Sunday, June 23, 2013

Top 20 Albums of the first half of 2013

At the half way point of the year, as I prepare for a break from writing about music to pursue other interests, here are my favourite 20 albums of 2013 so far. This isn't intended to be a selection of the 'greatest' or most significant releases, but a personal selection of those I've most enjoyed listening to. This blog arose out of an act of kindness: a remarkable person enlightened me to a whole new world by introducing me to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. My hope is that by sharing my own musical journey, I might give someone else similar pleasure. I don't receive review copies of albums, advertising, guest list places, or photography passes, so my views are independent and heartfelt.

1) The National Trouble Will Find Me
There was never much question this would be at the top of this list from the first time I listened to it. The National further strip back their melancholy sound compared to High Violet, and it's incredibly movingly performed and sensitively performed. They are at the pinacle of this genre: utter perfection.

2) Hiss Golden Messenger Haw
 This rootsy album from North Carolina sounds immensely personal and sincere and MC Taylor's voice is charismatic and sounds well-worn. I haven't tired of this blusey album, finding its effect reassuring despite the deep lyrics about religion and doubt. It benefits from sounding more authentic than polished.

3) Portugal. The Man Evil Friends
Some have regretted the fact that the Alaskan band has left the experimental early albums behind and are reaching out to a wider audience with this Danger Mouse produced album. Yet, it's still strikingly original, and captures some of the sense of exhilaration from one of their live performances. Evil Friends ties with The Satanic Satanist as my favourite album from exceptional performers.

4) Sigur Ros Kveikur
The Icelandic post rockers have taken a more assertive turn with their latest creation, after the relatively laid back Valari. Yet, this is still music of staggering beauty as well as practically volcanic energy, and as ever, the instrumentation and production is faultless. You really do need to see them live, though.

5) Laura Marling Once I Was An Eagle
The 23 year old Brit's fourth album is remarkably mature emotionally, and appeals so much to me as it's the epitome of introversion. The opening four songs meld into each other in a continuous sweep and represent her greatest achievement yet. They were recorded at Ethan Johns' UK studio in a ten day period in long takes: this adds to the spontaneity and feeling of risk. Her voice has evolved into a passionate instrument, able to convey the pain of breakup. It marks a turning point in her life, laid down just before her move to LA; an exciting future lies ahead for her audience too.

6) Phosphorescent Muchacho
My album listening is inevitably influenced by live music experiences, and these next two choices also represent some of my favourite gigs of the year. For some, Matthew Houck's addition of electronics to the popularist Song for Zula represent too much of a departure from his folk roots. For me though, the blend of sounds is stimulating, and the atmosphere it creates is one of tranquil contemplation. It's also beautifully recorded.

7) Little Green Cars Absolute Zero
The Irish indie folk group are surely destined for great things and this album lives up to the promise of their single The John Wayne, and gives more than a hint of their stunning energy on stage. It's an explosion of joy, recalling Of Monsters and Men, but with a Laurel Canyon influence. The group are accomplished singers, and the vocal harmonies are the stand out feature for me. It's a very full sound, but you need to go to a show in a small venue to experience the thrill of them performing a capella.

8) Daughter If You Leave
The London trio's first album is subtle, with great melancholy beauty. Elena Tonra's vocals sound vulnerable, and the accompaniment is ethereal. It sounds personal, and is a reflective listen, recorded in an airy acoustic. NME found it too gloomy, but it's worn exceptionally well with me and I find it comforting and cathartic.

9) Bomino Nomad
This album will appeal both to fans of Amadou and Mariam and The Black Keys. The seasoned Tuareg singer from Niger has collaborated with producer Dan Auerbach to create a desert blues fusion, mixing middle eastern harmonies with the blues of the American South. The most outstanding feature is the amazing guitar playing, and the whole of Nomad is immense fun.

10) Joseph Arthur The Ballad of Boogie Christ
Funded by a Pledge Music campaign, prolific artist and musician Joseph Arthur has produced one of his strongest albums yet. The first of a trilogy, it's ambitious in sound as well as scale, less a solo project than an immerse full band experience. He takes you on a moving, partially autobiographical journey through his life, his friends joining him for the ride to give an orchestral sound.

