by John M. Borack
A bit overdue with this, but here ’tis…
1. The Yum Yums – …play good music
These merry popsters from Norway have been serving up hot ‘n’ fresh slabs of bubblegummy punk for more than 20 years now, and each release is as consistently cool as the last. If you’ve ever wondered how a cross between the Ramones and the 1910 Fruitgum Company might sound, wonder no longer. THIS is power pop, folks – energetic, melodic and fun, fun, fun.
2. Wyatt Funderburk – Novel and Profane
Crisp and clean, straight-to-the-point pop and roll, featuring a dozen solid tunes about love, heartbreak, etc. If we were living in one of those parallel universes where Songs That Don’t Suck Top the Charts, then “Love Will Lead the Way” would be a smash. A little bit of countryish sway sounds good in Funderburk’s hands, too.
3. Paul McCartney – New
Expectations were admittedly pretty low for this one, but McCartney – as he has been known to do when inspired and/or challenged – knocks it out of the park with a typically tuneful collection that looks back to his halcyon days both musically and lyrically. He also tosses a few modern wrinkles into the mix without forcing things, and leave it to Macca to bury one of the best things here (the spunky “Turned Out”) as a bonus track.
4. Michael Mazzarella – Love in Laureltide Green
Both with his band the Rooks and as a solo artist, Michael Mazzarella has crafted some of the most enduring popsongs of the past 20 years. Love in Laureltide Green is another in a string of masterful releases, with tunes such as the achingly lovely “Searching For Heather Dean” and the Rubber Soul-influenced “What’s the Deal With Love?” standing out.
5. Bob Evans – Familiar Stranger
Working under the relatively anonymous pseudonym of Bob Evans, Australian singer/songwriter Kevin Mitchell – best known as the leader of alt-rockers Jebediah – has been offering up gentle, lilting pop musings in the vein of acts such as The Lilac Time and Dream Academy for the past several years. This one is darned near impossible to find outside of Australia, but trust me, it’s worth the hunt.
6. A Fragile Tomorrow – Be Nice Be Careful
Nicely crafted melodic pop from a young, South Carolina-based combo that never comes off as wimpy or cliched. Sean Kelly’s world-wise lyrics belie his age, and his voice – often smooth and edgy simultaneously – takes a smidge of a less-annoying Evan Dando and sautés it with a bit of Elvis Costello. Whether it’s the devastating, autobiographical ballad “My Home” (“I watched my brother die in my home…I lost my faith inside that home”), the timeless, summery guitar pop of “Kernersville” (think the Monkees crossed with mid-period R.E.M.) or the country/rock chug of “Intentions” (featuring a smart set of lyrics about a relationship gone wrong), it’s obvious that these guys are the real deal and bring hook after hook to the party.
7. Nick Piunti – 13 in My Head
Power pop with a bit of a bite to the guitars is always welcome around these parts. When it includes gritty-yet-sweet vocals (imagine a less sandpapery Rod Stewart) and songs that you can sing along and play air guitar to (see “Got No Reason”), you know you’ve got a keeper. The title cut and “We’ll Be Together” are my faves today, but each of the 10 songs is good or better, no fuss, no muss.
8. Jack Mittleman – English River
A low-key mini-masterpiece of a disc, touching on chamber pop, acoustic-based confessionals and autobiographical sweetness, fed by some Beach Boys-influenced harmonies (including contributions by Nelson Bragg and the Merrymakers’ David Myhr), bright-sounding guitars, strings, horns and sumptuous songs. It rocks (“Deeper Waters”), it tugs on the heartstrings (the gently loping “Not the One”), it’s hopeful-yet-sad (“Hard to Draw the Line,” “Lay Your Burden Down”), it’s hauntingly gorgeous (“Out of the Blue”) and it tugs on the heartstrings some more (Mittleman’s lovely ode to his late mother, “Song For Frima”). Sadly, Jack Mittleman passed away not long after the disc’s release.
9. Gleeson – Gleeson II
Sprawling, two-disc effort (aren’t all two-disc efforts sprawling?) from an Austin, TX band that somehow manages the nifty trick of channeling the slightly skewed pop genius of all three Big Star records without sounding exactly like Chilton, Bell and company. (Although they do offer up a reverent take of “Blue Moon” from Big Star 3rd.) Definitely a bit left of center and definitely very cool.
10. Raymond Meade – Fables and Follies
Glasgow-born Meade’s first solo effort is one damned fine rock and roll record, brimming with a dozen anthemic tunes that’ll have you humming along at first listen. “Waiting For Lucy” (featuring the late Philip Chevron on guitar and backing vocals) is a gorgeous, emotionally-charged ballad, “Guttersniper” is a joyous pop-rocker and “Mexican Lanterns” features a naggingly familiar melody with a killer chorus. Wonderful.
11. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Unvarnished
It’s supremely comforting that much like the inevitability of death and taxes, Joan Jett’s in-your-face brand of rock never changes. She’s been bringing the hard-edged stuff since her days with the Runaways in the ‘70s and more than 35 years later, she shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Unvarnished is one of her best efforts in recent memory, a short ‘n’ sweet 35-minute rush of compact, catchy pop-punk. “Any Weather,” co-written with Dave Grohl, kick starts the record in fine fashion and is the gateway to such winners as the Gary Glitter-ish stomper “TMI,” the infectious “Make it Back” and the Ramones-influenced “Bad as We Can Be.” On these tracks – heck, on ALL of ‘em – Jett’s vocals are impassioned, the guitars driving and loud-yet-clean, and the melodies impeccable. Here’s hoping that she keeps plugging along and releasing records like this for many years to come, musical trends be damned.
