Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best Albums of 2013 - The Top 10 and More




I've decided that I'm not going to say that this was a good year for music. I say that every year and it's getting boring to lead with that, year after year. Fact is, I've been at this music thing roughly, well, let's just say since the Beatles hit America, and I can't recall a bad year for music. So let's dive right in. Here are my choices for the ten best albums of the year, followed by the rest of the albums that excelled in 2013.

1. Tess Henley - High Heels & Sneakers

Listen to "Daydreamimg"


A Perfect Storm:  Before we go any further, I've got to say that "Daydreamimg" completely knocks me out. It's a perfect storm of exquisite songwriting, singing, instrumental performance and production. Tess was already having some success in her native Seattle with a solid album and an EP, when Dice Raw from the Roots entered the picture. "After Dice Raw heard her music, he took an immediate interest in the young talent, taking Tess under his wing. He brought her to Philadelphia – the epicenter of a soul sound all it’s own – and introduced her to fellow producer Khari Mateen (The Roots, Jill Scott, J*DaVeY). Dice and Khari signed on to produce" (from her bio).

When I listen to Tess, I hear a little Aretha, a bit of Stevie Wonder, a touch of Minnie Riperton, and even some Corinne Bailey Rae, and when she burns it down like on "From The Get Go" or "Heartless Queen", I hear the great Valerie Carter, singing with Earth Wind & Fire on her first album. The tuneful wordplay in "Gonna Fall In Love " brings Lily Allen to mind. While I'm at it, I'll also say that Tess reminds me more than a little of longtime blog favorites Chrissi Poland ("Going Back") and Annekei ("You Are The One"), high praise indeed.

In the last decade the multi-talented members of the Roots, along with their producers and friends have made Philadelphia once again the center of the soul, R&B, and hip-hop universe. How fortunate then, that the supremely gifted Tess Henley could come out of the Seattle music scene, connect with the Roots, and come to Philadelphia to make High Heels & Sneakers with them. Tess Henley's voice blows me away and I totally love this record. Read the full review.

2. Courtney Jaye - Love and Forgiveness

Listen to "Ask Me To"


Fierce Optimism:  When you hear Courtney Jaye's third album, Love And Forgiveness, you may well think "I didn't know they made records like this anymore." Every track is so full of memorable melodies, sweet vocals and unstoppable guitar lines that the result is unquestionably the soundtrack for summer (or whatever season it happens to be), and the first album you'll want on a road trip. Produced by Mike Wrucke (Miranda Lambert), every song has the goods to be a hit single.

Love And Forgiveness pulls off the neat trick of sounding fresh, original, and new, while evoking the big pop and country rock albums of the seventies, Bounce around the web and you'll see comparisons ranging from Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, to Sheryl Crow and Jenny Lewis, and everyone in between. I'll add my proverbial two cents to the comparison game and say that I am occasionally reminded of Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Mindy Smith. The real bottom line is that Courtney has used the trials and hard times she's experienced as seasoning and she's come out the other side with a fierce optimism that infuses every track with a real sense of, well, Love And Forgiveness. I love this album, a pure delight.

3. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

Listen to "Merry Go 'Round"


Like Dust, We Settle in This Town:  After ten years in country music during which she gained some success as a songwriter (her songs were recorded by artists like Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert), and three self-released albums, Kacey Musgraves made her major label debut this spring with Same Trailer Different Park and she's ready to be country's for real next big thing. It may sound like mainstream country music, the kind you hope to hear whenever you tune in country radio, but Kacey has a slightly subversive edge to her songwriting that says this isn't your father's CMT. That Kacey injects some new, non-traditional ideas into a music industry that normally embraces a steady diet of guys, girls, trucks, beer, and the military, is grounds for celebration. It almost didn't happen.

The week of the album release, the New York Times ran an excellent profile of Kacey in their Sunday magazine. It was touch and go when she performed for the country music establishment at the Ryman Auditorium in February. Read what was at stake, then watch that performance of "Follow Your Arrow" at the Ryman. The moment when the audience embraces her is electric and it will make you want to cheer.

