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“Baby You Left Me Sad And High.” – An Overly Personal Look At My Top 6 Albums Of 2013

It’s easy to forget in the flurry of lists that inevitably appears at this time of year, but music is ultimately a personal thing (…I don’t think that’s the first time I’ve said something like that on this blog). All told, this has been a pretty blockbuster year, particularly when 2012 felt relatively lean in comparison (to me, at least). With so many great records around, how do you decide the most worthy of praise? Personally, I keep coming back to the albums that have the greatest emotional resonance – and in that regard, 2013 has conspired to produce half a dozen records that align with the various emotions I’ve often felt this year. “…But I will not spill my guts out.”  – though if you read between the lines, perhaps I’ve come a little closer to doing so than I’d care to admit…

6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

A friend of mine compared the words of Nick Cave to the ramblings of a madman when I was playing this record on a drive home, and to be honest, I found it difficult to refute him – but then, the line between madness and genius is one that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have often straddled. Cave’s lyrics on Push The Sky Away may seem impenetrable on first listen, but focus on them a little more intently and you’ll find some surprising moments of clarity – and I’m not just talking about the year’s most oddly prescient reference to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (on ‘Higgs Boson Blues’).

There’s the wounded pride of ‘Mermaids’, whose opening lines suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks one evening (“She was a catch, and we were a match. I was the match that would fire up her snatch. There was a catch: I was no match.”), or the desperate longing of ‘We Real Cool’, perhaps epitomised by the line “Wikipedia is heaven, when you don’t wanna remember no more.” But its most stirring moment comes at the close of the album, with ‘Push The Sky Away’ having the quiet yet bloody-minded determination of a man close to breaking point – “You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away.”

5. Daughter – If You Leave

Daughter - If You Leave

Daughter – If You Leave

Honestly, Daughter could pretty much have been designed by committee to appeal to me. Beautiful shrinking violet of a singer whose voice is gentle while still having an undeniable power? Check. Lyrics about love, loss and heartache? Check. Set to a backdrop of swooning guitars and tasteful percussion? Check. Thankfully, If You Leave never seems as cynically conceived as that – indeed, it’s a record of such sincerity that one can’t escape the feeling that vocalist Elena Tonra might be nursing some serious emotional wounds.

Don’t get me wrong, the music is gorgeous, but it’s the way it combines with Tonra’s lyrics that really makes this album so special. She’s at her most affecting when she’s making the kind of desperate pleas that will no doubt go unrecognised by the one person they’re aimed at: “Don’t bring tomorrow, ’cause I already know I’ll lose you.” / “Please take me back to when I was yours.” / “Give me touch, ’cause I’ve been missing it.” But she’s also equally moving when dealing with other aspects of loss and heartache, as evidenced by ‘Still’s portrayal of a disintegrating relationship or ‘Youth’s bitter inability to let go of the past. Even ‘Human’, the one moment of defiant resilience on If You Leave, ends in defeat – “Despite everything, I’m still human… but I think I’m dying here.”

4. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

If Daughter have effortlessly captured the feeling of heartbreak on If You Leave , then Arctic Monkeys have created an unlikely yet perfect companion piece in AM – an album that focuses on romantic and sexual obsession. It’s there from the off with the sultry groove of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ (“…if this feeling flows both ways?”), before ‘R U Mine?’ ramps up the ante and throws down the gauntlet to a desired partner – “Are you mine tomorrow, or just mine tonight?” It’s an album about being obsessed with someone whether you’re awake or asleep – “I dreamt about you nearly every night this week.” / “I just cannot manage to make it through the day without thinking of you lately.” – and also about trying to satisfy that desire (‘One For The Road’, ‘Knee Socks’).

But it also touches on the situations that would lead these thoughts to occupy your mind – being too close to the one who used to love you (‘Fireside’), seeing an old flame and feeling like they could do so much better than their current beau (‘Snap Out Of It’), or simply being completely wasted (‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’). In the end though, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ closes the album with the admission that Turner is ultimately following his heart rather than his libido – though he’d certainly like to satisfy the latter in the process.

3. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Wait a minute, isn’t this all supposed to be about feelings and emotions? What’s a largely wordless album of electronica doing here? And yet, the reason I love Immunity is precisely because Jon Hopkins manages to imbue his electronica with a sense of emotion. Perhaps it’s most obvious on the sensual, throbbing ‘Collider’, a song which bristles with a relentless sexual energy. It’s immediately followed by the most perfectly-placed comedown in ‘Abandon Window’, which is all stark pianos and ambient swells, together with the fireworks exploding in the distance, as if to emphasise some far-off celebration that the listener is barely part of. King Creosote also appears on the title track to add even more emotional weight to proceedings, with his distant, mournful voice delivering lines like “you said forever was unkind,” as the record comes to a beautiful climax.

