The best albums I heard in 2013
Last week I lined up the worst albums I heard in 2013 so now it's time for the best. You'll remember I asked whether you wanted a Top 10 or Top 20 or Top 50 - or Top 100 even and so here are all of the best albums I've heard this year minus The Top 10. I'll reveal the Top 10 on Monday. But these, in no particular order, beyond listing them alphabetically (as I did with all of the dud choices last week) are the best albums I heard this year. Ones I loved. Ones I'd recommend. Ones I certainly connected with. Sometimes you review an album and after the piece is written you don't return to the record, you don't have time. Actually, that's often the case. These are all albums that hung around for me; I had to hear them again. I wanted to. I needed to.
Feel free to add your must-hear/best-heard albums of 2013 below. And remember a ranked Top10 will follow next week...
And as with the Worst of 2013 you can click on the title link for the full review or made do with the précis.
I think 2013 provided more albums that I totally fell in love with than any other year.
[Translation to blog-readers: f**k I hate music!]
Ahmad Jamal, Saturday Morning: What's remarkable, anyway, is that at 83 Jamal might actually be getting better with each and every release; growing more prolific also. It's actually quite dazzling to think about. He started playing when he was three years old, now with 80 years under his belt of legs under the black'n'white keys Ahmad Jamal appears to have lost nothing of the passion, enthusiasm and quiet virtuosity that have always been hallmarks of his playing. There's an eagerness that is there to serve the tunes, to create a platform for the other instruments to dance and to make statements when needed.
The All Seeing Hand, Mechatronics: They've made a killer-good album here. Another one. And you know they can do it again after this. They're one of the best things we have going for us; one of the cleverest, most interesting groups New Zealand could offer. But this isn't a New Zealand band as such - the people just live here. They searched elsewhere for their answers and they returned with a gift for us all: Mechatronics.
Aoife O'Donovan, Fossils: It's not just on Lay My Burden Down that the Alison Krauss comparison is apt, you'll hear her vocal sound crop up across several of the tracks (Fire Engine, Pearls) but where Krauss, although lovely, sounds a bit too cute, a bit too innocent, O'Donovan's songs go to dark, surprising places. There's a more interesting sonic in support too - Beekeeper has stings of guitar that feel like something Daniel Lanois would arrange (and/or play). Glowing Heart has a charming slow-build to it and throughout and across the album the mix of modern folk and country is captivating, the sorts of sounds people were excited by back when bands like Calexico were interesting.
Arctic Monkeys, AM: Where the NME will tell you this is "absolutely and unarguably the most incredible album of their career" and you want to hate them/show indifference more than you already do (that's to both the NME and/or the Monkeys) in this case the hype-mag has it spot on. This is the album Arctic Monkeys deserves to be remembered for - it's catchy, full of hooks, full of great songs. There's a power-pop-meets-glam dress-up feel to it. But they live in the clothes, they don't just flaunt and parade and make it feel fake - this is energy+ too from the get-go, from opener Do I Wanna Know? through a small handful of (other) question-mark songs - R U Mine?, Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High? - and through career highs like Arabella with its Sabbath-meets-T-Rex stop-start rev-riffing, I Want It All with the glam falsetto nailed and the best ballad Oasis could never summon with No.1 Party Anthem.
Atoms For Peace, Amok: The first three songs on Amok are as good as the first three songs on any Radiohead album - better than most of the Radiohead opening blasts in fact. And through dark balladry (Ingenue) and more hopeful broken-beat soul songs (Default), Yorke manages to slip further inside the song, his goal since side two of Ok Computer; to have his voice as a texture, a guiding spirit. There will be doubters, people bored by the relentless falsetto, that's fine; that's (possibly) fair enough. But I've found Atoms For Peace to be very exciting, very moving, less clinical than Radiohead on record, the groove from within and around the machine more noticeable, more real. There's a (human) pulse to this. And just as The Eraser was released right when people were doubting Radiohead's abilities to innovate; a stock-take almost, an alternative angle to the follow-up, a second go at hinting towards a direction-shift, Amok does the same for anyone still a fan but underwhelmed by King Of Limbs.
