When I first got into rock music, I thought Alice Cooper was a joke. He was like the clown prince of rock and roll. I'd see Alice Cooper albums at garage sales and shake my head. I actually got the 1977 Alice Cooper Show live album when someone left it on their front lawn after a yard sale, but it was awful. Even Alice hates that album!
Years later, my wife and I were at a party when The Ballad of Dwight Fry came on. My wife ran over to the host and asked who was doing The Melvins' cover. Our friend chastised her saying that The Melvins may very well do that song, but they were covering Alice Cooper.
That week, I scored a copy of Alice Cooper's 1971 album Love It To Death and my wife and I listened in amazement. Wow. This was as good as Sticky Fingers or any of those other Stones albums we loved from that time.
My interest was piqued and shortly thereafter I was approached by Banger Films to work on a documentary about Alice Cooper. I fully immersed myself in the research and emerged with a picture of a rock band (for Alice Cooper was originally a band) and a personality whose importance seemed to have been lost in rock history.
Alice Cooper were the first band to use theatrics in rock and roll. That alone should give pause, but they did it in a cultural context that was revolutionary. In the late sixties, bands would stand on stage in their tie-dye shirts and blue jeans while someone projected "psychedelic" visuals on a white bed sheet. Alice Cooper eschewed the flower power vibe and took the violent imagery of that time that was being broadcast into millions of homes and put it on stage. The dead babies of My Lai and the blood and gore of the Manson murders were recontextualized for entertainment by a band that "put a stake through the heart of the love generation".
The band was fronted by a guy named Alice who wore women's clothes. They played New York City a month before the Stonewall riots and caused their own riot amongst the fawning drag queens in attendance when Alice started tossing beer bottles in the audience to get a reaction. I'm not saying Alice caused Stonewall, but the New York City police should not have messed with a bunch of pissed off drag queens hopped up on testosterone and Alice Cooper.
Every major rock movement seems to have been touched by Alice Cooper. Glam rock? David Bowie couldn't convince his Spiders from Mars to dress in gender bending costumes, so he sent the band to check out Alice Cooper in London in 1971. Punk rock? Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols by singing along to a jukebox that played the Alice Cooper anthem "I'm Eighteen". Heavy metal? Please. Do an image search of Motley Crüe, Twisted Sister or King Diamond and report back. Alternative rock? Tom Morello of agitprop punkers Rage Against the Machine calls "School's Out" the most political song ever written. And for those who can't appreciate Alice Cooper's influence on The Melvins on its own terms, they in turn inspired a little band called Nirvana.
Today, Alice is no longer such a groundbreaking artist, but he still delivers something young kids today will probably never get to experience: a big rock and roll show. There are snakes and guillotines and balloons dropping from the sky and a crack guitarist like Orianthi rippin' thru a cover of Foxy Lady. A lot of this is stuff the kids can see at a Lady Gaga show, but with dancey beats and no guitars (although you can check online to see the Coop doing a smoking version of Born this Way).
Lady Gaga's fans might not appreciate Alice Cooper, but Lady Gaga sure does. When I did interviews with the Coop in his Phoenix man cave, I noticed a picture of her with a message written to the Coop. It said, "I stole everything from you. Thank you, God".
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
When Drake released the first "NWTS" single "Started From the Bottom," it prompted countless arguments about where said bottom began, as if "Degrassi" privilege somehow existed in hip-hop. But that all became moot once Drake showed us where his "now we here" was with this third album. Refusing to remake "Take Care," while still sounding like a Drake and 40 production, he pulls off his hardest album yet while also including his softest song ("Hold On, We're Going Home") and showing off both his best flows and strongest vocals. No less than Kanye called Drake "a rap god" earlier this week, and who are we to argue with Yeezus?
