Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2013

Some rock, a few new takes on old traditions, a jazz disc, and an ample dose of contemporary experimentalism; hopefully in the end a little something for everybody. Here’s our Top 10 for 2013.

10. Body/Head, Coming Apart

If I had a dollar for every time I heard somebody rag on Kim Gordon, I’m not sure what I’d buy, but I’d surely have quite a few more bucks than my tattered billfold carries right now. Coming Apart, which is basically her post-Sonic Youth musical debut in collaboration with Bill Nace, finds Gordon laying down her bass for an excursion into a two guitar-plus-vocals improvisational zone, and not only is it the post-SY “solo” release that’s most reflective of what made the band such a valuable entity (to these ears anyway), it also happens to get better every time I play it.

Which admittedly isn’t a lot, due in part to its length and additionally the demands it makes upon the listener, but it has gotten more spins in this house than Chelsea Light Moving and the latest from Lee Ranaldo combined. Coming/Apart isn’t likely to hush her detractors, but for Sonic Youth fans who also dabble in No Wave and dig the great out-vocalist Patty Waters’ two ‘60s records for ESP Disk, it’s a welcome hunk of expansive formidableness.

9. Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, Dig Thy Savage Soul

Barrence’s smoking return to form hits hard right out the gate, but it’s also a real grower. When assessing it a few months back, I wrote that while a great disc it wasn’t likely to get my pick for best of the year. Well, it’s not in the top spot but it has crept through the contenders via frequent play (unlike Coming Apart, Dig Thy Savage Soul is concise and sounds great while house cleaning) to make the short list. And that’s quite an achievement.

Frankly, if a comeback this sweetly unexpected was tacked onto the conclusion of a sports movie, cynics would be mocking it for decades. But Whitfield just destroyed the odds and came up with a record so lean and lithe that garage hopefuls half his age should study it for pointers on how to conduct themselves in public. No, it’s not as distorted and disheveled as much of the post-Gories/Oblivians/Jay Reatard scene, but it’s still plenty raw, and it comes loaded with knowledge of musical history that could only derive from a dude who worked in a record shop.

8. Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin

These prolific San Franciscans just keep getting better, and the way they blend garage punk, strychnine-laced psych, a little touch of Krautrock, and a creeping emotional darkness makes it hard to surmise that they’re close to any kind of qualitative ceiling. Plus, they seem to have an aversion to making the same album twice (while retaining a quickly graspable identity), and that’s always a good sign.

Floating Coffin finds Thee Oh Sees at their most rocking, and I’ve no qualms saying that’s where I like them best. When they’re in this mode I’d readily play them for an older pal with a serious jones for Roky Erickson, but there’s also enough punked-out strangeness to make them attractive to fans of the Butthole Surfers’ prime work. And when that Germanic vibe kicks in as it does on this LP’s “Maze Fancier,” it’s clear that Thee Oh Sees are a very special band.

7. Como Mamas, Get an Understanding

The Daptone label does a whole lot of things right, but one of their best gestures has been the spotlight upon the gospel music of Como, MS. The Como Now compilation from a few years back served notice that the soul-drenched spiritual music of the Southern United States was far from dead, and Get an Understanding continues this circumstance by giving three of the performers from that album a chance to shine on their own.

Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, and Delia Daniels are The Como Mamas, an a cappella trio that emit a level of soulfulness that is immediately recognizable in the classic recordings of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Staple Singers, Al Green, and portions of the Stax Records roster. But it’s also different, being based on community and a belief system that’s a thousand miles away from the record charts of 2013. Thankfully, it’s gotten up close and personal with my stereo many times since I first heard it early this year.

6. Glenn Jones, My Garden State

So much American Primitive-based musical activity has been appearing lately that I can no longer say with any certainty that this record from the veteran guitarist and former member of the outstanding Cul de Sac is the best LP in the style from 2013, but I can relate without doubt that My Garden State is the finest I’ve heard.

While many players in this folk sub-genre learned the rudiments by listening to John Fahey’s records, Jones’ got to know that American music titan personally, additionally playing with the master late in his career, and as this disc spins all that experience easily shows. Along with the requisite string dexterity, Jones possesses the depths of feeling that makes My Garden State a legitimate extension of the masterpiece’s from Fahey’s Vanguard/Takoma period.

5. The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

If Coming Apart is demanding, Shaking the Habitual can be exhausting. It should be; the thing’s 96 minutes long for crying out loud. And I like that about it. To my way of thinking, the best multi-album sets take from the listener while also giving back; Coltrane’s Live in Seattle, Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and Half Japanese’s ½ Gentleman/Not Beasts all spring to mind as examples.

