BEST OF 2013: Honourable Mentions & Near Misses – Part 2

The Best of 2013 features come to an end with a further ten albums for you to investigate over the last vestiges of the festive period. Click each title to have a listen. Should you wish to peruse, all of the pieces from this month of retrospective writing can be found under the Best of 2013 section in the top right of the page and don’t forget to submit your albums of the year list by the end of January 1st in order to be in the draw for some splendid records. Speaking of splendid records…

Near Misses 2

Mazzy Star – Seasons Of Your Day

They came back sounding like they’d never been away. Worth it for the noodling, swirling guitar on opening track ‘In The Kingdom’ which is lovably hypnotic. My love for it was restricted by some woeful vinyl mastering and pressing, although I’ve been assured that a new run will be available in early 2014.

Charles Bradley – Victim Of Love

On the morning of Record Store Day 2013 at Rise, those of us peculiar enough to have been queuing since the rest of Bristol was just thinking about going home were allowed in at 6am for a little restorative breakfast in the rather splendid Friska cafe that opened a little over a year ago now. As I sat there cuddling coffee, the music playing was this wonderfully sincere soul record. Yes, there’s a little pastiche and plenty of aching for the sound of the late-Sixties and early Seventies, but Bradley’s been there and it’s as authentic coming for him as anyone. Well worth a listen.

These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

A wonderfully immersive, occasionally rather strange and always fascinating listen. Not one I often turn to for pleasure, mind you. The ambition of this band has always been evident and this is a musically exquisite record. As others have said, the vocals require a little more taste acquisition, if you will. One of those records I can’t help thinking will mysteriously click, entirely at random, some years down the line. Be sure to have it so that it can.

Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare

Ah, so close to the main list after the wonders of ‘Gentle Spirit’ in 2011. Featuring musical contributions from Crosby, Nash and Browne, ‘Fanfare’ is every bit as grandiose as its title suggests. The beautiful Steinway piano which opens the album also forms its core, functioning as the frame onto which orchestral flourishes and intricate riffs are layered. While his distinctive voice and keening melodies are as enchanting as ever, Wilson has added a cinematic heft that neatly avoids being saccharine. And yet, the purring intimacy of his vocals always shines through. A beauty.

Lily & Madeleine – Lily & Madeleine

With due deference to Rise in Bristol, once again, this one came very late in the year and scratched my First Aid Kit itch. It’s gorgeously sung and delicately arranged folk music which only very occasionally becomes a little too saccharine. Worth it for moments like the truly bewitching ‘Disappearing Heart’ which is Sunday morning music of the highest order.

Cian Ciaran – They Are Nothing To Us

Not quite as all-consumingly-amazing as last year’s ‘Outside In’, which you really should have by now, you know, but still a very fine album. Rockier, rougher round the edges and with a bucket load of attitude, the key facet is still Ciaran’s absolutely magical voice. ‘Sewn Up’ has a pretty addictive chug, whilst ‘Down River’ seems to have been beamed in from the early-Nineties.

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down

Ah now, with New Year celebrations about to commence all over the place, you could do far worse than put this on repeat for the entire evening. Loud, funky, jazzy and relentless, this is music for the feet then the heart. Evolving from Acoustic Ladyland and likely to appeal to anyone with ears, Melt Yourself Down make music with a staggering number of riffs and hooks and relatively minimal structure. It works.

Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

Could it work? EC has been peddling slightly dreary country-rock bollocks for a few albums now, in between re-releasing his first fifteen albums on a six monthly rotation, and it started to seem like the early Noughties reboot was wearing off. Not so! Snarly Elvis is back, with revitalised vocals and songs built out of parts of his older material in a genuinely inspired bit of recycling. The Roots provided a laid-back back drop which never gets tired. Really rather decent.

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

They don’t make bad albums, you know. I’m not sure I’ve ever truly loved a Phosphorescent record, but everybody should have a couple of theirs in their collection and this should probably be one of them. Luscious, melodic and the musical equivalent of a beautiful sunrise, ‘Muchacho’ is the band’s most musically varied offering to date and contains several of their finest ever songs.

David Bowie – The Next Day

And so he returned. Better than ‘Reality’? Yes. Better than ‘Heathen’? Hmm, maybe. A decent listen? Yes. The earth-shattering, mind-melding, triumphant return to late-Seventies form that some would have you believe? No. However, ‘The Next Day’ is probably Bowie’s most contemporary release in thirty years and we had missed him terribly, so who can blame a bit of good will seeping through? Be sure to check out the James Murphy remix of ‘Love Is Lost’ if it’s somehow evaded you thus far.

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BEST OF 2013: Erased Tapes

As somebody who buys an awful lot of records, it’s always a delight when you find a label you can resolutely trust. You see their logo on an album and simply know it’ll be worth buying. Several years ago, I wrote about how Bella Union had reached that point for me and, after another faultless year, to that lists gets added the quite beautiful work of Erased Tapes.

