Just this week I've gushed about a different new album three times - and that got me to thinking that it's probably time to look at the best albums released this year so far. It's been a great run, I reckon. So many interesting albums. And of course this year I have my Off the Tracks site up and running (since November last year in fact) so I've been able to review albums there and link to them here as part of a broader conversation.
So, I thought I'd work back through the best releases I've handled since January. It's probably going to be a long list. But it's good to do a halftime report. So here goes. Be sure to add yours at the end. And click on the links to be taken to the full review of each album mentioned.
Yo La Tengo, Fade. A great band, one that's now close to celebrating its 30th anniversary, and Fade was the first great album I heard this year, released in mid-January. It's probably no surprise for fans of Yo La Tengo but it does move away from the longer jams that have dominated the last few albums. If you've never heard them before it would also seem a fine/fair enough place to start.
Petra Haden, Petra Goes to the Movies. I tried to explain this album and Petra's family-history/back-story a bit further here but I realise this is not an album for everyone; vocal versions of movie soundtrack pieces. It's not easy listening (not all of it anyway) but I'm wowed by this. And I've been a fan of Haden's work since she recorded her own voice-only interpretation of The Who Sell Out album.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours: 35th Anniversary Edition. Not a new album as such, but a special anniversary for a special album - and the live gig (previously unreleased) made this worth checking out.
Matthew E White, Big Inner. I'm including this here despite it being released in 2012 - because it was released officially in New Zealand in 2013. It was also the first big surprise for me this year; the first new artist - by which I mean I somewhat expected to like the Yo La Tengo and Petra Haden albums; I had no idea what I was getting here. And I love this album. It was instant too. Right from the first listen. A must-hear. Brilliant.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II. A brilliant second record, showing the band's first album was no fluke. A couple of very fine songs on here and all of it solid. I look forward to seeing them play here again soon. (Hope they get the sound right this time.)
Pere Ubu, Lady from Shanghai. Some of the songs here are downright creepy - and I love that. I wasn't expecting anything from Pere Ubu at this point, much less a really great record. But as with recent "comeback" albums from Pere peers like Wire and Magazine Lady From Shanghai is surprisingly vital, up there with the band's best for me.
The Ruby Suns, Christopher. It's always nice to be pleasantly surprised by an artist that's let you down. I was pretty vocal about my disappointment/lack of interest in The Ruby Suns. And copped a fair bit of grief from the too-cool crowd. Irony is most of them, the passionate defenders at that time, have probably moved on to the next thing now. But I really enjoyed Christopher. A far better album than I was expecting.
Richard Thompson, Electric. The cover image is pretty horrible, the title is at best prosaic and the description of the album as "folk-funk" had me worried. But this is an amazing record; another from a player at the top of his game. In fact he's been at the top of his game - arguably - for 40 years. Brilliant.
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon. Pretty much what you'd expect/hope for but then it's still the best record Emmylou Harris has made in a decade and it should elevate Rodney Crowell (he deserves an MVP-type award). Worth hearing.
Jamie Lidell, Jamie Lidell. Another solid/strong release from Lidell - he manages to just shift it up enough each time so as to not (quite) repeat himself.
Broadcast, Berberian Sound Studio [Soundtrack]. Still haven't seen the film. But have a copy to watch, have heard good things. But the soundtrack is brilliant if bittersweet. A not-at-all-planned swansong.
Darkstar, News from Nowhere. Another example of a band winning me over after seeming fairly underwhelming with the earlier record; so another nice surprise...
Robyn Hitchcock, Love From London. Hitchcock is consistent but, even by his standards, this is a very good record. I wish Ray Davies would make albums like this.
Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Begins. Another reissue - but so good. Worth having for the story, in the way the music unfolds and the excellent liner notes. A superb 3-CD set that works as a tribute to the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron.
Lapalux, Nostalchic. I'm a sucker for anything Boards of Canada-ish, Aphex Twin-esque, Flying Lotus-like and Lapalux (the Nostalchic album comes via Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder imprint) fits that bill. A ripper.
Rhian Sheehan, Stories from Elsewhere. I wasn't sure how Sheehan was going to follow Standing in Silence. But he's managed. Almost emotionally overwhelming, I've spent a lot of time this year lost in these stories from elsewhere.
The Be Good Tanyas, A Collection (2000-2012). Sometimes you love a band for a while, then forget all about them. Compilations can work well to remind you of a band's best bits. And that was certainly the case with this. I had forgotten all about The Be Good Tanyas and this well-selected compilation plays to the band's quality-over-quantity career, picking the very best bits.
PCP Eagles, I Hate the Mall. The shortest album/EP to make the list - just 14 minutes long. Seven songs. And not - probably - the sort of thing I usually dig. But I really liked this.
Kurt Elling, 1619 Broadway - The Brill Building Project. Seeing Kurt Elling perform live last year was a great reminder of his singular talent. I'd been a fan for a while, but again, it's hard to keep up with everything. That show had me hunting out new material from Elling, eager to catch up. And here he's released another set of covers of "Classic American Songbook" candidates. It's often jaw-droppingly good; this one has the bonus of being probably his most accessible work to date.
Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. I was really looking forward to this - so much so that I was starting to worry it might actually be underwhelming; might not deliver. But no, another great record from a great talent; he really stretches out here too with some long songs that play to his strengths, that liquid Kilgour-esque guitar shimmering beneath his Lou Reed-like drawl.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. Well there's nothing like a near career-best album to put you back in the mood. I'd grown so bored of Cave and the Cave worshippers. And then he delivers this!
Steve Earle & The Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway. Easily the best Earle album in a decade. He's always a good live gig but it's been hard to care about the albums (redundant covers and tributes or misguided DJ-collaborations or simply regurgitation of earlier ideas) but The Low Highway has a handful of really great songs. And shows Earle finding new ways to tell his old tales.
Devendra Banhart, Mala. I liked some of Devendra Banhart's material - then he released a whole heap of stuff and it felt like diminishing returns and was hard to keep up. I forgot about him too. And then this record - brilliant. He's back in the fold and back on form. This was also a nice surprise. I didn't expect to hear a great album - a truly great album - from Banhart. I figured he was done.
Beastwars, Blood Becomes Fire. Every bit as good as the debut album - sometimes better. The rise of Beastwars has been a great thing to be part of. This band makes being a fan a very easy and rewarding gig.
The Phoenix Foundation, Fandango. A brilliant album, with a few stumbles. And I like the stumbles - well, I like that they exist. It's a wonderful sonic sprawl of a (double) record. Just leave off the last song and you've got a near-perfect effort.
Billy Bragg, Tooth & Nail. Bragg's gig last year was amazing, and he follows it up with this excellent record, possibly a career best. Certainly far better than I expected from him at this stage. Really wonderful in fact.
Fleetwood Mac, Extended Play - EP. Four new songs from Fleetwood Mac. Lindsey Buckingham does the heavy lifting. I mostly just like that they released an EP rather than an album clogged with filler. Smart thinking.
Jaga Jazzist, Live with the Britten Sinfonia. Yes, I blew big with this and proclaimed it the best album of 2013. I'm far from embarrassed about that call. I think it still stands. This album is truly awesome, mesmerising.
The Handsome Family, Wilderness. Mostly just a case of welcome back. As you were. (And that's a good thing.)
Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy', What the Brothers Sang. A collection of covers of songs by The Everly Brothers, mostly the slightly more obscure songs rather than the big, obvious hits - and it's wonderful. The best Will Oldham album in some time.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. Too easy to call this overhyped, to call it (on) under-delivering. This record is huge and it sounds amazing. So many ideas, including at least two strong candidates for song of the year - and, at this stage, it's probably the album I've listened to the most this year.
Eels, Wonderful Glorious. Good to have Eels back - on form. Got bored with the albums from recent years but this is a return to really great writing.
John Murry, The Graceless Age. I'm really sold on this. So far I seem to be the only one. Had a couple of goes at plugging it. Oh well, I still really rate it. A bit like the Matthew E. White for me, a happy surprise.
Spoilers of Utopia, Spoilers of Utopia. A brilliant album, this. Some of the best local talent you could ever hear. I hope you give it a go.
Public Service Broadcasting, Inform - Educate - Entertain. Won over by an earlier EP I looked forward to this. Not disappointed.
Phosphorescent, Muchacho. Obviously a lot of the titles on this list will be lost/replaced by the end of the year. This will be well up near the top of the list still. The songwriting here is superb.
P-Money, Gratitude. Oh how I loathed the last P-Money album. But credit where it's due, this is his best album; shame about a decade of mucking around between this and his debut. But there's no denying the guy has skills. And this is a really great record. A nice "comeback".
The Drones, I See Seaweed. The band gets better with each record. Well, actually, that's not even true. But a few more people get to hear and see them with each record and that's good thing. Great band. And this is another really great record from them.
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Never been all that interested in this band, never quite saw (or heard) what others did. But pretty hard to deny this. A really strong set of songs.
Josephine, Portrait. I fell in love with this straight away. That voice. Again, it's probably just me. No one else seems all that interested in it. But I certainly think it's pretty great.
Mick Harvey, Four (Acts of Love). I've never cared all that much for Harvey's solo work. Bits and pieces, but his albums just don't hold my attention. This, however, is brilliant. His best, easily. And that special sort of album you just want everyone to hear. Been playing this record over and over lately, so good.
Shannon McNally, Small Town Talk - I gave some of the background to this record earlier this week. It's going to be a favourite for a long time, not just this year. I can tell that already.
The Knife, Shaking The Habitual. A strange album but at the same time quite accessible; so full of groove, strange - interesting, unorthodox - grooves.
Well, phew, that's it. (So far). A great year for music already. I'm sure I've missed a few too. But then, you know me, always running everything down...
See anything there you like? Heard anything amazing this year that's not on my list? What have I missed? What from this list have you missed?
What's your Half-Time Report for 2013 so far?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.