The Best Albums Of 2013
Here they are: Cream’s Top 20 Albums of 2013. You’ll find no Gaga, Miley or Bieber amongst this lot – we decided to leave wanky ‘artpop’ and pretentious pubescent porn to the channels of Youtube and Vevo. Instead, there’s plenty of credible rock, pop, rap and soul here for you to reminisce the year that was. Albums that really ‘spoke’ of life in the here and now, and that will stand the test of time, too, we’re sure.
01. Lorde – Pure Heroine
Often mistaken by international media as an Aussie artist, you can only forgive us for not correcting our northern hemisphere contemporaries since the credibility of New Zealand singer Lorde is so great, we’d adopt the girl as our own any day. At 17 years of age, she is quite possibly the brightest solo artist out there right now, and her debut album, the daringly titled ‘Pure Heroine’ (it actually refers to ‘a pure female hero’) stands testament to her massive talent. Packed with potent poetry that includes observations on friendships, lover’s quarrels and the social behaviour in general of today’s youth, there’s an accessibility to Lorde’s songs that is lacking in just about every other out-to-shock celebrity peer. Indeed, Lorde’s music is like a high-school yearbook put to cool grooves. On ‘Ribs’ she disses “The drink you spilled all over me; lovers spit left on repeat’, while on current single ‘Team’ she tells “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air” as if to stick it to club DJs and the oft-inane behaviour of Gen Y’ers at large. All up, our favourite album of the year.
02. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Even if you took away all the celebrity connections (Bowie, Bono, James Franco), Arcade Fire’s musical cred would still hold strong. After previous offerings that included 2004’s tragedy-laden ‘Funeral’ and 2010’s far more upbeat ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Reflektor’ sits halfway between the melancholic and the elated: a kind of glimmer of hope in an age of issues-stacked-on-issues and information overload. So epic are some of the songs (the opening title track runs for 7-and-a-half minutes; closing track ‘Supersymmetry’ is a mammoth 11 minutes long) each practically deserves a thesis-size review of its own. But we’ll keep it short and sweet: ‘Reflektor’ is a mirror of the times we’re in right here, right now – from subtle critique of the stupidity of hyped-up celebrity lifestyle (‘Flashbulb Eyes’) to musings on the madness of modern everyday dealings (‘Normal Person’, ‘We Exist’). There’s a reason why everyone is into Arcade Fire right now. You’ll hear it on this here LP, from the first note to the final track’s long, warped fadeout.
03. David Bowie – The Next Day
Often aligning himself with artists of the day, presumably to latch on to the latest trends and sounds, this year Bowie ventured as just himself into the studio and came out with an album that recalls his own unique being: the raw-and-rocking Bowie we’ve known and loved for eons – he who stands taller as ‘inspiration’ rather than forcefully inspired. ‘The Next Day’ kicks off with a title track that rollicks and swaggers, leading nicely into the ever-so-sleazy ‘Dirty Boys’. Elsewhere on the LP there are nods to the artist’s previous incarnations, from to the ’70s glam and grind of ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, to the post-mod melancholic longing of ‘Where Are We Now?’ which recalls tinges of ‘Thursday’s Child’. His 27th studio album, ‘The Next Day’ insists that there is life in the ol’ boy yet – and hopefully several more brilliant offerings before the world’s greatest bucket-list ticker gets anywhere near kicking that proverbial bucket.
04. Arctic Monkeys – AM
There are UK bands that are so stuck in their ironic Union-Jack-bandying ways that you tire of them after a while (we certainly don’t like listening to Blur like we used to) but Arctic Monkeys have got a kind of all-the-world’s-a-bit-wasted-really swagger about them, it practically makes you forget they’re British. As for universal appeal – this album abounds with it. What dude didn’t recall moments of damaged pride upon hearing the chorus of the single ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ while “Crawling back to you; ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few?” might have been the ringtone on every girl’s mobile phone after she’d broken up with that guy who’s just not good for her. Elsewhere on a record that is catchy-as-fuck from start to end, the Monkeys traverse just about every musical genre, from gritty rock (‘R U Mine’), doo wop (‘No. 1 Party Anthem’), psychedelia (‘Mad Sounds’ is like the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ for a meth age), glam (‘I Want It All’ is T-Rex on Ritalin), even boy-band pop (‘One For The Road’). If there isn’t one song on this album that any given listener doesn’t, like, really get into, they just don’t appreciate music. Full stop.
