Hello, welcome back and, once again, thanks for reading – here are my penultimate ten album picks of the year. Check out the previous three ‘blogs if you haven’t yet read my choices for 21 through to 50.
20. Suede – Bloodsports
One of the most exciting pieces of news this year, apart from the new Bowie release, was the reformation of Suede and a new studio album, although I have to admit that, when I heard the news, I wasn’t overconfident that it was a particularly good idea. However, the re-releases of all of their expanded albums in 2011 had certainly reminded me just how brilliant they were in their prime and that it was a shame their popularity had dwindled, especially as their final album, “A New Morning” (2002), had been quite underrated and certainly an improvement over their penultimate release, “Head Music” (1999). I would also have been keen on some kind of involvement from Bernard Butler, as my two favourite Suede albums are their first couple of releases, when he was a huge creative force in the band, but it was obviously not meant to be. All of these factors led to low expectations when I first heard “Bloodsports”, despite reading some very positive reviews, and I was soon very pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality and appeal of the material on the album.
It’s a hugely enjoyable affair and, although not every song on here is entirely brilliant, it’s all highly listenable and there are at least half a dozen superb additions to the Suede catalogue. I have to admit that when I first heard “Barriers”, I thought the band were aping The Killers, but then the chorus explodes and it’s pure Suede, with that trademark vibrato guitar sound and Brett’s lofty vocals; it’s a fantastic start to the album. “Snowblind” is also a classic Suede track, with a guitar line reminiscent of the “Dog Man Star” era and a catchy-as-hell chorus, “Strangers” has a beautifully dreamy feel to it, but is also quite a powerfully emotive song and “Hit Me” could have easily have been a single from “Coming Up” with all those brilliant ingredients of the band combining for a near-perfect Suede experience. Perhaps my favourite song on this album, however, is the magnificent and truly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away”, which has the dramatic, grandiose feel of some of Suede’s finest moments.
“Bloodsports” is now my fourth favourite Suede studio album. That probably doesn’t sound very inspiring or impressive, but it was always going to be very unlikely that anything Suede released in 2013 was going to surpass either “Suede” or “Dog Man Star”. Richard Oakes and Neil Codling’s debut album with Suede, “Coming Up” was a shimmering, irresistible piece of indie-pop that would have also taken something very special indeed to better. Whilst “Bloodsports” doesn’t better their 1996 chart-topping album, which was jam-packed full of catchy singles, it comes a very close second and there is a greater depth to their songwriting on this release than on “Coming Up” which could give weight to the argument that this is the better album, as there is perhaps greater substance over style. However, one thing is for sure, if they’d have followed “Coming Up” with “Bloodsports” instead of “Head Music”, the history of the band and of British indie music could have been very different. Here’s hoping this won’t be a one off and the band will continue to work together on new music, but, either way, this collection of songs serves as an excellent reminder of exactly how good Suede were (and are) with what is surely an essential album for any fan.
19. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
I fully admit that “Pale Green Ghosts” was a bit of a shock when I first heard it. Having truly loved “Queen Of Denmark”, I then delved back into John’s past work to discover all of The Czars’ albums and in the space of just a couple of years went from not really knowing about John Grant to being a huge fan of his work. It’s actually only because of my respect for him and the fact that one track, in particular, “Glacier” struck me as a work of genius did I play this album more than once because, I have to be honest, when I listened to it for the very first time, I really disliked it. I’m not a fan of modern electronica (although it you’re talking about late seventies and eighties electronic music, I’m rather partial) and much of the album grated. However, I persevered, started to enjoy a few more tracks, went to see John in concert in Cambridge and then, as if by magic, the next time I listened to it, this intricate jigsaw of an album really came together and I was able to thoroughly enjoy the whole album from start to finish, particularly enjoying the textures and dynamics of this unusual piece of work. There are hints of the beautiful big balladry of “Queen Of Denmark”, but those who wanted an exact replica of that magnificent album and aren’t open to something quite different and adventurous from Grant are possibly going be disappointed by at least half of the tracks here. You really do have to widen your horizons a little or have a penchant for the sort of music he has embraced here to enjoy this release, but for those who are able to embrace the changes or who choose to listen to electronica anyway, this album has so much to offer and each repeat playback rewards the listener with a greater return.
