Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Top Albums of 2013

The Internet is arguably the world's most vast, most unnavigable ocean. There's so much online content out there in such a fluid, inconsistent state that the mind would boggle a thousand times before it was able to comprehend even a fraction of just how boundless the world wide web is.

With such immensity comes the problem of deciphering what it is within this great digital mass that's really worth devoting your precious attention to. For instance, there are literally hundreds of amusing spoof news sites, Miley Cyrus parody videos and Buzzfeed lists of the cutest pugs available for you to peruse at the drop of a hat, but, if you spent your time consuming every single instance of these that the Internet has to offer, you would find yourself sitting at your computer for weeks on end in piss-encrusted boxer shorts because you just couldn't tear yourself away from a baby pug wearing a beret for long enough to visit the toilet.

There's a similar problem when it comes to experiencing music through the Internet. There's just so, so much of it uploaded with such frequency to YouTube, Soundcloud, MySpace and Bandcamp that only a fool would attempt to keep even vaguely on top of every musical happening around the world at any one given moment. That, dear reader, is where the End Of Year list comes in to its own. Sifting through all the music released in 2013 to leave only the finest, most enduring output of the past 12 months, consolidated in to handy list-form and presented to the audience with a few lines of supporting text, the End Of Year list is one of society's unsung heroes. Where's the tax break for the End Of Year list, Mr. Cameron? Where's their parade? A good End Of Year list is truly a thing of beauty, to be marvelled at and cherished - a monument to human achievement, signifying the lengths that man will go through to cast appreciation upon the culture that surrounds him. A good End Of Year list is in itself a work of art.

The problem is that, if you've read this far, I'm afraid to say you're currently wearing the proverbial piss-encrusted boxer shorts. I update this blog so laughably infrequently that it carries pretty much no relevance, and any End Of Year round-up I publish is little other than a further waste of Blogspot's server resources. I mean, I haven't even published an End Of Year list in two years - do you honestly think reading this one will be worth your time? What are you even still doing here? Did you not see Buzzfeed's list of '17 Hilariously Tragic Holiday Baking Fails'?! They're hilariously tragic! Those people can't bake for toffee! Go, see for yourself!

If you do still insist on drawing your daily dose of hilarious tragedy from these pages rather than those of an international media hub, then please, as I detail my top ten favourite records of this year, let us meekly accept the futility of the situation and just hope we make it to the bottom of the list without anyone getting hurt.

In which case: are you sitting as comfortably as someone who's been wearing the same piss-encrusted boxer shorts for the past three weeks can be? Then I'll begin.

10. Daniel Avery - 'Drone Logic'

Listen: 'Water Jump'

Daniel Avery is a man whose name would probably be familiar to anyone who's interacted with a club in London over the past decade, whether through attending it, seeing a flyer or poster for a night there or lurking outside to throw red paint at its owner for having skinned your cat and turned it in to a snazzy scarf after running it over the month before. Anyone not so au fait with the capital's nightlife would be excused for being alien to his presence, as while he has built up a strong reputation over his career so far, it has predominantly been for being a DJ, and predominantly for DJing in London clubs. His steps in to production, though, prove that often some of the best electronic music is made by those that are record selectors first and foremost, as he demonstrates a winning knowledge of grooves, lifts and drops over the course of his debut album 'Drone Logic'. Flecked with acidic splashes and junglist breaks, it is a record that proves ensconcing from start to finish, with the smart dancefloor sensibilities that you'd expect from a resident at Fabric coupled with obvious production skill, no doubt finely honed during all those years of keeping dancefloors pulsing.

9. Four Tet - 'Beautiful Rewind'

Listen: 'Aerial'

That a Four Tet album will be immaculately packed with enticingly offbeat flourishes and a romantic sense of adventure is never in question. What is more up in the air is just what the resultant record will sound like. Originally a purveyor of lush folktronica, over the past years Kieran Hebden has been delving in to the realms of glistening, transcendent techno, with an eye much more firmly on the dancefloor than his initial gently loping offerings. His DJ sets can often be the best indicator of just where the man's head's at during any given moment - anyone that's caught him recently will have noticed his love affair with grime showing through, and it is this same passion that informs much of 'Beautiful Rewind'. While many of the tracks are not of the ilk for an MC to readily hop on during a late night Rinse FM session, there are constant nods to the electricity of the UK's most singular genre of this millennium - bursts of incomprehensible spitting pepper even the more tranquil corners of the album, while the likes of the heaving 'Kool FM' and 'Aerial' are clearer homages to the rugged underbelly of British club music, packaging 'hype' in the most serene, most Four Tet of ways.

