This is the fourth consecutive time I’ve written a review of the year’s albums, which is slightly scary, as I’m under the impression that writing about music is something that I’ve only just started doing. Still, as senility begins to work its erosional magic on the brain, the years do slip past without leaving so much cognitive residue, and as long as someone can confirm for me that I’ve been having a nice time, I won’t rail against it too much. At least I can look back through these annual articles, and although I’ll think it was someone else that wrote them and I can’t remember any of the music, I’ll know that a year took place, won’t I?
Wait, who are all these people? Where am I?
I think that in the past I have adequately conveyed my contempt for anyone claiming to rank any form of artwork according to which example is the ‘best’ (I mean seriously, grow up), and my even greater contempt for anyone claiming to compile a definitive list; anybody who thinks they have heard enough of the music released in an entire year to be able to pronounce on the relative merit of all of it, is utterly deluded and needs to take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. While they’re looking, they need to say something to themselves along the lines of ‘Oi you! Yes you, the one with the myopically partial view of cultural value. You are stupid. Sort yourself the fuck out, or you will always be stupid, and probably get stupider.’ While they’re doing that, and safely banished from this article for a couple of minutes (although you never know when I might bring them back to rant at them some more), I’ll explain the purpose of my list.
This is a selection of twelve albums that I’ve encountered during the course of 2013. These are the ones I liked the most. I don’t like them the most because they’re ‘better’ than other records (although all of these albums have, in my view, extremely high values, in musical, creative, aesthetic and cultural terms); I like them because I like them. This is not to say I couldn’t talk about why I like them in more detail, since I’m given to arguing at length that aesthetic responses are not value free, and that we should all take a little more responsibility for our own responses than is customary; I just mean that (unlike many music writers, such as the idiot currently examining himself in the mirror (see above)) I don’t regard my own preferences as equivalent to some sort of papal blessing, or believe that my pleasure in a sound indicates any kind of intrinsic, absolute cultural value. This year I have particularly enjoyed listening to dark sounds, and you might note that there is no metal, punk or hip-hop or the final list (although there’s some on the shortlist), all of which are styles I listen to a lot, and which normally feature in my end-of-year review. I just happen to have been digging on this sort of shit this year, yeah?
And furthermore, these are the albums I like the most out of the ones I’ve happened to hear, and the scope of what I’ve happened to hear is not imbued with any more cultural significance than my personal aesthetic preferences. Even if I was some sort of revolting scene-making music journo low-life desperately filling my ears with all the music that’s ‘important’ this year, what I’d happened to hear would still not be imbued with any particular significance. Organic, word-of-mouth, random, ungulate-style musical browsing leads the listener to music that is of equal merit and value to that which is revealed by any spurious attempt to navigate the mass cultural currents that certain vested interests would like us to believe are important. Wise up: all that shit just exists to make money off you. Bugger, that bloke’s come back from the mirror, hasn’t he? Off you piss, so I can terminate this polemic and actually talk about some music. Before I do, I should just add that I have encountered a lot of flat-out brilliant records lately (many of them courtesy of the wonderful Cuneiform record label) which I haven’t lived with for long enough to make it into my lovely dozen; and that there are records that have been highly rated by people whose opinion I respect, or that feature musicians whose other work I love, but which I simply haven’t got around to yet (Chrome Hoof’s Chrome Black Gold is a good example). There is, as I keep saying, far too much music being released to pretend that my assessment is anything other than partial and personal.
My shortlist consists of fifty-five records, all of which I like a lot. Picking twelve is totally arbitrary, and although those twelve are all albums I like more than some of the stuff on the shortlist, there is other stuff on there that I like as much as the stuff in the final twelve. I’ve listed those fifty-five albums at the end, and without further ado, in the order in which I encountered them, here are my twelve albums of 2013.
Ominous, psychedelic long-form jams are the main stuff of this record, although there is often a lot more structure and forethought in the music than is immediately apparent from its surface textures. Incredible playing from a group of truly excellent musicians, that never degenerates into a chops-fest or loses sight of its creative priorities, which largely seem to revolve around atmosphere and mood. What makes this succeed, where lesser musicians would sound like they were noodling, is probably just the high level of concentration and awareness the participants brought to the recording sessions, but whatever the explanation, this is a powerful, moving record, full of gloom, mystery and astonishing musicianship.