Canada's legacy of female folk legends is secured in Basia Bulat, who has crafted one of the albums of the year in "Tall Tall Shadow." The 29-year-old singer/songwriter wields an autoharp, piano, organ, and a honeyed, raw voice that fans of Joni Mitchell and Feist would be foolish not buy into without prejudice post haste. Recorded in a naturally reverberating old dance hall and co-produced by Mark Lawson and Tim Kinsbury (a member of Arcade Fire), Tall Tall Shadow has a grandiose, ethereal sound that oozes comfort and joy, but the songs themselves are devastatingly tragic. Basia's plaintive vocal trilling on "It Can’t Be You" will break your heart; the cheerful doo-wop handclaps of "Promise Not To Think About Love" will stitch it back up again. With pure, powerful melodies, brutally honest lyrics, but always full of much hope, "Tall Tall Shadow" is a masterwork from a woman ready for prime-time.
For an album intentionally positioned as a challenging listen and acquired taste, "Yeezus" is undeniable. That's what the critics will tell you, but cars are the real test and this summer a day didn't go without "Blood on the Leaves," or "Bound 2" blaring from open-windowed vehicles. So, maybe you have to struggle past the striated synths of "On Sight" before the good stuff – though the dusty soul break at its centre is such a jarringly confrontational touch – but "Yeezus" is a testament to the genius thing that 'Ye takes such pains to claim. He continues to expand the palette of both rap and popular music, in a way that Lady Gaga's paint-by-numbers pop art just can't.
It looked a little bleak for Cut Copy recently. With the massively underwhelming release of 2011's "Zonoscope," the fact that band members were living in different hemispheres, and the somewhat boring first single off Free "Your Mind," they looked like they might sink in the same way peers MGMT and Bloc Party have. However, their latest album is rich with texture in the variety of songs, and indie-meets-deep-house production. Cut Copy is back, and this might be their best album yet.
The album Janelle Monáe sonically unleashed to the world this year was simply electric. Second studio album "Electric Lady" was mind-blowing in the way it effortlessly melds throwback elements of jazz, funk, rock and soul into a futuristic body of work. The album remained a fixture on the R&B charts throughout 2013. Maybe it's her trademark tuxedo, the pompadour updo, or the effortless charisma she exudes, but the wunderkind from Kansas had a breakout year and "Electric Lady" stands as an instant classic.
The music world welcomed back Justin Timberlake this year after a seven-year absence and "The 20/20 Experience Part 1" is just as lavish and extravagant as we had hoped for. Teaming up with longtime collaborator/producer Timbaland, "The 20/20 Experience" is Timberlake at his most polished and sophisticated as he flawlessly executes pop songs with his signature falsetto like the seasoned pro that he is. And even though the poorly thought-out mess that was "The 20/20 Experience Part 2" almost threatened to erase the progress of its more triumphant half, "Part 1" is a great, constant reminder that Timberlake does indeed belong on the charts even more than he does on the big screen. Standout track: "Mirrors"
Many would say that the sleek and polished pop of Tegan and Sara's seventh studio album "Heartthrob" was a huge departure from their past work, which dabbled in folk, punk and alternative rock. But what was always present in the band’s 15-plus years of writing and recording was their innate knack for a good melody. Instead of churning out another riff-heavy rock album, Tegan and Sara bravely jumped ship into the synth-pop game, resulting in a product that still held their integrity in its direct, lovelorn lyrics, but packaged in a radio-friendlier exterior that truthfully suits the band better.
The French electronic music veterans came up with a novel way of updating their sound: instead of combing through old disco records looking for bits to sample, try to reproduce the techniques and approaches that created those classics. A much-needed analog counterpoint to EDM's digital dominance. Featured Track: "Lose Yourself to Dance"
There is, simply, no better singer-songwriter working today, in any genre. Following an apprenticeship in the Drive-By Truckers and a pair of iffy (but occasionally brilliant) solo records, Jason Isbell spent the early 2010s honing his craft, tightening his focus, sobering up, and settling into his undeniable talent for storytelling. On 2011's masterful "Here We Rest," Isbell finally arrived, a fully formed and commanding presence. But, with this year’s instant classic "Southeastern," Isbell has, rather remarkably, upped his game. Isbell has an uncanny knack for limning the contours of the southern American experience without descending into easy cliché. By no means a "traditional country" record – many of you may quibble with its inclusion here, considering its free borrowing from a range of musical traditions – Isbell has surely made an American record, an album built on the same hard luck stories, same proud rambling characters, same everyday struggles that move the music of his contemporaries in Nashville. Whatever your pleasure, this is it.
