Top Records of 2013: 10-1

10. Black Joe Lewis - Electric Slave (Vagrant)

Black Joe Lewis and company serve up a healthy dose of lo-fidelity R and B that will get your ass shaking and leave a spring in your step. Rawer than 2011's Scandalous, but even more driving, if that is possible, Electric Slave pulses from the first dirty notes of "Skulldiggin" until the last of "Mammas Queen." The energy remains palpable and the melodies simmer long after. "Young Girl" is more garagey, but the tempo never lets up. "Dar Es Salaam" is just as manic as Scandalous' best cut "She's So Scandalous." While not as cohesive as that earlier effort, Electric Slave piles on one classic track after another, filtering it through a lens of blues, rock 'n' roll, and funk, and it just never lets up.

9. Subrosa - More Constant Than The Gods (Profound Lore)

Salt Lake City's Subrosa slowly infiltrates the psyche. Their albums are like little else out there and their songs are long slices of noisy psychedelic metal, for lack of a better description. Each builds a dirgy mood and takes its time getting there. The shortest track on the album is "Cosey Mo" clocking in at a brief 7:30. The band's double violin attack gives them a unique sound that is guaranteed to defy categorization. Tracks range from the near middle-eastern sounds of "Ghosts of a Dead Empire" to "Fat of the Ram's" sludgy buildup. Rebecca Vernon's vocals are clear and ethereal, ebbing and rising as the music swells. Subrosa keep getting better with each release. They are an acquired taste but once they are in your blood, these songs, like that of Neurosis or Electric Wizard, beg to be played more
and more.

8. Kylesa - Ultraviolet (Season of Mist)

The second band on this list, after Subrosa, that could be lumped into the metal category, but borrows from so many other places, Kylesa seems more cohesive with each album. The dual female-male vocals are more urgent on Ultraviolet, switching between screaming and singing. Laura Pleasant's sweeter vocals often offset Phillip Cope's gruff shouting. Yet things get even more intense when they both scream.The album is more atmospheric than 2010's breakthrough Spiral Shadow, trading that albums psychedelic touches for a more hardcore attack that recalls their earlier work. "Exhale" rages like a Black Flag track. Others such as "Unspoken" are spacey and beautiful blending elements of sludge and progressive metal. Yet the band still crafts complex songs, like standout track "Grounded" with intricate melodies and even more intricate playing. Ultraviolet is a stellar and complex album from a band that keeps outdoing itself. Spiral Shadow showcased them at the top of their game. Ultraviolet takes it to the next level. In "What Does It Take," they sing "Is this really happening?" Yes, and it should keep happening for a long time.

7. Chelsea Light Moving - S/T (Matador)
All members of Sonic Youth have remained extremely prolific since the breakup of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's marriage. Moore and Gordon have both released albums with different bands and Lee Renaldo has released two solo records. Chelsea Light Moving continues in the vein of Sonic Youth more than any of these other projects. Unlike many of Moore's other projects or solo work, these songs are strong and melodic, shirking much of the messy experimentalism and self-indulgence that is often Moore's stock in trade. Instead, CLM offer a set of songs that do what Sonic Youth did best, marrying melody and guitar to abstract lyrics. The opening track, "Heavenmetal" recreates the singular ambiance that SY had found on the last couple albums, shifting between quiet sections and fast jams with ease. "Sleeping Where I Fall" recalls Goo in its intensity and phrasing. Many of these tracks would have fit perfectly on a new SY album, but they seem to be less tentative and more jam-oriented here. "Burroughs" and "Lip" rock like nothing SY has done in years. The latter verges on hardcore. Others like "Alighted" are jagged noise experiments. The only misfire is the Germs cover tacked on the end.

6. Fifth on the Floor - Ashes and Angels (Black Country Rock/eOne Music)
 Fifth on the Floor have crafted one of the finest examples of country-infused Southern rock this year with an impressive emphasis on the rock. These boys from Lexington, Ky know how to party hard, play like fiends, and write some damn good songs. In fact, their live show should not be missed, nor should this record. Justin Wells might just be the best singer treading the Southern Rock trails. He wails and soulfully sings about the troubles of the road and the music business. The subject matter is nothing new, but Fifth on the Floor puts a passionate spin on it. Ashes and Angels is filled with hard luck stories and outlaw posturing, but the musicianship is so solid and the tales are so heartfelt that they have practically perfected the sound. Whether they call for burning Nashville down or tell the story of a shocking murder, Fifth on the Floor have created something special.

