Matt Stephen’s highlights of the year
There’s always a golden age for something, and being the ridiculous optimist I am, I always seem to think we’re in the golden age for media as my standards continually drop and as a result, are continually met. But there’s been something about 2013, hasn’t there? Reunions, remakes, real originality, remixes, revelations - with the exception of the gaming world, which seemed to be patiently resigned to the releases of the new Grand Theft Auto and the launch of next-gen gaming. To digress, as a music fan I’ve been blown out of the water and I’m beginning to feel like we’re getting to the point of the phrase “music these days just isn’t that good” being so ignorant that it’s laughable. Thank god. Here’s my Best Five of the year.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a game changer. I said it in my review for “Space Jaws”, it’s the best cinema-going experience of 2013 and maybe of the 2010s. Although we’re only three years in. Here’s hoping. The sheer inertia and joint claustro/agora-phobia that you’re exposed to, combined with stunningly bright and impressive visuals and Clooney and Bullock’s brilliant dialogous performances (is dialogous a word?) made Gravity easily my film of the year, barring a real blinder from 12 Years A Slave which I still haven’t seen but I hold high hopes for.
- The Return Of Daft Punk
Not even just the superb Random Access Memories (despite that being the largest contributing factor), but to see the robots back on the covers of magazines and in images across the internet is very very exciting. The electronic duo took their mastercraft and restated it with a superb retro feel. I’m glad we can replace Human After All as the most recent Daft Punk album and more positively, I’m glad I’ve got more Daft Punk to put on my party playlists.
- GTA V
Grand Theft Auto makes a good year great. You’ve filled your boots with good albums, films and TV and the like and the serialised call of duties just aren’t meeting your standards. Rockstar comes along and releases a new installment and suddenly the year is firing all cylinders. But seriously; GTA is one of the gameplay experiences of the decade and although the “look at the state we’re in “humour is getting a bit stale, firing up the online and driving around the city with your friends is the best fun it’s possible to have without being jailed for… er, grand theft auto.
- Breaking Bad Is Finally Over
Bear with me - it was a hell of a ride. But now, you needn’t worry about asking “Where are you in the series?” or anything to that effect. We’re in the post-finale stages where we can say “You seen the finale?” and then gush about how truly brilliant the finale was. What a ride it’s been, too. Season 5B was all sorts of tense and I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’m richer for the experience.
- Big Year For British Music
Foals’ Holy Fire, James Blake’s Overgrown, Boards Of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, Gold Panda’s Half Of Where You Live…. the list goes on. Blake dispelled any second album woes with a cheeky Mercury Prize, Foals’ Holy Fire is a groundshatteringly smart album, Tomorrow’s Havest nailed it….. All in all it’s been one of the more remarkable years for me in British music and 2014 has a lot to live up to.
Joe O’Brien’s top five albums
First off, I’d like to admit that I really haven’t gotten around to listening to as many albums in 2013 as I would’ve liked. I’m the kind of guy who spends more time listening to the back catalogues of bands I’ve just gotten into, or just the classics or whatever! I did, however, get to listen to a couple handfuls of albums this year, and so here’s 5 of ‘em! (PS: I’d also like to comment on how awesome the for artwork for these albums are. )
Kylesa - Ultraviolet
Kylesa is a band that I’ve been meaning to listen to more of. Ultraviolet is their sixth studio album and it’s actually the first one that I’ve heard in full. It’s a sludge metal album with some psychedelic rock creeping in there, in the vein of obvious inspiration Mastodon. It’s a terrific blend of hard and soft, with more emphasis on the former. Those heavier songs really do pack one hell of a punch, with gut-punching, tuned-down riffs that you can’t help but headbang to. The softer stuff feels very melodic and layered and gives the record a nice balance. The variation of male and female lead vocals is nice too. Plus the interchanging of instruments between the four members. A great layered metal album than demands numerous listens to full appreciate.
Listen to: “Unspoken”
Rob Zombie - Venomous Rat Regenerator Vendor
I’ve been a big Rob Zombie fan for a few years now. His love for horror movies and the way he incorporates the genre and a heap of references into his music is something that I’ve always found cool. With his 5th studio album, Venemous Rat Regenerator, he shows no sign of really changing his style. And that’s not a bad thing. The appeal of his music has never been in the quality of his song-writing or even in his vocals, but instead of the relentless energy that he gives into each performance. And the wicked catchy hooks. Much of the credit for the latter goes to John 5, who plays guitar on this album again, and provides some truly rocking riffs. Sure, the songs are simple. The riffs, uncomplex. The vocals, repetitive. But pretty much all the songs come off as instantly catchy and just a lot of fun. Production on the album must be credited too. It sounds huge.
Listen to: “Dead City Radio And The New Gods of Supertown”
Palms - Palms
Palms is a group formed by Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno and three members from the post-metal group Isis. Although I can’t say I’m all that aware of Isis, I’m a massive, massive fan of Chino Moreno; I think almost every project the guy has been involved with is awesome. Palms has a post-metal and alternative metal feel, which makes it feel sort of like a whole album of Deftones’ lighter songs. The instruments definitely feel more relaxed though, and the album doesn’t have the same “noise” or “fuzz” sound that Deftones albums seem to have. It’s all taken at a nice, chilled pace and Moreno’s vocals come through nice and clean, allowing him to really show off the incredible range he has. Man, this guy can sing! The album consist of six songs, each about seven minutes long, and they all lead into each other really well, giving it an excellently cohesive feeling. Really promising stuff with this debut.
