I’ve tried to put this off for a long time: the 2013 best albums list that I originally emailed off to ‘friends’ and ‘allies’ around Christmas that year is the final collection to be posted onto the webisphere and officially archived. I considered never doing it, denying its existence and never admitting to the shameful mistakes it contains. However, when I write my NE2017 list (soon, I promise) I want to make a point of referring to artists’ past entries in the Necessary Evil Blogging Universe (NEBU), so I’ve relented and made it available to read.
I was mainly worried about two things: firstly, I spent 6 months of 2013 in hospital, occasionally politely coughing and making my existence known to death’s door, so the fact that I managed to still mash out a top 50 at year’s end- while being an astonishing achievement warranting some achievements in disability award- makes me assume that a large portion of it will be unreadable madness.
Yes, very funny: more so than usual
Secondly, Arctic Monkey’s award for best album was soon revoked in light of their tax dodging selfishness, and the records for 2013 now show Hjaltalin’s astonishing ‘Enter 4′ as the greatest album, as despite it only finishing 5th in this initial list, by the time Arctic Monkey’s were stripped of the award it had grown into my favourite release of the year. Arctic Monkey’s win in 2013 is now viewed in the Necessary Evil Online Community (NEOC) with the same divisiveness as Benoit’s Wrestlemania 20 Heavyweight Championship win, and doubtless the posting of this list will be viewed as an extremely controversial move by victims of the Arctic Monkeys’ crimes. I apologise for any offence caused, but you must understand the importance of establising the legitimacy of NEBU.
So, I re-read the list for the first time in years and…
…not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, I’d say that 2013 might contain some of my best and most incisive actual music writing, and I didn’t cringe nearly as much as I feared. Jesus, some of the entries (The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Kanye West…) are some of the best normal writing I’ve ever done! From death to coherence: I’m such a fucking inspirational figure
It’s far from perfect- I make a quip about Bowie not dying, I’m a little too subtly sexist in my Haim review, Steve Mason is number fucking two…- but I’m not completely overwhelmed by shame posting them
Also: Daft Punk are only no.42, Vampire Weekend 34, that’s pretty gangsta…
NE2017 soon, I promise
I love you all
Hip-hop as mumblecore from Odd Future’s seemingly never-ending production line
Eminem continues the recent hip-hop trend of going back to his greatest moment and sticking a ‘2’ on the title. There’ll be no Christmas number 1s duetting with Dido this time around, but it’s probably his best and least mopey and self-loathing collection for a decade
48 The Eels: Wonderful Glorious
Yes Yes, all well and good, but you get the impression Mark Everett can fart out records as good as this in between touches up of his Unabomber facial hair
‘House of Balloons’, Abel Tesfave’s debut as The Weeknd (Christ, sic, sic, sic) was probably the best record of 2011 and delved horrifically deep into the grubby sex and druggy self-loathing hidden away on the dark side of RnB, with sonic innovations to make you feel suitably queasy. By now however, and this is seemingly his 24th album since then, the notion of ‘playing a character’ has become less obvious and it’s becoming more and more likely that he’s just a rather unpleasant chap, and the music has lost the shock of 2 years and 425 albums ago, and it’s no longer the sickly punch to the gut that it once was. Wanderlust ranks amongst his best though
Easier to admire than truly love, the musical farting about will have you stroking the nearest beard in appreciation but the songs themselves don’t hold up to the tracks backing them. It’s all sounds, rather predictably, like Radiohead B-sides and pales even to Thom Yorke’s first solo LP
44 Ex-Cops: True Hallucinations
43. MIA: Matangi
As is often the case with MIA the songs range from the brilliant to the borderline unlistenable aural dirty protests which could probably be put together between arse scratches. Due to the album’s legally protracted long gestation period you probably heard the best songs years ago. Song titles like Karmageddon and Sexodus are further example of her debilitating love of terrible puns.
Essentially the fantastic Get Lucky (the year’s best-selling non-rapey song) and 12 more tracks, many of which see Daft Punk aping horrific easy listening to the T and somehow making it Ok to like. The album’s best songs come about when they do away with their horrendously dated vocodor vocals and instead rely on perfectly likeable singers like Pharrel Williams or Julian Casablancas. Plus their insistence on always wearing the robot masks makes me assume they hosted Top of the Pops in the 70s and want to avoid Operation Yewtree.
