10. Bosnian Rainbows – ‘Bosnian Rainbows’
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s latest project ‘Bosnian Rainbows’ is a major vindication for his seemingly unerring quest (28 studio albums and counting!) to perfect a distillation of his signature jazz/rock/prog sound. After the inevitable demise of The Mars Volta, Omar unleashed this new band with a surprisingly low-key, back to basics tour. Despite the lack of promotion and fanfare however, Bosnian Rainbows are very much the real deal. An expert level band with top tier technical musicians playing a tightrope of impossible harmonies and fronted by an extraordinary front-woman in Teri Gender Bender. ‘Bosnian Rainbows’ is one of the best debut records I think I’ve ever heard, a flowing, consistent and mature record that always knows when to play it’s hand. It’s a testament to clear artistic vision and if this just the beginning of Omar’s more ‘collaborative’ phase of his career, I truly can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next!
9. LAMA – ‘Modanica’
LAMA are a Japanese supergroup, at their core the reunion of two of the Japanese underground scene’s legends Koji Nakamura and Miki Furukawa (both of the band Supercar). ‘Modanica’ technically came out right at the end of 2012 but was so tucked away by its lack of exposure (not to mention it’s non-existent international release) that I didn’t hear it until the following year. Needless to say, it blew me away. An intricate and mesmerising effort, the songs of ‘Modanica’ will send you to sleep in the best way imaginable. A sea of dreams, the musical journey that LAMA have crafted is awe inspiring, and shows a full meeting of their potential after an underwhelming debut record.
8. David Bowie – ‘The Next Day’
One of my all time favourite artists and an inspiration to pretty much anyone that hears him, David Bowie’s surprise return was the music story of the year. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of ‘The Next Day’ for me however (as I always figured he’d be back at somepoint and was just really gutted that he had stopped with ‘Reality’ after a run of 5 superb albums), was the overwhelmingly positive reaction it got from the general public. ‘The Next Day’ is a deeply uncommercial record, with all of its songs revelling in a seeping kind of dark weirdness ever present in the foreground of Bowie’s contemporary work. Even the supposedly radio friendly ‘Valentine’s Day’ quickly revealed itself to be in fact be a lyric about a boy gleefully killing all his classmates in a high school massacre! The pure genius of subverting popular culture is second-hand nature to Bowie and for nothing else, his achievements this year in getting The Sun to take notice of music videos where he pranced about as Jesus or Radio 1 to playlist a song where he rambled about wandering around different parts of Berlin, was a remarkable one. ‘The Next Day’ is a layered and challenging record, which greatly rewards repeated listens, it represents a landmark work in this artist’s incredible on-going story.
7. Shiina Ringo – ‘Ukina’
Like Bowie, Shiina Ringo is a highly gifted and significant artist, prodigious in the extreme and perpetually chameleon-like in her style, she personifies creative freedom. Unfortunately, she has had very little exposure in the West and as a result, I would recommend this latest collection as a great place to start as an introduction to her talents. ‘Ukina’ is a compilation album of Ringo’s many collaborations over her 15 year career and a superb showcase for her ability to effortlessly switch between musical styles an genres. The evidence that this is the case is there for all to see on ‘Ukina’, with Ringo quite comfortably handling jazz, pop, ballad, electro, hip hop, rock, neo-classical and even disco! For many artists such a hodgepodge would be an indulgent and messy proposition to say the least, but Shiina Ringo is such an unique presence and so exquisitely absolute in her execution of these styles that ‘Ukina’ somehow feels like a complete and flowing record, and more than the sum of its parts. Several of the compositions featured here were completed in 2013, giving it a freshness for existing fans too. The highlight is undoubtedly Ringo’s no holds barred collaboration with Yasutaka Nakata (mastermind of Capsule, Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), it’s a triumphant track (‘Netsuai Hakkakuchuu’ that sums up the strands of tongue-in-cheek fun and edgy danger that colours her music.
6. The Icarus Line – ‘Slave Vows’
The Icarus Line are still Rock and Roll’s saviours and are the best band in LA by miles. ‘Slave Vows’ manages the almost impossible feat of bottling the lightning that makes seeing them live such an incredible experience. Everything about this record sums up The Icarus Line’s statement of intent; the world is full of fakers that force us to work shitty jobs whilst they live a life of fantasy. Songs like ‘Rats Ass’ and ‘Marathon Man’, explode into a vortex, whilst tribal offerings like ‘No Money Music’ drag you into a dark trance, the like’s of which haven’t been heard since Killing Joke last rocked the casbah. Featuring criminally underrated lyrics and an abrasive guitar wall of sound, ‘Slave Vows’ is the sound of a band that commands respect. They walk like they talk it and certainly aren’t in it for the cash (just ask Joe!). Forget the major label scum and music magazine bullshit, this is real Rock and Roll. If these guys go down, kiss goodbye to punk rock forever. If I were you, I’d head down to a record store pronto!
