The year was 2013. Edward Snowden hid in shame after committing the most catastrophic BCC fail of all time. For a while there, we had two popes. British people actually danced in the streets at news of the death of a former Prime Minister. And the domestication of the dog continued unabated.
From royal babies to warnings of catastrophic autumnal storms that never quite wreaked the havoc we were told they might have, it’s been a completely flipping insane year. Without all the excellent music we’ve had thrust upon us left right and centre for comfort, we’d probably have been a gibbering wreck as a result.
As if mirroring the all round global chaos of the last 12 months, if there is a theme to our list of our favourite albums of 2013, is that there’s really not a theme (we say, copping out big time). With so many records deserving of the top spot, the discussion about what should and shouldn’t make the cut was more heated than ever, resulting in out of character behaviour that ranged from resignation to outright physical violence. So know that as you read our list, our blood and sweat have gone in to it. Enjoy, please – we lost some good people.
- Thomas Hannan, Albums Editor
50) Swim Deep – Where The Heaven Are We
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Despite the braying from both sides of the B-town fence, Swim Deep managed to pull off what many of 2012′s buzz bands could not: deliver a well-rounded, impressive, and ultimately tremendous debut LP. As their comrades fell by the wayside, left to wallow in mediocrity, the indie-pop foursome bathed in a glow of satisfaction, knowing that aside from merely staving off the vultures, they’ve got a swooning, woozy bandolier of psych-rock, grunge-lite and fuzz-pop to satiate your senses and ignite euphoria. Aside from the sheer fun and adolescence-in-a-can-ness of the wide-ranging record, was there really a better festival singalong than screaming: “Fuck your romance/ I wanna pretend/ that Jenny Lee Lindberg is my girlfriend!” until your lungs gave out? Laurence Day
49) Matthew E White – Big Inner
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Released back at the beginning of the year, it could have been easy to lose Virginian native Matthew E. White’s self-assured debut, Big Inner, under the avalanche of music that was to follow in 2013. Yet, his intoxicating combination of lush musical arrangements, softly intoned vocals and angelic harmonies elevate this album to a level where, almost twelve months on, it still remains an unforgettable experience. Drawing elements from Southern gospel, Stax-esque soul and alt. country rhythms, it has a rich tone that feels familiar and yet startlingly fresh. Couching his influences in an idiosyncratic haze, the effect is dreamlike and – when combined with White’s heartfelt lyrics about love, loss and faith – allows the music to diverge into unexpected and dazzling places. Freewheeling but never self-indulgent, sentimental but never saccharine, Big Inner is a little album with a huge heart that reveals greater subtlety, refinement and unabashed joy with each listen. Tom Fenwick
48) Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes In a year – nay, an age – that has at times felt like one big shouting match, how apt it is that one of 2013’s most provocative statements should come as a whisper. With Nepenthe, her third full-length, Brooklyn’s Julianna Barwick stripped back the hymnal expanses of 2011’s The Magic Place and instead crafted ten bite-size dioramas; rich in texture and full of drama, but never overwrought or self-indulgent. Recorded in Iceland with Jónsi collaborator Alex Somers, Nepenthe is rife with as much beauty and frailty as anything released by the Nordic duo; bearing much of the same make-up as their 2009 debut, Riceboy Sleeps: swathes of glistening choral vocals, meandering high notes cutting like a ship’s bow through icy, ambient drones. It’s far from an easy listen – in fact, it feels intensely personal at times – but there’s something irresistible in the moments where Barwick’s angelic register clashes with the rising glissandos shooting up like geysers all around her. Leave the big proclamations and getting lucky to the black skinheads of the world, there’ll always be something more enriching out there for those willing to be thoughtful and seek it out. Nepenthe might just be their medicine. Alex Cull
47) Darkside – Psychic
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Dave Harrington and Nicolas Jaar’s first full length album as Darkside can only be described as somewhere midway between an exorcism and a meditative state. Recorded between New York and Paris over the course of two years, Psychic is an eerie, sinister and yet somehow calming culmination of organic field recordings and modern production. If Psychic were a painting, it would be the kind you are likely to find in an abandoned mansion with eyes that follow you around the room. Every element crackles with intent, heavy human murmurs find their counterpart in seamless synth hooks while warbling psychedelic tendencies tie everything together into one compelling, endless chasm of what we’re going to call prog electronica. Lauren Down
46) Mariam the Believer – Blood Donation
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Mariam The Believer’s Blood Donation is a record that incentivises each listen with ever-growing attachment: the more you engage with it the more layers are uncovered and the more involved you become. Building on her Wildbirds & Peacedrums legacy and, at the same time, making a demonstrable departure from it, Mariam Wallentin has crafted a record that truly deserves the word ‘unique’. Pondersome, questioning lyrics, provoking thought and exploration, are embraced in wedlock with music whose richness defies genre categorisation. Compositions originally created on piano meet final form arrangements which don a full band sound and saunter from the jazzy to the rocky, with en-route pit-stops at the occasional pop chorus. A good indication of the album’s sound manifesto is the epic first single, “Invisible Giving”, whose frenetic intro whirlwinds through an eclectic rhythm section and, over nearly eight minutes of style and tempo skips, showcases Wallentin’s powerful voice and intentions. Doron Davidson Vidavski
45) AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Fans of London duo AlunaGeorge - Aluna Francis and George Reid – had to be patient for this album; well over two years passed between the appearance of their attention-grabbing glistening, bedroom-produced double-a-side “Analyser” / ”We Are Chosen”, and the release of this impressive pop debut; and “pop” is the key word here. It’s a full-length bursting with relentlessly catchy, garage-inspired cuts: from the bouncing, subliminal “You Know You Like It” to “Attracting Flies” squeaking refrain, it is a fairly titanic challenge not to walk away from Body Music with at least one of its 13 tracks nestled between your ears. However, “Outlines”, which opens proceedings, showcases their elegant, seductive qualities too. Francis’ sugary vocal alongside Reid’s arcade-game production is an intensely likeable combination with the inspired cover of Montell Jordan’s classic “This Is How We Do It” perfectly summing-up this wonderfully playful debut. George O Brien
44) Danny Brown – Old
Buy digital on iTunes Whatever happened to those hip hop records full of skits, lasting about eighty sluggish minutes, displaying only a couple of big tunes and generally hanging together like a bunch of songs who had never been introduced together? Old put a stop to them – or at least, we can hope. Danny Brown’s expertly crafted and totally engrossing second record managed to deal with everything from the prevalence of violence whilst growing up in poverty (“Wonderbread”) to getting very very high indeed (“Dip”, “Kush Coma”) without ever coming close to seeming either preachy or frivolous, nor losing one’s attention. If hip hop needs a blueprint going forward, I’m the guy sat in class behind this record, kicking its chair until it raises its hand. Thomas Hannan
43) Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes After a hype campaign to rival Daft Punk’s and a level of vinyl sales ahead of pretty much everyone, it’s striking just how odd a record Tomorrow’s Harvest is – an hour of broken rhythms and jagged electronics, of fragmented vocals and burnt-out loops and half-heard radio static. And yet at a time when so much new music is throwing us relentlessly back into the past perhaps it’s logical that we should be drawn to somewhere alien, where synths make us feel rather than simply move and the music evokes such lucid dreams. It’s cinematic in a way that Hollywood rarely even aspires to, widescreen and vital and yet worn and faded at the edges – an oversaturation draining to a mottled dusty noir, isolated and lonely and yet dancing solipsistically in the dying light. Christian Cottingham
42) Seams – Quarters
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes The debut longplayer from James Welsh may have taken its time in appearing, but Quarters threw out one of the most compelling developmental curveballs we’ve heard this year.
Under the Seams moniker, Welsh has carved out a name for himself these last few years with a steadily impressive brand of intelligent dance music that retained a clear set of reference points while consistently pushing beyond mundane facsimile. Quarters saw the Berlin resident and longtime favourite of Best Fit take a giant leap forward from his output to-date. Those expecting an album leaning towards a “Focus Energy”-vibe may have been wrong-footed but Welsh proved himself with a more conceptual debut that was both inventive and expansive.