12. Sugar Stems – Can’t Wait
Female-fronted power pop from Milwaukee, WI that glides along super smoothly on the lead vocals of Betsy Heibler, which are at once cute, vulnerable and self-assured. A great summertime record, and as a bonus, the boppin’ “Told You So” just may be the best song featuring the repeated use of the F word since Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breaking My Heart.”
13. John Brodeur – Little Hopes
One man band records made by pop guys influenced by the Beatles – even indirectly – can often be a dicey proposition, leading to claustrophobic, fussy, “look at me” slices of boredom. No such issue with this one, however; Little Hopes is an absolutely charming collection that is reminiscent of David Mead, Matthew Sweet and Elliott Smith without aping any particular style. From the spare, pulsating “Be Careful” and the shimmering, intoxicating “Oh My!” to the sweet, motivational “Dig” and the between-the-eyes powerful pop of “One Man Army” and “Favorite Feeling,” Brodeur hits the mark every time. Not only are the songs catchy as all get out, but the arrangements are imaginative, the lyrics are alternately thoughtful and tongue in cheek and Brodeur’s pop sensibilities shine brightly, even when he gets serious (on “Spit it Out” and “Old Wounds”).
14. The Connection – Let it Rock
A helping of punk energy, plenty of pop songwriting smarts and a whole lotta rock and roll attitude sums up these New Hampshire boys, as do the acts they list as “artists we also like” on their Facebook page: Stones, Beatles, Ramones, New York Dolls, Beach Boys, Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds, Chesterfield Kings and the Real Kids. Plenty to like here.
15. Greg Pope – Pop Motion Animation
Greg Pope first hit my musical radar a few years back when I heard his glorious “Fall Into Your Arms,” which sounded like some ridiculously cool alliance of The Who and Big Star. The Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist returned in late 2013 with Pop Motion Animation, which finds him rockin’ and poppin’ like nobody’s business, with the upbeat numbers and the slower, more thoughtful cuts both pushing all those proper buttons. Love the compressed drum sound and “The Mattress” is undoubtedly the best song ever about…a mattress.
16. Alfa 9 – Gone to Ground
Imagine the Byrds circa ’65 – ’67, sonically toughened up and thrown headlong into the new millennium. Then imagine yourself purchasing the sophomore album from this UK combo and wondering where they’ve been all your life. “Into the Light” is definitely one of the best songs these ears were treated to in 2013.
17. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
Right here is quite possibly the biggest surprise on this list, as I am most assuredly not a fan of “new country.” But after seeing Kacey Musgraves perform the slightly naughty non-conformist anthem “Follow Your Arrow” on the Grammys and investigating this record, I am hooked. It’s laid back but not lazy and countrified but not stupidly twangy, and Musgraves puts across everything here with a voice that alternates between sassy and quite lovely.
18. The Grapes of Wrath – High Road
The first album of original material in 22 (!) years from these Canadian jangle-popsters is a surprisingly consistent collection, highlighted by the hard-edged “Mexico,” the wistful ”Take On the Day” and another contender for best song of 2013, the “Hey! We’re back!” joyousness of “Good to See You.”
19. The Bye Bye Blackbirds – We Need the Rain
10 tunes. 40 minutes. Guitars jangle, strum and get muscular when they need to. Bradley Skaught’s lead vocals are not dissimilar to John Lennon’s. Every song makes you want to hit “repeat.” Scott Miller was a fan. Bun E. Carlos is, too. They cover a song by Free that isn’t “All Right Now.” What’s not to love, I ask you?
20. Tommy Keene – Excitement at Your Feet
Tommy Keene covering deep cuts by the Bee Gees, Guided By Voices, The Who and the Stones, as well as inspired readings of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” Big Star’s “Nighttime” and Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby?” all adds up to one heck of a good time. Oh, and the fact that Tommy’s also one of the best guitarists out there makes this collection all the more enjoyable.
Reissue of the Year: The Paley Brothers – The Complete Recordings
The unusual thing about The Complete Recordings is that the unreleased material is even better than the album/EP tracks (and those are certainly stellar). So while it’s great to have tracks from the original PB LP such as the sunshiny bubblegum pop of “Come Out and Play,” “Rendezvous” and “Ecstasy” finally collected on CD, previously unheard
numbers such as the Spector-ish bopper “Here Comes My Baby,” the impossibly
catchy power pop ditty “Meet the Invisible Man” (which Jonathan Paley calls his
favorite track on the collection) and the rockin’ rave up “She’s Eighteen Tonight”
(which succeeds at simultaneously channeling “I Saw Her Standing There” and the
Dave Clark Five’s “Can’t You See That She’s Mine”) are all flat-out awesome examples of the Paley Brothers’ unerring way with a memorable melody.
Tribute Album of the Year: Drink a Toast to Innocence – A Tribute to Lite Rock
If you listened to top 40 radio in the mid-to-late ‘70s, you are no doubt familiar with the original versions of the 27 songs that appear on Drink a Toast - for better (Firefall’s “Just Remember I Love You”) or worse (Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Pina Colada Song)). Some of the artists that dress up these lite rock classics here play the tunes relatively straight (David Myhr’s sparkling take of “The Things We Do For Love”), but others often switch things up arrangement-wise: for example, Willie Wisely takes the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You” and turns it into sort of a tribal love fest, replete with sensual moans ‘n’ groans from Kelly Jones. Lannie Flowers, Michael Carpenter and a passel of other popsters add some way-cool tracks to the proceedings, helping to make this a tribute that rocks – litely, of course.
Great Songs From Albums That Didn’t Make the Top 20: “Love is the Greatest Thing” by Parthenon Huxley and “Badfinger Bridge” by Corin Ashley