Favorite Music of 2013


1) I’m too old and poor to try and hear everything anymore. I enjoyed Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” in 2010 but didn’t feel compelled to search out “Yeezus” this year. I buy what I like, and sometimes fate brings me new music that I find I like too.

2) I didn’t even get to hear everything that I do like. Melt Banana is one of my top 25 bands of all time, but I didn’t get around to hear “Fetch” except through an online stream, once. No doubt it would be on this list if I had a chance to dig in further.

3) This is a snapshot of December 2013. Catch me on a different day and I’ll be talking about how ASG is the new Jane’s Addiction but with more southern flair, or how Rotting Christ’s new album does for the orcs what Amon Amarth does for the heroes of “Lord of the Rings.”

So with that:

15. Busta Rhymes & Q-Tip – “The Abstract & the Dragon”

This mixtape came out so late in the year that I haven’t had time to fully absorb it, but I’ve listened enough to knock Steve Martin & Edie Brickell’s duet LP “Love Will Come to You” off the list. This mixtape is a conscious return to the boom-bap styles of “Low End Theory,” which of course helped launch Busta Rhymes as a hop-hop star. I like all the tracks pretty well, and about half are fantastic, which is a pretty good percentage for the first few listens.

14. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Blue Chips 2”

The second “Blue Chips” mix from Action Bronson, this time pairing him with Party Supplies, plays just like a good mixtape should: It’s got fun samples and the rhymes feel appropriately loose and spontaneous. Action Bronson maintains his usual wit while continuing to develop his own style, i.e. he doesn’t sound like Ghostface any more.

13. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels”

I guess this was intended as a quick toss-off collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P. Certainly it doesn’t run nearly as deep in terms of themes as Killer Mike’s awesome “R.A.P. Music” last year. That makes it all the more fun in some ways, as the two rappers blast through loud soundscapes, rhyming about verbal violence the whole way.

12. Inter Arma – “Sky Burial”

Inter Arma hails from Richmond, a city whose metal scene I’d stack against any in the U.S. Inter Arma continues to showcase the malleability of black metal, mixing it here to great effect with post-rock’s epic builds.

11. Lee Ranaldo & The Dust – “Last Night on Earth”

Sonic Youth has broken up, but it continues through the splinter projects of its various members. I’ve always thought Ranaldo was the most underrated member of the band, but while his SY contributions have been the most songwriterly of the group, his previous solo work has been mostly driven by guitar feedback. That changed here with an album devised in part as a tribute to the Grateful Dead. Strong songs, well played that advance Ranaldo’s career arc while throwing plenty of red meat to Sonic Youth fans as well.

10. Dillinger Escape Plan – “One of Us Is the Killer”

DEP is the spiritual and audio successor to Faith No More, and “One of Us Is the Killer” continues to make that clear. Vocalist Greg Puciato almost sounds a little *too much* like Mike Patton at times, but that’s appropriate for a band and a record that veers as much as this one does. There are plenty of breakneck mathcore songs, but they’re broken up by dips into other styles and genres so that it doesn’t get repetitive or boring.

9. Phosphorescent – “Muchacho”

Ambient alt-country in the vein of Emmylou Harris’s “Spyboy” period and collaborations with Daniel Lanois. In this case, however, Matthew Houck did pretty much everything himself — though he notably admitted Brian Eno as an influence.

8. Carcass – “Surgical Steel”

Fantastic return to form from the grindcore/death-metal legends. Even without Michael Amott (Arch Enemy) they essentially wrapped together their first four classic albums (minus “Swansong,” which isn’t so bad if you take it as a great death’n’roll record) with a heavy focus on “Heartwork.” Here’s to another 10 years.

7. Portal – “Vexovoid”

Crazy on-the-edge death metal that will sound bizarre and scary to folks who aren’t into death metal or even those who are if they skew to the traditional stuff. That’s a good bit of the reason why I like it: It’s different and kind of fun, and if you listen enough the patterns start to reveal themselves, and you start to look at music and life a little differently.

6. Kylesa – “Ultraviolet”

Kylesa, on the other hand, is following its fellow Georgia bands by evolving away from sludge into something else. The great thing about this Georgia sludge movement, though, is that that “something else” is different for Mastodon, Baroness & now Kylesa. When I first streamed “Ultraviolet” I got a little bored, but it quickly settled in under my skin and has become one of my favorite front-to-back listens this year.

