The List 2013

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. Roly Porter — Life Cycle of a Massive Star

I listened to and loved a lot of electronic music this year, from danceable stuff like Gesaffelstein’s Aleph and Four Tet’s Beautiful Rewind down to more experimental work like this. Porter’s ~35 minute album is a musical exploration of how a celestial body forms, exists, and decays; it’s probably best considered a single piece of music and it’s for this reason that a pretty incredible album is so low on the list: I just haven’t managed to sit down and listen to it start-to-finish more than a couple of times. When I have though, particularly through good headphones, it’s stunning.

  1. Pantha du Prince & The Bell Laboratory — Elements of Light

Another relatively short electronic album with a physics-based title. Elements of Light is more easily digestible than Porter’s record, and is based around a fascinating interplay between minimal electronica and a whole suite of bells played by the Norwegian ensemble The Bell Laboratory. This came out all the way back in January and must be one of my most listened to albums of 2013, but the way these two constituent elements play around and interact with each other never got tired for me.

  1. Surfer Blood — Pythons

Hark! Guitars! And what a joyful racket Surfer Blood make on their second LP. To my ear this recalls mid-90s Weezer crossed with just a touch of something from the millennial New York scene of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs etc. There’s nothing surprising here if you listened to their first album (and EP) as many times as I did, but there is so much to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. A dozen three-minute pop gems that vary in emotional tonality around the same bases as all my favourite emo / bubblegum bands of the past (shout out to That Dog!). Surfer Blood’s secret weapon, it should be noted, is John Paul Pitts’s voice: unusually tuneful and rich, but also capable of a Frank Black-esque scream if required.

  1. Shigeto — No Better Time Than Now

I came to Shigeto via a project by photographer Tim Navis in which several artists across various disciplines (video, photography, music…) took a trip to and around Iceland capturing their thoughts and experiences. That was enough to put this guy on my radar, and when Ghostly International put out this album - an immaculate set of spacious and contemplative electronica with some jazz influences - in August I was all over it. It’s been spinning regularly ever since.

  1. Jon Hopkins — Immunity

A blend of dance and more avant-garde melodic composition, Immunity is a very difficult album to categorise. In places it’s quite trancy and heavy, and then it’ll break for a meditative interlude and allow piano notes to linger amid a weighted silence. After dozens of listens I can’t entirely work out how such dramatic shifts are made to feel like a whole piece, but this remains one of the albums I’d recommend if someone was looking for an instrumental record from 2013.

  1. Local Natives — Hummingbird

To my mind the sound of Local Natives is centred on Taylor Rice’s vocals: there’s a quiet melancholy there that sets the pace, and then thoughtful, spacious composition, and not- too-warm production paint the rest of the picture. There are some wonderfully emotive moments such as the quietly heartbreaking refrain of “you gave, and gave, and gave, and gave” in ‘Colombia’ that really struck a true chord for me, and tracks like ‘Ceilings’ that felt like perfect walking around music in spring and then again in autumn. A new band to me, I’ll be keeping an eye out for what follows next.

  1. Queens of the Stone Age — …Like Clockwork

It was immediately apparent to me, only a couple of tracks into my first listen, that this was the QotSA album I’d been waiting for since 2002. I’m not sure how, but Homme et al have managed to recapture pretty near all the magic that seemed to have ebbed away over the last decade, and perhaps even more perplexingly, they make it sound effortless. At their best Queens combine a sense of genuine menace and darkness with an irresistibly catchy edge. Often that dichotomy is presented in an even split between guitars and the rhythm section respectively, with Homme’s incomparable vocals snaking their way somewhere through the middle ground. They don’t really put a foot wrong across these 10 tracks and it feels great to have them back at full strength.

  1. Mikal Cronin — MCII

I didn’t know Mikal Cronin at the start of the year and tuned into this album on the strength of a great review I happened across upon its release in May. Not wishing to be reductive but this record fit perfectly into the gap left by the absence of a Ben Kweller album this year. It is built of the same stuff (pop-rock roots, folk-leanings, garage rock with a seriously melodic underpinning) and executed with the same verve, energy, and colour. There’s nothing too complex here, Cronin wears his heart on his sleeve musically, and has made an album that you feel like you’re intimately familiar with by about the third listen through.

  1. Paramore — Paramore

It’s no surprise that I have a soft spot for Paramore - they’re hitting a lot of the emo buttons I have wired up from years of listening to Jimmy Eat World and Jenny Lewis, whilst at the same time crafting huge singalong pop-rock that the Biffy Clyro / Foo Fighters listening part of me is still in love with. At 17 tracks this album is perhaps a little overlong considering the breadth of what is on offer, but I’ve played it a lot and the majority of it is pretty great. ‘Still Into You’ is unashamedly on the shortlist for songs of the year because at heart I’m a 15 year old girl.

