James Hill: My Top Albums of 2013

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This is the first in a series of year-end blog posts by WOUB staff, volunteers and contributors. Check out all of this year’s lists at this link.

What a year for music. And in some ways it’s been a shift for me.

Where I used to be content listening to acoustic singer-songwriter folk or Americana for hours on end, lately I find myself listening to electronica and dance and pop…at my desk.

Go figure. I am vast. I contain multitudes.

That said, there has been a lot of new music by many favorites this year. A quick list of 2013 releases would give any listener an opportunity to pick up some solid tunes.

You know exactly what you’re getting when you pick up Guy Clarks’ My Favorite Picture of You or Jack Johnson’s From Her to Now to You.

If you like the Arctic Monkeys, Head and the Heart, The Avett Brothers, Vampire Weekend, Kim Richey (an OU grad), Josh Ritter, Belle and Sebastian, Neko Case, the Flaming Lips or Ha Ha Tonka, you’d be more than satisfied with their latest efforts.

There were also new releases from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, The Flaming Lips, Robyn Hitchcock (I really like the first track, “End of Time”) and a surprisingly fun retrospective/duets/collaborative album from John Fogerty, I Wrote a Song for Everyone. And there were new songs from David Bowie, Johnathan Richman, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Eric Clapton.

There were also albums I was really looking forward to, but ultimately found disappointing. When one of your favorite artists puts out her first album in five years, expectations are high…and inevitably anti-climatic. Lisa Germano’s No Elephants lacks the playfulness of her earlier albums. It’s heavy.

Also in this category of diminishing expectations are Iron & Wine, Erin McKeown (though she gets points for really breaking out of her mold), Harry Manx and Ron Sexsmith. Then there’s the new Sting: The Last Ship. It just doesn’t excite me and I don’t have the patience for it.

The jury is still out on the new Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album Take Me to the Land of Hell. I really want to like it, but maybe I’m trying too hard. It seems to lack cohesiveness as a collection and instead feels like a series of unrelated songs.

All that aside, what were the albums from 2013 that I listened to over and over again? I came up with 11 (in no particular order):

1. Billy Bragg, Tooth and Nail – Bragg continues his casual approach to song-making that was evident on Mr. Love and Justice. He still has the bite in his lyrics from his punk days, but is softer (aged?). The album moves seamlessly from bluesy to Woody Guthrie to country-twang to straight-up love songs.  Key track: “No One Knows Nothing Anymore.”

2. Dawes, Stories Don’t End – Dawes is probably my current favorite band. They’ve got that laid-back California-rock vibe with a melancholy Jackson Browne sound that appeals to me. The songwriting is good and the songs are catchy. You’ll find yourself singing along after just one or two listens. It’s hard to pick a key track, but “Hey Lover” probably most encompasses my description above.

3. India.Arie, SongVersation – This year marked the end of Talk of the Nation on NPR. Fortunately, during his last week, Neal Conan was able to interview India.Arie on the occasion of her new album. If you missed it, take the time to listen. You’ll hear why it’s easy to love India.Arie. Key track: “Just Do You.”

4. Bosnian Rainbows, Bosnian Rainbows – Bosnian Rainbows is a kind of underground supergroup with Teri Gender Bender (Le Butcherettes), Nicci Kasper (KRS-ONE), Deantoni Parks (John Cale, The Mars Volta), and Omar Rodriguez Lopez (The Mars Volta, At the Drive-In). They share a lot of DNA with Siouxsie & the Banshees. In some ways this is the album I wish Yoko Ono or Lisa Germano had made. Key track: “Always on the Run.”

5. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady – Part James Brown, part cyborg, part R&B/rocker, Janelle Monae makes interesting and quirky music. There are several guest artists on this disc, including on the key track, “Givin Em What They Love,” featuring Prince.

6. OMD, English Electric – Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I think you’re still pretty in pink. Key track: “Helen of Troy.” (But really, they all sound exactly like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.)

7. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wake Up Ghost – from wa-wa’s to horn lines to beats, The Roots laid down the music and Costello added the vocals. This disc got a lot of discussion and reviews when it came out, so I can’t add anything new–I just like it. Key track: “Wake Me Up.”

8. Daft Punk, Random Memories – I’m a sucker for catchy pop. Add some nostalgic sounds (see #6) and I’m all in. Key track: “Instant Crush.”

9. Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines – Don’t judge me. It’s a guilty pleasure and makes time spent exercising pass more quickly. You’ve probably heard the title track a million times, so I’m suggesting the less known “Ain’t No Hat 4 That” as a alternative track.

10. Cher, Closer to the Truth – My list is heavy on pop cardio-tunes this year, but just like OMD, and Daft Punk (even Thicke’s sound), the nostalgia factor is heavy here. At the same time, Cher pushes a little beyond the staid and incorporates more dance elements in this album (pre-mixed for the DJ crowd). Key track: “Woman’s World.”

By the way, all of these albums (and a bunch more) are available through the Athens County Public Libraries at www.MyACPL.org. You can also listen to samples on my Grooveshark playlist.

James Hill is a librarian for Athens County Public Libraries. When he’s not downloading music, he’s buying books and otherwise spreading Christmas cheer.