Sitting in chilly Chicago with the temperature dropping and the winds whistling, remembering fondly a rather busy year personally, filled with many magical musical moments, both recorded and live, I take the opportunity as I do every year to share some passing reflections on the records that caught my ear, moved my feet, and wormed their grooves into my soul. Although the musical missives were sparse this year, the listening and concert going habits of your writer were anything if minimal – 80 concerts to date. Given the less frequent “updates”, I will take this opportunity to catch up like a long-lost pen pal.
Every year the task of narrowing down the list to a couple of records or songs is challenging, especially when you consume music with a near insatiable zeal. Rather than limit myself to a small collection of recordings, I will share those albums, songs, and performances that left a lasting impression. This first installment isn’t a list of my favorite albums of 2013 but thirteen records that struck a particular chord, a passing evening or afternoon of pensiveness and glee, which I anticipate will persist. These are albums I hope don’t get lost in the shuffle so I wanted to share. (As always Spotify links are embedded.)
N.B. In all fairness, at least two of these records don’t really count as “under-the-radar” as they either sold quite well or received repeated play. and excuse all typos #worstselfeditor
The Storytellers – File under Neo-Folk
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle: I first encountered Laura Marling as part of Third Man records’ Blue Series, a collection of seven inches recorded with Jack White at his studio in Nashville. Marling’s voice is intoxicating, a smoky, peaty mixture of confessional and spellbinding folk timelessness. The arrangements have this anachronistic mix of traditional country with a 70s blues rock and, at times, old-word acoustic guitar. These recordings could appear easily appear on a Folkways compilation and you wouldn’t realize they were recorded in 2013; a theme which permeates throughout.
Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils: Earlier this year, a college friend of mine came to Chicago to play a show. He was playing with O’Donovan and, although I missed the show, I didn’t miss the opportunity to give her music a listen. I was rewarded with one of the sweetest and dreamiest new voices I’ve hear in a long time. What struck me from the outset was how her vocals and songwriting reminded me of one of my favorite Country-Folk singers, Alison Krauss. I later learned that Krauss recorded one of the songs O’Donovan wrote. For those that fell in love with the ladies featured on O Brother Were Art Thou, this record will be exactly the perfect antidote to a long day or year of toiling. If nothing else, listen to “Red & White & Blue & Gold”, a song that marries the romantic ideals of summer – love and frolicking.
Daughter – If You Leave: Last year, this trio put out a track that was a swift yet pleasing punch to the gut, “Landfill”. In 2013, they’ve followed with an album full of ruminations on the darker side of love and relationships cloaked in the expansive blanket of the band’s lush orchestration and the delicate beauty of Elena Tonra vocals. At times, you almost forget that Daughter is exploring the darker places our minds might go to during this rather turbulent human existence… “I’m sorry if i smothered you, sometimes I wish I’d stayed inside my mother never to come out.”
Let’s do the Time Warp Again – File under Retro
Shannon and the Clams – Dreams in the Rat House: If John Waters and David Lynch had produced The Ronnettes or The Crystals after listening to the Velvet Underground, I think they would have made this record. It’s all sort of lo-fi, surfer rock, dream-pop goodness.
Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities: For whatever reason, psychedelic rock has been on the rise for the past couple of years. Starting with MGMT’s Congratulations, a steady stream of bands that evoke the Zombies or Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd is spreading the gospel of kaleidoscope dreams. If I didn’t know any better I’d think Gardner’s Cabinet was a reprint from a long-lost 60s composer not the work of a 24-year old from the Netherlands.
The Constant – File under old-school Hip-Hop
Talib Kweli’s Prisoner of Conscious is a reminder that hip-hop need not be about status, product placement, or celebrity abasement. For more than a decade, Kweli has been producing great beats and rhymes focusing on the power and cleverness of his wordplay. I’ll forever pay heed after he co-wrote one of what I think is the greatest hip records ever, the first and only Black Star album.
