[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Of 2013

Well, 2013 is officially over, which means its time to cast an eye back over the year’s finest moments. There were so many albums I loved last year that they would easily fill up a top twenty, and even then there would be pushing and shoving. However, there can only be ten (for arbitrary reasons) and so with that in mind I have chosen the albums which impressed me most and continue to impress me long after luring me back for repeated listens. So, without further ado…

The Best Albums

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10. Kwes – ilp
On his hypnotising debut Kwes blends pop, ambient and electronic influences into a gluey fog of emotion that clings to you, giving it the deeply immersive quality of Portishead’s Dummy. While the understated melodies and blurred beats don’t immediately grab attention, it is the quiet confidence and kaleidoscopic nature of the music which is ilp’s strength. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

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9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Not usually my thing, but there was something very compelling and mesmerising about Loud City Song which called me back for repeated listens and made me dig deeper each time. Each layer of Julia Holter’s avant-garde pop intrigues with moments of tension and release, forming dense collages of sound. Meanwhile, her flexible voice adopts different guises and moves eerily between seeming faint in the distance or uncomfortably close, as if you were listening to a radio which could tune into different rooms of a city.

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8. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
After the overwhelming success of No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley’s debut at sixty-two, Victim of Love sees Bradley spreading his wings and finding his own (loud) voice. Aided by the capable Menahan Street Band, Bradley moves effortlessly between Temptations style psych-funk on ‘Confusion’ and ‘Love Bug Blues’, and slow-burning soul ballads on ‘Give Love A Chance’ and earnest album closer ‘Through The Storm’. It is an album brimming with gratitude and he gives as good as he gets (better, I’d argue).

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7. Jim James – Regions Of Sound And Light Of God
Jim James’s first out-and-out solo LP came up trumps, inspired by Lynd Ward’s Good Man and exploring themes of living life in an age cluttered by technology. Away from My Morning Jacket’s expanded alt. country, James blends genres to great effect from new-age rock ’n’ roll to electro-gospel. As ever though, at the centre of this extended sonic horizon is his cavernous voice, which sounds more than ever like a man sending messages into outer space.

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6. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
No other album I heard this year was quite so aptly labeled, or half as fun. Wonderful, Glorious is the sound of E revelling in finally being in a band that can keep up with him, dishing up outrageous, scuzzy rock and gentle, mellow pop in the process. A golden slice of life affirming rock and roll!

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5. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
An album of dark nights and new mornings, The Beast In Its Tracks is the result of Josh Ritter retreating into songwriting to exorcise his demons from divorce, alcohol and insomnia. While much of the album sees Ritter happy in the arms of a new lover, songs like ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Between bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter evokes a long road to recovery experienced by many and perfectly captures the turning point onJoy To You Baby’. Ritter’s Blood On The Tracks? Possibly…

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4. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Twenty-three years and ten albums in, Pearl Jam could be forgiven for showing signs of age. But, on Lightning Bolt they prove themselves to be as lean and hungry as ever, equally comfortable delivering full-throttle punk (‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Lightning Bolt’) and gentle ballads (‘Yellow Moon’, ‘Sleeping By Myself’). The only signs of age are a mature perspective on love and mortality, with ‘Sirens’ seeing Eddie Vedder “overwhelmed by the grace with which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”. Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam ageing gracefully; still angry and still at the top of their game.

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3. Poliça – Shulamith
Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed debut, Poliça build on its momentum with their difficult second album. The basic elements of echoing vocals, glacial synthesisers and effervescent percussion are still present, but Shulamith is more confrontational than its predecessor (much like its namesake, Shulamith Firestone). The music is less introverted; the synths are brutalising and the pulsing beats are feverish. Meanwhile, Channy Leanaegh’s vocals and lyrics, concerned with conflicts of identity in relationships, are direct and forthright. Rather than courting mainstream success, you get the sense that Shulamith is the sound of Poliça staying true to their beliefs.

