Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Albums 2013 - Honorable Mention

In recent years I've had trouble coming up with ten albums I really liked.  This year I had trouble paring down about thirty albums.  Suffice it to say, 2013 was a great year for music.  The following are my honorable mentions - ten albums that I really enjoyed, but didn't quite make my final "top ten."  Some came very close, but I had to make some tough decisions.  This is basically my runners-up list - not ranked, but ordered alphabetically.*
Enjoy. . . .

ASG: Blood Drive (6.5/10)

I hadn't heard of Wilmington, North Carolina, stoner/sludge rockers ASG until earlier this summer.  Turns out Blood Drive is their fifth album and it sounds like a lost gem from 1992.  All the hallmarks of that era are preserved and resurrected brilliantly here as if Creed and Nickleback never existed to piss all over them - the angst, the beauty, and the riffs.  Vocalist Jason Shi displays uncanny range, emulating both Perry Farrell's nasal rasp and Mark Lanegan's baritone, filtered through a distinctly southern twang, while the band channel the best of Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains and that faithful wellspring of both grunge and contemporary stoner/sludge - Black Sabbath.  Showing depth and broad scope rare in modern rock records, it would be a shame to overlook ASG's Blood Drive. 

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Specter at The Feast (6.5/10)

As I mentioned in my review of Specter At The Feast a couple months ago, BRMC deserve credit for their part in kickstarting the garage rock revival of the early 00's and for soldiering on while their contemporaries (The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs etc.) have either imploded, stopped touring, or lost the plot.  Before I heard Specter At The Feast I was fully prepared to dislike it.  2008's weird instrumental album The Effects of 333 was terrible and 2010's Beat The Devil's Tattoo was disappointing, so I wasn't expecting much out of this one.  Though poorly sequenced and overlong by about fifteen minutes, Specter at the Feast is surprisingly endearing, gorgeously produced, and features a few ambitious cuts that'd kill in a stadium.  Again, credit where it's due.

Black Sabbath: 13 (7/10)

Black Sabbath are the most influential band in rock & roll.  There, I said it.  You can easily see and hear the distinct aesthetic of doom and instrumental rumble they pioneered over forty years ago in about a thousand bands that followed.  Not to mention the entire genre they spawned - heavy metal.  With founding vocalist Ozzy Osbourne back with Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler for the first time since 1978's Never Say Die! and veteran studio-wiz Rick Rubin at the helm, 13 boasts a muscular, dignified grandeur.  Shame Bill Ward couldn't make the reunion as fill-in Brad Wilk can't quite match the loose jazzy percussion of vintage Sabbath.  Still, 13 is an unlikely success - a gratifying album that recalls the band's dark bluesy roots and brings the journey full circle.

Bombino: Nomad (6.5/10)

Dan Auerbach has been on a roll lately, not only earning rare commercial and critical success with his own blues-rock duo The Black Keys but also as a producer - doing a fantastic job on last year's Grammy winning Locked Down by Dr. John.  Auerbach tries to catch lightning in a bottle again this year with Tuareg blues guitarist Bombino and his sophomore album Nomad.  Recorded at Auerbach's Nashville-based studio, Nomad has a decidedly contemporary feel, with Bombino's nimble guitar picking run through a battery of fuzz, echo, and reverb pedals.  Though slightly overbearing at times, Aurebach's production gives Nomad's psych jams the rock & roll punch needed for Bombino to transcend the catch-all "world music" tag and become a star in his own right.

Kurt Vile: Wakin On A Pretty Daze (7/10)

Despite his slacker disposition, Philadelphia singer/songwriter Kurt Vile has put out five critically acclaimed albums in five years.  The man works hard to appear so laid-back.  On his fifth LP, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile creates a soporific, meandering sonic buzz - dipping into the lighter stylings of indie and classic rock pillars Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Lou Reed and Tom Petty.  With Vile employing a lazy drawl and the occasional synth or drum machine to accompany his lovely guitar strumming, Wakin on a Pretty Daze deftly approximates (as the album title implies) the euphoric serotonin high of napping outdoors on a sunny summer day - plenty of beer in the cooler, weed in the bowl, and not a care in the world.  This is indie rock's album-length answer to "It Was A Good Day."      

Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (6.5/10)

When it comes to charismatic female musicians, the conversation usually steers right to the subject of gender.  In most cases it's unwarranted and condescending, but when your big single of the year is called "Man" and the lyrics defiantly claim "I'm a man. . . . You didn't know what a man was, until I showed you!" you kinda have to.  The Worse Things Get is indie/pop/country singer Neko Case's sixth album and a distinct feminist machismo is on display here.  If that's sounds contradictory, it's supposed to.  A rambler, farmer, erstwhile nude pinup model, fighter, artist, performer, and peerless vocalist, Case isn't a man or woman - she's just a badass.  The Worse Things Get is beautifully graceful and confessional, and in some cases downright heartbreaking.  Hey, real men cry right?          

Russian Circles: Memorial (7/10)

Russian Circles are a Chicago three piece instrumental post-metal band, and Memorial is their fifth album.  Whereas contemporaries like Pelican could use a yarler to lend some context to their grungy riffage, Russian Circles' colossal Wagnerian anthems could easily, without human voice, soundtrack the sagas of Nordic gods.  Returning producer Brandon Curtis lends Memorial a crisp spacious quality that gives the impression that the LP was recorded live in a single take.  Drummer Dave Turncrantz's stunning percussion is captured in high definition, with minor errors left intact on the final recording.  Borrowing black metal's frightening theatrics, Memorial's beautiful dread ebbs and flows without warning - seesawing dramatically between the balmy and the monstrous.      

The Strokes: Comedown Machine (6.5/10)

The Strokes couldn't even muster a tour this year to support their fifth album Comedown Machine.  How this album even came to be is a minor mystery, considering lead hipster, er, singer Julian Casablancas tellingly recorded his vocals remotely for their last LP, Angles.  When The Strokes hit the scene in 2001 with their cute outfits and jangly retro garage-rock ditties, it felt right.  Their debut album Is This It was fun and irreverent, and rock & roll hadn't been either of those things for a while.  Twelve years and three duds later, we get Comedown Machine - a surprisingly good album that plays to the bands strengths (simple, catchy) while expanding their palate (new wave, electro, lo-fi punk, old-timey rumba?).  Too bad few seemed to care - least of all The Strokes themselves.

Toxic Holocaust: Chemistry of Consciousness (8/10)

Toxic Holocaust's fifth album Chemistry of Consciousness, released just a couple months back, is a late but strong addition to my "honorable mention" list - and is, frankly, still threatening to maul somebody in my "top ten" for their spot.  If you're into beefy metal riffs delivered at a blinding pace, there's a lot to like about this album.  From Portland, Oregon, and founded/fronted by a guy named Joel Grind who looks like Vince Neil's angry body double, Toxic Holocaust are a thrash revival trio that channel the high-speed brutality of the Big Four while keeping things infectiously short, loose, and uncluttered.  With expert punk/metal producer Kurt Ballou at the controls, Chemistry of Consciousness has a warm rugged sound that's pure comfort food for any bitter soul.          

Wolf People: Fain (7.5/10)

Though Tame Impala's debut Innerspeaker was easily my favorite album of 2010, another likeminded band wasn't far behind - Wolf People, with their debut Steeple.  Like Australia's Tame Impala, England's Wolf People was initially the home-recording project of a lone musician, Jack Sharp, and whereas the former fused the Beatles' narcotic pop harmonies with the rave patchwork of the Chemical Brothers, the latter fused Cream's blues-rock virtuosity with the boom-bap percussive funk of the Dust Brothers.  On sophomore LP Fain, Sharp and his capable four-piece band bring their psych-rock meets ren-fest aesthetic into sharper focus - weaving vintage prog-rock, jazz fusion, and English folk into a series of tight, serpentine jams.  Fantastic stuff, and so close to my "top ten."

Next up, the "Top Ten" list.  Stay tuned. . . .

*Edit - Album scores added on 5/20/14.

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