Here is the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013 countdown. Before we get to the final ten, here is a re-cap of the forty excellent albums that precede them.
11. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing
12. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
13. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
14. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
15. Jake Bugg – Shangri La
16. Sting – The Last Ship
17. The Duckworth Lewis Method – Sticky Wickets
18. The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard The Ark
19. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
20. Suede – Bloodsports
21. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film
22. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
23. She & Him – Volume 3
24. John Fullbright – From The Ground Up
25. Elton John – The Diving Board
26. KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon
27. Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail
28. Dawes – Stories Don’t End
29. Ocean Colour Scene – Painting
30. Matt Berry – Kill The Wolf
31. Kathryn Williams – Crown Electric
32. Brendan Benson – You Were Right
33. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
34. Walter Trout – Luther’s Blues
35. Cold Crows Dead – I Fear A New World
36. Avenged Sevenfold – Hail To The King
37. Ed Harcourt – Back Into The Woods
38. Ron Sexsmith – Forever Endeavour
39. The Fratellis – We Need Medicine
40. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
41. James McCartney – Me
42. Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost
43. Christy Moore – Where I Come From
44. The Graveltones – Don’t Wait Down
45. Spin Doctors – If The River Was Whiskey
46. State Of The Union – Snake Oil
47. Yoko Ono & The Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell
48. Stereophonics – Graffiti On The Train
49. Chas & Dave – That’s What Happens
50. Dream Theater – Dream Theater
For detailed write-ups of each album, please check out the relevant ‘blog:
Without further ado, here are my top ten favourite albums of 2013:
10. David Bowie – The Next Day
The fact that this album exists was a massive shock to most people when it was announced very shortly before it was release. A new Bowie album? Produced by Tony Visconti? Amazing! Many people, myself included, believed David to be in very poor health and had written off such a thing happening a long time ago. I can’t remember an album having so much hype and excitement surrounding it for a long time, which probably explains why, when I finally heard it, I was a little disappointed. Let me clarify that. Yes, I thought “The Next Day” was very good indeed, but it wasn’t the work of genius, the magnificent masterpiece that some people had started saying it was. So, from the initial let-down that comes from believing the hyperbole of people simply delighted to have a new album from Bowie, I have had to listen to it many, many times and re-adjust my expectations before being able to form a proper opinion about it as a whole. Now, many months after the initial release, I finally feel as if I have a balanced, stable view about how much I like this album and where it fits into Bowie’s catalogue. In a nutshell, I like it a lot and love certain songs (around half of the album), but I think, for the first time in a long time, after many years of his latter-day albums perhaps not receiving as much critical acclaim as they deserve, one of David Bowie’s albums has been slightly overrated.
“The Next Day” opens with its title track, a cracking, rollicking, dirty rocker, sounding very much like a missing single from “Scary Monsters” with lyrics that allude to his perceived illness (“Here I am, not quite dying”); it’s quite a statement. “Dirty Boys” with its honking saxophones and disjointed feel is a little more difficult to love, but the chorus brings it all together brilliantly. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is a curious one that seems to have been singled out as something special, but, although I find it quite pleasant to listen to, it’s not one of my favourites on the album, as there seems to have been little attention paid to any kind of melody line. The appeal of “Love Is Lost”, a song that never quite gets out of first gear, goes over my head a little too, although it’s also perfectly listenable. The single, “Where Are We Now”, almost undisputed in its magnificence, has a stately tempo and grandiose arrangement that almost makes it sound like David is delivering a eulogy for his own life. My favourite track on the album, however, is probably “Valentine’s Day”; it’s a classic Bowie superior pop song, equally catchy as it is poignant, with killer lyrics.
“If You Can See Me” is the only composition on “The Next Day” I actually don’t like at all; I find it messy, unfocussed and easily the worst thing on offer here. Thankfully, the memory of it is short lived, as it is followed by the brilliant “I’d Rather Be High”, easily one of the stand-out tracks of the whole project, pinned together by an insistent, catchy guitar riff and an excellent chorus with some chord changes that confirm Bowie’s genius (if you weren’t convinced already). “Boss Of Me” took some getting used to thanks to some slightly ordinary lyrics, but the insistent hook gets you in the end and your attention is rewarded by some inventive, pleasing saxophone work and a really quite cool groove throughout. I can take or leave “Dancing Out In Space”; it sounds quite pretty, but it’s slightly unsubstantial as a composition. “How Does The Grass Grow” is much better, reminding me of Bowie’s underrated “Buddha Of Suburbia”/”1. Outside” phase and it boasts an irresistible chorus that will be firmly planted in your head for days. “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” starts brilliantly, with a meaty guitar riff that Jack White would be proud of, but the whole song doesn’t quite live up to the early promise and it pans out as a relatively ordinary composition, albeit with some brief glimpses of magic. Big ballad “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is so close to being mind-blowing without actually achieving it, it’s actually quite frustrating. It’s a beautiful song, there’s just something about it that doesn’t quite reach magnificence, although it’s fantastic to hear that drum pattern at the end, harking back to “Five Years”. For me, that’s where the real enjoyment of the release finishes; “Heat”, as lyrically interesting and attention-grabbing as it is, is almost an anti-climax to what is a largely excellent album and the bonus tracks were definitely best left off the main body of album, if they were ever contenders.
