Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 - Albums Of The Year: 30-21

So we come to THAT time of year again. 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.

30. Troumaca - The Grace
The members of Troumaca have interesting backgrounds that perhaps explain the genre-defying mixture of sounds that colour their impressive debut offering 'The Grace'. Having pretty much kickstarted the "B-Town" scene (made up of hotly-tipped Birmingham bands like Peace and Swim Deep) by putting on a series of pivotal club nights, this record comes two years after the group's 2011 formation. Named after a West Indian Village on the Caribbean island of St Vincent, the band come from various different musical and cultural backgrounds, describing their sound as "bass escapism" with touches of soul and dub. Caribbean gospel informs the tropical haze of the music, as does a wide range of influences that stretch from the Timbaland-produced RnB of Ginuwine and Aaliyah, to the world of UK garage and grime, while lessons have also been learned from the likes of Radiohead, Steel Pulse and UB40 (!!!). You can dance to it just as often as you can chill to it, and while there is barely a guitar in sight, the songwriting skills also open it up to indie and rock enthusiasts looking for something different. Refreshing, spacious, accessible, creative, funky, intelligent and enjoyably forward thinking, Troumaca have made something that deserves to be added to many record collections. Full review HERE.

29. Crocodiles - Crimes Of Passion
The music of this duo has always reminded me of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club doingThe Beach Boys, however their fourth LP 'Crimes Of Passion' expands their horizons to include a wider range of sounds. While their sources are obvious, no other band blends them together quite like Crocodiles, and with album number four they've made this mixture of musical reference points into something distinctive of their own. Accuse me of lazy journalism for all these comparisons i'm making, but what I'm hearing is undeniably a set of songs that make it impossible to ignore their influences. The opening 'Like It In The Dark' is one of four or possibly five initial highlights, laying chiming Echo And The Bunnymen-esque guitar hooks over gospel piano and an upbeat breezy fuzz, suggesting that this could be their strongest collection of songs yet. And it is. If you like your dirty, scuzzy rock n roll balanced with splashes of melodic sunshine, then this record will make a nice addition to your collection and for some, an ideal introduction to Crocodiles. Full review HERE.

28. Six By Seven - Love And Peace And Sympathy
If you remember Nottingham’s late 90’s rock heroes Six By Seven (or officially six. by seven), chances are you won’t have heard anything from them in a long time. However they haven’t been out of action for as long as what many would think: their previous album was released in 2007, and two years ago in 2011, a drummer-less version of the band emerged as ‘The Death Of Six By Seven’. This project eventually led to the rebirth of the group, whose line-up now includes ex-Placebo man Steve Hewitt. ‘Love And Peace And Sympathy’ is a stellar way to return, and easily a contender for the rock album of the year. It’s a record that reminds you that if there was any justice in the world, these guys would have gone on to be massive. But they are not done yet. Far from it. This LP sees them revitalised and raging with a defiant energy, and marks one of the most welcome returns of recent times. Full review HERE.

27. Northern Uproar - All That Was Has Gone
Northern Uproar were still in their teens when they arrived during the glorious Britpop years, making them the best part of a decade younger than the most notable bands of the era. By the time they really began to hit their stride, the music press had dismissed them and should-have-been-hit singles from their underrated second album 'Yesterday Tomorrow Today' were given very little exposure. The group split in 1999 but returned in 2007 with 'Stand And Fight', a record which re-established them as a rock band rather than an indie guitar combo. With many mid 90's groups coming back, they decided to relaunch themselves a couple of years ago, relishing another chance to prove their worth. 

They are aware that commercial success is no longer within their reach, and they are aware that music press cynics will continue to try and dismiss them, but a passion for playing music and a pride that comes with doing what they believe in is what keeps them going. 'All That Was Has Gone' is their fourth album, funded by dedicated fans via Pledge Music and raising a two-fingered salute to the music industry that turned their back on such a fine group. Listeners will be surprised at the diversity of this record, where the optimism of their self titled 1996 debut meets the infectious melodies of their second LP, topping it off with the hard riffing of 'Stand And Fight'. There are fresh ideas and new directions, but Northern Uproar don't jump on bandwagons or desperately try to follow and conform to trends. The spirit of Northern Uproar is perfectly summed up in one of Leon's quotes: "It was always about the music, the rest is smoke and mirrors... and overpayed A&R men. Our reasons for doing this haven't changed since we started age 12... It's a fucking amazing way to live, making music with yer mates, and playing it at high volume!" Amen to that. Full review HERE.

