As I write this, the Grammys are airing. And so I, like every lover of fantastic and worthy music, am doing the obvious: I’m not watching. I haven’t watched the Grammys in well over twenty years, which means I’ve not only saved 60 hours or so of precious time, I’ve probably saved a few television sets in the process. In short, I cannot stand the Grammys. To be clear, it’s not so much that the actual choices for nominees or even the winners are so misguided or puzzling—although how Kanye West has managed to win 21 Grammys is a bit perplexing—but the banal, narcissistic, and politically-correct posturing of The TV Spectacle Called “The Grammys” is simply too much. I cannot take it. And so I don’t.
(Astute readers will note that several of my selections were nominated for Grammys. Again, I don’t think the Grammy choices are necessarily poor, as they are actually often on the mark. But the television event itself is a travesty. Update: Yep, a complete travesty.)
Back in 2006, I wrote my first (and only) “Carl the Snarl Music Awards” as a response of sorts to the Grammys. “Most Top 40 pop/rock music,” I serenely opined at the time, “is heavily-produced, hyper-marketed aural trash … Which is why I offer you the “Carl the Snarl Music Awards,” a heavily biased, very subjective, but entirely correct collection of music deserving time on your CD player, iTunes, iPod, or whatever other musical device you employ.” So, in truth, I must thank the Grammy’s for saving my “Favorite Albums of 2013,” which I started compiling two months ago but have never finished—until now. If it weren’t for The Grammy’s, the following would have become a mythical and bedazzling sort of rumor, along the lines of Seal’s “Togetherland” album.
I’ve listed my twelve favorite albums of the past year, followed by a few other albums (36 of ’em, actually, for a total of 48 favorites) that I think deserve some attention. “And…” [glancing blankly at the huge audience] “…the winners…” [grins slyly and a bit creepily] “…are….”:
Carl the Snarl’s Twelve Favorite Albums of 2013:
• “Fortress” — Alter Bridge | I’ve enjoyed each of this band’s three previous releases, but this fine album exceeds expectations. In short, this is hard rock/melodic metal with brawn, brilliance, and brains, delivered with a swirling combination of delicate detail, massive burn-into-your-brain riffs, and vocals that mix equal parts dark swagger with cathartic depth. Myles Kennedy (lead vocals/guitar) and Mark Tremonti (guitar/vocals) marry the intense edginess of Guns ’N’ Roses (Kennedy has toured as vocalist for Slash), the melodic tight-rope walking of Journey (minus the saccharine triteness), and the epic perspective of, say, Porcupine Tree or Riverside. A lesser band could have fallen into the pit of pretentiousness or into the bowels of bombastic nonsense, but there is no flab here. And whatever self-indulgence might be found is at the service of musings on matters far more interesting than the usual rock fare, whether it be metaphysics (“Cry of Achilles”), environmental plunder (“Bleed It Dry”), or apocalyptic angst (“Waters Rising”).
• “The Original Mono Recordings” — Miles Davis | I’m not an audiophile (costs too must), nor even a completist (costs too much), but I was able to buy this 70 song set—which includes classic albums such as “Kind of Blue” and “Sketches of Spain”—for a nice price on emusic.com. And I’m glad I did. I didn’t quite understand how a mono recording could trump stereo, but since these classic 1950s and ’60s albums were originally meant for mono, I gave it a try. The sound is amazing; the sense of space and depth is surprising; the immediacy is, well, immediate. This is great music rediscovered.
• “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep” — Spock’s Beard | I’ve never been a huge SB fan (sorry, Brad! Start a fire! Get a rope!). Although I did really enjoy “Snow” and “V”, I hadn’t listened to the group often in recent years. But when I learned that Enchant’s Ted Leonard—he of the effortless, magical pipes—was joining the group, I was anxious to hear the result. Bringing Leonard into the fold was a stroke of genius, for the result is, to my ears, near perfect: fresh, tight, energetic, smart, big, and engaging. If you’ve not heard, listen to the cut, “Something Very Strange,” and see what I mean. And the semi-obscure, crypto-Christian lyrics are also very good: up front, intriguing, and never annoying.
• “The Tide, The Thief & River’s End” by Caligula’s Horse | These guys, put simply, deserve much, much more attention. From my November 2013 post about this album: “The group’s first, full-length album, Moments From Ephemeral City (2011), was attention-grabbing and quite memorable, featuring the virtuosity of guitarist (and band founder, producer, songwriter, etc.) Sam Vallen, and the powerful, soulful Jeff Buckley-ish vocals of Jim Grey, who apparently hails from the U.S. The two combine to create alternative prog that brilliantly marries technical prowess with emotional potency, compelling melodies, and lyrical mystery—always a winning combination in my book.”
