Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 - Albums Of The Year: 10-1

... And here it is. The final part. Unlike a lot of websites (some of who started publishing their "end of year" lists in October!), this roll of honour has been prepared after a lot of careful consideration, AND actually at the end of the year too! It's also a bit different to a lot of other 'Best Of 2013' lists in that it has been compiled by one person and is based on the opinions of one person, wheras most music sites have big teams of writers, meaning that their 'Best Of' lists are just an indication of the most popular and most commonly-heard records of the year. I know because I was the one who added up all the scores for God Is In The TV's list, which was aggregated from about 30 writers individual lists. While that's all well and good, the following list is one that offers an undiluted picture of the year's finest long players. A lot of the albums from 50-25 aren't really in any particular order, since many were equally enjoyable. Plus there are some LPs that I didn't have time to full investigate and allow time to grow on me properly. Some of these are in the list and could have maybe been higher (Nick Cave, Midlake, British Sea Power), while there are other great albums that didn't make the list for the same reason. Not based on hype, popularity amongst other critics or commercial success, it's quite simply an honest lowdown on the things that caught my ears the most in 2013... Also, the ratings for these albums are not based on the marks given to them when I originally reviewed them. If that was the case, the latest Ocean Colour Scene album would have probably been in the Top 20. Instead, I have spent the last month or so revisiting all my favourite albums from this year and re-appraising them...

Numbers 50-41 are HERE.
Numbers 40-31 are HERE.
Numbers 30-21 are HERE.
Numbers 20-11 are HERE.
10. Zoo Zero - Zoo Zero
Terms like "drone rock" and avant garde can make some think of boring, tuneless noise with no rhythm or structure. On the contrary, London four piece Zoo Zero are sharp, energetic and exciting while also capable of tripping into weirder, more cosmic places. Their sense of melody and how they utilise it throughout these tracks is what makes them stand out from the rest. “I guess we’re interested in music where noise and weirdness clashes with melody,” says singer/guitarist Tom Pinnock. “It’s way too easy to make some avant-garde, instrumental record – it’s harder to combine the unexpected with actual songs.” They accomplish this mission with a fat-free collection of songs that set stimulating punk energy, post-rock dynamics and droning noise to well crafted, ear-catching tunes, driving rhythms and spacey freak outs. As equally inspired by the likes of XTC and Wire as it is by Sonic Youth and Can, it's complex when it needs to be, without the tiniest hint of pretentiousness. 

The awesome 'Fraktion' confirms their arrival by whipping up a storm, as an accelerating motorik beat brings an element of krautrock into the picture, and the tense vocals highlight a somewhat manic quality. The guitars are also key elements; one second they're ringing out harmoniously, the next they're urgently tearing into furious riffs, and by the end they're growling, squealing and crackling in amongst a howl of feedback. The propulsive bass pounds away at a single note for long periods of time, making for a greater impact when it lifts off for the infectious instrumental hook. One of the best songs of 2013 without a doubt. An enjoyable 32 minutes absolutely fly by, and its fat-free length means you will often want to press the play button again after it's finished. It's too unusual to be able to memorise after one or two listens, but brilliantly intriguing enough to make you want to give it plenty more of your listening time. A fine debut from a truly exciting new band. Full review HERE.

9. Metamono - With The Compliments Of Nuclear Physics
With advancing technology, these days anyone can put together a dance track using some software and a computer, meaning that many unworthy mainstream nobodies have been trying to hide a lack of talent, skill and creativity behind a load of shiny, buffed-up digital sounds. Aware of the abysmal direction electronic music could be heading towards, Metamono create music using only old analogue instruments, and have completely abolished digital recording and production as a rule. In fact they work around an innovative manifesto, which can be seen HERE at their website. Made up of musician/producer Jono Podmore, electronic wizard Paul Conboy and fine artist Mark Hill, they ban things like sampling, overdubs and even microphones from their music making regime. "Being able to download just about any sound imaginable is liberating in one way, but I've found it makes me less creative" explains Podmore. "Making purely electronic music while rejecting digital technology imposes limitations, but then actually forces you to be more imaginative and resourceful."

