George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2013: #20 – #11

by George_East on January 9, 2014

After a hiatus of a few days (these posts take bleedin’ ages to put together), I am back on it.   We are now at the business end of the best albums of 2013.  For the albums at #50- #41, #40 – #31 and #30 – #21 follow the links.

Before getting back to the list proper, the top 5 most over reviewed albums of the yearThis is for albums that got universal or near universal praise from the critics but don’t match up to the reviews.  It doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad albums, they might in fact be very good albums (indeed three of them  make my Top 50), just that they are not as good as the critics would have it.

1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me –  I have never fully got the National, even though I do own all of their albums (so something obviously makes me keep buying them) but with their highly lauded 6th album, I have finally given up on them.   This is a whole world of dull.  Dullness incarnate.  It is like Coldplay trying to be Joy Division.  Fake portentiousness and all the depth of a bird bath.

2. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories  - Get Lucky is the single stand out piece of genius on what is otherwise a workaday disco album.  Charlie East-West got it right in his review in our Album Collection feature earlier in the year when he said it would be the dinner party album of the year for those people who only buy one album a year.  Indeed.   Though let’s not wholly take it away from them, Get Lucky is the real thing.

3. My Bloody Valentine m.b.v  -  I have a funny feeling that this is an album that will fade pretty quickly from the pantheon.   It is at my #40 and remember I am precisely the audience it is aimed at, as I remember and loved My Bloody Valentine the first time round.   Good but nothing to get too excited about.

4. David Bowie The Next Day – My #28.  Suffers from the same problem as the My Bloody Valentine album.   It is one of those albums that so many critics wanted to be a masterpiece given how long we have been waiting for it, that it was elevated above its station.   Does it really stand up to any album of Bowie’s from the 1970s (other than the rubbish covers album Pin Ups)?  There can only be one answer to the question.   Yes Bowie’s ok stuff is still streets above most artists’ best stuff, but a couple of tracks aside, The Next Day just wasn’t as good as the critics would have it.

5. Arctic Monkeys AM – My #24.    At one point the Arctics’ latest would not have even made my top 50.  I thought it was a world of dull.   Not quite in the same league as the National album, but up there.  To be fair AM is worth devoting some time to and with repeat listens it is undoubtedly a very good album.  What it is not though is anything like in the same league as Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, which is what many critics would have you believe.

 

Right back to it…

 

20. Shovels & Rope – O’ Be JoyfulShovels and Rope

Imagine The White Stripes had decided to form a country band rather than a blues band.   That pretty much is Shovels & Rope – a South Carolinian duo, consisting of married couple Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst.      Their debut, O’ Be Joyful is stripped back country with gospel, blues and blue grass touches.

The album is full of knowing and loving references to rock n roll and country.  Hail Hail with its nod to the Chuck Berry classic is an instant singalong classic.  The wonderfully titled Kemba’s Got The Cabbage Moth Blues is a brilliant piece of bluegrass about a ‘hot shit singer in a low rent-dive’.    This self-conscious take on the genre reminded me a bit of the wonderful final Silver Jews’ album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea from 2008.

The songs are brought to life by two great voices, solo and together.   Hearst is capable of doing the full gospel country thing.  Trent has a touch of the Jack White unhinged about him.   ‘You’re a country singer, I’m a cavalier’ he sings on Cavalier and that sums it up about right.

Shovels & Rope are one my new discoveries of the year.  Fabulous stuff.

 

19. Matthew E White – Big InnerMatthew E White

Yes, Big Inner did come out in the UK in 2013, though admittedly way back in January.

Matthew E White’s soulful take on Americana on Big Inner has a huge sound that envelops you as it practically oozes from the speakers, wrapping you up in its warm stoner embrace.

This is not an album in a hurry.  None of its 7 tracks clocks in at under 4 minutes.  It is an album for late nights and contemplative moods.  Blessed with a gorgeous horn section and an almost-orchestra sized string section the sound achieved by White on this album is absolutely huge, befitting the man.