Album opener and title-track “Pale Green Ghosts” (named after the olive trees adorning the roadside near Grant’s home in Colorado) still isn’t one I have warmed to fully and proves to be a low-key start to the album, although it is most definitely a bold electronic statement that this project is something completely different to his solo breakthrough. The excellent “Black Belt” has robotic rhythms and some bitchy, pithy lyrics that match the cold, detached feel of the song perfectly and the slightly bitter but undeniably likeable, self-promoting yet self-deprecating “GMF” is the first track, musically, on “Pale Green Ghosts” that could have comfortably fit on this album’s predecessor. “Vietnam”, the sound of a man battling against his (ex?) partner’s unforgiving silence, has a musically hollow verse but the sumptuously melodic chorus, augmented by soothing strings, is like aural honey, sweet, soothing and completely contradictory to the pain expressed in the lyrics. The heartbreakingly beautiful “It Doesn’t Matter To Him” sees John pouring his sadness and frustration out into some gentle, dignified musings that anybody who has been involved in a painful break-up will understand and empathise with. The instrumental epilogue of the track is dreamy and gorgeous; an exquisite end to an emotive piece. “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” is less likeable, however, and is quite a bleak, angry synth-laden track that covers the same ground as the previous song, but with a little less restraint.
“You Don’t Have To”, with its slightly eighties sound simple synthesiser motif, is a wistful, tender reminiscence about a lost relationship with some amusingly biting, honest lyrics, whereas “Sensitive New Age Guy” is an up-tempo slice of electronica which, although has some interesting synth touches, is a bit less enjoyable than most of the other tracks. The sonically bleak “Ernest Borgnine” isn’t really to my taste, either, but the superb “I Hate This Town” (with a chorus almost borrowed from ABBA’s “Chiquitita”, according to Grant) truly raises the bar once more. It is almost as if the very best was saved for last on “Pale Green Ghosts”, as the last composition, “Glacier”, an intelligent, fierce rebuttal of homophobic slander and hatred is truly magnificent, featuring a sublime vocal performance by John and a classically-tinged piano and strings climax that is both beautiful and passionate in equal measure. Even if a lot of the album isn’t to your taste because of the electronic content, I would defy anyone who enjoyed “Queen Of Denmark” to listen to “Glacier” and not be blown away; it’s a moment of sheer genius on a creative, eclectic album that has so many more excellent tracks than not. It’s the track that forced me to re-listen to the album time and time again and to turn an, at first, uncomfortable listening experience into something that is now one of my favourite records of 2013. I imagine “Pale Green Ghosts” isn’t for everybody and it very nearly wasn’t for me, but a willingness to absorb the new direction and a little perseverance could mean that it slowly turns into one of your favourites of the year too.
18. The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard The Ark
I thoroughly enjoyed The Leisure Society’s debut “The Sleeper”, but the follow-up “Into The Murky Water” didn’t quite hit the same heights, so this third album is a very welcome release indeed, as it is excellent. It’s one of those albums that keeps the listener’s interest throughout, doesn’t contain any filler and has more than a handful of stand-out tracks that keep you coming back to the album again and again. It is actually quite difficult to categorise the type of music that The Leisure Society produce. I would hesitate to call it “pop” of any description because it’s the type of music that, whilst it could easily make the playlist of a station like Radio 2, simply wouldn’t trouble the singles chart. You couldn’t call it “easy listening” either (although it is certainly very gentle on the ear) because it is miles away from the likes of Michael Buble (thankfully!). They remind me of Belle and Sebastian without the lofty tweeness, or, perhaps, The Beautiful South without the pithy lyrics. Some songs remind me of Noah and the Whale’s later material (“Fight For Everyone”, for example), only much better, but their eclectic nature in terms of instrumentation and arrangements are one of their strengths and the fact that it is so difficult to categorise the music can only be a good thing.
