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Thursday, 23 January 2014 11:08

Best of 2013: Top 10 albums (Sound Salvation edition)

Best of 2013: Top 10 albums (Sound Salvation edition)
Written by Steve Pick
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Lists are never perfect. The idea is to remind myself what captivated me throughout the year, and to let others know what they might have missed. And then, I try to say a little more to contribute to thinking about the music of 2013. So, here is what I liked the most on the day that I wrote the list.

Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-)

Neko Case can sing -- we've known that for a long, long time now. As pleasurable as her albums have been over the years, there has always seemed to be a distance from the material which made it difficult to really feel she had much to say. Until now. Given the impetus of confronting loss in her personal life, she came up with not a mournful record but a gigantic, big-ass series of hard-hitting questions about mortality and life's meaning all set to catchy melodies and rip-roaring rock music. A major leap forward in a good career.

Elvis Costello & the Roots - Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (Blue Note)

Put together a couple years ago when Costello guested on Jimmy Fallon, this combination of 35-year-veteran rocker and 20-year-veteran hip-hop band caught people by surprise. But both Costello and the Roots have showed time and again their high marks for working well with others. There isn't as much driving funk as might have been expected, but there aren't any weak links, and Costello's playful reworking, rewriting and requiting of his older material is a nod to the sampling roots of the Roots' home genre.

The Del Lords - Elvis Club (MRI)

Coming back after two decades apart, the Del Lords come up with the best sound of their career, and some of the best songs. "When the Drugs Kick In" is another of those coulda-would-shoulda hit singles Scott Kempner can conjure up now and then. "Chicks Man" is an inarticulate speech of the misunderstood gender barrier heart, and it's rip-roaringly funny and fun. Best of all might be "Me and the Lord Blues,"which sounds like rock 'n' roll Pope Francis could appreciate.

Buddy Guy - Rhythm & Blues (RCA)

With B.B. King slowing down (but not done yet, I believe), Guy is the old master left holding down the blues tradition. He brings in unnecessary guest stars to help sell the album but this is Guy's show, as explosive, as full of braggadocio and as sexual as the blues gets. His guitar playing is constantly surprising, his singing way more expressive than is generally appreciated by his fans. Two discs this great at age 77. Wow!

Tom Jones - Spirit in the Room (Rounder)

Tom Jones is younger by four years than Buddy Guy, so I can't really say it's out of the range of expectations for someone to retain so many of the gifts we've heard for so long. But it is an amazing partnership between Jones and producer/guitarist Ethan Johns which has now achieved the second record in arow which deserves to be considered among the very finest work the man has everdone. Singing songs by Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Joe Henry, Paul Simon and more is one thing; making the songs seem as if we're hearing them brand new is another. He's digging into the material with the hard-earned knowledge that we never know as much as we thought we did when we were young and simply bursting with skill. Since the skills are still there, that knowledge makes for perfect music. My favorite record of 2013.

Tim Lee 3 - Devil's Rope (Cool Dog Sound)

Tim Lee has been rocking on record and in small clubs for better than 30 years now. First in the Windbreakers, then as a solo artist, and now as the namesake of a group which also includes his wife of pretty much the same length of time, Susan, Lee has developed a rock 'n' roll style of equal parts exhilaration and exasperation. They achieve a beautiful balance between Tim's open-hearted bursts of ringing chords and stinging leads and Susan's throbbing bass and matter-of-fact vocals. Everytime I hear even one song from this record, I'm struck by how comfortably every aspect fits right in its pocket.

Willie Nile - American Ride (River House)

Willie Nile has released twice as many records in the last 10 years than he did in the first 25 years of his career, and he's done so without losing a single bit of the melodic grace, sly humor and ability to churn out gigantic, unforgettable choruses in pop/rock songs. He even covers Jim Carroll's seemingly uncoverable "People Who Died" and makes it as funny and poignant as the original, even though this time the singer doesn't know the actual people who died in the lyrics. But it's songs like the snapshot-heavy "Life on Bleecker Street," the anthemic and yearning "This Is Our Time," and the viciously hilarious "God Laughs" that prove once again Nile is one of the most underrated of all the rock 'n' roll geniuses who came out of New York in the late '70s.

Sun Sawed in 1/2 - Elephants Into Swans (Self-released)

Once they were a St. Louis band, but then the songwriter moved to Russia and the singer moved to Chicago, and they became an occasional studio band. Now the songwriter is back in America, at least, and he's put together some of the most gorgeous, richly melodic, intricately arranged, delightfully musical material of his career. The band is so highly skilled it's embarrassing, and you can't find many, or possibly not any, power-pop singers better than Doug Bobenhouse.

Richard Thompson - Electric (New West)

Richard Thompson will never let me down, but he hasn't picked me up this consistently in a longtime. I recommend the deluxe edition, which adds 7 songs to an already impeccable collection, including rocker "Will You Dance Charlie Boy" and my fave "Auldie Riggs." But it's the basic album that plays to Thompson's usual strengths of song construction, melody, guitar soloing and his skewed view of the world around him.

Villagers - {Awayland} (Domino)

These guys snuck up on me slowly, one song at a time. I hadn't really heard their previous album, with the exception of a song or two on KDHX. Inspired by a friend who claims Conor O'Brien to be practically a musical saint, I kept giving this one spins, and eventually I found that each incandescent track, each musically delicate choice, each invigorating turn of events was better than the one I'd heard before.

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