The 2014 Twirlie Awards show has come and gone. While we gave away many different categories of awards, the category most near and dear to my heart has always been that of top albums. Anybody who listens to my show will quickly realize that I really am an album-oriented radio programmer. I love the deep cuts. I love the art form.
To me, a non-musician, I’m always amazed that people can create music that sounds good, fit the appropriate words to it, then sing and play instruments to bring it all to life. To take this art to the next level, repeat this magic several times. Make each song different, yet related to one another. Sequence them to make the most sense, and an album emerges. What an achievement!
So I’d like to walk you through the Top 20 albums of 2013, as announced on my show this past Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. 2013 was a great year for indie music, and here’s why you should check out these albums.
1. Felsen – I Don’t Know How To Talk Anymore–ALBUM OF THE YEAR
This album is flawless, yet human. Andrew Griffin, Cristian Hernandez, Dylan Brock, and Art McConnell, from the San Francisco Bay area, play as if their lives depend on it. The songs speak to 21st century isolation at many levels, but there is still a positive undercurrent. Bookended by opening track Rock and Roll’s Not Dead and the penultimate Greetings from the Ghost of Heavy Metal Rock and Roll, Felsen is here to tell you that the artform lives, and is kept alive by true believers. This is Felsen’s defining moment, and the Album of the Year for 2013 will stick around for a very long time.
2. Richard X. Heyman – X–RUNNER UP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The legendary DIY artist Richard X. Heyman put out his tenth album (hence, “X”), and has been doing the indie-play-all-the-instruments thing for over 25 years–well before the digital tools came along that democratized the art of music making. This album is also flawless, and hits all the right notes, both musically and lyrically. To my ears, X sounds like my favorite time in music: the post-New Wave, pre-Nirvana alternative era, that short window when zoomy, atmospheric guitars and melodies ruled the airwaves. And once you get past all the great sounds and start listening to the lyrics, you realize that Richard is a master lyricist as well, going from cautionary tales (Firing Line) to breathless love songs (Somebody Has Finally Found Me). A worthy #2 Album of the Year.
3. Maxi Dunn – Edmund & Leo
Maxi Dunn is a model of consistency. Every one of her albums has landed in my year end top 5, including a previous #1. Edmund & Leo continues the theme of heartache, but with some serious glimmers of hope–the future looks better. Maxi’s voice and attitude are incomparable. She ranges between alto and soprano, and uses these tools to evoke whatever mood she wants you to feel. Her word choices paint pictures, and the melodies are often dramatic and always memorable. Peter Hackett returns as producer, and he masterfully assembles this album from Maxi’s blueprint. Check out his stellar guitar work and Damon Roots’ percussion on the larger than life closing track Meteor Shower.
4. Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
Chuck Prophet is one of those artists that I’d heard OF for a long time, but never heard his music until a friend of mine, James DePrato, handed me this disc. Turns out that James is Chuck’s guitarist! And what an album–it’s pretty much an alternative history of the modern era of San Francisco–warts and all. It’s got crazy characters (Emperor Norton and others), heroes (Willie Mays, Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk), and even Carol Doda! The lyrics are inventive and do indeed tell the story of this tumultuous town, while the music and playing are stellar. This is the definitive tour of The City. This album also won Best Songwriting for Chuck.
5. The Catbirds – Catbirds Say Yeah
Chandler Travis leads this ragtag band of musical geniuses/misfits, and Catbirds Say Yeah is pure, unabashed, 100% fun! The Catbirds are not hard rock, but they rock hard. They do quirky and rootsy in the same way that NRBQ does–they know all the musical rules and break them. Most albums start to peter out by the end, but not Catbirds Say Yeah. The last four tracks kick into turbodrive. Check out the next to last track, the raucous Pajama Pants Baby, with its raw, circuits-fried loud guitars, and the album closer, the frantic cover of Leaving Here.
6. Sparklejet – Phonovella
Victor Sotelo and Wade Krause, after more than half a decade, return with what is the finest album of their career, Phonovella. Loud, intellectual, but not afraid to breathe where necessary. This album just sounds important.
7. The Orange Peels – Sun Moon
Allen Clapp and company with some wonderfully atmospheric songs. They jokingly refer to their genre as “coastal pop”, but it actually describes their sound nicely. Put this one on while driving on a glorious summer or fall day, and you’ll see what I mean.
