The Official Rambling Fox Top 10 of 2013
The time of lists is upon us once more. Judging our past years in music, spending time thinking things that probably distract us from the music in a fashion that’s not particularly good, ranking things for our own perverse pleasures. Top 10 lists are wonderful.
2013 was a good year. It’s been very much a standard kind of year – a pretty good 6-8/10 average standard throughout, with a few major disappointments and a handful of albums of such notable quality that they’ll continue to be the reason 2013 is remembered for ages to come, the kind of batting average that tends to characterise most years. There were a few notable trends both universal and personal: in the former category the tendency of a number of artists releasing albums in quick succession to the their previous ones, in the latter category the growing influence of pop music in my listening habits to add some rediscovered colour to my usual habits. There’s been no overaching trends that would give 2013 a particular theme however, and thus there’s little really to discuss about the past musical year in terms of anything but the actual music itself.
Therefore, to waste no further time – presented here are this year’s 10 best albums, as judged by yours truly.
#10: MOBY – INNOCENTS
Using guest singers is nothing new for Moby but Innocents marks the first time when they’re the central part of the album – officially the songs even have (feat.)-tags now. The personal re-invention and re-focusing Moby went through a few albums back has so far resulted in albums more focused on the instrumentals, with even the vocal songs downplaying the role of the singing in favour of the music behind it; Innocents takes the atmospheric, peacefully melancholy route that’s become Moby’s de facto direction in the recent years and applies it to the art of making songs that could just as well be “artist feat. Moby” rather than the other way around. It’s not a bad thing: it allows Moby to find a different way to express himself once again, emphasise parts of his songwriting that aren’t so present anymore and do another twist on his current sound. The end result is another flawlessly produced and wonderfully atmospheric collection of songs, this time ones with a central human element that emphasises the gorgeous bittersweetness of the music.
Almost Home (feat. Damien Jurado)
#9: CMX – SEITSENTAHOKAS
There’s always something wonderful in a band on their third decade of existence suddenly finds a new rush of life within them, full of vigour and fire again. CMX have been releasing a lot of their top tier albums during the past decade so they’ve not been running low on steam, but Seitsentahokas has the kind of fury and energy not seen even in their wildest moments in recent memory. Seitsentahokas is made out of twisted song patterns, hard-hitting riffs (guitar and bass), cryptic lyrics, warped moods and incredible fury ready to break down walls; the latter partially because of the new drummer Olli-Matti Wahlström’s tour de force performance behind the cans, seemingly hell-bent on proving the world he has a place in the band. Juxtaposed with the sudden doses of beauty and melody, often disguised as and only subtly distinguishable from the rest of the album’s rougher tones, Seitsentahokas takes its listener on a rollercoaster ride that takes everything to the maximum in mere moments after its start and only really lets go once the final notes of the space-prog closer of a title track have finished playing. Out of this year’s selection of favourites it’s the only one which hasn’t lured its listener into its charms through subtle tricks and enchanting charms, but rather through punching you in the face and commanding you to obey and listen.
#8: NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – PUSH THE SKY AWAY
At first glance a calm and relaxed album, especially by Nick Cave’s standards, Push the Sky Away‘s power to stay with you ultimately relies on how tense it is all the time. It’s an album filled with build-ups and calms before storms but never releases that tension, never has its sound explode and only rarely climaxes. Even the album’s most spoken-about track, the eight-minute, Miley Cyrus-namedropping “Higgs Boson Blues”, never unleashes the power it builds over across its entire track, and instead it pulls the string tighter and tighter to see how winded it can get before it snaps. Hypnotic loops, fever dream soundscapes and stream of consciousness sermons where lust meets Wikipedia: on surface Push the Sky Away might seem like a calm album but within it there’s a demon lurking, and it’s the danger of that darkness unleashing that makes it such a captivating listen.
We No Who U R
#7: MANIC STREET PREACHERS – REWIND THE FILM
Rewind the Film isn’t flawless and though I am one of the world’s staunchest defenders of the powers of albums growing on you, I don’t think Rewind the Film will ever be one either. It loses track of its own strengths more than once and it’s got a few particularly awkward mis-steps. But there are a lot great songs songs here and, most importantly, they are reinvigorated songs. Listening to Rewind the Film is like a rediscovery – finding a band that was only a short time ago hellbent on repeating the same few tricks for the sake of some ill-guided imaginary goal now once again bursting with the passion and inspiration to reinvent, adventure and create. The acoustic direction it takes has been a long-time coming and taking away Bradfield’s trusted electric six-stringer doesn’t mean that it’s an album filled with stripped-down campfire songs either and instead, it fleshes out its arrangements in multiple ways, some even rather surprising in the most positive of manners. Furthermore, everyone in the band feels like they’re back in business once more: James Dean Bradfield’s vocals are on fire again, Nicky Wire is hitting his lyrical peaks once more and Sean Moore is busy filling the sound with plenty of little elements the others wouldn’t have thought of (and he’s brought back the trumpets with a vengeance). They’re a band that cares once again and Rewind the Film is proof of that. It’s exciting, it’s worth sinking into, it’s something new from the band after over two decades of existence. I loathe the phrase “return to form” – here it seems as apt as it could ever be.
