As the title suggests these are our popular music album recommendations from those released last year. Having been a while since we last wrote, and during December having read a lot of ‘the best albums of 2013’ lists too, we felt we should use this opportunity to let readers know what music we have had on and liked during last year. Our list is not really ‘a best of’ list in that way though (as it is very difficult to judge art I feel). It is simply what we have appreciated hearing, but has no rating attached. We just hope you enjoy reading Pipe’s thoughts on this subject and listening to some of our ‘plugs’. We have included a song from each entry on our list too for you to enjoy – and as ever, all other thoughts, views and comments are thoroughly encouraged.
· White Fence – Cyclops Reaps
After what was a remarkably busy 2012 – bringing out 3 albums in that calendar year; one of which: Hair, a collaboration with his long time touring mate Ty Segall – 2013 was a more sedate affair, with only the single record released this time around. Nonetheless, in the immortal words of one Rab C. Nesbit: It’s quality that counts though, eh? And this album is positively brimming with these positive attributes. Former Darker My Love co-front man and main writer Tim Presley (Mr White Fence himself) has now unquestionably surpassed all the artistic achievements of his former band – if not the commercial ones. Having seemingly been building up to this record, in the creative sense at least, since his debut self-titled White Fence record was released back in 2010; he has clearly been honing his craft and unbridled talent for writing and producing ‘lo-fi’, psyche, nuggets of pop, which always seem to result in one wanting more. And as a consequence, one invariably returns seeking further, similar punk rock fulfilments. If there is someone making better records, of this ‘variety’, I haven’t heard them and would also love to know who they are. Just for the record too (no pun intended), if there was an order to this, Cyclops Reaps would be my first pick of last year – so there may be a little rating going on here after all. There really is not a bad track on either side. Nonetheless, do check out Chairs in the Dark & New Edinburgh – my particular favourites here.
· Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in Devils Time’s
So, apparently no one is writing protest songs anymore. Well they are. Steve Mason has just written a whole ‘concept’ album, which has protest and anti-war/pro-humanity at its very core. Not only at the centre either, this is an album positively packed with anxieties over our political system and those who govern us. However his angst here is not in the slightest bit morose. No, Monkey Minds in Devil’s Times is plainly a joyous, uplifting record – even if it does contain plenty of anger and reflective moments as well. In my experience most great ‘politically’ originated records invariably do this. In the vein of other classic records with a social message, such as PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake (2011), Lou Reed’s Berlin (1973) or even Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) (and make no mistake, I absolutely think he has created a work wholly comparable to these other great albums); Mason also takes you on a ‘wee’ emotional journey here. This is a trip that allows you to confront some societal truths, through real human emotions. After 2010’s Boys Outside album, another truly superb work, Mason has now, with these last two works proved himself to be without doubt one of the UK’s best songwriters working today – I’m sure not many folk could have written songs such as Oh My Lord or Fire. They already appear to have all the hallmarks of classics from the modern pop song category for me. Subsequently, when the Mercury Music Prize was announced for 2013, I was bemused to see that not only had Monkey Minds in Devil’s Times not won, it hadn’t even been nominated, a very odd decision. In my view no one wrote a better British based album last year, and in turn, this would have been our choice for the prize.
· Mark Kozelek & Desertshore – (self titled)
An incredibly emotional record, if any one album in our list is going to make you a bit misty eyed then surely it’s this one. The delivery of the lyrics, as is often Kozelek’s style, are made in a sort of stream of consciousness; as if they have come straight off the pages of a journal and expertly crafted together with melodies and musical enunciations, which are in themselves both simultaneously familiar and deceptively ‘other worldly’. These are ‘soundscapes’ that explore the ‘inner’ as well as the exteriority of our human environments. The best allegory I can think of for Mark Kozelek & Desertshore would be that this is kind of, music as cinema. It contains such specifically vivid descriptions, which for me create a strong sense of understanding for these highly personal accounts – he manages to tell us how he “hates Nels Cline” after all, that’s pretty personal. I feel that this is a sort of musical experience equivalent of a John Cassavetes’ film; in its emotional authenticity and expression of raw human feelings. Hey You Bastard I’m Still Here is a track which is incredibly moving and if you hear nothing else from the record (but I definitely recommend listening to the whole thing), hear this. In it Kozelek enables you to imagine every sentiment he articulates – a timeless American musical document.
· Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum
Having recently heard Le Bon singing a quite beautiful cover version of White Fence’s Chairs in The Dark (from the previously sited Cyclops Reaps), I was encouraged to seek out some of her own music. This clearly led me to Mug Museum. Her vocal it seems has certain similar nuanced traits to previous folk and rock ‘alternative’ artists like Nico (the most obvious one) and at times I also hear echoes of Sandy Denny – her of Fairport Convention fame, of which Duke, one of the standout tracks on the album for me, has certain, updated suggestions of Denny’s vocal style. It is very pleasant to hear a songwriter and singer seemingly as influenced by those origins of the British and European folk traditions, as they are from those westward orientated sounds, which as we know are always far more readily heard. A Welsh girl (who writes & performs in Welsh too), Le Bon lets her accent shine through, a feature of her songs that make them even more endearing for me and consequently this allows the listener to invest more faith in the personal descriptions she recites in her songs. Mug Museum is an album written in the aftermath of the artist losing a close family relative and depicts her process of dealing with this lose. The notion of objects as memories – as the title too suggests – and the individual connotations they retain for the owner of them, is a noteworthy aspect of the record. The re-telling of stories and events creates an intrigue I feel, which is supported and enhanced by the beautiful, almost archaic sensations that the songs instil in the listener – Mirror Me is the most profound example of this. This tune is as reminiscent of medieval or classical music sounds as anything post 20th century. An impeccable fusion of psychedelia, the ‘ancient’, European folk and dotted with a little west coast jangling garage rock, all for good measure; Mug Museum is a record subtly delivered but is clearly layered in its conception and creation.
· Phosphorescent – Muchacho De Lujo
If the union of the musical genres country/gospel and electronic seems unlikely or even absurd as I’m sure it does to some, then Muchacho is a masterful record that goes a long way (and I would remark, all the way) in refuting this claim. Matthew Houck (the man responsible for Phosphorescent) has generally in the past made what have now come to be known as alt country albums, a popular music genre that one can certainly get blissfully lost in, as I did for many years. On this album however he has expanded his musical range and created a work that includes processed beats, samples, loops, orchestral arrangements, Mexican brass and as much reverb as you can shake a cow bell at; to add to his already accomplished audio artistic range. And this has also all occurred, without any massive break from what he was already doing very successfully on his previous records. This understated, yet often widely undervalued sense of adventure has not affected his core principles for writing and performing great songs; the bedrock of Phosphorescent’s creative past. This chorus filled, uplifting, harmony drenched album – A Charm/A Blade is a fitting example of this – also has many melancholy moments on it – Song for Zulu being one – yet it still has a swagger too – Ride On/Right On – that is in keep with his country roots. Simply, Muchacho De Lujo is a superb amalgamation of ‘the traditional’, merged with various new future sounds of ‘Americana’ – synths and cowboy boots.
