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Best CDs
of 2013

by Andrew Elias













WHEN I WAS considering and revisiting the many excellent CDs released in 2013, there was one that stood out because I played and replayed it the most throughout the year. I listened to it while working and also later in the evening to relax. I also played it when friends came to visit – and was consistently asked ‘Who is this?” When informed that it was 71-year old Chucho Valdés, they followed with, “It’s very good!” They had never heard of the Grammy and Latin Grammy winner and jazz giant, but were intoxicated by the band’s exotic mix of hard-bop jazz and Afro-Cuban, Spanish, Moroccan, and Native-American rhythms. Yet it is Valdes piano mastery that is most astounding. Add to this Branford Marsalis playing at the top of his game on three tracks, and you have over an hour of the finest jazz you could ever ask for – daring and familiar. Chucho Valdés and The Afro-Cuban Messengers Border-Free, is my favorite CD (or should I say ‘release’?) of 2013.

Another standout among the many exciting jazz releases in 2013 is Trinidad-born trumpeter Etienne Charles Creole Soul. The album explores the music of the French, Spanish and English-speaking Caribbean, mixing creole, calypso, and reggae with American be-bop jazz and rhythm & blues. In a collection of romping party music and tender ballads, Charles’ originals stand out, even among covers of Marley’s ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ and Monk’s ‘Green Chimneys.’

Three releases by artists with decades of excellent music behind them are among the best of the year’s releases. Tom JonesSpirit in the Room is his best album in years. At 73, Jones could easily have rested on his laurels and become a nostagia act, a traveling restrospective of old hits. Instead, he is making new music with refreshing vigor, stamping songs by the likes of Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen with his soulful voice and emotional intensity. Most surprising: a wonderful rendition of the First Edition’s psychedelic hit, ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).’ Music with roots as deep as his voice.

Another personal favorite, and an album I find myself playing again and again without tiring, is Timeless, by John Hammond. If you’ve never seen Hammond in concert, in a small club or festival setting, you’re missing one of the truly great bluesmen of all time. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have witnessed his performances, we probably have not forgotten the night and venue.

With 50 years of making top-notch records and touring endlessly behind him, Hammond seems to be enjoying himself as much as ever. Timeless captures him in an intimate show, rocking through a host of classic blues, such as ‘Further on Up the Road,’ ‘Drop Down Mama,’ ‘The Sky is Crying,’ and ‘Junk Partner,’ as well as two killer Tom Waits songs. If you like the blues, there was not a better release in 2013.

Although Sam Phillips’ new album, Push Any Button, was recorded in an 100-year old bungalow and has music evoking the glamorous pop of the 1960s & 70s, the sound and content is straight out of the 21st century Los Angeles. Lasting less than 30 minutes, the album’s 10 songs strike a balance of youthful power-pop sounds with more introspective and mature lyrics. With songs about the nature of celebrity (the power-pop of ‘Pretty Time Bomb’), relationships (the rockabilly of ‘You Know I Won’t,’ and the hard rocking ‘Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You’) and mortality (‘When I’m Alone,’ ‘No Time Like Now’ and ‘All Over Me’), she somehow offers often serious insight (and plenty of humor) in a tasty package of delicious melodies, sweet harmonies and cool arrangements. Push Any Button is very short and yet a remarkably diverse collection of always interesting songs by an artist always looking to push boundaries.

From the first listen to the first single off of Just Be Honest, Shannon Labrie’s debut album, ’Remember a Boy,’ it was apparent that there was an exciting new singer-songwriter on the music scene. The song is a stunner – tender, cutting, soulful, and smart – about the loss of love as much as a lover.

Based in Nashville, Labrie’s music expands far beyond the confines of country music, with a big dose of rhythm & blues and popular jazz. Best of the set are ‘Secret,’ a sexy come-on with horn arrangements hinting of Memphis’ soul sound, the hauntingly longing ‘Heartache of Love,’ the sassy Joss Stone-ish ‘Love Somebody,’ and the brassy ‘How Does It Feel.’ Remember the name – Shannon Labrie.

