Best of 2013–let’s start this

It’d be silly to prate about how 2013 was a good year for music. EVERY year is a good year for music, in some places and for some tastes. I’ll say that while the 80s revival continues apace–indeed, so strong that I don’t think we can call it a revival anymore–there are some really specific, surprising musical trends of the 1970s that are making themselves known. The country-rock sounds of Laurel Canyon can be heard in new artists like Caitlin Rose, Midlake, Jonathan Wilson, and even Shooter Jennings. The more proggy sound of 70s AOR can be heard in releases from Wolf People, Russian Circles, and Steven Wilson. (If you don’t normally like 70s classic rock I ask that you try some of these albums anyway–it’s surprising how enjoyable that “sound” is with fresh music that hasn’t been played to death.) But most of all I think we can entirely erase the line between pop music and electronica. A better writer than I might better explain the comparison with the way in which guitar-based rock and roll took over popular music by the 1960s; I put it out as an idea only. In any event here’s the first five of my favorite albums of 2013.

1. Nadine Shah, Love Your Dum and Mad — Do you know what I mean when I say “delicious goth”? Not industrial and dancey nor yet declarative and anthemic, just the darkest, smokiest new voice of the year talking about loss and love. Imagine This Mortal Coil trying to write hit songs and you’re most of the way there.

2. Jonathan Wilson, Fanfare — This is a producer’s album at heart. I see Wilson in my mind’s eye staring gloomily at a 64-track recording machine going “It’s not going to be enough.” That’s fitting; Wilson runs a lot of old analog recording equipment in jam sessions at his Laurel Canyon studio. Stephen Stills and Graham Nash make appearances on the album. Listen to this album with good headphones on and no other distractions. If you open your eyes and find yourself at Berkley in 1971, don’t blame me.

3. Parenthetical Girls, Privilege — OK, this album isn’t for everyone. I think if you listen to more than one entire track a high school football player might spontaneously generate and push you into a locker. Affected, eclectic, arch, and challenging, this album collects tracks from the band’s EPs over the past few years. You need cleverness at Hermione Granger levels to pull this kind of stuff off and this Pacific Northwest band delivers.

4. Iggy and the Stooges, Ready to Die — I’m gonna go out on a limb and say this is the best rock and roll album ever made by people on Social Security. It’s not just one of the most solid, fun albums of Iggy Pop’s career–this is a real group effort from people who were LITERALLY been playing together before I was born, and I am middle-aged. Henry Rollins is right–no one can rock harder than this man.

5. Villagers, {Awayland} — “So why should we fear what travel brings? / What were we hoping to get out of this? / Some kind of momentary bliss?” There are missed connections, paralyzed emotions, and attempts at trying to find the right word all over Conor J. O’Brien’s lyrics. Listening to the album, though, he doesn’t seem the least bit unsure. This is some of the best folk-pop going these days.


I wouldn’t normally write a paean to the glories of a record label. In this, as in so many other things, 4 AD is different. Who remembers imports? In the pre-digital age it might be that you’d hear of a new record coming out, but just couldn’t find it anywhere. Turns out it wasn’t being sold in the U.S.–it was a special EP made only in Britain, or a promotional compilation for the Far East market, or a small pressing run used to help promote the European tour. If you wanted that album you’d have to find it as an import, through mail order or a very knowledgeable local shopowner with foreign contacts or the import section at Tower Records. And you’d always pay through the nose–those imported albums and cassettes cost at least $20 in mid-1980s dollars. The imports I longed for, the ones I kept being excited to find, came out on the 4AD label from the UK.

The-Birthday-Party-nick-cave-5885144-360-270Founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979, 4AD hit the ground running. They gave us the very first releases from Bauhaus and Nick Cave’s first outfit, the Birthday Party. Think about that–they could have closed up shop after two years and we’d still remember this label as changing the musical landscape. Instead they went on to further define the goth sound with the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil; helped jump-start American indie rock by signing the Pixies and Throwing Muses; and made vital contributions to shoegaze with Lush and Unrest. They just keep pushing music in bold new directions to this day, promoting acts like Grimes, TV On the Radio, Mountain Goats, and St. Vincent in the past ten years. So I hope you enjoy the compilation below of some of the best music from 4AD.