Monday, 30 December 2013

My Top Ten Albums of 2013

At last - the big ten. What took me so long? I'll delay you no longer on the intro, I'm sure you just want to read the numbers and skip the waffle. (But allow me the waffle anyway, it's the only writing I get time for these days.)

10. David Bowie - The Next Day

This will no doubt be many people's album of the year and it certainly was a return to some kind of form... though I've enjoyed bits of most of the albums the Dame has released since his 80s zenith/nadir (depending on your point of view - there are those who count Scary Monsters as his last truly classic album, but I'd have to go with Let's Dance and irk the purists). The Next Day was certainly a triumph of marketing - or anti-marketing, if you prefer - and Where Are We Now? was a brave and inspired choice for lead / surprise single. Brave because The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and Valentine's Day were much more obvious pop songs; inspired because of the way it opens with Dave catching a train, then mocking us for believing he never does stuff like that. (He probably doesn't.)

Top Track - The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (The video is hilarious.)

9. dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip - Repent Replenish Repeat

The "vs." is apposite. Scroobius Pip is probably my favourite contemporary lyricist. I couldn't be less into the music of dan le sac if it'd been used to torture me non-stop for 36 months in a dripping dungeon in Doncaster. IDM, they call it (Intelligent Dance Music.) "Noise," is what Alan Partridge would call it, and I grow closer to Alpha Papa with every passing year. Yet I find myself more than tolerating the le sac racket: I find myself embracing it when it's paired with Pip's stunning storytelling. On their latest release, those stories include a guided tour through an asylum for disturbed ladies (Alice, Dorothy and Wendy... you may recognise the names); an explosive attack on bling culture; an anarchic team up with former King Blues frontman Itch; and the mesmeric tale of a doomed love affair, a true onion song that you need to listen to again and again, peeling back the layers to get to the truth...

Top Track - Terminal 

8. Public Service Broadcasting - Inform - Educate - Entertain

What the hell's this - more dance music? Well, this is about as close as I get. Unjustly compared to both Jean Michel Jarre and Jive Bunny (by utter, utter philistines who don't know what they're talking about), PSB steal samples from old Public Service Announcements and layer them over varied musical accompaniment to create sonic cathedrals of brilliance (TM NME circa 1987). Check out the W H Auden flavoured Night Mail as a starter...

Top Track - Night Mail

7. Billy Bragg - Tooth & Nail

Yeah, this is more like the sort of thing you expect to find in my Top Ten... and who am I to disappoint? Billy delivers exactly what his fans desired on his latest album - a mix of personal, state-of-the-relationship middle aged anthems (my Top Track below became a much-played retort in the year that Louise expected me to become a DIY supergod) and trenchant state-of-the-nation/world protest songs that resolve themselves in both resignation (No One Knows Nothing Anymore) and optimism (Tomorrow's Going To Be A Brighter Day), all recorded over five days in a Pasadena basement. And in the year that his old nemesis finally passed, Billy responded with more dignity than most.

Top Track - Handyman Blues (Another classic video, directed by Johnny Vegas.)

6. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart

Which brings us to Frank, in many ways the next generation's Billy Bragg, although his politics are far more complicated. Another artist virtually guaranteed a place in my year end countdown any time he sees fit to release a new record, and Tape Deck Heart was a sterling addition to the canon. Packed with hummable tunes, the latest set from Hampshire's punk rock Springsteen delivered an angry address on how love isn't like it is in the movies ("Amelie lied to me"), an appeal to parents everywhere (if you want your kids to grow up to be songwriters - don't be nice to them) and plenty of fist-in-the-air "I believe in the power of music" singalongs. Plus, if you were smart enough to buy the extended version, further classics involving time machines, undeveloped photographs and Gene Simmons. More smart, witty, thought provoking lyrics than you'll find crammed into any other record this year... with one possible exception (see below, #5). Oh, and live, Frank still blows the roof off.

