George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2013: #10 – #1

by George_East on January 16, 2014

Well, it’s been epic but we are finally here the great unveiling and the second last of Allthatsleft’s 2013 review posts (as is traditional my Top 10 Films of 2013 post will coincide with the Oscars and BAFTAs in February/March).     For my #50-#41, #40-#31, #30-#21 and #20-#11 follow the links.

Before getting down to the top 10 for 2013, a reminder of my top albums of the last 5 years (although the first two pre-date the birth of this blog, I have made reference to them during my music blogging in the intervening period):

2008: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes;

2009: Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle;

2010: John Grant, The Queen of Denmark;

2011: Gillian Welch, Harrow and the Harvest;

2012: Bill Fay, Life Is People

So which album is going to join this roll of honour?

As I wrote when I started this count down, 2013 has been a great year for music I think – for my money the best year since 2008.  This has made the job of coming up with a final top 10 far more difficult than in other years since this blog has been running.   I started off with a short list of 86 albums (out of 130ish albums that I bought during the year).   My top 4 have all at one time occupied my top slot of the year, as I have listened and re-listened to them since they came out.  They are all brilliant albums I think and in lesser years any of them would have graced the top slot without embarrassment.

One interesting factoid (well, at least to me) of my Top 10, I have 6 on vinyl.  I’m not sure whether there is a cause and effect relationship here, or if so which way round it runs.  But as Charlie East-West said earlier last year, buy vinyl, sit down and listen to albums in the track order they were meant to be heard with opening and closing songs on each side, and the sleeve on your lap, and you will get so much more from the music (these days it will almost certainly come with a  download code or a CD to make mp3 conversion easy for your electronic devices).   There really is no comparison, as I am glad to see more and more people are realising (given the 100% increase in vinyl sales in the UK in the last 12 months).

Anyway, enough of the evangilising and on to that Top 10….

 

10.  Prefab Sprout, Crimson/Redprefab sprout crimson red

If all the comeback hype was with David Bowie’s The Next Day and My Bloody Valentine’s m.b.v in 2013, the best comeback was undoubtedly by Paddy McAloon’s Prefab Sprout with Crimson/Red.   Although the last album was  released only in 2009 (Let’s Change The World With Music) it had in fact been recorded in the early 1990s.  Crimson/Red was therefore the first new recordings from McAloon for more than a decade.  The McAloon that has emerged is a guru like figure resplendent in white suit  and long white beard.

If McAloon is sadly losing his hearing (as well as his sight) there is no evidence of him losing his wonderful voice or his uniquely brilliant song writing abilities.  Indeed this is an intelligent, effortlessly assured collection of songs, with McAloon’s voice sounding better than ever.

Crimson/Red is an album which sees him being visited by another genius song writer, Jimmy Webb (of Wichita Lineman fame) on The Songs of Danny Galway (‘I met him in a Dublin bar, that sorcerer from Wichita) as well as examining all times in his life.  From the weary old timer of The Old Magician  to Adolescence.  If there is a better description in a song of that most difficult but exciting time in anyone’s life, this year, I haven’t heard it:

‘Adolescence, what’s it like

It’s a psychedelic motorbike

You smash it up ten times a day

Then you walk away

It’s moonlight on a balcony

It’s pure emotional agony

Bad poetry

It’s a greeting card – Will the Bard’

As always the arrangements are polished and the melodies gorgeous – a reminder of a time (the early/mid 1980s) when a bunch of artists (Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera etc) set out to make perfect, intelligent pop music and the world was a better place for it.

Interestingly, it was novelist Ian Rankin’s album of the year – a man who is no fool when it comes to music.

 

9. Public Service Broadcasting, Inform Educate EntertainPublic Service Broadcasting

My electronica album of the year was the debut from London duo, Public Service Broadcasting.   This is an album that seeks to do precisely what it says on the tin – mixing simple electronic beats and overlaid strings, with samples from old public information films, propaganda pieces from the Second World War and British feature films from the 1930s and 1940s.   It is one part BBC Radiophonic Workshop and another the films of Powell & Pressburger.

