Best Albums of 2013: Two Views

Is there anyone out there who still gives CDs as Christmas presents? If you’re thinking of giving one to a person under the age of 21, forget it! For the young, everything is downloaded onto computers, iPhones etc. Buying them a compact disc when they don't use a CD player would be like giving them a butter churn. An iTunes gift card is a much better choice. But if you are thinking of buying music for someone a little older, looking to treat yourself to some fine music, or looking to make a good suggestion to the recipient of an iTunes gift card, read on.

For the fourth consecutive year, Larry Van Cleve and I have put together our lists of what we feel were the best CDs of the past 12 months. Larry runs his own music site called Rock The Good Stuff in the Detroit area. We put our lists together independently of each other, and since there are no record companies that are sending us free CDs to review, our choices are made up of what we have bought, and sometimes, borrowed and burned

Dr. J’s Best 2013 CDs

The Big Names:

“12-12-12 - The Concert For Sandy Relief” – Various Artists. This is one of the best benefit CDs that has ever been put together. The outstanding line-up of artists include; Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, The Who, Bon Jovi and many others. My only complaint was that there was only one Paul McCartney song, and the set inexplicably omitted the Paul and Nirvana reunion number.

“My True Story” – Aaron Neville. How can you go wrong when you combine a singer like Aaron Neville with talents on the scale of Keith Richards and Don Was on a collection of classic R&B songs from the 50’s and 60’s? The answer is that you can’t. The renditions of “My True Story”, “Be My Baby”, “Money Honey”, “Goodnight My Love” and eight others are flawless. Hopefully, it will also inspire listeners to seek out the original versions of these timeless tracks.

“Old Yellow Moon” – Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Coming from the Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline schools of country music, most of what I hear at the CMA awards shows leaves me pretty cold. Thank goodness there is still room for recordings like “Old Yellow Moon” that embrace the classic styles and vocal traditions of one of America’s great music genres. Harris and Crowell are both giants of country music, and their voices blend together like butter on a warm slice of toast on this fine duets album.

“The Next Day” – David Bowie. This was the year’s biggest surprise for me. Who would have thought that David Bowie would put out an album this good after all these years? “The Next Day” is easily his best collection of songs in over 30 years, and it manages to touch on all the different styles that he embraced during his glory days in the 70’s and early 80’s. The iTunes version contains some excellent bonus songs, especially “I’ll Take You There”.

“Wrote A Song For Everyone” – John Fogerty. Fogerty revisits his past catalogue of both CCR and solo classics in a series of duets featuring many contemporary country music stars including Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, and Keith Urban and rockers like Foo Fighters and Kid Rock. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with songs of that quality, and the two new tunes on the CD stand with his past work. His duet with Bob Seger on “Who’ll Stop The Rain” is one of many highlights.

“The Low Highway” – Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses). This is a wonderful new album by one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters. As with most of his work, “The Low Highway” crosses many genres of music including rock, folk, country, and Cajun. At least one of the songs was first performed on the HBO series Treme, on which Earle had a recurring role for a couple of seasons.

“Girl Who Got Away” – Dido. Dido’s 4th is a little livelier and has better songs than “Safe Trip Home”, but this is still a chill-out album of the highest order. To my ears, Dido possesses one of the most distinct and compelling voices in popular music, and “Girl Who Got Away” might be her best album yet.

“Reflektor” – Arcade Fire. The Arcade Fire as the Human League? Not exactly, but “Reflektor’s” dance beats and 80’s influences probably surprised lots of listeners and long-time fans. It might take a couple of listens, but I think you’ll find this a worthy successor to both “The Suburbs” and “Neon Bible”.

 On the Edge:

“Jake Bugg” and “Shangri La” – Jake Bugg. The description of Bugg as a cross between Buddy Holly and a young Bob Dylan is close enough. The 19-year-old singer has put out two terrific albums this year. His self-titled debut contains the hit “Lightning Bolt”, used in the Gatorade commercial. Bugg’s newest, the excellent “Shangri La”, was produced by Rick Rubin. Bugg is going to be at the Royal Oak Music Theatre in January.

“Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze” – Kurt Vile. This is a great guitar album, but there is none of the non-melodic showboating that you find on far too many CDs by guitar virtuosos. Vile goes for a more stoned-out groove on his songs, delivered with his laconic vocals that remind me a little of the late, great Lou Reed.