Although this is an excellent album overall, my favourite tracks on “Alone Aboard The Ark” are plentiful. “Tearing The Arches Down” (although it reminds me a little of Queen’s “Drowse”) is absolutely superb, disjointed guitar solo and all, “All I Have Seen”, is a dreamy little waltz-time gem, with a beautiful string section, a melody-line reminiscent of The Housemartins and a gorgeous climax to the track and “Everyone Understands” is a jaunty number that could easily have come from the pen of Neil Hannon. Echoes of The Divine Comedy can also be heard on the excellent “One Man and His Fug”, a catchy baroque pop delight, the dramatic “Forever Shall We Wait”, with a slight Latin lilt almost sounds like a piece from a musical and the wonderfully hazy “We Go Together” is a perfect end-of-the-evening anthem, complete with a lovely vocal theme to sing along to. Recorded in Konk studio in London, thanks to their friendship with Ray Davies, they have managed to release an album just as strong as their brilliant début which is beautifully arranged and performed, features Nick Hemming’s wonderfully crafted songwriting throughout and is a rather pleasurable experience from start to finish. If the lyrics has just a little bit more of an edge to them, they’d probably become one of my favourite bands, but, quite honestly, they’re rather good as they are and I’d recommend this one highly.
17. Duckworth Lewis Method – Sticky Wickets
When I reviewed The Duckworth Lewis Method’s “début” album, I theorised, quite confidently, that, surely, it would be a one off. After all, how much mileage is there in a group specialising in songs about cricket? Turns out there’s enough inspiration for at least two albums from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh to indulge and fuse their love of the sport and classic pop/rock. Their new album “Sticky Wickets” (originally conceived to have an album cover lampooning The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” which would have been great) is a smashing helping of fun and, although it doesn’t match up to Hannon’s main body of work, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment and there are a few choice tracks which make this a more than worthwhile purchase and will appeal to the vast majority of fans of both of the main players. The inclusion of Crowded House’s Nick Seymour on bass as well as a plethora of special guests including Stephen Fry (on “Judd’s Paradox”), Daniel Radcliffe (on “The Third Man”), Henry Blofield (on “It’s Just Not Cricket”), Matt Berry (on “Mystery Man”) and more famous names than you can shake a cricket bat at on “Nudging and Nurdling” make this a star-studded affair.
The first highlight is the catchy “Boom Boom Afridi” which has a chorus that sticks in your mind way after the album is over. “It’s Just Not Cricket”, a song about fair play, is certainly one of the best songs on the album and “The Umpire”, a beautiful piece of music about the lonely world of being one of the game’s law-upholders, is perhaps the most Divine Comedy-like track on this release and could easily have come from any of Neil’s last few albums. The seriously excellent “Third Man” tells the story of the fumbler who gets stuck in that position, dreaming the game away and features some inspired, jaunty strings (all arranged by Hannon). There is even a near-disco pop song, “Line and Length”, boasting heavy beats, scratching and eighties synth sounds which is many times more hook-laden and enjoyable than it really should be. “Mystery Man” is a brilliantly catchy, bouncy, insanely good song which should put a smile on the faces of most listeners and “Nudging and Nurdling” is one of those songs that refuses to leave your brain, even when you want it to.
Much has been made of Duckworth Lewis Method’s love of The Electric Light Orchestra and, given some of the write-ups I’ve seen, you’d be forgiven for putting the album on and expecting to hear something straight from the pen of Jeff Lynne, however, if that was what you were expecting, you would be disappointed (or relieved, depending on your opinion on the bearded one). There are moments where you can tell that they’ve paid homage to Lynne’s music and production style, but this album has an individual, distinctive character to it and the wide range of styles and genres of music on display here, as well as the great creative minds of both Hannon and Walsh, mean that if you want to hear “Out Of The Blue”, you should go and play that, rather than hoping for a “Concerto For A Rainy Day” on “Sticky Wickets”… derivative, this isn’t.
So, is it as good as the first Duckworth Lewis Method album? Well, not quite, but that was always going to be a tall order. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a seriously good album, tremendous fun and a really accomplished piece of masterful musicianship which only becomes apparent the more you listen to it; fine purveyors of melody Walsh and Hannon make writing classic compositions and arrangements sound easy, just as the very best batsmen make the game appear easy to play. Much of it is very easy on the ear indeed, is delightfully whimsical and should be immensely pleasurable to existing fans, even if it may not win them any new ones (apart from within the cricketing fraternity, perhaps?). All-in-all, The Duckworth Lewis Method’s “Sticky Wickets” is a superb summery sporting soundtrack (which you can enjoy immensely without even liking cricket) and a more than worthy companion piece to their 2009 self-titled début. Worth the gamble, I’d say.