When put together the whole thing feels like a brilliantly futuristic vision of the past or maybe the past’s view of the future.  Spitfire with its sample of a wartime aircraft designer speaking in received pronunciation, comparing the flight of birds and the famous plane over relentlessly simple Kraftwerk-like synthesisers, feels somehow as if it  gets into the mind of those whose invention saved Britain when it stood alone.   It is all curiously nostalgic.

On other tracks like the Theme From PSB almost folk-like banjo strings are employed over a Cold Cut – style cut up of posh samples and electronic music.   It reminded me a little of the Cold Cut take on Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full from the late 1980s, only put together by Radio 3 continuity announcers.    Whereas Signal 30 has a full-on, dare I say it, Kasabian style indie anthem rock driving guitar and bass holding it together (and I mean that in a positive way).

The album revisits some of the most classic public broadcasts of all, like WH Auden’s Night Mail made for the GPO Film Unit in the 1936 in the track of the same name, but also trashy samples of American racing films and obscure wartime broadcasts.  I am not sure if all of them are genuine.

Inform Educate Entertain is one of the most original albums of the year.  I cannot think of any other album that has made me want to dig out my DVD collections of Humphrey Jennings’ wartime propaganda films – which at their best (Fires Were Started say) are art of the highest order.   Any album capable of doing that, has to be great.

 

8. Daughter – If You LeaveDaughter If You Leave

I have been raving about Daughter since I first heard them on the Mary Ann Hobbs’ show back at the very beginning of 2013.   They were my favourite new discovery of the year and their album, If You Leave,is one of the bleakest and most emotionally devastating albums I have heard in a long time, and I mean that in a good way.

Elena Torna takes us into the depths of her tormented soul and exposes us to the self-loathing, despair and delusion that comes with a bad break up.   On Smother she takes the criticism that has been leveled at her by a lover and turns it on herself:

In my darkness I will meet my creators

And they will all agree, that I am a suffocator’

It is, as I found out when I saw Daughter live at Shepherd’s Bush in November, an album which seems to speak to young women – who seemed to know every word.

If you are in love then you are the lucky one,

As most of us are bitter over someone’ (Youth)

On Shallows she contemplates suicide: ‘If you leave, when you go, you will find me, in the shallows’.   And this hints at something else that might better explain the album – maybe it’s not a break up album at all, but rather an album about the fear of an anticipated break up.  ‘We are still sleeping as  lovers’ (Still).

The album consisting of 10 one word songs is in the great tradition of 4AD bands like the Cocteau Twins, somewhat ethereal vocals floating above a minimalistic atmospheric musical collage.   The use of echo is reminiscent of The xx and Beth Gibbons (particularly of her astonishing collaboration with Rustin Man on Out of Season); the bass lines of the first couple of albums by The Cure.

The most emotionally intense album of the year, then.  But one that is also immensely listenable.

 

7. Arcade Fire – ReflektorArcade Fire Reflektor

As perhaps the only person on the planet who was not overly impressed by The Suburbs I approached the prospect of the new Arcade Fire album with mixed feelings.   In truth I had not been blown away by Will Butler’s ensemble since their debut Funeral knocked me sideways in 2004.

The title track and anticipatory single though promised something hugely different to what we were used to from the band of modern alienation.  Reflektor was a modern disco masterpiece, a song with more ideas in it than most bands manage over the course of a career.   It also showed a joyousness in Arcade Fire that had never before been apparent.  The track of the year, for my money.

The album opens with Reflektor and my my is that a high standard to follow.   Particularly over that notoriously flabby self-indulgent rock star construct, the double album (I still remain of the view that the only truly great double album is London Calling).     The extraordinary thing though is that Arcade Fire very nearly pull it off.

The first side is flawless – Reflektor melding into  Flashbulb Eyes showing that the sense of alienation that made Arcade Fire what they are has not left them, as Will Bulter exclaims over a Kraftwerk mix of industrial bleeps and rhythms:

What if the camera really do take your soul’.

And all rounded off by the second single, the wonderful Here Comes The Night Time.