“Signs & Signifiers” – JD McPherson. It seems to me that modern rockabilly artists play the music too fast and often fail to capture the swing inherent in the genre’s classic 50’s recordings. JD McPherson gets it right. This album sounds like it might have been recorded by Eddie Cochran at the Sun Studios in 1958. “Signs & Signifiers” was up for Best Album at the 2013 Americana awards.

“X” – Richard X. Heyman. This is Richard X. Heyman’s 10th album. I had never heard anything by him prior to “X”, a great collection of guitar dominated power pop that brings to mind both Badfinger and the Gene Clark-era Byrds. I’m going to have to check out this guy’s back catalogue.

“Promised Land Sound” – Promised Land Sound. This new Nashville-based band has an interesting mix of 60’s garage rock and the country music their hometown is most famous for. Their close harmonies and rockin’ beats have made a fan of Jack White who described them as, “All youthful scruff and bluff, and they crank out tunes that would be right at home in Link Wray’s 3 Track Shack or hanging with the specters of long lost 45s that haunt Nashville’s overflowing legend-filled cemeteries.”

“Melophobia” – Cage The Elephant. This is one of the more interesting alternative rock albums this year. The band reminds me a little of classic Pixies in that it’s both melodic and rocks hard. The songs on “Melophobia” display a great deal of variety, a seemingly rare commodity in modern alt rock.

“180” – Palma Violets. This is one of the new hot bands from England. I’ve read of them being described as ‘psychedelic’, but that doesn’t seem an apt description of their rather loose instrumental style that sounds like the wheels could come off at any minute. I really like the rocking tracks that make up most of the album; but the ballads, especially “14” the eight-minute closer, are best forgotten.

Special Recognition:

  • “Three Chords And A Cloud Of Dust” – Scott Morgan. This incredible 3 CD career retrospective of Scott Morgan deserves special mention. Although he is little-known outside of Michigan, Scott Morgan was one of the three greatest singers (Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder were the others) to emerge from the Detroit-Ann Arbor music scene in the 60’s. Unfortunately, Morgan never got the recognition he deserved in the past and now is facing some major health issues. This superior set of songs, many on CD for the first time, covers his entire recording career; from his earliest tracks with The Rationals, through selections with Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, The Scott Morgan Band, Scot’s Pirates and many more. The proceeds from the collection go to help defray the mounting costs of Morgan’s medical treatments

More Good Stuff:

“Ready To Die” – Iggy & The Stooges”. With Ron Asheton’s passing, this is a reunion of three of the band members who recorded “Raw Power”. This is a much better record than the first Stooges’ reunion album, 2007’s “The Weirdness”.

“Honky Tonk” – Son Volt. A very impressive traditional country album by Jay Farrar and his band.

“Heartthrob” – Tegan and Sara. I’m not a big fan of current pop music but the latest album by the Canadian twin sisters displays an interesting switch from folk to dance music.

“Pokey LaFarge” – Pokey LaFarge. This is the retro album of the year as Pokey explores the musical styles of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. He and his band are even better live than on record.

“Hyde Park Live” – Rolling Stones. How many Stones live albums could you possibly want? The answer: as many as they’re willing to put out! A highlight is their first live rendition of “Emotional Rescue”.

“American Ride” – Willie Nile. This is the latest album by Nile, a New York City legend whose live performances are a cross between Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan.

“Where Does This Door Go?” – Mayer Hawthorne. Ann Arbor’s retro soul man changes gears a little on his latest CD. Hawthorne’s newest has a few hip hop touches and a glossy modern R&B sound without straying too far from the classic soul music on his first two albums.

Best CDs of 2013 by Larry Van Cleve

Another good year. Lots of good music out there once you figure out how to find it (or if you’re lucky enough to have a good independent record store in your area). I usually don’t go by any ranking order but this year three strong contenders for release of the year are first:

1.)    “The Next Day” – David Bowie. First off, I'm a huge fan of Bowie’s studio output from 1970 to 1977:  I consider "Hunky Dory", "...Ziggy Stardust", "Station to Station" and "Low" classics.  Much of his output in later years are somewhat spotty with the occasional memorable track.  The excitement of his early work, that pleasure we get listening to a favorite artist’s work, was missing. Happily, a decade after his last studio album, we get "The Next Day" and the joy is back for this listener.  Referencing his great 70s work throughout, each track has its own identity.  Even though this is basically the same band from his last studio album in 2003, the sound overall is much more (should I say) retro with a millennium feel.