Always ones to obsess over the presentation of the music, independent label Erased Tapes opted to mark its fifth anniversary with a beautiful, handmade box set containing all new material from its impressive array of artists. Established by self-styled ‘kooky German’ Robert Raths, its catalogue to date has featured modern classical music alongside a little post-rock and minimalist electronica. As I said, buy a record bearing their name and you won’t go far wrong. I’ve previously written about the wondrous music of Nils Frahm in some detail, including a recent piece on the majesty of ‘Spaces’ which made Number 6 in my countdown. Olafur Arnalds and Peter Broderick are the other two artists whose music drew me to the quite remarkable output of this really rather special label. Their delicately packaged CDs and meticulously designed vinyl pressings have always represented the care and belief that is central to how Erased Tapes is run. In 2013 alone, they released a remastered version of Broderick‘s ‘Float’ as ‘Float 2013’, Frahm‘s afore-mentioned ‘Spaces’ along with a reworked version of his ‘Juno EP’, Lubomyr Melnyk‘s exquisitely epic ‘Corollaries’, a stunning EP by Rival Consoles and an EP by upcoming talent Douglas Dare entitled ‘Seven Hours’. All this, plus the must luxurious and ambitious title of their entire existence.

ET CV

This beguiling box is a truly fitting monument to a label that really views the music as art to be cherished. I initially balked at the price – and I’ll tell you now, it really isn’t cheap – but this is about getting ten tracks you won’t find elsewhere spread across five splendidly presented seven inches in a delicately crafted box. If you price it according to your average shop bought singles, then it’s not a bargain, even taking into account RSD. But that’s not really the point of ‘Collection V’. In a sea of records, this is one item I can lose an afternoon with. The diverse music in this set has become an event, a ceremony, a spectacle thanks to the distinctive and reverential way in which it has been presented. To me at least, several of these artists deserve such a pedestal, and the music held within does not disappoint.

The headline acts here may be new tunes from Arnalds, Broderick and Frahm, but there’s no filler in this fine collection. Anne Muller‘s ‘Walzer Fur Robert’ is a glacial, modern classical merry-go-round, whilst World’s End Girlfriend‘s ‘Bohemian Purgatory Part 2 (NSKG version) is a pounding sound collage that is unlike anything else here, but which sounds ferocious with a gentle crank of the volume. Codes In The Clouds deliver a skittering, spin-dry wash of guitar, whilst the A Winged Victory For The Sullen Chamber Orchestra brings proceedings to a close with a curiously drifting piece, a little like somebody trying to weave music out of the sound of massed musicians warming up. Rival Consoles, whose recent ‘Odyssey EP’ is a must listen, rope in Broderick for an uncharacteristic vocal, beamed in somewhere from soul music of the early Eighties. Broderick is in majestic form for his own piece ‘Give A Smile In 5‘, with Frahm offering up ‘Little Boy In A Space Suit’ which will warm the hearts of ‘Felt’ fans in an instant. Kiasmos were my revelation, with skittering beats and the dramatic sense of slowly building release in ‘Driven’, while The British Expeditionary Force‘s ‘End Of The New End’ is a slinky little piano-driven bit of lo-fi indie. Arnalds’ ‘Happiness Does Not Wait’ aches in the same stirringly lyrical way that so much of his best work can, and it remains a delight to think of how he played such a crucial part in one of the year’s TV highlights with his soundtrack to ‘Broadchurch’.

As much as the exquisite packaging makes this an item to treasure, it is not an elaborate exercise in clearing out the cupboards. These newly recorded songs make for a quite beguiling compilation in their own right and a fitting introduction to a label that has yet to put a foot wrong. The songs were only made available digitally on Christmas Eve, making the box exclusive to vinyl for six months and providing purchasers with a festive gift. If the price rules you out, the £8 master tape download available by clicking the picture above seems an absolute steal for the music found here. However, if you are a vinyl obsessive who has been mulling over this set, I can emphatically assure you that you’ll not regret it. Some items are genuinely unique. Some imprints are truly special. ‘Collection V’ is a bold celebration of magical artists on a magical label which actually warrants the tag ‘deluxe’. A fitting monument to my label of the year.

BEST OF 2013: Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah

The music book is a tricky thing to get right. You need to leap along at a reasonable pace to avoid losing the reader’s interest, but you have to reveal enough to not make them feel like you’re telling them what they already know. This year has yielded a number of excellent reads, as well as several hugely anticipated titles. ‘Isle Of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters’ by Daniel Rachel is a great hardback thumbfest to dip in and out of, including a hugely interesting natter with Laura Marling. Alan McGee‘s ‘Creation Stories – Riots, Raves and Running A Label’ is certainly a page turner, if it is a little bit close to one middle-aged man trying to remind the world how ‘kerrrr-a-zyyyy’ he used to be. Tracey Thorn‘s ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ would have been my favourite music title in pretty much any other year, laced as it is with warmth, humour and honesty. It is a fine, fine work and worth a read even if her (frankly excellent) music isn’t your sort of thing.

The Beatles were finally written about, after decades of being almost entirely ignored. Mark Lewisohn unveiled the first of three parts of his enormous biography of the band, covering up to the point where they started to be famous. ‘Tune In’ is sat behind me now, looking all big and important. Oddly enough, I’ve not yet got around to actually picking it up and reading it but I gather it has the Beatle geeks in raptures.

