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. Continue reading