George East’s Top 50 Albums of 2013: #50 – #41

by George_East on January 2, 2014

Yes, it is finally that time.  The one you have all been waiting for.   The unveiling of my top albums of 2013.  I can sense the excitement.

I have decided this year to make this a more expansive affair than the top ten album lists I have done every New Year since Allthatsleft launched – see here for the  2010, 2011 and 2012 top 10 lists.

There are two reasons for this decision.  Firstly, I bought over 120 new albums in 2013 and a surprisingly large number of them are, I think, really good.  I started with a shortlist of 86 albums.   It has indeed been an excellent year for music, and I wanted to share some of my enthusiasm for albums I have liked in the course of the 12 months.     Secondly, if it is good enough for the NME, Uncut, Mojo, Q etc, it is good enough for me.     Oh and the third of my two reasons (!) is that it has been a lot of fun for me putting it together over the holiday period (less so Mrs East, I suspect).

I am going to post my Top 50 in five daily posts of 10 albums to keep the thing digestible.  I will also include in the posts over the coming days a few other observations on the year along the way: with my views on the top 5 Most Over-Reviewed albums of the Year, the top 5 Cover Versions of the Year, the Best Re-issue of the Year and my favourite back catalogue discovery of the year.

A few confessions before I start.  There are some albums, which have had high placings in the end of year lists, which I have not yet heard.  Their absence in my Top 50 does not reflect anything more than this, at the moment at least.  Those albums include in particular Kanye West – Yeezus, Haim – Days Are Gone (though I liked what I heard on Jools Holland), Jon Hopkins – Immunity, Earl Sweatshirt – Doris, James BlakeOvergrown and Disclosure – Settle.

As is traditional with these things, I am going to post the list in reverse order.


50. Johnny Marr – The MessengerJohnny-Marr-The-Messenger

It is hard to believe that it took Johnny Marr 26 years from the break up of The Smiths to release his first proper solo album (there was a previous not very good album as Johnny Marr and The Healers in 2003).  2013 was also the year that (rather neatly given his placing) he turned 50.

Marr has, of course, been involved in a whole bunch of musical side projects since The Smiths split including Electronic with Bernard Sumner of New Order, a brief stint in The Pretenders and the Seven Worlds Collide super group.

None of these though have hinted at the sound of The Messenger – which is a straight up indie rock album.  It is the kind of album that the Gallagher Brothers were once capable of producing, many many moons ago.  Songs like the title track The Messenger and the Northern Soul influenced opener, The Right Thing Right are classically constructed, many with anthemic choruses.    Others like Say Demesne is Human League synth meets Arctic Monkeys.   The boy clearly has his finger on the fashion for all things early 80s – stand out track Generate! Generate!  could have been a late New Wave anthem.

Marr’s voice may not be the best and those of us who grew up with The Smiths, still hanker after his peerless guitar playing in that very greatest of 80s bands.  There is nothing on this album in the league of, say, How Soon Is Now or This Charming Man – but there again there won’t be anything in this whole list quite in that league.

49. Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood – Black Puddingmark-lanegan-garwood black pudding

Following the dirty blues of 2012’s Funeral Songs, former Screaming Trees and Queens of The Stone Age front man, Mark Lanegan has returned to his trend of fascinating collaborations with other artists from different genres from his own grunge background.

His series of albums in the mid to late 00s with former member of Belle & Sebastian, Isabel Campbell are the Lee Hazlweood and Nancy Sinatra albums of our age.   Black Pudding, recorded with British guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Duke Garwood may not quite reach the dizzy heights of those albums but the addition of the haunting and spartan film score like layers of sounds provided by Garwood to Lanegan’s trade mark 80 a day Tom Waits-like baritone, is an impressively atmospheric work.

The album starts and ends with Garwood instrumentals, Black Pudding and Manchester Special which give the whole album an entrance into and exit from Lanegan’s dark world – with a Nick Cave like old school religion feel about it (one of the tracks is called Pentacostal, after all).


