BEST OF 2013: Fred Rudofsky’s Best Albums of 2013
Reviews by Fred Rudofsky
In 2013, I saw a lot of music and I bought a lot of music – yes, I’m that 21st century Luddite who still believes in owning a physical copy of an album, on CD or LP. There are a few albums that I’m sure would have made my list that I just haven’t picked up yet, but here’s a baker’s dozen of where it stands as of today… and a list of other noteworthy titles to consider as well. (Note: archival, box set and/ or reissue albums will appear on another list):
1.) THE HOLMES BROTHERS: Brotherhood (Alligator Records)
Available in Europe, but oddly not in the USA til April 2014, this album is tremendous from start to finish, as all the albums in the Holmes Brothers’ catalog have been since 1989. Blues (“My Word is My Bond,” “Passing Through”), soul (“Soldier of Love,” “My Kind of Girl”), folk (a superb cover of Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had”) and gospel (“Amazing Grace”) – they can do it all, and their three-part harmonies have no rival. Wendell Holmes sings and plays guitar with swagger; Sherman Holmes sings with warmth and plays some of the coolest bass lines around; and Popsy Dixon hits falsetto notes as deftly as he plays the drums. Do what I did: buy the album online, and be sure to order a few copies for friends and family.
2.) CANDYE KANE (FEATURING LAURA CHAVEZ): Coming Out Swingin’ (Vizztone)
The self-proclaimed “Toughest Girl Alive” (her five-year battle against pancreatic cancer is a profile in courage and an endorsement for the healing power of music) cuts a jubilant blues album live and direct to analog, with a fine group of musicians, most notably, Laura Chavez, a guitarist who deserves the press coverage that has been given lately to Gary Clark, Jr. and Joe Bonamassa. Kane’s vivacious and sanguine, delivering several originals (check out the title cut, “Rise Up!” and “Barbed Wire Mouth”) alongside choice covers of Benny Carter, Rick Estrin and Lala Guerrero. It’s a life-affirming album for any occasion.
3.) WILLIE NILE: American Ride (River House Records)
Ideally, title songs provide the heart and soul of an album. None is better than “American Ride,” Nile’s love letter to every part of this great nation, juxtaposing topography and towns with allusions to regional contributions to music and culture so seamlessly that you’ll be singing the chorus like it’s your birthright. Full-out rockers (“This Is Our Time,” “Life on Bleecker Street,” “God Laughs”) and delicate meditations (“She’s Got My Heart,” “Sunrise in New York City,” the moving immigrant story of “The Crossing”) give wonderful depth to the album. With outrage rather than the jingoism seen by pundits and pseudo-country stars, Nile calls out the cowardice and dogmatism of terrorists in “Holy War” in a terse set of verses, held together by a chorus worthy of Lennon or Strummer. Bruce Springsteen counts Nile as one of his closest friends – you should, too.
4.) NEKO CASE: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-)
Don’t let the album’s Fiona Applesque title deter you: this followup to 2009’s gem Middle Cyclone is worthy. Case is in top form, breaking the scars of heartache and depression and healing the soul with that alluring voice of hers. Case explores the fragility of nature, family tensions that linger (“Wild Creatures”), the unexplored halls of the psyche (“Night Still Comes,” “Where Did I Leave That Fire?”), the tug of yesteryear (“Calling Cards”) and the search for love and direction (“Man,” “I’m From Nowhere,” “Ragtime”) in a broken yet potentially beautiful world. It’s an album that transcends easy categorization, taking surprising risks lyrically and sonically, revealing new details with each listen. Seek out the deluxe edition; it includes a propulsive duet with M. Ward on Robyn Hitchcock’s enigmatic “Madonna of the Wasps.”
5.) BARRENCE WHITFIELD & THE SAVAGES: Dig Thy Savage Soul (Bloodshot Records)
A rock and roll opus, this followup to 2011’s kick-ass Savage Kings is everything that rock and roll should be: grooving, raucous and from the heart. Whitfield’s voice is the kind that grabs the audience by the ears and then buys them all drinks after they’ve danced themselves into a parched frenzy twelve songs later. Favorites? “The Corner Man” offers advice about a woman whose attitude precedes her; “Hangman’s Token” and “Hey Little Girl” just exude raucous good times. Want to hear some unhinged testifying? Try “I’m Sad About It,” a torch song that summons up some otherworldly shouting from Whitfield that will leave you disturbed yet smiling. The Savages play with immaculate abandon throughout. Somewhere, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown and Solomon Burke are smiling down, applauding these disciples of bluesy rockin’ soul.
