Monday, December 23, 2013

My Top Ten Albums (And More) of 2013

 Matt Domino lists the ten (and maybe more) best albums he listened to in 2013

Alright, my Puddlers.

List season is drawing to a merciful close, which means that you've HAD IT UP TO HERE with everyone's insights into what albums, books and movies that came out in the past year were the BEST or the WORST. I'm sure you've even gotten a light case of epilepsy from looking at Buzzfeed posts that are crammed with way too many animated GIFS.

Since list season is over, I 'm fitting my insight in right when you least expect it. By now, you know how this works. My Top Ten Albums list doesn't necessarily consist of albums that came out in the last calendar year (though, I do try to include as many current releases as I think is fair), but actually is comprised of the ten albums that I listened to the most this year. I figure that is a better way to frame where my head was at (and thus the entire world and culture because I am vain and have my finger right on the zeitgeist) than to simply list ten albums that came out in one year.

Reunions suck because all of your friends didn't just graduate in one class. History works in overlapping waves and that's how I work too.

Oh, and also, since I've skimped on music content up on the blog this year, I figured I'd include a bevvy of honorable mentions for you to scroll through as well.

Honorable Mention:
James Booker - Junco Partner (1976)

This is one of those records that you stumble across when you're bored and you think about how much you like the sound of honky tonk/boogie piano/music from the show Treme and then do a deep Google search on New Orleans piano players. I don't know much about the canon of blues-based/boogie piano records or the full scope and tradition of New Orleans music, but I'm pretty confident in saying that this is the definitive blues-based/boogie piano album.

Tracks: "Goodnight Irene", "On the Sunny Side of the Street", "Put Out the Light."

Prince - Sign O' The Times (1987)

I've always liked this album, but it was only this year that I finally gave it the due time that it requires. At work, in the month of November, I think I listened to the entire double album about eight to ten times, and had most of its tracks in my rotation. I mean, "The Cross" basically invented the sound and production of 90's alternative rock and "Starfish and Coffee" should have been on The White Album.

Tracks: "Starfish and Coffee", "You Got the Look", "The Cross."

Kanye West - Yeezus (2013)

Too many think pieces have been written about this album already, so I'll spare you my take. (I basically agree with Steve Hyden's review.) I listened to Yeezus and I liked it. Even if you hate Kanye, you need someone like him around to make "pop" music like this. I'm not sure if I liked a single track this year more than I liked "Bound 2."

Tracks: "New Slaves", "Blood on the Leaves", "Bound 2."

Fleetwood Mac - Bare Trees (1972)

This is a pre-Buckingham/Nicks album, but I swear it's just as good as the "real" Fleetwood Mac. This is where Christine starts coming into her own.

Tracks: "Sunny Side of Heaven", "Bare Trees", "Spare Me a Little of Your Love."

Steely Dan - Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

I dabbled in this record a few years ago, but really dove into it towards the tail end of this year. If you don't like Steely Dan, this is probably the album that will change your mind. There's not a single bad or skippable song and the Dan still leave some jagged edges mixed in with their excellent composition and musicianship.

Tracks: "Boston Rag", "My Old School", "Pearl of the Quarter"

David Bowie - Low (1977)

Oh, Heroes and Low came out in the same calendar year? Yeah, that's as insane as you think it is.

Tracks: "Sound and Vision", "Always Crashing in the Same Car", "Speed of Life"

David Bowie - Heroes (1977)

As you'll see, I was really into the Berlin Trilogy this year.

Tracks: "Joe the Lion", "Heroes", "V-2 Schneider"

10cc - The Original Soundtrack (1975)

Is this album full of the "whitest" music ever made? Maybe. Is it an album that represents everything that was awful about production values in rock in the 70's? Possibly. Will the first track drive you crazy/make you want to brush your teeth due to it's pop sensibilities. Absolutely.

 Tracks: "The Second Sitting For the Last Supper", "Flying Junk", "I'm Not in Love."

Paul McCartney - McCartney II (1980)

The sequel to 1970's McCartney. This album is less Beatles-cleanse and more, "Hey, so this guy Prince is making some interesting music." A perfect blend of slap-dash McCartney mixed with thought out crafted tunes.

Tracks: "Coming Up", "Waterfalls", "Bogey Music."

Al Kooper - Easy Does It (1970)

If you haven't listened to an Al Kooper record, you should probably start with I Stand Alone, but this year, I was really into his third solo album Easy Does It. It's yet another album where Kooper tries to do it all and basically succeeds.

Tracks: "A Rose and a Baby Ruth", "Country Road", "God Shed His Grace on Thee", and "I Got a Woman."