Travis Stewart revisited the original concept of his Machinedrum project on Vapor City, exploring the relationship between double-time drum'n'bass rhythms and half-time hip-hop beats, infused with a large dose of R&B melody. Bewildering to people who knew him only through his work with Azealia Banks, but inspiring to the rest of us. Featured Track: "Gunshotta"
Over the past few years Pusha T's G.O.O.D. Music cameos, mixtapes, and Kanye West-indebted minimalist makeover built a small frenzy for a solo record amongst die-hard fans of the Clipse, his duo act with brother No Malice. And he followed through with a sleek, smart, and sinewy collection of rap songs. Push has always benefited from the guiding hand of a genius producer (with the Clipse it was Pharrell and the Neptunes), and on "MNIMN," we get the rap album Kanye could never do himself. "King Push" is the headiest, most confident rap intro of the year; the drums on "Suicide" are supreme; and, the Pusha/Kendrick Lamar tag-team on "Nosetalgia” prove lyricism and charisma can still co-exist.
Pop took a new form in Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a.k.a. Lorde, this year. The now-17-year-old New Zealander burst onto the charts, spanning the board of genres from pop to R&B, with her breakout track “Royals,” which decries the unrelatable opulence espoused in the songs of her contemporaries. Her debut full-length "Pure Heroine" follows suit, showcasing Lorde's innate skill for crafting direct and honest lyrics about how it feels to be a normal teenager while navigating around sparse electronic arrangements inspired by bands such as The xx. The confident Lorde has proven that she has a lot to say — sometimes even outside of her music, as her ever-growing list of beefs might indicate — and we’re definitely excited to hear more from the young star in the years to come. Standout track: “Team”
German techno DJ/producer Stefan Kozalla took a gleefully psychedelic approach to his first solo album in nine years, and also revealed a surprising knack for twisted pop hooks. Despite featuring a large cast of collaborators, it holds together perfectly as a cohesive album statement. Featured track: "Nices Wölkchen feat. Apparat"
If the soul-stirring sound and voice of Brooklyn-based Charles Bradley doesn't make you feel something inside, you should probably double check to see if you have a pulse. "Victim of Love" is surprisingly just the second studio album by the 65-year old vocalist and former James Brown impersonator. Classic soul in the vein of Brown, Otis Redding and Stax Records is having a bit of a revival time in the mainstream eye, giving artists like Bradley some long overdue time in the spotlight.
The Haim sisters get a lot of backlash, mostly from stylish, talented, young women, in the same way that hip men in the early part of the century quickly turned on the White Stripes after they went all MTV on us. It should be noted that HAIM are definitely not a "put together" band unless you count their parents training them up from a young age to be a juggernaut live act, complete with top shelf charm and Este's now famous “bass face." Standout track: "Forever" Also see: <a href="http://youtu.be/OlN9AJkgeYk" target="_blank">David Letterman fall deeply in love with them</a>.
Los Angeles duo Rhye's "Woman" was both a mystery and a revelation. The album arrived on the scene shrouded in a carefully crafted package that left many wondering who they were — and who was behind that androgynous contralto. Turns out it was Toronto-based singer Mike Milosh as the person behind the soulful curtain (backed by Danish producer Robin Hannibal) and "Woman" was R&B / soul backed by ethereal melodies and stirring production. A hidden gem for 2013, and an album worth listening to again and again.
This new platter of classic country should come packaged with handkerchiefs, for Daniel Romano's olde tyme hurting songs — many of which sound like they could have premiered at the Grand Ole Opry 50 years ago — will have you weeping in your beer and/or pillow. Romano's traditional drawl, sequinned suits and his irony-free performance style has been slowly but surely grabbing the attention of George Jones and Waylon Jennings fans as well as young listeners discovering traditional country for the first time.
2013 may have been a great year for 90s-inspired sounds, but wasn't so great for comeback albums by IDM and downtempo artists of that era. Boards Of Canada, however, managed to find a way of updating their sound without sacrificing what we love about them. Featured track: "Reach for the Dead"
If there ever was a feel-good Canadian soul music story for 2013, Zaki Ibrahim is it. Born in Nanaimo, B.C. and based in Toronto, Ibrahim's eclectic "Every Opposite" earns its worldly soul sound from being recorded in places such as South Africa. A surprise addition to this year's Polaris Music Prize shortlist, Ibrahim's success has been a long time coming.