“The Next Day” sounds gorgeous; Visconti’s production gives the album a full, warm character throughout and ensures that it actually feels like a proper album, rather than just a collection of songs, something that is becoming rarer and rarer these days. I have a theory that, had this particular album been released a year or two after 2003’s “Reality”, it would probably have been happily received, been given a four star average rating in the music press, warmly praised and talked about in the same kind of reverential terms that 2002’s “Heathen” received. However, because ten years have passed without a Bowie studio album, people seem to have gone a bit overboard in their praise for this one. It’s a very good album indeed, excellent in places, but it’s about as good as “Heathen”, not quite on a par with “Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Low” or “Heroes”. If you compare it with the music that occupies the mainstream radio stations and music TV channels, yes, it’s undoubtedly better than the vast majority of commercial dross that sells millions of units, but compared with Bowie’s own work, it falls comfortably within the second tier of his output. This, his twenty-fourth studio album, would perhaps just about manage to sneak into a top ten of Bowie’s releases. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant release, because it is (and it’s certainly one of the better albums by anyone released this year), but the breathless, gushing praise for “The Next Day” that happened on the week of release overstated exactly how good it is. Excellent album? Without a doubt. Masterpiece? No. There are quite a few Bowie albums much more deserving of that particular accolade. Having said that, what a pleasure it is to have that voice back and to be able to own another quality album of Bowie compositions when many of had come to believe that something so wonderful was all but an impossibility. I only hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next one…
9. Richard Thompson – Electric
Richard Thompson is a mercurial talent, a genius of the guitar who isn’t quite as well known as he deserves to be, but also makes the kind of music that perhaps wouldn’t be universally appreciated. I haven’t loved absolutely every album that he’s released, but, then again, there are very few artists for whom that would be true. “Electric”, like many of his albums, took quite a few listens for me to start to fully appreciate it, but – wow – when the brilliance of this album hit me, it hit me hard. I also went to see him live for the first time in early 2013 and it’s no exaggeration to say that he blew me away. He truly is one of the most exceptional live artists I have ever seen and watching him play the guitar is like watching a genius at work; the way he plays is close to impossible for other guitarists to replicate. I was awe-struck. The songs from this album were featured in that live show and it gave me a greater appreciation for a set of songs that, up until that point, I had only played once. Although a slow-burner, “Electric” is certainly my favourite Richard Thompson album since 2007’s outstanding “Sweet Warrior” and both his songwriting, much of it characteristically dark, and guitar playing are phenomenal.
There are almost too many great compositions on “Electric” to mention, so I will attempt to mention all of my favourites whilst keeping it relatively brief. The album opens with an absolute corker, the blackly humorous folk-rock of “Stony Ground”, complete with twisting, undulating guitar solo. “Salford Sunday” is a more gentle, foot-tapper with a pleasing melody and a theme of regret, whereas “Sally B” is a waltz-time, dramatic song about a political figurehead, with a couple of truly excellent guitar solos. “Stuck On A Treadmill” is a brilliantly bleak song about the mundane life of working in a factory and barely surviving, “My Enemy” is a beautifully written and performed emotive, minor key piece which finishes with a truly outstanding extended guitar instrumental and the catchy “Good Things Happen To Bad People” is perhaps the closest thing this album has to a radio-friendly hit, so much so that I could envisage son Teddy successfully covering it. “Another Small Thing In Her Favour” is incredibly gorgeous, despite the subject matter of a wife/partner leaving with the children and Thompson’s voice, especially in the bridge, is just spine-tingling and his slightly restrained, pretty guitar solo suits the track perfectly. “Straight and Narrow” is an almost straight-forward, up-tempo rock song, with a nice organ motif, excellent guitar work (which almost goes without saying) a bit of a late sixties feel. My last pick of the album is “The Snow Goose”, a beautiful acoustic classic Thompson composition, which features Alison Krauss on harmony vocals.
The deluxe edition with additional disc is well worth buying, too. You get seven additional songs, four of which, in my opinion, are excellent (“The Rival”, “Auldie Riggs”, “Auldie Riggs Dance” and “So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo”) and provides more value than many other deluxe versions of other albums where the additional material is often disappointing. One of the many things I love about Richard Thompson is his individuality; he sings with a most distinctive tone and his guitar playing is equally unique. His versatility sees him move, with ease, between rock, folk and jazz influences, with his compositions and playing spanning these genres and adapting to the music with a skill that makes him surely one of the most talented guitarists alive. This is an exceptional piece of work from Richard and, although there have been a few people grumbling about the production, I actually like the way it has been recorded. The near-claustrophobic treatment suits the tight, small-band sound and it gives Thompson that chance to fly free with his voice or guitar when needs be. I would also advise people to play this album quite a few times before making up your mind about it, because, like the work of many musicians who compose music with depth and intricacy, listening to the album once or twice simply won’t allow your mind to process everything “Electric” offers. When you do get to know it, however, you will hopefully come to the same conclusion that I have, that it is another superb album from Richard that stands proudly amongst his best work.