Bailterspace, Trinine: Trinine isn't Bailterspace's best album - but it is their best comeback. Funny, when you think that so few bands get a second shot and in a way they've been given a third. Fair play - I'd be prepared to offer fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh shots to this band - one of the truly great musical experiences (live and on record); so utterly transcendent when firing on all cylinders. Here, having them firing on most - well that's more than good enough. Last year's record was good/ish, this one is great/ish - now the cupboard's cleaned out (presumably) let's have some real (new) fire in 2014. More shows, more songs that start in the middle and end nowhere near this earth, more vague precision, more magic. Please!
Beastwars, Blood Becomes Fire: I think of Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger again, of The Melvins' Stoner Witch and Faith No More's Angel Dust. Towering achievements, the best rock/metal hybrids on the market for mine. Go-to albums. Go-back-to albums. Must-haves, with no filler. Beastwars came close - brilliantly close - to touching on this greatness with their debut album. With Blood Becomes Fire they are in the club. They're there. The hard work has paid off. The new songs buck and kick and throw up all over slick. Beastwars have done it. They exist in their own space - a band that will not let you down. Obey The Riff. They have. They always will.
Billy Bragg: Tooth & Nail: It is so good as to run close to a career-best. Okay, there's none of the bile and anger and punk-energy channelled through the folk-ish singer/songwriter. But at 56 that's just not realistic. I don't think there's anything wrong with growing old gracefully - or at the least giving it a go. It might cause anger and bile in some Bragg fans to know that Tooth & Nail feels, at times, like a Mark Knopfler solo album - the playing, the thoughtfulness in both the tunes and the instrumentation; the arrangements. Lovely, heartening, heart-warming stuff. Tooth & Nail sees the old punk bard turning inward. After so many years of being so sure he was ready (and mostly able) to have a go at fighting the world's problems on behalf of anyone convinced of the power in a union Billy Bragg now stops to consider his own problems. The death of his mother a factor in this album's creation. Age, a factor. The idea of finding/knowing a place (I Ain't Got No Home) and clearly a driving force of Tooth & Nail is the chance to step outside that folk-punk troubadour square; to get down from the soapbox. Most surprising (and pleasing) is the 'voice' that Bragg shows on this album. It's a voice he's (almost) always had, but we've only ever seen glimpses of it. I like to think that celebrating the Guthrie material he co-created/adapted with Wilco was part of the creation of this album; for up until Tooth & Nail that's the best Bragg has sounded vocally. Tooth & Nail goes beyond that. And the writing is top notch too.
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest: Boards of Canada's music has always played to me like an ironed-out, kink-free Aphex Twin. It's never too straight, never humourless and it's not that it's not playful but it just doesn't have the smirking, sneering, sinister compulsion of Richard D. James' exploits. It has all of the beauty, all of the wonder, all of the mercurial nature - but it brings to mind forgotten movie soundtracks rather than creepy wind-ups, silly derangements/de-arrangements. There's a lovely lilt and sweep to Boards' best pieces - a drift. Take Sick Times here for example, or Palace Posy, take Uritual, Nothing is Real, New Seeds...take the whole album. It's some of their best work.
Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait: Dylan was taking risks in being the low-key man about home. Think of how back at his spite-fuelled/filled best/worst/ugliest he was venting out questions as statements (Ballad of A Thin Man). New Morning is filled with statements as questions - finding the bliss in the family home, "have a bunch of kids who call me Pa". Here's a sign then from another window. Or another angle from that same window. And this is (actually) what it's all about.
Bond Street Bridge, The Explorers Club: Antarctica: Great writing informs this work but it works because the sound of it is intoxicating. The performances sell this as music above and beyond, around and beside (any worries about) the concept. A work of rare genius - you need to hear this. You need to have it. There should be some Government-sponsored campaign to get this music into every home and school. Oh wait, isn't that called NZ on Air? Oh well. I'm sure they helped. Or will tag a logo when they can...
Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, What The Brothers Sang: If - for just a second - you're even close to underwhelmed by this, recognise the true strength of the record, the grace, the intention, the tribute: a lot of people that never bothered, or hadn't in some time, will head on over to the Everly Brothers catalogue. And have a whole new (old) world open up (either again or for the first time).
Bonobo, The North Borders: There's a remarkably broad sweep across The North Borders - for it's actually a tightly controlled album; deceptive. It is filled with ideas, almost bursting, yet it never feels like a throw-everything-in-the-hope-something-sticks approach. The very best of it - which is most of it - is the sound most bedsit producers are sure they're getting. They must listen on in the hope they could one day get this close. From cinematic passages to newly realised versions of the "cafe" music from 10-15 years ago this is an album of crafted gems; so many of them resembling the look and shape of a quality pop song too.