• “Occultus Tramitis” by Antoine Fafard | This is fusion jazz/prog/rock/you-name-it of the highest order. All of the players are exceptional, many are legendary: Fafard (bass), violinist Jerry Goodman (of Mahavishnu Orchestra), Scott Henderson (guitar), drummers Dave Weckl, Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio, and Gavin Harrison. Etc. At least two things set this apart from many other fusion-y discs: the use of the violin, which offers much contrast and texture, and the compositions, which remind me, in places, of pieces by the Dixie Dregs, and are constructed with great intelligence and attention to detail. For a good introduction, listen to the opening track, “Peace for 4”.
• “One Breath” by Anna Calvi | This sophomore release not only doesn’t disappoint, it builds squarely upon Calvi’s eponymous debut while stretching out in different directions. From my October 2013 post: “The music is again quite atmospheric, lush, and yet focused; the arrangements are intelligent and often complex, but they are accessible and attractive, even when discord and chaos are occasionally introduced. Calvi makes great use of silence; she is one of the few artists I know who will let silence be an obvious part of a song…”
• “Touching” by Eric Alexander | Saxophonist Eric Alexander is not a household name, perhaps not even among some who follow jazz. But since the early 1990s, he has produced an impressive string of outstanding albums, built upon a muscular sound and Sonny Rollin’s-like ability to create perfect, no-noted-wasted solos on the fly (as demonstrated in his live albums). This album, however, consists of ballads, and so the focus is on Alexander’s rich and longing tone, as well as melody. The secret weapon here is Alexander’s teacher and mentor, pianist Harold Mabern, who brings an impressionistic, gospel-tinged sound to the affair, imbuing it with just the right mix of restrained joy and sparkling color. Listen to Alexander and crew cover Michael Jackson’s “Gone Too Soon”.
• “The Envisage Conundrum” by Godsticks | From my April 2013 post: ” The one influence I hear is later King Crimson, but even that is hard to pinpoint, although the angular, often astonishing guitar work by guitarist/singer Darran Charles brings it to mind in several places. None of the songs are longer than seven minutes in length, but some of them pack in more twists, turns, veers, swerves, and surprises in five or six minutes than many bands can pack into songs three times as long.” One of the more unusual albums I heard this past year, and one that defies both easy listening and easy categorization.
• “Breakthrough” by Eldar Djangirov Trio | Here is a prodigy who is coming to maturity in exemplary fashion. Whereas his early albums were dominated by impressive feats of speed and complexity, this album shows that Djangirov is more than just flash; he possesses a deep and insightful musicality. The late, great Dave Brubeck described the young man as a “genius”; who am I to disagree? And that genius, to me, is showing itself in the form of rich beauty, not just stunning technical feats. Here he is covering Radiohead’s “Morning Bell”.
• “Live At Rome Olympic Stadium” by Muse | I don’t normally include live albums in year-end round-ups, but Muse is one of the best live bands around—and this CD/DVD set proves it. The fact that the trio had only one shot at it makes the end result even more impressive. The sound is very good, the playing is spot on—Matt Bellamy is near perfect, which is saying something considering that he’s also playing guitar (and piano), while zipping around and entertaining a few thousand crazed fans. The energy, intensity, and slightly twisted nuttiness that Muse exudes live is remarkable. It’s also fun. And Muse, much like Queen (a group they remind me of more and more), do like to have foot-stomping, anthem-belting, singalong fun. Hear, hear!
• “The Electric Lady” by Janelle Monáe | By any reckoning, Monáe’s music shouldn’t appeal to me all that much: a wild, fairly sassy (“Sassy? You just used ‘sassy’?” — Anonymous) mixture of r&b, funk, electronica, rock, hip-hop, and the kitchen sink. Then again, one of my favorite pop artists is Seal (especially albums 1 – 3), who demonstrates the same capacity to synthesize fairly disparate influences (although, frankly, a better comparison is Prince, or whatever he goes by these days). Regardless, I like this album. It’s that simple. So kick me off of Progarchy.com. Fine. But first listen to “Givin’ Em What They Love”, performed with, yes, Prince.
• ” In Time” by The Mavericks | My favorite country group of all time is back, and they haven’t missed a beat or lost any of the Maverick magic. Of course, golden-throated singer/songwriter Raul Malo has been producing plenty of fine solo albums, but there is something quite singular and satisfying about the retro sounds of this quintessentially American group, which is a marriage of Roy Orbison, tex-mex, honky tonk, Latin, lounge, and much more. Not many groups can tear it up with a song like “Come Unto Me” and then rip out your heart with the haunting tune, “In Another’s Arms”. A welcome return.
