Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Best of 2013: Music Pt.2

Jai Paul - Jai Paul (leak)

Despite this being only an unofficial leak, possibly taken illegally from Jai Paul's laptop depending upon who you believe, we felt like it was strong enough to warrant an inclusion in our list. Jai Paul has only released a frustratingly scant amount of music since his fantastic 2010 debut BTSTU, so this collection of 16 songs was enough to set the internet ablaze when it finally dropped. All clattering drums, cheap synths and endearingly raw production, this collection revealed that Jai Paul is indeed the laptop auteur that we hoped. All sort of weird audio effects abound on this rag tag collection, but the strength of the songwriting really shines through, half Prince, half J Dilla, all entirely fresh and original. We can only hope that an officially release will at some point see the light of day. (George Bate)

My Bloody Valentine - m b v

When Kevin Shields declared that My Bloody Valentine’s third album was “¾ done” back in 2007, we perhaps should all have released we’d be waiting another 6 years for the final thing - that initial three quarters had already taken over a decade to lay down on tape, with the band struggling to build upon their prior creative achievement. Loveless is, to my mind, one of those rare, timeless records that defy the period they were made in, and yet whilst it carries a far more urgent, raw sound than its ethereal predecessor, mbv is just as transcendent. Reading the production history of mbv could have been a bit like peering behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, with only the opening belter of “She Found Now” being a completely new recording - everything else came together in a piecemeal way - but the cohesiveness of the final record nullifies any such qualms. Shields himself has acknowledged the debt the record owes to Drum and Bass, with many purists balking at the notion. Such naysayers would do well to ponder if anything could top “Wonder 2” as the final note to one triumphant return. (Tom Dunn)

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

With their third and easily their greatest studio album thus far, Vampire Weekend have proven themselves wised-up survivors of the late noughties fashion for preppy indie pop by making what could prove to be our generation's Pet Sounds. Emulating Brian Wilson's decision to break away from the youthful naiveté of the Beach Boys' early surf-rock chart-toppers by incorporating more sophisticated arrangements and a sad-eyed emotional maturity, principal songwriters Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij touch on themes of faith, love, and quarter-life crises whilst remaking genres like reggae, rockabilly and chamber-pop in their own image.

Koenig's highly literate lyrics rival Dylan in their combination of richly evocative detail and borderline impenetrable smartassery, whilst the tunes range from sublime to infectious. This sounds like a Vampire Weekend album for a new and more sober era: as Koenig et al realise, young people these days are probably screwed, but that doesn't mean they're ready to give up on life just yet. (Nick Pierce)

David Bowie - The Next Day

It’s nigh-impossible to separate the album The Next Day from the meticulously planned hype campaign (or, for the more cynically inclined, highly manipulative gimmickry) surrounding it, and I wonder how much merit the album will hold for people first listening to Bowie’s complete discography in a decade’s time. Nevertheless, the brilliant reveal of “Where Are We Now” - presenting a crag-lined, melancholic Bowie so sympathetic to the rumours of frailty and doom – was one of the year’s stand-out pop culture moments, only enhancing what is surely the record’s highlight with a well-timed sleight of hand. What actually followed was an energetic – if not overly adventurous – comeback, showing that Bowie was just as lively (and image conscious) as ever, whilst reminding us all that guitar pop can still have a soul.

And then he ruined it all with a Louis Vutton ad. (TD)

Drake - Nothing Was the Same

I was already coming round to Drake last year, following his collaborations with The Weeknd on Kiss Land, but this year’s Nothing Was the Same cemented my appreciation for him. 2013 – rather short-sightedly – has frequently been hailed as the year ‘rap’ and ‘gangsta’ divorced, with the increased soul-searching on the part of MCs supposedly unearthing some prior unknown heart in the form. Nothing Was the Same then is refreshing in its comfortably direct arrogance, offering the best radio rap of the year, as Drake finds the charm his voice previously lacked. And with few other contenders entering the arena, he pulled in an eager audience let down by Jay-Z’s comparatively bloated effort. (TD)