8. Parquet Courts - 'Light Up Gold'

The only 'straightforward' guitar album to make the list this year, and I almost didn't include it because I thought it was released in 2012... but it wasn't! There's no more to that anecdote, it's over and was as mundane as you thought. Hailing from Brooklyn, Parquet Courts make the kind of punky garage rock that can often succumb to the same fate as many DIY creations, and limply fall apart through poor construction. 'Light Up Gold', though, oozes with fine guitar riffs and song-writing, and for a record that's 15 tracks in length impressively never sags or drags. It's punk without the overly shambolic workmanship, with songs bursting in sub-two minute frenzies when they need to (see 'Light Up Gold II'), and stretching in to longer, more considered form when appropriate - 'Stoned and Starving' is a brilliantly churning five minutes of humdrum frustration. What 2012 in my mind's loss is most definitely 2013 in reality's gain.

7. TREE - 'Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out'

Listen: 'The King'

I have fairly little patience when it comes to hip hop mixtapes - if I can refer you for one moment to my own words slightly further up this page, they are one of the biggest culprits for online over-saturation, leaving it nigh on impossible for those of us who just don't care enough to keep up with what's worth investing time in and what's not. More often than not I'll find myself listening to five minutes of a rapper telling me that he's going to stick his dick in my bitch over a background of generic trap beats and audio idents from whatever ridiculously named mixtape site I've signed up to in order to download the tape, before realising that I'm bored and putting on some Kate Bush while trying to work out why it's almost impossible to unsubscribe from the aforementioned mixtape site's mailing list that I've now found myself on. So it's always quite a treat when a good quality mixtape presents itself, and a good quality mixtape is what TREE's 'Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out' is. This may not come as a surprise given the nature of the rest of this paragraph, but I know absolutely fuck all about TREE other than I like his music, hence why most of the space I'd allotted myself to write about it is taken up with me whinging that hip hop websites now send me too many emails.

6. Donato Dozzy - 'Plays Bee Mask'

Even though I myself am someone that regularly listens to what would be described as more serious, textured music, for some reason I still wrinkle my nose whenever the term "headphone music" is bandied about. I guess a part of me still wishes that everything sounded as fucking amazing as 'Hybrid Theory' did through my computer's tinny speakers when I was 13, but I sometimes think that if a record really can't be appreciated outside of two cups placed directly over your ears then surely it can't be all that amazing really now can it. The thing is, though, I'm an idiot and don't know what I'm talking about, and anyone that pays any attention to what I have to say is probably an even bigger idiot. For I would strongly prescribe a pair of whatever decent quality ear-pieces you can lay your hands on for listening to Donato Dozzy's 'Plays Bee Mask', a record that's so ball-shrivellingly delicate that to lose any of its exquisite intricacies to outside noise would feel almost criminal. The constitution of the album is a strange one, as the whole existence of the record stems from the peddler of experimental oddities that is Bee Mask sending his track 'Vaporware' to cult Italian techno producer Donato Dozzy for remixing. Dozzy apparently felt that it'd be an insult to Bee Mask to rework his track a paltry once, so instead crafted for him seven different versions which were then assembled here to form one of the most entrancing and hypnotic releases of the year.

5. Forest Swords - 'Engravings'

Listen: 'Ljoss'

While there are undoubtedly still those that think electronic music can be any less emotional than its more lyric-based cousin, these are the same people who would have you believe that Keith Lemon's legendary status is rivalled only by that of their own penis, and in fact in years to come revisionists will look back upon my mockery of them in a manner akin to how we perceive curators of Victorian freak shows now, as my snarky cynicism is held up as an example of baiting the weak and helpless of our time. Anyway, while that day remains yet to dawn allow me to guide you through my menagerie of cultureless abominations as we point and laugh at them to the soundtrack of Forest Swords' 'Engravings', which contains more emotion in one distorted pluck of the Manchester producer's guitar than occupies any of the whining ballads that fill Miley Cyrus' misleadingly named 'Bangerz' album. With only the faintest scattered hints of the human voice, the songs on 'Engravings' are enough to bring any grown man to his knees, shivering and sobbing through the excruciatingly restrained power with which the record aches.

4. Omar Souleyman - 'Wenu Wenu'

Listen: 'Wenu Wenu'

I don't know about you, but I can't think of anywhere in the world more at the forefont of human endeavour right now than Syria. Oh, err, right - that stuff. OK, so while Syria may not exactly be the new Magaluf at the moment, one positive thing to have emerged from the region is without a doubt Omar Souleyman. While your favourite ahead of the curve blogs were bigging him up years ago, Mr Souleyman gained greater exposure in 2013 through collaborating with a man that he's now beaten in the coveted rankings of this very list, Four Tet, with the resultant record signed to the largest label of his career so far, Domino. I'm not going to lie to you - an Omar Souleyman album is an Omar Souleyman album. If 'Wenu Wenu' had been pretty much any other entry in his past discography it would probably still be occupying this #4 spot, as Souleyman makes music that is just so universally joyous to listen (and, more importantly, dance) to. His unique brand of psychedelic Middle Eastern acidic craftwork proves time and again to be bewitching and impossible to resist, appealing to the more primitive sides of human nature that will tease a dancer out of even the staunchest of kill-joys.

