Saturday, January 04, 2014

Albums of 2013

A list of albums for 2013, in which I update this blog for the first time in 16 months, finish a full albums of the year post for the first time since 2009, and rail against twerking for ruining the year's music and dictionaries.

Youth Lagoon Wondrous Bughouse album cover
1. Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
Amid comparisons to The Beatles and The Flaming Lips in GIITTV’s review of this second album from Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, I said ‘Wondrous Bughouse is a melodic, enchanting delight, a densely layered yet still lo-fi pop album that stands up against more psychedelic pop hallmarks’. Since then, its immersive atmospheres and hypnotic chord cycles have only grown ever more irresistible, with practically every listen revealing hidden depths to the songs. Be it lyrics charged with emotion hidden underneath a wash of reverb, or a wonky piano melody linking two entirely different sections of songs together, Wondrous Bughouse reveals a more ambitious, more earnest and more considered artist at work, two years on from his equally pleasing  debut The Year of Hibernation. Though it arrived straight out of leftfield, for me at least, Wondrous Bughouse was a surprising, unique and unrivalled delight.

2. Everything Everything – Arc
Everything Everything’s second album will do well to make it high up in the end of year lists in 2013; coming as it did just two weeks into the year, Arc’s quality remained a high bar across 2013, yet it seems as though many other sources have forgotten about it. Forgotten, for instance, how the band’s subtle evolution had given their excitable indie ideas more time and space to breathe, how the vocals had moved to the centre of songs without ever hiding the talents of the band as musicians and songwriters. The record massively impressed as a result of this progression: Arc saw the four piece let brilliant pop hooks – on Kemosabe, Don’t Try and Duet to name three – temper their fondness for quirky, intricate songwriting; though the likes of Undrowned and Cough Cough still delivered that creativity in spades. That Everything Everything ended the year touring Europe with Foals – who had their own massive success with Holy Fire this year – perhaps indicates how their stock has risen this year, but it’s without doubt that Arc deserves to be remembered in its own right for its impact throughout 2013.

3. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power of Fuck Buttons have had quite the 18 months. As the London Olympics arrived last summer, it was the duo’s Surf Solar that accompanied the very first opening television sequence (while the appropriately named Olympians featured prominently during the Games). This summer, Fuck Buttons headlined the Park Stage at Glastonbury, just before releasing their third album to widespread acclaim. It was well deserved: Slow Focus sees the pair relax the abrasive palette that epitomised their debut, but it also does away with the euphoric and melodic dance elements of their follow up, Tarot Sport. The result is something yet again arresting, challenging and rewarding: rhythms, actual beats play a more central role on Slow Focus, and many of the songs seem to unfurl in long, menacing movements, relentlessly growing until they become close to awe-inspiring. It’s not to say the third album is devoid of melody entirely, but the focus is very much on landscapes, the bigger picture. The bigger picture for Fuck Buttons is just how good a year 2013 has been, and now, Slow Focus has put them on the verge of something massive.

4. Dutch Uncles – Out of Touch in the Wild
Like Everything Everything, Dutch Uncles hail from the north west; like Everything Everything, this release came early in 2013; and perhaps most similarly – certainly most importantly – Dutch Uncles’ Out of Touch in the Wild is a frenetic tour through complex stuttering rhythms, spiky off-beat instrumentation and wandering melodies. Bouncy first single ‘Fester’, for instance, shoots marimba notes back and forth between stabs of bass guitar, while ‘Flexxin’ nods towards Field Music in its use of chirpy violins and stomping drums. But aside from those singles, there are plenty of other standouts: ‘Bellio’ enchants with its harmonies, and the crashing drums and siren synths of ‘Nometo’ signal the album’s boldest moment. Its sprawling musical ideas are marshalled by clinically tight time-keeping , perhaps more like the juxtaposing creativity you might associate with a debut (such as Everything Everything’s Man Alive), yet this is Dutch Uncles’ third album. That is no criticism though: Out of Touch in the Wild is a big success because its creators master that schizophrenic sound deliberately and naturally, and few albums this year delivered such an exhilarating mix to so great an effect.