8. David Ford – Charge
David Ford. What a great guy. Proud of never having made it into the mainstream, of not having to compromise his artistic vision, of never being a puppet of the music industry – and rightly so. This, his fourth solo album, is possibly the least commercial of the lot, an eclectic mix of southern blues (I’m talking USA, rather than Sussex), heartfelt, sincere ballads, tongue-in-cheek humour and honest, autobiographical lyrics. You open a vein on Ford’s arm and he bleeds these songs. They are him… that’s what makes him, and this album, so lovable and remarkable. The sentiments of a song such as ‘What’s Not To Love’, for example, would sound mawkish and trite in the hands of a lesser, more chart-friendly artist, but David pulls off one of the most beautiful love songs of the decade.
I’d heard some of these tracks before, in slightly less-polished form, both live and on the EP’s David has released over the last year or so. All are improved on the album, all are the finished product and sound bloody brilliant as a result. Even the songs I wasn’t quite sure about when I first heard them, such as the rocking Santana-flavoured blues of “The Ballad Of Miss Lily” and the love song to Ford’s favourite US city, “Philadelphia Boy” have been transformed into firm favourites. “The Ballad Of Miss Lily”, especially, has a guitar hook that got inside my mind and refused to leave for days. The stomping opener, “Pour A Little Poison” is already a live favourite of mine, as is the incredible finale of the album, “Every Time”, a truly magnificent six-minute epic which has a slight E-Street Band feel to the arrangement and which grows and builds to a delightfully profane sign-off, referencing both his autobiography and one of his signature compositions, “Song For The Road”.
I could go on and rave about other songs on the album. “Perfect Soul”, for example, is funny, toe-tapping, soulful and human and “Isn’t It Strange?” is a superbly told sad tale of a dysfunctional relationship, however every single track on this album is excellent. If you want me to recommend the “picks” of the album, just read the track listing. I can’t find fault, nor would I want to. It’s a absolute delight to listen to and gets better and better each time you play it. This may just be the most accomplished album of his exemplary solo career. Is it his best album? I can’t really say. I’d feel as if I was doing his other three excellent albums a disservice by saying that this one was better, but it’s certainly a strong contender. If there was any justice in this world, it’d be number one in several dozen countries and Ford would be the most sought after star for interviews, product endorsements and… actually, he’d probably hate it. So, maybe the fact that David has the life he wants, being a hard-working, honest, ignored-by-many, adored-by-the-knowing-few, completely respected, authentic musician really is justice. But, still – you really ought to buy this album. Just don’t shout too loud about how good it is, because people may just take notice.
7. I Am Kloot – Let It All In
“Let It All In” is the Manchester-based band’s sixth studio album and the second produced by Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter and, in my opinion, is probably the best thing the band have ever put their name to which, given the quality of their previous material, is no small claim. It took a few plays, but once the songs established themselves in my mind, there was no removing them. This is simply a marvellous, beautifully written and performed piece of work from the first to the last note. John Bramwell, the singer, guitarist and songwriter is currently in the form of his life and this album is comprised of ten individually superb slices of emotionally-charged indie. If you can pigeon-hole the wonderful breadth of creativity on display here into a single category, that is (you can’t!).
Album opener “Bullets” is a mournful, minor-key piece of dramatic brilliance which almost reads like a psychological thriller: “You treat your body like a cheap hotel/somewhere you can stay but never stop”. The instrumental break almost brings to mind a dance number in a darkened cabaret room as the guitar solo viciously tears apart the melody line. The chorus of sublime (near) title track, “Let Them All In” offers the first warm positivity of the album and feels like sunlight breaking through the grey clouds. “Hold Back The Night” starts with a minimalist approach of bass and Bramwell’s pained vocals, with guitar and drums joining in tentatively, hesitantly, building the fullness of the sound with each verse, until the instrumental break kicks in, when some sumptuous, scintillating strings take over the piece and make it soar, building to a goosebumps-on-the-skin climax with the lead guitar that leaves the listener almost breathless. Nostalgic ballad “Mouth On Me” features a tumbling bridge which cascades beautifully and “Shoeless” is tender, wistful, romantic and lovely.
The gently magnificent “Even The Stars” washes over you like one of Richard Hawley’s finest performances and the folky, chirpy “Masquerade” (featuring the superb lines “the mad arrangements of my day/my descent into beige”) continue the likeable, hummable high quality feel of the release. Perhaps the most catchy and commercial song on the album is “Some Better Day”, which has a Beatlesque quality to it, an everyday subject matter and some lovely brass augmenting the subtle jauntiness of the melody. It’s certainly one of my favourites on an album packed full of genuinely great songs. The album is brought to a conclusion with the strongly string-driven “These Days Are Mine” and the pensive, melancholy “Forgive Me These Reminders”, finishing the record beautifully.
I’ve read quite a few reviews and there are some I Am Kloot fans who don’t consider this album to be one of their best. I can’t claim to understand that point of view. All I can say is that, since its release in January, I have fallen deeply in love with this album, felt that the songs more than compared with their previous work when I saw the band live in Brighton earlier this year and it is, to me, one of the best albums I have heard all year. Of course, people have their own opinions, but this is mine – “Let It All In” is absolutely magnificent.
