While pondering my favourite music of the last year I’ve found that there’s little that I could easily put forward as a clear-cut crown claimer. This is thankfully down to the fact that 2013 has been one of the most enjoyable years in music for a while. It’s been a bumper crop and as such I’ve decided not to try to cherry-pick the best, but to gorge on the memory of it all. So there’s no top 10 list this year from me, but a long review of all of my favourite albums released in 2013.
The Big Names
First up are the big name, big marketing campaign releases. Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, David Bowie’s The Next Day and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. David Bowie released a single and announced his album on his birthday; Daft Punk showed a 15 second advert during Saturday Night Live and listed track names in a Vine video; Arcade Fire teased with confusing graffiti. All 3 used a variation on keeping things secret to drum up excitement. All 3 released an album with over an hour’s content. One could accuse them of being a little full of themselves, but when the finished products are that good, who can blame them?
I’m probably in the minority in thinking that they weren’t disappointments but triumphs. The Next Day was never going to be Bowie’s best, but songs such as Where Are We Now?, The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and (You Will) Set The World On Fire should have put everyone’s doubts to rest. Bowie also finally completes his love letter to Scott Walker in the sublime Heat, which feels like a sequel to Walker’s The Electrician.
I wrote about Random Access Memories here, and still think it is thoroughly enjoyable (even Touch). It’s clear they’ve learned a lot from soundtracking Tron: Legacy (also fantastic) and I’m looking forward to Alive 2017 (admittedly this is a bit eager, but why wait for them to announce it?)
The Arcade Fire backlash began before anyone had heard Reflektor although I will admit to being skeptical myself after Neon Bible‘s short shelf-life and The Suburbs dry forgettability. The lead single restored a lot of faith with its impressive scope, and having David Bowie cameo helped. After one listen, Reflektor seemed self-indulgent, confused and underwhelming. But that’s why no-one should ever judge anything after one listen. Reflektor is easily the best album they’ve made since Funeral, encompassing a massive variety of subjects – fear, desire, Orpheus, politics, religion and death (their strongest area.) Here Comes The Night Time, Joan Of Arc, Porno and Afterlife are outstanding songs on an excellent album. The only down points are Flashbulb Eyes which doesn’t get going as it feels it should and has awful lyrics; and the pointlessly long outro at the end of Supersymmetry. Otherwise it’s hard to fault (I’m still pretending Jonathon Ross isn’t on the record).
Amongst those and other over-hyped releases (Boards Of Canada, My Bloody Valentine…) you’d think it would be hard to get a debut release noticed. While this is true there are a few who got through, mostly due to having produced albums that outshine the quality of those with bigger budgets.
One of these was The Child Of Lov, whose self-titled debut album was released in June this year. It captured my attention with the sublime single Fly and the album is engaging, distorting and certainly unique in its bizarreness. It signaled the start of an interesting and creative career which was tragically cut short earlier this month after his death during surgery. The Child Of Lov is well worth spending the time with and will most likely be noticed by a number of people in 2014 as an over-looked gem.
In the same vein of under-the-radar-greatness, 2013 saw releases by The Earth and Shhh…Apes!, two welsh bands with very different sounds. While The Earth’s Off/On 1 was being promoted by the Super Furry Animals’ twitter account, it took Ashli at Spillers to point out the existence of Shhh…Apes’ The Shape Of Apes To Come. Both are also notably difficult to find in shops, leaving Spillers to once again provide access to some of the best new Welsh music available.
Off/On 1 is a highly sheened production that sounds like a space opera at points and overblown 1970’s soul in others. If you know that the band is comprised of members from Catatonia and Super Furry Animals, this might make more sense. For all the bombast, Dionne Bennett’s vocal performance is a powerhouse all of its own, threatening to thunder through your speakers and strip the paint off your walls. In a very good way.
