Another stellar year for music, coming in from all sides and never letting up. The sounds are definitely out there in the air, and as long as listeners stay open the groove never ends. In the holiday tradition, below are the favorite album picks for 2013. As reviewed in a July Bentley's Bandstand, the first half of the year featured these releases for favorite albums: Bell Gardens, Full Sundown Assembly; Bombino, Nomad; Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away; Dawes, Stories Never End; The Warren Hood Band; Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound; Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In; Boz Scaggs, Memphis; Semi-Twang, The Why and the What For; Shinyribs, Gulf Coast Museum. Highlighting the second half of 2013 are these ten extra-fine albums, along with best song and reissue of the year. Happy listening—and holidays!
Pete Anderson, Birds Above Guitarland. This man might best be known as a producer and guitarist, but there is so much more behind all those accomplishments. Fortunately, Pete Anderson's new release is like a bluesy coming out party for all he can do. There are songs honed from decades of listening to the sound of T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Otis Rush and everyone else who ever used a guitar to light an inner fire, and singers that bend the notes so everything hits hard and deep. The way Anderson does it all with such stunning effect is like he's unleashing secrets for those with ears to hear. Music like this has always seemed like part of a secret club, one the devoted find their way in. There is no better man to take the bandstand than Peter Anderson.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. What is it about San Francisco that puts an electric shimmer to the music being made there? Even when the lights grow dim and the fog rolls in, the glow stays on. Nicki Bluhm is a singer who can free-range from folk, pop, rock and even into the blues. She also makes sure that what she does remains entirely hers, which is the mark of a real artist. The Gramblers offer endless inspiration for her voice, too, and with multi-instrumentalist husband Tim Bluhm and not-so-secret weapon lead guitarist Deren Ney firing up the songs, it sure sounds like this is one bunch that will break loose next year, spreading California sunshine and a Bay Area fever from sea to shining sea.
Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos, Live. At their best, this freewheeling band sounds like they're in the middle of a bar fight where no one gets seriously hurt but there's definitely some downtown raucousness threatening to burst out of control. And at the front of the fight is guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder, playing lead and rhythm parts that defy gravity and logic. There is no one else doing these things on guitar anymore except Cooder, and with any luck he will continue for a very long time. The set list careens from Sam the Sham to Woody Guthrie, and everything in between. Just to make sure the stratosphere is reached, the ten-man La Banda Juvenil horn and drum crowd throws down for all they're worth to keep the meter in the red. Listen now before this music is declared illegal.
Deer Tick, Negativity. John McCauley appears to have hit head-on his own naked lunch, and isn't quite sure he likes what's frozen on the end of the fork. Still, that doesn't stop him from dealing with the kind of questions that turn humans into mounds of year-old Jello, or trying to hold up against the long odds of monstrous mistakes. This is as strong an album of survival as will be heard this year, and sometimes feels like McCauley needs a life vest immediately. Luckily that's where great bands come in and offer solid support, which is exactly what Deer Tick does, and a smart producer like Steve Berlin can steer them through the studio maze. This is one rockin' quintet that isn't afraid to go over the line and let all hell break loose, or ask for help when they need it. Whew.
Houndmouth, From the Hills Below the City. Sleeper album of the year, period. Houndmouth is a middle American band that somehow pulls the sound of the whole country into a sonic spectacle that is a continual surprise. Small town frustrations fuel an exciting revelation of modern life, one that turns from light to dark on a dime. Members Matt Myers, Katie Toupin, Shane Cody and Zak Appleby are like proud successors of Bob Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes, except they've moved out into the backyard to be able to turn up the excitement. Where songs this good are born and bred is one of the great secrets of music: "On the Road," "Penitentiary," "Long as You're Home" and "Houston Train" feel like some kind of grand expansion of that place where rock, country, folk and blues collide in a horrendous crash, only for something completely beautiful being born. The best news of all, though, is that Houndmouth feels like a band just getting started. Hooray.
Garland Jeffreys, Truth Serum. For the New York City musical crowd of the 1960s, Garland Jeffreys was always a stealth bomber. He went to Syracuse University alongside Lou Reed, and when he returned to Manhattan found his way into Grinder's Switch, even if very few ever heard them. On his solo debut of 1973, Jeffreys nailed New York to the wall, just as he's done for the past 40 years. Each album has been a study in growth, and his latest is a breathtaking run on modern life. The singer-songwriter always aims for the emotional bulls-eye, and can stop time with a single verse. "Too white to be black, too black to be white, I'm one of them, that's what I am," Jeffreys sings, and the unrelenting strength of belief he always inspires says it all.
