Christ, what was I doing all year when I was supposed to be listening to popular music? Every night, my mom would put a plate in front of me at dinner and say, “Don’t even think of leaving this table until you’ve finished your popular music songs, young man.” And every night, as soon as she turned her back, I’d be scraping those songs off my plate to the dog waiting patiently beneath the table.
What did I like this year? I liked reading the work of Dan Chaon and Dana Spiotta. I liked sitting on deserted beaches and feeling the sun set behind me. I liked watching my kids do really well in school. The records released in 2013 that I played all year included Tomorrow’s Harvest from Boards of Canada, mbv from My Bloody Valentine, and Open by The Necks. Those and the movie soundtracks to The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers. Spring Breakers was probably the best movie I saw all year. Oh, and I finally pulled Underworld by Don DeLillo out of my “to read” pile (where it had rested comfortably for 15 years) and finished it. It was well worth the effort. For some reason, I’ve been listening to an old Neil Young boot a lot, a Bottom Line show in 1974 that includes live renditions of “Ambulance Blues,” “On The Beach,” and “Motion Pictures.”
When I finally got around to compiling my favorite 15 tracks of 2013 (as always, based on the number of plays each track had accrued in my iTunes player), I found that my system had broken down. The songs I liked most were either so long they defied large numbers of plays (Open, by the Necks, consists of one track clocking in at 68:00) or were buried interchangeably within vast ambient soundscapes (what’s the best song on Tomorrow’s Harvest?). In the past, I used to crib outliers out of the competition, but this year I just threw the whole system out. And then I threw 2013 out, too. No one has ever come to this space looking to take the pulse of the current music scene. (If you were, you should check out my friend Duncan’s essential Lazer Guided Melody and specifically his 2013 Top Ten, here and here.)
At any rate, enough with the present and future of music. Let’s draw up the comfy quilt of reflection and look ever backward into the reassuring past. Here are my favorite compilations and reissues released in 2013. YouTube clips are featured below the title, an assortment of album tracks can be found in the Spotify playlist at the bottom.
If CDs are hopelessly archaic in this era of Spotify and Bandcamp and retro cassette-only exclusives, what are we to make of this 5-CD hardback-bound set released on London’s Cherry Red Records label? Just holding the thing in my hands makes me feel all 1994. I’ve been listening to this overview of ’80s indie British guitar-pop since it arrived in July. The best box sets take a story you think you know very well and tell it in a completely different way. I bought records fanatically all through the ’80s and early ’90s (including stacks of Rough Trade, Creation, and Factory imports) and most of what’s here is a revelation to me. For every band I remember well (The Wedding Present, Inspiral Carpets, That Petrol Emotion, Primal Scream, The Primitives, The Boo Radleys) there are three I never heard of (June Brides, Hepburns, Rosemary’s Children, Boy Hairdressers, Bachelor Pad). For all but a few of these bands, getting to London was the dream, America an impossibility. All in all, 134 songs from 134 bands, representing every Anglo scene (twee-pop, pub rock, folk pop, reggae pop, paisley underground, post-post-punk) ever worthy of its own 8-page photocopied, folded, and stapled ‘zine.
The critical outrage and controversy that greeted the 1970 release of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait seems preposterous today. A person with no knowledge of Dylan at all might identify Self Portrait as the work of an amiable country/folk artist, heavy on covers of traditional folk/blues standards, with some instrumentals and live cuts thrown in. If your knowledge of Bob Dylan was expanded to include his Wikipedia entry, you might recognize Self Portrait as the sound of a man backpedaling away from a rabid fanbase obsessively parsing his every phrase (and the contents of his trash cans) for cosmic significance. You might see Self Portrait as the work of a man who has learned the hard way that being the “voice of a generation” is a bum gig, and who’s media-savvy enough to do a little hype-deflating damage control. All of which is not to say that Self Portrait isn’t consistently charming in its emphasis on melody and tradition over lyric content. Maybe it was the Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon covers that made everyone mad. There’s nothing on Self Portrait that’s nearly as weird as the studio chatter, botched takes, stoner musing, and sawmill accompaniment collected on another “self portrait” of the era, Neil Young’s long-deleted Bizarro World Journey Through The Past. I’m no Dylanophile. Until this year, the only cut on Self Portrait I was familiar with was “Wigwam,” which is used to great effect on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Dylan first started to grow on me when my sister bought me the first officially sanctioned volumes (5 LPs in a box set) of the Dylan Bootleg Series for Christmas in 1985. I like the records most people like (Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks), dislike the ones most people hate (Desire, Knocked Out Loaded), and I have a special affinity for 1989’s Oh Mercy. At any rate, leave it to Bob to have two hours of utterly beguiling outtakes and alternate versions of Self Portrait-era songs sitting around in a can somewhere for forty years. There isn’t anything here that isn’t at least as good as the best of Bob’s post-Benzedrine years.