6. Paul McCartney – New
As a lifelong Beatles and McCartney fan, each new release by Paul is met with a mixture of excitement and slight nervousness as to just how good it is going to be. Over the decades, Paul’s albums have been of varying quality, but even the efforts which didn’t meet with critical acclaim (“Wild Life”, “Press To Play”, “Driving Rain”) aren’t without at least a handful of tracks which make the purchase more than worthwhile. His very best albums (and they’re the majority) are packed full of excellent songs with maybe one or two lesser songs, as if to prove that he’s human like the rest of us. The great news about “New” is that, for me, it falls into the latter category of Paul’s excellent albums with only a track or two that doesn’t quite cut the mustard… and even that is down to personal taste.
As I believe in delayed gratification, I had completely avoided all of the online previews of the tracks from “New”, with the exception of the title track which had been played on the radio and had also gone almost instantly viral within the Beatles community upon release. “New” (the song) had really whetted my appetite for the new album, as it is a classic McCartney composition, one of those rare, beautiful beasts that could have easily have been a Beatles track. However, I have to admit that, when I first heard the album from start to finish, I really didn’t care for it at all. I was bitterly disappointed, really disliked the pop production and the only track that really had something going for it other than the title track was “Appreciate”, one of the more left-field efforts on the album. “Queenie Eye” was undeniably catchy but, on first impressions, there was something just a little too obvious about it. I was unimpressed and didn’t get the instant rush I’d enjoyed from many of his releases in the last twenty years. Then, on the third listen, I started to really enjoy it and every subsequent play revealed something new and wonderful.
Now, on my umpteenth listening session, every song on this album genuinely has something good to offer, much of it is truly great and, in my opinion, it’s his most creatively rich release since 2005’s “Chaos and Creation In The Backyard” which, I feel, is his modern day masterpiece. “New” really isn’t that far behind, though. It also has the commercial sensibilities of 2007’s “Memory Almost Full” and manages to combine the best of both albums whilst also giving nod or two to musical phases from all through Paul’s career. The fact that McCartney has worked with four different producers on this album I believe has helped raise the quality of “New” above his last couple of albums full of original material (“Electric Arguments” and the aforementioned “Memory Almost Full”), both very good releases, but Epworth, Johns, Martin and Ronson have obviously given their individual tracks a lot more attention than a single producer would have and, as such, the fresh ideas and musical detail of each track means that “New” rewards the repeat listener with something pleasing each time and gives a lovely eclectic feel to the whole project.
Nearly every track on this album is a highlight in its own right. “Save Us”, co-written with and produced by Paul Epworth, is a cracking opener and a fantastic mature, powerful pop song. The harmonies on the chorus are gorgeous, especially when the song title is sung with that gorgeous minor-chord transition. I wasn’t overly fond of the production of the track, but it has certainly grown on me. “Alligator”, produced by Mark Ronson and performed by McCartney’s band, is an absolutely superb song, musically, and reminds me heavily of mid-70s Wings, but the lyrics are a bit hard to swallow at times. Nonsense, vague lyrics aren’t anything new for Macca; some work, others don’t. I think he just about gets away with it here, but it’s a closely-run thing. The creativity of the instrumentation and arrangement, as well as the contrast between the tense verse and the sweet release of the strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus make this a very enjoyable listen. I really love the electric guitar work on this one, too.
“On My Way To Work” is the first Giles Martin produced song on the album and it’s one that, initially, I found to be quite ordinary. However, I like it immensely and love the way the sound becomes fuller as the track develops, with some tasteful strings embellishing the later verses and concluding with a rather grand finish. I particularly like the detail in the lyrics, the dreamily philosophical nature of the song and the gently optimistic “How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true?”. Apart from the title track, “Queenie Eye” is probably the most infuriatingly catchy song on the album. As soon as I heard it, I saw what Paul was trying to do with this and, believe me, I resisted. However, it’s very difficult to resist against something that is absolutely irresistible. It’s simply a fantastic, bouncy, melodic song which has a very “in your face” feel, using a children’s game as a loose metaphor for the tribulations of a relationship. The finished product is even more impressive when you discover that Paul plays everything on the track, apart from drumming duties which are undertaken by producer and co-writer Epworth.
The beautiful “Early Days”, impeccably produced by Ethan Johns (one of my favourite contemporary producers) is one of the most “stripped down” on the album, with Paul’s voice wonderfully unaltered, giving the song a feeling of honesty and intimacy. Paul has written about his earlier life before with a little bit more of a swagger (“That Was Me”), but this paints a picture of both his relationship with his friends (you assume it’s John, but assumptions are never wise). Paul’s personality shines through as well, turning “pain to laughter” and his love of music. There’s even a bit of a ticking off to those who theorise about his life, telling them that they simply weren’t there. Even the slightly frail high note at the end adds to the sheer beauty of the track and it makes me want to hear a whole album with Paul and Ethan. “New” is Paul at his melodic, commercial best; an absolute gem of a song, almost perfect in every way. The lyrics, melody and performance are all simply stunning and it’s marvellous that he’s written a love song about the excitement of a new romance which doesn’t stray into over-sentimentality. I also take my hat off to Mark Ronson, not one of my favourite producers by a long way, but he’s captured something very special here. Of course, I’d have loved to have heard what someone like Nigel Godrich could have done with it, but I’ll certainly take this, one of the best things Paul has done, ever.
