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Ali's 2013: ALBUMS

It's that time of year again. Ok, it's only the end of November, but reveryone knows good new rrmusic is at a premium in December, and I'll be ramazed if there's anything good enough to rank rralongside these. Anyway, rit's been a solid year, and I'd strongly encourage you all to give rthese ra rlisten. Recommendations are welcome as always :)
10Julianna Barwick

John Grant's Pale Green Ghosts and Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience (the first
part, obviously) came mighty close to claiming this spot, but for sheer ethereal
power, I've given Julianna Barwick the nod. In Greek literature, nepenthe is a drug
for sorrow, which aims to wipe out grief and sadness through simply forgetting
them. It's an apt concept, but the effect of this record isn't so much one of
forgetfulness as one of numbing - its soundscapes whisking you off to a world
where problems still exist, yet pale to insignificance against such a pure backdrop
of warmth and beauty. The involvement of Sigur Ros associate Alex Somers is
clearly evident, especially on the likes of 'Look Into Your Own Mind,' but if anything
these ambient floods are even more celestial - certainly more so than anything on
Kveikur, and it's easy to imagine those put off by that album's sonic direction taking
solace here. The key point, however, is that Julianna Barwick is slowly building a
majestic catalogue of her own, and that in Nepenthe she's produced her finest work
of choral wonderment to date.
9The Haxan Cloak

While its underlying tension and perennial blackness impress from any angle, you
might as well not bother if you're planning on listening to Excavation in daylight or
with the lights on. That's because the cover of darkness allows its twists and turns
to truly run riot with your mind, luring you into a false sense of security before
pouncing when you're most vulnerable. It's like being trapped in a cave, or a jungle
at night; every sense is sharpened by the jittery feeling of paranoia, the feeling
you're at the mercy of outside forces and that every distant, echoing sound is out
to get you. The problem with shock value, of course, is that that the experience
can suffer once its plot succumbs to familiarity, but while Excavation isn't
completely immune, it remains an absorbing and genuinely unsettling sensory trip.
Its brand of dark ambient certainly won't be for everyone, but given the right
conditions it surely ranks among the year's most immersive listens.
8Queens of the Stone Age
...Like Clockwork

I had a wee disagreement with one of my friends over the summer, after he
proclaimed 'I Sat by the Ocean's lead riff to be the best anyone's mustered in
recent years. Naturally, I disputed this - he doesn't listen to enough new music to
make such bold claims, after all! - but having been challenged to think of a better
one within the week, I admittedly struggled. Luckily, I never had to concede defeat
since he forgot about the whole episode, but my trial illustrated two things; firstly,
that powerful, distinctive riffs are a dying art, and secondly that Josh Homme and
company were back in force, well equipped to reclaim their podium at the forefront
of modern rock. Right from the off, it's clear the six-year gap post Era Vulgaris has
done them the world of good. Freed from their floundering downward spiral, ...Like
Clockwork is the sound of a group with renewed focus and rekindled vigour; a
record built around the spirit of collaboration as much as Homme's enduring
brilliance. Indeed, the most unlikely guests were often the finest, with Elton John
bringing a slice of drama to the tremendous 'Fairweather Friends' and Jake Shears
spreading his filth over 'Smooth Sailing's funky bombast. Excellent in practically
every dimension, it's a record which ranks alongside Rated R and Songs for the
Death in the Queens' catalogue, and arguably represents this year's most satisfying
7Keaton Henson

Sensitive singer-songwriter isn't really a description which excites anyone anymore.
There are literally thousands of them; a saturated pool which ensures that although
a decent fraction produce perfectly good music, all but the best tend to evaporate
into one big, tearful waft of hot air. Fortunately for Keaton Henson, Birthdays is a
record of sufficient beauty and power to elevate him from the masses. Although
adjectives such as "stark," "intimate" and "harrowing" are pitifully overused, they're
simply impossible to overlook while discussing songs like 'You' and 'The Best Today,'
the tenderness and fragility of which are genuinely affecting. The other thing which
stands out is its structure, with these gentle heartwrenchers temporarily blitzed by
'Don't Swim' and 'Kronos' avalanche of crunching riffs; a turn that's wholly
unexpected, and along with subtly luscious arrangements lends the record a crucial
dose of diversity. It mightn't boast the most attention grabbing pitch, but once it's
spinning, Birthdays' emotive punch will hit you like a ton of bricks.
6Melt Yourself Down
Melt Yourself Down

This was a record which came from absolutely nowhere, yet brought me consistent
joy through summer onwards. Multicultural in makeup, and likewise by nature, this
London collective provide a scintillating mish-mash of jazz, afrobeat, dub and a
wealth of other weird and wonderful elements I have neither the time nor the
expertise to list. Put through the mixer, they provide one of the most vibrant and
exciting sonic packages I've heard in many a year, not to mention one you could
put before virtually any listener and illicit a positive response. Always infectious but
never overwhelming, the likes of 'Fix My Life' and 'We Are Enough' will make you as
excitable as frontman Kushal Gaya is onstage, while 'Release!' sounds like a rave in
bongo bongo land - and I mean that in the most utterly brilliant way possible.
Basically, it's fucking great, and no matter your listening habits it's a record you
need in your life. Even my Dad likes it, and he despises jazz!
5Frightened Rabbit
Pedestrian Verse

