1) Red Baraat –Shruggy Ji . Before he became a famous producer of best-selling albums, Boston rock critic Jon Landau once famously scripted a critical review proclaiming “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” With apologies to both the Boss and Landau, I think the same claim could be made for Red Baraat. As America increasingly becomes a nation of Third World immigrants, this Brooklyn collective of mostly Muslim brass and percussion players seems to suggest our new musical landscape will incorporate a plethora of exotic, wild new sounds that seem very foreign to our ears. We can only hope more of the same glorious stuff is in store. Without making any religious or political statements, the band shows us a glimpse of what the new American world music may be: an inspirational, in-your face blast of brassy fun. Red Baraat takes its name from the Indian wedding ceremony in which the groom, joined by friends and family, walk to the bride's family's dwelling to pick her up – accompanied by a rollicking brass band on this joyous trek through the neighborhood. If this sounds like a rejiggered New Orleans street tradition, well so does Red Baraat. Led by Sonny Jain on dhol (a large drum that Jain wears on a strap over his shoulder), the Brooklyn band is a savvy fusion of brass-heavy New Orleans jazz, bhangra funk and Indian wedding music. If there is any “fault” it’s that the studio album does not quite measure up to the band’s live performance. Don’t miss them if they’re playing within a 50 mile radius. You’re smile for days afterwards. This is irresistible and imminently danceable party music.
2) Patty Griffin – American Kid and Silver Bell. One could make a case that no American recording artist had a better year than Patty Griffin. I’ve been a sucker for this Maine singer-songwriter since first hearing Living With Ghosts a stripped down 1996 acoustic set of poignant vignettes that plumb the depths of love, loss of love and family life. Her latest collection, American Kid, is reminiscent of that initial effort, songs that detail her relationship with her father. They were written shortly after learning of her father’s impending death and explore his absence in her life. Her new husband, Robert Plant, sings background on several of the songs, most notably “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” This is Americana’s finest recorded moments of 2013. Later in the year, she released Silver Bell, an album of kick-ass rock and roll songs that were never released by her record company when they were recorded in 2000. Stand out tracks include “Boston”, “Little God” and “Silver Bell.” Both albums are worth owning. That they both came out in the same calendar year makes 2013 a very special time for one of America’s best female rock/pop musicians.
3) Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium. I put Okkervil River at the top of my end of the year list twice in the last seven years, so my affection for this band is well documented. I adore this record. I listened to it more than anything else in 2013. It’s easily their most accessible effort, showcasing Will Sheff’s most intimate songwriting. “Down Down the Deep River”, the year’s best pop song, is a roller coaster remembrance of the fears of growing up in a small New England town. The rest of the collection of a cycle of songs celebrating the joys and despairs evident in small town American life. It’s chock full of Sheff’s poignant obser/reservations. If there is any justice, this CD some day will be parsed and studied in high school English classes the way Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio still is. Don’t overlook “On a Balcony” and “Walking Without Frankie”. Another artistic achievement from the best rock band in America.
4) Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa. If you allow me the concession that Red Baraat is really an American band (after all, they reside in Brooklyn!), then I would say this CD is my favorite World Music disc of the year. Traore’s aching vocals are a revelation. She’s made a savvy decision to allow John Parish, PJ Harvey’s producer and sideman, to turn the sound knobs for this record. He’s moved her away from the acoustic blues influences of her other CDs into something that sounds a lot more visceral. Yet Traore’s reliance on the n’goni (her stringed instrument) makes this a distinctively African album, partly sung in her native language, Bambara. It succeeds because of her shimmering, intensely soulful singing. Highlights include the furious “Kouma” and the thoughtful “Mélancholie”, a highly personal reflection on solitude.
5) Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold – Fifteen head-banging songs in just 33 minutes. Not one of them feels like filler. This Brooklyn rock quartet (they originally hail from Texas) take the lo-fi aesthetic of Pavement, the Feelies and Guided By Voices to new heights and turn that 1990s template into something that sounds fresh and original. And when you listen closely, you can hear the ghost of Lou Reed in their performances. Like Reed, none of these guys can sing a note. Like Reed, they put their songs over with passion and confidence. Songwriter Andrew Savage’s wry observational takes on politics, pop culture and personal relationships suggest he spent more than a few months of his teenage years listening to both Reed and Jonathon Richman. Start with “Stoned and Starving” and “Borrowed Time.” Let the slacker angst wash over you. Revel in the innocent glory of a garage rock band finding their voice. Pure punk bliss.
6) Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost. I usually find it difficult to appreciate the earnest yearning of Sam Beam’s warm as oatmeal vocals. He tends to put me to sleep. (Which, for a guy with old man sleep issues, is something I should enjoy more). But this year’s Iron & Wine effort sounds like a nod to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks/Moondance” era. Beam’s baritone is backed by a blend of soulful horns and gloriously augmented by the thrum of acoustic bass, violins and tasty female background vocalists. His singing feels lighter and more carefree than ever before. He seems confident in his role as front man of a revved up rock band. Van would be proud! Standout cuts include “New Mexico’s No Breeze” and “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.”
7) Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady. If you haven’t caught Janelle Monae’s act yet, check out her Letterman performance of “Dance Apocalyptic” on YouTube. Watch it until the end, when she’s dancing a jig in black leather boots on top of Dave’s desk. In a nutshell, that’s why she has staked a claim to Michael Jackson’s throne . When I caught her show at the Electric Factory in Philly in October, I thought I was seeing James Brown in his prime. They cart her out in a white straight jacket and when they peel it off her, watch out! Ninety minutes of non-stop dance moves that take your breath away. Like her last record, this one has some annoying sci-fi patter that suggests it’s a “high concept” album. None is needed. She really is the Queen of Soul. Some day you, too, will kneel and bow before her immense talent and ambition.
8) Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart – Former front man for the British punk band Million Dead, Turner turned to a more traditional brand of Brit folk rock later in his career and has released a string of great CDs that mine the same territory as Billy Bragg, whose liberal politics provide a nifty template for Turner’s own voice on Tape Deck Heart. “Four Little Words” stakes a riotous claim for dancing in the mosh pit and the celebratory “Recovery” makes addiction to a woman sound like a necessary part of living a full life. This underrated artist deserves attention and this CD is one of the hidden gems of the year. It you pick this up, pay special attention to Nigel Powell’s drumming. Turner may craft the lyrics, but Powell is the pistons of Turner’s V6 engine.
9) Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside – Untamed Beast. This Portland band sounds like punk rockers who grew up listening to rockabilly and Charles Mingus. And Sallie sings with a swagger that’s sexy, sultry and natural. The All Music Guide described her vocal performances like this: “With a voice that can belt, soothe, caress, and flat-out spit sass, attitude and raw street emotion, she sounds like a dream cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin.” Songs to download: “They Told Me”, “Bad Boys” and “Do Me Right”. But be sure the house doesn’t burn down while you’re listening.10) The Will Callers – What Else Is Left? – If you like your alt-country ballsy, loud and with a slathered side of greasy greatness, you’ll dig the Will Callers, Fort Worth’s finest. Produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard (the bespectacled Texas hippy whose “Grifter’s Hymnal” topped my best of the year list last December), this 2013 CD is shot through with gunslinger attitude. The band earned a statewide Texas rep by winning the Shiner’s Rising Star contest in 2010. This is their first full length studio CD and marks them as a band to watch carefully in the near future. “One Single Tear”, “Weight of the World”, “Heart Like Mine” and “87 Miles” will rock the house.
In alphabetical order, my next 10 favorite CDs of the year were: Arcade Fire, Reflektor; Daft Punk, Random Access Memories; Jason Isbell, Southeastern; King Khan & the Shrines, Idle No More; Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle; Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park; The National, Trouble Will Find Me; Satellite Hearts, Imperial Green. Allen Toussaint, Songbook; Kurt Vile, Walking On a Pretty Daze.The ten best songs of 2013: 1) “Down Down the Deep River,” Okkervil River; 2) “Shruggy Ji,” Red Baraat; 3) “Recovery,” Frank Turner; 4) “Dance Apocalyptic”, Janelle Monae; 5) “Light Up Gold,” Parquet Courts; 6) “Bite My Tongue,” King Khan & the Shrines; 7) “Ohio,” Patty Griffin; 8) “Bad Boys”, Sally Ford & The Sound Outside; I9) Iron & Wine, “Grace for Saints and Rambles”; 10) Daft Punk, “Get Lucky".
The best music I heard all year didn’t come out on a CD. Soon, though, I have a feeling my friends will be able to hear the Late Greats, my favorite new band, on their own compact disc. At Thanksgiving a year ago, my son Luke started writing songs with some friends he knew from the creative writing program at West Chester. The music had a rough, folk/rock edge to it and most of the songs had a humorous twist to them. Some were more clever than most. A few were kind of impressive. Luke and some of his writing friends played a benefit concert in Upper Darby for a work colleague who had some medical bills to pay. Before they played a single song, he mentioned the band was looking for a drummer. Once they secured one, just a few weeks later, their songs were beginning to round into form. By mid-summer, they were playing in my basement in Downingtown once every two weeks. Their transition into a real band of rock musicians was fast and exhilarating to witness. The Late Greats had potential. That was obvious on the basement performance footage I shot on a Flipcam.
In July and early August, they played several gigs in club venues in Philadelphia. You could see them gain confidence and proficiency with each passing performance. Then, just two weeks ago, they headlined a benefit concert Luke organized for his sister’s library project for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. I introduced the band before they performed. Standing on the stage with them felt like being in presence of caged lions. They were ready to pounce. And once Luke started singing, they owned the room. Music savvy friends who had never heard them before were suitably impressed. The Late Greats made my favorite music of 2013. I wish they had something out on CD, they’d be on the list for sure.