The BodyShakers – File under R&B & Dance
Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety is R&B for the art rock, Prince loving crowd or those who believe that sensual music is about the well-calibrated mix of intimacy and ecstasy and a little release on the dance floor. Anxiety is at moments frivolous synth dance mixed with aggressive and engrossing lover’s drama.
The Weeknd’s Kissland: Few debuts totally engrossed me as Abel Tesfaye’s House of Balloons mixtape from 2011. It seemed to encapsulate the spirit and creativity of the downtempo neo-R&B revival of the past couple of years. It was at once wholly original, stream-of-consciousness confessional while tapping into a tradition of seduction through vulnerability. The first three Weeknd mixtapes were filled with allusions, coyishness, and playful production. In many ways, Kissland is a departure in the other direction, more traditional and well-crafted almost pop-R&B. Although the unpredictably has taken a backseat, this new material continues to impress with its ability to create an all-encompassing mood of chill.
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe: Dev Hynes might be my new favorite producer. In the past year, he worked on Solange’s “Losing You” and Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing”, two of the grooviest and lush R&B cuts of recent memory (and killer dance floor numbers). Cupid Deluxe continues Dev’s uncanny ability to breathe fresh life into the retro R&B movement with lush and layered production. In addition, it adds to his growing list of collaborations with some of the most mesmerizing voice of the indie and R&B world, in this case, Caroline Polachek of Charlift, with her ethereal, bone-chilling vocals on “Chamakay” – easily one of the finest duets of 2013.
Icona Pop –This is Icona Pop: There is no question that “I Love It” has been, in my estimation, the best dance song of 2012 and 2013 (it was released on an EP in the spring of 2012 and gained traction through Girls). Given how perfect a dance/pop song it is, I wondered if these Swedish ladies could capture this lightning for an entire record. I should learn that when it comes to pop music you should never doubt or bet against the Swedes; they’ve been doing it better than us since Abba. While they aren’t reinventing music or changing the world, they are bringing joy and exuberance to the dance floor in the way the dance heavies such as Daft Punk or Lady Gaga didn’t in 2013. Judged on its merits as a pop record filled with dance groves, this about as good as it gets. Sure it is mostly synthesizers and computers, but it is all mirth and dreams of eternal youth and hopeful romantics. Songs like “Girlfriend” and “We Got the World” are perfectly paced and built for the devil-may-care joyousness that should fill the dance floor and should bring a smirk to even the most dour and sour of faces.
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu: From Sweden to Syria, this global dance party continues. Omar Souleyman’s popularity has grown over the years thanks to interest of indie-rock and electronic artists who have been enamored by his traditional Middle Eastern music that sounds timeless and spellbinding. If any of the records on this list will take you to another land and headspace, Souleyman’s Wenu Wenu is the album most likely to and will, hopefully, inspire the exploration of other strains of Arabic and Middle Eastern music.
The Whimsical – File under Instrumental/Experimental/Indie
Juliana Barwick’s Nepenthe is a gorgeous extended reverie filled with undulating layers of contemplation and melodic beauty. While predominantly instrumental in nature, Barwick adds her angelic vocals to give this zen-like meditation music an epic film score quality.
The Earnest – file under Emo
Into It. Over It. – Intersections: To me, this record is a love letter to the city I’ve come to call home. From the opening lines recalling the transition from 20-something frivolity and foolishness to 30-something practicality and rootedness, Intersections feels like the narrative of coming-of-age as an idealistic, hopeful, heart-on-sleeve, young person at the start of the millennium. It is at once celebratory, nostalgic, and regretful, the culmination of “Spatial Exploartion” says it best: Where are our teens and how were your twenties, where are the forties that hide behind thirty, where is the old soul and what is this new person you’ve become? Evan Weiss captures the internal monologue of a certain subset of boys and girls with wandering minds and over-served hearts. Serious all too serious. But, we wouldn’t want it any other way. Raise your skinny wrist to air!Albums of 2013 Part the First. Partial Stop. More to come…