These are the top albums of 2013, in my opinion, obviously. This list isn’t exhaustive and or full of compromises like certain music websites feel they need to capitulate to. It’s compiled entirely of stuff I listened to and liked. No token gestures allowed, and if I missed anything, well, then tough shit. There are a couple of comps/reissues, a couple of mixes, and an EP, all of which technically shouldn’t count, but it’s my blog and therefore my rules, so that’s that. This list also arrives in no particular order. Well, I tell a lie, they come in the order which I remembered them. Does that mean it’s in order? Not necessarily. Anyway enough of the needless rambling, let’s get on with it:
TM404 – TM404
The last time an album grabbed me like this did? “Chillout” by The KLF. Probably. Likely the first time I heard “Physical Graffiti”, “Aja”, “Bringing It All Back Home” or “Exile on Main St”. That’s its company. A stone cold classic for mine. I could write something more here, but I couldn’t hope to do it justice, though I did give that a go. Most likely I failed. Anyway, enough talk, just buy it and listen, very deliberately, then again straight after. It will become apparent what needs to happen next. This is how acid music, true acid music, should sound.
Change the Beat – The Celluloid Records Story 1980 – 1987 (Compilation)
Eighties kitsch, only not really. I love this sort of release, before you listen you look at the names, and in most cases you have no clue, a real shot in the dark. Maybe I haven’t listened to enough music (possible, I wish I could crate dig for a living) but it’s still nice to find something that makes you go ‘oh really!’ Seventies freestyle rap over Jimi Hendrix riffs, or how about The Clash juxtaposed with some bloke called Futura 2000 (who’s a famous graffiti artist as it turns out). It opens with a bizarre postpunk cover version of ‘Daytripper’, or at least I think it’s a cover. Even a Ginger Baker track makes an appearance, but that and the track itself doesn’t throw you because the whole thing is so random. I have no idea who mixed any of the tracks, which in a way is better somehow, let it remain a mystery. Bottom line it works, all the IDM stuff is solid, even if the Thomas Leer track seems like a bit of obvious filler. There’s some Afrobeat stuff on there, but no obvious shit like Fela Kuti, William Onyeabor or Tony Allen, so that’s good, and it is. But still, it somehow feels a bit out of place in this compilation. I understand that this comp is pitched as the record label that helped Bill Laswell to formulate the antidote sound to the early MTV mainstream stalwarts of Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc, etc, but apart from one, none of the Afrobeat tracks are given the eighties beatbox or synth treatment.
The best tracks are ‘Electrique Sylvie’ by Modern Guy and ‘Makossa Rock’ by Deadline which is obviously a mashup of styles, but no further information is given.
The only disappointment was there was no remix of any of Grace Jones’ tracks – which in my own are head are synonymous with the eighties pop sound, excess and New York. No subversive mix of ‘Warm Leatherette’ or ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’? I am disappoint, but not with this release. My favourite compilation of 2013.
Kenya Special – Selected East African Recordings from the 1970s and ’80s (Compilation)
It’s a shame that Kenya is going through some political and humanitarian strife at the moment. All this record does is rekindles memories of better times.
Of all the Afrobeat comps released this year, and there were some really good ones from Analog Africa, this was best. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud for downloading these compilations. It’s far too practical, and music really shouldn’t be. There are legitimate excuses, time, money etc, but who wants to hear them? I should have a good knowledge of East African funk and Afrobeat music from the 70’s, I should own all the records that this comp was complied from, absolutely I should. Finding it this way is just lazy. Shame on me.
But I can handle shame when the comps are this majestic. My favourite songs from this one – ‘Mu Africa’, ‘Nana’ and ‘Nitarudia’.
Various – The Outer Church (Compilation)
A basketcase of IDM, dark electro, ambient, psychedelica, folk, a bit of new wave, and other oddities, sometimes all on the same track, from a whole bunch of artists, some of which you’ve never heard of and in some cases won’t ever again. This is the sort of comp you download and enjoy after you’ve listened to “Tago Mago” too many times.
Grumbling Fur – Glynnaestra
The Quietus voted it as their album of the year. I won’t go that far, and I don’t have an order anyway (as I’m cool and non-conformist and shit). Any group that decides to make a song entirely devolved from Blade Runner’s most famous scene is okay with me. “Glynnaestra” borrows from many folk infused psychedelic conventions, like a rhythmical form of chanting, which appears often, and lineage of sound from the successful standard bearers of the genre, from Syd Barrett, Hawkwind, Spacemen 3 to early Madchester influenced Primal Scream. The album itself goes through a journey and or metamorphosis encompassing all of these sounds and they pull off each incarnation with panache. A wider question – why is it that only Brits can make music like this? And no, Jaguar fucking Mar shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.
Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
One of the last vestiges of hope for mainstream Pop/R’n’B music? Perhaps it’s the last depending on where you stand on Lady Gaga. Though perhaps I’m being disingenuous with such a categorical statement? After all Monae has only one hundredth of the Twitter followers that the shameful Justin Bieber lad has. So she isn’t completely mainstream, not in the true sense. She and this album should be. Her debut was a bit more diverse, but The Electric Lady is a better album. You won’t see a better run of songs than ‘Givin Em What They Love’, ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, ‘Electric Lady’ and ‘PrimeTime’ on any album released this year or featuring better guest vocalists than Prince and Erykah Badu. Even the radio interludes are amusing and appropriately and studiously placed – and I usually hate interludes on albums. The android metaphor for 21st century black America is spot on too. Clever. Much love.
Mammane Sani et son Orgue – La Musique Electronique du Niger
Do you remember computer games from the late eighties? Vaguely? I do, I think, or is it borrowed nostalgia? The nineties then? Definitely. More precisely do you remember that they often had generic, repetitive, embarrassingly shit teeth clenching soundtracks? Or Jingles? To be more exact. That would be yes, absolutely yes. So what does this have to do with Mammane Sani? Well his reissued work is vaguely reminiscent and synonymous with that sound from my youth. In reality we’re talking about a bloke from Niger interpreting an authentic indigenous sound with a relatively new age (as it was then) bit of kit, an electronic Organ. It’s simple, addictive and absolutely brilliant, of course it is. It’s also taught me to think better and ignore the patronising associations I tend to make…
…well okay, perhaps it wasn’t quite able to do that.
Logos – Cold Mission
For some reason, well actually a logical one, this reminded me of something from the now distant past, the Prodigy’s album “Music For The Jilted Generation”. Yes, that’s not an instantly logical connection, as they’re from different genres, not to mention eras, but the sound of glass bottles breaking doesn’t get used that often. Particularly not effectively as they are used here. This is different to the Prodigy in more important ways, it’s smoothly haunting dubstep, with the James Blakian, as found on his self titled debut album, gaps of sound, in some cases beats, which serve to emphasise its brilliantly profuse structure. To create the textures Logos runs the gamut of effects, ‘Surface Area’ has the glass bottle breaking in-between an intermittently pulsating dub, what sounds like a cash register opening, while a light synth fades in and out. You have a gun being loaded mixed over a grime bassline on ‘Seawolf’, and the fruit machine like effect that Crystal Castles bastardised so awfully, used far more dutifully and successfully here. It’s impressive that the poverty of these constituent parts can be molded into something this good. This is dupstep and grime for the chin rubbers not the head nodders. If anything it’s a dubstep record to chill out to. As far as I’m aware that’s not a regularity.
Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
Apparently some fella named Kanye West released another (?) album this year. I didn’t bother, and I never have. You don’t need to, everything you ever needed from a quality rap album is contained on this record. I’ve not been too enamored with the Odd Future’s output, or the hype, and as such I didn’t grab this immediately. Oops. Sweatshirt – should I call him that? It doesn’t seem right somehow – has some serious flow and so do all of those who guest on his album, established and new. ‘Hive’ is one of tracks of the year, and the album contains a dark, misanthropic, sarcastic undertone, as the samples and words combine on ‘523’, ‘Hoarse’ and ‘Guild’ to convey. If anything it’s a far more accurate reflection of the quirks and angst that many people of Sweatshirt’s age assume, and it gives them something; a sound, a voice, a culture, that’s far more relatable to than some tit talking about how much of a genius he is, and his, at best, questionable political stances/metaphors. “Doris” has enough lighter moments so that Sweatshirt cannot be accused of taking himself too seriously, unlike a certain self anointed genius. Right, that’s enough shots at Kanye. I’ve used up my quota. See also “Stolen Youth” released by Vince Staples, who guests and lays it down on two tracks on “Doris”.
Forest Swords – Engravings
His debut EP, “Dagger Paths”, released last year, evoked visions of a soundtrack for a Manga cartoon set in Feudal era Japan. The cover art certainly encouraged that association. “Engravings” is bit harder to visualize. The similarities with “Dagger Paths” can be heard on ‘Ljoss’ and ‘Thor’s Stone’, both use deep dramatically penetrating strings, percussion effects and synths which either curdle warmly or make sharp metallic contortions. The use of Nordic words in the song titles of the first two tracks on the album, and that overall “Engravings” has softer more forgiving edges, emphasized by ‘An Hour’ and ‘Gathering’, leads me to think of Nordic landscapes in Midwinter. ‘Gathering’ if not the best offering on the album, is the most interesting. The rhythm is composed from a chopped up sample(s) of a Church choir, or at least I believe it is. While a solitary piano simmers underneath. A drum then adds, while a choir boy sample adds depth almost acting as a photo negative overdub to the fractured Church choir. The complexity and source material for such an effort flirts with disaster. That it doesn’t makes this go from an engaging listen to a fascinating one.
Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
Everything pop music should be; excessive, camp, bizarre, entertaining, challenging. With “Anxiety” Ashin took a massive step forward from his debut. As I wrote here “Anxiety” encompasses the best elements of Roxy Music, AR Kane, a bit of Prince’s self-indulgent falsetto squealing – which you secretly, or not so secretly love – mix this with some Duran Duran after a cocaine binge, and voila, you have a winning combination. ‘Failure Pop’ my arse.
Machinedrum – Vapor City
Finally an album from Travis Stewart. I jest. That said I loved the Jets project he did with Jimmy Edgar which produced an excellent EP and this mix for Fact Mag. “Vapor City” is in the same vein, thankfully some of the enticing samples he used in the fact mix reappear on “Vapor City” as fully formed efforts. Better yet he’s quoted a wide variety of genres, that prevents against a stale full length. There’s a bit of jungle/grime on ‘Gunshotta’, the piano house based ‘Center Your Love’, the down tempo ‘Baby it’s You’ to the clubbed out to fuck ‘Don’t 1 2 Lose You’. This album proves unequivocally that Stewart’s one of the best producers currently in the game.
Demdike Stare – Secret Thirteen Mix
As they did with the excellent “Industrial Desert”, they show their supreme ability on the decks. This is longer, darker and more abrasive, certainly at the start which John Cage would’ve salivated over no doubt. It has their trademark sways of one extreme of genre to the other. Bernard Parmegiani to Pedro Iturralde to Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe being one example. Even for us aficionados there’s bound to be stuff you’ve never heard of before and will want. Fortunately there is a detailed track list this time, and by heck you’ll need it.
Galcher Lustwerk – Blowing Up Workshop 12
Credit must go to Fact Mag for putting me onto this, and while they and everyone else is wrong about Kanye West, they aren’t wrong about this. House, club beats, R’n’B coiled together with a Hacienda vibe running throughout. Smooth a fuck. Easily the best mix of 2013. Okay, so that included another shot at Kanye, no more, promise.
Disclosure – Settle
It’s sickening that these two young’uns can seemingly thrive at anything they turn their hand too, whether it’s mixing or producing in any genre. Yes ‘Latch’ has been run into the ground to the point where it’s become vaguely annoying, and ‘When A Fire Starts To Burn’ is running the risk of reaching that same precipice. Then again, this record goes seventeen deep, and everyone last one is a winner. ‘January’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘Voices’ are all outright belters. This is a record that’s fun, diverse and accessible to just about everyone, and at no point does it become dull. It’s hard to imagine them transcending this.
Inc. – No World
We’ve had many, too many eighties influenced pop records in recent years, in fact make that this year full stop. This borrows from the nineties, yes, yes I know, but don’t let that put you off. From the grunge lick that underpins ‘Black Wings’ to the moaning ballad that borrows extensively from the Prince playbook that supplements ‘Five Days’, the effect is a sumptuous set of songs dripping with popped out R’n’B soul. The album does sag towards the end, but that is in large part due to the comparative excellence of its first six tracks. For a first full length it’s an excellent start.
Lescop – La Foret
So many of the clutch of recent eighties derived records have gotten it dreadfully wrong, or even worse been completely boring. Not only does Lescop get it right but he makes a subtle point about the shift of foreign language records being viewed differently within English speaking culture, and a nod to why this may be the case. This is all well and good, but bottom line you have to make a good record to back it up. This certainly is, anything that’s inspired by Ian Curtis like brooding, the cure and the upper echelon of early eighties new wave will do for me. Magnifique!
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
After the brilliant “Dig Lazarus Dig” and his dalliances with the Grinderman project, this is a return to a more typically graver and more sombre Cave sound. Compositionally and tonally its nearest equivalent is ‘The Boatman’s Call’. The subject matter is entirely (mostly?) devolved from the internet and how Cave believes it influences our perception of events and ourselves. ‘We No Who U R’ is a clear nod to the depressing spectre of the bastardising influence on English of the awful text idiom, and the erosion of rights and privacy caused by data collection and targeted ads. Cave sets his stall out and goes from there.
This is one of his best albums, but ‘Jubilee Street’ and its sister ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ (they’re essentially two parts of the same song spread out over the album) is one of Cave’s finest arrangements and to an extent overshadows the rest of the album. There’s that epic build-up which you can tell is going to arrive as soon as the songs starts. Cave weaves a narrative of the events, true or not it’s unclear, around Jubilee Street in Brighton, where he lives. Finishing Jubilee Street acts as the reflective comedown.
‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is another belter. Cave takes the discovery of the Higgs Boson, using its place as a highly disposable part of the news cycle, when set against the likes of Miley Cyrus, as an example to bemoan the widening disparity, or should I say decay, of vacuous modern memes that have permeated the priorities of the masses, making them unaware of news that effects their future perception of the present, past and future – ‘Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson blues/I’m goin’ down to Geneva baby, gonna teach it to you/Who cares, who cares what the future brings?’. Cave’s delivery becomes more distressed and exasperated as the song progresses to reflect this ‘The monkey has a gift that he is sending back to you/Look here comes the missionary/With his smallpox and flu/He’s saving them savages/With his Higgs Boson Blues.’
When you consider his body of work, and the fact that Cave is one of the few capable of writing songs as thematically rich as this, over the last thirty odd years, is there anybody who’s more underappreciated? Perhaps that’s just a deeply flawed perception of mine, or hopefully I ‘get it’.
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Following up “The Queen Of Denmark”, given its highly introspective musings of Grant’s experiences of growing up gay in the midwest, had be daunting for Grant, but “Pale Green Ghosts” suggests otherwise. Here he goes for a more disassociating electro base for most of this record. On “Pale Green Ghosts” there’s less quirkiness for sure, no ‘I wanna go to Marz’ or the hilariously vicious Mambo Kurt-esque ‘That’s The Good News’ that was found on “The Queen Of Denmark” and it’s tone is certainly a bit more morose, but lyrically it’s still packed with the same misanthropic comedy and brooding self-loathing. Grant has a talent for broaching the dark side of his emotional turmoil without ever being a depressing listen. ‘Ernest Borgnine’ is one of the best things he’s ever written, and the lyrics on ‘GMF’ are wonderfully scathing; ‘Half of the time I think I’m in some movie./I play the underdog of course./I wonder who they’ll get to play me./Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse.’ And then there’s this: ‘I should’ve practiced my scales./I should not be attracted to males./But you said that I should learn to love myself./Well, make up your mind, Dr. Frankenstein.’ More of the same please and I’m sure he’ll be more than happy (?) to deliver. And while we’re on the subject can we please get this man some more Twitter followers?
Jaimeo Brown – Transcendence
Everyone instantly reaches for “Sketches of Spain” or “A Love Supreme” as the best Jazz there is, for me that’s “Glass Bead Games”, anyway, this is another contender/pretender to that pseudo pantheon.
The influences are obvious to any Jazz head. It starts with some Alice Coltrane/Joe Henderson ‘Elements’ avant gardism, which isn’t exactly an inviting intro, it suggests ‘fanatics only please’. Then it’s a bit of north African/Indian Ariel Kalma like psychedelica, strings and singing. You have a bit of Trad mixed with distorted bluesy guitars on ‘You Can’t Hide’. Then it gets all Gospel (roots Gospel?) with a smidgeon of blues for the most part, in fact that’s as close as it gets to having a main theme. I have no clue whether the Gospel singing used is authentic early twentieth century samples, or if it’s contemporary but made to sound that way. Bottom line is it works, it sounds right. And that’s why, despite all the attempts to be thematically holistic, the best song is easily ‘Power Of God’. There’s the gospel southland signing, which sounds dangerously close to being overdubbed, and a cacophony of drums, layered slowly to a crescendo, then it dissolves away suddenly into just the piano playing the melody. Get it for that alone, it’s stunning.
FKA Twigs – EP2
Her first EP, titled EP was as sketchy as its title, but there were elements within it that showed enough glimpses of promise. Her second – “EP2” – delivers and them some, from the hauntingly bizarre ‘Water Me’ with a video to match, to the suffocatingly sexy, seizing dubstep of ‘Papi Pacify’. She provided two of my favourite tracks from this past year from a four track EP. That’s impressive, hopefully her debut album will be too.
James Blake – Overgrown
I wasn’t sure about this at first, but now I am. It’s very good. That track he did with Brian Eno – ‘Digital Lion’ is simply divine, that’s the best of the bunch. The great skill of his first LP was the emptiness of tracks, he made you yearn for the next note, on “Overgrown” he’s filled all the spaces with synths, distorted piano, and overdubs of his voice. I like the fact that he elected to do something different from his debut, it would’ve been easy for him to do another album like his first and own that as his sound, but as with his Dubstep EP’s, which are still his best works, especially “CMYK”, Blake is a diverse talent who looks to challenge himself and us.
Next week I’ll post my favourite tracks of 2013. I bet you can’t wait.