Sunday, 2 March 2014

2013: The Year in "Normal" Music - Top 20 Albums (10-1)

Previously on Gigging Forever:

Way back in January (you know, when it was the time to do end of year lists), we had:

Top 10 Progressive Rock Albums (Part One) (including an intro to my End of Year Lists)
Top 10 Progressive Rock Albums (Part Two)
Top 10 Progressive Rock Albums (Part Three)

Then everybody stopped reading, because it was February, but we carried on regardless with:

Some totally awesome single tracks
Top 10 "Normal" Albums (Part 1: Numbers 20-11) (including various excuses for writing lists in February)

I am aware that it is now March. I would apologise for still ploughing on with this mammoth music-wank, but I'm not actually sorry. So, here are the ten albums which totally blew my mind in 2013 - and in case you forgot, I bought 70 new albums this year, so a place here really is a guarantee of... well, me liking it, I suppose.

Spotify playlist at the end, as usual.

10. Cut Copy: Free Your Mind

Ahh, see, Cut Copy know what their duty as Australians is (unlike Midnight Juggernauts, last time).

Done with remaking the 80's (via New Order) in hands-aloft, sunshine-drenched fashion, they've now moved onto doing the same for the early 90s. What will they be doing in 2020? - Urban Cookie Collective knockoffs, maybe...

Anyway, this is another killer collection of proper songs and tunes mashed up with actual dance beats, and obscure spoken word samples (this time suggesting that we've infiltrated into some kind of cult), but now the beats sound more like Primal Scream and early Moby. 'Let Me Show You Love' even threatens to take us to a proper rave, for goodness' sake, before changing its mind abruptly, and 'Take Me Higher' has definitely shared a taxi home with the Stone Roses at some point.

It doesn't quite hit the highest highs of the previous 2 albums (some of my favourite music of all time), and vocalist Dan Whitford's voice becomes ever more of an acquired taste with every passing year, plus song number 2 ('We Are Explorers'), whilst a good song, for some reason nearly kills the album's momentum stone dead - BUT there's no denying the quality music on offer here, and even a second-tier Cut Copy album is still worthy of a top 10 spot.

Key Tracks: Free Your Mind / Let Me Show You Love / Into the Desert... Footsteps / Meet Me in a House of Love

9. Daft Punk- Random Access Memories

I know, I know what you're thinking. You want to gouge out your own eardrums with an ice cream scoop every time 'Get Lucky' comes on the radio now, don't you? But look, I haven't even put it on my key tracks below... Maybe there's some other great music on offer here?

Let's get the obvious out of the way - there's some good, funky, radio friendly stuff here like 'Lose Yourself to Dance', 'Give Life Back to Music', 'Instant Crush' and, yes, that one even your mother is whistling in the kitchen right now - all of which are great examples of their exquisitely fulfilled ambition to create an album of dance music using computerised voices but real instruments, provided by legendary session musicians who've played with everyone from Dire Straits, Phil Collins and Sting to Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and Herbie Hancock.

But more than that, there are some mind-blowingly inventive tracks, like 'Giorgio by Moroder', where our eponymous hero recounts his path to music stardom over a gradually building and eventually furiously jamming electro-rock backing, with real orchestral flourishes, and 'Contact', which sounds like the soundtrack to a shuttle launch in the year 3000. And then there's 'Touch', the emotional core of the album, where the robot voices of the album's "Computers make human music" concept find a recollection of human contact, as the underwater-sounding vocals clear up into the most touching vocal performance on the album, a sort of Air-meets-Bohemian Rhapsody mini-epic. And any song that's written and sung by the man who wrote 'Rainy Days and Mondays' is absolutely fine by me.

So, hang on, why isn't this album higher up the list? Well, I have to say there are some tracks which just tick none of the boxes - namely 'Game of Love', a rather tedious "Vocoder voice sings dull ballad" track (again, track 2 - WHY?), and 'Doing It Right', which is just utter pants in every possible way. Still, on the whole it's just as good as 'Discovery', albeit in an extremely different way, and well worth a listen for anyone with a mind open to inventive music. Some of it's even a bit prog, but shhh, don't tell anyone.

