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.



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



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


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


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



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



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



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



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



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



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

Record Store Day at Laurie’s

Saturday, April 20, was Record Store Day — not just a chance to buy some special-edition records released for the occasion, but also a great excuse to hang out at a record shop and see some free live musical performances. Yesterday, I shopped in at the Numero Group’s pop-up store at Logan Square’s Comfort Station, and also made a brief stop at Saki. But I spent most of the day at Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Lincoln Square, where the atmosphere was unflaggingly festive.

I didn’t catch all of the live music at Lauries, but the afternoon included three wonderful sets: Edward Burch and the Grand Ennui covering the entirety of Michael Nesmith’s 1972 album And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’; the newly signed Bloodshot Records artist Luke Winslow-King playing acoustic blues with able assistance from washboard/horseshoe player and singer Esther Rose; and Chicago’s esteemed Dolly Varden, playing songs from their great new album For A While plus a few older tunes.

The line outside Laurie's Planet of Sound around 9 a.m.
The line outside Laurie's Planet of Sound around 9 a.m.
The crowd inside Laurie's Planet of Sound in the afternoon.
The crowd inside Laurie's Planet of Sound in the afternoon.
Edward Burch and the Grand Ennui
Edward Burch and the Grand Ennui
Edward Burch
Edward Burch
Luke Winslow-King with Esther Rose
Luke Winslow-King with Esther Rose
Esther Rose
Esther Rose
Luke Winslow-King
Luke Winslow-King
Luke Winslow-King
Luke Winslow-King
Luke Winslow-King with Esther Rose
Luke Winslow-King with Esther Rose
Esther Rose
Esther Rose
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden

Cold War Kids, Dolly Varden, Latebirds

One of the hot new bands from 2006 that I mostly missed out on was Cold War Kids. I heard the band’s album a couple of times, thought it was pretty good, but never really studied what they were all about. They put on a pretty impressive, enegetic show in concert Friday night (March 9) at Subterranean. And the opening band, Delta Spirit, was a great fit. Both band made use of extra percussion (one of the hip things to do these days, and a good trend, in my opinion), supplementing the standard drum kit with additional banging on hubcaps, kettle drums and such. It made the sets by both bands seem all the more urgent.

See my photos of Cold War Kids and Delta Spirit.

After catching the early show by Cold War Kids, I headed over to Martyrs’ for Dolly Varden. It’s great to see Dolly Varden back with a new album after such a long time (five years). The Panic Bell is an excellent new record, with typically catchy songs, plus some sonic touches that make it sounds a little more eccentric and intriguing than previous Dolly Varden CDs. The new songs (and some old ones, of course) sounded strong in concert, especially when the band rocked more than usual.The opening act was the Latebirds, who are from Finland. I saw them last year at SXSW and enjoyed it; their mellow songs are a littl indistinct, but when they jam out a little bit more, it’s quite good. They sound more America than Finnish.

See my photos of Dolly Varden and the Latebirds.

Here’s the story I wrote for Pioneer Press about Dolly Varden…

The musicians in Dolly Varden decided they needed a break in 2002. They’d gone through an emotionally exhausting tour of England just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Their tour van was robbed. Their studio was robbed.

“That all happened in a period of about six weeks,” says Steve Dawson, a Wicker Park resident who shares lead vocals with his wife, Diane Christiansen.

“It was violation upon violation,” she interjects.

And then, after a long tour in 2002 to support the album Forgiven Now, two of the band’s musicians, drummer Matt Thobe and bassist Mike Bradburn, needed some time off to raise newborn children. It just felt like time for a hiatus. “We’d been at it for seven and a half years,” Dawson says. That’s why it’s been five years since the last Dolly Varden album. The group finally has a new record, The Panic Bell, with a CD release party scheduled for Friday at Martyrs’. Like previous records by Dolly Varden (which is named after a species of fish), The Panic Bell offers sophisticated ballads with a touch of alt-country, but it rocks more than previous records.

The members of Dolly Varden have been keeping busy. Dawson and Christiansen released an album of duets, and Dawson recorded a solo album in 2006, Sweet Is the Anchor. Guitarist Mark Balleto started a side project called My Record Player. And Christiansen, who’s also a visual artist, spent much of her time painting, leading to her first New York solo exhibit last month.

Dolly Varden has actually been working on The Panic Bell since 2004, when Balleto’s brother, Scott, built a recording studio at his home in Minooka, a small town southwest of Joliet. “He said, ‘Look, I made this studio. You’ve got to come down,’” Dawson recalls. Without any time constraints on using the studio, the members of Dolly Varden felt free to explore their new songs. “There was absolutely no pressure,” Dawson says.

“We did this recording in fits and starts,” Mark Balleto says.

After recording at that relaxed pace, the band hired Matt Pence – drummer for the Texas band Centro-Matic – to mix the songs. Pence stripped away some of the tracks that the band had recorded, with results that were occasionally surprising. Most of the instruments disappeared from the first part of “Sad Panda Clown’s Lament,” creating an opening that’s almost a cappella. “I never would have thought of that,” Dawson says.

Dawson, who teaches classes on songwriting and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music, wrote all of the tracks on “The Panic Bell, except “Small Pockets.”

Christiansen wrote that song, which opens with the line: “Daddy got real sad when he saw a hardcore porn show.” She says that was inspired by her husband feeling depressed after attending a raunchy bachelor party.

Christiansen sees a strong connection between her paintings and her music. “I’ll think of one while I’m doing the other,” she says, adding that she’s less prolific than Dawson because she doesn’t have a “modus operandi” for writing songs.

“It all seems accidental,” Christiansen says. Turning to Dawson, she adds, “Maybe I ought to take your songwriting class.”

For the record, the song “The Truth Is Told” – written by Dawson and sung by Christiansen – is not about her. So when audiences hear the lyrics “I don’t like you, no, I can’t see you, no, I won’t,” they needn’t worry that it’s about their marriage. Dawson and Christiansen rush to point out that he’s written many love songs about her and that “Truth” is about – well, someone else.

Over the last five years, Dawson says he has become “more chill” – not so hung up on finding commercial success. “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we still want to play music together?’” he says. “It was a resounding ‘yes.’”