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2. Anna Calvi – One Breath
Grander in scale, but more vulnerable than it’s predecessor. Anna Calvi still has a flair for the dramatic, but she seems to let down her guard more on One Breath, not letting the façade get in the way of expressing mortal frailty on the title track or brutal honesty on ‘Love Of My Life’. Calvi’s symphonic ambitions still remain intact on ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Sing To Me’ though, and that astounding voice continues to grip the imagination, even when it is but a barely audible whisper.

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1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
With the departure of guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009, Nick Cave’s right-hand man for nearly thirty years, the sound of the next Bad Seeds record seemed uncertain. As a result, the Bad Seeds embrace disarmingly minimal and intimate soundscapes on Push The Sky Away, focusing on textural instrumentation and contemplative lyrics delivered with conviction by Cave. The album looks both backwards and forwards on the band’s legacy, with the cataclysmic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ seeming an answer to their ‘Abattoir Blues’ prophesied nine years earlier, while the spiritual communion of ‘We No Who U R’ and personal mantra ‘Push The Sky Away’ gesture to the artistic boundaries which they continue to push and transcend.

The Best EP

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Sampha – Dual
A genre defying EP; part electronic and hip-hop, part soul and singer-songwriter. While Morden based musician/producer, Sampha Sisay, has been lending his skills to high-profile artists such as Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Drake, here on his second solo EP he shows that he kept the best ideas for himself. The songs themselves, based around Sampha’s soulful vocals and commanding piano melodies, are accomplished and would make enjoyable listening by itself. However, the extra layers he constructs on these solid basics indicate a measured artistry and that Sampha has a clear direction in mind. Brief interludes such as ‘Demons’ and ‘Hesitant Oath’ brim with creative enthusiasm and give the EP a cohesiveness which is missing from many full-length releases, while the intricate composition of clipped samples that weave in and out of the ‘live’ instrumentation keeps Dual unpredictable and imbues it with a compelling sense of depth. And yet for all its intricacy Dual still manages to sound pared down to its lean essentials, with no flab or unnecessaries attached. Evocative and simply captivating.

The Best Single

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David Bowie – ‘Where Are We Now?’
Released silently on Bowie’s birthday in January, ‘Where Are We Now?’ announced the Dame’s return to recording as the leading single to The Next Day. In many ways indicative of the album’s musical introspectiveness, evoking and pastiching the diverse phases of Bowie’s career, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the quintessential post-Bowie Bowie song. While only four minutes long, the song’s sweeping scale and slow-burning energy feels like a lifetime condensed into a single moment, as Bowie casts a forlorn backward glance at his Berlin days. Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall things have changed yet remain the same, as old names and places spark memories and are filled with hurrying people crossing their fingers as they traverse busy intersections “just in case”. In the midst of the commotion which leads us nowhere, a childlike Bowie finds some solace and resolve to carry on in a few fundamentals: “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”.

The Biggest Surprise

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Apart from Beyoncé dropping a killer pop album unannounced, Miley Cyrus’s twerktastic antics sparking mass debate on female autonomy in the music business and the early release of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, probably the single piece of news that caused widespread shock and disarray across the music world was the sudden death of Lou Reed on 27th October. Lou died of liver disease at the age of 71, having undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year, and I guess the reason his death came as such a shock was that his body had been through so much abuse that people expected him to be one of the few things to survive a nuclear armageddon, along with the cockroaches and Keith Richards. Black humour aside, the effect Lou’s songs had on music and peoples’ lives is immeasurable and his sudden death took many off-guard as they realised there would never be another like him. So rest in peace, Lou, this satellite has gone way up to Mars.

What were your best music moments of 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

— Elements of The Best Albums appear in extracted form over at Hercules Moments.