5. My Bloody Valentine – ‘m b v’
Another year, another broken Kevin Shields promise? Well actually no! The ‘Chinese Democracy’ of indie music, My Bloody Valentine’s follow up record to ‘Loveless’ has become the stuff of legend. Scrapped tapes, bankrupted record labels, rooms full of sound equipment, a drug-fuelled tour with Primal scream. The pursuit of one man’s artistic vision had left many casualties in its wake but unbelievably in 2013 Kevin Shields resurfaced with a record that no one actually thought really existed. Was it any good? Well, yes. In fact, just like Portishead’s incredible ‘Third’, ‘m b v’ blows away the legion of bands that shamelessly ripped off their sound, with an uncompromising piece of excellence. In ‘m b v’ Shields has taken the iconic sound of ‘Loveless’ to the next level, with mind-melting results. The final trio of songs (‘Wonder 2’ in particular) represent a both a sonic way forward and an incredible achievement in music making. Nothing on ‘m b v.’ feels anything less than essential, it is a monumental record that is more than a worthy successor to its parent record. Don’t believe me, just listen to ‘Only Tomorrow’ it’s possibly the best shoegaze song ever written! Every agonising second invested in the creation of ‘m b v’ then, was definitely worth it.
4. Wavves – ‘Afraid of Heights’
Wavves belong to a group of bands from California that have been increasingly influential. They join the ranks of The Icarus Line and Crocodiles as a band that simply cuts through the hipster bullshit and make the music they want to make*. This is rock and roll made by bad-asses and fuck all the media nonsense that goes with it. ‘Afraid of Heights’ is a surprisingly consistent and well planned out grunge rock record, which features everything from reoccurring samples to catchy nihilistic sing-alongs. Its title track is a superb centrepiece collaboration with the legendary Jenny Lewis, who lends her unmistakable song-writing style to the band (and reportedly when they recorded it a lot of hash cakes as well!). Every song is a potential single here and in the fullness of time I expect that ‘Afraid of Heights’ will hold its own when played alongside grunge classics such as ‘Nevermind’, ‘Pinkerton’ and ‘Live Through This’. I’m not the only person to take notice however, as Rockstar games invited the band to contribute a new track, curate a radio station and even have ‘Dog’ from this record play out at the end of the year’s biggest game (GTA V). Without a doubt this exposure will (ironically!) evaluate the band’s status even higher.
*An interesting side-note, all three of these bands have very close links to a female-fronted band. The Icarus Line are good friends with Giant Drag, Crocodiles with the Dum Dum Girls and Wavves with Best Coast. How’s that for rock equality!
3. Sleigh Bells – ‘Bitter Rivals’
It’s album number three for Derek and Alexis in as many years, and they show no sign’s slowing down! Easily one of the greatest bands to have emerged in recent years, Sleigh Bells have everything going for them, a unique sound, great songs, a cool aesthetic, a non-corporate but also deeply ambitious attitude, awesome personalities and real stage presence live. Criticisms levelled at their debut ‘Treats’ as being ‘all style, no substance’ were swiftly made to look rather silly indeed by sophomore effort ‘Reign of Terror’, a darker and far more intellectual affair that tackled themes such as family death and class war. There were however, some that felt the band was loosing its fun appeal because of this but worry not because ‘Bitter Rivals’ takes both approaches and melds them together in style. Can you have the best of both worlds? Yes! Songs like ‘Sing Like a Wire’ feature non-stop pop action alongside sweetly sung lyrics such as ‘By the middle of July you were buried in the dirt, Looking in the dark, saying your goodbyes’. It’s the sort of stuff that few bands would ever dare attempt, but Sleigh Bells are risk takers who are thirsty to share their music and deserve nothing less than global domination. If they continue to write songs like album closer ‘Love Sick’, we won’t have to wait long!
2. Manic Street Preachers – ‘Rewind the Film’
The self-proclaimed ‘Culture Sults’ have inspired multiple generations and on several occasions educated their audiences. Whilst many have two images of the band (angry punks or commercial middle aged rockers), the truth is that the Manics have achieved a distinctly unique sound on every one of their albums, ranging from the neon-glamour 80s Rock of ‘Gold against the sold’ to the electro-infused ‘Elegiac pop’ of ‘Lifeblood’. There is simply no one like the Maincs and few have ever attempted to emulate them. ‘Rewind the Film’ is no different, a dark, occasionally slow and beautifully crafted record, there are songs on it that feel so precious they might break. Always having one step in the past due to their love of history (both personal and cultural), ‘Rewind the Film’ feels like an exorcism and culmination of this major indulgence. There are examples from the Manics’ body of work where this dual-historical focus has led to extraordinary victories (‘If you tolerate this your children will be next’), but also admitted failures (James Dean Bradfield has mentioned in the past his own distain for the song ‘Glasnost’). To write an entire album themed on this was a major risk then, but the Manics pull it off in graceful style. Self-confessional lyrics such as ‘I don’t want my children to grow up like me, its too soul-destroying, it’s a mocking disease’, run alongside references to Lowry and Welsh mining, drawing parallels between personal and 20th century historical events. The use of guest stars is also daring, and whilst the Manics have dabbled in the past with this (earlier mentioned Kevin Shields appeared on ‘Know Your Enemy’), the choices here feel even more inspired and effective (Cate Le Bon’s contribution to ‘4 Lonely Roads’ is a particular standout). ‘Rewind the Film’ is a bold and experimental record, and like the Manics’ very best records (’The Holy Bible’ and ‘Everything Must Go’) takes you on a journey with the band. By the time the incredible ’30 Year War’ draws proceedings to a close, the past (and its ghosts) have finally been put to bed. If there is only one criticism that could be made at the time of writing, the band have been very honest with the fact that this is the first part of a themed ‘double album’ (its completed sequel ‘Futurology’ will be released in 2014), and as a result does at times feel that it is leading up to it’s companion piece. The idea of a cleverly themed pair of mirror albums is a great one, especially for the Manics who have managed to now conquer their achilles heel with this record, but without hearing its sister record it’s hard to know how it will play out. I have no doubt however, that it will be a huge success that elevates the themes of ‘Rewind the Film’ even further. Especially as in recent years the Manics have been writing some stunningly underrated songs that have tackled relevant socio-economic issues (‘Don’t Be Evil’ for instance from 2010’s ‘Postcards From a Young Man’ is an excellent dissection of social media and google, eerily predicting very recent events like the band have done several times in the past).
