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Tuesday, December 31, 2013 

The best music of 2013 part 2 / 16 best albums.

(16 just to be awkward, although technically it's actually 17.  To be honest, there's not that much between the top 7, while there's also little between the bottom 3 and the honourable mentions.  Let's do this properly, eh?)

Honourable mentions, in no order:

The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Holden - The Inheritors
Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
65daysofstatic - Wild Light
Factory Floor - Factory Floor
Manic Street Preachers - Rewind the Film
Cults - Static
Young Knives - Sick Octave
Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe
Laurel Halo - Chance of Rain
Zed Bias - Boss
Joanna Gruesome - Weird Sister

16. VA - Rinse 22: Mixed by Kode 9

As head of the ever expanding and adventurous Hyperdub label, Kode 9 has had a major hand in giving the world Burial, Ikonika, Zomby, Laurel Halo and Jezzy Lanza to name but five.  His third released mix, Rinse 22 couldn't be much further from his seminal collaboration with Spaceape on Dubstep Allstars 3, and yet you wouldn't bet against it being held in the same pantheon in a few years' time.  A perfect summation of where bass music stands in 2013, he starts off with Burial, runs through tech-house from former dubstep producers, takes in a couple of trap tracks and then ends with a whole suite of the finest footwork.  Only the grime mixes from Slackk come close to equalling this for repeated listenability.

15. Zomby - With Love

To call Zomby frustrating doesn't quite do justice to just how prickly the incognito producer can be.  Having built a reputation for either not turning up to his live dates or doing things distinctly half-arsed, his idiosyncrasies also make themselves evident on all his material, the most obvious being his refusal to make tracks that have a proper intro or outro.  The result is his music often feels like unfinished vignettes, and yet the virtuosity of so many of his productions (the ones he hasn't attempted to steal, that is) makes such objections seem slight.  Some have found With Love disappointing as a follow-up to his sort-of breakthrough Dedication, but I much prefer it, not least for the return of the jungle that underpinned his retro debut Where Were U in 92?

14. Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record

Her second album as solo artist after Fiery Furnaces went on hiatus, the rather obvious clue to how Friedberger feels about this collection is in the title.  Where Fiery Furnaces often seemed to be doing everything other than focus on the here and now, Personal Record charts the highs and lows of a very much real life.  It's also Friedberger's most out and out pop album to date, the kind that with the right amount of push ought to have crossed over.  While it's a shame it hasn't achieved the success it deserves, it remains one of the year's most accessible while still rewarding listens.

13. Alix Perez - Chroma Chords

Drum and bass on its own may have been somewhat stale in 2013, yet those artists who cut their teeth in the genre who have since diversified have relatively prospered.  Few however have put together not just one but two commendably consistent albums as Alix Perez now has, his debut 1984 having graced this list a few years back.  Where 1984 was almost strictly D&B, Chroma Chords goes from genre to genre, taking in dubstep and trap while still remaining true to where Perez started out.  More than anything it's Perez's sense of melody that underpins Chroma Chords, a value often lost on most of his contemporaries.

12. DJ Rashad - Double Cup / RP Boo - Legacy

I'm going to cheat slightly and put these two footwork albums by stalwarts of the scene as one entry.  If I had to choose which should be higher, it would have to be Double Cup, as it's an album that looks forward, as you would expect of one full of new material, while Legacy brings together some of RP Boo's output over the past decade, but both of examples are how syncopated, seemingly simple repetitive beats can draw you in.  Double Cup is an album of collabs and occasionally suffers ever so slightly for it, but the coming together of Rashad and Addison Groove is almost worth it on its own, while The Opponent on Legacy samples Aaliyah in just about the most surprising way I've heard.  Vital music that is finally getting the recognition and wide release it deserves.

11. Sigur Rós - Kveikur

Kveikur was almost certainly the surprise of the year.  Sigur Rós as a band seemed to be fading away, each album after their enigmatic ( ) being more disappointing than the last.  The departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson seems then to have been the catalyst if not quite for an reinvention, then most certainly a reinvigoration.  Rós could always deafen with the best of their post-rock contemporaries when they wanted to, it's just that they did beauty better than almost everyone with the exception of Explosions in the Sky. While the beauty is still there on Kveikur, it's the heaviness of it as a whole that thrills, draws you in, and demands that you return.

10. James Blake - Overgrown

No one was quite as surprised as James Blake himself that his second album won this year's Mercury prize, a result that left him almost speechless, as well as making him forget to pick up the trophy as he walked off the stage.  His rise certainly has been meteoric, having started out producing off-kilter dubstep, playing at the legendary DMZ before landing a record deal that saw him transform into a singer-songwriter, and is all the more impressive due to the resolute lack of hype that's followed him around.  To use that dread description of an album, Overgrown is a more mature record than his self-titled debut, and while Retrograde and Voyeur are outstanding, I don't think it's quite as cohesive as a whole as his first.  Nonetheless, still easily one of the year's best.