Pokey LaFarge is one of those idiosyncratic artists that not only plays music a bit off the mainstream, but also totally looks the part. His new eponymously named album, released on Jack White’s Third Man Record, sound like it could’ve been recorded during the heyday of jazz and western swing music (1930s & 1940s) and Pokey (a pseudonym) looks like he just walked off the set of Grapes of Wrath or O’ Brother, Where Art Thou.

The album starts with ‘Central Time,’ a perfect example of the charm and optimism that swing music exudes, followed by the gypsy blues of ‘The Devil Ain’t Lazy,’ a tongue-in-cheek warning, and a bunch of hilarious laments like (‘Won't Cha Please Don’t Do It’, ‘One Town At a Time’ and ‘Bowlegged Woman’). Some might think this music too corny and outdated, but fans of Leon Redbone and Dan Hicks, as well as Bob Wills and Asleep at the Wheel, will appreciate the first-rate musicianship and find Pokey equally entertaining.

Luke Winslow-King is also mining the music of the same period, but hailing from New Orleans rather than the midwest, his sound is influenced a bit more by Delta blues and ragtime jazz. Songs like the title track, ‘Moving On (Towards Better Days),’ ‘Let ‘em Talk’ and ‘You Don’t Know Better Than Me’ showcase the same depression-era escapism and optimism as LaFarge’s, but The Coming Tide also includes the gospel blues classic ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning’ and a surprising cover of George Harrison’s ‘Got My Mind Set On You,’ played as a blues.

The best rock & roll album of the year be be Head in the Dirt, by Hanni El Khatib and produced by Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys, who also plays guitar and collaborated on writing all but one of the tracks. Auerbach has corralled El Khatib’s wild energy and original vision, harnessing it into a collection of succinct rock songs that are grimy and raucous, with lots of sloppy, fuzzed-out guitar and lyrics oozing the smell of teeenage spirit. This is garage-band punk rock at it’s best – noisy and dangerous. Standouts are ‘Skinny Little Girl’ (which could easily be mistaken for a Black Keys song), ‘Nobody Move’ (which could easily be mistaken for a Gary Clark, Jr. song), ‘Can’t Win ‘em All,’ and ‘We Pay No Mind.’

Rounding out the Top Ten albums of the year is Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a ‘southern gospel musical collaboration between John Mellencamp (music & lyrics), Stephen King (book) and T Bone Burnett (bandleader & producer). The album comes in two formats – one including dialogue insterspersed between songs and one with songs only. The version with dialogue (featuring the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Meg Ryan and Kris Kristofferson) is the better choice, fleshing out the storyline and characters.

The multi-generational story is about two feuding brothers forced by their father to stay in a cabin haunted by the ghosts of his brothers, who killed each other. Mellencamp's songs, some of the best of his career, are sung by ‘characters’ played by Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Taj Mahal, Kristofferson, and Dave & Phil Alvin (as brothers Dan & Frank).

We can only hope that Ghost Brothers, the first Americana horror story, will soon see life as a full stage production on Broadway, on tour or, at least, on video.


January-February 2014

Top 10 CDs of 2013
(in no particluar order)

CHUCO VALDES
AND THE
AFRO-CUBAN MESSENGERS
Border-Free
www.jazzvillagemusic.com

ETIENNE CHARLES
Creole Soul
www.etiennecharles.com

TOM JONES
Spirit in the Room
www.rounder.com

JOHN HAMMOND
Timeless

www.rosebudus.com

SAM PHILLIPS
Push Any Button
www.samphillips.com

SHANNON LABRIE
Just Be Honest
www.shannonlabriemusic.com

POKEY LAFARGE
www.pokeylafarge.net

LUKE WINSLOW-KING
The Coming Tide
www.bloodshotrecords.com

HANNI EL KHATIB
Head in the Dirt

www.innovativeleisure.com

GHOST BROTHERS OF
DARKLAND COUNTY
John Mellencamp
Stephen King
T Bone Burnett
www.concordmusicgroup.com