Top 20 Best Albums of 2013

I’m still an album guy. Not necessarily vinyl, but Albums with a capital A to mean a body of work consisting of a group of songs. I’m mostly a digital consumer of music, on MP3 and yes I still sometimes rock CD’s in the car.

It seems nowadays we talk more about how we listen to our music, instead of the actual music itself. We flash badges on social media to signify that we’re with Pandora or Spotify, we subscribe to iTunes or (in my case) Amazon MP3. We see flashy commercials for $200 headphones and share playlists between our phones and auto-post our current listening pleasures on Facebook and Twitter. And I guess it’s assumed most people are listening to their awesome playlists of trending tracks, on random of course.

But I still listen to full albums. I never throw a bunch of songs by different artists into a queue, I listen to each “album” straight through. I’m not saying it’s any better and I’m not here to rant on how things have changed. But lost among the technology discussions and the hand wringing over digital rights and the business of music and the allegedly dying Music Business… let’s remember the actual music. And, for me, The Music comes not in the form of the Hottest Track of The Summer or Latest Trending Single.

When I talk about The Music, I want to talk about albums. The Best Albums of 2013, in fact, according to me and based on what I liked listening to the most. Here are my Top 20 Albums of 2013:

20. Atoms For Peace – AMOK
Flea’s famous funk sounds a bit buried among the Thom Yorke/Nigel Godrich production that mostly sounds like a continuation of Yorke’s first solo album. But the subtle rhythms by not just Flea but percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Refoscodo reveal themselves through repeated listening. It might be a better Tide-You-Over-Til-The-Next-Radiohead album than the last the Radiohead album was.

19. Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw
Catchy folk recommended for fans of Dawes and/or Dr. Dog.

18. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Was never really into NIN when they first peaked, but have grown to dig on some recent Trent Reznor projects. And surprisingly this new one is quite “accessible” (which is what critics say when they want to let you know it isn’t just noise… there are actual hummable songs and hooks here).

17. David Bowie – The Next Day
I was never a massive Bowie enthusiast. A casual fan. The best-of’s and hits collections were enough for me. I respected him but admit I was never well versed in the depth of what’s considered all of the best albums. I actually don’t think much about David Bowie. But then with little notice he came back out of left field and what was assumed to be a likely quiet retirement and graceful aging if health permitted. And the album was a rockin’ and infectious gem or a record that I was kinda addicted to listening to for several weeks there. Even if you’re just a little Bowie-curious, definitely worth checking out The Next Day.

16. Inspectah Deck w/ 7L & Esoteric – Czarface
7L & Esoteric have a knack for pumping out modern-day “90s Hip-Hop Classics” if you know what I mean. Their basic production value and overall aesthetic is a direct descendant of the Guru & DJ Premier pairing that gave Gang Starr it’s mass appeal. The catchy beats come in waves as the smilies and metaphors surf atop them effortlessly. On 2013’s Czarface, they’re joined by Inspectah Deck a microphone master and unsung hero from the Wu-Tang Clan to inject even more energy into mix.

15. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push Away the Sky
On Push Away the Sky we get mellow and creepy Nick. And somehow it’s every bit as effective, affecting, and addictive as rocking and creepy Nick was on Dig Lazarus Dig!

14. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
At times gimmicky and pastiche, these robot dudes really do know how to make some great-sounding music. Niles Rodgers incomparable guitar work is the MVP here, even if after a while the whole funky 70s vibe does eventually lose some of it’s luster. But beyond the “Get Lucky” sheen there’s a variety of tracks here, including some spoken word by Giorgio Moroder, with the subtle standout being “Instant Crush” featuring a lead vocal by Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Daft Punk may never pull off those helmets, but somehow they managed to pull off making the robots sound human and the humans sound like robots. And you can dance to it.

13. Black Sabbath – 13
OK if they couldn’t work things out with original drummer Bill Ward, at least they got former Rage Against the Machine beatmaster Brad Wilk to crush these classic-sounding riffs. Considering what a debacle a comeback album like this could have been, it’s a downright enjoyable and rockin’ return to form (of sorts). And yes of course I switched them around so they’d be #13 on this list. \m/

12. Leif Vollebekk – North Americana
Oh, look: It’s this year’s “Haunting, sparse acoustic production meets Dylanesque phrasing” album. And it’s a good one.

11. Avett Brothers – Magpie and the Dandelion
Tremendous live band, and on record they remain sad but true. It’s such bummer music, but you believe every word and the harmonies are so good that you have to keep listening.