“Appreciate” was one of the few tracks I loved from the very first time I heard it. Produced by Paul and Giles, it has a sublime, chilled out vibe during the major-to-minor chord motif verse and an explosive “chorus”, as well as a superb guitar solo by Rusty Anderson closing the song. It feels like pure McCartney, but also has as contemporary a feel as anything released this year. This kind of left-field gem makes you wonder if he really is 71 years old! “Everybody Out There”, also produced by Paul and Giles, is, to me, is the first slightly disappointing, average song on “New”. The lyrics are a little one-dimensional and, sadly, a little poor. However, it’s a very catchy song and there are several crafty little hooks in it to make it rather enjoyable and certainly not something you’d skip when it came on. All-in-all, a good song, but if a little more thought had been given to the words, it could have been brilliant. When I first heard “Hosanna”, an Ethan Johns (and McCartney)-produced track, I quite honestly thought it was a little dull and unremarkable. However, repeated listens gave me a greater appreciation for this little jewel of a song. It reminds me heavily of the work Neil Diamond accomplished with Rick Rubin, simple songs of love, simply presented. There are some nice backward sounds at the end of the track too, which naturally give it a bit of a Beatle flavour.
“I Can Bet”, a fantastic, cheeky little rocker, is reminiscent of Paul’s work on “Flaming Pie” and, so far, never fails to put a smile on my face when I hear it. It has a great sound, thanks to Giles and Paul’s production; I especially like the electric piano on the verses and the acoustic guitar-driven chorus, together with a lovely bit of Hammond organ on the bridge. Simply put, I love it. “Looking At Her”, however, is perhaps my least favourite song on the album, one of Paul’s “isn’t my other half beautiful” type songs. You know, there’s a reason that everybody looks at your wives, Paul, and that’s because they’re married to you. I enjoy the raucous little instrumental break after he sings, “I’m losing my mind”, but that’s about it, I’m afraid, and this is the dud on the album, in my opinion. “Road” is a real grower. A moody, sizzling track written by McCartney and Epworth which requires a few plays for the dark lyrics and subtle melodies to sink in. It’s actually rather brilliant, even if it isn’t something you’d generally expect from Paul.
“Turned Out” is last of the Ethan Johns-produced songs. It’s enjoyable enough, has a nice slide guitar on it and an inventive arrangement, but there isn’t anything particularly special about the song itself. “Get Me Out Of Here”, a Giles Martin-produced number, is a pleasing little bit of skiffle to end the ordinary version of the album. Apart from the “Oh Boy” calls which steer a little too close to the Buddy Holly song for comfort, it’s really quite charming. I could help but smile when Paul, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, proclaims, “I’m a celebrity! Someone get me out of here!”. The last track on the album, “Scared”, is a hidden track and is a strong contender for the title of best song on this album. With little more than Paul’s vocals and piano, this heartbreakingly vulnerable composition brings to mind Elton John at his very best, back in the early seventies. It finishes the album impressively, leaving a slight trace of salt-water in your eyes and a lump in the throat the size of a golf ball. It’s doesn’t exactly have the sheer magnificence of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but it is of the same quality. It’s a remarkable piece and means that “New” both starts and finishes brilliantly, with only one or two minor hiccups on the way.
So, that’s what I think. Just one man’s opinion. I find it remarkable that I’ve written this gushing review after being severely nonplussed and disappointed about it when I first listened to it, but “New” is genuinely one of the best albums that Paul McCartney has ever put his name to. I sincerely believe that it can be spoken about in the same terms as his greatest work, like “Ram”, “Band On The Run”, “Tug Of War”, “Flowers In The Dirt”, “Flaming Pie” and “Chaos and Creation” (as well as my own personal favourites that haven’t met with perhaps such universal acclaim). All of these very different albums have one common theme – a dazzling, rich creativity and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries. That Paul McCartney still has the hunger inside him to not rest on his laurels and release something that would have been a lot less laborious is incredible. That Paul McCartney can return with an album so (almost wholly) brilliant when his advancing years have been a little too apparent during his live performances, it’s nothing short of amazing. However, people, this is no mere mortal… this is Paul McCartney, the only living legend who has sold millions of records, had dozens of number one songs and albums, who has played on the biggest stages there are… the only living legend who could possibly be described as underrated, but – my word – he really is.
5. Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
It’s finally happened, Queens Of The Stone Age have made a stone-clad classic, worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the rock greats. Like many great albums, it was born from extraordinary circumstances; this one being Josh Homme nearly dying and being bed-ridden in hospital for weeks on end after complications from a routine knee operation. “Like Clockwork” combines all of the best elements of QOTSA’s music; the melodious nature of the more gentle songs with the power of their heavier albums to produce an album that screams quality the very first time you hear it. I can quite honestly say that this is Homme’s most accomplished album to date and even my previous favourite of his, “Songs For The Deaf” just can’t compare with an album filled with song after song of absolutely brilliance. Of course, what this album has in common with “Songs For The Deaf” is a return of Dave Grohl to the drums for half of the album and there are other guest appearances by rock heavyweights such as Trent Reznor, Nick Oliveri and, er, Jake Shears.