05. Boy & Bear – Harlequin Dream
An Aussie quintet who do an even better job at making banjos sound cool than Mumford & Sons, Boy & Bear deliver an album whose stylings owe as much to the genres of hard-edged rock and psychedelic pop as they do to traditional folk. Album opener ‘Southern Sun’ might conjur the spirit of classic US ‘storyteller’ bands like Bread and the eponymously named America, but the moment front-man Dave Hosking sings of “16 days under a southern sun” you just know these are quality home-baked goods. As its title might suggest, ‘Harlequin Dream’ is a tapestry of colourful tales told through surreal sonic layerings – like a soundtrack to a narcoleptic’s road-trip, where the combi van’s gone into autopilot and the driver’s REM sleep is slowly interlaced with kaleidoscopic flashbacks. Put it this way, if Instagram had a theme song, it’d probably sit nicely among these retro-dreamy tunes.
06. M.I.A. – Matangi
Ten seconds of delicate strings start the LP off but from thereon it’s all phat percussion, distorted FX and bad-ass bitching from the girl famous for sticking her middle finger up at last year’s Superbowl. Opening track ‘Karmageddon’ ends with the lyric “My words are my armour and you’re about to meet your karma” and sure enough M.I.A. is in full poetic-critic rap-chick mode, waxing lyrical on subjects as diverse as individualism (‘Only 1 U’), plagiarism (‘aTENTion’), post-feminism (‘Bad Girls’) and virtually every other ‘ism’ worth rapping about. While her nickname might allude to being ‘missing in action’, on the contrary this trailblazer seems to wanna forever be in yer face. And who’s gonna argue with that?
07. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
For all the hype surrounding Daft Punk (who cares, really, about what mugs lie behind those masks?), the French duo do know what they’re doing when it comes to pleasing the masses. Pretty much all the songs on ‘Random Access Memories’ strip electronic dance music back to its most basic form and function: simple beats and rhythms that just make you want to move. While a song like ‘Give Life Back To Music’ doesn’t exactly inject verve into a close-to-dying modern club sound, it does succeed in throwing it back to its roots (via Kraftwerk-like tech-y tricks and dollops of disco) to remember what it once was in its naivest guise. Random? Not really – it’s more structured than that. Accessible? Yes, very. Memorable? Who knows in 20 years’ time if we’ll look back and laugh at our fussing over two ageing dudes in biker helmets who used to dish out trivial electro…
08. Abbe May – Kiss My Apocalpyse
Why this girl hasn’t gone on to conquer the world, we’re quite not sure. Perth born and bred Abbe May appears to effortlessly channel the dark satire of PJ Harvey, the come-here-but-get-the-fuck-outta-my-face dissonance of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, and the schizo wordplay of Bjork. Yet there hardly appears to be a gimmick in sight. Check out the clip for ‘Karmageddon’ on Youtube and you’ll see it’s just her, a grey wall for a backdrop, and one excellent song. ‘T.R.O.U.B.L.E.’, too, spells things out quite simply and to-the-point without the need for hype and self-appointing heroic sentiment. Humble, honest, delicate in parts, far harder in others, ‘Kiss My Apocalypse’ encompasses an avalanche of emotions and themes. And why shouldn’t it? Life does too, yeah?
09. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
From the first contrived glitches on NIN’s latest offering, you know front-man Trent Reznor is just not gonna let slip his love/hate relationship with all things industrial. First track proper ‘Copy Of A’ is a comment on the redundant state of modern art while it stands as pretty much a repetitive slice of futile work in itself. What it does well, is lead the listener to wondering how far Reznor will go to challenge his own faults; to replace irony with actual art worth listening to. Indeed, he proves himself as the record moves along. Besides the song ‘Running’, which is very much a relentless bit of digital fluff, the other tracks on ‘Hesitation Marks’ see melody and rhythm weave in and out and, yes, sometimes even clashing to cacophonous heavy metal effect. And then there’s the single that shocked everybody: ‘Everything’ with its lead lyric that “I’ve survived everything” is quite possibly the most optimistic piece of music Trent and Co have ever created. Of course that lapse into ‘happiness’ doesn’t last for long…
10. My Bloody Valentine – MBV
For a record that was half-recorded before the band’s breakup in 1997, My Bloody Valentine’s abbreviated affair says a lot about music and retrospect. Since the split, even the genre this band pretty much pioneered – ‘shoegazing’ – has disappeared under the sun (what new Charlatans record?). However, music’s current landscape of hippy-esque sounds, from folk to psychedelic (thank you Mumford and Tame), possibly gave the Valentines the hint that the time was ripe to finish this album. And what a beautiful album it is: dreamy to the point of sonically surreal, with traditional instruments like bass and guitar bubbling so subtly beneath the surface of strings and keys, it’s as if rock songs might burst out at any minute. Alas, things hardly even venture into pop territory, keeping these indie darlings satisfied, we’re sure, of their left-of-centre, cult-like status.
11. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
Released without the usual fanfare of months-long viral campaigning, Beyoncé new self-titled album came as a shock to most of us – which in effect resulted in an avalanche of publicity on social media platforms, giving it an even bigger push than all the money in ‘teaser’ promotion could buy. But the sudden post-release hype isn’t without warrant, for ‘Beyoncé’ is actually a bloody brilliant record. In fact, how the artist managed to keep it such a secret (especially with all the people that would have been inconspicuously involved in the making of the accompanying videos to each and every song) is anyone’s guess, because if we were cutting tracks this good over the past months, we’d have been dying to let friends and family hear them. So to those very songs. They range from the extra-sentimental (‘Blue’) to the ultra-sexual (‘Grown Woman’), the pensive (‘Jealous’) to the fun-loving (‘XO’). Our stand-out track and video combined? ‘Haunted’. It simply shits all over the OTT pseudo-dramatics of Gaga, Miley, and their ilk. As a package, this release might only be available digitally for now, but we’re begging for a combined Blu-ray/CD package to be released. Please!
12. Jay-Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail
Stripping things back and starting with a fresh canvas, Jay-Z delivers a piece of aural art with ‘Holy Grail’. Despite its over-the-top title that could have had him crucified as quickly as Kanye for his ‘Yeezus’ (read: ‘Jesus’) adoption, ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ is far less pretentious. The opening track moves from sweet ballad to hard-edge rap track and back without a flinch, lending better credence to guest vocalist Justin Timberlake’s talents than even his ‘20/20 Experience’ could (in our books, anyway). Sure, there’s a small element of futility on here, like the relentless ‘Tom Ford’ (we didn’t say it wasn’t pretentious at all) but for the most part, ‘Magna…’ is great, genre-splitting, pop-cultural-referencing audio candy.
13. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
When Cream last interviewed Nick Cave, he appeared to have a chip on his shoulder about all things internet – dissing the new media as one less about fact and more about hype and fiction. We bet after viewing the many Youtube hits of songs from this album, and reading the endless praise by every credible online music mag, he’s beginning to change his tune. Hype or no hype, ‘Push The Sky Away’ is one bloody good record. It recalls a Nick and Seeds circa early 1990s; when things hadn’t gotten all ‘holier than thou’; when writing a broody, important soundtrack meant more than appearing in some blokey mag’s coolest dudes lists. All is forgiven, Mr Cave.
14. Boards Of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Being so generous as to stream their entire album for public consumption via Pitchfork didn’t stop Boards Of Canada’s latest LP from selling well. A remarkable feat for a band so far on the left of left that they were hardly known outside of hipster indie cliques. Taking the electronic music genre out of the seedy venues it had gotten lost in by year’s beginning, and catapulting it back to the realms of the practically symphonic, ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ is a blissful ambient affair that would sit quite comfortably between Brian Eno at his solo best, and albums by some the world’s leading orchestras. You could do yoga to this stuff, and still wanna shimmy in between downward dog poses; clean the house to it or be mowing the lawn, then suddenly break out into a kooky hand-waving dance that’d have your neighbours thinking you’re a bit cray-cray. And it would all be worth it for the slice of sonic joy that it is.
15. Birds Of Tokyo – March Fires
Starting with subtle strums of bass on the dreamy intro of ‘Liquid Arms’, the echoes soon make way for vibrating synths and rawer, more ‘traditionally rock’ sounding instruments until the song itself ends like a cacophonous stadium anthem. Yes, it’s all very grandiose and U2-like for a band of boys from Perth, but Birds Of Tokyo prove they’re more than just makers of veteran-emulated OTT rock. Two particular songs on this record proved that rock can have a soft spot, able to melt the hearts of even the hardest of music-heads. ‘This Fire’ rolls along like a battalion of sensitive soldiers tepid of even the thought of going to war, while ‘Lanterns’ would have even the macho-est of dudes tempted to take their lighters out and wave them in the air at a live gig. Ironically, the sonic sytlings grow more upbeat – ‘louder’ even – when it comes to third single ‘When The Night Falls Quiet’. And from there it’s a continual tug-o-war of sonic emotion – soft verses bursting into potent choruses breaking down again into weeping strings and brooding strums. It makes the listener feel all fuzzy-and-tough at once and, quite frankly, it’s the perfect, typical example of that dissonant soft-rock ‘Perth sound’.
