Music’s Not A Competition, But…

(Feature written by Alex Coates)

Hey! It’s October time again, Speechmarks folk.

As you may have read in previous posts, I’m with a rather wonderful chap called Alex whom, I’ve definitely been not subtly plugging on this blog for a few years.

An aficionado of music since day dot, he writes one of those ‘Best Of’ lists every year; but this year’s is particularly substantial, amazing even… well-written almost!

I kid. It is definitely all of those things without exclamatory sarcasm or condition. The gushing will stop soon, just hold on. I thought it would be a good idea to reblog it here from his Facebook so you could have a read while, as the Analytics tell me, you’re on Facebook about 6pm UK time, having your tea and second screening this blog on your mobile.

Thanks again – and over to Alex:

1. Editors – The Weight of Your Love

Everybody (UK at least) knows the debut In the Backroom (2005), most remember the heights of ‘Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors’ & ‘Racing Rats’ from 2007’s An End Has a Start, but most were lost to the experimental… direction change of In This Light and on This Evening (2009), despite the high level of craft throughout. Four years have passed, Chris Urbanowicz has left & yet the void is nowhere near as noticeable as most fans feared. In fact, it’s probably the most musically accomplished album of the four – songs like “The Phone Book” and “Formaldehyde” show measured craftsmanship and more considered lyrics than previous albums and “Hyena” and “Nothing” have moved the band and the subject material forward. Smith even acknowledges this in the line

“I promised myself/ I wouldn’t talk about death/ I know I’m getting boring”

-from (The Weight).

The single “A Ton of Love” is exceptional live and Sugar is an instant live classic. 8/11 tracks are classics.

2. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse 

Speaking of bands who’ve reached the 4th album milestone…The Hutch’ started off inauspiciously with Sings the Greys (2006), but really came good with The Midnight Organ Fight (2008). Most state it tailed off somewhat from there. I’d personally put forward The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010) as the strongest…until Pedestrian Verse. Although the album has somewhat ‘more listenable’ moments (especially the first 5 tracks and last 2), as a piece it’s much more considered and matured than everything Scott had previously penned. It’s brighter, happier, more at peace with itself as a record both lyrically and musically. “The Woodpile” is a scream-along; “Holy” treads a familiar subject matter but in a more succinct way and “The Oil Slick” is ambitious but graduated in terms of riffs, ideas and all-round completeness. All-in-all, very very impressive, saddening to think it might be the last FR record, at least for a while. 9 of 12 are classics.

3. The Airborne Toxic Event – Such Hot Blood

My love of this band has been fairly unrestricted for a long time; since first hearing the debut and gambling on catching a show at the Ritz. The live atmosphere is something else, but the records have always held up. Only up to the tricky 3rd album for TATE (ok, forth with the live album). This record is definitely no departure from form; “The Storm“, “Elizabeth“, “Safe” (the stand-out) and “Bride & Groom” all display the beautifully shaped lyrics intertwined with the sculpted music the band are renowned for. However, the story-driven “This is London” shows new facets (or at least more explored ones) and they revert to rock (if only too briefly) with “What’s In A Name?”. The only criticism of the album is the lack of rock; the lead single – “Timeless” seems to miss the soaring noise that backed up songs of its type on their previous records. It’s still very strong, but maybe not as strong as previous efforts. 9 of 10 are classics.

4. Paramore – Paramore

Another band releasing their 4th album (maybe I’m only sticking to bands I know, right?). This album, of all on the list, encapsulates the best example of a band willing to revisit all their previous styles and add new pieces to it. The rawness of the Interludes strikes the necessary resonance with All We Know… “Part II” isn’t even partially disguised in it’s reference to the Riot era. “Daydreaming” is warm and reminiscent of much of gentle tracks on Brand New Eyes, but the juxtaposition of “Anklebiters” is equal measure of throwback and forward-looking. Ain’t It Fun shows real progression forward as a new band (with 50% of the original line-up departing after the last record); a much fuller sounding track with many more elements to love.

