Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Records. Themes. Gigs. The Lot.

Like every other self-respecting music freak, I'm more than partial to the annual December list-athon, but what I cannot fathom are those which instantly speculate how a given year will be remembered. Sure, it's an intriguing aspect to the whole discussion, but alleging certain records will remain classics for years and decades to come is ultimately a hiding to nothing. Who's to say that Yeezus, for example, won't gather dust as its production tricks and shock value succumb to age, or that come 2020 we won't snigger at Modern Vampires of the City as an "album of the year" catastrophe? On the other side of the coin, how can we be sure we've not dismissed another Odessey and Oracle or Velvet Underground & Nico; an overlooked gem whose early obscurity masks a future cult classic?

With these and other bloopers in mind, I prefer to avoid declaring which LPs we'll view as "the best" or "the most important" with retrospect, and instead focus on the patterns and events which have unquestionably left an impression on the here and now. Without further ado, then, here the themes which have shaped my own musical year, together with a selection of personal favourites from what present impressions suggest has been another solid 12-month innings...


Whereas 2012 was dominated predominantly by hip hop and R&B artists, 2013 has seen electronic music well and truly establish itself as the most contemporary and exciting force in the modern musical landscape.
Jon Hopkins
Clearly this is hardly a new phenomenon, but with standout records spawned from every eclectic branch, there's no question we're experiencing a stirring and compelling surge in creativity. For me, the star of the show was London producer Jon Hopkins, whose exceptional fourth set Immunity has thrilled and beguiled me from the first spin, and countless rounds later shows no sign of letting up. The Haxan Cloak, too unleashed an absolute behemoth in Excavation, an album whose expert tension and terror can only be sampled adequately under cover of darkness, while DJ Koze and Daniel Avery thrilled house and techno crowds with truly excellent full-length debuts in Amygdala and Drone Logic, respectively. Look elsewhere and you'll find numerous other names equally worthy of mention - I haven't the space to list them all!


One of my favourite lyrics from the past year is the opening refrain to Future of the Left's "Singing of the Bonesaws." "The music industry is lying to you!" warns Andy Falkous: "it is telling you that you are excited. And you ARE excited! Or rather, you have confused excitement with the fear of missing out, which is understandable as these two feelings are closely related!" It's easy to dismiss as token cynicism on the singer's
part, but in a cycle where artists and labels
Kanye West's Yeezus projections
have pushed the boat further than ever to plug their products, it could scarcely have been better timed. I, though, prefer to observe this trend from a more positive angle. The purpose of promotion is, after all, to boost sales and ignite conversation; injections which can only be good news for any industry, never mind the flailing music business. This is before we even consider
how ingenious, bloated and occasionally bizarre some of these campaigns have been - from Arcade Fire vandalising the world's cities to Board's of Canada's cryptic Record Store Day clues, via Daft Punk stealing Coachella and Kanye West's typically understated skyscraper projections. The inevitable fallout is that some of these LPs have been grossly overhyped (*cough* Reflektor *cough*), but disappointment comes as a byproduct of excitement, and whatever Falko claims, there's no question these campaigns have worked wonders in drumming it up.


Perhaps the most curious theme I've noticed this year is that a significant proportion of my favourite records have been made by bands and artists from Great Britain. You could bat this off with an absurdly simple explanation - namely that I, myself am British, and therefore have no trouble with homely themes, regional dialects or inherent ideologies - but for me this is far more than a case of geographical convergence. Indeed, whether it's the multicultural jazz madness of Melt Yourself Down, the tender, confessional songcraft of Keaton Henson or the past-meets-present samplry of Public Service Broadcasting, it's difficult to think of a scene or genre that's not thriving - and that's without even mentioning the electronic field in which we've always excelled.