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Mercury Prize Awards 2011

The Mercury Prize  is probably the only music award series, let alone British & Irish music award series, that I actually pay attention or give any credence to. Whereas you can generally predict the albums that will make its way onto other award series i.e. The Killers’ / Coldplay’s / Kings of Leon’s latest offering which all have their place, the shortlist for the Mercury Prize  acts as home for those albums of the year you felt deserved better recognition and airplay than they did upon release. Not only are the shortlists generically eclectic, but the winners over the years are not always the most expected to win, for instance Portishead’s Dummy was not expected to win in 1995 but it rightly did anyway.

I’ve found each years shortlist to be a good place to discover bands of quality and this year’s shortlist is particularly exciting. Besides TSAR’s obvious favourite to win, Anna Calvi’s self-titled debut, this year’s shortlist hosts a wide variety of albums and acts, from the relatively unknown to the well established. With this year’s Mercury Prize to be awarded tomorrow night, here are three gems plucked from that list:

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine


Described by Jon Hopkins as a soundtrack to his ‘romanticised version of Fife’, Diamond Mine is the outcome of a seven year collaborative effort between soundtrack and ambient sound wizard Hopkins and one of Scotland’s finest and most prolific songwriters Kenny ‘King Creosote’ Anderson. Trawling through Anderson’s extensive songbook, the pair worked at rearranging and dissembling songs to their skeletal frames and rebuilding them with subtle instrumentation and recorded samples of the Fife area (which I’m informed is a style called ‘Musique Concrète’. Go figure). From the album’s opening clatter of dishes and tearoom patter on ‘First Watch’ to the gentle exit of Anderson’s delicate falsetto vocals on ‘Your Young Voice’, Hopkins’ indelible use of samples seems to quite literally breathe life into Anderson’s songbook. It truly sounds like a respiring entity, in the same way that even in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere there is a perceptible ‘living’ quality to the silence. Along with the sober Anderson on startlingly good form, this is the sound of Fife as if it were preserved like lightning in a bottle.

Gwilym Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau

Gwilym Simcock’s latest offering is the dark horse of the competition by virtue of not only being a jazz record, not the most prominent musical genre today, but also a purely instrumental venture. Recorded in a single day at Schloss Elmau and consisting solely of Simcock’s dynamic piano playing and percussive slaps, Good Days At Schloss Elmau offers a collection of eclectic and exciting jazz/classical arrangements. Simcock fully exhibits the adaptability and range of the grand piano and it is fascinating  how an instrumental piece can convey narratives and emotions effectively without a single word uttered. Those who state that jazz is boring or outdated should listen to this accessible and captivating album.

Ghostpoet – Melancholy Blues & Peanut Butter Jam

Obaro Ejimiwe A.K.A. Ghostpoet has been termed, among other things, a ‘dub poet’ which I feel is an apt term. Ejimiwe’s lyrics and music have quite a bit in common with the works of beat poets, particularly the late Gil Scott-Heron’s last album I’m New Here, and the songs here feel incredibly modern. Recorded and pieced together during Ejimiwe’s University degree at Coventry Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam is a truly contemporary album, mixing together elements of dub, dance, trip hop and rap music all tied together by Ejimiwe’s wonderfully narcotic and woozy vocal delivery. Besides the tongue in cheek title, Ejimiwe exemplifies himself as a witty writer (proclaiming ‘It’s my United Kingdom of Whatever!’ on ‘I Ain’t Finished’) and capable of standing believably in the shoes of anyone he chooses. From detailing the morning school rush on ‘Longing For The Night’ to depicting the monotony of being stuck in a dead end job on ‘Gaaasp’, Ghostpoet is an astute observer of  modern living, addressing the issues of our everyday existence with a realistic optimism that pulls you through into tomorrow. Album closer ‘Liiines’ is an uplifting anthem that Ejimiwe describes as, ‘Sort of a slap in the face to myself to wake up and get on with it’, and in these too often oppressively dreary times we can always use a bit of that.

If you want to listen to these albums and find out more I highly recommend you check out BBC 6 Musics recent series, ‘The Complete Mercurys’, where the artists themselves offer insight into the making and inspiration of their albums track by track. Check it out here.