George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2013: #40 – #31

by George_East on January 3, 2014

Yesterday saw the posting of the first instalment of my Top 50 albums of 2013, covering off those albums in places 50-41.   Before moving on to the next 10 albums  in the list and as promised in my post yesterday, I’d like to mention a couple of other categories.

Best re-issue of the year goes to:

The ClashRemastered albums box set:  2013 saw the surviving members of  The Clash re-release the five proper studio albums (in true Clash Stalinist style, the post-Mick Jones final album misfire that was Cut The Crap has been airbrushed out of the band’s history).  The albums though immaculately presented in 180g vinyl and with a remaster by Mick Jones that made the seminal eponymous first album for the first time lose that slightly tinny production quality.

Runner up:  Bob DylanAnother Self Portrait: Strictly speaking this is not a reissue as it consisted of a wholly new version of Dylan’s previously panned 1970, Self Portrait album, which had met with the famous, ‘what is this shit?’ review from Greil Marcus and marked the beginning of his critically difficult 1970s.  The reissued version dropped some of the tracks, included new more stripped down versions of  others, as well as a load of unreleased material recorded during the sessions for Self Portrait and its equally derided successor, New Morning.  The result was sublime and this collection of songs now takes its rightful place amongst the Dylan canon.

Second runner up: Allman Brothers – Brothers and Sisters: The first Allman Brothers album to be recorded after the death of guitar virtuouso, Duane Allman, got the repackaging, remastering and re-issue treatment.  It was not an album I knew before and I have always been a little suspicious of the Allman Brothers noodly muso workouts.  A couple of listens of this album and I was converted.  How great is Ramblin’ Man?  If you don’t know the best way to find out is to buy this repackaged album.  Terrific stuff.

Back Catalogue Artist discovery of the year:  Goes to Nigerian funkster William Onyeabor.   I had never heard of Luaka-bop artist, Onyeabor, until I picked up the wonderful compilation of his material, the aptly named, Who Is William Onyeabor.   Cold war infused funk like nothing else you have heard – his Atomic Bomb should be as well known as Chic’s Le Freak.  Genius.

Now back to that list.  Where was I…oh yes….

 

40.  My Bloody Valentine – m.b.vmbv

Excitement in the music press this year was centred on two comeback albums:  the first album from David Bowie since 2003, The Next Day and the first album from My Bloody Valentine since 1991’s Loveless, which virtually bankrupted Creation Records.

Both albums garnered almost universal praise.  Indeed by my rough and ready calculation, taking into account the top album lists in 7 major British publications plus American on-line music site Pitchfork, m.b.v was marginally the overall critical album of the year.   It topped the Uncut list.

So what to make of it?  I am the kind of My Bloody Valentine fan who prefers the defined melodies of their first proper album Isn’t Anything over the soundscapes of Loveless and m.b.v is much more a successor to Loveless than it is its predecessor.

I wasn’t sure at first but then I remembered the key to all things Kevin Shields.  His records are made to be heard at ear splitting volumes.   My Bloody Valentine’s live show at ULU back in 1989 remains my favourite gig of all time (and it was certainly the loudest).  If you jack the volume up all the way to 11 and beyond, you get that thing that only My Bloody Valentine can do, that is to make a wall of noise, ecstatic.  This is an overlayed texture of feedback, guitar, and floating  indecipherable vocals which has a cacophonous beauty to it.   Only you might want to warn the neighbours and make sure the kids and the cat are out before you put it on.

Album of the year?  Not by a long chalk.   Worth checking out?  Most definitely.

 

39. Darren Hayman & The Short Parliament – Bugbearsdarren-hayman-bugbears-300x300

Darren Hayman’s Essex Witch Trials concept double album, The Violence was one of the most fascinating and original albums of 2012.  This year saw the former-Hefner front man release an accompanying album of new arrangements of seventeenth century folk songs and poems, Bugbears.

The songs ranging from royalist songs from the English republican period (When The King Enjoys His Own Again), the millinerian songs of religious radicals (Babylon Has Fallen) and even royalist satires of puritan egalitarianism (Hey Then Up We Go), to the more prosaic army marching songs (The Owl and Sir Thomas Fairfax March), drinking songs (Martin Said) and the woes of arranged marriage between a young wife and an old man (Seven Months Married).

As Hayman notes in the introductions to the songs in the sleeve notes, one of the things that comes out powerfully from this collection is that subjects of songs are perennial and sentiments constant.  It is only the context and the language that changes.  Even in a time of immense change, it is the old subjects of love, death, sex and religion which dominate our thinking.

The collection is not only a great introduction to the songs of perhaps the most tumultuous time in English history, but also a wonderful testament to Hayman’s ability to adapt and arrange the material for a modern audience.   The title track, Bugbears, freely adapted from an 11,000 word poem would make a great indie folk single.

[Conflict of interest statement:  Yes he did DJ my wedding]

 

38. Billy Bragg – Tooth and NailBilly-Bragg-Tooth-and-Nail

Billy Bragg’s first proper album since 2008’s Mr Love and Justice (2011’s Fight Songs was a compilation of downloads he had released in the interim), saw him adopting a countrified style complete with pedal steel guitar and mandola.