Of course, there's no way I could complete this section without mentioning Scotland, a nation I naturally gravitate towards, but has undeniably enjoyed another outstanding year. As ever, Glasgow's Chemikal
RM Hubbert
Underground has been at the heart of the action, issuing fabulous new records from Phantom Band singer Rick Redbeard, pop experimentalists Conquering Animal Sound and best of all flamenco guitarist RM Hubbert, who followed-up 2012's Scottish Album of the Year-winning Thirteen Lost & Found with an even more accomplished and endearing effort in Breaks & Bone. This impressive showing has by no means been limited to the independent scene. CHVRCHES, for instance, emphatically delivered with their debut album The Bones of What You Believe, while Frightened Rabbit finally achieved a wider breakthrough with their fourth and major label bow Pedestrian Verse; both records gatecrashing the UK top 10. With The Twilight Sad, Withered Hand, Holy Mountain all readying new material alongside the mighty Mogwai, it's not unreasonable to expect more of the same in 2014.


Unfortunately, all of this positivity cannot exist without the odd side effect, and so it is that we must take time to mourn those who've not enriched, but rather departed the musical world this past year. There's really only one place to start here, and that's with Lou Reed, whose death aged 71 in October
Jason Molina
triggered an avalanche of obituaries hailing the greatness of his music, influence and in some cases personality. I've neither the time nor expertise to add to such glowing tributes, but what I will say is that he's responsible for some of my favourite records of all time - both with The Velvet Underground and as a solo artist - and that without them a fair proportion of those mentioned earlier probably wouldn't exist. Crushing though that was, however, the loss which has saddened me the most, has been that of 39-year-old Jason Molina, whose passing back in March through alcohol-related organ failure shone a tragic spotlight on one of this generation's most underrated talents. If there are any positives to take from this episode, it's that new listeners have duly discovered his glorious body of work, and that some of it has been granted a long overdue reissue - most notably Songs: Ohia's Magnolia Electric Co, my personal favourite, and for many the definitive Molina record.

Luckily, no breakups have left me particularly rattled, although news that The Walkmen are set to embark on an "extreme hiatus" had a similarly miserable effect. I certainly don't begrudge them taking a break, but the tone of their announcement left little hope of a bright (if any) future, with bassist Peter Bauer musing "I don’t think we’ve been a gang properly for a long time, so there's not much to break up." Perhaps it'll prove a red herring, but if not we can at least rest easy knowing that 2012's Heaven saw them bow out in style, leaving a mark on the indie rock world which extends far beyond that which "The Rat" established nearly a decade ago.


Finally, what would an end-of-year roundup be without a good old list? In true High Fidelity spirit, I've gone and made three, compiling my favourite albums and songs of 2013, as well as the finest live shows I've attended - each on a single-entry-per-artist basis (else there'd be some mighty hogs!)...

1. Jon Hopkins - Immunity
2. RM Hubbert - Breaks & Bone
3. Sigur Rós - Kveikur
4. The Knife - Shaking the Habitual
5. Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse
6. Melt Yourself Down - Melt Yourself Down
7. Keaton Henson - Birthdays
8. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
9. The Haxan Cloak - Excavation
10. Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
1. CHVRCHES - "The Mother We Share"
2. The Knife - "Full of Fire"
3. Arcade Fire - "Reflektor"
4. John Grant - "GMF"
5. Conquering Animal Sound - "I'll Be Your Mirror"
6. RM Hubbert - "Buckstacy"
7. Frightened Rabbit - "Nitrous Gas"
8. Kanye West - "Blood on the Leaves"
9. Jon Hopkins - "Immunity"
10. Julianna Barwick - "Look Into Your Own Mind"

1. Sigur Rós @ SECC, Glasgow, 02/03
2. RM Hubbert @ Old Cinema Launderette, Durham, 01/12
3. Frightened Rabbit @ Newcastle University, 05/11
4. Mudhoney @ O2 Academy, Newcastle, 06/06
5. The Twilight Sad @ 20 Rocks, Dundee, 28/04
6. Eels @ O2 Academy, Newcastle, 04/09
7. Future of the Left @ The Cluny, Newcastle, 03/11
8. Public Service Broadcasting @ The Cluny, Newcastle, 10/05
9. Malcolm Middleton @ The Cluny 2, Newcastle, 30/04
10. Belle & Sebastian @ The Ironworks, Inverness, 01/07


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