Sunday, 19 January 2014

My Top Ten Albums Of 2013

I listened to a lot of new music in 2013. A cursory glance at my music library in MediaMonkey tells me that I bought a total of thirty-five albums released last year, as well as three EPs and five singles, totalling 436 tracks. A few friends have thrown up end-of-year lists detailing their favourite artists, albums and songs from the last twelve months, and I thought I'd get in on the action as well. I've opted for the traditional format - a countdown of my top ten albums released in 2013, with some brief thoughts accompanying each entry.

Before I get this list properly under way, I just want to give a quick nod to some of the albums that could have made it onto this list, but didn't get short-listed due to me not spending enough time with them. So sorry to Black Spiders' This Savage Land, to Arctic Monkeys' AM, to Stereophonics' Graffiti on the Train, to Deep Purple's Now What?!, to Steven Wilson's The Raven Who Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), and all the other albums I neglected in 2013. I promise I'll be playing you a little more often this year. Also, if music-based lists are your kind of thing, a couple of friends have put together their own musical reviews of 2013 - be sure to check out Tom's Top Ten Artists of 2013, and Matt's 2013 PhantomMJ Awards.

11. Project 17 - Dan Kempster

Not technically a number eleven but more of an honourable mention, Project 17 is my own debut solo album. A concept album inspired by events in my own life, it tells the story of the five-year period between my seventeenth and twenty-second birthdays. Originally conceived in early 2012, I spent much of the last two years writing, composing and recording this twelve-track record in its entirety. On December 16th it was officially released in a digital format - a huge personal achievement for me. I'm not going to pretend it's anywhere near approaching the quality of the other albums on this list, because it isn't. But speaking as its creator, I do think it's a good album, and I'm mighty proud to have put the whole thing together and put it out there with my name on it. If any of you are interested, you can download the entire album from my Bandcamp page. It's available on a pay-what-you-want basis with no minimum spend, so if you want to download it for free you can, or if you want to contribute some money for it you can do that too. Either way, I'd be hugely grateful to anybody who takes the time to give it a listen.

With that little bit of self-promotion out of the way, let's do the proper list now, shall we?

10. The Weight Of Your Love - Editors

After 2009's synth-heavy In This Light And On This Evening, I didn't think I'd be able to get excited about an Editors album again. Not that it was a bad album, per se - it just didn't contain any of what I love most about the band's music, those screeching squalls of guitar that electrified their first two records. The Weight Of Your Love isn't a complete return to their original sound, but it is a welcome step back in that direction. The departure of Chris Urbanowicz and the introduction of new members Justin Lockey and Elliott Williams has definitely changed the dynamic of the band's sound, but at its core it's still unmistakably Editors, thanks in part to singer Tom Smith, whose voice has never sounded better. Dark and brooding in places and intensely uplifting in others, this loosely conceptual album about the many forms of love did something I thought was impossible - it got me excited about Editors again.

Favourite tracks: Sugar  -  What Is This Thing Called Love  -  Two Hearted Spider

9. Home Brew - Old Country Union

Without a doubt the most obscure of my picks for this top ten, Old Country Union are a classic rock band based in my home town of Tring. They're incredibly popular on the local gigging circuit, frequently playing at the biggest local events and venues. In December my own band, Sudden Gunfire, were fortunate enough to support them at a charity event at our local theatre, and their live performance was incredible. Home Brew is the band's first album, independently released towards the very end of last year. Its seven original tracks run a little short at just half an hour in total, but every one is an exquisitely crafted musical gem. The songs are evocative of influential bands like the Eagles and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, telling captivating stories through frontman Frank Walsh's excellent lyrics against lush backdrops of acoustic and electric guitars. It's a highly accomplished record from a brilliant band, and I hope to catch them live again soon so I can hear these songs come to life once again.

Favourite tracks: Sweetwater Shack  -  Smokin' Gun (I'm The One)  -  Old Country Union

8. 13 - Black Sabbath

If you put it all down on paper, the Black Sabbath reunion is something that probably shouldn't work. The fact that Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler conspired to create new material after such a long time apart is astounding enough - the fact this is arguably the band's best work since 1970's Paranoid is practically a miracle. It's a throwback record through and through, full of sludgy, doom-laden riffs and bluesy break-downs that hark back to the band's earliest material, but it's done in a way that actually re-invigorates the band's style - no mean feat considering it could easily have come across as hackneyed and lazy. Ozzy's voice sounds surprisingly great throughout the album, Iommi wields his axe brilliantly, and Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave's Brad Wilk does a fine job in the absence of original drummer Bill Ward. I've seen 13 referred to in places as the true follow-up to Paranoid, and considering the strength of the album, I'm inclined to agree.

Favourite tracks: God Is Dead?  -  The Loner  -  Zeitgeist

7. Mechanical Bull - Kings of Leon

There was more than a hint of trepidation in my decision to pick up the sixth studio album from Tennessee rockers Kings of Leon. Their previous effort, 2010's Come Around Sundown, wasn't a bad album but it felt phoned-in compared to their first four. Looking back now, I'm not sure why I was so worried. Mechanical Bull is a resounding return to form for the Followill clan, largely because its eleven songs are all played with the key ingredient missing from the last album - a ton of heart. Caleb sounds like he actually cares about the words he's singing again, and musically it sounds like the band is having fun again instead of simply going through the motions. It was definitely worth the three-year hiatus, and it's great to have the boys back again.

Favourite tracks: Supersoaker  -  Don't Matter  -  Family Tree

6. We Need Medicine - The Fratellis

I've been a Fratellis fan ever since I picked up Costello Music in 2006 and first heard the opening chords of Henrietta. Since then I've followed Jon Fratelli through pretty much everything he's done, from Here We Stand through Codeine Velvet Club and his awesome solo record Psycho Jukebox. We Need Medicine is a logical progression for the reunited trio, using Jon's much-improved songwriting as a jumping board and marrying it with an energy that's unmistakably Fratellis. It's a more mature record than their previous output, a fact that's evident in Jon's carefully considered lyrics and the bluesier instrumentation. That's not to say it isn't danceable, though - as I said above, that trademark Fratellis energy is still here in spades. The result is arguably the most 'complete' Fratellis album to date. It's a real shame that these guys seemed destined to go down in history with the popular music press as a one-hit wonder off the back of Chelsea Dagger, because if We Need Medicine is any indication, the band has never been better.

Favourite tracks: Halloween Blues  -  Shotgun Shoes  -  Jeannie Nitro

5. Lightning Bolt - Pearl Jam

I first got into Pearl Jam with their 2009 release Backspacer, an energetic record that played recklessly on the borders of punk rock at times and danced beautifully on the edge of balladry at others. In spite of the four-year gap between releases, Lightning Bolt isn't too far removed from its predecessor - it still offers up an eclectic mix of rock songs ranging from the frenetic to the anthemic. Where Lightning Bolt actually supersedes Backspacer for me is in the quality of those songs, and particularly Eddie Vedder's lyrics, some of which are his best in a long time. I honestly wasn't expecting to have a new favourite Pearl Jam album by the end of 2013, but it's happened, and I'm mighty happy about it.

Favourite tracks: Sirens  -  Infallible  -  Swallowed Whole

4. Opposites - Biffy Clyro

When I first started sketching out this list at the start of December, Opposites was languishing in around eighth or ninth place. Don't get me wrong, I loved the album, but it didn't quite grab me in the same way that Biffy's previous two releases, Puzzle and Only Revolutions, did. It suffers from the traditional double-album complaint of feeling a little bloated and outstaying its welcome when listened to in one sitting, and some of it is blatant filler. But on returning to it at the end of 2013, I gained a much greater appreciation of what Simon Neil and the Johnston brothers have put together here. Maybe it's because I was finally able to lay some of my own demons to rest in the closing weeks of last year, but I found Neil's lyrics to be much more relatable. Musically it's their most diverse record since 2004's Infinity Land, but unlike fellow alt-rockers Muse, the Biff haven't let their sonic experimentation compromise the quality of the songs. The new material is great live as well, a fact I can attest to having seen the band at the O2 Arena back in April.