48. Wire – Change Becomes UsWire Change Becomes Us

More than 30 years after their extraordinary trilogy of situationist and minimalist art school punk, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154, Wire are back with a series of songs that originated as ideas or sketches from the end of that period.   The songs have been arranged and recorded very much in the familiar style from the late 1970s.     As such Change Becomes Us is in some senses the lost fourth album of that trilogy.

The whole album relies on simple repetitions and scratchy guitar chops.  They have an infectious quality that results in the rhythms embedding themselves in your head long after the album has finished.

Some of the songs like Re-Invent Your Second Wheel hint at an Eno-like ambient direction, where the notes used are stripped down to an absolute minimum. But then along comes the very next track Scent of A Stork and we are back to the angular punk of seminal classics like I Am The Fly  and 12XU from their golden period.

Bruce Gilbert, the architect of that distinctive Wire guitar sound has now long gone – leaving the band in 2004, but his replacement Matt Simms works with Colin Newman so well that you might assume there had been a reunion for the recording.


47.  Joanna Gruesome – Weird SisterJoanna Gruesome Weird Sister

Cardiff five piece, Joanna Gruesome, may have one of the most truly dreadful names for a band in a good long while, a name that suggests that it was happened upon after a very long night down the pub, but they are, for my money, one of the most interesting new British bands around.

This is a band barely out of its teens but so up to its eyeballs in shoegazer, girl band indie, riot grrl and noisenik indie from the late 1980s and early 1990s (before they were born), that they could have practically been there.   The references points to my ears are Isn’t Anything era My Bloody Valentine, The Shop Assistants, The Flatmates and Huggy Bear.

Their age is somewhat given away by some of the song titles, Anti-Parent Cowboy Killer and Wussy Void for example, but this should not be held against them given the glorious melodies and boy/girl vocals that float over the wall of guitars underneath.  The album is a bit patchy and messy but is a glorious declaration of intention.

The second track on the album, Sugar Crush, is one of the year’s great singles.     This is old school indie guitar pop like it used to be back when I wore tight black jeans and black tee-shirts.  It is to Joanna Gruesome’s credit that their  debut  still sounds as fresh as many of the bands  they reference did when I was 17.


46. EmmyLou Harris and Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris Rodney Crowell

From a new band of teenagers to one of the all time greats: EmmyLou Harris, this time with former band member from her 70s heyday, Rodney Crowell.   Old Yellow Moon  won the Album of the Year award in the Americana Music Honours and Awards this year.  Deservedly so.

It is Rodney Crowell who wrote Bluebird Wine, which opens Harris’ masterpiece of a debut, Pieces of Sky.    There is a superb version of the song on Old Yellow Moon, this time led off by Crowell not Harris.

Harris’ voice is, as ever, utterly sublime – maybe the greatest of all female country voices.  But what Harris does so well on this album, as she has done throughout her career (think those Gram Parsons duets) is combine her voice in duets with a male voice.  Crowell’s voice has already combined wonderfully with Harris’ on those classic albums from the 1970s, and it is clear that he understands intuitively how they best combine.

Songs like Dreaming My Dreams have a knowing and worn maturity about them that you will not find on those early albums.  Growing older has provided a world weariness to familiar songs which gives them a renewed power and real beauty.


45. Torres – TorresTorres

22 year old Nashville based singer songwriter Torres (real name MacKenzie Scott) first came to my attention when she supported Daughter at Shepherd’s Bush Empire back in November.    I only heard a couple of songs and was not overly taken by them, but oddly one song or at least part of one song burrowed its way into my brain.  On the strength of that I bought her debut eponymous album.

Unusually for a Nashville based singer songwriter this is avowedly not country.  It is an album of indie guitar sounds reminiscent of Dry-era PJ Harvey at her most anthemic with a hint of The Breeders chucked in.    The opening track Mother Earth, Father God smacks you in the face with its rocking raw intensity.   Honey, which turns out to have been that song that wormed its way into my cerebral cortex, channels raw hurt, with abject rage that borders on the scary.

