Best of the Best: The Official™ Something Else! Top 10 for 2013: Steven Wilson, Black Sabbath, The Band

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Every one has had their individual say, made their choices, argued the point. Now, it’s time for consensus ruling from the bench: Here is The Official™ Top 10 for 2013 from Something Else!

We stipulate for the record that Steven Wilson, though always good and often great, reached new heights with his lastest solo effort — a project that combined all of his depth of skill with a new-found sense of history.

Further, we agree that Black Sabbath made a furiously engaging return, despite the various pitfalls associated with such things — whether Ozzy is around or not.

Robben Ford and Boz Scaggs, both of whom dove into this bubbling cauldron of Deep South soul on their new albums, knocked every one of our socks off. And that’s a lot of socks, folks.

Terence Blanchard, Rhys Chatham and Mort Weiss pushed their craft in intriguing ways, and the results were some of the most engaging music of their respective careers.

Then there’s Mike Keneally, who put together the kind of career-spanning statement usually reserved for best-of collections, except this album — which touched on so many of his earlier incarnations and collaborations — was all new.

Finally, you’ll notice that there’s but one reissue on the list this year — the Band’s Live at Academy of Music. But we’d argue, if it pleases the court of public opinion, that it’s hardly a reissue at all, considering the depth and breadth of new material featured from these legendary 1971 concert featuring charts by Allen Toussaint …

No. 10: MORT WEISS – A GIANT STEP OUT AND BACK (JAZZ): There are some unique twists to A Giant Step Out And Back — as they are with every Weiss album — and to borrow from the title of that prior record, Weiss raises the bar once again. Interestingly, this faithful adherent to the bop tradition is stretching out, and he walks the tight rope with no net: all first takes, no edits, no rehearsals. The results crackle with life.

Mark Saleski: After listening to Mort’s “free jazz” album, I started to think of Mort as a sort of jazz raconteur, by way of the clarinet. This record features completely improvised pieces, a few well-known tunes that have been smooshed out of shape, and the free-association, I-don’t-really-know-what-the-hell-this-is vocal track “Talkin’ About It.” Not intended for use by small children.

Esther Berlanga-Ryan: If you are looking for a traditional clarinet sound, look elsewhere. Mort Weiss has basically reinvented this instrument single-handedly. Scales don’t even exist, or perhaps are just so embedded in his own breathing and articulation that one just sits there, enjoying that air modifying workout of pure magic. He runs his fingers through that clarinet like fireworks in a pitch-dark night sky, and the effect on your heart is just as luminous and mesmerizing.

S. Victor Aaron: The statement on the front CD cover announces what this music is about: “A Free Jazz Recording By The Undisputed Master Of The Jazz Clarinet.” Brash, yes, but as I’m reminded, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

[NOTES FROM A JAZZMAN: Mort Weiss shares memories, insights and a few dirty jokes from his lengthy career in and around the jazz scene.]

No. 9: RHYS CHATHAM – HARMONIE DU SOIR (JAZZ): Three lengthy compositions make up the latest from Chatham — including his first major piece composed for six electric guitars, electric bass and drums since 1986’s Die Donnergötter. The Dream of Rhonabwy, meanwhile, features a 70-piece brass band, while the last finds Chatham, David Daniell and Ryan Sawyer in the studio.

Mark Saleski: Like Dawn of Midi, I was drawn into repeat listenings of this release because every time I listened, new details emerged. And those details are buried in a kind of rock-oriented chamber music, then a huge 70-piece brass ensemble, and then finally, a re-recording of the classic Chatham piece “Drastic Classism.”

S. Victor Aaron: Like a lot of Chatham’s work, Harmonie du Soir is a hybrid of rock music infused with classical/new music ideas. Tough to pin down, but endlessly rewarding.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In a free-ranging, very emotional talk, Garth Hudson recalls how the Band gathered itself to go on after Richard Manuel’s shocking death.]

No. 8: THE BAND – LIVE AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC 1971 (POP/ROCK): These newly restored offerings, in particular the soundboard mix of the December 31 show, underscore the nervy, in-the-moment quality of this experiment — and how the Band bulls right through it by sheer force of musical will. Along the way, a number of these songs are so profoundly altered by the addition of horn charts that they stand apart completely from the studio versions.

Nick DeRiso: If it’s ragged at times, that works in their favor, after so much mythos has billowed up around the Band. The results — nervy and off the cuff; unsurprisingly, really, when you consider that the Band had famously begun this run of shows without bothering to draw up a set list — serve to humanize these often towering figures, even as they bring you in as close as you can possibly get to the stirring elixirs being conjured out of thin air on that stage.

[OUR BEST OF 2013: Join in the conversation as Something Else! counts down the best that 2013 had to offer, from rock and jazz to country to blues — from studio efforts to live albums to sprawling reissues.]

No. 7: TOTEM> – VOICES OF GRAIN (JAZZ): Their introductory long player Solar Forge made an impactful impression to many of jazz’s top critics, not to mention this site, which bestowed the “best avant-garde record” distinction for the year 2008. Voices of Grain comes five years later but none of the momentum is lost.

S. Victor Aaron: A discriminating assault on the senses. Impactful, yes, but abundant in the details not commonly found in power trios.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Terence Blanchard takes us inside 1991’s ‘Simply Stated,’ a loving tribute to Miles Davis which ultimately sent him onto a far more challenging career path.]