When these three tracks are added to the early Talking Heads inspired Normal Person and the glam rock work out of Joan Of Arc (Gary Glitter’s Rock N Roll anyone?), we are in the territory of masterpiece.   Indeed if this had been a single album it would have probably been my album of the year.

So, do they pull it off?  The answer is not quite – the album loses its way a bit on side 3.  But the ambition and the scope of the thing, make it a wonder to behold.

 

6. Midlake – AntiphonMidlake Antiphon

If The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was the most over-reviewed album of the year, Midlake’s Antiphon was the most under-reviewed.  The departure of the band’s lead singer and mainstay song writer Tim Smith would have killed most bands, but with Midlake it meant that they reinvented themselves.

Out was the pastoral folk rock – none of the back to a rustic way of life stylings of Courage of Others and Midlake’s masterpiece, 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, and in its stead an expansive early 1970s free-wheeling classic (even dare I say it, progressive) rock sound.

This is kind of how I imagine Pink Floyd (and I  fucking hate Pink Floyd) would sound if they were any good.   Music that takes you to a different place, interlocking, overlapping, spiritual somehow.   It was completely different to what had gone before but still noticeably, obviously Midlake.  The flutes are still very much there!

The title track and in particular the sublime The Old and the Young (my second favourite track of the year) are perhaps the most purely beautiful songs recorded by anyone in 2013.  Eric Pulido, taking over from Smith on lead vocals, has a voice, often multi-tracked, which has a wonderful timeless quality.  The songs build and build, until they worm their way into your skull and bed down, like a warm and welcome parasite.

It is an album that sounds like a long lost classic.  One of those albums that turns up in a ‘lost and found’ piece in Mojo that you buy on spec as a result, and think within minutes of putting it on the turntable how come I’ve never heard of this.

Gorgeous in every way.

 

5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky AwayNick Cave Push The Sky Away

Following the dirty garage rock of the two Grinderman albums and the rocked out anthems of the last Bad Seeds album, 2008’s Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, Nick Cave returned to the kind of extraordinary form last heard on 2004’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.

The sound though is more reminiscent of that stately dramatic masterpiece, my favourite Cave album, No More Shall We Part.  Lyrically though this is a departure from Cave’s slower more croonery albums in that the songs are mostly not narratively driven (the fabulous Jubilee Street being an exception, bizarrely rounded off by Finishing Jubilee Street, a song about Cave having a dream about writing Jubilee Street).

This instead is Cave taking stock of the absurdities, contradictions and even delights of the world from his vantage point of alternative rock aristocracy.

It’s the will of love

The thrill of love

Ah but the chill of love

Is coming on’

Cave wearily tells us on Water’s Edge.

Musically the album is held together by long term collaborator and these days only Bad Seeds mainstay, Warren Ellis.  The effect is that of an ominous film soundtrack pointing to the darkness and pain to come.  The violin and one note bass on We Real Cool makes it an instant classic – destined to be in Cave’s live set here on in I suspect.

The centerpiece of the album is the brilliant sprawling epic Higgs Boson Blues, a song that manages to take in quantum mechanics, Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil and Miley Cyrus.

If we were beginning to doubt whether there was any life left in the Bad Seeds, Push Away The Sky makes it embarrassing to have even raised the question.  Cave has demonstrated again that he deserves his spot amongst the greats.

 

4. Jello Biafra & The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and The Damage DoneJello biafra

From listening to White People and The Damage Done you would think that it was an album by the Dead Kennedys released at the very peak of their early 1980s powers.  Until that is you listened to the lyrics and realised that Jello Biafra is singing about contemporary issues like the financial crisis, post 9-11 foreign policy, Sarah Palin and job flight from the US to third world in the wake of free trade agreements.  And then, of course, there is that fantastic name for Biafra’s band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine.

This is by a distance the angriest album of the year, and fuck me, there is when you think about it, plenty to be angry about.   The beauty of the album though is that it does what the Dead Kennedys did with so much aplomb, hardcore with fantastic singalong hooks and bass lines to die for.