It has, our reviewer Danny Wadeson wrote, “a subtlety that ensures future listens still hold an allure and a mystique”, and it remains one of 2013′s most interesting and rewarding debuts. Paul Bridgewater
41) James Blake – Overgrown
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes “Difficult second album” is a cliche clearly alien to James Blake. The 25 year-old dub-step prodigy followed-up his 2011 self-titled debut with Overgrown, beating quite special competition to the coveted Mercury Music Prize as well as enjoying a rare ten-out-of-ten Best Fit review back in April; a critical opinion it is hard to contest. He continues to stand-alone, unique in his craft, and with songs like “Retrograde” – possessing that almost ageless quality – Blake has opened a lot of doors for people into this special project. The record embraces and massages a vast array of emotions with his colourful production, unusual progressions and distinctive vocal. From the heart-wrenching poignancy of its opening title-track to the industrial house chaos of his 1-800-DINOSAUR club night-inspired “Voyeur”, it is a work of art that beautifully captures all musical paths Blake has trodden – intuitive dub-step to soul and back again – while simultaneously foreshadowing a musical future capable of just about anything. George O’Brien
40) Flume – Flume
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes 2013 has been a very important year for electronic music: number one singles have regularly come from the ‘club scene’, while Disclosure topped the UK album chart with a dance record, proving the genre has completely found its feet in the mainstream. Like the Lawrence brothers, 22 year-old Sydney production wunderkind Harley Streten – aka Flume – has the uncanny knack of churning-out wonderfully satisfying EDM that would feel as at home on the radio as it does on the dance-floor. His immaculate self-titled debut is awash with deep hedonistic power: the beat-heavy “Insane” and “Holdin’ On” are readymade soundtracks for the weekend, while the cooing vocals of fellow-Aussie George Maple on “Bring You Down” bring a cooling depth and passion to the otherwise heady mix of synths and samples. Flume is a mature and complete record that ensures Streten can be included in the growing number of enviously young and talented producers. George O’Brien
39) Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Some 3 years ago ripples of excitement began spreading between those in the know. Factory Floor had just released “Lying” / ”A Wooden Box”. Hypnotic, visceral and vital, the track soon turned ripples into waves. Singles with Glasgow’s Optimo records and James Murphy’s DFA did nothing to quell the excitement surrounding the band. And then, nothing. No more singles, no EP’s and no indication of a debut LP. Resisting the temptation to capitalise on this early success, Factory Floor plunged themselves headfirst into a relentless touring schedule, honing their craft as both performers and songwriters. All of this refinement has been channeled into their immensely impressive self titled debut. Somewhere between Cabaret Voltaire and New Order, the album stands as testament to how far the band has come. Violent, agitated and very very danceable. The endless repetition and clinical production is perfectly counterbalanced by the use of live instrumentation and meticulous arrangement. The songs make use of minimal palettes of sounds but are put together with such nuanced mastery they are never less than entrancing. David Tate
38) Bill Callahan – Dream River
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Following up the career-high that was 2011′s Apocalypse would never be an easy task, not even for someone as consistently and effortlessly brilliant as Bill Callahan. While Dream River may not sit at the top of the most-played lists for the songwriter’s fans in years to come, it does see Callahan continue in a confident stride. Now at the ripe age of 47, it seems that through LP after LP of searching, Callahan finally seems somewhat more comfortable with himself. Dream River is a record written by a man at the height of his craft, reflecting a juxtaposition of almost contented restlessness and, likewise, the album itself is a thing of both great beauty and deep-rooted melancholy. Luke Morgan Britton
37) Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Frightened Rabbit returned in 2013 with their first major label album. But they didn’t just return with the power to market the shit out of anything they wanted to produce, they also made sure they had something worthwhile. And that came in the form of Pedestrian Verse. From “The Woodpile”, the album’s beating heart, to the lighter touch of “State Hospital”, the band’s fourth LP didn’t just maintain the trend of mournful themes, broken relationship, religious tangles and odes to Scotland, they pushed it forward with a renewed and varied perspective. They achieved this by letting the other members write some of the songs. That’s right, frontman Scott Hutchison relinquished some of the song writing reigns, opening it up to rest of the five-piece to put their spin on it. The result was a much fresher, energetic band that appeared on the previous The Winter of Mixed Drinks, cementing their position on best of lists by not only transcending to a major audience successfully, but by doing it on the wave of a record that is equally as good, if not better than an already wildly accomplished back catalogue. Andy Price
36) Caitlin Rose – The Stand In
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Caitlin Rose has always carried on the classic country tradition of channelling heartbreak and despair into songs to create something meaningful and beautiful. Her Nashville roots are apparent throughout her second record The Stand In but they’re married with her own modern, almost pop like twist, meaning that her own brand of country-rock doesn’t feel in anyway outdated (and with a mother who writes for Taylor Swift it would have been a surprise if she didn’t sound poppy). The Stand In is full of heart-breaking moments with “Dallas”, “Everywhere I Go” and “I Was Cruel” evoking all the pain and heartbreak of homesickness, memories of a broken relationship and realising that actually, maybe you’re the one that’s broken someone’s heart. Combined with less morose moments like “Only A Clown” and the sumptuous old Hollywood glamour of “Old Numbers” it’s a gorgeous record, providing equal opportunities to wallow or rejoice, depending on your current state. Rachel Bolland
35) These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Like a new gym membership, fully achieving positive results from Field of Reeds requires effort, dedication, and several guilt-soaked admissions that you’re just wasting yours and everyone else’s time in the process. Only after multiple spins over the course of days, if not weeks, does one begin to recognize the far more immediate stress and discomfort as the beginning stages of pure, unadulterated growth. Eventually, it all starts to click, and the newly trained ear begins to hear Field of Reeds for the complexity of its articulation across nine slow-buring tracks of classically rooted avant-pop. The off-kilter vocal inflections, the slow builds of seemingly ceaseless dissonance, the jarring introductions of new instrumentation mid-measure—these are all miniscule details within a much greater schematic. There’s a certain disarray inherent in breaking a few musical “rules,” but with Field of Reeds, These New Puritans have created terse harmony by systematically breaking them all. Robby Ritacco
34) My Bloody Valentine – m b v
Buy vinyl on Amazon It might have been The Album That Broke The Internet, but m b v also sounded like it could have been released weeks after 1991’s classic Loveless. This, however, was a very good thing – in fact, the only depressing aspect to My Bloody Valentine’s return was how clearly it laid out the fact that guitar music has moved on so little since their disappearance. It was an album less of another time than it was another space, one few have managed to explore but that Kevin Shields still clearly reckons contains a lot of surprises. He went about proving it with a record that moved from the splendid pop bounce of “New You” to the miraculous marriage of shoegaze and jungle in “Wonder 2” without losing any coherence, only becoming more impressive with every whoosh of noise. Thomas Hannan
33) Gold Panda – Half of Where You Live
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Drenched in repetitious elements that are quite contagious, Gold Panda’s Half of Where You Live is record that refuses to blend in. Through the maze of artists and albums on the old portable listening device, Half Of Where You Live often beckons to be heard in its entirety. The album features smartly crafted electronic rhythms that at times border on afrobeat’s energy and spirit. The tracks typically evolve with subtle variances electing to establish the hook and build on the motif with an interesting array of synths and loops, yet avoid becoming too formulaic or predictable. Slavko Bucifal
32) Outfit – Performance
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Maturity is not something you’d expect from a debut album, and yet Performance is teeming with ideas and the sort of unconstrained spirit that you might expect from heads that are slightly closer to greying. It’s a wonderful barrel of contradictions: exploring themes of disillusionment whilst remaining danceable; the loping, wistful tones of “Elephant Days” rubbing up against the wide-eyed euphoria of “Thank God I Was Dreaming”; evoking the agony of 20-something existential crises (“Nothing Big”) whilst advocating escapism (“The Great Outdoors”). It depicts the rushing peaks and crushing troughs of post-teenage angst; being young enough to drift without responsibility, but old enough to sense a nagging feeling of guilt that life has not turned out exactly as planned. Much of the album’s sophisticated charm is in the detail; the crack of a whip on “I Want What’s Best” that marks its motorik zenith, the yawning guitars that intermittently swallow the sublime ‘Two Islands’, or the premature bass kicks that bring the conclusion of “The Great Outdoors” tantalisingly close. It’s a bold and weighty opening statement that promises a lot for their future, yet Performance is perhaps most notable for encapsulating the feelings of both terror and elation consuming Generation Y, which is perhaps the greatest accolade you could ask for. Phil Gwyn
31) Icona Pop – This Is… Icona Pop
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Wielding bangers about the pure joy of knocking tongues, ballads about hungover walks of shame and an A.D.D. homage to Tupac, This Is… is 2013′s quintessential party album. Not for years has pop been so brazenly hedonistic, so gorgeously simple (though they use renaissance chants too) and so relentlessly entertaining; the Swedish duo aren’t shy about their Bacchanalian habits, nor subtle about their vigorous antics – but this isn’t that kind of album. Icona Pop wouldn’t thrive in nuance at this juncture. This is an anthology of tunes to pump up the soul, festoon the mind with technicolour streamers and smack the heart upside the ventricle. It’s one perfect night distilled into a glittery, sparkly, Bollinger-flavoured LP. Miley who? Laurence Day
30) John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes When John Grant rose from the ashes of The Czars and released 2010’s Queen Of Denmark, the makings of its successor would have been difficult indeed to identify. By and large, Pale Green Ghosts comes straight from the Hütter-Schneider school of computational composition. Biggi Veira’s dextrous and industrially measured beats light the way for Grant’s bare naked poetry, which stumbles the gamut from the drily lovelorn to the achingly candid. Early demos so excited Sinéad O’Connor that she requested to contribute to them; her precipitous vocals pair well with the understatement of Grant’s. As before, Grant finds lyrical inspiration in his past relationships, but this is just one element of the narrative here. Pale Green Ghosts makes the grade because its structure creates a startling dialogue between its own electronic production and unabashed corporeality, the latter of which is driven to project inadequacy.Mortality addresses the impervious narcissism of the machine, which effortlessly replicates its own beauty without the need for love and affection. What is the solution? Not an opposition, but an android synthesis. Songs borne of pain, loss and tragedy become ebullient mechanic grooves. Asexual Teutonic robots become sensitive new age guys, multilingual and multi-gendered composites of opera, hip hop, latex, and Richard Burton. Of all the striking stories told by Pale Green Ghosts, its very form turns out to be the most striking of all. James Killin
29) Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
28) James Holden – The Inheritors
Buy vinyl on Amazon James Holden re-emerged out of the electronic underground with a towering, textured artistic statement on The Inheritors, his first proper album in seven years. And while much has changed in the sonic landscape since his stellar ’06 debut, The Idiots Are Winning, Holden wisely steers clear of any fashionable trends and instead delivers a studied, refined excursion into the boundaries of sound and structure. These relentlessly modern and stylishly expansive songs all hum with a futuristic pulse and sprawling, dynamic rhythms that leave plenty of room to get lost in. The Inheritors is a fitful musical document of Holden’s limitless sense of innovation and bold, refreshing arrangements, as he artfully manages to capture the sound of space for us here on Earth. Erik Thompson
27) Foals – Holy Fire
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes The Difficult Third Album. Bundles of expectation fell on Foals with the release of this, their third full length. 2010′s Total Life Forever had built on and adapted the formula that made 2008 debut Antidotes so loved, but it was Holy Fire that really saw them come good. “Inhaler” was revealed before the album’s release, and hinted at something heavier and more abrasive from the record, but Holy Fire as a whole is truer to Foals’ formula than this pre-album anomaly might have suggested. It showed Foals simultaneously at their heaviest (“Inhaler”), poppiest (“My Number”) and most spaced out (“Prelude”) whilst also keeping all of the spark that led them here, making them festival headliners, Royal Albert Hall conquerors, and one step closer to being the biggest band in Britain. Will Richards
26) Atoms For Peace – Amok
Buy vinyl on Amazon / Buy digital on iTunes Supergroups typically look like a good idea on paper. And while some of them eventually add up to more than just the divergent sum of their creative parts, most bands comprised of talented artists from better know projects ultimately fail to coalesce and record something that measures up to the distinctive material they have crafted in their illustrious past. In the case of Atoms For Peace’s Amok, the record comes across as a fluid continuation of Thom Yorke’s solo debut, The Eraser, just with more fully realized, textured songs. And, in addition to his trusty longtime producer, Nigel Godrich, Yorke’s now got Flea, Joey Waronker, and Mauro Refosco backing him up, helping him realize his glitchy, pulsating artistic vision. Amok contains elements of Radiohead’s more electronic-based, rhythmic numbers, but as a whole, the album is loose and expansive, coming across more like modern experimental jazz than the studied, meticulous rock structure of Yorke’s celebrated other band. Flea’s fresh bass lines keep the songs churning, while Yorke’s ethereal, cryptic lyrics and muted guitar riffs give the tracks an unsettled center. Despite the big names involved, Atoms For Peace’s musical aims seem modest and pure, which is precisely why the imaginative project is ultimately such a success. Erik Thompson
25) Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
With ears being turned back on to all things lysergic of late by the likes of Tame Impala, Wooden Shjips, TOY and the perfectly timed reformation of pychlords Loop, Leeds 5 piece Hookworms’ debut album accidentally tapped into this psych-geist by dropping this incredibly assured debut. Pearl Mystic is expansive but direct, druggy but focused.
