Music Isn’t Getting Worse, You’re Getting Older: Top 10 Comps and Reissues of 2013

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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.

 

Primal Scream, Jesus And Mary Chain, Josef K, Stone Roses, Aztec CameraScared To Get Happy:
A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989

The Lost And The Lonely: The Higsons

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.

New Morning, Nashville Skyline, John Wesley HardingBob Dylan: Another Self Portrait
The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (1969-71)

This is a promotional clip because NOBODY hates YouTube like Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

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. Continue reading

20 Songs for the End of Summer

So I was out at the beach locker in the pavilion at Spring Lake the other day, pulling out chairs and sand toys and body boards in preparation for our trip to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks. It was a gray rainy Monday; the boardwalk was silent and the building was unoccupied but for the elderly woman who checks badges at the entrance.

I carted out the first load of stuff to the car and then returned for more.  As I was climbing the steps out of the bowels of the pavilion with the second load, the woman looked up from her book.

“Moving out?” she said.

I was about to say, “Oh, no, we’ll be back.” But then I paused and counted the days and realized that, at best, we wouldn’t be back until the few days before Labor Day. The lockers close on the day after Labor Day. They’re tearing this old pavilion down in the fall, this outmoded edifice of ancient yellow brick, warped wood, and flaking paint by the Jersey Shore, and building a new one.

“Well,” I said, instead, “We might bring a chair or two back.” And then I humped the last of the beach stuff out to the car.

That’s the way summer is. One day you’re sitting on the beach in a swimsuit and sweatshirt, marveling as your children frolic in Memorial Day surf that’s still too cold for you to even dip a toe in. And then comes another day when you sense something, the quality of the light or a damp clammy breeze off the dunes at your back, and you think “Oh, right, autumn.” No matter how vigilant you are, the end always sneaks up on you.

At any rate, here’s twenty songs for the end of summer. Because you need these kinds of songs, when the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen. Text-linked You Tube audio in each entry.

Nick DrakeNick Drake: Saturday Sun

Saturday Sun

The elegiac piano, the retreating sun, remembrances of people in their season and time, Sunday weeping for a day gone by. It’s all there.

 

Paul Simon Art GarfunkelSimon & Garfunkel: April Come She Will

April Come She Will

The whole damned arc of the season, framed in terms of an intimate relationship, in just a few choice phrases, over the space of a minute-fifty. Man, that’s economy.

 

The ClienteleThe Clientele: The Violet Hour

The Violet Hour

How could I have written the original incarnation of this column and not included The Clientele? Every song in The Clientele canon is specifically about those hours at the end of the day, at the end of the summer, when you’re looking back in regret and forward in trepidation. Every whispered word mustered by front guy Alisdair McLean, every brushed drum and gently plucked string, is meant to evoke the last, lingering sunset moments of summer. Here, he remembers a lost love for two minutes, and then chucks that in favor of singing over and over “So that summer came and went and I became cold,” for two minutes plus.

 

wild nothing shoegazeWild Nothing: Summer Holiday

Summer Holiday

What? Too melancholy for ya? Slap this slice of up-tempo guitar chime and yearning vocals from wistful fuzz-poppers Wild Nothing onto the turntable. Here, from last year’s Gemini, it’s all about memories of summer holiday at your lover’s parents’ house and sneaking out of your separate rooms in the middle of the night for some quality time. In short, it’s what being eighteen is all about.

 

shelley fabares annette funicelloShelley Fabares: Lost Summer Love

Lost Summer Love

Fabares had a #1 single in February of 1962 with “Johnny Angel.” Later that same year, she released a second LP on the Colpix label, The Things We Did Last Summer, that includes a number of “summer’s past” laments (the title track, “See You In September,” a cover of the Brian Hyland summer weeper “Sealed With A Kiss”), none of which appeals to me much. Two years later, transplanted to the Vee-Jay label, she released a non-charting single, “I Know You’ll Be There,” that features “Lost Summer Love” on the flip. I originally encountered it on a Varese Sarabande compilation. “Summer is over/ And we have parted/ Nothing is left of, oh/ The dreams we started.” An almost martial drum beat, ethereal vocals, nifty horn break. What else do you want? (Not on Spotify. Enjoy the link above.)

 

frank sinatra dean martin rat packFrank Sinatra: The September Of My Years

September Of My Years

The great grandaddy of them all in the Autumnal Reminiscences Canon. Sinatra was turning 50 in December of 1965, the season when this LP appeared. Virtually anything here (the title song, “Last Night When We Were Young,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “When The Wind Was Green”) could fit in this slot on your playlist. This song, with its opening stanza, “One day you turn around and it’s summer/ Next day you turn around and it’s fall/ And all the winters and springs of a lifetime/ Whatever happened to them all?” will do just fine.

 

the cure robert smith U2The Cure: The Last Day of Summer

The Last Day Of Summer

Robert Smith in high melancholy mode. Lyrics self-explanatory. No longer on Spotify. Enjoy the YouTube link above.

 

Lee HazlewoodLee Hazlewood: My Autumn’s Done Come

My Autumn’s Done Come

I skipped this one the first time around, despite its perfect obviousness, for the entirely sensible reason that it wasn’t available on Spotify. And now, 3 years later, it’s still not available on Spotify, but you can listen to it in the YouTube link above. Lee’s voice is really made for that end-of-summer ennui. “Let those ‘I don’t care’ days begin.” Indeed.