Biafra is unforgiving in his targets. Seeing fascism in comfortable complacent middle class liberals just as much as the corporate bosses who control the system.  On the superb opener, very much in the tradition of California Uber Alles and Holiday In Cambodia,  Brown Lipstick Parade. :

Republicans stand for – greed corruption bigotry and war

While Democrats pretend to feel guilty about greed corruption bigotry and war’.

Biafra’s trademark manic strangulated vocals are perfect on songs like John Dillinger extolling the Robin Hood like gangster over those real gangsters of wall street:

Throw the book at small time crooks

While Goldman-Sachs walks

And the Bernies made off

With the Stimulus – and more’.

There is no messing about with Biafra.  On Werewolves of Wall Street:

All over the world

Rich countries going broke

The money ain’t gone

We stole it!’

White People and the Damage Done is an album for when you are feeling pissed off with neo-liberalism and the compromises of the Labour Party and the Democrats.  That is to say it is an album for most days at the moment.   It has an extraordinary energy and is as good a pop punk album as has been recorded since, I don’t know, a certain West Coast hard core band recorded Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables.  It is a minor masterpiece.

Ray North said the other day in his Songs To Learn and Sing post that he needs to buy it.  Yes he should. So should you all.  To be played every time George Osborne is on the telly or the wireless.

 

3. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of The Cityvampire weekend modern vampires

On this, their third album, Vampire Weekend realised the potential that had been there since Mansard Roof was released as a single in 2007.   It was Pitchfork’s album of the year.

Although their eponymous debut is an extraordinary work there was always that nagging feeling about it that it was trying a little bit too hard with the nerdy speccy arch intellectual thing.   Contra was patchy but good enough for that difficult second album.    But on Modern Vampires of the City we see a band at the height of its powers – not trying to be anything other than themselves and massively confident in what they are doing.

The African  Graceland influenced sounds (Upper West Side Soweto as it was derisively named by certain critics) that first made their name are no longer as front and centre as they were (though very much still there on songs like Unbelievers).  And it is not an album which feels as self-consciously obtuse as Vampire Weekend’s first two, even if it still manages to bring in obscure pieces of Jewish theology.

What it is instead is a great pop album, drawing on influences such as rockabilly (Diane Young and check out the Buddy Holly vocal workout on Step) and reggae (Obvious Bicycle).  As ever with Vampire Weekend so much of their distinctive sound is about the drums, that unlike the western pop tradition are free flowing and almost jazz-like in taking the music in directions that most bands don’t know even exist.

Hannah Hunt is one of the tracks of the year – a break up song of intelligence, wit and emotion.  How great is this verse:

 

In Santa Barbara, Hannah Cried

I miss those freezing beaches

I walked into town to buy some kindling for the fire

Hannah tore the New York Times up into pieces’

We are talking Raymond Carver evocative.     Yep, that great.

Arcade Fire now have a challenger for the title of best big band in the world, and on the strength of this, Vampire Weekend probably edge it.

 

2. Bill Callahan – Dream RiverDream River

Following the relative disappointment of Apocalypse Bill Callahan, with Dream River returned to the extraordinary quality of 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle.   

Dream River was not an album that did anything new.  It didn’t need to.   This was instead Bill Callahan doing what he does best.  8 songs of sardonic humour, funereal pace and repetitive rhythms.     On the wonderful opener, The Sing Callahan took us through the realties of the solo singer songwriter on tour – no sex and drugs and rock n roll here, but rather lonely nights in even lonelier hotels, in which the only words you say all day are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’.  Callahan’s eye for evocative description is unmatched:

‘Drinking, while sleeping, strangers

Unknowingly keep me company

In the hotel bar

Looking out a window that isn’t there

Looking at the carpets and the chairs’.

As with Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle the album is full of these kind of details – the ones that put you right there.  On Summer Painter Callahan tells of a seasonal job, in tactile brush strokes:

‘I painted the names on boats for the summer

For luck you keep the same first letter

You don’t want, you don’t want

Want bad luck at sea’

The sound underneath Callahan’s lovely Lou Reed meets Leonard Cohen nearly spoken baritone is all jazz brushes, cellos and Curtis Mayfield flutes.  It works equally well and equally atmospherically with the downbeat (‘We call it spring though things are dying’ in Spring) to the it-makes-me-smile-every-time-I-hear-it repetition on Seagull  of:

And into the bar room

The bar room, the bar room

B’room, B’room’

Mojo gave Dream River their album of the year award.  So would I, it if hadn’t have been for….