Instead of the usual pysch-babble, the vocals here are bratty, Cedric Bixler-like in their approach but recorded low enough in the mix to not have to deal with any existential angst of subjects like death and stuff whilst tripping out to the surprisingly placid second half of the album. It’s a fantastic debut full of the kind of swagger and confidence that demands attention. Yeah sure, it looks to the past for its influence, but it isn’t retrogressive at all -it’s Hookworms. Chris Todd
24) Savages – Silence Yourself
Savages aren’t messing about; look at how seriously they peer from the darkness on that album cover. They are serious and they have serious things to say. In interviews they don’t so much answer questions as they recite points of a manifesto, speaking slowly and purposefully, careful not to contradict their band ethos. Their perceived humourlessness and the extent to which their self image is so carefully manicured might be utterly laughable, were it not for the fact that they’re really fucking good at what they do.
Their brand of frantic post-punk revivalism is so intense it’s practically in a permanent state of convulsion. The sharp riffs and howls are all edges, and it isn’t until the surprising jazz outro where a breath can be caught (itself a bit of a middle finger to expectations). It’s precisely the group’s directness and bloody mindedness which makes them so exciting though; there’s a refusal to bow to subtlety, so often considered a desirable quality, and its absence here works brilliantly for them in every way. Silence Yourself is a thrilling ride which, in spite of its obvious use of influences, manages to say something that’s actually audible above the din of modern life. Chris Tapley
23) Forest Swords – Engravings
Matthew Barnes exists not only in a league of his own, but in a world entirely of his own making. Emerging from Merseyside in 2010 with his incredible Daggers EP only to disappear almost entirely without trace, it was with great excitement that we greeted the news of his debut album proper. Engravings is a thrilling, sparse yet somehow altogether grandiose adventure in sound. Biting, oblique layers reveal themselves anew with every listen. “Thor’s Stone” is a broad, sinister number whose sparse pulsating beats play on the silences while tracks like “An Hour” display a more minimal approach still. If nothing else were ever to be uttered about this record, Barnes own words would more than suffice – “music is design with texture.” Lauren Down
22) Killer Mike & EL-P – Run The Jewels
Released as a free download and billed purely as a blowing off steam collaboration for its creators, themselves coming off the back of releasing two of last year’s best hip-hop records, Run The Jewels is a surprisingly cogent and forceful statement.
That statement is raw as hell; angry, sardonic and emboldened by the fact that they clearly don’t give a fuck. The beats throughout are grimey and nasty in the most pristine, exceptionally produced way. It’s nowhere near as overtly political as Mike’s R.A.P Music, nor as inward pointing as El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure but instead finds a middle ground which breeds a crossover of braggadocio with rabid discontent towards ‘the establishment’. The real jewel here though is the wicked sense of humour and bonhomie the pair lace throughout, never more obvious than Prince Paul’s charm offensive on “Twin Hype Back”.
For a hip-hop record it’s pretty short, clocking in at just over half an hour, and that brevity along with the raw attitude and big personalities makes for a sucker punch experience which begs to be repeated instantly. Chris Tapley
21) Kanye West – Yeezus
Yeezus could very easily have been Album of the Year and the best of Kanye West’s creative output. Ultimately and regrettably, it isn’t. Instead, it does stand as probably the most important record of any genre all year (no other record has provoked responses like it, positive or negative). It also stands as yet another pivotal point in West’s unravelling career to date. Ever since 2008′s 808s & Heartbreak, the Chicago rapper has seemed hell-bent on antagonising just as much as entertaining. “As soon as they like you, make them unlike you,” he remarks on the typically bombastic “I Am A God” whilst in the now-infamous Zane Lowe interview he spoke about how he “knows how to make perfect” but simply doesn’t want to.
But don’t be mistaken, Yeezus isn’t just a case of the emperor’s new clothing line. Despite West’s claims of the record being void of “radio-friendly hits”, some of the album’s strongest moments are indeed up there with the rapper’s all-time best, from jarring opener “On Sight” to the tour-de-force of “New Slaves”. But reportedly rush-released after some last-minute help from Rick Rubin, it’s this tail-end of the LP and its subsequent filler tracks that prevents it from the brilliance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With Yeezus then, West manages in his goal to deliver something more thought-provoking than perfect-sounding. Luke Morgan Britton
20) Kurt Vile – Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile’s never felt like a guy in a rush. His vision of Americana is borne of a widescreen imagination, depicted on spacious planes and hypnotic, broad brush strokes – a scope enacted with a gentler intent than ever on this year’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze. Concerned not with direct hits, Vile (real name, honest guv) instead here opts for a more groove focused structure than a necessarily standard ones – allowing their spiritual serenity to unfold at their own pace, and their infectious melodies to accumulate and integrate with and upon each other to reach their slow-cooked fug. Call it a slacker ethic at your peril (this marks Vile’s fifth album since 2008), but it’s an aesthetic without a guaranteed delivery date, instead preferring to arrive at its conclusion in its own time zone, via its own wonderfully mazy route. Halfway between a heartland tradition and a freeform abandon, its pleasant abstraction delights with a dreamy quality, rather than a direct one, and an introspective drive, rather than an interactive one.
Not that the tracks here are in any way self indulgent – although many reach towards the ten minute mark, they demand an instant hit of the rewind button. When the lead single (“Wakin’ On A Pretty Day”) dropped in the cold, dark early months of the year, its blissful escapism did enough to conjure a summer tranquility that, momentarily, it was easy to forget that it was dark by 16:30.
Riffing from an older perspective, the lyrical themes here represent Vile’s steps toward becoming a father, and a realisation of those influences external to music. With a wider perspective, Vile’s ever glorious songwriting chops come free of self-consciousness and urgency, to be replaced with a depthless, delirious daze. In the face of the tension of our ordinary agonies, this is a record to get lost in – with its vividly rendered shimmer, warm luminescence and mellow mood. Sam Briggs
19) M O N E Y – The Shadow of Heaven
At every turn, Jamie Lee and his troupe of capital R-romantics set themselves up for a fall. From adorning their debut single with a shot of Lee, stark-bollock naked, clutching a rifle, to the spidery, philosophical poetics of their interview personas, and the grammar-defying, two fingers up to SEO analysts and sub-editors that their name represents, M O N E Y pitch themselves as aggressively, unashamedly radical.
Their approach is ostensibly reminiscent of aspects of postmodernism – their constant musing on essential value, their discontent with imbued hegemonic structures, and a move from totalising metanarrative to finding the meaning in individual action, moment, and instinct. The band’s frequent reference to the discourse of traditional religion feels equally postmodern in its mimicry technique – that with a deprecating, knowing doff of the cap to the metanarrative they seek to undermine, they can absolve language of its imbued meaning, and find a new spirituality. The choral tinge of “Hold Me Forever” feels more a tribute to the ephemeral, semiotic warmth of a human touch, rather than the implied eternal in a religious community.