41. Widowspeak: Almanac
Yep, absolutely fine, even lovely in many parts, although if you’re not paying attention the album’s 12 tracks can drift by without you noticing, perhaps bumping into you once before swiftly apologising
Unashamedly proggy and brilliantly veins bulgingly passionate almost to the point of self-parody. Made up of members of Deftones and some other metally band I’ve never heard of and can’t be bothered looking up, but anyone describing Palms’ debut as ‘metal’ is only lying to themselves. Maybe not the the best album of 2013, but certainly the most important (according to the band)
39. Public Service Broadcasting: Inform, Educate, Entertain
Public information announcements, archive footage and propaganda set to Duratti Column-esque music. You’ve probably already decided whether you’ll hate it or not, but it’s a wonderfully entertaining record that rewards repeated listens.
The production is obviously designed to smooth off any of the record’s rough edges and appeal to as many radio stations as possible, which may lead to the record sounding offensively inoffensive, but when the fantastic songs break through all is forgiven. Colombia is one of the, if not the, year’s most beautiful songs. Hmmm… Maybe this album should have been higher? Definitely better than the next couple of records. Ah well, I’m not pissing about with Open Office Writer again
37. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito
The highs are amongst the band’s best, peaking with a Doctor Octagon appearance on Buried Alive that somehow manages to be the exact opposite of the hideous cringe-fest you’d assume it to be, but the album is peppered with confused proto-punk messes that unsettle the album’s cohesion. And just to make it clear: the Local Natives album at number 38 is probably better than this, but this is certainly worse than Big Boi’s album in 36th, so don’t get too confused
Too. Many. Songs. If Andre Patton had been a bit more strict with his editing, trimmed the disc’s 17 tracks and endless FUCKING skits down to the best of the album’s multi-coloured twisted bubble-gum pop then he could have had an album to rival his fantastic 2010 debut solo record. Instead, we get an album whose closing track’s chorus importunes ‘Let me see your titties/ Let me see your pussy/ She said Ok‘
Three attractive young female sisters somehow became the wet-dream of magazine editors and middle aged male rockers alike (invited onstage at Glastonbury by Primal Scream, with Bobby Gillespie being old enough to be their creepy uncle), and although the leather jackets may have had people expecting Warpaint-esque fashion magazine indie rock, instead it’s a debut slathered in snare drums paying admirably unironic respect to the 80s’ cheesiest moments. Richard Marx (creative consultant) can consider a job well done
Jettisoning a lot of the suspiciously Peter Gabriel smelling African sounds that had previously been their hallmark, Vampire Weekend certainly succeed in making their sound a lot less divisive than it previously was, but lose a big chunk of their individuality with the bathwater. The lavish praise drizzled over this album generally mystifies me, but there’s not a bad track on it and it’s probably the band’s best.
I am in no way apoplectic with rage at him winning the Mercury Prize (which I would have been if Bowie picked it up seemingly by virtue of being alive) and although it lacks the impact of his brilliant 2011 debut it’s still quietly affecting and features a wonderful collaboration with RZA that could point to grand ideas in the future
Marvellously unfocused and skittish, and probably the record on this list with music most difficult to claim to be modern, but when the scuzzy pop is as good as this you’ll not mind.
I realise that Justin Trousersnake is famous for his length, but this is borderline ridiculous, I was just beginning to get to grips with the 79 minutes of the album’s 12 tracks when he announced the release of a (no shorter, but probably the weakest of the two) part two. The music itself however is frequently breathtaking, with production so slick and state of the art that it’s still shrink-wrapped, and exhibiting an experimentalism you wouldn’t expect from someone so huge that he could record himself farting on a bus and still go platinum. There’s definitely a near classic album nestled somewhere in the albums’ combined two and a half hours
The Men, previously famous for VERY noisy noise rock, here tone down the noise on some tracks but still make the year’s best noise rock album. I feel I may have mentioned the noise a bit too much there, and there is noise, but it’s the band’s way around a melody that provides the album’s lasting appeal (and the horrible jam-wank of the album’s last track will ensure you never finish it)
Opening the album with the brilliant 2012 single Best of Friends risked it overshadowing the whole record, but the Palmas (brilliant name that) keep up the quality (and more impressively the energy) throughout. It’s music seemingly specifically, perhaps medically, designed for the indie disco but it’s scientifically impossible to dislike.
