Rewind 2013: Best albums

Sixto Rodriguez is my favorite musical discovery in 2013-- even though his first album, "Cold Fact," first came out in 1970. Photo via Sony Pictures Classics.

The folk rock of Sixto Rodriguez is my favorite musical discovery in 2013, even though his first studio album, “Cold Fact,” technically came out in 1970. Photo via Sony Pictures Classics.

I have always been a list maker, especially when it comes to music. I even have a whole separate category for lists here on my blog that includes past year-end best-of lists and tons of old playlists from a few years ago when I used to host a weekly college radio show. And don’t even get me started on the 20-plus years of mixtape and mix-CD playlists I’ve got tucked away in safe places– each one of them a little time capsule, ready to bring that moment back to me all over again.

But I’ve noticed something funny happening the past couple years: I’ve quickly grown out of touch with all the newest music, movies, and media that’s out there. Maybe the Internet is just moving too fast for me, but I now find myself mostly unaware of what’s new and hot. In some cases I’ve heard OF it, but I’ve never actually heard it. Or, in a growing number of cases, I’ve just plain missed it. I became overwhelmed with this feeling last year, so much so that I skipped making some kind of year-end music lists in 2012 for the first time I can remember.

This year, as several friends have put their own lists out there and have said they’re looking forward to reading mine, I decided to dip my toe back into the water and make a best album list. More than ever before, this is definitely not a “tops” kind of lists, since I haven’t actually heard much of what new music was officially released in 2013. But instead, I’m focusing on music that was “new to me” and that I found myself returning to over and over again throughout the year, music that I will keep returning to. You’ll see that several of these records were actually released or re-released in 2012, but I just got around to hearing them in 2013. I’m thankful that I did.

2013-rodriguez1. Rodriguez – Cold Fact
Label: Light in the Attic
For my best album of 2013, I picked a record that first came out in 1970. I learned about Sixto Rodriguez in late 2012 with the release of the documentary film “Searching for Sugar Man.” My uncle Jorge Garcia, a Professor Emeritus of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge, sent me a generous gift package early this year: a DVD copy of the film– which I’ve shown to my English 1 classes twice now, to rave reviews– and CD copies of the excellent 2008 Light in the Attic re-releases of Rodriguez’s two studio albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality.” The hype about the mysterious Rodriguez being the long lost “Chicano Bob Dylan” is inaccurate in only one sense: Rodriguez is actually better.
Favorite track: “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues”

2013-slow-season2. Slow Season – Slow Season
Label: Easy Rider
This album technically came out in late 2012, but I didn’t discover it until October 2013 when I made my annual pilgrimage to the Orosi Memorial Hall for the homespun Spanspek Music & Art Festival. Slow Season hails from Visalia, Calif., and I knew a couple of the band members from their days in the folk/Americana group The Whiskey & The Devil Chaplain a few years back. At Spanspek, I got to experience Slow Season as they are surely meant to be experienced: up super close on the cold, hard floor, and at full force. At the time, I tweeted: “Goddamn these boys sound like sinister, creeping dread on a Southern back road.” Afterward, I listened to their debut full-length for pretty much two months straight.
Favorite track: “Heavy”

2013-love-this-giant3. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
Label: 4AD
Ahh, here’s yet another late 2012 release that I didn’t get around to fully appreciating until 2013. I’ve always been a big David Byrne fan regardless of his strange projects, and this year I fully nerded out on him. Early in the summer, I read Byrne’s excellent nonfiction book “How Music Works” as a homework assignment before seeing him live with St. Vincent at the gorgeous Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Calif. Seeing one of my musical heroes live for the first time felt invigorating, and his collaborations with Annie Clark and their full traveling band were fun, funky, odd, and inspiring in a way that instantly made the baroque pop album into a living thing that I’ll never hear the same way.
Favorite track: “I Should Watch TV”

