By MARK GUARINO Music Writer | Chicago Sun-Times
December 23, 2013 7:32PM
Twelve months, hundreds of albums, and a few dozen you want to listen to again. Here they are slimmed to just 10 for 2013.
1. Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’ (Def Jam)
With every media rant about his “brand” and how he wants to sell more “product,” plus his embrace of a certain reality star, defending Kanye West the celebrity has become more and more difficult. But West as musical provocateur? Much easier. This supersized and often musically jarring album, his sixth, challenges listeners to confront issues we often don’t: self-imposed racism, rampant consumerism, and mass incarceration. The sound of this dark album is what pushes it home: avant industrial rock elements locked with hip-hop romance. If there is one album to stuff inside a time capsule to represent 2013 to future generations, this is it.
2. Lonnie Holley, ‘Keeping a Record of It’ (Dust-to-Digital)
Words will always fail to capture the experience of listening to the music of this Southern outsider artist, a sculptor and painter, who only recently, at age 62, started releasing music. His music is a close cousin to the most cosmic side of Sun Ra: swampy, simple, with droning vocals that reference grand themes like the mystery of art, the presence of God, and our connection to the planet. This is a blues elegy that synchs with the soul. This album, with members of the Black Lips and Deerhunter providing electronics, makes a nice bookend to “Just Before Music,” his equally stunning debut late last year.
3. Bill Callahan, ‘Dream River’ (Drag City)
A Texas singer-songwriter who makes cosmic folk songs amid simple settings, Callahan’s newest set of songs is a plainspoken and tender work that defies immediate logic at first listen, but is best appreciated for meditative absorption, preferably late at night.
4. Valerie June, ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’ (Concord)
Out of nowhere comes this 31-year-old Memphis singer and multi-instrumentalist who digs deep into the groove of Southern song traditions like murder ballads, blues and gospel. Co-producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys prevents the songs from disappearing behind the museum glass, so what’s preserved is an intoxicating melding of folk and R&B.
5. Robbie Fulks, ‘Gone Away Backward’ (Bloodshot)
The Chicago country singer is also the strongest songwriter this city has produced in years. The proof: This new set of originals that feature a core set of musicians who, in an acoustic setting, highlight the mystery and dark allure of the lyrics. For someone who is frequently known as a gonzo humorist, these songs show the real deal are the songs.
6. Savages, ‘Silence Yourself’ (Matador/Pop Noire)
Primal British post-punk that features bulldozer guitars, rubbery basslines, a stark setting and a singer, Jehnny Beth, who possesses the dynamic range and howling power of great singers before her time: Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and PJ Harvey. What’s not to like?
7. Chance the Rapper , ‘Acid Rap’ (self-released)
As an Internet giveaway, this album picked up steam all year, resulting in a side-stage booking at this year’s Lollapalooza that became submerged by an audience three times its capacity. It features a manic meshing of soul, psychedelic sound elements and energetic wordplay by a local newcomer whose captures the complexities of Chicago.
8. Rough Seven, ‘Codebreaker’ (Upper Ninth)
The second album from this New Orleans rock collective didn’t make it far outside the 504 area code, however rewards are certain if you can snag a copy. Leader Ryan Scully’s songs are infused with a scalawag’s soul, drawing on blues, country and subversive punk. Like a swampy Rolling Stones, this band holds nothing back.
9. Paul McCartney, ‘N ew’ (Capitol/EMI)
The continued story of late era Paul McCartney continues to amaze: This latest is a collection of songs with a modern pulse provided by a trio of young gun producers who never let the energy slide. Like his best work, the melodies prevail.
10. Mikal Cronin, ‘MC II’ (Merge)
Don’t let the shaggy hair fool you: Cronin likes his guitars big, loud and fuzzy, but the Laguna Beach native is a polished power pop guy at heart. A one-man, lo-fi Teenage Fanclub, Cronin delivers big-hearted love/lost songs without pretense.
Best of the rest
Angel Olsen, “Half Way Home” (Jagjaguwar); Justin Timberlake, “The 20/20 Experience” (RCA); Low, “The Invisible Way” (Sub Pop); Jason Isbell, “Southeastern” (Southeastern); Elvis Costello and the Roots, “Wise of Ghost” (Blue Note); Kacey Musgraves, “Same Trailer Different Park” (Mercury Nashville); the Flaming Lips, “The Terror” (Warner Bros.); Laura Marling, “Once I Was an Eagle” (Virgin); Superchunk, “I Hate Music” (Merge); Janelle Monáe, “The Electric Lady” (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy); Arcade Fire, “Reflektor” (Merge); Nine Inch Nails, “Hesitation Marks” (Polydor); Kurt Vile, “Wakin on a Pretty Daze” (Matador); Patty Griffin, “American Kid (New West)