Top Track - Four Simple Words

5. Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2

My favourite TV character of all time is Andy Sipowicz, as played by Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue. Andy started out as a racist, misogynist, homophobic alcoholic, but over the course of ten seasons he was forced to face up to many of his prejudices, developing and changing like few TV characters ever do, while still remaining a loveable misanthrope at heart. As bizarre as it might seem, I see lots of parallels between Andy S. and Marshall M., although M&M is taking slightly longer to confront his intolerance and bigotry, there are signs of it on his new album... he even manages a "love song" (of sorts) dedicated to his much-maligned mom.

It's almost ten years since I paid any attention to Eminem, and to be honest, I thought I'd outgrown him. Following his last semi-essential album (Encore in 2004), he "retired" only to launch a half-arsed and ill-received "pop" comeback in 2009. So no one expected The Marshall Mathers LP2 to be much cop - particularly as sequels to successful albums are notoriously a one-way ticket to the bargain bin. (Tubular Bells II, anybody?)

But against all odds, Marshall has pulled it off. He even has the audacity to kick off the record with a follow-up to Stan, his biggest radio hit, in which the eponymous hero's brother comes looking for revenge. Along the way he debates the eternal question: "Is Eminem an 'Asshole' or a 'Rap God'?" while sampling everybody from the Zombies to Joe Walsh and spitting machine gun rhymes and quickfire quips that use up half the dictionary. TMMLP2 is frequently hilarious, often offensive, occasionally juvenile and always impressive. And while Eminem steals the "Most Self-Obsessed Songwriter" crown back from Morrissey, he also reveals a maturity and introspection only hinted at on previous outings. It's hardly redemption... but it's a surprising first step.

Top Track - So Far...

4. Brad Paisley - Wheelhouse 

From rap to C&W - you can't accuse me of not at least trying to be eclectic. Brad Paisley is my favourite contemporary country star and Wheelhouse is his masterpiece, a tribute to the "land of cotton" from which he hails, addressing many of the myths, misconceptions and prejudices associated with or aimed at the Deep South. Now I've never been to America and, if I ever did, I'd choose New York over Tennessee, but this record still spoke to me, made me laugh, made me cry, and affirmed my life as music should. Love and hatred, birth and death, religion and politics, marriage and divorce, karate and facebook... all human life is here, with guest appearances from Eric Idle and LL Cool J (on the really-shouldn't-work rap/country crossover that offers a solution to all southern racism). Plus, the song below, which made me sob like a baby more than once this year... for obvious reasons.

Top Track - Officially Alive

3. Prefab Sprout - Crimson / Red

Against all odds - including partial blindness and permanent tinnitus - this autumn, Paddy McAloon surprised everybody by releasing the first new Prefab Sprout material in 12 years (2009's Let's Change The World With Music was based on material originally demoed in the early 90s)... and it was as good, if not better than, anything he's ever recorded before. A set of flawless pop songs / short stories starring jewel thieves, teenagers, devils, magicians and trumpets left out in the snow: no other record made my heart fly and my smile beam as this one did in 2013. Glorious, heartwarming and beautiful; whether he's describing adolescence as "a psychedelic motorbike... you smash it up ten times a day, then walk away" or lamenting an old conjuror who "takes one last, one final bow... he's lost all his illusions now", Paddy may not use as many words as Frank or Marshall, but I'll be damned if the ones he does choose aren't all perfect.

2. Manic Street Preachers - Rewind The Film

On the evening of September 9th, in the very moment my son Sam was delivered into the world, the first single from this album was playing on the radio in the operating theatre. At the time, I believed the lyrics of the chorus to be...
Show me the wonder
I have seen the purpose of the universe
...which would have been perfectly apt. However, on further listens (and closer perusal of the lyric booklet), it turns out the words are actually...
Show me the wonder
I have seen the birthplace of the universe.
Spooky, huh?

