Who said the album was a dying format? 2013 has produced more excellent records than any other year in recent memory. I’ve been recollecting my favourite albums of each year for a while now, and in a year I spent six months gallivanting around the northern hemisphere, music has been an incredibly important part of my travels. These are the albums that have been my soundtrack to cities, festivals, clubs. They’ve got me through 12 hour bus trips and 23 hour flights. They’ve helped me when pangs of homesickness strike and when I’ve felt on top of the world they’ve given me that extra spring in my step. Every website and its dog does Best Of lists these days, so these are my ten favourite albums in the context of how I experienced them over the past twelve months.
10. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
No single band captured the zeitgeist more in 2013 than CHVRCHES. Which is remarkable, considering their music is a glaringly obvious throwback to 80s synth-pop. But everything from the stylised name designed to ‘improve Google searches’ to the fact that two members used to be in punk acts suggests a band eager to capitalise on the current EDM craze. It’s a good thing they did though, because The Bones of What You Believe is one of the most assured debuts in years. The songs are slickly produced and stadium ready, full of soaring choruses and sparkling synths. Cynical listeners may be turned off by the earnestness of it all, but I couldn’t get enough. It’s all so sweet it should be a guilty pleasure, but CHVRCHES are worth donating to the collection plate for.
9. San Fermin – San Fermin
The term ‘baroque pop’ gets brandied about quite a lot these days, applied to everyone from Neutral Milk Hotel to Lana Del Ray. But it fits San Fermin perfectly. The brainchild of obscenely talented young composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the ‘band’ is more a revolving door of musicians contributing vocals, bassoons, cellos, xylophones coupled with the occasional synth. Together they’ve created a stunning piece of work that enthrals from the opening baritone vocals of ‘Renaissance’ to the dramatic final moments of ‘Altogether Changed’. The peaks and troughs of the orchestral interludes provide a perfect accompaniment to the highs and lows of travel, and the album name drops Paris, Lima and the running of the bulls festival in Spain that the band takes its name from. First single ‘Sonsick’ is not just an album highlight but one of my standout tracks of the year.
8. Baths – Obsidian
Cerulean & obsidian. Sky blue, pitch black. In colour and in theme, Baths’ two albums could not be more different. Just from the album cover it’s obvious that Obsidian signals a much darker turn for California’s Will Wiesenfeld. Where Cerulean was all summery melodies and lush instrumentation, Obsidian is bleak, industrial and seething. In Cerulean Wiesenfeld’s voice was only a small player, but here it comes to the fore. Wiesenfeld’s lyrics paint much clearer pictures here too; centrepiece ‘Incompatible’ doesn’t hold back in its sincere recollection of a relationship with so much potential gone awry: “First boyfriend/you live in my house and we share a toilet seat/and I am not in the least bit drawn to your heat”. Released in the Australian spring, Obsidian first seemed somewhat out of place, and it wasn’t until the darkness of winter closed in in Istanbul that I really came to appreciate this record. Definitely one to save for a rainy day.
7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
When Arcade Fire released ‘Reflektor’ in September, it was to fever-pitch levels of hype. But in true Arcade Fire style, no-one expected a seven minute disco epic produced by James Murphy featuring a bit-part from David Bowie. After winning a Grammy, Arcade Fire could easily have played it safe with their next record. I’m so glad they didn’t. While the title track is as close to an LCD Soundsystem reunion as I could ever hope for, ‘Normal Person’ and ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ are as straightforward rock songs as they’ve ever released. They wouldn’t be out of place on a Springsteen record. Things get a lot more dreamy on Side II, where an subdued version of ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ gets a look in, and the twin tales of Orpheus and Eurydice provide the requisite literary references the band is known for. Keeping on trend with their previous albums, they save the best until (almost) last: penultimate track ‘Afterlife’ is the highlight of the album. On an album full of references about life and death, it’s the most straightforward track, and coupled with the 11-minute ‘Super Symmetry’, a near-perfect way to round out an excellent album.
6. London Grammar – If You Wait
I first heard of London Grammar back in 2012, when first single ‘Hey Now’ stopped me in my tracks. It was as if The xx and Adele had a lovechild; I was immediately hooked. Eight months later, the band released their stunning debut album, If You Wait, and I was floored again. This is an album that needs to be listened to in full without any distractions. ‘Wasting My Young Years’ is an early highlight, an introspective number that sings true for many twenty-somethings wondering if they should be doing something more productive with their lives. ‘Strong’ and ‘Metal & Dust’ are slow burners perfect for rainy late nights. All of it is anchored by Hannah Reid’s incredible voice: the band keeps everything else understated in order to bring it to the fore. If this is the level of quality of their debut album, the future of London Grammar burns bright.