 

1. John Grant – Pale Green GhostsJohn Grant Pale Green Ghosts

Yes, some 15 days after I embarked on this epic run down of my favourite 50 albums of a fantastic musical year we are finally there.  My album of the year for 2013 and the second time that John Grant has won my album of the year accolade since Allthatsleft launched.   Not bad for a man who has only released 2 solo albums.   We had a discussion on the blog back when Pale Green Ghosts came out about those very few artists whose first two albums were masterpieces.  There really aren’t very many of them  but with Pale Green Ghosts John Grant joins them.

Pale Green Ghosts is an extraordinary album.  For those expecting a re-hash of his brilliant debut The Queen of Denmark, Grant confounded all expectations.   The album, from the very first electronic notes of the opening title track, showcased a new  sound rooted in late 1970s/early 1980s electronic British bands like Martin Ware-era Human League and Cabaret Voltaire, as well as more obvious reference points like Kraftwerk.

Grant’s baritone mimicks at time the electronic sounds of the songs (check out how he uses it on Black Belt) – becoming almost another electronic instrument.  The voice is no less huge than before – surely one of the greatest voices around at the moment – but the intonation is different to the early Elton John like tones of his debut.

The album is though as starkly personal as his debut.  The brutal It Doesn’t Matter To Him laid bare the fact that Grant’s new found confidence and success had done nothing to woo back the love of his life.  I Hate This Town wryly observed the awkwardness of bumping into a former lover determined to  be polite and nice, when you just want to scream in their face.  The psychological pain of the  silent treatment when a relationship is going badly is compared to the physical pain of  Agent Orange on Vietnam.

The grand and brilliant pop of GMF is an instant classic with its one part self-deprecation and another self-aggrandisement.  Grant’s depression shining through the song like a beacon:

I wonder who they’ll get to play me

Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse’.

Like Jesus Hates Faggots on the first album the glorious closer Glacier takes matters beyond the personal in its take on moralising religions seeking to impose their view of sexuality on the world.

And Pale Green Ghosts is full of Grant’s wonderful  black as death humour:

Remember walking hand in hand side by side

We walked the dogs

And took long strolls through the park

Except we never had any dogs

And never went to the park’  (You Don’t Have To)

Maybe it is because Grant is exactly my age that his take on the world resonates so much.  I accept that may well be the reason I love his music so much. But there again maybe in reality it is because he is a genius.

Pale Green Ghosts is an album that, like The Queen of Denmark gets richer on every play.   Now let’s see if he can make it three out of three….

 

Tell me what you agree with, what you don’t, what I’ve missed and what you thought were the musical highlights of the year.  If you can remember that far back, that is.  Onwards to 2014…

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlie_East_West January 16, 2014 at 7:56 am

A great list. All of these albums would make my top 20 list.

Here is my own top 10 of 2013:

My top 10 albums of the year.

1. Vampire Weekend
2. Arcade Fire
3. Jon Hopkins
4. Phosphorescent
5. John Grant
6. Goldfrapp
7. Prefab Sprout
8. Arctic Monkeys
9. Public Service Broadcasting
10. Bill Callahan

Reply

Ray_North January 16, 2014 at 11:22 am

Ah, the annual George East album of the year, immediately followed in my house by vigorous use of my Amazon account!
I own three of the top ten albums (though confess not actually listened to Nick Cave yet!) – and am very interested by Prefab Sprout and Jello who I’m very pleased have released something great; surprised at Vampire Weekend, who I’m not massively into; and intrigued by Bill Callaghan who I like if I am in the right mood.
I posted my own top 10 a few weeks ago – here it is, with one amendment that is Matthew E White, which I hadn’t realised was 2013 and which comes in at number 9 (partly because the only one I’m happy to lose is the Palma Violets).

