Mark Hellenberg: My Top Albums of 2013

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This is the final entry 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.

One of the nice things about being the last contributor to submit a "top picks" list to this site is having the opportunity to read not only the picks from my colleagues, but peruse other publications' entries as well.

Being a music director for a public radio station naturally allowed me to listen a great many of this year’s releases, especially in the Americana, Folk, Blues and AAA genres.

Still, there are a lot of artists and titles on all these lists with which I am not familiar.

Some of the selections were interesting and more importantly useful, piquing my curiosity to search out some of the recommended albums.  

I have been bludgeoning the listeners of WOUB’s Crossing Boundaries with by my preferences throughout the year, so my choices are a bit obvious.

I wasn’t really quite sure where I was headed with this compilation, but after putting together a rough list of about 50 titles or so, I realized my preferences ran on the retro/roots/folk/Americana side of things this year. 

I attended the Americana Music Conference and Awards this fall and dragged myself to at least 40 of the 130 plus showcases presented around Nashville. I heard about half of the artists on this list in small clubs around town, which I’m sure influenced my choices.

I am compelled to mention a few releases before getting to the nitty-gritty. There were a handful of young twenty-something women folkies, including Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Laura Marling and Valerie June, with strong offerings this year. 

And echoing Eddie Ashworth’s observation, many well-established, veteran artists continued to not only release new music but music that mattered. Paul McCartney could have easily rested on his laurels and never attempted another project again, but this year’s New is a noble, and I must say, a somewhat courageous effort from a septuagenarian who has nothing to prove.

Elvis Costello, who in his career has teamed up with the likes of McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint, continued his path of collaboration and experimentation with Wise Up Ghost, his project with The Roots.

David Bowie released his first album in years and it proved to be one of his strongest in decades. Guy Clark had an impressive release as well. 

Both Richard and Linda Thompson added fine albums to their catalogs (separately, of course). Longtime friends and cohorts Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell won Americana album of the year for Yellow Dog. Mavis Staples is still going strong and has found a sensitive producer in Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. 

The Blind Boys of Alabama also pushed their sound in a different direction by employing Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to occupy the producer’s chair. So many of the picks on my list this year had to do with the artist choosing the right producer in order to realize the full potential of the album project.

So, some of my favorite albums from 2013 (in no particular order):

The Wood Brothers, The Muse (Southern Ground): This duo is now officially a trio with percussionist Jano Rix joining brothers Chris and Oliver Wood on this, their fourth studio album. Producer Buddy Miller recorded many of these songs with the musicians huddled around one microphone. That intimacy and energy paid off, making The Muse the tightest and most organic Wood Brothers release to date.

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads (Wilderland): Francis James Child collected over 300 folk ballads in the late 19th century. Mitchell and Hamer uniquely interpreted seven of those on this sparsely produced and beautifully realized project.

Mandolin Orange, This Side of Jordan (Yep Roc): Another folk duo steeped in tradition and exemplifying great songwriting, tasteful playing and precision harmony singing. This is the fourth offering from the Carrboro, N.C.-based couple, Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. I recommend this for fans of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Delbert & Glen, Blind, Crippled and Crazy (New West): Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark released a couple of records together more than 40 years ago. This year’s addition finds the pair as rocking and vital as ever. This is music straight from honky-tonk heaven.

Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone (Nonesuch): Valerie June’s debut is an impressive one, largely due to great material and a cool, bluesy, primitive sound, conjured up by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Auerbach proved his ability as a producer on Dr. John’s Grammy Award-winning Locked Down. He absolutely understood what to do with Valerie June’s hard-to-pigeonhole approach to roots music.  

Bombino, Nomad (Nonesuch): Omar "Bombino" Moctar’s sound is similar to the guitar-driven, trance grooves of Tuareg desert-rockers Tinariwen. Dan Auerbach was responsible for getting Bombino in the studio in Nashville. His production once again captured the excitement and energy of these spirited performances.

The James Hunter Six, Minute By Minute (Fantasy): UK-based James Hunter and his band do what they always do: Deliver well-written, straight-ahead, catchy R&B and soul material without sounding like a dated soul revue. The influences from Sam Cooke, James Brown, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson are obvious but Hunter and his band manage to keep it fresh and make the music their own. Daptone’s Gabriel Roth was enlisted to produce. This is Hunter’s first recording made in this country and his best to date.

Pokey LaFarge, Pokey Lafarge (Third Man Records): Like James Hunter’s sound, this record and LaFarge’s persona could be dismissed as vintage schtick if it wasn’t so genuine. As Lafarge has stated, "It’s not retro music, it’s American music that never died." This self-titled release, produced by Old Crow’s Ketch Secor, is chock-full of timely, well-written songs steeped in the sounds of another era but with a modern take. There is even a song about healthcare.

Sam Amidon, Bright Sunny South (Nonesuch): Amidon’s latest is similar to his previous recordings in the fact that it is a collection of reimagined, re-harmonized traditional folk songs with a few wonderfully oddball additions, like a Tim McGraw cover or a Mariah Carey song. However, this project is different in production values and arrangements. His previous releases were fully orchestrated by the composer Nico Muhly, whereas this time out, the band is small and the sound is more open, spontaneous and exploratory. I love Sam’s singing and his genre-bending take on music.