It’s very difficult indeed to pick out favourites when the whole album is excellent, but I will give it a go. “I Sat By The Ocean” is the first stand-out track in this set; it’s catchy, powerful and brilliant. “The Vampyre Of Time and Memory”, an excellent composition, is specifically about the numbness of feeling nothing when ending a relationship, but Homme’s hospital experience is surely referenced when the swelling music that accompanies the line, “I’ve survived, I speak, I breathe, I’m incomplete, I’m alive, hurray!” builds to a bitter climax and tears at your heart. “If I Had A Tail” (featuring Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner on vocals) begins with some tongue-in-cheek nonsense lyrics, but really grabs you when the arresting guitar bursts in on the chorus. “My God Is The Sun” is probably the most typically like tracks from other QOTSA albums, with a spiralling guitar riff, pounding drums and ethereal harmonies, but it’s still a winner. “Fairweather Friends”, co-written with long-time friend Mark Lanegan and featuring Elton John on background vocals and piano, is one of the best tracks on “Like Clockwork”, boasting a truly beautiful melody, superb delivery and some of the most gorgeous guitar work I’ve heard all year.
Smooth Sailing” is a rather enjoyable groove of a song, although I’m not sure what Rossi and Parfitt would make of Josh’s promise to “Blow his load all over the status quo”. “I Appear Missing”, a quiet/loud masterpiece, is amongst the best pieces of music on this release and, even at six minutes long, doesn’t outstay its welcome for a second. The album finishes with an utterly sublime cut, as the melancholy title track is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music Homme has ever written. It is after the album has finished, when the silence is louder than usual, when you find yourself still reeling from what you’ve just listened to that you realise that this piece of work is something very special indeed, something that makes you reach for the play button to hear it all over again right after it has finished. Without any hyperbole, “Like Clockwork” is not only of the best albums to be released this year, it’s one of the best heavy rock albums of all time.
4. Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare
From the very first minute of the title track, “Fanfare”, you can tell that this is going to be a very special album indeed, as it introduces the album with an instrumental mixture reminiscent of Pink Floyd and The Eagles before exploding into a beautiful near-classical grandiose rock, resplendent with thundering, echo-laden toms and rich strings which are more Electric Light Orchestra than Crosby, Stills and Nash. It’s majestic, astonishing, wonderful stuff. One thing is for sure, this second album is a different proposition than Wilson’s excellent Laurel Canyon-influenced debut, “Gentle Spirit” (although the same influences are still very much present and correct) and whether you are open to a departure from that style or not will go a long way towards determining whether you will like this album or not.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table right away. I think this is a dazzling album and one of the very best albums I have heard all year. It is one of those records that demands your attention; you simply have to stop doing anything else and listen to it. One of those very special albums that very much deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the rock classics which have become household names. I’m not convinced that this will happen, as the general public’s taste in music seems to be very different to mine these days, but the musicianship and creative vision on “Fanfare” is incredible, head and shoulders above some rather ordinary records by well-known names that most people seem to gush about. Had this album been released in the 1970s, exactly as it is, it would have been heralded as an important piece of work, I’m sure, but here we are in 2013 and, sadly, this beauty will only be heard by a relatively small amount of people worldwide.
There are so many excellent tracks on “Fanfare” that it is difficult to choose highlights or, indeed, favourites. It is probably best listening to it as a whole, rather than sampling individual tracks, that way you can appreciate the rich range of textures on offer here. I mentioned the magnificent title track, but virtually everything on offer here is terrific and is evidently influenced by the very best music of the seventies. “Future Vision”, for example, is a superb Lennonesque ballad which almost purposely samples the different aspects of the former Beatle’s solo career, including a gorgeously dirty guitar solo. The epic “Moses Pain” reminds me of Elton John’s brilliant “Levon” to start with, but then expands into a tumbling country track which features not one, but two, sublime piano solos. The guitar work in “Dear Friend” is a revelation, the lyrics in the David Crosby and Graham Nash-backed piece of acoustic perfection “Cecil Taylor” dreamy and other-worldly, the mesmerising “Illumination” slowly unfolds into a stunning piece of psychedelic rock and “Lovestrong”, part Elton John, part Pink Floyd, is simply magnificent. Even the sole cover, “Fazon”, fits in perfectly with the rest of the album and has a scintillating saxophone solo. I could go on, but I won’t. Each song has something noteworthy about it and this is a brief review, not an essay!
I cannot recommend this album highly enough. Jonathan Wilson is an exceptional talent (songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer) and this is perhaps one of the most beautifully sounding albums I’ve ever heard. Quite honestly, I can’t say that I’ve heard anything better than this all year, so it is, without doubt, a very strong contender for my choice of album of the year and a firm addition to the (as yet unwritten) list of my very favourite albums of all time. Absolutely outstanding.
3. Anna Calvi – One Breath
As someone who enjoyed Anna Calvi’s début album a lot, I was looking forward to seeing whether she could follow it up with something quite as good. I’ll cut to the chase – forget accomplishing something as good as her eponymous début, she has, in my opinion, probably bettered it. “One Breath” is an utterly magnificent piece of work, a series of powerful, dramatic, edgy compositions that radiate such beauty and artistry, it often takes your breath away. This exemplary piece of work could almost be described as a cross between the grandiose sound of Florence & The Machine and the edginess and left-field nature of Arcade Fire; I’m sure that lovers of both bands will find much to enjoy here, as well as those who bought and enthused about Anna’s first album. “One Breath” is an album that I’ve found difficult to stop playing since I bought it, one of those rare beasts that is excellent from start to finish and that not only bears repeat playing, it demands it. It’s not often that, when an album finishes, do I want to put it back on and enjoy it all over again, but Calvi’s second album does that to me.