Listen to: “Future Warrior”
Arctic Monkeys - AM
I’m not going to pretend that I’m one of Arctic Monkeys’ biggest fans. I obsessed over their debut album back in 2006, like everyone else did. But then I got over it in a big way, and since then I haven’t been interested enough to check out any of their albums in full. I did, however, for whatever reason decide to check out AM and it was a damn good decision. What I instantly loved about the album is that it sounded heavier than what I had come to known Arctic Monkeys’ sound as. Sure it’s still primarily indie/garage rock or whatever you want to call it, but there’s nice elements of hard rock and even psychedelic rock in this record that feel right at home. Those heavier, louder, faster tracks are right up my alley, and there’s catchy enough lighter ones to counter-balance it. There’s a couple of dud tracks in there if you want to get nitpicky, but overall the album flows with a really nice kick, giving you tunes you’ll be humming all week afterwards.
Listen to: “R U Mine?”
Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork
When I was making picks for this list, the only album I was 100% certain of was Like Clockwork. I had been excited about this album since I first heard Era Vulgaris all those many years ago and the six year wait was agonizing. In those six years I got to know QOTSA inside-out, and now I profess them as one of, if not, by favourite band around. Like Clockwork is worth the wait. From the very few seconds of “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”, I knew immediately that I was in for something special. The rest of the album doesn’t quite keep up the same downtuned, slow, ridiculous heavy vibe of this opening track, but that’s a good thing. Because what the album is is a collection of songs that each feel completely unique. We get the fast, catchy single “My God is the Sun”, and then the weird psychedelic “Kalopsia” (featuring NIN frontman and soundtrack guy to every movie ever, Trent Reznor). We get the wacky, poppy “Fairweather Friends”, featuring Elton John of all people, and then we get the ballad-esque title tack; it’s such a layered, brilliantly written, brilliantly produced album that demands to be heard again and again. Those songs that don’t appeal the first time, will certainly the second time. It boasts a heap of guest artists performing in various shapes and forms, and Josh Homme has never been better at writing songs. It’s an album that shouldn’t quite feel like it pieces together, but it does, finding some sort of cohesion in the evil, somehow sexy feeling that can be found hiding in every track.
Listen to: “I Appear Missing”
Jimmy Hatcher’s album of the year (and one runner-up)
2013 continued the trend of R&B’s heavy influence on indie electronic music producers. Rhye’s Woman, released in March, took the sound of ’90s Sade and adult contemporary music from the ’80s and turned it into something new and fresh. Inc. put out No World, an album with indelible influences from Maxwell and Jam & Lewis that resulted in a divisive (though in my opinion; great) album of downtempo atmospheric R&B.
So in a year of albums with direct lines of influence back to past titans of New Jack Swing and Adult Contemporary hits, Beacon's The Ways We Separate sticks out a bit. The debut full-length from the Brooklyn duo certainly fits in with the artists mentioned above, the music is much more individual. The Ways We Separate is less Roxy Music and Teddy Riley than it is a fusing of the chilly electronics of 100th Window and the emotion of Take Care.
The Ways We Separate sounds as if it is totally devoid of acoustic instrumentation, yet manages to sound warm and human throughout. Mullarney’s vocals cut through the layers of synths and echoing drum pads in a way that makes you forget the cold and calculated nature of the digital instrumentation. Said vocals sing yearning tales of modern love at its ugliest with stories of abandonment, obsession, emotional distance and neglect. A loose story could be woven together from the lyric sheets of the album.
From start to finish, The Ways We Separate creates mood and space from sparse instrumentation that implies small scenes in large venues. Every drum hit echoes into the distance and every synth line floats in from elsewhere. Despite the lightness of all parts, it’s still propulsive and intense at points. It’s pleasant to have as a backdrop but rewards closer listening with it’s detailed and rich production.
All of this makes for what was my favourite album of 2013. It infuses spacy ambient music with the emotion and soul of R&B. Definitely not a record to be missed.
The runner-up would have to be Three Sided Tape Volume One by Lil Ugly Mane. Though not a proper album per se (that’s still coming up), the first in the Three Sided Tape duology by Lil Ugly Mane offers a glimpse into the creative mind of Shawn Kemp outside of his relentlessly dark, aggressive and abrasive material released thus far. Consisting of 61 minutes of mostly instrumental hip hop productions, Three Sided Tape Volume 1 shows that for the past few years, despite his chosen direction in sound shown on Mista Thug Isolation and Playaz Circle, Kemp is at all times running circles around his contemporaries without even really trying. The 32 “tracks” present here are separated into three tracks running 17, 25 and 19 minutes each. Across its runtime Kemp covers radio rap, warped vaporwave-esque tracks, east-coast hip hop, avant-garde, gospel-and-breaks type beats, cloud rap (he out-Clams Casino’s Clams Casino with the warped vocal samples and fuzz), drum & bass and even black metal. Despite the sheer breadth of styles covered on this tape nothing ever feels out of place and it all sounds like a Kemp production.