10. Paul McCartney & Wings - London Town (1978)

For some reason, this fall I decided to more fully explore the entire Wings catalog. Now, you may ask, "Why the hell would you do that, Domino? It's well known that most of the Wings catalog is awful." And you would be correct. However, something in me just had to know how bad it really was. Do I love Paul McCartney? Sure. Do I enjoy cheesy pop songs? Of course, just like anyone else. Do I partially hate myself? Absolutely.

In any event, I sat through some brutal music. For instance, I can safely say that no one ever needs to listen to Wings at the Speed of Sound, Venus and Mars, or Back to the Egg. Seriously, there's really nothing to gain. However, in my Wings research, I found out that 1978's London Town, is actually a gem of an album.

There are mixed opinions of London Town, but I think it's fantastic. Paul is still effortlessly tossing off tunes, but many of them are more substantive than other Wings songs like "Silly Love Songs," "She's My Baby," or "Magneto and Titanium Man." The title track is one of the most underrated Paul songs of all time, with a moving and cinematic melody and organ sound propelling the song. "I'm Carrying" is Paul at his sentimental best, "Girlfriend" is a song that Michael Jackson should have covered on Off the Wall, and "With a Little Luck" is cheesy as all hell, but in the kind of way that makes you appreciate the purity of it's pop. Plus, Paul even throws in "Backwards Traveler," which is the kind of weird, catchy, off-the-top-of-his-head tune that makes albums like Ram and McCartney so enjoyable.

9. Cass McCombs - Big Wheel and Others (2013)

I wouldn't call Cass McCombs a consistent songwriter. I've enjoyed much of his work, but I've never been able to sit through an entire album and enjoy it from start to finish. I think we can all concede that "County Line" was one of the best written songs in the past decade, but, for me, the points where Cass even approaches that kind of high are less frequent than I'd like.

So, it actually kind of makes sense that a double album like Big Wheel and Others would actually suit him better than a single album. There are 19 songs on the album, which allows you to run the full gamut of the tones that McCombs is capable of rendering so well. There's the traditionalist, country pleading of "Brighter!" and "Angel Blood"; the contemplative, pastoral acceptance of "There Can Be Only One"; raggedy, dangerous Neil Young meandering in "Big Wheel," "Joe Murder," and "Aeon of Aquarius Blues"; and pure, warm rock in "Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love."

Also, there is the stunning cover of Thin Lizzy's "Honesty Is No Excuse," which was one of my ten favorite songs of the year.

8. Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection (1971)

This summer, like I would later do with Wings in the fall, I decided to delve further into Elton John's entire catalog. Again, this led me to, as Nick Caraway would say, the presence of quite a few veteran bores. However, I also discovered gems like "Town of Babel" on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

And, of course, it led me to the full on excellence of Tumbleweed Connection. If you do not like Elton John, this is the album that might find it's way into your…well we do we use to hold and collect albums now? We don't really have record collections or CD books anymore, right? So, maybe this will be the one to make its way into your iTunes library or your Spotify favorites. Yeah, those sound really sexy and human.

Anyway, this is a great album. It's advertised as Elton doing country rock, when really it's just Elton doing his best impersonation of the Band. "My Father's Gun" is like the younger, more blatantly theatrical cousin of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Town," complete with thundering drums, triumphant brass and plenty of references to "the calvary."  There's an early take on the searing bitch-rock that Elton would later trademark in "Son of Your Father," and the swaggering, boozy, honky tonk bar-pop of "Amoreena," which is the kind of song that helps start conversations at parties. But the album's true power comes in the back to back towers of longing of "Burn Down the Mission" and "Into the Old Man's Shoes." The former is anthemic, and sounds like Elton paying homage both to Ennio Morricone and Broadway, while the latter was probably the most moving song I listened to this entire year; a Van Morrison-inspired melody and production that will make you miss something you don't even understand.

Plus, the drums just sound so fucking good on every track.

7. Thin Lizzy - Fighting (1975)

Where my Thinners at!?

I studied abroad in Dublin with a guy named Tom. His mother was the mayor of Middletown, Connecticut and he loved James Joyce and At Swim Two Birds. We used to drink Paddy whiskey, drink bad Czech beers and he'd play me lots of Thin Lizzy. At the time, I thought it was alright, but I didn't really give the band much more consideration than some nice rocking guitar music that I drank to.

But this year, I finally "got" Thin Lizzy. Sure, it's not A-List Classic Rock, but it's damn close. And, besides, Phil Lynott's lyrics are way more ballsy and less pretentious than anything Robert Plant wrote in Led Zeppelin.

Out of all of their albums, I love Fighting the most. I mean, just look at that title! "Rosalie" belongs in the discussion for best album opening tracks, it's main riff like the opening salvo for the best night of your life. "The King's Vengeance" hits all the pastoral notes that peak-era Zeppelin (1970-75) did, without sacrificing any testosterone. My favorite song, "Fighting My Way Back," is redemption personified. It should be the theme song for underdogs anywhere. Plus, it features two of my all-time favorite lyrics, "I'm tough, rough, ready and able/To pick myself up from under this table."

Who wants a beer?

6. David Bowie - Station to Station (1976)

I told you I was deep into Bowie's Berlin era this year. Pound for pound, I think this is the best album that Bowie ever made. It's only six tracks and runs 51 minutes and 19 seconds, but you're attention never wanes for a moment.

On the surface, it's perhaps not as experimental as anything on Low, Heroes, Lodger or Scary Monsters, but it still contains an overwhelming overall feel of innovation. Each of Bowie's personas is firmly entrenched in each of these songs. The Thin White Duke surveys his kingdom in the foreboding, train smoke beginning of the title track and then introduces cocaine to Ziggy Stardust and Captain Tom in the rollicking, "check your pulse to see if your alive if you don't like this groove" second half. "Golden Years" is as club worthy as "Let's Dance" and puts a nice cap to the "Young American" era. "Word on a Wing" and "Wild is the Wind" are both callbacks to Bowie's traditionalist, singer-songwriter beginnings, while "TVC 15" and "Stay" are both as fuzzy, weird and mechanical as the stuff that would immediately follow Station to Station.

It's a masterpiece. In fact, I think I'm going to listen to the title track on repeat until I become completely paranoid.

5. Chris Cohen - Overgrown Path (2012)

Chris Cohen's Overgrown Trail came out in September of 2012. In January of this year, my friend Alex introduced me to the album, but it took me until the spring to finally explore it on my own.

This is one of the best albums of the past five years that no one knows or even talks about. It is a record that is perfect for either spring or fall—it fits in with seasonable, transitioning weather. Everything about Overgrown Trail is comfortable and familiar, but in the best way. There's no laziness, just simply attention and understanding of craft. It is a well-sequenced album in the truest sense.

The opening track, "Monad," begins with feedback, a droning piano and Magical Mystery Tour bass-playing. That initial haze soon gives way to an irresistible and smooth groove and the rest of the album follows suit. The bass playing and production is incredible throughout. "Rollercoaster Rider" is the kind of song that Paul McCartney would have sincerely written in 1967-1968 or that Nilsson would have written and then made sincerely weird in 1972. "Don't Look Today" is the perfect song for one of those startlingly beautiful April days that sneak up on you out of nowhere. The songs all call to mind the creative and workmanlike pop of John Cale and Robert Wyatt.
Overgrown Path is an album you can put on for anyone. It is a pleasant Sunday on record. And you don't mind going to work the next day.

4. Kurt Vile - Walking on a Pretty Daze (2013)

My double feature for much of April and May was listening to Overgrown Path followed by Kurt Vile's Walking on a Pretty Daze. I'd chase Chris Cohen's considered pop, with the smeared and sustained stoner rock of Kurt Vile.

Some people have told me that the album is a little overlong and that some of the tracks are hard to get into. I can't fault those opinions. Walking on a Pretty Daze is 11 tracks long and runs 1 hour and 9 minutes. That's close to the length of an average double album.

That being said, the people who don't like this album are wrong. Vile's playing and singing on this record are both hypnotic and slightly soothing. But you don't ever stop paying attention. There's something in his Iggy Pop growl that makes you feel danger at the edges of even a pleasant song like opener "Walkin on a Pretty Day." Tracks like "Girl Called Alex" and "Was All Talk" are haunted by ghosts. They aren't terrifying, but there' something unsettling to whatever it is that Vile has seen and come to accept.

All that being said, it's not a sad or even dark album. There's light and shade in equal doses. Everything about the record just feels real. As Vile says, in "Shame Chamber," a loping, shimmering Neil Young inspired song, "It's just another day in the shame chamber/Living life to the lowest power/Feeling bad in the best way a man can." And this is later followed by an exuberant "Woo!"

Makes sense to me.

3. Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool (1977)

I've always loved Nick Lowe. I'll never forget the time, while visiting a girl I loved in Madrid in 2007, when I walked into the bar La Via Lactea—in the Tribunal neighborhood of the city—and heard "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" come over the speakers the moment I stepped in the door. It made me feel cool…until I shouted, "Holy shit, Nick Lowe!" to a bunch of uncaring Spaniards and the girl who I was with.

Before Yeezus came out this year, Jesus of Cool might have been the most blasphemous and confident album title in popular music history. I'm probably wrong about that, but I believe that fact is true and I don't want to do the research to prove otherwise.

This record consists of Nick Lowe writing top-notch pop and rock songs in a variety of styles and basically just showing the world that he knows what good music is and how you should go about making it. "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," is Bowie; "Marie Provost" is Elvis Costello; "36 Inces High" is the Clash; "Nutted by Reality" out-McCarneys McCartney; and "They Called it Rock" and "Heart of the City" rock so furiously and so fast that no one in the punk community could even try to pierce Lowe's armor.