As lofty as these intents might feel, you’d never know from their sound. The record’s sonic cocktail is much less sharp than the rhetoric of the barman, and revels in a ethereal, haunting beauty – laced with swooping, glassy atmospherics, breathless euphoria, and just a touch of early Verve. Rather than the surreal menace of their off-page musings, their lush, swelling tones feel optimistic, and never overly unconventional.
Agree with them, or write them off as abstracted lunatics, The Shadow of Heaven is an incredible persuasive push for thoughtful guitar music, in an often vacuous mainstream. The best manifestos aren’t written to be easily digestible, or to be agreed with en-masse – they’re reactionary hyperbole from the disaffected. M O N E Y know that they, and the rest of us, fell a long time ago, but on the basis on The Shadow of Heaven, their passionate howl from the gutter might be the only way of looking up at the stars. Sam Briggs
18) Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
One of the best things about Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt is the other gems it revealed, like some big secret hidden in plain sight all this time. Of course, a brilliant record all on its own and deservedly one of the best of 2013, but discovering that Katie Crutchfield had another record, American Weekend, under her belt as Waxahatchee plus recordings under the names of the Ackleys and the superb P.S. Eliot, the latter with her twin sister Allison who’s also given us great music with her band Swearin’, just makes everything that bit sweeter, like discovering you can fit that old jacket in the back of the wardrobe again…then finding a tenner in the pocket.
“I have a hard time writing songs that aren’t sad”, commented Crutchfield in an early interview for Cerulean Salt but don’t let that fool you into thinking this album is a depressing listen. Yes, she sings “I left like I got my way / but truly I left with nothing at all” on “Hollow Bedroom” and “we never had too much to say / I can’t feel a thing” on “Lips and Limbs” but more often than not there’s a real spark and passion here that makes it an invigorating and uplifting experience. Whether it’s Crutchfield’s gorgeous Alabaman drawl, or the crunch of electric guitars that maintain the punk roots of her music, there’s always something to hold on to… and yes, to love.
It’s the clarity of Cerulean Salt and Crutchfield’s vision that stands out the most; although there’s a ramshackle, skeletal feel to the way the record is played and produced I’ve not heard a more honest album this year. Tales of relationships are delivered casually and conversationally: Crutchfield remains relatable in a way that few singer-songwriters manage without becoming embarrassing or cheesy. This is music that’s as down-to-earth and painfully real as Chan Marshall or Elliott Smith, yet played and sung with a primitive joi-de-vivre that lifts it way above dark introspection – I defy you not to yell out along with Crutchfield when the grungy guitars of album highlight “Misery Over Dispute” kick in.
Some 90s alt. rock deserves to be left right where we found it but thanks to the work of the brilliant Crutchfield twins we’re revisiting the very best of it, and Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt is as good as some of that decade’s best records. By delving into the past, we’ve got one of the highlights of the year. Andrew Hannah
17) John Wizards – John Wizards
This is by a considerable distance the album I’ve listened to, talked about and written articles on most in 2013, and yet I’m still finding things in it which get me positively giddy.
The coming together of a mastermind producer/songwriter and Cape Town native John Withers with Rwandan singer Emmanuel Nzaramba, it reflects not only the diverse range of sounds to be found within South African music but also the medium as a whole. Seemingly nothing is out of bounds here; from funk-laden prog (“Tet Lek Schrempf”) to charmingly self conscious reggae (“I swore that I would never ever write a reggae song”, laments Withers in “I’m Still A Serious Guy”), sound in general is seen as something to be celebrated.
Whilst much of the record sonically nods towards the rich musical traditions of its home continent, keep in mind that it’s released on pioneering electronica imprint Planet Mu for a reason (namely all the fucking excellent pioneering electronica on it), and should be sought out as much by people who love their music laid out on Ableton as those who’d prefer to jam it out over a beachside bonfire. Often gifting the listener only a tantalising glimpse at a song rather than a fully fledged composition, its fleeting nature only serves to make the number of killer riffs that lurk within it hit with even more force when they do appear, often in tunes that start off sounding entirely different to how they end. This is a band whose record I’ve immersed myself in, who I’ve interviewed at length and seen live twice. I’ve spent months and months trying to uncover the secrets of their very peculiar magic, only to give up and spin it again, convinced in the knowledge I am in the presence of actual wizards. Thomas Hannan
16) Samaris – Samaris
Samaris’ eponymous debut kinda sorta cheats at being an album. In reality, it’s the Icelandic trio’s first two EPs smooshed together with a few remixes scattered on top like chocolate shavings on a cheesecake. Even though that’s the case, Samaris is still one of the most original, exciting and impressive records 2013 has to offer. It’s the musical equivalent of a walkabout in the tundra or The Blair Witch Project: intimate, terrifying and lonely.
Forming in 2011, the teenage threesome swiftly went on to collect major Icelandic accolades, including the coveted Kraumer Award, and a vast array of verbal trophies to be proud of. After some pretty impressive performances at Iceland Airwaves, they made the jump over the chilly waters to impress us Brits earlier this year, giving us a brief history lesson in the form of Samaris before unleashing their second LP at sometime in the near future (supposedly).
Comprising of Pascal Pinon (Jófríður Ákadóttir), a deep house inspired producer (Þórður Kári Steinþórsson) and a classically trained clarinet plater (Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir), the electronica outfit summon a remarkable intensity on their premiere full-length. They concoct a sound unknown to your ears, partly due to the prominent woodwind – an orchestral family often forgotten in popular music – and partly due Ákadóttir whispering lyrics adapted from 19th century Icelandic poetry as if they were the words to some ancient enchantment.
Over the course of Samaris, the three immense talents traipse the Scandinavian taiga, an unforgiving wilderness rife with isolation and bitter realities. Despite the overt electronics on display, it still feels like a predominantly organic album, riddled with fragments of frost, glacial synths and a blizzard of beats. They manage to strike a balance between artificial and natural, never completely falling into either category, but pinching the finest of both in order to craft a sublime sonic golem. Crucially, this allows them to conjure their unique timbre – it’s anxiously reassuring, stoic-yet-nervous in the face of impending doom. It’s desolate.
Lead single “Góða Tungl” snaps and cracks with post-dubstep handclaps and trap hi-hats. There’s pitchshifted harmonies resonating beneath Ákatdóttir’s gorgeous velvet vox as she sings about the moon, and wobbly, lumbering synth globules melting into a slithering clarinet. It’s a mindblowing effort – well, they all are: “Stofnar Falla” is 2am as told by chanting wraiths, “Hljóma þú” sounds like a trek into orbit, featuring vintage cinema static and clarion clarinet hooks. Every track on Samaris is a stunning composition, arranged in the most beautiful way.
Within the salmagundi of noise, there’s plenty of space for tension and bouts of sparse silence. Though there’s a fair old amount going on, they retain a frail, brittle texture; it’s like a façade of strength on the brink of crumbling down. This record is a breaking point, a denouement. It encapsulates the precise moment when your whole world collapses, and in that pregnant, sprawling pause, just as everything slows down, Samaris finds a home. Laurence Day
15) Arcade Fire – Reflektor
“Do you like rock and roll music?/Cause I don’t know if I do”.
It’s a seemingly improvised aside, delivered by Win Butler in the mode of dive bar house act, as he casually riffs over the sound of the band slowly whirring into life. But this off-the-cuff, tuneless hum cuts deep. Via tacky Canadian salsa bars, cryptic graffiti scrawls, surrealist half hour takeovers of primetime American television, high-quality interactive concept videos, and the vociferously consumed avalanche of tidbits causing a continual crescendo of online anticipation, Arcade Fire have proved themselves to be toying tricksters, operating on the highest echelon of alternative celebrity.
On Here Comes The Night Time, the short film they made to accompany the record’s introduction, Michael Cera conducts lengthy conversations about Michael Buble in Spanish and absurdist lectures on chess, whilst Bono’s cameo clocks in at roughly two seconds. The compere for their recent CMJ show was none other than James Murphy, right before the band punked the crowd by switching stages. David Bowie? He’s on backing vocals. Their Grammy’s probably sitting in the corner covered in silly string, half-full of mead from last night’s drinking games.
In a whirlwind of white suits and glitter sits the tightly guarded spark inspiring this proliferating sense of mystery –Reflektor– the curiously named record painstakingly engineered as reinvigorated curveball. But bar the itching, brass-tinged alt-disco stomp of the lead singles and the band’s new wardrobe, the album is still characterised by what we don’t know about it, rather than what we do. Even the record’s marketed aesthetic breeds the jarring indecision of this lyric – ranging from high art sculpture, and its allusion to Greek mythology, to the cross-hatched graffiti diamond sprayed in the world’s dingy alleyways.
Early impressions penned, we’ve now had the opportunity to experience this record on the park benches, subdued commutes, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, and whilst not the poignant meditation on disillusioned human experience that was Suburbs, Reflektor is tirelessly brilliant.
It’s a dense kaleidoscope, jam-packed with generic shift, which on the whole rejects easy sonic linearity to texturally evoke the transient, visceral experience of living on the boundaries of modern life. However, the broad lines it does draw are along these lines – replacing old-world instrumentation with treated sounds and warm synths from Murphy’s hard drive, and baroque beauty for a bold rhythmic focus – only sometimes specifically dance-orientated – to revel in its ability to chop, change and strut at a moment’s notice.
