Here’s the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils from the Sea


This album was full of characters. Gustavo, the illegal immigrant. J H Park, the flight attendant. His dad. His sister. There was death. Break ups. Touring. The usual. But through it all, magnificently, “the wonder of life prevailed”.

Bill Callahan – Dream River


This was Bill Callahan’s happy album. At times he seemed almost contented. It’s all relative, of course. “You looked like world-wide Armageddon while you slept” is his form of a compliment. And sitting on a barstool uttering only the words “Beer … Thank you … Beer … Thank you” is about as close as you’re likely to come to a conversation. Few could get away with it, but Bill Callahan certainly can.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze


Song after song with the same tone. The same mood. The same sound. Chilled out. Laid back. Confident. Kurt Vile pulled off a great trick of turning in a really disciplined and coherent album that still totally relaxed and spontaneous. It was an album that you wanted to go on for hours and hours. And with the arrival of the deluxe edition, it did.

Phosphorescent – Muchacho


Much was made of Matthew Houck’s new-found love of electronica. But he blended it beautifully with Phosphorescent’s signature-style, slightly off-kilter americana. There were the usual yips. Raggedy guitars. Head-scratching song titles. But most of all there were great melodies and an extra dimension to the sound.

Arctic Monkeys – AM


There were no frills, no flourishes to this version of the Arctic Monkeys. The sound was slinky, sexy, groovy. The themes were late night. Lonely. But then up popped Arabella with her “interstellar-gator skin boots” and “Barbarella silver swimsuit”. Oh, being a rock superstar is such hell.

Pop and Chamber Pop. The Best albums of 2013 Part 3

Local Natives – Hummingbird


Wonderfully vivacious, Local Natives were this year’s surprise package. Hummable hooks. Memorable melodies. What more could you ask? Perhaps some more reflective themes. Well, Local Natives had them too.

Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record


Eleanor Friedberger would be well qualified to do guided tours of New York City. But you’d have to move pretty fast to keep up with her. This was an album that veritably scampered along. And this time she got help with the lyrics from Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding).

Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond


When a band calls a song ‘Advanced Falconry’, you know they’re not trying to appeal to the death metal demographic. Full of liquid sounds, this  was an album bursting with beautiful songs. And so fragile that a puff of wind would blow them away.

San Fermin


If Mutual Benefit was the sensitive child hiding at the back of the class, San Fermin was the confident one at the front. Not such much math pop, as a PhD in astrophysics pop. Oh the contrapuntal elegance of it all. All of which makes the cuss word in the utterly magnificent ‘Sonsick’ all the more shocking.

Young Man – Beyond Was All Around Me


So precocious. So full of tunes. Colin Caulfield demonstrated a maturity beyond his years and produced an album that had the best Pink Floyd pastiche of the year. And then the band split up.

Welcome to part 2 of the best albums of 2013, AKA the miserable 5.

Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards – Blindspot


The gravel-voiced Gollum of gloom returns with an album so downer-sounding it’s positively uplifting. After all, at least you get to realise that someone out there is worse off than you. While poor old Dan and his Coastguards give the impression they’re about to hit the rocks any day soon, they tell their stories with such a delicate beauty that you can’t help but want to throw them a lifeline. Sure, they’d probably drop it anyway.

Mark Kozelek & Desertshore


Just when you’ve managed to come to terms with the ultra-miserabilist themes of the new Mark Kozelek album, doesn’t he go and release a second one. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you? If it wasn’t so freaking affecting. If it didn’t sound so darn beautiful. Well, you’d have reason to be resentful. Instead, you put ‘Brothers’ on repeat and wonder how anyone write a song quite so emotional.

Alela Diane – About Farewell


Alela Diane writes about the pain of breaking up. The anger of having wasted part of a life. And the excitement of starting afresh. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. There’s plenty of unfinished business at the end of this particular journey. It’s tough to listen to a first-hand account of the break-up of a marriage. But hopefully the process of writing was cathartic and with luck we might yet get to hear the part about starting afresh.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern


Jason Isbell is an interloper. He’s got over his troubles. Kicked his destructive habits. But, thankfully for the rest of us, he can remember just enough of his dark days to tell some great stories. And he recounts them with tremendous verve and panache. This is a songwriter at the absolute top of his game. An album full of great songs with wonderful hooks and lovely arrangements.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You


There are times on this album when Neko sounds really angry. She’s had a difficult time recently and sometimes it shows. When she sings about murdering a man by shooting him through his jelly eye, you start to smile politely and back away. But don’t go too far. There’s plenty here to keep you amused and entertained.

Over the next four days, I am revealing my top 20 albums of the year. It’s in something approaching reverse order. Here’s part 1.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away


In some utopian community somewhere, small children are being taught Nick Cave. They will emerge as highly erudite, yet slightly worrying human beings. They will talk to you in a language you understand, but which has so many words to read in between that your head soon starts to spin and won’t stop. The magnificent ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is on the exam paper this year.

Villagers – {Awayland}


Meanwhile the B stream are studying Villagers. It’s no easy module. Far more words. And just as many abstruse allusions. But plenty of great songs to keep you going. Fair play to Conor O’Brien, {Awayland} was no ‘Becoming A Jackal’ part 2. Something special was lost, but much was gained in return. The difficult third album will be a true test.

Ducktails – The Flower Lane


A Real Estate side project, Ducktails exceeded expectations. Whereas so many of the year’s bands aped the worst of mid-1980s, pre-Smiths, syntho-pop, Ducktails succeeded in persuading you that there was some good music in that era. There wasn’t, but Ducktails will do just fine, thanks. ‘Under Cover’ promised to be one of the best songs of the year and it didn’t disappoint.

Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic


It was a difficult year for Foxygen. But if this ends up being their one and only album together, then it will still have been worth it. Derivative? Check. Inspirational lyrics? Hardly. Good fun? Unquestionably. And great tunes? In abundance. Solo efforts from band members later in the year were underwhelming. So, let’s hope the guys kiss and make up and deliver another equally memorable album sometime soon.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II


Great shuffly, yet psychy sounds from one of New Zealand’s finest exports. (Oh, and Portland OR’s too). They pulled off the same trick as Foxygen, by producing an album that sounded ultra-retro, but that was full of contemporary hooks. Most of the album was mid-tempo, but they showed they could rock out when they wanted to. More power to UMO.

Kevin Morby – Harlem River


In the dog days of 2013 releases, there comes a little gem. One time and/or current member of The Babies and Woods, Kevin Morby has delivered a solo album with grand ambitions and strong foundations. Creatively, it’s a paen to New York City. That’s no small subject and Kevin Morby is not the first to address it. Eleanor Friedberger’s take is to make things intensely local. A Baedeker for her favourite neighbourhoods. Here, things are no less intimate. The title track takes us on a personal journey. But, this is no Ulysses for the Big Apple. The songs are firmly rooted, but the themes are universal. ‘The Dead They Don’t Come Back’ being a case in point. ‘Sucker In The Void (The Lone Mile)’ being another. Musically, there are clear antecedents. Dylan is the most obvious influence. The shuffling organ on a number of songs has more than an echo of Al Kooper’s work on Blonde on Blonde, perhaps most noticeably on ‘Wild Side (Oh The Places You’ll Go)’. But it’s more than just a simple homage. The opening track, ‘Miles And Miles’ has a lovely structure, switching between slow waltz-time and more upbeat sections. ‘Harlem River’ itself starts off slow only to get kinda funky. ‘Slow Train’ – another scarcely veiled Dylan reference surely – has a wonderfully laid-back feel and there’s the welcome accompaniment of Cate Le Bon on vocals. Only ‘Reign’ feels as if it’s being played at the wrong tempo, breaking the spell albeit temporarily. With so many ‘best of ..’ list having already been compiled, Harlem River will lose out. But this is an album that deserves to be considered in that category. Whatever about that, it’s an album that deserves just to be heard.

Pitchfork review

The Line of Best Fit review

Tiny Mix Tapes review

Pop’stache review

Muso’s Guide review

Neil Young – Live at the Cellar Door


There’ll be a time when Neil Young is no longer among us. But there’s no reason to believe that his recorded output will end anytime soon. Well known for systematically recording and filming his gigs, there’s a possible world in which a new Neil Young release every, say, six months reaches the digital shelves for at least the next 300 years or thereabouts. The latest from the NYA is a set from late 1970. Actually, it’s a compilation of performances from six separate shows at the Cellar Door in DC in late November/beginning of December of that year. When everything is stacking up for the next major instalment of the NYA to focus on his mid-1980s output, it’s typical of the ornery old fellah to go back to his early 1970s roots. There’s a real historic (read geeky) interest to this release. This set of gigs took place just eleven months after a previous NYA release – Crazy Horse at The Fillmore – and a mere six weeks before yet another still – Live at Massey Hall. Even so, it offers something genuinely original. Unsurprisingly by now, we get some very different versions of standard songs. The piano version of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is a revelation. And for once ‘Bad Fog of Loneliness’ comes across as almost chipper. What’s more, while the set focuses mainly on After The Goldrush, Harvest is clearly in gestation. Indeed, we’re treated to the first ever outing of Old Man. Pleasingly, this set is also much more intimate than the Massey Hall gig. And the sound is captured just exquisitely. Overall, what’s reassuring about this release is the very Neil Young-ness of it. While he started every one of the Cellar Door gigs with ‘On The Way Home’, it’s not present here at all. As recompense, though, we get perhaps the most beautiful rendition of ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ that has been released to date. There’s no second-guessing Neil Young and that’s his very attraction. This is yet one more manifestation of the same. And more than welcome it is too.

Uncut review

Consequence of Sound review

All Music review

The Line of Best Fit review

American Songwriter review

The Guardian review

Beachwood Sparks – Desert Skies


There are two iron laws of rock music. The first is that any band which has broken up but where at least a majority of its members are still standing will eventually get back together again. The Eagles. The Police. The Stone Roses. The Smiths think they’re an exception, but they’ll succumb. The second is that any lost album will never remain lost forever, unless the artist knows it’s a real stinker. Smile was eventually finished, of course, because it’s a true classic. Patty Griffin’s Silver Bell was released only a few weeks ago because it’s well worth it. David Bowie’s Toy remains, thankfully, unreleased. Beachwood Sparks’ Desert Skies can now be added to the list of lost albums that finally saw the light of day. And very welcome to the world it is too. Recorded in 1998, it was shelved prior to the release of the self-titled ‘debut’ in 2000. A number of the songs originally slated for Desert Skies found their way on to their first proper release. The good news is that they sound different here. Really different. And better. Much better. On the self-titled debut, the twang was in full show. Here, it’s a much rockier guitar that dominates. Also, the songs were shorter. Here, they get stretched well out. On the debut ‘Desert Skies’ itself didn’t make the three minute mark, whereas here it reaches nearly five with three quite separate musical acts. In fact, the willingness to experiment within the confines of a single song is the big revelation here. The start of ‘This Is What He Feels Like’ has the same beginning as the equivalent take on the debut, but then it takes off and goes in an entirely different direction, leaving the familiar version far behind. Beachwood Sparks are now two for two. Some years ago they split up and went their separate ways. Last year, they reunited and delivered Tarnished Gold. Now, knowing that they had good material in the vaults, they’ve just gone and released if not a long-lost classic, then at least a mighty fine album.

Pitchfork review

Paste Magazine review

CMJ review