[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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[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

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“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

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“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

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“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

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“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

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“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

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“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

[Artist Spotlight]: Bhi Bhiman

BhimanI’m just a vagabond, I live to see the light of dawn / The train beats a rhythm and I love to sing along”

 It’s nice to be back. During my European excursion with my old flatmate we managed to catch Josh Ritter’s magnificent show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The Paradiso is a beautiful venue and Ritter delivered a killer set with the Royal CIty Band, bringing the songs of The Beast in its Tracks to full, brimming life. Old standards were also mixed in (including Ritter’s beautiful, solo take of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’) and throughout the gig Ritter grinned and bounded around like an excitable spaniel. I could easily fill this article with a note-by-note play of the show, but the reason I’m writing this is to share the music of one Bhi Bhiman (pronounced ‘Bee Bee-man’), who supported Ritter at the show.

 A former member of San Francisco’s Hippie Grenade, Bhi Bhiman’s folk-country singer-songwriter (and other double-barrel categorisations) leanings completely bely his early influences of AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, who Bhiman cites as a particular influence. Picking up the guitar as a teenager when a sporting injury temporarily put him out of action, Bhiman eventually decided to pursue a career in music and has honed his storytelling skills into something very special. On his second album, Bhiman (produced by Josh Ritter producer/band member, Sam Kassirer), his stories range from women and blood (the signatures of country ballads) to railroad drifters and North Korean prisoners. He is also capable of skillfully reinterpreting songs on his damn fine covers EP Substitute Preacher, songs from which I will share in an upcoming Cover Me.  His rocksteady rhythm guitar playing keeps the songs chugging along and is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s sound, but on tracks such as ‘Mexican Wine’ and ‘Time Heals’ he also shows influences of World music, particularly South African melodies.

Other than his storytelling skills and his ear for a sublime melody Bhiman’s most outstanding quality, the one that caught my attention in Amsterdam, is his crisp and emotive vocals which cut right through the mix. His vocal delivery and timing are flawless, demanding attention and carrying the listener into the stories he spins. He is a truly remarkable performer and is sure to become a heavyweight figure of New Americana, concealed by a benign, welterweight appearance.

Bhiman  and Substitute Preacher are both available now on Tummy Touch Records. Bhi Bhiman will also be supporting Chris Cornell on his upcoming US tour.