As bonkers as it is brave, this sprawling double album vessel represents as big a sonic reinvigoration as could be expected at the level occupied by the biggest bands in the world – and only possible for a group still too hungry to conform, and tightly wound to settle down. From the influence of the band’s (re)formative time spent in the rhythms of Haiti (the band’s already extensive cast now features Haitian percussionists), to spending a few nights out past their curfew, Reflektor acts as a vehicle through which the band’s established flair can be refracted into a new polarising, pulverising shape which makes so much more sense once you’ve witnessed it in a live setting. Sam Briggs
14) Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe
There’s something uncanny about Chvrches meteoric rise; the sycophantic online buzz, their anointment as musical saviours on the back of two (very) good singles, the gradual ground swell of overwhelming expectation. Of course normally that support dissipates on the release of a debut album which doesn’t blow everyone’s mind inside out – it’s a fairly well established pattern for a 21st century hype band. It’s precisely the frustrating regularity of that narrative which makes the way three unassuming Glaswegians with keyboards have bucked the trend all the more satisfying though, because despite all the ridiculous buzz, the build up and the huge pressure – The Bones of What You Believe could scarcely be better.
For once those hyped early singles proved to be perfectly representative of the albums quality as a whole, perhaps because the level-headed group chose to keep themselves locked away from outside interference to make sure they did things their way. The gnarled electro stomp of “Lies”is a rugged bit of pop music, vocal samples cut to shards over a colossal beat as the brightness of the melody is subtly throttled by the sinister undertones in the lyrics; it is the kind of shadowy less overtly ‘pop’ influences which the band thrive on. “The Mother We Share” on the other hand cemented their position as real contenders – exquisitely layered crystal swells combine like a pristine synthesis of all1980′s pop music’s best features, without ever lapsing into pastiche.
Those two sides of the band jostle for prominence throughout the album, regularly ghosting into one another to create bright kaleidoscopic synth-pop songs anchored with murkier depths which demand further exploration. Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics regularly shift personas, positioning her as everything from some sort of creeping obsessive (“Gun”) to wide eyed innocent (“Night Sky”) and everything in-between, which makes for a brilliantly uneasy tone. The masterful dynamics which accompanies such shifts are similarly notable; no doubt in thrall to Ian Cook’s previous work in indie-post-rock juggernauts Aereogramme, these songs burst bright and simmer solemn within a matter of seconds. Nothing feels contrived though, and on this debut they have crated a far more intricate and immersive atmosphere than most synth-pop bands manage in their whole career.
Working within that normally restrictive framework, they mix things up well across 12 tracks. Songs like “By The Throat” sidestep the pop palette a little and incorporate some more twisted cut and paste electronics, while “Night Sky” reduces the 80′s influence and is more true to the trio’s indie/folk rock roots. When they mix things up and Martin Doherty takes lead vocal duties (a move which rarely works for any band) they show how well developed a unit they are, and musically the album is undeniably impeccable both in arrangement and production, but vitally it also offers strong emotional resonance as well.
In a year where multiple pop hits have masqueraded as anthems of strength (here’s looking at you Icona Pop and Katy Perry) this is a record which really is about strength, not in some faux emotive way but with a kind of weary resistance to the day to day grind, a sense of quiet strife runs through these songs. On “Under The Tide” Doherty asks “are you really happy?” and urges “Keep holding your head up” while on “Tether” Mayberry is “feeling capable of saying it’s over” and on before actually becoming a weapon on “Gun” – there is something invigorating about such tenacity set against a defiantly upbeat back drop of luminous keys and auto-tuned vocal samples. Between that, their somewhat DIY approach and their outspoken attitude towards music industry bullshit, Chvrches are a rare thing – a pop band who are really worth rooting for.
Trying to choose a definitive album of the year is such a subjective and arbitrary thing to do, but surely there can be few better candidates than Chvrches who have convinced both the critical naysayers and mainstream radio with a stunning debut. 2013 was undoubtedly their year. Chris Tapley
13) Lorde – Pure Heroine
The Lorde machine appeared to sweep Ella Yelich-O’Connor from the toast of New Zealand to a debut US number one with a disconcertingly smooth hand. Yet O’Connor’s capacity to fill a chapter in the ongoing evolution of pop music, rather than just free-fall into the footnotes, is due to more than a serendipity of marketing and climate. A handful of incredible early tracks and blog-feed-to-broadsheet acclaim came after a sizeable gestation period for the young singer and songwriter.
Away from Western ears and eyes, Lorde’s formidability metabolised into something of substance and feeds the core manifesto of her debut album. Pure Heroine could have coasted on the high definition rush of “Royals” and given us a litter of serviceable facsimiles. Instead it seeks to redefine coming-of-age themes against a backdrop of juddery dystopian baroque pop that translates musical and lyrical influences into something way beyond a juvenile rant. The record is a triumph of Trojan horse ideology; nods to three decades of school disco staples are enough of a trust anchor to mask a powerful two inch lyrical punch.
Yet Pure Heroine is also a record that lives or dies by more subjectivity than most. Those who found the amped-up conceits of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko unpalatable may come away with the same disregard for O’Connor’s hyper-aware capture of the angst, anger and generational loathing that scatters the tender years between childhood and adulthood. Frustration as much as impulsive petulance dominates lines like “I’m kinda over being told to throw my hands up in the air / So there” (“Team”) and “All work and no play / Never made me lose it” (“Still Sane”) but the songs they belong to are part of a more considered whole.
Pseudo-ballad “400 Lux” plays out escapist frissons of a grounded love-match on the canvas of suburban repetition. It’s an age old story but O’Connor’s delivery is shot through with recognisable experience. Her stories are set in the “cities you’ll never see on screen” where developing minds struggle with the glamour and narrative of celebrity – but she isn’t the archetypal outsider. Pure Heroine paints its central character as considered participant who can let loose when she wants to but isn’t necessarily damaged enough by the failing world around her to lose all hope. She’s angry about is the way the world tries to capture her peer group with neat generalisations. “Maybe the internet raised us or maybe people are jerks” she offers up on closing track “A World Alone”.
There’s a subtle nuance to the 16-year old’s vocal delivery that underpins every track. When she sings ”It drives you crazy getting old” on “Ribs”, the smiling, wry wink is noticeable. The line neatly underlines an overarching point too: the transition from a one space to another is arduous, terrifying and life changing. It’s a universality that feels more profound with every listen.
O’Connor’s coup d’état on Pure Heroine is ultimately the subversion of sentiment and expectations she achieves as Lorde: an often incongruous mix of the small-town study-hard goth-geek and a vampishm, leftfield pop star in the making. While she’ll have to work even harder to find an angle for record number two her debut delivers everything you could have hoped for from a pop star in 2013. Paul Bridgewater
12) Drake – Nothing Was The Same
On Nothing Was The Same, Drake sounds like a man with something to prove. “Tuscan Leather” opens the LP with the lines ”Comin’ off the last record, I’m gettin’ 20 million off the record… I’m livin’ like I’m out here on my last adventure”, with Drake’s delivery every bit as urgent as a young upstart trying to wrangle a foothold. This seems somewhat curious given that this is an artist whose last two studio efforts went platinum, with 2011′s Take Care even bringing Drakehome a Grammy (which he then proceeded to drink shots out of, of course).
Thank Me Later and Take Care may have sold well and garnered widespread critical acclaim but there was still a question mark placed next to the performer’s name, especially within the most purist of rap communities. Year after year he’d top Ghostface Killa’s annual “Softest Rappers In The Game” countdown while, less crudely, others would point to his reliance on guest performers. Whilst its predecessors saw hit after hit helped along the way by the likes of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, mentor Lil Wayne and more, Nothing Was The Same is for the most part, what the man himself terms, “Drake featuring Drake”.
The Toronto native’s third LP sees the much talked-about “two sides of Drake” collide and, for the first time in his career to date, gel seamlessly. Tracks such as “Started From The Bottom” and “Worst Behaviour” see the man with a score or two to settle, whilst more easy listening numbers like “From Time” and lead cut “Hold On, We’re Going Home” splice perfectly in between without the faintest feeling of a split personality like there may have been in the past.
By going it alone and coming to understand his own strengths and weaknesses, Drake manages on Nothing Was The Same to assemble not only his most complete album to date but certainly his most thrilling too. Luke Morgan Britton
11) Braids – Flourish // Perish
The second album by the Montreal trio saw a significant shift in development from their debut Native Speaker. Ditching the guitars after the loss of founder member Katie Lee, synths and vocals became the driving force with singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston coming off as one of the music world’s most intriguing, complex and talented forces.
Standell-Preston’s growing confidence in both her voice and the way it could be used gave Flourish // Perish a brave set of extremes to experiment with. On “Victoria” she comes across like Jonny Rotten on PiL’s “Public Image” – playful, arrogant, petulance dominating her delivery and lyrics (“My father always said/ To get out of my head/ Maybe he meant to see what’s next to me”). “Hossak” sees her melodic hold gradually and disconcertingly dehumanised to the point of fragments. It’s uneasy to listen to at times, a vocal alienation demanding a response from the listener.
The band were generous in referencing their influences (Radiohead, Battles, Portishead) on Flourish // Perish in interviews. “We had never heard Aphex Twin and that’s such an important artist for any musician,” they told Pigeons and Planes back in July, “and that was really mind-blowing, being introduced to him. It was like, ‘Wow! This is the Mozart of our time that I haven’t heard and I’m 21’….I think that was why we changed over”.