The Shape Of Apes To Come is a more toned-down affair, but just as good. I don’t think I can put it better than they do themselves: “[Shhh…Apes is] an attempt to combine the captivating, soundtracky atmosphere of Portishead and Massive Attack with the intimate minimalism of Low.” While there are only 5 tracks on this EP, it runs almost as long as some of the better (but still short) albums released this year, and the quality astonishingly never dips. Impressive for a release that starts with a song containing the excellent lyric “Lay with me/like roadkill”.
In debut-releases-you-may-have-heard-of news, we have the sublime The Bones Of What You Believe by Chvrches. This is a band that Ben had been yanking on at me to listen to for most of the year as their singles came out and started getting them some not-undeserved attention. One listen of The Mother We Share was enough to convince me he was right (as usual).
You may also have heard of Pearl Mystic by Hookworms. A more defined taste, this is nevertheless an excellent album of scuzzy guitar noise which is contained in a subtle melodic atmosphere. It feels like a scream into the void, a band making as much noise as they can to drown out the silence in an empty stadium under a clear sky. It’s hard not to get swept up in their powerfully enthusiastic-yet-angry mentality. And I still have no idea what any of the lyrics are.
One more debut album: Inform – Educate – Entertain by Public Service Broadcasting. I wrote about this album and their preceding EP here, and I still enjoy them both as much as I did then. It’s worth hearing their special F1 version of Signal 30 as well, so here it is:
There are a few albums from 2013 which are big, themed pieces of art. They paint a picture and feel like a defined statement rather than just some music. First in this category is The Electric Lady, the third album and Suites IV and V of Janelle Monae’s Cyndi Mayweather story which slides into this category almost by default. A more accomplished and polished product than The ArchAndroid, it is however missing a Tightrope or Cold War. But the album is much more consistent and much stronger and more listenable as a result. There’s much less to skip (barring the annoying mythology-filling DJ Crash sections) and much more to enjoy. Suite IV on the first half of the album is a big, brassy dance-fest with stunning songs such as the titular Electric Lady, We Were Rock & Roll and the joyous rave Dance Apocalyptic. Suite V is a more soulful, laid-back and funky affair with more than a touch of Stevie Wonder’s influence shining through.
The third Super Furry Animal member side-project this year (see also The Earth and Cian Ciaran) was Gruff Rhys’ return with Boom Bip for a surprise second Neon Neon album, Praxis Makes Perfect. There’s less of a dance-oriented aspect than 2008’s Stainless Style, but the electronic-musical-biography concept remains and is tightened up considerably. The focus this time is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian communist publisher. An unlikely source of inspiration, but Gruff shows off his musical and lyrical chops again. The album follows his life from youth in Doctor Zhivago to death on Ciao Feltrinelli (as you’d expect from most biographical works) and is littered with radio communiques – something that integrates and enhances the album’s theme instead of being an irritating aside (looking at you, Janelle). The album is hard to fault bar its short run time, but the highlight is Hammer & Sickle. The simple but effective lyric “There’s a winner, a loser and a middle man; A hammer, a sickle and a sick old man” is enough to warrant the album’s existence by itself.
Last in this category, but by absolutely no means least, is Steve Mason’s 20-track, society-examining, politically angry, zeitgest opus. Even the artwork is some actual art: a portion of Giotto’s The Last Judgment. Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time (a Buddhist phrase for an idle mind) is a thoroughly thought-through record, at turns inspecting internal and external conflicts and changes. If this sounds hardcore, it kind of is. But the music is so beautiful and varied, dragging you into its world and showing you its viewpoint so precisely it’s hard not to be won over. Or so I thought until I found out that some listeners found it pretentious (easily done, it is in some places) and that some tracks felt like filler. I never found that, it just seemed like the atmospheric background needed to complete the picture and tie the bigger songs together more completely. Oh, and Beta Band fans will be pleased to know that there are still a few recognisable traits dotted around throughout.
The 2013 review continues on Page 2.