11) Waxahatee Cerulean Salt
Like Daughter, Katie Crutchfield gives a highly personal collection of songs, recorded by the lake in Alambama that gives the project its name. It sounds assured and confident, with heartfelt lyrics about marriage, break-up and introspection. The addition of a band on this second album doesn't detract from its intensity or lo-fi directness.

12) Houndmouth From The Hills Beneath The City
This is fun record for those who (to misquote The Damnwells) do still listen to The Band. They share a label and a sense of exuberance with Alabama Shakes. NME found it to be twee and cliched; admittedly it doesn't break new ground, but it feels authentic and should be investigated by all lovers of Americana.

13) Austra Olympia
Toronto's Katie Stelmanis has a pure, dramatic voice, creating a chilling atmopshere, Yet Olympia is more optimistic than 2011's Feel It Break, with greater variety of mood, and an enlargement of the instrumental palate, with some tropical tones. She retains her economy of line, though, which gives rise to a single minded, coherent creation. The production is top notch.

14) Atoms for Peace Amok
Thom Yorke's side project is clearly from the King of Limbs era: intricately layered, subtle, and perhaps a little studied. It sounds like a follow up to Eraser, with experimental electronic sounds and afro beats. Several reviews reflect a feeling more of respect than rapturous love. Thom's vocals sound a little tentative, concentrating on the top of his range. Yet, this is clearly the work of a genius, and rather like an abstract work of modern visual art, slowly reveals itself as you contemplate its meaning.

15) Veronica Falls Waiting for Something to Happen
Upon first listening, I wondered if this London pop was ephemeral: breezy but insubstantial. It's certainly dreamy, with a retro C86 influenced sound, and on repeated listening you appreciate the intricacy of their sound, filled out by their harmonies. They creates a refreshing atmosphere, warmer than their first album, with great interplay between the guitars.

16) Lady Lamb The Beekeeper Ripely Pine
This debut is notable for Aly Spaltro's powerful, emotive vocals and honest lyrics. The 23 year old Brooklyn resident's moniker came to her in a dream, but it has bite and attitude. Ripely Pine is full of youthful, energetic enthusiasm, which more than compensates for its sometimes sprawling structure.

17) Local Natives Hummingbird
Hummingbird is a serious album, which reveals its nature gradually, perhaps reflecting the weight of expectation they must have felt touring with Arcade Fire and collaborating with The National's Aaron Dessner here. It's darker than their debut Gorilla Manor, culminating in the beautiful Columbia which is dedicated to Kelcey Ayer's mother. This is profound music, the introspection and lack of immediacy being integral to its moving nature.

18) Dawes Stories Don't End
Dawes is one of my favourite bands, and much though I love Taylor Goldsmith's warm melodies, I wonder if this is just too radio friendly and middle of the road. It can be saccarine, and I prefer Nothing Is Wrong, yet this throwback sound is comforting and Goldsmith hasn't lost his songwriting skill or live magic. There has been sadness in their past lives, and so it's wonderful that they've found redemption in music.

19) Widowspeak Almanac
One review described this album as a blend between Beach House and Neil Young, presumably referring to its soft focus impressionism and Americana. The duo from New York's second album has a melancholy beauty. Thick As Thieves has a haunting melody and simple directness; the whole feels pastoral. I'm not sure it will win any awards for the cover art, though....

20) Houses A Quiet Darkness
A Quiet Darkness has been the victim of a Pitchfork injustice: they called it a dirge, whereas it's actually incredibly beautiful, sad and subtle. It's nearly an hour long, and whilst there's limited variety of mood, it's an immerse experience, with intelligent lyrics. Perhaps Houses has been overshadowed by The National's sad but incomparable album released shortly afterwards.

Next 10 Favourite Albums
  • Caitlin Rose The Stand-In
  • GhostPoet Some Say I So I Say Light
  • Junip self-titled
  • Kurt Vile Walkin On A Pretty Daze
  • Low The Invisible Way
  • Nightlands Oak Island
  • Savages Silence Yourself
  • Treetop Flyers The Mountain Moves
  • Villagers Wayland

No comments:

Post a Comment