Space-age ambient from a disco producer most often associated with dancefloor mainstays Donna Summer and Sylvester. The eleven tracks spanning 82 minutes collected here are taken from two gay porn films made in late-70s, rainbow-era San Francisco, but you won’t find any porn-groovy wah-wah-pedal guitars or rubbery basslines here. Cowley (who died in 1982 of AIDS when AIDS was still called “gay cancer”) has his controls set for deepest space here, sometimes zoning out like Autobahn-era Kraftwerk and sometimes revving up into full-throttle Tangerine Dream. Only the title track, “School Daze,” sounds even remotely like something that might accompany two people fucking. And “School Daze” is pretty epic, too.
Emerging from an early ’80s Georgia jangle-rock scene that also spawned R.E.M., Pylon, the B-52s, and Let’s Active, the Q’s were in the right place at the right time with the wrong plan. The wrong plan started with their name, which suggested they were some kind of Dead-Milkmen-like, quirky novelty act, when in fact they were about as goofy and smirky as early Cure. A&M Records must have thought they were pretty funny, because they photo-edited the band into a herd of miniature ponies on the cover of the Blue Tomorrow LP that doomed their commercial prospects in 1986. And then bandleader Jeff Calder was so determined not to sound “Southern” that he never managed to establish any prevailing image for the Q’s at all. What the Q’s were, for anyone determined to listen, was an awesomely tight, driving, serious-minded pop juggernaut, a sort of American equivalent to Big Country or the Alarm, if one of those bands was sometimes fronted by a dramatic female vocalist in the Johnette Napolitano mold. This comp collects the eponymous first A&M LP and the Blue Tomorrow LP, both of which disappeared without a trace in the mid ’80s and had never been issued on CD before. (These records are not featured on Spotify, so enjoy the YouTube clip above.)
See Also: I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that the Waitresses’ complete discography (two LPs and an EP) has been compiled by Omnivore Records and issued on CD for the first time. The booklet that comes with Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses suggests that the Waitresses were “no flash in the pan” (the first of many diner puns, rest assured), but they were most certainly exactly that. During a heyday that spanned all of several months in 1981, the Waitresses accomplished a lot with very little, linking Patty Donahue’s wise-ass speak-singing with skittery guitars and lots and lots of saxophones to yield two songs (“Christmas Wrapping,” “I Know What Boys Like”) that will be featured on novelty comps until the end of time. Two hour-long discs represents more time than any sane person would want to spend with the Waitresses, but I remember them fondly.
My favorite rock record of 2013 was released as a handful of CD-Rs in 2007, saw a micro-release on Colonel Records in 2008, disappeared for a while, and has now returned on Burger Records. Was Dead is the work of Kyle Thomas, a guy who apparently can summon the hooky, riffy joy of “Teenage Kicks” or “Another Girl, Another Planet” at will and sustain it over the course of an entire album. Everyone thinks making songs like this must be easy, but no one can ever do it, a fact that must still drive John William Cummings batty in his grave. Thirteen tracks, thirty-eight minutes of power-pop splendor. what else can I say?
2002 was the year John Darnielle stopped being what he was and started being what he is today. For years, he wrote songs in his living room and recorded them on shitty boomboxes and sent them to tiny record labels that released them on shitty cassettes. And then he quit his job as a psychiatric orderly and became pretty much the poet laureate of American indie pop. That transformation occurred in 2002 and was marked by the release of two albums. One was Tallahassee, a legitimately polished and “produced” LP on the 4AD label that is one of the nine or ten greatest pop/rock records ever made. The other was All Hail West Texas, the last of Darnielle’s boombox recordings, released on tiny indie Emperor Jones and long out of print. Merge reissued it this year, returning a number of Darnielle live staples to the published canon and dispelling some of the bad mojo attendant upon the disturbing losing streak (All Eternals Deck, Transcendental Youth) that has befallen the Goats of late.