16. Sting – The Last Ship
Anyone who approaches this album wanting something similar to The Police or Sting at his most mainstream should probably stop looking at this item now and go and replay their favourite albums instead. However, if you are open minded for something different from Sting (and let’s face it, the last few albums have all been “something different” and I would forgive anyone for losing patience with Mr. Sumner) and have a liking for either folk or theatrical music, then you may find much to please you here. “The Last Ship”, for me, is the best piece of work that Sting has released for a couple of decades. It is very much a concept album, based on the Tyneside shipbuilding industry and the characters who populated it. Musically, it’s generally quite a gentle album, but exceedingly rich with melody, interesting arrangements and instrumentation. Lyrically, it’s outstanding; each track is musical storytelling at its finest and it’s intelligent enough to give the listener food for thought yet accessible enough to recognise and empathise with the songs that tug at the emotional heartstrings for differing reasons.
Nearly everything on “The Last Ship” is superb and there are only one or two tracks which took me a few listens to be convinced of their charm. Nearly everything else was almost instantly likeable and my love for these eclectic collection of songs grew each time I listened to the album. There are many songs here that I would count amongst my personal favourites. “Practical Arrangement”, for example, is probably the best song that Sting has written for many years. The powerfully emotive title track is superb (as well as the reprise), “August Winds” has a beautiful subtlety and “Ballad Of The Great Eastern” is folk storytelling par excellence. “I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else” is absolutely gorgeous and Sting is in particularly fine voice on this track, but it has to be said that he gives an absolutely excellent performance on each very different track. The special guests (Jimmy Nail, Brian Johnson, Jo Lawry and Becky Unthank) also work very well indeed on their respective songs and give the album the characteristic of having a rather versatile supporting cast of players.
I admit that this isn’t going to be for everybody and it’s the kind of work that polarises the listener – it’s probably going to be either a love or hate reaction when you hear it. For me, it’s a very genuine love for this heartfelt tribute to Sting’s native North-East of England. I bought the deluxe version of the album which, for a little extra money, gets you an additional CD with eight more tracks, some of them different versions of songs from the album featuring other artists, some of them completely new songs; all of them are excellent (well, “Jock The Singing Welder” perhaps isn’t quite as good as the others, maybe the only “ouch” moment on both discs) and are well worth the higher price you pay for the second disc. All-in-all, this is one of the most remarkable albums I have heard all year and I admire Sting greatly for having the courage to write and release something as different and unconventional as this; even if this isn’t quite to your taste, it is difficult to ignore the creativity and artistry behind this project. It could have easily backfired and given his critics further ammunition, but I’m of the opinion that this is actually one of the best things he has ever put his name to and is certainly my favourite Sting album since the underrated “Mercury Falling” from way back in 1996.
15. Jake Bugg – Shangri-La
When an artist has such a strong and popular début, there is always a weight of expectation placed on them that makes a second album a daunting prospect. It was, therefore, a little surprising that Jake Bugg was following up last year’s breakthrough hit with another album so soon, although that fact that respected and talented producer Rick Rubin was at the helm of the project suggested that it probably wasn’t going to be terrible. However, the biggest surprise is that “Shangri La” (named after the studio it was recorded in), in my opinion, is arguably a better album than its predecessor; the eponymous début showed the raw promise of the artist, whereas “Shangri La” delivers on that promise. Bugg and co-writers Iain Archer and ex-Raconteur Brendan Benson (and guitarist Matt Sweeney on “Simple Pleasures”) have penned a very strong set of songs for this release and the excellent band, including Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Chad Smith, truly do justice to the compositions with some very powerful performances. You could be forgiven for thinking that this album is simply more of the same from Bugg, given the album opener, “There’s A Beast And We All Feed It”, but when you get to track two things start to sound a little different and that’s when the truly outstanding material begins.