Broadcast, Berberian Sound Studio [OST]: I want to get lost in this musical/movie world every time I play this album. And I'm finding that very easy to do lately. There are hints of what the band was, and of what might have been, what the band might have gone on to do. Most crucially, given its intrinsic role, this music is frequently spooky yet strangely calming and will remind of the classic 1970s horror soundtracks, Goblin particularly, also some of Jack Nietzsche's filmic endeavours too.
Burial, Rival Dealer: We may still not know (exactly) who Burial is - nor quite where he's taking us - but we know that with each piece of work he offers up - that is exactly who he is. He is that work. For that moment. For those moments, he is there, all but buried inside it. This then, for now, is who he is. And it's among his finest works. Spiritual, passionate, masterful, seeking...and all inside half an hour and three tracks that play out like their own (connected) movies.
Chris Forsyth, Solar Motel: Solar Motel is fabulous stuff, building on other great records from a prolific, engaging player. But I've fallen for this much more so than other Forsyth offerings. It just feels like the best realisation of his aims, the best achievement to date. There's such a feeling of control around what he's doing here, treating the guitar as meditational device, allowing it to circle and glide, to hold on and then show some tricks just when needed. Solar Motel feels like a record that might - in the scheme of this type of music -go down as an understated masterpiece; one for guitarists to seek inspiration from, one for listeners to fall under its spell.
Christoph El' Truento, A series of oopsie daisies and various other flora: This album is (often) magical. And then through the headphones it's just that little bit better again.
The Close Readers, Group Hug: I believe every word of New Spirit, and, for the most part, it has me thinking of The Go-Betweens, Wilkins doing his version/s of both writers from that great band.
Connan Mockasin, Caramel: Those dribbly-damp guitar lines that almost cry themselves down the line of the song, the strange way that you can listen to these songs over and over and still find new surprises; each tune - or absence of tune - its own world to get lost in; to distract, sometimes alienate. I like that. Sometimes I like that a lot. And sometimes I just shake my head and laugh.
Darkside, Psychic: Yet another mini-masterpiece from Nicolas Jaar.
Darkstar, News From Nowhere: . There's pastoral English folk charm and woozy layers of Flaming Lips-meets-Matthew Dear. I kept thinking that if Richard D. James ever dropped the Aphex-skitter and decided to make a pop album it might - with collaborators - come out this way. There are Aphex hallmarks like a piano-not-quite-in- tune-and-made-to-sound-gorgeous-as-a-result (A Day's Pay For A Day's Work) and though this album features elements that would appeal to Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear and Ruby Suns fans it also sews up the (obvious) link back to Robert Wyatt and John Martyn and Kevin Ayers and post-Syd/pre-Dark Side Floyd. Sometimes you can hear all of that in just the one tune (Armonica).
David Dallas, Falling Into Place: David Dallas, perhaps most remarkably to my ears, is making music that is hip-hop for hip-hop heads and it's great music for non hip-hop fans, or lapsed/non-practicing guys like me. That's because, in the end, he's making great music. Yes, it's part of the continuum, respectful of the culture, so engaged in/with the culture, but these are songs with great grooves, great feels, great lines and flows and you keep coming back to them. You keep finding more in them.
David Long, Beyond The Edge [OST]: The music meant enough to me on its own - and anyway, knowing that the film was about Ed Hilary's Everest climb I could spot the obvious references within the music, cues that stirred to evoke something of the Himalayas, of the Tibetan region (Seventeen Days of Marches). And then, almost by accident, I found myself at the film - not that I wasn't going to see it anyway (eventually) and so I found myself reviewing the film; a great documentary, so worth seeing. But it's not just lip-service to tell you that the music is a crucial aspect of this reimagining/recreation of the famous ascent. Long's score is scene-setting without ever being scene-stealing, the perfect supporting score. In passages such as Khumbu Icefall I find the depth of Cliff Martinez' film work.