Show Me the Wonder
#6: EDITORS – THE WEIGHT OF YOUR LOVE
There were many positive surprises this year but Editors brought one of the most notable ones. This was a year where many new acts came out of nowhere to steal our hearts and where just as many old veterans came back with a triumph befitting of their legacies, but Editors gave us something far more rare: the transformation of a formerly very unassuming band into something genuinely noteworthy. Their rebirth (one member out, two new ones in) helped them free from their former shackles while their many years worth of experience finally showed up as boldness and confidence they once lacked. The Weight of Your Love showcases a band who now fully realise what they are able to do and are strong-headed enough to seize the chance presented, to the point that it’s almost like you’re listening to a new band. The switch to a lighter, more melodic suits the former brooders rather excellently and though they’re still partly prisoners of their influences (it’s easy to tell they listened to a lot of 80s indie rock while writing this), they finally seem like they’re on their own path rather than following behind others. More refined, more confident and packed with one excellent song after another, The Weight of Your Love is an album that finally gets one to care about Editors.
#5: DAFT PUNK – RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES
Where to start? The build-up to “Get Lucky” was one of the events of the year, from the random small clips to the (still brilliant) Coachella revelation and to its eventual world takeover where it really felt like the buying masses were doing something properly right when they turned it into the colossal hit it sounded like, and it felt good because this was a song that sounded brilliant from the very first 10-second sample. Or should we rather talk about how the revered messiahs of modern electronic music returned from their extended absence with an album that boldly fought against everything they had inspired, ignoring the harsh and cold industrial beats with something warm and human? Or how this seems like an album the French duo were always destined to make, bringing their influences to the forefront and not only returning to their beloved disco but also to the era of high pop production values and no-expenses-spared studio craftsmanship? What about simply beginning with a downer note and acknowledging the album’s flaws because yes, it’s too long and yes, it has absolutely no flow (“Bring Life Back to Music” -> “Game of Love” is quite possibly the worst tracklist decision of the year)?
The thing is, Random Access Memories was always destined to be one of the talking points of the year, even in a year filled with as many talking points this one has had, and you have to give kudos to Daft Punk for managing to stand to the weighty expectations they had on them. It’s an album that feels like a legitimate journey and an event for so many reasons, even more than the albums that are still upcoming on this list – putting Random Access Memories on never feels like you’re simply tuning onto an album, it always feels like you’re embarking on something larger than life, a grand experience that despite its amazing individual setpieces and some length issues still feels like a body of work that demands being experienced in one big chunk. Daft Punk faithfully go through the all the nostalgic styles they love and worship and invite an all-star cast to play out their musical fantasies, often directly involving their inspirations in their reimaginings: it takes its surface directly from other people but the insides are fueled by the love and passion that the duo have for the music they’re bringing back, the brilliance of the songs lying behind Daft Punk’s expert knowledge on songwriting brought by decades of obsessing over hit records of the kind they’re now reinvigorating.
This isn’t an album for us, this was an album Daft Punk created for themselves. We just happen to be able to dip into it and love what we hear.
Lose Yourself to Dance
#4: PET SHOP BOYS – ELECTRIC
This was a year of quickly released sequel albums: so many artists decided to follow up their last year’s efforts with a whole new release, often intentionally making it the polar opposite of its predecessor for one reason or another. Pet Shop Boys had one of the most extreme changeovers, especially if we consider quality: last year’s Elysium continues to be one of the most disappointing releases in the legendary duo’s name, while Electric climbs up to be one of its release year’s very best offerings. The tempo and style have nothing to do with it, Elysium’s flaws certainly did not lie in its happily content mid-tempo AOR nature and I’m the last to say that Pet Shop Boys were always meant to be a dance act. Instead, it’s the attitude. Elysium sounded like it was made by a band who themselves believed their best days were over; Electric is made by two guys who are observing what’s going on in electronic dance music today, roll their eyes and then proceed to show the youngsters how it’s really done.