Stripping away the last few decades of electro music and building a new alternative from scratch, when sources are restricted, a greater degree of imagination has to be applied. And imagination is a vital ingredient for great music, a fact underlined by the sounds Metamono create. Following on from a couple of excellent EPs, the debut album 'With The Compliments Of Nuclear Physics' is a fascinating and highly rewarding record that spans four sides of vinyl, reflecting four different sides to the sound of these visionary electronic musical scientists. Returning to the creative processes employed by game changers like Stockhausen, Raymond Scott, Joe Meek, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental, Metamono also share the experimental mindset of people like Can (whose Irmin Schmidt is Podmore's father in law) and Cabaret Voltaire as well as the musical instincts of acid house pioneers and early Mute Records artists, while somehow managing to craft a style as fresh and modern as that of Fuck Buttons or even many of the acts on Warp Records. All of this remarkable, often improvised music has been created using their "Instrumentarium", a mass unit of second-hand or hand-built vintage analogue synths, ring modulators, phasers, stylophone, theremin, sirens and transistor radio. Much of their equipment has been recycled from old parts from different instruments, making for a healthy amount of "found sounds"

Firstly, this record is not designed to be listened to in one big helping. It's split into four sides because each one should be listened to separately. Much of it is like how we imagined the future would sound years ago, and ironically it's made by instruments from the past, most of them salvaged from the scrap heap. Contemporary ideas show that far from being Luddites or mere retroists, they're not looking to return to the past. Instead they're building something new out of old bits in order to make creative progress for the benefit of electronic music's future. This is why, despite never leaning on many of the less-skilled techniques used in electronic music these days, it never sounds dated and certainly never comes across like some sort of novelty. Part of their manifesto reads "Metamono will restrict and limit the sound sources and techniques available to us in order to liberate the imagination." Mission accomplished. Full review HERE.

8. Thought Forms - Ghost Mountain
Thought Forms consists of guitarists (and occasional vocalists) Deej Dhariwal andCharlie Romijn, plus drummer Guy Metcalfe. They don't need a bassist or keyboard player because the music they create doesn't require such things, and unlike many others, this three piece don't need to "flesh out the sound" in any way. All they need are their instruments, an excitingly vast range of well-used guitar pedals, and a blank canvas to apply their imaginations to. The colours on their palette are similar to those of Sonic Youth, Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine, but the picture they paint is very much their own work. 'Ghost Mountain' was produced by Jim Barr, the live bassist with Portishead, whose Geoff Barrow signed Thought Forms to his Invada label a few years ago. The soundscapes and drones from their previous self titled debut are still here, but the songs work on many more different levels than before. The ideas have developed and have been applied in a way that makes a bigger impression. 

Dhariwal and Romijn's voices and guitars correspond beautifully on the bleak swoon of 'Sans Soleil', an essential moment of shoegazing magic that precedes the LP's colossal centrepiece 'Burn Me Clean'. With a heavy sense of a shamanic ritual taking place, to call it "dark" would be a major understatement: it's absolutely fucking apocalyptic. It's also a powerful example of how exploration can create something truly magical, and each one of its 12 minutes and 58 seconds are vital. This is the sort of thing that the term "mind blowing" was invented for. It takes its time to go exactly where it needs to, and uses its space to make each note resonate with maximum impact. The careful structure, impeccable precision and patient timing of the piece allows the intensity and mood to build into one of overwhelming devastation, as squealing, earth-shattering guitars come roaring out of the darkness. 'Ghost Mountain' is a truly immersive piece of work that captures the mind and takes it on an extraordinary trip. By fine tuning their ideas, the band have unlocked a sound of their own and made a memorable record that has moved them into a higher league. Full review HERE.