Dean Blunt, The Redeemer: It's like a hip-hop opera as one-man-play. It's like a flipside/bizarro-rendition of Paul Buchanan's Mid Air. It's a wonderful record that will - in most cases - just pass by. And it's a great way to let the world slip by for 40 minutes at a time actually; this record on, thoughts drifting, the music wafting.
Dean Wareham, Emancipated Heart: Jason Quever of Papercuts handles the production, possibly handing back some of the sound he found when exploring those Galaxie 500 records with all the fan-zeal Wareham mustered towards the VU. Everything in its right place then. Dark and charming, gentle, assured, just a perfect wee drop.
Devendra Banhart, Mala: Mala is full of heart and it's well-rounded and well-intentioned. But it plays along due to its own confidence - and it plays on its own confidence. This is no tale-between-legs, hangdog, take me back. This is a record that will still not be for everyone. And is all the better because of that. It just also happens to contain some slippery-eel treat songs. Some of the best Banhart has ever offered up. Older, wiser, happier (presumably) and less annoyingly unscrubbed. His music is welcome in the house again. It doesn't stink of unwashed arrogance, it's cleanly confidant. It's softer, gentler, smarter. Better. His best? Close enough to say yes.
Disclosure, Settle: It often feels redundant reviewing dance music - specifically the purpose-built floor-fillers; you're at home with the headphones on, you're not at the club and in the moment as it's happening, the music a soundtrack to the experience. But Disclosure's music achieves the transcendence that only a small handful of dance music producers manage - for this isn't just dance music. It manages to be so much more; or, at the very least and even if it is still just dance music it's the very best dance music I've heard this year.
The Drones, I See Seaweed: At times an uncomfortable listen, never easy, always devastating, I find the relentlessness of I See Seaweed warm and inviting simply because The Drones are so f**king good. They have been for a long time. Here it feels like a real step up. They've moved up a gear.
The Flaming Lips, The Terror: The Flaming Lips are back. They're better. They're new. They're more similar to the very old Flaming Lips than they've ever been before. Aside from when they were the old Flaming Lips. And crucially - as should always be the way - not everyone will like this. Many will run screaming to the hills. Good. Good. A good year for them too, with an excellent EP following on from this and the weirdly enjoyable slap-in-the-face-to-fans cover of The Stone Roses' first album.
Four-Tet, Beautiful Rewind: I get to the end of this album and I've loved the journey - every time. A few old stomping grounds, some new alleyways to explore. And, I reckon, the best (complete) Four Tet album so far. A lovely wee swirl of sound.
Huntsville, Past Increasing, Future Receding: Norwegian trio Huntsville, comprised of Ivar Grydeland (guitar and effects), Ingar Zach (percussion and effects) and Tonny Kluften (bass), create a sprawling ambient jazz that trickles into place from drones, gradually creeping towards the noir soundscapes of The Necks with improvised ideas fleshed out by triggered effects.
Jamie Lidell, Jamie Lidell: For a lot of the album it's as if Sign O' The Times' tune It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night travels back a decade to boogie with side four of Songs In The Key Of Life. And I f**king love that.
John Murry, The Graceless Age: The songs are brutal and beautiful in equal measure and there are hints (California) of Chris Whitley too; I feel like, possibly, Murry might work out his career in a similar way: cult-artist styles. But there's so much in this record - the lyrics are why you hit repeat; the framing is correct, sometimes there's a moment within the music that is utterly intoxicating too. But it's those lyrics.
Josh Rouse, The Happiness Waltz: Gorgeous melodies are stacked through the tunes, The Happiness Waltz is an album that feels complete, lived in, well realised - and if it doesn't win new fans it will, most likely, win back old fans; people that know Rouse is gifted - a great tunesmith - but simply grew tired of waiting for something that compares - and competes - with that early magic. It's here now. Hear this now.
Keith Jarrett, No End: For 90 minutes, across two CDs, Jarrett's snake-winding spindly circus-of-soft-porn guitar noodling whispers and curls. He sounds like he's playing in gloves. He sounds like he's painting. He sounds like Carlos Santana being forced to play after 48 hours with no sleep. A man whipping him sardonically all the while. Oh, and after he's had one of his hands cut off.
Keith Jarrett, Somewhere: Recorded in 2009 but issued this year to mark the milestone that is 30 years of the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio Somewhere is a live recording that finds Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette in - predictably - fine form, walking across standards while juggling lines of improvisation, recreating standards as much as they ever have - serving up new phrasing while stating the main melodic idea.