26. Arctic Monkeys - AM
If the Arctic Monkeys' 2006 debut was their youthfully energetic entrance to the music world, and their second LP building on its appeal with more of the same, then 3rd album 'Humbug' was a darker, more slow burning effort that initially divided listeners on its release. 2011's 'Suck It And See' continued down this route, throwing in a few touches of introspection and the occasional 60's pop melody. Album number five happens at a point where rather than needing to find a new direction, the band have found ways to enhance, adapt and evolve their style into something familiar yet intriguingly different. But does it really live up to the hype? Early reviews of the LP declared that it could be "the album of the decade", a claim that's bound to piss off the naysayers. This sort of hype will annoy people who haven't seen their favourite records if recent times rated as highly, which breeds a lot of cynicism. Some people will be so annoyed at the hype that they won't WANT to like this album from the moment they set ears on it. 

The NME need to sell papers but also keep existing readers, while other publications and even certain websites will also have ulterior motives for raving so ecstatically about 'AM'. They need to write about popular mainstream things in order to stay "relevant" to the wider public and be likely to attract more readers. But publications like the NME have a typical readership made up mostly of indie rock fans, and as the papers/sites gets more mainstream and less indie, these readers get pissed off and leave. So the NME and others like them NEED to be featuring and championing acts who are massively popular, fairly young AND seen as reasonably "alternative". Who else but the Arctic Monkeys fit the bill in 2013? 10 out of 10 is 100%, which would mean that every single track would have to be up there with the greatest songs ever. This is not quite the case here, but an album that isn't one of the all time greats doesn't make a bad one. As on the previous two LPs, the pace is kept steady, but what it lacks in urgency it makes up for in burning, rock and roll lust. And tunes. Plenty of them. So does it live up to the hype? Not quite. Even if it was two tracks shorter it wouldn't be a flawless all time classic, and I agree that the reviews praising it with 10 out of 10 marks are over the top, but to hear it and say that this is a bad record would be even more ridiculous. It's full of brilliant tunes that stick in the memory, and for that reason 'AM' is going to be remembered as one of the band's best works and one of the finest mainstream indie rock albums of this era. But that's it, OK? OK, now let's enjoy it for what it is. Full review HERE.

25. Steve Cradock - Travel Wild Travel Free
Steve Cradock is without a doubt a hard working musician who deserves far more credit than he seems to receive. Over the last few decades he has played a part in some fantastic records, most notably those made withOcean Colour Scene and of course the collaborative work on the large majority of Paul Weller's output since the 90's. The psychedelic sounds explored on Weller's most recent LPs seemed to creep in to parts of the latest OCS album 'Painting', and it was clear which band member was bringing these flavours in to the mix. On Cradock's third solo outing, we get an undiluted taste of his flower power-meets-Quadrophenia musical visions. 

He's experimenting but still making the sort of music that's close to his heart. Fitting in 13 tracks into 37 minutes, none of the songs overstay their welcome either. Trying out different sounds and exploring new territories while also continuing to do what he has always excelled at, on his third solo album Cradock has got the balance just right. 'Travel Wild Travel Free' is capable of gaining this artist new converts, winning over those who haven't been keen on his past offerings and keeping his existing fanbase happy. After this LP's release, he goes off on tour with Weller before playing a string of solo gigs, and then heading back out on the road with Ocean Colour Scene. And when he's making great records like this, we should be pleased that music continues to keeps him busy. Full review HERE.

