Sunday, 9 February 2014

2013: The Year in "Normal" Music - Top 20 Albums (20-11)

Following on from "the best tracks from 2013" that weren't prog and weren't on one of my favourite albums of 2013 because I didn't like all the tracks or the album doesn't exist yet or something like that, yeah

Top five reasons why it is still totally ok to do 'End of Year' lists in the middle of February:

1. 'Best of ' lists are still the best thing in the world, even when they're late
2. If you do your 'best of the year' list in December, it doesn't give a fair chance to those Johnny-come-lateleys who release their albums in Q4
3. It's been so long since everyone else's that you've forgotten what they picked
4. I don't have much else to write about, music-wise, and the other option is that I write about marathon training, and NOBODY wants that
5. Because I have put waaaaaay too much effort into this not to

For all of these reasons, and especially number 5... here we are - my top 20 albums of 2013 (that aren't prog. Except some of them. Maybe.)

Oh, and a Spotify playlist at the bottom, as usual.

20: Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest

I can never decide whether Boards of Canada's music is quite futuristic, in a very bleak, post-apocalyptic way, or whether it's extremely retro, offering a grim, depressing, monochromatic, 70's view of the world; a place where kids with long hair wear flares and climb inside electricity substations, or fly kites near pylons, to the accompaniment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Either way, their music always pleases, soothes and terrifies in equal measure, and this year's instalment is no different - although as my picks below demonstrate, I do like them most when they give me something to hum.

Key Tracks: Palace Posy / Nothing Is Real

19. Summer Camp - Summer Camp

I know there's not much competition since Ike and Tina Turner went all quiet, but Summer Camp are definitely my favourite husband and wife pop duo. Since catching them live supporting Saint Etienne, I've bought everything they've done, which is as much down to their charming stage and Twitter presence as the fun music - everything about the pair of them just makes me want to squeeze their little cheeks and say "awwwwww...."

And that includes their latest album, which could best be described (or most lazily, anyway) as 'summery indie-synthpop' - the best example of which being 'Fresh' with its wistful string loop, and nostalgic lyrics. You might call them a tiny bit twee, but then lead vocalist Elizabeth Sankey would probably just have some sassy Cher-from-Clueless comeback, so why bother? Just sit back and enjoy some fine tunes with deceptively melancholy lyrics - that and the wonderfully positive ending thought... "It's not how much you love / It's how much you are loved..."


Key Tracks: Fresh / Pink Summer

18: V V Brown -  Samson And Delilah

I'd never heard of V V Brown until one day Popjustice wrote this astounding blog about why her new album, was, you know, pretty good; so I decided to give it a punt, given that Popjustice is/are rarely wrong about anything, even if you don't always agree with him/them. That, and the fact that it was partly produced by Dave Okumo from The Invisible, who are probably the most amazing band ever to play at Tooting Tram and Social.

Sadly for our purposes, it isn't on Spotify, so you can't hear it along with the rest of the tracks here, but suffice to say that I was not disappointed - with extremely dark, dirty, intelligent electronic music backing up V V's astoundingly good voice (unusual in all the best ways - both when she sings and raps, yes raps, as on the exhilarating 'Igneous' ). You can, however, check out this performance of 'The Apple' on Jools Holland here and discover why it would be a good thing to have Grace Jones fronting Depeche Mode.

Key Tracks: Samson / I Can Give You More / Igneous / The Apple / Ghosts

17. Hejira: Prayer Before Birth 

I slightly imagine that Hejira don't actually want anyone to hear this album - which would fit nicely with the extremely mysterious, aloof image I got from seeing them live just over a year ago. Quite hard to find any information about, this band seem to exist solely in reviews and a Bandcamp page upon which you can find a number of extremely experimental, almost improvised tracks called 'The Dust of Dreams', Vols 1-12.

Still, bad luck, guys, I have heard it - and it has to rank as the most profoundly inventive thing I bought all year (although looking at some of my other choices later on, you might think that's not too hard.)

It's dark and brooding for the most part (no surprises there), but there are very few electronic influences for once, on this list. Instead, this mini masterpiece is full of soft, echoey vocals, with male and female in unison (an effect I've certainly not heard before), plenty of ethereal guitars, and rolling toms with softly swishing cymbals, rather than a full kit blasting out constantly - and then you get a track like 'Echoes' which builds up from extremely minimal beginnings to enormous flourishes of menacing brass.

Almost impossible to describe, I suggest you just listen to it.

Key tracks: Litmus Test / Know / Echoes / Pinter / Gypsy of the Soul

16. Little Boots: Nocturnes

Last time Victoria "Little Boots" Hesketh had an album out, she was signed to a major label, had a major producer and major budget, and it sounded like it. 'New in Town' was a gigantic glitzy, glam pop anthem which also somehow managed to rock, and was a justified hit.

Now it's 4 years later, and shorn of all the major-ness I mentioned above, she's actually all the better for it. This time around, she's produced an album of wonderfully catchy minimal dance-pop, recalling Saint Etienne, Giorgio Moroder and Kylie in equal measures. Tunes a-plenty, a sparser, house-ish production and a much greater sense of what she's all about as an artist in her own right, this is an extremely welcome return. Now, if she could just arrange a repeat of that London gig that I had to miss due to work, I'd be ever so grateful...

