Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A year of listening pleasure

It's that time of year when everyone sharing their best listens of 2013. So here are mine in no particular order. At the end I'll suggest the album that I think is the best of the year - but they're all pretty marvellous.

Prefab Sprout - Crimson/Red: late in the year, back from the dead came Paddy McAloon with a near perfect collection of velvety lush melodies with barbed, witty lyrics reflecting on life as a writer and performer. In particular The Songs of Danny Gallway and the Old Magician stand out from a very strong field.

The National - Trouble will find me: building on the success of High Violet, Cincinatti's finest produce their best work to date; tricky rhythms, elipical lyrics delivered in a lush baritone and fabulous washes of guitars and keyboards make for a heady brew.

David Bowie - the Next Day: who'd have thought that thirty years after Scary Monsters, the dame would come roaring back with his best album since the Berlin golden phase? Droll cover art that recalls Heroes and 14 tracks that stand alongside the best of his canon. Should we want a follow up or hope that this is a legend bowing out on a high?

Daft Punk - Random Access Memory: witty, imaginative, informed, awash with the history of dance and funk, the French duo make an album of joy and fun. Dig below the surface and there's nothing there but that's not the point - it's music to play loud when you need a lift!

Depeche Mode - Delta Machine: the Essex boys continue to explore their spiritual lives to choppy rhythms and swirling electronica. Angel and Heaven stand out but there's just one good song after another here - just what an album should be!

Eels - Wonderful Glorious: Mark Everett seems incapable of writing a dull note. This is a collection of droll observations set to catchy hooks. In many ways it's more of the same, though there seems to be a maturity of tone (both musically and lyrically) to these songs, a sign that E's growing old gracefully but losing nothing of his edge.

Bill Mallonee - Dolorosa: Album 51 (number 50 was an album of the year last year!) and the man gets better and better. This is the best work he's produced (eclipsing even last year's wonderful Amber Waves), a collection of wry reflections on life and faith from a songwriter hitting the peak of his powers - long may he continue mature.

Arcade Fire - Reflektor: It was always going to be difficult to top the Suburbs and Arcade Fire seem to have been bowed by the weight of it. People talk about this as a come-back album for reasons that mystify me and while it's not as fresh and original as its predecessor, it's still a pretty cool collection. Helped to achieve a new sound by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy (a marriage that doesn't always work), the album is full of Haitian rhythms, dance beats and soul-searching lyrics that suggest Win Butler isn't deliriously comfortable with his super star band leader label

Gungor - I am Mountain: Michael Gungor started life as a worship leader and has morphed into a highly original song writer exploring the terrain of faith with some glorious music. Gungor's usual lush harmonies are all present and correct here but the lyrics drive the music to some difficult and demanding places - on God and Country over driving country-esque riffs, he seems to be likening  US forces in the middle east to the beast rising from the sea in Revelation (that must have gone down a bomb in the mid-west!). On other tracks he reflects on the myth of Orpheus (a popular theme for musicians over recent years), the struggles of faith and looks forward to the resurrection on the exhilarating Finally. Heady stuff.

Nick Cave - Push the Sky away: The year belongs to Nick Cave.As winter gripped, the first single, We now who UR, heralded that Push the Sky Away was going to be a work to be reckoned with. And the year ended with Cave releasing a live set featuring a number of tracks form the album performed in front of a tiny audience at an LA radio station. Called Live from KCRW, it boasts a wonderful reworking of The Mercy Seat that makes it worth the price of admission in itself. Push the Sky Away is an epic of restraint. With Warren Ellis providing most of the other sounds apart from Cave's vocal and piano, the album teeters on the brink of erupting but saves its punch for the lyrics where Cave has given full rein to his reflective imagination. He muses on life, love, growing old (the blisteringly moving title track that closes the album), faith in a world of science and celebrity (Higgs Boson Blues) and life in Brighton. Not a note or word is out of place on this musical tour de force. It's definitely my record of the year.

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