Jeff Spevak's best albums of 2013

05:00 AM, Dec 20, 2013

Youn Sun Nah played the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival in June. (Sung Yull Nah)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

I paused for long days over The Flaming Lips’ harsh, apocalyptic The Terror, and the upbeat, soul-pop of Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon. But ultimately, these albums are not where the heart of this middle-aged white guy lies today. No, I’m driven by songwriters who find that moment where beauty and angst collide. Stuff I can relate to, like death, beer and UFOs.

My top 10 albums of 2013:

1. Jason Isbell:
The fact is, the Drive-By Truckers were a little songwriter-heavy. With three guys writing great stuff for the literate southern-rock band, Isbell went off on his own, and we’re a better world for it. Southeastern is a collection of frequently bitter laments of love and loss. Every one of these songs is remarkable and tells the harrowing story of a life falling over the edge. Isbell lingers over lonely truckers, cancer and images of women who sit cross-legged on a bar stool “like nobody sits anymore.” This is a heavy record, one written by a newly sober man with many, many regrets: “There’s a man who walks beside her. He is who I used to be. And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.” Isbell has a Feb. 1 show at Geneva’s Smith Opera House.

2. Neko Case:
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
There’s a real desperation in that title, something I hear in Case’s voice as well. The fragile heart that once beat in the souls of Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield, yet an indomitable spirit. The atmospheres that Case creates aren’t weird, but they are unsettlingly surreal. It’s like standing on your porch at night, staring out into the darkness, uncertain as to what’s out there. Backed here by great guests such as Calexico and Los Lobos, Case has an eye for the truth: She knows that snow always falls sideways in the city.

3. Youn Sun Nah:
The South Korean was the talk of this summer’s Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. She croons, soars in faux-operatic vocalese and scats through traditional songs and her own compositions. On “Soundless Bye,” her sighs are brokenhearted cries. And there is an astonishing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and a heartbreaking take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” that out-hurts even Johnny Cash’s version. Nah is a singer unlike any other.

4. Jim James:
Regions of Light and Sound of God
This is a spiritual record, and if you ask which spirits, I’d have to say The Beatles. “A New Life” might be the finest moment, a reminder that the lead singer of My Morning Jacket, under the name Yim Yames, put out an album that was entirely George Harrison songs. In fact, he sounds like Harrison from the opening line, “Hey, open the door, I want a new life.” It’s delicate, and he steps carefully through the opening moments until the song blossoms with rhythmic warmth and sincerity, layer upon layer joining in, as James’ voice soars to falsetto. It’s really beautiful.

5. Howie Gelb:
The Coincidentalist
“Welcome to the desert,” is Gelb’s album-opening greeting on this truly fabulous trail of arid, yet human, desert ballads. I’ve long been a fan of Gelb and his band Giant Sand and his murmured baritone philosophies, surrounded here with spare and gorgeous guitar, doo-wop, chimes and ’60s French pop choruses. All seemingly recorded “in the shadow of an old, dead volcano.” This is a stroll through desert landscapes as Gelb ruminates on tinfoil-covered windows and how he comes from “a long line of coincidence.”

6. Bill Callahan:
Dream River
Callahan used to release records under the name Smog. Now he’s his own man, straight from the school of monotonal yet excruciatingly honest observations. Like Sam Beam of Iron and Wine or Robert Fisher of Willard Grant Conspiracy. “In the hotel bar lookin’ out a window that isn’t there,” he drones. “Lookin’ at the carpet and the chairs. Well the only words I’ve said today are ‘Beer’ and ‘Thank you.’ Beer. Thank you. Beer. Thank you. Beer.”

7. Volcano Choir:
An apt name for a band that combines an earth-shattering presence with a hushed, church-like structure. Music with an epic, intimate feel. It started as a side project by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but now it looks like the main course. Bonus points for using a recording of Charles Bukowski reading a poem at the tail end of “Alaskans.”

8. Pere Ubu:

Lady From Shanghai
. David Thomas’ avant-garde dance-rock band, Pere Ubu, is music for the anti-authority crowd, its view of the world as elastic as Thomas’ lyric question, “What part of the dream is true? What part of the truth is a dream?” Thomas’ existential poetry percolates around electronic beats, synthesizers and noise that the band treats more as found sounds from a dying civilization than something from today’s disposable dance floor. This is a cynical band, and a very funny one. That’s not quite the Anita Ward disco hit “Ring My Bell” creeping through the opening track, but Thomas merely telling you to “go to hell.”

9. David Lynch:
The Big Dream

. As we know from his film and TV work, like Eraserheadand Twin Peaks, Lynch’s brain is an ominous, terrifying place. From the opening techno spaghetti western of the title track, Lynch uses electronically altered nightmare vocals, which works particularly well on Bob Dylan’s most-murderous song, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” His characters move in a zombie stagger, the lyrics like the demented ramblings of a serial killer. Yet this is all contradicted by songs such as “Cold Wind Blowin’,” coming from the same place as the rest of the album, but there’s no denying the beauty of it.

10. Shooter Jennings:
The Other Life


I do not know what to make of Jennings. The son of Waylon is a honky-tonker who spends half his time in UFOs. So yeah, I kinda like the weirdness. The opening “Flying Saucer Song” is 75 percent Pink Floyd, 25 percent Little Feet. Now the listener is properly broken down for what follows: no-rules country. A scorching putdown of the genre’s current state, comparing his outlaw daddy with today’s “pretty boy in your cowboy hat, couldn’t hit country with a baseball bat.” Before Jennings is done, we’re on the “The Low Road” and a bullied kid who “took my Skeletor lunchbox, took out his front teeth” then close with a Springsteen-epic, avant-garde jazz epic “The Gunslinger.”