‘20 Feet From Stardom,’ Ben Sidran, Warren Haynes Are This Year’s Best in Music

National and local acts alike round out the annual list of musical favorites

My credentials for writing about music begin and end with this: I love music. That’s it.

The hours in the basement wrestling with my guitars do not constitute “playing” anything. And I’ve yet to become facile enough with new technology to wean myself away from buying CDs, which I play in a CD player. So I don’t really listen to as much new music as I would like. I am not an expert by a long shot. I just love music.

Lately, I’ve been driving to Milwaukee maybe one day a month to see my folks, which gives me something I’ve grown to very much appreciate: three hours of uninterrupted listening to whatever I want as loud as I want. Motown, old blues, stuff from when I was kid, always some Neil Young; when I’m in the car, listening to my music, I experience emotions that just so seldom bubble up otherwise: wonder, yearning, mystery, hope.

I’ve had this thing for a long time where at the end of the year I take inventory of the year in music. There’s never been a year when I didn’t add something to my list of favorite music. This year was no different. I think the musical event I enjoyed the most was seeing the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom at Sundance. The film tells the stories of vocalists, mostly women, who sang back-up with some of the most famous musicians on some of the most famous songs, of all time, with virtually no credit.

I will never forget the image of Merry Clayton, pregnant, hair in curlers, perhaps one in the morning, singing the unforgettable “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away,” lines from “Gimme Shelter,” arguably the greatest Rolling Stones song ever. It’s an incongruous image that makes the impact of the song not one bit less chilling. The film was also a sort of visual representation of what Lou Reed was singing about " and the colored girls say doo doo doo doo doo doo,” in his “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Reed’s death in October, and that of the sublime J.J. Cale in July, had the biggest impact on my musical psyche this year. Reed was about as pure an embodiment of rock and roll as anyone I can think of. Playing along to “Sweet Jane” has been a regular part of my basement time for the last month. Cale’s “Magnolia,” is one of my five favorite songs of all time. But, I can pick any J.J. Cale CD, play a cut at random, and my blood pressure goes down. I hate the fact they’re both gone.

Here’s what else I think I know. Pearl Jam is so good, and I want so bad to like their music. The new Lightning Bolt album is just more of the same for me: I like a song or two and the rest just doesn’t do much. It’s the same way I felt about the first two Arcade Fire CDs I tried—but I gotta’ tell you, Reflektor is really growing on me. So is The Why and What For by  Semi-Twang, six Milwaukee guys my age who have been playing together a long time. Their “Making Everybody Cry” is my favorite song of the year.

My friend Denny Burke turned me on to the late blues singer Charles Brown, for which I am appreciative. Meanwhile, Denny’s son-in-law Jason Horowitz’s band, The Whiskey Farm, turned out their best work yet, From The Still. I have a probably inexplicable fondness for Kings of Leon, including their new Mechanical Bull.

But the best of 2013, the additions to my favorite music portfolio, are Ben Sidran’s Don’t Cry For No Hipster, classic Sidran, which for me is about as good as music gets, and Warren Haynes’s outstanding Man in Motion, just flat-out great guitar blues. Both can be heard in an old red Toyota you might be passing on I-94 between Madison and Milwaukee.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. 

Find more of his columns here.

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