My Top 10 Albums of 2013
So here we go - today. The Blog On The Tracks Top 10 albums of 2013. Click on the link for the full review or just go with the precis. And be sure to add your Top 10 below.
In alphabetical order here's 10 albums that I returned to more than any others this year. Those that filled my heart with joy, that offered (almost) everything I want from music. And in some cases provided wonderful respite, too, from the chore of reviewing. And it can (often) be a chore...
[Translation to blog-readers: f**k I hate music!]
Arve Henriksen, Places of Worship: Places of Worship is music as meditation, music for meditation. It's a medication, a tonic to sooth the rough edges off any day, music that curls up into the nook of the night. It would be my day-spa music of choice, it would be among the very best things you could ever choose to fall into sleep with - and those two ideas don't usually sell themselves as compliments. But they're meant here as no backhander, this album is beautiful. So beautiful. It offers peace and love and heart and soul, it feels like warm-milk wisdom, like a friendly hand offering comfort, support.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories: Daft Punk decides to do disco chic guitars. So who you gonna call? Nile Rodgers. They have often been told they owe a debt to Giorgio Moroder. So he's here. Offering autobiography, allowing the Gallic funkster-pranksters to reset his thoughts in shades and tones that could have come from the soundtracks and disco and pop songs he invented. And you keep thinking that calling cheese on these boys will work? Well they've called in Paul Williams to f**k that up entirely. It's meticulous, it's calculated and the robot get-up and the metallic sheen both in front and behind so much of Daft Punk's music has always allowed people the easy shot of calling it out as cold-blooded. But for the first time since that startling, brilliant debut here we have a set of tunes filled with (a warm) heart. In a way Random Access Memories feels like the band writing its own aural biography, a musical autobiography as real-time documentary with guest-spot vignettes popping up just like the talking heads do in the video versions of people's life-story highlight reels. Random Access Memories is stuffed full of ideas, some of the songs finish then start up again merely because their sides have split and the overspill has spawned a new motif, a new - random - memory is being built as Daft Punk does its best to redefine its role. Here is an album that has been built to suit its makers, rather than made to build up suitors.
Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up Ghost: The Roots will have another album to come - that's when they'll step up and be the other version of the band they are. But here they've nailed their supporting role. They've also - it would have to be said - reinvigorated Costello. They've allowed him to make a record he just would not (could not) have made without them. It's the best Elvis Costello record in some time. Or it's just another great Elvis Costello record. It's also the best effort from The Roots-as-backing-band on record. Wise Up Ghost is wonderful. Often extraordinary, at times a little baffling and there's a lot to unpack from it, so many clues, hints and ideas. A chance to for you to go back to the source material and hear some of the gems spread out over the so-called weaker Costello albums. Surprise of the year really, that this would actually work. That this was not just a gimmick. And one of the best albums I've heard in a long while.
Hammock, Oblivion Hymns: It's impossible to think of Oblivion Hymns as an album, really. Because it doesn't deserve comparison to anything else. It's a stretch of space - a musical shade cloth, a safe place. A beautiful, haunting, moving, profound artistic experience. It's art for the ears - an installation, a soundtrack to provide the mind space to wander and take in images, or check out of this world for a charming, hypnotic 57 minutes. When I choose the right time to play this - and somehow, so far, it's always chosen me - it's one of the finest things I've heard this year. Or any. Less a case of music, more so a case of magic. Bottled, turned on its side. You can see the ship still sailing.
Jaga Jazzist, Live With Britten Sinfonia: This album is a masterpiece, it's hypnotic, propulsive, it's almost stupefying in the breadth, depth, focus and all-out indulgence - it's profound and just a touch ludicrous (of course). And it gives me goosebumps. And I want to be the players involved - I want to sit in on something like that, and imagine my head spinning at the where-to-start feelings that would immediately overwhelm. But I'm not an idiot. I know this album is not for everyone. And it's not even for me some of the time. In that while I still think it could well go on to be the best album of 2013 - it will never be the most-listened to album of 2013. That's part of what makes this so special. It's too good to just play all the time - without thinking. This is music for the head and the heart. And it's often a profoundly moving experience just trying to take (all of) it all in.
Jonathan Bree, The Primrose Path: Big call, sure, but this album feels almost instantly like a classic. It's a masterpiece in songwriting, song-styling, Bree's singing is brilliant, the arrangements are lovely - and correct. The playing is spot on (most of it performed by Bree, across almost every instrument).
