George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2013: #30 – #21

by George_East on January 4, 2014

It is time for the middle 10 before we move on to the business end of my Top 50 albums of 2013.   For those of you who have not been following the action so far, the albums at #50 – #41 and #40 – #31 can be found by following the links.

Before getting into the meat of the main list another minor category.   I have always liked a cover version.  The very  best of them should take a song and turn it into something else (Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and Aretha Franklin’s feminist version of Otis Redding’s Respect  being the outstanding examples).  If they can’t do this then at very least the artist recoding the cover should make the song their own (think the White Stripes‘ version of Jolene)or rescue a song from the back catalogue (The Happy Mondays’ version of John Kongos’ Step On) .

With this in mind, my top 5 cover versions of the year are:

1Daughter, Get Lucky  – Daft Punk’s Get Lucky was this year’s Video GamesThe ubiquitous up beat song of the year.  The original is of course a hymn to hedonism.   Daughter turned it into a song about emotional pain, sexual regret and longing.

2. Caitlin Rose, Dallas  - a relatively obscure track about the touring life from The Felice brothers’ Celebration, Florida album is rescued by Caitlin Rose and turned into one of the stand out songs of the year.

3. Kurt Vile & The Violators, Guns of Brixton – Philly’s finest gives the Paul Simonon reggae classic from London Calling a dreamy slacker psychedelic work out.

4. Morrissey, Satellite of Love  - Mozzer’s tribute to Lou Reed sounds like a great lost Smiths’ single.  High praise indeed.

5. Low, Stay – Unlikely covers are always a favourite with me.  Minnesota slowcore ever-presents, Low,  covered Rihanna’s Stay and turned it into an indie anthem.  Beautiful.

 

Worst cover version of the year was One Direction’s massacres in a single medley of Teenage Kicks and One Thing And Another, obviously.  But the most disappointing cover of the year has to be the Arctic Monkeys’ pedestrian pub rock version of John Cooper Clarke’s lovely I Wanna Be Yours which concludes AM.

Now back to that list:

 

30.  Julia Holter – Loud City SongsJulia holter loud city song

Avant garde LA art experimentalist, Julia Holter’s third album, Loud City Songs, was the one that I finally got.   Her last album, 2012’s Exstasis,  was an album which I bought on the strength of its great reviews but I probably only played once.  Like fellow Californian hipster favourite, Joanna Newsom, I  just didn’t really understand what the fuss was all about.

With Loud City Songs, Holter provides her take on the slightly creepy MGM musical, Gigi, with Maxim’s I and Maxim’s II, using it as a springboard for an exploration of modern celebrity obsessions:

Some nights we are asked if we ever tire

Of gazing at their heels and everyday desires

Remember every dewey tale written of their loves

Compare them to the one they touch in front of us

Holter’s dreamy echoe-y vocals (a little bit Siouxsie in places – another repeat reference this year) over a jazzy musical arrangement gives the whole album an atmospheric soundtrack like quality.   Perhaps it is time I checked  out her earlier albums again.

 

29. Goldfrapp – Tales Of UsGoldfrapp Tales of Us

Goldfrapp’s new 10-song collection of single word titled songs, most of which are first names, is a return to form after their slightly disappointing last album, Head First.  Although not quite in the same league as their 2008 Wicker Man inspired Seventh Tree, Tales of Us  exists in a similar space.

This is not the synth-oriented dance sounds that made Goldfrapp’s name on their early albums such as Black Cherry.  Instead, like Seventh Tree, Alison Goldfrapp’s voice is employed over lush guitar, piano and strings (check out the cellos on Drew) to create floaty atmospheric dream pop, infused with an English folk sensibility.

Each song on the album blends seemingly into the next providing a deeply satisfying whole, without sounding identikit. In Annabel Goldrapp may have produced the most beautiful song of their career as well as one of the tracks of the year.

 

28. David Bowie – The Next Daydavid bowie the next day

The hype surrounding the release of David Bowie’s first studio album in 10 years was such that you would think that it was the Second Coming.  Following the surprise of a genuinely brilliant new Berlin-returning single in January, Where Are We Now? released without any marketing or hype, expectations of the new album were sky high.

When The Next Day arrived, with its brilliantly witty cover – recycling Bowie’s seminal Heroes with a plain cut  white square title and track list super-imposed over it, the reviews ran away with themselves, garnering Bowie’s his best critical response since his 1970s heyday.    The Next Day also found itself very high in the end of year critics’ lists.

I liked it when it came out but, and here’s the confession, after a handful of plays it was filed and I wasn’t really inclined to dig it out and play it again, until I was reviewing the year for the purpose of putting together this list.

With that little bit of distance I think we can properly assess The Next Day’s place in the pantheon.     It is a good album – no doubt  about that – and some tracks like that single and The Stars (Are Out Tonight) are Bowie classics, but The Next Day isn’t even close to Bowie’s 70s best.  However, it is fair to say, not much by any artist is.

This then is third tier Bowie, which is top tier most everyone else.