It is also, an overwhelmingly positive album.  An album that starts with the gorgeous lines:

I know you can’t help

That your smile’s the brightest

It’s hard to look away’ (One of These Days’)

and ends with the full on gospel cry:

Jesus Christ is our Lord

Jesus Christ, He is your friend

Jesus Christ is our Lord

Jesus Christ, He is your friend’  (Brazos)

is aiming for the transcendental.   And with a sound as sublime as that on display here he may well have pulled it off.  Not bad for a fat white guy from Virginia Beach.

 

18. Waxahatchee – Cerulean SaltWaxahatchee

Not as bad as Joanna Gruesome, but another terrible name for a band, certainly.    This time showing that the Americans can choose awful names, just the same as the Brits.  In fact a bit of Google action shows that Waxahatchee is actually the recording name of Katie Crutchfield of Alabama.

Hmm. Alabama.  Sure doesn’t sound like it.  This is not another album of alt-country or folky Americana.  This sounds instead firmly like it has come from a North Eastern American city in the early 1990s.  Cerulean Salt is all Breeders and Belly and Throwing Muses.   Great indie guitar tunes with a wonderfully expressive female vocal.  If someone said this was a side project involving Kim Deal or Tanya Donnelly or Kirsten Hersh, you’d believe them.

Distorted guitars, simple basslines holding it all together and lyrics expressing love and loss, Cerulean Salt is a superb record.  We would have loved Waxhatchee back in the day.  All the more reason to love them, or is it her, now.

 

17.  Toy – Join The DotsToy Join The Dots

With Toy’s second album, Join The Dots, the Brighton band finally produced something worthy of their potential and in doing so made the best My Bloody Valentine record of the year.

Actually that is unfair to Toy, though it is undoubtedly better than m.b.v.   This is an album that also reminds me of those psych-rock bands of the early 1980s and early 1990s like Spacemen 3 and Loop.  An album of lengthy instrumental soundscapes and an album to get completely lost in.   The opening instrumental, Conducter, sounds absolutely immense – rumbling bass with swirling guitar effects over the top.  You Won’t Be The Same and the title track, Join The Dots, are instant shoegazer indie classics  that would have filled the pre-Madchester indie disco dance floors.  It is psychedelic rock mixed with floppy fringed noisenik indie of the first order.

Like the Beyonce album its December release date meant that it missed its opportunity to make the big critic listTop 50s, though notably it has been heavily supported by Mr Caitlin Moran, Pete Paphides since it came out.

Join The Dots  is probably the 2013 released album that I am playing the most at the moment.

 

16. Linda Thompson – Won’t Be Long NowLinda Thompson Won't Be Long Now

In Won’t Be Long Now, veteran folkster Linda Thompson released the best traditional folk album of the year and the best album by the phenomenonally talented Thompsons.

Won’t Be Long Now is an album full of sea shanties, traditional folk songs and original compositions by both Linda, her son Teddy Thompson and the family pair together, Linda Thompson underlined again the power in the right hands (and the right voice) of traditional folk arrangements.

Thompson’s version of the proto-feminist Northumbrian folk song, Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk, is very nearly the equal of the extraordinary version by the Unthank sisters on their masterpiece, The Bairns.   However it is in the self-penned sea shanty, Never Put To Sea Boys that Thompson shows the extent of her talent.  If it was played to you without you knowing you’d think it had been sung on our merchant ships since the 18th Century.  It is not just a classic but one that seems to have always been with us.  The sleeve notes make it clear that Thompson ‘gets sick on a millpond’  -  whereas you would think that she lived on a tall ship.

The affection (and pride) with which Linda interprets Teddy’s songs like Father Son Ballad and the title track, It Won’t Be Long Now is palpable.   Hopefully Teddy feels the same way about his Mum.    She is a national treasure.

 

15. Omar Souleyman – Wenu WenuOmar Souleyman

My dance album of the year comes from Syrian wedding singer, Omar Souleyman.  Yep you heard that right, a Syrian wedding singer.

Souleyman has apparently had over 500 albums out in his native Syria, most of them recordings of his legendary wedding performances.   On the strength of this, I think I may have missed a trick, at my wedding last summer.

