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.

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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

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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
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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
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Bill Callahan at Alhambra Palace

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Bill Callahan returned to Chicago on Monday for his second concert of the year in this city. Both of his 2013 Chicago concerts, presented by Land and Sea Dept., have been at unconventional venues. In May, he performed at Garfield Park Conservatory. This time, he played at Alhambra Palace, a cavernous Middle Eastern restaurant on Randolph Street with ornate decor, including lush red curtains. The stage is flanked by a couple of Lamassu.

There’s little, if anything, Middle Eastern about Callahan’s music, and the grandiose surroundings created a strange contrast with Callahan’s laconic personality. And yet, even though Callahan’s songs can seem modest and simple on first listen, they’re often miniature epics — and ornate in their own peculiar way.

The last time Callahan was in Chicago, he didn’t play any new songs, despite the fact that he was on the verge of releasing a new album, Dream River, the follow-up to his 2011 masterpiece Apocalypse. It’s another beautiful and compellingly odd collection of songs from Callahan; as the title indicates, there’s a drifting, dreamlike atmosphere this time. (The new record has prompted some great press coverage, including this feature story by Spin.)

Callahan played every song from the new album during his Alhambra Palace show. The live arrangements didn’t include any of that jazzy flute from the studio versions. The emphasis shifted more toward Matt Kinsey’s guitar riffs, fills and solos. (The band also included bassist Jamie Zuverza and drummer Adam Jones as well as Kinsey, a member of the Austin roots-rock band Lil’ Cap’n Travis.) As he did on Callahan’s Apocalypse songs, Kinsey plays an invaluable role fleshing out this music. Kinsey’s ever-changing guitar melodies engage in a duet with Callahan’s vocals. There was nothing flashy — no rock-star drama — about the way Kinsey sat in his chair on Monday night, but if you played close attention to the way he was bending those strings, you could see and hear just what a remarkable performance it was.

Callahan isn’t flashy, either. As you can see from my photographs, he sings close to the microphone, rarely opening his mouth very wide. He raises his eyebrows with a quizzical look, squeezes his eyes shut with a flash of emotion, or turns his mouth down in a somewhat comical expression.

Callahan didn’t speak a whole lot in between songs, other than a few gracious comments, thanking the audience of listening. When someone in the crowd shouted out, “That song kicks ass!” (after he played “Seagull,” from the new album), Callahan replied: “There’s a merchandise table out there somewhere. If you want your ass kicked.”

SET LIST: The Sing / Javelin Unlanding / Spring / One Fine Morning / Too Many Birds / Ride My Arrow / Seagull / Drover / Summer Painter / Please Send Someone to Love Me (Percy Mayfield cover) / America / Winter Road / Small Plane

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The opening act was Circuit Des Yeux, aka singer-songwriter Haley Fohr, whose set built from droning folk songs to ear-shattering primal screams.

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