Best Music of 2013

Another year, another chance to savor the musical highlights. Whether you thought this was a year filled with challenges or one with nothing but peak moments, 2013 left us with lots to be thankful for in terms of music. So heck yeah, let’s celebrate!

We thought we’d take a quick walk down memory lane just to remind ourselves how much good stuff filled the airwaves and our eardrums this year, and maybe even take a peek into 2014 and see what awaits us on the other side of the ball drop.

Jake Bugg, “Jake Bugg”

Jake Bugg released not one but two albums in the U.S. this year – his debut “Jake Bugg” hitting stores in early April. It covered an array of topics via rockabilly (“Trouble Town”) quiet ballads (“Country Song,” “Broken,” “Someone Told Me”), and good ol’ Rock n’ roll (“Lightning Bolt” “Two Fingers,””Seen It All”).

We can’t help but love a guy who comes up with lines like: “Stuck in Speedbump City / Where they only thing that’s pretty / Is the thought of gettin’ out,” and sings them with such carefree abandon.Your favorite track may change from day to day, and it’s the kind of musical assortment you’ll want to keep on repeat.

Dawes, “Stories Don’t End”

A sort of “thinking person’s” rock band, Dawes songs like the opener on “Stories” are introspective or filled with daily observations about life. And it’s plain these guys are serious musicians raising the bar for themselves by paying attention to musical detail.

Keyboardist Tay Strathairn’s piano interlude at the finish of “Just My Luck” is a musical balm that’ll cure whatever ails you. Taylor Goldsmith’s lead guitar work is filled with smart musical nuances that punctuate things oh-so-well. And if the musical flourishes and sweet guitar work on the C&W-ish “Someone Will” doesn’t get you daydreaming about southern California, romance and margaritas, well, nothing will.

These 12 easy-to-like tracks are knit together with hearty folk-rock touches, great vocals and smart guitar work. “Stories Don’t End” is Americana as it gets, and as solid as they come.

Washed Out, “Paracosm”

Incredible instrumentation that seems divinely inspired is one way to describe “Paracosm,” released by Washed Out in August of this year. There were some 50 instruments used to create Washed Out’s second studio album and it’s an absolute breath of fresh air to see musical innovation take precedence over formulas and heavily-synthesized commercialism.

Musical impressionism took place in the late 19th century, but the bright, sunny, often romantic energy that comes through in this album could also be described as modern-day impressionism. Georgia-based musician Ernest Greene is the man behind Washed Out. Paracosm debuted at number twenty-one on the Billboard 200 and Rolling Stone recently ranked “All I Know” #25 on their “Best 100 songs of 2013” list.

“Call your friends, I’ll call mine/ We’ll head out for a long ride/ Sun is coming out now, it all feels right.” It sure does, and we’re giving it an A+ not just for how it makes us feel, but for its ingenuity.

Mason Jennings, “Always Been”

The eleven tracks on “Always Been” are hopeful, sunny and bright – an enticing combination as we enter the gray, gloomy month of December. Just out last month, highlights of the new release include “Wilderness,” a compelling soft folk-rock track about a relationship on-the edge. Look also for some wonderful harmonica touches enhancing the warm-hearted “So Good,” a great arrangement for Jennings and the band.

Those who prefer more caffeine in their morning music will gravitate to the raucous slide guitar and great harmonies on the quick-fire, old-timey (“Can I get a ) Witness,” and the charming, adventurous love-at-first-sight theme of “Rainboots” – seemingly tailor-made for the Pacific Northwest music scene.

Just how a musician as accomplished as Mason Jennings continues to fly under the radar of most commercial radio and “Hot 100” charts is a mystery. Maybe it’s a good thing, though, because his unique, personable style remains a reassuring refuge in the wilderness that the music world can sometimes become.

Guster, “Live Acoustic”

One of the year’s juiciest, most joyous albums was alternative rock band Guster’s “Acoustic Live” release in January. It opens with a fan-favorite, the nostalgic “Backyard” from their 2003 “Keep it Together.” For those who appreciate hand-drums, fun fiddle, cool keyboards and artfully played harmonica, this one’s for you.

Deceptively easy to listen to at first blush, the more you listen to songs like “Long Way Down” the more riveting they become. An exuberant acoustic version of hit single “Do You Love Me” from their more recent “Easy Wonderful” is included. And, absolutely stellar is Guster’s performance of their hit single “Satellite,” also included here. You’re sure to love the full, rich sound of the acoustic arrangement with wild, fantastic fiddle that takes off at key moments and some well-placed pizzicato at the finale’.

Great vocal harmonies and unusual percussion set this highly-listenable, easy-to-love band apart. An intensely focused rendition of the serious “Rocket Ship” elicits audience appreciation that’s palpable in the recording. Some great energy on that-there jam, but you’re also likely to love the optimistic, Saturday-morning feel of “Rise and Shine.”

Lorde, “Pure Heroine”

Was it really only this past September that New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde released her debut “Pure Heroine” album? It made a splash globally and Lorde already has a world-wide following. Meshing portions of electronica and synthpop, “Pure Heroine” hooks us with Lorde’s smoky, sophisticated-sounding voice and her astounding musical instincts – a killer combination.

At 17, she’s the youngest pop diva to emerge on the music scene in recent years. Assessed and declared “gifted” as a child, her parents ultimately kept her in public schools; but Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor) has been singing, writing songs and playing guitar since she was 13.

Hit single “Royals” peaked number 1 in the U.S. on Billboard’s Hot 100 making her the first solo artist from New Zealand to top the chart, and the youngest artist to hold that spot in many years. She played Portland’s Crystal Ballroom on December 4 and tickets went fast; she Tweeted “Have me back soon!”after the show. Until then, enjoy the lush sounds found on these 10 remarkable tracks.

Josh Ritter, “Beast in its Tracks”

Ritter’s music might be described as alternative folk-rock (think Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah,” or Bruce Cockburn’s “Lions”). The 37-year old singer-songwriter has been making music since he was just a teenager playing roadhouses and coffee shops, and often graces his music with beautiful, unique, other-worldy synthesizer touches.

Just how does Ritter sing about dark topics like betrayal and still sound so sunny, fresh and uplifting? We’ll surmise he had to keep his eraser on-hand while he penned these songs. We also love the juxtaposition of songs like “Nightmares” and “Evil Eye,” both good examples of Ritter’s ability to turn life’s challenges sunny-side up.

There are a number of songs here in which to take refuge, including the soft rocker “Hopeful.” Perfectly crafted for live in-house performances, it pulls us in with solid drumming, great lyrics, a lilting piano and a chorus fitting for audience sing-alongs. Recorded with an artist’s eye for detail at Great North Sound Society in Parsonfield Maine, these honest tracks are alive, crisp, fresh. Ritter delighted fans in Portland this year and returns again soon. Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to pick up an extra copy for a family member, friend, or that special someone.

Bauer, “Lose All Memory”

It’s been just a year since the release of “Sleeping Giant,” but Manchester England’s Bauer released “Lose All Memory” just this month and it’s everything we might have hoped for. Formed in 2006, they have a sound a bit like Coldplay or Keane, and sometimes…even better.

“Hush now baby while I write this song” is a great line, and so begins “Isn’t It a Perfect World,” a powerhouse of a track that seems destined for commercial success. Fans and newbies alike will go nuts for the lush makeover of their song “Starting Again.” And, if a big rock/pop sound with lots of layers is to your liking, you’re sure to love “Breathing Out Fire” and its followup, “Unbreakable.” Great chord changes, Matthews’ passionate vocals and Reed doing some tasteful guitar work make both tracks exemplary.

Bauer’s lead singer Greg Matthews pens half their songs solo, co-writing the rest with band members Michael Reed and Neil Treppas. “Lose All Memory” constitutes great musical company for we Oregonians enduring winter’s gloom, _and,_ is a great affirmation of this band’s continuing momentum. Find their music on i-Tunes, and claim you “knew-them-when.”

Jake Bugg, “Shangri La”

Since Bugg’s first release didn’t appear in the U.S. until this year, he actually makes the “best-of” list twice. His new release “Shangri-La” — named after the famous Malibu, Calif. studio in which it was recorded — offers up more Rock n’ roll than the first go-round. Once again, most tracks are co-written with other musicians, most notably Ireland’s Iain Archer (formerly Snow Patrol and more recently, Tired Pony) and Brendan Benson. One of the album’s finest tracks, however, is “Me and You,” written solo by Bugg

There’s a new sound on Shangri La that’s a departure from Bugg’s debut, a kind of leisurely, meandering rock n’ roll voice on songs like “All Your Reasons” and the goodbye-my-love theme of “Kitchen Table.” Both songs were written solo by Bugg. The latter, particularly, offers an interesting, unhurried arrangement that beckons us in. With a similar flavor is the brooding “Simple Pleasures,” a rock collaboration that clocks in at over five minutes. Nice work.

Another album high point is the last track, “Storm Passes Away,” co-written with Archer and Benson. We thought we’d heard all the different sides of this artist from Nottingham, England, on his debut. But “Storm” has a rockabilly flavor that gets oh-so-close to bluegrass or classic Hank Williams material and is perfectly performed by Bugg.

When Jake Bugg first emerged on the music scene, comparisons with Bob Dylan seemed inevitable. Given his electric guitar prowess, evident on songs like Slumville Sunrise and especially live in concert – maybe he’s more like a budding Eric Clapton. If you were lucky enough to catch him live at the Wonder Ballroom, you know what a modest, yet compelling showman he is.

You say you haven’t gotten his music yet? Put him on your “get-acquainted” list soon.

Live Music

There’s nothing live seeing a band or musician live to really seal the deal; here’s a couple of concerts that were exceptional.

KEANE’s Strangeland tour whistle stop at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom

The 4-member band from East Sussex who plays sold-out stadiums around the world – including England’s 20,000 capacity “02 Arena” – came to Portland in January to flex their stuff, and flex they did.

From the get-go lead singer Tom Chaplin wowed the audience with his smooth, powerful and perfectly executed vocals, never showing signs of tiring. Ever the lovable showman, he worked the crowd during songs and threw in a little banter in between, at one point quipping: “Remember the time we played here with Snow Patrol?”

Touring to promote “Strangeland,” their setlist borrowed generously from it including hit single “You Are Young,” the jubilant “On the Road,” the uplifting “Silenced by the Night,” “Neon River,” “Disconnected,” the pensive “Sea Fog” and their picturesque “Sovereign Light Cafe’.” Satisfactory fare, indeed. Audience reaction was also immediate and visceral for their earlier triumphs, particularly during such commanding hits as “Nothing In My Way” and “Is It Any Wonder?” from”Under the Iron Sea.”

A peak moment? Winning by a wide margin, that would be when Chaplin invited the crowd to join in on “Somewhere Only We Know” – probably the one time _everyone_ seemed to know all the words. With nearly 32 million hits on YouTube and still going strong, that song won’t leave the repertoire any time soon, and we’re thankful for that. Enormously successful in Europe, here’s hoping KEANE’s following continues to grow here in the Pacific Northwest.

John Mayer’s “Born and Raised” Concert, Sleep Country Ampitheater

On a perfect summer’s evening in July, John Mayer wooed fans at his Clark County appearance. Big kudos to Sleep Country Amphitheater’s sound system, sounding particularly delicious during “I Don’t Trust Myself with Loving You.”

Probably the highlight for the crowd during the first hour of the show was a lengthy “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” that included several slow-simmering guitar solos. With the crowd on their feet, the amazing sound system and a constantly changing backdrop of visuals depicting stars, constellations and the Northern Lights, it was a mesmerizing performance indeed.

An audience sing-a-long during “Your Body is a Wonderland” from “Room for Squares,” “Something Like Olivia” from “Born and Raised,” and a fun, somewhat countrified version of “Who Says” with photos of Sedona, Arizona alighting the backdrop, followed. As unfortunate and challenging as Mayer’s recent health challenges have been, it’s evident the man has made the best of things by directing much of his time and energy to expanding and perfecting his already proficient blues guitar techniques. Bravo.

What to look forward to in the New Year?

Bruce Springsteen, The Fray and Adele all have new albums due out next year, and Bauer says they’re working on one as well. Fabulous!

Some great live music to tickle your eardrums

Jake Bugg plays Crystal Ballroom January 22, Josh Ritter will be at the Aladdin Theater January 25, and Washed Out plays at the Crystal Ballroom on January 30. Amos Lee performs at the Schnitzer in February, and Kings of Leon play the Rose Garden in March.

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