The Best Albums of 2013

It seems odd to begin blogging with a retrospective, never mind a belated one. However, that is exactly what I will do. Here are my top ten records of the year just passed (first 10 to 6 and then the top five later in the week).

2013 was one of the best years for music in recent memory. There were excellent debuts, dynamic modern artists continuing their hot streak and even household names and legends coming back to prove that they’ve still got it.

As such there are some seemingly glaring omissions from this list. It was a hard one to compile. There is no sign of Bowie or My Bloody Valentine or Nick Cave. Artists whose albums I loved just didn’t make it: FIDLAR, Ty Segall, Boards of Canada, Darkside, Arctic Monkeys and Earl Sweatshirt. These musicians made albums that in many other years would have been some of the best. I urge you to check out every name I mention here. In the meantime, marvel at my list making prowess.

10. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic – Foxygen 

The first spot on this list was the hardest to come to terms with as there were several viable candidates that could have reached the pinnacle that is my Top Ten list. Foxygen’s magically titled We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic is given the honour since they have perfected what many recent bands have tried, but only a few have properly achieved. That being a 60s revivalist sound just referential enough without sounding derivative, but which still perfectly encapsulating aspects of why music from that era is so loved. Their Beatles-y harmonies, Kinksian guitar strut and psychedelic lyrics made this a joyful discovery for me last year.

Adding to the vintage feel is a wonderfully rough production value. The Kinks and Beach Boys may be all over this, but Foxygen do not fail to pepper their work with a more modern tinge, creating the sound of a band who have written 2013 songs and then time travelled to make their record in the sunny 60s.

Highlight: the electronic breakdown in “Shuggie”

9. Howlin – Jagwar Ma 

Last year was a revolutionary one for dance music. Disclosure’s Settle, Darkside’s Psychic and other albums, which will make an appearance later in this list, have redefined what we dance to. Australian duo Jagwar Ma have delivered a psychedelic, baggy influenced debut – like a modern Screamadelica – which was the most fun sound to dance to in 2013. Once again, they delivered an album (like Foxygen, and Tame Impala last year) which reintroduces an important period in musical history to modern day listeners but with an added twist of their own. On Howlin, there are Beach Boys and early Beatles harmonies (“ComeSave Me”) directly next to Revolver and Sgt. Peppers-esque psychedelia (“The Throw”, “Man I Need”) and all scattered over with a bowlful of massive, bouncing club beats filtered through “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Slip Inside This House” (“Four”). Sometimes, all of these are present in one glorious mash up (such as “Uncertainty”). This is my favourite debut album of the year (though perhaps not the ‘best’), and it continues the great musical run of form coming out of the antipodes.

Highlight: “Uncertainty”, all of it.  One of the best songs of the year

8. Silence Yourself – Savages 

The first of a few albums that have clear overtones of menace this year (is it really that bad a time we live in?). This debut from four powerful, talented females is brimming with an anger, intensity and chaos that haven’t been heard on record since punk pioneers Black Flag. Joy Division comparisons are folly since Ian Curtis and crew never got this loud. It is so refreshing to hear a group of this style and make up create such a challenging but remarkable record at first attempt. The instrumentation (especially the rhythm section) is as impressive as anything you will hear this year and the lyrics take on a repetitive edge, with vocalist Jehnny Beth at times drumming these statements of individuality, self-determination and self-expression (“I Am Here”, “Hit Me”) into your subconscious. This is not an easy listen by any means- guitars squall and scratch, rather than shimmer and jangle – but it is a rewarding one.

Highlight: a rare down tempo but still chilling moment as a clarinet solo fades in on album closer “Marshal Dear”

7. Drifters/Love is the Devil – Dirty Beaches 

One night last summer, I walked home from Glasgow city centre, slightly inebriated, in a pouring rain that made the street lights glow, halo like, in the darkened roads (like they do in some sequences of David Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece Mulholland Drive). Having had the pleasure of listening to Drifters/Love is the Devil, an ambitious, sweeping, cinematic double album from Alex Zhang Hungtai (the mastermind behind the moniker Dirty Beaches), for a number of months already, I decided (perhaps for the wrong, self-deprecating reasons) that this was the perfect setting to listen through the closing five tracks: “Love is the Devil”, “Alone at the Danube River”, “I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back to You”, “Like the Ocean We Part” and “Berlin”. Whatever my initial mindset for doing this, it was a telling decision. During my walk this album opened itself up to me. Before, these were just poetically titled atmospheric compositions by an obviously multi-talented artist. But now they are emotionally fuelled, personal vignettes into the soul and psyche of this artist. When a musician can convey consciousness, thought and feeling only through instrumentation, it is an admirable achievement.

This is not music in the popular sense; there are no tunes. This is deeply challenging and affecting intellectual music, not everyone’s ‘thing’, but it is one of the best albums of the year- it is truly an album. The sound defies expression or description and insists that it be listened to from start to finish, as all really great records deserve to be. If you want to hear something truly heartfelt and exposing, listen to Drifters/Love is the Devil.

When I returned home, as is my way, I tweeted at Dirty Beaches: “Didn’t understand the sad beauty of the new Dirty Beaches album till I was walking home tonight”. To my surprise he replied, saying: “Some nights seem they would last a lifetime. But eventually the new day comes. You’re not alone”.  Those last five songs could not have been summed up better.

Highlight: the drifting, meandering guitar solo on “Alone at the Danube River”

6. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk 

This is the first of two deeply polarising albums on this list. It goes without saying (though many people have anyway, and I will too) that on Random Access Memories Daft Punk have once again breathed new life into dance music. It may not have quite the same impact as Discovery, mainly because this too is a revivalist record in certain aspects, as many are this year. But if these songs don’t at least make you happy and get up and dance, then there’s something quite wrong. This collection of tracks puts the Daft Punk slant on disco and you can’t help but start flailing like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. From the opening piano chords of “Give Life Back to Music” (and Daft Punk really have) to the stomping drums on “Lose Yourself to Dance”, through 2013’s song of the summer “Get Lucky” and, finally, to the crackling futuristic wind tunnel of sound on “Contact”, Daft Punk put all their talent into giving soul back to dance music, something which the malfunctioning robot sex music of so called dance pioneers like Skrillex so desperately lacks. Human After All was the name of Daft Punk’s third album, but the sentiment more accurately applies to that found on Random Access Memories. Perhaps more surprising, after all the fuss over “Get Lucky”, is how they’ve managed to direct all the musical heart on this record not only to revive a forgotten genre but also to create a new one, all done with what Giorgio Moroder explicitly calls on the album “the sound of the future”.

Highlight: when the music collapses in on itself at the end of closer “Contact”

Check back in a few days for my top five (if I still have your attention…)

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