This album is song after song of atmospheric, crescendo-laden, orchestrally minded, artistic genius. “Suddenly” is a fantastic opener, a powerful, atmospheric piece with a rather catchy chorus, “Eliza” thumps, stomps, soars and is utterly magnificent artistic indie and the slow-burning “Piece By Piece” has rhythms and a feel reminiscent of “Hounds Of Love” era Kate Bush. “Cry” is a superb song that has some heart-stopping moments where the music literally explodes from the speakers whereas “Sing To Me” is a hauntingly beautiful song with a wintry feel and Calvi’s voice drifts over the music like a sea-bird over the ocean. The irrepressible “Tristan”, possibly the most commercial piece on the album, reminds me of Sinead O’Connor, although, in my opinion, a lot better. Title track “One Breath” starts with whispered lyrics and slowly adds instrumental layers until the classical-influenced instrumental epilogue, “Love Of My Life” is a blustery, bombastic, brilliant composition, the kind of song Arcade Fire excelled at, at the start of their career and “Carry Me Over” ebbs and flows gorgeously with Anna’s beauteous vocals being poured over harp (or harp-like) arpeggios. The penultimate song, “Bleed Into Me” is an expansive, sumptuous composition with natural, flowing rhythms that seem to echo the ocean’s tides and the album finishes with “The Bridge”, a delicate piece of choral music that seems almost like something you would hear in a church or cathedral.
Anna Calvi has most definitely risen to the challenge of the “difficult second album” and has produced a dark, edgy, beautiful, mature and fully accomplished piece of work, arguably even better than her much loved and critically acclaimed début. “One Breath” is an album that I have fallen deeply in love with, a highly original, intricate and artistic project that takes the listener on an emotional journey throughout the eleven individually remarkable songs. It is also a piece of work that manages to be, as a whole, greater than the sum of its individual components and the kind of album you really need to listen to in the old-fashioned, linear way to fully appreciate the dynamics and context of the songs. Admittedly, there are breathtaking tracks which you can enjoy in isolation, but, overall, Anna Calvi’s truly excellent second release is a perfect example of why the album format really cannot be allowed to die. With such an excellent follow-up, the multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist has cemented her credentials as one of the most exciting, emotive and interesting voices making music today. There are very few albums that have been released this year that I would deem essential listening, but this is one of them; buy and enjoy.
2. Jarrod Dickenson – The Lonesome Traveler
Note: This album was released in the USA in 2012, but is included on this list as it received a UK release in 2013.
I was fortunate enough to see Jarrod Dickenson a couple of times in April 2013, supporting (and appearing with) David Ford. The first time I watched his set, I enjoyed it and considered it to be gentle, pleasant material. The second time, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I loved his performance; the songs really leapt out at me and his sweet, melodic Texan voice delivered those songs so beautifully, I fell very much in love with his country-tinged Americana and felt compelled to buy his album after the show. I certainly didn’t regret the purchase because “The Lonesome Traveler” is richly descriptive, old-fashioned storytelling at its very best, painting pictures with his words, bringing to mind the fine work of Jim Croce, early Josh Ritter, solo Mark Knopfler and the greats of country rock, such as Jackson Browne and The Band. This is a particularly timeless record, too. It could have been released any time in the past fifty years and could easily have been heralded as a classic singer-songwriter album during the seventies, arguably the height of the genre.
The musicianship on display on this album is also rather special. Less is more with many of the tracks, for example the uncomplicated, but shimmering, perfect piano accompaniment to the beautiful “Rosalie”, the excellent banjo work on the heartfelt “No Work For A Working Man” and the smouldering organ on “Little Black Dress”. Indeed, there are some truly accomplished and exquisite performances throughout the whole album, all held together by Jarrod’s elegant, beauteous guitar and crowned with his sublime vocals. One of the very best tracks is the album’s closer, “Seasons Change”, which is the very pure, but truly magnificent, pairing of vocals and picked acoustic guitar. Although this is a very understated piece of work, the songs demand your attention. It’s an intimate set, more a late night listen with the lights down low and a glass of wine in your hand than a Sunday morning soundtrack. This is bewitching, finely-crafted music which tackles the subjects of life, love, longing, passion and loss with the subtlety and finesse of a true artist. “Come What May” is simply one of the most beautifully romantic songs I’ve ever heard and, like most of the songs on offer here, deserves a much wider audience.
To surmise, seldom do I discover such a rare and alluring album. I fully admit that I did not fully discover the full beauty of the album until I had played it a few times and, if you are not paying attention, the music is gentle enough to wash over you. However, if you give Jarrod’s songs the focus they deserve, you will soon discover an album as magnificent as the best work of some of the greatest singer-songwriters who have ever lived and will find yourself wanting to re-listen to this wonderful record time and time again. Yes, it really is that good and I recommend this as highly as I possibly can. One of the very best albums I have heard this year.