10. Clutch – Earth Rocker
If you know Clutch, you know they are the best relatively unknown hard rock band in America. If you’ve never heard of Clutch, you need to get with the program. And this new effort is as good as any place to start. Maybe I’m blinded by the shiny newness of the crunching riffs, but Earth Rocker might every bit as good as previous Clutch classics like Robot Hive Exodus, the self-titled album from 1995, or whatever you think is the Best Clutch Album. By the way, these guys wont just rock your face off, they’re also underrated songwriters. Dig in.

9. Vampire Weekend – Vampires of the City
That rare breed of “critics darlings” who actually live up the hype. Incredibly well-crafted album that may have marketed as a new sound actually succeeds by combining the best features of their first two albums. Cinematic and precise, and somehow still fun.

8. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Stunning singer/songwriter strips it down, with sensational results. If you think you hate country music, think about checking out this (and every) Jason Isbell album. Short on twang, but long on songs.

7. The Roots & Elvis Costello – Wise Up Ghost
It’s weird. It’s like people are stalking the weird thoughts in my head. Not even that, cuz I never dreamed of putting the Roots and Elvis Costello. But I’ve loved them both very much for a very long time. And yet even I found word of their collaboration to be odd. But hot damn if this isn’t a great set that finds E.C. In his usual whine, but the songwriting and the rich tapestry of grooves of Questlove and the band make this one of the most enjoyable records from Elvis in a while. And, along with their Wake Up! Collab with John Legend in 2011, it’s yet another funky notch in the belt of the Legendary Roots Crew.

6. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
I don’t throw them on here lightly. What I mean is this isn’t a “career” award or anything like that. Their new album is GOOD. Really good. Not that the last two were bad, but they were okay/good. Like at the time we knew they were sorta Pearl-Jam-By-Numbers generic “good” but we convinced ourselves they were actual Good. But Lightning Bolt is Good. Really good. Pearl Jam good.

5. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Apologies to Jay-Z and his buddy Kanye, but as far as megastar rappers who can still put out a great album and rip the mic to shreds to the point that he’s murdering the English language… Eminem sits atop the throne. His more famous counterparts might have bigger social media strategies and yachts and famous wives, but hip-hop has always been mostly about LYRICS. Jay-Z is an iconic rapper but he no longer has anything to say. Kanye’s always been a good producer and still makes incredibly interesting music (the beats and backing tracks) but he’s never been a good rapper. On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem proves that he still has plenty to say and the astounding verbal dexterity and unparalleled flow with which to do it. Instead of boring us with stories of champagne and caviar, Marshall Mathers doesn’t mind showing us he’s still hungry.

4. Killer Mike & EL-P – Run the Jewels
Probably my favorite hip-hop album of the year. While El-P has a reputation as a space-age futuristic producer (and he is that), he also drops some seriously old-school beats and bangers that rival the best producers in the game. And oh by the way, on this set he harnesses his frenetic flow on the mic and more than holds his own next to his buddy Killer Mike, who again brings his hard rhymes and booming vocal style. This logical progression from last year’s R.A.P. Music album (credited to Killer Mike, and produced by EL-P) find the pair once again proving the “Hip-Hop Is Dead” doubters dead wrong.

3. Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
This might be the most perfect record of the year. Josh Homme has picked up his axe and this time he’s brought Dave Grohl’s thunderdrums along on a bunch of the songs, and even Elton John (!) shows up. Perfectly crafted rock’n’roll music, Like Clockwork is a timeless classic. [Speaking of Sir Elton, this seems like a good place to throw an Honorable Mention to John’s fine new album The Diving Board.]

2. Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare
Oh, I shoulda made this album #1. Perhaps my favorite album of the year in that this record makes me want to use the word exquisite. It makes me think of words like beautiful and even meticulous. For such an organic and classic analog sound, it’s still so pristine… in the way that poets probably once wrote of pure art. (I guess. I’ve never read much poetry.) It’s the kind of album that demands and deserves a lot of attention. On Fanfare, singer/songwriter and underrated guitar whiz Jonathan Wilson reminds us of his extraordinary gifts as a producer. He was the man behind the boards for well-received albums in recent years by Dawes, Father John Misty, and Roy Harper… and now working for himself he allows his amazing songs to blossom beyond the Laurel Canyon laid back jam vibe and constructs an Album with a capital A. That deep shit that makes guys like me write this stuff singing their praises. His guitar tone. The deep sound he captures off the grand piano. His gift of voice. OK, I need to stop. Just know that this guy is making some very special music.