On Tooth and Nail Bragg has lost some of the certainties of his classic 1980s albums (one track is called No One Knows Nothing Any More) though he remains the optimist and believer in change, that inspired some of us back then. Even though the album covers the financial crisis, homelessness and unemployment (with the Woody Guthrie number I Ain’t Got No Home) and hate crimes (There Will Be A Reckoning) – he is still able to finish the album with the rousing message: Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day.

The songs are mostly in a slow tempo reflecting an older, more sanguine and domesticated Bragg.  He even manages to get a song in about blokes being useless at DIY in Handyman Blues.

The playing from his new band is superb and Bragg’s voice has never sounded fuller or better (that old gag about no one going to see Billy Bragg to hear him sing seems well out dated).  If you want Bragg to stir your political passions or to tear at your heartstrings like he did in his golden period, then Tooth and Nail may disappoint.  If on the other hand you are prepared to see him for what he is, one of our finest song writers then there is an enormous amount to enjoy in this album.

 

37. The Civil Wars – The Civil Warscivil-wars-album-cover-600x450

There has been some open lobbying from Jackie South in support of the second eponymous and, as he rightly said, almost certainly final album from The Civil Wars, who living up to their name split up this year amid recriminations and acrimony – even failing to finish their European tour at the end of 2012.    Jackie South may be a bit disappointed about the placing of The Civil Wars, but that simply reflects the sheer volume of high quality albums this year.

In the great tradition of country duos like Gram Parsons and EmmyLou Harris and Johnny Cash and June Carter,  Joy Williams and John Paul White sound like they were born to sing together, so beautifully do their voices complement each other.   The playing is also beautiful, if maybe a little too polished in places for my ears on soft rock-like anthems such as Eavesdrop.  It is perhaps not surprising given the level of professionalism that The Civil Wars are Adele’s favourite band.

Unlike Gram and EmmyLou and Johnny and June though, The Civil Wars are a tougher listen.  Joy certainly does not live up to her name – it seems a rarely felt emotion on this album.    The odd thing then is this is a break-up album in which there was no sexual relationship (at least so far as we are told) to break up.  The album starts with an anguish and an anger at a break up that is in the listeners face : ‘I wish I’d never seen your face’  the pair sing on The One That Got Away.  On Dust To Dust  they harmonise ‘I’ve been lonely too long’ but you get the sense that the loneliness is within the relationship rather than the relationship being the solution.

One review this year said that this is an album to listen to ‘while drinking whiskey at 3.00 am in a dive bar with your car packed up full of your belongings outside after a crushing break up’.   I don’t think I could put it better than that.   In a good way, of course.

 

36. Low – The Invisible Waylow invisible way

Talking of male and female harmonies, Minnesota indie stalwarts Low’s gorgeous and heartbreaking 10th album, The Invisible Way, showed how you can take the Gram and EmmyLou formula (my my they are being referenced a lot this year) and place it in an indie rock setting and it can still be every bit as stunning and true.

Low consist of married couple Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums and vocals), and Steve Harrington on bass.  You have to love a singing drummer and a female singing drummer at that.

And the drumming is so important on The Invisible Way, used as it is  to underpin and emphasise the stupendous harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker’s voices which feature on so many of their songs.   Parker also shows what an extraordinary solo vocalist she is in songs like the spare and lonely, Holy Ghost.

The Invisible Way is produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has brought out a bigger and more dramatic sound than many of Low’s  previous albums which have had a lo fi quality.  Tweedy though has not over-complicated the arrangements – Low’s trademark stripped down sound remains – songs like Amethyst are so powerful precisely because they are so simple.  This addition of piano on songs such as So Blue though helps to fill the room, whereas on some of their earlier work, you would have had to concentrate to notice them.

Low have a hardcore devoted following of fans into the slowcore sound on which they have made their name.  The Invisible Way deserves to break them out of that ghetto.

 

35. Connan Mockasin – Caramelconnan mockasin caramel

Kiwi Connan Mockasin’s second album Caramel is so infused with the soft and sweet warmness that one associates with its title, that it might just be the most self-consciously trippy album made this year.  Like wading through caramel on acid.

This is very much an album for 4am after a big night out – for sitting on the sofa feeling slightly confused and starring at a soundless telly while trying to reflect  on what quite happened over the course of the previous 10 hours or so.  It is an album that sounds like a dimly remembered club at the end of the night, slowed down and filtered through the chocolate bubbles of a giant Aero Bar.

It even has its title track introduced by some Barry White/Luther Vandross-style  big soul voice.  I’m The Man sounds like a psychedelic soul cover of an outtake from Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. 

It is not surprising that Mockasin is being compared to those other eclectic geniuses Prince and Beck.  The album absorbs recycles and makes its own so many contemporary sounds but at the same time sounds completely out of its time.   It is some achievement.

Mockasin has claimed that Caramel is a concept album involving a man falling in love with a dolphin.  I have no idea whether that is a wind up or another consequence of that  big night out.