7. The Fall - Re-Mit
The Fall mean different things to different people. To some it's just a northern bloke shouting random nonsense over repetitive music, while to others they represent an ever-changing musical revelation fronted by one of the greatest poets of our time, and an outfit that continues to experiment and break boundaries. They were John Peel's favourite band and have influenced a massive array of bands and artists over the years. For those who aren't aware, Mark E Smith formed the group in 1976 and about 66 different members are said to have played in his band over the years, a lot of them exiting the group due to conflicts with the notorious frontman. However this particular line up of the band has now recorded its fourth album together, a kind of stability never seen before within these ranks. 

It's the 30th Fall studio album overall, the first since 2011's aggressive, sometimes messy'Ersatz GB' and it begins in a brighter, cleaner but no less exciting manner with the brief 'No Respects (Intro)', where the sound has clearly taken a turn towards surf-rock. It has no vocals and the style is completely at odds with the previous album, yet you could probably guess that it was The Fall. By the time the raucous'Sir William Wray' bursts in there's no mistaking who this is, as a heavily distorted Smith vocal snarls through the speakers accompanied by a kick-ass riff, noisy synths, intertwining guitars, boisterous "hey!"s and the propulsive punch of the rhythm section. Quite clearly, the band sound tighter and more confident than they did on the last LP. It's hard as nails, yet none of this LP seems to be in the same thrashy, metal vein as 'Ersatz GB', instead we are presented with clearer production and a style that is livelier and more melodic in places. It revisits The Fall's past brilliantly while continuing to push things forward in an uncompromising and challenging fashion. In terms of Fall albums it's not quite a classic, but certainly one of the strongest of the last decade or so, and easily the equal of 2010's acclaimed 'Your Future Our Clutter'. Forever destined to divide opinion, if you don't like The Fall, it will make you dislike them even more. If you are a fan, chances are 'Re-Mit' will not disappoint. Full review HERE.

6. David Bowie - The Next Day
It's not often that I get to welcome back an artist who is often regarded as the greatest who has ever lived. Up until a few months back, no one could have believed that we'd actually be listening to this now. But here it is, the new David Bowie album 'The Next Day'2003's 'Reality' was the third in a series of LPs made since 1999 that saw Bowie abandon his experiments in the 90's for a more straight forward, perhaps less adventurous approach. Maybe the heart attack he suffered in 2004 was a warning sign, a suggestion that he needed to slow down and have a well deserved break. But a couple of years later and there was still no sign of Bowie returning. The long silence and complete lack of public appearances led to rumours about his health, and as each year of inactivity passed, the chances of Bowie making a comeback were looking less and less likely. Many thought that he had decided he'd made his contribution to the world and owed it to himself to live out a normal life for the rest of his days. Even his biographer Paul Trynka thought that he had retired, and wouldn't ever return unless he could deliver something "seismic".

Then in January, on the day that Bowie turned 66 years old, the world was stunned at the instant arrival of a new single and the announcement of a brand new album. How did the world's biggest star manage to record an LP in complete secrecy over two years, without rumours getting out and news being leaked on the internet? In an age of instant and easily accessible information, this true icon had pulled off a masterstroke. The musicians involved in the record were all made to sign non-disclosure agreements, and even producer Tony Visconti had to keep his mouth shut whenever asked about Bowie's activities. This comeback album was secretly recorded, sensationally announced, and has been heralded by a storm of hype whipped up by the music press, clamouring to welcome back this unquestionable legend. But is it really the "seismic" work that Bowie needed to come out of retirement to give to the world? It's more adventurous than the three previous albums he made since the 90's, but his ideas sound more fully formed and carefully thought out this time round. In fact this could very well be his most diverse collection of songs. Sometimes you have to look below the surface to understand the genius of this record, and trying to get your head around the lyrics is like venturing into a mental minefield. Perhaps being out of action for so long and watching the world of popular "entertainment" descend into vacuous blandness might have awoken something in him that had been sleeping for a long time. Perhaps before 2004 he was too concerned with constantly moving forward and making the next record to possibly take a break. Too busy to take a look back at his entire life, career, and his musical journey through the decades. After taking the time out and making sense of his past, he's also aware that the weight of his history is always going to be on people's minds whenever he releases new music. But this album's revisiting of his past is not about nostalgia, it's about placing references to previous works in the fresh context of new songs.

