Monday, 16 December 2013

My Favourite Albums of 2013: Part Two

Right then, let's crack on. For those of you who missed part one, click on this.

Before finishing off my run down of my favourite albums of the year, I thought I'd highlight some of my favourite individual songs from the year. Obviously lots of my favourites are going to have come from the albums I've already listed, so I thought I'd talk about songs from albums that didn't quite click with me from the most part.

Honourable Mentions (tracks)

  • James Blake: Retrograde: Usually Blake's songs just make my ears hurt, but this track stands head and shoulders above his previous work and wisely puts his great voice at centre stage instead of any techno-garbage.
  • Mazzy Star - "California": 17 years away doesn't seem to have dulled Mazzy Star's capabilities when it comes to creating works of haunting beauty that'll still tug on your heartstrings long after the closing chords. Sensational.
  • Queens of the Stone Age - "My God Is The Sun": Just in case you needed convincing QOTSA meant business for their comeback this year, all you had to do was listen to the opening ten seconds of this absolute monster. That opening riff alone should be enough to put hairs on your chest.
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Sacrilege", "Despair": Karen O and company returned a little more to their lo-fi roots on this year's Mosquito album, and produced two gems in particular. "Despair" echoes  "Maps"(everybody's favourite entry-point on Rock Band), while lead single "Sacrilege", with its gospel finale, features one of the most potent climaxes to a song all year.

Now, time to round of my favourite albums this year.

5. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

Remember how I said Haim's album never failed to put a smile on my face? Well this album never failed to put a massive shit-eating grin on my face.
One of the leading lights of a new wave of feminist country along with the likes of Lindi Ortega and the Pistol Annies, the tone of Kacey's songs, particularly the wit and warmth of her lyrics, recall a young Brad Paisley, and show she's not afraid to rock the boat in a very conservative genre. The wordplay on the likes of "Merry Go Round" ("Brother's hooked on Mary Jane, and Daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down") and on stand out track "Follow Your Arrow" ("If you save yourself for marriage you're a bore; You don't save yourself for marriage you're a hor....riable person") always raise titters of delight from this listener.
Incidentally, Musgraves was involved in writing several songs for the hit ABC show Nashville, so it's no surprise that show had some solid material.
A real joy to listen to.

Download: "Silver Lining", "Merry Go Round", "Follow Your Arrow"

4. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

Ever since "Sgt. Peppers..." loads of artists have strived to pull off the much vaunted "concept album". Few pull it off and it seems R'n'B has particular trouble making the concept work. However, I was delighted to come across Janelle Monae's The Archandroid album upon its release in 2010. Its follow-up, The Electric Lady, is equally immersive and excellent.
Just like its predecessor, the album follows the exploits of android Cindi Mayweather, a somewhat Pinnochio-type figure in a dystopian future. More importantly (and also just like its predecessor) the album is chock full of fabulous, fully-fledged pop tunes (something lots of concept albums are severely lacking in) such as the infectious "Dance Apocalyptica" and "Ghetto Woman".
There are also several winning cameos - from Prince(!) causally being Prince on "Give Em What They Love" and Erykah Badu fitting the sassy "Q.U.E.E.N." like a glove to Solange somehow making the title track even more addictive ("Ele-le-le-lel-le-le-lectric") and Miguel shining on the sultry "Primetime".
Bursting with ideas, Monae's brand of R'n'B will hopefully keep the genre moving forward even past her alter-ego's time.

Download: "Dance Apocolyptica", "Primetime", "Q.U.E.E.N."

3. MONEY - The Shadow Of Heaven

I wasn't particularly aware that Manchester was in need of it's own Connor Oberst, but we may have found him anyway in Jamie Lee of MONEY, and bloody excellent he is too.
Naturally with a title like The Shadow of Heaven, the album is incredibly hymnal and atmospheric. Everything feels grand, important and graceful, as Lee's voice soars majestically on "Who's Going To Love You Now" and the tropical-tinged guitars on the likes of "So Long (God Is Dead)" echo Wild Beasts, while both often come together gloriously and especially on "Bluebell Fields".
For me though, the piano-led balladary of "Goodnight London" and "Black" are really where the album comes into its own, as the poetic lyrics of Lee really come to the forefront. "She had to turn the lights off to look me in the eyes" from the former always has my ears burning, but its more the flow of the lyrics and the journey they send the songs on rather than particular choices of words that stands out for me, and puts the band up there as one of the most compelling acts to come out of Manchester in quite some time.