 

34. Savages – Silence Yourselfsavages-silence-yourself-album-cover-press-300

There are a couple of sounds that seem to be all the rage amongst new bands at the moment.  One is the pre-Manchester feedback/girl group pop indie sounds of the late 1980s.  The other is the late 1970s/early 1980s post punk and new wave.   As these are two of my favourite periods, as well as being the soundtrack to much of my formative teen years I am not complaining.

Silence Yourself,the debut of new London all female band Savages, channels Bauhaus and the Siouxsie and The Banshees of the first 3 albums with its driving bass front and centre, echoey female vocal by Jehnny Beth, and in your face bursts of guitar.   If I was 16 Savages might well be my favourite band.   They sound like the kind of band that Jackie South would have loved when I first met him.  Maybe he still would.

They are a band who, as they expressly state in the anthemic I Am Here demand to be noticed.  Many of the songs are lyrically dark and confrontational.  From the S&M of Hit Me to the morning after the  one night stand fuck off of No Face.  These are women who know their mind and their desires.

On the strength of Silence Yourself  I imagine Savages are fabulous and frenetic live.  One for the 2014 bucket list.

 

33. Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie Prince Billy – What The Brothers Sangbonnie prince billy dawn mccarthy

At the beginning of the year, the extraordinarily prolific Will Oldham teamed up with Oakland based singer songwriter and Faun Fables front woman, Dawn McCarthy to release an album of covers of country harmonies.

The albums title is the give away. What The Brothers Sang refers to those sibling masters of the form who first made these songs famous, The Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers.  The songs, written by such luminaries as Kris Kristofferson (Breakdown), Goffin and King (Just What I Was Looking For), John Denver (Poems, Prayers, and Promises) and in particular Don Everly himself (My Little Yellow Bird, So Sad, Omaha and It’s All Over) have been reinterpreted for a male/female harmony instead of the male/male harmonies of the originals.

Oldham, with his extraordinarily expressive voice, getting those Appalachian high notes, mixes perfectly in close harmony with McCarthy.

And yes I am about to mention them again. If you think of that amazing cover of the Everlys Love Hurts by Gram and EmmyLou from Grievous Angel and then spread that over an entire album, then you’ll have some idea of the beauty of What The Brothers Sang.  Ok maybe not quite as good as that, but certainly in the same league.  Just lovely.  One very much for the current Jackie South.

 

32. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Filmmanic-street-preachers-rewind-the-film-300x300

I’ve remarked before that it is extraordinary that a government as relentlessly heartless and cruel as the current one, has not produced a wave of young politicised bands and singers.  After all, last time round, in the Thatcher years, it was hard to find a band who wasn’t politicised: even Wham took on unemployment in Wham Rap! for chrissakes and Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet was a leading member of Red Wedge.

Last year the most powerful political albums came from Bruce Springsteen and Ry Cooder – two artists in their sixties.  It has not been quite that bad this year.  But still pretty bad.

This year the most powerful British political album has come from Welsh veterans, Manic Street Preachers.  If there is an angrier song by a British artist than the brilliant 30 Year War that closes Rewind The Film I haven’t heard it:

It is the longest running joke  in history

To kill the working class in the name of liberty

In the name of liberty

The lies of Hillsborough

The blood of Orgreave

All the evasion of the BBC’

Nicky Wire is not mincing his words here.  The Manics may have put on some weight over the years but in attitude they have not become flabby and complacent.

Musically Rewind The Film might be what we have come to expect from them, but that it is no bad thing.  They are that rare thing, a genuinely great British rock band.   James Dean Bradfield is in fine form here belting out classically constructed rock songs, tinged to a considerable degree, as the title of the album suggests, with nostalgia and regret. On the opening song, This Sullen Welsh Heart he says despairingly:

I don’t want my children to grow up like me

It’s too soul destroying

It’s a mocking disease

A wasting disease’

On the title track, Rewind The Film, Richard Hawley joins the band in a warmer nostalgic trip about the comforts and certainties of childhood.  It is a beautiful song, with a glorious grandeur as James Dean Bradfield’s vocals take over in the middle 8.

The Manics may have reached national treasure status now but they are the closest thing we have today to a Clash and they deserve all of our respect for that.

 

31. Edwyn Collins – Understatedcollins-500x500

The former Orange Juice man’s second album, Understated, recorded since the two strokes he had in 2005 rendered  him initially almost entirely without speech and unable to play guitar, confirms him as one of the great song writing talents Britain has produced in the last 30 years or so.

Like its predecessor, Losing Sleep, Understated is an album in which Collins confronts his new condition head on.   ‘I got music to see me through, I got art to ease the pain’ Collins sings on Baby Jean.   On the stand out 31 Years  he reflects on his career in the music business with a triumphant determination:

I found a reason to carry on

Just for the thrill

I’m better now

I’ve made it through my life once more

I feel good, it’s good to feel’

These are the songs of a man who knows how close he came to having it all taken away from him.

Collins still has that lovely 60s crooner-like baritone and, as with the great Orange Juice songs of the past, he mixes rock and soul influences to produce near perfect pop songs.  On the strength of Understated we should all be glad he found a reason to carry on. 

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