“Slumville Sunrise” is absolutely fantastic, an upbeat indie stomping monster of a track with a blistering guitar solo. “What Doesn’t Kill You” is also excellent, a fast-paced piece which gets the adrenaline pumping whilst it is followed by a track which is its polar opposite, “Me and You”, a gentle country-influenced composition which features a nice picked acoustic guitar line and a lovely soaring chorus. The influence of Brendan Benson, an artist and songwriter I greatly admire and enjoy listening to immensely, is apparent on the great “Messed Up Kids”, which is an irresistible helping of indie-pop. “A Song About Love” is perhaps one of the best tracks that Bugg has put his name to and showcases a superb, heartfelt vocal performance which surely could invoke an emotional response in even the most cynical heart. The slightly dark “All Your Reasons” is one of the slow-burners on the album but is a fine example of the growing maturity of Jake’s writing, whereas the almost instantly familiar and likeable “Kingpin”, a two-and-a-half-minute burst of pure energy hits you square in the face the very first time you hear it. “Simple Pleasures” is my last pick of the album, which has the feel of a rock track from the seventies and just oozes class, as does this entire release.
In my opinion, why “Shangri La” is such a triumph is partly because all of the ingredients that made Jake’s first album so enjoyable are still all present and correct here, but they have also been added to in order to make an album which has a little more depth and texture. The sound is fuller, the songs a little more ambitious, the writing is slightly more mature and the appeal of much of the material a lot more universal. The quirkiness of Bugg’s style and delivery hasn’t been compromised at all, but having Rubin as producer and by surrounding himself with great talents such as Benson, Smith and Thomas, their experience and know-how have helped Jake make an album that will please all of his old fans, win himself plenty of new admirers and, simply put, more people will enjoy. Not only is this, in my opinion, Bugg’s finest achievement to date (and let’s not forget – he’s still just nineteen years old), it is also one of the best albums released this year and deserves much critical acclaim and commercial success.
14. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
I have loved Eels ever since “Beautiful Freak” burst onto the music scene in the mid-90s and completely changed my musical world. I’ve been buying every release by them since then and there have been very few disappointments, thanks to Mark ‘E’ Everett’s fantastic songwriting and his high artistic standards. Eels albums tend to be a cut above most other albums released and “Wonderful, Glorious”, their 10th studio album, is no exception. This is quite a heavy blues-rock dominated album and has more of a band feel to it, rather than simply being a vehicle for what can sometimes seems like an Everett solo project and, as such, there are plenty of band co-writes for the tracks. I find this quite an exciting record, most of the tracks get the adrenaline pumping and it’s perfect for listening to get you all set for a night out or just to get the household chores done to. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Eels album without a few dark tales of pathos and there just enough stories of hurt and woe to satisfy those who crave E’s trademark bittersweet balladry.
More than half of the tracks on offer here are absolutely top-quality. Thumping tom-toms announce this album’s rocking intent and the fuzzy, scratchy “Bombs Away” kicks off the music in a slightly low-key, menacing way. “Kinda Fuzzy” has a few great riffs and a superb groove, “Peach Blossom” is surely one of the best Eels tracks ever, despite it’s relative simplicity, boasting a formidable, powerful riff, thundering drums and a catchy vocal hook and the emotive “The Turnaround” has a brilliant refrain that builds to a smouldering climax. The pounding “Stick Together” is a marvellous aural assault, “True Original” is absolutely gorgeous, a magnificent composition on the same level as “That Look You Give That Guy” (from “Hombre Lobo”) and “Open My Present” is a mighty riff-driven moody blue-rock monster. “You’re My Friend”, a tribute to a particular friendship, really is quite a genuinely sweet song, without falling into the trap of over-sentimentality, the delicately beautiful “I Am Building A Shrine” is the track most like the early Eels sound on this album and the stellar title track, “Wonderful, Glorious”, ends the album with an accomplished string-laden flourish, almost saving the best until last.
To surmise, this is a great album. The bonus disc on the deluxe edition is great value and very much worth having, with some good, exclusive studio songs and eight great live tracks. It is perhaps not the greatest Eels album ever made (there are a handful of albums which have a more worthy claim to that title), but it really is an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable piece of work (and enjoyable isn’t something you can always say about an Eels album) that probably just squeezes into my top five releases by Everett and his band. I’d confidently say that it’s Eels’ best album since the incredible “Blinking Lights and Other Revelations”. I suppose that, at this stage of their career, they’re not likely to win many new fans because it’s not exactly news that a long-established artist has released yet another excellent record, but this is so much better than the vast majority of albums released this year. Not as exciting as a brand new, talented artist with unknown potential, of course, but much more satisfying and accomplished than most of the younger “big names” that dominate the album charts. This really does exactly what it says on the tin… “Wonderful, Glorious”, indeed!
13. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
As far as pleasurable albums go, you won’t find many more albums released this year that will enrapture you as much as Caitlin Rose’s second full studio album does. This magical mixture of country and rock, all with Rose’s pretty, pure voice holding it together is good old-fashioned songwriting with masterful arrangements and perfectly judged instrumentation to give these tracks a timeless, classic feel. With the pedal steel guitars and her Nashville born-and-bred sweet country voice, you could forgive those who don’t care for country music to give this a wide berth, but this is a country influenced album that even people who don’t like country music will like. There are some tracks that sound a bit like they could have been sung by Patsy Cline, whereas other songs have more of a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers flavour. It is an eclectic enough album to please people who love various genres – pop, folk, country, rock; “The Stand-In” has a near-universal appeal, touching on elements of those genres without ever getting in deep enough to alienate any listener who deeply dislikes any one of them. Simply put, this is a classic singer-songwriter album packed full of superb compositions, produced impeccably by Jordan Lehning, Skylar Wilson and Caitlin herself and, most importantly of all, all sung beautifully by the immensely talented Rose.
The album starts enjoyably enough, with the upbeat, inoffensive, full sound of “No One To Call” and the sweet, country-tinged “I Was Cruel” and you could forgive a first time listener for thinking this album was nothing particularly special at that point. However, after those perfectly pleasant opening two songs, it gets so very much better. “Waiting”, a superior country-rock composition, is one of my favourite tracks on the album, is superb, uplifting and catchy as hell. The high quality continues with “Only A Clown”, a chiming, jangly rock-pop song with a satisfying, almost Jeff Lynne style, snare drum sound and is followed by the beauteous, emotive “Pink Champagne”. The lovely “Dallas” is a big, expansive ballad, which sounds a little like those country-tinted Billy Joel compositions from his “Piano Man” and “Streetlife Serenader” albums, if they were delivered by a Nashville, sweet-voiced songbird, of course, whereas the lush “Golden Boy” sounds like the greatest Richard Hawley song he never wrote. The swelling, passionate “Everywhere I Go” finds strength in its subtlety and the George Harrison-esque guitar on the foot-tapping, hook-laden “Silver Sings” gives the excellent track a bit of a Travelling Wilburys feel. For my last pick of the album, we forward to the final song, past a couple of nice but unremarkable tracks, to the hazy, jazz-influenced “Old Numbers”, a sultry piece you could almost imagine her performing in a smoky cabaret somewhere, complete with irresistible mute trumpet solo.
I cannot recommend this album highly enough and cannot imagine anyone not loving this album, unless they exclusively listen to techno, death metal or some other extreme, ear-bleeding genre. “The Stand-In” is head and shoulders above your typical female solo artist fayre, Rose’s music has integrity, heart, soul and a superb cast of musicians to bring these songs to life. At just twenty-five years old when this was released, this mature, beautifully accomplished piece of work is just a couple of songs short of perfect, but with this amount of raw talent, the amazing instrument that is her voice and her impressive songwriting skill, the better songs (and they’re in the majority) already make this one of the very best albums of 2013. Her other album (“Own Side Now”) and E.P. (“Dead Flowers”) are also well worth checking out as they are, arguably, just as good as this one – I think the album certainly is, anyway. Although I haven’t finished enjoying this one, I will be looking eagerly forward to Caitlin’s next release, because this talented young artist has a very bright future indeed.
12. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
I am a first generation Pearl Jam fan. I was sixteen years old when “Ten” was released and they, together with Nirvana, Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Extreme, provided the soundtrack to my 1991, probably the first year in my life I actually started to pay attention to new music. Although I loved “Vs.” almost as much as their first album, other albums after that didn’t quite all hit the spot for me and Pearl Jam albums, over the years, have been hit and miss, although they nearly always have at least one or two worthy songs on each release. Still, I think it is fair to say that my love for Pearl Jam had seriously faded over the years, although a new album by the band is always of interest. I had already started to hear some positive noises about their tenth album, “Lightning Bolt” before its release, so I was expecting quite a good album when I first played it. On first listen, I was slightly nonplussed; it sounded fairly decent, but nothing special. On the second and third plays, some songs started to stand out and the album, as a whole, began to have a quality feel about it. After that, each time I have played “Lightning Bolt”, I have pretty much loved the vast majority of it and it’s now, to me, the best thing they have released since “Vs.”, back in 1993. Yes, it takes a bit of time to get to know, but when you do, what a brilliant piece of work it really is.