Key Tracks: Giorgio By Moroder / Touch / Beyond / Contact

8: Goldfrapp - Tales of Us

Did I mention that I was at the live premiere of this album, weeks before it came out? Oh, yes, yes I did. As you were.

As it turns out, my initial impressions weren't wrong - a much more mellow affair than any of its predecessors and with nary a beat or a bleep anywhere other than on black sheep 'Thea' (the one they didn't do live). This time out, Goldfrapp is all about cinematic, storytelling songs with heartbreaking melodies, soaring strings, menacing piano, hypnotic acoustic bass, and, if we're honest, not an awful lot of percussion at all.

As if John Barry had reimagined 'Felt Mountain', you're out of luck if you fancy a boogie, but if you're after an album to make you feel all warm and snug on a cold winter's evening, you've come to the right place. Or will have. If you buy it. Or listen to it. Or someone sends it to you on Spotify and you feel like you ought to play it out of politeness.

Key Tracks:  Jo / Drew / Thea / Clay

7: Jon Hopkins - Immunity

There's a favourite school of thought amongst prog rock fans that "our" music is somehow superior because it "takes you on a journey", which is, in the best cases, quite true (and in the worst cases, true, but the journey takes you round the back of the Slough Trading Estate in a clapped out Ford Transit.)

But it would be daft to suggest that this doesn't happen in other music, and here comes Jon Hopkins to prove this point. Where prog takes you on a journey to a mythical kingdom, a Scottish river, or the hedgerows of Wiltshire, 'Immunity''s trip is far more down to earth; starting with the sound of a door opening and someone grabbing their keys and heading out, before hitting a scuzzy nightclub, a seedy alleyway where they may or may not get into a punch-up, the night bus home, that bit of the night where they keep waking up as the alcohol breaks down in their system and they want to die, and then on to a lovely beach in the sun in the Balearics, before their plane crashes in a giant fireball (Or, that's my interpretation of it anyway, and I know that's how I end every one of my nights out.)

What's the music like? Well, it almost defies description, but it's basically the exact middle point between ambient music and dubstep. In fact if you removed the beats you would have a beautiful ambient album worthy of Eno or Jarre, or one of those fellas. As it is, you have a beautiful ambient album with thudding, hypnotic dub beats over the top of it, and all sorts of scratchy, glitchy percussive sounds that sound like someone rattling prison chains or shuffling their feet over a carpet made of Brillo pads. It probably shouldn't work. But, by Jove, it totally does.

Key Tracks: Open Eye Signal / Collider / Sun Harmonics / but really, listen to the whole thing - it's a trip (man)

6: Pet Shop Boys - Electric

Ok, I know I said last year's album was really good and it made some of you want to vomit down your sleeves. But this, really, honestly. Trust me.

With last year's gig (oh, did I mention that?) very clearly setting out the band's intention to reclaim their rightful spot as a pioneering dance/electro outfit, the album had a lot to live up to - but preview track 'Axis' immediately put any niggling doubts to rest, with its relentless beats and rousing chants of "Electric Energy, Electric Energy". More proper, uplifting dance music, including tracks based on themes by Purcell ('Love is a Bourgeois Construct') and Bruce Springsteen covers ('The Last to Die') and fewer schmaltzy ballads, thank god - this is meant for moving to and not chilling out to.

And 'Thursday' is such a good tune, it even makes Example sound tolerable.

Key Tracks: Axis / Love is a Bourgeois Construct / Laughing in the Evening / Thursday / Vocal

5: Arcade Fire - Reflektor 

Look! A proper guitar-based rock album! Or is it?

