Occasionally, an album comes bursting out of your speakers, and you know — just know — that it’s going to end up here, on your half-way best of list. And on the year-ending compendium, too. Steven Wilson put out that album.
That still leaves nine slots to fill, though, as we take advantage of a summer’s day breather to collect our thoughts on what resonated the most over 2013′s first six months.
New artists (Days Between Stations, for sure) struck me. Familiar ones (David Bowie, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath) surprised me. And some that I expected to be great (Stick Men, Steve Lukather, Richard Thompson) were better than I could have imagined.
This list from Something Else! is but the first in a series that will arrive from across of a broad spectrum of writers, and of topics. Look for best-of entries devoted to jazz, metal, fusion and country — not to mention live and reissue compendiums that will cross all manner of musical borders.
We start, though, with rock and pop — and some emotional final contributions from the great guitarist Peter Banks …
No. 10: DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS – IN EXTREMIS (PROG/ROCK): Banks, who despite his failing health sounds so very present and involving here, might have been reason enough to fall in love with this one. But the late Yes founder is just the beginning of the dark-hued wonders to be found on this neo-prog triumph. Accessing an endlessly fascinating palette that also takes in ambient and classically inspired moments, Oscar Fuentes and Sepand Samzadeh brilliantly explore themes of life, and death, and everything in between.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Peter Banks had also made contributions to the forthcoming Prog Collective sequel before his death, moments that producer Billy Sherwood says will remain special 'now and forever.']
No. 9: DAVID BOWIE – THE NEXT DAY (POP/ROCK): Together again with producer Tony Visconti, Bowie fashions his most consistent album since their collaboration on 1980′s Scary Monsters — though don’t take that description to mean that this album ever works of a piece. Instead, The Next Day is all over the place — and, in its way, prototypical Bowie. His is a legend that abhors organization, much less categorization. The results, then, are just what you were hoping for: With The Next Day, Bowie has never sounded more like himself — whatever that is.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Tony Levin joins us to talk about keeping this David Bowie project a secret, along with new collaborations from his Stick Men group, Peter Gabriel and the Crimson ProjeKct.]
No. 8: ERIC BURDON – ‘TIL YOUR RIVER RUNS DRY (POP/ROCK): Burdon has never sounded more visceral, or more angry, and it’s a wonder to behold. Not that the album isn’t filled with a sweep of other textures and emotions. In fact, ‘Til Your River amounts to a command performance across a stirring variety of styles. All of the quieter moments, however, feel like a preamble to those times when Burdon is in a full-throated roar. Some five decades on from his breakout moment in “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place,” nothing can stop his flinty indictments. Mellowing with age? Try bellowing.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 'The Beautiful Old,' Richard Thompson joined an all-star group featuring Garth Hudson and Graham Parker in updating forgotten turn-of-the-last century gems for a new generation.]
No. 7: RICHARD THOMPSON – ELECTRIC (FOLK/ROCK) Produced by Buddy Miller, Electric makes good on the promise of 2010′s Dream Attic — which found Thompson recording stripped-down new originals in a live setting. The guitarist appears here, in a series of utterly concise Nashville sessions, with only Taras Prodaniuk (Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams) on bass and Michael Jerome (John Cale, Better Than Ezra) on drums. Then, perhaps as expected with a title like Electric, he simply plugs in and speaks his mind — about love (or more particularly, love lost), politics, and the work week’s grind.
No. 6: DEEP PURPLE – NOW WHAT?! (PROG/ROCK):> Deep Purple doesn’t simply return; it sets out to remind you of everything that once made this band a contender for Led Zeppelin’s throne in the early 1970s as the biggest heavy-rocking band of them all. Now What?!” finds Ian Gillan and Co. once again masterfully blending the metal, progressive rock and R&B influences that gave Deep Purple its unique persona — even as they stir in new flourishes to keep things fresh.
No. 5: BLACK SABBATH – 13 (ROCK/METAL): Black Sabbath’s first full-length studio work with Ozzy Osbourne since 1978 is a testament to the ties that bind, to overcoming, and to still sounding as evil as shit. The lead single “God Is Dead,” which sports a simply thunderously elastic performance from bassist Geezer Butler, is only an appetizer for vicious, utterly destructive and completely brilliant deep cuts like “Damaged Soul.” From the unfettered rage of “Age of Reason” to the timely, emotionally serrated lyrics that propel “Dear Father,” 13 is the sound of a trio of old friends — plus Brad Wilk on drums — finding themselves again.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: In Fred Phillips' review of the '13' project, he ruminates on whether this is Black Sabbath's final music with Ozzy Osbourne - saying, if so, then it’s a great way to go out.]
No. 4: CALIFORNIA TRANSIT AUTHORITY – SACRED GROUD (ROCK/R&B): Original drummer Danny Seraphine’s hard-grooving new release recalls the soaring jazz-rock triumphs of Chicago’s initial series of albums, even while bringing that sound into the new millennium. His original project with California Transit Authority — named, in a clever update, after Chicago’s debut — used keyboards and guitars in place of his old group’s sharp blasts of brass. Not this time: Guitarist Marc Bonilla wrote a book of new horn charts, allowing CTA to fulfill the promise of one of the best songs on this album: Seraphine’s come full circle.
No. 3: STICK MEN – DEEP (PROG/ROCK): This nine-track set, fan funded and easily their most complex, thoughtfully conceived and imaginatively consumptive, finds a band dominated by rhythm instruments once again exploding every cliched expectation surrounding such things. Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter have used an aggressive touring schedule to create something best described as uncanny musical symbiosis here. Deep moves, with determined bursts of imagination, from the expected moments of still underwater reverie to these drama-filled, almost volcanic moments of turbulent noise — becoming their very best work yet along the way.
No. 2: STEVE LUKATHER – TRANSITION (POP/ROCK): A sense of perseverance feels like the broader message of Transition, something embedded in its very title. Having established himself apart from the legendary band he co-founded, and all of the many sideman gigs that helped bolster his career, Lukather seems ready finally to write with the same revelatory honesty that has always marked his guitar playing. The results are a triumph — over adversity, over expectations, over time. Steve Lukather may have just made his best record ever.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steven Wilson joined us for an expansive discussion on classic 1970s sounds, prog's rebirth and his amazing new album.]
No. 1: STEVEN WILSON – THE RAVEN THAT REFUSED TO SING [AND OTHER STORIES] (PROG/ROCK): Ambitious, connective and simply unforgettable, this new project is held together by Wilson’s passion for prog’s storied past. The Raven, even has it stuns and delights, unfolds like a road map through his influences. Across a six-song suite, Wilson references, by turns, the sweeping narratives of Yes’ signature projects (“The Watchmaker”), the spacey nihilism of Pink Floyd in all of its pre-Wall splendor (“Drive Home”), the boisterous musculature of classic Billy Cobham and Weather Report (“Luminol”), the nervy musical intellect of King Crimson (“The Holy Drinker”), and the literary aspirations of the Alan Parsons Project (on his title track). Yet, The Raven never sounds second-hand or pasted together. It’s a true original, and has been the best album of 2013 since it arrived.