James Blake - Overgrown

Overgrown, over-earnest? Perhaps, though this year’s Mercury Music Prize winner was so much more than kitsch mawkishness; Blake's impassioned vocals may be an acquired taste, but his dubby piano instrumentals are impeccable, at times maddeningly addictive in their propulsion. The album was largely inspired by his girlfriend and muse Theresa Wayman, singer and guitarist in US band Warpaint, and Blake's paeans for her were enough to seemingly inspire similar feelings in the usually hardened RZA. Raps about squids, quids and newborn kids aside, even this bizarre track was not without its merits. The announcement this month of a new Radio 1 show helmed by Blake was another bung for the piano-dubstep wunderkind. (GB)

Darkside - Psychic

In recent months, as a solo artist, Nicolas Jaar has carved a reputation for himself as something like the James Joyce of house music, his radio and online mixes quoting musical sources and snatches of dialogue from a remarkably diverse array of genres, performers, and periods. His side-project with Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington proved to be quite a different proposition, sneaking off the dancefloor altogether and heading out into the cold, lonely night.

Gone are the unpredictable, precocious changes in direction, replaced by a sustained exercise in conjuring a cinematic, noirish universe. The drone interludes and scuttling beats could form a soundtrack to the best David Lynch movie never made (at least not yet...), but Harrington's mellifluous guitar parts bring unexpected warmth, like gusts of hot desert air blowing suddenly down an empty main street in the early hours of the morning. If you like your electronica atmospheric and adventurous, then Psychic is the lost highway you'll be wanting to travel. (NP)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Nearing his sixties might not have exactly mellowed Nick Cave, but it does appear to have prompted him to relinquish some of the imposing and unapproachable grandiloquence of old. His fifteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds is his most introspective since 1997's The Boatman's Call. But whereas that career milestone concerned his heartbreak from an abortive love affair, Push The Sky Away sees him addressing his own steadily advancing age and ultimate obsolescence in voyeuristic, sometimes uncomfortable detail.

In his lyrics, Cave draws on motifs of mermaids and crashing waves to evoke his seaside home of Brighton and contented domestic existence with wife, former model Susie Bick. The Nick Cave we meet in this landscape is a surprisingly moving one, clearly regretful about his vanished youth as a firebrand rocker, but happy and perhaps a touch bemused by the sedate life he has been gifted. The words are mainly more elliptical and attenuated than the prolix wordplay of past classics like 'The Mercy Seat' and 'Red Right Hand', as if language itself is breaking down and becoming another victim of the entropy he depicts. But then, just when we're starting to think that the old Cave is vanishing before our eyes, the band launches into the climactic 'Higgs-Boson Blues', the latest in the Aussie's great tradition of phantasmagorical odysseys, encompassing everything from Christian mythology to Miley Cyrus. (NP)

Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Let's get the negatives out of the way first: as a double-album Reflektor can sometimes feel bloated and indulgent, with several of the tracks outstaying their welcome by a couple of minutes. But on the plus side: it's a new goddamn LP from Arcade Fire, the best rock band to surface from across the Atlantic in years, and they haven't sounded so vibrant or hungry since their 2004 debut, Funeral.

Recruiting LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on production duties seems to have worked wonders for their creative juices. Alongside some more of the usual winning anthemic odes to disenfranchisement, they drop some sweatier, disco-bound cuts throbbing equally with 'Billie Jean' bass and existential urgency, such as the title track, eight of the best and most compelling minutes of music I've heard all year.

Taken as a whole Reflektor lacks some of the cohesion and sense of purpose one might hope for from a band at the height of their powers, but makes up for it with unfashionable sincerity, barnstorming melodies, and a newfound sense of playfulness. When it works, it is nothing short of astonishing. (NP)

We'll return with Part 3 tomorrow, but you can get up to speed with almost all of our choices for the year with the Spectrum Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.