Download: "Who's Going To Love You Now", "Goodnight London", "Black"

2. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

At this stage of their career, quality is virtually guaranteed when it comes to The National, and indeed Trouble Will Find Me finds the band maintaining their stellar tack record as the kings of the US independent scene.
Their previous record, 2010's High Violet (my favourite album of that year) showed that the band had found a winning formula for success - intricate and often moving arrangements played with assurance by the brothers Devendorf and Dessner, all built upon by the outstanding imagery of Matt Berninger, who sings like someone poked Leonard Cohen up the arse with a hot iron.
While Trouble Will Find Me doesn't deviate too much from that formula, the band are hardly resting on their laurels either. Take the album's centrepiece, "Sea Of Love", a colossus of pent up drive, urgency and desperation that swells and swells until its fit to burst at its climax ("I SEE YOU RUSHING NOW, tell me how to reach you").
Another high point is the off-kilter "Pink Rabbits", which recalls career high point "Fake Empire" with its unusual time signature and wistfulness, littered with great lines from Berninger - "You were staring down the street 'cause you were trying not to cry", "Somebody said you disappeared in a crowd, I didn't understand then, I don't understand now". Although, unsurprisingly, the lyrics delight across the whole album - "I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion" from "Don't Swallow The Cap" being a personal favourite, although "Heavenfaced"'s playfulness with words showing echoes of "Ada" from Boxer is also adorable.
Once again though it's the consistency of the group that puts this album up there with the best of their career, and there's something in every song that illustrates how the band have become masters of measuring out their sound and making you truly invest in what's going on. On this form I could listen to the band for an eternity.

Download: "Sea Of Love", "Pink Rabbits", "This Is The Last Time"

1. David Bowie - The Next Day

So here we are. My favourite album from this year, and I'm sure some of you are hardly surprised given my Bowie fandom and the heaps of praise this album has received throughout the year. But at the end of last year, the existence of this album would have been inconceivable to many.
All had been quiet from camp Bowie ever since emergency heart surgery cut short  his Reality world tour many years ago, and it was widely assumed in the media that his reclusion from stardom was because he was ill and essentially dying from his heart complications. Oh, (you pretty things!) how easily fooled we were.
On January 8th 2013 - Bowie's 66th birthday - came the release of "Where Are We Now?", the announcement that an album, The Next Day, would follow in March, and the sound of jaws hitting the floor across the globe. Luck just kissed me hello, and ever since that moment, no other album has occupied my attention quite like this one.

Initially I was sceptical. To be honest I thought the artwork was complete tosh, and "Where Are We Now?" sounded a bit tired, although it was a nice enough ode to Bowie's former life in Berlin ("a man lost in time"). But when I heard the album in full for the first time, my lips cut a smile on my face and everything started to come together. Incidentally, I now think the album artwork is pretty darn clever - a study of how your past is inescapable when it comes to people's impressions of you, even if you're David Bowie!
From the opening title track, it was clear David was in full swing, and throughout the record he gets to show off his range as an artist. The filthy Tom Waits brass of "Dirty Boys". The cheery exterior of "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" hiding the seething tone of the lyrics. The pure pleasure of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" reaching its chorus. The satisfying swing of "Dancing Out In Space". I don't think I could ever put into words adequately how good it feels not just to hear David again, but to hear David sound so good at this stage of his life.

Guitars either crunch with vitality ("Valentine's Day", the title track) or jangle pleasingly ("I'd Rather Be High"). Extensive listening through headphones has brought to my attention how badass so many of the basslines sound, especially "Boss Of Me" and "If You Can See Me".
Words and phrases jump out at you like quirks of personality - "Girl you move like water, you've got stars upon your head" ("Dancing Out In Space"), "They know God exists for the Devil told them so" (the title track), "I'll burn all your books and the problems they make" ("If You Can See Me"), "Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?" ("How Does The Grass Grow?"). Synth and keys skitter about in excelsis ("If You Can See Me", "Love Is Lost").
Oh, if only I could find out what that man puts in his breakfast to make himself so great. Alas, I'll never know the real story, just a couple of dreams. And this is the kind of record dreams are made of.

Download: "Valentine's Day", "I'd Rather Be High", "How Does The Grass Grow?"

Anyway, "It's time we should be going". I hope you've enjoyed looking back with me and enjoy the holidays. See you soon.