The most anticipated rock autobiography in recent memory also put in an appearance and I only wish it was still being anticipated as, at that point at least, I was convinced it would be bloody brilliant. As it was, the Penguin Classic notion lost any sense of charm when it became clear that Morrissey‘s ‘Autobiography’ was a half-hearted, unedited, poorly-executed and, let’s be honest, badly written piss in the wind. You could almost picture him grinning smugly at descriptions which he no doubt thought were quirky and whimsical but which often lapsed into cliche. Add in his woeful grasp of tenses or narrative structure and it became a very tedious read. By the time you reach the hundred odd pages on how big the crowds are on his foreign tours, any good will has long since evaporated and the bitterness sits plainly on the surface. It is probably the most disappointing aspect of this year in music and until he turns up with a band who can actually play and songs I can actually hum, he can keep tinkering with his legacy as much as he likes, but I won’t be listening.

However, as you might have guessed from this piece’s title, there was one quite remarkable work of music writing which towered above the rest of this year’s releases. After years of work by journalist, musician and massive fan Bob Stanley, a hugely entertaining history of modern pop was upon us. In August, en route back from my honeymoon, I spent an hour in Bob’s company, discussing this tremendous book and getting his views on how the music scene affects us all. The interview I wrote up for Clash can be read below and I cannot recommend ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah – The Story Of Modern Pop’ enough.

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Charting history: Bob Stanley

Always a student of pop, as well as being a creator of some rather fine tunes himself as one third of Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley has undertaken the sizeable task of plotting a course through the history of popular music from the early fifties to the dawn of the 21st century. ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop’ is that rare thing: a doorstop of a book that breezes by in no time. Where so much narrating of the heady adrenalin rush found from popular music has somehow resulted in bloated, arduous prose, Stanley tells this tale as an eloquent enthusiast, drawing you in and guiding your listening at every turn. I met up with him to find out why he’d undertaken such a mammoth task and to get a sense of what makes popular music so endlessly fascinating.

This book took five years to craft, alongside your work with Saint Etienne.  That commitment surely demonstrates that this project must mean a lot to you?

It was always a labour of love; it was never a chore. I made sure before I started that I had a pretty tight structure and that, if I thought of things along the way that I’d forgotten in the original layout, I’d be able to slot them in. It was quite overwhelming a lot of the time, especially lugging photocopies around on tour and stuff. It was me wanting to document stuff before it’s completely forgotten. Like the early fifties era or, what I find scary is, it’s almost anything up until The Beatles come along that suddenly feels very old and very far away. So it was kind of wanting to get that too. This is an era I grew up understanding and, before half of it gets lost, I wanted to get it down on paper.

As a music writer, artist and curator, how much of the book needed to be researched and how much did you already know?

There were a lot of things I thought I knew enough about, like the early days of house music, for one, which I didn’t, as it turned out. I’d be reading up on stuff to get anecdotes and make sure I wasn’t remembering things wrong. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to do any interviews. I wanted to keep all of the quotes contemporary and if they aren’t, I point that out. I wanted it to read like it would have felt to live through it and obviously I’ve only lived through about half the book, or at least that I can remember.

You follow a chronological path, but use this as a framework for stopping off at a range of artists. Presumably this meant you could take the odd diversion for artists for whom you harbour something of a soft spot?

Yeah. I suppose so. Obviously there’s a lot of my own personal taste in there. I did want to cover [American singer-songrwriter from the Sixties] Lou Christie and I wrote a lot about [Eighties band and label] Shut Up and Dance. There’s probably a lot more on them than there is on Aretha Franklin, for instance. But, on the whole, it’s people who’ve had a major influence in some way, even if they didn’t have it at the time. So, I had to write a fair amount on The Stooges who, as time goes by, seem more and more important. A lot of later music goes back to The Stooges, and there’s no obvious precedent to them either. The framework was an excuse to bring in things I wanted to write about occasionally. But, while I was writing it, I think one of the things that surprised me was how much the structure did pretty much sit alongside the traditional history of rock. It ended up being much closer to that than I thought it was going to, but hopefully that makes it more readable, or less idiosyncratic.

You point out some of the comically awful lyrics of various eras, such as Bob Merrill’s “If I knew you were comin’, I’d have baked a cake, howdja doo, howdja doo, howjda doo.” How important are lyrics in pop music?

It’s not crucial, but bad lyrics can easily wreck a song. It’s more important not to write some dreadful lyrics than to write a terrific lyric. Bob Merrill and that whole era was something I didn’t really know much about before I wrote the book. The artists who were huge at that time are largely forgotten. The period from the end of the war is something which people have a fairly good handle on: swing, Glenn Miller, the early days of Frank Sinatra. But the early fifties, immediately before rock and roll, are really undocumented. That was a fascinating period to research.

You talk in the book about how the emergence of The Beatles put everything that had come before into a museum – could that happen again?

I don’t think so. It feels like everything from the past is part of the present now, which kind of means nobody thinks of what’s going to happen in the future. The Year 2000 was a red line when I was growing up; everybody thought what would life be like in the year 2000 and, particularly, what would music be like? So I’m quite obsessed with music from the year 2000 because it exists now, it’s a thing. Because of that, it’s very difficult to make stuff that sounds brand new and for something to have that much of a completely overwhelming effect – I can’t really see how it would happen, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

There’s a great line in the book about nobody wanting to know about how much porn Jarvis had been watching in his hotel room, they just wanted Billie’s cheerful pop. Britpop seemed really exciting when I was living it, but now it seems quite sad and limp. You say that it was “a reaction against new ideas.” Did it leave any significant mark on music?