Electric is hungry for triumph and as a result every single one of its nine songs sounds like a direct punch hit, one after another. Some are style excercises, others rely on the foundations the duo know how to do best; some are as straightforward as pop can get, others are near-instrumental dance freakouts. There’s a Springsteen cover, there’s the Boys effectively covering their own 80’s selves in the guise of a new song. They’re all connected by how each one goes all-out in whatever it tries to do. The beats hit straight in the spine, the high tempos are appropriately electrifying, the production is top-notch and Tennant sounds as charismatic as he did in his peak years, with no sign of the slight wavering in performance that’s occured in the recent times. The title really is appropriate: this is an album where each song feels like a jolt of inspiration and energy that takes the listener away and throws away any notion of Pet Shop Boys being past their sell-by date in the very field they’ve always governed over. In fact, this album makes them the top of that field once more.
#3: THE NATIONAL – TROUBLE WILL FIND ME
I can’t think of a way how I could see The National evolving significantly. They’re a band who are very tightly locked down into their own groove and though we can see all sorts of micro-progressions from album to album, things have largely remained the same ever since they discovered who they really are with Alligator. By this point the coming of a new The National album isn’t met with wondering queries on how it will sound – it’s going to be obvious from the day one. And as brilliant as that recipe is, it’s why Trouble Will Find Me was greeted with some mild suspicions and doubts when it came out. More of the same, nothing new under the sun, right? But The National’s most (in)famous trait has for a long time been that they release growers. It’s almost become a running joke – for every dismissal there’s a perfect conversion a few months later, after each song has taken its own turn to click.
This is the case with Trouble Will Find Me as well. Its quality has never been in doubt since day one – this is the sound of a band still running in full steam doing what they do best – but just how strong it is only becomes obvious once all the subtle touches the songs have become apparent. It’s subtlety that is Trouble Will Find Me‘s main characteristic, the one that gives it its own identity in the discography. The everpresent horn sections and strings have been replaced by keyboards and synthesizers quietly making textures in the background and the energetic band dynamic that fueled High Violet is still there but now locked in some sort of a dreamy haze and meditative pace, with Matt Berninger’s low murmurs getting a highlighted role (this is the first National album with lyrics in the booklet, just to highlight the central role of the vocals).
In the midst of all these light changes, Trouble Will Find Me reveals itself to be the most beautiful out of all of the band’s albums. Each song is graceful and frail in its tone (even the louder rock numbers feel more tender than their past peers) and presents one spine-chilling moment of sheer lushness after another, be it a particularly evocative guitar melody, the way the background vocals raise to a high to underline the emotional impact, a moment where the instruments quiet to give Berninger a chance for a bullseye shot straight into the soul or how the entire song flows from small beginnings into something unreal. Trouble Will Find Me is an album of beautiful elegies, uplifting melancholy and soothing mournfulness. It’s an album that digs little potholes into your very being, locks itself inside them and refuses to budge away. With each listen everything feels a little more special.
Nothing new under the sun, yes, but this is another reaffirmation of why this band has found a pattern to weave music so strong and special that they’re still not in a position where they would feel the need to pull a plot twist. Trouble Will Find Me is wonderful.
#2: ARCADE FIRE – REFLEKTOR
Arcade Fire are a frighteningly cunning and intelligent band. They’re the face of the indie rock sound of the new millennium but they’re always one step ahead, calculatingly changing and adjusting their sound when necessary and always in the smartest, most necessary way. Funeral sounded something completely different thanks to its wild instrumentation; Neon Bible emphasised the grand scale and production as if to underline the point; The Suburbs stripped it all away before it became bloated. Now Reflektor brushes everything off. It’s Arcade Fire playing with expectations and subverting them. Want more stadium-sized introspective indie anthems? You’ve got an album where the main influences are disco and Haitian percussion rhythms. You think they are one of the most pretentious acts going on? I hope you enjoy this double album with running themes of Orpheus and Eurydice (and in particularly the Black Orpheus version) and emotional disconnect, with such frequent nods and knowing winks to its own pretensions to the point that the band’s current TV promo appearances are close to performance art. Reflektor throws everything topsy-turvy and just as you have gotten an idea of what it might represent, it changes gears for the next song (thought this was a dance-oriented album? Have a Smiths tribute!).
But within its intricate themes, elaborate performances and high-ideals context lies a genuinely brilliant album. They may have taken on a new disguise but absolutely nothing has changed with Arcade Fire in the very core of their songwriting. That incredible talent at bringing out the best of any melody or chord they come out with and the knack of turning them into something both intimate and universal are still there, only now in the forms of dark disco grooves and confounding rock and roll. Both of its two discs are nearly flaw-free, which is less of a statement about how little the album needs to be split in the middle (the entire running length doesn’t touch 70 minutes, the split between the discs is segued and there’s little thematic differences between the two parts) and more about how strong the songs are. Emphasising the rhythm section works marvellously to underline and punctuate the already strong melodic patterns lying on top of them, the fearlessness presented throughout allows the band to live and survive through experiments that could have knocked down others and despite its longer-than-average length and often sprawling songs, it never feels like a single minute is wasted for no good reason (excluding the needless six-minute feedback outro to the closing track). Most brilliantly, all the songs work on so many levels. They’re intelligent, they’re deep, they’re emotional yet they’re also great to sing and dance along to, perfect to be simply washed away with to the vibes they eminate: they hit the heart, mind and soul.