Kinski, Cosy Moments: Here the band sounds - sonically, spiritually - recharged. A nice surprise of an album. And a reminder of a band with plenty of punch in its past life too.
The Knife, Shaking The Habitual: Shaking The Habitual is a great album - an album that might (even/also) grate (wrong time/wrong place) - and (in either case) it shows The Knife at their very best.
KT Tunstall, Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon: The best record of her career. An album that's worth hearing whether you were previously a fan or not.
Kurt Vile, Wakin On A Pretty Daze: Kurt Vile has possibly not even given us his best record. And that's very much a reason to keep listening. For he has given us his best record to date. There'll be (some other kind of) more where this came from. Perfectionism has never been served up so wrinkled and creased, stoned-over, parched and poignant. And then there was a more than decent EP later in the year too.
Ladi6, Automatic: Here Ladi6 doesn't put a foot wrong, she sounds fabulous and there are some great pop-writing instincts on show. It's the record of her career. The one that rightly deserves to see her raved about. And now I really can't wait to see the band kick this stuff live. It'll be fantastic. I've always enjoyed the shows. And now I have something to hang onto.
Lee Ranaldo and The Dust, Last Night On Earth: This record might bore a few people, might not convert any new fans but I love it. I f**king love it. I really f**king love it.
Lilly Wood and The Prick, The Fight: What they have is a bunch of smart wee pop tunes, perfectly executed.
Lisa Crawley, All In My Head: This is a widescreen version of pop balladry - the songs dressed up beautifully, the playing dutifully serving these proud, reflective songs. This is the star-making record that anyone who has followed Crawley was hoping she might make. Or, in some cases, were sure that she would. Well, she has. It's here. And it's so very much worth hearing, worth your time. And money.
Lord Echo, Curiosities: This record probably doesn't want to be hyped up as the best thing ever - but damn, it's pretty f**king close to that.
Mark Mulcahy, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You: In just over half an hour, across 11 songs, half of them total gems, none of them duds, Mark Mulcahy has released a quietly hopeful, happy, lovely record. You should hear it.
Matthew E. White, Outer Face: It feels like there's all the time in the world when you're inside one of Matthew E. White's songs. What a great place to be. And a strong follow up to the brilliant Big Inner (a 2012 release, but a highlight of 2013 for me).
Matthew Herbert, The End of Silence: The End of Silence is an extrapolation of a 10-second sound clip of a bomb. You know those clips of Justin Bieber songs slowed down by 800% and stretched out to play for ten hours or so - with everyone commenting about their serene beauty, their hypnotism, the sudden marvel from the slow-grind and the knowing incongruity? Yes, well it's akin to that. But it is a riveting piece of (non) music. It's as if Eno was commissioned to rework Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Melvins, Everybody Loves Sausages: Everybody Loves Sausages is good. Sometimes it's great. Sometimes it almost grates. Melvins records are all a bit like that. And that's wonderful. Every time.
Melvins, Tres Cabrones: God bless Melvins, long live Melvins - they're doing fine. They're doing so much better than so many other bands. They'll never (really) let you down if you're a fan
Mick Harvey, Four (Acts of Love): The album of his career. This is his masterpiece. This is a gorgeous record, so noble, strong, proud. A mini epic.
Mick Turner, Don't Tell The Driver: The straight man is the one rocking the boat, his undulating guitar lines the key to it all.
Mountaineater, Mountaineater: Dingemans' guitar spits with Tourette's and on the centrepiece, the nearly 10-minute instrumental Ch'An Ra we have a new version of Funkadelic's Maggot Brain; perhaps for those raised on Tool or at least newly turned on to Beastwars. A Maggot Brain informed by The Cure's Pornography. A Maggot Brain that Jakob and Beastwars might, in collaboration, aim for. A Maggot Brain that feels like the only album on earth.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: As The Worst Things Get plays out I can hear in it what I presume others were picking up from Cat Power's "reinvention" album, Sun. I just didn't get the same glow from that, but I hear it in Neko Case's new soul-stirring, inward-gazing set of confessionals.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away: This is a far better record than I expected from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds this late in the game. It might not be a career peak but it feels like a new start; the correct new start. It feels thoughtful and considered and Jubilee Street - man what a song!