Tom Slatter has a very specific modus operandi; he writes theatrical, narrative rock music, spinning (hopefully) fictional tales set in a dark and twisted steampunk world. The compositions are complex, and the playing impeccable (I’ve tried, and I really can’t pecc it), but you’re not going to come away with an impression of having heard a brilliant guitarist, singer or whatever; the skills are lightly worn. Instead, this album tells its stories with enormous clarity and aplomb, in such a way that those stories are the main thing to stick in the listener’s mind. This is speculative fiction realised through the medium of prog rock, and it’s wonderful stuff.
Bucking this year’s darkness trend, is one of the most extraordinary recording projects I’ve ever encountered. Solo improvising bassist Steve Lawson got together with solo improvising kora/electric kora/electronic percussion player Daniel Berkman for a series of ten concerts; these were the only occasions on which the two men played together (no rehearsals), and every minute of it is presented on this ten album package. There are numerous ways in which you can hear part or all of the project, but it is essentially one massive album, documenting a musical relationship of complete spontaneity and transcendent beauty. Broad, deep and hugely rewarding.
This is basically a game of consequences, going by the name under which it was known to the surrealists, in which thirteen musicians composed and recorded pieces in response to only the last twenty seconds of the previous musician’s contribution (except Khyam Allami, who went first). The album is the brainchild of Knifeworld/ Gong guitarist and Believers Roast label head Kavus Torabi, who also contributed ‘Fold 4’. Because Torabi knows a great many creative musicians, the results are absolutely extraordinary. Although the various contributions are stylistically diverse, there is a striking coherence to the whole thing, and it seems to bring out the best in these already dazzling artists. Brilliant and beautiful.
This is probably the darkest Karda Estra album to date, and according to composer/ organiser Richard Wileman it is likely to be the last for a while. In terms of the texture, the established format remains intact, which is to say the record consists of chamber music with some rock elements. A sort of ‘gothic pastoral’ atmosphere has been prominent in earlier releases, but this one is chthonically, fuliginously dark from the outset. It’s not without humour, however, and there are goth-bossa, sixties soundtrack inspired elements that somehow throw the darkness into ever deeper shadow. This album is a masterclass in arranging and orchestration, and is an overwhelmingly powerful listen; scary and gorgeous.
Inspired by the avant-gardes of both rock and twentieth century classical music, The Executioner’s Lover is full of difficult harmonies and what-have-you, but it is also, in its way, accessible and entertaining. It’s a dramatic, narrative sounding record, whose author avows a debt to Alban Berg, and there certainly plenty of the dissonant and chromatic sounds for which Berg is known. It is far more than the sum of its parts however, marshaling its harmonies, melodies, rhythms, textures and verbal components with total coherence, and considerable erudition; classical instruments are perfectly meshed with a rock rhythm section (or not, or any of a number of possible combinations), and the sound that comes out is absolutely captivating. Unfeasibly good.
This album (it’s actually two EPs on 10” vinyl, but that’s pretty much what ‘album’ originally meant) contains some of the most complex and beautiful ambient music to have crossed my path. I can’t definitively discuss the working methods involved, but much or all of it is performed in a physical space by real human hands and vocal chords. It is, as with much of the music in this list, pretty dark, but not exclusively so, and even when it’s unsettling, it’s always aesthetically thrilling as well. It’s largely the work of David J. Smith, the percussionist in Guapo (see above), and subtle, textural percussion plays a large part in the sound. It’s a magnificent record.
Less overtly avant-garde, or technically sophisticated, than the other music in this list, Night Comes Strong is as emotionally devastating as any of it. Olds Sleeper is not well known, and doesn’t seem to be making any great efforts to become so, but his bleakly captivating, lo-fi, gritty Americana is some of the most powerful music ever to have moved me to the verge of tears. And when I make a claim like that there’s really only one thing you can do to follow it up, because with music this simple the differences between the sublime and the simply good are indefinable (although I would say it has as much to do with what you leave out as what you put in). This is sublime.
One of three albums (not including the ridiculously diverse Exquisite Corpse Game) in my 2013 pick to combine elements of ‘popular music’ with elements of ‘classical music’ (sorry for the quote marks, but those really are horribly slippery terms), Mandrake has the happiest vibes of any of them. This is not to say that it’s a romp through major consonance, and it is in fact a subtly complex album, whose emotional tenor is consistently nuanced, but it’s a bright set of compositions, full of clarity and precision. I know Jones as the guitarist in Thumpermonkey, but he turns out to be preposterously skilled and gifted at scoring for a small number of strings, and he’s a heart stopping melodist. This is utterly lovely music.
