Top 20 albums of 2013

The difficulty experienced during the construction of this list suggests that it was a very good year for music. Hard choices were made. There were some massive albums, some of which didn’t quite sneak into the this “Top 20”. It’s fair to say that in 2013 the world was conquered by two helmeted Frenchmen. But there was also some really incredible contributions from Australian artists. Without any further ado, here are my top albums of 2013. Start the countdown.

20. RÜFÜS

Atlas

rufus_albumAs far as chilled-out breezy summer anthems go, Rufus served up the most irresistible examples of any act in 2013. It was a breakthrough year for the three-piece and their debut record fulfilled the promise of their earlier EP. When ‘Take Me’ coos “Take me away across the ocean, out in the horizon the night is falling…” it’s hard not to close your eyes and move to the Caribbean-inspired synth stabs. There’s nothing too cerebral or ground-breaking on Atlas – just direct lyrics, endless hooks and addictive beats. Each tune is an earworm that burrows directly to the pleasure centre of the brain. It’s not only likely that Atlas will soundtrack many all-night parties this summer, but that Rufus will follow in the internationally placed footsteps of Cut Copy.

19. PUSHA T

My Name Is My Name

pusha-t-my-name-is-my-name-full-album-stream-0Pusha T’s history as part of the duo Clipse – with brother No Malice – goes back to the mid-90s. Born in The Bronx and emerging via collaborations with The Neptunes, Pusha T here steps out on his own. Kanye West produces and co-writes – and his flourishes are evident but restrained (though West can be heard in a few autotune wailings). There is a raw, minimalistic quality to My Name Is My Name. The production is cavernous and allows Pusha T space to flow freely with authority. When the beats tighten the record enters dirtier territory, full of chill-inducing samples and trappy blips. Some have said the record is a nice companion piece to West’s Yeezus but, as an exploration of the consequences of life on the streets and newfound fame, it goes way, way further down the rabbit hole.

18. BEASTMILK

Climax

BeastmilkCoverThe throbbing, chaotic opener of Finnish quartet Beastmilk’s debut record, ‘Death Reflects Us’, does instantly bring a number of other acts to mind, but it’s hard to not be swept up in the heavy, gloomy tumult. It’s not far-fetched to assume that the members of Beastmilk are into Joy Division and Danzig. But songs like ‘Genocidal Crush’ have choruses that are just too big to ignore. Interesting, the band’s deep voiced singer, Kvohst, is a Brit born Matthew McNerney. Despite the mysterious moniker, his guttural howl is perfect for the mood and atmosphere of this spacious, primal and energetic maelstrom of an album.

17. FRIGHTENED RABBIT

Pedestrian Verse

Frightened-Rabbit-Pedestrian-VerseFrightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison must make many songwriters feel very inadequate. His lyrical turns of phrase are a series of deft, incisive obersvations and he pens energetic backdrops that subvert his self-deprecation. His voice is very, very Scottish and adds warmth and texture to his poetry. On their fourth album Frightened Rabbit became even more inventive, catchier and found a wider audience without compromising on their rich musical character. Pedestrian Verse bears no modern quirks – it feels like a record that operates outside of trends and will inevitably feel fresh in many years to come.

16. THE SEABELLIES

Fever Belle

Album-cover-Seabellies-Fever-BelleThis particular music critic found it very difficult to fault The Seabellies’ debut record, By Limbo Lake. So much so that it was given a perfect five out of five.  It was hard to guess where the Newcastle collective might go next, but it was an equally exciting prospect. The result is another collection of arresting anthems that are this time tinged with melancholy and darker nuances inspired by singer Trent Grenell’s time in Berlin (perhaps most evident in single ‘Paper Tiger’). Maybe it’s the vocals, the kinetic drums or the warm waves of instrumentation, but in Australia The Seabellies are unparalleled purveyors of lofty, enveloping indie-pop. ‘Berlin Horses’ is a joyous highlight.

15. DRENGE

Drenge

DRENGEThey’re two English brothers and their name means “boys” in Danish. But their music is like two T-Rex’s engaged in an aggressive jelly wrestle. This debut record features some of the meanest guitar grooves of the year, weaving together heavy fuzz and snarky, cheeky lyrics. Eoin and Rory Loveless manage to pull some tight melodies from the sludgy quagmire of archaic drums and axe distortion, and shed any comparisons to The White Stripes or The Black Keys with the epic eight-minute ‘Let’s Pretend’. Drenge have been tagged as “post-grunge” but, when it boils down to it, the most appropriate descriptors sound something like “dirty, heavy and fucking cool”.