It somehow bridges many styles that are completely at odds with each other, adding a new ingredient to gel them together. That new ingredient is the present day. Despite revisiting many eras of his past, he doesn't ever fall into the trap of self parody and certainly doesn't sound like he's running out of new ideas. He's challenging himself again, not wishing to end his career with the comfort and steadiness of the previous three LPs. No one else could have made a record like this but Bowie, in fact it's only now that he himself is capable of doing so. Just like no-one could have made an album like 'Station To Station' except for the 1976 Bowie. His output is so wide ranging and diverse that none of his albums come close to defining him, because each era saw a different Bowie. But this is a case of looking back while moving forwards.

He doesn't ever sound like a "museum piece" over the course of these 14 tracks, in fact he sounds more hungry and more relevant than he has done for decades. To say it's a pleasure to have him back would be an understatement. Full review HERE.

5. I Am Kloot - Let It All In
Formed in 1999, I Am Kloot finally broke through to a wider audience with their acclaimed 2010 album 'Sky At Night', which as well as giving them their highest chart position to date also earned them a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Now they follow it up with their sixth effort 'Let It All In', a more varied record that builds on the sparse acoustic sound of its predecessor while reintroducing and improving the style of their early work. Like the previous LP it's produced by Elbow's Guy Garvey and Craig Potter, who have been friends with Kloot long enough to know how to bring out the best in their music. The success of the previous album has given the band greater confidence, and this one will surely take them further.

Bullets opens the album, building from downbeat Northern misery and a tune that hints at The Doors' 'People Are Strange', before swinging into a Tom Waits-like burlesque stomp. With its dusty night time moods the (almost) title track 'Let Them All In' is a laid back grower, while the magnificent 'Hold Back The Night' is a perfect example of how I Am Kloot have progressed over the years. After the resigned, brooding bitterness grows more powerful with each verse, it's soon pushed up to dramatic levels with the arrival of a sweeping string section that wouldn't sound out of place in a Bond film. 'Forgive Me These Reminders' closes the record on a bittersweet, heartfelt note, a charming low key moment so beautiful it could make a grown man cry. Fitting together wonderfully, Let It All In sees John Bramwellmoving in to a higher league in terms of songwriting, a strong and consistent album that provides I Am Kloot with their definitive work. Full review HERE.

4. Suede - Bloodsports
When a legendary band reforms, it's often a case of just touring the old hits. Coming back with new material can carry the risk of tainting a legacy, but in Suede's case the release of a brand new studio LP gives them the chance to redeem themselves after the damp squib of 2002's disappointing 'A New Morning'From the opening headrush of 'Barriers', it's clear that the fire is burning bright once again. Its epic melodrama and statements of undying love provide a superb start to a record that sounds like it could have been made at any point in the mid 90's. And for Britpop nostalgists like myself it's worth buying for that reason alone. 

But what we don't get is a group simply relying on a sound similar to that of their best work to try and win back what they once had. Sometimes a band can end up making a poor record and mistakenly believe that it's good because it's in the same style as their most celebrated work. The Oasis album 'Heathen Chemistry' is a prime example. But thankfully Suede haven't fallen into that trap. These songs just remind the listener of the old stuff because it's packed with just as much heart, guts and epic bursts of emotion. It's the sound of a group who have somehow rediscovered the magic. Brett Anderson's vocals are positively awe-inspiring, and it's a fine way to return. 'For The Strangers' produces one of many fine choruses, all underlined with magnificent soaring guitar lines. Upon hearing this particular track for the first time, I couldn't help but smile. It was like the last 17 years never happened. The massively infectious 'Hit Me' delivers electrifying glam riffs, a simple and hugely addictive chorus and an epic "la la la la la" refrain will no doubt have audiences punching the air and singing at the top of their lungs. They sound like they've reignited that spark and rediscovered what they once thought was lost forever. Overall it's not quite up there with the truly perfect'Coming Up', but its best moments provide us with something we thought we'd never hear again: Suede producing some new classics and proving that their glories aren't all in the past. Full review HERE.