I think it’s still quite hard to put it into perspective, because there are so many people like yourself who were younger than me when it happened and really love a group like the Longpigs, who I just think are absolutely unlistenable. But I’m very fond of what went immediately before it, and we were part of it. Denim, World of Twist and Pulp were the only groups out of that time who were clearly looking back to the Sixties and Seventies, but trying to do something new with it, and that’s what Britpop didn’t really do at all. It was sticking its fingers in its ears about what else was going on around it, and that’s what I found disappointing about it all. Suede sound a lot better to me now than they did at the time.  I couldn’t really get on with Brett’s voice then, but now I can see where their place is and they’re a little bit under the sort of Blur, Oasis, Pulp thing. It never felt like they were smaller than Pulp at the time, but they do seem smaller than Pulp now, and they certainly wrote some really cracking tunes.

Does the fact that Britpop can mean so much to some people but very little to others demonstrate how important context is to the enjoyment of music?

I think context is crucial in trying to understand why a record is a great record and why a song is a great song. You have to really know what else was around it at the time. Whenever I’ve looked at old charts, thinking I’ve got a fair idea in my head of what were the biggest selling records of, say, 1967, it’s never what people would think if they just heard things still played on the radio now or read a book about Jimi Hendrix. So, I think to get the full impact, context is really important.

You raise this point in relation to the whole late-Seventies punk and post punk bands, noting that they weren’t as era-defining as the media would have it these days.

Absolutely. There was a recent Big Issue cover with The Clash on it and the quote was “We had to do it. It was now or never!” It’s like, how can you say that now? I presume that’s a current quote, and I presume it’s a new interview they’ve done with Mick Jones, but it doesn’t make any sense. It wasn’t now or never. Nothing really changed. I mean, things did change, but it wasn’t the big seismic change that they wanted; it wasn’t Year Zero. And The Clash, of all people, with what they did fairly soon afterwards, should feel embarrassed to be saying things like that.

You suggest that Motown’s primary role wasn’t to make us think so much as make us dance. That seems pretty common in modern pop. Has anything from the last 15-20 years done much more than make us dance?

God, what’s happened in the last ten-fifteen years? There must be something that’s done more than make us dance. It’s part of the idea that it’s very difficult to do something new but the Manics, I suppose, are an example. It was twenty years ago, but they intentionally set out to make people not scared to be seen as intelligent. They’d deliberately drop names in where they guessed people may not know who they were talking about, and those people would then look them up and, from that, they got a really devoted following, which I think is really admirable. I can’t think of anyone since who’s really done that. I suppose my favourite things from the last ten-fifteen years would be Zenomania productions, which are pretty straightforward pop that’s just there to make you dance, but they can be quite sly with how they play with the formula. But maybe it’s not that intellectually stimulating!

The Nineties was a weird decade, where musical waters were muddied. When you look at old charts from that time, there’s such a strange mix that it almost feels like anyone could sell a few records at that point?

Well, I find the early Nineties a really fascinating period and there’s a lot of stuff from then that is good, it’s just none of it was coming from Britain, really. You had Babylon Zoo at Number One at the heights of Britpop. I was reading a thing about that recently and somebody said it’s kind of a bit grunge and a bit dance and it covers so many different bases, even though it’s a horrible record. That kind of explains why it was such a big hit.

That’s it though, isn’t it? It demonstrates quite well the idea that all bets were off and anything could be a hit.

What a strange record. It’s got to be one of the weirdest things ever released. It’s a record that everybody bought, even though they knew it wasn’t really what they wanted. You just want to hear the first thirty-five seconds and that’s it.

An example of something so odd that still deserves its place in pop history seems a suitably peculiar note to finish on. 

It all finished with Babylon Zoo.

BEST OF 2013: Reissues and Remasters

A combination of milking the death rattle of the CD and the realisation that well presented, in demand items can be priced pretty substantially has seen a rapid increase in deluxe edition in recent years. As I wrote a year ago, there’s plenty of crap being farmed out with the word ‘deluxe’ on it in the hope of people stumping up cash without really inspecting the goods. However, in amongst this endless conveyor belt of recycling, there are still some tremendous items creeping out into the world.

Considering that most second hand record shops are actually part-built of copies of Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Rumours’, it probably didn’t need another go through the reissue machine, but one excavation of the past for which we should all be grateful is the ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’ compilation on Luaka Bop. Having spent five years trying to get approval for this wonderful overview of the Nigerian artist’s synth-heavy Afrobeat funk music from William Onyeabor himself, the resulting collection more than justified the efforts. At least partly sourced from original vinyl copies of this hypnotic music, the sense of being let in on something rather special runs throughout this album. The emphatic joy of a neat refrain repeated to grand effect is to found across many of these songs and your best bet is to just dig in and see what you think. ‘Fantastic Man’ is a fine place to do just that.