6.) ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Songbook (Rounder)
Rarely has the CD/DVD combination been done as well as this offering, recorded live at Joe’s Pub in 2009. Hearing and seeing Toussaint, one of the most influential writers and producers of the last half century, take a solo stab at his vast catalog is a treat. The fact that he is also one of the finest pianists the city of New Orleans has produced just makes it that much better. Singing in a warm voice that is equal parts Charles Brown and Professor Longhair, Toussaint plays the hits he wrote for others (“Lipstick Traces,” “Holy Cow,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman”), revisits his socially conscious early solo work (“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?,” “Yes We Can”) and pays homage to his post-Katrina hometown’s resilience (“It’s a New Orleans Thing”). The extended recollection of how “Southern Nights” – a massive hit for Glen Campbell – was written is as good as the rendition that follows.
7.) RICHARD THOMPSON: Electric (New West Records)
I think I’ve figured out why Eric Clapton has never invited Richard Thompson to the semi-annual Crossroads festivals: a stadium of music lovers, Slowhand included, would have to bestow the title of Britain’s best guitarist to Thompson, who happens to be one of the best singer-songwriters of the past 40 years, too. Recorded in Buddy Miller’s Nashville home, this album is prime Thompson, with dark humor and vivid characterizations that go beyond mere song lyrics. Like a great actor, Thompson inhabits his characters’ strengths and flaws; his voice is part narrative, part confessional. The band is impeccable, and Thompson’s guitar is never less than surprising, laying down indelible riffs and ripping out wild solos that defy logic (“Stoney Ground” and “Straight and Narrow”) and yet make perfect sense. The waltzing, romantic “Saving the Good Stuff for You” offers hope for those who believe in second chances. Meanwhile, may the sentiments expressed in “Good Things Happen to Bad People” (with its classic aside “but only for awhile”, nailing the notion of karmic retribution) come true in 2014 and beyond.
8.) BUDDY GUY: Rhythm and Blues (RCA/Silvertone)
If not for the unnecessary presence of guests Keith Urban, Kid Rock and three members of Aerosmith on a trio of respective cuts, this double album of predominantly new material, written about the same time as Guy’s acclaimed memoir “When I Left Home,” would make my top five easily. Guy’s 77 years old, yet singing and playing with the vigor of someone 27. “Best in Town” opens the set like a hurricane, all with a wry philosophical eye to it (“You don’t have to be the best in town/ Just got to be the best, till the best comes around”), and punctuated by some masterful wah-wah guitar by Guy and the ebullient call and response of the Muscle Shoals Horns. “I Go by Feel” expresses a philosophy of life, too, about playing the blues and winning a woman’s affections. “My Mama Loved Me” is a knee-slappingly great vocal by Guy, and “Blues Don’t Care”, a duet with Gary Clark, Jr., lives up to its head-cutting promise, both men playing guitars with fervor and humor – after Clark lays down some gnarly Texas riffs, Guy throws back a wild cluster of notes that must have left everyone in the studio agape. Crank this one up loud, y’all!
9.) PATTY GRIFFIN: American Kid (New West Records)
She sings like she’s channeling whatever runs the universe, and writes with the gift that comes to only a few. Patty Griffin’s latest digs deep into her family history and the results are astounding. Recorded with the North Mississippi All Stars, Doug Lancio and producer Craig Ross (he plays all sorts of instruments), the album goes off to the lonesome roads (“Go Wherever You Wanna Go”), celebrates family pride (Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”), recalls Irish-American courtship (“Get Ready Marie”) and muses about the line between living and dying (“Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”). Robert Plant, Griffin’s lover, joins her on the haunting “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” Arguably the best song on the album, and one of the best vocal performances of 2013 is “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” a defiant plea for dignity set over 60 years ago.
