The Best Albums of 2013 Part 2 – #7-5

The second part of our yearly round up of music and more.

7. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of the City

It feels like his album came and went. No one really talked about it, and it’s a shame. I loved their first two albums, and this one, whilst very different, is just as good. It’s heavier, and less a sum of their influences. No one is going to think this sounds like ‘Graceland’.

Diane Young‘ (great title…) sets the scene. It keeps the youthful energy that is all over their early records, and makes it more barbed. ‘Step‘ brings in a hip-hop sound that has gotten our next album so much acclaim. Their strange lyrical pictures remain evocative and mysterious. But it’s the hooks, dozens upon dozens of them, that make this record. It’s bridged with quieter moments, such as the magnificent ‘Hannah Hunt‘. I have, as usual, no idea what they are on about, but it sounds mysterious and intriguing.

I found myself returning to this album over and over again. The songs rolled around in my head, and they followed me around for long walks and long drives. Maybe, if it was 10 tracks like their other albums it would have been more punchy.

I imagine that Vampire Weekend will have to do something very different next. This is the same record with a bit more oomph, but that might not be enough.

6. Arctic Monkeys – AM

There’s already a lovely album called AM. So that was never going to help this, a somewhat make or break album for the band. Suck It And See was as inventive and catchy as any of their records, but they seemed to have lost their motivation. AM recaptures some album magic, and they’ve made a dark and sleazy album.

It took me far more listens to get my head around this album than every Arctic Monkeys album. This is a nighclub album, and I didn’t do much clubbing this year. But its groove is undeniable. And the songs grew on me.

There were some big singles. RU Mine?, Do I Wanna Know?, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? (all questions for some reason) keep the Arctic Monkeys thing of songs that are far too complicated than they need to be, mixed with hooks that radio couldn’t resist.

The best track on the album, for mine, is Mad Sounds. Its the best Lou Reed song I’ve heard in decades. And the crazy, outspoken and restless characters from Lou Reed songs also populate this record.

A detour or a new direction? I don’t know. This experiment works – just – but it feels like the band is still searching. They are trying to be anything but the Arctic Monkeys who came before. Who knows where they’ll go next.

5. Travis – Where You Stand

Look. I love Travis. Fran Healy is just a classic songwriter – in the same world as Neil Finn, Paul McCartney and more. The classic song, and great chorus, a good middle eight. Songs for everyone and for every day use, not just being a self centred saddo with a guitar. Where You Stand, their first album in five years, sees them returning to classic songwriting, and some of their best songs.

How can you resist Moving? It’s as great as any of their anthemic ballads, but about the small things of moving around, trying to find your place. But it’s so lovely, so positive, and so full of life. Better still is Where You Stand, as devotional a love song that they’ve ever written – and they’ve written their share.

There’s lots more than just lovely songs on show. Another Guy follows the path of previous songs of strange, experimental music with pretty melodies on top. Mother sees them cutting loose yet, again, sounding a little Lou Reed, ‘Loaded’ era. They mix it up enough to remain the critics darling.

The key is song craft. It’s songs that sound like they’ve been around your whole life. Which only very few people on the planet can do. It’s not cool – but why be trendy when you can be timeless.

Best Albums of 2011 part 1: 6-10

6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
(Xtra Mile)

This, and the next 5, all swapped and changed for number one. As I re-listen to this album to write this, I just feel like this is a perfect record by an artist at the very top of his game. I started my year watching him at the Annandale. He’s finishing it playing Wembley Arena. That’s quite a year Frank Turner has had.

It’s part Clash, parts Bragg, but all brought up to date. He is the only musician today who has anything interesting to say about the themes of punk (ok, maybe Craig Finn) – but he long ago left the shackles of punk behind. This record is his most eclectic – mixing up folk, gospel, power pop and more.

Line after amazing line, idea after amazing idea. The straight-to-the-point-ness of ‘I Still Believe’ contrasts ‘Glory Hallelujah’, a gospel song celebrating the lack of God. It’s all about believing in the right things.