The most out-and-out pleasurable record of the year, relative newcomer Caitlin Rose's "The Stand-In" offers a genre-bending mix of country, pop, and melodic rock that would be at home on a mix with Neko Case, Patsy Cline and Sheryl Crow. An impressively confident vocalist, 25-year-old Rose's punkish poise is irresistible – just try not to be carried away by her energy on barnburner pop anthem "Menagerie" or the tight twanging-rock of "Only A Clown." "There's a little darkness hiding at the corner of your eye," she teases on "Silver Sings" (a song featuring delicious throwback production straight out of Jeff Lynne's late 1980s playbook), but she could well be singing about herself. It's the subtle tinge of melancholy that imbues this record with its timelessness. Even when she's making a joyful noise, there's something there, a creeping shadow. This is, as I say, a vastly pleasurable record – but it ain't mere confection. It's deeply rewarding, thrilling stuff.
It was impossible to avoid the sounds of the young Lawrence brothers in 2013, and their debut full-length album easily lived up to the hype generated by their early singles. House music that actually makes as much sense at home as it does in the club. Featured Track: "When A Fire Starts To Burn"
UK singer-songwriter Laura Mvula's album "Sing to The Moon" was perhaps one of the most intriguing R&B/soul projects of the year. With enthralling tracks like "She" and Green Garden," the 26-year old classically trained vocalist and composer masterfully brings together elements of orchestral soul, jazz and gospel — inviting comparisons to artists like Nina Simone — for an exceedingly strong debut album.
We're living in a time of '90s revisionism with the popularity of acts like the Weeknd and Sleigh Bells being both critical stars and touring machines, and London's The History of Apple Pie are one part <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Records" target="_blank">Sarah Records</a> act and two parts <a href="http://youtu.be/VW15vdcNSSk" target="_blank">The Rentals</a>. If your soul is empty because there hasn't been a new Pains of Being Pure at Heart record in two years, fill it with "Out of View." Standout track: “Mallory”
You could argue that James Blake has moved so far beyond his post-dubstep roots that it would be more appropriate to call him a pop singer than an electronic act, but how many traditional ballads feature this much bowel-vibrating bass?
Breakout star Kacey Musgraves has somehow managed to square the circle that has bedeviled so many aspiring country artists these past decades. How do you write intelligent songs built around cutting social critiques and still sell more than like eleven records? Well, this is how: Find the perspective between outsider condescension and insider awareness, find the tone between satire and celebration, find the sound between urban radio pop and rural folk picking… find Kacey Musgraves and her fun, snappy, yet endlessly insightful portraits of a rural America impoverished by its own monotony, boredom, resignation. Like Randy Newman crossed with Lucinda Williams, Musgraves (and her talented co-writer Shane McAnally) finds complexity in the mundane – take the terrific album title, for starters. But what makes her rise to fame all the more astonishing is that she isn't afraid to skewer the sacred cows of her community, or of the notoriously conservative musical genre in which she writes and performs. Improbably, yet rightfully, this has made her into a star. There is some justice in pop music, after all. Song: "Merry Go 'Round"
Toronto's Teenanger released their third full-length this year and it's made some long strides in securing them as the country's finest garage-punk act. Without falling into the trap of being a tribute to the decades-old genre, "Singles Don't $ell" has seen their songwriting go beyond what many fans thought they could, and coupled with some of the most interesting production on guitar-based music since Grinderman, Teenanger have stepped up another full plateau. Standout track: "Singles Don't $ell"
Haunting and heavy, this minimal synthpop record from Montreal duo Majical Cloudz showcases one of the country's most compelling and strongest new vocalists in Devon Welsh. The former Grimes collaborator strips down to the bone here, his intense confessionals about friendship and loss, nightmares and death supported by a warm ambient pulse. Don't be fooled by the title "Impersonator," Welsh and his emo electronica is in a league of its own. Featured Song: "Childhood's End"
We may have fixated on many of Miley Cyrus’ actions this year – twerking, pot-smoking, pants-neglecting – but the true engine that drove the mania we saw before us was the pop star’s transformative album, "Bangerz." A matured step outside of the safe bubblegum hooks of her past, Cyrus embraced a bombastic new look and sound that actually paid off. Singles “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” are among some of the year’s best songs with infectious melodies that possess a gift of longevity, a rarity in pop music today. But beyond that, the entire album proves to be an accurate portrait of a child star’s growing pains: it’s rebellious, it’s shameless and it’s everything one should expect from a 20-year-old woman trying to discover who she really is.
