Top Records of 2013: 20-11
20. The Night Marchers - Allez Allez (Swami)
John Reis always has his hand in so many projects that sometimes it's hard to keep up. The release of the second Night Marchers' album, Allez Allez keeps up his tradition of putting out high voltage rock 'n' roll at a time when it is almost extinct from the shelves. Not as vibrant as See You In Magic, but just as raging, the tight guitars and manic drums deliver Reis's amped-up message to the masses. While it might not be as raging, chaotic, or fun as another Rocket From The Crypt release, it is good to know that Reis is still making music. Long may he "wear the horns."
19. Dawes - Stories Don't End (HUB)
"Stories Don't End" is another minor triumph from Los Angeles's Dawes. The songs drift in like an amalgamation of 70's Laurel Canyon song-writing mixed with all too modern Suburban housewife ennui. Each seems so knowable and so perfectly formed that they seem to have been playing over loudspeakers for years. And they are also so damn catchy. "Just Beneath the Surface" starts the record on a high note -- smooth vocals and sweet backup vocals don't hinder the theme of uncertainty that travels through these songs. Even hints of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and other seventies notables don't lessen the effect, especially once the album is in regular rotation on the turntable.
18. A Wilhelm Scream - Party Crasher (No Idea)
I almost missed A Wilhelm's Scream's new rager this year, which would have been a shame since they were one of the showstealers at Riot Fest last year. Party Crasher is not as tentative as their last full length, 2007's Career Suicide. The dual vocals and tight metallic playing are still intact, making this one of the best records they have released since Ruiner. The guitars always shine and the drumming still separates them from the Fat Wreck Chords crew with which they are commonly categorized. Lyrically, they are still navigating social and relationship problems with literate and speed-fire missives. (Read the lyric sheets). That is not to say there has been no growth. Party Crasher is a positive and uncompromising punk rock record from a band that has somehow unwittingly become elder statesmen.
Dr. Dog's pop instincts are becoming more evident on each album. Soul and psych touches flourish in a much more organic way on B-Room. These songs feel fresh and vibrant and its hard to believe that its only been a year since they released Be The Void. "The Truth" is a soulful statement of purpose that paves the way for the rest of the album's easy sensibility. The album treads less in Americana territory than the last few. Instead, it relys on catchy songwriting and soulful delivery, continually placing Dr. Dog as crafters of fine albums.
16. Trombone Shorty - Say That To Say This (Verve)
Trombone Shorty splashed onto the national scene with 2010's Backatown, a stellar set of New Orleans Jazz-influenced, pop-inflected, catchy-as all-get-out tunes that seemed hell-bent on making people get up and dance. They did an excellent job of capturing their vital live act that melded funk, hip hop, soul, and rock into a stunning bouillabaisse of styles. Say That To Say This builds on this formula and is often more funky and far tighter than that set. Even when Shorty slips into John Mayer or Dave Matthews vocal material, the music remains engaging and Shorty comes across more like Citizen Cope than the aforementioned 90's pop stars. Ultimately, the band always turns it up. They are a tight, well-oiled machine that technically and emotionally handles every style they turn to, even though they are best at turning up the funk.
Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band's debut platter delivers on the inherent promise of its title. A collection of catchy Midwestern rockers that owe as much to Springsteen as Bob Mould, Coles and the band set the bar high with a collection of story songs that could only come out of that Midwest night that Paul Westerberg sang about on those early Replacements albums. Coles sings that he's "ready to fire up the engines of the night" and he doesn't disappoint. The record is a passionate love letter to song-writing. Many of these songs have been percolating in the band's live set for awhile, a few found release on demos and 7 inches, but they are at their most powerful here. I wouldn't say this record is a call-to-arms, but it sure is damn exciting. I can't wait to see what they deliver next.
14. Sebadoh - Defend Yourself (Domino)
Sebadoh's Secret EP was a nice teaser last year, but the full-length was well worth the wait. A lot has changed since Barlow and company released The Sebadoh in 1999 and Defend Yourself sonically reflects that. Many of the songs sound more like what Barlow was doing on his superb solo records than older Sebadoh. Gone are the noise experiments and super lo-fi sensibilities. Instead, the band delivers a strong set of cohesive songs that recall Barlow at his most heartfelt. While not as essential as earlier Sebadoh, Defend Yourself, at its best, crackles with an honest energy that shows just how effective they can be when they are firing on all cylinders.
13. Mudhoney - Vanishing Point (Sub Pop)
Vanishing Point is even more of a revelation. Mudhoney has never stopped putting out reasonably effective albums. Like the later Ramones catalog, each album was always good for two or three standout tracks. They were never able to get fully beyond cult status, but they still wrote some of the most iconic songs that came out of the lumped-together collection of Seattle artists now known as the Grunge movement. This isn't to say that the last few records weren't great in their own right, but Vanishing Point has a spark of energy that has been missing. The songs are true classics, humorous and riff-filled. Arm's vocals have become an ever closer approximation of Iggy Pop, and he fairly blisters here. The garagey sound is turned to eleven as the band works through psychedelic sludgefests and manic exercises alike. "I Like It Small" and "The Only Son of the Widow from Nain" are the standout tracks. The band isn't self-reflective, just self-referential, on the former track as they tear their critics to pieces, and continually celebrate their championing of what has made them great all these years.
Ashley Monroe's Like A Rose is somewhat of an anomaly on this list. For one thing, it is the first mainstream country record I have ever put on a top list. The reasons for this are simple: Monroe's vocals call to mind older country singers. Her voice is sweet and pure, not forced or edgy. The songs tell stories like good country songs should. The record's production by Vince Gill is also understated. In short, it is a record like Nashville used to make. The songs are also very traditional with plenty of fiddles and smokey back-up vocals. Yet there is a little bit of outlaw as well on tracks like "Two Weeks Late" and the honky-tonk number "Weed Instead of Roses." The real surprise though is her duet with Blake Shelton, (A name that shouldn't be on this list) "You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)" which calls to mind the classic duets of those country legends with a modern lyrical flair that would make it perfect for country radio. Like of Rose is an all too brief Nashville foray into classic country.
Neko Case's newest offering is far wider reaching than 2009's Middle Cyclone. A stronger and more interesting set of songs find Case in a seemingly much more optimistic mood. The songs are hummable and remain etched in your head. Case's cast of characters is larger as well because it is harder to tell who she is singing about. Her lyrics are more inscrutable at times, but her passion is very straightforward. It sounds like she had fun making this record, and it is damn fun to listen to. "Man" captures this sensibility perfectly -- "I'm a man that's what you raised me to be/ I'm not your identity crisis . . . I'm a man and not just casually" -- except for when it veers into unnecessary expletives. But perhaps that is what makes it so fun. The songwriting is so self-assured and Case's earthy voice remains as amazing as ever.