One Man Bannister, Evolver: In one go, as one man - or a one-man-band/One Man Bannister, Matthew has done as well as any of those Uncut/Mojo magazine multi-artist tribute efforts.
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven: Aphex Twin as art gallery soundscape curator.
Patty Griffin, American Kid: American Kid shows Griffin the solo artist still moving forward, still adding to her impressive catalogue, still offering up songs that are sincere and moving, never cloying, never lost in the baggage of the past, never trying too hard. American Kid is one of her finest sets of songs.
Paul McCartney, NEW: Sure, he'll always be Paul and it's probably evenly split between those who love him for that (and always will) and those who hate him for that (and grew into that without giving the best bits of his post-Beatles career a chance; or simply decided it was unfair that John was the one to go) but the opening brace of songs on New feels like the best kind of victory lap. A guy who can write a pop song in his sleep - and has finally woken up (again) and decided it's best he not keep doing that. A guy who had a hand in inventing pop music, prepared, now - as always - to be the experimental one even though credit for that was slow and still forthcoming.
Pere Ubu, Lady From Shanghai: You imagine a Daniel Johnston-in-full-Laurie-stalker-mode crossed with Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade character, riding the bus, putrid thoughts slowly, cruelly announced ; you can imagine it all framed by David Lynch - in fact there's something here that is reminiscent of Lynch's own album from a couple of years ago.
Pet Shop Boys, Electric: Love Is A Bourgeois Construct sees Neil Tennant dress up Brideshead Revisited's musical score and take it out clubbing, you almost imagine Chris Lowe has a teddy-bear named Aloysius cuddled up on his synth. It's too perfect. An infectious blast of the sort of pop-euphoria born of trash-meets-high-art/trash-is-high-art that has always been the Pet Shop Boys' modus operandi.
Petra Haden, Petra Goes To The Movies: I am wowed by Petra Haden's ability to perform vocalese, to be the lead instrument and all of the layers underneath; to be the song. But I can see (guess) that it's not for everyone. I hear beautiful - extraordinary - vocal work and clever, quirky ideas. I hear magic in this recording, particularly in the sense that many of the themes feel reborn to me/for me. I love this. It's both an amazing feat - and a great record.
The Phoenix Foundation, Fandango: For its fifth album The Phoenix Foundation has clearly enjoyed creating some of the best music of its career.
P-Money, Gratitude: best album in over a decade, possibly his best ever and proof of his talent where at other times he's been coasting and boasting without actually delivering.
Public Service Broadcasting, Inform - Educate - Entertain: As much an art-project as it is a band, as much audio-collage as album but it's just mad enough - and yet straight-seeming enough - to work.
Quasimoto, Yessir Whatever: It's not a replacement for The Unseen or The Further Adventures of Lord Quas but in many ways it's as satisfying - it is a continuation, even if the music here jumps around across the decade, beats and pieces that predate The Unseen and arrive just after Further Adventures. Madlib coasting is still Madlib boasting - because he's done the work. So much work. And when he cleans out his closet that's usually good enough. That's certainly the case here.
Rhian Sheehan, Stories From Elsewhere: The finest thing Rhian Sheehan has done (so far). I like that he improves with each album - and redefines his sound with each album. Stories From Elsewhere contains so much heart and soul. It has the power to blow you away.
Richard Thompson, Electric: With every record Thompson gets better - that's amazing. And the back catalogue suddenly seems even more impressive. Also quite a feat.
Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward: You get the feeling Fulks will remain some kind of secret - and that probably makes his music all the more rewarding for those that have made the discovery.
Robert Pollard, Honey Locust Honky Tonk: Good lord. You can understand why people just step aside and let Pollard go, never to enter into this world. It's very much a case of too much to take, too much to consider. But I'm glad I caught this one. It's f**king lovely.
Rokia Traore, Beautiful Africa: You wonder, when you listen to Traore's music, just what she's taken from Western pop music and, always, about what she's giving to it...
The Ruby Suns, Christopher: There's heart in and around the cynicism and/or scepticism. This was a nice surprise. Never been a fan previously.
Ry Cooder & Corridos Famosos, Live In San Francisco: This is a must-hear/must-have record. The best live record I've heard in a very long time. A live record for fans of live records. A live record for fans of Ry Cooder.
