Truth be told I was thinking of avoiding the favourite albums piece this year. Because… well, this type of jape has become something of an industry. Ubiquitous; a parade of the same old records shuffled arbitrarily into position. And I’m old, and cranky, and desensitised by mid-November at the very latest as the earnest and the knowing peddle their premature breakdowns of the 50 2013 LPs you must hear before the inevitable tinnitus drowns everything else out. At least two albums heavily considered for my own, personal decalogue were released in December – just a few days ago, in fact – which prompts the question: what were all these November list-compiling Herberts thinking of? Unless being first is some kind of accolade about which I never received the memo… in which case next year I’ll be counting down my top ten of 2014 this coming March.
See? Old and cranky; I’m tempted to make up every album and invent every act in the following year-end recommend – except I suspect that this is exactly the type of moribund stunt at least one online publication already pulls on a regular basis. So instead I’ll shuffle the same old records arbitrarily into position, ten through two, then maybe see if I can grow suddenly less gnarled and misanthropic when it comes to writing at length about the record from this year I couldn’t do without (which I’ll post in a day or two) EDIT – #1 = here
Also: it’s been a strange year. Every year’s strange in its own special way, of course, but this year it’s almost as if there’s too much music. It’s becoming a full time job just to keep up – and as I’m a strange and terrible man who refuses to have anything whatsoever to do with digital music or even listening to music outside of the LGM garret (the theory being that listening to a record without your complete and undivided attention is an unforgivable sin), there’s no doubt much I’ve missed out on by virtue of occasionally having to leave the house. A less frequent occurrence than it used to be, now that the supermarket kindly delivers alcohol in bulk, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that, hidden away on a gloomy Wednesday whilst I’m otherwise engaged – the greatest album I’ll never hear has been smuggled out onto the internet, only to be instantaneously squished by 40,000 lost souls shouting about how amazing the London Grammar LP is.
(Clue: London Grammar are not in my top ten).
Stuff that didn’t make the cut but are none-the-less highly recommended include The Pictish Trail’s Secret Soundz Vol 2, TOY’s December release Join The Dots, two soundtracks – the experiment staccato of Berberian Sound Studio by Broadcast, and Mogwai’s enigmatic accompaniment to the excellent Les Revenants TV series – as well as Waiting For Something To Happen by Veronica Falls and the latest Wooden Shjips LP: Back To The Land.
And two records came incredibly close to making the top ten that it feels like sabotage to exclude them. Floating Coffin is pretty much my favourite album by Thee Oh Sees – it feels a little more evil (and therefore more agreeable) than the rest of the back-cat. And then there’s Field Of Reeds by These New Puritans. Which at times is an intense and unsettling listen. All stark, oblique angles. Backlit, and conspiratorial. There are moments when I can’t stop listening to this LP; others when I can’t bear to have it near the turntable. Relationship status: it’s complicated.
Albums #10 to #2:
#10: Beliefs / Beliefs
Less an actual album as a series of musical reference points.
And yes; usually that last sentence would be an insult, delivered with a sneer. But when those reference points represent pretty much everything I was listening to between 1988 and ’94 – especially if released on 4AD, or one of those flexidiscs taped to the front of a fanzine – then the shards and barbs of musical verisimilitude start percolating, and the record wins out. This (début) album doesn’t wear its influences with pomp or circumstance. It’s not deferential, and it doesn’t attempt to imitate or pass off the ideas of others as its own. Instead, this a is confident, cohesive record; Toronto’s Beliefs offer yet more evidence that North America harbours so much wonderful music of this ilk. And whilst certain tracks here-in have surfaced previously, it doesn’t detract from album as singularity, as the formation of experience.
#9: John Grant / Pale Green Ghosts
Certain records are instantaneous. The shot of adrenalin, a wallop to the synapses. Other discs do things differently. The slow approach, a creeping up unawares, until one day you find yourself heading over to the piles of vinyl, then reaching for a specific sleeve almost on reflex. Pale Green Ghosts is, in many respects, a remarkably safe nomination as one of the albums of the year – if Grant resembled anything like a conventional pop star, this would truly be considered his breakout record; the moment the bats were released. Yet what grabbed me about this record – and keeps grabbing me, if I’m honest – is the sheer amount of detail it packs in amongst the retro-modernist self-exposure, and the sharp, pristine wordplay, and the stylistic consciousness, and the finely crafted invitation to seat yourself for a repeat listen. Grant’s baritone is lit like portraiture, half-Harry Nilsson, half-James Murphy, and whilst the beauty is frequently understated, it’s there in spades.
