"When roots music comes out of our filters, it turns into rock & roll."
——Luther Dickinson


A Gathering of Inspired but Underappreciated Efforts From Savvy Veterans Like the North Mississippi Allstars to Talented Rookies Like Jagwar Ma—Plus a Year-End Playlist and an
Early 2014 Pic

By Bud Scoppa

Before we close the book on the year in music, it’s worth taking a look at some of the 2013 records that for one reason or another failed to get the attention they deserved. Each of the albums I’ve chosen is the work of a band or artist who possesses a distinct sensibility, a deep understanding of the music of previous decades and the ability to integrate that perspective into the work while retaining its personal nature, and a dual emphasis on the hook and the groove.

Hitting all of these points, the North Mississippi AllstarsLuther Dickinson explained in an email about the band’s sensational World Boogie Is Coming, which is steeped in blues tradition while sounding totally fresh and original: "There will be inherent modern influences that come out when we play. We’re not trying to preserve the ‘old styles,’ but trying to encourage the evolution of the songs and tradition. When roots music comes out of our filters, it turns into rock & roll." And Sam Beam was making a similar point when he told me that Iron & Wine’s immersive Ghost on Ghost "is an R&B record, but I didn’t want it to sound like one. So we talked about Nilsson Schmilsson, Ram—these homegrown records with human, frayed edges."

As James Mercer told me recently, describing what inspired him and his partner Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton to come up with the songs of and sounds of Broken BellsAfter the Disco, which comes out this month on Columbia, "I think we both sometimes are frustrated with the state of music. Maybe it’s that nowadays you don’t really see melody and beats and rhythm given this balanced approach. And in another sense, it’s also just that we both have the careers that happen to be poised on this downward slope of what music seems to mean to pop culture or where it fits in to pop culture. It used to be such a big deal, you know, bands and musicians and singers and so on. In a way they seemed to be more important in the past than they are now. The ones that are hugely successful now are just sort of, I don’t know…silly."

Here’s the antidote to the silliness Mercer alluded to.

North Mississippi Allstars, World Boogie Is Coming (Songs of the South): The ghosts of Luther and Cody Dickinson’s extended musical family—R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner and their producer legend dad Jim—haunt and enliven the brothers’ seventh and best NMA studio album. Epic in scale, World Boogie Is Coming is an extraordinary amalgam of envelope-pushing studio manipulation and DNA-fueled deep gut grooves. Kimbrough and Turner appear via sampled snippets, Turner’s teenage granddaughter Shardé Thomas adds fife and vocals, Burnside’s two sons make an appearance and Robert Plant crashes the party on harmonica. But the record’s real grabbers are its ferocious, fuel-injected blooze rockers, Burnside’s "Snake Drive," a totally reimagined "Rollin ’n Tumblin" and especially the trad "Boogie," a hell-bent, jaw-dropping blast of what Luther calls "primitive modernism."

Randall Bramblett, The Bright Spots (New West): Less celebrated than other Athens mainstays, Bramblett brings a distinctive character to the indigenous blues and R&B that mark his stylistic turf. His ninth LP, juxtaposing experimental, loop-based Nashville recordings and live-off-the-floor performances with his own band, showcases Blamblett’s eloquent lyrics, deeply soulful singing and mood-inducing instrumental work on both keyboards and sax. The sardonic highway blues "John the Baptist" recalls Royal Scam-era Steely Dan, "Whatever That Is" moves with the grits-and-gravy strut of the Staple Singers and the blues nocturne "Trying to Steal a Minute" is the most hauntingly soulful track I heard last year, stteped in vintage blues and soul while sounding altogether unprecedented.

Ha Ha Tonka, Lessons (Bloodshot): Singer/guitarist Brian Roberts doesn’t shy away from big themes on Missouri-based Ha Ha Tonka’s captivating fourth album. Without a hint of pretense, this aptly titled song cycle asserts the need to live life fully and consciously on powerful mood pieces whose titles telegraph their gut punches, from urgent opener "Dead to the World" to the mortal dread-filled climax "Terrible Tomorrow." Roberts delivers their payloads in an affect-free all-American tenor that recalls Paul Simon in the reflective passages and Spoon’s Britt Daniel in the impassioned refrains, while the band plays with controlled abandon amid song-serving arrangements ornamented by strings and rustic acoustic touches. To craft an album so conceptually freighted yet so immediate is no small accomplishment.