The endlessly fascinating, if not entirely consistent, work of Harry Nilsson was given a pretty substantial dusting off for a CD box set covering his work for RCA. While the obvious sources of joy are ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ and ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’, it’s a delight to see fabulously odd records like ‘The Point’ getting the spotlight cast upon them once again. That record is a particular favourite of mine and this set treats the material with respect, the mastering sounding rich and warm without cranking the volume or compressing the sound especially. It’s going for even less than it was on release now and is a great way to add a remarkable artist to your collection should there currently be a void.

Warners looked to recoup a little of the £1.5 million still outstanding from The Beta Band‘s relatively short but glorious career by milking that wonderful music as best they could. Firstly, all three of the EPs collected together as the cryptically titled ‘The Three EPs’ in 1998 were given vinyl reissues for Shiny Pretty  Expensive Frisbee Day in April, while the albums and assorted bonus material were dusted off for a fairly comprehensive set entitled The Regal Years ( 1997-2004). Considering this was rather clearly a cash grab, it was pretty surprising to see the whole thing shoved into one chunky plastic case with a flimsy booklet and priced very generously indeed. Surely, this was primarily aimed at those who already know the music and rare indeed it is for these things to be done so economically. If you’re missing anything, or just fancy the live tracks, b-sides and small number of demos, this is a very affordable purchase.

Light In The Attic continued to deliver deluxe goodies that actually warrant the price tag. Having spent the past eighteen months remastering and reissuing selected nuggets from Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label, the resultant box set – There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966-1971 – is their masterwork. Comprising four CDs, a DVD and a truly beautiful 172 page book, it is a remarkable feast for Hazlewood aficionados and open-minded music lovers alike. It captures the furiously industrious five-year period during which country-pop maverick Hazlewood helmed his own imprint, signing a diverse array of talent and releasing the finest work of his solo career. The box restores his albums ‘Forty’, ‘Cowboy In Sweden’ and ‘Requiem For An Almost Lady’ to the public glare, expanding on the wonders found on last year’s taster compilation. The less expected treats come on the latter two discs, which cherry-pick from the rest of the archive and include the fizzing, freewheeling garage of The Kitchen Cinq’s ‘Need All The Help I Can Get’ alongside Honey Ltd’s woozy ballad ‘Tomorrow Your Heart’.  Should you wish to dig a little deeper, a deluxe edition adds three data discs, including every single track the label ever released. The sheer quantity is overwhelming but there is a true treasure trove of delights to dip into over the winter months. As the book recounts, Hazlewood’s music wasn’t always treated with love while he was alive. This package certainly rights that wrong.

The vinyl box set continued to be a veritable cash cow in 2013, the most desirable containing all of the album output by Can. The fabric coated set replicated sleeve details, included original posters and featured a rather short bonus live album. The audiophile forums have been buzzing about how these were made using the same transfers and masters used to make the SACD releases from a decade ago – largely from people who haven’t heard the box yet – but, to my ears at least, they sound pretty good. No, Ege Bamyasi doesn’t quite breathe as much as my original, likewise Tago Mago isn’t identical in its sound either. However, compared to most vinyl editions of these records you could try and lay your hands on right now, they sound pretty damn good. Mute have taken great care with the pressing quality and with a decent pair of speakers and a functioning volume control you can have plenty of fun with this near essential set of music. It’s not especially cheap, mind you.

However, leading the way in good value, good sounding vinyl box sets this year were the Demon Music Group. After the various stories of mp3 sourced and badly mastered CD reissues for various artists, I wasn’t expecting much, but I wrote about two particular sets they put out and I was hugely impressed. Firstly, they released a box covering all of Suede‘s albums, including ‘Sci-Fi Lullabies’ which, along with ‘A New Morning’, had never previously made it to wax. They need playing in a bit, and a delicate touch on your counterweight to avoid sibilance, but these have been crafted with love. Add in a booklet with comprehensive and genuinely interesting interviews with the band by Pete Paphides and this is a pretty impressive package. The individual titles will be receiving releases in February, as the box is pretty much sold out already. The piece I wrote for Clash, giving an album-by-album overview of their career can be found here.

The other wonderful set for which they are responsible only just made it out before Christmas. Replicating the approach to that Suede box, came a gloriously assembled package of the (almost) complete works of The Jesus and Mary Chain. For a band who, initially at least, were all about the sonics, attention to detail when committing their whole discography back to wax was vital. Rest assured that this has clearly been a labour of love. Whether newcomer or hardened aficionado, the importance of some of the material within this box is hard to deny. While the Mary Chain weren’t entirely consistent, their peaks were remarkable and their impact notable. Whether your allegiances lie with direct descendants like My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream or the stoner-rock scene, these albums had their part to play in their existence. While the fuzzed up charge of 1985 debut Psychocandy is one of life’s essential albums, the rest of their catalogue isn’t always talked of in such hallowed terms.

Listened to in chronological order, these six studio albums offer a portrait of a band that never stood still. Dismantling the noise, and with a nod to Lee Hazlewood’s more gloomy tunes, Darklands was a different, fascinating beast. Having let the brooding songs breathe, there followed 1989’s slightly calculated Automatic where the band seemed to lose direction. 1992’s Honey’s Dead was a revitalised hotch-potch of sounds, while 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned was far better than its title implied, blessed with a little intervention from Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. By the time they stumbled to a halt with 1998’s decent but inessential ‘Munki’, the band had traversed genres, inspired many and ensured their legacy.