"Do you like rock and roll music? Cos I don't know if I do anymore...", mumbles Win Butler at the start of 'Normal Person', perhaps giving a little glimpse into the thought processes of how to follow up two of the biggest rock albums of the century in 'Neon Bible' and 'The Suburbs'.

The answer seems to have been twofold - firstly bring in James "LCD Soundsystem" Murphy to dance them up a bit here and there, most successfully on the opening title track and the penultimate song 'Afterlife' (one of the most darkly uplifting things I heard all year). And secondly, go and record in Haiti and Jamaica and soak up a bit of the influence there (I would try to tell you which tracks those are but I'm sure I'd only make myself sound extremely ignorant... maybe 'Here Comes the Nighttime?')

The 'new-ish' stuff here is probably the most effective, with a couple of less exciting straightforward rock songs elsewhere, and perhaps the whole thing is a bit too much in one sitting, but it *is* spread over two discs with a little 'do-be-do-be-do-be-do-be' ascending sound at the end of disc 1, as if you were turning over a cassette, so you have to give them props for that.

Key Tracks: Reflektor / We Exist / Joan of Arc / Hey Orpheus / Afterlife

4: Public Service Broadcasting - Inform - Educate - Entertain

It's a brilliantly simple idea - take some audio clips from old public domain news and documentary footage, which are sometimes amusing ("He's the kind of a guy that made the automobile people think up hydraulic brakes!") sometimes touching ("Why climb Everest? Because it is there..."), and sometimes downright bizarre ("Out of the past and into your future comes this news - and the news is.... pleats!"), stick it over some hypnotic beats, or driving guitar riffs, throw in as much banjo as humanly possible, and go out on tour playing in front of a load of TV sets showing said footage. It was certainly jolly effective when I saw the show just over a year ago (OH NO, HE DIDN'T!)...

"I'm sorry, I was telling these people to shut up talking, what I mean is this..."

The question, though, is this... would it work for a whole album, shorn of the visuals? Luckily, Mr. Willgoose, esq. (possibly not his real name) knows exactly what he is doing, from the very clever title track - a kind of overture to the whole album and introducing its themes (hmm, sounds a bit prog), to the soaring and guitar-driven 'Spitfire', to the banjo hoedown in the middle of 'ROYGBIV', and then onto the dark electronica of 'Night Mail', in which the classic 1930's film about the mail train is given the early-Porcupine Tree treatment with beats and loops aplenty (but fewer LSD references.)

And if there is a better pairing of my interests in 2013 than this wonderful video where the band performed 'Signal 30' in front of screens showing the season's Formula 1 highlights, then you'd better keep it away from me in case I leave Karin for it.

Key Tracks: Spitfire / Signal 30 / Night Mail / ROYGBIV / Everest

3: Everything Everything - Arc

"It's good to see the art of being able to play your instruments is coming back into fashion..", said my friend Simon after we went to see Everything Everything back in October (don't worry, no link, I didn't have time to review it.)

He had a point - if there's one thing you can say about EE (the band) it's that they are tight as a badger's perm. (If there's one thing you can say about EE (the phone network), by the way, it's that they are shit.)
It'd be easy to dismiss at least some the sound on offer here as production trickery: impossible-sounding basslines which are both funky and jerky all at once (e.g. 'Kemosabe'), uber-compressed real drum parts which turn on a microsecond with the rest of the band running along behind ('Feet For Hands'), and falsetto, breathy vocals which you can only imagine had to be recorded one word at a time to give the singer's bollocks a rest ('Torso of the Week').

It's not for nothing that Simon also compared them to the Cardiacs, with this strange blend of shiny, but glitchy production and all-over-the-place, several-songs-in-one, challenging indie-rock (whatever that means). But then there's the more simple beauty of the "string quartet meets thumping toms" of 'Duet'. And 'Undrowned' is easily the best song ever to be based on the tune of 'See Saw Margery Daw'.

God knows what any of the lyrics mean, though. (Or, come to think of it, what they even are.)