When did The Strokes become so depressing? When they first splattered onto the scene more than a decade ago they seemed to personify the reckless and repellent fun of youth, and even heterosexual males would discuss which one of them they’d most like to shag and how amazing it would be. Now they seem to be held up as a dispiriting example of wasted potential, with every new record being no way near as good as it should have been, and selling a couple of hundred thousand less copies than the disappointing record that preceded it. This album is actually pretty great in several places, and band could point to Julian Casablancas’s falsetto to counter accusations that it’s more of the same. They used to sound like the greatest punk band you’d never heard of, now they’re more a very good new-wave band that you used to really like. Christ, even writing this has upset me
27. Veronica Falls: Waiting for Something to Happen
Vernonica Falls are anything but depressing, and their dual guitar chimes and lovely harmonies instead make them sound like they were unlucky to be born too late to be included on C86. Their chiming indie-pop isn’t anything you haven’t heard before (especially if you’re a fan of Teenage Fanclub) but it’s all brilliantly done
Probably the world’s best Canadian lesbian twin pop duo decide to pop-up their sound with limited success. The inherent quality of their song-writing still manages to shine through, but the Cindi Lauper-esque production just takes away from the songs and makes an album with T&S lyrics as beautifully vulnerable as ever sound like a more throwaway effort than usual, with none of the left-field art-punk they’re capable of. A great pop album, but a failed experiment.
Perhaps the year’s most bug-eyedly adventurous album, and one that certainly fits the niche of X for people who don’t like X, despite the obvious problem of making death metal in anyway likeable. Their mastery of the always ridiculously effective quiet/loud dynamic is pants-wettingly entertaining at times, although I would recommend listening to the album in short (ish, every track is about 62 minutes long) blasts, as album as a while may cause your brain to bleed out of your ears around track 3
24. Dawn Richard: Goldenheart
…and now onto someone who takes things very seriously indeed, enough to be very rightfully mocked if the music wasn’t so incredible. It’s a ludicrously high-concept involving… I dunno… Star Trek or something (it would be most year’s most admirably haughty album ‘plot’, but unfortunately for Ms. Richards Janelle Monae released an album this year) but one that’s always matched sonically by the wonderful production. It was apparently heavily edited before release and still comes in too long, and will be unbearable in all probability if she finishes her planned/threatened trilogy, but as a standalone album it’s still quite wonderful.
?????. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual
Christ, fuck knows where this should be, so you’re more than welcome to make up a number to stick it at. ‘Challenging‘ in the same way sellotaping a sock to a Manx cat’s thigh is challenging- it’s certainly difficult but at no point are you entirely sure exactly why you’re doing it. The tracks don’t deal in anything as bourgeois as songs and are either twisted genius or pointless farting about depending on what mood you’re in, and you’ll go through a lot of moods during it’s 96 minutes.
23.Frightened Rabbit: Pedestrian Verse
‘I am that dickhead in the kitchen/ Giving wine to your best girl’s glass/ I am the amateur pornographer/ Unpleasant publisher by hand‘ as album openers go it’s as god an introduction as you could hope for. I realise that for some reason Mumford and Sons are now widely held to be the worst thing since AIDS, and you could certainly extend that bizarre hatred to Frightened Rabbit’s fourth abum, but if you’re not adverse to music that can occasionally be imagined being played while students with terrible facial hair nod their beards you’ll find an album where the songs are always good enough to shake off any threat of ‘niceness’. ‘State Hospital‘ is one of the year’s best songs.
You know the drill by now, Chico’s most famous fan’s 15th (fifteenth!!) album is predictably brilliant, and Mermaids‘ opening lines of ‘She was a catch/ We were a match/ I was the match that would fire up her snatch’ are amongst Nicolas’s best. The only problem is, although the quality never drops, there’s nothing here that you’d put on the Nick cave ‘best-of’ compilation I assume all of you already have mapped out in your head (my personal one currently runs to more than 70 tracks) and the fact that such a relatively short album contains more than the legally allowed ‘one‘ epic slowburner (perhaps 3 or four, depending on your opinion) lends the album a slightly dispensable and stuck in second gear air, despite all the tracks being individually great and occasionally beautiful.
I fear I haven’t given the National’s sixth album the time and attention that such a subtle and beautiful collection of songs obviously deserves, as even on first listen it’s apparent an album this rich will reward endless listens, and even writing this I’m worried (again) that this is a little lower than it deserves to be. Received strangely lukewarm reviews in some corners, and you could argue that it’s simply more of the same (though nothing as blisteringly wonderful as ‘High Violet”s Runaway, which you have permission to play at my funeral in a couple of years after I die fist-fighting a white rhino. Don’t ask) but if the National’s sound is unchanged it’s definitely because it remains unbroken.