#8: The Fauns / Lights
This blog may have spun the odd phrase in the broad direction of what we could blithely describe as shoegaze (your terminology of choice may vary). And one word that I can guarantee will have cropped up is density… which will be where Lights comes in. I first heard this album whilst lying on the floorboards with a bottle of single malt at my side after one of those days at work when pushing the fuckers down the stairs was oh-so-tempting. And through the wispy cloudscape of intro opener ‘Point Zero’, ‘Seven Hours; kicked in – and I was somewhere else. Bristol’s The Fauns know instinctively all about grace and balance, Alison Garner’s never-there vocals low in the mix but never swamped, the guitars prowling but always on the right side of texture, bass proud, prominent, the flying buttresses of such finery. An album only released at the beginning of the month; had it hit the turntable earlier in the year (and thus given the opportunity to grow and breath and cultivate the relationship), I’m certain it would have been even higher in the top ten.
Link: The Fauns / Seven Hours
#7: Jon Hopkins / Immunity
There’s a moment on ‘Collider’, track four of Immunity – two minutes, forty-nine seconds in, to be precise – when I arrived at the conclusion that I was listening to ‘Automatic’ by The Pointer Sisters. That is, ‘Automatic’ by The Pointer Sisters as reinterpreted by Kim Jong-il and his squad of mutant death robots. I like ‘Automatic’; it has a marauding sassiness to its pleats and curves. In fact, should cerebral electronica inexplicably not be your thing (and Immunity surely is cerebral electronica; only I’m far from certain of the merits of reviewing the work of a Coldplay collaborator), then buy Break Out, by The Pointer Sisters. It sounds nothing like Immunity, but that’s not the point.
It’s okay having Break Out by The Pointer Sisters at #7 in a 2013 album round-up, yeah?
Link: Jon Hopkins / Collider
#6: Sigur Rós / Kveikur
Big (obviously – even when Sigur Rós do intimate, do minimalist, do something that sounds like an Arcade Fire b-side, there’s still the sense of broad canvas, of drama by intent or interpretation). Cinematic, widescreen, of landscape (translated into English, Sigur Rós literally means “the day I stood against the grey-scale tundra and watched a sprite dicking about in the distance”). Yet Kveikur (Icelandic for candlewick) is also the band’s most abrasive record by far. A sense of urgency not witnessed since Ágætis byrjun. An album that doesn’t take the easy route across the contours, but deliberately forges the difficult path. Whether a result of last year’s line-up change or a reaction against the homogenising effects of band as brand, this change in direction has an air of dangerous folklore about its person. More of this sort of thing, please.
Link: Sigur Rós / Stormur
#5: Luke Haines / Rock And Roll Animals
The latest instalment in Haines’ most stubborn attempt to subjugate the concept album to his own twisted ends. And out of context the premise – a fox called Jimmy Pursey, a badger named Nick Lowe, and (obviously) a feline Gene Vincent all venture up the compass to vanquish the Angel of the North – reads like one of those post-modern children’s books the darling little ones aren’t interested in because the games console is making eyes again (a Peter And the Wolf sensation that Julia Davis’ narration on this disc only serves to bolster).
In fact, I’m quite smitten with the concept of declaring Luke Haines to be talentless banjo-fucker whose latest sub-par offering has disappeared up its own colonic cavities even before the intro – if only because it appeals to his own proclivity for contrariness. I’m not certain that Rock And Roll Animals truly works (however fluid and immediate and yes! the title track may be); it feels a little truncated, as if an idea pressured to behave by the natural constraints of the LP format. But you know what it’s like when you’re locked into the view that Person X is one of the most important singer-songwriters of the last twenty years. It kind of becomes a subset of your musical identity. Drags you along with those flights of fancy. There’s also a new (concept) album due next year – and my smattering of inside info tells me it’s going to be a corker.
#4: Fuck Buttons / Slow Focus
There were worries for this record. Such has been the relentless ballooning of the Fuck Buttons profile that the lurch towards commerciality must have slinked about the studio like a sore temptation, if not outright career progression. Thankfully, Slow Focus is not that album. Artfully appending myriad movements of electro-futurism, there’s a sense of never truly being conscious of the direction of travel – only that the velocity is mighty fine.