 

27. Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highwaysteve earle the low highway

Steve Earle’s latest, The Low Highway, does not break any new ground but is a wonderful country collection of songs, as its title suggests, many inspired by the open road:

Travelin’ out on the low highway

Three thousand miles to the Frisco bay

Cross the rivers wild and the lonesome plains

Up the coast and down the back again

The anger at the injustices of American capitalism is still very much there. The despairing cry of Burnin’ It Down  as its narrator at the end of the tether thinks about torching his local Walmart.  On the title track Earle observes the soup kitchen queues and the closed down factories of the American landscape from the window of his tour bus.  On 21st Century Blues he observes with his tongue in- his cheek that the future didn’t quite work out as he thought it would when he was a child:

Here I am in the 21st Century

Have to say it ain’t as cool as I hoped it’d be

No man on the Moon

Nobody on Mars,

Where the hell is my flyin’ car

And nothing even like a teletransporter so far’

Before observing the reality: ‘Its head for the hills every man for himself’.

In the midst the music veers from the out and out rockers like Calico County to the Cajun tinged Love’s Gonna Blow My Way to  the old time blue grass of my favourite track on the album, Warren Hellman’s Banjo.

If Steve Earle didn’t exist (like David Simon), we’d need to invent him.  So cherish him and buy his albums.

 

26. Beyonce – BeyonceBeyonce

Taking a leaf out of David Bowie’s book, the pop album of the year arrived completely unheralded in December.   No pre-publicity at all, just some excited twitterings on the Twitter as it (and its accompanying 17 videos) arrived to no fanfare at all.    The biggest pop star in the world doesn’t need any hype of course, but it is hard to think of any other star in the pop world who would have gone about it like this.

It is an album which demonstrates the foolishnesses and short sightedness of the big critical album of the year review lists coming out at the end of November/beginning of December rather than waiting the full year. As surely Beyonce’s self titled album would have otherwise been right up there.

It is an album of frank female sexuality, on songs such as Blow (‘turn my cherry out’ indeed)  and Drunk In Love.  It is also an album of straight out feminism.  In Pretty Hurts Beyonce deconstructs the beauty industry young women feel forced to buy into, observing that ‘it is the soul that needs surgery’. She even samples a speech by Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how society expects girls not to have ambition but to be ‘good wives’.

She also charts (and critiques?) her own child stardom and rise to fame with Destiny’s Child, sampling talent show contests that she won as a child and early television appearances.

And the tunes, roping in on various tracks as guests husband Jay Z, Frank Ocean and Drake, show that no one does the pop end of soul, rap and r&b as well as Beyonce Knowles.  It is enough to revive your faith in the idea of pop.

 

25. Patty Griffin – American KidPatty Griffin American kid

The best straight country album of the year, for my money, came, curiously, from Maine-born Patty Griffin, who also happens to be Robert Plant’s current partner.  Plant guests on three songs on the album (Ohio, Faithful Son, Highway Song). Even if Griffin is from New England this is an album that was recorded in Nashville and sounds like it.

It is an album of wonderfully nuanced writing of the American landscape and experience.   Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida is told from the perspective of a World War II veteran whose memories of his home state are so painful still that he wants anything but to end his days there even though he feels compelled to return.   Ohio is one part ode to the river of the same name another to a love affair started on its banks – the vocals of Plant and Griffin mix as naturally and beautifully as his collaborations with Alison Krauss.

If Jackie South has not purchased American Kid yet, he certainly should as I suspect he will love it.

 

24. Arctic Monkeys – AMArctic Monkeys AM

Like the David Bowie album, the Arctic Monkeys‘ fifth  album, AM, was I think heavily over-reviewed by the critics.  It ended up on top of the NME best albums list and high up many others.

Interestingly though, it did not even make the American music on-line magazine, Pitchfork’s top 50.   This I think is revealing of something which helps to explain why AM garnered such favourable reviews with British music critics.  We want them to be good.  We know that Alex Turner is one of the best songwriters these shores have produced in the last 20 years and to that extent the Arctic Monkeys are the great white hope of British guitar music.  Credible, cool and distinctively northern English.

If I had compiled this list without going back over the albums, playing them side by side, listening to them again properly, AM would, I think, not even be in my top 50.  I kept coming back to in the course of the year but found it dull and uninspired.

I have I think finally begun to appreciate its qualities and it is a very good album.  You just have to drop any notion that it is going to match up to Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not or Favourite Worst NightmaresThe Arctic Monkeys are not that band anymore – they can’t sing songs about the pubs and girls and streets of Sheffield, because they are international rock stars who hang with super models now.  To do so would be false.   We won’t get that from them again.

What we have instead in AM is a final emergence into the light from the tunnel that saw the Arctic Monkeys struggle to define themselves with Humbug and Suck It and See.  This album is far better than either of those half-arsed efforts.

On AM the Monkeys have absorbed influences of bands like The Black Keys  and The White Stripes (R U Mine) producing a bassier, bluesier and on some tracks (One For The Road say) blacker sound, while retaining that line to the great British guitar bands of the past and even with a smattering of Sweet-like glam rock (I Want It All).  It is, if you like, the Arctic Monkeys Blur  - the album that marks both a break with their past and presents the pathway to a reinvented, different but as interesting future.