24. Black Reindeer - A Difficult Third Album
After announcing the end of Babybird last year, cult heroStephen Jones became Black Reindeer. The first two albums from this project were world away from the twisted pop songs that he was best known for, yet they maintained the high musical standards of this unique artist, a true one-off with a distinctive style all of his own. Largely instrumental, and consisting of soundtrack-like pieces, this was the sort of music that Jones has always considered his personal favourite. Despite selling over two million records worldwide, Jones has never compromised the intelligence of his music for the mainstream, and has a deep hatred of mass marketed blandness.

The 3rd Black Reindeer LP was a departure from the first two, and demonstrates an evolution. It's more varied, more defined, there are rare vocals, and the music has began to soak up traces of Jones's other project Death Of The Neighbourhood. This is immediately apparent on the opening 'Here', and the excellent 'Broke' with its unsettling falsetto, slow hip hop beats and eerie jazz samples. 'Stupid' even sees the first appearance of guitars on a Black Reindeer record. Overall it's the strongest and most complete sounding Black Reindeer album yet. Prolific as ever, Jones has further plans for this year that include another DOTN record, a possible solo album under his own name, and maybe more Black Reindeer recordings. Good to hear he's keeping busy. Long may this magical music continue. Full review HERE.

23. Depeche Mode - Delta Machine
Usually when a band has been around for over 30 years, it can sometimes be a struggle for them to sound up to date. However the modern sound of today is something that Depeche Mode have been making for many years, and all they've really had to do is add the tooled-up production. It doesn't imitate their imitators, in fact during its stronger moments it's more a case of the masters offering another lesson to their students. They may not be teaching them anything new, just giving them an updated example of what has been taught before. It may contain some of their best tracks in many years, but like their other releases of the last decade it's bogged down by inconsistency. 'Secret to the End' comes up with some great sounds particularly during its final minute, but perhaps falls short of being that great musically, a moody break-up song hampered by an unimaginative chorus, while 'Slow' wanders off track and doesn't make much of an impact. 'Should Be Higher''s slow industrial pulse and unsettling keys aren't matched by the rather average song itself, while the disciplined urgency of 'Alone' fares better. They've not crafted a classic album in a long time, but a large percentage of 'Delta Machine' delivers some vintage material that's more than worthy of inclusion on a Best Of album. It's just a few tracks too long, that's all. Full review HERE.

22. Mogwai - Les Revenants
It's always good to hear new stuff from post-rock legends Mogwai, and this 2013 release was the soundtrack they recorded for the French TV series 'Les Revenants'. Apparently its plot concerns the rise of the undead, yet it is not a blood and gore packed zombie show by the sounds of it. Mogwai deliver a score that's not supposed to evoke full on terror, more a well executed demonstration of suspense and restraint. Their bleak atmospherics have always had a filmic quality to them, and listening to these pieces prompt your imagination to attempt a mental picture of the scenes they accompany. But despite being created as a background score, it's a strong enough collection of tracks that works on its own as an album. Perhaps it's more low key than past efforts, and the fiercer moments are less explosive, but the moods have more space to build in the absence of brutal guitars. It takes a few listens to reveal its true brilliance, but 'Les Revenants' is another fascinating addition to the Mogwai catalogue. Full review HERE.

21. Yuck - Glow And Behold
In the two years following their self titled debut, Yuck experienced an upheaving line up change. When band members leave an outfit only a couple of years into their career, it can often be worrying, but when the frontman departs, most groups don't survive. However, Yuck's second LP shows that the magic didn't leave with Daniel Blumberg. Instead of leaving a gap, the line-up changes have enabled the remaining members to find more space for their ideas to flourish, and the new Yuck don't seem to be any less brilliant than before. Guitarist Max Bloom has stepped up to the role of main creative force, and has done a fantastic job of not only keeping this excellent band alive, but also carrying on making great records. A far more cohesive record than its predecessor, 'Glow And Behold' is a warming collection of songs from a tight knit group completely at ease with their sound despite the significant departure of their frontman. It may have been a blessing in disguise which has allowed the band to move in a destined direction where they can truly excel. A fine album that is well worth your time. The more you let it grow, the more you will hear it glow. Full review HERE.

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