"Follow Your Arrow" is a wonderful song and I guarantee you've never heard anything like it on country radio. Kacey has mastered the art of writing the sort of clever lyrics that makes country the last bastion of imaginative and creative songwriting in popular music aimed at a mass audience. The reason that the establishment had to support her career (she spent the summer opening stadium concerts for Kenny Chesney) is because the album is so damn special. Every track is loaded with melody, sharp lyrics that are laced with humor and topicality, perfect production and hooks you could drive a pickup through. On top of all that is Kacey's voice, so irresistably pure, fresh and sweet that those red-state leaning industry bigwigs never had a chance. I really love this record, that's three out of three.

4. Lorde - Pure Heroine

Listen to "Team"


It Was the Year of Lorde, "Royals", and World Domination:  Unknown at this time last year, Lorde (Ella Yelich-O'Connor), a then-sixteen year old singer-songwriter from New Zealand, muscled aside several of the behemoths of the pop chart, including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Eminem, while her song "Royals" was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for all of October and November, nine consecutive weeks in all. Read our complete article.

The album, Pure Heroine, was released September 27th and it's clear that "Royals" is no fluke. Lorde and producer/co-writer Joel Little are excellent songwriters with a great sense of melody. Lorde's voice is compelling in a variety of different contexts. Little's production is as open and uncluttered as it is on "Royals", which really makes the songs that much more powerful, both musically and lyrically. The music is a co-write; Lorde writes all the lyrics herself. Upon release, Pure Heroine took up residence in the top ten on Billboard's top 200 albums chart.

In the Pitchfork review of Pure Heroine, Lindsay Zoladz wrote that "there’s something endearing about Pure Heroine’s more unfiltered impulses—though she’s had a record contract nearly a quarter of her life, you get the sense Lorde is still being given a lot of room to breathe and hone her own particular songwriting voice. These tracks all feel like they were written by a very precocious teenager, and that’s a big part of their charm." We say it really is quite exciting to listen to an album like Pure Heroine, and find that there's a lot to like and that substance-wise, as extraordinary as Lorde's story and single are, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

5. Marc Jordan - On a Perfect Day

Listen to "My TV"


"Every Raindrop Tells a Story of Loss and Renewal": Marc Jordan is one of our finest singer-songwriters, and although his name may not be widely familiar outside of Canada, the lengthy list of artists who have recorded his songs includes Chicago, Joe Cocker, Natalie Cole, Shawn Colvin, Josh Groban, Kenny Loggins, The Manhattan Transfer, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Ross, and Rod Stewart, to name a few. In Marc's 40+ year career, he has also distinguished himself as a producer and as a session musician, working on a multitude of albums for other artists. Marc has spent his entire career working with record labels but for this project, his 14th album, he chose to release it independently via Bandcamp. This work is a thing of beauty, a testament to what a huge talent can do in the complete absence of record company pressures. For a greater insight, Marc posted the following on the day of its release.

"Today I am releasing a new CD to my friends and fans on face book exclusively on Bandcamp http://marcjordan.bandcamp.com/. This cd took 2 1/2 years to create.........I'm a slow writer I guess, but I wanted to make it right....First of all thanks to my producer and co writer Chris (fastball) Bilton and to all the great players who went the extra mile to make this all work and to Ed Seay who made it sound so great. I think I said a while ago that it is the sad times and the blue days that give me ideas for songs. Every raindrop tells a story of loss and renewal, a broken heart perhaps, and sometimes the end of love but never the end of hope.

"Hope is the engine of our emotional lives and it lives with in us and keeps us from parking the car on the side of the highway and wandering off into the desert. The characters in these songs are always heading toward the sun to escape what’s left behind, but eager also to see what lies beyond the horizon line.... I've always thought that the car and the highway are the two great American metaphors of the 20th century and its these concrete ribbons that cut through the cities and the farms that are the backdrop for many songs on this cd. So too are the lonesome times when dreams are dreamed, lovers left and lovers found. Where the promise of a better tomorrow is written on a subway wall or tattooed on your skin. Maybe you'll see a bit of your self in a few of these songs.... I've always thought a song is not finished until it has been listened to by somebody and felt by the human heart. And so I hope you do listen and enjoy "ON A PERFECT DAY".......love mj"

Marc recorded in Nashville with a dream team of players including his long time producer and co-writer Chris Bilton on Keyboards, Bass, and Melodica; Shane Fontayne, Mike Francis, and Pat Buchanan on Guitars; Dan Dugmore on Pedal Steel; Lyle Molzan and Ricky Fataar on Drums; Michael Rhodes on Bass; Colleen Allen on Saxophone; and David Travers-Smith on Trumpet. On a Perfect Day is an extraordinary album; after you listen to the sample track above and read this, follow the Bandcamp link where you can listen to the album in its entirety (and buy it). Marc is also an accomplished painter; he did the painting that graces the cover. You might find that a perfect day in real life is elusive, but listening to On a Perfect Day is a pretty good start.