1. Portugal The Man – Evil Friends
For many years I stopped writing about music. Writing as a “Music Critic” for the student paper throughout high school and college had eventually turned me off for the obvious and predictable reasons. Why are we trying to describe music? Who are we to decide what’s “good” when music is so subjective? And then when albums like Evil Friends would come out from bands like Portugual The Man, I would try to rewrite some form of disclaimer about how it’s silly for us to try to explain what something sounds like. I cant tell you who or what Portugal The Man sounds like. (In fact, their real name is Portugal. The Man, with that period in the middle. Probably just to piss off people like me who write about music. Everyone hates music critics.) But I can tell you that this album is awesome. It might seem a little weird at first, but it’s a grower.

I won’t tell you how to listen to it… or on what platform… just listen. You wont be able to stop.

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The Boy Who Cried Roots

The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Photo by Chago Akii-bua.

At some point, “The new Roots album is really good” became a cliché we’ve been taking for granted since the release of their fourth album, things fall apart, in 1999. They’ve since dropped six more gems, some better than others, but all so consistent and at times stunning in their quality that we’ve just become immune, desensitized, and unappreciative. Oh, yea… The Roots have a new album. I heard it’s really good.

Every other year I find myself telling this friend or that about how great the new Roots album is, stressing its brilliance and begging to be taken seriously… feeling like the boy who cried wolf, except I’ve never lied.

Their legendary live shows, their solid canon of classic studio albums, their recent high-profile gig as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon… the bar has been set pretty high. And yet with each new release, as they continue to sail over that bar and raise it higher and higher, we shrug our shoulders and nod our heads and put The Roots on our year-end best-of lists and that’s that.

Since 1999’s things fall apart spawned the hit “You Got Me,” the Roots have quietly blessed us with a run of albums that could rival others entire careers, starting with the wildly eclectic Phrenology (what I call their White Album in how experimental and psychedelic it is) and continuing through The Tipping Point, Game Theory and Rising Down. These four albums over six years seemed to come and go, pure genius being ignored right out in the open.

Then in 2010 came How I Got Over, a late-career classic. A “mature” hip-hop album that was still a banger, it was universally hailed as a masterpiece (and yet still probably shrugged off as “another great Roots album”). With their killer collab album with John Legend, Wake Up!, released on its heels that same year, I assumed How I Got Over might be their last album for a quite a while…  And then at the end of 2011, bam!, they hit us with undun. And once again, they’ve outdone even themselves.

As the press releases and subsequent reviews have said, undun is “an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999),” a loose-narrative concept album told in reverse about the death of the fictional struggling everyman from the hood. It starts with the flat-line beep sound of his death and then goes back to tell the story of ghetto inevitability.

After countless listens on repeat, I don’t see (or hear) it as “told in reverse,” as much as it seems circular. You can come in at any point and pick it up. It’s like a classic movie on cable, like Goodfellas, where no matter what part is on when you find it, you feel compelled to watch the rest even though you know how it ends. And when the instrumental suite that closes the CD ends…. it starts again with the flat-line beep, and before you know it you’re circling around for another turn with this all-too-familiar American tale of desperation and destiny… like the endless cycle of lives trapped along the poverty line.

To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep
Insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep
I’m dead tired, my mind playing tricks, deceit
A face in the glass, unable to admit defeat
All that I am, all that I was is history
The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century
Destiny is everything that I pretend to be
Look, and what I did came back to me eventually
The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me

That’s the very first verse we hear from Black Thought. If I decided to quote any more of his brilliant one liners and verse-long portraits, it would fill this whole post. Just go read them, or better yet, submerge yourself in this record and hear a lyrical master at work, in both writing and delivery. His basic style/flow may have been birthed by the legendary Rakim a generation ago, but Black Thought absolutely belongs in any type of “Top 5 MC’s of All Time,” list/argument you want to make. He might not have the cultural impact of Tupac or Biggie; He’s been around for close to 20 years on record, but he’s not quite a pioneering legend like Chuck D or KRS-One; he’s not as flashy as Nas, Eminem, or Andre 3000. And while he’s undoubtedly benefited from the beats, production and leadership of ?uestlove, it’s also possible that Black Thought’s “legacy” is diminished cuz we just hail them as The Best Hip-Hop Group (by a mile) and we never quite give BT his due. Taken for granted once again.

On this latest album, Black Thought is so concise, as plain spoken yet creative with his wordplay and metaphors as ever. Anchored by a revolving door of guest MC’s led by veteran Roots role player on the mic Dice Raw, Black Thought gets the most out of every line, no words are wasted, every rhythmic turn and lyrical phrasing complementing the beat as if it was actually part of ?uestlove’s drum kit.

