Favorite concerts of 2013

These are my favorite musical performances of the past year, out of the 104 concerts I attended. (I’m counting each day of a festival as one “concert,” with a total of 323 or so sets. Maybe 20 of those are fragments of sets that I caught while dashing around taking photos at festivals.)

Jeff Tweedy and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert
Jeff Tweedy and Tommy Stinson, during the June 21 Wilco concert

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2. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, April 1 at the Chicago Theatre

3. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Dec. 13 at the Majestic Theatre, Madison, Wis.

4. The Replacements, Sept. 15 at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park

5. Bill Callahan, May 6 at the Garfield Park Conservatory

6. Fatoumata Diawara, July 13 at Square Roots Fest

7. Laura Marling, May 23 at the Athenaeum

8. Neutral Milk Hotel, Oct. 15 at the Canopy Club, Urbana

9. Superchunk, Sept. 7 at the Hideout Block Party

10. Jason Molina tribute concert, May 11 at the Bluebird Nightclub in Bloomington, Ind.

Honorable mentions:

The Handsome Family, July 22 at the Pritzker Pavilion
The Rolling Stones, May 28 at United Center
Will Johnson, Nov. 11 house concert in Humboldt Park
Girl Group Chicago, Sept. 7 at Hideout Block Party
Low, March 7 at Saki
Charles Bradley, Aug. 3 at Lollapalooza
Scott Lucas & the Married Men, March 9 at the Hideout
Nick Lowe, Oct. 2 at Evanston SPACE
Twin Peaks, March 9 at the Hideout
Shoes and Green, May 4 at FitzGerald’s
Lee Ranaldo Band, May 27 at the Pritzker Pavilion
Jason Isbell, June 8 at North Center Ribfest
The Bats, June 9 at Schubas
Robbie Fulks, Sept. 5 at Lauries Planet of Sound
Mavis Staples, Sept. 6 at Hideout Block Party
Pere Ubu, Sept. 21 at the Empty Bottle
My Bloody Valentine, Nov. 3 at the Aragon
Bill Callahan, Oct. 14 at Alhambra Palace
Savages, July 20 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
Björk, July 19 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
Mavis Staples, Sept. 6 at the Hideout Block Party
Belle & Sebastian, July 20 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
Treasure Fleet, July 28 at Wicker Park Fest
Jack DeJohnette, Aug. 29 at the Pritzker Pavilion (Chicago Jazz Festival)
Billy Bragg, Sept. 27 at Evanston SPACE
Diarrhea Planet, Nov. 16 at the Beat Kitchen
The National, Aug. 3 at Lollapalooza
Laura Veirs, Sept. 25 at Schubas

Favorite records of 2013

These are my favorite records of 2013, the ones I enjoyed the most. Betraying my personal tastes, the list is dominated by alt-country and artists working somewhere around that genre’s vague boundaries. Simply put, a lot of my favorite artists came out with new records in 2013, and a lot of those records were very good. My honorable mentions include quite a few records I wish I could have squeezed into my top 10 — and I wish there’d been enough time to listen more closely to hundreds more.

01nickcave

1. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
PUSH THE SKY AWAY

This is the quietest Nick Cave has made in a while, but it’s hardly mellow. In this tense and brooding suite of songs, Cave seems to be drifting in and out of dreams and unsettling nightmares, a world-weary traveler whose memories are slipping away. The fleeting images in his phantasmagoria flash with menace and yearning, climaxing in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues.” nickcave.com

02nekocase

2. NEKO CASE
THE WORSE THINGS GET, THE HARDER I FIGHT,
THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE MORE I LOVE YOU

The latest in a succession of masterpieces by one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of the past decade and a half. Neko Case has said she drew more on her personal life for her lyrics this time, but the evocative poetry of her songs has always been a bit mysterious, and it remains so. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, too, surrounded here by an alluring variety of musical textures, including sonar blips, jingle bells, trumpets and cellos. Case seems to be creating her own genre, even as her innovative songs echo with the radio signal of classic tunes of the 20th century. nekocase.com
03robbiefulks

3. ROBBIE FULKS
GONE AWAY BACKWARD

Many of the smart songs on this intimate, acoustic record could have been written in the 1930s, or maybe even the 19th century. With a couple of exceptions, they’re actually new, but this is music with a true old-timey spirit. Renaissance man Robbie Fulks pulls it off with apparent ease, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of classic and obscure country, folk and bluegrass. He knows the old stuff, and how to make it new again. robbiefulks.com
04billcallahan

4. BILL CALLAHAN
DREAM RIVER

As the title hints, this album feels like a nocturnal journey that flows with the logic of a dream. (In that way, it has a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Nick Cave record, though the two artists have distinct styles and personalities.) There’s a loose, jazzy vibe, punctuated at almost every turn by a singular guitar fill from Bill Callahan’s remarkable sideman Matt Kinsey. It all reaches shimmering perfection on my favorite song of 2013, “Summer Painter,” which finds Callahan musing on the meaning of work, as he sings about a summer job painting rich people’s boats. Then the story takes a turn toward the apocalyptic, when a hurricane hits and people blame the narrator: “Like all that time spent down by the water/had somehow given me control over the rain.” As peculiar as Callahan’s dreams may be, after a while, they start to seem like your own. dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan

05mikalcronin

5. MIKAL CRONIN
MCII

Like other records of the recent garage-rock explosion, Mikal Cronin’s second album is bursting with exuberance and energy. But it’s also carefully crafted, with a string section adding a touch of grandeur to all of its heartily strummed guitars and pounding drums. The spirit of late ’60s music is alive and well here. One song after another has the sort of melody that makes you want to sing along, thanks in no small part to the vulnerability in Cronin’s voice.  mikalcronin.bandcamp.com

06mccarthrybonnie

6. DAWN McCARTHY & BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
WHAT THE BROTHERS SANG

Dawn McCarthy has sung haunting harmonies on previous records by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka singer-songwriter Will Oldham. On this tribute to the Everly Brothers, they get equal billing. That’s apt, since the combination of these two voices was one of the year’s delights. The album doesn’t include Don and Phil Everly’s biggest hits, but the song list reminds us just how noteworthy that duo was. In the elegant folk-rock renditions on this record, what the brothers sang sounds beautiful and brand new. dragcity.com/artists/dawn-mccarthy-and-bonny-billy

07davidbowie

7. DAVID BOWIE
THE NEXT DAY

David Bowie’s new album seemed to come out of nowhere. And it sounds like it came from another time and place — maybe the 1980s, maybe somewhere on Planet Bowie. This artist who’s legendary for his innovations and constantly shifting persona isn’t necessarily trying to invent anything new this time around, but it’s a batch of excellent songs. The dense rock-band-orchestra arrangements deliver one great hook after another with some wallop, but more than anything, it’s terrific to hear Bowie singing again, sounding like classic Bowie. davidbowie.com

08jasonisbell

8. JASON ISBELL
SOUTHEASTERN

The former Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist finally came into his own with this masterful album, striking a chord with memorable turns of phrase and the rueful wisdom of a man who’s made mistakes and learned from them. jasonisbell.com

09mavisstaples

9. MAVIS STAPLES
ONE TRUE VINE

Producer Jeff Tweedy’s clean, simple arrangements bring a warm glow to Mavis Staples’ glorious voice in this stirring set of gospel, soul and folk rock. The first song and the last are modern hymns (one written by Low, another by Tweedy), gracefully restrained prayers to the world. mavisstaples.com

10dollyvarden

10. DOLLY VARDEN
FOR A WHILE

A family album in musical form, with Steve Dawson’s memories filling each page like tantalizing old snapshots. This is the sound of a songwriter and a band at midlife, contemplating their past, present and future, and transforming it into beguiling ballads. dollyvarden.com

 HONORABLE MENTIONS

Molly Drake — Molly Drake
Yo La Tengo — Fade
Kelley Stoltz — Double Exposure
Veronica Falls — Waiting for Something to Happen
Laura Mvula — Sing to the Moon
Richard Thompson — Electric
Heavy Times — Fix It Alone
Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
Low — The Invisible Way
Laura Marling — Once I Was an Eagle
Charles Bradley — Victim of Love
Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
Rose Windows — The Sun Dogs
Twin Peaks — Sunken
I Was A King — You Love It Here
Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
The Sadies — Internal Sounds
David Lang — Death Speaks
Laura Veirs — Warp and Weft
Superchunk — I Hate Music
The Cairo Gang — Tiny Rebels
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood — Black Pudding
Cave — Threace
Patty Griffin — American Kid
My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The Handsome Family — Wilderness
The Liminanas — Costa Blanca
The National — Trouble Will Find Me
Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Chelsea Wolfe — Pain Is Beauty
Disappears — Era
Midlake — Antiphon
Thee Oh Sees — Floating Coffin
Various Artists — Good God! Apocryphal Hymns
Pelican — Forever Becoming
Rokia Traoré — Beautiful Africa
Black Bug — Reflecting the Light
Kronos Quartet/Bryce Dessner — Aheym
Phosphorescent — Muchacho
Shocked Minds — Shocked Minds
Ensemble Signal — Shelter
Alvin Lucier/Janacek Philarmonic Orchestra — Orchestral Works
Cass McCombs — Big Wheel and Others
Dobrinka Tabakova — String Paths
Frank Rosaly — Cicada Music
Savages — Silence Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Kurt Vile — Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Nadia Sirota — Baroque
Jacco Gardner — Cabinet of Curiosities
Foxygen — We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Guided By Voices — English Little League
Mind Spiders — Inhumanistic
Ty Segall — Sleeper
Dumpster Babies — Dumpster Babies
Faun Fables — A Table Forgotten