The other big thread in this album is England. The idea of home, and writing about England, is all over this record. “Wessex Boy”, the a capella “English Curse” and “Rivers” do for England what Springsteen did for Jersey. “If I Stray” seems to sum up both halfs of the record quite nicely.

7. Gillian Welch – Harrow & Harvest
(Acony)

8 years? For this? That’s almost a year a song. It probably says more about how amazing their sounds and songs are that in 8 years away, they are still the top of their game, despite many duos popping up and trying to fill the gap. It helps that they always sounded out of time.

It really is business as usual. Even the nice left turn of drums found on 2003’s ‘Soul Journey’ has gone. Rawlings is still one the best guitarists of his generation. The songs are dark and spooky. Their voices still sound great.

So yeah – more of the same, but that same is still pretty special. “Dark Turn Of Mind” is a highlight. ‘Hard Times’ is perhaps the sweetest thing they’ve ever done. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 8 years for more.

8. Leader Cheetah – Lotus Skies
(Spunk)

Only one Australian album made my top ten this year. Probably my fault – I wasn’t really paying attention. (And I don’t put mate’s records on these lists, so that discounts a couple….) And amazingly – it’s from Adelaide!

They fit quite clearly in the world that My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Beachwood Sparks and the more experimental rootsy stuff lives. A long, lonesome voice out front recalls Neil Young. But this is far from retro postering. The record is amazingly modern.

And it’s epic. Huge guitars. Big choruses. Clever arrangements. All tied down by that slide guitar. I don’t know why everyone makes a fuss over bands like Boy & Bear, who sound like wannabes, when we have great original country indie rock right here. Oh well.

One of my faves – “Our Lives

9. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
(Domino)

I just like this band. According to Last.fm, out of all the albums from 2011, I’ve listened to this one the most. So they’ve lost none of the magic for me, although I am aware that people have kind of written them off.

In parts it’s almost fun. It’s pretty much the most pop the Arctic Monkeys have ever been. There’s nothing to prove now, and they are just kicking out tunes that interest them.

The first five tracks are just back to back radio hits (in another world). I’m guessing Turner just craps out 3 minute rockers this good all the time. Clever riffs, great lyrics – it’s all there, and never boring. As usual, there are a couple of pretty ballads on here – Piledriver Waltz is the best amongst them.

It might not have the highs of a ‘Crying Lightning’ or something as straightly gorgeous as ‘Cornerstone’, but it’s a sharp consistent record throughout.

10. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
(Decca)

Every year a really old guy seems to sneak into my top 10. The Dylans and Youngs and the like. 5 years ago it was Simon again – with his fantastic, Eno-produced, ‘Surprise’. That 2006 album was a lively return from his worst record to date (2000’s ‘You’re the One’), and that reinvention continues. Interesting sonics, electric instruments, but a return to songs over rhythm.

On ‘Surprise’, Simon made a concious decision to abandon love songs (no one wants to hear about an old guy having sex, he said), and write about bigger things. God has returned to his song writing in a big way. Big meaning-of-life songs that recall ‘America’, or ‘Sound Of Silence’.

The best song of the lot, the one that has been getting quite a bit of attention, is “Questions For the Angels”. Just a beautifully plucked guitar, and the amazing image of a pilgrim walking over the Brooklyn bridge, and pondering at Jay-Z on a billboard.

At times funny, at times beautiful, we now have a roadmap for the fourth phase of Simon’s career, and the return of a great songwriter.

The Best Albums of 2011 (so far): 1-5

So part two of our two part round up of the year’s best albums so far.

Some other things to note about the year. I am sticking to the album format for these lists, even though my favourite song this year is by far (BY FAR) Think You Can Wait by the National, from the soundtrack to Win, Win. Also the EP by the UK band the Mummers, Mink Hollow Road, which found the strange meeting place of Todd Rundgren and Judy Garland.

But this list is about album, and a couple have really let me down. Voluntary Butler Scheme followed up their charming debut with an album that sounds like a tape player getting stuck. Nonsense, sampled drivel. The Danger Mouse led project ROME was similar. When did albums become about space to meander nowhere? The glow of a new REM album evaporates faster than ever. Bell X1 and Beady Eye both made average albums. Panic At the Disco is right back to being shit.

But lots didn’t make this list. Wagons. Those Darlins. Miles Kane. The Del McCoury Band. Elbow. Yuck.

Anyway – here’s five more that did.

1. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth

This came out of nowhere. I own both previous N&TW records, and spent some time with them. The last one was a bit boring, and I figured that would be it for me and this band. Then I saw that brilliant album cover. It’s the best album cover of the year. Cool, urban, hip, stylish, modern and classic.

And the record is something special. It’s like a dancier version of the Velvets. Every track is fun and goes somewhere. Huge hooks and sounds great. And that thing I love most – that sense that music can save us, our lives can be better, that life is to be lived. The Clash had it, You Am I have it, the Replacements have it, etc. And they’ve tapped into it here.

It is a real step up from their last one, which was a depressing drag. This album is about stepping up and enjoying every moment.

 

2. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones

(Epitaph)

I have loved Frank Turner’s music for the last few years. It’s right up my alley – Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Springsteen. But he is also my age and around now. Singing about hipsters and Thatcher and not knowing anyone who plays slide guitar – made it mean a lot more to me than ghosts of protest singers past.

His new album is as good as anything he’s ever done. Hugely anthemic and all about believing in music and us. There is absolutely no irony here. Take the single “I Still Believe”, which under lesser hands would seems cringeworthy.

Frank Turner is fucking awesome. Punk rock for now people. It seems I keep going back to this stuff, and when it comes to this stuff, Frank Turner is pretty much the best there is.

 

3. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See

(Domino)

Another band I already loved. The press have been calling this album a mix between their last two Humbug and Favourite Worse Nightmare. It’s kind of true. There is the stoner rock riffing of their last album, with a bit more of the pop hooks that made them chart toppers in the first place.

But it’s a RAGGED record. It’s loose. Some of the tight, sudden arrangements from the last two records are gone. It’s their most throwaway pop album. Maybe it’s because Alex Turner has turned into a more conventional songwriter. Maybe they are just having fun (I mean, with that title and cover…)

So, I miss some of those jagged corners. But what is there is brilliant. And once again, there is a lot of sex on this record. And Turner has not lost his way with words.

And in the end, the slow songs are best. Love Is A Laserquest, Reckless Serenade and the re-recorded Piledriver Waltz (originally on the Submarine Soundtrack) shine brightest. Some really pop moments. It’s what pot will do to you. I wish they would try and piss people off again, but they are allowed some fun.

 

4. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

(Universal)

It’s no small feat to make a 16 track album with barely anything but a ukulele and Eddie Vedder’s singular voice and not make it sound samey. Instead it sounds really lovely. Who knew you could do this with just a ukulele?

In the right hands the ukulele is a very pretty instrument. Seems like Vedder has the right hands. Songs like You’re True, Without You and Satellite a touching ballads. His songs tend towards the torch song tradition, using interesting and dramatic chords to break things up.

Then there are a couple of belters. How do those strings not break? Can’t Keep never lets up. Some well chosen covers – Sleepless Nights, Dream A Little Dream – add to the casual air. And though it’s 16 tracks, it’s less than 35 minutes all up.

It’s a dreamy, nostalgic record. I imagine festival campfire singalongs will go mad for this stuff (unfortunately). But I’ve just kept going back to it over and over again this year. And I give him credit for doing something low key and left field rather than a shit, chart topping solo album.

 

5. The Damnwells – No One Listens To the Band

(Pledge Music)

If this was 1999, the Damnwells would be friggin huge. OK, not huge, but they would have a couple of huge singles and probably fall away like the Gin Blossoms, Buffalo Tom or Semisonic. It’s the space they fill – earnest, straight and slightly needy college American rock.

It’s almost retro their sound. But it’s great – if you loved that stuff. And I did. Something very sad sack about it, inevitably about or directed at pretty women with broken hearts, dashed off with that Springsteen escapism I love so much.

So much rock fun to be had (with a lilting sadness, or course). The single Werewolves. I can’t even type the title She Goes Around without that wonderful chorus echoing through my brain. Most beautiful of all is the Great Unknown with the obligatory ballad side getting a go. Another most excellent, solid record adding to a solid discography.

100 for 2000 – #95. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2009 – #5. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
(Domino)

Arctic Monkeys have become one of my favourite bands, sneaking in with 2 (or 3, if you count Last Shadow Puppets) perfect records, year on year. And I struggle to think of another modern UK guitar band I even like. These guys are so far ahead of the pack that they are their own thing. But, like all great bands, they’ve moved on just as everyone else is catching up. Humbug is something new.

Alex Turner built his reputation on kitchen sink poetry (the title of their first album is a nod to Alan Sillitoe), but that clever detail is all but gone. It’s all metaphor and imagery. Drinking and fighting has been replaced by sex. All those tight, taut rhythms have gone to a more stoner rock place.

Sex is all over this record. My Propeller is pretty much Turner’s penis. On Dangerous Animals he screams “Let’s make a mess, lioness“. Potion Approaching he tells a girl that “Your’s is the only ocean that I want to swing from“. And the music suits it – huge and echo-y and groove heavy.

The masterpiece here is Crying Lightning. It hangs over the record in the way, say, Cortez the Killer hangs over Zuma. Maybe in 30 years, kids will pick up this album because it’s the one with Crying Lightning on it. It’s yet another ode of mysterious women who get what they want, with an impossible riff, a chorus sung three different ways. In fact, Turner has never sung this well.

Then there’s the ballad Cornerstone. Although it’s familiar ground to LSP stuff (or their own b-side Bakery), it’s Turner‘s best ballad yet. Full of darkness and drama, it’s some madness about a guy wanting to sleep with a girl, yet call her by her sister’s name.

It’s an album full of twisted sexual politics, murky morals and desperate characters. And I guess it was the year for it. I did a lot of drinking this year. And met some girls that did me no good. It’s not the devil, but the sad darkness in all of us, well I took a dip. And this album was playing when I did it.

It’s amazing the distance this band has travelled in just four years. I Bet That You Look Good On the Dancefloor sounds like the work of a different band.

Chances of another album this year seems unlikely. But 2011…lets see them change again.

Crying Lightning. I don’t see this leaving the setlist for many, many years to come.

100 for 2000 – #67. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2006 – #7. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
(Domino)

I was working at EMI Australia when this album came out, and they were already set to be the biggest band in the world. My natural instinct led me away from Arctic Monkeys. All the most horrible people I knew loved them. Fuckhead scenesters. So, when Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not came out, I got my promo copy, barely gave it a listen, and moved on.

Then they toured, and someone gave me a ticket to the show. I’m 100% sure I was going with a friend. Who that friend was I don’t remember – pipe up if it was you (I’m sorry I forget things). Anyway, I knew very few of the songs, but never, ever has the Enmore Theatre sounded better. In my mind, I heard the Buzzcocks, I heard the Replacements, I heard Black Flag, I heard Elvis Costello, I heard Billy Bragg. Whether these extremely young lads from Sheffield had heard of any of these artists was unknown to me.

So before I left Australia, I ripped the album onto the iPod, and got on a plane. That winter, end of ’06 leading into ’07, was owned by the Arctic Monkeys. It was like what I heard about the days of Oasis. It seemed like they had 6 songs on high rotation at the same time. All those brilliant singles, throw in Mardy Bum and the non album single Leave Before the Lights Come On.

So it seems silly I didn’t fall for these guys earlier. And it’s because I underestimated Alex Turner. I couldn’t imagine what a 20 year old could possibly tell me. As it turns out, quite a lot. Especially in London that first year, going out a lot, meeting a whole new level of bullshit scenesters, Turner and the Monkeys were the all important anchor to reality. Their working class, no bullshit attitude was a much needed elixir.

I keep coming back to bands like this. Is it my working class background? Or my desire to live a quiet, proud life. The thing Tony Soprano talks about all the time, the dignified male silence. But I’m always drawn to bands that shut up, roll their sleeves up and just do the work. It’s the DIY ethic – I’m sure I was one of thousands of people who looked at Uncle Tupelo and thought, that could be me.  The same kids looked at the ugly, scruffy, uncool guys in Arctic Monkeys and thought the same.

The musicianship is red hot. The riffs, the stop/starts, the speed… I’d like to see any other band that has appeared on the cover of the NME in this decade pull off one of these songs. And the arrangements are always fascinating – the guitar interplay that levels Television at their best. The sound is thick, it’s choking, and it’s intense.

But it comes down the the songs. Lyrics that everyone quotes – from aging rockers to young politicians. And having met quite a few could-be-big bands, to see a band so actively wanting to insult their audience was captivating. It’s like climbing a mountain, then spitting.

Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But… is a point perfect attack on those scenesters that leech off them now but will forget them tomorrow. But better still is Fake Tales Of San Francisco – a healthy fuck you to bands who care more about their name producers, their US tour dates, their image and drugs than songs. Ending with the anthemic, heroic rally cry of:

Get off the bandwagon!
Put down the handbook!

The live music scene is a heady scene, full of bullshit. Turner captures the darkness, and the magic. Fights with bouncers, girls who never talk to you, the darkened corners of the dancefloors. How did 20 year olds pull this off so magnificently.

Apart from those big singles, there are two songs that people talk about, list in magazines and get a great reaction live. For me, they are the two real masterpieces on this record, and this decade in music.

Mardy Bum – the lightest thing on here, and one of the very few songs in the career to flirt with real affection. But it’s the detail that paints these people as real. They miss buses, they laugh and joke around. And the line everyone talks about – remember cuddles in the kitchen – that is placed in the perfect part of the song. Every radio station in the UK playlisted this song anyway, even though it was never a single. You watch, as the years go by, this will be to Turner like ‘Yesterday‘ is to McCartney.

And finally, damningly – A Certain Romance. Musically, it’s extraordinary. From the opening teeth gnashing guitar thrashing, it slides into a sweet groove until it hits it’s reggae lite beat, and then goes for several more ups and downs before it ends. It’s the 00s Good Vibrations. And it’s Turner’s best lyric too. A damning dissection of small minded thuggery, of idiots, of people who like songs just so their’s new ringtones. As good a bullshit detection alarm as anything Dylan did in the 60s. And just when you think this us vs them anthem could go nowhere more, then comes that mindblowing last verse. Our narrator looks over at his friends, who do all the same things, and he regrets that he can’t seem to hate them in the same way. What a way to end a song, and an album.

Turner takes all his own accusations apart, and calls himself the hypocrite. It’s a contradiction in my life too. I general leave whenever people play the ‘remember when’ game, but I put up with it with my friends. I can’t get mad at them. They argue about stupid things, they should know better than to like basshunter, or support Howard… and you just can’t get angry in the same way.

This album made plenty of best of the decade lists, and I completely agree. A major work. I’ve evoked the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Dylan in this review. And for the 00s, they were the solution for all three of those artists. And most importantly, they were popular. They got to people who normally don’t have their lives changed by music. I’m there with them, hype be damned. And thank god, they actually got even cooler as the years went on.

1. Making It, Whatever That Means

1. Favourite Worst Nightmare – Arctic Monkeys

Lets look at it this way. Two years ago, my favourite album was a piano album by a dude pushing 40, about kids, loss and growing old. Last year, it was a record by guy 6 albums in, an adult pop record about maturity and love.

This year, my favourite record is by bunch of kids barely 21, rocking the fuck out. It’s a good example of how my life has changed in the last year.

