And so we enter the top 10, the real success stories of the year lie here…
As good as the last 10 were (and some of them were really bloomin’ good, San Fermin is probably the album more than any other that is still resonating in my headphones at the minute) this is the business end of the fight, we’re in the final rounds and the heavyweights are holding each other up so they don’t fall down. Like all scraps there can be but one winner, but really once you’re at this stage it’s just personal preference. So what album would I recommend you go out and spend your hard earned cash on? I can only really say all of them…so without further ado the final 10 begins here…
GRANT HART – THE ARGUMENT (Domino)
To lift a quote from his own website “Who the fuck is Grant Hart and why should we care?” well to many people Grant Hart is still that singing drummer from Hüsker Dü, but that was a long time ago folks and guess what Grant’s moved on. He initially formed another band Nova Mob but even they broke up 16 years ago. Now well into a solo career it’s time Hart started being known for just how good he is now. And how good’s that you ask? Well if you’re a fan of ambition this ones for you! The inspiration for this double album comes from both William Burroughs unpublished short story “Lost Paradise” and John Milton’s masterpiece “Paradise Lost”. The album takes us from the fall of Lucifer through to the fall of man, and is 20 songs and 75 minutes long. I’m not going to lie when I first read this description I wasn’t rushing out to buy this hoping for an easy listen. What’s remarkable is just how accessible this album is! Musically there’s something of a scatter gun approach, taking in some of Hüsker Dü’s punk influence yes but showing a diversity of sound that makes it almost uncatergorisable in terms of genre. Take the title track it’s all wind chimes and harmonium, with vocals that are cleverly panned left and right, placed high and low in the mix, it’s haunting and disturbing. Lyrically it’s complex, almost impenetrateable in places, but the themes of sin and damnation are pretty omnipresent in art throughout time, and perhaps that’s where this album works best. It’s a piece of art, and give it the time it deserves and you’ll find it’s a stunning one as well. If it all sounds a tad pretentious and heavy, well, it is, but once you’ve thrown yourself into Grant’s mind and given him 75 minutes of your time, there’s so many rewards to be found, not least the closing track “For Those Too High Aspiring” it’s equal parts Bowie & Dylan, as Hart puts it “here’s to you who bit off more than you could chew” it’s that very ambition that makes this arguably the most interesting and brave album of the year.
CAITLIN ROSE – THE STAND-IN (Names Records)
Ah well when it comes to Caitlin, I think it’s safe to say I’m something of a fan, I named this blog after a track off her debut no less. What a debut it was as well, a stunning slice of Americana, borrowing heavily from country it showed a wisdom and maturity well beyond her years, an American alternative to our own Laura Marling if you will. So how to follow up a brilliant debut? Well from the opening blast of The Stand-In you’re very aware that is more than just a run of the mill country album. A surprisingly loud chord hammers out from an electric guitar and it’s instantly a bold statement of intent. For all her country routes our Caitlin has always seemed more than just another Nashville songstress, even if she does seem to possess the traditional broken heart. If her debut had an intimacy and raw honesty that put her into the same bracket as countries big cross-over hitmaker Ryan Adams, the second album hints she could go even further than that! There’s pop gold in Caitlin’s blood stream and with tracks like Only A Clown and Waitin’ she pours it out for the world to see (apologies for the slightly gory metaphor there I’ve just watched the fish head episode of Masterchef) it’s this clever balancing of pop sensibilities with her country background that has created a gem of an album. It all hangs together beautifully courtesy of that stunning voice. If Rose shoots for the mainstream in places there’s still plenty of moments where you’d swear she’s in the room with you such is the intimacy. She’s also not afraid to try out new tricks such as closing track “Old Numbers” which showcases a cabaret edge and a way with words that’s perhaps a sly nod to Domino hit-makers Arctic Monkeys, if Turner sang “Pardon me, I didn’t mean to call. Just can’t help the may my fingers fall” you wouldn’t be shocked, and if Rose isn’t exactly Nashville’s answer to Alex Turner, she’s certainly just as good.
