Here’s what I consumed (and what consumed me) in 2013, a good deal of which has already been covered in embarrassing depth elsewhere on this site.
Favorite Musical Discoveries
1. Phantom of the Paradise – Paul Williams. I’ve always loved Paul Williams for his Muppet (rainbow) connection but never delved too deeply into the recordings he did under his own name. It took ueber-fans Daft Punk roping him in for their new record–and admitting in an interview that PW inspired their helmets–for me to finally take the plunge. Yet as good as some of those albums are, the soundtrack to Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise is on a whole different level. You could call it the oddball older brother of Rocky Horror and Grease (both of which Phantom pre-dates), and you wouldn’t be far off. Williams nails every genre he apes, but as funny as the lyrics are, the songs are so consistently good that they never lapse into novelty. It’s quite an achievement, yet one that was apparently lost on everyone at the time–outside of Winnipeg, that is, where they hold annual revivals. God bless Winnipeg.
2. Future Clouds and Radar. Robert Harrison pretty much vanished after his band Cotton Mather made a minor splash with the incredible, Noel Gallagher-hyped Kontiki in 1997 (a record which contains the personal anthem “Church of Wilson”). Turns out he suffered a spinal injury! After he finally recovered, he quietly recorded and released a brilliant double album under the name of Future Coulds and Radar. It’s a masterpiece of bubblegum psychedelia that deserves a much wider audience. The track “You Will Be Loved” even contains some serious gospel import.
3. The 70s Soft-Rock Triumvirate of Lobo, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and Eric Carmen. None of these guys were the least bit cool, but man, the songs stand up! Lobo could devastate with his deceptively sophisticated (and ridiculously soft) studies of adult emotion. Gilbert’s romantic melodicism and unabashed self-pity are intoxicating. And Eric Carmen’s first solo album (the one with “All By Myself”) after the Raspberries makes an art out of listenability. Perfect pop.
4. A Wizard A True Star – Todd Rundgren. Anxious to avoid being pigeonholed as the “male Carole King” in the wake of Something/Anything, Rundgren set out to confound expectations (law) and very much succeeded. Yet so few notoriously “strange” records ever live up to their reputations like this one. The years haven’t tamed it, but that doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable or inaccessible. A Wizard A True Star is its own magical universe.
5. Swamp Dogg. No relation to Snoop, this dude is a genre unto himself. But the music–at least that of his early 70s hey-day–is far more accessible and warm than his gonzo image (and album covers!) might lead one to believe. Country funk n soul with amazing horns and surprising psychedelic sympathies. It took guts, or maybe insanity, for a black artist to put not one but two Joe South covers on the same record in 1970.
6. The Yard Went On Forever – Richard Harris. The original Dumbledore and his legendary impresario/songwriter Jimmy Webb followed up “MacArthur Park” with a wild record of seamless baroque pop. Takes a few listens to sink in but the dividends are hefty.
Ten Favorite Songs Discovered in 2013
- Starry Eyes – The Records
- Alive – The Bee Gees
- The Hive – Richard Harris
- Rhapsody – Alejandro Escovedo
- Yesterday Once More – The Carpenters
- You Are Forgiven – Anais Mitchell
- Lonnie and Josie – Kiki Dee
- Snow in Berlin – Zookeeper
- Mallory – The History of Apple Pie
- Everybody’s Gotta Clap – Lulu
Twelve Favorite Songs Released in 2013
- Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
- Sabotage – Suede
- Step – Vampire Weekend
- Shuggie – Foxygen
- Sirens – Pearl Jam
- Don’t Save Me – Haim
- Valentine’s Day – David Bowie
- Dresden – OMD
- Without Her – Slaid Cleaves
- Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
- Recover – Chvrches
- I Was Born in Bethlehem – Nick Lowe
Six Favorite Records Released in 2013
- Bloodsports – Suede. So few artists ever truly come back, let alone with the magic intact. I’m still convinced that “Sabotage” is about self-sacrifice (and Sydney Carton)– should’ve known that Brett Anderson would be a master of religious melodrama if he ever got around to it.
