2013 has been a ridiculous year for music – in the sense that I have felt positively spoiled. Half of my Top 15 all-time listened artists on Last.fm released new albums, there were magnificent debuts, and those I had previously not given much attention to impressed. It’s hard to pick a properly ranking order of favourites then, at least beyond the top of the musical mountain, so for starters here’s a top 5, followed by a top 40 in alphabetical order within each tranche of ten (a decatranche, if you will). Ah, it’ll all make sense once you look through. And don’t forget my bumper Viewing Gum Music of 2013 Spotify playlist at the bottom!
#1. DAVID BOWIE – THE NEXT DAY
Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion when, way back in January on his 66th birthday, David Bowie came right back out of nowhere with a brand new single and music video and confirmation that a new album, his first since 2003’s Reality, was forthcoming – that said album would be my favourite of the year. And the nature of its release, coupled with the magnificent ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition at the V&A, probably has a substantial role to play too. But taking the album on its own merits is easy because it quite frankly rocks harder and plays better than I could have possibly expected. Releasing the slow and pensive ‘Where Are We Now?’ as the first single was something of a bluff, as Bowie sounds more alive than ever elsewhere, with follow-up singles ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’ in particular having real swagger and kick. Okay, I’ll acknowledge not every track worked for me (‘If You Can See Me’ is a mildly cringey return to some of the 90’s worst habits, and ‘Dancing Out In Space’ sounds like a naff musical interlude from a lost Red Dwarf episode). But one could easily substitute any of the bonus tracks or those appearing on The Next Day Extra and instantly bring up the average to higher than I’d have ever hoped for. And the echoes of former work (as made explicit in its recycled cover) – the drum beat of ‘Five Years’ returns to close ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ ain’t a million miles away from ‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’ – feel welcome and playful, rather than a lack of creativity. This is Bowie enjoying being Bowie again. And it’s a pleasure to have him back.
#2. WOODKID – THE GOLDEN AGE
Music video director Yoann Lemoine turns his hand to creating music all of his own, with hugely impressive results. It’s hard not to call The Golden Age cinematic in its sound (if Lemoine’s videos are anything to go by, the visuals are deliberately striving for something as epic as their score) but for all its fanfare trumpets, sweeping strings and pounding percussion, some gorgeous tunes and honest emotion are vital to its success. From the propulsive excitement of ‘The Great Escape’ to the quiet of ‘Boat Song’, The Golden Age is a gloriously rich album, and while Lemoine’s vocals may not be to everyone’s taste (like Antony Hegarty with a phlegmy throat), the imperfections add an earnest quality to the lyrics no amount of overblown warbling could ever capture.
#3. JANELLE MONÁE – THE ELECTRIC LADY
Our favourite fugitive, the Archandroid herself, Cindi Mayweather aka Janelle Monáe returns with the continuing chapters of her Metropolis saga, and brings along guest appearances from the likes of Erykah Badu, Solange and the Great Purple One, Prince himself. Few artists out there at the moment tap into mind, body and soul quite like Monáe, but she preaches with such energy and panache, it never works against the music (I mean, that rap at the end of ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ is, like, DAMN!). If it isn’t quite the genre-hopping triumph of The Archandroid, The Electric Lady feels more personal, as if she is bringing us ever closer into her circle and revealing her more human side. The simple but gorgeous duet with Miguel, ‘Primetime’, might as well just be repeated 20 times and it’d be the ultimate sex mix. And if Suite V isn’t as instantly arresting as Suite IV, it rewards repeat listening to uncover its depths. A beautiful, funky thing indeed.
#4. GOLDFRAPP – TALES OF US
Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory present a stripped back yet lushly embellished sound on their sixth album, and easily one of their best. Closer to the mood, if not always the music, of their debut Felt Mountain than they’ve been since, Tales of Us is, for all the clunky cliché of the phrase, hauntingly beautiful, marrying those ethereal vocals with the perfect instrumentation to tell the tales they do. An exquisite listening experience.
#5. BIG BLACK DELTA – BIG BLACK DELTA
Mellowdrone vocalist Jonathan Bates expands his BBDLP1 into a full-length eponymous debut, but in doing so not only loses arguably his best track (‘Roost’, which sounds like the Twin Peaks theme turned up to 1000), but also a degree of its consistency. That said, it still leaves Big Black Delta a very, very good album indeed. It’s at its best when it harnesses its raw electronic power to create music that sounds like celestial bodies colliding with one another, but it’s atmospheric enough in its quieter moments to be totally engrossing throughout.