‘I don’t want my children to grow up like me/ It’s just so destroying, it’s a mocking disease’, there are parts on the Manic’s eleventh album when the lyrics lapse into such self-parody that it’s near impossible to take seriously, and on the first dozen or so listens the album sounds like an unreserved failure, brilliant single (and only song to push tempo past ‘hungover poo’) ‘ ‘Show Me The Wonder‘ plus 11 cack-handedly inelegant attempts at a refined sound, and the initial thought is that, after more than 30 years, the Manics have jumped the rarebit. After maybe 20 or 30 listens the album’s esoteric wonders reveal themselves and you finally regard the album as an experimental success, with lyrics that are on occasions as cutting and angry as ever. Certainly the band’s most challenging and least obvious work, and their refusal to simply re-tread old ground is admirable (especially considering how their last record wasn’t so much treading water as lying face down in the shallow end) though it’s still amongst their least effecting works, and altogether a lot easier to appreciate, even greatly admire, than love. It still whets the appetite for next year’s promised Krautrock album (if only to see how terrible that could potentially be), the Manics mark III are still an ongoing concerb.
Winner of this year’s best Manchester album, the band so good they named themselves twice release more eyebrows raised art-punk that isn’t at all afraid to show off how smart it is. The best compliment you could probably pay it is to say that it’s the album we should be expecting the Futureheads to make. Almost every track is an angular poppy delight, which only occasionally lapsing into the generic.
The fact that the band are now at a point where they’re being abandoned by members you’d never even heard of, allied to the bizarre decision to open the album with it’s most morose and glum track has you writing off the record as a disappointment before it’s really started. However second track ‘I Sat By the Ocean’ kicks off a brilliantly concise and focused remaining 9 tracks, and Josh Homme’s three month stay in hospital (light-weight) obviously acted as a wake-up call enough for the band to lay down their best album since 2002’s ‘Songs for the Death’, which I assume is solely down to wonderfully bearded ex-bassist Nick Oliveri’s contribution to a couple of tracks (and Dave Grohl’s return to drumming duties). ‘If I Had A Tail‘ may not be necessarily the year’s best single, but if you think you’ve found one better you’re obviously an idiot.
An amazing post-punk clatter of sound, with Future of the Left continuing their long (and proud) achievement as Britain’s less appreciated rock band. The sheer quality of the songs on their best album to date might have you missing wonderful lyrics such as ‘Four children equals/ Carnage at the petting zoo’. Every lyric here is fabulous and again shows the band’s distaste of a sense of humour being something to be ashamed of. Only on Singing of the Bone Saws, where humour is concentrated on at the expense of music, does it start to grate.
I’ll try not to mention her age, but it is rather depressing when popstars are no longer even too young to be your girlfriend but start being young enough to possibly be your daughter. Whatever her age, this is an absolutely fantastic pop album, not allowing the perfect single Royals to overshadow the album too much, and surviving a handful of duff tracks (impressive on a relatively short record). Not only is it surprising someone so young (Damnit!!) can write some of the year’s most interesting lyrics (‘Baby be the class clown/ I’ll be the beauty queen in tears/ It’s a new art form/ Showing how little we care’) but she actually says the ‘f’ word occasionally, which I believe it’s actually illegal for minors. Still, it’s always nice for an excuse to say ‘She’s only sixteen years old‘ in a Michael Caine voice. Not to be confused with Lordi, of Hard Rock Hallelujah fame.
My biggest regret in not sending out my ‘best of 2011’ list was that I could never bore on to everyone how much I loved The Welsh Joy Formidable’s debut ‘The Big Roar’, and even to this day opening track The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie makes me so happy I get the police knocking at the door around the three minute mark. Their second album’s opening track This Ladder Is Our’s doesn’t quite arouse the same joy in me (very few legal things do) but it’s still a fabulous introduction to power-pop that can’t really be bettered. The Joy (as cool kids call them) care little about being wonderfully unfashionable, just about fist-pumpingly effective jump-alongs with just the right amount of weirdness. I’m also legally obliged at this point to describe their sound as being ‘as big as Snowden’.
Speaking of great opening tracks, few are as beautiful or as swallowing-lumps-moving as The Dream, the Low-featuring first song on the Danish computer pusher Trentemøller’s (impressed with that ‘ø’ aren’t you?) third album. And while I had to Google the other many contributors (Marie Fisker?? Kazu Makino??) this is a record that sets out to be a ‘big’ event, and if you prefer your music to be understated and minimalist then maybe this isn’t the record for you. Subtly is evidently a foreign country to him (Sweden, perhaps), but the album’s bludgeoning effect is still a success, even if (opening track accepted) it can feel rather one note, occasionally lapses into horribly OTT cheese and tails off pretty noticeably towards the end. It’s a brilliantly fun, Gothic with a small ‘g’ dance mess that recalls Death in Vegas at their best.
13. Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe
The Knife gave up writing anything as philistinian as ‘songs‘ or ‘choruses’ a long time ago, and now rely on occasionally screaming their way to genius while delivering a 6 hour opera based on the thinkings of Daniel Kahneman. To fill the void though, there’s the brilliant debut album by Glasgow’s Chvrches (the ridiculous spelling comes from a desire to be easily found on Google, which is both brilliantly clever and dishearteningly depressing. Once my band gets off the ground I think I’ll call them ‘Naked Pictures of Children’ to become as difficult to Google as possible. It’s the ‘The The’ fans I feel sorry for) which is as fantastic a synth-pop record as you’re likely to hear. The female singer’s innocent voice masks some brilliantly sour lyrics, and when a male member (titter) takes up singing duties the music takes a bit of a hit, but that’s luckily pretty rare. It may be stuck on one gear, but when the tunes are as joyous as this you don’t mind listening to twelve of them, and the possess a talent for choruses that borders on the psychotic.
I had more problems with this record than any other this year, perhaps this decade, perhaps this century. The twenty two year wait since last album ‘Loveless‘- a record which you wouldn’t look completely insane describing as the finest one ever released– makes Axl Rose look like a committed workaholic, and the opening track– perhaps the opening half of the album- sounds so close to a parody of the band’s sonic shoe-gazing that I’ve come to regard it as an intentional joke by Kevin Shields- ‘We waited more than twenty years for this??’. However, it builds so astonishingly to the point that the final four tracks are more wonderful and ground-breaking than anything else released this year, that perhaps the album is best regarded as starting off directly where ‘Loveless’ finishes (some of the album’s tracks were actually recorded back in 1992, making their previous record’s famously extended- and expensive- gestation period look like small change) and pushing the sound further and further forward as the album progresses. If so it’s a fantastic artistic statement, but occasionally suffers musically on it’s own behalf
Coming across as a less misanthropic Fuck Buttons, with a name that you can repeat without worry in any social situation, Hopkin’s fourth album is so hard to separate quality-wise from the Olympians that I’d considered banding them both together, with ‘Immunity’ displaying clarity of focus that would make Lee Harvey Oswald proud (or would it…?) that I was tempted to favour it (the album’s exactly an hour long, which makes it perfect for timing the cooking of twelve Pot Noodles, in what I assume would be some elaborate suicide), but I’m always going to join the dark side aren’t I? It nonetheless a brilliant dance record you can actually dance to (well, I can’t, but it’s theoretically possible)
Coming across as a more misanthropic John Hopkins. In naming the wonderful ‘Tarot Sport’ the best album of 2009, I hilariously stated how you were unlikely to hear any of the songs soundtracking adverts for ‘Planet Earth’, which to be fair you didn’t, but Olympians (fittingly) became the one song in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony by an artist whose name you couldn’t say before the watershed, so while it would perhaps be pushing it to claim Feck Buttons’ music had gone mainstream they’ve certainly moved on from making club casualties grind their teeth to making head’s of state jump out of helicopters, which is certainly progress. They retain their unrivalled ability to turn what is on paper unlistenable dirge into wonderfully listenable music, and this could be described as their most straightforward work, in a moot point point akin to describing the current series of the ‘X Factor’ as the show’s worst. Compared to the light years of progress between their first and second record ‘Slow Focus’ is practically stepping sideways, and perhaps the familiarity removes any chance of the music really turning your stomach, but as final track Hidden Xs completes it’s ten minute majesty you’d be extremely harsh to refer to it as any sort of a step back.
Another former album of the year winner (although admittedly in 2010 I had yet to hear Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘ and I’m now glad I don’t need to decide which is better- note to artists: if you release an album in late-November/December I won’t hear it for ages) and another story line (this time acting as a prequel to ‘The ArchAndroid’) which depending on how you look at it is more faux-Metropolis twaddle or a metaphor for the difficulties faced by homosexuals. Either way it’s another bitingly smart musical mash-up, the only slight problem being that it fails to match the open-minded envelope pushing of her last record and is instead ‘just’ a wonderfully successful pop/r’n’b album with a lot less genre-hopping this time around. Prince looms large, which is certainly no bad thing, with the record frequently calling to mind some of the Purple One’s unfairly maligned early 90’s work, and album highlight Give Em What they Love being the best track he’s appeared on in years (and if the wonderful lighters-aloft ballad Primetime isn’t his guitar solo then it’s someone doing a spot-on impression). It’s impressive that even 19 tracks doesn’t seem necessarily too long, although skits are always terrible and there’s a slight dip towards the albums end, and first single Q.U.E.E.N included a mention of ‘twerking’ before Miley Cyrus’s gusset (both of Cyrus’s singles released this year were fantastic by the way, but I’ve again shown it’s impossible to mention her without mentioning her gusset) made it such an established term that Andrew Neil now opens every ‘Daily Politics’ show with a six-minute demonstration. The cover is also further proof that Janelle looks better with any haircut that isn’t the ridiculous bouffant she still insists on.