Although not every single track is musical gold, the vast majority of the songs on this album are superb. The punky “Mind Your Manners”, although slightly similar to “Spin The Black Circle” from 1994’s “Vitalogy”, provides an early highlight and the angry, throbbing rock of “My Father’s Son” keeps the impetus going. “Sirens” is the first softer, melodic piece on the album, but definitely doesn’t lack power, featuring an emotive guitar solo and wonderful vocal from Vedder; it’s really beautiful music. “Infallible” is one of my personal favourites from the album (even if the chorus reminds me a little of Crowded House’s “Pour Le Monde”), utilising the trick of having a minor key, bluesy verse and then a deeply melodic major key chorus perfectly. With its acoustic guitar riff, the utterly magnificent “Swallowed Whole” almost has an R.E.M. vibe to it and is a very strong challenger for best song on the whole album, as is the dark grooves and catchy chorus of “Let The Records Play”. The charming, likeable “Sleeping With Myself” is my last pick from the record, with its ukulele and near-folky, bouncy feel, it’s only the chiming, shimmering guitars that remind you that it’s a Pearl Jam track. The album finishes with a couple of perfectly lovely songs, “Yellow Moon”, which sounds like a number of other Pearl Jam songs, and the gentle, almost hymnal “Future Days”; not quite my favourite tracks from this release, but they’re more than listenable and the latter, especially, has really grown on me.
Quite honestly, I love this album and “Lightning Bolt” has definitely rekindled my love of Pearl Jam. I saw them at the Isle Of Wight festival in 2012, before abandoning their set not even halfway through in favour of The Charlatans. If they were there next year and were playing the majority of this album, I really couldn’t see myself doing that now. They’ve always been a very good band, but I’ve been waiting a long time for an album from them to rival their first two releases, in terms of enjoyment and quality; with “Lightning Bolt”, it has finally happened. In fact, enjoyment is the key word here – I can’t remember a Pearl Jam album that I’ve actually truly enjoyed this much for such a long time. These songs make me grin, they make me want to punch the air in time with them… hell, they even make me want to dance and I just don’t do dancing (not when anybody is watching, anyway). Big fans of Pearl Jam will already have this album but I’d urge those who have fallen by the wayside over the years and have almost given up on hearing something truly special ever again from Eddie, Mike, Stone, Matt and Jeff to give this one a go, because it really is one of the best pieces of work they’ve ever put their name to.
11. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories)
This is an absolutely incredible piece of work. Seriously, it’s approaching genius level composition, arrangement and musicianship and has brought a much maligned genre (unfairly, in my opinion), prog rock, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. You can clearly hear the influences on this record, namely Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, Camel, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and, naturally, Alan Parsons who is the engineer on “The Raven That Refused To Sing”. With this album, prolific Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson has surpassed any previous work he has been involved with, either solo or with his band, and has made a beautifully complex, artistic record that would be hailed as a classic in any pretty much any year since the late sixties. This isn’t hyperbole; I own too many albums to be this impressed without good reason and don’t bandy the word “genius” around without there being justification for such a high accolade, but Wilson and this tremendous project deserve all the superlatives thrown at them.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an album I could write about easily without going massively in depth and I don’t have the spare time or inclination to write an essay about the choice of instrumentation, the specific influences on certain tracks, the time signature changes, the stellar performances all of the musicians give, the rich textures and dynamics or the deliberately dark, heavy and slightly opaque lyrics, but, if I had the time, it’s the kind of album I could enthuse about and analyse extensively. I will simply say that, from the moment it begins to the final notes, this is intelligent, emotive, creative, mind-blowing music at its absolute finest. I would recommend this without question to anybody who loves progressive rock, but would urge any lover of rock, jazz or classical to listen to this at least once, because this record has a depth and integrity that defies pigeon-holing it into any one specific genre. Just listen, that’s all I ask.
Please stay tuned for the final ten albums I consider to be the best releases of the year. Coming very soon!