Sunday, December 22, 2013

Albums of the Year 2013

It feels like its been a bit of a better year for music. There's lots of interesting stuff coming out from various sub genres, yet with enough crossover to make them hits. There's lots of records I've not yet got round to or only just heard (Chvrches, Kanye, Parquet Courts etc.) so I'm sure that this list would change with time. However for now....

1. Wakin' on a Pretty Day - Kurt Vile
I loved Vile's previous album, so rushed out to get the new one. Whilst "Smoke Rings for My Halo" might have been a little shambolic in parts, "Wakin' on a Pretty Day" feels like this cult artist's coming of age - his "Soft Bulletin". At times he channels both American and UK80s  indie (there are songs that remind me of beautiful underachievers Felt) and I guess there's a shared "slacker" vibe about both sides. Its a very summery album as a result and the title track in particular is a languid masterpiece.

2. The Flower Lane - Ducktails
Also recording as Best Coast, this is another of those indie artists who decided to up their game during the year. "The Flower Lane" is so eighties it could be seen with a mullet watching "The Breakfast Club" at a drive in; but in the pick 'n' mix of contemporary music there are worse place to go looking for inspiration. In parts, its just lovely, pristine songwriting, augmented with a bright pop production - the kind of "pop" that never made the charts of course.

3. Tomorrow's Harvest - Boards of Canada
I've only recently discovered the joys of this Scottish electronic band. The world was waiting for their new album and such things have a habit of disappointing. How come I keep playing it then? An instrumental record that keeps withholding its secrets only to spill them out slowly through repeat plays; its a beautiful suite of warm analogue electronica. That it sounds like the music I was trying to write in the late 80s/early 90s doesn't really harm its charm either.

4. Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
Another old band returning on form - first with the awesome Chic-assisted single "Get Lucky" but the whole album is a different matter... a homage of sorts to the seventies - its properly conceived as a double album, and its not just disco that is remembered, but AOR like the Carpenters. A strange hybrid in some ways, of an anonymous dance duo and a range of more upfront collaborators, its been a massive record, and deservedly so. Play it start to finish like you used to.

5. Silence Yourself - Savages
Certain records - Savages, Daft Punk - seem to have been listed in most end of year round ups. Its hard to realise that Savages' debut only came out in 2013. Its a classy but dense remaking of early 80s angst but with a very contemporary sheen. If it occasionally recalls Siouxsie of "The Scream" and "Join Hands" that's no bad thing. A proper teenage debut album to love and cherish with not a note out of place. Seeing them live later in the year, the theatrical sense they bring to their dramatic songs was undiminished live, but I wonder where they will go from here: as the pop element to some of their melodies is here nicely meshed with the intense post-punk guitar barrage. Flung into being festival favourites, lets only hope they can continue to mine these dark strains.

6. Push the Sky Away - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Cave's 21st century has been remarkable - yet was Grinderman the equivalent of the 50 year old taking a younger girlfriend and buying a Porsche? The current Mrs. Cave is on the cover of this lovely record, dancing nakedly, abstractedly. Cave seems to have negotiated through the troubles of a late career artist - with a suite of songs that seem abstractedly connected. He still takes on characters, but is also happy to laugh a little at himself, writing about his new home town Brighton, as valid a subject as his gothic midwest. With some of his best recent songs, and a band that are more a setting for his muse (with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis to the fore) it may not be his most varied album, but its one of his most playable ones.

7. Girls Like Us - PINS
Manchester's youngest and most exciting band have forged an nteresting route to their debut through self released cassettes, well distributed videos, and showcase gigs. Signed to Bella Union, they are darker, more raucous, and less formed in some ways than most of that label's roster. Their debut album captures, just about, their live energy. A proper album to cherish, its both immediate and reluctant to give up its secrets - very much a debut, but in a year when other debuts (e.g. the Palma Violets) didn't manage to quite pull off the energy of their singles, PINS felt like a band captured to vinyl just in time.

8. Re-Mit - The Fall

The Fall's annual missive is probably their strongest since the double header of The Real New Fall LP/Fall Heads Roll. This line up have been around for a while now, but on their 2nd Cherry Red record, they offer a rumbling art-rock canvas that's less about individual songs, and more about the sound - a strangely modern amalgam that is occasionally as stunning as anything that will come from much-acclaimed Pitchfork bands.

9. The Next Day - David Bowie

His first album for years, and his best since "Outside" (though some said "Scary Monsters"), its beautifully song and - by Visconti - beautifully produced. I'm not sure it has the unity of his best albums as the songs seem to come from different parts of his career, but his songwriting is as strong as its been for years, and notwithstanding that the recently reclusive Bowie had reappeared, it appears a late career highlight that came out of his own artistry rather than requiring the reimagining by outside hands that so often accompanies these reboots.

10. Fascination - Gramme
I saw these at Sounds from the Other City. A Prince-inspired blend of electronics, funk and soul they have a liveliness that is anything but nostalgic and their debut album, though not perfect, offers a pretty seamless 40 minutes of contemporary soul that has much more than so many recent autotuned R&B acts. If R&B felt like it had lost its mojo in 2013, as every boy band or reality TV star stole its production ideas, the idea of pulling back a bit and remembering what makes a good dance act in the first case seems only appropriate.

Special mentions

Blurred Lines (single) - Robin Thicke; since vilified for Thicke being, well, a bit thick, when it comes to justifying his sexually risque lyrics and video, I'm still mesmerised by this Marvin Gaye inspired pop classic.  In a run during the spring we saw this, Daft Punk, Icona Pop and John Newman top the UK charts - showing that pop music can sometimes still find enough new moves to inspire. At the other end of the sales spectrum Manchester friend's Stranger Son and Suzuki Method both came out with exciting E.P.s/mini albums towards the latter part of the year.

Great year for reissues: I'm still unpacking the goodness of the Jesus and Mary Chain vinyl boxset; wonderful stuff and enjoying reissues like Four Tet's "Rounds" which I missed first time round. Not forgetting the 6-CD boxset of Waterboys "Fisherman's Blues" a rare opportunity to look at the genesis of a classic album.

A few albums just miss my top 10, My Bloody Valentine, Queens of the Stone Age, Young Knives and These New Puritans in particular.

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