But even outside of that, there’s joy to be had in the pure, propulsive techno of  ‘We Disappear’ and ‘Open Eye Signal’, or the way that the piano chords cut through ‘Breathe This Air’ like a moment of clarity. All told, Immunity combines relentless thrills with a melancholy comedown to create one of the year’s most smartly constructed and perfectly-paced records.

2. These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

Again, the latest record from These New Puritans might seem like an odd fit in this list. Were it not for the sheer emotional power of my number one album, Field Of Reeds would probably take its place thanks to its unquestionable compositional mastery. But under the surface, it too is an emotional record – frontman and chief composer Jack Barnett has stressed as much in interviews. The album is able to match the power of classical music to create feelings without words – epitomised by the lump-in-your-throat moment when ‘Organ Eternal’ reaches its crescendo – with the ability to be explicit with words in the manner of a pop song, as on ‘Nothing Else’ (“I pray that just for a minute, real life and dreaming swap places”).

Make no mistake, These New Puritans have crafted an emotional journey on Field Of Reeds – just not in a conventional manner. But then, one shouldn’t expect anything remotely nearing ‘conventional’ from the band these days – and that’s another reason why I love them. (You can find many more reasons in my review of the record over on Soundsphere Magazine.)

1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Over the past five years, The National have gone from being a band I like and casually listen to now and again, to one I absolutely adore. 2010’s High Violet was the catalyst (as I’m sure it was for many others), slowly winning me over and causing me to re-visit the copies of Boxer and Alligator that I already owned but had yet to truly fall in love with. By the time I had attended the ATP event that the band curated at the end of 2012, they’d captured a permanent piece of my (medium-sized American English) heart. All of which leads us to Trouble Will Find Me, whose mere existence made it an almost certain contender for album of the year in my eyes – but that didn’t stop it from having the settling-in period that all records by The National seem to have. But when it hit, it hit hard.

Pretty much every single song on this album has at least something about it that yanks at my heart or sets my mind racing – and I’m hardly even going to have room to mention the wonderful sonics on display, such is the intense nature of this record’s lyrics. ‘Demons’ describes a feeling of social inadequacy, (“But when I walk into a room I do not light it up. FUCK.”), ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ cuts to the heart of emotional turmoil (“I have only two emotions: careful fear and dead devotion. I can’t get the balance right.”) and ‘Graceless’ tackles feelings of self-loathing (“You can’t imagine how I hate this, graceless.”).

But many of the record’s finest moments concern matters of the heart. ‘Fireproof’ portrays the devastating realisation of a gulf between two ex-lovers (“You’re a million miles away, doesn’t matter any more.), the final lines of ‘This Is The Last Time’ perfectly sum up the bittersweet nature of lost love (“Baby you gave me bad ideas. Baby you left me sad and high.”), ‘Slipped’ mourns a would-be relationship that will never come to fruition (“I’ll be a friend and a fuck and everything, but I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be.”), ‘I Need My Girl’ captures the way losing someone can make us feel incomplete (“I can’t get my head around it, I keep feeling smaller and smaller. I need my girl.”) – I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll just leave you with one final example, a line from ‘Hard To Find’ that caught me completely off-guard when I wasn’t even listening to the album – I saw it while reading through the lyrics. “I’m not holding out for you, but I’m still watching for the signs. If I tried, you’d probably be hard to find.” 

The lyric “And if you want to see me cry, play Let It Be or Nevermind,” appears in the chorus of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ – and I can’t help but think that, years from now, Trouble Will Find Me might be cited by some future artist as being similarly tear-inducing. It certainly has that effect on me sometimes.

Find a Spotify playlist containing all these albums here.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2013 Edition)

It’s once again that time of year, where the Mercury Prize shortlist appears and we all bitch and moan about its strengths and weaknesses and argue about who should and shouldn’t have been included. For my money, These New Puritans have been robbed again, and I was expecting Daughter to be a shoo-in. One of the odder suggestions I saw a few people make was that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds should have been nominated – while Push The Sky Away would have absolutely been deserving of a nod, its inclusion would have required some very lax interpretation of the nomination criteria. There’s also a prevailing train of thought that the Mercury panel has once again played it pretty safe – the list contains five number one albums, seven artists who have previously been nominated (if we include Jon Hopkins’ collaboration with King Creosote, Diamond Mine, which was nominated in 2011), and only one record that had sold less than 20,000 copies worldwide before the nominations were announced (thanks to Clash’s Mike Diver for that factoid – read his excellent article on the Mercury Prize here). It’s certainly not as bland or mediocre a list as last year’s, but it’s difficult to argue that it’s much more challenging. All that aside, however, the list has been chosen – so all that remains is to offer you my opinion on this year’s twelve shortlisted albums.

12. Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula is in possession of a perfectly fine voice, but there’s really not a lot to be said about Sing To The Moon apart from that it’s terminally boring. Aside from the jazzy ‘Green Garden’ and the twinkly ‘She’, nothing really held my interest – I can only listen to so many ballads before I wish I was listening to something else. Definitely a slot that could have been taken by a far more exciting album – the idea that this got nominated ahead of the Daughter record just seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

11. Rudimental – Home

Rudimental - Home

Rudimental – Home

The fact that Rudimental are nominated for this year’s prize seems weird somehow. Let’s be clear, Home isn’t total dross or anything – it’s a mostly solid and surprisingly varied dance record that does a decent job of blending together different electronic genres –  but it doesn’t feel like it’s pushing any boundaries. Besides, the album already went to number one, and you’ve almost certainly heard its two best songs (‘Feel The Love’ and ‘Waiting All Night’) if you have found yourself located in ‘tha club’ at any point in the last year – add all of that up and you end up with an album that struggles to really justify its inclusion on the shortlist.

10. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

I’ll openly admit that Jake Bugg is the kind of artist who’s hyped to the point that I actually just want to find an excuse to dislike him – but his self-titled debut album isn’t it*. He does a pretty good line in skiffly, observational snapshots (‘Taste It, ‘Lightning Bolt’), but his attempts at balladry are a little bit more mixed, which is a shame, as the album seems to include more of the latter, with nary an upbeat song to be found after ‘Trouble Town’. The slightly psychedelic-sounding ‘Ballad Of Mr Jones’ suits Bugg’s voice fairly well, but ‘Broken’s overblown, maudlin backdrop seems to overstate his ability to tug at the heartstrings. While Bugg’s words generally seem authentic, it’s fair to say that the way they’re presented isn’t exactly original – all told, you’ll think Jake Bugg is amazing if you like Dylan-esque singer-songwriters and happen to think that Arctic Monkeys began and ended with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (protip: they didn’t, but we’ll get to that later). Which is all well and good – but it’s not Mercury-winning material.

*The shoddy Arctic Monkeys rip-off he released as his latest single, on the other hand…

9. Disclosure – Settle

Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure – Settle

Much like Rudimental, my appreciation of Disclosure is mostly limited to their singles. They’ve got some undeniably good tunes, though ‘Latch’ and ‘White Noise’ probably remain the best, with an honourable mention going to the London Grammar-featuring ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’. But as it stands, I’m just not that interested in listening to a whole album of deep house, no matter how accomplished it may be. Sorry chaps.

8. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

It seems that Laura Marling has surpassed herself with Once I Was An Eagle – it’s both her longest and her most critically acclaimed album yet. But while the critical acclaim is pretty much spot on, the running time proves to be an issue – it honestly feels a bit drawn out, and you could absolutely split the record down the middle into two separate albums. However, if you can’t get enough of Marling’s timeless, world-weary songwriting then this record will prove to be a bountiful pleasure, as apart from the pointless ‘Interlude’ that’s pretty much what you get from start to finish. Myself? I can hardly fault the record, objectively speaking, but do I feel particularly compelled to come back to it? Not really.

7. Villagers – {Awayland}

Villagers - {Awayland}

Villagers – {Awayland}

I’m probably going to look a bit silly putting this above Laura Marling’s album, but for whatever reason I find Villagers to be the more engaging storytellers. I think it’s because, with Conor O’Brien involving his bandmates in the writing process more than last time round, the end result is a more expansive and varied sound. Highlights for me were ‘The Waves’, ‘Nothing Arrived’ and ‘The Bell’, but it’s a pretty solid listen throughout. If you like well-crafted, interesting folk-rock, then {Awayland} will definitely work for you.

6. David Bowie – The Next Day

David Bowie - The Next Day

David Bowie – The Next Day

While many of the other ‘token’ awards seem to have been done away with this year (there’s not a jazz act in sight, and both Laura Marling and Villagers can hardly be considered tokenistic, having both being nominated before), the ‘token veteran’ award is still alive and well. It’s fair enough in this case though, as 2013 has given us a doozy in the surprise return of David Bowie. Really, Bowie could have released an album of avant-garde spoken word or impenetrable noise and people would probably have still lapped it up, but we’re fortunate enough that The Next Day is actually pretty good – particularly in its more reflective moments (‘Where Are We Now’, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, ‘Heat’).

