David Bowie, Vampire Weekend, Arctic Weekend, The Blood Arm and some guy named McCartney have offered some very strong contenders this year for best album.   Interestingly,  two of those artists have a common-link:   Berlin.   More on that later.

In a surprise release in January and again, in March,  David Bowie has revealed his first album in 10 years – The Next Day.   It is proclaimed by critics to be his best in 30 years.    It may well be.  1983 was the year that Bowie released Let’s Dance.  It was a good album containing at least five good songs (out of a total of 8 songs) including Modern Love, China Girl, Let’s Dance and Cat People.   Since that time, Bowie has released 10 albums.  Most of them were interesting but none of them came close to the accessibility and intrigue of his earlier work.  Sorry David;  the truth is sometimes painful. One other part of this history lesson is that David Bowie is the man who, in one five year period released Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and his Berlin Trilogy  (Station to Station, Low, Heroes).   Each of these albums were remarkable — the totality of them was just short of amazing.   They boasted great riffs, original sounds, fascinating lyrics and groundbreaking personalities.

We now fast forward to the present day and Bowie offers us all a 66th birthday gift.    The fact that he allows us all to listen to the album for free during a two week period prior to its release makes the gift that much more special.   ‘The Next Day’ is an unusually prolific album boasting 14 songs.  Some border on great  (Where Are We Now,  The Stars, Valentine’s Day,  I’d Rather Be High), some are excellently crafted pop songs  (Love is Lost,  Dancing Out in Space,  How Does the Grass Grow,  You Feel So Lonely You Could Die).  It’s an album that begs to be listened to repeatedly — much like his best albums of the past.  One of the best tracks is a bonus track — “I’ll Take You There”.   Check it out on Spotify.

It’s shortcomings?    It is largely derivative.   Rather than breaking new sonic ground,  Bowie pulls from his Honky Dory/Diamond Dogs/Low/Scary Monster catalogue of sound and fury.    It is also not as catchy as some of his greatest albums. But at least four songs resonate in my head some months after first listening.  This is a truly wonderful gift that Bowie has presented to us all.    It’ll keep your ears happy for many weeks/months/years.    In my book, it was the best album of 2013.

Vampire Weekend’s ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ may be one of the most tuneful yet diverse albums offered in quite a while. Just about every song is interesting and sticks in the mind.  Similarly,  Arctic Monkeys just offered AM and it is worth listening to in the AM and the PM and every minute in between.   AM is a continuation and maturation of the Monkeys’ past work, with ‘Do I Wanna Know’ probably amongst this year’s best song along with Daft Punk’s ‘Get Happy”,  Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ and Lorde’s “Royals” (and she’s only 17, folks!) .

Now to the old youngster named McCartney.  Upfront: I’m not a huge Paul McCartney fan. Much of his work is indulgent and flabby, IMHO. That said, after about 10 listenings of his new offering ‘New’, here’s my take: this is Macca’s best solo album…….ever. His use of young producers have pushed his envelope and the production quality ranks amongst his best. But the bottom line is that the songs are just GOOD. It has at least 4 top-10 hits: Save Us is a driving rocker with a great message, Queenie Eye is a catchy up-tempo song that has a lot of fun for Beatle fans, New is almost insufferably upbeat but it works and Everybody Out There is the perfect Springsteen-esque crowd pleaser. Actually, the latter really does sound like the Boss leading his cleansing revival sermon with 40,000 parishioners. The other songs are often quite good; some elements of Fireman merged with some Let It Be sermons. On My Way to Work and Early Days are contemplative ones. Hosanna and Looking At Her celebrates Love. There really isn’t a weak cut on the album even though some aren’t quite as infectious as others and Appreciate gets a bit worn out after a few listens. Bottom line: Good on ya, Paul. A job very well done. Heck of a lot better than the critics’ over-inflated expectation

The Blood Arm released its fourth album “Infinite Nights” through a Internet-funded effort.   It, too, is a very good album. Tuneful, interesting and showing real growth for the band. Full disclosure: I’ve followed the Blood Arm since 2005 and was a pledgemaker in “Infinite Nights’ (it is a self-financed album). I began listening to a version of the album in January of this year when it was released to the online funders.   For someone who hasn’t heard the Blood Arm before, I’d describe this band as a very fun, pop-oriented group that puts on a great live show. Last year, they relocated to Berlin (or at least some of them did) and this album indicates that the move has been a good one. The sounds are getting more interesting, the song lyrics a bit deeper and the group is showing the maturity and inquisitiveness of any good band that has been together for a decade or so. If you are interested a diverse set of fun, catchy songs with some bite to them, I strongly encourage you to check out this album. It is as good or better than the product being produced by higher profile artists. If you have a chance to see this band in concert – DO IT! They put on a great show. And if you are already a Blood Arm fan, you really have to buy this album. You won’t be disappointed.

As to other music that I listened to in 2013,  I can’t rave over much new music.  I’d hoped to like Sting’s ‘The Last Ship’ but it didn’t resonate with me.  Likely to be good in the theater setting where it will be performed in 2014, but it didn’t translate to the headphones.   Haim’s ‘Days are Gone’ is outstanding pop, nicely crafted.    Similarly, Matchbox 20’s ‘North” is excellently crafted pop.  Elvis Costello and the Roots teamed up to create a meticulously manufactured combination of R&B and Attractions.   Elvis’ excellent songwriting is on full display but the songs didn’t grow deep enough roots for me.   Likewise, Russian Circles created some beautiful sounds on ‘Memorial” but they haven’t stayed with me.

End of the Year Report:    While it’s too early to determine,  “The Next Day” could possibly rank as a sonic masterpiece.   And apparently I’m not alone.   The majority of the critics who have heard this album are enthusiastically raving.  Similarly,  Vampire Weekend’s album could be a future classic; it continues to play really well months later.   I’d hoped that my friend Michael Tiernan would release his new album ‘Inside Your Head’ in 2013, but it got pushed off until Summer 2014.   As a “co-producer” of the album, I already know it is a really good album.   Everyone who has heard it comments upon its catchy, interesting songs.  Check out some early cuts at Michael’s website.

Oh, and as to the Berlin link:   Bowie lived in Berlin and produced three of his greatest albums.  The Blood Arm relocated to Berlin last year and produced their most recent effort in this German music mecca.  Is it the water? More likely, the beer.