Key Tracks: Cough Cough / Kemosabe / Duet / Undrowned / Armourland

2: Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

I've expressed this opinion elsewhere and nobody seemed to agree with me (or, more accurately, they just ignored me and hoped I would go away, as usual) - but I can't escape the feeling that someone involved in Chvrches heard M83's 'Hurry Up, We're Dreaming' album, and thought "There should be more music in the world like this." Which I am totally on board with, by the way. There definitely should. But go on, have a listen to M83's 'Midnight City' and then Chvrches' 'The Mother We Share' and tell me they're not at least related by marriage.

If nothing else, these two superb albums are definitely drinking from the same 80's flavoured Kool-Aid with its huge synth sounds and drum pads, echoey vocals, giant but somehow sparse production and massive, massive tunes like 'We Sink'. Where Chvrches score highly on the "extra ingredient" front is with frontwoman Lauren Mayberry's confident yet somehow fragile vocals, which are extremely easy on the ear and provide an interesting contrast to the bombastic synth parts and thumping percussion of something like 'Lies'.

And that's not to say that things fall apart when Lauren steps away from the mic like on 'Under the Tide', either, leaving Martin Doherty to keep us entertained, his vocals providing a nice contrast when up front, a well as some distinctly Anthony Gonzalez-esque backing vocals elsewhere (oh no, there I go again...).

In summary, what we have here is a fantastic album of great pop songs with a huge sound which is almost tailored to my tastes, and when they darken things down a notch, with the distinctly creepy 'Science/Visions', there's a hint at even more exciting things down the line.

Key Tracks: The Mother We Share / We Sink / Tether / Lies / Science/Visions

1: Iamamiwhoami - Bounty

Ok, this is a massive cheat. Even massiver than the number one on my prog albums list. Yes, the songs on this album dribbled out as teasing and mysterious Youtube videos over the course of 2010-2011, with nobody knowing who was behind them to start with (guesses ranging from Christina Aguilera to Bjork), before Swedish geniuses Jonna Lee and Claes Björklund stepped up for their rightful props.

But it's not until now that they've been available to buy on CD/DVD as one cohesive album with accompanying videos, each song having a one-letter title spelling out the title 'Bounty' (except that there are 2 "U"s for some reason, and then there are two extra songs on the end called ";John" (no, the semicolon isn't a typo) and "Clump", because why not?). This is therefore an album that came out in 2013, and it's therefore officially the best (according to me.)

I explained last year (when I was robbing them of their rightful number 1 spot for first "proper" album 'Kin') how iamamiwhoami are quite beyond description, and then tried to describe them anyway. Dark, glacial, synth and beat-heavy, not afraid of weird off-kilter rhythms and the odd funny time signature - they're a bit like a less mental version of The Knife, or a more mumbly and slightly more tuneful Fever Ray.

'B' is a grand but mysterious opening, befitting its origins as anonymous internet video, but it's with 'O' that the sequencers, moaning and industrial machinery sounds kick in, and one of the year's (ok, 2010's) most massive tracks is born. If nothing else until 'Y' and its two lengthily named follow-ups is quite as darkly uplifting, that's not to belittle the rest of the songs on offer here, but the highlights of this album as listed below would be career bests for most acts and these are the first few songs they ever released - all of which bodes well for this year's "Series 3", which is already 2 songs in on Youtube at the time of writing and just as marvellous as ever.

Looks like Jonna had better polish up her giant furry coat and her acceptance speech for the first back-to-back GF album of the year victory in the "not prog" category.

Key Tracks: B / O / U2 / Y / ;John / Clump


So there we have it. Two months on, I've finally managed to whittle down the vast array of musical riches which crossed my earholes in 2013 down to 30 albums, and 25 other tracks. And people say there's no good new music any more. My wallet certainly wishes there wasn't.

Congratulations and thank you very much, if you've made it this far, and double thanks if you actually read some of the words and didn't just scroll down through the pretty pictures. I hope you found something new that you liked.

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