One of the most interesting recent quotes I read from Black Thought was about his serious approach to the writing:  “Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don’t sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, ‘We got another one!’ and pop some champagne. It’s like if someone’s writing a novel: You write a series of drafts.”

Like a great American novel, I hope that after all the accolades and Grammy nominations and glowing blog reviews, we all remember this incredible album, this snapshot of a society crumbling… with too many people “face down in the ocean, and no one’s in the lighthouse,” and too many others too busy watching the throne.

Compared to it’s predecessor, undun is sonically stark, but still extremely effective. Musical storytelling that paints pictures behind the stunning verses. If they’d never sent out the blurbs about this being a “concept album,” we still would have picked up on the cinematic vibe. It’s like the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with movie making again. And while this particular one has sadly played out in American streets over and over again, undun will still be worth revisiting and repeating for years to come.

Undun is not just “another great Roots album,” (though it is that). It reminds you that albums are an art form and luckily artists like the Roots are still making them.

More ‘Best Albums of 2011’

We already compiled the Top Albums of 2011 that we reviewed, so let’s round out our Top 25 albums of 2011 with 15 more that we didn’t get around to writing proper reviews for. It’s a good thing we left our final list undun until now. Looks (sounds) like 2011 saved the best for last as December saw (heard) the release of two of the years’ best from The Roots and The Black Keys.

The Roots – undun
The masters of album making strike again. The Roots have been so consistent and set the bar so high that seemingly every year or so they drop another classic on us and we put them on our year-end lists and talk about how great they are, and yet it still feels like we somehow take them for granted. Saving the best for last and releasing it in December, The Roots’ stark narrative, with the accompanying musicality well beyond just the beats, stands as perhaps the best album of the year.


Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
The return of Ryan Adams features not only his best set of songs since 2005, but his voice sounds better than ever. His co-MVP’s here are legendary veteran producer Glyn Johns and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).


P.J. Harvey – Let England Shake
Maybe the most unique and interesting albums of the year. Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. This one took home prestigious awards and topped a lot of other lists, and it’s way high up on mine as well. Engaging and as urgent as she’s always been, but perhaps her most musical album to date.


Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I once described Fleet Foxes as a soundtrack for doing yard work at a Renaissance festival. And while that doesn’t make a lot of sense, I meant it in the best possible way.


Megafaun – Megafaun
Impossible to describe. Somehow manages to sound like both CSNY and Hot Chip. Comes off weird and eclectic, but still full of hooks.


Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
Not quite right up there with Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints, it’s certainly still a “return to form,” as the press releases like to say. And in between the spots where it bounces like those albums, he sprinkles in a few mellow numbers reminiscent of his 1970’s ballads.


The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
This time they tone down the lush, orchestral emo-pop sound of their previous album, Hazards of Love, and return with a rustic and rootsy affair, with a solid assist from Peter Buck on guitar.


Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Collaboration of lead singer/songwriters (Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez) team up for a simple but stunning record that underscores each of their (potential) places in the next generation of great American songwriters. It’s like if Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp recorded an album together, but did so in 1981-82, around the time they were each making Nebraska, Hard Promises, and American Fool. Actually it’s not really like that at all. Where was I? Oh yea, back to the list.


The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
Droney and addictive.


Radiohead – The King of Limbs
People either love Radiohead and swear by them as the best and most important and innovative band on the planet, or they don’t “get” them and think they’re overrated. There’s no point in me writing about them, other than to say The King of Limbs was a slow burn, took a while to grow, still one of my favorites from this year.


Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring From My Halo
This is a great record that took me a while to actually dig. I’d hate to cheapen it with a string of bullshit music-critic buzzwords and catchphrases… but the retro anti-folk of Smoke Ring From My Halo successfully mixes Dylanesque phrasing with Lou Reed-style street poetry, and somehow comes out smelling like indie rock.


Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
I like this better than their much-acclaimed debut. Full of subtle hooks and natural emotion, this has a crispy 70’s feel with all the guitars up front in the mix.


Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Instrumental rock experts hit us with another dynamic set.


The Antlers – Burst Apart
Another one that is kinda hard to describe. At times a bit odd, but mostly beautiful.


The Black Keys – El Camino
This is right behind The Roots’ undun in the “Best for Last” category. Dropping in December, this one brings the heat right outta the box. Once it’s given more time to sink in, it might end up being the best album of the year.

Happy Birthday Uncle Bruce!