A lack of originality?  With an artist like Bowie in the later stages of his career, what better time than now to look back and assess your past (and your potential future)? A mature, career spanning work (The Deluxe version with 3 extra tracks is the one to buy).

NOTE: They have since released “The Next Day Extra” which features the album with an extra disk containing the Deluxe version extras and 6 other extra tracks. This is a trend I really dislike. Fortunately they have released the 6 extra tracks on “The Next Day Extra EP”. Recommended.

2.)    “Mechanical Bull” – Kings of Leon. The word on this album was that the Kings were doing shorter, harder rock songs and less of the longer rock anthems they are known for. A quick listen dispelled that notion. The tracks are generally shorter (and tighter) and each one knocked me out. I can hear “anthem” with most of the songs, especially imagining them played live. Kings of Leon are doing what they do best and once again they deliver.

Kings of Leon are one of the major rock groups operating today.

3.)    “Reflektor” – Arcade Fire. This is a band you never know what to expect from. Constantly evolving, they take the listener on a journey that can be rewarding and, at times, somewhat scary. Early viewing of some of the tunes from “Reflektor” done live had me wondering about the actual album. The Caribbean influence seemed strong and the structure of the tunes a bit erratic. No fear. Now that the album is here I can strongly say it’s one of the better albums I’ve heard all year. Co-produced by James Murphy of the former LCD Soundsystem, the production is crisp and current. Recorded first in Louisiana, moved to Jamaica they then joined Murphy in the studio creating additional electronic influences and beats.

The result of all this is an album much different than what they’ve done before yet still retaining that “Arcade Fire thang”. Never content to stay too static…Arcade Fire gives us another first rate album (double at that).

Now that they are an arena headlining band, I wonder where they are going next with their music? For sure, it will be interesting and I want to be along for the ride…no matter how bumpy.

4.)    “Light Up Gold” – Parquet Courts. Former Texan bandmates now operating out of Brooklyn, Parquet Courts (supposedly named after the Boston Celtics basketball floor) are a band that wear their influences firmly on their sleeve.  My first impression was the Fall but in quick order Modern Lovers, Feelies, Pavement and Wire (from "Pink Wire") followed.  You get the drift: late 70s - 80s alt indie bands.  Good company though.  Amazingly, they have taken those influences and melded them into something that is, well, Parquet Courts.If you're a fan of the above mentioned bands (with a touch of Buzzcocks, Vibrators. et al) this is an album worth looking into.  I wavered at first but now I'm firmly in the Parquet camp.  A quick and very rewarding listen.

5.)    “My True Story” – Aaron Neville. Take a whole bunch of classic doo-wop tunes, a smooth toned singer named Aaron Neville, add Keith Richards on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, put Keith and Don Was in charge of production and you have as sure a thing as possible.  To coin a phrase, true that for "My True Story". This album pays respectful tribute to the songs with a tasteful band and the mellow tones of Mr. Neville.  Vocal backup includes members of the Jive 5 (Eugene Pitt), Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (Bobby Jay) and the Del Vikings (Dickie Harmon). Aaron, Keith and Don were big fans of the Jive 5 version of "My True Story" and stayed true to the original.  For Leiber and Stroller's "Ruby Baby" they combined both the Drifters and the Dion versions.  Aaron admits a huge Curtis Mayfield influence so "Gypsy Woman" was a no-brainer. "Money Honey", "Be My Baby", "Little Bitty Pretty One", "Under the Boardwalk", "Work With Me Annie", "This Magic Moment"...the list goes on and on.  Magic in these tracks.Word is that 23 tracks were cut for this album and only 12 were released.  One only hopes that a second release is forthcoming.  True that.

6.)    “Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze” - Kurt Vile. Kurt's 2011 album "Smoke Ring for My Halo" was a critically lauded album that strayed away from his earlier lo-fi fuzztone roots.  The songwriting was first rate and his vocals gained an introspective edge that along with higher production values, all the praise was well deserved.  Now what to do about a follow-up? "Wakin' On a Pretty Daze" continues much in the same vein but more stretched out (and even more introspective?).  Laconic vocals with an "I'm not in much of a hurry" attitude.  A lot of country comes through here but his garage roots aren't hidden either.  Again, the production is top rate.  And if you listen closely this guy is actually saying something worth considering.This may top his previous's that good..

7.)    “Amok” – Atoms For Peace. Easy review to write.  If you have enjoyed Radiohead you'll enjoy this.  If you liked Thom Yorke's solo work you'll love this more electronically stretched out version.  Layers of sounds interplayed with Yorke's playful vocalizations. This is electronic music, not necessarily electronic dance music, though one could imagine a dance floor full of throbbing Yorke wannabes. If you don't enjoy later Radiohead and Thom Yorke you'll pass. That's ok, we want to keep this music our own...hands off.

8.)    “Ready To Die” – Iggy & the Stooges. In 2006 Iggy reformed the Stooges with guitarist Ron Asheton, recorded 4 tracks and started appearing live for the first time since 1974. In 2007 they recorded an album of new songs. I wanted so badly to be knocked out by “The Weirdness” but, alas, it wasn’t that strong an album. The gigs were good though. In early 2009 Ron Asheton passed away. Sigh.

Later in 2009 Iggy got together and reformed Iggy & the Stooges (“Raw Power”) with guitarist James Williamson and started doing live shows. Forward to 2013 and they recorded a new album “Ready To Die”. This was the album I expected in 2007. Produced by Williamson it doesn’t try to burden itself being another “Raw Power”. It’s a good rock band that’s played together long enough to present us with a tight album doing what they do best…having fun (both musically and lyrically). The spirit of the earlier Stooges albums (and the best of Iggy’s solo work) is there in spades. The only miss for me is “Unfriendly World” with Iggy’s Leonard Cohen voice he’s used unsuccessfully in the past.

This album rocks out.

9.)    “Where Does This Door Go?” – Mayer Hawthorne. Ok, another Mayer Hawthorne album and another listing on the best cd list. Retro respect for classic soul. Yawn? Not really, Mayer boosts up a notch here with improved production, singing and, yes, more contemporary sounding songs. The classic sound is still there but bringing in current top pop, hip-hop, R&B producers Pharrell Williams (N.E.R.D, Madonna, Strokes), Greg Wells (Adele, Katy Perry, One Republic), Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Jennifer Hudson) and Oak (of Pop & Oak: Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys) seemed to push Mayer forward a bit without losing his basic roots.

If you’re a fan of his work, everything you’ve enjoyed is still there but somehow…better.

You know, I think this guy has a future in this business.

10.) “Modern Vampires of the City” Vampire Weekend. If you felt that Vampire Weekend's previous releases were a bit too, well, precious and gimmicky, check out "Modern Vampires of the City".  The sonics open up a bit and it's quite a clever listen.  These are still some college grad-u-ates showing off their "arty farty" side but there's more of a feeling of sincerity and understanding of their sound, song construction and lyrical intent.  This is a much smarter album and not in a smarmy showy way. They have come into their own with this album and are a major band worthy of consideration.  Without dooming the record, this is a smart album for smart people. Oh, and I forgot to mention: "Modern Vampires of the City" is also a fun listen.  Cult following written all over it.

11.) “Another Self Portrait” Bob Dylan. Possibly the most important album listed here. As disappointing as the original “Self Portrait” was, this one is just as satisfying. There is way enough unreleased material here to qualify it for this list. This is 1969 – 1971 Dylan output that you mostly haven’t heard. Makes you realize what a good album the original could have been and makes the question as to why he released what he did more relevant than ever.

An elusive and important artist. Essential.

NOTE: Deluxe (read expensive) versions of this collection have a disk containing the complete 1969 Isle of Wight concert featuring the Band. The production is great and the concert is excellent but spending $100 to get it is insane. You can download just the concert on iTunes, although it will cost you around $22.

Further albums from 2013 to check out: John Fogerty “Wrote a Song for Everyone” (Guest star recordings of his classic output done very well. Fun), Richard Thompson “Electric” (There’s a reason a lot of famous musicians mention him as their favorite guitarist/songwriter), Willie Nile “American Ride” (An artist worth looking into and this is his best sounding album), The Beatles “On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2” (no explanation needed if you have the first volume).

( Check out my site at  That's where I write about the latest releases that could be contenders for this list. All of the above are there with genrally expanded reviews and it's really an organic work in progress...)