 

terry jacks one hit wonderTerry Jacks: Seasons In The Sun

Seasons In The Sun

Yeah, what’s your point? Damn right, it’s hard to die “when all the birds are singing in the sky.” I cry everytime I hear this song. Technically, “spring is in the air,” but not for Rod McKuen, the wordsmith here.

belle sebastianBelle & Sebastian: A Summer Wasting

A Summer Wasting

Not everyone’s regretting lost opportunities and good times slipped away. Twee-poppers Belle & Sebastian know the values of loafing, and they’re perfectly okay with “Seven weeks of river walkways/ Seven weeks of reading papers/ Seven weeks of feeling guilty/ Seven weeks of staying up all night.” “I Know Where The Summer Goes,” from one of the early B&S EPs, would also fit nicely here.

 

The Summer EndsAmerican Football: The Summer Ends

The Summer Ends

I never heard of these guys until their only LP was reissued by Polyvinyl Records this year, and now it’s been in my car CD player all summer. Each one of the nine songs on the record stubbornly refuses to cohere into anything remotely like a chorus or catharsis. Sometimes the guitarists seem to playing two different songs before finding their way back to each other. And yet, each song manages to evoke a kind of free-floating sadness without ever quite landing anywhere specific. “The Summer Ends” is a goodbye song with a lovely trumpet. “We’ve been so unhappy, so let’s just see what happens when the summer ends.”

 

Dave Alvin Blasters XDave Alvin: Fourth Of July

Fourth Of July

Dave Alvin replaced Billy Zoom in X just in time to participate in sessions for the lackluster See How We Are LP in 1986. Dave brought “Fourth Of July” with him, however, and it was easily the best song on the record. Even better was the version he cut for Romeo’s Escape, the solo album he released in the same year. And don’t be deceived by the date, this one’s definitely about the end of everything.

 

Bruce springsteen e street bandBruce Springsteen: 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)

4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) (Live)

Spanish Johnny’s slipping out the window, Kitty left with Big Pretty, the circus is pulling out of town, and the boardwalk life for Bruce is through. Everybody’s leaving in Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, and the E- Street Shuffle. Even the album itself came out at the end of summer. September 11th, 1973. Time to roll down the security gates on the Asbury Park arcades, and drag the lifeguard chairs under the boardwalk. Season’s over.

 

doors jim morrisonThe Doors: Summer’s Almost Gone

Summer’s Almost Gone

Dig that tinkly chamber pop electric piano from Ray Manzarek on the intro. Wistful, eh? Then Robby Krieger starts twisting guitar notes into yearning shapes, and we’re good to go.

 

Palma violets, last of the summer winePalma Violets: Last Of The Summer Wine

Last Of The Summer Wine

Suggested by my friend Linda. The “end of summer” theme here is pretty much confined to the title, but I especially like Peter Mayhew’s trancy, churchy organ sound and Sam Fryer’s guitar, which calls to mind the chimey, yearning sound of Galaxie 500-era Dean Wareham. Also, the video clip for this song (see the link above) looks like every Labor Day in New Jersey. It might be 80 degrees through most of October in New Jersey, but you always know you’ll be huddling in a sweater, under an umbrella, on Labor Day, when it’s a perversely unseasonable 50 degrees with cold showers.

 

 

tom waitsTom Waits: Town With No Cheer

Town With No Cheer

Here’s one to send your Labor Day Party guests scrambling for the exits. March 21st is the last gasp of summer in Southern Australia, in some dusty nowhere station between Melbourne and Adelaide.

 

bob dylanBob Dylan: Summer Days

Summer Days

“Summer days and summer nights are gone,” but Bob Dylan “know[s] a place where there’s still somethin’ going on.” His Bobness has been engaged in his Never Ending Tour for more than twenty years now (appearing at every minor league ballpark, state fair, bowling alley, and laundromat across America) and he’s got no quit in him.  He’s “standing on the table,” he’s “spending every dime,” he’s “got [his} hammer ringin’,” he’s “got eight carburetors … and [he’s] usin’ ’em all.” Probably scare Belle & Sebastian half to death.

 

Indian SummerBeat Happening: Indian Summer

Indian Summer

Everybody thinks they can improve on Calvin Johnson’s robot vocal and dinky one-note synth riff, and, though seemingly dozens of bands have tried, no one ever has. (Luna probably came closest.) As for the song, well, “Breakfast in cemetery/ Boy tastin’ wild cherry/ Touch girl, apple blossom/ Just a boy playin’ possum/ We’ll come back for Indian summer.”

 

casiotone painfully aloneCasiotone for the Painfully Alone: Green Cotton Sweater

Green Cotton Sweater

They say you can find anything on the Internet, and here’s your proof. The 15th and last track on the Town Topic EP, buried behind a list of B-sides, instrumental versions, and unlikely ringtones, “Green Cotton Sweater” is an archetypal tale of a summer’s romance ended.

 

dusty springfieldDusty Springfield: Summer Is Over

Summer Is Over

And, finally, Dusty. I’m writing this on the breezy porch of an Ocracoke Island house in late August. There’s a flock of ducks waddling across the street to drink from the air conditioner run-off beside the back stairs, the wife and kids have walked off to get some ice cream at the harbor store; it’s time to fire up the grill for dinner; and the living is good.

Related: Songs For Old People To Dance To: Top 15 Tracks of 2010

Related: It’s Your Top 10 Hit Parade From the Summer of 1980