5. Big Scary – Not Art
After releasing their excellent debut Vacation back in 2011, Big Scary started questioning the label of ‘art’ and why it’s attached to popular music. If Not Art is the hypothesis than opening track ‘Hello, My Name Is’ is the manifesto: singer Tom Iansek spends 3 minutes and 12 seconds singing about all the things he isn’t. Despite their insistence, what follows is just about as close to art as pop music has ever been. Tom and Jo said that hip-hop had influenced their songwriting for this album, and the scattered beats are obvious on ‘Luck Now’ and ‘Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ’13’. Similar to Vacation, the back half of the record strays into more experimental territory, finding Big Scary at their most fragile. It’s dense and hard to pin down, but ultimately extremely rewarding. Not art it ain’t.
4. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
Frightened Rabbit were the last band I saw live in Brisbane before jetting off for Europe. Most of my musically-inclined friends had already moved away, and like many recent gigs I was on my own. Like much of their music, it was a bittersweet moment. Pedestrian Verse is an album full of stirring and uplifting songs about coming to terms with loss and loneliness. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The band’s Scottish humour shows on closing track ‘The Oil Slick’, where Hutchinson references ‘Swim (Until You Can’t See Land)’ from The Winter of Mixed Drinks: “Took to an ocean on a boat this time/only an idiot would swim through the shit I write”. This was the first album I bought in 2013, and 12 months and thousands of kilometres later I still can’t get enough of it.
3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Almost ten years and five albums in, The National have developed a formula and stuck to it. Sure, there’s nothing new on Trouble Will Find Me, but if it’s not broke, why fix it? While lesser bands would be criticised for not expanding their sound, it’s a formula that works wonders here. Berninger and co. are as morose as always, singing about internal demons and drowning yourself in “Tylenol and beer”. Trouble Will Find Me is an intensely personal record, and Berninger wears his heart on his sleeve more than any of their previous albums. ‘Pink Rabbits’ and ‘Humiliation’ show that a little bit of experimentation with their sound hasn’t gone astray. But it’s ‘Sea of Love’, the centrepiece and one of the strongest tracks on the album, that really hit home for me. In the months before leaving I had a lot of mixed feelings about Brisbane, and the line “If I stay here / trouble will find me / if I stay here / I’ll never leave” depicted exactly how I felt for much of the first half of 2013.
2. Everything Everything – Arc
It was the second day of 2013, and we were making our way along the Great Ocean Road from Falls Festival in Lorne. Five days of solid partying had taken its toll, and we were listening to the radio in silence. That is, until Everything Everything came on. It was the first time I’d heard of the band from Manchester, and ‘Cough Cough’ had me immediately hooked. Thankfully it was only a few weeks wait until they dropped their second record Arc, and for a lot of the year it’s been my favourite album. It’s jittery and full of life, combining syncopated rhythms with falsetto vocals to great avail. It’s both insular and grandiose: songs like ‘Armourland’ beg for big headphones while ‘Radiant’ wouldn’t be out of place in a 50,000 person arena. At times it means it feels like Everything Everything are trying to be well, everything at once. But whether they go down the road of hyper-active indie band or stadium rockers, it’s going to be an interesting ride.
1. Los Campesinos! – NO BLUES
Los Campesinos! have been providing the soundtrack to my life since I was an angsty 16 year-old. While my music tastes have matured and changed, the band from Wales have been the one constant through high school, university and so-called ‘real life’. So it was with much excitement that I discovered their fifth album would be released this year. On first glance it might seem that things have taken a brighter turn for the band known for their self-deprication – the album is called No Blues, after all – but in true Los Campesinos! fashion not all is what it seems. On ‘Lucerne (The Low)’ Gareth opines that “there is no blues that could sound quite as heartfelt as mine.” Still, there is more hope than the desolation of 2011’s Hello Sadness. There’s even a song about football. They’re also experimenting with bigger sounds, adding synths and even a children’s choir on ‘Avocado, Baby’, an absolute stand-out and possibly the best song they’ve written to date. Gareth Campesinos! continues to be the driving force of the band, and his lyrics are as biting as ever. Sure, they’ve ditched the glockenspiel and the songs aren’t about throwing up on your school’s football pitch anymore, but with No Blues, Los Campesinos! have well and truly grown up. Maybe old age isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Phew! So many stellar albums this year. Of course there were plenty that didn’t make the list, and honourable mentions should go to Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City, Lorde – Pure Heroine, Woodkid – The Golden Age and James Blake – Overgrown. I’ve also collated my favourite individual tracks of the year in one handy Spotify playlist – you can check that out below. 2013 was one of the best years for music in recent memory, and 2014 has a lot to live up to. I’m excited to see what it brings.