Jerry Miller, New Road Under My Wheels (Signature Sounds): Miller is one the best guitarists you probably never heard of. He has played with Eilen Jewell’s band for the last decade or so as well as a host of other rockabilly, swing and surf bands. The guy is a monster on steel guitar as well and gets to show off his mighty chops on a handful of original instrumentals on this, his first solo album. Miss Tess, Eilen Jewell, Roy Sludge and Eric Royer sing on eight of the tracks, written by Bob Wills, Grampa Jones and others.

Billy Bragg, Tooth and Nail (Cooking Vinyl): Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, is back in fine form with an exceptional album produced by Joe Henry. I’ve always loved his political tirades through the years, but his more personal songs about the politics of relationships have always been my favorites. Again, another collection of well-crafted songs by an expert songsmith, produced to enhance the live, immediate quality of the performances.

Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle (Ribbon Music): In the past, I was the first to argue that the comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny were a little premature and definitely overblown. This release, Marling’s fourth, shows that the 23-year-old Brit is well on her way to possibly filling those shoes. Ethan John’s production work is, as always, tasteful and spot-on.

Yo La Tengo, Fade (Matador): This is the album I was waiting for after 2009’s fun but rather schizophrenic Popular Songs. In recruiting Tortoise’s John McIntire as the producer, Fade has a tighter, more focused sound. Everything that the band has done in its three decade-long career is present here in a balanced, measured way. The entire production, the orchestration and arrangements, the fuzz and buzz and the rattle and hum are all in service to the material.

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin, Bakersfield (MCA): What’s not to like about one of Nashville's best vocalists teaming up with one of best pedal steel players around on a tribute to two of country music's greatest legends, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard?

Missy Raines and the New Hip, New Frontier (Compass): Missy Raines is best known as a virtuosic bass player in the bluegrass world, having won the International Bluegrass Music Award seven times. This is probably not the album bluegrass fans would have expected from Raines, but one they might enjoy. The whole feel of the album is one of forward motion and exploration of, well…new frontiers. The quartet, featuring bass, electric guitar, mandolin, drums and Raines’ vocals, offers a modern and exciting approach to roots music.  

Some songs I loved (and probably played too often on the air) from some more recommended 2013 releases:

Neko Case, "Calling Cards" (from The Worse Things Get…)
Caitlin Rose, "Only a Clown" (from The Stand-In)
Laura Veirs, "A Sun Song" (from Warp and Weft)
La Santa Cecilia, "Ice-El Hielo" (from Trienta Dias)
David Bowie, "Where Are We Now" (from The Next Day)
Sarah Jarosz, "Fuel the Fire" (from Build Me Up From Bones)
Patty Griffin, "Ohio" (from American Kid)
Slaid Cleaves, "Still Fighting the War" (from Still Fighting the War)
Shout Out Louds, "Blue Ice" (from Optica)
Camera Obscura, "Troublemaker" (from Desire Lines)
The National, "Don’t Swallow the Cap" (from Trouble Will Find Me)
Kim Richey, "Thorn In My Side" (from Thorn In My Side)
Phosphorescent, "Song For Zula" (from Muchacho)
Anders and Kendall, "Dreamers On the Ground" (from Wild Chorus)
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, "Lowest Ebb" (from Wassaic Way)
Max Gomez, "Run From You" (from Rule the World)
Willy Mason, "Talk Me Down" (from Carry On)
Steve Earle & the Dukes and Duchesses, "That All You Got" (from The Low Highway)
Mount Moriah, "Bright Lights" (from Miracle Temple)
Junip, "Your Life, Your Call" (from Junip)
Southern Culture On the Skids, "Lordy, Lordy" (from Dig This)
Joseph Arthur, "Still Life Honey Rose" (from The Ballad of Boogie Christ)
Aoife O’Donovan, "Beekeeper" (from Fossils)
Mavis Staples, "Can You Get To That" (from One True Vine)
Jason Isbell, "Stockholm" (from Southeastern)
Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, "When You Get To Asheville" (from Love Has Come For You)
Scott Miller, "How Am I Ever Going To Be Me?" (from Big Big World)
Ron Sexsmith, "Nowhere Is" (from Forever Endeavour)
Josh Ritter, "Joy To You Baby" (from The Beast In Its Tracks)
Jesse Dee, "On My Mind/In My Heart" (from On My Mind/In My Heart)
Johnny Marr, "Upstarts" (from The Messenger)

Mark Hellenberg is the music director at WOUB Public Media and hosts the public radio programs Audiosyncrasies and Crossing Boundaries. He often tours nationally on the weekends as a freelance musician and has over two dozen recordings to his credit, including several with the internationally acclaimed Celtic ensemble The House Band and Celtic Spectacular with Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. He has performed live on NPR's Mountain Stage and All Things Considered. His old-time band, The Ratchet Mountain Rock Farmers, won first place in the traditional band category at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.Va., in 2011. He also can be heard in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Prohibition.