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.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Comics I Read in 2013

I've three top ten posts planned for this, the Existential Ennui Review of the Year (which if all goes according to plan will ultimately span a ludicrous five posts in total). Over the course of the next week or two I'll be blogging about the ten best books I read in 2013 (very few of which, true to form, were actually published in 2013) and the ten best albums I heard in 2013 (all of which were actually released in 2013). But ahead of those, I'm counting down the ten best comics I read in 2013. First, however, an unnecessarily prolix history lesson.

I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember – initially British humour weeklies like The Beano and Whizzer and Chips, then when I was a bit older things like 2000 AD and Action and especially Spider-Man Weekly. That one, I think, was the comic above all others which shaped my future comics consumption – that and the chance discovery of an actual American Amazing Spider-Man comic book in a box of comics at my junior school (said box dragged out to entertain the kids during breaks when the weather was too rank to play outside). I realised that Spider-Man Weekly simply reprinted the American colour comics in black-and-white, and soon I was hunting down US comics – Marvel and DC – in newsagents in my local area – Beckenham and Penge in south London – then further afield in the Camberwell and Lewisham branches of back issue merchant Popular Books (which had dirty magazine sections at the back of each shop), and finally the comic shops up in central London (Forbidden Planet – then based on Denmark Street – Comic Showcase and the like). Here I encountered indie and small press comics for the first time, which in turn led me to the Fast Fiction scene based around the Westminster Comic Mart.

Shortly after that I fell out of comics altogether, forsaking them for rock 'n' roll and drugs (and very little sex); it wasn't until around 1997 or '98 that I rediscovered them when, whilst in Camden one day, on a whim I popped into Mega City Comics and emerged with a bunch of Marvel titles (some Heroes Reborn: The Return number ones, I believe they were). It wasn't long before I was hooked again, alternating between Marvel and DC depending on which seemed the more interesting (i.e, which writers were working where) and plunging back into the indie and alt. comix scene too (and filling in gaps in my collection from the non-comics years at comic marts). A few years after that I started working in comics myself, first at Titan Magazines on reprint titles like Tomb Raider Magazine and short-lived collectors' magazine Memorabilia, then at Titan Books, launching the Modesty Blaise, Dan Dare and James Bond strip collections and editing Wallace & Gromit graphic novels. (Even now, working at The Ilex Press, I'm still tangentially involved in comics, having edited the likes of Alan Moore: Storyteller and The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.)

I offer all this partly by way of a long-winded explanation as to why I'm posting my top ten comics of 2013 on what is, to all intents and purposes, a musty old books blog – and one on which there's been nary a mention of comics all year (I'll deal with why I'm even more incongruously posting my top ten albums of 2013 separately) – but also to note that my interest in comics is rather more catholic than that top ten might suggest. I do read – or rather, have read – comics and graphic novels other than those more superhero- and adventure-oriented ones published by Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse; it's just this year, what with the arrival of Edie, and work, and passing my driving test, and of course the secondhand books I blog about as a matter of course on Existential Ennui, I haven't had time to read more than a scant few of them. I don't doubt that there were many fine alt. comix and small press titles published in 2013; unfortunately I missed most of them, so by and large they won't feature in this top ten.

That caveat in mind, then, the ten best comics I read in 2013 were:

10. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image, 2012–2013)

Image-published comics account for half the titles in my top ten for the simple reason that, right now, Image is home to more intriguing, entertaining and adventurous mainstream adventure comics than Marvel and DC combined. Brian K. Vaughan published his two prior long-form creator-owned series, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, through DC (Vertigo and WildStorm, to be precise), and while Saga isn't, to my mind, the equal of those, it's still fun to witness a writer free to do whatever he darn well pleases, even if the results do sometimes feel a bit stapled (groan...) together from too disparate a selection of sources.

9. Sex by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski (Image, 2013)

While we're on the subject of Image, here's another Image-published title which makes the output of the 'big two' seems positively pallid by comparison. Though Sex is, loosely speaking, a superhero comic, I can't imagine Marvel or DC publishing anything as weird as this, in which a repressed former superhero returns to the city he once protected – and the business which once funded his superhero activities – and engages in an extended bout of soul-searching and libido-servicing. Kowalski's elegant artwork lends the whole enterprise a winning bande dessinée feel: kind of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as imagined by Moebius. Also worth a look is Casey and David Messina's similarly Image-published The Bounce – in essence, Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man viewed red-eyed through a haze of dope smoke.