The accompanying booklet lays bare the stories behind each of these records, making use of more of the interview material previously used for the CD/DVD reissues several years ago. As with any of these reissue projects, as lovely as it is to see the artwork in its twelve inch incarnation, to avoid this being an opulently presented collection of sizeable frisbees, what really matters is the mastering. Thankfully, all is well here, and these albums sound as good as they ever have. Warm bass lines are prominent, the guitars spring from the speakers and the music really breathes. Well, as much as ‘Psychocandy’ ever could.

Boosted by radio sessions, live tracks and fan-selected rarities, it is a truly spectacular time capsule and an enjoyably decadent way to absorb some wonderfully important music. Some of the session tracks fizz in the moment with a vitality beyond those vintage albums, ‘Deep One Perfect Morning’ and ‘Coast To Coast’ especially. While not all of the live recordings feel entirely necessary, this is still a hugely satisfying package and a decent template for how these sorts of projects can and should be done.

BEST OF 2013 – Honourable Mentions & Near Misses – Part 1

The top thirty has been counted, the prize draw declared open and copious amount of crap telly and rich food has passed before and into us. The enjoyable world betwixt Christmas and New Year allows for various bits and bobs mopping up other enjoyable aspects of the year. The first, as is increasingly traditional now, is a list of albums I thoroughly enjoyed but which sat just outside the list when it was put together. So, in the interests of continuing to provide you with splendid tunes to spend time and money on, here are another ten fine records from 2013 with rather more brief summaries, with a further ten to follow before we embrace January. Click each title to explore further.

Near Misses 1

Girls Names – The New Life

Heavy 80s indie sound, evoking memories of Bunnymen, Joy Division and even the lighter end of The Cure. Great jangle quotient and some lovely melodies.

Public Service Broadcasting – Inform-Educate-Entertain

I suspect it will lack longevity, but there’s a certain thrill to these vibrant pop-rock collages, layered with spoken word samples from old propaganda films. Truly excellent live too.

Bill Ryder-Jones – A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart

A lusciously melancholic album of hushed tones and even more hushed vocals. Perfect for the bitter winter mornings ahead, with somnambulant guitars and delicately placed piano.

Mogwai – Les Revenants OST

In more mature, thoughtful mode, Mogwai crafted a stunning soundtrack which broods and swells in equal measure. A dark but absorbing record. Seek it out at the same time as their wonderful new album, ‘Rave Tapes’, which is out in a few weeks.

The Necks – Open

A single track, sixty-eight minute jazz album with more strut, swagger and downright atmosphere than most of the stuff released this year. It gradually gathers momentum and intensity before drawing to a close in a majestic wash of sound. With a doff of the cap to Nick Southall, this was a late discovery and might have made the thirty given time.

Daughn Gibson – Me Moan

Ah, what a strange but brilliant record. Like Nick Cave and Scott Walker melded into one particularly exuberant person who’s familiar with the work of LCD Soundsytem. It is bizarrely tremendous and well worth seeking out.

Grails – Black Tar Prophecies Vol 4-6

 A late find, with due thanks to Barry and Ash at Spillers, and technically a compilation, but this is a truly remarkable album which I feel duty bound to flag before you. Droney, proggy, transcendant, dubby and absolutely enormous, these are very special bits of music.

The Pastels – Slow Summits

The first straight studio album by these Scottish indie-pop charmers in sixteen years did not disappoint. Hazy jangle, cooed vocals and glorious washes of trumpet and flute coalesce into something really rather special, offering a logical update of their demure but luscious sound of old.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic

Thundering psych-rock with a spaced out sheen and an enormous sense of fun. Best played very, very loud. The hazy ‘In Our Time’ is a particular favourite.

Yr Ods – Llithro

Welsh indie-pop jangle of the highest order, sounding spookily like early Super Furries, with plenty of other 90s influences thrown in for good measure. A melodically rich, utterly joyous burst of sunshine.

BEST OF 2013: 1. Georgia Ruth – Week Of Pines

Growing up in South Wales with an interest in music meant that two particular attachments were formed that remain hugely important to me to this day. Firstly, there is the one utterly dependable source of exciting new acts who also manages to fill in the gaps from the past with utterly infectious enthusing: BBC Radio Wales’ new music show hosted by the inimitable Adam Walton. It became appointment listening for me when he was given a slot on weeknights in the late nineties, playing the noisy stuff before a new pop show that followed. I still have piles of CDs here that I won from the show and he is responsible for my love of the Super Furries, 60ft Dolls, Murry The Hump and Gorky’s, as well as some non-Welsh magic he also used to sneak in like The Beta Band and Doves. He was, and when time permits still is, my Peel. Adam, like Gideon Coe on 6 Music, is one of those presenters who could sell you most of the records he plays. Rare is the time I listen to one of his broadcasts without writing down at least one artist I need to investigate. He continues to fight the good fight on Saturday nights and, as music lovers yourselves, I would forcefully urge you to put aside three hours of each week to find out what has caught his attention recently.