5. Black Twig Pickers – “Rough Carpenters”

The Black Twig Pickers have lit up Southwest Virginia’s old-time scene with a series of albums, live performances and side projects over the last few years, to the point where they’ve landed a place on Thrill Jockey and left a national mark as well. “Rough Carpenters” ups the ante by adding second fiddler Sally Anne Morgan. It’s their strongest album to date and bodes well for the future.

4. Chance the Rapper – “Acid Rap”

Chance the Rapper seems to bypass trends and movements, and as a result this mixtape is a stylistic thing unto itself. In a lot of ways it reminds me of last year’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” from Kendrick Lamar, not so much in style as in the fact it so perfectly sketches out an individual and the city, lives and world around him. Witty, funny, sad and soulful, this was not just my favorite hip-hop debut this year, but my favorite hip-hop record overall.

3. William Onyeabor – “Who Is William Onyeabor?”

Rarely has the joy of discovery struck me more deeply than did finding the music of William Onyeabor this year. I’d heard his “Better Change Your Mind” on Nigeria 70, of course, but hearing an isolated track on a compilation doesn’t hit quite as hard as a full-album immersion. Onyeabor’s music ran far ahead of its time, to the point where it still sounds timeless and futuristic all at once. Compare him to Sun Ra or George Clinton or Thelonious Monk; similar to Chance the Rapper, Onyeabor’s music lives in a universe of its own.

2. Cough/Windhand – “Reflection of the Negative”

For a good chunk of the year, this was my favorite record. It set the stage for Windhand’s double LP “Soma,” which made a lot of other top-10 lists, but this was the superior effort for me. Windhand’s two songs here would sit among the stronger tunes on “Soma,” too, but in this context they’re paired with the 18-minute “Athame,” a beast of a dirge from Cough. Two great tastes that doom great together. I found myself returning to this well early and often.

1. SubRosa – “More Constant Than the Gods”

Only doom can displace doom, and as much as “Reflection of the Negative” stuck in my craw, it couldn’t help but be jarred loose by the soaring violins and dirgey riffs of SubRosa’s “More Constant Than the Gods” when it came out in September. SubRosa’s last album, “No Help for the Mighty Ones,” came as a revelation to me in 2011 and it’s remained a fixture in my playlists. “More Constant” tops it with better songwriting, a better array of stylistic diversity and tunes that got firmly lodged beneath the skin and on a loop in my head.

Best album from 2012 discovered this year: Royal Thunder “CVI”

Metal-influenced rock anchored by a powerhouse female singer who’s not afraid to belt out her songs. In some ways Royal Thunder feels like the modern-day version of Heart, but that’s saddling them with unfair expectations. I first heard Royal Thunder through the Requiem Metal Podcast’s “Best of 2012” episodes before sampling them through the free, 3-song acoustic “CVI:A.” By the time I got around to checking out the full album, the pump was primed and it hit me right.

Best concert: Dave Rawlings Machine in Asheville, Nov. 22 at the Grey Eagle, Asheville, NC

Dave Rawlings Machine, from left: John Paul Jones, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Paul Kowert & Willie Watson

Dave Rawlings Machine, from left: John Paul Jones, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Paul Kowert & Willie Watson

My wife & I went to this show in Asheville with the expectation of seeing Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and some songs from “A Friend of a Friend,” Rawlings’ great 2009 album. We did get that — but we also got unexpected appearances from current & former members of the Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. We got a version of the Great American Songbook — the show opened with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and included “Dear Landlord > Candyman > Dear Landlord,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “The Weight,” “I Hear Them All > This Land Is Your Land” and more.

And we got to unexpectedly see a living legend, in unannounced guest John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. Jones played mandolin and wasn’t formally acknowledged until near the end of the second set. I can see why he wasn’t announced — I can’t imagine this show had it been full of Zep fans screaming for their favorite tunes, when the only Zep cover the Dave Rawlings Machine played was “Going to California.”

Instead, we were treated to a night of well-played songs, including a JPJ mandolin solo on Welch’s “Wayside/Back In Time” that I’ll remember for quite some time. There’s a fuller review of the tour-opening Knoxville show here, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a live album from this tour at some point.