10.) SAM PHILLIPS: Push Any Button (Littlebox Recordings)
Beguiling, funny and bold – that’s Sam Phillips in a nutshell, one of the great singer-songwriters of the past 25 years. Barely a half hour, this album is worthy of consecutive listens, mixing smart lyrics within sparse but fresh instrumental configurations. “Pretty Time Bomb” rocks with sarcastic pokes at reality stars; “When I’m Alone” brims with optimism in its contrariness. “Can’t See Straight,” the closer, does a sonic soft shoe and in two lines Phillips seduces even a doubtful listener: “The world is beautiful/ For no reason at all.”
11.) MAVIS STAPLES: One True Vine (Anti-)
A national treasure, Mavis Staples continues her fine run of albums going on another Jeff Tweedy-produced release. It’s more subdued but no less powerful than its predecessors. “Holy Ghost” and “Every Step” are sparse affirmations of faith, while an inspired cover of Funkadelic’s 1970 “Can You Get to That?” proves timeless given the current economic and spiritual uncertainty and finger pointing from all sides. Additional songs by Nick Lowe, Pops Staples and Tweedy inspire Mavis – yes, her first name suffices – to deliver some of her best performances in a long, remarkable career.
12.) SHANNON McNALLY: Small Town Talk: Songs of Bobby Charles (Sacred Sumac Music)
Backed by Dr. John and his fine, the Lower 9/11 Band, McNally fulfills a dream for herself and listeners by putting the eclectic songs of Bobby Charles back in the spotlight. “Street People” grooves like the Meters in their prime, with McNally’s honey-and-whiskey vocals bringing empathy to those on the skids. Luther Dickinson guests on slide guitar for the funky country of “Can’t Pin a Color,” while Derek Trucks does likewise over some fine B-3 playing by Dr. John in the sobering look at the diaspora of Native people in “Cowboys and Indians.” McNally brings sly resignation to the love-test depicted in “I Spent All My Money,” exchanges sass with a wise-cracking Dr. John on “Long Face” and finds equilibrium after the storm in “I Must Be in a Good Place Now.”
13.) THE LAST CONSPIRATORS: Celebration of Fury (Driving Rain Music)
Pitched somewhere between an EP and an LP, the latest seven songs from these local heroes hit the spot. The opening “Last Ones Standing” features a powerful vocal by Tim Livingston and looks unflinchingly at how age all too often quells youthful idealism in many. “Radio Warfare,” with Nick Basanz on eerie bass, sounds like a lost gem by the Clash; “Powerful Friends,” anchored by stellar drums from Al Kash and boisterous guitar by Terry Plunkett, offers a sardonic series of platitudes about those who thrive because of nepotism.
14.) The Duke Robillard Band with special guest Monster Mike Welch: Independently Blue (Stony Plain Records)
15.) Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters; Just For Today (Stony Plain Records)
16.) Shelby Lynne: Thanks (Everso Records)
17.) Carrie Rodriguez: Give Me All You Got (Ninth Street Opus)
18.) Pete Anderson: Birds Above Guitarland (Little Dog Records)
19.) North Mississippi All Stars: World Boogie Is Coming (Songs of the South Records)
20.) Guy Clark: My Favorite Picture of You (Dualtone)
21.) Slaid Cleaves: Still Fighting the War (Music Road Records)
22.) Over the Rhine: Meet Me at the Edge of the World (Speckled Dog Recordings)
23.) Dumpstaphunk: Dirty Word (Louisiana Red Hot Records)
24.) Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys: What a Dream It’s Been (Cow Island Music)
25.) Kermit Ruffins: We Partyin’ Traditional Style (Basin Street Records)
26.) Cyril Neville: Magic Honey (Ruf)
27.) The Campbell Brothers: Beyond the 4 Walls (APO Records)
28.) Jerry Miller: New Road Under My Wheels (Signature Sounds Recordings)
29.) The Chronicles: Spanning the Gap (TheChroniclesBand.com)
30.) Gogol Bordello: Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO)
Got a Best of 2013 list that you’d like to share with Nippertown readers? Best concerts of the year? Best Local 518 music moments of the year? Best plays? Best art gallery exhibits? Best books by local authors? Best whatever? Please keep it local, but send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org