The second totem in my grasp on music is Cardiff’s Spillers Records. I’ve written about them many times before, but they are the outlet for so much of the truly brilliant music being made in Wales. They listen to it all and match it to the people likely to love it. They make scarily accurate recommendations and send you off with a new favourite album you didn’t even go in there to buy. Several years ago, they brought Huw M into my world, for which I am eternally grateful, as well as keeping me fixed with records by The Gentle Good, Little Arrow, Meilir, H Hawkline, Sweet Baboo, Islet and many, many more. They are facilitators, curators and participants in a phenomenal music scene and they also play their part in Georgia Ruth’s stunning ‘Week Of Pines’ being my favourite album of 2013.

Adam has played her music for years, going right back to early recordings when she still used her surname Williams on releases. He would talk of this remarkable voice whose music was crafted on a harp and then play these beautifully sung, delicately balanced tracks. Her name remained on my radar and several digitally released EPs crept into my collection. However, the moment where I realised just why she was such a regular presence on his programmes was the first time I heard ‘Bones’, a beguilingly soulful paean to life working on the London Underground, replete with the sound of distant trains. It was to be housed on four track 10″ EP, ‘In Luna’, with which Spillers promptly furnished me. It remains one of my all time favourite songs and it’s not even on this remarkable album. Her Saturday afternoon set at Green Man in 2012, where ‘Bones’ was thankfully added to the setlist as an afterthought, was always going to be a must see, but it served to underline just what a tremendous talent was at play.

‘Week Of Pines’ entered the world in May and managed to traverse the full range of what various incarnations of Georgia Ruth’s music have covered to date. The title track’s motorik drums which rise from the silence, only to be partnered with a resonant harp, set the tone for a record which never sits still. Having spent time in Brighton as well as London, Williams felt the call of home and returned to Wales, pouring some of that aching nostalgia into this set of songs. This near six minute opener is unquestionably unique, marrying vague Krautrock with melodically rich playing of the harp in a manner that isn’t exactly en vogue right now. Not that it isn’t something very special. The intertwined notion of building relationships and the landscapes in which they occur is rather beautifully explored, not least in the gently stirring couplet: “You have got the best heart that I have ever seen; it lingers in the cracks and finds the dim-lit space between”.

‘Dovecote’ unravels across an organ drone, barely grounded with the vocal hovering free, entirely in keeping with the lyric “set the rigging high, my love, for I will no man’s anchor be.”  The howling harmonica which opens a cover of vintage folk number ‘Old Blue’ paves the way for a lament for a departed pet which skitters along at a fair old pace. ‘Mapping’, meanwhile, seems to have laid its strummed-harp cards upon the table before fading back up for an aching reprise. This is undeniably Welsh folk music, but so much more than that implies too. That it sounds so out of step with much of what I have listened to this year has perhaps served it well. ‘Seeing You Around’ remains a favourite, with its languid nostalgia proving to be all-encompassing and indulgently wistful. The delivery of the word ‘iconoclast’ in the line “I’ve tried to melt away like some old iconoclast, but I believed in breath and clay, I believed that we were built to last,” is wonderfully Welsh and serves to reinforce the importance of her homeland to her music.

As a plastic taff, whose formative years were spent perilously close to the border, I’m sadly not a Welsh speaker but the three tracks here which especially highlight Williams’ bilingual upbringing are no less beautiful for being reliant, for me at least, upon melody alone. ‘Hallt’, especially, is a full-shiver-down-the-spine piece, which, upon the arrival of percussion around the three and a half minute mark, lifts off to a quite magical place and the final take on its chorus is as serene a piece of music as I could wish to play right now. Although, ‘In Luna’, from the afore-mentioned EP, might run it close. Williams’ vocal rises and falls en route to a glistening chorus, bedecked with shuffling, subtle drums and delicate touches of guitar. The harp is, once again, foregrounded, becoming inextricable from her voice.

Where it is briefly sidelined, as on the richly melancholic ‘A Slow Parade’, a swooning electric guitar riff brings forth memories of a lost classic: the Richard Hawley-produced solo outing by A Girl Called Eddy. It is yet another subtle stylistic shift on this tremendously bold record. By the time ‘Winter’ retreats slowly from view, mirroring the slow entrance of the title track at the other end of the album, the Snowdonian landscape in which ‘Week Of Pines’ was constructed seems to have left its mark. Of a time, perhaps, but of a place, undoubtedly, this truly special collection of songs is unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. It picked up the Welsh Music Prize in October, which prompted a brief flurry of interest, but I put it at the top of the list not only because it quite sincerely is my favourite album of the last twelve months but also in the hope that some of you reading will seek out and enjoy an overlooked treasure. To Adam, to Spillers and, most of all, Georgia, thanks for reminding that music is a wonderfully powerful thing and, in the right hands, can make you smile, sob and stand up and face the world.

BEST OF 2013: 2. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

On the several occasions I had seen John Grant perform prior to the release of this second solo outing, he had always cut an awkward and intense figure onstage, but one possessing a brutal knack for self-deprecating connections with an audience. A select number of artists have a genuine pull of their own, a force that draws you in and lays siege to your soul. You root for them, smile at the sight of them, find yourself savouring every second of their songs, hanging on the last waves of reverb emanating from a final note before unleashing applause. In short, you spend ninety minutes grinning like a twat and never once wonder what the time is or consider how tired you are.