But firstly, the record. So much better than the first, it is one of the best rock albums I’ve ever heard. This is the best band in the world on almost all the levels that matter to me. Let’s tear it apart.

Musicianship. Top notch. They remind me of Uncle Tupelo and Minor Threat, those bands I loved so much in the past. Early twenties working class kids who just PLAYED. Drummer Matt Helders can handle all the freaky changes, the math rock stuff, sudden stops and starts. For pure, grinding musicianship alone, they belong in the pantheon of bands like Fugazi, Minutemen and all. And the devil is in the details. The hint of a riff here, and pause there. Changing rhythms every chorus. Build ups. Slow downs. It is an absolute masterclass of musicianship. No band their age is even close to them in this field.

Songs. If it was just the playing, it would make them a great technical band. Which is great. I love bands like that. Like, the Grateful Dead. It’s all about the execution. But you will never catch the Arctic Monkeys bashing out a four chord rock thing. Stunning riffs. Great changes. I spend all my time listening to songs, and I cannot tell you where these compositions are going. Opener and first single Brianstorm opens with surf drums and fuzz guitar before cutting into the song proper. Then it ends and comes back with the intro for no reason. Well, the reason is because it’s a fucking cool bit.

And for the first time ever, they throw in a ballad, the Only Ones Who Know. And instead of Cast No Shadow, it’s this gorgeous, complicated thing. I can’t describe it. There’s a slide guitar on it but it’s not country. It’s not Beatley. It’s not Oasis-y. It’s Arctic Monkeys.

Tunes. Well sung too. There are a couple of difficult songs on here, but mainly, this is melodic rock. Some of it I find so irresistible. The group all yelling “We are defenders!!!” just takes my breath away. The million words a minute rapping of Fluorescent Adolescent is catchy, and a wonderful way of undermining the poppiest song on the record.

And finally, the lyrics. Gosh. Even if you were good players, with good songs, that weren’t a wank, to have one of the best lyricists I’ve ever heard writing your stuff…brilliant idea really. And I’m a big lyrics guy. And Alex Turner stands with the best of them. And it’s not just a wit and a clever line. The bigger ideas of this record is there too. Turner has made a record about all the outcasts, the wankers, the losers, the villains in his world.

The infidelity of the Bad Thing, the indie scenester in Brianstorm (“we can’t take our eyes off your t-shirt and tie combination”), the older girl who’s lost her youthful passion and sexual excitement (“is that a mecca dobber or a betting pencil?” – it’s a penis line. A betting pencil we all know, and a mecca dobber is that big fat thing you get at bingo)… all paints a picture of weirdos living in a weird world. Reality star wannabes, thugs in balaclavas…they all get their dues.

The sum is greater than it’s parts. And the sum, this record, is one I just kept going back to. I would look at the CD case, and it’s what I always want to think when I look at a CD case. In it is a record I love. A perfect record. And I just kept coming back to it. Every couple of weeks I had a new favourite song.

And it also helps that every interview I’ve read or seen with the band this year, they seem to holding themselves well. They are workers, not rock stars. They are not tabloid fodder like Razorlight. In fact, the one big gripe about this band is that they have no star power. They are boring in person. I LOVE that about them.

This record made me so excited this year. About new music. About guitar music. And even more importantly, it made me look out at the world. It’s probably the most important thing music can do. New to this country, I could see the indie wanker in Brianstorm. The ASBO tragics in Balaclava. The lonely hesitant lovers in The Only Ones Who Know.

It was also exciting to be here as this record ‘happened’. Like being in London for the last Harry Potter book, you could feel something in the air when this record came out, and destroyed all sales records. And to hear the songs on radio, on TV, posters around…this was happening now. And I’m usually so ambivalent to all that.

This is also the only record in 15 months that made me want to play music again.

And even the B-sides are great. The Bakery! Jamie T would kill for a song like that. So would Ray Davies.

So. Record of the year. By a long shot really. An album that has resurrected my interest in new young rock bands.

2008, don’t fucking let me down.