Our reviewer Laurence Day saw the album as an “emotionally overwhelming…capable of drowning you….an anthology of futuristic pop anthems sculpted from ice that exposes the machinations of the human mind.” Indeed, as the record found its feet through a more synthetic musicality, it gained an equally compelling thematic standpoint around Standell-Preston’s layered self-examination. “I think the biggest problems sometimes are within yourself,” she has said. “I mean, you are of your body, and that’s kind of what you need to get under wraps before you can do anything else.” A bouncing sensuality and ache that stretches from the psychological to the sexual in an infinity loop makes Flourish // Perish a very charged record.
It is, perhaps, the most sexy album you’ll hear this year. Paul Bridgewater
10) The National – Trouble Will Find Me
With every National record, die-hard fans of the band can release a collective sigh of relief. They’ve once again managed to brave the tempestuous fraternal (both literal and figurative) conditions synonymous with their creative progress and remain intact, despite the mounting level of pressure and expectation that greets the band’s steady plod towards the upper echelons of alt-rock royalty. With this, their sixth full length, released with the kudos and anticipation that comes with being bona-fide, arena-filling big-shots, the stakes are higher than ever.
Not that you’d know it. The National have always been refreshingly normal – five friends who formed a band around divergent tastes, ostensibly to get drunk together after work in their local Ohio, who with wily wit developed an ability to craft some of the most gloriously gloomy artistic spins on white collar mundanity around. Doggedly dependable, they have continued to mine their rich vein of stately miserabilia to a point that ratifies their voice as relatable to those with everyday discomforts – be they social, mental, personal, irrational.
But with the eyes of the world finally upon them, the creative process behind Trouble Will Find Me was surprisingly cordial. Where progress previously trickled, ideas here flowed smoothly, as the band’s most sleek, streamlined record to date found its shape. The band’s now well documented chemistry acted as catalyst, rather than curse, and this positive atmosphere bore the most leanest vessel for their maturing vintage yet. Presenting the National’s sound in its most elemental state allowed their guiling simplicity to reach ever growing levels of affective potential – striking quicker through the record’s greater accessibility, but moving you deeper through the potent, slow burning depths of the band’s characteristic irreducibility. Where anxiety previously manifested itself in throbbing desperation, Matt Berninger’s self-consciousness now appears in a more assured, meticulous fashion. It may still be a record about death, but by presenting itself with wit, and composed self-reference and deprecation, its more graceful touch shows a persona formed through wisdom and experience, rather than youthful spit.
Not that the band are relaxing into armchairs just yet – more dynamically slotting into their groove. There’s the beautiful, bleary eyed sedation of “Hard To Find” sitting alongside the tightly strung motorik pummel of highlight “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, whilst the classic intonations of “Slipped” sit along the quietly anthemic “Pink Rabbits”. It’s humourous and heartbreaking, cathartic and charming – packed with inviting niches to nestle up within, as its abstract world of realism tempers cynical worry with caustic observation.
The National named themselves in the manner of The Smiths – with words that, in themselves, meant nothing. Over the years, the band have continued to outgrow all comparisons with an oeuvre that now stands as its own definition. Trouble Will Find Me may be neither their most visceral or varied record yet – but it might just be their best, and without doubt the most cohesive collection to embody that meaning to date. Sam Briggs
9) David Bowie – The Next Day
When it seemed that David Bowie had quietly slipped into a dignified retirement which no-one, surely, would have begrudged him, suddenly, there was remarkable news of not only a single, available to purchase that very day, but also an album, due for release shortly after.
In the context of the album, “Where Are We Now” – a moving backwards glance at The Berlin Years – was something of a red herring, although the record does indeed consider his past, ageing, and mortality. This is no gentle nostalgia for happier times though, neither on the title track’s chant of “my body left to rot in a hollow tree”, nor “I’d Rather Be High”’s stumbling “to the graveyard” or the striking question in “How Does The Grass Grow?” of “would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?”.
With the opacity and lack of easy answers that you would hope for from this most stylish and creative of artists, Bowie’s return was triumphant – almost defiant. The knowing camp (“just remember duckie…”), the waspish barbs (“I’d rather be dead, or out of my head”), the nods to the back-catalogue, the still-present ire, and style and grace. The album’s best moments include “Valentine’s Day”, a mid-paced, finger-clicking depiction of a character, all “tiny face” and “scrawny hands”; the furious anti-war song “I’d Rather Be High” (Bowie frequently sounds Really Quite Cross on this album); and the terrific closing duo of “You Feel So Lonely”… – sorrowful vocal, heart-grabbing string arrangements, “Five Years” pacing and sense of drama – and “Heat”. This last provides a brilliant exemplar of what makes our finest, bravest musician of the past 40 years so irreplaceable; its spaced-out vocals, ominous noises and bangs, keening strings and disturbing, impressionistic, poetic words ending the album as only, truly, David Bowie could. Jude Clarke
8) Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed electronic album of 2013, Immunity is the outstanding fourth solo album from Jon Hopkins and a huge departure from anything he’s done before. The last we heard of him, Hopkins deconstructed Luke Abbot’s “Modern Driveway”, one of the finest electronic tracks of 2012, and remoulded it as a solo piano piece. And following the successes of his collaborations with Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) and Brian Eno, he could have easily continued along the same ambient path to few complaints. On Immunity, though, Hopkins takes for the opposite tack. The album is the most dancefloor-friendly Hopkins has produced to date. Whereas the excellent Monsters OST, released in 2010, hinted at a more aggressive tonality to anything we’d previously heard, it stopped short of cavorting with balls to the wall techno – which is the dominant theme here.
The menacingly industrial opening track “We Disappear” – all synthetic grind and mechanical beeps – segues wonderfully into the pulsating “Open Eye Signal” (I defy you to stay in your seat) to set the tone. The pair showcase Hopkins’ ability to dabble deftly with dark, chilling atmospherics, but – as he’s shown so often – rarely does he turn up anything other than beauty.
Just as he brought a modicum of order to King Creosote’s sprawling, meandering folkiness, Immunity hammers home the notion that few know how to stitch an LP together as well as Hopkins. After the breathlessness of the opening one-two, comes the expansive, ethereal “Breathe This Air”. After the cumulative beast of a centrepiece “Collider”, comes the gorgeous, piano-led “Abandon Window” – perhaps the most orthodox Hopkins track on the album.
The record is an absolute trip: a movable feast pressed to 12 inches of microgroove. At times, it will have you lurching for the nearest patch of danceable floor; at others, your head will be thrust back, eyes closed in bliss; while the finishing title track, with King Creosote on vocals, is the reluctant, melancholic, but acceptant dying embers. Finbarr Bermingham
7) London Grammar – If You Wait
There isn’t another album in 2013 that captures emotional turmoil in the same way as London Grammar’s debut – but the success of If You Wait lies in more than a simple duplication of motifs and cliché.
The album is bolted together by a studied array of cascading emotive faces that explore desire, regret, anticipation and fulfilment in its many forms. In any other decade, such themes would fall under a more suspicious gaze – and rightly so. At this very point in time – when bankruptcy becomes as attributable to human nature as much as our respective nation’s finances – they’re more relevant than ever. If You Wait is as a very modern response to the ticking time bomb of millennial angst and a deep seated uncertainty.
It’s an “often stunning and deeply affecting album….written from the shadows”, said our writer Phil Gwyn, and while a musically reductive affair dominates for the most part, space is expansively filled throughout. Elegant simplicity and a gently comforting production is backed by enough anchors to resonant fixed musical ports: “Metal and Dust” sounds like a lost track from Protection while Hannah Reid’s shift-and-lilt vocal is an alchemy of the very best British voices from the last thirty years. It’s telling that the musical support beneath her unwavering delivery is so reductive and varied at the same time; Reid is pushed dead centre without any compromise to the talent or musical potential of the band as songwriters and musicians. That said, “Strong” is an incredible feat of words and register, an imperceptible backing both drives and is led by Reid.
While it’s not a ground-breaking record in the same way Portishead’s debut was (sonically, at least), there is a warmth that shoots through every track – a glowing hum that resonates on a visceral level and confirms their status as one of 2014′s most assured homegrown successes. Paul Bridgewater
6) Nils Frahm – Spaces
Spaces is a thing of beauty. A spontaneous, sighing, playful collection of semi-improvised passages, it is so much more than a live album, so much more than an exploration in live sound. It is an expedition into the shared experience – a living, breathing, multifaceted dialogue between Nils Frahm and his audience. The conversation doesn’t begin at the beginning either, it begins in the middle, with “Improvisation For Coughs and A Cell Phone” – conventions be damned.
What we mean by this, is that Frahm (in the liner notes) credits this album-dividing piece as the inspiration for the entire project, the catalyst for an album now comprised of recordings taken from over thirty live appearances in a two year period. The rawest of Spaces’ offerings, “Improvisation For Coughs and A Cell Phone” sees Frahm’s compositional skills laid bare.
With nothing but a piano and a now recovered broken thumb, it opens with quiet mumbles from the man himself before giving way to cautious fluttering keys and cough-filled pauses. Feeding off the dry ambience and audience seat shuffles, Frahm’s composition grows organically – swelling and filling the spaces it originally left untouched until it’s innately intense denouement is broken by the sound of an phone ringing and the audience laughing. Seconds later, Frahm seems to mimic it’s instantly recognisable rings as if gently goading whoever was responsible. And even though the tension is broken, something else replaces it, a silent conversation between artists and audience, an intimate, irreplicable moment in time captured for all to share.