9. Future of the Left - How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident

How to Stop Your Brain... is an angry record.  Andy Falkous has always come across as enraged, more at the way we live now than anything else, but here everything is furious.  The guitars saw, the drums boom and Falco himself snarls.  Recorded thanks to the funding of fans, this is the album Falco clearly always wanted to make, and it shows.  It's not without flaws, but then that seems to be the whole point of Future of the Left: we're all very far from perfect, but we could be so much better if we wanted to be.  It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham that Tom Odell gets a record deal and FotL have to work part-time jobs to make ends meet, which is exactly why you should buy this and bring a little more justice to the world.

8. Arctic Monkeys - AM

Seems I'm in the minority, but for me each successive Arctic Monkeys album has been better than the last. (With the exception of Humbug, which is nonetheless far superior to the now almost unlistenable Whatever They Say...) Yes, there's something especially thrilling about the punch of much of Favourite Worst Nightmare, yet I find Alex Turner's lyrical dexterity on Suck it and See to just about outweigh it.  AM, despite a very slight dip in the middle outdoes them all.  Boasting a series of near perfect songs, Turner and pals have packed in solos, the usual wittiness and a heavily refined sound which makes them the best successors to the Smiths we're ever likely to get.

7. Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

Winners of the inaugural band least expected to feature in the Olympics opening ceremony award (although considering Danny Boyle used Godspeed You! Black Emperor's East Hastings in 28 Days Later it's perhaps not that surprising), Slow Focus had more than a little to live up to after the critical response to both Street Horrrsing and Tarot Sport.  Thankfully Fuck Buttons' third album is just as inspired, playful and punishing as their first two, a kaleidoscope of colour that has only been matched in recent years by Rustie's Glass Swords.

6. Savages - Silence Yourself

Another surprisingly hype free band, especially considering the almost complete dearth of exciting new guitar groups, Silence Yourself was a statement of intent.  Other bands that issued caps lock messages would be sneered at or mocked, and yet without saying Savages are "4 real", their way of communicating manages to avoid being arrogant, patronising or over-the-top.  Sounding more than slightly like Siouxsie Sioux while taking inspiration from Sleater-Kinney amongst others, and not just because they're an all girl group, no one else was quite as blistering this year.

5. Forest Swords - Engravings

Having somehow managed to miss Matthew Barnes's 2010 debut EP, I came to Engravings having never knowingly heard a note of Forest Swords.  The instant comparison was to Burial, but where Will Bevan originally took his influences mainly from garage and jungle, Barnes' pallete is even wider, encompassing roots dub and post-rock while remaining intrinsically electronic.  Barnes described Engravings as being a "balance between really intense euphoria and this almost bleakness", and for once an artist couldn't have described what they have managed to achieve any better.

4. Tim Hecker - Virgins

Another artist I've been late to discover, Hecker's soundscapes are ethereal and open to endless interpretation.  One track is called Incense at Abu Ghraib, while the cover art echoes the most infamous image to emerge from the torture and humiliation the prisoners were subject to by US forces.  The music itself is the polar opposite to that which was used as a method of sleep deprivation, recalling GY!BE's most beguiling and sensitive movements, without ever becoming as desolate as post-rock can.  An album with very little parallel this year, or any year.

3. Daniel Avery - Drone Logic

Daniel Avery is that very rare thing in the modern music industry: someone who's achieved what they have through nothing other than sheer hard work and word of mouth.  Coming from seemingly nowhere just 2 years ago to gaining a residency at Fabric, Drone Logic is an album that simply delights in the sheer versatility of house music.  It wears its influences on its sleeve, taking equal parts acid and Detroit techno, and yet it doesn't pastiche either genre or come across as pure nostalgia.  Comparisons have been made between Avery and artists as diverse as Anthony Shakir, Underworld and the Chemical Brothers, but Drone Logic stood almost in 2013 with marrying the best of the past with the sheen of the present.

2. Special Request - Soul Music

Soul Music didn't have any right to be this good.  Paul Woolford's back to the old school project isn't exactly the most original, as the mention of Zomby's debut above makes clear, yet Soul Music is far more than the sum of its parts.  Yes, in some ways it is just a techno DJ going back to the period between 91 and 96 when hardcore and jungle ruled the pirate airwaves, but it's the sheer love that emanates from Woolford's production that makes it so much more.  Without going into out and out amen terror as say Breakage did on his initial releases, there's more than enough choppage here, not least on Soundboy Killer or the epic VIP edit of Ride, while Woolford's sense of structure ensures you're never overwhelmed by one element over another.  Alongside Tessela, the year's key breakthrough.

1. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

I really didn't want to like Reflektor.  While I admired Neon Bible, it didn't begin to measure up to Funeral, while The Suburbs was an intense disappointment.  When I then found out Reflektor was a double album despite being able to fit comfortably on one CD, and discovered the first track was an interminable ten minute wait for something to happen, I was all but ready to wield the hatchet.  Problem is, what follows on until the midway point on the final track when it begins to loop is without doubt the best music of the year.  It still doesn't quite equal Funeral, but then it wasn't meant to.  Impassioned, urgent, and without doubt at times pretentious, Reflektor is a band rediscovering themselves.  Can't quite see them going over too well as headliners at Glastonbury though.

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