Ok, sure, a 20 song playlist for a 13 song list may not make any sense. But 20 is a nice round number and anyway, bigger is better, right? Sure it is. And unless you have Hot Grave on your hard drive (and you really should) it’s actually a 19 song playlist as that’s not available on Spotify. Either way – these 20 songs were my favourite musical moments of 2013, fragments of my year shoved awkwardly into a playlist for your delectation. Given the title of this blog you can expect there to be little focus or cehesion in this as a mixtape – that’s just par for the course. Being a natural born dilettante rarely lends itself to nice tidy narratives and makes neat segueing a tricky thing to pull off. But this is as good as it got last year. You should have a listen and find out how right I am.
Part 13 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
I didn’t really have any time for Laura Marling until this year. I’m willing to admit that was due to some irrational prejudices of mine. Let’s face it – there aren’t many British singer songwriters out there at the moment who don’t sound like pale imitations of their American influences. And then there’s that whole loose Mumford and Sons connection which soured her by association in my eyes. Sure, you should always take something on it’s own terms; I can’t really justify my ignoring of her obvious talents. But for me when it comes to music there’s something to be said for irrational prejudices – there’s just so damn much of it you can drive yourself crazy trying to listen to and honestly evaluate everything that’s worthy of the time. For, after all, there is only so much time to go around – especially for those of us with Proper Jobs who can’t get away with doing this shit for a living. Anything that cuts down the number of things I’d like to listen to but can’t fit into the day is welcome. So I’d mentally filed Laura Marling under that same pseudo-twee nonsense space Mumford occupy and was content to ignore her. Even after watching a brilliant Daniel Kitson set in which he gushed overAlas I Cannot Swim, citing it as a reason to live at the end of a show preoccupied with death, I refused to change my stance (but then Kitson, god love him, does listen to an awful lot of samey twee indie).
But then, half cut on wine at 2am one fateful Friday night a friend of mine insisted I watch her performance of Master Hunter on Later with Jools Holland. We were trading links and it was his turn so I figured I’d give her a moment to change my mind. Not that I would of course – I’m a stubborn man who know what he likes and all that. I’d decreed her unworthy of my oh so valuable headspace. And yet…I fell in love. A few chords and a slight swagger was all it took. “Great,” I thought, “another fucking great songwriter I have to pay attention to. Brilliant.”
I was expecting tweeness, something my threshold for varies but is rarely all that high. I mean, I loved Moonrise Kingdom, the most twee film from Johnny Twee himself, Wes Anderson, and I’ve spent a chunk of this week listening to Jeffrey Lewis’ Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song as part of my current obsession’s spotify playlist. I guess if I’m honest with myself I can accept twee more if it comes with an American accent. Maybe growing up in the grim North has soured me to the idea of overly privileged southerners dressing like farmers and playing banjos. I dunno – I’ll ask my therapist. Anyhow, I was not expecting this petite blond girl to be singing all battle weary and cold, swatting away potential admirers like bothersome flies. “You want a woman cause you want to be saved/Well I’ll tell you that I got a little of a lot on my plate.” That’s as devastating a put down to any boy looking for a madonna figure to worship as you’re gonna find, reminiscent of that speech in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that Clementine delivers to Joel in the bookstore somewhere in the caverns of his memory, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” Only more dismissive – she’s not even interested in all that. Why would she be?
She wields her guitar like a shield – the song has a bluesy strut to it that oozes confidence and general bad-assery, if you’ll permit so asinine a phrase. It’s a perfect marriage of lyrics and music, an effortlessly executed concept. It caps off a 5 song suite that kicks off Once I was an Eagle, and if the album never quite reaches the peak of that opening gambit again it’s due to some sky high bar setting rather than a paucity of quality.
That moment sat in front of a PC with blackened red wine teeth having my assumptions smashed up and thrown back in my face was thrilling and I can’t wait to see what she can do next. Next time around I’m on board from the get go.