Key tracks: Broken Record / Shake / Strangers / Satellite

15. The Duckworth Lews Method - Sticky Wickets

Who'd have thought the world needed one album full of songs with lyrics about cricket, let alone two?

Yes, it's another dose of utter daftness from Messrs Hannon and Walsh, with songs about the under-appreciation of umpires, the modernisation of the game, poor fielding positions and, well, sex (under the guise of vague cricket metaphors). There are songs which sound delightfully like ELO ('Third Man', or 'Turd Man', as Thomas would have it), songs which sound quite like The Divine Comedy of old ('Boom Boom Afridi'), songs with spoken word cameos from Daniel Radcliffe and Stephen Fry, and a song with lyrics taken from a Wikipedia page, set to what appears to be an outtake from David Bowie's Labyrinth soundtrack ('Line and Length'). Not that I'm complaining.

However, even within the confines of a silly album about cricket, the optimum daftness quotient is exceeded a little towards the end with a giant singalong from some cricket supporters and a final song which consists of various celebrities repeating two silly words and a sensible one, again and again over an increasingly annoying tune. ('Nudging and Nurdling')

I prefer to think that the album ends with the genuinely amusing 'Mystery Man', a nice enough song which then turns into an end-credits/score card type thing with voiceover from Matt Berry and would be a fine end to this cricket saga. Plus, that way, the last thing you hear is "Zero. Trod on wicket."

Key Tracks: Boom Boom Afridi / Third Man / Line and Length/ Out in The Middle

14. Disclosure: Settle

We have a saying in my circle of gig buddies when we think something is rubbish... "It's not aimed at me."

This really ought to be the very definition of "not aimed at me" - I mean, look at these guys, do they look like they make music that a 35 year old should enjoy? Meh, sod it. This is possibly the most exciting straight house/dance music I've heard since the first Basement Jaxx album, with guest vocalists (Eliza Doolittle, Jessie Ware, London Grammar) and samples aplenty- that and massive grooves that bang on and on way beyond where they should still be interesting. I suspect none of it is as edgy as I think it is, but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this, especially my favourite gym track of the year, 'White Noise'.

Maybe you will enjoy it too. (But I would suggest that it is probably "not aimed at" most of my regular readers.)

Key Tracks: Latch / White Noise / Voices / You & Me

13. Sigur Ros: Kveikur

The epic beauty of Sigur Ros has taken quite a lengthy and roundabout route to my ears. I've been sort of vaguely aware for many years that they make this kind of "good Coldplay" anthemic stuff that's so beloved of TV producers putting together sports highlights packages, but upon picking up some old albums cheaply, I also found that they appeared to be fronted by a cat with a piano on its tail, so I've been somewhat conflicted for a while.

Anyway, this year, something happened and the whole thing finally clicked, especially Jonsi's bonkers vocals; helped in large part by an absolutely phenomenal, mind-blowing gig at Wembley Arena (not helped by Wembley Arena itself, mind, which is probably the worst music venue in London these days.)

This time out, to my mostly untrained ears, there is a slightly darker, heavier sound, with some beats here and there; proper tunes also crop up now and again, and there are just enough dollops of the standard "epic, uplifting" stuff, like 'Stormur', to get the easily-scared through the more challenging moments.

Key Tracks: Brennisteinn / Isjaki / Stormur

12. Phoenix: Bankrupt!

These funky soft rock revivalists hit the moderate-time in France back at the turn of the millennium with an extremely slick pair of albums, before turning briefly into the French Strokes, and then smashing through in the US (although oddly not here) by adding a soupcon of edgy synth and beats for their last album 'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix'.

All 3 of these previous incarnations come crashing together here, with even more emphasis on the indietronica this time around but, crucially, with 'un grand sac' of catchy tunes, something that wasn't always the case on its predecessor. And then there's the small matter of the 7-minute mostly instrumental title track, with pulsing synths recalling Pink Floyd's 'On the Run', overlaid with harpsichord and speaker-destroying bass pedals. (Sorry, I said no prog, didn't I?)

Parisian cool via LA chic; why the heck they decided to turn their hotel room fruitbowl into an album cover, though, I will never know.

Key Tracks:  Entertainment / The Real Thing / Bankrupt / Oblique City

11. Midnight Juggernauts: Uncanny Valley

Don't Australians know they're meant to be cheery? Midnight Juggernauts have never quite understood this rule, as even in their most upbeat, funky moments like 2007's 'Shadows', they still managed to use up the world's supply of minor chords. Perhaps they've been hanging out in Scandinavia. Or even Russia via India as the mock-USSR video and sitar opening of 'Melodiya' would suggest.

Elsewhere, it's business as per the last couple of albums; minor key but deceptively uplifting and hypnotic beats, mumbly lyrics about circumnavigating the earth, 'Beach Boys-on-downers' harmony vocals, and echoey, 80's Tony Banks-esque synth solos over rollicking basslines and funky drum patterns. An Antipodean riddle within an electro-pop mystery, wrapped up in an 'hands-in-the-air' enigma.

Key Tracks: HCL/ Ballad of the War Machine/ Streets of Babylon / Systematic / Melodiya

Next time: Go on, guess. What do you think will be next time?