There is more to Spaces though than just pure piano. It forms the core, as it always has with Frahm, but unlike its predecessor Screws, Spaces welcomes electronic adornments and percussive elements back into the mix. If opening number “An Aborted Beginning” sets the scene for what is to come, then lead single “Says” immerses you fully. An equally simple composition, its rolling synth arpeggios ebb back and forth, flowing to and from obscurity with the help of a delay button and increasingly elaborate adornments. Above and beyond that, it’s a completely heart breaking piece of music, wrapping the listener up in its hopes and fears, the increasing euphoria too soon cut short by a tragic, sudden ending.
Drawing from the synthesizer heavy Juno, the signature solo pieces of The Bells & Wintermusik and the restless intimacy of Screws, this is not merely a collection of new and old songs. Teaming with life as much as it is decay, Spaces is collection of old songs made new, and new songs made old, all captured in their fleeting instances, never to be relived in exactly the same way. It is Frahm’s ceaseless mastery – whether we’re talking the urgent dramatic delivery of numbers like “Hammers” and “For – Peter – Toilet Brushes – More” or the melancholic sweeps of tracks such as “Over There, It’s Raining” – that Spaces finds its strength, but it’s in the open dialogue between artist and listener that this record finds life. Lauren Down
5) Daughter – If You Leave
Almost nine months on, and Daughter’s phenomenal debut If You Leave still leaves you gasping for air after mere seconds. It’s the kind of music that sits in the pit of your stomach, sinking deeper and deeper with every beat; it’s a mighty sledgehammer of feelings guided at your temple, a wolf in folk’s clothing, primed to tear apart your ribs to gorge of the fleshy, exposed innards you try so damned hard to stow. It takes you by the throat, by the heart, by the scruff of your neck, terrorising your inner psyche with intense mortal emotion, forcing you to feel myriad agony. It’s a rare album that, with every single listen, makes you relive such trauma. But, with such a rare album, that does cause such a visceral, physical reaction, you’ll be hard pressed to stop compulsively pressing repeat.
Elena Tonra, Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella missed out on a coveted Mercury nomination due to a technicality (technically, as 2/3 weren’t born in the UK, they’re ‘not a British band’ apparently), though they did score a major gong from AIM – Independent Album Of The Year. However, silver and gold and pretty ribbons aren’t an indicator of quality, so we shouldn’t be too bitter about the snub. Even if they totally would’ve won. They’ve gone on to fair pretty well commercially, reaching number 16 in the UK Top 40, and becoming a bit like Britain’s answer to Sigur Rós (i.e. the BBC really like plonking them over everything – ‘Youth’ was famously the soundtrack to this year’s Tour De France).
Released back in March, If You Leave garnered well-deserved praise for the young London-based trio. Here at Best Fit, it got a whopping 9.5/10, and countless other outlets had similar views on the record. Some contrary blighters put it down, but stuff ‘em, they’re wrong – it’s an incredible culmination of their journey to date, from immaculate EPs to lauded festival appearances. Comparisons were drawn to The xx upon its release, which isn’t exactly accurate, as musically there’s little similarity, but they do both call a similar emotive territory home. Everything’s hushed, glasslike and frail. Silence and dynamics are instrumental in their tonal recipes. So, yes, there are links, but they’re tentative and more thematic than sonic.
The tracks on If You Leave are all of the utmost quality – there are no weak links, and even though it might seem like a trial by emo, and it is definitely on the depressing side of music, it’s not a record you’ll want to skip. You’ll be addicted to the noises they weave, becoming emotional flagellants. Even though the shortest track is very almost six minutes, and the longest exceeds eleven, you’re so wrapped up in Daughter’s cocoon of sorrow that the time will slip by like sand through your fingers. It is a sad album, no bones about it. It’s rife with heartache, loss and self-doubt. One memorable line in ‘Smother’ is exemplary of the record’s themes as a whole: “I’m sorry if I smothered you/ I sometimes wish I’d stayed inside my mother/ never to come out.” It’s utterly tragic, and is notorious for reducing audiences to tears during live renditions.
Highlighting one or two tracks feels like a redundant process; every track is a thing of sheer beauty, capable of shattering your mental state like porcelain. From ‘Winter”s brittle shards of guitar, to the indie-folk spectacle of ‘Amsterdam’ – which features just a smidgen of sass from Tonra – you’ll be captivated. From the slow post-rock build of ‘Shallows’ to the adolescent anthem ‘Youth’, Daughter will relentlessly rock your foundation. But you’ll want them to. Like sirens at sea, Tonra, Haefeli and Aguilella will lure you to your demise, and you’ll be happy to let them. Heartbreak has never sounded so perfect. Laurence Day
4) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
Of course, it would be ridiculous to claim that Nick Cave had anything whatsoever left to prove in 2013. Look at it from a certain angle, though, and Push The Sky Away had more riding on it than the average 15th album (17th, if you count the two albums with Grinderman) by a songwriter who was long ago lifted on the gilded pedestal reserved for genuine legends.
Although far from catastrophic, Cave’s output since 2008’s colossal Bad Seeds album Dig, Lazarus, Dig hadn’t quite hit the heights you’d expect from the artist responsible for, say, The Good Son (1990), Let Love In (1994) or The Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). The second, self-titled Grinderman album from 2010 excelled in white-knuckle rage and high-energy onslaughts, but the songs lurking deep beneath the glorious racket left few lasting impressions, the sketchy lyrics in particular falling short of Cave’s stellar standards. The Bad Seeds have always operated a liberal personnel policy, with members coming and going according to the needs of the material that is currently being worked on. Even so, the departure of Mick Harvey, Cave’s musical co-pilot since pre-Birthday Party band Boys Next Door in the late 70’s, must have given some cause for concern.
All of which makes the artistic rejuvenation of Push The Sky Away even more remarkable. No longer content with the ballads/rockers split we’re used to with the Bad Seeds, the album rebooted both the band’s sound and Cave’s songwriting. The advance word had this pitched as a restrained album. As such, you’d expect to encounter similar settings to the love-torn balladry of 1997′s The Boatman’s Call or the stately calm of No More Shall We Part (2001). However, the album turned out to be far from hushed.
In the absence of much guitar following Harvey‘s exit, there was little here that could be neatly filed under rock ‘n’ roll. The hypnotic, simultaneously mournful and barbed “Jubilee Street” and the colossal time- and place-shifting stream-of-(un)consciousness centrepiece “Higgs Boson Blues” came closest to out-and-out muscle-flexing, but both unfurl at an ominously unhurried pace, evolving from scratchily minimalistic beginnings to swirling crescendos that straddle the massed power of economically administered strings and a choir. The former quickly became the highlight of the triumphant tour that followed the album’s release, with live takes gradually building up to the fifth gear and escalating from there as Cave and Bad Seeds whipped each other into a barely controllable frenzy.
On the other hand, although keyboards and Warren Ellis’ hugely expressive violin dominate, there was scant evidence of conventional Bad Seeds piano-led ballads either. Singles “We No Who U R” and “Mermaids” (built around what could be the Bad Seeds’ most expansive chorus yet) initially seem to fit the bill, but closer listens reveal they’re not quite standard practice. The former’s stately calm is disfigured by subtle colourings – looped violin squeals, wails of a strangulated flute – that soon infuse the song with cryptic menace. The latter pitches Cave as an observer, commenting on other people’s doings instead of hogging the spotlight as the star of his own story, locating fresh angles to his eternal thematic trilogy of love/sex, violence and religion in the process. The moments when the album shredded the Bad Seeds rulebook completely proved even more compelling. Set to a rumbling bass line that churns back and forth relentlessly like the waves on a stormy sea and culminating in a string-soaked coda of startling dark beauty, “Water’s Edge” – with Cave again peeping through his curtains, commenting on the world outside his window– must count amongst the band’s most powerful moments. The simple, hymn-like melody of the title track seems destined for bombast, only to be allowed to fade gracefully amidst an eerie ocean of static.
All told, Push the Sky Away showed little interest in resorting to familiar tricks. Whilst slow-burning, it’s a tense, fractured, bristling listen that grows in stature and intensity with each listen, gradually becoming much, much more than the sum of its hugely impressive parts and reveals rich new details even now, months after its release. The sustained levels of inspiration and innovation found here would be truly remarkable for a hungry, up-and-coming band. From an outfit with nearly 30 years under their belt, it’s genuinely awe-inspiring. At the stage of their musical journey where most bands release albums grudgingly, predominantly as a reminder that they’re still alive and playing in a town near you, Cave and co. shredded most of their comfortable mannerisms and devised an entirely new, experimental sound that’s still somehow recognizable as the Bad Seeds. The result was one of the very finest achievements in a catalogue littered with gems and proof that sometimes, experience and staying power far outweigh the thrill of the new. Janne Oinonen
3) Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
There’s little doubt that Janelle Monea a student of the classics, but The Electric Lady is much more than an exercise in genre homage. While it does hold a great reverence to authentic sounds, from the stabs of horn ensembles and weeping soul strings to those those cheesy Michael Jackson-esque slide guitars, it also has a great deal to say for itself by re-articulating these combinations into a thoroughly modern shape. The grandiose spaghetti western sound of the opening “Overture” segues right into the sexual stomp of a Prince collaboration which is all lithe guitar strokes and wonderful, panting drums. Lead single ‘Q.U.E.E.N.‘ featuring fellow neo-soul queen Erykah Badu, with its slapping Parliament-esque bassline and sassy lyrics, sews the seeds of empowerment which guides the record’s theme. Similarly the title track with Solange Knowles is a bit of a girl power anthem; lush, poised and empowered, it breaks down the traits of an electric lady against a fuzzy soft funk backdrop, and comes with an irresistible chorus.