· Bill Callahan – Dream River
Callahan, the former protagonist in the musical vehicle Smog, has been quietly going about this business under his own name for many years now. Having already made around 13 records under the Smog title – since reverting to ‘self’, he has since 2006/7, amassed a back catalogue of the most stunning and distinctively delivered music which, if it isn’t already, I believe it will be regarded as one of the key contributions to American popular music over the last 20 to 30 years. I do personally feel though, that even by his own lofty standards, Callahan has reached a sort of zenith in his career, thus far, with last year’s Dream River. Of course just an opinion, as Callahan has created many soul shattering pieces in his now 20 or so years as a recording artist, I just generally get the sense that on this latest release, his slightly more optimistic tone (at times) has led to a further expansion of his well trodden artistic, thematic sources and treatment of subjects. The delicate 70’s flute and percussive influences (reminiscent of Van the man’s Astral Weeks) is again heavily featured. Making the album feel a little like a partner piece to 2011’s Apocalypse – another great work. However the lesser moments on that particular release have been eradicated on Dream River, as Callahan clearly appears to have grown both as a lyrists and even more crucially, a writer and arranger of the most vivid and atmospheric songs. A song like Small Plane, as good a song as I have heard from him, is tantamount to the majesty of his art and the purpose of his creative vision. Is it now safe to say that although very different, and evidently not as commercial/well known, that Callahan is perhaps a kind of modern day equivalent to say, Leonard Cohen for instance? I am not sure if I would be thanked for this comparison or if it is indeed fairly simplistic, but I guess the point I attempt to make is that like a Cohen or Morrison figure in music, why does Callahan not have an audience similar in scale to the likes of the aforementioned? I am sure the reasons are many and complex. However, I hope that this recommendation might go a very small way towards redressing that balance – you can but hope.
· Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
With two recent Grinderman albums behind them, the first one good and the second one not so; the exit of Mick Harvey has now resulted in the current Bad Seeds formation of members mirroring that of their ‘side project’. However this incident hasn’t produced a radical change in the Bad Seeds sound, if their current album is an indication of their musical direction. This is still very much an album which is in keeping with their musical oeuvre and doesn’t now resonant more with the punky, scuzzy, avant-garde(ish) rock made under the ‘banner’ of Grinderman. However there are moments which do have some of the traits of a Cave & Ellis composition (being Warren Ellis of Seeds, Grinder & The Dirty Three); but this album is far more reminiscent of the music they put together for the film scores on The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James – for me still two of Cave’s most impressive works to date – than it is of any of their other ventures. The song Water’s Edge is an adequate case in point here I feel. Although a little limited in terms of the overall sound and vocal delivery (a frequent issue for me with much of the Bad Seeds music), Push the Sky Away has an apparent individual, contemporary relevance (heard especially on Finishing Jubilee Street), and a social agenda – this may be unintentional of course – but it still draws one in and produces a greater level of attention. Like most of Cave’s records, I always feel I want to hear how they age. Of course his songs are not in the slightest bit unique here. However, as was the case with their last record Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, an album which I was totally under whelmed by when it was initially released, it has in someway aged well with me over time and become a record I now appreciate listening to a lot. As to how this current album rates in Cave’s overall career, it is too soon to say for me. Nevertheless, Push the Sky Away is certainly a strong record and one we have enjoyed hearing since its release.
· Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Of all the records in Pipe’s list I can safely say that this one has by quite a long way been played the most. This of course doesn’t mean that it is the favoured one (I think I have already revealed this anyway), however it does probably indicate that it is the most ‘versatile’ lets say, in terms of how a record can best assimilate with one’s mood. I can’t help thinking that if musicians could still sell ‘x’ millions of an album without the advertising industry telling consumers to ‘buy it’, as was the case pre- the era of digital distribution, then Wakin on a Pretty Daze would almost certainly have been such a musical commodity. This album is quite plainly a bona fide classic and comfortably fits within the cannon of the classic American rock and roll album. Literally everything is faultlessly in place; from the first few bars of the sprawling opening track Wakin on a Pretty Day (not ‘Daze’) that unapologetically oozes Americanicity, through the dreamy swaggering Girl Called Alex and culminating in Goldtone, a track which if you don’t get a few Goosebumps out of perhaps your heart has stopped, and with many more glorious moments in-between. Vile has definitely surpassed himself again here – 2010’s Smoke Ring for my Halo his last full album and is another true gem. A great aspect of Vile – exemplified here and matched by many of his contemporaries too I should add – is that he makes a big nod to the past but doesn’t just copy his rock forefathers. No, he manages to put his own ‘modern’ stamp on what is a well travelled musical terrain. This is fittingly demonstrated on songs like Was All Talk, with its electronic foundations, creative vernacular and novel delivery. An album which I believe is for a huge audience to hear and enjoy, Wakin on a Pretty Daze certainly proves when “they” thought Vile was “all talk”, clearly he wasn’t.
