today's darkness. Find a sonically-isolated, candle lit room, pour a glass of cognac, and play the vinyl version through a high-end tube amplifier to soak up every reverberation. (original review)

#4 - Elvis Costello & The Roots, Wise Up Ghost
We should write a thank-you note to Jimmy Fallon for sparking this collaboration. When Elvis Costello was scheduled to appear on the show, he sat down with The Roots to rough out a performance for the show. Costello proved open to ?uestlove's suggestion of working out some live remixes of a couple of songs. That went so well that they decided to pursue the idea further. Much of Wise Up Ghost mixes and mashes material from Costello's back catalog while incorporating The Roots' impeccable sense of groove and rhythm. Both sides show their strengths and maintain their style while forming a strong musical alloy. (original review)

#3 - Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward
Like Stevc Earle, honesty and soul-searching is at the heart of Fulks' music. Gone Away Backward is anchored in the traditional Americana/country sound that Fulks loves the most, but he's incapable of dumbing himself down to find a lowest common denominator. Instead, he embraces ambiguity and complexity, weaving stories around interesting characters and bittersweet perspectives. On the surface, songs like "That's Where I'm From" may amble forward with twang and sincerity, but Fulks gives them depth with his eloquence. (original review)

#2 - Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light
This is the third in saxophonist Colin Stetson's New History Warfare series. Each step has developed and refined his musical approach, reflecting his growth as a player and his instinct for collaboration. In this latest offering, Stetson continues to amaze as he evokes the sounds of rhythmic loops, synthesizers, and heavy bass from his sax and added vocalizations. The combination of his playing technique, microphone treatment, and recording approach are astounding, but the pieces transcend the execution to be moving and hypnotic. (original review)

#1 - Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, UZU
This art and music collective brushes so close to stereotype and trope, that it would be tempting to dismiss them before giving them a solid listen. That would be a shame, because UZU presents a perfectly crafted balance of music that ranges from crisp, moody clarity to epic metallic flourishes, from tribal electro-beat rhythms to progressive body blows. Even the femme vocals resist pigeon-holing: one song's ice princess may spout demonic fire a couple of tracks later. (original review)

Honorable mention:
First off, I'll mention that I disqualified a bootleg/reissue of Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (original review). It's a brilliant collection, showing off the "lost quintet" at their finest, including material that would later turn up  in a different form on Bitches Brew. This set would easily be one of my top two or three, but it seems unfair to include older releases like this in my 2013 list.

Aside from that exception, the list is still too short to accommodate many other wonderful albums. Here's a small taste:
  • Smoke Fairies - Blood Speaks (review)
  • Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends (review)
  • Octopus Project - Fever Forms (review)
  • Arcade Fire - Reflektor (review)
  • The Fierce and the Dead - Spooky Action (review)

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