The closing stanzas – ‘Stalker’; ‘Hidden X’s’ – genuinely aren’t the type of tracks you’d fancy meeting in a cold dark alley, or discovered hiding beneath the bed when you’re all alone, the former unfolding from a John Carpenter-esque motif into a very dark place, the latter as if occupying the dance floor in a Guillermo del Toro nightmare. And everything keeps building, building, layers upon layers upon layers of sonic emancipation – it’s easy to feel exhausted by submerging yourself into Slow Focus. Exhausted – also invigorated.
Link: Fuck Buttons / Stalker
#3: The Pastels / Slow Summits
The first Pastels album proper since 1997. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned – beyond the fact that Stephen McRobbie simply must have a Dorian Gray artwork up in the attic – it’s that age and experience usher in the mellow. This is not necessarily a bad thing – and should in no way be confused with complacency; this is band who’ve shed not an ounce of integrity over the years – itself refreshing in this age of karaoke-themed reformations and artists gurning it up for the money – and whilst the nervous energy that defined their earlier output has dissipated like gas through the floorboard cracks, they remain a collective both endearingly shambolic and wisely fey.
And then there’s Slow Summits. I’m not a big fan of the word lovely. As an adjective it’s wilfully weak and under-developed. The foetus of describing words – only slightly superior to nice or okay. But this LP’s all-encompassing sense of warmth makes it acceptable to appreciate lovely again. No fireworks. No grand posturing – in contrast to much else on this list, it’s not even a particularly sophisticated record, instead broadcasting through a simple (and maybe even timeless) charm. Stephen’s vocals (he still can’t sing) work in concert with Katrina’s vocals (she of the lovely voice), and somehow even the instrumental title track – all flute and trumpet and a witty line in guitar as punctuation – manages to channel exactly the same essence of delight as songs with words.
#2: My Bloody Valentine / mbv
Slow Summits and mbv have two things in common. Both represent a return to the long player format after considerable time away, and both have been the subject of occasionally fierce debate in Glasgow bars (although it should be recognised that this is where the similarities between the two probably end). There’s a genuine case to be made that, when framed against the brooding presence of respective back catalogues, neither album extends the cause any great distance. That both contain enough echoes of past glories to cushion or cauterise the impact of any new material – which in turn tarnishes how the listener interacts with the material.
It’s an argument I understand (if not one I subscribe to) – and it’s not as if mbv is a record free from issues. Smuggled out electronically in the dog hours of a foggy Saturday, such was the depth of our communal “Wow; this is not an elaborate joke” moment that the resultant hype grew very silly very, very quickly. So overbearing in fact that I refused to listen to the thing until the vinyl shipped a few weeks later, and dropping the needle ceased to be an exercise in deflecting hubbub.
I’m also on record as struggling with both Isn’t Anything and Loveless due to issues around translation; that so monolithically magnificent is the My Bloody Valentine sound – both live, and particularly in Kevin Shield’s head – that capturing the nuance (and sometimes even the broad traits) is beyond the technology or the production skills or the storage capacity of your format of choice (albeit mbv at least attempts to circumvent the latter concern, the mix on the vinyl subtly different to the CD release, and subtly different again for the digitalised shipment).
All of which prompts the question: if so flawed, why anchor the damn thing at #2? In a year when that nice Mr Bowie and that lovely Mr Cave both released LPs free from such major structural deficiencies? (That’s all rhetorical. No need to answer. I can’t believe anyone reading these words hasn’t listened to the album – hence we all understand). The truth is that mbv is no adjunct. It’s not an echo of what went before, or the middle-aged day trip to youthful stances. No; this album is as urgent as ever. The word texture is an undersell – such is the hallucinogenic gravitas, the sound all-encompassing, full of post-Loveless melodic intrigue on one hand, and sonic assault most caustic on the other. Sometimes, in the face of such wonderful complexity, the only suitable response is to sit there dumbstruck, to give yourself over to be lead way beyond zones of comfort; this record achieves that with ease.
And no visit to mbv will be complete without mentioning closing track ‘Wonder 2’. This is one of those moments when the only word this fits is astonishing; a stack of dissonant drum ‘n’ bass pumped through ghostly imagination so acerbic as to leave blood on the speakers. Wow – simply wow.