Here it becomes clear that the eponymous Electric Lady is designed as an aspirational figure and such ideas of feminism recur throughout the album, questioning as above but mainly positive, as suggested by the all-female cover and the video for “Dance Apocalyptic” – which must be hands-down the catchiest tune of the year. Moreover though it’s a record about embracing one another, about shirking the idea of ‘otherness’ or ‘queerness’ which Monáe co-opts so well in her own image (rarely seen out of a black and white tuxedo and with her trademark shaved in haircut, she’s a refreshingly unusual sight for a female popstar). During one of the (mostly very annoying) radio DJ interludes, a caller claims “robot love is queer” and gets quickly shut down for his ignorance. This thread of acceptance and understanding being paramount runs through the album lyrically but is also largely implicit in the fact that it’s a record about an android (an other) which is so flush with soul and humanity.
“Ghetto Woman” – a tribute to Monáe’s mother – is propped up by funk and empathy as she cries out “all you ever needed was someone to free your mind”, and “Victory” marks perhaps the most unashamedly blunt greeting-card positivity in her oeuvre with the genuinely uplifting chorus line “to be victorious you must find glory in the little things”. Some of this might sound trite, but as an R&B artist her responsible and intelligent lyricism is not only quite rare, but marks her out as a well needed role-model for the genre. Perhaps Monáe’s biggest triumph is simultaneously representing authentic R&B, real classic blue eyed soul, while also tearing to pieces the hollow sexualised counterfeit of the genre which has become so ubiquitous in the charts. “Primetime” a weary ballad with Miguel, demonstrates her affinity for the classic sounds, while her risk taking shows on “What An Experience” – a Mediterranean beach pop track so completely ludicrous and brilliant that only she could pull it off. Above all else the songwriting on show here is incredible, and almost every track on the album could easily represent the pinnacle of most other artists careers, but for Monáe is just another song – it is almost impossible to pick out highlights from such a strong pack.
All in all, it is one of the most exceptionally realised albums to enter the world since her last release, and confirms that both as an artist and a role-model Monáe really ought to be celebrated as Electric Lady number one. Chris Tapley
2) Julia Holter – Loud City Song
If ever there was a contemporary example of the parallels between music and art then Julia Holter would be an appropriate case in point. Of course, music is art – it tells a story, provokes emotion, elicits thought and incites debate – but rarely are musicians truly ‘artists’. Julia Holter creates more than just sound: her songs paint abstract pictures where it’s the little details that count.
Partially inspired by the ‘50s novella and musical Gigi, Loud City Song is explicitly an abstraction of a city, and in particular Holter’s place of residence, Los Angeles. She perceptively relates the classic romantic Parisian story to contemporary LA and its media’s fascination with celebrity: “It’s about feeling bombarded by the loudness of gossip, when you go on Huffington Post, the most popular stories aren’t really about the world, they’re about Kim Kardashian’s weight. When I happen to turn on a television, the advertisements are the loudest thing” she explained in a 2013 interview.
The methods used to create this depiction are a divergence from the spectral, soporific nature in which Holter has become somewhat synonymous with. For example, the recording of ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ involved Holter climbing on to a roof in her neighbourhood Echo Park and playing tag with a friend. The sound of a running, breathless man is representative of one fleeing from photographers, with the encompassing horns, blaring trombones and erratic, unruly sax portraying unwanted paparazzi. Although social commentary in music isn’t uncommon, it’s this implicit subtlety and Holter’s unique illustration of a place and its inhabitants that makes Loud City Song such an interesting portrayal of voyeurism and celebrity fixation. Instrumental techniques and field recordings are effectively used to outline the undue noise and crassness in cities and the societies within them.
Holter’s lyrics are routinely cryptic; since her 2011 debut Tragedy, she’s buried herself unusually deep in her albums. This perhaps accounts for the dreamy and impenetrable quality that Holter fans admire most about her music, and it’s what singles her out from the contemporaries that she’s so tenuously compared to. Holter subverts the usual confessionalist approach to songwriting and in turn there’s a seeming lack of connection with her as a person. But that’s where she is misinterpreted as a reserved songwriter: Holter relies heavily on musical craft and instrumentation to create sentiment and emotion. It’s personal and at times poignant without being autobiographical. Instead of overruling lyricism Holter’s vocals are often hidden and muffled yet fluid and lingering, acting as a supplementary instrument – but the narratives are infinitely distinct.
Loud City Song’s sound is difficult to pinpoint: experimental pop interplays with the influences that inform it, such as John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Joni Mitchell and Robert Wyatt, yet it enamours in its own empirical world of sound. ‘Maxim’s I’ for example evokes an atmosphere that directly alludes to Gigi with its sedate pace, captivating strings and soft, opaque vocals that are as romantic as the city that inspired its story, yet the disturbance of LA’s cityscape is still present.
In all, it’s the explorations of sound and bold yet gentle orchestrations that makes Loud City Song a perfect example of Holter honing in on her talents by evoking mystery but retaining enough openness to keep her sound in constant flux. Like her previous works, Loud City Song requires time and patience, but once you grasp its intent the investment will feel wholly worthwhile. Hayley Scott
1) The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
What makes The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual the album of the year has nothing to do with widespread popularity. There are some amongst The Line Of Best Fit’s own writing team prone to statements like “I love it, other than that pointless twenty minutes of drone in the middle”, whilst others laud the twenty minutes of drone (“Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised”) as a pioneering, standout moment in a record of otherwise repetitive techno. For every person I’ve met who adores the thing cover to cover, there’s another ready to decry it as the emperor’s new clothes. But as Albert Einstein supposedly once said, “what’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular” – right? Allow me to elaborate.
A record that positively revels in its own lack of mainstream appeal, Shaking The Habitual is a deliberately controversial album that may strike one as a similarly contentious choice for the inhabitant of the top spot in a list such as this. Yet I can hold my hand on my heart and promise you, it’s not there for shock value. No record this year – not one – has more depth to it than The Knife’s fourth LP. No record has the same combination of unique bastardisations of infectious tunes, heartbeat-altering rhythms and out-on-a-limb sonic artistry as this. No record’s politics or demolitions of gender stereotypes were as forthright and hard hitting. And no record, I’d wager, will we still be discussing the merits of in quite so fired up terms well in to the new year. There’s mileage in this one that could last a lifetime, and that’s why it’s the finest record of 2013 (if not beyond).
Sure, they didn’t make it easy for us to love. Its lead single “Full of Fire” was a nine minute long barrage of industrial rhythms and gender politics accompanied with a video masterminded by a renowned feminist porn director critiquing a Swedish government policy that offered tax deductions to wealthy families who employed a maid – stunning in its way, but by no means a “Heartbeats”, let alone a “Marble House”. By far the most accessible point on the LP – the one true banger of a tune amidst Shaking The Habitual that is “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” – reveals itself on close inspection of the lyrics to be a song preoccupied with the idea of urine as some great emancipator of the inhibitions. And of course, when they took it on tour, many were appalled to find that instead of a traditional “live” set up, The Knife seemed to be doing very little in the way of musical performance at all, instead choosing to stage some hellish cabaret to act as accompaniment to the sound of their new album, blasting over the speakers in a manner that sounded curiously similar to how it did on the record.
And yes, accusing all that of being a bit pompous is easy enough, but just look at how easy it is to get conceptual pop wrong these days – Lady Gaga’s horridly patchy ARTPOP for example is rightly nowhere near our Best Fit Fifty. Shaking The Habitual is a record from a duo – Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer – who not only have the theory to back up the radical politics in their creations but also an innate mastery of melody that ensures their message is accompanied with a tune that’ll happily spend days whizzing around one’s cranium (thereby making their proclamations all the more effective, no?).
OK, so the world’s going to be divided into groups who are either excited or appalled by the idea of twenty minute long ambient drone passages like “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised” and the rusting mechanical noises of all ten minutes of “Fracking Fluid Injection”, but whatever, skip them if you’re in the latter camp, I don’t care. Whilst theses tracks are certainly important to the album, being as they are so much of the reason that Shaking The Habitual is the Swedish duo’s most daring artistic statement to date, the amount of column inches they’ve taken up is disproportionate to their significance to the record as a whole.
Because my oh my is this an excellent record! I’ve never heard Karin sound so impassioned as on the bracingly desolate “A Cherry On Top”, and that’s impressive given that it’s a song that contains all of 20 words to its lyrics. Nowhere near enough has been said about “Stay Out Here”; at once the most ambitious and danceable track they’ve ever attempted, it’s the kind of straight up thrill that naysayers would tell you doesn’t exist on Shaking The Habitual, but that actually crops up all over the place – opener “A Tooth For An Eye” is another, a song to which the appropriate reaction is certainly head banging rather than head scratching. Never mind just The Knife, I’ve rarely heard music sound quite as invigorated, alive and terrified of itself as on this complex beast of a record.
It’s not an album that suitable to every point in one’s day, one’s year, one’s life. But for the foreseeable future, there will come points where you’ll return to what will become known as The Knife’s masterpiece, understanding a little bit more at a time, your enjoyment growing with every spin. Such qualities make Shaking The Habitual not only unique amongst records in 2013 – they also make it the year’s best. Thomas Hannan