14. NICK CAVE and THE BAD SEEDS

Push The Sky Away

Push-The-Sky-AwayIn his own words Nick Cave said this of The Bad Seeds’ 15th studio record: “If I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push The Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren’s loops are its tiny, trembling heart-beat.” The “Warren” to whom Cave refers is multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, who played a larger role in the making of this record. This was the band’s first release without long-time collaborator Mick Harvey. The album has a consistently meditative, minimalist and dream-like milieu, as if a shimmering curtain of echoes has been draped over the band. Piercing notes, strings and loops meld, creating a stark backdrop for Cave’s wry lyrics and dark storytelling. Push The Sky Away is yet another accomplished volume in the group’s remarkable library.

13. ARCTIC MONKEYS

AM

arctic-monkeys-am-coverIn the words of Josh Homme, who made a contribution to Arctic Monkeys’ fifth record, “It’s not disco [as such], but it’s like a modern, dancefloor sexy record. It’s really good.” Indeed, singer Alex Turner and co. delivered an album that slinks with midnight grooves and production that is both thick and smoky. From downtempo opener ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ to the thumping rock of ‘Arabella’, AM is an album to have sex to. It also continues the Arctic Monkeys’ growth into the band worthy of the record-breaking success and hype of their 2006 debut.

12. LONDON GRAMMAR

If You Wait

London-Grammar-If-You-WaitNottingham’s London Grammar this year introduced the world to a vocalist with all the emotional sorcery of Florence Welch – but, dare I say it – with even better songs. Hannah Reid’s haunting voice is the blooming bouquet in a vase of minimal synths and echoed beats. It’s stirring, ghostly music that’s stained with the human experience. The group’s single ‘Wasting My Young Years’ would have been the year’s best break-up song if not for Melody Pool’s heart-wrenching ‘Henry’. Regardless, Reid’s husky contralto vocals – with help from keyboardist/percussionist Dot Major and guitarist Dan Rothman – make If You Wait a listening experience that takes your breath away.

11. THE STROKES

Comedown Machine

CL130131TAfter a whirlwind recording session at Los Angeles’ legendary Electric Lady studios, the perennially cool five-piece offered up 11 uber-catchy, sunny summer pop songs. The face-melting, duelling fretwork of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr was swapped for buzzes of keyboard and mellotron. The result is exactly as the album’s title suggests – an inoffensive, sublime collection of tunes that feel suited to the sunrise after an all-night bender.

10. JAKE BUGG

Shangri La

jakebuggshangrila_181113While he has had assistance from songwriters Iain Archer and Brendon Benson, and super-producer Rick Rubin, there is no denying the talents of 19-year-old Jake Bugg. Born Jake Kennedy, this is the pom’s second album in as many years and demonstrates the precocious charm of a young Bob Dylan and the natural swagger of a young Alex Turner. Musically, he is somewhere in between. Bugg’s a hot guitarist and an understated performer. Opening with three livewire rockers, the songwriter then shows off grander, assured tracks like instant classic ‘Simple Pleasures’. Let’s hope it’s not long before album number three.

09. WHITLEY

Even The Stars Are A Mess

WHITLEY 02After the release of his soaring and lush folk-pop opus Go Forth, Find Mammoth, it appeared Lawrence Greenwood might turn his back on the music industry for good. But the songwriter ventured off into the wilderness, travelling to remote areas of Cuba, Panama and Peru to experiment with hallucinogenic substances, and then camped out in an abandoned church in the middle of an Italian forest to make his third Whitley record. The result? A hypnotic, echoed, nuanced and confessional vision that draws you deeper with every listen.

08. A$AP ROCKY

Long. Live. A$AP

asap rockySonically, A$ap Rocky’s “debut” record – the ambitious follow-up to his breakthrough mixtape – feels like a spiritual continuation of Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant Good Kid.  But the point of difference here is that Rocky is documenting life as a Harlem drug dealer, as opposed to Lamar’s life in California’s Compton. Naturally much of the lyrical content is about finding fame and money, as Rocky opens ‘Hell’ with “We use to wear rugged boots now, it’s all tailored suits, Audemars Piguets for my criminal recruits.” But the dense, echoed waves of synth and samples, mixed with the slowed-down vocal effects, create a druggy, languid, absorbing atmosphere. And his hedonistic anthems ‘Fuckin’ Problems’ and ‘Wild For The Night’  – despite their gleeful sexism – are two of the most infectious tracks of the year.

07. IRON & WINE

Ghost on Ghost

iron and wineIf it was still debatable after the release of Sam Beam’s two most recent records – 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog and 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean – then it was indisputable after Ghost on Ghost that the songwriter is the world’s best crafter of sunny, lush, parochial folk music. With deft poetic lyricism and stirring, masterful arrangements, this fifth record suggests that the South Carolina native can do no wrong. The tunes are timeless, the hooks irresistible and the touches of strings and brass truly sublime.