Matthew E.White – Big Inner (Domino)
Spacebomb head honcho Matthew E.White’s debut has probably been a long time in coming, indeed it’s routes can be traced back an awful long way to the hay-days of soul and even further with a definite gospel tinge in places. For all it’s retro influences this is no historical re-enactment it’s a vibrant and at time remarkable piece. The Spacebomb house band are consitently brilliant throughout and the quality of the playing elevates this record into something really quite remarkable. In subject matter too it’s got a touch of the classic about it, Matthew tackles the themes that have permeated pop music since the invention of the vinyl record. Love, loss and missed opportunities, oh and god there’s quite a lot of god on here. There’s big, soul numbers that could fill dance floors up and down the country, like “Big Love”, quieter more reflective tracks like the gorgeous and bizarre ode to warm whisky drinks “Hot Toddies” and a couple of brilliant weepy numbers to, notably the ode to unrequited love “Will You Love Me”. Mr White has indeed created that most wonderful of things an album that takes the past, looks at it with a fresh pair of eyes, and elevates it to new heights. It’s stunning, complex and a revelation, not bad for your first go at a solo record eh?!
(For a full review of Big Inner head over HERE)
Arctic Monkeys – AM
When Alex Turner and co burst onto the scene back in the early noughties, I honestly didn’t see this coming! Yes he had a way with words, and they had some tunes that were guaranteed floor fillers at the Indie disco but this level of success? This level of critical acclaim? The fact anyone would care nearly ten years later? I didn’t see it. So for that take this as something of an apology for ever doubting you. The fact of course I hadn’t banked on was that the Arctic Monkeys could successfully evolve, and that’s what they’ve done. Those who called AM a triumph were correct, but really we shouldn’t have expected any less. Album after album they’ve just got better and better, slicker, heavier and more self assured. They started in awe of The Strokes, slipped effortlessly into Queen Of The Stone Age and then stole some hip-hop beats and became well themselves! That’s what stands out most here, just how unique and different they sound. Yes they’re a product of their influences but who’s ever made an album that sounds like this? On top of all their musical talent they’re also blessed with a lyricist of Turner’s talent and AM is to date the best he’s ever been. It’s verging on a concept album, Alex is cast as the heartbroken youngster who perhaps knows it’s over but certainly doesn’t want to accept it just yet. Tales of late night phone-calls, tracking down girls at parties and not having a blinking clue what someone thinks of you are hardly new subject matter, but has anyone got the way that feels nailed as well as Alex? Every tracks got a killer lyric, even if most of them do sound a bit like a stalkers manifesto in the cold hard light of day. Ultimately it’s an exceptional album, full of stand-out tracks. The ballads are sadder, the rocky numbers heavier, and the smash hit singles catchier. This is the sound of band working at the very limit, it’s hard to see how they’ll ever do it any better, but I wouldn’t bet against them topping it, they’ve proved me wrong enough times already!
JOHN MURRY – THE GRACELESS AGE (Rubyworks)
Addiction, adoption, heartbreak and near death experiences. You certainly can’t accuse John Murry of shirking life’s big issues! His battles with heroin addiction are well documented and the influence of the drug and his remarkable recovery permeate the entirety of this album (his first as a solo artist) That he’s neither self-pitying nor self-righteous make this a far less dense album than it could be. Yes, Little Coloured Balloons is a harrowing tale of his near death, and no it’s not big on laughs, but it’s gut wrenching honesty makes it a thoroughly moving record. The blurred lines of his love for “black tar” heroin and his love for his wife are a recurrent theme throughout the album. In an interview with Uncut Murry himself noted the line “what keeps me alive is going to kill me in the end” from “No Te Da Ganas de Reir, Senor Malverde?” (“What you don’t feel like laughing Mr Malverde?” according to an online translator) is not actually about drugs despite it’s future grim resonance with time Murry was clinically dead for 7 minutes as a result of an overdose, which occurred after the song was written. Despite its dense subject matter hope and indeed love are what add a lightness and at times a positivity to this superb album, 2013 saw man songwriters get personal as I’ve documented elsewhere but, to paraphrase McLusky, Murry’s pain and sadness was more painful and sad than anyone elses, and more honestly and beautifully delivered too. It’s a triumph!