Sofahead, Pre-Marital Predicament (Boss Tuneage, 2006).
Top Ten Musical Things of the Year (2013)
1. WBGO. Throughout my music-listening life, I’ve always liked jazz, but was never a huge jazz fan. I was content with a handful of favorite albums and artists, and would maybe pick up a few new albums every year, far fewer than rock, metal, or other kinds of albums. But this year I went on some kind of jazz kick and found myself listening to WBGO, “the jazz source,” a public radio station based in Newark, NJ. WBGO has been there through my entire life and was where I’d turn for a good variety of jazz, new and old, plus some blues, soul music, etc. This year I spent more hours listening to WBGO than every other year of my life combined. I’m not sure why. But in a time when automated, online streaming “radio” stations are proliferating, it seems especially important to support real public institutions like WBGO. I became a supporting member this year, too, and if you like jazz and public radio, I recommend you check out WBGO and consider lending your support.
2. Season of Changes, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. Brian Blade is a fantastic drummer and bandleader, and the music here is fluid and lyrical, swelling and diminishing like the tides of the ocean. My favorite part of their sound, along with Blade’s drumming, is Kurt Rosenwinkel’s guitar: rock solos channeled through a jazz sensibility (or maybe it’s vice versa).
4. Live From Austin, TX, Richard Thompson. I found myself listening to a lot of Richard Thompson this year, especially from the 1990s through today, so I’ll let this one stand in for several of his albums. It’s amazing to hear Thompson as part of a trio—it really gives you a sense of what a great performer and guitarist he is.
5. Old Yellow Moon, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. The Big Popular Americana album of the year, which I really liked. I saw them perform earlier this year, playing songs from the album plus many older ones. Sometimes you see a band that just seems so in control of the material, so professional (in a good way)—this was one of those bands.
6. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson. I like to include at least one music-related book on here, and this one surprised me. It’s part of the 33 and 1/3 series of short books devoted to a single album. Here, Canadian music critic Carl Wilson wrestles with the question of why so many people love Celine Dion—and conversely, why he despises her music so much. It’s a fascinating book that ends up dealing with issues of class, taste, national identity, the mass production of pop music, Quebecois history and political struggle, and more. I learned a lot.
7. Bruce Cockburn live in Princeton, NJ. I also like to include at least one show—this year I didn’t make it to too many shows, but I have to mention this, Bruce Cockburn playing solo in a small theater in Princeton. I sat in the front row. I’ve seen him a handful of times before and every show is great. He’s a treasure.
8. The Last Ship, Sting. Say what you will about Sting, but it’s hard to deny that the guy is a tremendous pop songwriter and vocalist. Sometimes, at his worst, Sting can be pretty cheesy and self-indulgent—usually these are his upbeat, too-clever songs, or schmaltzy romantic songs. But his best songs are dark and brooding, or feel like intelligent jazz-standards (which, in pop music history, is really the tradition to which Sting belongs). The Last Ship is among his best work, musically, but also lyrically—here he revisits some of the themes of The Soul Cages (another dark, great album), drawing on his working-class upbringing in a shipbuilding town in northern England, and his relationship with his father. It’s no coincidence that this album covers some of the same territory that Sting’s buddy Mark Knopfler often covers, and that it sounds more like a Knopfler album at times, and is the best he’s released in a while.
9. Whoracle, In Flames. Here’s an album from my past that, for no reason I can figure out, re-emerged in a big way this year. I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. Personally, I think it’s one of their three best albums—Colony and Clayman being the other two—after they found a nice melodic/death balance and before they started to force 80s new wave into the mix. (And before their sound [of which they were only one pioneering band, probably not even the most influential] was copied by a billion other bands and sucked into the entire metalcore subgenre.)
10. The Secret to a Happy Ending (a film about the Drive-By Truckers). Finally saw this documentary about the band this year, and while I enjoyed it, and I got the feeling that you needed to be a fan to really like it. Or for that matter, even get what was going on, sometimes. It’s well done and has a lot of fascinating background, interviews, and concert footage. Worth watching for anyone who likes DBT.