6. Holly Williamsb- The Highway

Listen to "Waiting on June"


Granddaughter of Hank, Sr.:  NPR-Music declared 2013 "Country Music's Year of the Woman", reflecting the quality and quantity of female singer-songwriter country albums released this year. On this very top ten list we have Kacey Musgrave and Holly Williams and although they are not strictly country, Courtney Jaye, Heidi Feek, and Shannon LaBrie have country music running through their veins and they also made our top ten. On the list that follows, you will also see fine albums by Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark. Ashley's group, The Pistol Annies also released an album that was well liked.

The thing that sets Holly Williams apart from the others is the depth and substance of her songwriting. Her songs are populated by real people who have real problems, real joys, and real sorrows. Holly's bio describes the subject matter. "The Highway finds the 31-year-old artist putting a distinctly personal spin on universal themes like love, loss, conflict, family and desire. The Highway is heavy with references to memories of simpler times and beloved relatives; ruminations on lives destroyed by addiction; our shared need to love and be loved; and an earnest longing for the road."

One of the most compelling songs on The Highway is “Waiting on June” (above). Holly explains, "A lot of people think “Waiting on June” is about June Carter, but it’s about my grandmother June Bacon White, who died in 2009. It’s the precise and true story of my grandfather’s relentless love for her, every character is real, even down to the order of the children and the family cook Bertha."

Although Holly's first two albums were made with record labels, Holly chose to go it alone for the complete creative control that comes with an independent release. Her bio describes the recording, "Holly spent nine months recording The Highway, which she self-financed and will release independently. Just because she went independent on this one doesn’t mean she was by herself. Throughout the process, the Nashville-based songwriter was surrounded by a hyper-talented supporting cast, including co-producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars), her multi-instrumentalist husband Chris Coleman, bassist Glenn Worff (Mark Knopfler), pedal steel guru Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Stevie Nicks), and friends like Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow who all make guest appearances on the record."

The result of all this is that The Highway, for the most part, has the intimate feel of personal confession. Although this is her third album, Holly has said that in many ways it feels like her first album, in that she feels that she has just now really come into her own as a songwriter. She continues, "It took me a little longer, but I wouldn’t trade that amazing journey for the world. I finally know why I love to connect on a more intimate level in a theatre than in a bigger venue, why I’m writing the songs that I write and saying what I want to say, exactly where my voice can go. It feels good to finally get really comfortable in your own skin as an artist."

7. Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Listen to "Master Hunter"


"Nobody of Any Age is Making Albums Like This.":  We became devotees of Laura Marling five years ago when she released her terrific debut album in her native England and played a gig at New York City's Mercury Lounge. Jaws were dropped and usually blasé music industry types were transfixed by her amazing performance. Interestingly, her backing musicians who also did an opening set, were the then-unknown Mumford and Sons. By her second album she began to get US distribution. Once I Was An Eagle is her fourth album and it is both her most ambitious and most artistically successful album to date. Although it's not officially a "concept" album, Once I Was An Eagle makes a powerful case for retaining the album as art form. When the mood and/or atmospheric conditions are right (rainy, foggy, late-night), this record will strike a resonant chord deep within your soul. Rachael Maddux wrote an excellent review in Pitchfork; here are some excerpts, read the full review here.