  1. Holden — The Inheritors

This set of endlessly inventive electronica ranges from complex & heavy rhythms to lighter and more playful fare that recalls chiptune artists like Disasterpeace. James Holden can get pretty far out there, and his use of glitch and dissonance on some tracks makes for an uneven, if consistently interesting, listening experience. Not everything here is easy to love, but I’ve found myself being drawn in more and more over repeated listens. Once I felt I could trust Holden to make smart choices in his composition I started to really get into a lot of what is on offer here. If you can give yourself over to it, it’s an enormously rewarding record.

  1. Dawn of Midi — Dysnomia

I feel bad for Roly Porter down there in 20th, my reasoning having been that I hadn’t found the time to listen to his LP in its entirety on enough occasions. I found that time for Dysnomia, partly because I came to the record earlier in the year, but also because it absolutely floored me on first listen. I was introduced to this band and this album by an episode of the Radiolab podcast and the ideas clicked with me: musical improvisation as a competitive artform; Aphex Twin and trance as rhythmic progenitors; the incremental development of a new style that brings the cold precision of computer-generated electronica through the warming filter of human players and acoustic instruments. The closest touchstone in my listening experience is probably The Necks, but this album feels tighter and more sparse in a way I find completely captivating. Dawn of Midi do an awful lot with comparatively little here, and I just can’t get enough of it.

  1. Atoms for Peace — AMOK

I don’t need to waste words here explaining how central Thom Yorke has been to my musical life since the mid-90s. What does need to be said, for fear of it being taken for granted, is how ceaselessly inquisitive he is as a musician. This latest dispatch seems to be an offshoot of the Eraser / King of Limbs branch (no pun intended) but has more than enough to it to also feel new and vital. Nothing feels like a retread, perhaps because Yorke is smart enough to surround himself with world-class musicians and do exactly what they collectively intend without compromise. I do feel that it’s easy to accept brilliance as a given from Yorke, and that threatens to obscure the achievement - I’ve loved listening to this album all year and I remain super-excited to learn what comes next.

  1. Tegan & Sara — Heartthrob

I was disappointed in this record at first. 2004’s So Jealous remains my favourite T&S album, and it’s taken some effort of will to contend with the reality that with each subsequent release they’re moving in a different direction. Sainthood (2009) took me some time to adjust to, and the jump to Heartthrob (perhaps evidenced in the four-year wait) felt even greater to me. The Quins sound like almost entirely different musicians from three albums ago, and that’s something to celebrate and marvel at. It’s not quite a Madonna-style wholesale reinvention but something more organic, the thread of which can now be traced back through Sainthood and The Con (2007). Of course, until the next album Heartthrob feels like the destination rather than another point on a continuum, but through repeated listening I gradually fell for the evolution represented on this record. I can’t resist chanting along with ‘Shock to Your System’, and the opening couplets of ‘I Was a Fool’ are capable of bringing a tear to my eye.

  1. Emptyset — Recur

Not wishing to place too much importance on categories, electronic music of various stripes was huge for me in 2013, and Recur quickly materialised as the zenith of that when it was released in October. There’s a great balance on this album of slowly building - via loops, modular tones, white-noise patterns etc. - and surprising the listener with some new element. The titular recursion is both rhythmic and thematic, and provides the album’s spine. On to that are grafted some of the most sonically interesting and exciting pieces of techno / noise / sound collage I found this year. As I’ve begun to explore some of the topography of electronica it has, naturally, been a process of learning where my tastes lie. Of all the records from that world that I heard this year Recur cascaded more dopamine into my system than any other.

  1. HAIM — Days Are Gone

The debut album from these three Californian sisters (+ non-sibling drummer) is ridiculously catchy and possessed of a self-assurance in exactly what it is, which makes it pretty much irresistible. Part Fleetwood Mac, part 80s pop, part neon-lit dance, and soulful at the same time there’s is a lot to love here - especially since the mix doesn’t feel forced and doesn’t take any effort to listen to or learn, hum or sing along to. Songs such as album highlight ‘If I Could Change Your Mind’, Springsteen-esque ‘Don’t Save Me’, and the title track reveal a mature sense for songwriting and an emotional range that marks HAIM out from many of the poppier records I heard this year.

  1. Kanye West — Yeezus

It still bugs me that I didn’t pick up Kanye’s previous album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)) in the year of release; it would easily have been up there on the list. I had liked but not loved the first couple of albums, and been left cold by 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, but when I finally got around to listening to MBDTF it felt like the fulfilment of a promise. There’s little dispute about the fact that West is at the height of his powers right now, and Yeezus is unequivocally the product of an artist feeling completely unrestrained to create. The production alone here is flat-out stunning from first to last, sounding like nothing else I’ve heard. There are missteps (I’m not convinced Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is properly repurposed on ‘Blood on the Leaves’), and the album sags a bit in the middle, but nothing hit harder in 2013 than the first four tracks of this record. In terms of personality Kanye is hard to like, and some of the content is unsavoury, but it’s impossible to deny the artistry on display.