SIX TO TEN
ANAMANAGUCHI – ENDLESS FANTASY
A case of too much of a good thing to take in one sitting, but you’d be hard pressed to find other songs as purely enjoyable as ‘Meow’, ‘Planet’ or the title track this year.
ARCADE FIRE – REFLEKTOR
They may be trying far too hard to sound more lo-fi, as if they have to force themselves to not ‘epic’ it up and keep it simple, but this change in tack is a real grower.
CHVRCHES – THE BONES OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE
As damn fine a synth-indie-pop record as you’re likely to get – if you ignore the weak male vocals.
JOHN GRANT – PALE GREEN GHOSTS
Grant channels pain and anger into something great, making the downbeat and depressing surprisingly enjoyable to listen to. And no one says ‘motherfucker’ quite like him.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – PUSH THE SKY AWAY
Cave and co. are in broody, moody, melancholic mode, and it works wonders.
ELEVEN TO TWENTY
ARCTIC MONKEYS – AM
The Monkeys return to their rollicking best, but with added danger and darkness.
BEST COAST – FADE AWAY
A mini-album of honest and heartfelt tunes that mirrors the wonderful The Only Place, and might even be better overall.
CHROME CANYON – ELEMENTAL THEMES
Not all retro-futuro eighties fauktronica is digital, and the warmth of Chrome Canyon’s analogue synthage proves technology is fleeting, but great tunes live forever. Or something.
DRENGE – DRENGE
The Brothers Loveless prove that a lot of time on your hands in the middle of nowhere remains a good breeding ground for some good old-fashioned ‘fuck you’ rock ‘n’ roll.
THE FLAMING LIPS – THE TERROR / PEACE SWORD
Wayne Coyne and the gang get lost in space over two albums in 2013, and it’s not always easy listening, but it makes for some evocative soundscapes.
OLAFUR ARNALDS – FOR NOW I AM WINTER
At times beautiful, at times unsettling, Arnalds also scored ITV crime drama Broadchurch. I didn’t watch it, but I imagine the music was very good if this album was any indication.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – …LIKE CLOCKWORK
…Like really pretty good.
SHUGO TOKUMARU – IN FOCUS?
Ridiculously entertaining indie-pop, with a whole toybox of quirks and tricks, that saw Tokumaru pick up some well-earned mainstream attention. Like the score to a Yoshi’s Island game not yet made.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY
Proof that they’re not just catchy hooks and preppy shirts, Vampire Weekend’s third album is their most substantial yet.
VERONICA FALLS – WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN
Probably the kind of music 40-something indie directors imagine all American teenagers listen to. In reality, they don’t. But hey, they should!
TWENTY ONE TO THIRTY
BATHS – OBSIDIAN
CULTS – STATIC
FRANZ FERDINAND – RIGHT THOUGHTS, RIGHT WORDS, RIGHT ACTION
JON HOPKINS – IMMUNITY
JOSEPHINE FOSTER – I’M A DREAMER
KANYE WEST – YEEZUS
THE LEISURE SOCIETY – ALL ABOARD THE ARK
NADINE SHAH – LOVE YOUR DUM AND MAD
PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING – INFORM – EDUCATE – ENTERTAIN
SAVAGES – SILENCE YOURSELF
THIRTY ONE TO FORTY
BOARDS OF CANADA – TOMORROW’S HARVEST
CAPSULE – CAPS LOCK
DAFT PUNK – RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES
DARWIN DEEZ – SONGS FOR IMAGINATIVE PEOPLE
EVERYTHING EVERYTHING – ARC
FUCK BUTTONS – SLOW FOCUS
KINGS OF LEON – MECHANICAL BULL
THE KNIFE – SHAKING THE HABITUAL
MELT-BANANA – FETCH
PHOENIX – BANKRUPT!
Okay, there’s a Top 40 for you! But to save you some considerable time going through them all (or my Viewing Gum Listening Posts), here’s one mega Viewing Gum Music of 2013 Spotify Playlist, featuring tracks from a whole bunch of the albums above, as well as a choice few singles and others that didn’t make the cut. And please tell me everything I got wrong and everything I missed – I’m dying to know!