5. The Devil Makes Three - I'm a Stranger Here (New West)

The Devil Makes Three have been around for awhile, writing fairly traditional sounding acoustic songs that mix a number of old-time genres into a truly original style. There is something for everyone here -- driving ragers, bluegrass numbers, jazz, gospels, blues. They are fairly adept at pulling off most styles and infusing a true dose of catchiness into their timeless numbers. Pete Bernhard's vocals get better on each release, although there is a bit of enjoyable roughness that has been sandpapered away on I'm a Stranger Here. The album feels more traditional than previous releases because the musicianship has improved. What on first listen feels like a lack of dynamism and loss of  incendiary standout tracks that made their self-titled debut, and even 2009's Do Wrong Right so impressive, rights itself on each successive listen. The Devil Makes Three have released their most consistent batch of songs yet. If you don't believe me, just listen to "Hand Back Down."

4. Two Cow Garage - The Death of The Self-Preservation Society (Last Chance)

Two Cow Garage has been eluding my top list for a few years. While they are always consistent, writing a phenomenal number of rocking, literate songs, mostly about girls and self-deprecation, they always seem to slip my mind when I am compiling my list. With The Death of the Self -Preservation Society, I have to finally rank them with the best. The album is rougher than 2011's Sweet Saint Me, but the band has finally captured some of their live energy in the recording studio. It also feels like less of a Micah Schnabel project as Shane Sweeney turns in some of his strongest songs to date with the rocking "Pantomime" and soulful "Spiraling Into Control" -- both anthems for the dissolute. Schnabel's songs continue to churn through pop culture and personal experience, perhaps, offering some of the darkest and deepest themes in the band's existence.

3. Jason Isbell - Southeastern (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers)

Isbell has long been one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and I truly struggled with just where Southeastern would place on the list. He delivers another fine singer-songwriter set and more people are beginning to take notice of his excellent songwriting with each release. Southeastern is more contemplative and personal than anything he has done since Sirens of the Ditch. His strong songs are augmented by sparse instrumentation and his voice shines brighter than ever. Isbell has always written fine story songs about specific people and places, but now he has crafted an album that makes these themes feel nearly universal. I can't wait to see how he reworks this material for his live show.

2. Califone - Stitches (Dead Oceans)

I discovered Tim Rutili's Califone shortly after the release of 2009's All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. They seemed a serviceable, folky but experimental, band that eschewed the country flavors of many of their contemporaries.  For comparison, they were much more Neutral Milk Hotel than Clem Snide, but Rutili's vocals were more yearning than either of those bands, straining against acoustic backings and keyboards that could have been culled from a movie soundtrack. Stitches is no different. Opaque lyrics intermingle with random snatches of electronic noise or squalling strings. "Movie Music Kills a Kiss" sets the tone, but tracks like "Stitches" add electronic embellishments. Rutilli's vocals recall 80's synth pop -- "Trying to Stop taking it out on you/ Cut the connection just to stitch it together," the music resonating. There is much to discover on Stitches and each listen rewards repeat listens. Optimism is introduced and then short-circuited throughout. The album works as a soundtrack for desperate lives, equally unsettling and life affirming.

1. Ha Ha Tonka - Lessons (Bloodshot)

Ha Ha Tonka has come a long way from their early efforts as Amsterband. Yet they are continually tweaking and revising their sound, and this album is definitely their most indie offering since those early days. While there is still plenty of mandolin, there is less of the rustic vibe that colored Buckle in the Bible Belt or Novel Sounds of the Noveau South. There are no a capella renditions of traditional numbers, just far more ambitious arrangements that skirt the borders of Americana with far fuller instrumentation. Their songs have been getting far more literate and thematic for a long time, but on Lessons they stretch out and are finally capable of truly pulling off a full album that articulately presents their sound and vision to its fullest. Ha Ha Tonka bases their albums on concepts that infuse them with life: Novel Sounds was inspired by Harold Bell Wright's novel, The Shepherd of the Hills and Lessons is inspired by a Maurice Sendak interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. "Colorful Kids" is a gem, namedropping Mark Twain and optimistically recalling the past while looking toward the future. On the title track, singer Brian Roberts claims, "I can't keep learning the same lessons over again." This circular pattern seems to be a particular lyrical issue for the band, but they keep coming up with fresh and inspiring ways to approach life and music. Listeners really can learn lessons from the album and have a damn good time doing it. Lessons proves that even when life hits you with the worst, you have to keep on trying. Ha Ha Tonka has done just this, and their albums keep getting stronger as they face adversity and triumph.


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