‘But I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever going to meet/ From the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet’- GMF has the year’s greatest arms-aloft chorus, which in any just world would have been crooned along to headlining Saturday night’s Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury while The Rolling Stones shuffled across the ‘Still Alive??’ stage in field 5. All of Grant’s second album is sprinkled with pitch black humour as he miserably gripes with subjects ranging from back-water hometowns to failed relationship, and yet his refusal to tackle subjects po-faced doesn’t detract from the beauty and effectiveness of the songs- even if one song’s chorus has the darkly humorous question of ‘I wonder what Ernest Borgnine would do‘ it’s still the track that most nakedly tackles the subject of his HIV. Musically the album veers from lo-fi and sparse electronica, to underplayed acoustics, to gorgeous arrangements, all the while staying emotionally moving enough to ignore whatever the lyrics are and still be touched (although it continues the bizarrely common trend for sticking the one duff at track two- skipping Black Belt will only increase your enjoyment). Sinead O’Connor also makes frequent appearances, making 2013 her busiest year since the early 90s. Recorded in Iceland, the home-country of the act in number 5- you’d pay thousands for that kind of synergy, and it just comes to me naturally.
Ms. Calvi’s 2011 debut was a nice little raw/theatrical work that suggested she would very adequately fill the gaps between PJ Harvey albums, but ‘One Breath’ is such an astronomical leap forward that if she were a cyclit she’d immediately be subjected to a ‘random’ drug test. It’s an album that’s at once operatic in it’s intense emotion and icily cool in it’s chiming guitars, Opener Suddenly grabs you straight away and the first half of the album continuously floors you with it’s ambition and scope, with each of the opening 6/7 tracks towering over anything on her debut to such an extent it’s technically bullying. The album careers at such a speed from the starting pistol that the slight drop in quality towards the end is perhaps to be expected, but it’s a record that in a shot gains Calvi a promotion to the A-list (artist’s I care about)
6. Arcade Fire: Reflektor
Been in the A-list for so long that their buttocks have moulded shapes into the chairs, which is probably why I could spit off 10’000 words on my problems with their fourth album (don’t worry though, it’s gonna be barely half that). When listening to the opening title track push into its eighth minute you let it slide in the knowledge every album deserves it’s one epic track, it’s only when you near completion of the record’s 69 minutes and realise almost every track is at least two minutes too long that you begin to wonder whether they’re taking the piss- James Murphy was a great choice as producer to lend the album a distinct sound removed from the band’s previous work, but you wish he’s been a little more strict with his editing (a nice game you can play while listening is to play producer- ‘that’s where the track should end…’) or perhaps Arcade Fire are now so convinced of their own genius that someone telling them that dragging what could have been a career best record over two discs might be a bad idea would be immediately sacked (and possibly executed). The lyrics are also insufferably whiney in places, from Normal Person’s opening gambit of ‘Do you like rock n’ roll music/ ‘Cause I’m not sure I do’ to Flashbulb Eyes’ whinge about celebrity (do you know who’s one thousand times more famous than Arcade-fucking-Fire? Justin Timberlake. And does he spend his personal over-long record complaining about it? No, he writes songs using Strawberry Bubblegum as metaphor for… I dunno… semen?) to We Don’t Exist‘s existential crisis at having to perform in front of the unwashed idiots that are Arcade Fire fans- when you’ve recently had a testicle removed listening to the singer of one of the world’s biggest rock bands complaining about the pressures of being in one of the world’s biggest rock bands makes you want to run away and listen to True Blood (a metaphor for… I dunno… semen?). However, after saying all that I would like to reiterate that the reason these problems jar so much is that ‘Reflektor’ is a wonderful album, with just a few mistakes stopping it from being the band’s (and possibly year’s) best. The high points are fantastic, and each side’s different mood is executed perfectly, and despite the needless length (ooh matron) Porno is perhaps the only track that’s less than brilliant. It’s a record that irritates for it’s missed opportunities, but is still a wonderfully moving piece of work, to such an extent that Jonathon Ross’s appearance on the (fantastic) We Already Know might become to be seen as as bizarre as Dave Pierce’s intro to ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back‘ when it comes to British radio DJs turning up on classic albums.
