[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

David Bowie Performing

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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[Single Review]: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street

jubilee street-592‘She had a history, but she had no past’

So, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds release their new album, Push The Sky Away, tomorrow and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve followed Nick Cave’s output for the best part of ten years now and he’s one of those rare artists that is relentlessly energetic and not afraid to turn their hand to anything. From film soundtracks to novels and all points in between, everything he touches turns golden. If there’s one artist you can always place good money on, it’s Nick Cave.

I suppose the reason I’m so interested in this album is that it will be the first Bad Seeds record to be released since the departure of Cave’s first mate, Mick Harvey. This move didn’t seem so strange as since No More Shall We Part, one of my favourite Nick Cave albums, Cave has been gravitating closer towards Warren Ellis as a songwriting partner, most evident in their stunning film soundtracks. This also means that the difference between the crews of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s busman’s holiday, Grinderman, is even smaller than before. Obviously, this means that there is an increased risk that the output of both bands will start to mimic the other. So I suppose I’m anxious as well as excited.

Listening to the two preview tracks from Push The Sky Away, ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘We No Who U R’, it seems that these fears may be hopefully allayed. These songs definitely do not belong to the lecherously raucous domain of Grinderman. If anything, it seems that the departure of Mick Harvey’s groove-driven guitarwork has allowed for more space for the Bad Seeds to stretch out in. That is not to discredit Harvey, far from it. I consider him to be one of the most tactful and talented musicians of the last 25 years and his work with PJ Harvey is as great as his Bad Seeds work. But, these tracks are definitely of a more meditative and contemplative atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Cave’s soundtrack work than with any Bad Seeds or Grinderman precursor. They’re restrained and muscular, as if Cave and co. are pulling their punches, not quite revealing all. The bass, percussion and organ elements are definitely more fleshed out and it allows for what I can only really describe as ‘space to breathe’.

‘Jubilee Street’, named after what Cave mistakenly thought to be the red-light district in Brighton, is arguably the strongest ballad Cave has written since 2004’s Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and, in typical Cave style, is about the relationship between a prostitute and her john. It’s a track that is beautiful in its restrained simplicity: The groove is solemn, the beats are minimal and the strings are lean and refined. The mood lingers somewhere between reverence and menace (Cave’s prime stomping grounds) and allows the perfect platform for Cave’s half parable/half pulp novel. It is a testament to Cave’s subtle yet commanding vocals that he can make a line like ‘I’ve got a foetus on a leash’ sound completely acceptable (given the circumstances) rather than shocking and distasteful. Juxtaposed with these raw moments are some of Cave’s finest cut sentiments, like ‘Here I come up the hill, / I’m pushing my wheel of love’ and ‘ten-ton catastrophe on a sixty-pound chain’. The song’s finale is magnificent, lifting Cave’s sermon to transcendental heights. That may sound wishy-washy, but honestly, it is that good. Ray Winstone also puts in a surprisingly restrained performance in the video.

If tracks such as this are any indication, then Push the Sky Away is looking to be a rewardingly enigmatic affair where the Bad Seeds have lost none of their energy and gravitas for their restraint. If anything it has honed and refined their craft to scalpel sharp keenness. The music seems more spiritual and gestures to what may lie beyond the song, rather than defining its limits. Maybe that’s what the forthcoming album’s title, Push The Sky Away, is really suggesting: an indication of the infinite.

Push The Sky Away will be available 18th February through Mute Records.

2011: It Was A Very Good Year….

Wow, this place has gotten dusty. I’ve found this blog very difficult to maintain in conjunction with balancing my degree, job and other time commitments, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to write as many articles as I’d desire. However, it is officially the Easter holidays and I’ve found myself with some free time so I figured I would show a face and work on some articles. To kick off I’m reposting a review of 2011 featuring my favourite albums from said year. This was originally uploaded on Hercules Moments, a music blog based in Aberdeen which is run by some friends of mine and which I contribute to on occasion. If you like what you see here, then check them out. If not, even more reason to go to their site. New content will be uploaded in the coming week, I promise. In the meantime, have a browse through what I personally deem to be the top ten albums to emerge from last year. Let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree with my choices and why.

1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi

Released early this year, Anna Calvi’s majestic debut exploded into my consciousness and has occupied a space there ever since, and possibly always will. On her self-titled debut she creates dramatic guitar symphonies while her operatic voice rises above all, showing influences of Ennio Morricone, Roy Orbison, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and Nina Simone. What I love in her songs, along with the aforementioned artists, is her ability to create entire worlds with her music. Calvi’s songs play out like a movie scene lifted from Byronic prose: the teasing tango in the fleeting glances stolen between two lovers; the shadowy fumbling while the door key refuses to enter the lock; the midnight confessions in the candle light; the hearts left shattered like glass in the streets, while mourned love flows into the gutters. Calvi’s songs invoke crepuscular worlds of passionate trysts and broken vows, where living with your heart on the edge of a knife is the only true meaning of existence. These are worlds we have glimpsed in those rare instances in which we have briefly surrendered ourselves to purely living in the moment. In Calvi’s self-titled debut, these moments are eternal.
Full album review here.