Part 11 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
One of the most heartwarming musical stories of 2013 for me came from watching Future of the Left put up a kickstarter to self release another record after leaving their record label and have it exceed their goal it less than 5 hours. Such is the good will Andy Falkous has built up over 3 previous FOTL records and his previous life in Mclusky. Even Captain Cynical himself must have had his black heart warmed by the speed at which his fans rushed to support him and get the next album underway. Not that you’d notice listening to the results, the fantastic How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident. If anything it’s the most angry and on-the-nose satirical record he’s put out to date. It used to be the case that the wit and the one liners were mostly non sequiturs, humorous asides written purely to fit the music – it’s only over the past couple of records that he’s got specific. Witness the savageness of The Singing of Bonesaws for evidence – a spoken word piece more viscous than any of their throat shredding noise numbers. Even in what comes closest to a ballad as the band have got so far, French Lessons, the sarcasm and bile runs through it like a stick of rock that reads, “fuck you.” It can either be read as a song about the fear of growing up and settling down or just an excuse to marry some great lines to a surprisingly elegant backing from a band more used to pummeling than seducing. Either way it’s both a great break of pace in an otherwise unrelenting album, but more than that it’s a fine piece of songcraft in it’s own right. It’s as funny as the best Falco penned songs (his proposed solution to getting entangled in an endless stream of family engagements:”You could marry yourself to an orphan girl and overcompensate on her birthday”) but with a swoon and whimsy that they’ve never quite showed before. Whilst the lion’s share of How to Stop Your Brain… grinds and pummels harsher than they have since the debut, and sounds great doing so, it’s the more experimental numbers that steal the show. I could happily have picked most of the songs on the album for this run down of songs of the year, and I may just be plumping for this one for how disarming it is. I don’t think it’s just novelty value that has me coming back to this song time after time though. It’s nestled itself into my own personal FOTL best of playlist and I can’t see it shifting any time soon.
Part 10 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
This one may be cheating slightly – I believe it originally got released on Chaudelande Vol. 1 back in 2011, but 2013 saw the whole of Chaudelande available for the first time on CD. And, more importantly for a poor boy like me, it was the first time it appeared on spotify. It was the first time I’d ever really listened to Gnod on their own (I liked the record they did with White Hills back in 2011, but it’s hard to tell who is who on that). So 2013 was the first time I got properly equated with the willfully mysterious entity that calls itself Gnod.
As every music lover knows some songs become inexorably tied with moments, with people, with events. It doesn’t matter whether you want them to or not – sometimes the context in which you hear something for the first or fiftieth time becomes your abiding memory of it, the thing that causes you to keep coming back to a song years after you’ve got tired of it’s style of music or the thing that makes listening to it too hard to bear because of the memories it conjures. Similarly some songs become attached to a particular journey, whether a one off or a repeated commute. For me pretty much the entirety of Mono and Explosions in the Sky’s respective back catalogues bring back memories of the train journey between Barnsley and Huddesfield that I used to take every day whilst at university. I can’t listen to the crescendo at the end of EITS’ Memorial without having flashbacks of sitting on the train home one winter’s evening when the power went out temporarily leaving us careening over the Penistone viaduct in pitch darkness. The journey Tron has become tied up with in my memory is a little more prosaic than that: for me it will forever be associated with the memory of walking from the train station post work commute to the neurological rehabilitation hospital in Barnsley to visit my mother.
It was the height of summer. Places like Barnsley really don’t need a summer – the daylight only emphasises how ugly those twisted gray streets can be. I’d take a shortcut by the vehicle entrance to the market, a grim corridor full of puddles of drunk piss and bad graffiti shaded by the ramp to the car park above. It wasn’t the nicest or most picturesque walk a man can take, neither for the surroundings nor the destination. But sometimes when the sun beats down and the right song travels through your ears down to your heels any song can make you feel so vital and alive that no amount of vomit and leftover kebab can possibly dampen the mood.