Lustmord, The Word as Power: This album is a huge commitment, a slow, deliberate sound-world built up over 75 minutes. It requires you listen to it, perhaps through headphones, certainly sitting down, doing little else. It's a spiritual experience - a meditation. The closest touchstone I have to offer is if you imagine Dead Can Dance reworking Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Hackneyed though that may be, it certainly helped me to digest this experience, to process and contextualise what was going on. Or think of Burial reworking the Philip Glass scores for Nagoygatsi, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi - perhaps reworking them and layering all three across one another. This is beat-less but in the slow-moving intensity it's deeply beautiful. Thanks to the vocals of Aina Skinnes Olsen in particular, giving a hint of Lisa Gerrard and the Trans Global Underground sound; other vocalists include Tool's Maynard James Keenan and Jarboe formerly of Swans. If you found the big-serve albums from Swans and Scott Walker last year, The Seer and Bisch-Bosch respectively, to be the sort of hard work that was so thoroughly rewarding to the point of seeming spiritually redemptive, rejuvenating then you've come to the right place. If you've been moved by Lustmord's Heresy and Stalker albums in particular then you'll find this deep emersion rewarding, absorbing.
Nils Frahm, Spaces: Spaces is frequently dazzling, but always in this heart-stoppingly beautiful way, never in a too much/more-is-more fashion, always with Frahm steering the ship, his guiding hand/s.
Phosphorescent, Muchacho: Matthew Houck might even suit comparisons to novelists and short story writers like Barry Gifford, Raymond Carver and John Fante as much as to any other musicians. In that sense I have to wonder if, like Willy Vlautin, he's got a novel or three in him. Perhaps he'll just keep releasing these novels, these short-story-collections-inside-song-cycles. Consider Muchacho his Ask The Dust; consider Muchacho a new beginning for Phosphorescent - with enough to keep the old guard while seeking out a few new fans. Consider it his finest to date and one of the albums of the year.
Sebastien Tellier, Confection: Confection is a movie soundtrack without a film; that's as Tellier has described it and that's how you'll hear it too. This mostly instrumental suite of themes is like a musical chocolate box, so much so the Mantovani-esque record sleeve it deserves would only serve to promote an irony that's actually not there. For this is OTT, there's no denying it, choir and nearly horror-score affectations, the elasticised-but-perfect-pocket drumming of Tony Allen, and strings that are damn near cloying at times - particularly when mingling with synths. It all makes for a version of serene that brings to mind that penultimate moment in Friday The 13th, the survivor adrift at Camp Crystal Lake, but the swamp-ghoul is just about to lurch from the water. The swamp-ghoul is always just about to lurch from the water in Tellier's cycle called Confection. That it never does is what makes it work. For as much as there's a horror-film feel to the serenity it's also trowelled on so thick as to approximate the Bless The Beasts And Children score; borrowing wholesale from Serge (he's probably always hated that comparison, and beyond the passport stamps it's never really seemed valid, here finally he's embracing it, giving it reason, cause). Also there are snapshots of Morricone, Gabriel's Obe from The Mission, a wee bit of Cinema Paradiso. All of this fits in around piano motifs that could just as much be accompanied by candlelight. (I passed this album on to someone who, after my near-incessant gushing, replied that they'd have to listen again as all they'd heard is Carl F**king Doy. No disrespect to Mr Doy, not least because that's a valid call, it's almost entirely correct even). Confection has swept me up with its sappiness; it's pulled me along with it, so much so that I'm writing about it from deep within the smarm and charm of the music, with no real way of knowing how to get out, and not wanting to.
So that's my Top 10 - and then I realise I haven't actually ranked them, nor have I told you about my absolute number one album of the year. So it's actually a Top 11.
From that list the huge favourites were the Nils Frahm, Sebastien Tellier and - often - the Jonathan Bree.
But my actual number one - TOP - album of 2013 is Open by The Necks. So good I wrote about it not just once but twice.
The pacing is this album's sheerest display of virtuosity - these three players work as if with one heartbeat. And so calm, so sure, so very much the epitome of underplaying. Most of the recordings by The Necks mean something very special to me. Some of them have stayed with me for days and weeks on end. Most of them I return to. Have been playing them so oftenacross the last decade and a bit. Many of them are masterpieces. The ones that aren't - quite, come very close. Open is a masterpiece. Another one. A new one. Open is another life, an afterlife. It's almost hard to imagine that three people could come together to make something this beautiful, this sure of itself, this happy to take this much time to unfold. It's flawless.
So there we have a Top 10 plus the number one album - a Top 11...and I forgot, in all of my lists, to mention Charlie Jones' wonderful album. Certainly a magic year for music. My favourite in a long time; pretty sure it's been my favourite for musical discoveries in all my time reviewing. So here's to 2013 - and on toward 2014...I still have great albums from this year to get to and review.
So what did you think of the list? Anything here you agree with? Anything you want to try out?
And what's your list of Top 10 (or 11) albums from 2013?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.