The top 13 albums of 2013

Where should you start when choosing your favourite 13 albums of 2013? No doubt many wouldn’t start with No Doubt, but perhaps with Foals (with what could be their finest album to date). Or another superb release from Kurt Vile. Or maybe David Bowie’s comeback, either of the two biggest stars in hip-hop, or even the highly acclaimed album from the talented singer / songwriter Jonathan Wilson. Some might start with Arctic Monkeys, Bill Callahan, Harper Simon, Phosphoresecent, Factory Floor, Daft Punk, Matthew E White, Deap Vally, Laura Marling, Cate Le Bon, Boards Of Canada, John Grant, Charles Bradley, Pet Shop Boys or Nick Cave. I’m almost 100% certain nobody would start with Beady Eye.

As ever, there are albums I just haven’t managed to give proper listens to. These are the albums that, a bit like when your friend in a band passes you a CD of their music to listen to and you keep meaning to but just can’t find the time to: or, as I like to call them in 2013, the Major Lazers, Sleigh Bells, Knifes and Ponds of the world.
But I’m going to start my countdown here.

13 is Anna Calvi‘s One Breath, which contains my favourite track of the year, the superb ‘Eliza’. The multi-talented singer displays her ability to take a range of musical influences from rock, blues, psychedelia, orchestral and choral, yet create her own sound – particularly on the aforementioned ‘Eliza’, but also on the excellent ‘Suddenly’ and ‘Cry’. The album provides moments of beauty, heartbreak, and joy and you get the feeling that Calvi is bristling with confidence as her career evolves.

12 on the list is Midlake‘s fourth album, Antiphon. As a project, the album couldn’t have got off to a worse start with the now former lead singer, Tim Smith, quitting the group during rehearsals and the new band having to start from scratch on material. The fact they’ve produced arguably the album of their career is mightily impressive and the title track along with the brilliant ‘The Old And The Young’ have the melodic quality to catch anyone’s ear. I’ve already e-mailed the band to suggest another member should quit before they record their next offering.

11 is the second album from the Australian duo Empire Of The Sun, called Ice On The Dune. It looked like the former Sleepy Jackson main man Luke Steele (who still, every time I hear his name get mentioned, I picture it being said by Alec Guinness in Star Wars) and his musical partner and sometime Pnau singer Nick Littlemore were going separate ways after the success of their debut album, Walking On A Dream, in 2008. After a five-year gap, the duo have released an album which, I think, is an improvement on their debut. A combination of catchy pop melodies and with a stronger electronica/dance influence, the album at times can sound too polished, but still manages to provide some of the year’s best pop songs, such as ‘Celebrate’, ‘Awakening’ and the title track.

10 comes from closer to home: Silence Yourself by Savages. The post-punk influenced band only had their first gig in 2012 and there were high expectations for their debut album to match the excitement and intensity of their live shows. With the likes of ‘Shut Up’, ‘Waiting For A Sign’ and ‘No Face’ proving that the album had lived up to expectations, the band received a Mercury nomination and even had time to begin making a name for themselves in America. The album was well received in the US and the band provided some excellent performances on shows such as Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

9 Next up is a band who have been together for nearly 30 years and are still making excellent music. Yo La Tengo‘s Fade is, for me, the best album the band have released since 2000’s And The Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, and actually provided them with their highest-charting album in the US since they formed back in 1984. The band have always appealed to fans of The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr without matching their success. I certainly hope that a group who can write and perform songs as good as ‘Cornelia And Jane’ and ‘Paddle Forward’ finally get the recognition they thoroughly deserve.

At 8 I’ve chosen the debut album The Bones Of What You Believe from the Glaswegian trio Chvrches, another group who were recommended in last year’s BBC Sound Of 2013. The band,, like Savages, have also had some success in the US, entering the US album chart at no. 12 back in September. The synthpop of ‘Lies’ and ‘Under The Tide’ mixed with the calmer electro melodies of ‘Tether’ are particular highlights for me. Inspired by the unique spelling of the band’s name, I’ve now changed mine to Daxian Eqans.

7 is Jon Hopkins with his latest album, Immunity. The multi-talented producer has gained an excellent reputation through his work with the likes of Brian Eno and the excellent Mercury-nominated Diamond Mine album he recorded with King Creosote in 2011. Returning to his electronic roots for his latest ambient techno effort, tracks such as ‘We Disappear’ and ‘Collider’ make this an album at least equal to anything so far in his career.

6 It may seem odd to say that my sixth favourite album of 2013 is, in my opinion, the weakest album of Arcade Fire‘s career to date. I’ve been a huge fan of the Canadian 6-piece from the start and a new album is something that is always highly anticipated. However, the band’s latest effort – Reflektor (a double album) – could easily have been trimmed down to a single album, and would have been better for it. That said, it still contains some mighty fine moments, especially ‘We Exist’ and their darkest and most electronic track to date, ‘Porno’. But I can’t help but feel concerned that a 13-track double album could mean the band are entering an Emerson, Lake & Palmer phase. If they have stainless steel-coated drums which are too heavy to be transported by truck and a 50ft-high model of an armadillo on stage during their next tour, my concerns will have been confirmed.

