Every year there’s at least one album that for whatever reason I only get round to listening to at about Christmas time, meaning it has only a week or two to try and force its way onto my end of year list. This year the aptly-titled Partycrasher was that album, finding itself at number ten. Just like a certain other band on this list, A Wilhelm Scream are firmly in the camp of ‘quality over quantity’ when it comes to writing and releasing new music- a stance which hasn’t let them down yet. The songwriting on Partycrasher is more fleshed out than on previous releases (there aren’t any sub-two minute thrashes to be found here), while the band seems to have finally mastered the balance between melody and techy instrumentation. The opening four tracks are probably amongst the band’s best, while the rest of the album manages to stay close in terms of quality.
9. The Computers - Love Triangles, Hate Squares
When does evolution become reinvention? That’s the question The Computers ask with Love Triangles, Hate Squares, as they go from fairly one-dimensional shouty punks playing surf guitar riffs to a fully-fledged punk/soul hybrid. Punk is no stranger to welcoming in sounds from other genres- ska, folk, thrash, even Irish country music has been embraced- but this is probably the first time that the sounds of 1960s/70s soul music has made such an overt and deliberate impression. It’s a credit to The Computers, then, that this never comes off as gimmicky or contrived, and that each song manages to craft a niche for itself. Love Triangles, Hate Squares sounds so good that, if anything, we should be wondering why this sort of thing hasn’t been done before.
8. Balance & Composure - The Things We Think We're Missing
At first I really wasn’t impressed with the preview tracks from The Things We Think We’re Missing; at first the likes of Reflection and Tiny Raindrop seemed to lack melody, making them come across as hazy and distant. While the tracks did grow on me, the album was still pretty much an impulse buy. It proved to be a sound one though, as once I ‘got’ what B&C were going for I really started to enjoy it: it’s supposed to be grungy and atmospheric, and the melodies just take a few listens to really rise to the surface. The album pretty much defined my musical taste for a good month, and led me to Bands I Knew I Was Missing like Title Fight and the entire Run For Cover roster. If 2013 was the year this 90s alt-rock revival became a recognised thing, The Things We Think We’re Missing was one of the front runners.
7. The Flatliners - Dead Language
Dead Language was probably both the best surprise and the most predictable album of 2013 for me. It was surprising because I didn’t even realise The Flatliners were working on new material, let alone ready to release it a few months after it was announced. It was predictable because as expected, it’s brilliant- since Cavalcade, every song the band has put out has been incredibly well written (one day they’ll put out the best B-sides album ever) and full of fire. Although Dead Language didn’t mirror the huge jump in quality of its predecessor, frankly it didn’t need to as the band was already working at the top end of the melodic punk spectrum. Consolidation is fine when it sounds this good.
6. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart
Given the lyrical themes of the album, my response to Tape Deck Heart was always going to be about timing. Had it come nine months earlier it probably would have hit me like an emotional freight train, and would have probably been higher up this list; in the end that extra space allowed me to appreciate the themes and details without being totally overwhelmed by them. That doesn’t mean Tape Deck Heart isn’t still a great album though: the extra layers of studio gloss suit Turner’s anthemic style, while in support the Sleeping Souls sound as tight as ever. I also think this is the first of Turner’s albums that can’t be divided into the ‘hits’ and the ‘deep cuts’; previous albums may have been similarly unified thematically, but none have been as consistent in terms of quality.
5. Restorations - LP2
There’s always one artist who springs pretty much out of nowhere, yet within a few weeks I’ve bought and devoured their entire back catalogue (easier for some artists than others). Filling the Constantines-shaped void that exists in my life (which at that point I wasn’t even aware I had), Restorations are a band whose sound I just can’t get enough of. LP2 keeps the post-rock inspired guitar work, but ramps up the Springsteen-esque rock ‘n’ roll influence and puts the rhythm section on a course of steroids. In fact, I find it pretty much impossible not to air-drum along to songs such as D or New Old, which can only be a good sign. It’s rare to find an album that can appeal to both the primal punk rock and more intelligent indie rock sides of my brain, Restorations manage to do it in almost every song.
4. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
Another album that I wasn’t really too fussed about when it was first announced, that all changed thanks to QotSA’s performance on Jool’s Holland. The thing that shone through most was just how good these songs were: while hardly ground-breaking by mainstream rock standards, they did everything well and just sounded great. …Like Clockwork is even better as a whole, feeling cohesive despite the array of guests and musical approaches on display. The piano moments are perhaps the most surprising part; I like to think of them as cracks in Josh Homme’s macho rock and roll persona, allowing us to see more fully what lies beneath. The album’s closing tracks are probably the year’s best, rounding out the record with a beautifully restrained build and climax.
3. Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve
Toh Kay - The Hand that Thieves
Despite what Victory Records might say, these albums are best enjoyed as they were designed: together. As with A Wilhelm Scream, a new Streetlight album is an event, something that only happens every few years and something that pretty much guarantees quality. But the nature of this double album (yes I’m calling it that) was still surprising- one electric with horns a-blazin’, one acoustic with voices whispered. By this point we know that Thomas Kalnoky writes and arranges incredible songs, but the electric/acoustic format gives an added layer of depth that we haven’t seen before: the additional final verse in Toh Kay’s If Only For Memories is really touching, and who’d have thought Oh Me, Oh My would find a home in a Parisian café? Although Kalnoky is still rather obsessed lyrically with death, religion and the afterlife, it seems kind of fitting now the band is winding down, and this is a great way to go out.
2. Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle
I can still remember the first time I heard the opening suite of Once I was An Eagle: Laura Marling’s performance of the four tracks on Zane Lowe’s Radio 1 show brought everything to a halt, except for the hairs on the back of my neck. Don’t get me wrong, Marling had had some great moments on her previous albums, but nothing had hit me with as much force as those four intertwined songs did. Predictably, the rest of the album was just as brilliant: those hairs didn’t stay down for long. Structurally, conceptually and instrumentally a cohesive whole, Once I Was An Eagle is a journey from front to back- one made all the more pertinent by Marling’s newfound lyrical openness. The opening half is angry, aggressive and even arrogant; yet the image of Marling as Master Hunter soon gives way to self-loathing, self-reflection and self-doubt- by the time the opening motif returns in the closer Saved These Words, it has become apparent that the album is essentially coming full-circle. Although at times overwhelming, Once I was An Eagle follows the old cliché that you get out what you put in, and boy is it worth the effort.
1. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
For a long time The National were a band I really didn’t like; I thought of them as another Pitchfork-hyped indie band that hipster wankers put on their end-of-year lists so they seemed in the know. Amazingly they had achieved this status in my mind without me actually listening to them. Skip forward two years and I’ve been sucked in like everyone else: The National are so good it’s not really fair on everyone else. Trouble Will Find Me might not be the band’s ‘best’ album (probably Boxer), but it’s certainly my favourite: every individual song is written and arranged to the highest calibre, while Matt Berninger’s melodies are simply gorgeous throughout. However, the thing that makes this an Album of the Year for me is the way so many of these songs manage to shift gears and evolve into something different, something far greater. Songs such as Demons, This Is The Last Time and Graceless feature bridges so superb that at times they feel like completely new songs. In the hands of a band as good as The National, this technique is almost lethal.
My top two this year show two different approaches to writing albums; yet for all of Laura Marling’s conceptual depth, The National demonstrate with Trouble Will Find Me that sometimes making a great album can be as simple as putting 13 great songs together.