Shaking the Habitual doesn’t rise to the level of those three beauties, but with that said this 2CD/3LP set is a triumph of restless but consistently well-designed progressive electronic music, and it easily betters a certain two-disc set from a much more ballyhooed contemporary outfit. The biggest difference seems to be self-discipline; nothing here registers as extraneous, not even the quite minimal 19-minute track “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized.”

4. Michael Beach, Golden Theft

Michael Beach has good influences and knows how to rock, and often that’s enough to keep a record out of the discard pile. But Beach has also penned some fantastic songs and he sings them with a veteran’s sense of weariness. The combination of these non-grandiose qualities is hard enough to find these days, but when the spark of necessity on the part of its maker is thrown in, the result is downright rare.

On first listen the sheer quality of Golden Theft hit me hard, but what’s lingered is how it feels like a record that simply had to be made, and it’s obvious much toil was exerted in shaping the finished product. The LP eschews trend hopping for a classic sound, with much of it devoted to a fine blend of ‘60s derived rock precedent; a bit folky, a little country, and mildly acid laced, but also suave enough to provide a moment reminiscent of The Clean. It’s going to be hard for Beach to top this one, but I can’t wait to hear him try.

3. Cian Nugent and the Cosmos, Born with the Caul

Nugent was previously noted by this writer as one of the best young exponents in the American Primitive field, and while aspects of that sensibility are still present on this record, Nugent has instead chosen to jump head first into the deep realms of sweetly psychedelic rock. With a stellar band surrounding him, Nugent excels on this almost entirely instrumental affair.

While it’s far from completely indebted to the sound of the late ‘60s West Coat ballrooms (there’s a little Dirty Three and prime Paul Butterfield on display), on its second side Born with the Caul flat-out nails the sound of that era, in particular the tricky elevated groove of top-notch Grateful Dead. Nugent’s guitar is exquisite throughout, and if you dig Lee Ranaldo and the Dust, you’ll fall off the couch while hearing this one.

2. Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Red Hot

The list’s only entry without a vinyl edition, but unfortunately that’s the reality with most releases from the contemporary jazz scene. These guys continue to amaze me with their intelligence, wit, chops, and ultimate seriousness. MOPDtK is composed of some major players, amongst them Jon Irabagon, winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, and Oberlin Conservatory of Music graduate Peter Evans, a trumpeter whose extended techniques are a source of constant amazement.

Perhaps the easiest point of comparison for those who haven’t heard them is Naked City, but where the juxtaposition of differing styles in the music of John Zorn and his crew was informed by the working methods of the great Warner Brothers’ orchestrator Carl Stalling, MOPDtK is less about sharp turns and wild abandon and more concerned with a constant and sometimes humorous flow of rapidly evolving ideas from all corners of jazz’s long history.

Red Hot finds them dipping all the way back to New Orleans and augmenting the core group with additional instrumentation including piano and banjo, and the record’s as strong as anything in their rapidly swelling discography.

1. Bill Orcutt, A History of Every One

Back in the ‘90s, Bill Orcutt was in the Miami band Harry Pussy, one of the most highly regarded noise outfits of the decade. They ceased operation in ’97, but a few years ago Orcutt reemerged as a solo guitarist of uncommon intensity and abstraction. At times he can hit the ear like the late great British guitarist Derek Bailey in the midst of an acoustic blues tangent after drinking eighteen cups of coffee, but in truth there’s really nobody else like him on the current scene, and comparisons to precedent are useful mostly in terms of understanding the severity of Orcutt’s vision.

When I discovered he was putting out an LP of cover songs, I was initially surprised. But I shouldn’t have been, for on his ’09 LP A New Way to Pay Old Debts, he opened with an incredibly abstracted version of Lightnin’ Hopkins “Sad News from Korea.” However, one major difference with A History of Every One is the age of many selections, with a couple as old as Methuselah.

But the sheer breadth of the song-bag is also notable. Amongst the whole, there’s a union anthem, a Harvard fight song, some blues (the Hopkins’ songbook getting another dip), a Christian hymn, Irving Berlin, a work song, two from Disney, and a minstrel tune. For much of the duration the playing renders these sources unrecognizable, but there are also just enough traces and hints of the origins scattered throughout to establish the legitimacy of Orcutt’s intent.

It’s all far from easy listening, but A History of Every One is a constant fount of intriguing ideas executed by one of the best and certainly most individual guitarists on the planet.

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