Favourite tracks: Black Chandelier  -  Stingin' Belle  -  Victory Over The Sun

3. Furiosity - Monster Truck

I like to think of Canadian hard rockers Monster Truck as the country's sincere attempt to apologise for Justin Bieber. Their debut album Furiosity was released this year, and it's every bit the raw, rough, rockin' record that its name suggests. Classic rock influences abound through its riff-laden twelve tracks, evoking the likes of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Mountain while still managing to feel like something new and exciting. It's a high-octane album by and large, with a lot of the songs lending themselves well to raucous sing-alongs, but the Truck also aren't averse to slowing things down and cranking out some epic blues-rock in places. Furiosity is one hell of an album, and I cannot wait to see these tracks performed live when I see the band in March.

Favourite tracks: Old Train  -  Psychics  -  My Love Is True

2. The Temperance Movement - The Temperance Movement

The Temperance Movement came along at just the right time for me. As a huge Black Crowes fan who's spent most of the last four years lamenting the lack of any new studio material from the brothers Robinson, it was almost cathartic to hear their spirit alive and well in the music of this British five-piece band. Their self-titled debut record is a melting pot of rock, blues and soul, and the results aren't too far removed from the likes of the Crowes' Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. It's a wonderfully versatile album too, boasting boot-stomping raucous rock tracks sitting side-by-side with more contemplative acoustic numbers. Every one of its twelve tracks is expertly crafted, which makes it even more astounding that this is a debut release. If this is where The Temperance Movement are starting out from, I can't wait to see where they end up next. I'm seeing them live in April, and the gig cannot come soon enough.

Favourite tracks: Ain't No Telling  -  Midnight Black  -  Smouldering

1. Earth Rocker - Clutch

I don't think there has ever been a situation where my personal album of the year was sewn up as early as April, but that's exactly what happened in 2013 with Earth Rocker. Pretty much from the very first listen, I knew the latest offering from American hard rockers Clutch was going to be in strong contention for the top spot. Seeing them live in the middle of the year pretty much cemented that as the new songs came alive on stage. The year went on and other contenders came and went, but it was apparent that nothing was going to topple their tenth studio album from its lofty pedestal. The riffs are huge and unforgettable, frontman Neil Fallon's vocal performances can only be described as godly, and the entire album is alive and burning with a hard rock energy that simply refuses to let up. It's easily their best record since Blast Tyrant, possibly their best record ever, and without a doubt my personal favourite album of 2013. If you like guitar-based music, you need this album in your life. Sing it with me now: "I'm an Earth Rocker..."

Favourite tracks:  Earth Rocker  -  Gone Cold  -  The Face

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There we are - those are my top ten albums of 2013. If you have any albums you loved last year and want to praise or recommend, please do so in the comments below as I'm always on the look-out for new music to add to my vast library. Until next time, thanks very much for reading and I'll see you around.

2 comments:

  1. Really great read, mate! I am very happy to see Editors, The Fratellis and Kings of Leon earning places in your top 10, and this has convinced me to check out Pearl Jam sometime (and a mixture of yourself, Jon and Matt has made me think I need to listen to Biffy Clyro properly, not just let the albums I have by them sit with a couple of plays each in my iTunes library). I will listen to Clutch and The Temperance Movement sometime, too.

    Also, anyone who reads this comment and hasn't downloaded Dan's album: give it a chance. It's brilliant.

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  2. A very enjoyable read Mr Kempster! Very interesting to hear your thoughts on the albums from the list I already have, while I still need to lay my hands on Lightning Bolt. I'm now curious about Monster Truck having read this, and I think I should now buy Old Country Union's album also!

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