Top 10 Album-Experiences of 2013
"I can honestly say I've never been more in love with music than I was during the whole of 2013. And this from a year that I'd planned to take off from the constant carnival of sound our modern world presents. Albums swung for the fences, with stellar start-to-finish journeys from old stalwarts like Cass McCombs, Cate Le Bon, Sonny & the Sunsets, and Jason Isbell, to name a few. Equally amazing efforts poured out from those I'm proud to now call my Denver scene-mates: Natalie Tate, Nathaniel Rateliff, The Still Tide, Princess Music, too many dozens more to detail here. Such mind-blowing releases left and right all added up to raise my expectations of music so much that, by the time I got to the brutal end of culling my "top" list to only 10, one commonality surfaced: my very favorite albums of 2013 also somehow incorporated a favorite EXPERIENCE of the year, something that went above and beyond the 10 or 12 songs on the album proper. As music becomes easier to create, and truly great music proliferates seemingly endlessly, these 10 artists offered up an album and an experience..."
- 10. Beck: album = Song Reader / experience = collaborating with heroes and strangers. I almost forgot what a huge smile this one put on my face when it came out at the very end of 2012 (very beginning of 2013, for list-making purposes). A straightforward, generous idea that invited people to participate with the music, the artist, and each other. I'm surprised more like it didn't follow suit, but maybe that's a testament to how philosophically and aesthetically perfectly-presented Beck's was.
- 9. Julianna Barwick: album = Nepenthe / experience = creating time and space to breathe. Barwick's live show, whether in a tiny Denver artspace or a massive Brooklyn music hall, is jaw-dropping, and dovetails gorgeously with the free-flowing instrumental (including vocals as instruments) soundscape of her album. She's not taking you on a trip across the waves in a beautiful boat; she's creating the ocean itself, and letting you choose which direction your mind will drift.
- 8. The Beatles: album = On Air, Live at the BBC - Vol. 2 / experience = glimpsing the minds behind the music. Most of us agree the Beatles were popular musical geniuses. The most interesting thing about this behind-the-scenes look at their formative years -- many of which were spent recording various programs at the BBC -- is how natural and improvisational that genius appears. Their young spirits play effortlessly not just with interviewers, but with whole new media, cultural concepts, and audiences.
- 7. Gregory Alan Isakov: album = The Weatherman / experience = orchestrating the most intimate symphony. In lesser hands, the pairing of the often soft-spoken Isakov with a massive musical juggernaut (the Colorado Symphony) in a gigantic concert hall might have washed right over the tender beauty of this album. Luckily, these partners are pros, and the result was a personal exploration so epic it brought more than a few serious and casual listeners to tears, literally.
- 6. Dessa: album = Parts of Speech / experience = bringing us together with stories. The Doomtree collective out of Minneapolis has produced some amazing music over the years, but even more impressively, it's produced some amazing human beings. Dessa is a force of nature, whether rapping in front of a full band or relating a childhood tale so heart-wrenching it had Denver Music Summit attendees talking for weeks after. A writer, activist, and DIY business owner to boot, she's a guiding voice across the board.
- 5. Fruit Bats: album = Mouthfuls (10-year Anniversary Edition) / experience = celebrating the past and moving forward. Funny how quickly the time flies, and how much most of us miss along the way. Eric D. Johnson created one of the best musical projects -- and followed it up with several incarnations of the best bands -- of the last 15 years, and now it's time for him to get on with the rest of his creative life. The band played its last shows this fall, even as most people were just catching on.
- 4. Phosphorescent: album = Muchacho / experience = receiving hard-earned much-deserved due. Matthew Houck has been through the wringer and back again, and thank goodness he's got a poet-warrior soul up to the task of bringing us back some stories from the brink. To witness his whole band's top-notch performances take them from the Hi-Dive to the Bluebird to 4 sold-out nights at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (with countless international and career benchmarks in between) is a triumph of virtuosity and elbow grease I'll not soon forget.
- 3. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: album = We The Common / experience = branching brilliantly into video and comedy. It's possible that this was my single favorite album of the year (this distinction does change every few hours, so why bother nailing it down precisely?), and the icing on the cake was Thao's laugh-out-loud "Shorts" series, created with Lauren Tabak and featuring too many great indie-celebrity cameos to name-drop here. Just google it, and prepare to snort your eggnog out your nose.
- 2. Chimney Choir: album = (compass) / experience = exploding multi-media musical theater. This madcap gang put on my favorite live show of the year. If I'm being honest with myself, actually, they probably held 5 of the top 10 slots in that category, since every single performance was so radically different; they wrote, memorized, and performed a new multi-media storyline and script for each of the 5 associated with this album's release. Time travel, puppetry, tragic comedy, advanced video choreography - it's hard to know where to start describing these totally demented and totally down-to-earth geniuses.
- 1. Public Service Broadcasting: album = Inform - Educate - Entertain / experience = affirming the life that always already exists. This one's a personal mash-up. My single most important 2013 musical inspiration was Kay Larson's sweeping, spiritual, sumptuous (often in the same page) biography, "Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists." It's about so much more than just that man or just that lifetime, and in that sense served as a kind of mission statement for a year where my favorite moments transcended albums, or even art itself, and got right to the heart of living. Public Service Broadcasting's wildly fun and thought-provoking "found footage" approach to creating new music was the perfect complement to that, though ultimately Cage himself put it best: "For the field is not a field of music, and the acceptance is not just of the sounds that had been considered useless, ugly, and wrong, but it is a field of human awareness, and the acceptance ultimately is of oneself as present mysteriously, impermanently, on this limitless occasion."