Alternative Top 40
2013 Round up
By Bliss Bowen 01/02/2014
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: A career milestone that raised the bar for literate, melodic songwriting with ballads like “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant,” which found a devastating new angle from which to contemplate love, death and survival.
John Legend, Love in the Future: The R&B balladeer offered adult romance without cloying sentiment, his velvety tenor holding steady alongside his elegant keyboard playing. Kanye West and Q-Tip, among others, provided au courant production, but start to finish this was Legend’s shining moment.
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories: A hit songwriter for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Clark stepped centerstage and more than held her own thanks to her relatable country storytelling and sly, 21st-century wit.
Rhye, Woman: Electronic duo Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal cast a seductive spell with subtle grooves and Milosh’s Sade-meets-Tracey Thorn vocals. This understated soul platter was one of 2013’s tastiest surprises.
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone: With a distinctive warble that evoked Billie Holiday and Appalachian folk, the peripatetic June melded blues, gospel, jazz and soul without diluting them — or ceding her identity to co-producer Dan Auerbach.
Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild: The jazz chanteuse’s warm, honeyed tones, discerning choices in material and original delivery elicited comparisons to giants (Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn). There’s a new diva in town.
Lucius, Wildewoman: The Brooklyn duo cut the bubblegum sweetness of their ’60s girl group-style harmonies with vinegary lyrics and edgy production, for one of the year’s most engaging pop sets.
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, The Jazz Age: The ever-inventive Roxy Music maestro shook out back-catalogue gems, and his orchestra revived them like they were Louis Armstrong’s house band at an F. Scott Fitzgerald bacchanal.
The Garifuna Collective, Ayó: Rebounding from frontman Andy Palacio’s 2008 death, the Central American ensemble celebrated their Afro-Amerindian heritage with a harmony-laced set rich in gospel-y uplift.
Tedeschi Trucks Band, Made Up Mind: A groove-greased triumph of road-weathered musicianship. Susan Tedeschi remained one of the gutsiest vocalists working, Derek Trucks’ fretwork smoked, and their 11-piece band rocked it.
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City: Leaner production and lyrical preoccupation with mortality yielded the Manhattan rockers’ most cohesive, tunefully accessible album to date.
Beyoncé, Beyoncé: The pop diva managed to be more personal while holding up a pop culture mirror with this ultra-produced “visual album.” Kudos for dispensing with the usual pre-release PR blitz, instead dropping this like a stealth bomb and letting it stand on its own merits.
The James Hunter Six, Minute By Minute: The raspy British soul singer and his ass-kicking sextet so deeply embraced late 1950s/early ’60s R&B they sounded hip. Didn’t hurt that Daptone’s Gabriel Roth produced.
Patty Griffin, American Kid: Inspired substantially by her father’s death, “American Kid” elevated Griffin as a songwriter of rare grace. Her stature was reaffirmed by the subsequent release of “Silver Bell,” 13 years after A&M inexplicably shelved it.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It!: With My Morning Jacket’s Jim James co-producing, the venerable New Orleans ensemble trotted out their first all-original album — proving there’s still plenty of swinging life in the Big Easy.
The Mavericks, In Time: Old-school swoon factor (aka frontman Raul Malo’s robust tenor) and sheer musicality made the pigeonhole-resistant band’s reunion cause for jubilation.
Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose: The part-time Pistol Annie’s spring-clear soprano testified to the allure of weed, whips and Dolly & Porter on this cleverly written trad-country winner. Not your grandma’s country … but she’d get it.
Jimmer Podrasky, The Would-Be Plans: The notorious, gifted ex-Rave-Ups frontman’s first solo album poetically located joy and humor amidst loss.
Vieux Farka Touré, Mon Pays: The Malian superstar turned down the guitar pyrotechnics for this beautifully melancholy paean to his troubled homeland.
La Santa Cecilia, Treinta Dias: The eclectic LA foursome’s first major-label release showcased their trademark eclecticism as blues, gospel and soul rippled through their cumbia-rumba-rock mix.
Walter Trout & His Band, Luther’s Blues: A Tribute to Luther Allison: The OC blues-rocker’s searing vocals and leads evoked late guitar great Allison’s passion throughout this viscerally satisfying, testosterone-powered blues blast.
Boz Scaggs, Memphis: The veteran soul crooner showed how it’s done with this vibey gem, recording nuggets from the tune bags of Willy DeVille, Jimmy Reed, Steely Dan and Tony Joe White — in just three days.
Anoushka Shankar, Traces of You: An elegant, flamenco- and raga-fused tribute to her late father, sitar legend Ravi Shankar, made all the more moving by half-sister Norah Jones’ dusky guest turns.
Brian Wright, Rattle Their Chains: Recording with sympatico LA bandmates before he relocated to Nashville, the former Angeleno earned just comparisons to Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt. LA’s loss is Music City’s enviable gain.
Sturgill Simpson, High Top Mountain: There was more than a hint of Waylon Jennings’ earthy masculinity and irreverence in this former railroad jobber’s flint-etched, stone country keeper. Hallelujah.
Goldfrapp, Tales of Us: The electronic duo’s haunting, noir-ish set wasn’t quite like anything else in their oeuvre, or anyone else’s.
Holly Williams, The Highway: Family pedigree (Dad’s Hank Jr.) may have schooled her in country tropes, but Williams’ acoustic-textured set was modern and original.
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars: The Grammy-winning Americana duo made beautiful, poignant music despite no longer speaking to one another.
Queens of the Stone Age, … Like Clockwork: Heavy vibe, walls of guitar-driven sound, quizzical lyrics — head-nodding rock like no one makes anymore.
The Wood Brothers, The Muse: This Buddy Miller-produced platter was a playful sleeper, a celebration of Americana intimately versed in the rock and the roll.
Concha Buika, La Noche Más Larga
North Mississippi Allstars, World Boogie is Coming
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Kail Baxley, Heatstroke/The Wind and the War
Haim, Days Are Gone
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up!
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
William Tyler, Impossible Truth
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park