"Laura Marling has spent the first few years of her career in a state of perpetual arrival. Alas I Cannot Swim-- her 2008 debut, made when she was 18-- was a bright, brooding collection that set her up as the darling of the latest British folk revival and saw her nominated for the Mercury Music Prize; a feat she repeated with 2010's more polished I Speak Because I Can. On 2011's sprawling A Creature I Don’t Know, she further established herself as an ambitious artist with a widening, sharpening vision. With each release, her talents-- keen songwriter, deft melodysmith, butterfly wing-fingered guitarist-- continued to reveal themselves so steadily as to have a lulling effect, like waves hitting some shoreline where it’s always high tide. But now here comes Once I Was An Eagle, the first of her albums to sound like a vigorously polished, hard-won achievement. It’s expansive and ambitious, and divorced of all the tweedy preening and aw-shucks raggediness the idea of “folk” has accumulated in recent years. It's dark, it’s angry, it’s even sexy, in a sly, subtle way.

"Eagle was made over 10 days, with just a cellist and (producer Ethan) Johns (on carefully-placed drums, piano, organ) providing accompaniment; Marling recorded her vocal and guitar parts in a single take each, and in one day, though it somehow sounds even more immediate. Present in both her singing and her playing is a ferocity that now seems to have been lurking there all along; at times, too, she’s possessed by a newly emergent serenity, and an astonishing ability to shift between the two modes. This is especially evident on Eagle’s opening tracks, four songs written as a proper suite and a fifth that feels equally of a piece. Together they seamlessly, almost imperceptibly, build from somnambulant finger-picked acoustic to a wild fury of howling cello and frantic tabla-style percussion, “Take the Night Off” leading it off the way a rainshower usually precedes a hurricane; by “Master Hunter”, the suite's cap, Marling is inhaling relationships and spitting them back out as heaving piles of splinters and ash.

"Knotting up that loose end seems to make the final quarter of the album possible-- that realization of what needs to be done, and then the doing of it; putting away childish things, which, in the end, seems Eagle’s core concern. “Thank you naivety, for saving me again/ He was my next verse,” Marling nearly barks, on the last track, over a mounting wall of what seems like every instrumental bit to appear on the previous 15 tracks: all that warm cello, palm-hammered percussion, billowing organ, and her steady, spangling guitar. The mess of love, of hate, has been sorted through, purged, sorted and packed away-- not entirely tidily, and not in a way that could protect against any future disasters, but enough for a fresh start somewhere else. Marling is 23; at first, the amount of time she had spent on this earth seemed relevant because nobody in her peer group was making albums like this. With Once I Was an Eagle, it’s because nobody of any age is making albums like this."

8. Heidi Feek - The Only

Listen to "Someday Somebody"


"Nashville Noir":  Music discovery can be so random sometimes, relying on happenstance and serendipity, as in the case of Heidi Feek. My Twitter feed runs several hundred tweets per hour, and when I occasionally look at Twitter, I only see the five or six messages that are on the screen. So, out of the thousands of tweets that come by every day, the odds of seeing any given message are tiny indeed.

Nevertheless, one day I just happened to see a tweet from Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose who said that she had just been in a music video for her friend Heidi Feek. I clicked the link to see the video and I was immediately enthralled. "Someday Somebody" is a taste of what's contained on The Only, Heidi's excellent debut album. Heidi has a big voice that may remind you of Patsy Cliene doing a mix of country, blues, and soul. Writing in Lockeland Springsteen, our favorite Nashville blog, Marissa Moss really nails exactly what it is about Heidi Feek that makes her so compelling.

"Heidi Feek‘s world on her new single, “Someday, Somebody” sounds like a David Lynch version of Nashville heartbreak; it oozes an off-kilter moodiness and a lingering sense of uneasiness all shrouded in a beautiful technicolor gauze, a southern swoon, a voice both deep and full of depth. It’s a track off of her upcoming LP, The Only, which we can expect to further explore this unique home between pedal steel twang and fuzzy city reverb; songs with country roots from modern boots, that wear their influences both down and like a crown (or stomp on them when necessary).

"And it’s hard to resist the video she just released (starring Caitlin Rose) which is, in a sense, a Nashville Noir if there ever was such a thing: black and white and cracking, with Heidi floating in and out in clutching an old-timey mic like the neck of man who she both loved and scorned, all perfect curls and red lips and vintage glow that would make Lana Del Rey throw her blue jeans and video games at the wall. Heidi’s no musical Lolita though – her writing is mature yet not aged, steeped in history but rooted in now, sealed with a knowing wink that’s anything but trying to be innocent." Read Heidi's Nashville Five in Lockeland Springsteen. "

9. Shannon LaBrie - Just Be Honest

Listen to "Slow Dance"


Sweet and Soulful With Something to Say:  As with Heidi Feek, my first exposure to Shannon LaBrie was her video for "Slow Dance" and I was similarly blown away. Opening with a smoldering tremolo guitar, in a slow and sultry voice, "I'm like a deep drag of smoke / I'm like a fire burning low / I'm like an old song you used to know / Ray Charles on the radio." Shannon is a Nashville singer-songwriter, possessed with a sweet and soulful voice and a gift for writing great songs,.

