Thursday 12 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Albums I Heard in 2013

Music may have been '70s crooner John Miles's first love, but I can't say for sure whether it was necessarily mine. Certainly music was an early love – I vividly recall as a child listening to the top forty chart show on a crackly transistor radio and taping songs on a separate cassette recorder held close to the radio's speaker – and by Christ doesn't that date me – but whether it came before other loves like comics and books, I couldn't tell you.

What is the case is that like both comics and books (but maybe not films and telly, which have been hardy perennials throughout my life), periodically I've fallen out of love with music. The first time this happened was in 2000, when my eight-year stint as a music journalist came to an end and consequently I couldn't listen to an album all the way through for three or four years. (I'd like to say I learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of turning one's passion into a career, but after leaving the music industry I did exactly the same thing again when I moved into comics, so that lesson probably took at least another three or four years to sink in through my thick fucking skull.) The second time was towards the end of the 2000s, when after a torrid fling with the Franz Ferdinand/Futureheads/Maximo Park-inspired UK artrock/math rock 7" single scene (bit of a mouthful there, and I fear I might have invented the whole thing in my head anyway, but you get my drift) I became consumed by secondhand book collecting and most of my available funds were diverted to the acquisition of the musty old tomes which have fuelled Existential Ennui ever since.

But even in those times when music and I were only at best nodding acquaintances, we never forsook each other completely. If I were to take a stroll along my shelves of CDs, I'm sure I could find a good many from those periods even when I was absorbed by other concerns, although less so, I suspect, my vinyl collection, which is largely confined to specific eras – but more on that in the next paragraph.

And what has all this to do with the Existential Review of the Year? Well, it's an inescapable fact that a top ten albums of 2013 post is an incongruous thing to appear on what's become (admittedly more by accident than design) a books and book-collecting blog; but as I've hopefully elucidated, my passion for music far predates my passion for secondhand books, and as outlined in the Existential Ennui Review of the Year introductory post, more recently that passion has once again become noticeably engorged (I'm so, so sorry) via a renewed interest in vinyl albums. Therefore, my picks of the best albums I heard in 2013 – all of which were released in 2013, unlike my ten best books list, which will follow next week – are below. I can't claim to be any kind of expert in music anymore – if I ever could claim that, which is doubtful – but if nothing else this post will at least act as a personal record (no pun intended), for posterity's sake, of what I was listening to in 2013.

=10. Folly by Kitchens of Distinction (3Loop) / Bloodsports by Suede (Warner) / MBV by My Bloody Valentine (MBV)

These weren't the only belated new albums by bands from my late-teens/early twenties (i.e. late-1980s/early-1990s) to be released in 2013, but these were the ones I liked and bought – I guess because all three sound like they could have been released not far off the peak of each band's career. Kitchens of Distinction were responsible for two of the best gigs I ever witnessed – at the Boardwalk in Manchester and the Venue in New Cross (how three men managed to concoct such a beautiful cacophony I'll never comprehend) – and by chance I was at one of Suede's earliest gigs (supporting forgotten baggy band Spin at the Camden Falcon, when Justine out of Elastica was still a member) and their final one (or what was believed to be their final one, at the Astoria in London in 2003). I am, self-evidently, a huge fan of both bands, and their latest albums are fine, fine things. My Bloody Valentine I've never seen live, and in truth I've only ever admired rather than loved them, but I still own You Made Me Realise on 12" and Isn't Anything on vinyl (with the bonus 7", natch), and to my ears MBV sounds just as good as their last album, 1991's Loveless.

One question remains, however: given that I've begun my top ten countdown with a three-way tie, why the bloody hell didn't I make it a top twelve* and have done with it?

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9. Field of Reeds by These New Puritans (Infectious)

I've been buying These New Puritans records since they emerged as part of the aforementioned mid-2000s artrock/math rock scene, but this album is rather a different kettle of fish to their prior post-punk-esque output: a collection of near-ambient quasi-classical compositions on, variously, piano, double bass, strings, wind and drums, with Jack Barnett's quavering vocals (and contributions from Elisa Rodrigues) weaving in and out. In a way it's closer to jazz than rock or pop – shifting time signatures, modulated repetition and a willingness and eagerness to challenge the structure of the song.

