Thursday, December 26, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

I long ago quit using terms like, “the best songs,” or “the best bands.” I know Rolling Stone likes to dedicate issues to such titles, but there’s really no such thing. There’s just our individual preferences, and every music lover has a different list of personal favorites.

Here is the list of my favorite three albums of 2013, the ones I listened to most in the car, through headphones on my 20 mile bike rides, or streamed on Spotify while I worked in the garden or cooked in the kitchen.

Each met my personal measure of an album of lasting pleasure. Music I immediately love tends to lose its luster quickly. But albums that at first listen seem to have only one gem, but on second listen reveal another, and then another and another as you listen more, albums where my favorite track shifts from one to another over repeated listening, that are deep with layers of mood and emotion ­– those are the albums that stick with me, that become my personal favorites.

And all three of these have another thing in common: melancholy. While each has fun, ballsy, hell-raising moments, each is also filled with dispondence, desolation and damaged souls seeking redemption.

I revel in that shit.

On Jason Isbell’s album, Southeastern, he sings the line: “They’re two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.” That phrase hints at the beautifully compelling, in-between world this album occupies.

Isbell is best known as a member of the raucous, alt-county/Americana band Drive By Truckers (DBT), from Athens, Georgia. Fans of the DBT’s raw, beer-soaked chug and grind might not take to this album’s polished, careful sound and how closely it nibbles at the edges of pop-country. They might wonder where Isbell’s sloppy, ragged voice has gone and wince at the warmth and clarity of his newly sober tone. But at the same time, the songs on Southeastern will never be played on pop-country radio stations. Isbell refuses to wear the costumes or adhere to the artificial constraints of Nashville’s rigid modern rule book. On one song he drops the F-bomb while imagining the reaction of friends if he had sex with his cancer patient drinking partner, and on another he sings to an old girlfriend, “Get off my God-damn back” – essentially disqualifying himself from pop-country stardom.

But on Southeastern, the Alabama-born Isbell isn't saying, “Fuck Nashville,” like so many Americana artists don But then again, he’s ain't Nashville either.

Consider the plaintive, standout track, Traveling Alone, a take on the truck driving ballad. At first blush it sounds like the flawless melody, polish, and yearning sentiments tailor made for pop-country radio. He sings, “And I know every town worth passing through, but what good does knowing do, with no one to show it to.” But just at the point he might be getting pop-country listeners to sing along, he opines on being “strangled by” his “appetites,” of being so high that prostitutes won’t take his money. 

Regardless, Traveling Alone is a damn pretty song. 

Isbell is a recently recovering alcoholic. Themes revolving around that painful, destructive journey reoccur throughout the evocative lyrics, perhaps best in the aching opening track, Cover Me Up. It’s a folk/country autobiographical song about the redemption of climbing out of the bottle while falling in love. He laments with pleading urgency:

“In days when we raged, we flew off the page,
Such damage was done.
But I made it through, because somebody knew,
I was meant for someone.

So girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room,
'less someone needs medical help, or the magnolias bloom”

Southeastern reveals Jason Isbell as a gifted songwriter, as impressive with wordplay as he is with melody. He can tell a good story, paint images of vivid emotion, and make you care about those damaged souls.

I’ve always liked the band The National. They’re originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but now based in Brooklyn. Last spring these darlings of music magazine critics put out an astonishingly well-crafted album called Trouble Will Find Me.

Early summer I sampled it during a long bike ride among the hilly green cornfields north of Noblesville. The only song that initially stood out was the chilling, Fireproof, a harsh critique of a former lover. A gentle electric guitar picks like the rhythmic breaking of delicate glass, countered by the low gear, deep baritone of Mat Berninger singing, “You’re fireproof. Nothing breaks your heart. You’re fireproof. Wish I was that way.”

The album played through twice before I pulled back across Potters Bridge. On the second
 listen two more songs jumped out at me as if I hadn’t heard them at all yet; I Need My Girland Demons.

About two weeks later my favorite song had become the lyrically goofy, Humiliation. It’s a perfect example of why this band is so amazing. The opening bass line thumbs like a heartbeat at rest. In the second verse Berninger lists the events that led him to a dark, damaged place:

“All the L.A. women,
Fall asleep while swimmin’
I got paid to fish them out
And one day I lost the job

And I cried a little
I got fried a little
Then she laid her eyes on mine
And she said, “Babe, you’re better off”

By this time the bass thump is at a trot. As the song progresses the bass and drums ever so gently pick up speed through choruses and recurring bridges. Just as it winds down to an apparent fadeout it suddenly swells back to life, arcing in a new direction, the bass surging like a heartbeat in a full-out run, pulled along by an infectious, looping, elastic, guitar line.

Like U2 or The Police, there are no guitar or keyboard solos. The guitars and keyboards serve the song. If you’re familiar with rock music of the past 25 years, you know the brushes The National is painting with. But the quality of the art they’re creating is, while immediately familiar, astonishingly expressive, masterful, and delightfully surprising.

Valerie June was kicking around the backwaters of the Americana music movement until this year when she released Pushin’ Up Against A Stone. It’s a pretty damn stellar assortment of songs, so varied in style it could give you genre whiplash from one track to the next. From banjo finger-picking “old-tymie” mountain music, to blues, to full-out soul, nearly all songs were co-written by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who also produced the album and plays guitar with June throughout.

My favorite tracks are the soul numbers, chief among them, The Hour, marked by a signature Auerbach blues groove intro that morphs into a rolling, soulful wave backed by Motownesque gospel vocals, and the dirty blues and chirping organ of Pushing Up Against A Stone. Other standouts include the country tune, Tennessee Time, which highlights June’s little girl whine, and the angry blues stomp, You Can’t Be Told.

If you’re a Black Keys fan, you’ll note Dan Auerbach’s fingerprints all over this album. But if he can be credited with stretching June into his trademark blues and soul, June likewise stretches him into writing and playing in the country and bluegrass genres she knows better. Though fabulous as-is, it will be interesting to see what Valerie June does next time out when she doesn’t have such a sonically recognizable producer and collaborator working with her.

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers 3 weeks ago, currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

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