Howard’s Top Albums of 2013
That the sound of Brooklyn comes from Cinncinnati makes perfect sense. Everyone wants to be in Brooklyn. That this once struggling indie band has graduated to playing in the borough’s biggest arena confirms both the band’s and the borough’s trajectory over the last decade. Brooklyn now has a big arena for its biggest bands — a modern new space filled with locally sourced food and enough bike racks to accommodate the group and its fans. Brooklyn has become an international brand that conveys authenticity, and The National has become one of its most authentic and successful exports. What with its world tour and accompanying documentary, “Trouble Will Find Me” could have been entitled “Success has Found Us,” but that would have been far too self aggrandizing for a band that has made a study of self doubt and modesty. When Tom Berringer sang in his weary baritone “I was not supposed to be here,” to a crowd of 15,000 at Barclay’s Center this year he certainly meant it — after all, who, 12 years earlier when the band formed, could have predicted either the arena he was playing in, or the fame he has found?
2. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Arcade Fire has always worn its influences on its sleeve and with Reflektor they have decided to bust out their gold lame disco shirts and oversized white suits. Arcade Fire was community organizing before it became cool — if there is a more powerful moment in contemporary music than a stadium full of people singing the opening to Wake Up I haven’t heard it — but Reflektor encourages us to use our feet rather than our voices to find common cause. Dance meister James Murphy propels the album along with steel drums, Caribbean rhythms, and synthy slices like a 21st century Stop Making Sense. In an age when we listen to so much music alone on headphones, Arcade Fire is best experienced live, in this case as one big dance party with a few thousand of your best friends. Don’t miss them on this tour.
If Riot Grrl legend Kathleen Hanna is running fast these days it’s surely to make up for lost time — specifically the decade she lost to fighting Lyme’s Disease (a fight chronicled by the newly released must see documentary The Punk Singer). Now back in fighting form, Hanna has formed The Julie Ruin and is again preaching the gospel of feminist empowerment. Run Fast is beautifully fierce, pig tail bopping keyboard vamps smacking headlong into slashing guitar riffs; Hanna alternately cooing and growling “Girls to the front.” It’s always time for a Grrl Riot.
If Americana was a place Valerie June could be its new Mayor — the genre could have been invented to describe the way she knits country, blues, gospel and folk in one seamless garment. June grew up in West Tennessee, a place, she says “where the color lines of the South seem to blend” and her music mines those deep seams where different cultures meet. Twenty years ago record stores would not have been able to decide where to stock June’s album — would she go in the folk or blues or country sections? Today we can discover her music on its own terms, beyond obvious category or label — June calls it “organic moonshine roots music,” but you will just call it one of the best albums of the year.
Sam Phillips’ latest box of sugared confections is full of adult sized pop nuggets of rueful wisdom — sunny songs full backward glances and nostalgia. “It’s easy to change your name, but hard to change your life,” sings the woman who has managed to do both.
Everyone has a backstory. Field Report’s Christopher Porter used to play in a band with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. When Vernon left, first for a cabin in the woods to record For Emma, Long Ago, and then for stardom, Porter stayed behind, and took half a dozen years to set these intricate small town portraits to twangy pedal steel and melancholy violin. When Porter sings “this bitterness was killing me all along” he sounds like he means it — or at least meant it; the songs’s title “I am not waiting anymore” suggests that he has begun to move on. With “Field Report” we are lucky he did.
Doc Feldman begins Sundowning at the Station by demanding “Give me a lethal dose” in a voice so weary that it sounds like it’s already been administered. When Feldman sings “Leave out the bottle and leave on the light” on the album’s second song you have a pretty good sense of where this is headed — heartache and faithless love bathed in banjo and countryfied guitar. “Never mind the pain, never mind the cost, it will all work out in the end,” is what passes for optimism on Sundowning. You have been warned.