Mikal Cronin’s second album, MCII, was one of 2013’s best albums — and his latest, MCIII, is shaping up to be one of my favorites this year. He played Saturday, June 20, at Subterranean, and Sunday, June 21, at Green Music Fest in Wicker Park, and I could both of these outstanding shows. Cronin’s something of a one-man orchestra and recording genius in the studio, and artists like that sometimes have difficulty translating their recordings into a satisfying live act, but Cronin isn’t having any trouble with that. His terrific tunes come across with just as much vulnerability in the vocals, but with an even more urgent force, thanks to his great live band.
The highly talented Chicago guitarist-singer Emmett Kelly, who fronts his own group, the Cairo Gang, played a key role in Cronin’s band, singing harmony vocals and doubling the guitar sound. When the song “Gold” reached its crescendo and all of the instruments stopped, it was Kelly who played that Middle Eastern-sounding solo, followed by Cronin adding on another guitar line — a moment of beautiful intensity that gave me goosebumps.
But really, these shows were all about Cronin, who sang with clarity and leaned into his guitar solos with a sense of purpose.
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.
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
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
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
4. BILL CALLAHAN
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
5. MIKAL CRONIN
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
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
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
8. JASON ISBELL
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
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
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
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
See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3. I’ve included photos in this blog post.
For a long while now, Pitchfork has been about a lot more than indie rock. The Pitchfork website and the Pitchfork Music Festival both have a history of mixing obscure, strange and intellectual music with unabashedly mainstream pop. This past weekend, the festival put an exclamation point on that attitude by booking controversial R&B superstar R. Kelly as one of three headliners. The other two were more typical examples of the sort of music originally associated years ago with Pitchfork: Björk and Belle & Sebastian.
In theory, I like this idea of mashing Top 40 artists and DIY bands together into one musical amusement park. It pushes fans out of their comfort zones, helping them to discover artists they’ve previously ignored because of a bias toward particular genres. I’m one of those music fans who needs some pushing. Call me an indie snob … a guitar-centric elitist … a rockist. I’ve been ignoring the vast majority of mainstream music for the past few decades. The reason is simple. To my ears, most of it sounds overproduced, unimaginative and uninteresting. I realize that the sonic style of this stuff — the way this music tends to be performed and packaged — probably leads me to overlook some creative and well-crafted songs. But it feels like a chore to sift through it all to find whatever gems might be hidden in there.
So … R. Kelly? Sorry. I’ve barely even listened to the guy. What I have heard didn’t make me want to continue listening. The controversy over the disturbing criminal charges he once faced — and was acquitted of — doesn’t make me especially eager to dig any deeper into his music, either. This weekend, I was taking photos for The A.V. Club. After being allowed to take pictures from the photographers pit during R. Kelly’s first song on Sunday night, I had fulfilled my duty. And I needed to get home to edit a day’s worth of photos. So I left Union Park at that point, missing most of R. Kelly’s set. I’ll leave it up to other writers to say whether his performance was what R. Kelly fans wanted to get out of the experience. Judging from most of the comments I’ve seen, his fans rated the concert as a smashing success. From what I did hear, I doubt that R. Kelly would have made a new fan out of me.
I did stay for Björk on Friday night. There was never any doubt about that. And I stayed for every minute of Belle & Sebastian. Both of these iconic artists delivered terrific performances — the only problem being the weather alert about an approaching storm that forced Björk to end her concert prematurely, cutting a few songs off her set list. Certainly, Björk’s more recent compositions aren’t as catchy as the earlier songs, but even the less memorable tunes came off as intriguing, complex creations as she performed Friday, wearing a sparkly set of spikes on her head. The set’s emotional climax was the moment when Björk sang “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him…” in “Pagan Poetry,” tilting her head skyward, while her choir of female harmony singers responded, “She loves him, she loves him…” And then, shortly after Björk conjured some bottled lightning with a Tesla coil, actual lightning sparked in the dark clouds overhead.
Nothing so dramatic occurred during Belle & Sebastian’s set the following night. It was, quite simply, a fun time — a lively concert packed with so many fabulous songs that it was hard to imagine how anyone could come away from it without being a Belle & Sebastian fan.
The three-day festival had plenty of other highlights for me. Woods jammed with a more Byrdsy vibe than ever. Swans droned and declaimed with frightening intensity. Savages made good on their hype. Wire started off a bit slow but finished with a strong buzz. Yo La Tengo played loud, and then quiet — so damn quiet that you had to listen — and then loud again.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead dug into its songs with fierce power. Foxygen’s flailing lead singer, Sam France, climbed halfway up the red stage’s metal support column and jumped down, as the band fell into a delightfully shambolic groove. Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck’s voice keened with longing. Julia Holter’s music floated as she stood as still as a statue. And Waxahatchee’s songs blossomed from bedroom folk into slacker rock.
Alas, I wasn’t able to stay for whole sets by Mikal Cronin, Angel Olsen, Low and Metz, but they all sounded great for the few songs of each that I did catch. (I wasn’t there when Low closed its set with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” transforming a mainstream pop song into, well, a Low song.) And I wish I’d seen more of Parquet Courts to figure out what all the fuss is about.
What else happened over the weekend? Pissed Jeans cavorted with glee. Daughn Gibson intoned with brash confidence. Trash Talk praised old people for “having us all and shit.” The Breeders fumbled. Mac DeMarco stuck out his tongue. Joanna Newsom plucked her harp and warbled, the subtleties of her songs getting a bit lost in the park.
I went into this Pitchfork fest with a bias toward old-fashioned, guitar-based indie rock, and I came out of the weekend with my bias intact. Still a rockist, but trying to be open-minded. Toro Y Moi’s frothy pop did nothing for me. M.I.A. put on an impressive and energetic show, but her music quickly wore me down, as it has in the past. I still have no idea what Lil B is all about, other than the fact that he has some really enthusiastic fans. Solange, Beyonce’s sweetly smiling sister, seemed to charm much of the audience. Hearing her music for the first time, it struck me as unremarkable. Maybe just not my cup of tea.
And so, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica writes that the Pitchfork fest’s second half “served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop,” I have to wonder: What was I missing? I much preferred the weekend’s indie rock, which included, according to Caramanica, “bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness.”
Killer Mike won me over, though. Of all the hip-hop artists I watched at Pitchfork, he was the one who had the most to say, even if his rap denouncing Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-contra affair seemed oddly dated. “I want to encourage Chicago to take care of each other,” he said in one of his mini-sermons in between his raps, apparently alluding to the city’s violence. “I’d like to encourage the people of Chicago to look out for one another.” Later in his set, looking out on a Pitchfork audience that was more racially diverse than it had been on previous days, Killer Mike declared, “This is what church is supposed to look like.”
See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3.