· My Bloody Valentine – mbv
Whether any album could ever live up to the anticipation of a 22 year wait is likely, particularly when the predecessor was as epic, and subsequently as influential, as Loveless has proved to be for many. Nonetheless mbv is clearly a valiant attempt at satisfying the soaring expectations, which greeted its rather staged release. Its as though the wait was so lengthy that their sound has come back round again in the intervening years and mbv, without this necessarily being a criticism of it, sounds precisely as you’d have expected it to when comparing it to The Valentines’ other historical releases. The 22 years haven’t really changed the output much. For me it is unquestionably the sister (or brother piece) to 1991’s Loveless. Kevin Shield’s still has the distortion, reverb and other hissing guitar effects ‘front of stage’ and as can be heard particularly on the songs Only Tomorrow and Who Sees You he hasn’t bored of creating that distinct cacophony of walled, pedal boarded sound. They do however give your ears a rest on tracks like New You; a pop infused, indie ditty, which is very pleasant indeed and does help break through some of the record’s ‘noise’. I do think that if anything though, they are more ambitious on mbv than before. In Another Way is still quintessentially them, but with a more varied approach. On this track what we have is the formations of something that is much more clinical and which feels as though it is far more ‘progressive’ in nature – there are also perhaps echoes of the ‘Math Rock’ sound, particularly heard on the latter part of the album. Largely what we hoped for and expected. Shields et al. may not be prolific, but what they lack in urgency, they certainly make up for in efficiency.
· Richard Thompson – Electric
When talk of the great guitarists is heard, a core group of names generally including Beck, Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Townsend etc. etc., are often heralded as being the frontrunners. However in this category the name of Richard Thompson is generally omitted. For me this chap is as good as all the names that mainly make up such a list, and better than most. The difference with Thompson and a lot of these more virtuoso type players is that his primary concern is always with the song and any notion of musical posturing then comes thereafter. As a result of this approach he has over many years been responsible for some great songs and pretty timeless albums. Last years Electric is, I feel as good as any release of his and is one that best showcases Thompson’s characteristic blend of British traditional folk, blues, rock and roll and country-esque style of musical arrangements. The music, much like the man himself, always seems to have a subtly and even a slight melancholic atmosphere to it. Salford Sunday is a track which best highlights this sort of ambiance and which features harmonises from Alison Krauss, a choice which certainly aids the song’s sober feelings. Although restraint is a facet of the music, within this, anger is still often simmering under the surface and always has been in Thompson’s art. The track My Enemy unquestionably has this angst in abundance. Thompson the travelling mistral continues his journey and Electric is clearly a landmark for him. If this is a sign of things to come, long may he continue.
This is a very general list of those new records from 2013 that we liked and listened to a fair bit. There were plenty of others too though. Here are another ten that, although we couldn’t write about at length, we still advocate a listen to all the same:
· Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
· Primal Scream – More Light
· Mark Kozelek & Jimmy Lavelle – Perils From the Sea
· Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
· Laura Marlin – Once I was an Eagle
· Deer Tick – Negativity
· Psychic Ills – One Track Mind
· Crystal Stilts – Nature Noir
· Crocodiles – Crimes of Passion
· Wooden Shjips – Back to Land
Finally, please do let us know which of these, or others we haven’t included here, were your particular favourites of 2013. As ever, we always aim to begin a conversation and gain some insight from other views and opinions. Maybe we can do a reader’s list at some point as well? This would be a real privilege, so please do let us know your thoughts on this interesting subject and we can start this conversation.