2013-its-up-to-emma4. Scout Niblett – It’s Up to Emma
Label: Drag City
I first discovered Scout Niblett a few years ago via La Blogotheque, a French music blog that continues to produce stunning multimedia documents through their Concert à emporter performance series. Niblett’s 2007 episode remains one of my favorites. Her latest record features my favorite song and video of the year, the single, “Gun,” which juxtaposes fairy tale images with searingly murderous words and music. With the exception of an unfortunately botched TLC cover, this album feels like heavy, dirty, whining blues rock, but with an aching, folky troubadour subtext.
Favorite track: “Gun”

2013-imperceptible-ufo5. The Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO
Label: Jagjaguwar
I’ve always been attracted to dreamy space rock. And so while everyone ranted and raved about the first My Bloody Valentine record in 20 years– which, sadly, I still haven’t yet heard– I chose to put my shoegaze love into one of my recent favorites, The Besnard Lakes. In 2011, they made the soundtrack to one of the most stunning multimedia stories I’ve ever seen, Welcome to Pine Point, a truly sprawling and interactive examination of memory curated by the National Film Board of Canada that remains way ahead of its time. And I love that their new album makes me feel like I’m on a train as the landscape slowly peels away, a little lullaby as the world rolls past.
Favorite track: “People of the Sticks”

2013-seanario6. Seanario – Resorts
Label: Way Grimace
I don’t know what the big summer party album was in YOUR house this year, but in mine it was this one. My prolific musician friend Sean Duncan from Modesto, Calif.– previously known for his work with indie bands Fiver, Kid Mud, and Thombie, among many other projects– made a retro/schlocky dancefloor concept record about Las Vegas in the early ’80s that has real narrative depth. Duncan got married in 2011 and had a daughter this year, and it seems to me that his kooky creativity is just now starting to hit its stride.
Favorite track: “The Strip”

2013-melted-eyes7. Le Wolves – Melted Eyes EP
Label: self released
I don’t remember now who suggested I catch Le Wolves at this year’s Fresno Urban Sound Experience festival, but I’m sure glad I did. These four young lads from Fresno, Calif. wear their postpunk/goth influences on their sleeves, but with an element of creepy intensity that belongs entirely to them. Their three-song demo EP reminds me equally of Morrissey, the Buzzcocks, and Black Heart Procession. I’ve since learned that the group sounded more folk/rock when it first started a year or two ago, but now their sound has quickly evolved into more complicated territory. I cannot wait to see what’s next.
Favorite track: “I Laid Down and Died”

2013-time-of-joy8. Dim Peaks – Time of Joy
Label: Gold Robot
I’ve been a fan of California singer/songwriter Niilo Smeds for nearly a decade. The Reedley, Calif. native seems to change musical incarnations almost yearly– from the mottled rock of the Magic Whores to the experimental machinery of Police Dog, and from the freewheeling Americana of Wheels of Fortune to the simmering folk of his one CD-R album released under his own name. Smeds lives back in San Francisco now with his wife and infant son, and his latest record, recorded with several new players and released under the moniker Dim Peaks, somehow stitches bits of all of those previous musical parts together into a thoughtful new manifestation of fear and hope for 30-somethings.
Favorite track: “Slumberland”

2013-victim-of-love9. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
Label: Daptone
The Screaming Eagle of Soul makes old-timey soul music in the present time, and his latest record sounds like a real gift. It always feels a little strange to me that Charles Bradley’s first record only came out in 2011. His songs feel so familiar, like they’ve existed for years. Bradley packs his second full-length record full of perfectly crafted love songs, each with big, crooning hooks. His live performance of the album’s title track on Netherlands radio shows the pure power of a well-traveled vocalist finally getting his due.
Favorite track: “Through the Storm”

2013-mehreideran10. Mehreideran – As Seen on MySpace
Label: Sweet Sea
My favorite reissue of the year is this messy, imperfectly perfect Mehreideran odds-and-ends compilation from audio communication wizard Reid May and now Virginia-based Sweet Sea Records. May was one-third of this Fresno, Calif. garage rock trio circa 2005, back in the day when MySpace bulletins were king and all the Central Valley indie kids rallied around Rademacher and Tokyo Garden for a few glorious Fresno Famous years. The thing I adore about these recordings nearly a decade later is that they still feel loose, experimental, and right on the edge of some kind of discovery.
Favorite track: “Hedonist”

Honorable mentions:
Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
Light Thieves – Spirit Homes
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight …
Restaurnaut – Singles and Besides (released in 2012)
Sparklejet – Phonovella (not out officially until 2014)
Werebear – Devil’s Deal

Please share your lists of 2013 best albums in the comments.

