Here is a list of new music that I listened to a lot during 2013.
Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit
There is breaking the mold, but there is also inhabiting the mold in a new way. Porter’s voice is buttery. His songs dig deep. His phrasing is subtle and revelatory. I am a huge fan of Joe Williams singing with the Basie orchestra, and Porter’s voice has some of the same gravitas. Each. Note. Matters. And the band is smoking. Echoes of Oliver Nelson—and a bit of Oscar Brown. Yes, his Blue Note release puts him in the position to be the next Nora Jones styled jazz crossover. Do you have a problem with that? Commit. The guy can sing. Clap your hands now.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Shadow Man
Saxophonist Tim Berne developed a reputation in the eighties as a serious screamer in the downtown New York scene. I always imagined him playing the role of John Zorn’s more mature older brother. But his wheelhouse has always been writing ridiculously serpentine melodies. They twist and turn, coil up and extend, at stunning speed. You better hold on. Shadow Man is the second album (on the notoriously mellow ECM label) by his outstanding Snakeoil band. It features Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ches Smith on drums, and the miraculous Keith-Jarrett-groove meets Cecil-Taylor-shattered-glass Matt Mitchell on piano. The album balances tightly scripted passages with sections of relatively free improvisation, density with space, and the four voices talking in unison and independence. In this regard it shares a lot with Wayne Shorter’s crackerjack quartet, which released the noteworthy Without a Net this year. It sounds like scrambled eggs, but listen to how they scramble those eggs!
Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon
Her voice is like cut crystal. Lots of chimes, strings, and electronic processing. You know you wanted to hear Phil Spector produce Adele’s duet album with St. Vincent. You didn’t imagine it would be this catchy or deep.
Vjay Iyer and Mike Ladd, Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project
This haunting album reminds me of my undergrad days reading Wallace Terry’s Bloods and listening to Hal Wilner’s genre-busting projects with William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, and others. Mike Ladd interviewed Iraq War veterans of color and transformed their experiences into spoken word pieces. He is joined by two veterans telling their own stories. The musical accompaniment is thick, groovy, and unpredictable. Held together by Ayer’s acoustic and electric piano, it veers from spacious electronica, to free jazz, to Eddie Hazel styled guitar freakouts. You never know what you will encounter around the next corner.
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (A capella)
I’ve got to give props to one album discovered, but not created, in 2013. I never really liked the Beach Boys. Bombastic, jingoistic, and desperately lush. But the a cappella version of Pet Sounds stopped me in my tracks. It is spacious. Silence rules. And when the voices come in? It’s delightfully rough. Not a term used to describe the original. God only knows. If someone did this to Dylan, I might become a fan of him too.
Myra Melford, Life Carries Me This Way
This is a rare solo piano outing in which the always-interesting Melford offers musical interpretations of drawings by the late Sacramento artist Don Reich. I remain obsessed with her Guest House album from a couple of years ago, her spacious and angular take on the classic Bill Evans/Scott La Faro thing. Here she is much more mellow and lyrical. The tunes develop slowly and often build into gently rolling waves of sound with just enough chromaticsim and off-kilter rhythms to keep you guessing. It’s like Philip Glass falling down the stairs. It is easy listening without ever being easy, perfect for masking the constant student/teacher conversations echoing from the offices up and down the hall. Here is “Attic,” one of the more pointillist tracks on the album.
Snarky Puppy, Family Dinner, Volume One
I’d never heard of the Denton, Texas by way of Brooklyn fusion collective until their cut with Lalah Hathaway’s amazing vocalisms went viral.
The whole concert is something to behold. Snarky Puppy took up residence in a Baltimore theatre for two nights and invited a series of stellar vocalists to sit in with the normally instrumental band. Proceeds went to a local music school. The grooves are tasty, tight, and multi-layered. The open arrangements give the vocalists plenty of room to stretch out. But best of all, everyone involved—including audience members sharing the stage—appears to be having a blast. The shear joy of making music together is in full display. I want to be part of it, please. It’s hard to pick another highlight, but try not to smile when you check out the young Jayna Brown bringing it home.
Brad Paisley, Wheelhouse
Yes, I’ve been a fan for a long time. Yes, he has been pushing the envelope on the topics available to mainstream country songwriters. Yes, “Accidental Racist” deserves derision. It is far from his best, but I have to thank Paisley for Wheelhouse, the album I prefer to call “Music to Talk about the History of Southern Racism By.” His blog-bait duet with LL Cool J is not the jewel here. That award goes to the lead single, “Southern Comfort Zone” (officially released in 2012, I know), something of an answer song to the 1918 smash “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)” by Tin Pan Alley stalwarts Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young. Paisley employs religion, family, primitivism, an Around the World in Eighty Days riff, an Irish pub, a giraffe, a southern church choir singing “Dixie”(!) and more in an attempt to suggest that white southerners might need to reconsider their parochialism. It’s not quite enough. The song and video have everything necessary to launch a dissertation on the continued resonance of romantic fantasies about the American South in the face of over a century of globalization. Time to get writing.
Ylvis, “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)”
I listened this more than any other piece of music in 2013. The tune is the perfect pop confection from the long-sought “Jerry Lewis Sings Yes” tribute album. There are raging debates within the academy about musical functionality and art for art’s sake. That all ends here. This song is the most useful bit of sonic medicine I’ve encountered in years. Two measures in, my boys cease what they are doing and sing along. Every time. The song can stop poop-joke avalanches. Thank you, Ylvis. Better than Benadryl.
Karl Hagstrom Miller teaches American studies and History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow.