There was certainly no dearth of great music to listen to in 2013. Albums from both new bands and old mainstays shone a light on music-lovers moods, attitudes and deep-seated emotions. Although there were great albums, I remember thinking that new music left me a little wanting in 2012. Misguided or not, this year more than made up for that thought with strong offerings from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The National, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire.
With so many fantastic sounds echoing through speakers, ears and minds, it was a tough ask to whittle my love of 2013 music down. As always, I found myself gravitating to the albums and songs I listened to the most throughout the year. They’re the ones that stood out from the rest – and a common theme seemed to emerge: surprise.
Here then, after the jump, are my top five albums of 2013.
Volcano Choir – Repave
The beloved musical project Bon Iver may have gone into, um, hibernation, but Justin Vernon has convened with his once-a-side-project musician buddies and put together a remarkable second album under their pretty amazing band name, Volcano Choir.
Much more uppity and hook-laden than 2009’s fairly subdued Unmap, the eight song Repave took nearly three years to put together and does exactly what the title would suggest. This is a reinvention for the collective, both in terms of music and lyrical emotion. There’s an overwhelming rousing spirit to the album, even if slower-tempo songs are strategically placed throughout. Those thoughtful compositions merely temper plaintive and burning coals of emotion: love and desire and, oh! sex, that find their way into very nearly every song.
Tiderays, the opening track on Repave, starts with humming organ and soft guitar. “You wake up” are the first lyrics echoed by singer and songwriter Vernon, and it’s akin to waking beside a lover on a Sunday morning – but you distinctly get the impression that it’s also meant for listeners of his Bon Iver work and this band’s first album. It doesn’t take long for rolling drums, smashed cymbals and electric guitar to push their way to the fore. The faster-paced and more sure-footed Acetate lifts the spirit again with the company belting out “Shout it, say it louder now” while the anthemic Byegone, whose video is absolutely gorgeous, screams “Set sail!”
Yes, they know where they’ve been, but Volcano Choir are pointing to a new direction now. While employing tried and true instruments, they also employ knobs and dials, programming and vocal processing throughout Repave. It has an effect of helping make the music feel twenty-first century fresh, covering different genres (a sample of Charles Bukowski reading one of his poems makes its way onto Alaskans), while still being grounded in timeless rock’n’roll and pop.
Volcano Choir has toured fairly extensively for Repave. I was able to see them a few months back in Toronto in front of a few thousand music lovers alongside friend, Stevie P., who was able to snap a pic – see attached (thanks Stevie!) – that conveyed the show’s atmosphere. Cloaked in darkness and only backlit, the band surrounded frontman Vernon, who worked his sound effect machinery as if preaching from a pulpit. It was a transcendent show, full of emotion and meaning and one of the more memorable concerts in recent memory.
Live, the band echoes the mantra of their album. New directions and re-development. Repave.
Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film
Coming off of their 2001 politically-charged album, Know Your Enemy, an interviewer on a Canadian music television station asked James Dean Bradfield, vocalist and lead guitarist for the Welsh pop-rock, post glam-punk band, Manic Street Preachers, who he thought might still be able write a protest song akin to the meaningful recordings released during the 1960’s. “We can,” was Bradfield’s matter-of-fact answer. And it was true. Protest was something at which the Manic Street Preachers have excelled their entire careers. With the release of their eleventh studio album, Rewind the Film, the protest has definitely turned inwards.
The album is a surprising departure for the normally punk aesthetic of the Manic Street Preachers. Here, the band have turned their ear away from punkish rock and roll and leaned heavily on acoustic sounds and string arrangements. An electric guitar can only be heard on two of the twelve tracks that make up the record.
Amongst desperate and lonely guitar plucking, “I don’t want my children to grow up like me, it’s too soul destroying – it’s a mocking disease” are the plaintive words that open the lush, but quiet first track, This Sullen Welsh Heart, a song that features Lucy Rose, British singer-songwriter, on backing vocals. It’s beautiful and empty and serves as the raison e’tre of the entire album: the fine balance between the vigour of youth and the nostalgia and acceptance of things that come with old age. It’s a battle, a protest, worthy of the band, echoed again in sound and thought on Rewind the Film, the album’s title track, which features Richard Hawley on main vocals amidst a backdrop of acoustic guitar plucks, synth sound effects and hollow, almost in the background, drumming. Folk is at the heart of 4 Lonely Roads, sung again by an outsider, this time Welsh singer Cate LeBon. It’s almost as if the band needed to remove themselves from their most personal of songs. Here, the sweetly worded, yet no less biting, “It’s up to you, it’s up to us; some dignity, a little love” is a mantra of an older band that would once have seen a generation terrorized in the face of every “ism” possible. The song transcends their own history and present time, and becomes something altogether larger and all encompassing, poetry enveloped by music.
