1. Kurt Vile, “Girl Called Alex,” Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador)
Surprise! Josh, Jeff, and I agree that this is a great song. I didn’t bother to listen to it until I decided to trust Josh’s opinion. Kurt Vile has said that it doesn’t mean anything. He just wrote it for a girl who was his friend, no big deal. But when I listen to it, it’s obsessive and haunting and deep, propelled by the guitar, which is Vile’s subtle weapon of mass destruction. The rest of the album is less slealthy, and more chill. But watch out, Vile has sharp teeth. By far, the best song of the year.
2. Chelsea Light Moving, “Alighted,” S/T (Matador)
It’s never too late to break up, shove it, and start over, as Thurston Moore proves with his new band, Chelsea Light Moving. Sonic Youth got stuck on fashion and post-rock noodling about 15 years ago, after Dirty, and finally, he’s back in action. This is his hardest song, perhaps, ever. As for two of the other three SY members – Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo – they released absolutely shitty albums this year. Steve Shelley is still a great drummer for whoever needs a great drummer (see number 5). Onward, Thurston!
3. Laura Marling, “Breathe,” Once I Was an Eagle (Virgin)
What a stunning young woman. She’s only 23 years old, but her album, which is really one long song, is subtle, strong and wise. I saw her play the Rio Theatre in Vancouver in November and was simply stunned. You worship Cat Power? The Greatest? Oh, please! Try Laura. She’s clearly formidable.
4. Scout Niblett, “Gun,” It’s Up to Emma (Drag City)
Ask any woman you know. Is Scout Niblett the sexiest woman alive? Yes. Is her album cover – whereupon she dominates some bearded boy, the best of the year? Yes. In the video for this song, Scout dresses like Snow White, rides a Ferris wheel and carousel, and devastates Portland. And yes, she can play guitar. And as she screams in this song, “Ha!”
5. Disappears, “Girl,” Era (Kranky)
Hoo boy! Ever been burned by a lady? These sweet boys from Chicago are very hurt. And it makes for a most thorough and satisfying wall of sound. Plus, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth is their erstwhile drummer, which is a much better place for him than the orchestral pop pit that Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth has herded together for his latest album.
6. My Bloody Valentine, “She Found Now,” MBV (m b v)
In February, some of us old people got the news of the first My Bloody Valentine album in 22 years and immediately ran to the laptop to hit the stupid download button 39 times on a cold, Saturday night until it finally appeared on the computer. On vinyl, I must say, it really is typically sublime, and worth the wait. If Loveless was about sex, MBV is about new beginnings, and love if you’re lucky.
7. Bill Callahan, “The Sing,” Dream River (Drag City)
Have you heard of him? Why not? He’s a poet. He used to call himself Smog, then (Smog), and date Cat Power, and he is the greatest lyricist of my generation. This is slow-growing, smart, and dead-pan funny music that won’t leave you. This song is about beer.
8. Califone, “Movie Music Kills a Kiss,” Stiches (Dead Oceans)
Califone used to be Red Red Meat, back in Chicago twenty years ago when it was still seedy and sexy and smarmy and Nelson Algren might’ve recognized it from his locker room at the Y when he was checking out Simone de Beauvoir’s ass in the mirror. But Califone has grown older, moved west, and now, as figurehead Tim Rutilli said, “Instead of writing from my balls and brain, this time I wrote from the nerves, skin, and heart.”
9. Parquet Courts, “Stoned and Starving,” Light Up Gold (Dull Tools)
My friend and loyal CounterPuncher, Bob Downing, told me this was like a great Pavement song. I hate Pavement, but I still love this song. It’s the riffs.
10. Of Montreal, “Fugitive Air,” lousy with silvianbriar (Polyvinyl)
Once again, we witness a horrible mental breakdown and breakup with an excellent beat. No one can do the breakdown/up like Of Montreal. It usually has something to do with a toxic, heartless woman ruined by her upbringing.
11. Nirvana, “Scentless Apprentice (2013 Mix),” In Utero 20th Anniversary Edition (Sub Pop)
It sounds so corporate – another Nirvana release! Actually, it, finally, gets back to the way the band first wanted the album done, with minimalist sound engineer Steve Albini. And most of us old people know the story. Much internal-industry controversy ensued when the demo was sent to their label, Geffen, and the band re-recorded the album so it was less stark and more radio-friendly. And, with this reissue, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic chose to return to Albini’s recording, because that’s the way it should’ve been. Anyone who’s heard it knows it’s far superior. To read Albini’s letter to Nirvana, warning of the consequences of recording with him, see: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/09/ill-rap-your-head-with-ratchet.html
12. Songs: Ohia: “Farewell Transmission,” The Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian)
This album was just reissued with much critical acclaim, which makes me feel even older than the beyond-tragic death in March of my old college friend, Sparky, aka Jason Molina, who was found in on a cold street in Bloomington, Indiana, after drinking himself to death at age 39. The only number on his cell phone was that of his grandma. He’d been through rehab and “inverventions” and the preachy rigmarole of the 12 Steps, but the devil kept at him. He also had a big pile of unpaid medical bills, being a self-employed musician and one of the uninsured. When I first heard him play his ukulele in the bathroom he shared with my boyfriend when I was 19, I cried. Somehow, some of us survive, bewildered.
13. Neil Young, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” Live at the Cellar Door (Reprise)
Neil Young, acoustic in DC in 1970. Just imagine sitting in that basement with Neil as Washington continued to churn out blood-soaked press releases about the Vietnam War, the politicians festered, and ordinary people knew better. Many of his best songs are on this album, but “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” seems like a fine battle cry for those of us who want nothing to do with the powerful in 2014. After all, as Mike Whitney observed, we know we’ll never retire: “Don’t let it bring you down. It’s only castles burning.”
Neil’s on tour in Canada this Winter to support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta and other indigenous communities fighting companies ruining their land in order to suck up oil and natural gas, and absolutely without their permission. In case you are hitchhiking along the TransCanada Highway in January: http://www.neilyoung.com/tour.html
Kristin Kolb writes the “Daydream Nation” column in CounterPunch’s monthly print magazine.