The whole thing sounds like some crazed middle eastern bazaar.  The opening and title track, apparently meaning Where Is She? is, you’ve got to admit, a fantastic title for a wedding song.  You wonder whether old Omar was told to play a set while the guests impatiently waited for the bride, who was having second thoughts.

The sound is thudding dance beats meets snake charmer and I, for one, had never heard anything like it before.   The songs are so infectious that you find yourself singing along with them in cod Arabic – I have no idea what they mean or whether the sounds I produce are anything like what Omar is singing.

Bloody marevellous. And how great is that album cover?

 

14. Laura Marling  – Once I Was An EagleLaura Marling Once I Was an Eagle

In Once I Was An Eagle Laura Marling has once again produced an absolutely stunning album, showing that, unlike some (cough Alex Turner cough), her move to the United States (in her case Los Angeles) has not diminished the power of her music at all.   This is her fourth brilliant album and she is still only 23 for fuck sake.

Marling’s ability to write musically and emotionally complex songs belying her age has been written about so many times that it has become kind of boring.   We are in serious danger of missing what a truly extraordinary talent she is.   Joni Mitchell-territory good.

This is a more stripped back album than her last, I Speak Because I Can, displaying a far greater degree of confidence by Marling in the ability of her beautifully expressive voice and her Nick Drake style guitar playing to carry the songs.    Her only accompaniment is cello, piano and drums and rarely together.

The album itself is a kind of sort of break up album but that kind of sort of diminishes its emotional depth and the richness of the song writing.  It is an album in which Marling lays herself bare,  ending on the final track, Saved These Words with this coruscating piece of self-insight.

You weren’t my cure

But thank you naivety

For failing me

He was my next verse’

 

13. Okkervil River – The Silver GymnasiumSilver gymnasium

With The Silver Gymnasium Texan indie band Okkervil River returned to close to the form of their best album, 2008’s The Stand-Ins  after the relative disappointment of 2011’s I Am Very Far.   Will Sheff once again underlining his claim to be one of the best songwriters currently around.

Like the life of an empty rock star concept of The Stand-Ins and Okkervil River’s breakthrough album, the wonderful tribute to Tim Hardin, Black Sheep Boy, The Silver Gymnasium is a concept album.  This time the album consists of songs set in and around Sheff’s time at school in New Hampshire in the 1980s at the Plainfield Elementary School and then the prestigious Kimball Union Academy boarding school.   The vinyl version even comes with a gatefold map with song number cross-referencing so you can see where Sheff is singing about.  A bit Yes maybe, but Sheff is such a good story teller, that this theme, like his earlier ones really works, giving the whole album a novelistic feel, or perhaps a better analogy is a series of connected short stories.

True to its theme the album is infused with a 1980s US rock sensibility, almost Springsteen-y feel (On A Balcony could be a Springsteen song from the mid-1980s).  These songs are, in common with that decade, big, bold and declamatory.  The clean production is by Cyndi Lauper alumni, John Agnello, for god sake.   That’s how 80s it is.   Okkervil River somehow manage to rescue the sounds of that most maligned decade and make them sound fresh and even cool. Something I would not have believed was possible.  This is not the 1980s of The Smiths and Echo and The Bunnymen, or even REM; it is more the 1980s of Pat Benatar and Laura Brannigan.  This is not a critical take on the 80s, but rather a nostalgic if not wholly happy (check out Lido Pier Suicide Car) look back at a childhood and school days.

Pink-Slips is the highlight – an anthem about looking back from Sheff’s later Texas years to his times in the Granite State and imagining what would have been if he’d stayed:

Nine years down in Texas

With sluts of both sexes

Liars, lumps, drug addicts and drunks….’

I keep saying it, but how Okkervil River are not massive is bewildering.

 

12. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-InCaitlin Rose The Stand In

The country album of the year for me was the second album (and despite what Wiki will tell you, it is her second not her third – there is only an earlier EP) by Nashville’s current finest young female singer songwriter, Caitlin Rose.  This album has more of an indie rock sound than the more countrified first, Own Side Now.   But it is still firmly in the tradition of Dolly and Loretta and EmmyLou.