Rewind 2011: Best media


Here is my list of favorite media for 2011. In the past, I have made a top movies list, but this year I just didn’t get out to see as many first-run films as I would have liked. So I decided to also include other media in my final list of the year. I hope you find something you enjoy. Please leave some of your favorite media picks in the comments!

1. Event: Swede Fest 8
The world’s only festival for sweded films is right here in little old Fresno. Who knew?! The DumbDrum.com boys have been making better and better movie parodies, and this year they seemed to blow up all over the Internet. I even gathered sound from the latest event for a story on NPR’s Morning Edition. It was my first time attending the festival, and I have to say that I was pleasantly charmed at the communal feeling of watching the homemade swedes together in a room with my fellow movie fans. This was my favorite event of the year, and I’m definitely going back.

2. Movie: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”
My favorite movie of the year is a documentary by Werner Herzog about cave paintings in Southern France. Yes, you read that correctly – Herzog, cave paintings, France. I had enjoyed Herzog’s films before, but this one, made now in the twilight of his directing life, took on a new meaning. The movie has haunted me all year for the urgency in which Herzog attempts to understand the origins of man as a way to understand himself. Seeing the film sparked an entire Summer of Herzog for me, as I got to know an extraordinary director’s back catalog even better.

3. Online: NPR Music on Facebook
I have always been a casual listener of noncommercial radio, but my internship at KQED Public Radio this past summer really tuned me in to a whole new world. My favorite find has been NPR Music on Facebook, a “radio station” in my social media feed that has exposed me to top-notch programs such as All Songs Considered and World Cafe, and has also led me to explore other music-related NPR and public radio features. For someone like me, working to re-brand himself as a multimedia journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting, NPR Music is now essential.

4. Movie: “Midnight in Paris”
I’m always a sucker for Woody Allen movies – even when they’re bad. For me, even a bad Woody Allen movie is better than ninety percent of what’s playing in the theater on most days. Fortunately, this film is one of his great ones. It is difficult to review the movie without giving away its secrets. So I will just say that Owen Wilson is great as the writer, Corey Stoll is a revelation as Ernest Hemingway, and the city of Paris is terrific as its magical self. Grab your favorite English major friend and get him or her to see this film before midnight.

5. Online: @Dr_Cop on Twitter
My good friend Adam Marler lives multiple lives. He’s a mixed media artist based in Fresno who is perhaps best known for producing 15 long-form interviews on his I Don’t Get It podcast, featuring Fresno creatives talking about making art in the Central Valley. At his day job, Adam works as a pest trapper for the state citrus research board. He enjoyed 15 minutes of fame this past summer for his work tracking the Asian citrus psyllid, a job where he rides around in a pickup truck all week logging insect data while listening to NPR and making obscure social-media art. His Twitter feed offers a daily stream-of-consciousness joyride into his droll, eccentric alter ego “Dr. Cop,” a lovable Internet jester who carries himself at the comical intersection of the absurd and the profound.

6. Movie: “Tree of Life”
I love going to movies where people walk out in the middle of them. I try to imagine what those people are thinking as they flee their seats. Like, “Well gosh, it did have Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in it!” Or maybe, “But the poster looked so cute!” Their loss, really. I won’t pretend to understand everything that Terrence Malick was trying to say or do with this film. I probably never will. But like the best films, there are so many images and ideas from “Tree of Life” that linger still. (Also, check out this beautiful swede by Fresno filmmaker Vince Cosentino.)

7. Online: Harvesting Health blog
Rebecca Plevín gets it. She’s a journalist who understands that telling stories about people is the very best way to tell stories about public policy. She has written about Latinos in the Central Valley since 2008 for Vida en el Valle, the bilingual publication put out by McClatchy. But Plevín has made her biggest impact with Harvesting Health, a blog that celebrated its one-year anniversary this past June. She covers the major health issues in our region – big issues like hunger, obesity, teen pregnancy, air quality, access to clean water, and more. But what makes her different is that she spends time writing about everyday people, and she documents their difficult fights for good health, both private and public. She’s a compelling, straightforward advocate for better health. Plevín’s Twitter feed is also an excellent aggregate source of Central California health news.