There are uplifting songs on Rewind the Film as well. Show Me The Wonder is as accessible and joyous as the Manic Street Preachers have ever written even with the punk aesthetic of lyrics like “Is it too much to ask to disbelieve in everything”. Anthem For A Lost Cause follows suit. “Take this it’s yours, an anthem for a lost cause,” sings Bradfield, a sadness that has an empowerment about it, a music with a feel-good swagger.
Rewind the Film is a surprising departure for the Manic Street Preachers. Although it may alienate some fans, it’s sure to also allow the three-piece to gain new ones. Brave, soulful and sweet, yet still brimming with consternation and rage, the band with the punk roots has made their anger easier for your ears to absorb. Protest folk music indeed!
Jagwar Ma – Howlin
At the beginning of 2013 I got Sirius satellite radio in my car. Now, normally when I drive, I’m listening to AM talk radio, my iPod, or some new compact disc, recently bought. Yes, I still purchase them. You’ll know the format is dead when I turn off the light and close the door on it behind me. Anyway, it was Sirius that introduced me to fusion electro-pop Australian trio, Jagwar Ma, via their first single Come Save Me, but it was high praise from my pal, Toby, that made me pay attention to the other songs on their debut album, Howlin.
What was surprising was how much the music of Jagwar Ma reminded me of early nineteen nineties club days. Here was an homage to baggy, Madchester and the production sounds of favourites like Primal Scream and Happy Mondays at the masterful hands of remix DJ’s Andrew Weatehrall and Paul Oakenfold. It’s a sweet throwback! Finally, someone had learned lessons from those halcyon days –– while also keeping electro-dance masters like LCD Soundsystem close to mind. What a marriage!
Howlin kicks in with the dramatic and incessant bass pulse of What Love, a dance energy that grows not only in the song, but also in the album itself. It’s as if Jagwar Ma take the listener through an evening at the club: a limbering, head-nod and foot-stomp warm-up before the knees, back and arms get in on the act in the nearly seven minute wonder of The Throw. That song also has, by far, the best bass drop of 2013. You can’t help but get down.
From the Motown sounds of That Loneliness to the crescendo beats of Man I Need, Howlin is unrelenting in its high octane, sweat inducing, enjoyment. It’s only on the last two tracks that Jagwar Ma turn down the strobe and allow you the reprieve of a 3 AM cool down.
Self-produced, the album is perfectly timed with a perfect length of perfect sounds for a start-to-finish party mood. Howlin is a surprising top album of 2013 that makes listeners anxious for a follow-up in the very near future, something, by all accounts, being worked on right now.
Arctic Monkeys – AM
That was the question I asked myself whilst holding the latest Arctic Monkeys album, the conveniently (and simply) titled AM, in my hands. I hadn’t listened to an album from the band since their highly acclaimed 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. That was truly a great album, but I suppose I just lost interest – or disregarded what they were up to – in their three subsequent follow ups. But I picked up AM, buoyed by the blues fuzz guitar and incessant percussion of the album’s second single, Do I Wanna Know?
And I’m glad for that curiosity because AM is a rocking, late-night album of songs that describe the twenty-something accounts of excessive drinking, smoking, partying, discotheque pick-ups and morning-afters.
Fear not, ye older generation! These tunes work for you, too!
As a surprise to me, Artic Monkeys had grown from their clever Brit-pop, alternative roots. Here, they cover classic rock to hard rock to blues, even flitting through 1970’s Bowie-era glam. Each of the twelve tracks on AM is a treat for the ears, whatever mood you might find yourself in., so long as that mood is about love and desperation and sex.
The band may look like brill-creamed greasers, but they are, most assuredly, artists with their instruments and turns of phrase, something vocalist and main lyricist, Alex Turner, has always been known for. “I just want you to do me no good, and you look like you could,” he croons in the simmering boy-approaches-girl-via-courage-found-in-a-favourite-song-played-over-a-boozy-club-speaker song, No. 1 Party Anthem. It’s dirty and scuzzy and pointless and meaningful and absolutely beautiful. And we boys have all been there. And so have you girls. It’s the same with voodoo-beat single, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? Alex Turner and Arctic Monkeys have their fingers on the pulse on what motivates us, what gets our heads bopping, and our fists pumping, and what gets us playing air guitar in the bars and in the privacy of our homes.
From start to finish, AM is a brilliant late-night offering that screams infectious grooves and catchy guitar riffs. It has become the most successful Arctic Monkeys album to date and, as British music darlings, that says something important about where the band is at the moment: students of musical history, old soul storytellers in young bodies, blazing their own, expanding trail, of contagious rock’n’roll.
AM is a perfect place to either get on – or get back on – their rock-pop ride.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Did any band in recent memory have more anticipation for an album’s release than French electro-dance duo, Daft Punk, for Random Access Memories, their first full-length album of new material in eight years? I don’t think so!
Every music lover, whether a fan of rock, pop, alternative, R’n’B, rap or country (yeah, even country!) was waiting on new tunes from the acclaimed musicians. Hell, some people went to see 2010’s Tron: Legacy in theatres just to hear Daft Punk’s soundtrack in surround sound. I remember being at a comic book convention a year earlier than that, squeezing into an overbooked room, full of people waiting on a music teaser! Crazy!
Amid speculation, excitement and eagerness, on April 19, 2013, Get Lucky featuring Pharrell Williams, the first single from Random Access Memories finally dropped. And the world? Well, the world kind of went batshit nuts for it. Get Lucky was an instant classic – a theme song to the spring, summer and the rest of the year. More accessible than anything Daft Punk had previously created, Get Lucky didn’t employ the band’s usual bag of tricks: programming, synths and heavy bass grooves. Oh, the groove was here, but it was a seventies disco groove with bass guitar, real drums, piano and funky guitar riffs. Of course, Pharrell’s syrupy-sweet vocals brought a real verve to the song about, well, “getting lucky”. It was another nod to dance club nights and their ultimate prize. And looking over Random Access Memories extensive track listing of thirteen songs, the huge hit of Get Lucky was buried at track number eight! What else might be found in the treasure trove of beats?
Daft Punk has played a trick on everyone listening and enjoying their newest offering. Sure, beautiful music and a great time spent in a club was still their goal, but under the auspices of seventies disco and (holy molee!) real instruments, they’ve created a prog rock album that ambles from dance floor to dance floor with returning motifs and storylines.
Random Access Memories continues the Daft Punk theme of trying to find love in an increasingly automated and electronic lifestyle. While opening track Give Life Back To Music, featuring American guitarist Nile Rodgers, is a certifiable toe-tapper, it’s merely an opening chapter to a larger story at play: music is life, even for robots. Our sorrowful android friends reveal themselves in second track, The Game Of Love, a song that, admittedly, takes some getting used to. Once you get past a robot singer, the emotions conveyed (and music heard) are raw (and beautiful) enough for any human to embrace. Giorgio By Moroder, featuring disco dance pioneer Giorgio Moroder, is a history lesson that bridges everything that Daft Punk has created throughout their career. It’s an homage to the dance genre and a retrospective of their careers and is one of the strongest pieces of music on the album. Sounds heard here will return later in the album.
The love-looking robots return again (don’t they look great playing drums and bass?) with the song Within, but it’s Instant Crush, featuring Julian Casablancas of New York band, The Strokes, that turns the heat up a few degrees. Casablancas brings a real alt-rock sentimentality to the song that once again harkens Daft Punk’s history in sound. Instantly danceable, Lose Yourself To Dance, once again features Pharrell Williams, turns the dial up to eleven, reminding us to take time away from our day-to-day responsibilities and instead “Sweat! Sweat! Sweat!”
One of the biggest surprises and biggest successes on Random Access Memories is the eight-minute prog ramble of Touch featuring singer-songwriter and composer Paul Williams. You might not recognize his name, but you’d know his works. If you’re a fan of The Muppets, he co-wrote Rainbow Connection, not to mention creating the theme to The Love Boat television show. This song is the coda for the album with the refrain “Hold on, if love is the answer you’re home”. Even with its interpretational ending, it’s beautiful and meaningful, whether you’re a human or a robot.
Random Access Memories is something that no one was expecting from Daft Punk and yet it’s an album that all either embraced and loved immediately or seemed to grow into. It’s the best album of Daft Punk’s storied career, giving music to life, and the best album of 2013.
As a bonus, directly below you can catch rockers Wilco and their impromptu cover of Get Lucky at a concert earlier this year. Their love (and their audiences’ love) for the song is very apparent. Who doesn’t like this stuff???