I listened to this record a lot in the weeks following Sam's birth, and many of the songs spoke directly to me, as though the Manics put this record together with some foreknowledge of where my life would be when it was released.
I am as tired as John Lennon sang
Conveying exhaustion like no-one else can
I'm no longer the centre of the universe
A bare admission that makes it seem worse
This was also a record in which the group railed against there own middle aged spread, mocking their younger, more bombastic selves thus...
Only in you do we see ourselves
Only in you can we see our end
So sick and so tired of being "4 real"
Only the fiction still has the appeal
They saved their greatest anger, however, for the establishment, proving the years haven't dulled their political bite.
The lies of Hillsborough
The blood of Orgreave
All the evasion at the BBC

And the endless parade of old Etonian scum
Line the front benches, so what is to be done?
All part of the same establishment
I ask you again what is to be done?
I even grew to love the instrumental!

Top Track: Show Me The Wonder

1. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts

John Grant's debut solo album missed out on my Top Ten of 2010 purely because I didn't get into it in time. I wasn't going to let that happen with the follow-up, and my pre-order was no disappointment. Even back in March, I knew this was going to be my album of the year - despite the fact that, musically at least, it's a little less cosy than its predecessor. Dance beats, electronica, a strong 80s influence... surely these things would spoil Mr. Grant's cutting and hugely personal songwriting? Not one bit.

Both a break-up album and a record on which JG comes to terms with being HIV positive, it doesn't sound like there'll be a whole lot of laughs to be had here... yet in fact, this is bitchiness central. Hilariously cutting, heartbreakingly honest, no other songwriter wore their heart on their sleeve like John Grant this year - not even Eminem! (He even swears more than Marshall, and a helluva lot more creatively.)
Remember walking hand in hand, side by side?
We walked the dogs
And took long strolls through the park...
Except we never had dogs and never went to the park.
Remember how we used to fuck all night long?
Neither do I, because I always passed out
I need lots of booze, to handle the pain
One minute he's comparing a former lover to "the Agent Orange they used to use in Vietnam", the next he's asking Ernest Borgnine for advice on how to cope when life deals you a shitty hand ("And when I think about everything that he's been through, I wish he'd call me on the phone and take my ass to school"). And then, of course, there's GMF, my song of the year. Don't forget - you could be laughing 65% more of the time...

So... those were my albums of 2013. What were yours? All recommendations will be given consideration...

Happy New Year!


  1. At least 3 albums here that I have a burning desire to try for myself. Cheers. A very happy 2014 to you (and having a kid does get easier... trust me).

  2. I've just commented over on To Die By Your Side that Bloodsports is the first Suede album I haven't gone straight out and bought. The same is true for MSP's Rewind The Film, a fact that I am going to remedy today, thanks to your endorsement. This is part of the joy of finding, and following, blogs that you can trust - recommendations you can trust too!

    P.S. Your son and I share a birthday.

  3. Some real surprises here...and some good ones...I was tempted by the Bowie album simply by the ad in the cinema for what I can't remember....and the Manics...fabulous.

    Happy New Year...may you lists continue to be as enjoyable as they always have been...

  4. I only got into that John Grant album recently, after noticing it on a few other Best Albums of 2013 lists, but I really like it. I think my favourite album of 2013 was 'Push The Sky Away' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I got bored with 'Dig, Lazurus, Dig!' very quickly but 'Push The Sky Away' was probably the (new) album I listened to most in 2013 and I can't see myself getting bored with it any time soon. I also really like that Frank Turner album, the Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip album, and the Billy Bragg album (I haven't listened to that one enough though). Other albums I enjoyed in 2013 include: ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ by Vampire Weekend (just got into that one, too), ‘Reflektor’ by Arcade Fire, ‘Days Are Gone’ by Haim (well, I like the singles and I like them), ‘Surgical Steel’ by Carcass, ‘The Blackest Beautiful’ by Letlive, and ‘One of us is the Killer’ by The Dillinger Escape Plan. Yep, I’m still having a heavy metal-themed mid-life crisis.


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