8. Movie: “Bill Cunningham New York”
My wife and I watched this film with our artist friends Laura and Zach, who turned their living room into a makeshift movie space for the occasion. It was fitting: Their whimsy for their own space became, for me, an integral part of experiencing the whimsy of the movie. I didn’t care for the filmmaker’s insistence on pushing Cunningham about his understated private life, which to me was irrelevant. But I absolutely loved the portrayal of Cunningham’s natural curiosity and love for photographing people and their fashions for The New York Times. It was a joy and an inspiration to watch such an honest photojournalist at work on the streets.

9. Book: “How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology”
I don’t read a lot of books the year that they come out. I’ve just never been that kind of reader. But I’m grateful in many ways to have found this new collection of Hmong American literature as it debuted to the world. My first freelance story for The California Report featured the book, and I attended two readings where the authors read from their powerful work. I loved re-connecting with Burlee Vang, making a new friend in Soul Choj Vang, and most of all reading these diverse, heartbreaking, and important stories.

10. Movie: “The Future”
I’m a sucker for pretty much anything Miranda July makes, so I knew going in that I would like this movie. It was pretty difficult to like, though, for lots of reasons. I mean for goodness sakes, a stray cat narrates the film, so you know the movie is going to be a challenge. But there are so many little details and scenes that have stuck with me and kept me thinking. Viewed as a movie, “The Future” might not be considered very successful. But viewed as living performance art, I think July has made a brave, messy, vital document of this very moment.

Rewind 2011: Best songs 1-10

Here is my Top 10 songs of 2011 list, complete with fun links and videos to keep you well distracted. Click here to see the second part of the list, songs 11-20. This was a terrific year for indie music, and I know that I didn’t even come close to hearing all of the extraordinary stuff out there. Hopefully, you’ll find something new and interesting to you in my best-of lists.

1. Niilo Smeds / “Summer Air”
Album: Helicopter Circles
Label: self released
Niilo Smeds helps me understand myself. There is no one writing songs in the Central Valley right now who speaks to the bittersweet melancholia of this time and place better. Plus, his beard is absolutely beautiful.

2. tUnE-yArDs / “Gangsta”
Album: w h o k i l l
Label: 4AD
I have been crushing on Merrill Garbus all year long. She can do no wrong. The band’s 4AD Sessions performance from 2009 is equally inspiring as anything on their new record.

3. Black Keys / “Lonely Boy”
Album: El Camino
Label: Nonesuch
I wanted very badly to love the new Black Keys album, but so far I just like it. However, there is no doubt that the single is pure gold, especially the video.

4. St. Vincent / “Strange Mercy”
Album: Strange Mercy
Label: 4AD
Annie Clark dazzles me in every way. I love her guitar playing and her style, but most of all I love her songwriting. It’s like literary short fiction, set to indie rock.

5. Tomorrow’s Tulips / “Shades of Grey”
Album: Eternally Teenage
Label: Galaxia
This Costa Mesa noise pop duo makes me want to shimmy shake all over the Golden State. I’m also struck by the sweet heartbeat at the center of their songs.

6. Lia Ices / “Grown Unknown”
Album: Grown Unknown
Label: Jagjaguwar
I’ve always had a thing for art-school girls who make ethereal, complicated art-school pop. Lia Ices amps up the complexity while still keeping all the soft-focus beauty.

7. Charles Bradley / “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)”
Album: No Time for Dreaming
Label: Daptone
The smooth-like-silk album cover for the Charles Bradley record always makes me giggle, but his songs are an old-timey, soulful inspiration.

8. Black Lips / “Go Out and Get It”
Album: Arabia Mountain
Label: Vice
When they’re not trying to upstage the Beastie Boys for best cop video ever made, these garage rock troublemakers make some great drunken sing-along music.

9. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears / “Messin’ ”
Album: Scandalous
Label: UMG
There is some downright dirty stomp in this track by Black Joe Lewis, perhaps enough to distract from the band’s failed attempts to get their hams glazed.