An extraordinarily powerful debut.


44.  Phosphorescent – MuchachoMuchacho Phosphorescent

Alabaman Matthew Houck, who records under the moniker Phosphorescent has followed  Here’s To Taking It Easy his 2010 album of Californian summery gorgeousness – all girls, beaches and easy living, with the more electronic and experimental Muchacho.

The album reflects a more discordant and fractious period in Houck’s life, in which his relationship broke down, he lost his recording studio and the booze and drugs began to take their toll.   This is true of the musical arrangements and the lyrics.  It has a sad nostalgic heartbroken quality to it.  Some of the writing is sublime:  Song For Zula   riffing on Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire declares that

‘some say love is a burning thing

that it makes a fiery ring

oh but I know love as a fading thing

Just as fickle as a feather in a stream.

The more electronic direction does not always pay off, the hiccupping Ride On/Right On being an irritating case in point.  But this should not detract from the ambition of the album as a whole or the maturity of the writing, which has seen Houck step up a whole level as he deals with real pain in his life through his songs.


43. Iron and Wine – Ghost on GhostIron and Wine Ghost on Ghost

I wrote back in June when I reviewed this album for The Album Collection  that I didn’t know quite what to make of it.  Iron and Wine, the recording name of Sam Bream of South Carolina, produced two of my favourite folk albums of the early 00s in Creek Drank The Cradle (2002) and Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), with Bream’s whispery vocals over intricate Nick Drake like plucked guitars.

By the time of his deeply disappointing fourth album, Kiss Each Other Clean, he had though transformed into an MOR soft rock singer.  Ghost on Ghost is more in this territory than that of his early albums.   The production is clean, the arrangements are complex and lush.  However the reference points are more 1980s soul and jazz, than rock.

And somehow it does work – it is a lovely, optimistic summery sounding album that makes a perfect accompaniment to a long drive on a warm day.     The sense of a man with a life on the road but enjoying what he sees and experiences infuses the album.

One for Bobby West I suspect.


42. Palma Violets – 180Palma violets 180

South London’s Palma Violets are like the slightly less cool cousins of The Libertines.  Determinedly London, great attitude and with more energy than a hydrogen bomb.   Somehow you know they will never be hip in the way that Pete Doherty and Carl Barat’s outfit were, but in their own way they are ploughing the same furrow.

180 is far from a perfect album, but it does pack a punch that few other traditional British guitar bands are doing at the moment.

The opener and the song that made their name after NME named it song of the year for 2012, Best Of Friends is a cracking piece of anthemic guitar rock.  The cover of Eddie Cochran’s Buddy Holly/Big Bopper/Richie Valens tribute Three Stars is as surprising as it is effective and the closing two song segue of  14  and Brand New Song brings the whole show to an end with more self awareness and a irony than their material sometimes suggests:

We’ve got a brand new song

It’s gonna be a number one’ 


41. Laura Viers – Warp and WeftLaure Viers Warp and Weft

Portland based folk singer songwriter Laura Viers first came across my radar with her July Flame album in 2010, which fell just outside my top 10 of that year.  That album showed Viers to be one of the most impressive American female folk singer song writers currently recording.

Warp and Weft is another superb album on which Viers, pregnant with her second child during its recording, reflects on motherhood, the possibility and horror of loss and the difficulty of making relationships work.

On Dorothy of the Islands she declares ‘motherless children have a hard time’, her concern with loss, either of the child or the parent, elides at times into fear.   On the opener Sun Song  Neko Case guests alongside Viers, singing of leaving darker times behind.

Imagery of changes of the seasons are replete.  In the gorgeous Shape Shifter Viers sings that:

Winter is on its way

I think that we will make it now’.

The highlight of the album is though the Throwing Muses-like tribute to John Coltrane’s wife, That Alice. One of the songs of the year.

The second half of the album falls away a bit, otherwise Warp and Weft would have been far higher in my list.  The first side is extraordinary.

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