Following up their Grammy Award-winning album "The Suburbs," Montreal indie-rockers Arcade Fire upped the ambition with a two-disc opus this year called "Reflektor." Embracing a more celebratory, upbeat sound that crosses over into pop territory -- with some help from LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy — "Reflektor" translates the band's reflective words into something worth dancing to as opposed to toiling over. It's a glittering piece of work that maintains the band’s sincerity while exploring new sounds that are just as big and determined.
We expected Earl to return from his boarding school sojourn giddy to be free, grateful for the rapturous "Odd Future" fanbase, and spitting venomous raps in the vein of his eponymous pre-fame 2011 mixtape. What we didn't expect was a kid practically sobered-up by the entirety of the experience. "Doris" isn't bratty or particularly vengeful; it's practically repentant and shot through with integrity. The lone piano on "Chum" and sinister bassline melody on "Hive," paired with Earl’s doleful, dense delivery, are two of the best, most brilliant rap moments of 2013. Featured Track: "Hive"(ft. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies)
You can hear co-producer Jeremy Greenspan's fingerprints all over Jessy Lanza's stunning debut album, but it's her distinctive touch and haunting vocals that give "Pull My Hair Back" a sensual lushness that Greenspan's work with his own duo, Junior Boys, never achieved. Featured track: "Pull My Hair Back"
"I never thought on the day I started to write rhymes / That I might climb / And now it’s like I / Just may be Jay-Z in my lifetime." He's been a One to Watch for almost a decade now but Shad still feels on the cusp of mainstream success. Regardless, "Flying Colours" is a tour de force, a true album with layer upon layer of clever wordplay both biographical and fantastical. His seven-minute track "Progress (Part 1: American Pie, Part 2: The Future is Here)" is as biting social commentary as you'll hear anywhere this year, and exhibits a musical sophistication that puts Shad up with the best anywhere in the world. Featured Song: "Stylin" featuring Saukrates
Responsible for co-writing Swedish duo Icona Pop's breakout hit, "I Love It," British songwriter/pop star Charli XCX released her own full-length this year, crafting the perfect hooks for herself using similar traits from her most successful hit. Brash pop melodies combined with industrial, house and mainstream influences from many eras, Charli’s collage sound is very much the patchwork of a young woman who grew up in the age of the Internet (she's only 21). Still, what stands out most is the star’s writing abilities, which have since earned her opportunities to work with the Princess of Pop herself, Britney Spears. Standout track: "You (Ha Ha Ha)"
"Acid Rap," Chance's second mixtape, was the great unifier in a rap landscape that is increasingly stratified based on aesthetic preference. Chance, who hails from Chicago, manages to straddle indie, commercial, and street rap demographics, with this pseudo-whimsical, nostalgia-streaked mixtape that pays homage to rap classics as well as Chicago's vibrant musical traditions. He's a deft, playful, engaging rapper who, as "Pusha Man" shows, can spin tragedy (in this case, Chicago's ongoing street carnage) into earworm-y prose. Featured Track: "Pusha Man (feat. Nate Fox & Lili K)"
The much-hyped Canadian producer's debut album successfully brought together his eclectic influences into a cohesive album that nimbly jumps between ambient hip hop, futuristic R&B, and dramatic dance floor flourishes. Featured track: "Against A Wall" ft. Lofty305
Heavily lauded as the new Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande has some large, diva-sized shoes to fill and her debut album, "Yours Truly," delivers. Matching Carey’s range, octave for octave, Grande’s honeyed vocals soar above a set of equally saccharine ballad-pop piano and R&B-influenced songs. "Yours Truly" successfully pulls Grande out of the shadow of her predecessors and shines the spotlight forward on one of pop's brightest stars. Standout track: "Baby I"