Empire of the Sun, Ice on the Dune (Astralwerks): The part-time duo of Luke Steele (The Sleepy Jackson) and Nick Littlemore (Pnau) is now being labeled as an EDM act, and there’s plenty on their latest album to back up that trendy assertion. Nearly every track is powered by a room-rattling disco groove, while Steele’s guitar playing, prominently featured on their 2008 debut Standing on the Shore, is all but buried under Littlemore’s cascading electronic keyboards. But what makes "DNA," "Alive," "Concert Pitch" and the title song so irresistible is the way their silky melodies resolve into super-saturated Technicolor chorus hooks. In essence, Ice on the Dune is pure pop with a twist—like a modern-day 10cc, or ELO with synths instead of strings.

Jagwar Ma, Howlin (Mom + Pop): My first big discovery of 2013 was HAIM, whose "Follow" made me an instant fan when I heard it last March on SiriusXMU, and the most recent was this Aussie duo, whose "Come Save Me" was delivered to my consciousness via XMU as well. After it stopped me in my tracks, I headed to iTunes to sample the album, which initially reminded me of U.K. band Django Django, and had to have the whole thing immediately. It turned out to be a bargain at $7.99. Working alone, these two studio rats integrate rhythm and melody seamlessly, using repetition as the basis of most of the tracks, which continue to change in shape and intensity. Like the single, Howlin as a whole is a wicked-clever merger of Revolver-era Beatles, Beach Boys and EDM, and it’s compulsively listenable.

Kings of Leon, Mechanical Bull (RCA): No, this band is not exactly obscure, but it is undervalued right now. The Followills took the stateside commercial breakthrough of 2008’s Only by the Night as license to experiment, but 2010’s Come Around Sundown befuddled the new fans, failing to connect on the same massive level. KOL responded to the resulting pressure by zeroing in on their synergistic gifts for visceral rock grooves and soaring chorus hooks—lifting the standout tracks on their sixth album to a Springsteen-like level of gritty grandeur. Caleb writes poignantly and emotes with underdog pugnacity, cousin Matthew unspools shimmering riffs and they lock together thrillingly with the genetically attuned rhythm section on the bittersweet "Wait for Me," the strutting "Rock City" (with its provocative boast "I can shake it like a woman"), the down-but-not-out burner "Temple" and the majestic, richly ornamented deluxe-edition bonus track "Walk a Mile." 

The Wild Feathers, Wild Feathers (WB): The Wild Feathers deliver their take on throwback SoCal country rock at a gallop rather than the customary canter, to exhilarating effect. In the foreground, co-leaders Ricky Young and Joel King come off like vocal composites of Frey, Henley and Meisner, but the quintet’s overall attack recalls Poco in its early shit-kicking days, as they spice up the inherent sweetness of their voices with a dynamism enhanced by the taut production of Jay Joyce (Cage the Elephant, the Wallflowers). The centerpiece is "The Ceiling," a six-minutes-plus fireworks display of cascading harmonies and clanging guitars that builds to a mind-blowing intensity. A refreshingly badass entry to a genre whose purveyors tend to be overly mild-mannered.

Jimmer, The Would-Be Plans (Chief Injustice): Twenty three years after walking away from showbiz, Jimmer Podrasky, the founder/leader of the seminal Americana band The Rave-ups—immortalized in John HughesSixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink—makes a surefooted return. The Would-Be Plans feels as familiar and welcoming as an old pair of Levi 501s, as Podrasky wraps his lived-in blue-collar voice around plainspoken songs like the empty-bed lament "Far Left Side of You," the exuberant "(She Has) Good Records" and the rueful "Satellite," on which he claims "there isn’t a bongload big enough" to ease his pain. The musicians Podrasky has recruited amplify the unforced urgency of his songs with the nonchalant authority of Dylan’s mid’-60s pickup bands, enriching the texture of this engaging record

Volcano Choir, Repave (Jagjaguwar): Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver gets plenty of attention; this group, not so much. Vernon’s second outing with experimentalists Collections of Colonies of Bees is a bona fide rock album, but a grand one, widescreen yet intimate and throbbing with energy. In its centerpiece is "Byegone," a lilting plucked acoustic sets the mood before it’s surrounded by the massed ensemble, the whole of it sounding like a pastoral Windham Hill piece enlarged to arena-rock scale. Vernon nestles into the plush aural tapestry with the most natural-sounding, effect-free vocal he’s ever put on record; doubled in the classic Lennon style, it’s grand and intimate at once, as is Repave as a whole. This album has all the earmarks of Vernon’s next big thing.