Shannon had to go through some changes before Nashville, which, according to her bio, included "a serious (and ongoing) illness at age 9 and losing her father at 14. She grew up fast, at first rebelling, then spending several years on a curious solo journey across the country studying philosophy, theology and writing songs before settling into Nashville’s thriving independent music scene."

Music industry veteran and advice guru Bob Lefsetz singled out "I Remember A Boy" in The Lefsetz Letter, “This track affected me. Made me believe like the great singer-songwriters of yore, maybe this woman has something to say. That in this crazy, mixed-up, shook-up world she can illuminate her story and people can relate."

This is an album without a bad track, and as someone who spends a good portion of every day doing music discovery, this is the sort of album that I live for, this, Tess Henley, and Heidi Feek to name a few. Shannon said this, on her website, “In my darkest moments of loss, doubt and pain, I’ve been shown what it looks like to love someone and to be loved. My closest friends didn't run, didn't give up, and didn't let me sink. They stuck with me and brought me to the other side,” recalls Labrie. “I hope my music can do the same for someone else.”

10. Jay Leighton - Hours

Listen to "Wish I Was Springsteen"


Exquisite Song-craft:  Jay Leighton is a gifted British singer-songwriter and "Wish I Was Springsteen" is the first single and lead track from his latest album, Hours. Growing up with the classic albums of the seventies such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Nick Drake, Leighton embraces his Springsteen fixation on the single. Jay hails from Bradford, West Yorkshire, England (about 175 miles north of London and a hop and a skip from Leeds). I must thank Lauren Ravazi for bringing Jay to my attention, Lauren is a writer, music publicist, and friend, based in Norwich, England.

Although he's been represented on record before, he considers Hours to be his debut because the others were made fast, cheap and mostly acoustic. Hours is his first proper recording that provides the time, musicians, arrangements and production commensurate with the exquisite song-craft of his compositions. "It’s produced at Modern World Studios in Gloucestershire by Manic Street Preachers producer Greg Haver, also known for his work with Catatonia and Super Furry Animals, with lavish string arrangements by Andy Walters."

Hours doesn't push any of the trendy buttons, and therein may lie its charm. It's back to the basics of good songwriting, well sung, well played, and impeccably produced. The result is a timeless sounding record that shares many of the qualities of those classic seventies albums that Jay Leighton grew up with.

Here are the rest of the albums we loved in 2013 (in alphabetical order with purchase links):


Anuhea - Butterflies - Live


Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas


Boy - Mutual Friends


Eric Clapton - Old Sock


Brandy Clark - 12 Stories


Trent Dabbs - The Way We Look at Horses


Lou Doillon - Places


Earth Wind And Fire - Now, Then & Forever


Goldfrapp - Tales Of Us


Buddy Guy - Rhythm & Blues


Meg Hutchinson - Beyond That


Tom Jones - Spirit in the Room


Zoe Sky Jordan - Restless, Unfocused


Richard Julian - FleurDe Lis


Julie Kathryn - Black Trees


Kalli - Last Train Home


Kiddo - Where To?


Mark Knopfler - Privateering


Kait Lawson - Until We Drown


Will Lee - Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions


Lissie - Back to Forever


London Grammar - If You Wait


Emma Louise - vs Head vs Heart


James Maddock - Another Life


Minor Alps - Get There


Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose


Ruth Moody - These Wilder Things


Kendra Morris - Banshee


Phildel - The Disappearance Of The Girl


Boz Scaggs - Memphis


Kim Taylor - Love's a Dog


Maria Taylor - Something About Knowing


Texas - The Conversation


Various Artists - Love For Levon


Victoria Vox - Key


Tony Joe White - Hoodoo


Denison Witmer - Denison Witmer


Zee Musiq - The Elements of L​.​O​.​V​.​E.