Best of 2013: National Music

Songwriters, rockers and precocious poppers among year's best music

Last week, we took a deep dive into what Memphis music meant in 2013. This week, we skim the surface of the national music scene to highlight some of our favorite albums of the past year.

Bob Mehr:

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1. Dream River — Bill Callahan (Drag City): Though a totally inscrutable human being and nightmare for a feature writer to try get close to, singer-songwriter Bill Callahan is a remarkable musician. Few artists have ever made a quantum creative leap midcareer as Callahan has since ditching the Smog moniker several years back and releasing a string of classic albums, including Woke On a Whaleheart and Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. That purple patch continues on this meditative late-night platter, which might be his best.

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2. Walkin’ On a Pretty Daze — Kurt Vile (Matador): Fifth album brilliance from this Philly indie singer-songwriter. The material is more developed (and the songs longer) than the pretty pop of his previous albums. But Vile manages to make his explorations feel vital and true across 11 tracks (a deluxe version of Daze, with a bonus EP of songs from the sessions, is worth seeking out).

3. There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966 — 1971 — Various Artists (Light in the Attic): Having been fortunate enough to interview the late Lee Hazlewood several times, he was always a confident and comic raconteur. His mood only ever darkened when discussing what he perceived as one of the few failures of an otherwise successful career, his LHI record label. He would’ve been pleased, then, to see this remarkable box released by Light in the Attic. It’s a massive five CD/DVD anthology — with accompanying 172-page hard-bound book — that makes a convincing case that LHI was a triumph after all.

4. Knitting By Candlelight — Alex Chilton (Bar None): A previously unreleased audience tape of a 1997 concert at New York City’s Knitting Factory that was affected by a power outage and finds Chilton taking up an acoustic guitar and playing an intimate campfire-style set of covers and curios. This record has an abundance of everything I love about the latter part of his career: the louche manner, the deceptively brilliant guitar playing, and, most of all, some peerless interpretive singing. While the recording itself isn’t perfect, the performance it captures is.

5. Excitement at Your Feet — Tommy Keene (Second Motion): Covers albums are always dicey propositions. It takes the right combination of taste and imagination to pull them off properly, and pop veteran Tommy Keene evinces both on this set, recorded partly at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Known for interpretations of obscure or cutting edge material on his own albums over the years, Keene puts together perfect blend of songs, as he tackles the baroque explorations of the Bee Gees, locates the triumphant jangle of Guided by Voices’ lo-fi numbers, and recaptures the exuberance of the early Who.

Honorable Mention: Sleeper — Ty Segall (Drag City); More Light — Primal Scream (First International); My Name is My Name — Pusha T (Def Jam); Victim of Love — Charles Bradley (Daptone Records); “Only God Forgives” soundtrack — Cliff Martinez (Milan Records)

Chris Herrington:

1. Modern Vampires of the City — Vampire Weekend (XL): This lazily caricatured band’s adventurous musicality and unapologetic braininess suggests Steely Dan, Talking Heads and Pavement, but they’re more generous, more open and more grounded than those groups could ever be. Their debut richly evoked collegiate life. The follow-up left campus to confront the world. This third and so-far best album is a hard but good-humored confrontation with adulthood, laced with an agnosticism that’s deeply considered and never strident.

2. Country’s Female Vanguard: Brainless beefcakes mostly dominated the country charts, but 2013 was when the Daughters (OK, maybe Sisters) of Miranda Lambert completed an artistic revolution. Kasey Musgraves’ fetching debut, Same Trailer, Different Park (Mercury Nashville), blended the Texas singer-songwriter tradition with modern pop-country for a major breakthrough. Even better was Lambert’s Pistol Annies bandmate Ashley Monroe, who re-emerged from a premature industry death with Like a Rose (Warner Bros.), the best trad-country album on a Nashville major in years. Best of all was Brandy Clark, who, with Musgraves, co-wrote Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” the year’s most sophisticated country hit. Clark’s own debut, 12 Stories (Smith Entertainment), showcases a dozen impeccable, perceptive, down-to-earth songs that are a little bit Rosanne Cash and a little bit Tom T. Hall. Collectively, these women were the best thing to happen to pop music in 2013.