- Southeastern – Jason Isbell. Proof that recovery can clarify (and enwisen!) as well as pacify. The themes are big, the stories haunting, and the songwriting exquisite. Isbell is a national treasure.
- Night Time, My Time – Sky Ferreira. Pretty much the opposite of Isbell’s record, this one is full of desperation and confusion and self-loathing and bright pop hooks. In a year when many of the ladies who had been dominating the charts suffered some backlash, Sky represents a welcome new vanguard of cool.
- Modern Vampires In the City – Vampire Weekend. I didn’t expect them to put out a masterpiece either but here we are. They jettisoned pretty much all of their annoying tropes but somehow still sound like themselves. The style is fresh, and the lyrics are a feast for Mockingbirds everywhere.
- The Ballad of Boogie Christ – Joseph Arthur. We probably need to get this guy to speak at a conference.
- I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You – Derek Webb. Fantastic record all the way around–wise, touching, playful, adventurous, romantic, beautifully crafted, dare I say mature?
Guiltiest Pleasure: Fall Out Boy Save Rock N Roll. No apologies.
JOURNALISM and LITERATURE
Favorite Columnist: One Guess
Favorite “Long Read” Writer: Judith Shulevitz
Favorite Religion Columnist: Giles Fraser
Favorite TED Talk Discovered in 2013: Alain de Botton’s “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success”
Most Inspiring Video Testimony: Skip Ryan
Most Fascinating Interview of the Year: Joss Whedon in Entertainment Weekly
Funny-Mean Memoir of the Century: Autobiography by Morrissey
Favorite Religion Essay Read This Year: “Dostoyevsky: The Holy and the Good” chapter in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Fools for Christ
Favorite Religious/Theological Book: Todd will have his annual list of Top Theology Books up next week, but if you just can’t wait, the Gift Guide included most of our recent faves.
Favorite Fiction: 2013 was the year I devoured A Song of Ice and Fire. Even better and more transporting than expected, though the price for such thorough enchantment appears to be entrance into the ranks of worried masses who’re convinced Martin will never finish. Dear God in heaven…
Best Onion Article Written This Year: Anxiety Solved By Thinking About It Real Hard
Favorite Onion Article Posted This Year: Where Are All These Loose Women My Pastor Keeps Telling Me About?
Portlandia Clip of the Year (tie): An Important Message from the Portland Nerd Council, or…
Favorite Films: Like the last couple of years, we’ll do a formal list in time for the Oscars once we’ve had a chance to see everything. I guarantee Mud will make the cut.
Grace in Practice Documentary Award: Undefeated
Voice Crying in the Wilderness Award/Best 2012 Feature We Need To Write About ASAP: Hannah Arendt
BLOG (hypocrisy warning!)
Ten Most Read Posts of the Year
- Brene Brown Returns to Church (and Finds Jesus Weeping)
- Why Does Everyone Hate Skylar White?
- Short Story Wednesdays: “Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway
- Resolving to Love Calvin and Hobbes
- Expectation Hangovers and Twentysomething Nones
- Sex Is Bigger Than You and Me (and Everyone We Know)
- In Loving Memory of Robert Farrar Capon
- Love Is on the Beach
- This Team Is Terrible… And Awesome
- Wheels of Worry, Everyday Trauma and the First Day of School
Least Read Posts of the Year, AKA Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time
- Scott Walker Is Dead, Long Live Scott Walker
- The Legacy of the American Muscle Car
- A Great Prince Died So A Hedge Knight Might Live
- We’ve Only Just Begun?
Courageously Fringe Post of the Decade: The Italo-Gospel Is Foolishness
Runner Up (and Most Genuinely Unexpected Grace Fable of the Year): A Great Prince Died So A Hedge Knight Might Live
Most Watched Conference Talk: The Unlikely Believer – Mary Karr
Most Downloaded Conference Talk: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World – Tullian Tchividjian