One wonders whether MGMT will ever make an album that lays bare their true intentions and motivations. Accused of being deliberately obtuse on Congratulations, their second album, after almost apologetically releasing two of the best loved crossover hits of the mid 00s from their first,  the duo claimed it was Congratulations’ folk psychedelia-aping sound, and not the synth-led pop motifs of Oracular Spectacular, that was the ‘real MGMT’. Yet if that is so, it is interesting that album three – self-titled, no less – sees that sound fade underneath an influx of musical quirks and murkier atmospheres. Certainly, MGMT is their most challenging LP yet: there’s very little to grasp hold of on first listen, save perhaps for the swaying tune of ‘Plenty of Girls in the Sea’. But give it a chance, for all of the 10 tracks contain at least something worth going back for. ‘A Good Sadness’ is Pink Floyd-esque, the sadness of the title haunting you through inescapable vocals, while ‘I Love You Too, Death’ is an eerie song that spends five minutes coming into focus from an impenetrable blur. If that sounds a difficult listen, by the end you realise it’s all the more worth it. And that sums up MGMT as an album: it is only afterwards you realise that, having absorbed it, evasive unnameable moments are drawing you towards it again to recapture a feeling you almost hadn’t noticed. Frustratingly clever, surprisingly memorable: that, at least, is something that has always been true of MGMT.

6. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
Laura Marling gives the impression of having been born old. At 18, her debut Alas I Cannot Swim addressed themes like loss, fear, heartache and sex with the acuity of someone twice her age; that was before taking into account her sublime songwriting ability that seemed to come effortlessly while others strove to get even close.  On the two albums in between that debut and Once I Was an Eagle, Marling has dealt with womanhood, patriarchy and family with the searing aplomb of a celebrated wordsmith, while broadening her musical palette and darkening her soul with choice of instruments and arrangements. It comes as some surprise, then, that for the most part on ...Eagle she has done away with the choirs, strings and pianos that had become integral to albums two and three, and returned to a simpler set up more akin to her early sound; indeed the initial four songs here are almost solely Marling murmuring intimately over her guitar in a spellbinding acoustic run of songs. And, while a swelling of instruments does bolster the central trio of Master Hunter, Little Love Caster and Devil’s Resting Place, the album retains that sense of intimacy throughout as Marling puts her trust in her acoustic guitar to lead the songs, and leaves plenty of space for her graceful storytelling to weave its magic. The stories concern putting Marling’s past to bed, or at least accepting it, and in dealing with it on Once I Was an Eagle she sounds at her most naked and convincing. If (coinciding with her recent move to Los Angeles) this album does mark an end of an era for the 23 year old, it does so as her boldest statement to date.
7. Los Campesinos! – No Blues
Each time Los Campesinos! release an album, each time it feels like ‘this is the one’ that will see them finally step into a limelight that has been waiting since Hold On Now, Youngster arrived way back in 2008. If ’08 doesn’t seem that long ago, for LC! and their fans it almost feels a different lifetime. Their development, through five albums in five years, has been like one of those word puzzles where you change one letter in a word to make a new word, change one letter in that word to make another one, and so on until you end up at a word that seems impossible it could ever relate to the one you started with – yet it only required a consecutive series of minor changes. That’s how the Campesinos’ back catalogue fits together: each new album a strengthening, a step up from the last; an acknowledgement of its predecessor but an identity of its own. Which is why No Blues seems such a powerful album compared to that twee pop debut just five years ago: the simple joy of music and words combine perfectly on 10 occasions to form 10 unique wholes, a tale, a heartbreak, lovers lost and lusted after, defeat and defiance in its face; it’s the familiar Los Campesinos! themes, but on No Blues it’s the most personal they’ve ever sounded. At the same time, this is the biggest this band have ever sounded, each of the tracks on No Blues produced masterfully to complement the record’s overall feel that this is a real force to be reckoned with. “There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine” laments Gareth, and faced with the evidence on this triumphant fifth album, you’d be hard pressed to disagree.