10. Daughter (If You Leave)
9.Matthew E White (Big Inner)
8. The Arctic Monkeys (AM)
7. Kings of Leon – (Mechanical Bull) (not one for the trendies but really surprised by how much I liked this and gets in via ‘time on the turntable’)
6. Kurt Vile (Walkin on A Pretty Daze)
5. Nick Cave (Live from KCRW)
4. David Bowie (This is the Day)
3 . Goldfrapp (Tales of Us)
2. John Grant (Pale Green Ghosts)
1.Arcade Fire (Reflektor)

Reply

George_East January 16, 2014 at 11:40 am

I still haven’t played the Nick Cave live album – it is sitting in beautiful gatefold vinyl under my desk (along with the fantastic sounding Schnitzelbeat Volume 1: Twisted Rock N Roll Exotica and Prot0-Beat unknowns from Austria 1957-1965) and will hopefully get its first outing on my turntable tonight.
You will love the Jello Biafra album – to be played very loudly on your way to Court if you are feeling particularly pissed off with Grayling or not being paid by the LSC.

Reply

Geoff Elliott January 16, 2014 at 1:40 pm

I’ve not bought many albums in the past year but I’ve 5 of your top 10. The most surprising was the Prefab Sprout release, excellent from start to finish.

I’ve not bought anything by Jello Biafra since the Dead Kennedy’s In God We Trust Inc. (which has a song on it called Nazi Punks Fuck Off – it’s still Fuck Week after all) back in the early 80′s. Fresh Fruit was a favourite of mine when I was about 13 years old. I’ll give his new one a spin though.

The Nick Cave album has had me working through his back catalogue in detail; I’ve never really got him but am blown away by a number of his albums. The Boatman’s Call, Murder Ballads and No More Shall We Part particularly.

I also have the Daughter, Arcade Fire and John Grant’s albums. Grant is a worthy winner again.

I’ll also give Public Service Broadcasting a listen, it sounds intriguing.

Good work George, thanks for taking the time to put this together.

Reply

George_East January 16, 2014 at 1:45 pm

I am a huge Cave fan and have been so since I heard John Peel play his cover of By The Time I Got To Phoenix back in the festive fifty for 1985, but the new album is by any standards up there with his best – my preferences album wise are pretty much yours – though I’d add in The Good Son and Tender Prey (the first album of his I bought on the strength of the Mercy Seat when it came out).

On Jello Biafra – sometimes you need someone to channel the anger and energy. The new album does that in spades.

Reply

Robin Thorpe January 17, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I must confess that I haven’t even heard of some of the albums in your top 50 let alone bought them but I admire the variety and independence of your list.
For my money you missed out some cracking albums in your list;
Solas – Shamrock City
Chris Wood – None the Wiser
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
Danny & the Champions of the world – Stay True
Guy Clark – My favourite picture of you
Lindi Ortega – Tin Star
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
Milk Carton Kids – The Ash & Clay
Troubador Rose – Find an Arrow
The Self-hep Group – Not waving but drowning
Hatful of Rain – Way up on the Hill

Reply

George_East January 17, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Robin, it’s always good to get recommendations for albums I’ve not heard. I shall check them out. I am a little embarrassed that a new Guy Clark album came out and managed to completely pass me by, so I’ll probably start with that. There’s always new stuff to listen to.

Reply

Robin Thorpe January 17, 2014 at 3:23 pm

The Guy Clark album is brilliant; definitely worth buying. One of my favourite albums from 2013. As is Shamrock City by SOLAS; I first heard it around this time last year as part of the Celtic Connections festival. They played the full album live. It was broadcast on BBC4 and by chance I happened to switch over just as they were starting. It was about 11pm at night but I stayed up until it had finished completely spellbound. Dick Gaughan sings on a track called ‘Labour Song’ which is as profound as it is inspiring. I bought the album off Bandcamp last February.

As you say there’s always new stuff to listen to; I have been checking out some of the albums in your list. Thanks for putting the time in to putting it together.

Reply

Robin Thorpe January 17, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I meant to say that the Shamrock City performance at Celtic Connections was available on Youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frE2nyYll0k
worth a look.

Reply

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