5. James Blake – Overgrown

James Blake - Overgrown

James Blake – Overgrown

If I had one major problem with the self-titled debut from James Blake, it was that it was a bit inconsistent. Fortunately, Overgrown addresses that problem fairly well. That’s not to say that there aren’t any definite standouts – step forward, ‘Retrograde’, ‘Overgrown’ and ‘Life Round Here’ – but there’s less of the weird quasi-experimental stuff and more actual tunes in general. ‘Retrograde’ in particular shows that Blake has a head for a hook, both instrumentally and vocally – and while there are times in the latter half of the record where you might wish him to demonstrate that more readily, it’s still a definite improvement over his debut.

4. Foals – Holy Fire

Foals - Holy Fire

Foals – Holy Fire

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the career trajectory of Foals is very similar to that of The Horrors – except without the critical derision of their first record. But if Total Life Forever was their Primary Colours, Holy Fire is very much their Skying – a confident, accomplished refinement of the expansive sound that they’d already demonstrated so well on the previous album. In Foals’ case, not only did their album hit number 2 in the UK, it also spawned a top 40 single (the infectious ‘My Number’) and acted as a prelude to their first major festival main-stage headline slot at Latitude. Not exactly what you might have predicted for a math-rock band from Oxford, but deserved success nevertheless.

3. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Let’s stop and be honest with ourselves here – Arctic Monkeys don’t need this nomination, particularly for an album that was released a mere two days before the shortlist was announced and was a pretty much guaranteed number one record. We’re not quite at Adele levels of monumental pointlessness, but we’re close. However, unlike 21, AM is actually a good album – it’s not an NME 10/10-they’re-basically-the-next-Beatles (though perhaps that review may yet prove prescient), but it’s definitely worth more than the 5/10 that Drowned In Sound’s Jazz Monroe gave it. In my eyes, it’s a solid 8 or maybe even a 9 – the only problem for me is one of pacing, in that the mid-section consists of the album’s only iffy track (‘I Want It All’), and two slow tracks back-to-back, which does both of the latter songs a disservice in my eyes. Still, it wears its hip-hop influences on its sleeve whilst still sounding very much like Arctic Monkeys, which is only a good thing in my eyes. It’s possible that AM might top both Silence Yourself and Immunity in my end-of-year list, but in terms of being nominated for the Mercury prize, it only seems right to put it below those two records.

2. Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages - Silence Yourself

Savages – Silence Yourself

At this point you probably fall firmly on one of two sides when it comes to Savages – the “they’re derivative and they suck!” side or the “they’re amazing!” side. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about them previously then you probably won’t be surprised to hear I fall into the latter camp. Either way, Silence Yourself is not about to change anyone’s opinion regarding the band. To these (naive?) ears, it sounds more urgent and vital as any post-punk record I’ve heard in quite some time, never mind the fact that they’re an all-female band (which ought not to be a big deal but is nevertheless all too noticeable in our present time). You can argue that it’s cynical and calculated all you want, but the end result is undeniably powerful.

1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

I know I’ve been giving previous nominees a hard time this year (regardless of how good their album is), so logically speaking I should do the same to Jon Hopkins. However, there are two things that separate him from the other six artists with previous nominations – 1) he’s only been nominated for a collaborative work, not his solo material, and 2) remember that I mentioned how only one of these records had sold less than 20,000 copies before its nomination? That’s Immunity. Which is a crying shame because it’s a fantastic record – I’m by no means the biggest electronic music fan in the world, but something about this album really struck a chord with me. I think it’s the way that Hopkins somehow manages to imbue his music with a sense of emotion – no better emphasised than on ‘Collider’, which is possibly the most sexual song I’ve heard all year. And I don’t mean ‘sexual’ as an arbitrary positive adjective, I mean that it has all the intensity that you ought to associate with actually having sex. It also contains the most brilliantly-placed track on a record, with the sparse, reflective ‘Abandon Window’ providing the perfect comedown after the previous four tracks of pulsating, forward-thinking electronica. But not only would Immunity be a worthy winner in its own right, it also feels like the most deserving winner in terms of nudging the ‘general public’ towards music they may not have heard before – and I think, with a shortlist of increasingly obvious choices, Jon Hopkins might just be the winner the Mercury needs.

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