Artists reclaimed their thrones in 2013, did things they were supposed to do in the way they were supposed to do them. Sounded, if nothing else, like their very own glorious selves. Then there were those who rocketed out of their prescribed comfort zones.
In both cases, the best of the best found a way to get not just into your ear buds, but into your life.
You had legacy groups like Black Sabbath, like Paul McCartney, like Chicago’s Danny Seraphine and like Deep Purple returning with powerful reminders not just of what once made them such endlessly intriguing musical figures — but what still does.
You had artists ripping the template to shreds too, like Steve Lukather — who issued a torridly emotional project unlike any he’d attempted before as a solo artist. Mike Keneally, who never seems to stop mixing and matching sounds.
And Steven Wilson who, over a period of apprenticeship mixing classic prog recordings, set about creating an album that would live up to that lofty standard — and completely succeeded.
You had Richard Thompson, plugging in and raising complete hell. And Tony Levin, collaborating with his main group the Stickmen and with an all-star trio including Jordan Rudess and Marco Minnemann, continuing to push his craft in ways that those half his age would scarcely dare.
As a group, they made ageless music that became constant companions for me in 2013 …
No. 10: 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.
No. 9: MIKE KENEALLY – YOU MUST BE THIS TALL (POP/ROCK): Keneally has, stretching back more than two decades, made something of a career of fiddling with things — his guitar, to be sure. But also sounds, processes, and expectations. You Must Be This Tall is no different: Keneally, over just 12 tracks, rattles across a dizzying landscape of musical textures and concepts — even as he brings in collaborative storylines that range from the Metropole Orkest to Frank Zappa, for whom he served an early-career tenure as a stunt guitarist. There’s even a left over nugget from a larger collaborative project with XTC’s Andy Partridge called Wing Beat Fantastic.
No. 8: 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.
[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: CALIFORNIA TRANSIT AUTHORITY – SACRED GROUND (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. 5: LEVIN MINNEMANN RUDESS – LEVIN MINNEMANN RUDESS (PROG/ROCK): Rudress, throughout, is simply a wonder — the very personification of this madcap disregard for expectations surrounding Levin Minnemann Rudess. Then there’s Minnemann, reasserting something that’s been largely forgotten during his time as a back-stage rhythmnist: He is more than capable of creating his own songcraft, and of unleashing riffs that could bring down buildings. Working in tandem with the endlessly dexterous Levin, they’ve created a layered, dizzyingly inventive project — bruising when it needs to be, and stirringly translucent at others.
No. 4: PAUL McCARTNEY – NEW (POP/ROCK): New might be the ultimate misnomer, so often does Paul McCartney reference his iconic musical past. Maybe the thing that’s newest about it is how comfortable McCartney seems in his own Beatle-y skin again. All the new sounds do, courtesy of a series of youthful producers, is accentuate what made McCartney McCartney in the first place. Is it a perfect record? Not quite. Still, when McCartney comes crashing forward with a perfectly attenuated rocker like “I Can Bet” — winkingly offering: “what I’m going to do next, I’ll leave entirely to your imagination” — it’s clear that he’s put out a better album than many might have expected at this late date.
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.
No. 1: STEVEN WILSON – THE RAVEN THAT REFUSED TO SING [AND OTHER STORIES] (PROG/ROCK): Ambitious, connective and simply unforgettable, this 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.