3. Dawn Richard - 'Goldenheart'

Probably the biggest criticism I'd level at most R&B albums is that they too often descend in to excess. The tracklists and running times could generally do with some trimming, the production usually leans towards the overblown and the lyrics can be so cheesy that, if they could, Wallace & Gromit would try to land their ramshackle spacecraft on them. In a way, Dawn Richards' 'Goldenheart' is no exception. However, in this instance the slightly rambling album length is welcome, the production majestic in its grandiosity and the lyrics drip with genuine passion, rather than Wensleydale. R&B is ultimately about marrying an infectious melody with potent vocals, and 'Goldenheart' has such unions in abundance. If I ever follow through with the 'Top Tracks of 2013' that I intend to write on top of this post, you'll find the album's second track 'Return of a Queen' riding very high - it's a stunning demonstration of wistful anguish and unwavering determination delivered with impassioned, raw emotion, and lays the foundation for many themes that will recur across the record. Writing this a couple of days after Beyonce dropped her surprise self-titled album, I'm uncertain that even after a few more listens to that undeniably excellent effort whether it'd dislodge 'Goldenheart' as my top R&B album of the year. Not that I'm purposefully limiting myself to just one, of course - that might be racist. And I'm not racist, some of my best friends are black. Actually, they're not - does that make me racist? Probably. I am probably just a massive racist.

2. Blue Hawaii - 'Untogether'

Listen: 'Try To Be'

You! You there! Try finding a more gorgeously plaintive track from this year than 'Try To Be' by Blue Hawaii, that's linked to above. You can't, can you? You big dick. If I was to continue to express in words the utter contempt that I feel for you, the reader, then I'd go on to mock you for not only having failed to top 'Try To Be' in the head-tingling beauty stakes, but also for not being able to find an album that so perfectly marries such poetry with a keen rhythmic drive through much of its duration, as is demonstrated on the 'In Two / In Two II' double-header, or that ties all these themes together with an exquisite delicacy that will have your ears tip-toeing across it as if on eggshells for fear of breaking anything. What in more boring hands may be a fairly pleasant but ultimately insignificant ride, Blue Hawaii have washed their dreamlike ruminations with seductively engrossing production work, meaning that while your brain is reflecting contemplatively back to memories of that cat you had that died when you were 11, your feet are tapping away like 1920s telegram operatives. And let me tell you something - release 'Untogether' mid-way through that decade and your Great Depression can go whistle. [Author's note: I realise that the album in reality has been released during a time of similar economic turmoil and has of course made no significant difference, but just let me have my pretentious poetic license OK?]

1. Tricky - 'False Idols'

Contrary to popular opinion, my nerve is not incapable of wavering. Often when I form an opinion on music, it's rarely a case of 'that's the end of that', all's done and dusted for my thoughts and assertions to be carted off to my brain's Big Room of Immutable Conclusions. I generally can't help but subconsciously seek assurances about my reasoning from popular outlets, as if to try and gain external justification for my thinking. It's for this reason that over the years, I've often developed self-doubt when I've liked or disliked something but my peers and the media don't seem to share my view. I remember feeling genuinely worried when coming to the conclusion that The Kooks were shit, yet at the same time most around me were lapping up their nauseating brand of wipe-clean indie pop with gleeful abandon. I'm not just trying to rewrite history to align with current popular opinion by the way, I genuinely always thought The Kooks were shit. I have similar restless nights about Drake now as well - is Drake not just, y'know, shit? But everyone likes him! Should it be his 'Nothing Was The Same' album occupying this top spot right now? I must be doing something wrong.

It's this sense of critical insecurity that I must confess made me take a reflective moment before finalising my top choice for favourite album of the year. For Tricky's 'False Idols' has received little by way of similar esteem for which I hold it. I should probably point out at this stage, that I'm no Tricky fanboy. I'd given the producer's most highly acclaimed album, his debut 'Maxinquaye', little more than a few cursory listens since it first entered my music library a few years ago, and I'm largely unfamiliar with the rest of his work. So no, I have no kind of rose-tinted reverence of the Bristol artist, in a way that made me try slightly too hard to enjoy Bjork's - incidentally an ex-girlfriend of Tricky - last offering 'Biophilia', before accepting that it was merely a good album compared to her other exceptional work.

So I found myself approaching 'False Idols' with fairly indifferent ears, however those same lugholes quickly became hooked after the first listen. There's a deliciously menacing presence that underlies the whole record, and whether it seeps through in the slicker funk-driven likes of 'Is That Your Life' or the sweeping 'Nothing's Changed', it maintains an aura of uneasiness and poised threat that makes for an engrossing listen. The vocals of Tricky and an array of female vocalists weave smokily together in a way not dissimilar to The xx, and each track on the album proves to be compelling in its own distinct way. I'm probably wrong, and that album of Miley Cyrus covers that Drake recorded with The Kooks is probably infinitely better, but for me, 'False Idols' was my album of 2013.


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