When we read retrospectives of classic bands lone gone, there’s always a chapter where everything changes and the band seal their legacy. Arcade Fire’s last three albums have all been classics right from the get-go, but this is that one chapter that marks a pivotal landmark event for Arcade Fire, acting as a whole new twist in the story and a sign of… something for the band’s future. What exactly, it’s impossible to say. Reflektor wipes the board clean, replaces all the game pieces with brand new ones and leaves it up in the air on how to progress from therefore onwards.
Check also: Afterlife | We Exist | It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
+ If you’ve got 20 minutes to spare, this brilliant(ly weird) promotional pseudo-live thing.
#1: STUDIO KILLERS – STUDIO KILLERS
2013 has been a very dualistic year for me. On one hand, I’ve found myself diving deeper into the well of TRV INDIE, spending hours upon hours listening to the discographies of some of the big name independent label acts Pitchfork prays to every night. At the same time, I’ve been if not rediscovering then re-endulging in my love for pop music. I wasn’t raised by “credible” music from a small age unlike many music fanatics, I started my love affair for music with eurodance of the cheesiest, trashiest variety. I’ve kept up with pop music over the years though my tastes have generally changed, but the past few years have been a time of finding a whole new way to love it and 2013 has seen the results grown from the seeds sown in recent times. Whenever I’ve not been moping around to my usual melancholy rock music, I’ve been hitting play repeatedly over unashamedly huge hooks and big ass choruses, and getting that wonderful euphoria you only get when you hear music that isn’t afraid to be straightforward with the sole aim of hitting all the pleasure parts of your brain.
Pop music isn’t dumb. It doesn’t have to be. There’s a big stereotype that it’s all clichés and worn out love songs with the emotional gravitas of a dry sponge cake and… well, a lot of the time that stereotype is actually true. It doesn’t stop the music from being good – if you can learn to tune off any lyrical inanities, or never have any attention for such things in the first place, your enjoyment is intensified but at the end of the day pop music much more about its surface than its guts. It’s not deep, it doesn’t aim to be and it doesn’t have to be in order to be fantastic.
But when you get pop music that scratches deeper than the surface and is very particular about thinking what it’s doing, you get something that hits in a very particular way. Studio Killers – a non-literal sex kitten and a very literal fox and a mink – have mastered that. This is a pop album that thinks, observes and then decides to outperform its peers effortlessly. There’s savoir faire in both its lyrics and execution. When you get a lyricist who absolutely adores puns and can find surprisingly smart ways to describe the human emotional landscape to do party songs, you get words that are both venomously witty and deliciously seductive. When you unleash pop production masterminds to go wild in the the very core of the genre they’ve chosen, you get songs that you could easily call “perfect pop diamonds” without a trace of it being a cliché for once. Studio Killers is a crown jewel after another, a diamond mine of choruses that keep trying to one-up each other, lyrics filled with quotables upon quotables (and a surprising amount of lines that are hard-hittingly evocative during the more introspective moments) and glorious, beautiful self-indulgence in hooks, melodies and catchy passages that make you realise why we as a species are so attracted to them. And then there’s the performance – the person behind the frontwoman Chubby Cherry has unexpectedly found the role of their lifetime here. Cherry is the cherry on top of the Studio Killers recipe: a strong voice both seductive and positively ridiculous, filled with narcissistic self-delusion of their own magnificence in their performance and every single reason to be right about their own brilliance.
2013 has been a blur of a lot of different things musically for me. I’ve had an incredible amount of new acquaintances I’ve fallen in love with and a ton of new and amazing releases from artists who I have worshipped for a long time, all mixing into a potpourri of constant musical discovery and infatuation. But throughout the year there’s been one very strong constant: the feeling of excitement whenever I hear the opening vocals to opener track “Ode to the Bouncer” and the lasting feeling of absolute joy and giddiness that comes from the journey that follows it. In a year filled with a lot of things that have raised superlatives off me, Studio Killers has felt time and time again larger than life and I’ve been unable to resist its call even when I’ve been in the middle of declaring my love for something else. I get a lot of emotional reactions out of music and I live a lot of my feelings through songs, engaging verses and choruses with my life. Every time I listen through Studio Killers I get such a pure, unrivalled surge of euphoric excitement that most things this year have had little left to do but follow behind. That’s why this is my album of the year.
(and not because one of the members is a fox. Although that’s definitely not a bad thing)
Ode to the Bouncer