This is an impressive, intelligent, introspective compilation mixtape from the newest addition to Kendrick Lamar's TDE crew, the only member from outside of California. A Tennessee native, Isaiah Rashad is a keen-eyed, breathless rapper who prefers a soundtrack of sweaty soul riffs and Erykah Badu samples, leaving all the grit and aggression to his delivery and performance – like a young, Southern-twanging Kanye West, minus the funnies. "S.B.B.B. (Goblins)" is the most uptempo, in-your-face track on here, and Rashad masters the pace without breaking a sweat. This isn't an official release – it's a compilation of previously released material – but it's a well-crafted introduction to the newest weapon in Kendrick's arsenal. Featured Track: "Hurt Cobain"
On his first solo album since the split of Alexisonfire, singer/guitarist Dallas Green kept to the realm of grave acoustic confessionals he's been releasing as City and Colour since 2005, but with a freedom to get out his innermost anxieties without concern for band fall-out. The result is portrait of an artist as an aging man, taking his first steps towards writing things not about himself (the single "Thirst"), all the while preoccupied with his own mortality ("Two Coins," "Death Song"). Melancholic Americana that successfully bridges Green's past and his future. Featured Song: "Two Coins"
Breaking out of the niche musical community that embraced his early experiments in drones and minimalism, Tim Hecker reaches new heights with this gorgeous collection of orchestral pieces. The abstract, unconventional structures and glitches of distorted noise are still there, but choreographed alongside organic instruments like woodwinds and harpsichord into a heavenly body of work. Featured Song: "Live Room + Live Room Out"
Glasgow trio Chvrches, like many on this list, produced one of the year's best debut albums because of their ability to hone in a signature sound right off the bat. Their heavy synth barrage of vibrant electronics sounds perfected like a science, with every loop and programmed beat fitted into its very specific place to set off the perfect sound foundation for singer Lauren Mayberry's sharp, pointed words. A brazen display of modern technology, Chvrches' human touches is what completes their sound, creating an album that's simultaneously futuristic and charismatic. Standout track: “Lies”
Producer Robin Hannibal truly had a great year, as evidenced by his second mention on this list. Danish duo Quadron, comprised of Hannibal and singer Coco O, dropped second album "Avalanche" to an unsuspecting soul-pop world and was an underrated hit. Off the strength of the poppy first single "Hey Love" — which was featured on TV's "Grey's Anatomy" — "Avalanche" takes its cues from soul by way of soft rock, pop and jazz to create one of the stronger efforts of 2013.
Pretty indie pop is reaching critical mass out there, but Young Galaxy (Montrealers by way of Vancouver) made something special on this fourth record, conjuring pure pleasure from many different moods. "Pretty Boy" is the best kind of 21st century new wave; "New Summer" can take over from the Hip's "Bobcaygeon" as your favourite cottage sunset jam; "Fever" is classic clap-a-long. Basically, "Ultramarine" is the album you wanted "Reflektor" to be. Featured Song: "New Summer"
Teaming up with Tribal Spirit Music gave Ottawa's A Tribe Called Red greater access to raw powwow music recordings, which allowed them to refine their proudly aboriginal club sound even further than on their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut. Featured Track: "NDN Stakes" (live)
Any listener will give this record an obligatory Bleach comparison, and that's fair but with EDM ruling the airwaves as well as the live industry, it's a healthy reminder to re-discover your spastic guitar roots. With frontman Jon Red's House-Of-Guitars-style of absurdist humour in their videos and social media, and a live show that makes them sell out of merchandise nightly, expect big things from this rising act in the next two years. Standout track: "Horseless Headman"
It's mildly en vogue to switch lanes from dreamy, guitar pop into a more electronic realm, but Louise Burns' second record did it with more aplomb than her contemporaries. Instead of attempting to become a radio sensation by getting hyper-billboard producers and writers on board (which we’ll call "The Liz Phair Manoeuver") Ms. Burns enlisted The Raveonettes' Sune Rose Wagner to man the controls on a darker record than one might expect from her. Also with the help of indie all-stars Sandra Vu (Dum Dum Girls), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), Darcy Hancock (Ladyhawk), Brennan Saul (Brasstronaut), and James Younger, Louise Burns is in an indie episode of Hollywood Squares, and she's in Betty White’s seat. Standout track: "Don't Like Sunny Days” Featured song: "Emerald Shatter"
Yuck had a mountain to climb with their follow-up to their scorching, self-titled debut and they nailed it by doing something we don't see in music that often anymore: parity. All the songs have different styles to them, instead of just trying to make a sequel to the album that got them so much attention. "Rebirth" might be the most obvious "Loveless" tribute ever made (and that's saying something), "Middle Sea" could be on any Placebo full-length, and "Nothing New" belongs on Ash's 2001 release "Free All Angels." Standout track: "Middle Sea"
Brandy Clark, also writing with Shane McAnally, has made a record that in many ways can be described in the same words of praise as Kacey Musgraves'. But, with an album title that echoes Randy Newman's classic "12 Songs," Clark goes even further into the territory he occupied than does her younger contemporary. Playing the outspoken observer, the half-sensitive and half-arch chronicler of a certain North American way of life, Clark writes songs with an acid pen. Highlights abound, but the opening track "Pray to Jesus" may just be the very best song in this vein that I've heard in years. Balancing the bleakness of contemporary post-middle-class poverty with the futility of asking Jesus to let you win the lotto, Clark dares to suggest that even Christianity is a false panacea. A few songs later she's extolling the virtues of smoking dope to escape the pain of a housewife’s wasted life. Country music has told stories like these before, of course, but it feels like a long time since we've heard them sung with such confidence and wisdom Song: "Pray To Jesus"
Released toward the end of the year, the fact that producer Dev Hynes's second album as Blood Orange is on this year is a testament to his strong brand of gritty, urban soul. As a long-time producer for artists such as Beyonce's little sis Solange Knowles, Florence Welch and the Chemical Brothers, with solo album "Cupid Deluxe" he lets his stylish aesthetic and diverse musical tendencies run wild, weaving in elements of classic R&B, pop and hip-hop to build a project that intrigues as it entrances.
Northern soul was the original rave music. That beat can make any wallflower turn into a stomping, sweaty mess, and the fact that it's under-utilized is one of the great shames of fashionable music. Vancouver's The Ballantynes may be one of the only acts doing a straight-ahead version of this style, but they're not lazy about it. With vintage Hammonds and powerful backups vocals, they are being true to the genre and making even young fans nostalgic for a time they don't remember. Standout track: "No Love"
Brendan Canning's not kidding. The second solo record from the Broken Social Scene founder is seriously mellowwwwww. The vibe is more living room than chill-out room, and each moment is carefully placed, fully present, from the opening acoustic guitar instrumental "Post Fahey" through dreamy folk for the Nick Cave and Elliott Smith lovers out there to the melancholy closer "Last Song for the Summer Hideaway." A fine follow-up move after Canning's soundtrack for the Lindsay Lohan flop "Canyons," putting him back on the 2013 "winners" list. Featured Song: "Plugged In"
At just nine songs and running a brisk 32 minutes, this tightly-constructed record is like a delirious one-nighter, enveloping you with its passion before running off into the night. Sparingly produced by Nashville veteran Vince Gill, Monroe's songs blend wry, subversive humour ("You Ain't Dolly," "Weed Instead of Roses"), social commentary ("Two Weeks Late," the extraordinary title track co-written with Guy Clark), and rollicking honkytonkers into a marvelously compelling whole. Fans of Monroe's pal (and Pistol Annies bandmate) Miranda Lambert will already know her voice, but newcomers will be dazzled by its gracefulness, and by Monroe's unrestrained confidence. Featuring yet another standout track co-written by Shane McAnally – the man is in many ways the story of popular country music in 2013 – "Like a Rose" is the third (along with "Same Trailer" and "12 Stories") in a trifecta of extraordinary, trailblazing country records by women looking to change the conversation. Amen to that. Song: "Like A Rose"