They're up there among my favourite current bands, yet it took me a while to get
my head around Frightened Rabbit's fourth full-length. It all seemed a little upbeat
during those initial listens, but the more I absorbed it, the more I realised I was
entirely missing the point: This record isn't about wallowing in misery, but rather
embracing it; a glorious hub of celebratory anthemism and wry self-deprecation
that's packed with some of their most inspiring songs yet. As always, Scott
Hutchinson is on top form lyrically, and saves his best for last with 'Nitrous Gas'
("well if happiness won't live with me / I think I can live with that") and 'The Oil
Slick' ("there is light, there's a tunnel to crawl through / there is love, but misery
loves you") epitomising his knack of producing couplets which are heartbreaking,
uplifting and life-affirming all at once. A critical and commercial success, this major
label debut doesn't match 2008's peerless Midnight Organ Fight, but in terms of
their career and long term prospects, it could well surpass that benchmark's
4The Knife
Shaking the Habitual

The Knife's transformation from synthpop sensations to avant-garde behemoths
hasn't been embraced in all quarters, but for sheer scale alone their fourth LP is
nothing short of staggering. At 96-minutes, it'd be stretching the point to claim
there's not a dull moment, but the meat of Shaking the Habitual is truly captivating.
Whether it's the brutal incessance of 'Full of Fire,' the zonked drones of 'A Cherry
on Top' or the industrial menace of 'Raging Lung,' the record brims with thrilling
sonic engineering, boiling over with sounds which rattle through your body, shooting
shivers down your spine and causing your bones to quake. It's a shame its length
proves such a predictable flaw (the last two tracks in particular add very little),
however that shouldn't overshadow the fact that at least two-thirds of it is
absolutely riveting.
3Sigur Ros

For most bands, producing only the third or fourth best album of your career spells
disappointment. Sigur Ros, though, aren't like most bands; they're an awe-inspiring,
otherworldly force whose achievements over the years have been nothing short of
obscene - hence why a record from their second tier still ranks among 2013's
essentials. Following swiftly on the heels of last year's Valtari, Kveikur is the
Icelander's first album since Von not to feature the departed Kjartan Holm, and the
results were explosive. That said, this relatively brief 48-minute piece is also by
means the weighty, industrial beast many expected after those first molten blasts
of 'Brennistein' punctured our speakers. Instead, what we've ended up with is Sigur
Ros' most accessible work to date, characterised more by breezy, upbeat pop
moments like 'Isjaki' and 'Rafstraumur' than its opener or the ominous thud of the
title track. They've certainly spread their wings, but above all it's the sound of a
group who're more comfortable in themselves and their music than ever, and with
results this good, long may it continue.
2RM Hubbert
Breaks and Bone

The whole notion of 'connecting' with music is one which fascinates me, especially
when the album in question transcends our own personal experiences. For me, RM
Hubbert is case in point. I consider myself a pretty miserable person, but I simply
cannot comprehend the levels of heartbreak, loss and depression this man has
endured. I sympathise with him of course, but this combination of adverse fortune
and mental illness is ultimately the reason why his solo records exist at all, and is a
significant factor in what makes them so utterly beguiling. The follow-up to last
year's hugely acclaimed Thirteen Lost & Found, the third LP from Glasgow's finest
(only?!) purveyor of flamenco guitar is his most accomplished, graceful and
affecting yet. It's not just the addition of his own vocals; it's also the sublimely
clean plucking, the sheer weight of feeling poured into each note, the serene sense
of release which flows throughout, fulfilling the "musical therapy" concept which
fuels the entire exertion. No, I've never felt inclined to take-up finger fuckingly
complex guitar techniques as a means of offsetting unhappiness, but for some
mysterious reason RM Hubbert's music strikes a chord in me, and it may well in you
too. Buy Breaks & Bone. It's sensational.
1Jon Hopkins

As much as I adore RM Hubbert and Sigur Ros and admire The Knife, Immunity's
place at the summit has never been in serious doubt. It's one of those rare records
which seems to exist as an entity in itself, and in truth has sounded like an album
of the year from the moment I first heard it back in May. There are certainly
elements of his past work present, but the step-up in every aspect is nothing short
of staggering, a fact which, when coupled with an embrace of club-friendly techno,
blows all his previous releases (including 2011's magnificent King Creosote
collaboration, Diamond Mine) out the water. Seamlessly swooning from the strobe
light romp of 'Open Eye Signal' and thudding bass of 'Collider' to the natural fluidity
of 'Sun Harmonics' and sedate, peaceful bliss of the title track, every last layered
sound contributes to a body of work that's virtually perfect in composition, rounded
in spite of that diverse sonic pallet. An infinitely replayable masterclass with nary a
weak moment, it's an essential for anyone with even the most fleeting interest in
electronic music, and for me represents the standout LP of a solid musical year.
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