In the historical canon of reisssues, the 10th Anniversary Edition has usually been the most startling. It always seemed to have arrived way too soon. “Holy crap, didn’t that just come out?” you might have wondered, upon hearing the news that, say, Beck’s Odelay was being reissued for its 10th anniversary in 2004. Lately, though, as the speed of technological change increases and transforms our lives ever more rapidly, the opposite holds true. Confronted with a 10th Anniversary Edition of The Postal Service’s Give Up, you might be tempted to say, “Holy crap, that’s only ten years old?” Give Up originally appeared in the context of MySpace and Hotmail, mix-tape CD-Rs and MTV’s Amp and talking to people on your flip phone with your voice. Its plaintive bleep-bloopy synths, tick-tock drum machine rhythms, and Ben Gibbard’s hushed, pensive ruminations served notice to kids that “electronic music” didn’t necessarily have to be sterile wonkery or Big Beat frat rock. It was music for people who didn’t go outside much. I paid no attention to this record’s original 2003 release, due to a pathological aversion to all things Death Cab For Cutie, but I find I kind of like it now, in the same way I like Ondi Timoner’s We Live In Public, as a window onto a world that seems much more distant in our own experience than it does on a calendar.
There’s a guy I used to know, he was a DJ at the independent, free-form radio station WFMU-FM in Jersey City, NJ. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we would talk music a lot. We had similar interests in gonzo space rock, ambient soundscapes, and obscure movie soundtracks. And whenever he wanted to sum up the absolute nadir of all musical endeavor, he would haul out the ultimate epithet: George Winston. Me, I had no problem with that stuff. I was a big buyer of the Windham Hill samplers that used to come out in the ’80s, heavy vinyl records in thick plastic inner sleeves that featured the best of Michael Hedges and Mark Isham and Shadowfax. I loved them so much that I eventually sought out those same samplers in hard-to-find CD issues on eBay. The songs collected on I Am The Center represent the flipside of those “mainstream” New Age compositions. These songs were made by people — noodlers and mystics and latter-day hippies — who couldn’t find a record company to issue their spaced-out, head-expanding music, so they released it themselves on cassettes that were sold in head shops and health food stores. God bless the good people at Light In The Attic Records, the world’s most obsessive crate diggers, for finding this stuff.
See Also: In a similar vein, Finders Keepers Records have compiled the New Age oeuvre of Emerald Web on The Stargate Tapes: 1979-1982. Kat Epple and Bob Stohl were soundtrack musicians who also provided background music for planetarium laser shows in the 1970s. After being rejected by a number of record companies throughout the 70s, they started releasing their songs on cassette as the Stargate Tapes. Spacier than the I Am The Center stuff, with less wind chimes and more dragons. Essential!
In 1982 and 1983, R.E.M. played free shows at Rutgers University. I was dropped out of school at this point, well entered into a confusing and difficult period of my life. I spent a lot of time, hours and hours a day, riding my bike around New Brunswick, mainly trying not to think too much. One day, I was pedaling through the Engineering buildings on Busch campus and a car filled with girls pulled up next to me. They were trying to find the R.E.M. show at the Busch Student Center. As I gave them directions, I found myself staring at one of the girls jammed into the back seat, a pale, solemn girl with dark hair and eyes. The girls were telling me about R.E.M. (who I knew a little about, but not much) and after a bit, I must have lost the thread of the conversation, because I was staring at this girl. And then one of the girls was saying “Hello! Hello!” and there was a great deal of snickering and eye-rolling, and they asked me if I wanted to go to the show with them. (It was a free show, after all.) And for whatever reason, I didn’t. I don’t remember what I said or why. I was at a loose end in those days, and often didn’t know why I was doing or saying what I was doing or saying. So I watched the car drive away and the girl in the back seat with the solemn, watchful eyes turned around and looked at me and she waved. And then they were gone. In a car full of shouting, giggling, wise-ass girls she hadn’t said a word. And for some reason, I have never forgotten this. This record, Green, came out a few years later, when I had finally graduated from college and was working in warehouses and trying to find a “professional” job. I know Green is a deal breaker for many people, the record where the fanatics got off the bus and the Eddie Money fans got on. But for me, it’s all tied up with other things that happened thirty years ago and are realer and more present to me than whatever I did yesterday.
I wasn’t going to include this one, because no one but a stone-cold Clean obsessive (hi!) would ever buy it. Most of the songs from this LP (recorded when they reformed in 1988) are included on the essential The Clean: Anthology, a 2-CD set that performs for casual Clean fans the same function that Human Amusements at Hourly Rates performs for casual Guided By Voices fans. That is, it puts all the songs you need in one convenient place. But this 2013 reissue of Vehicle adds several locked-and-loaded live versions of early Clean 1.0 classics like “Fish,” “Flowers,” and especially “Point That Thing Somewhere Else.” So here it is.
Related: 15 Songs For The End Of Summer