3. Primal Scream - More Light
In 1997, Primal Scream changed the way I listened to music forever, with their phenomenal 'Vanishing Point'. The follow up'XTRMNTR' turned me on to politics and various music genres I hadn't explored previously. It was perhaps inevitable that after those two magnificent albums, subsequent releases failed to match such outstanding quality. 2008's 'Beautiful Future' was a good record, but not a good Primal Scream record. Something about it just seemed a bit too conventional by their standards, and it was perhaps an indication that another change was needed in order to revive the momentum and keep things moving along. During the intervening years, legendary bass icon Mani departed after over a decade with the group to return to his old pals in The Stone Roses, and after recording 'More Light'this ever changing unit welcomed the unknown Simone Butler into the fold. After spending the last few years touring 1991's landmark 'Screamadelica', there have been rumours that the album's sound was to be a major influence on the band's new LP. The truth is that the tone is in fact closer to that of 'Vanishing Point' and'XTRMNTR', however 'More Light' is a very different record that sees Primal Scream moving in new directions once again.

Producer David Holmes helps the record flow with a filmic quality, the sort of album that takes you on a memorable journey. And like 'Vanishing Point', this is a good record for the road as well as a terrific thing to experience through headphones. Although there are hints of their best LPs, this isn't a case of a band repeating themselves. The explosive nine minute opener '2013' is the sound of thrilling confrontation that perfectly defines the state of modern culture. While others are either afraid to protest or not concerned, here is a fine and all too rare modern day example of a dire political, social and cultural climate provoking a powerful musical reaction, and Primal Scream are just the band to do it. Running at over 70 minutes, 'More Light' is the sprawling sound of a reinvigorated group giving it all they've got and stretching their musical imaginations to the limits, sounding vital and important once again. Full review HERE.

2. Teeth Of The Sea - MASTER
Teeth Of The Sea's astonishing third album is a record that's impossible to categorise and truly stands on its own in a musical world overpopulated by conformism. Incorporating elements of krautrock, electro-prog, psychedelia, metal and even disco (amongst other things) into a puzzle of cosmic terror, it's a terrific, boundary breaking fusion of sounds. I've been trying not to overplay it, however it continues to astound more and more after every listen, so another dose of this mighty brainfuck can be hard to resist. Utilising a range of otherworldly sounds and reaching deep into their boundless imaginations, the London-based outfit have put together something of a masterpiece (no pun intended).

Introduced by a frightening German android, the opening 'Leder' leads into 'Reaper''s punishing disco textures, where bellowing synths, a pounding 4/4 beat and tribal percussion form the basis for a dramatic piece evolving into powerful, industrial post-rock. 'The Servant' delivers awesome suspense, frazzled analogue synths and fucked-up trumpets that sound like swarms of wasps, while the mighty thump and mechanical menace of 'Black Strategy' shoots brain-frying sounds through your eardrums, frightening yet mesmerising with its hallucinogenic power and entrancing Moroder-esque synths. Just when you think it can't get any bigger, it does just that and continues to do so throughout every astounding minute, with the brass elevating it to new atmospheric levels. Sounding like fists being hammered against walls, the brutal 'All Human Is Error' reverberates with hypnotic power and deep bass, thriving on the thrilling sensation of noise travelling from ear to ear. Halfway through the closing 'Responder', the mood grows heavier as it threatens to erupt so forcefully, you're scared of what it might do to your ears. As its apocalyptic robo-march climaxes, it serves as the perfect ending to an astonishing album, but 'Master' is more than just an album. It's an experience.