16. Eskimo Joe – Wastelands
Yet another band from the world’s most isolated city who are good at giving the rest of the world a swagful of emotional stimulant via song, Perth’s Eskimo Joe could have turned to previous successes like ‘Black Fingernails, Red Wine’ for repeated inspiration but instead ventured into several different directions with ‘Wastelands’. And while the boys could easily have copied the ‘in’ sounds of their contemporaries (Tame Impala’s psychedelic touches, Boy & Bear’s folky bent), they instead come up with a soundscape that is their own, and that continues to defy genre-positioning. ‘Running Out Of Needs’ is soft and yearning for the first part, then bright to the point of carnival-esque midway to end. ‘Got What You Need’ isn’t embarrassed to lace a bit of digital FX into the rawer instrumentation. And ‘How Was I To Know’ is all bouncy-like, as if the aforementioned depressant ‘Red Wine’ had been replaced with some new love drug. Sure, it’s more ‘pop’ than their rock fans are used to – but it’s all brave, accessible, quality stuff.
17. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
From graduating with Ivy League educations to singing “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma” [their first big hit], the sentiment of ‘ironic and intelligent rock’ continues on Vampire Weekend’s 2013 album – even if its title is a little twee. There’s still some of that college guy angst evident in some of the songs, but for the most part ‘Modern Vampires’ displays a more grown-up bunch of guys contemplating a youth that’s been laid to waste. This is best represented in a song like ‘Steps’, which oozes with poetic regret. ‘Diane Young’ continues with the heeding-versus-hedonistic wordplay (‘Dying Young’, geddit?) while ‘Everlasting Arms’ sounds as though the band had recently graduated from Paul Simon’s School of Songwriting (seriously, he used to run one!) complete with ‘world music’-like percussion that sounds like it was lifted off Simon’s very ‘Graceland’ LP. Looking up to and respecting the veterans of American rock music? Perhaps the kids do stand a chance.
18. Suede – Bloodsports
When British band Suede called it ‘quits’ in 2003, many a shoegazing fan was disillusioned, wondering where the hell they’d get their next fix of angst-ridden, drug-addled, instantly infectious music. No band tip-toed the fine line between pop and rock as good as Suede, who managed to fuse traditional garage playing with electronic verve – most evident in songs like ‘Metal Mickey’, ‘Animal Nitrate’ (a play on ‘Amyl Nitrate’), ‘Trash’, and ‘Beautiful Ones’. Fast forward a full decade and the band reunite to perform as though they’d remained besties all that time: delivering an avalanche of killer riffs all getting along perfectly well as if there was never a rift amongst them. Check out such string-and-synth-saturated tracks as ‘Barriers’, ‘Snowblind’ and ‘Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away’, and you get a sense of hope that we’ll be hearing a lot more from these quasi-confused lads in future years.
19. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
With an intro that sounds like the theme to a Tarantino movie, Janelle Monáe’s intricately constructed album of pastiche pop/ska/country/blues/rock/soul is instantly likeable and more and more loveable with every rotation. While the music sounds like she’s roped in a host of uncredited geniuses of virtually every instrument – from the raw to the electronic – the lyrics appear as though the souls of female artists past, from Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse, have entered the girl to finish the jobs they’d started. You wouldn’t believe this was the girl who got all celestial, albeit somewhere in the background, on Fun’s everyday hit ‘We Are Young’. On ‘The Electric Lady’, there’s more oomph and attitude to catapult this girl beyond the realms of big old-school sisters Aretha, Tina, et al.
20. Kings Of Leon – Mechanical Bull
Opening with vibrant lead single ‘Supersoaker’, Kings Of Leon’s sixth studio album instantly sounds more optimistic than previous offerings. Although, lyrically, the song comes across as a plea for a lover not to ever leave singer Caleb Followil, ultimately it sends the message that he’ll do fine anyway, thanks very much. Indeed, it’s like toughened-up Springsteen in his ‘Nebraska’ period – but with a Chevy boot packed with enough Red Bulls to see the band through the long road trip ahead. Elsewhere on the record, fellow Followil siblings (and cousin) deliver more of that raw, nonchalant rock swagger you’d come to expect from Nashville born-and-bred musos. Even the ballad ‘Beautiful War’ sounds more laidback and she’ll-be-alright-mate than its angst-ridden title might suggest.