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Monday, January 20, 2014

2013: My Year in Music Geekdom

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

 ~ Dylan

There's a tap on my window
There's a ring at my door
And I'll answer in Tennessee time

 ~ Valerie June

Has it been a year? It has. And here we are. As much as #3 and I have lost touch with actual blogging, I'd hate, after eight (!) years, to abandon my annual ritual of middle-aged, middlebrow, music geekery. (See 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006) Over the last few, as "the crazy" built, crested, crashed, and ebbed, I've done some personal stock-taking here too. So I can happily report that 2013 was a refreshingly boring year, generally devoid of drama and full of paternal joy. Transitory? Probably. Illusory? Nope. What did I accomplish? Milestones. (So close to "millstones.") Grew a scruffy beard, ran a half-marathon, painted some rooms, did a conference, got better at knotting ponytails, figured out how to cook that Vietnamese pineapple-catfish soup I'd been missing--all that bucket list stuff.

Listened to some good music too. Lots of vintage: Dylan, the Band, Sam Cooke, J.J. Cale (RIP), Dr. John, Etta James, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Howlin' Wolf. The more I know, the more I don't know. As for the new, well done, 2013. I suspect I'll be listening to some of these records for years. (But which ones?)

1) Bob Dylan, Another Self-Portrait. A bit of a cheat, since this was recorded from 1969-71, alternate takes and lost songs from the time of Dylan's most hated classic-era album, Self-Portrait, and its more amiable follow-up, New Morning. This two-CD recreation transcends, however, especially Disc 1. Dylan gives us ancient folk songs ("Pretty Saro," "Copper Kettle," surely the most lovely songs ever written about freeholder suffrage and the Whiskey Rebellion, respectively), gorgeously obscure covers ("Spanish Is the Loving Tongue," "Annie's Gonna Sing Her Song," and "This Evening So Soon"), and definitive versions of his own classics ("When I Paint My Masterpiece," "Time Passes Slowly #1," and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"). I think I listened to this first thing in the morning, every morning, for two months. Lang always wanted me to play "All the Tired Horses" over again for a sing-a-long before she went to school.

2) Phosphorescent, Muchacho. Confession: I had never heard of this band before Paste Magazine named this their favorite record of the year. Yeah, right, I thought. Better than Vampire Weekend? Actually, yes, says this bandwagon jumper. A stunningly beautiful album that goes amazingly well with my afternoon beer mug of Darjeeling. Think early 70s Neil Young, sitting on a Mexican bar stool, sharing beers and fears with Vic Chesnutt (RIP) and Bon Iver. For a sample, check out the haunting "Song for Zula."

3) Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Save Kanye, probably the most critically beloved album of the year, and rightly so. Impossibly catchy, musically adventurous, lyrically inventive, indie rock. Nothing more I can say that hasn't been said better elsewhere. Three albums in, they're the real deal.

4) Valerie June, Pushin' Against A Stone. The newcomer of the year. If you loved the O Brother soundtrack, but wished it were (a) blacker, (b) sexier, and (c) co-written, produced, and accompanied by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, then this is for you.

5) Steve Earle, The Low Highway. I'm pretty much in the tank for anything Earle does at this point, and for much of this year, no record caught my mood better than this one. A deceptively simple record about love, resilience, defiance, and remembrance, Earle finds new treasures while riding old roads. And threatens violence to Wall Mart ("Burnin' It Down"). What's not to love?

6) Jason Isbell, Southeastern. Back when he was with the Drive By Truckers, Isbell wrote "Goddamn Lonely Love," which should be on the jukebox of every self-disrespecting dive bar in America but probably isn't on any. His solo work has been good but not quite great, until now. For pure singer-songwriter virtuosity, this is a tour de force. "Elephant," "Cover Me Up," "Traveling Alone," "Live Oak," "Songs That She Sang in the Shower," and "Relatively Easy" are perfect, character-driven, heartrending vignettes.

7) Patty Griffin, American Kid and Silver Bell. A quietly impressive year for Griffin, with one new album (AK) and the long-overdue release of a "lost" gem from 2000 (SB). Unfortunately, as effortless as her Americana craftsmanship can seem, the rock cognoscenti have started taking her for granted. Bastards.

8) Ron Sexsmith, Forever Endeavour. On the subject of "taken for granted," did anyone notice this record? Not a false note from one of the best songwriters alive. Melancholy beauty from that sweet spot between Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney.

9) the National, Trouble Will Find Me. It must have been a great year in new music if this brooding epic finished #9 on my list.

10) Deer Tick, Negativity. Not their best, but lots of good moments, including "The Rock," "The Dream's In the Ditch," and "In Our Time."

What did I leave off? Plenty. I really like and respect that Haim CD, but it's not my natural musical niche. Same for Bill Calahan's Dream River. And I was disappointed by Arcade Fire's polarizing, but much loved, Reflektor. They do a credible David Bowie meets LCD Soundsystem impersonation, but the whole thing, especially over two CDs, is just too abstract and electronic for me. What's up for 2014? Listening to the controversial new Springsteen (his Rattle & Hum), and going back catalog on some vintage Neil Young, Aretha, and CCR. Timeless. As 2013 fades away, I'll close with a few lines I hope pass slowly. May we meet again in 2015, smarter, stronger, saner. Try hard to stay right.

With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It's strange, as people we're prone to dwell
On things that we can't undo
And we're liable to wander down
If only avenue

~ Ron Sexsmith

You see, the moon is bright in that treetop night
I see the shadows that we cast in the cold, clean light
My feet are gold. My heart is white
And we race out on the desert plains all night

~ Phosphorescent


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