8. Fury MAX: My War Gone By by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov (Marvel, 2012–2013)

Then again, in Marvel's defence, they did publish Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov's brutal, foul-mouthed, blackly comic reimagining of World War II hero/secret agent Nick Fury as a combat-addicted pawn of the CIA – until the series was cancelled with issue #13 midyear, anyway. In plucking Fury from comic book continuity and depositing him in more plausible stories, Ennis was performing the same trick he did with the brilliantly bleak Punisher: MAX – so it was entirely fitting that My War Gone By featured cameos both from Frank Castle and his occasional nemesis Barracuda. And though Fury: MAX is done and dusted, there's still the entirely welcome news that Ennis is returning to the Punisher in 2014.

7. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse, 2012–2013)

I lost track of Hellboy (and its spin-off B.P.R.D. series) five-and-a-half years ago when I left Titan (the company, not the moon orbiting Saturn), but at the tail end of 2012 creator Mike Mignola resumed art duties as well as writing ones and sent Hellboy to Hell, thus re-piquing my curiosity. Until Mike Carey and Peter Gross' Lucifer makes a return (I can dream, can't I...?), this metaphysical exploration of the stygian underworld, with the occasional bout of fisticuffs, will do nicely.

6. New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting and Mike Deodato (Marvel, 2013)

Possibly the gloomiest comic I read in 2013 – which is saying something in this company – New Avengers saw the Illuminati – the superhero think tank composed of Iron Man, Mister Fantastic, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Namor, Black Bolt and the Beast – confronted with the stark choice of either destroying a succession of alternate Earths or seeing their own Earth destroyed. Kill or be killed, essentially. Who says superhero comics aren't fun any more? The only Marvel comics I'm still buying these days are those written by Jonathan Hickman, and this one is the best of that select bunch. Even so, it's still not as good as some of his Image titles – see below.

5. JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter (DC, 1997)

I originally read Morrison and Porter's late-1990s run on JLA at the time, but on a recent trip up to the loft to have a sort out I came across the back issues in a comic box and decided to give them another go. What's remarkable is how fresh and thrilling they remain over fifteen years on (even Porter's art, which was always a slightly uncomfortable thing to behold), especially in comparison to DC's current overwrought output, with deft characterisation (Morrison's curmudgeonly, perennially preoccupied Batman is particularly fine) and a palpable sense of awe and wonder. And I haven't even got to Rock of Ages yet.

4. Optic Nerve #13 by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013)

Three sublime stories in one beautifully designed comic: the autobiographical one-page Winter 2012, in which Adrian Tomine manfully struggles with the modern world; Go Owls, a forensic examination of a doomed affair between two addicts (with a proper kick-in-the-teeth ending); and the drifting, meditative Translated, from the Japanese. Well worth the two year wait.

3. East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2013)

It took me a few issues to work out what the hell was going on in this series, but I reckon I've got a handle on it now: the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are trying to shepherd a shattered world to its timely end (with certain world leaders complicit in this), but Death has fallen in love and defected. Um, I think. It's the end of the world reworked as a revisionist western, basically, with lots of backstabbing, double-crossing and gunplay, all depicted in delightful Alex Toth-meets-Katsuhiro Otomo fashion by artist Nick Dragotta. Splendid.

2. The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image, 2012–2013)

Bugger me, it's that man Hickman again. For my money, among the post-Bendis/Brubaker/Rucka crop of mainstream comics writers Jonathan Hickman is the only one offering anything other than sub-Bendis/Brubaker/Rucka reheats. As evidence, may I present this barking comic book, in which an assortment of supergenius scientists – among them Wernher von Braun, Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi (plus a couple of doppelgangers) – fend off an alien invasion and then fall to fighting amongst themselves, and where a current storyline details the psychological struggle for supremacy between Robert Oppenheimer and his cannibalistic brother Joseph who has, er, eaten him.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2013)

When I read the prelude to Lazarus in The Walking Dead #109 back in April I suspected Rucka and Lark's new series might be right up my alley, but I wasn't prepared for quite how far up it it's, ah, ventured. Set in a dystopian future where capitalism has triumphed, the world is ruled by the top one percent (headed by cartel families) and everyone else is considered "waste" – not dissimilar to our own dystopian present, then – it's evident from the commentary and timeline in the back of each issue that Greg Rucka researched and planned the bejeezus out of his concept before committing it to the page – still is, if his Tumblr is anything to go by. On that solid bedrock he and his old Gotham Central chum Michael Lark have constructed a credible science fiction spy thriller that for me stands head and shoulders above every other mainstream adventure comic being published at the moment – and that's a judgement based on merely the first four issues. I for one am jolly excited to see where the series goes from here.

Next: the ten best albums I heard in 2013.