Best Albums of 2013
I have not done a year-end list in roughly 3 years. Not that anyone was particularly attached to my musings on the best of … or anything, but it’s a fun way to close out the year. Since this is the first year in just as long that I haven’t made an album myself, I have decided to throw one out there.
2013 was a year largely dominated by women. A 17-year old from New Zealand dominated the pop charts with a song that sheds the ridiculousness of the past decade’s over-the-top, prepackaged pop madness and injected a vibe and a youthful swagger that had arguably been missing since the days when Motown and Muscle Shoals dominated the genre; and at long last, a real fucking songstress took country music by storm as Kacey Musgraves broke through the truck/beer/get in gridlock of the genre with Same Trailer, Different Park.
While Musgraves certainly had the most success of any female in country music in 2013, she did not craft its best album. That honor most certainly goes to Caitlin Rose, the 26-year old daughter of Liz Rose (a Nashville songwriting vet who has penned hits for (gasp!) Taylor Swift and the likes), and her album The Stand-In. Backed by her outstanding touring band (who cut their teeth on The Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac), Rose manages to pay a most authentic and heartfelt homage to iconic female country and pop artists of decades past, channeling Carole King (“I Was Cruel”), Stevie Nicks (“Everywhere I Go”), and Loretta Lynn (“Dallas”) in a solid declaration of where country music has been and where should be today.
There is little that can be said about Kanye West’s latest offering, Yeezus, that hasn’t already been said. Folks either love it or hate it. It offends many. It gives others (myself included) musical wood. West’s last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was the best of 2010 – a bombastic feast of hip-hop, pop, electronica, and soul – which was criminally ignored because its songs were too long and inaccessible for radio and – let’s be honest – a lot of people just can’t get past his larger-than-life personality.
Commercial success, however that’s defined in music these days, no longer seems to matter to West. The self-proclaimed art student is more interested in making music that pleases himself. And, if it displeases the masses, the pleasure seems to be greater these days. So, are the tracks shorter this time around? Not really. Is the music more accessible? “Fuck you and your Hampton house/I fucked your Hampton spouse/Came on her Hampton blouse/And in her Hampton mouth.” Radio ready. Nonetheless, Yeezus is a concise (so far as West’s work goes) effort that succeeds where others have failed in expanding the rap and hip-hop genres. Yeezus widens its palette, including a taste for the industrial and minimalist; it strips away the genres overwrought layers and replaces them with its original grit (and sometimes brutality), much like the Coen Brothers’ celebrated No Country for Old Men did for mainstream Hollywood a handful of years back. If West manages to get out of his own legacy’s way at some point, time just may look back upon Yeezus with the appreciation it deserves.
I remember being inspired by The Postal Service’s 2003 album Give Up because of its deceptive simplicity. It was a sonic reconstruction of the joy of playing all those 8-bit video games as a kid (and at that point I had no idea what a Roland 808 was, to be honest), complete with all the angst and heartbreak of growing up. Few other musical moments can rival the way that record brings me back to my youth. There was the first time I heard “Unsatisfied” by The Replacements, every hair on my body bristling with emotion and confusion as to how the hell Paul Westerberg knew my life. There was the first time I listened to Heartbreaker from Ryan Adams, which brought back every broken heart I’d ever suffered (and some I didn’t) and crushed me. And now there’s Pure Heroine, the debut from 17-year old New Zealand online sensation Lorde. It’s a refreshing dose of timelessness that sheds the sheer banality and stupidity of today’s pop music, supplanted by honesty, emotion, and real moments to which real people can relate. That’s no small feat considering its company in a room full of dance floors, winos and whine asses.