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8. Big TV by White Lies (Fiction)

Another escapee band from the artrock scene (there's a theme developing here), although back then they were called Fear of Flying and were somewhat jauntier than their current incarnation (I saw them live supporting The Maccabees, and still have their first two 7"s). But I'm not averse to a bit of melodramatically doomy bombast (within reason), and Big TV, the band's third album as White Lies, is arguably the strongest set of songs they've yet produced. Also, the deluxe double-CD edition comes in the form of a hardback book (the packaging designed by Big Active, from whose website I nicked the above image), which obviously appealed to me.

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7. Factory Floor by Factory Floor (DFA)

Would you Adam and Eve it, yet another band who have their origins in the artrock scene – the very arse end of it anyway. Factory Floor have travelled a long way since then, though. Their 2008 debut single, Bipolar – which, inevitably, I own on 7" – sounded like Joy Division locked in the back of a lorry, but their self-titled debut full-length album finds them almost completely transformed into a Detroit techno act. Kind of – there are still echoes of the neo-post-punk band that was, and the net result is not unlike one of those British techno bands from the 1990s – Bandulu or someone like that. Which is a good thing, in case you were wondering.

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6. Days Are Gone by Haim (Polydor)

An American band for a change, and an all-girl one (three sisters) at that. I tend not to pay much attention to online music journalism, but I did happen to see some sniping from some internet quarters along the lines of Haim – a band in their early- to mid-twenties, remember – being music for middle-aged dads. As a middle-aged dad, let me just state for the record that I've long had a penchant for the kinds of well-crafted, almost overproduced pop songs that Haim are so good at, along with other musical penchants, also dating back to my teens and twenties, for electro, hip hop, fey indie guitar bands, hardcore techno and stupidly fast acid trance. There's room in most sane people's lives for all sorts of music, even those of us on the wrong side of forty and with a seven-month-old daughter.

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5. Fanfare by Jonathan Wilson (Bella Union)

For some reason, every few years I fall for an American male singer songwriter (I mean fall in a musical sense... although they are usually quite good-looking). Previous recipients of my unwanted and unregistered affections have included Ryan Adams circa Heartbreaker (2000), Pete Yorn circa musicforthemorningafter (2001), Josh Rouse circa Nashville (2005) and John Grant circa Queen of Denmark (2010). To that list I think we can add Jonathan Wilson, whose second album, Fanfare, was recommended to me by Lewes-based designer and illustrator Neil Gower on Twitter. Not long before I bought Fanfare I watched a third of a BBC Four documentary (it was very long, and on late, and as I've mentioned I'm a middle-aged dad with a seven-month-old daughter) about the Eagles and found myself musing that I'd like to listen to some more '70s West Coast rock. No need now: Jonathan Wilson's 2013 variety fits the bill perfectly.

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4. Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant (Bella Union)

Speaking of John Grant, his second solo album landed this year, and while I haven't been quite as bowled over by Pale Green Ghosts as I was Queen of Denmark – on which his backing band was Midlake; more on them in a moment – it's still a sterling effort, introducing an electronic element to proceedings. And by and large the songs and lyrics are just as good, especially the title track – imagine Happy Mondays' WFL crooned by a depressed Bing Crosby – and It Doesn't Matter to Him, I Hate This Town ("You know I hate this fucking town, you cannot even leave your fucking house, without running into someone who no longer cares about you") and GMF ("I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet, from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet").

