This is probably a more conservative list than my top 10 albums of the last few years. Somehow 2013 has seemed to be a year of recent favourites splitting up, new bands releasing enjoyable debuts, and old favourites being the class of the field. So there are only two debuts in here (compared to four in 2012), neither by artists new to me this year; and while last year only three records were by artists I’d known for more than three years, this year most entries are from artists I’ve known and liked for a long time, a decade or more in many cases. Still, conservative list or no, they’re all great records – listen to the 8tracks mix for a taster of each.
1. Laura Cantrell – No Way There From Here
Why do I always seem to plump for a country record as my favourite of the year? This, Laura Cantrell’s first album of original material in eight years, is ostensibly straight-up country music: the songs melodic, her voice as clear and expressive as ever – if anything, more so. But listen closer and it’s clear these are often not conventional country lyrics, bar perhaps the sincere and totally un-feminist portrait of domestic life chez Cantrell, Can’t Wait. Beyond that, as the title might suggest, the record mines a rich seam of melancholy (see the title track, Washday Blues, Someday Sparrow, Letter She Sent) and offers other unexpected curios – surprisingly sensual account, for a country song, of a one-off sexual encounter in Barely Said A Thing. It has a smooth production, certainly, though often based around understated brass and woodwind parts, which complement the six-strings, mandolins and pedal steels surprisingly well, and again showcase an approach that is unexpected without being contrary. It’s certainly as strong an album as Laura has ever produced – one cant help but think John Peel would have enjoyed it greatly.
2. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
This is a really striking record, and I hesitated to put it in second place behind the Laura Cantrell one – they’re both great, but at the moment I’d say this one comes slightly second in my personal preferences, not least because it’s a slightly more challenging listen. A short UK tour in early summer showcased some of Neko’s new material, and they promised to be bold, ferocious songs. There’s less focus on the natural world than on 2009’s Middle Cyclone, more on people and their emotional failings – it’s angry in places; in others frustrated, or simply resigned. Musically the backing is an imaginative and compelling take on American traditions. A great record, and Neko’s best yet – it makes her dark and adventurous albums of the previous decade seem plain and simple by comparison.
3. Edwyn Collins – Understated
For his first album wholly written and recorded after his stroke, Edwyn Collins has honed the musical template of 2010’s Losing Sleep: muscular songwriting, still showing where so much jangly indiepop branched off from his earlier career, allied to a stompy soul sensibility. For my money, Understated presents it much more sharply in every respect. The big pop tunes are more immediate and grabbing, the melancholy more direct and reflective, all expressed through remarkably well-judged and delivered vocals.
4. I Am Kloot – Let It All In
This is one of those albums curiously released early in the year, so at risk of being overlooked in end of year polls, especially as it followed only 18 months from the acclaimed Sky At Night. The rather bland title didn’t help its cause either. Nonetheless, Let It All In shows a similarly considered approach to production, though ultimately maybe a bit more direct in places, and hones the Kloot sound: menace and drama (Hold Back the Night) alternate with warm yet melancholy reflection (Mouth On Me, Some Better Day), finally drifting into wistful sadness (Forgive Me These Reminders). And John Bramwell is surely one of the great vocalists in popular music at the moment.
5. Johnny Marr – The Messenger
For a short while this autumn, I was listening to Johnny Marr’s album while reading Morrissey’s autobiography; my enjoyment of the former surprised me much more than of the latter. Fundamentally this is an album of great tunes, and distinctively Marr: each element on here is fairly simple, but stitched together with verve. They’re not great songs necessarily in terms of lyrics, but certainly work well enough. Overall the effect is very satisfying: it rewards revisiting multiple times, and is a good end-to-end listen
6. Just Handshakes – Say It
With 2013 being a year of indiepop splits, most notably Shrag and Standard Fare, and a year of recording 2014’s albums for other bigger names like Allo Darlin’ and Tigercats, the way was open for some of the newer bands to make a mark with their debuts. Spook School, Joanna Gruesome and Colour Me Wednesday all put out enjoyable first albums, but probably the strongest of the crop came from one of the more established bands, Leeds’s Just Handshakes (no longer specifying “(We’re British)”). The jolting, angular guitar backing is in common with many current bands; Just Handshakes ally it with a well-judged sheen of synths, distinctive, unconventional but highly successful vocals and a dynamic, punchy production, to produce an at times arrestingly dramatic debut.
7. The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard the Ark
It’s not the point, but I love the inter-war style artwork on this record. Musically, this is another album of highly attractive songs, but while maybe in the past they’ve been just a bit too light and pretty for my taste. Here, The Leisure Society experiment with the template a little: there’s a bit more electric guitar and rhythmic variety; overall the effect is a bit more dramatic. Lovely stuff.
8. Victoria and Jacob – Victoria and Jacob
It’s still a bit of a mystery to me how this electro-pop duo have become so closely enmeshed with the indiepop circuit – maybe there’s something of that sensibility subtly pervading the music. Certainly it’s agreeable to my ears, and over the course of the album offers a varied electronic soundscape at times dark and forbidding, at times light and open. The album also has the advantage of being released on Where It’s At Is Where You Are records, which reliably makes a point of doing interesting things with its releases – in this instance, a mini-album’s worth of remixes to accompany the several singles taken from the album, a lovely-looking vinyl release and a striking use of the signature artwork, built around a simple templates of the artists in silhouette. If anything this seemed to make the CD release seem a bit throwaway – picking it up for a mere fiver felt like robbery somehow. I’m not sure whether more hardcore electro fans would find this satisfying, but I’m not the best judge – perhaps it’s the ideal gateway record.
9. The Wave Pictures – City Forgiveness
My first instinct towards double albums is always: really? But there’s no need for scepticism here. I’ve become a convert to the Wave Pictures principally through their live shows, and this album comes the closest so far to capturing their compelling, muscular live sound. There’s tons of guitar solos, all the songs are high quality, and the album presents some more nuanced moments too, not least fast-established live favourite Red Cloud Road.
10. Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost
Another extremely good album from one of the best songwriters in the world. That’s about it, really – either you already know Iron and Wine or you’re missing out.
For reference, here’s the tracklist for the 8tracks mix:
- Iron Wine – Winter Prayers (Ghost On Ghost)
- The Wave Pictures – Before This Day (City Forgiveness)
- Victoria and Jacob – Believe the Boy (Victoria and Jacob)
- The Leisure Society – Everyone Understands (Alone Aboard the Ark)
- Just Handshakes – November (Say It)
- Johnny Marr – New Town Velocity (The Messenger)
- I Am Kloot – Hold Back the Night (Let It All In)
- Edwyn Collins – Dilemma (Understated)
- Neko Case – City Swans (The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You)
- Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here (No Way There from Here)