That's all set up for the glorious closer "Rollers Show" which is ostensibly a spoof of the band the Bay City Rollers, but so much more. It's a rallying cry straight from heaven about the joys of music and getting a ticket to that one important rock show. "Rollers Show" was the song that underscored my entire year, complete with air guitar strums to the to the epic, holy cacophony that brings the song to an end.

2. The Strokes - Comedown Machine (2013)

You all know by now that I love the Strokes and that when it comes to their music that I'll never say die. In fact, I wrote all about it in April on The Nervous Breakdown.

I'm almost thirty. The guys from the Strokes are almost 40. The Walkmen have unofficially retired. I'm not deluding myself anymore. I don't expect the Strokes to ever truly matter again, but I'll still listen to, love and argue for everything they put out.

I still think "One Way Trigger," "Welcome to Japan," "Partners in Crime" and "Happy Ending" are stone cold classics and are being severely underrated. People will look back on this album and realize that it was better than they originally thought.

For me, I'll keep supporting the Strokes. I'm getting older, so I've learned to pick my battles. But sometimes I still like fighting even if I'm going to lose.


Bob Dylan - Another Self Portrait (2013)

OK,  so this was probably my favorite record of the entire year, but it's technically a compilation of bootlegs, so I didn't know where or how to place it.  It's no secret that I love Bob Dylan's Self Portrait album, as well as the follow-up album New Morning. This two disc, thirty-five track release collects outtakes, alternate versions and tracks that were left off those two albums (as well as a slightly different version of "I Threw It All Away" from Nashville Skyline.).

Rightly or wrongly, I've long believed that Self Portrait is the skeleton key to unlocking the change in Dylan from the 1960's to the 1970's; and to perhaps most fully understanding is protean personality. When I listen to these outtakes, I don't care about any musical or historical theorizing. All I care about is the fact that these songs are excellently recorded, Dylan's voice is about as traditionally pure as it would ever be and that each time I listen to Another Self Portrait, it feels like drinking a large vase of cold water after being out in the sun playing basketball for four hours.

The traditional songs rub alongside the Dylan originals and blend together so well that you forget who wrote which. So much so that up until this past weekend, I thought that "Minstrel Boy" was a traditional tune when it was penned by Dylan back in the 60's.

I picture myself listening to this record, my legs kicked up on a train seat or up on backyard wicker furniture, for years to come. I'll lie there, reaching sideways every now and then for a glass of water or a bottle of beer. My  heart and stomach will float inside me, feeling weak and melancholy at one moment, and strong and willed by excitement the next; all while I think about the passing and general confusion of time.

Tracks: "Thirty Boots", "This Evening So Soon", "Time Passes Slowly #1", "Went to See the Gypsy [Alternate Version]"

1. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City (2013)

"In the 200 section of the Barclays center, a skinny teenager in an orange shirt, the long sleeves stretching loosely over his hands, swung a rolled up poster above his head. In the darkness of the arena, the thin, white cylinder flashed in the air along with sudden swaths of blue, purple, and sometimes red light from the stage. The teenager wore thick framed black glasses and slapped five with his friends. Something about the scene made me smile. They couldn't have been more than 15 years old.

I turned my head and looked over the sizable crowd on the floor. Through the darkness and the flashing stage lights, I could see people mashed together in fashionable black and grey jackets, some women wore varying shades of tan leather. Among these earth tones were white sweatshirts and sweaters, tipped up caps and slightly ruffled collars. The world was obscured by darkness and faint marijuana smoke and everyone looked extremely healthy while they sand lyrics to songs out loud.

Onstage, Vampire Weekend were playing."

That was going to be the beginning of a think piece I was hoping to write and submit somewhere after I saw Vampire Weekend at the Barclay's center in September. Then I realized, that there would already be plenty of think pieces about them and that I should probably just write fiction instead.

This was the best album I listened to this year. "Hannah Hunt" may have been the best song I listened to all year.

The guys from the Strokes are seven years older than me. The guys from Vampire Weekend are the same age as I am. While the Strokes were unable to truly improve with age, Vampire Weekend are exactly the opposite.

The fact that the Vampire Weekend albums continue to improve is an encouraging sign for someone like me who is just trying to get better with each passing year as well. I want to leave the past behind and get better and not worry about death without ignoring it. Maybe that's what the album was about anyway.


  1. Editor's comment: I forgot to mention in my rundown of Sign o' the Times, that in the song "U Got the Look," the phrase "Your face is jammin'" is something that we should really bring back into the general lexicon.

  2. Fully agreed on Sign O' the Times. I nominate "If I Was Your Girlfriend" for top 5 best uncomfortable looks into Prince's psyche.

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