Grant is, for me at least, one of those artists, and I approached ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ with a little trepidation, worried about the impact of my own expectations after the remarkable solo debut, ‘Queen Of Denmark’, had proved to be my favourite album of 2010. Having been teased publicly via its title track, it was clear that this wouldn’t simply be more of the same. The bubbling six minutes of minimalist electronica and synth trumpets were a defiant way to follow up a record lauded for its Seventies-inspired singer-songwriter chops. Naturally, the always rational and considered internet community sprung into action and the album was written off in some corners before it had even had a chance to be illegally leaked for a little voyeuristic backlash porn. That uncertainty and unease which seems to have been prompted by the varied sounds of this release is easily allayed after a few listens and I now find myself, almost exactly twelve months down the line from my first listen on the very first day of this year, increasingly of the opinion that ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is superior to that remarkable debut. A wildly different and yet reassuringly familiar beast, it possesses some truly wondrous lyrics and a sizeable portion of melody.

By the time Grant appeared at Komedia in Bath, as part of the promotion for this album, his stage presence seemed to have grown. No longer peering out to see if the world would be bothered, he stood before a rapt audience safe in the knowledge that everyone in the room was in the know. Deploying several of the record’s more electronic songs early on, with accompanying rave lights and shuddering bass, the triumph was assured twenty minutes in. Any doubts one might have about tinkering with a winning formula can be easily dispelled by actually listening to this album.

The lingering presence of lost love TC, who had more than his fair share of influence on the debut’s lyrical content, is noticeable across proceedings, although the mood seems rather more sour, not least on the gloriously venomous ‘Black Belt’. This track also neatly demonstrates the middle of the ‘Queen Of Denmark/Pale Green Ghosts’ venn diagram. After some unexpectedly productive collaboration with Biggi Veira from electronic act Gus Gus, Grant was compelled to record the entire album in Veira’s native Iceland, despite having been planning to resume proceedings with Midlake back in Denton, Texas. It’s hard to imagine how a track like ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ might have worked in such circumstances, ending up as it did sounding like a gloriously sardonic LCD Soundsystem.

When I wrote my sizeable justification for ‘Queen Of Denmark’ topping my 2010 list, I quoted the entire lyric to its title track as evidence of the quite stunning grasp of language Grant possesses and the way in which he can balance the rawest of emotions with the most knowing of smirks. It wouldn’t be difficult to pull a similar stunt in relation to this record and I have found myself unable to shake lyrics from several of the album’s highpoints. Chief amongst them has been this measured but explosive chorus from ‘Vietnam’:

“Your silence is a weapon,

it’s like a nuclear bomb.

It’s like the Agent Orange

they used to use in Vietnam,

and it’s accompanied by an apathy

which is deafening to the ears.

You know it is complete and perfect

and you wield it without fear”

Add in the raw majesty of ‘I Hate This Town’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and ‘Glacier’ and you’ll feel like sobbing for him. Except you don’t. There is a strange euphoria at the heart of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ which is intrinsically linked to Grant’s humility and humour. The wry and biting lyrical content is capable of rendering you occasionally speechless in delight at exactly what he’s just pulled off, and such a knack for communication and ruthless honesty resulted in him telling the crowd at a Hercules & Love Affair gig, where he was guesting last summer, that he is HIV positive. ‘Ernest Borgnine’ tackles this topic exactly as you might imagine he would: “Doc ain’t lookin’ at me, he says I got the disease. Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees.” Although this diagnosis received column inches for pretty much all of the promotion of the album, it had a relatively small impact upon the material. Indeed, it’s those two other initials which still seem more determined recipients of Grant’s venom.

These songs are still as utterly captivating as the year comes to a close as they were at its start. They have mutated in various directions since their release, through live performance, remix and collaboration. The deluxe CD set featured a wondrous remix of the title track by No Ceremony which hijacks the horn riff and adds extra helpings of doom and ominous bass, while several EPs which have snuck out as companion pieces have refitted the songs in various, but no less affecting, ways. ‘The Strongroom EP’ stripped back a selection of the material to its bare bones, and may be of use to those struggling to make the leap between the styles. It highlights the true brilliance of Grant’s songwriting as these melodies hold their own when they are free of any dressing, something which was also underlined by the recently released ‘Gets Schooled EP’. A five track set, it features duets on four highlights from ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and a cover of Abba‘s ‘My Love My Life’ performed with Villagers. The highlight is a surprisingly moving reading of ‘Glacier’ with Sinead O’Connor, who had previously put in an appearance in the background of the album itself. I don’t often buy into spin-offs and bonus discs, but this unique suite of songs deserves every last bit of the attention being lavished upon it.

Making one truly remarkable record in your career is no mean feat. Plenty of artists never get close. But making more than one really sets you apart and, with ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, John Grant has done just that. While his solo debut seemed to be something of a slow-burner, this follow up has had plenty of entirely justified coverage and was sufficiently ubiquitous in the end of year lists to even earn a place in Vice‘s annual spoof countdown. Don’t let that put you off, though. That he is now acknowledged as a remarkable talent is how it should be. This is very much not ‘Queen Of Den-mark II, but in its scope, ambition, songwriting, emotional impact, humour and sense of melody it is, at the very least, that debut’s equal.