Welcome to the Northeast Underground’s third annual listing of the top albums of the year. In the past, this blog has organized best-of posts both alphabetically and in more random fashion. But this year for the 2013 edition of the list, the Underground is going strictly by the numbers. Read below to see which great records made the cut.
Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Take one longtime grunge mainstay, multiply its skills throughout a 20+ year career, and what do you get on the band’s 10th studio album – a raucous collection of 12 songs that Rolling Stone Magazine labeled a “brooding, pissed-off set,” and “great news for fans.” Pearl Jam made a welcome return to the charts in 2013 with Lightning Bolt. Featuring the speed-punk charge of “Mind Your Manners” as well as the stately ballad “Sirens,” this latest disc from Eddie Vedder and company shows the joy real rock ‘n’ roll can bring when played by true masters. Though other Seattle contemporaries like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains have reunited in recent years to throw on some flannel and record new music, no one else from the ‘90s alt-rock explosion continues to make music as vital as the boys responsible for such iconic albums as Ten and Vitalogy. This new works fits nicely alongside the classics.
ACLU Benefit – Live with Amanda Palmer
One of this writer’s favorite concerts of 2013 was also one of the most unexpected. When Amanda Palmer visited the Calvin Theatre in April (check out a full review of the show here), she brought along not one but three different friends to share the stage with her. The first to perform was Noah Britton (aka ACLU Benefit), and his set went down so well that the talented singer and songwriter decided to release it as a live album via his bandcamp page. Featuring eight songs and an extra track consisting of a 10+ minute interview Palmer conducted with Britton after his performance, the record manages to reproduce the spontaneous atmosphere of the concert, complete with audience sing-alongs and comedic between-song chatter. You don’t have to close your eyes like Britton requests the crowd to do during “I Love You So Much,” but if you do you just might feel like you were in Northampton that night.
Watch ACLU Benefit and Amanda Palmer perform “I Love You So Much” live in Northampton here:
Yellowbirds – Songs From the Vanished Frontier
Another concert highlight in 2013 was the Paradise City appearance of the band Yellowbirds. Group singer and guitarist Sam Cohen performed a stripped-down set as the opening act for Guster in January, and during his 35+ minute performance the former Apollo Sunshine member previewed several tracks from his band’s yet-to-be-released second album. According to a later Northeast Underground review, heard in their fully-realized and recorded form on Songs From the Vanished Frontier, “the same tracks appear blown wide open into Technicolor daydreams.” Highlights include “Mean Maybe” and “Love Stories,” which are both ‘60s pop coated in a 21st century sheen. But the real strength of this record is its intimate ache. Filmmakers would do well to pillage all nine tunes for future soundtracks.
Daniel hales, and the frost heaves. – Contrariwise: Songs from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
Sure this latest album from Greenfield musician Daniel Hales isn’t due to be officially released until 2014, but since much of the material was first performed during the New Renaissance Players’ production of “Alice in Wonderland” at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls in February, and the album is already available on the band’s bandcamp page, I’m including it in this 2013 list anyway. Featuring 17 tracks inspired by the two classic Lewis Carroll books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” Contrariwise is a folk rock narrated trip down the rabbit hole with Hales and bandmates James Lowe, Ivan Ussach and Anna Wetherby leading the way, joined by other various “Looking-Glass Creatures” on such tracks as “Jabberwocky,” “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and the catchy title cut. It’s a topsy-turvy journey fit for a Cheshire Cat, but the music is never less than engaging, and at times even reaches the stately heights of Carroll’s own words.
Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed in Blood
This eighth studio album from the world’s favorite Boston punks arrived in a pivotal year for the Murphys and their beloved hometown. Though released in January, the record and such anthem-like tracks as “The Boys Are Back” and “My Hero” took on new meaning just three months later when explosions shattered the celebratory feeling near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As is typically the case with anything Beantown related, the group rose quickly to offer assistance to the city as well as to the hundreds who were injured in the attack. Selling t-shirts through its own charity the Claddagh Fund, the band raised $300,000, which it donated to victims of the bombing. And when Rolling Stone Magazine announced plans to feature a picture of one of the terrorists responsible for the attack on its cover, the Murphys were there again to speak up and allege that the publication should be “ashamed” for making such a choice. Almost lost in all the tumult was the fact that though almost 20 years into their career, the same guys responsible for “Shipping Up to Boston” and “Tessie” remain unwavering in their dedication and urge to fight for what they believe in. “Don’t expect laid back,” says Murphys drummer Matt Kelly. “Expect energy, power, and bring your ear plugs. We don’tmess around man.”
Watch the official video for “The Boys Are Back” by the Dropkick Murphys here:
Stephen Kellogg – Blunderstone Rookery
On his first solo album in 11 years, Northampton singer and songwriter Kellogg shows no dip in confidence, despite the fact that the release comes on the heels of his band Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers announcing its plan to go on an indefinite hiatus. Faced with a crossroads where other musicians may start questioning their artistic direction, Kellogg appears more determined than ever. And nowhere is the former frontman’s display of self-assurance more apparent than in the choice of his record’s first single. Coming in with a running time of 10 minutes, “Thanksgiving” is a slow-building epic that touches on moments of nostalgia, sadness, and overwhelming joy. Of course given its non-standard length, modern radio will probably ignore the track, unless of course it finds a place for the number alongside fellow holiday anthem “Alice’s Restaurant.” Elsewhere, “I Don’t Want To Die On The Road” shows that Kellogg is a working musician with one eye on the future, and on “Good Ol’ Days” the singer augments his traditional country rock sound with horns and backing vocals. Yes, it’s still too soon to start clamoring for a Sixers’ reunion, but if Blunderstone Rookery is a template of what’s to come, then Kellogg will be just fine in the interim.