On that walk the bookend tracks from Gnod’s Chaudelande did exactly that. Of the two Tron is my choice for the list partly due to comparative brevity – despite being made up of around 10 minutes of relentless psych rock guitar strafing it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome at all, whereas album ender Genocider perhaps doesn’t need the full nigh on 20 minutes it takes up. The other reason is that whilst Tron’s rolling drums may not sound martial they were certainly made for marching – it’s carried along by an incessant pounding groove that imbues every step with purpose. The vocals are typical reverb/delay heavy psych nonsense, but nothing else would really do amidst the maelstrom. There’s no point trying to be profound or poetic amidst this chaos – better to let the vocals swirl with the guitars. And then there’s that riff. It’s one of those simple little guitar lines wrapped up in more fuzz than an old English sheepdog and repeated until it’s bored it’s way into your skull to be forever lodged in your mind. And that’s pretty much it – there are no huge solos, no real psych wig outs to speak of. Every now and again there’s a crazed alternate riff that could be considered a ‘chorus’ of sorts, but apart from that it’s just that endless, driving riff. It carried me from train station to hospital on a number of days I’d much rather have just laid down on the pavement and waited for the street sweepers to take me away, and for that it’ll always have a special place in my heart.
Part 9 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
“AT 2:19AM MY BROTHER STARTED TO STIR IN HIS COFFIN!”
So begins Megachurch 2: Judgement Day, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better opening to an album in 2013. Sure it’s ludicrous, but then that’s very much the aim. It would be easy to dismiss Megachurch as a novelty band. Because, in all honesty, that’s pretty much what they are. They’re a three piece with 2 bassists and a drummer, eschewing traditional vocals for samples of hellfire preachers at their most bellicose along with Fox news talking heads (presumably so we can play a fun game of spot the difference) woven into a selection of big riffs. Which may well not be the recipe for lasting success. But they marry together brilliantly – most rock/metal vocalists would kill to capture the terrifying passionof a wild eyed preacher in full swing. Of course many a rock vocalist has tried to do just that – from Jeffrey Lee Pierce to Neil Fallon plenty have noticed how potent a combo that could be before Megachurch came along. You could say they’re just cutting out the middle man. And much like Karma to Burn, a band their sound is not a million miles from, they’ve realised that when it comes to big, bad, stoner tinged rock most vocalists just get in the way anyhow. Precious few rock singers actually add much to that sound anyhow. If you don’t have an exceptional one lying around then why bother?
Receive it, by far the standout track, showcases this coming together of crazed southern baptist sermonising and hard rocking best. The riffs come thick and fast, utilising the extra heft the all bass set up they’ve got well, and the samples are straight up frightening. They implore the acceptance gods love with a deranged fervor that makes it sound like something deeply sinister. And they aren’t there just for window dressing – they’re very much part of the fabric of the song, setting the pace and leading the titular chorus. The old cliche goes that the devil has the best tunes and Megachurch showcases that sometimes these preachers sound possessed by something a little further south of heaven than they’d have you believe. But above all Receive It just straight up rocks in that old Beavis and Butthead type way that I can’t help but find irresistible.
Part 8 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
You could say this was a busy year for Mark Lanegan, but then you’d have to ask yourself what you’re comparing it to. When was the last time Lanegan didn’t have a busy year? Ever since he hooked up with Queens of the Stone Age way back on Rated R he’s been working a fevered rate. Since then we’ve had his work with the likes of Soulsavers, Creature with the Atom Brain and Isobel Campbell, to name just a few, as well as an impressive number of one shot guest appearances. We’ve even occasionally been treated to the odd solo album, something I’m keeping my fingers crossed for in 2014. Though technically we did have have one of those in 2013, the relaxed and assured collection of covers Imitations, which played out like An Evening with Mark Lanegan and worked a hell of a lot better than a battle hardened old grunge veteran covering the classics really should. Apart from that we got a typically beautiful and melancholic single with Moby for record store day (The Lonely Night) and this, a collaborative album with Duke Garwood. There’s an argument to be made that, by his standards, Lanegan was actually taking it easy in 2013.