10. Fay Wrays / “The Sound is a Little Different in My Head”
Album: Strange Confessor
Label: coattrack
The new Fay Wrays record had me from hello. The cover art was amazing, and I loved the expanded dossier and treatise explaining “the SOUND” that came with the limited-edition initial release. I couldn’t stop coming back to it.

Rewind 2011: Best songs 11-20

Here’s the first of two installments of my favorite songs of 2011. Again, these aren’t THE tops, they’re only MY tops! Part two will be posted on Friday, so you can have two full days to lick your chops in anticipation of my full Top 20 mix of the year. Stay tuned.

11. Teddybears feat. Robyn / “Cardiac Arrest”
Album: Devil’s Music
Label: Atlantic
My favorite Swedish pop star teams up with my favorite Swedish electro band to make the best song to do aerobics to this year.

12. The Mountain Goats / “High Hawk Season”
Album: All Eternals Deck
Label: Merge
I love it when John Darnielle goes a capella. Oh hell, I love it when John Darnielle does just about anything. (Follow @mountain_goats on Twitter and see what I mean.)

13. Shannon & The Clams / “Baby Don’t Do It”
Album: Sleep Talk
Label: 1-2-3-4 Go!
I fished this album out of the KFSR reject bin this past spring based on the awesome album cover alone, and I discovered an awesome garage band in the process.

14. The Quiet Americans / “Be Alone”
Album: Medicine – EP
Label: coattrack
Sounds great bumping out of my car stereo on cassette tape, plus Luke Giffen made a sweetly affecting homemade video to go with.

15. Leftover Cuties / “Lost in the Sea”
Album: Places to Go
Label: self released
Old-timey and charming jazz/folk out of a Venice Beach speakeasy. They’re a new favorite of my friend Eldon Daetweiler.

16. J Mascis / “Not Enough”
Album: Several Shades of Why
Label: Sub Pop
In which the frontman of an important indie rock band makes a solo acoustic rock record and it actually sounds legit.

17. PJ Harvey / “Written on the Forehead”
Album: Let England Shake
Label: Vagrant
This is my favorite new PJ Harvey song since “This is Love” blew me away more than ten years ago.

18. House of Wolves / “ ’50s”
Album: Fold in the Wind
Label: self released
This SoCal bedroom musician knows how to make orchestration translate into elegiac goodness. Bon Iver, who?

19. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks / “Senator”
Album: Mirror Traffic
Label: Matador
Oh S.M., you so fonny. I love it when you get all political.

20. Dale Stewart / “Governator”
Album: Water Wars
Label: Stagedive
Fresno punk rock icon had to rewrite the lyrics to this song after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s secret love child was revealed. It’s a terrific song, either version.

Rewind 2011: Best albums

Here is my best albums list for 2011. These are not necessarily the “top” albums of the year, since it’s impossible for me to hear and evaluate every new release that comes out. Rather, these are the records that I found myself coming back to over and over again, and I expect to keep coming back to them in the future.

1. tUnE-yArDs / w h o k i l l
Label: 4AD
I love big, messy, imperfect records, and “w h o k i l l” is all that and a bag of chips. Merrill Garbus gets my vote for indie genius of the year with her hypnotic looping and bare honesty.

2. Fay Wrays / Strange Confessor
Label: coattrack
I can headbang to “Strange Confessor” while blasting it in the car just as easily as I can study to it on headphones in my office. It’s visceral, but it’s also complex. It makes me love rock again.

3. St. Vincent / Strange Mercy
Label: 4AD
I appreciate Annie Clark more and more with each record she makes. “Strange Mercy” plays like literary short fiction set to a shredding series of guitar freakouts. The stories feel urgent to me.

4. Black Lips / Arabia Mountain
Label: Vice
Every time I listen to “Arabia Mountain,” I imagine a bunch of alley cats roaming the cluttered streets of a sunshiney college town looking for scraps. This is a karaoke party waiting to happen.