06. CITY AND COLOUR

The Hurry and The Harm

City-Colour-The-Hurry-and-The-Harm-1024x1024While his departure from Canadian post-hardcore group Alexisonfire was bittersweet for fans, there’s no doubt that Dallas Green made the right decision in exploring this folk-rock direction as City and Colour. His fourth album is no great departure from the achingly beautiful predecessor, 2011’s Little Hell, but includes tunes that are some 2013’s musical highlights. From the Southern rock of ‘Thirst’ to wistful, reflective ballads like the record’s title track, Green demonstrates that his pure, beautiful voice is equal parts versatile and fragile.

05. KANYE WEST

Yeezus

CAN'T BE COVERED: Yeezus by Kanye West.

The “Louis Vuitton Don” revealed this year that his phenomenal record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was just one of many. While he may have continued to divide the public with continued provocation – exposing many a daft, gullible git in the process – West’s most powerful statements were made in the recording studio. Yeezus is West’s most hard-hitting release and it, in a year when the rapper welcomed his first child and engaged his girlfriend, shuns romanticism. The lyrics on Yeezus tie themes of racism, fame, oppression, superficiality and sexual desire into a dense knotted ball that is at times hard to unravel – and at other times impossible. But West dares you to listen – and dares you to take offense. Evident, though, is the artist’s views on the evolution of black culture and oppression, pointing out that shackles are easily replaced in any culture with other binds – ropes that are no less restrictive. Most biting, perhaps, is West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s landmark recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ on the track ‘Blood on the Leaves’, in which we examine a public lynching of a different kind – a protagonist dragged through the courts because of an MDMA-fuelled one-night stand. Regardless of whether you believe West to be trite and self-important, there is no questioning the fact that he continues to rewrite the hip hop manifesto.

04. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE

…Like Clockwork

...Like Clockwork - album number six from Queens of the Stone Age.

There’s no other band on the planet that sounds like Queens of the Stone Age. And on …Like Clockwork, singer and songwriter Josh Homme continued his group’s legacy of hot and heady stoner-blues. This record is unpredictable, dangerous and smouldering. QOTSA continue to be inventive and make sexually-charged music that drags you out into the Californian desert for an evening of primal intoxication. And while the list of guest musicians is exorbitant – Elton John, Dave Grohl, Alex Turner, Trent Reznor, Jake Shears – their appearances are woven into the fabric of …Like Clockwork., rather than featuring as star attractions.

03. DAFT PUNK

Random Access Memories

RAMWith mountains of hype and a reported production price-tag in excess of a million dollars, Random Access Memories ventured way beyond what any of Daft Punk’s global fanbase could have expected. On their masterful fourth studio record, the space-suited electronic duo pay homage to their musical heroes not through imitation, but by employing their respective musical philosophies. The result is another cosmic journey that fuses guest appearances from a series of influential icons – Giorgio Morodor, Paul Williams, Nile Rogers etc – with an array of genres that, when combined, form a blueprint for the future of pop and dance music. When listening to RAM, you cannot help but lose yourself to dance.

02. MELODY POOL

The Hurting Scene

DEBUT: Melody Pool's The Hurting Scene.

It’s safe to say that the writing and recording of Melody Pool’s incredible debut record took the Kurri Kurri songwriter across the full gamut of human emotion. From the trough of heartbreak to the peak of taking up an offer to record in Nashville, Pool’s emotional trials and tribulations are laid bare on these 12 accomplished tracks. The Hurting Scene‘s centrepiece is ‘Henry’ – a break-up song that is not only a maturely crafted and truly revelatory ballad, but also a timeless statement that will no doubt be embraced by women, young and old, across generations to come. And, hell, it might even make a few men take a good hard look at themselves.

01. THE DRONES

I See Seaweed

i see seaweedAfter writing, recording and releasing his stunning and epic solo acoustic record Strange Tourist, Gareth Liddiard was intent on picking up his electric guitar and creating noise. I See Seaweed is, indeed, a noisy album. But the band’s colossal instrumentation and atmosphere is crafted into vivid, cinematic landscapes that are brought to life by Liddiard’s sinister vocals and continually fascinating lyrics.

Look closely at I See Seaweed‘s cover and you will see that contained within is a dramatic painting of a rising wave that prepares to crash on the shore of an erupting volcano. It’s the perfect metaphor for the album – slow-building, primal currents that invariably heat into oblivion – and somehow feel channelled from the ghosts of human history.

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