It’s difficult to articulate how much I (and many others) personally identify with the extreme hate, outrage and contradictions on the themes of class, privilege, credibility, hometown identity presented here. For me to see this record sit alongside respectable MOR acts such as Katie Melula on the shelves of Sainsbury’s is a deeply subversive act, and possibly the last act left in this antiseptic era of contemporary music.
1. Primal Scream – ‘More Light’
On Dorian Lynskey’s website biography for the Manics’ ‘Rewind the Film’, he suggests that only the Manics could write a song like ’30 Years War’. He would be right if he wasn’t forgetting one band who still have the grit, the determination and intelligence to write a protest song just like it. That band are of course Primal Scream! Easily one of Britain’s finest rock bands, the Scream’s latest record is also one of their finest. A startlingly focussed and fierce depiction of Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’, ‘More Light’ trades in irony and outrage as it searches for ‘final solutions’. On career highlights ‘XTRMNTR’ and ‘Evil Heat’, Bobby Gillespie depicted an apocalyptic dystopian future. That future is now, the darkness has already fallen and nowhere is the urgency of that discovery made more apparent that with album opener ‘2013’. ‘Twenty thirteen!’ Bobby screams half in disbelief, ‘What happened to the voices of dissent? They’re getting rich I guess.’ It’s a great statement of intent that is followed up beautifully in spectacular style by the poetic cavalcades of ‘Culturecide’ (‘Living like a refugee in your own country’) , ‘Invisible City’ and ‘Sideman’. These bursts of moral fury are counterpointed with the more personal tales found in ‘River of Pain’ and ‘Tenement Kid’. There are also fantastic musical moments, where the experimental and ambitious grooves help to simulate, in a way that music only can, the emotional wringer that society is being put through. ‘Walking with the beast’ in particular feels like a dark and very real place that many people have been through over the last few years because of the economic crisis and Tory policies, and one that for the privileged few would be impossible for them understand. Album closer ‘It’s alright, it’s okay’ is the moment of revelation and release and also one of the best songs Primal Scream have ever written. It feels like a definitive song for them and combines the most iconic elements of their sound from their career with an lyric that successfully manages to waver between cynicism and self-affirmation.
‘More Light’ is the only album I’ve heard this year that completely successfully sums up the times we live in. Its stories are real and its themes are relatable. If you live in the UK right now, this album is the only true representation of the stark socio-political reality of our society. It’s like staring into a broken mirror and like the very best of contemporary art, it holds a truth within its razor sharp shards. It’s such a shame that, as this year has shown, the old heroes remain so relevant. Primal Scream, the Manics, David Bowie, these artists have never felt more important and essential for our times. They shouldn’t have to bear this cross. Where is the next generation of articulate and politically aware musicians? I hope I’ve been fair in this list and tried to raise the profile of some great new bands that are trying to fight the good fight. But for every ‘Big Deal’, ‘Horrors’ (whose album in 2014 I’m hugely excited about) and ‘Joy Formidable’, there’s a whole host of featureless hubris. Hermetically sealed, Brit School endorsed music made for consumption. Ellie Golding. Everything Everything, Alt-J; who exactly do these ‘artists’ speak for? Not me, and not the unemployed 25yr old betrayed by their parent’s generation. They are cowardly scum! 2013 is a turning point but can a change really occur? Only we can demand that it happens.
Most disappointing album of the year:
Placebo – ‘Loud like love’
Biggest missed opportunity of 2013:
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Mosquito’
Most pointless band reunion of 2013:
Nine Inch Nails – They never really broke up!
Best gig of 2013:
My Bloody Valentine at The Brixton Electric
Most overrated album of the year:
Kayne West – ‘Yeezus’
Most Underrated album of the year:
How to Destroy Angels – ‘Welcome Oblivion’
Most exciting records to look forward to in 2014:
The Horrors, Manics, Marilyn Manson, Garbage, Cornelius, Bowie, Beck, The Kills, Jack White, Jenny Lewis, Shiina Ringo and Radiohead.