And, for good measure, some more picks in three key categories: Prog, Jazz, and Everything Else:
More Prog Picks:
• “Himlabacken Vol. 1” by Moon Safari | Fabulous vocals and harmonies.
• “On My Way to the Sun” by John Elefante | See my June 2013 post for details.
• “Automatic Day” by Little Atlas | A Miami-based group whose cerebral prog deserves a bit more attention.
• “The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)” by Steven Wilson | Could have easily made my Top 12. A watershed effort in many ways.
• “Dream Theater” by Dream Theater” | A really fine return to form. Nice nods to Rush!
• “Nine Lives” by Von Hertzen Brothers | Incredibly catchy, effortless prog.
• “The Mountain” by Haken | The range of musical landscape traversed is quite mind boggling.
• “English Electric, Pt. Two” by Big Big Train | The most soulful, organic-sounding prog out there.
• “Time and Space” by Lobate Scarp | Impressive production and playing; see my full review.
• “The Wisdom of Crowds” by The Wisdom of Crowds | Quietly intense and tuneful prog.
• “In This Life” by Virgil Donati | Is it prog? Fusion? Metal? It’s all that and more. Some stunning playing.
And, of course, some more jazz:
• “Star of Jupiter” by Kurt Rosenwinkel | Released in late 2012, but so good it needs to be mentioned here. Distinctive guitar from a young master.
• “The Stars Look Very Different Today” by Ben Allison | If there is such a thing as proggy art jazz, this is it!
• “Water and Earth” by Jeremy Pelt | A tasteful collision between bop and fusion trumpet.
• “Walking Shadows” by Joshua Redman | A lush, string-filled affair with a great selection of tunes.
• “Somewhere” by Keith Jarrett Trio | One of the greatest piano trios to ever play continues to produce vibrant music.
• “Pushing the World Away” by Kenny Garrett | A sax master with another masterful set.
• “Sun Pictures” by Linda Oh | The young bassist/composer with a dreamy set of West Coast-inspired cuts.
• “Angelic Warrior” by Tia Fuller | A perfectly titled album, as Fuller play beautifully and with conviction.
• “Elevation” by Tony Grey | The virtuoso electric bassist melds fusion and world beat in a reflective collection.
• “Out Here” by Christian McBride Trio | Exquisite piano trio, led by one of the best bass players around.
• “Prism” by Dave Holland | Angular, adventurous guitar/bass/drums trio. Holland continues to amaze.
The Best of the Rest:
• “Moondance” (2013 Deluxe Remastered) by Van Morrison | One of my favorite albums by a favorite artist, with remastered sound and a disc of outtakes.
• “Creedence Clearwater Revival” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (6 CD set) | Everything the band ever produced, including two live albums. Great sound and excellent packaging/booklet.
• “The Winery Dogs” by The Winery Dogs | Mike Portnoy and Co. crank out some top notch hard rock, free of frills but with plenty of oomph. (Is that Chris Cornell on vox?! Nope, but you’ll think so.)
• “The North Borders” by Bonobo | Mellow, tuneful, and flawlessly produced electronica with a world beat vibe.
• “12 Stories” by Brandy Clark | Proving that not all country is silly, sugar-coated nonsense, vet songwriter Clark writes and sings tunes that are both funny and tragic.
• “Steffani: Stabat Mater” performed by Cecilia Bartoli | Entrancing sacred music by an 18th-century Jesuit priest, performed beautifully by Bartoli, with choir.
• “Thorn in My Heart” by Kim Richey | Talented singer/songwriter Richey continues a quality run of quiet, Americana-tinged albums.
• “The Improvised Violin Concerto” by Mark O’Connor | One of the true musical geniuses performing and recording today.
• “Build Me Up From Bones” by Sarah Jarosz | If Alison Krauss made bluegrass more mainstream, the quiet but edgy Jarosz is making it more alternative.
• “Fourth Corner” by Trixie Whitley | The soulful daughter of the late Chris Whitley draws from the same sparse, bluesy soundscapes.
• “Inland” Jars of Clay | One of the few CCM (contemporary Christian music) groups that avoids clichés and preaching, producing quality music.
• “If” by London Grammar | This young trio writes and performs deceptively simple tunes sung by one-of-a-kind vocalist Hannah Reid.
• “Smilewound” by Múm | A fabulous pop album from Iceland that will never chart because it is simply too interesting, too different, and, well, too good.
• “Fortunate Fall” by Audrey Assad | Worship music that is actually worshipful and good. Brilliant lyrics, beautifully performed and sung.
And now, the Grammys are over. But am I sad? No. Because I don’t care. But, still, congrats to the worthy winners. Until next time…