The Band, Live at the Academy of Music 1971 (Capitol): Here’s one of 2013’s most essential archival releases, along with Legacy’s Harry Nilsson compendium The Complete RCA Albums Collection and Rounder’s Duane Allman retrospective Skydog. Originally released in 1972, The Band’s fourth LP, Rock of Ages, captured this superb quintet, plus a crack four-piece horn section playing Allen Toussaint-written charts, during a four-night run at Manhattan’s Academy of Music that culminated in a marathon New Year’s Eve performance. Producers Robbie Robertson, Michael Murphy and Matt D’Amico have smartly culled what they’ve deemed the strongest take of every song The Band played during the four-night run, 29 in all; these take up two discs, while the third and fourth CDs of the deluxe edition contain every second of the soundboard mix of the 27-song New Year’s Eve extravaganza, climaxing with Bob Dylan’s thrilling surprise appearance on the last four numbers. The set documents in detail one of greatest groups ever at its zenith, and it’s captivating.

Broken Bells, After the Disco (Columbia): On the first standout 2014 album I’ve heard, Danger Mouse and the ShinsJames Mercer apply the sounds of their ’80s childhoods to the rarefied chemistry they create together, with rapturous results. The first three tracks on this front-loaded LP are elegantly contoured pieces of aural architecture: "Perfect World" is a pocket symphony for analog synths with two distinct movements, "After the Disco" bounces along with a Daft Punk-like lilt and "Holding On for Life" showcases Mercer’s chromium falsetto as his multitracked chorus vocals form a spot-on, reverent homage to the Gibb brothers circa Saturday Night Fever, set off by a surging middle eight in the manner of Tears For Fears’ "Pale Shelter." This soulful and scintillating track is the most delectable pop confection Burton has come up with since Gnarls Barkley’s "Crazy," while also displaying the feint-and-parry dynamic of Shins classics like "New Slang," "Sea Legs," "Simple Song" and "40 Mark Strasse."

Broken Bells
, "Holding On for Life" (After the Disco, Columbia)
Jagwar Ma, "Come Save Me" (Howlin, Mom + Pop)
HAIM, "The Wire" (Days Gone By, Columbia)
Luke Reynolds, "A Million Miles Away" (After the Flood, unsigned)
North Mississippi Allstars, "Boogie" (World Boogie Is Coming, Songs of the South)
Kings of Leon
, "Rock City" (Mechanical Bull, RCA)
Eminem, "Rhyme or Reason" (MMLP2, Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)
Arcade Fire, "Normal Person" (Reflektor, Merge)
Jake Bugg, "What Doesn’t Kill You" (Shangri La, Island/IDJ)
The Strypes, "What the People Don’t See" (Snapshot EP, Photo Finish)
FIDLAR, "Gimmie Something" (FIDLAR, Mom + Pop)
Ha Ha Tonka, "Lessons" (Lessons, Bloodshot)
Patty Griffin, "Don’t Let Me Die in Florida" (American Kid, New West)
Jimmer, "The Would-Be Plans" (The Would-Be Plans, Chief Injustice)
Billie Joe + Norah
, "Kentucky" (Foreverly, Reprise)
The Band, "The Shape I’m In" (Live at the Academy of Music 1971, Capitol)
Iron & Wine, "Low Light Buddy of Mine" (Ghost on Ghost, Nonesuch)
Randall Bramblett
, "Trying to Steal a Minute" (The Bright Spots, New West)
Neil Finn
, "Flying in the Face of Love" (Dizzy Heights, Lester)
Empire of the Sun, "DNA" (Ice on the Dune, Astralwerks)
Mayer Hawthorne, "The Stars Are Ours" (Where Does This Door Go, Republic)
Tired Pony, "I Don’t Want You as a Ghost" (The Ghost of the Mountain, Caroline)
Broken Bells, "No Matter What You’re Told" (After the Disco, Columbia)
Tessa Torrence, "I'll B Ur Luvr" (Feel No Evil, Megaforce)
U2, "Ordinary Love" (Mandela Long Walk to Freedom, Decca)
Arcade Fire, "We Exist" (Reflektor, Merge)
HAIM, "My Song 5" (Days Gone By, Columbia)
Volcano Choir, "Byegone" (Repave, Jagjaguwar)
Vampire Weekend, "Hannah Hunt" (Modern Vampires of the City, XL)
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, "Trouble" (Under the Covers, Vol.. 3, Shout! Factory)
Chris Cornell f/Joy Williams, " Misery Chain" (12 Years a Slave, Columbia)

Team Lipman doubles up. (11/26a)
Season's bleatings (11/23a)
Deck the Grammys with boughs of Holly. (11/24a)
Rolling out our U.K. Special print issue (11/24a)
Olivia, the Biebs, H.E.R., Doja Cat, Billie and Jon Batiste lead the way. (11/24a)
Stuffing (in face).

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