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The Strangest and Most Surprising Recordings of 2013

From the funniest album of the year to best album by a pop star in their ‘70s, here is music critic Ted Gioia’s idiosyncratic choices for best music of the year.

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I listened to way too much music in 2013. I heard 886 albums released during the year. I might have got to 900 or even 1,000, but occasionally someone needs to do the dishes around here or pick the kids up at school.

Why do I do this? My wife frequently asks the same question. But my answer is a simple one. I’m on the lookout for something new and fresh, an undiscovered artist or band that ought to be famous, a different kind of groove or an album that will rock my world. Most new releases fall short, but there’s always another waiting to be heard. And nothing quite matches the feeling when I find an exciting new song, especially if it offers a distinctive sound from an artist I’ve never encountered before.

In other words, I’m looking for thrills, shocks and surprises. And I’m willing to share a few of these with you. (If you want more, you can check out the full list of my 100 favorite albums of the year here.)

Most hypnotic album of the year: Dysnomia by the band Dawn of Midi wins this honor by a landslide. Can an acoustic jazz trio sound like a loop devised by software developer with OCD? Well, Dawn of Midi pulls it off. I’ve never heard a more mesmerizing jazz album. In all honesty, after the first two minutes, I was ready to call this the most ridiculously boring music I’d ever heard, but 45 minutes later I was begging for more. Is it a work of genius or an elaborate practical joke? Listen to Dysnomia, and decide for yourself.

Most unusual formula for a band: What happens when you mix up a high-octane rock rhythm section with a string quartet and medieval-ish vocal polyphony? The answer is The Knells, a Brooklyn band that won’t get much airplay with a new CD that refuses to fit into any station’s format. I’m not sure how to label their music, but they call themselves a “post rock, neo-psychedelic chamber prog band.” Their debut album is a must for those seeking untamed new musical hybrids.

Best album by a pop star in his 70s: Few things are more likely to disappoint than a senior citizen pop star coming out with a new record. I listen to almost all of these old fogies, and usually regret it afterward. But Tom Jones somehow hit a home run with Spirit in the Room. Dang, I never liked Tom Jones when he was in his glory years, and had the lowest possible expectations for this new album. But his blues singing is a revelation. If you only check out one track, listen to Jones’s rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.”

Best album by a pop star in his 60s: Hands down, Elton John wins this competition. I wrote him off years ago, but The Diving Board gets rid of all the frills and gimmicks, and returns to John’s under-produced sound of the early 1970s.

The green music award for recycling: Blues artist Seasick Steve made a guitar out of two hubcaps, a garden hoe, a BBQ spatula, a beer can, and Christmas decoration. His Hubcap Music release is as green as blues can get, and is my favorite roots album of the year.

Most puzzling tribute album of the year: I’m still not quite sure what to make of Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Nina Simone, but if you love Simone’s music, you should probably avoid this album at all costs. On the other hand, if you are a fan of angst-ridden lethargic vocals whispered into the microphone, spiced with a dose of hysteria, this CD can’t be beat.

Longest wait for a follow-up album: Shuggie Otis is is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a brilliant guitarist. Years ago, he turned down an offer to join the Rolling Stones because he wanted to work on his own music. Fans of Mr. Otis have been waiting to hear that elusive music for a long, long time. He released his last album, the spectacular Inspiration Information, in 1974, and after almost forty years, most of us gave up hope of an encore. But finally Otis delivered the goods with the very impressive Wings of Love. Please, Shuggie, don’t make us wait another four decades!

Forget K-Pop, and try out K-Jazz: I can’t get enough of Yeahwon Shin, the Korean jazz singer now living in New York. Her 2013 release Lua Ya offers a beguiling type of Korean ambient vocal music, unlike anything else I heard during the year.

The ‘Britain is the new Motown’ award: Why are so many hot young soul and R&B singers coming out of Merrie Olde England? This may be the most interesting popular music trend since British rockers started borrowing guitar tips from Mississippi oldsters. But when your friends start talking about Adele, point them in the direction of Laura Mvula. Her Sing to the Moon is my favorite vocal album of 2013.

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The coolest album design of the year: Trumpeter Ian Carey is an impressive up-and-coming trumpeter. But his album design for his new release Roads & Codes is as cool as his music. While other jazz cats describe their music in liner notes, Carey relies on a comic strip.

My favorite sea shanty of the year: Years ago, I wrote a whole book on work songs and sea shanties, and I consider myself a connoisseur of nautical music. But even the saltiest sailors will never match the sodium intake on Tom Waits and Keith Richards’ duet version of “Shenandoah.” For this treat, and other songs to make your bos’n tight, check out the Son of Rogues Gallery collection, which finds everyone from Iggy Pop to Dr. John making out like pirates.

Why I ought to stop listening to self-produced Bandcamp tracks: What happens if you combine the musical philosophies of Chet Baker and Kraftwerk. Brandon Gray tries this on his Standards album, and his version of “My Funny Valentine” sounds like cool jazz played in a cuckoo clock factory. But the band Shaman y Los Pilares de la Creación takes an even bolder step by combining throat singing and Argentinian rock ‘n’ roll. Someone send this band a box of throat lozenges! I keep visiting the Bandcamp site every few weeks to check out the unsigned artists, but usually I need a few stiff drinks first.

The Best 2013 Album by a Member of the Marsalis Family: Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis are the stars of the family, but their younger brother Jason trumped them this year with his In a World of Mallets release. Few jazz albums offer more surprises, with everything from Indonesian gamelan to the Vienese waltz showing up in Marsalis’s aural palette.

Funniest Music of the Year: Comedian Steve Martin came out with a stellar banjo album in 2013, his Love Has Come for You collaboration with Edie Brickell. But there are no laughs on this serious folk-and-roots outing. If you want music that amuses, you are advised to check out Home and Deranged by the Austin Lounge Lizards and No Country for Old Musicians by Reggie and the Full Effect.

Is this Brian Wilson Recording Under a Pseudonym? No, it’s just Jim of Seattle. Or so they say. But I’m still skeptical. Jim’s We Are All Famous, is just too creative for a self-produced project by an all-but-unknown performer. Jim knows every rock-pop production trick in the book, and uses each one at some point in this album. His conception of vocal harmonies is especially adept. Get this man out of Seattle and bring him to Carnegie Hall! We Are All Famous may have been the single most pleasing musical discovery I made during 2013.