The Great Terror? Yeah, this is fucking scary. But it’s not scary in the way of death metal, or dark ambient music; no, this is a record of high-powered rock music, with a pretty complex musical approach, but basically a melodic, hard-edged rock vocabulary. It achieves an unusual degree of intensity, by virtue of its baleful aesthetics and its grim affective landscape, and manages to plumb some pretty dark depths while being anything but gloomy. In fact, this is one hell of an exciting record, full of driving grooves, engaging tunes and grinding rock textures; it’s because it makes you feel so good that it’s so disturbing. Incredibly creative and massively powerful.
It’s great when a band betters itself with every release. This sounds like the mature The Fierce And The Dead, as though they’re reached a place beyond experiment, and have forged a truly bespoke vocabulary; here is where they start putting it to use, and it turns out that they have a lot of interesting stuff to say. Of course, they may reinvent themselves with the next album, but it’s all good. Given their unashamed post-rock influence it’s hardly surprising that they make a lot of texture, and the narrative power of an unadorned chord sequence, but melody is also a very important part of this album; constantly inventive, never taking any aspect of orchestration for granted, and full of rhythmic stumbles and inversions, Spooky Action is continually surprising, but also extremely engaging. Lots of progressive bands around at the moment, but none pioneering new territories as boldly as this lot. Just immense.
Sanguine Hum have moved from a muscular, melodic form of fusion influenced prog to a much more textural, song-based approach with this album, adopting a lot of electronic sound sources, perhaps in an attempt to shift the focus from their playing to the artistic thrust of the work. It took me a little while to ‘get’ this, but when I did I realised that they had produced something very intelligent and ‘grown-up’, an album that tackles complex themes in the round, with a novelistic approach to the marshaling of their creative resources. The arrangements are skeins of subtlety and emotional exactness, and the album as a whole is a considerable, understated achievement. An absolutely stunning record.
And here’s the shortlist in its entirety: all of these albums are excellent, and I recommend them all without hesitation.
Alessandro ‘Saseko’ Motojima – Sendo Senshi: One Blade To Kill Them All; Beattrix – Take It Back To Bring It Forward; The Blue Ship – The Executioner’s Lover; The Brewdem – Broken Biscuits Vol. 1 (Mixed by The Assembly Worker); Bruce Gramma – Insert Coin(s) To Continue; Buke And Gase – General Dome; Churn Milk Joan – Trading Cards on the Balcony, Without a Horse, 8 Black Postcards; The Claudia Quintet – September; Cornelius Dufallo and Patrick Derivaz – Bass Violin; David Bowie – The Next Day; Dementio13 – Imperial Decimal, Last Test, A Quiet Suburban Corner; Diane Marie Kloba – It Is All an Illusion; The Fall – Re-Mit; The Fierce And The Dead – Spooky Action; Godzilla Black – The Great Terror; Guapo – History Of The Visitation; Heidi Harris – Cut The Line; Ill Move Sporadic – Drug Corpse; John Poole – Poor Man’s Blues; Jumble Hole Clough – Friday 13th, Two Days in April; Kairos 4tet – Everything We Hold; Karda Estra – Mondo Profondo; Mechanimal – Mechanimal; Melt-Banana – Fetch; Miriodor – Cobra Fakir; Mista Smith – Wordamatic Vol.2; Nils Quak – Infinite Folds; Olds Sleeper – Night Comes Strong; Pannón Melankólikusok – Szerelmedért; Peacemaker – Cult .45; Pttrns – Body Pressure; Public Spaces – KP—LP; Rael Jones – Mandrake; Robert Wyatt – ’68; Sanguine Hum – The Weight of the World; Seek The Northerner – The Life And Crimes Of…; Shineback – Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed; Sisare – Nature’s Despair; Skåglörds – Korea; Solstice – Prophecy; Sons Of Kemet – Burn; The Stargazer’s Assistant – Mirrors & Tides, Shivers & Voids; Steve Lawson and Daniel Berkman – FingerPainting; Tatvamasi – Parts of the Entirety; Tom Slatter – Three Rows of Teeth; Vincent Berger Rond – En dehors de tout – Partie 1; ZA! – Wanananai; Zevious – Passing Through The Wall; VA – Believers Roast presents The Exquisite Corpse Game; VA – Roll and Go: Chanteys & Sailor Songs from Grenada