5 Into the top 5 now and next up I’ve gone for Neon Neon‘s latest album, Praxis Makes Perfect. Any concept album about the life of Italian left-wing activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli must surely be worth a listen and, despite the album remaining under the radar during the end-of-year polls, it contains some of the year’s finest pop moments. Gruff Rhys is as reliable and melodic as ever on tracks such as ‘Hoops With Fidel’ and ‘Hammer And Sickle’ and his voice is the perfect balance to Boom Bip’s 80s synth-influenced backing tracks. Rumours of a follow-up concept album about the life of Silvio Berlusconi have yet to be confirmed as I write this.

4 My Trips Off The Tongue Album Title Of The Year goes to Until In Excess Imperceptible UFO, Canadian band The Besnard Lakes‘s fourth album on the ever reliable Jagjaguwar label. Amidst the layers of guitar and lo-fi production were some shoegazing classics, particularly ‘People Of The Sticks’, bringing back memories of Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine at their very best, but without the 13-syllable album title.

3 Now we’re getting to the sharp end of the list. In third place I’ve chosen the album Slow Focus by the duo with the Daily Mail’s favourite name, Fuck Buttons. Surely now one of the finest electronic bands, ‘Slow Focus’ sees the band continue to push boundaries and is as focused, compressed and ear-catching as it is loud and distorted. The album is topped off by the superb ‘Hidden XS’ ,a 10-minute techno masterclass featuring a repeated melody of incredible beauty and simplicity backed by a wall of beats and noises Phil Spector would have been proud of.

2 I’ve changed my mind numerous times about the order of my top 2 as there is very little to choose between them. But second place goes to Like Clockwork by Queens Of The Stone Age. After a six-year break, Joshua Homme has resumed pretty much where he left off. It seems no one else can get these sounds out of a guitar, or indeed the dirty riffs that immediately bring the acronym QOTSA to your mind once you hear them. Like Clockwork is arguably the band’s finest album to date. More focused (just the ten songs) than many of their previous albums, the balance between the rockier elements (‘My God Is The Sun’) and calmer songs (‘The Vampyre Of Time And Memory) on the album means you never feel the need to reach for the skip button. Guest spots from the likes of Dave Grohl, Nick Oliveri and Elton John litter the album but Homme is still the star. His guitar playing at the end of ‘I Appear Missing’ is as good as any I can think of.

1 Which brings me to my favourite album of 2013: Settle by Disclosure. Released the same week as Queens Of The Stone Age’s album, this actually kept them from the top spot in the UK album chart. For any fans of 90s dance music (myself included), this was surely an album made for you: 14 tracks featuring some of the UK’s finest (AlunaGeorge, London Grammar, Jessie Ware and Jamie Woon among them) adding their vocal talents to the catchiest beats and bass lines of the year. The album is likely to be a Saturday night favourite for years to come, and the band have brought some much-needed thought, intelligence and soul to dance music after seeing it disappear with Calvin Harris and David Guetta’s seemingly endless chart domination of the last few years. Put it on, tap your feet, dance, smile and enjoy.

3 comments on “The top 13 albums of 2013

  1. Great list Damo, very interesting as per usual. I share your sentiments on the albums by Neon Neon, Jon Hopkins, Midlake and QOTSA (which some end of year polls inexplicably omitted completely!) I also share your concerns about Arcade Fire. I can certainly endorse the frazzled riffs on Pond’s ‘Hobo Rocket’ album. Glad to see that you tip your rock journo trilby in the direction of Matthew E White, Kurt Vile and Jonathan Wilson who all produced excellent records this year. Also thoroughly enjoyed Steve Mason’s ‘Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time’, Endless Boogie’s ‘Long Island’, Prefab Sprout’s ‘Crimson/Red’ and, predictably, The Fall’s ‘Re-Mit’. Loathed The Villagers ‘Awayland’ for some truly awful lyrics and couldn’t get to grips with the Boards of Canada possibly because its subtle electronic textures don’t really translate when listening to an ipod on a busy daily commuter train, maybe I should listen to it again whilst ironing. Keep up the good work!

  2. Damo, thanks a lot for this list. Always good to read your recommendations. 2013 was a year of disappointment for me, and I bought very little new music. Sigur Rós’s latest album, Kveikur, had some good moments and was far better than their previous, Valtari, but they have definitely lost a dimension with the departure of their keyboard player. Cloud Boat’s debut album has a couple of absolute gems, namely the opener, Lions on the Beach, and the closer, Kowloon Bridge, but suffers from most of the album having been previously available on singles and EPs. Cheated! The Necks released another album, Open, which is excellent but not going to set the charts alight – more of the same but always different. Probably my favourite release from 2013 was the fantastic Roaring Lion, rare cuts from Lee Scratch Perry’s studio from the mid-1970s released by Pressure Sounds. Wonderful stuff, but from a different era.

    From your list I loved Anna Calvi, and have just bought myself a copy. Am I wrong to be reminded of Polly Harvey? Midlake and Besnard Lakes had some good sounds, although I can’t work out yet whether I find them too gentle and mannered to get excited about. Will give them another try later this week. Savages sound a bit like Siouxie and the Banshees produced by Martin Hannett – no bad thing, but not very 2013. Jon Hopkins (named after a hospital) sounds good, but I feel I’ve heard it all before. Maybe I have too much electronica already. Will listen again and see what I think. Much as I want to love Fuck Buttons (not for the name), I was disappointed; it wasn’t really textured enough for me. But the Anna Calvi album is a triumph.

    Where’s Ally?

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