  1. Chvrches — The Bones of What You Believe

To my mind this record is the pinnacle of what pop music produced this year. It fills the same role for me as Robyn’s Body Talk did in 2010 and Metric’s Synthetica last year: a meticulously crafted, brightly coloured blast of exuberant synth and singalong choruses. It’s not quite as flawless as the latter of those, but it is nevertheless an outstanding 50 minutes of polished, indelible songs, pretty much all of which are guaranteed to stick firmly in my head for hours and hours after listening. Not life changing perhaps, but thoroughly life-affirming.

  1. Biffy Clyro — Opposites

I was skeptical that Biffy Clyro would be able to follow 2007’s Puzzle with anything that hit me as hard, and somehow they bottled lightning and produced a genuinely incredible next step in Only Revolutions (2009). How do you follow those two? Apparently you make a record as big as both of them combined, reaching further in both directions - esoterica and radio anthem - than before, and leave pretty much everyone else looking like they’re not trying.

It took a long time for me to digest Opposites. I was so excited to hear it that as soon as it was released I had it on repeat and found myself dismayed that I wasn’t keying into many of the tracks. I find that most Biffy songs lure you in with a seeming familiarity (of structure, of chord progression, of percussion) but are just off-kilter enough to ask the listener to do some of the work and meet them part-way. Listening to the entire album in whole gulps wasn’t doing it, and I had to break it up into two pieces and almost treat it as two separate albums. Then the rewards started flowing thick and fast: one giant-sized, super-powered anthem after another made its home in my head.

This album has been a near-constant presence throughout the year, and has survived since January to claim a place in the top 5 without any real doubt.

  1. Manic Street Preachers — Rewind the Film

This year I saw Soundgarden play Brixton Academy. The material from their early-to- mid-90s heyday sounded great and the newer stuff sounded like they still want to be that same band (and aren’t quite capable of it). Here, on the other hand, is the 11th studio album from a band that have been together for more than two decades, and it’s a record that feels entirely at home in its skin. This year’s Pearl Jam album displays a similar understanding of how the musicians and the band’s place within the musical landscape has evolved, but the returns are lesser. What the Manics have achieved with Rewind the Film is very impressive indeed: a thoughtful, mature album that foregrounds the intelligence that their music has always possessed and doesn’t balk from examining the deeply unsexy subjects of middle age, depression, and Conservative Britain. As a document of a band’s continued mastery of their form it’s exceptional.

Some of that same confidence is also present in the decisions to stick almost entirely to acoustic instrumentation, and to let guest vocalists lead some of the album’s best songs. The interplay between Bradfield and Lucy Rose on opener ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’ is inspired, and Richard Hawley’s performance on the title track is simply incredible.

This album was conceived as the first half of a two-album set, alongside the forthcoming Futurology (described as the next step on the path of The Holy Bible (1994) and Journal for Plague Lovers (2009)). I couldn’t be more excited to find out what the other half of the Manics’ sound has evolved into.

  1. Arcade Fire — Reflektor

There are many elements to my relationship with this record that echo my comments on Biffy Clyro’s: a double album the arrival of which had me wondering how it could possibly follow what came before, it also initially proved too large for me to parse as a single artefact. As with Opposites, breaking it in two bore fruit and it didn’t take long for me to fall for each piece of music, one-by-one. The genuine revelation, however, came when I was then able to recombine the constituent pieces into a whole, and follow the album’s many threads as they appear, disappear, reappear, and reflect over songs that feel at once entirely at home in the Arcade Fire catalogue and yet in many respects very new.

Each AF album feels so stylistically of-a-piece to me: Funeral is modest and even-tempered; Neon Bible showier and more sharply critical; The Suburbs a balanced maturation and expansion of Funeral’s themes of home & family etc. It seem to me that Reflektor is closer to Neon Bible: like that album it’s in some manner a conceptual statement, here repeatedly returning to the subject of modern relationships. The explorations it makes on its themes are nuanced, insightful, and never stray into heavy-handed cliché - there are few bands reporting the modern experience to us with this degree of authenticity and artistry. Arcade Fire are operating on a new level with Reflektor, and are quite possibly the only ones inhabiting it.

This is Arcade Fire’s fourth appearance at the top of my yearly list, and it was earned on merit. Already my favourite contemporary musical artists, I remain awed by what they are capable of.

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