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – Ripley Pine
Over two years ago, this writer witnessed an impressive appearance by Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (aka Aly Spaltro) at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton. So when news came that the young singer and songwriter was set to release her first “professionally recorded” album this year, expectations were high. Amazingly, Spaltro lived up to the hype. In fact, every song and every arrangement heard on this record is the artist’s own creation. Tracks like “Bird Balloons” and “Crane Your Neck,” which were standouts on previous bedroom recordings and demos, are now fully-realized visions, constructed with additional instruments and refinements. Other songs like “The Nothing Part II” and the closer “Taxidermist Taxidermist” merge soulful vocals with artful orchestrations. Still, amidst all the mix of sounds is an intimate quality that brings Spaltro’s words not just into a listener’s ears but also their heart. She’s a tender demon, just as liable to soothe a stranger’s sorrow as she is to send chills up their spine with a scream or leave them cowering after a savage howl. Who could ask for anything more? Listen closely, and you too might fall under the Beekeeper’s spell.
Chelsea Light Moving – Chelsea Light Moving
When alt-rock’s ruling couple Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon announced in 2011 that they were separating after 27 years of marriage, music fans the world over pondered the future of the pair’s shared band Sonic Youth as well as the lives of the artists themselves. While the group quickly announced a hiatus, Moore and Gordon have remained anything but quiet after their split. Teaming with friend Bill Nace, Gordon quickly formed the experimental guitar duo Body/Head. And Moore, after joining forces with Samara Lubelski, John Moloney and Keith Wood, formed the band Chelsea Light Moving, which released its debut album in March. On the record, Moore leaves behind the mellower trappings of his previous solo albums Trees Outside the Academy and Demolished Thoughts for a louder and faster punk-influenced sound. “Lip” is a sub-three minute blast that features Moore screaming “too fucking bad” over stop-start riffing, and the fuzz-infused cover of the Germs’ track “Communist Eyes” is a raucous closer that dissolves with a squeal of feedback. They say breaking up is hard to do, but with music this good underground icon Moore has culled something great from his personal turmoil.
Doug Ratner & the Watchmen – Run With Me
Opening with the riff-filled ode to life on the road “If You Wanna,” the third album from the Western Mass band Doug Ratner & the Watchmen is perhaps the most freewheeling rock record to come out of the Pioneer Valley in years. Filling a listener’s ears with classic-sounding licks and lyrics concerning timeless subjects like relationships, having a good time and man’s best friend, many tracks on the release are perfect for playing at high volume whether at home, at the bar, or while driving down the highway with the top down. One particular highlight, “Dogs,” has even become the anthem for the Washington Humane Society, creating a more upbeat alternative to all those depressing commercials featuring the music of Sarah McLachlan. Still, amidst all the feel good vibes are notes of nostalgia and even moments of naked emotion. As previously noted by former Valley Advocate writer Tom Sturm, “Will There Be a Day” just might be “the first song to address the Newtown/Sandy Hook shootings, and in a way that comes from a place of genuine feeling.” Instead of playing somber acoustic instruments or utilizing string-augmented melodrama, Ratner and company have crafted a song that’s a defiant, electric-charged call for a brighter future. Here’s hoping those betters days are ahead for everyone, and here’s hoping that Ratner is still around in days to come to provide a voice for such worthy causes.
Watch the official video for “Dogs” by Doug Ratner & the Watchmen here:
Purson – The Circle And The Blue Door
Back in the ‘70s, bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath mixed heavy rock with dark lyrical themes to create music with occasional occult overtones that was often as chilling as it was engaging. In 2013, the psychedelic rockers of Purson are carrying on that songwriting tradition with positive results. On its debut album, the group led by front woman Rosalie Cunningham casts a spell over listeners with tracks like “Spiderwood Farm,” which tells the story of ghosts haunting a house in the country, and “Leaning on a Bear,” which uses a blues-influenced foundation to augment lines about a creepy circus where “children swarm like flies.” According to the branch of theology known as demonology, which focuses on the study of demons and beliefs concerning such creatures, the name Purson refers to the “Great King of Hell,” who is often accompanied by 22 legions of demons. If Purson the band continues to pen songs as entrancing as those on this record, its number of fans could soon grow to the size of legions and beyond. Many listeners may willingly sign up to join the horde.
Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse, Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – What the Brothers Sang, Califone – Stitches, Huckleberry Binge – Tornado EP, Kids Choice – Older Babies, (the) Melvins – Everybody Loves Sausages, Quasi – Mole City, Cass McCombs – Big Wheel and Others, Dérive – All My Demons Are Coming Loose, Andy Kaufman – Andy And His Grandmother
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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