Black Pudding, the album he made with Duke Garwood is, for me, is the least interesting of his 2013 works. It’s far from a bad record, however Duke doesn’t really add a great deal to Lanegans sound. Bar the odd curveball it sounds like a throwback to the more spectral Americana of his earlier albums without quite hitting the heights (or indeed lows) of the likes of Scraps at Midnight or Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. But there are a few stand out tracks, chief amongst them the brilliant Mescalito.
It took a chance listen on good headphones in a silent train station waiting room for Duke’s work on this to really sink in*. Those ghostly rattling guitar chimes work against that rolling acoustic guitar groove to make the perfect eerie companion for Lanegan’s trademark rumbling baritone. It sounds world weary (by now Lanegan’s grizzled visage should be in every dictionary under that phrase) and a little menacing, like the drunk at the end of the bar who could turn at any time. It’s a sound and a role that Lanegan has made his own for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Mescalito may not quite be the best example of this in an exceptional career, but it doesn’t need to scale those heights to be amongst the best tracks for a given calender year. He’s the old gunslinger who can put a bullet in any kid in town in his sleep. Lanegan may have been taking it easy in 2013 but he can still pull out something special every now and then without having to fully wake up.
*I’ve been meaning to revisit the whole record since then but haven’t got around to it. There’s a chance I might be reconsidering that second paragraph soon.
Part 7 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
I’m not sure I understand Uncle Acid. Unless you’re the kind of guy who picked up one of their limited edition tape runs of their first couple of records (who are these people??) they came out of nowhere – by all accounts they hadn’t played a gig until 2013, partly due to being the brain child of one dude from Cambridge rather than an actual band. The next thing you know they’re supporting Sabbath on what is likely to be their final arena tour. All despite not really doing anything unique or interesting. The Sabbath thing makes sense as there’s more than a little of Birmingham’s finest in their sound – pretty much every riff here is one that Iommi himself would have been pleased to have come up with. There’s a bit more going on: a bit more pop, perhaps. They’re not adverse to some borderline T-Rex glam stomping at times. There’s a bit of the weirder end of the Beatles and maybe a soupcon of psych. But that’s about it. Maybe the fake occult back story did it’s work to pique the interest of a few people who might not have otherwise listened to them. But surely in 2013 we’re beyond that? I’d have thought Bon Iver was the last one to make out like a thief with that after the whole mopey Walden shtick. And yet, here we are. It’s kinda baffling.
What’s even more baffling is how damn good it sounds.
Uncle Acid himself sings like a 60s popstar more inclined to hunt the object of his affections than woo her. Which blends in better than you’d expect with the Black Purple/Deep Sabbath crunch of the guitars that back him up. Poison Apple makes the most of this juxtaposition, sounding like a hippy era pop song from a jukebox from an alternate universe where nothing is quite right. Like an episode of the Twilight Zone where the twist is that Donovan turns out to be the reincarnation of Alistair Crowley. The lyrics are all essentially variations on, “I’m a bit evil, me” followed up with some poppy “ooohs” for a chorus. But the riff is pretty majestic and the organ fills out the sound with a neat sinister edge. And, even better, the hooks are big enough to fish for whales with. It’s mostly included in this list by virtue of spending a large chunk of the year mercilessly rattling around my brain. But in the end it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, so it can’t be that special, right? Only it is. Very special indeed. Which explains their sudden rise I guess. In some ways it’s heartwarming that doing something old but doing it with love, and doing it damn well, is still enough to make waves these days.
