So 2013 is over, and I get the chance to throw my hat of choices into the ring for the best records released this year. It has been a strange year, the two records that won the most acclaim elsewhere, ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ were, in my opinion, not all that impressive. Unlike my 2012 list which had 3 (Alt-J’s ‘An Awesome Wave’, Tom Williams and the Boat’s ‘Teenage Blood, and Flying Lotus’ ‘Until The Quiet Comes’), there are no truly staggering 10/10 records. Instead we have a series of very good albums from 10-5, and then effectively 5 fantastic records that could all have taken number one. Each of these top 5 albums did something exciting, and are all ones that I have kept going back to all year. In the end, the winner had to go to the record that I had simply played the most times, a record that despite these repeat listens, never grew old. But before that, the rest of the list…
10. Lapalux – Nostalchic
Kicking this list off is a record that probably swept under the radar for most people. A British member of the Brainfeeder experimental electronica collective, Lapalux merges a chillout, R&B vibe with the creepy sample morphing of last year’s man of the year, Flying Lotus. As an album it flowed perfectly, like a relaxed train journey moving through various textures, particular highlight being the delicate tremoring of ‘Without You’ a track that just commands total attention, drowning the listener in its minimalist atmosphere.
9. Suede – Bloodsports
2013 saw yet more comebacks from established bands, continuing the trend on from 2012 (My Bloody Valentine’s ‘mbv’ narrowly missed this list). What was really surprising was that one of these reuniting bands managed to actually be better than they were before. Suede hit 2013 with ‘Bloodsports’, an album that roared them back into the national consciousness. It’s a staggeringly good record, a tight 10 songs, every one a potential single. When I went to see them play at Southampton Guildhall they decided to run through this album from start to finish. It was incredible. Suede seemed to believe in this album and these songs with the energy of a band releasing their debut. It was a fitting testament to the quality of this record, and a kick in the face for any cynics crying ‘money’ at their reunion. It has everything that made them so good to begin with, and even more for the new fans. Enjoy.
8. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
In at number 8 is one of two bands that I predicted as contenders for making the album of 2013 at the start of the year. Chvrches are a heavy synth-pop act, fusing M83’s sugary sound with some of the best vocals this year from frontwoman Lauren Mayberry. Disguised amongst some of pops best melodies are some pretty cutting lyrics, ‘We Sink’ proclaims ‘I’ll be a thorn in your side / till you die’. The genius of Chvrches is wrapping this sharpness in some staggeringly strong anthems, ‘Lies’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ were already known bangers but pretty much every song on this record delivers. It’s a tightly packed record, and definitely the most instantly accessible and enjoyable record on this list.
7. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Amongst the releases considered for the Mercury Music Award sat this record from little known producer and Brian Eno-collaborator Jon Hopkins. Those not in electronic music circles can be forgiven for not knowing much about this release, but a number of musicians tellingly placed it in their own end of year lists. This album is a staggering merger of acoustic and electronic, in that field recordings mash with chopped and screwed techno, in a surprisingly pleasing combination. It never bursts into stadium beats, despite always grabbing your interest, and it never drifts into complete ambience, even the piano on the closing title track seems distant from Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’. This album for me has been a go to study record. The energy within it helps focus the brain, but the pure pleasing sound has kept me relaxed and calm. Fans of texture and sound should absolutely get this.
6. Savages – Silence Yourself
And now for the other band I had considered at the start of this year. Interestingly I was also completely wrong. I thought that Savages ran the risk of making a rushed and weak debut compared to Peace or Palma Violets (neither of whom made the list). Instead, Savages delivered one of the tightest, most ferocious debut albums in British music. I’ve written in a few places why I love this record, and most of it boils down to this: Savages demand your attention. A lot can be written and should be written about their feminism, their politics etc. But for me the most significant thing about this album is its sheer strength at grabbing your attention. The title says it all, Silence Yourself and listen to Savages.
5. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels
So now we’ve broken through the first 5 records, the good but not stunning ones, and arrived at the top 5. This set were all fairly even so take the number with a pinch of salt, suffice to say that every record in this top 5 was one I went back to again and again as the year went on, and few were more entertaining than number 5. Run The Jewels is the combination of Southern Rap stalwart Killer Mike and underground king El-P. For some reason, despite having decent success in their significant separate careers, the combination of the two of them elevates both of them to modern legends. Forget ‘Watch the Throne’, ‘Run the Jewels’ is the real sound of collaborative fire. While both rappers do political and socially conscious rap incredibly well, this LP is far more a commemorating of an unstoppable friendship and collaborative energy. Every single track on this features some of the best raps this year, El-P’s beats are phenomenal, and his raps here and on last year’s ‘Cancer 4 Cure’ have made him replace Andre 3000 as my own personal favourite MC. People who have heard this album need no persuading how staggering this album is, and those who haven’t should only need to know that it is completely free to download, so go and do it now, and witness the birth of rap’s greatest duo since OutKast. They also happen to make the best music videos ever. Merry Fucking Christmas:
4. Everything Everything – Arc
There’s a part of me that’s heartbroken not to be able to call this my favourite of the year. Everything Everything are the band on this list that can most be considered ‘relevant’. With ‘Arc’ they took the ferocious creativity of their debut album ‘Man Alive’ and managed to highlight the touching, the heartbreaking, in short, the personal, that lay within their explosive experimentalism. I wrote more in depth at the start of the year in a review, but Arc was a record that I felt had a lot to say, and said it in a way that was incredibly novel. So many songs on this remain favourites of mine, opener ‘Cough Cough’, the sassy ‘Torso of the Week’, the chilling ‘The Peaks’, the epic ‘Radiant’, and the stunning ‘Undrowned’. Many other blogs might have overlooked this record because of how early it came out but it is their loss. Everything Everything are the highest placing British act on this list, and this album sets them up for a career on the cutting edge of what good music should be, a band it is impossible not to like.