5. Tomorrow’s Tulips / Eternally Teenage
Label: Galaxia
This band is my favorite new discovery this year, out of Costa Mesa. “Eternally Teenage” is a shambling mishmash of lo-fi psychedelic pop. It sounds like a box of lost Lou Reed surfer tapes.

6. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears / Scandalous
Label: UMG
Black Joe Lewis beats the Black Keys for best garage rock record this year, hands down. The head-bobbing thump and squawk of “Scandalous” sounds bluesy, funky, and downright dirty.

7. The Quiet Americans / Medicine – EP
Label: coattrack
I’m pretty discerning with my noise pop, but “Medicine” can hold its own alongside any record out right now on Matador, Slumberland, or In The Red. And, it actually sounds better on cassette tape!

8. Charles Bradley / No Time for Dreaming
Label: Daptone
It always surprises me to hear new music that sounds effortlessly old. Charles Bradley reminds me of Otis Redding on “No Time for Dreaming,” and that kind of soul never goes out of style.

9. Bjork / Biophilia
Label: Nonesuch
While critics fawned over the iPad apps, I couldn’t help but focus on “Biophilia” as a key evolutionary document for one of my favorite artists. It felt like my new go-to Bjork record, and I hadn’t thought that in years.

10. Niilo Smeds / Helicopter Circles
Label: self released
The stripped-down ache and hum of “Helicopter Circles” puts a melancholic sheen on Niilo Smeds’ lo-fi EP from earlier this year. He is the best songwriter in Fresno right now – period.

Honorable mention:
Radiohead / The King of Limbs / TBD
Shannon & The Clams / Sleep Talk / 1-2-3-4 Go!
The Mountain Goats / All Eternals Deck / Merge
PJ Harvey / Let England Shake / Vagrant
Black Keys / El Camino / Nonesuch

Please share your top albums of 2011 lists in the comments.

Rewind 2011: Fresno songs

I will be blogging this week about my favorite music and media of 2011, so stay tuned. To start things off, I’ve got a new article up today on the citizen media website Fresno Famous about the Ten local songs you can’t live without this year, featuring tons of my favorite Central Valley artists. Check it out!

Pictured above, from left to right, is Jerrod Turner of the Visalia band The Gospel Whiskey Runners, Kim Haden of the Fresno band Rademacher, and Fresno singer/songwriter Dale Stewart.

Playlist: Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011

Tomorrow’s Tulips / Untitled (Track 7)
Shannon and The Clams / Baby Don’t Do It
Black Lips / Dumpster Dive
Beck / Nitemare Hippy Girl
St. Vincent / Cruel
Mocean Worker / Sistas and Bruthas
Ry Cooder / John Lee Hooker for President
Primus / Lee Van Cleef
White Stripes / The Big Three Killed My Baby
Strange Vine / Sleepwalker
Tokyo Death March / Bolero!
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks / Tune Grief
The Mountain Goats / The Autopsy Garland
tUnE-yArDs / You Yes You
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears / Booty City
Unknown Mortal Orchestra / Ffunny Ffrends
Matt and Kim / Cameras
Fierce Creatures / Ships to Shore
Massive Attack feat. Hope Sandoval / Paradise Circus
Gil Scott-Heron / New York is Killing Me
Baths / Heart
SebastiAn feat. Mayer Hawthorne / Love in Motion
Joy Division / Disorder
Bon Iver / Calgary
Neutral Milk Hotel / Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Joel Robert Melton / Staircase
Tennis / Marathon
Wanda Jackson / Blue Yodel #6
Hornet Leg / Disco Junkie
King Khan & The Shrines / Torture
Dale Stewart / Itty Bitty Tax Cut
Motel Drive / Baby I’m Through With You
It’ll Grow Back / Bret Easton Ellis Warps Your Mind!
Blake Jones and the Trike Shop / Send the Band to Liverpool
Rademacher / Magic Words
Leftover Cuties / Lost in the Sea
Alela Diane / White Horse
Lia Ices / Grown Unknown
The Cave Singers / Black Leaf
The Quiet Americans / Weird Mountain
Panty Lions / Baby Yeah
Luke Temple / In the Open
Thombie / Slow and Steady
Mogwai / Get to France
The Gospel Whiskey Runners / Muddy Waters