Part 6 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
Hey Colossus are a band not adverse to getting low down and dirty. They’ve been shaking up a bizarre cocktail of noise, psych, krautrock and whatever other nefarious aural stimulants can get their filthy mitts on for around a decade now. But for my money they’ve never quite gotten as low down neanderthal as this before. Hot Grave is an exercise in repetition, a single grinding riff topped with wild eyed growls and short synth waves. For nearly seven minutes. It should get dull, but it’s a hypnotic kind barbarism, like finding zen from being repeatedly punched in the face. It sounds a bit like Scissorfight might have if they’d found some room to fit some kosmische into their Southern caveman rock. Knuckles on the ground, eyes to the heavens.
The lyrics fit that vibe perfectly: a gleefully unhinged celebration of impending damnation. Whilst the guitars keeping on crashing that same riff like an ocean of piss and vinegar against a baffled shore the howls and snarls come from an audible cracked smile. Proof if ever it was needed that you don’t need to be angry to scream your lungs out. You can’t tell me the man yelling, “I’M FUCKING STEAMING!” isn’t having a damn ball. And all the while those slightly incongruous synths add an odd haze to the proceedings. They aren’t a major presence on Hot Grave but they do create a vague aura of psychedelia that the band pick up and run with throughout the rest of Cuckoo Live Life Like Cuckoo. Which is what has made Hey Colossus such a continuously intriguing prospect for the past ten years: even whilst they’re relishing rolling in the gutter they’ve got one eye on the stars.
Part 5 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
I’ll level with you – I’m no expert on this ‘American Primitive’, post-John Fahey folk stuff. I came to it by way of James Blackshaw a few years back and have only recently gone further down that rabbit hole to inspect it’s roots and look around to see who else is carrying the torch. Of the releases I checked out this year William Tyler’s Impossible Truth is probably the most widely celebrated – and deservedly so. He has a way of taking you down a sonic winding road better than most – the album’s concept is, I believe, some kind of apocalyptic road trip-cum-love story. I don’t know about any of that but it’s certainly strong enough an album for you to close your eyes and be taken wherever you want to go.
Tyler has a way of effortlessly moving between guitar hooks – whereas often the fingerpicking in this style is used more for texture than melody Tyler swings in the opposite direction. Cadillac Desert’s six and a half minutes features several beautiful moments that would have been highlights in any other song – the haunting slide guitar introduced around the 5 minute mark probably being the pick of the bunch, changing the mood of the piece from upbeat to sorrowful in a heartbeat. The versatility Tyler has at (and indeed in) his fingertips is incredible and he utilises it to expert effect throughout Impossible Truth, one of the best sonic trips you could take in 2013.
Part 4 of a 13 song recap of my 2013 in no particular order
Shining, Norways premiere (and possibly only) ‘Blackjazz’ outfit (so named because the alternative, jazz-metal, is about as appealing as emo-reggae. Or techno reggae. O, y’know, reggae) went Pop this year. We’re talking verse-chorus-verse-chorus stuff here. Catchy choruses no less. To even the less discerning metal fan these resembled Songs in a traditional sense. Obviously this is blasphemy of the worst kind and they were shunned by a lot of folk who wanted them to forever be as obtuse and close to unlistenable as possible. And rightly so – listen to that middle 8 on The One Inside. It’s only a matter of time before that sax n’ blastbeat combo is covered by some wannabe pop starlet on X Factor. Sickening.
Thems the breaks in leftfield music I guess – you stay extreme or you get the hell out. But, as much as I loved 2010’s baffling noise assault Blackjazz, I have to say I’m enjoying their new streamlined sound. They seem to be channeling metal godhead Devin Townsend at times, always a worthwhile endeavor if you ask me. The One Inside starts manic before locking down into a head pounding groove that only really lets up to give way to that aforementioned squealing sax break. I can’t imagine how anyone who liked these guys before can’t find that thrilling. For me, as avant-black metal tinged with shoegaze increasingly became the sound du jour for any thinking metal lover (a sound which, a few records aside, I just cannot get along with) 2013 wasn’t exactly a vintage year for The Heavy. But there were a few excellent exceptions to that rule, of which Shining’s latest was amongst the best.