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
(Attention pedants: despite living here, Nick Cave is not British) From the cutting edge to one of music’s elder statesmen. Nick Cave is 56 but my god has he ever sounded better. ‘Push The Sky Away’ saw the Bad Seeds take a different approach, replacing Grinderman’s raw rock assault with minimalism and a focus on textures. The result is a phenomenal record, Cave’s lyrics finding their match in the delicate touch of his band. I could go on and on about how this record is Nick Cave’s best since whatever you think his last good one was, but that would do a disservice to everyone. Instead I’ll just say that this record is better than all but 2 albums released this year, let alone Cave’s own back catalogue, and it would reach a similar position if it only had one track on it: ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. God damn is this song amazing, the kind of song that would totally absorb and come to define a lesser band. Listen to all 9 minutes of this behemoth and you will understand why Cave has such respect from all corners of the music world.
2. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire approached 2013 as Indie’s Most Important Band. Their last album, ‘The Suburbs’ sits alongside records like Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, Interpol’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ and Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ in my top 10 albums of all time. So it’s understandable that a lot of people’s hopes rested on this, their fourth record. Well this album delivered, in a way that disappointed many of those so desperate for their success. ‘Reflektor’ gave us an Arcade Fire aggressively attacking their own legacy in more ways than one. Gone were the delicate folk touches of ‘Neighbourhood #1’, the epic organ of ‘Intervention’, in their place the fiery techno of James Murphy and the furious funk of the Haitian nation. The lyrics no longer charted the rise and fall of ‘the kids’, instead a scathing attack on society and self-interest, all merged around a retelling of the classical epic of Orpheus and Eurydice. I had the fortune of seeing them play the Roundhouse as they toured the songs off this record (thanks Pete!) and live these songs came alive in a way that seemed to trump the past three albums. The epic stomp of Normal Person, like much of this album indebted heavily to Talking Heads, tore up their legacy and legend. Arcade Fire were reborn in 2013, as something almost scary, a band rejecting so much of what made people love them. It’s hard not to end this with a pun on their track ‘Afterlife’ but the pretentious part of me can’t help but think that this is Arcade Fire’s attempt at immortality. This is their attempt to break the shackles of what had defined them, genres, attitudes, the lot. Was it a good album? Hell yes. Was it perfect? No, not at all, some tracks seemed too long, the running time is excessive, I don’t even think every song on it is great. But does it feel like you’re listening to something so much more than just entertainment or an accompaniment to the real world out there? Abso-fucking-lutely. This album matters.
1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
That this album comes in at number one will surprise few people who came within hearing distance of my speakers this year. Just like last year, I had to go on pure number of listens, and my god have I played this album to death, and then through death into a zombie state. The National are a band that surely by now you either love or haven’t heard. Like many people I don’t even consider this their best record, the previous three (High Violet, Boxer, Alligator) all captured a certain mood and turned it into a masterpiece. With this album however, the band seemed unwilling to affix themselves to one thing, it flies all over the place, from the driving pulse of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, the roar of ‘Sea of Love’ to the bar-room ballad ‘Pink Rabbits’. For some absurd reason, though, the result is a captivating and yes, heartbreaking album. Matt Berninger’s epic baritone toys with us moving high and low but continues to be one of the most gripping voices in music. This is helped of course, that he is one of the most talented lyricists around. It’s pointless to sit here and rewrite the myriad phrases that cross this album, as by now nearly every single one is a favourite. This album is like having The National as your personal pub jukebox, banging out hit after hit to your hearts desire, pretty much every song has been my favourite at some point, at first the spine-tingling ballads: ‘Slipped’, ‘I Need My Girl’, ‘Pink Rabbits’, then it was the drivers ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, ‘Graceless’, ‘Demons’, etc. etc. The reason this album gets number one above the other equally fantastic albums, is simply the way it has completely dominated my music listening this year. I’ve pondered every lyric ranted to friends about the guitar tones, stared into space with this as my soundtrack. And after all this I don’t know whether it’s the album or the band as whole that I like more. All I can say for sure is that you should listen to this album, and then maybe you’ll agree. Have a good 2014.
Honourable mentions to The Flaming Lips – The Terror, Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady, My Bloody Valentine – mbv, Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain and Atoms for Peace – Amok.