Months before Iceland’s devastating failure to qualify for the World Cup, Hjaltalin’s (you’ve no idea how many attempts it takes me each time to spell that right) frontman Högni Egilsson (cut and pasted that) was in and out of hospitals due to mental health issues, contributing to making the recording of the band’s third album the year’s most tense and volatile, to the point that final track Ethereal was recorded in one take amid high-tension after a near-debilitating band argument. Egilsson’s mental health’s loss is our gain, however, as ‘Enter 4’ is a beautiful mind-lick of an album, with bleak and yet life-affirming music that is difficult to compare to anything else (save, again, track two, which utilises fairly common-place electronica but still builds to something wonderful). Even four months after it’s release it continues to improve with every listen, with music that packs an emotional punch and is frequently devastating in its arrangement and both male and female lead singers having an equally gorgeous lilt. The best album recorded in Iceland this year, but only just.
Even before you’ve heard a note a note Kanye West album number 6.5 it’s already the most challenging release of the year, as you’re already secretly wishing it’s terrible aren’t you? And why wouldn’t you? Off-duty Kanye West exudes about as much likeability as a tapeworm on on prostate exam day, a man who wouldn’t so much start a fight in an empty room, but would stamp his feet in a tearful strop about the walls being the wrong shape, ask incredulously why the carpet is an offensive colour and tweet ‘WHAT IS WITH THIS ROOM SHEEYIT????????’ only with more question marks and, somehow, bigger capital letters. ‘There’s leaders/ And there’s followers/ But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower’ he states (repeatably) at one point, and if you were to search the lyric book of ‘Yeezus’ you’d find further evidence of his general dickishness- I’m In It (once again featuring unlikely collaborator Justin Vernon) for one is an almost garishly hideous glimpse into West’s sex-life that contains lines as stomach turning as ‘Eating Asian pussy all I need was sweet n’ sour sauce’ or ‘I’m a rap-lic priest/ Getting head from the nuns’. And the video for Bound 2 (‘I wanna fuck you hard on the sink/ After that give you something to drink/ Step back don’t get spunk on the mink’) is such a self-parody that James Franco and Seth Rogen’s spoof of it was completely unnecessary. What makes disliking him so difficult- and makes him probably the world’s most fascinating pop star- is that his music is frequently, consistently, brilliant. Not counting the record executive’s wet dream that was his Jay-Z (who named his album ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail‘ this year in obvious completion with West over who could give their record the most ridiculously self-regarding name) I would argue that only his third album ‘Graduation’ falls slightly below fantastic, and his last record (2010’s fabulous and previously mentioned ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘) was almost certainly the best of a great bunch. It was, however, despite it’s commercial sheen and never-ending roll-call of guest singers, West’s worst-selling album. Perhaps it’s the poor commercial reception of that record that has riled West up to this extent- he tried to give the public what they want and they didn’t buy it, so now he’s past caring. Make no mistake, this is an angry album, seething with repulsion at everything from his own infamy (‘Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you/Cause kissing people’s ass so unlike you’) to slavery (a recurring theme, even on I’m in It‘s ‘I put my fist in her like a civil rights sign’), and is an obvious effort to make a distinctly radio-unfriendly record. Sonicly it’s mind-blowing, abrasive and raw- Rick Rubin’s call to add production 15 days before the album’s release suggests Kanye wanted the sound stripped down further right up until the last minute- and the album’s 40 minutes are squeezed taut, with such focus acting as a counterpoint to the last album’s gigan-mungus scale. It’s an album that cares little for affection, which only makes it easier to love.
Phew, this won’t be as long as the last one, I promise. Last year Kate Crutchfield released her debut album as Waxahatchee (why can’t all solo artists give themselves names that good? I assure you I’d like Olly Murrs more if he called himself ‘Trattagoobo’) which was a distinctly lo-fi acoustic collection but it’s moderate success has convinced her to sell-out for her second record, utilising such bourgeois concepts as a backing band and an electric guitar. Such a desperate cry for mainstream acceptance doesn’t have a averse affect on her music however, ‘Cerulean Salt’ is an absolutely heart-stoppingly wonderful collection of guitar pop. Every one of the album’s 13 tracks (a wonderfully tight 32 minutes) is lump-in-throat beautiful, employing such heart-breaking lyrics that expertly profile the more starkly melancholic side of life and relationships (‘I had a dream last night/We had hit different bottoms’). Crutchfield generally doesn’t go for the operatic drama of a failed relationship, bust-ups and shouting, instead documenting the more despondent nature of couples who long ago fell out of love and are now stuck on a loop staying with each other (‘The atmosphere is fucking tired it brings us nothing/ If you think that I’ll stay forever you are right’), which is all together a lot more depressing. Musically it breaks no new boundaries, but it’s never less than enjoyable and perfectly backs Kate’s voice, and is so sweet on the ears that such a nakedly emotive and occasionally grim record never becomes unlistenable. A perfect Christmas gift for that husband/wife you stopped loving years ago. Peace and Quiet is especially brilliant.