Bruce Springsteen is my uncle. Well, not real direct uncle like a sibling of one of my parents. Just a cousin that we all call “Uncle.” Or maybe my mom just used to joke about inviting “Uncle Bruce” to my birthday parties because she knew I had a possibly unhealthy obsession with Bruce Springsteen.

Being a Bruce fan is an odd place sometimes. A lot of my closest friends and band mates weren’t/aren’t Bruce fans. (I’m sure most of them, especially my cohorts here at Bums Logic, are rolling their eyes realizing it was only a matter of time before Todd used this space to idolize his Boss once again.) As popular and worldwide famous and critically acclaimed as Springsteen might be, there’s a certain uncoolness about being a Bruce fanatic. And I guess that fits the narrative of Young Bruce feeling alienated and alone and discovering through Elvis and the Beatles that rock’n’roll could not only save you, but it was your only hope.

I was turned on to Bruce Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band in the early 80’s by my sister’s college boyfriend. He had vinyl bootlegs of the legendary Winterland show as well as the one from the Agora in Cleveland, both from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour in 1978. I taped them from his albums to my hand-labeled cassettes and was on my way.

Soon after, Born in the U.S.A. was released and “my guy” was suddenly the biggest rock star on the planet. I saw him at the Capitol Centre in Largo, MD, the month I turned 14. Perhaps that vulnerable age mixed with the power of those legendary live shows and I was doomed (blessed?) to be cemented for life as a Bruce Fan, I don’t know. But I still feel like that night I found out that there really was a circus to run away with. I’d be reminded again, by everyone from the Grateful Dead to The Roots and by Springsteen 11 more times over the years.

So Uncle Bruce turns 62 today. Which makes it seem like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Stones must be in their 80s. Love him, hate him, or respect him with indifference, but may everyone be lucky enough to still have his energy when they reach that age. Or at least be saved by rock’n’roll.

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two Review

These grandpa's been rapping since '83.

If you are at all like me–a long-time devoted fan of the Beastie Boys and their groundbreaking career–then there is a good chance that you have been a little disappointed with the group’s output since the release of Hello Nasty. It’s not that Hello Nasty is a bad album, it’s actually quite eclectic and experimental (which is saying something for these guys), it’s just that it might have moved a little too far away from the Beastie Boys we grew up with and had grown accustomed to with Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, and Ill Communication. Their subsequent output, To the 5 Boroughs & The Mix-Up, were hit-or-miss at best. The band definitely seemed to be losing some creative steam as we reluctantly began to wonder, “is the best Beastie Boys music behind us?”

To say that Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is a return-to-form or a comeback album might be overstating its value. But once you hear the first Clavinet notes and beat of “Make Some Noise” you can’t help but nod your head, smile, and think, “yea, this is what it’s all about. This is the Beastie’s Boys I know and love.” HSC2 is definitely the bands best overall album since Ill Communication.

The Beastie’s have always been hipster darlings and musical (and cultural) trend setters. In short, from 1986-1999, there was no cooler band in the world. Funky, 70’s-instrumentals? Check. Creative and unique sounds? Check. Witty, pop culture referencing rhymes? Check. Incredible studio production? Check.  And of course, great songs: Check your head!  HSC2 mashes up the Beastie Boys 90’s output with just enough new school bleeps and blips to keep the album sounding fresh and current while still maintaining that, dare I say, classic Beastie Boys style till the break of dawn. If you don’t nod your head during “Nonstop Disco Powerpack” then just hit the stop button now.

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Best Albums of 2010

Ah yes, another no-name blogger weighing in on the best albums of the year. I know: you care. My Top Ten Albums of 2010 list contains 27 titles and includes live albums. It doesn’t contain a couple albums I probably loved and somehow forgot. Feel free to post your Top 10 of 2010 in the comments below.

THE BEST
The Roots – How I Got Over

Black Keys – Brothers

White Stripes – Under Great Northern Lights (live)

THE REST
Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone

Deer Tick – The Black Dirt Sessions

John Mellencamp – No Better Than This

Eminem – Recovery

Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away

Nas & Damian Marley – Distant Relatives

Tom Petty – Mojo

Spoon – Transference

The Roots & John Legend – Wake Up

Robert Plant – Band of Joy

Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs

Neil Young – Le Noise

Frightened Rabbit – Winter of Mixed Drinks

Avett Brothers – Live Vol. 3 (live)

Jakob Dylan – Women and Country

Ryan Bingham – Junky Star

Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

Ray Lamontagne – God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise

Big Boi – Sir Luscious Leftfoot

Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do

Eels – End Times

Black Crowes – Croweology

Derek Trucks Band – Roadsongs (live)

Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues