This is a guest post from friend and new President of The King's College in NYC, Dr. Gregory Thornbury. I've enjoyed talking theology and church with Greg, but discussing the arts with him is the stuff. I asked if he might be willing to share an albums-of-the-year list and here it is. Please do feel free to respond in the comments, or engage with him directly: @greg_thornbury. He's a busy man, so please don't assume he can/will respond to everyone. But he'll enjoy your feedback.
Top Ten Albums of 2013
For me, this was one of the best years for new records in a long time. Coming up with this list was tough, because yes, I enjoyed the new Daft Punk, Phosphorescent, and Avett Brothers albums, and many others. There are reissues and live albums I’d recommend, like Dylan’s “Another Self Portrait” (Volume 10 of The Bootleg Series) and The Stones’ Hyde Park concert from this past Summer. But a top ten must separate the good albums from the great ones. Here are mine, and I’m thankful to Steve McCoy for the opportunity to share them with you.
10. Johnny Fritz — Dad Country
If Johnny Fritz doesn’t win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellow’s Prize in the next year or two, I’m going to conclude the whole system is rigged. Although he makes you laugh out loud on tracks like “Trash Day,” you have to make sure that the whimsical doesn’t occlude the deadly serious in this weird Honky Tonk world. Fritz’s first person is essentially this: Freud’s Id & Ego are allowed to have their say with the Superego turned off. You’ll learn a lot about yourself that maybe you didn’t want to know when you listen to this record. The fact that it is wrapped in boot scooting old country with incredible musical performances by Nashville’s most inspired players (e.g. Josh Hedley on fiddle) makes this de facto psychology course a really great time.
9. Kelly Jones — Alta Loma
Not long after I moved to New York City, my friend, the genius songstress Melanie Penn, invited me to a show in which she and Kelly Jones reprised their Summer 2013 House Concert tour at The Living Room on the Lower East Side. Melanie was her brilliant usual self, delighting the packed house with her über-intelligent, amazing crafted, and hopeful songs. When Kelly Jones picked up her guitar and started playing after Melanie’s set, I thought, “Wow! Do I know these tunes?” The answer was no, but they were so infectious, it seemed like Kelly Jones had been playing on my iPod for months on end. When I got home, I downloaded her first album, “Shebang!” I was floored.
Her new record, Alta Loma, is filled with another batch of gorgeous melodies, and lovely arrangements backed by the amazing steel guitarist Rich Hinman and others. The chord progressions are never tired. They delight and surprise. It’s as though John Denver, Michael Nesmith, and Linda Rondstadt got together and gave their collective superpowers to one girl. Ladies and Gentlemen: Kelly Jones.
8. Edwyn Collins — Understated
I listen to this record when I need an extra dose of courage and lift. This is the “life” record of the year, written and produced by a man who, due to his brain hemorrhage in 2005, came close to death. Collins, the rumbustious Scotsman, joyfully barrels his way through these tunes (even the sad ones), and I, for one, can’t resist joining him. I could listen to “Carry On, Carry On” and “Love’s Been Good to Me” for days.
7. Jim James — Regions of Light and Sound of God
As a onetime resident of Louisville, Kentucky, I can remember that there was a moment several years ago when you couldn’t get your driver’s license renewed if you couldn’t prove you owned the last album by My Morning Jacket, the celebrated hometown band. Since I believe you have to choose between Wilco and MMJ (I choose Wilco), I’ve never been as obsessed with Jim James as a songwriter as my River City friends have. But then on Jet Blue flight a few months ago, they played the video for “State of the Art: A.E.I.O.U.” I was transfixed. I got the record. I was in a trance-like state listening the whole way through the first time. This is the soundtrack for a generation who, like Julian Barnes, says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Jim James might just be able lead them back.
6. Phoenix — Bankrupt
I’m one of those annoying “I liked Phoenix before they were popular,” people. I’m a soft touch for electro-pop, and nobody does it better than Phoenix. Every Phoenix record to me is an exercise is seeing how far they can take the very limited form of pop music, and they never fail to amaze me when they do it again. At first when I heard, “Entertainment,” I thought, “Hmmm, I’m not sure if they’ve done it this time,” but I’m now convinced I was wrong. Thomas Mars has said that the band is a bunch of perfectionists. We’re grateful someone is.
5. David Bowie — The Next Day
Bowie is the model of what rock stars should want to be when they grow up. I pre-order very few records these days, but this was one of them. I did so with a bit of trepidation, as the last two LPs, Heathen and Reality, simply depressed me. There was no magic on those outings for me. The Next Day was met with a sigh of relief from me and so many other Bowie fans. When I took my headphones off after the first play, everything I liked about Bowie had been there: the poignant musings on fame, the short reverb on the vocals, slicing / trebly guitars, and dirty saxophones. More deeply, however, there was the humans-as-aliens theme at which Bowie excels: we may feel cold and alone in the universe, but we can transcend. We are “dancing face to face” out in space. And we’re happy the master (or “The Sovereign” if you’re a Venture Bros fan) is still in conversation with us.
4. Thriftstore Masterpiece — Trouble is a Lonesome Town
Thriftstore Masterpiece is what happens when Producer/Guitarist Charles Normal finds a hidden gem-but-lost-to-modern-ears LP in his local record shop and invites his friends over to re-enchant listeners with the original inspiration. The record in view here is Lee Hazelwood’s Trouble is a Lonesome Town (1963)– which just so happens to be the world’s first concept album. As Normal explains, “It was a collection of solo acoustic songs stitched together with a narrative that described life in a fictional small town inhabited by outlaws, thieves, and down-and-out laborers. The album was hokey, but hip. Corny, but cool. It evoked a bygone era of pastoral American towns and their sometimes seedy underbellies, somewhat like a darker version of the Andy Griffith Show or a more sinister Prairie Home Companion.”
So who showed up for the party? A veritable Who’s Who of alternative rock superstars including Black Francis from The Pixies, Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse, Courtney Taylor-Taylor from The Dandy Warhols, Pete Yorn, and Eddie Argos of Art Brut. But most importantly, this was the last album which Charles’ brother, the legendary Larry Norman, sang on before he passed away in 2008. The record, temporarily shelved by Normal during the grieving process, is a weird and fantastic combination of alt-country meets mariachi surf. Get the vinyl and turn on the hi-fi. This will knock the troubled socks right off of your lonesome feet.
Confession: I have a vested interest in this record. Incredibly, I got to play guitar on the track “Railroad,” performed by Issac Brock. In other words, becoming a college president was the second coolest thing that happened to me this year!
3. Duquette Johnston — Rabbit Runs a Destiny
Duquette Johnston has been to hell and back, and he’s determined to show you that the road to redemption runs through Birmingham, Alabama. A founding member of Verbena (with Scott and A.A. Bondy), Rabbit Runs a Destiny is gritty, lo-fi, roots rock offering with lush string arrangements. Isaaca Byrd of the Bridges and Natalie Prass support Johnston’s other-worldly singing with gorgeous back-up vocals. This record is utterly unique and intense, and it holds together as a seamless garment, from the opening pulse of “My Heart is Breaking” to the closing tones of “Dreams.” After you’re done, you’ll be convinced that, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, “He is there and He is not silent.” If you get to see Duquette play live with his string section, drop everything and go and be prepared to daydream about God for days afterward.
2. Arctic Monkeys — AM
Okay, I realize this is on everybody’s list this year, but yes, this record really is that good. I’ve liked the Arctic Monkeys’ previous efforts, but this one (self-titled with initials) is a nod from them telling us that this is who they’ve always wanted to be. This is a record I always go to on my early morning runs along the Hudson River. It’s so nice to hear a rock and roll record that’s on the level of your heroes from the 1970’s. Eight of the Ten tracks on this record are stunners. Love.
1. Roman Candle — Debris
Roman Candle – that cosmic outfit comprised of Skip, Timshel, and Logan Matheny – have been in my pantheon of bands for some time. After a string of critically acclaimed albums on several notable labels, Debris shows a band coming into the full height of their writing and studio powers. For me, Debris is about as perfect as a record can get.
Vocally, Skip Matheny’s singing is gossamer and fine gravel – pure rock and roll. I can’t think of a vocalist that I like better, perhaps save Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze. Sonically, the record comes out you from another world – a perfect blend of sweet alien synth and sparkling guitars. Lyrically, here’s where the magic really happens. Skip and Timshel – both of whom are deeply read in the great poets such as Rilke and T.S. Eliot – bring literate writing to the table unmatched by their contemporaries. The songs take you places and bring you back in stories, conversations, and dreamscapes, as evidenced magnificently on the title track, “Debris.” Most of all, these are just brilliant songs that you can sing to yourself and also think about deeply while you’re doing so. Now that’s the trick.
Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D. is the President of The King’s College in New York City.