8. Savages – Silence Yourself
Twelve months ago, Savages’ single Husbands was the most exciting sound going. A gasping, tearing two and a half minute tornado that promised something almost too good to properly put into words: a snarling all-woman post-punk outfit able to make guitar music in the 21st century sound necessary again. Though it recalled Joy Division, Siouxsie Soux and others, with Husbands they really threw down a marker in that no one in the UK was making music quite like it. On their full length record, Savages made good on that promise: an 11-track debut whose whole was a greater sum of its bared bones and bared soul parts. The bitterness in the vocals and uneasy guitar lines produce contrastingly frosty and vociferous atmospheres that jar, perhaps purposely, but in doing so they light up Silence Yourself with moments of unrestrained emotion. Accentuated by swaggering bass lines and ferocious drumming, the songs disturb and linger, but most of all, leave the listener without doubt that Savages are here to be heard. Silence Yourself will, rightly, echo through British music for years to come.

9. Villagers – {Awayland}
Becoming a Jackal, the 2010 debut record unveiled by Conor O’Brien, the man behind Villagers, received rave reviews, led to sell out tours and support slots with Elbow; and heaped expectation upon the shoulders of the slight Irishman with a mystical way with stories and a mournful timbre to his guitar. {Awayland}, arriving almost three years on, is certainly a departure: away from the acoustic sound of that first album, electronic influences pepper the 11 tracks here, to particularly great effect on The Waves, which screeches to a crashing, dissonant crescendo. It’s a feature of several of the tracks, that sense of growing power from simpler beginnings, and the musicians who make up the Villagers band come to the fore much more frequently on this record too, at points where the noise threatens to overspill the confines of the song. But it’s not noise for noise’s sake: it’s the sound of a songwriter and band more confident, wiser and happier to experiment, a logical but imaginative reinvention that made {Awayland} one of 2013’s best records, and suggests Villagers can go almost anywhere from here.  

10. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Shaking the Habitual could have been one of 2013’s “massive fails”. Seven years since The Knife’s celebrated Silent Shout, and with Karin Dreijer Andersson’s (admittedly excellent) solo album as Fever Ray the only real output of note in between, returning with a 90-minute album that relies on distorted vocals and clanging percussion, often dodges conventional melody and regularly meanders into dark, electro alleyways with no guarantee of remerging into the light might have been seen as pushing your luck in an age where three-minute pop songs with videos of jiggling naked girls (Cyrus, Thicke, Allen) is what makes the music industry go round. No matter – The Knife did it anyway. Shaking the Habitual is more than challenging, being abrasive in sound and political in theme; half the time almost too frustrating to bother with, the other half too enthralling to ignore. For that alone, it deserves end of year recognition, but so too do the eventual rewards on offer: A Cherry on Top, when you get past the industrial noises, sounds immensely sad; Full of Fire is menacing and mesmerising; and Wrap Your Arms Around Me is, in the duo’s own way, a heartwarming love letter. In the end though, the stubborn manner in which this politically charged album has been conceived, created and released took people aback, and those that can get through it may well only do so once or twice. But to get this album out there and enjoyed at all is an achievement of its own, and if we can’t also celebrate that, when ‘twerking’ ends 2013 as an entry in the Oxford English dictionary, then we might as well start up the wrecking balls and bring the whole sorry state of pop music crashing down for good.

Tracks of the year:
  1. John Grant - GMF
  2. Midlake - Antiphone
  3. TV on the Radio - Mercy
  4. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
  5. The Pixies - Bagboy
  6. Jagwar Ma - The Throw
  7. Lorde - Royals
  8. Chvrches - The Mother We Share
  9. Hockeysmith - Let's Bang
  10. Lady Gaga - Applause