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

There’s very little I can say about this album which I haven’t already said about it in my review earlier this year. I guess the only thing I can add is that this is an album that you simply need in your life and which still has the ability to move me despite having it on constant rotation since its release. Keep up the good work Mr. Vernon.
Full album review here.

3. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

The Gaslight Anthem have been one of my favourite groups to emerge in recent years so when I heard that front man Brian Fallon had released a side project I was naturally interested. What I did not expect was anything as moving or as powerful as Elsie. Teaming up with his English guitar tech Ian Perkins, Fallon lets himself explore darker themes of loneliness and heartbreak in a more stripped down outfit than the plugged in sound of The Gaslight Anthem, showing influences of Greg Dulli on ‘Ladykiller’ and ‘Behold the Hurricane’ and Tom Waits on ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘I Witnessed a Crime’. For all these comparisons though, especially ones to Bruce Springsteen in The Gaslight Anthem, Fallon is ultimately his own musical personality and if the point ever needed proving (it didn’t), Elsie proves just that.

4. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo

This is an album which I only got around to listening to just over a week ago, but which impressed me so much that it shot straight up this list when it came to writing it. Immaculate songwriting all delivered in Vile’s laconic and hazy vocals which float over the soporific, sun-dappled guitar melodies. The perfect thawing treatment for the cold outside, like staring deep into the Californian summer skies.

5. Danielle Luppi & Danger Mouse – Rome

Both a tribute to the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and in itself a soundtrack to the city of Rome, this album is the product of a long collaboration between American producer Brian Burton AKA Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi. Gathering the original musicians from Morricone’s soundtracks, most of whom are now well into their seventies, and Jack White and Norah Jones to provide vocal duties, Burton and Luppi managed to pull off an audacious and ambitious project with great success. Melodious and majestic, this is a soundtrack of authenticity whose example I hope others will follow in the future.
Full album review here.

6. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

In revealing his long-lived passion for the diminutive Hawaiian instrument, Eddie Vedder delivers a collection of tasteful and profoundly moving songs, the subtle high register of the ukulele contrasting perfectly with his deep baritone vocals. Having already proved himself a competent solo artist away from Pearl Jam with his soundtrack to the Sean Penn film Into the Wild, Vedder continues this trajectory with poignant airs and a stunning duet with Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power on ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’.

7. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Let England Shake has erupted silently over the year, gradually gathering pace and intensity like a storm before sweeping the lead position in many critical reviews of 2011 and claiming this year’s Mercury Prize Award, making PJ Harvey the only artist to ever receive the award twice. Harvey admits that this is a difficult album due to the ambivalent subject matter of patriotism and the violence that shapes one’s country (‘Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet, / Feet marching’, The Glorious Land). Aided by long-time collaborators Mick Harvey & John Parish Harvey, PJ Harvey has created a collection of edgy songs that strike an uneasy nerve and that have taken on a prophetic tone in light of the riots across England earlier this year, further cementing Harvey’s reputation to defy expectations.

8. Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

After spending a near decade in the wilderness after the implosion of Lift to Experience, Josh T. Pearson emerges with a collection of raw, reflective confessionals that literally tug at the heart strings. Well, not literally obviously, but about as close as you can get without a scalpel. From the self loathing epistle of ‘Woman, When I Raise Hell’ to the caustic rant of ‘Sorry With a Song’, Pearson’s frantic performances cut straight to the bone in a similar manner to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and affirm the return of a musical force. Welcome back Mr. Pearson.

9. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

When people talk about art, this question will often arise: how many times can you reinvent the wheel? In the case of Tom Waits, who has tinkered and hammered his particular wheel to the point where it resembles a jagged mobian strip more than a wheel, people may be wondering how much life the old dog has left in him. Though this album may not be a great departure from the Waitsian canon (Working class misfits spending their nights drunk in a gutter, but still looking at the stars etc. etc.), there is no denying that Waits always delivers the goods. Waits always approaches subjects from a unique angle (‘Last Leaf’, ‘Pay Me’) and chucks them out with musical sensibilities you simply can’t find anywhere else. Another Swordfishtrombones or Mule Variations it ain’t, but when the output is this good there is no need to teach old dogs new tricks.

10. Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Straddling a fine line between dub/grime and beat poetry/jazz, Obaro Ejimiwe has created an album which is by turns amusing, contemplative, frustrated and melancholic, but always with a sharp focus on a modern day narrative. This is an album which feels utterly contemporary providing a high resolution snapshot of living in 2011.