8. Agony Aunts – Big Cinnamon
KC Bowman, Karla Kane, Khoi Huynh, and Charlie Crabtree, also known as The Corner Laughers, go undercover and get more psychedelic, mysterious, and sometimes even silly. Great pop tunes here for all. Wonderful guest appearances by Mystery Lawn stablemates William Cleere and Allen Clapp, and legendary quirkmeister Anton Barbeau pops in and says hello.
9. Lisa Mychols – Above, Beyond, and In Between
Lisa Mychols, fresh out of Nushu, comes back with one of the sweetest albums of 2013. The songs are shimmery, effervescent hugs, some sounding like the Go-Go’s, and some veering more into Juliana Hatfield territory.
10. Vegas With Randolph – Rings Around The Sun
Eric Kern, John Ratts and the guys from DC roar back with another masterful pop album. The lyrics are thoughtful, and the sounds range from power pop to some slightly melancholy tunes. Listen for great hooks and harmonies.
11. Willie Wisely Trio – True
One of the wittiest and most spontaneous performers you’ll find, Willie Wisely and his (4 man) Trio are charming, amusing, clever, and rocking. Listen for the inspired trombone parts!
12. The Bye Bye Blackbirds – We Need The Rain
Led by Bradley Skaught, this album fuses power pop and Americana seamlessly. Great songwriting, melodies, and playing have earned the BBBs rave reviews in their hometown of the Bay Area.
13. The Taters – Taters Party
Sometimes known as the “Unofficial House Band of Twirl Radio”, Craig Evans, Brad Tucker, Greg Marrs, and Chris Mendez are known for their live sets–a mix of fun originals and inspired covers. They recorded this one at a party–and some of that party went out live on Twirl Radio! This fun album won our Ear Candy Award.
14. Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
Legendary singer-songwriter Sam Phillips is known for social commentary and eminently listenable tunes. Lots of quirky textures on this short but great album. It was an honor to have interviewed her on our 600th episode back in June, 2013.
15. The Cherry Bluestorms – Bad Penny Opera
Deborah Gee and Glen Laughlin’s sophomore album is psychedelic, rockin’, and has its intense moments. Big time guitars abound–Glen easily ranges from acoustic to jangly 12 string electric, while Deborah’s Chrissie Hynde vibe gives this concept album an edge that separates it from its power pop peers.
16. Laurie Biagini – Sanctuary Of Sound
Vancouver’s Laurie Biagini returns with her fourth album of sunshiny, summery pop. Think Karen Carpenter meets the Beach Boys, and you’ve got her sound. Her warm alto voice sits atop great piano playing, and a couple of the songs feature guitar work by guests Fabrizio Serrecchia and Vinnie Zummo.
17. Joe Symes and the Loving Kind – Joe Symes and the Loving Kind
Liverpool band Joe Symes and the Loving Kind started out as a hard working, hard rocking band, but for this, their debut, have added some nice subtleties to their sound that give their brand of pop music a nice bit of refinement. This album is our Best Debut Album–the band emerges, out of nowhere, fully formed.
18. Jimmy Catlett – Parlour Songs
Richmond, Virginia’s Jimmy Catlett got together with friends in a living room, and knocked out this batch of songs in one long, relaxed day, followed by good food and a bonfire. This sublime Americana album features superb vocals and guitars. It’s mellow, but don’t let that fool you. There’s some dramatic overtones in here that stick with you long after you’re done listening.
19. The Undecided By Default – Totally Undecided
This punky, power poppy trio from Melbourne, Australia, led by Maria Sokratis, makes punk fun, and fun punky! A whole lot of attitude and fun, blast this one through your open car windows, and watch your neighbors smile.
20. Chandler Travis Three-O – This Is What Bears Sound Like Underwater
An unprecedented second Top 20 album for Chandler Travis and company, this is another four member “Three-O”. This would be the quieter companion to The Catbirds, featuring jazz, folk, and Americana sounds, and some quirky chamber pieces. A nice mix of beauty and fun, and really great vocals by Fred Jodsworth Boak.
See the full list of Twirlie Awards.