The word for 2013 is versatility. Julia Holter straddles pop, theater and classical worlds. Jonathan Wilson and Ty Segall are equal parts scene catalysts, producers, collaborators, cheerleaders and prolific, multi-faceted artists in their own right. It's how one excels in the wilderness that is the music "business" today, where the major-label world and mainstream radio are essentially non-existent for all but the most pop-conscious. For the best of the rest, that can be liberating: Figure it all out for yourself, and do it all yourself. Be yourself. Most of the top California acts of the year have done just that, and in the process found -- or stimulated -- a supportive, enriching community around them. That's great for the willing artists and us music lovers alike.
My 2013 California pop Top 10, in alphabetical order:
Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
If the title wasn't tongue-in-cheek audacious enough, the first two songs -- "In the Darkness" and "No Destruction" -- see the young Agoura Hills-rooted duo of Sam France and Jonathan Rado evoking, respectively, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The latter is particularly bold, walking the fine line between tribute and parody, but succeeding on both fronts. But the album would merit inclusion on this list for the song "San Francisco" alone, not just for the subject matter, but the gleefully inventive, elfin psych-pop weirdness employed to portray the city. Think Scott McKenzie cavorting with Tony Bennett, the chorus hook "I left my love in San Francisco" answered by a female voice shrugging first "That's okay, I was bored anyway" (and, a couplet later, "That's okay, I was born in L.A."). Gleefully inventive weirdness is the Foxygen hallmark throughout the album, extending as well into solo projects this year by Rado and sometime-drummer Shaun Fleming (under the inventively weird name Diane Coffee).
Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Ambitious? Holter's previous album, the home-made Ekstasis, is a musical examination of the Greek title word's concept of being "outside oneself" (and it's predecessor, Tragedy, was inspired by Euripedes' play Hippolytus). With Loud City Song, her first real studio recording, the CalArts grad reaches just as high with her somber-hued melange of art, poetry and philosophical musings, highlighted by the skittery classical-jazz "In the Green Wild." But her pretension is tempered by an earnestly romantic pop sense, as in the dreamy "Hello Stranger" and chipper "This Is a True Heart." Holter's "Memory Drew Her Portrait," commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic was just premiered in a concert of the orchestra's New Music Group, spotlighting four young L.A. composers and conducted by no less than John Adams. Legitimately ambitious.
No Age, An Object
The punk-art intersection is nothing new (L.A.'s Black Flag and New York's Sonic Youth for just two iconic examples). Through three buzz-building albums, Angeleno duo No Age -- drummer-singer-bassist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall -- explored that territory, but seemed limited, stuck in a sonic grey-scale. But here they bring in a whole range of colors, each song seeming to emerge from a sonic miasma to take its own shape. The album ranges from the Sonic Youth-meets-the-Ramones rush of several songs to the stripped-down "An Impression," recalling Brian Eno's ambient minimalism to the closing "Commerce, Comment, Commence," which eschews melody and beat for pure noise, buzz and distortion, a return to the chaotic stew. All that makes for a strong context for the duo to go fairly straightforward with the rocker "C'mon, Stimmung" (even as the title references German avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1960s landmark "Stimmung") and the happily inviting "I Won't Be Your Generator."
La Santa Cecilia, Treinta Dias
The singer calls herself La Marisoul -- not just una Marisoul -- and deservedly so. The band is named after the patron saint of music -- also deservedly so. Even on this 25-minute mini-album there is much music, from East L.A. street sounds to powerful soul to cumbia-ska, and much Marisoul (nee Marisol Hernandez), the forceful vocal presence at the center of it all, belting and cooing and purring throughout. Her No. 1 fan, Elvis Costello, duets on "Losing Game" (the only song in English), but it's her presence and the strengths of her compatriots Pepe Carlos (accordion and requinto), Miguel "Oso" Ramirez (percussion) and Alex Bendana (bass) with well-used supplementary guest musicians that give such songs as the opening "Nuestra Señora La Reina dew Los Angeles" seductive spirit. The set closes with "ICE -- El Hielo," which addresses the immigration issue with deep compassion (illustrated in a video done with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and featuring undocumented workers). Most impressive is how the they refuse to be pigeonholed in style and content. If these seeds blossom fully, La Santa Cecilia could be the next essential L.A. band.
Ty Segall, Sleeper
Also: Fuzz, Fuzz and Live in San Francisco (In the Red)
Laguna Beach-raised, formerly San Francisco-based Ty Segall was the 2013 California indie-rock MVP. He certainly was the MPP -- Most Prolific Presence, with something like eight releases in the last two years, plus some reissues. With the largely acoustic solo Sleeper, he furthers the maturing songwriter talents he showed off with last year's Ty Segall Band album, adding strings (the gorgeous title song) and emotional range without losing the DIY rawness and energy. Fuzz, in which he's the drummer, is all rawness and energy, sheets of power-trio roar fully living up to the band name. Meanwhile, his catalytic inspiration can also be heard in collaborations with childhood friend Mikal Cronin (who's album MCII is another 2013 standout) and Echo Park polymath Tim Presley, who records as White Fence (ditto for his albums Cyclops Reap and another Live in San Francisco release).
Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
Not going to tiptoe around it: There's some rough stuff on this solo album by perhaps the oddest of L.A.'s Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All hip-hop collective, following an also-odd series of episodes in which the rapper disappeared for a bit (off to Samoa, he has said, sent by his mother to a school for at-risk youth). Still just 19, he shows a matured confidence in the minimalist musique concrete of his beats and the rivulets and eddies of his rhymes. There's plenty of shock value in the lyrics' sex and violence, sure. But there's, well, value in the shock. What could be taken as gratuitous images prove to be part of a process of someone working things out, addressing inner turmoil and disturbing thoughts. There is a jumbled nature to the whole thing, both in terms of that flow of ideas and the coming and going of guests (fellow Odd Futurites Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean, Wu-Tang's RZA among them), but that disjointedness is a key part of the character. Ultimately, Doris manages the difficult trick of seeming the work of a fevered mind possessed by an artist in total control.
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, We The Common
Uncommon is more like it when talking about San Francisco's Thao Nguyen (pronounced win). Unbound too. The key moment may be in the title song, when in the chorus she starts to whoop, wordlessly in pure, um, unbridled expression. The song is dedicated to Valerie Bolden, a life-term inmate at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla where Nguyen does outreach programs (there's a great YouTube video of the singer doing it outside the prison with a banjo, Pete Seeger-like). But it's a non-protest protest song, non-anthem anthem. Her politics, mostly, are personal (in "Every Body" she sings "Save my bed for the big ideas") and the band she's assembled is designed to follow her well outside any conventional genre boundaries as her whims might dictate, from the country-ish "Kindness Be Conceived" (with guest vocals from kindred spirit Joanna Newsom) to the Black Keys-like guitar stomp of "City" to the horn-drenched funk of "We Don't Call." Eccentric? Sure. Uncommonly so. Exactly as we want it.
Transplants, In a War Zone
The California punk summit of Tim Armstrong (from Berkeley-rooted Rancid), Travis Barker (drummer of San Diego's Blink-182) with their rapper-singer friend/roadie Rob "Skinhead Rob" Aston has been skittering around various combinations of rock, rap, reggae and dub since coalescing as a side-project trio in 2002 from jams in Armstrong's L.A. home. But with their third album -- the first since 2005's Haunted Cities -- they strip it down to the punk core, with bracing results. Not that the other elements are absent, but they're woven through the songs in nuanced ways that never disrupt the vibrant energy and heady rush, built on a foundation that perfectly blends the spirits of Berkeley's Gilman Street scene and the San Diego/Orange County punk world that, respectively, birthed Rancid and Blink in the early '90s.
Jonathan Wilson, Fanfare
It would be too easy to judge Wilson from the company he keeps. That wouldn't really be a bad thing, per se. He counts Jackson Browne and Graham Nash among his mentors/advocates. He's produced stellar acts from L.A. upstarts Dawes and Jenny O to English eccentric folk icon Roy Harper. He's been playing a lot with Bob Weir and the remnants of the Grateful Dead. He built a warmly rustic Echo Park studio in collaboration with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. But they all judge him on his music and talents as a singer, writer and particularly guitarist. And with his second solo album, a followup to the promising but somewhat unformed Gentle Spirit of 2010, it's clear why. With each song, Wilson uses touchstones ranging from those aforementioned mentors to John Lennon and Pink Floyd as launching pads for flights of fancy, that can be alternately hypnotic and thrilling, or both at once -- from the opening title song/overture to the near-symphonic "Dear Friends" to the space-folk epic "Cecil Taylor."
Various Artists, Shirim Meshumashin
There have been several Tom Waits tribute albums of note over the years. But, as far as we can tell, this is the first one all in Hebrew. It's a labor of love from Israeli producer Guy Hajaj, who worked hard for four years, ultimately putting together 22 Waits songs interpreted by a range of the country's artists. The versions are at once true to Waits' spirit and entirely new, whether the gruff side of him (the opening "Kapayim" -- "Clap Hands" -- by the duet of Yaron Ben Ami & Noa Golandski) or the tender (an acoustic "Martha" by David Blau). The band Morphlexis turns "Brakhot Leyom Ha-ahava" ("Blue Valentines") into a meditation that goes from languidly, atmospherically jazzy to fuzzy rock over the course of eight minutes. And Oren Raab gives "HaBlues shel Tom Traubert" ("Tom Traubert's Blues") a somber feel, including the novel experience of hearing the "Waltzing Matilda" interludes Waits included translated into this language. But novel as these things are, the album is not a novelty, but rather an affectionate, artistic and entrancing experience. And context alone makes Ursula Shwartz's pumping take on "Elohim Yatza Letyul Asakim" ("God's Away on Business") worth consideration. The album is available for download on Bandcamp on a "name your price" basis, which means you can get it for free. But c'mon, don't be a cheapskate! It's certainly worth a few shekels.