With so many major releases typically timed go on sale to take advantage of the holiday shopping season, you’d think that most of the choicest music of any given year are records issued during the September-November timeframe. That might be the case for some, but the large majority of the music that clicked with me– outside the jazz realm, at least — came from the first half of the year.
Overall, this has still been a great year for music; heck, every year is a great year for music. Sometimes you gotta dig a little deeper to find it, but I dug around a bit and found eleven standout albums coming from many musical directions. Here, as before, they’re ranked in no particular order, except for one that stands out over the others. This year’s grand winner is a collaboration of two proven commodities that brings out the best roots music in both of them.
And just for grins, I tossed in a trio of bests from three special categories at the bottom.
Click through the nested links for the full reviews.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Ben Harper, with Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up!: Musselwhite’s been on a tear lately; come to think of it, so has Harper. That’s to say, this was the right time for an inspired cross-generational meeting between a legendary blues harp player and a roots-inclined singer-songwriter whose career trajectory puts him on course for a legend status. Certainly, Get Up! thrusts him closer to that mark.
While Harper wrote the songs and brought the backing band, Musselwhite’s presence naturally pulled him to a blues direction. Moreover, the gritty, smokey bar vibe of these recordings are the sound of guys who are in pre-fame mode, still busting their asses to make good impressions. One moment they’re hushed and personal (“You Found Another Lover”) and the next moment they’re blasting the amps and rattling the walls (“Blood Side Out”).
To sum it up as I did in the original review, “it feels as if they decided to do this about five minutes before they ducked into the nearest studio, positioned themselves around mikes and hit the record button. And that’s the best possible way to capture Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite.”
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Robben Ford – Bringing It Back Home: The laid-back arrangements Ford applies to these songs — as much as those savory licks of his — put his own stamp on these durable ditties. Bringing It Back Home is a essentially a back-to-basics showcase that reveals that sans slick production and arrangements, Robben Ford sounds just as enjoyably good.
The Summarily Dismissed – To Each: This band is a polished vehicle for Ari Shagal, whose compositions have the incisive wit and mature sophistication that recalls some of the best pop songcrafters of a bygone era, like Laura Nyro, Carole King and those guys from Steely Dan.
Tommy Malone – Natural Born Days: Natural Born Days The second solo effort from the way overlooked former frontman of the Subdudes is a clear, bright signal that New Orleans’ best days musically are with us again.
Buke And Gase – General Dome: This might not be an act destined for the mainstream, but neither was Sonic Youth, and they’ve had a pretty good career. In a just world, Buke & Gase will enjoy that kind of career, too, as long as they keep making oddly compelling records like General Dome.
Hadden Sayers – Rolling Soul: The passion for telling arresting stories — as well as his devotion to the blues and his faculty for Texas blues guitar — all bleed through on Sayers’ Rolling Soul.
Thieves’ Kitchen – One For Sorrow, Two For Joy: Soulful as it is technically sound, One For Sorrow, Two For Joy appeals stronger with each listen as the details reveal more of themselves.
Mike Zito and the Wheel – Gone To Texas: It’s the bliss that Zito has found from hanging out with the Cajun-kissed Texas music and culture of his adopted hometown of Beaumont that’s given him ample inspiration for the words and music he’s put together for this latest long player. And sure enough, Gone To Texas does sound inspired.
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories): The craftsmanship that Wilson invests into his songs has, to be frank, been at this level for some time. The difference comes from him taking his already-great studio game to a higher level. Bringing in Alan Parsons to engineer the effort surely helped, but he’s undoubtedly picked up a trick or two about how to build a classic prog rock record from remixing them as he’s been doing a lot of recently. Besides, the fusion bonfire “Luminol” just flat out slays.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind: The Tedeschi Trucks Band has in the span of a little than two years has released three solid albums that reaffirms a faith that there are still major acts making hand-made music with real soul, depth and musicianship.
Robert Randolph & The Family Band – Lickety Split: This is as raw, rambunctious and unrelentingly fun as he’s done on the prior four albums; the Family Band is a true party band for those who want their party music hand made, rootsy and sincere, and Randolph remains as peerless as ever on the pedal steel.
Best EP The Nth Power – Basic Minimum Skills Test: The first product by a new band made up of sidemen/sidewoman for acts like Beyonce, Big Daddy Kane, Lettuce, Warren Haynes and John Brown’s Body, the New Orleans-based Nth Power brew a gumbo of funk, soul, jazz and rock, using the Neville Brothers for its roux. Keep a close eye on this band.
Best Archival Release Neil Young – Live At The Cellar Door: Sure, they are plenty of good Young concert recordings, but this one is a sublime intersection of excellent remastering, Neil in an intimate setting that lays his songs bare, and an all-world singer-songwriter at the very peak of his powers.
Best Single Trombone Shorty, “Long Weekend”: A plump slice of early 80s styled funky fun.
S. Victor Aaron’s Best of 2013 (Modern and Mainstream Jazz) >>>
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