Salad Boys, Salad Boys: Salad Boys reminds me of discovering that first Garageland album, the Superette record Tiger too, music that references the obvious touchstones that came before it but still cuts its own path.
Sarah Neufeld, Hero Brother: It might take you a few listens but it's there - and there's so much there to come back to. For me that's the opposite of anything by Arcade Fire which, ultimately reveals all its tricks on the first listen and plays back with diminishing returns. This album is wonderful.
Scud Mountain Boys, Do You Love The Sun: Not only a lovely record, but the best thing the Scuds could have done - it almost doesn't feel like a 15 year gap. Also it's something of a return to form for Pernice, much as I love what the guy's about I've found it hard to really care since the brilliant Pernice Brothers record, Discover A Lovelier You. Nothing's beaten that. And occasionally I've been disappointed. In some ways this is actually just the country version of that; or that was the 'pop' version of this.
Shannon McNally, Small Town Talk: Small Town Talk is so comfy, so cosy, so lovely. So full of soul and grit and warmth and depth, so full of heart. It's easily going to be one of the records of the year - this year and in fact any year.
Sons of Kemet, Burn: You'll be pummelled by drums, dazzled by the flight of the tuba, frightened by the beauty of the squall inside the saxophone, it's Charles Lloyd and Oliver Lake and Zorn and, arguably, it's scorn thrown at jazz as All Will Surely Burn transitions to the tribal groove and snake-charming clarinet of The Godfather; almost a post-rave comedown or a pre-nightclub come-on.
Spoilers of Utopia, Spoilers of Utopia: Constantly invigorating, this music twists and turns. One minute it's Tom Waits writing for a Chinese circus (Family Gibbon) and then it's back to the strange and beautiful weirdness of brass-band music just ever so slightly f**ked with. Take The Great Amnesia for instance. It's like the Brassed Off soundtrack has been left on in the background while Buckethead noodles away across it. God, it's great.
Steve Earle & The Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway: If you're a fan you couldn't ask for me. If you never were a fan you should give this one a go. It's a great set of songs, a lot of depth, warmth, heart. A lot of great, great writing. And his voice has grown so wonderfully into the gnarled growl of social justice anthems.
Steve Gunn, Time Off: You might know Steve Gunn as a hired gun, one of the guitar layers in Kurt Vile's sound, or perhaps you know his Gunn-Truscinski Duo (drummer John Truscinski is present on this album too) or his experimental noise outfit, GHQ. So, several strings to his bow and for the most part it's not even about taking a bow to those strings here, as the acoustic guitar rolls and weaves and charts a course through malleted tom-toms and tunnels deep into songs, sometimes reminding of what James Blackshaw might sound like, slightly lightened, with a band. Hints too, overtly of Bert Jansch and Martin Simpson and John Fahey - also, surely, the Peter Walker of Rainy Day Raga.
Tamikrest, Chatma: Tamikrest's finest album was borne from unrest and political upheaval, the likes of which readers of these pages will likely never know (and should be all the more thankful for that fact). This music arrives, sounding wonderful, feeling precious. It's a message in a bottle. A statement of believe; a heartbeat, lifeblood; reason for the musicians to keep living. And it's an album that quietly stuns - as a result of everything that went into it. But also as a result of all that comes from it.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II: I felt like, as soon as I heard it, I was listening to what would be one of the best releases of 2013. Nielson knows the heart of a song. And his instincts here reflect a modern-day soul music, drenched in new guitar angles, sprayed with brittle-beat faux-funk. Add to this Neilson's reinvention of some of the songs on the impressive Blue Record EP which followed later in the year.
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City: There's so much cleverness in this record - and usually that's annoying. Usually it ends up unpicking itself to leave emptiness; a hole. But I can't fault this record. I like it so much more than I thought I would.
William Onyeabor, Who is William Onyeabor? It sounds like Bernard Purdie hammering in tent-pegs. Wonderful!
Yo La Tengo, Fade: There's something hypnotic in the slowly-forming grooves, the perfectness that defines this band, just the right kind of tight and the correct form of sloppy.
And there are still a bunch of great albums I've heard but not yet reviewed, I'll be adding reviews at Off The Tracks over the Christmas/New Year period and on through summer, catching up with, no doubt, more of the best of 2013. Now, what have been some of your favourite albums of this year? And any on my (long) list that take your fancy?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.