Do yourself a favour and do this record justice by playing it through a good pair of headphones, and then you will be able to feel the full power of the Master. People complain about the lack of unique, original music these days. There's no shortage of that here. Enjoy. Full review HERE.

1. Edwyn Collins - Understated
The best record of 2013 was not one that pushed musical and sonic boundaries, or one that sold bucketloads. Sometimes, the simplest things are the best. This record delivered tune after tune, and over the course of the year has proved to be the finest collection of songs the last 12 months have produced. It was a close one, but listening to this on vinyl over the last few days has swung it. Edwyn Collins has made RW/FF's Album Of The Year. Well deserved, Sir.

'Understated' is an apt title for an album by a man like Edwyn Collins, for his influence is exactly that. People often talk about how bands like The Smiths and The Stone Rosesinspired generations of indie groups, butOrange Juice were also very much pivotal in their own way. Collins was the singer of this group, and after their split embarked on a solo career that produced a number of incredible albums. But in 2005 his life was shattered after suffering multiple brain haemorrhages, a trauma that many people don't bounce back from. It was a relief that he survived the tragedy, and just knowing that he was still with us was a blessing. While the man may have lived to see another day, many people assumed that we would probably never hear the musician again. But Edwyn Collins doesn't give up that easily. And here we are eight years later listening to his new album, his second since his return to doing what he loves most. Edwyn's recovery has been partly been the result of his sheer determination to carry on making brilliant music, something which helped him rebuild his life, and in many ways his thoughts.
For 2010's 'Losing Sleep', a range of high profile collaborated were enlisted to help their hero get back on track after the major setback he suffered, and after re-acquainting himself with music again, this latest album sees him take centre stage. It's perhaps his most personal record as well, several tracks reflecting on the events of his life in a most powerful and open way. It won't be long until you're singing along to the choruses, or maybe you won't be singing along because you'll want to concentrate on the power of that voice.

Opener 'Dilemna' kicks things off with smart horns and a simple yet massively infectious tune, while the strutting 'Baby Jean' tells of how his art has kept him going. The lively 'Carry On, Carry On' is a joyful piece of Motown-infused soul that doesn't take for granted the simple pleasures in life, and elsewhere songs like the poignant, bruised 'Down The Line' push his vocal abilities to the limit. "Just understand I've lost some ground"he sings, highlighting the fact that he's not trying to hide anything from the listener. While some tracks openly deal with his struggle, others look back to his youth and his early days as a musician, in fact the humbly touching '31 Years' does both. But not once does he sound like a man playing for sympathy or feeling sorry for himself, as the truly buoyant northern soul stomper 'Too Bad (That's Sad)' demonstrates, a classic break up song put to the most uplifting of musical settings.

Some of the wit and lyrical sharpness of his pre-2005 material may have been blunted, but in its place are honest autobiographical reflections, and a newfound sense of perspective, while the determination and sincerity powering his performance is nothing short of awe inspiring. 'Forsooth' grows from a soft Velvet Underground-like melody into a wonderfully underplayed gospel chorus. Because music has given him so much, he's giving himself to the music and can be heard truly singing from the heart. When he sings"I'm so happy to be alive", you can tell that he means it. The thrilling 'In The Now' sees him celebrating survival with a defiant energy, pleased to be not only "living and breathing" but also "working", while the fantastic title track provides another catchy direct hit.

'Understated' is more than just another step to recovery, it is indeed a fine record in its own right, and utterly life-affirming. It's also perhaps the ultimate testament to the healing power of music. He lost the ability to read, write, and lost movement in half of his body, but what he didn't lose was his gift for coming up with an ear-catching tune, as is proved here. It will make you smile, it may even make you cry, and its an album that reminds you how good it is to be alive. 

Listen to the album in full HERE
And then buy a copy HERE

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