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3. Antiphon by Midlake (Bella Union)

John Grant's one-time backing band, now minus their original frontman (Tim Smith, who left towards the end of 2012) and consequently forging a more adventurous, even psychedelic, direction, which I for one am thoroughly impressed by. Midlake's rural meditative folk rock – made in America but with a British feel – had become pretty intense by the time of 2010's The Courage of Others, which unlike The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) was a difficult album to love (although achievable given time). By comparison Antiphon – especially the swirling title track – has a real spring in its step – or at least as spring-stepped as an album made by a bunch of beardy blokes bowed furrow-browed over their instruments gets. I saw Midlake Mk. I at the Concorde in Brighton five or six years ago, and it's fair to say that for the most part they struggled to connect with their audience. I'd be intrigued to see what they're like live now.

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2. Tell Where I Lie by Fossil Collective (Dirty Hit)

An English Midlake? Well, maybe not, but I wouldn't be surprised if Fossil Collective's Dave Fendick and Jonny Mulroy had been listening to Midlake since their former band Vib Gyor split in 2010. Certainly they've cast off the more Radiohead-like stylings of their previous incarnation in favour of the sort of deep-in-the-woods introspected folk rock that I'm a sucker for. There are six tracks on this album that I'd rate as the loveliest things I've heard all year – Let it Go, Under My Arrest, Wolves, Monument, On and On and The Magpie – and if the other four don't quite live up to those, they're still eminently listenable – so much so that I reckon I've played Tell Where I Lie more times this year than every other album bar one.

And that one is...

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1. Arc by Everything Everything (RCA)

I'm not sure why this album has been so comprehensively overlooked in the 'albums of the year' lists that I've seen. Maybe it's because it arrived right at the start of the year and everyone figured it was released last year... or maybe the critics and independent record shops who assembled those 'albums of the year' lists genuinely thought it wasn't up to much. If that is the case, for my money, they're mistaken. Opener Cough Cough is deceptive in that it's the type of jerky math rock (Everything Everything are another band who emerged at the tail end of the mid-2000s artrock movement) that characterised their debut LP, Man Alive (2010), but the songs thereafter, once you've allowed them to sink in, are of a different stripe, possessed of a depth and raw emotion that I find really affecting. The complexity of Everything Everything's compositions was always apparent, but in slowing down the tempo they've made the richness and traditional verse-bridge-chorus structure even more evident. In other words, this is a terrific set of pop songs (with even more on the deluxe double-CD version), not least closing single Don't Try, which is my song of the year.

Next, it's back to those musty old tomes at last, with a big(ish) long(ish) list of the books I read in 2013.

*Or even a top fifteen. That way I could have got Savages' Silence Yourself, Pet Shop Boys' Electric and Franz Ferdinand's Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action in too.


  1. I saw MBV three times in their heyday, once very good (Town and Country Club), once ok (Reading Festival) and (in fact the first time I saw them) an utterly disastrous gig at Oxford Poly. Start, stop, stare at each other in a confused way, repeat several times and on they lurched through the evening. It was so bad it's still talked about. They did apologise and said they'd come back, but never did.

    I thought the opening couple of tracks were good on the new album, and one amazing track towards the end but sadly the rest didn't do a lot for me. Other of course than to bring back some good (and maybe not so good) memories.

    Which music mag did you write for?

  2. For me MBV isn't as good as Isn't Anything, but then I don't think Loveless is as good as Isn't Anything either. I remember reading about some of their gigs in NME and Melody Maker at the time – it was always pot luck what you got on the night.

    I wrote for Mixmag for the most part, and its weekly version Mixmag Update, which I went on to become editor of. And then Update became a magazine called Seven, which I edited for a little while, and later I did a few things for Jockey Slut. I think that's the order of events anyway!

  3. Hahahaha, you not a fan of that, Ray? My era for hip hop was the '80s, electro at first, then stuff like Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. Closest I got to gangsta rap was probably Schoolly D.

  4. That's a shame. For me today's gangsta rap is too poppy sounding. Your choice is too "indie", for my tastes.
    have you seen The Wire lists for this year? It's always something to dig through.

  5. Nope, haven't seen The Wire ones. I shall, however, wear my "too indie for Ray" badge with pride.