There’s no way around the comparison – J. Roddy Walston sounds like Caleb Followill. And I fucking loved the first three Kings of Leon albums, so my aversion to Essential Tremors is understandable. Taking that nostalgic comparison and setting it aside, however, Essential Tremors is the most exciting album of 2013 and deserves much more praise than it has received in the press. Walston and the Business crank it up to 11 and only let off for a couple of brief moments. There’s straight axe rockers, such as “Heavy Bells” and “Sweat Shock.” There’s flashes of Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano brilliance on “Marigold” and “Tear Jerk.” And then there’s “Boys Can Never Tell,” which turns the whole formula over on its head and trades it in for an acoustic guitar for one of the best old man-to-son tracks written in years. And really, it’s just one song away from the best of 2013.
Ah, that song. Well, the story behind Southeastern first. Jason Isbell used to be a Drive-By Trucker. He used to be married to a Drive-By Trucker. Isbell used to be a drunk. His drinking destroyed his marriage and got him fired from the band. Then, of course, he got fat and everyone got concerned. Lo and behold, Isbell met (now wife) Texas fiddle player Amanda Shires, who (I imagine) told him “If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” The two got together and Isbell got sober. The result of that journey is the stellar Southeastern, 2013’s honorary recovery album and my album of the year.
It was a toss-up between Southeastern and J. Roddy Walston’s Essential Tremors, though the two could not be any more opposite each other. Essential Tremors is a goddamned celebration of rock ‘n’ roll. Southeastern, on the other hand, is that rare personal affair executed with such perfection it only comes around once a decade if we’re lucky. What puts Isbell on top this year, however, is his unrivaled storytelling, on full display throughout the album, but in particularly on “Elephant,” a soul-crushing tale off a man who watches his friend as she goes through the final terminal stages of cancer. I saw Isbell at the Ryman in Nashville this summer, and there wasn’t a sound in the house as he played the track. I have never heard such an intimate moment at a live show; some asshole inevitably blurts out or whistles or makes some other annoying disturbance. In that moment, you could have heard a pin drop; Jason Isbell punched us all right in the gut. It’s his year.
Lunch break is never long enough. Never. Ever.
Musings of a Soldier
I never thought I’d be at this point: nearing the end of my contract with the Army and deciding between re-enlistment and separation. My plan was to serve three years and get out. Character building. See-the-world kind of shit.
Yet, here I am 10 months out from my separation and I’m looking to reclass into the Civil Affairs program and stay in the Army. Why?
I was medically disqualified from Officer Candidate School. It sucks to get picked up and then dropped two weeks later. It was a roller coaster. I loved the Army then despised it. However, when it all comes down to it, I was in that game for the money. Officer pay is what it is. And enlisted pay is modest, to be polite. You’ll get varying opinions on the distribution of work between the two, but having been an enlisted service member working almost entirely among officers for the past 18 months, I know better than most service members that those opinions are misguided due to a lack of transparency. NCOs work for a living. So do officers. The nature of the work differs. I harbor no resentments about it. It’s all about mindset.
Now that the money is off the table, it comes down to a decision about what I want to spend my life doing. Service is in my blood. It’s in my soul. Deep down, as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an integral piece of the machinery whereby public goods are crafted and delivered. Even when we were flirting with music, I was satisfied knowing that we were delivering something y’all could take home and use to sooth the heart and mind.
At the same time, I’ve got a family now. A beautiful wife, her two children, our daughter, and the final piece on the way this winter. Busking on the streets of Nashville and playing open mic nights won’t take care of them. Nor will some internship at the CBO or otherwise. Since I’ve been in the Army, my family has been taken care of financially, educationally, medically - you name it.
At the end of the day, here’s how I see it: Civil Affairs allows me to move into a position of being the public face of the Army. We deal with people on a daily basis both at home and abroad, assessing their needs and coordinating delivery of public goods to match those needs. It’s the closest I can come right now to doing what I want to do in life AND take care of my family. Really, what’s more important in life than those two things?
Plus, I’m staring at a $20,000 bonus if I change over to CA and re-enlist. That’s a big chunk of my master’s degree paid right there.
"For what it’s worth: it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again."
Is it just me or does Rachel Ray sound more and more like your 60-year old aunt who’s been smoking since 13 every passing day?
Rain should not be allowed on Mondays; they are dreary enough all on their own.