Willie Nile, American Ride. Someone's got to keep the flame of Greenwich Village alive, and no one is better qualified than Willie Nile. He hit there in the mid-'70s, and got swept up in the "new Dylan" media mania that rears up every decade or so. Of course, Nile has always been completely himself, someone who casts an unswerving eye on street reality and is able to turn the spirit into songs that never die. He's written a guitar-case full and shows no signs of stopping. Thank goodness. There aren't many urban troubadours up for the gig these days. The pay is low and the rewards sporadic, but Willie Nile is a warrior. It's in his words, his voice, his guitar — it's everywhere in a ride that never ends.
North Mississippi Allstars, World Boogie is Coming. Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson won the musical lottery when they were born. Father Jim Dickinson was not only a Memphis musical maven, but he had a visionary ability to help his sons locate the very source of American music — the blues. Luckily, the children grew up to be men of their own vision, and the way they refract the light of the blues into a modern sound is never short of wondrous. Luther Dickinson's guitar and vocals veer all over the Southern landscape, and often seem to capture magic out of thin air. Drummer and vocalist Cody Dickinson is right there with him, always pushing the songs into new terrain. Of course the guest list on a North Mississippi Allstars album has to be all-star, and this one doesn't disappoint: Otha Turner, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Duwayne Burnside, Sid Selvidge, Lightnin' Malcolm and others are even joined by Robert Plant on harmonica for some serious musical mischief. World boogie has indeed finally arrived, and the Dickinsons are heading up the hit parade in deluxe style.
Johnny Rawls, Remembering O.V. There is no way anyone is going to equal the soul-stirring greatness that was Overton Vertis Wright, but thanks must be given to Wright's former bandleader Johnny Rawls for even trying. That he gets close enough to feel the heat says a lot about Rawls' abilities as singer and guitarist, not to mention his spirit in knowing how necessary a tribute like this is. A lot of Wright's classics are here—"Nickel and a Nail," "Ace of Spades" and others—and the band keeps it lean and mean all the way home. For good measure singer Otis Clay steps in on three songs, including one new one, and as an O.V. Wright contemporary Brother Clay is no stranger to soulsville. A moving tribute album (on Catfood Records no less), and one that will hopefully lead listeners back to the source. For starters, try The Soul of O.V. Wright, which collects 18 classics from the vocal giant's unbeatable Back Beat Records catalog. Have mercy.
Mike Stinson, Hell and Half of Georgia. The Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh once aptly described psychedelic music as "music played while on psychedelics." In a way, that's what Americana is — music played by Americans. In which case color Mike Stinson the King of Americana, because his recent album pretty much shreds the competition in that department. One reason is that Stinson writes songs that feel like a hot knife going in. They're that real. Then there's his voice, which is maybe a bit ragged, but always right. With producer R.S. Field everyone involved has helped create something that will ring true for decades to come. There is nothing pretty about songs like "Late for My Funeral" and "Lost Side of Town," and that's the whole point. No doubt Mike Stinson would not be allowed inside a Nashville record label building, something to be eternally proud of. More likely he'd be standing on the corner, suitcase in his hand, waiting for his next great song to stumble by.
Song: "Circus Comes to Town," Sara Petite. There are songs, and then there are songs. Sara Petite's title track from her new album is one of those chillbumpers that never fails to send shivers through the spine. In just several minutes she captures what it feels like to be a prisoner of life at the same time freedom is always lurking up around the bend. It's heartbreaking, really, and says so much about Petite's amazing ability to turn the pain of an aching soul into words and music. No one did it better in one song this year, and for that a standing ovation is in immediate order.
Reissue of the Year: Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat. Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison always said that if you really loved the band, this is the album that separates the weekend fans from the true believers. On only six songs, dazzling within is a world of outlandish love, mesmerizing mayhem, drug despair, tricky transgender hanky-panky and everything else Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and Morrison created from Manhattan's roll call of craziness. The band was fresh from several years at Andy Warhol's Factory, and the smell is all over them. By the end of the last song, "Sister Ray," a new style of rock and roll verité had been created, and things would never be quite the same. All the whistles and bells are on this fine, fine reissue (extra songs, extensive liner notes and photos, etc.), but it really comes back to the original music and how the VU painted their new world with sonic experimentation and lyrical daring while Sister Ray was searching for his mainline and sucking on a ding-dong. R.I.P. Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison.