Yesterday, I kicked off my own round-up of the year’s best albums, starting with numbers 25 to 21. Now, the countdown continues. Let me know what you think in the comments section or tweet me via @dk33per.
20. Lorde – Pure Heroine
Seventeen-year-old Ella ‘Lorde’ Yelich-O’Connor is defying a generation. Signed to Virgin at the preposterously young age of 12 – after the label reportedly watched her singing Duffy’s ‘Warwick Avenue’ in a school talent show – she demonstrated an intelligence beyond her years by refusing to dish out an album of soul covers in favour of writing her own material. The soaring, scintillating beat of ‘Royals’, coupled with her cynical wordplay that lampoons the silver-spoon lifestyle and the malaise of modern teenager life, is proof enough that she was right. You get the sense she too is bored of the regurgitated garbage that X Factor and chart music has become. Her breathy, melancholic tone is authoritative without being patronising. She’s tired of being told to “put her hands in the air” in the company of “fake friends”.
Fame frequently runs many young stars off the rails. Lorde, however, is taking it all in her stride – as ‘Still Sane’ professes, a ‘we made it’ song that’s a cut above the usual trife of how difficult the champagne lifestyle is. She reflects on the Instagram generation, a generation that’s racing to grow up faster than any before it, with candour and accuracy that eludes artists twice her age. Lana Del Rey, move aside. This lady is next in line to the pop throne.
Top tracks: Royals, Team, Still Sane
19. Haim – Days Are Gone
Whatever you think of Haim, their willingness to travel up and down the UK, meeting fans and giving others a reason to become one, shows that their success is no flash in the pan. Liquored with breezy choruses, guitars and a copious amount of Californian sunshine, Days Are Gone bottles the exuberance of youth. The influence of 80s soft rock is there, as the early singles ‘Forever’ and ‘Falling’ showed. Though, being largely unfamiliar with the sisters’ constant compare, Fleetwood Mac, at the time of writing, the bands that come to my mind are the Stone Roses and Primal Scream, only with a Bikini Kill-style girl group image. There are one or two surprises, such as the title track and ‘My Song 5’, but the recipe doesn’t deviate too much from the trio’s radio-friendly songs. Still, Haim, and along with Daft Punk, were the soundtrack to the summer, and their debut album brings it all back.
Top tracks: Forever, Don’t Save Me, Days Are Gone
18. Tall Black Guy – 8 Miles to Moenart
Falling on hard times is when some artists produce their greatest works. In the case of Terrel Wallace, who left Detroit for London in search of a better life, we have a little-known suite of musical brilliance. 8 Miles to Moenart is a beat album that will especially delight those with an ear for J Dilla or Madlib. You won’t find any grandstanding, made-to-order pop productions here. Each track has been crafted so that every clap, every beat of the snare drum, every pluck of velvety string playing and every sample can be felt – not pounded at your ears. These loops are infused with blues and nocturne synths. In no hurry to burn out, they separate you from the drudgery of the everyday for a brief, but utterly glorious, half-hour. This tour of Motor City puts Tall Black Guy in the company of the hip hop production godfathers. Essential listening for anybody who appreciates instrumental music.
Top tracks: The Dark Streets, Funeral Biz, There’s No More Soul
17. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
When you talk about folk or country music in the UK, it is the likes of Mumford & Sons that most people think of. With her well-thumbed guitar and her thick Tennessee accent, Valerie June has brought back the southern American sound of country and blues that’s seldom heard nowadays. June says that Pushin’ Against a Stone, her first studio LP, is about waking up in the morning and feeling the weight of responsibility, “the cream and the coffee”, as she puts it. That’s a sentiment she nails, whether it be in the gallant timbre of ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’ or the ache in her voice on the album’s title track. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys also helps support June’s musical vision with minimal production. This album appraises the imperfections of life and reminds you that, without them, the good times wouldn’t be so sweet.
Top tracks: Workin’ Woman Blues, Somebody to Love, Pushin’ Against a Stone
16. London Grammar – If You Wait
It’s good to have some melancholy now and again, and the soft movements of London Grammar have been tuned precisely to the frequently of the heavy heart. The much talked about debut from Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman has been called a “quarter-life crisis album for today’s 20-somethings”, adrift as we all are in the ‘work more for less’ Britain. That description rings true through the slow ballad of ‘Wasting My Young Years’. What London Grammar are not is another xx. While their music brings a hazy warmth to nocturnal journeys – just like the xx, the mood is heavier in places and much rawer, which, at times, leads to them losing the delicate atmosphere (‘Sights’). However, as a first step, it is a worthy effort from this gifted soprano and her band. Especially for those times when the love train pulls away without you.
Top tracks: Strong, Wasting My Young Years, If You Wait
15. The Child of Lov – The Child of Lov*
Cole ‘Child of Lov’ Williams was always going to have a special place in my list this year, but he has suddenly taken on a new weight as he sadly passed away last week at 26. I’m lost for words. This enigmatic Dutch producer had an ear for the usual and a boundless commitment to musical perfection.
His influences were said to be Little Richard, Otis Redding and James Brown, as well as J Dilla and D’Angelo. First impressions of Williams’s work were that he was attempting to be challenging just for the sake of it. An easy assumption. Give up too soon, and you’ll miss out on not only the year’s most peculiar and charming concoction of alternative soul, but a sterling piece of production gold that shows the man had plenty yet to give.
Tracks such as ‘Go with the Wind’, ‘Owl’ and ‘Fly’ are where the genius of the reclusive perfectionist shines through. The presence of collaborators Doom and Damon Albarn (who also co-produced the record) also become clear in the latter half. But it’s the Beatles-esque ‘Give It to the People’, arriving like a glorious goal in the closing minutes, that connects the dots between the Child of Lov’s disparate influences. All the more tragic that he is longer with us. Long may his music live on.
Top tracks: Go with the Wind, Fly, Give It to the People
* This entry was changed from my original before publishing, when I learned about the sad passing of Cole Williams yesterday afternoon. If you only take one thing from this post, please listen to the Child of Lov’s album, as his music deserves to be appreciated much more than it has. God bless.
14. Wild Belle – Isles
“I know I don’t move very fast, but I’m heading for the stars,” shrills Natalie Bergman, one half of brother-sister ska group Wild Belle. The superlative sound of this Chicago duo cascades over you like ocean waves. Even when confronting the murky side of romance, their music bubbles and bursts with brightness – a carefree sense that things will work out in the end. You hear as much on the overwhelming wonder of sand and surf, ‘Twisted’, where a la-la guitar rhythm precedes a breathless jam of bass and funk, rounded off with a flourish of piano keys. So refreshing is this odd mixture – the splicing of synths and fractionally filtered vocals – that influencers, some harder to place than others, such as Terry Hall, Stevie Wonder and Lykke Li, rarely linger on the mind. This is quixotic, relaxing music fit for lounging in a hammock on a sweltering summer Sunday, far from the troubles of urban life. Never bland in arrangement, Isles is a potent debut from one of 2013’s most underrated acts.
Top tracks: Twisted, Keep You, June
13. Stooshe – London with the Lights On
It’s easy to see why the blogosphere was aroused when all-girl trio Stooshe first appeared. Here were these ‘luscious divas’ with kooky dress sense and a no-bullshit attitude rapping about the rough ends of South London. For their next trick (or earlier, if you caught the original explicit version), it was how much they were craving a quickie.
It was this level of unabashed frankness that got Karis, Alex and Courtney their deal with a major label. They were outspoken. They were filthy. They were the kind of young, empowered women that actually deserve some kudos and proper attention, unlike the brat at the centre of this year’s biggest controversy in pop music. But then their raw cool got sanitised by the Warner Bros machine, and so began Stooshe’s transformation into just another no-thrills girl group.
Well, damn it, the thrills aren’t all gone. London with the Lights On was delayed twice before its eventual release, while the girls worked on additional songs, along with their enlisted producers, Future Cut. The end result is a lively collection of pop tunes that show off the girls’ vocal abilities and humour, even if their original radical nature has been lost. There are nods to the Supremes (‘Jimmy’) and other classic sisters of soul, while Future Cut have raided record shops for some of the tastiest rare grooves you’ll hear on a pop album. Special mention must go to album closer ‘Turning Me On’, my most played song of 2013. It’s a faultless R&B stunner, which samples ‘If I Love You’ by Little Anthony & the Imperials to great effect – I defy you not to lose yourself to its rhythm.
Top tracks: Slip, Put the Kettle On, Turning Me On
12. Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends
“After you, I don’t know what I believe in / After you, Hell will be easier” sings Portugal. The Man’s vocalist on ‘Atomic Man’, his voice intentionally distorted, as if it’s coming out of a faulty intercom. Like a snotty teenager shouting a big “eff you, world”, Evil Friends is self-centred (‘Creep in a T-shirt’). It’s got commitment issues (‘Waves’). And it doesn’t rely on anyone accept itself (‘Modern Jesus’). Which makes it a glorious reaction to today’s culture of rampant narcissism, voyeurism and isolation.
It is a swirl of steady electronic synths, flourishes of rhythmic piano chords, youthful-sounding, multi-track chants and blistering guitars sequences. Think the psychedelia of Tame Impala crossed with the grudge rock of Nirvana and you get some sense of Evil Friends. But though darkness rears its head in many of the lyrics, this isn’t an album wallowing in negativity. Quite the opposite, as heard in the affection of ‘Waves’ and the optimism of ‘Someday Believers’. Aided by Danger Mouse’s ear for cohesion, this Portland four-piece’s eighth album skewers our less virtuous traits at a time when self-obsession is rampant. A standout modern rock album with something to say about the world today.
Top tracks: Atomic Man, Creep in a T-shirt, Holy Roller (Hallelujah)
11. Little Boots – Nocturnes
Being restricted from making the music she wanted to (“they didn’t really support the direction I was going in”) pushed Victoria Hesketh to self-publish her second album. And Nocturnes has benefited. More personal in subject and more focused in delivery, it’s an album of artistic flourish that unshackles Little Boots from the chains of her major label past. Songs, such as whirling, hypnotic synth ballad ‘Motorway’, retain the 80s electronica that she’s known for, while character comes through in the range of experimentation on offer. Yet there are also straight floor-fillers (‘Beat Beat’ and ‘Shake’) that show Hesketh’s newfound confidence in her songwriting and production. Overshadowed by the likes of Daft Punk and Disclosure, don’t let this masterwork of intelligent electro and synth pop pass you by.
Top tracks: Beat Beat, Confusion, Satellite
Image: Collage of album covers by Aaron Lee; album artwork belongs to respective parties