3. Southeastern — Jason Isbell (Relativity): Isbell has been a major songwriter since debuting as a Drive-By Trucker a decade ago, but sobriety and marriage prove dual inspirations on this redemptive, lovestruck career album. Gravity and sly humor coexist from the opening “Cover Me Up” on. Suicide and cancer haunt the margins, the latter on the breathtaking “Elephant.” At the end, Isbell squeezes his new love tight and strikes a concluding note of gratitude and humility. A tour de force.

4. Jama Ko — Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (Out Here): The title, which is also the lead track and single, translates to “a great meeting of people,” which from this Malian musician is a call for unity and assertion of multiculturalism in the face of encroaching Islamic fundamentalism. “If the Islamists stop people making music they will rip the heart out of Mali,” Bassekou says in the liner notes. But even if you bypass back story, the communal urgency here is unmistakable, as Bassekou and a battery of family and friends take the traditional lute instrument the ngoni — a banjo precursor — electric, transmuting folk into pop.

5. Run Fast — The Julie Ruin (Dischord): Riot Grrl instigator Kathleen Hanna’s first album in nearly a decade finds her fronting a pop-wise party band. She’s fierce, exuberant, and in the moment — until the righteous coming-of-age title anthem glances back at the time when Hanna and her cohort “took over the stage and took our fair share.”

Honorable Mention: Light Up Gold — Parquet Courts (What’s Your Rupture); Run the Jewels — Killer Mike & El-P (Fat Beats); Pure Heroine — Lorde (Virgin EMI); Yeezus — Kanye West (Def Jam); My Name Is My Name — Pusha T (Def Jam)

Mark Jordan:

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1. Tape Deck Heart — Frank Turner (Polydor/Extra Mile): On their fifth album, British singer-songwriter Frank Turner and his band aspired to a “big, warm expansive rock sound.” They achieved that and lots of more on this record which belies Turner’s searching, often pained rapid-fire lyrics with bouncy folk-rock rhythms and irresistible melodies.

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2. Jake Bugg — Jake Bugg (Mercury): What were you doing when you were 19? Yeah, me neither. Making underachievers everywhere feel inadequate, 19-year-old Jake Bugg exploded on the British scene last year (Memphian Valerie June subsequently became a frequent tour mate) with this audacious folk-rock debut that is equal parts Dylan, Oasis, and Ryan Adams. Released here in April, American audiences will get to experience the confident newcomer in person on an upcoming tour that comes to Minglewood Hall next month.

3. Pure Heroine — Lorde (Virgin EMI): The other precocious talent on this list, New Zealander Lorde was just 16 when her synth-pop triumph “Royals” topped the American alternative music chart this summer, making her the first female artist to do so since the year she was born. With lilting melodies and sparse, evocative beats surrounding an insightful portrait of teen life, Pure Heroine is a shocking debut whose only most glaring accomplishment is the earworm “Royals.”

4. The Electric Lady — Janelle Monae (Bad Boy/Wondaland): Coming three years after her debut full-length, The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monae’s aptly titled second album confirms her reputation as perhaps the most startlingly original voice in R&B since Prince. Comprised of the fourth and fifth parts of her projected seven-part “Metropolis” concept series, the record is an ambitious grab bag of ideas and sounds.

5. Victim of Love — Charles Bradley (Daptone/Dunham): If Monae is the future of R&B, Charles Bradley is its past, vital and never bested. Like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Memphis’ Bo-Keys, the 65-year-old is a disciple of the Stax/James Brown school of soul, where feel and conviction are just as important as hooks and production. Fortunately, on his second solo record, he has both in abundance.

Honorable Mention: Southeastern — Jason Isbell (Relativity); Days Are Gone — Haim (Columbia); The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You — Neko Case (Anti-); ... Like Clockwork — Queens of the Stone Age (Matador); Let’s Be Still — The Head & the Heart (Sub Pop).

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