The break-up songs of her debut have been replaced by broader range of subjects and tones.   However, Caitlin Rose’s powerful voice that made such an impact on Own Side Now is here, if anything, even more assured.   The 1970s southern rock of Waitin’ mixes perfectly with the Muscle Shoals style soul sounds of  Old Numbers.

I have already raved about the wonderful cover of the Felice Brothers’ Dallas  - turning a relatively anonymous song which is almost an album filler on Celebration, Florida into an epic song of touring, carousing and loneliness for home, with a gorgeous pedal steel guitar solo to boot.  One of the tracks of the year.

On the strength of The Stand-In Caitlin Rose is one of greatest young country talents around.  Hell, one of the greatest young talents in any genre around.

 

11. Kurt Vile  – Wakin’ On A Pretty DazeKurt Vile Wakin' On A Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile is a something of a living oxymoron – the prolific slacker.    Wakin’  On A Pretty Daze is his fifth studio album since he left War On Drugs in 2008 and that’s not counting a bunch of singles and EPs along the way.  Despite the constant stream of releases on the evidence of Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze  like its fantastic predecessor, Smoke Rings For My Halo, Vile continues to go from strength to strength.

As with that last album this sounds like guitar music for a summer’s day.  Music for sitting in a park getting stoned or drunk with your friends.   There is nothing rushed about this album – everything moves at a serene place.  The sound of Vile’s guitar and even more of his wonderful band The Violators is expansive, sounding at times almost improvised, wending its away around Vile’s gentle voice.  Everything sounds so effortless that a shit load of effort must have gone into it.

Too Hard  - with its promises not to smoke too much or party too hard, sounds like well-meaning but ultimately fruitless messages to his Mum before he goes on tour.   Yet the Nick Drake style plucked guitar turns it into something again altogether – a wistful reflection on vows not kept perhaps.  Not out of malice but just out of the way things are.

The near title track, Wakin’ On A Pretty Day is almost 10 minutes of acoustic grunge – it sounds like the kind of track that might have been on Nirvana’s Live and Unplugged album, if only that other Kurt had been on the weed and not the smack.  Snow Flakes Are Dancing is about nothing more complicated than listening to an album while on a flight – trippiness on a trip.  Floating above the clouds.

KV Crimes has a fantastic Jean Genie glam rock opening guitar riff – slacker glam rock?  Is that even possible? Was All Talk and Air Bud channel Kraftwerk.   Slacker Kraut Rock – is that too even possible?  With Kurt Vile, it all is. Great stuff.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Elliott January 9, 2014 at 9:41 am

George, I’m glad you’re back on your list. I’ve bought or listened to a fraction of what you have this year and I’ll be working my way through this and not doubt missing what gets released in 2014 as a result.

Couple of thoughts – I love the latest National album. I think that vocally it is just gorgeous, a mellow mixture of whisky and honey with some great melodies.

You’re right about Bowie and the Arctic Monkeys. Both are above average albums but don’t compare to previous. In the case of Bowie, nearly all of his 70′s work and in the case of the Arctic Monkeys, the first 2 albums.

As for Daft Punk, Get Lucky is fantastically catchy, the rest I can live without. The processed vocals are something I can’t abide in lots of current music

I saw Matthew E White twice last year. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank and at Glastonbury on the West Holts stage, formerly the Jazz World stage, as first act up on the Sunday. Incredible on both occasions. Brazos is a great song. Gone Away, the song about the death of a child is very moving.

I’m expecting John Grant and Nick Cave to feature high up in the top 10…..

Reply

George_East January 9, 2014 at 10:36 am

Geoff, you are clearly in the majority on The National’s album, and I did really try with it but just couldn’t find any there there. For my whisky and honey fix I usually look to the Tindersticks (now there’s a band long overdue a Song To Learn and Sing).

Looking forward to checking out Matthew E White live at some point.

Funnily enough I’ve just bought my first batch of 2014 albums, but I am not going to even start listening to them until I’ve finished the list…onwards to the Top 10.

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Bobby_West January 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

Shovels & Rope sounds good and Omar Souleyman has to be checked out after that write-up! Looking forward to the top 10.

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