2. Steve Mason: Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time
Steve Mason’s former band The Beta Band were preparing to release their second album ‘Hot Shots II’ (named after the Charlie Sheen sequel), a follow up to a debut album they’d explicitly said was shit on it’s release, with the big comeback single Squares, when plans had to be cancelled at the last minute when I Monster released Daydream in Blue, which kind of stole their thunder by being based around the exact same sample. And the sequel to ‘Hot Shots’ is actually called ‘Part Deux’, so they even managed to screw that up. Such bad luck and general incompetence became synonymous with the Beta Band’s and later singer Steve Mason’s (along with other member’s works The Aliens and Lone Pigeon) attempts to recapture the magic of the band’s debut ‘3 EPs’ compilation, a collection whose impact and influence spread so wide that within 2 years even Oasis were ripping the songs off and they were featuring in John Cusack movies (his pronunciation of the band’s name in that clip makes my head spin), but after fifteen years of trying the wonderfully named second record released under Mason’s own name may have somehow cracked it. If you were planning of sticking this on your iBeard to catch occasionally on shuffle, then don’t- it’s an album that only really reveals it’s mastery when listened to in full, you lazy, lazy bastard. Of the record’s 20 tracks perhaps only 10 of them could be considered ‘songs’ in the accepted sense of the word, the rest being mostly short excerpts of music and dialogue that make little sense when removed from the album’s context (although occasionally, as in Towers of Power and From Hate We Hope they work as wonderful snippets of tracks regardless). In case that wasn’t an obvious enough flag, you should be warned that ‘Monkey Minds…’ is an unashamedly proggy record- sophistication, suites, arty-farty ambience, all that- but the experimentation works fantastically throughout. If the album had one theme working throughout then it frequently returns to a gospel sound and the album in general is a world away from the lo-fi shuffle-rock you might associate him with, and also a hop sideways from the arty electronica which his solo work usually consists of- ‘Monkey Minds…’ has a ‘big’ sound that matches it’s ambition. MC Mystro (no me neither) even appears on More Money More Fire, an honest to goodness rap song about the London riots, contributing to the record’s second half’s lyrical concerns of protest and civil disobedience, although I should be careful what I say as the NSA are probably reading this right now (I wish I was back in China, a lot more freedom of speech there)
I know, how fucking obvious is that? But the reason ‘AM’ has been named the year’s best album everywhere from The Beano to Men’s Health is chiefly because it’s really rather good. The fact that it opens with the fan-flipping-tastic Do I Wanna Know (which could conceivably called the band’s finest song to date, and is possibly an even better single than If I Had A Tail, which would make me an idiot) and the quality barely drops right through to the closing track cover of John Cooper-Clarke’s (who after last year’s appearance on Plan B’s Pity the Plight is enjoying a bizarre late-career renaissance, once he films the new Sugar Puffs advert the comeback will officially be complete) I Wanna Be Your’s should give you an idea of just how consistently good the record is. The band pull off the potentially hazardous trick of experimenting with, choppong and changing their sound without once sounding perverse, strained or experimental for the sheer sake of it- the songs are frequently based around beats that recall nothing if not early-90s/00s hip-hop (Doctor Dre might be tempted to pull his finger out of his arse once he hears Arabella) and touch on styles as diverse as weirdly dark glam rock (Gary Glitter features on the superb I Want It All. Only joking) and spaghetti westerns, without ever sounding disparate or unfocused. Perhaps the album’s greatest achievement (well, second greatest, No.1 Party Anthem does mention Cantona- not fucking ‘antenna’ as this video claims- which is an easy way into my good books, possibly my pants) is that it manages to pull together a melting-pot of influences and directions and yet still have the album hang together beautifully, with every track complimenting the one before and the one after it. Essentially though, this is the year’s best album simply because the songs are so fucking good- you could argue it dips slightly when No.1… is followed by another slowie in Mad Sounds but that is probably nit-picking on such a gloriously tight 42 minutes. It’s easily the band’s best collection (and considering how each of their previous albums have been uniformly excellent that’s quite an achievement) and Alex Turner’s lyrics concerning darker and seedier subject matter- all mental abuse, failed relationships and drunken booty calls- doesn’t in any way detract from the fact that he’s probably his generation’s (born 1986, the little tosser) finest lyricist, and the way in which he manages to spin them so artfully around the meoldies without ever resorting to Richey Edwards era Manics squeezingasmanywordsintoalineaspossible. I burst a brain vein (Burst a Brain Vein is my band’s debut single) straining to think of a less obvious choice for first place, but with apologies to the previous 49 albums ‘AM’ was miles ahead of the pack in 2013.
See you in 2017! I think I’ll strip it down to a top 5 or something next time