1. Electric Soft Parade – Idiots
Brighton brothers Alex and Thomas White a.k.a. The Electric Soft Parade released one of my very favourite albums of 2002, “Holes In The Wall”, an album that had songs so catchy, so rich in melodies, harmonies and creativity, it strongly hinted that they were going to be an absolutely massive band. It was an absolute crime that it missed out on the 2002 Mercury Music Prize to Ms. Dynamite’s album, but – no matter – it seemed like this indie/power-pop band were destined to be one of the all-time greats. Unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out that way as their second album, 2003’s “The American Adventure” was met with large indifference and, although 2007’s “No Need To Be Downhearted” was a rather good release, it has to be said that it appears that ESP seemed to have had their chance and let it slip by. In fact, the last I heard of the White brothers was when I went to a Ben Kweller gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden in November 2012 and they were his backing band. This led to me being reminded of what a great band they were and pulling out their CDs for a trip down memory lane. “Holes In The Wall” has stood the test of time and remains one of my favourite albums ever released. Thanks to my new-found interest, I also started following them on Facebook and was pleased to discover that they were working on a new album.
Well, here it is… and it’s absolutely bloody brilliant. It’s a sheer pleasure to listen to an album which is finally a worthy follow-up to their superb début. The gold-plated tracks start immediately; “The Sun Never Sets Around Here” is a shimmering slice of layered, hook-laden, indie-pop complete with chiming pianos, widdly synth solo and happy hand claps. “Summertime In My Heart” continues in the same vein, being a thoroughly appealing three and a half minutes of upbeat, sunny, joyous guitar runs and smooth, soaring harmonies. The lead single from the album, “Brother, You Must Walk Your Path Alone” is a nice, mellow, cheery song which has a sound reminiscent of much of Chris Difford’s solo material but, I have to say, is an odd choice for a single when there are much stronger songs on the album. “The Corner Of Highdown And Montefiore” is absolutely gorgeous, a stunningly beautiful, slightly mournful song, which builds to a refrain which throws in strings, harps and, I’m sure, at one point, the kitchen sink. It runs the risk of outstaying its welcome, just like 2002’s “Empty At The End”, but I think they just about pull it off.
The chiming title track “Idiots” reminds me of a more lushly-produced Teenage Fanclub and has lots of sublime major to minor key changes, whereas “Mr. Mitchell”, a jaunty, electric-piano led, character-based song is part Whitlams, part Lightning Seeds that, melodically, never goes quite the way you expect it, making it a pleasingly original and enjoyable listen. “One Of Those Days” is pleasant enough but a little ordinary, whereas “Lily”, although slightly reminiscent of Ben Folds’ “Give Judy My Notice”, is a great, brilliantly written track. Penultimate track, “Welcome To The Weirdness” is a glistening, shiny helping of indie-rock with a beautiful, grin-inducing Queen-like guitar solo at the end and the album ends with a gentle piano ballad, “Never Again” which brings the album to it’s conclusion tastefully and succinctly. It’s difficult to think of a demographic who wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy this album. It’s indie enough to appeal to the discerning crowd, has enough pop sensibility for the more mainstream music crowd to love it, their evident Beatles influences should be enough to draw in the classic rock lovers and their intelligent, creative arrangements may even pull in the prog-rock chin-strokers. Although the musical path they tread isn’t particularly ground-breaking in itself, the compositions and arrangements give “Idiots” a very fresh and original flavour. All-in-all, although there are a couple of tracks which don’t quite hit the heights of the rest of the album, The Electric Soft Parade have released the strongest album of their career so far and, in my opinion, the best album of 2013 which, considering the competition in a year that has seen some truly outstanding music released, is a massive compliment and testament to the brilliance of “Idiots”.
So, that’s it. The culmination of months of listening, writing and some tough decisions. I’m sure you don’t agree with most of it, that’s why it’s called personal taste, but I hope I have at least caught your attention and piqued your interest in a few albums you had maybe passed by or hadn’t heard of before. As I mentioned before, I have listened to 104 new albums this year (it has now turned into 105, but Roger Taylor’s new album sadly wouldn’t have made the top fifty anyway – sorry, Roger).
Here are some very good albums indeed which were strong contenders for inclusion in my top 50:
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Bill Callahan – Dream River
Black Sabbath – 13
Boats – A Fairway Full Of Miners
Brooks Williams – New Everything
Camera Obscura – Desire Lines
Edwyn Collins – Understated
James Skelly & The Intenders – Love Undercover
Jim James – Regions Of Light and Sound of God
Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
Kodaline – In A Perfect World
Miles Kane – Don’t Forget Who You Are
Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Tom Baxter – The Uncarved Block (Part One)
Tribes – Wish To Scream
So, they occupy numbers 51 to 66… but not in any specific order. I haven’t heard any particularly terrible albums this year, although my least favourites have included the new ones from Blitzen Trapper, Caro Emerald, Justin Currie and Texas. One thing I will conclude, it has been a really wonderful year for music… 2014 has a huge amount to live up to. Thank you again for reading and feel free to leave comments if you wish… it’s almost guaranteed that I will reply.
Andy Sweeney, December 2013.