No. 6: TERENCE BLANCHARD – MAGNETIC (JAZZ): In making Magnetic such a collaborative, free-flowing effort, Blanchard has fashioned one of his most layered studio efforts ever. Blanchard wrote four originals, including the gurgling, blissfully outside title track, on this 10-song release, with pianist Fabian Almazon adding three tunes, and saxophonist Brice Winston, bassist Joshua Crumbly and drummer Kendrick Scott contributing, as well.

Nick DeRiso: Along the way, Blanchard goes from the sizzling bop of “Don’t Run,” to the twilit Miles Davis-inspired fusion of “Hallacinations,” to the impossible cool of “Central Focus.” Well-placed guest appearances from the likes of bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane only add to the essential complexity, and the endless intrigue, of Magnetic.

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No. 5: BOZ SCAGGS – MEMPHIS (BLUES): Like Scaggs himself, this album — which finds Boz Scaggs references some of the most distinctive, timeless R&B recordings of the 1970s, even as he continues exploring outward from that tradition — is not easily pegged. Still, while the results are something hard to pin down, in terms of theme, Memphis is easy to appreciate from the chin down. This is music for the heart, and for places somewhere lower.

Nick DeRiso: For all of the urbane sophistication associated with Silk Degrees, it barely hinted at the vocal range Scaggs has today. Nobody can touch Green, even four decades later, for pure carnal rapture, but I’ll be damned if Scaggs — at least on these cuts — doesn’t get right up to the edge of it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Boz Scaggs goes in-depth on his layered 2013 release ‘Memphis,’ the Dukes of September, and singing versus guitar playing.]

No. 4: MIKE KENEALLY – YOU MUST BE THIS TALL (POP/ROCK): Keneally has 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. There’s even a left over nugget from a larger collaborative project with XTC’s Andy Partridge called Wing Beat Fantastic.

Tom Johnson: This ends up being an amalgam of Keneally’s career — a nutshell encasing a little bit of everything he is capable of without feeling in the slightest bit watered down. It could make for a friendly introduction for new fans, and for long time fans, all the twists and turns that have kept them coming back are there in abundance.

Nick DeRiso: Keneally — who is just as likely to be found fronting his fun metal group Dethklok as he is sitting in on keyboards with Joe Satriani — is nothing if not adaptable. Open to anything, he seems to be just as off-handedly brilliant at one thing as any other. You Must Be This Tall brings it all together under one roof.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: We go inside ‘You Must Be This Tall’ with Frank Zappa alum Mike Keneally, and discuss the future of his collaborations with XTC’s Andy Partridge.]

No. 3: ROBBEN FORD – BRINGING IT BACK HOME (BLUES): Ford is again performing alongside Larry Goldings, but there’s little else typical about this soul-lifting set of R&B-laced, jazz-informed groovers. Bringing It Back Home is Ford’s most focused, unembellished album in like, forever — not so much a “covers” record as a back-to-basics showcase. Playing only a ’63 Epiphone guitar kept exclusively on rhythm pickup mode, and no effects pedals or other modern day technological tricks, Ford still amazes.

Nick DeRiso: I expected something like Charley Patton’s “Bird’s Nest Bound,” and in a way even Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine).” But there’s an interesting current of New Orleans music running through the proceedings. Along the way, Ford catches this titanic groove alongside an all-star cast of players, including Goldings (John Scofield, James Taylor) and Harvey Mason (Headhunters, George Benson) — and he never lets go.

S. Victor Aaron: 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 reveals that sans slick production and arrangements, Ford sounds just as enjoyably good.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Robben Ford stopped in for an entertaining discussion on his collaborations with George Harrison, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell … and Kiss? Yes, friends, Kiss.]

No. 2: 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. 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.

Mark Saleski: It what will likely be the last album from this crew, Black Sabbath came roaring back to life with 13. It was really great to hear (and feel) the ominous rumble of Iommi and Butler. I also loved the nice touch at the end, with the reappearance of the rain and bells that started off their first record.

Nick DeRiso: 13 didn’t feel like a bid for critical acceptance, or even a cheap attempt at throwback reverie — both fair assumptions at this late date. Instead, this album played by its own rules, by Black Sabbath’s rules. It serves as a reminder of what happens when a great band gathers itself hoping for a third-act triumph — and then, despite the obstacles, delivers.

Fred Phillips: A record that I expected to vie for that top spot, but it never quite made it there for me. Perhaps my expectations for this went beyond what it could possibly deliver. It’s a great record, and it hasn’t left my playlist since it came out, but I still end up feeling just a bit of disappointment when I’m listening to it.

[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): A tour-de-force album that moves from mournful laments to cacophonous rumbles, from desperate longing to white-knuckle tension and from great mystery to startling clarity with an ease that belies not just their very contradictions but also the difficulty of such aspirations. For Wilson, this has always been a creative mission, but he’s perhaps never found a more perfect balance.

S. Victor Aaron: 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.

Nick DeRiso: 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. 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.

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2013 SOMETHING ELSE! HONORABLE MENTIONS: Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs; Fabulous Thunderbirds – On the Verge; Allen Toussaint – Songbook; Steve Lukather – Transition; and Bill Frisell – Big Sur.

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