On the strength of AM they remain the best big British band out there.  And what is it with the band initial thing (m.b.v and AM - two of the best reviewed albums of the year).

 

23. Steve Mason – Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Timesteve-mason-monkey-minds-500x500

I never really understood the appeal of the Beta Band, but former front man, Steve Mason’s first proper solo album or at least first solo album under his own name (there was some stuff he recorded as King Biscuit Time), Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time is an outstanding sprawling messy 20 song collection that is almost certainly the best thing he has ever done.

The album covers a diverse range of styles from spoken word, electronica, dub, dance, indie rock, film soundtrack and even country.   Mason’s vocals are strongly reminiscent of Elbow’s Guy Garvey – rich, full and emotionally nuanced.  Lie Awake and Flyover ’98 are lovely indie anthems.   The Last of the Heroes is a dub track that would not have been out of place on The Clash’s SandinistaLonely brilliantly uses a gospel choir and sounds huge.

As I wrote when I reviewed the album for our Album Collection feature, the album makes the perfect background soundtrack for a dinner party or a summer barbeque.

The centerpiece though (well it comes about three quarters of the way through) is a rap about Mark Duggan’s death and the August riots in London in 2011 (with guest rapper MC Mystro).   This is angry impassioned and intelligent – a companion piece to Plan B’s Ill Manors.   The track jars and makes you sit upright because the rest of the album sounds so mellow.

It is a testament to Mason’s ambition that it all works so well together.  This is an album that is more impressive on every listen.

 

22. Drenge – Drengedrenge

I feel sorry for Drenge.  The Derbyshire two piece, consisting of the wonderfully named Eoin and Rory Loveless are one of the most exciting new bands around.  They are the kind of band that back in the day would have first emerged through a couple of seminal sessions for the John Peel show and then an NME cover, together with references to them being the new Jesus and Mary Chain and the Lovelesses being the new Reids.

Instead they had to suffer the indignity of first getting national attention through Tom Watson’s resignation letter from the shadow cabinet in which in his letter to Ed Miliband he suggested that the Labour leader ‘try to have a real life too and if you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge’.   Oh dear.  No band wants to be associated with a middle aged politician with a bad haircut.   Drenge themselves said they were ‘not overjoyed’ about it.

However, if you can find your way past that Tom Watson recommendation, Drenge are indeed an awesome band and their eponymous album is one of the debuts of the year.

I mentioned the Jesus and Mary Chain before, but to be fair that was more because of the brothers thing.  Drenge are more grungey and bluesy than the brothers Reid.  Their reference points are early Nick Cave and the White Stripes at their most stripped back.    This is a band that has no problem at all with being confrontational as a glance at the titles on the album quickly reveals (Face Like A Skull, Bloodsports, I Wanna Break You In Half).  As befitting a band in their early 20s though, the lyrics demonstrate a Smiths-like confusion and fear about sex and intimacy.

Drenge may well be the real deal, though I wouldn’t count on seeing them at a Labour benefit gig anytime soon.

 

21. Jun Miyake – Lost Memory Theatre Act 1Jun Miyake

About as far away from Drenge as possible is Japanese jazz trumpeter and avant garde classical composer, Jun Miyake’s Lost Memory Theatre Act 1.  Miyake is a long time collaborator with film directors such as Oliver Stone and Wim Wenders.  He provided the soundtrack for Pina, Wenders’ documentary tribute to the great German choreographer, Pina Bausch.

This is not an album that on the face of it is really me at all but I have found myself returning to it again and again over the last couple of months.   It is my left field album of the year.

The collection of tracks, which include guest vocals from David Byrne (A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes) and German punk legend Nina Hagen (Laminin) range from jazz instrumentals, to contemporary classical piano pieces with lush Hollywood movie style strings (The World I Know) is extraordinary.

Songs are sung in Spanish, English, Russian, German and Japanese, yet the whole thing hangs together like a soundtrack to a particularly obscure lost art house film from Eastern Europe following the Prague Spring.  The kind of film that the ICA would put on as a revival, with a bunch of lectures around it to put it in context.  Yet it is not hard work at all.  Marvellous.

It is an album that makes you feel cleverer than you are just by listening to it, which is some achievement.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray_North January 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm

George – as ever wonderful stuff.

Before you conclude your top ten – here’s mine (and I buy a tiny percentage of the stuff you do):

10. Daughter (If You Leave)
9.Palma Violets (180)
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)

Oh, and my best gig of the year – Dajango at Field Day, followed by Palma Violets at Field Day, followed by Neil Young (but only after you and Jackie had left ;))

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ray_North January 7, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Ooh, forgot one – Throwing Muses Purgatory Paradise – goes into my top 5 -brilliant album!

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George_East January 5, 2014 at 11:00 pm

The top 20 is on its way but the posts take bleedin’ ages. All will be revealed shortly!

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