However, what pushes it above and beyond is the immense structure of the record; 3 parts – equally weighted with track-quality; with interlude breaks which are relevant and powerful additions to the record. As if that wasn’t enough, at 17 tracks it’s a monster (hehe, pun intended), and it doesn’t tail off, in fact, it finishes sublimely – Proof onwards is possibly the finest run of songs on this 2013 list. Be Alone is probably the strongest, but Future is exactly where you want this band to go – all signs are positive. 14 of 17 are classics.

5. Rilo Kiley – Rkives

A change of pace, but possibly the most congruent with the last entry, Rilo Kiley released a 17 track compendium of lost tracks from their back catalogue. It’s as you might expect – not a complete piece of work, but a compelling listen in the most part. Some of the tracks, it would seem inexcusable, missed albums they would have complemented or replaced lesser tracks on those albums. “Let Me Back In” is an opener of real quality and is as good as any of their previous work, but Jenny Lewis really excels on “It’ll Get you There” & the most complimentary thing about this record is the work between the band and the guesting musicians. Notably Tim Kasher (Cursive/The Faint/Solo), on “A Town Called Luckey” is deep, considered, well-rounded lyrically and has a fine balance, but possibly more striking is the successful blend of Lewis and Benji Hughes on “I Remember You“, worth every penny of the $5 paid. Try to let go on the Dejalo remix, which is definitely worth a miss.

6. Jimmy Eat World – Damage 

What can you say about JEW; either you were hooked in by The Middle and haven’t been able to let go since. Or you keep hearing their singles, believing you should check them out more & have failed to get into their witty and urbane style of songsmithery. Damage is the perfect chance to put your grievous errors to one side and enjoy this little gem. Ok, it’s hard to oversell this record, because it’s so intensely loveable. “Appreciation“, “How’d You Have Me?”,No, Never” and “Bye Bye Love” tell the story of Jim’s most recent heartbreak – and the theme is well-travelled, mature and well-versed. However, it’s neither trite, nor contrived; it’s a new take on an old subject and the results speak for themselves. The record is equal measure catchy and considered, reflective and upfront. I’ve never been a fan of tracks with the album title and theme spelled out; but “Damage” is the perfect album title track; it’s so well crafted, infinitely clever and every bit an instant classic. Download it now. Go. No excuses.

7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor 

Another band on album number 4! – Seems like only yesterday a sweaty and raucous Radio 1 tent at Leeds festival 2005 and my first real bite into the Canadian musical apple of joy that was and still is AF commenced. At that point I knew two songs, and both changed my idea of where modern indie music should strive to end up. Alas, much of that scene is dead (N.B. Editors and JEW also played that day…); but The Reflektors live on. And live is where this record is best heard*…certainly I’d discover that later in the year, but impressions upon release were somewhat less favourable. And much of the criticism I stick by – it falls drastically short of their forgotten classic The Suburbs, both in terms of musical depth and song-writing, mainly because it is minimalist, which is not something you can easily accept from a band with so many talented multi-instrumentalists. I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and say I don’t have a lot of time and patience for the synth as a method of musical communication; I think a lot of the messages Wyn (mostly Will actually) wants to portray with the lyrics are let down by the modulated waves of electro underpinning every track (bar the following), however “Normal Person” and “You Already Know” show shades of the brilliance Arcade Fire have, not in the older, familiar style – but in a new, possibly more standardised rock ‘n’ roll manner. The beauty of this record is that its shortcomings as a piece on its own are vastly overcompensated for live. The 3 or 4 players on the album track are then joined by the rest of the band and additional percussionists; it’s louder, more aggressive, more visceral, more Arcade Fire. Why didn’t they just record it like that? Only they know…but once the live DVD is released, you’ll understand me better.

*[Ed – make a note of any Blackpool bootlegs on YouTube and rumoured DVD release this year.]

8. Villagers – {Awayland} 

Folk singers called Conor, Irish roots, a band with bite, lyrics with subtlety in spades and intense introspection as a pre-requisite underneath every song – of course I instantly fell for Villagers’ brand of Indie-folk. Why wouldn’t you? I was late to the party when Becoming a Jackal came close to winning the 2010 Mercury Prize, and if the performance on the night was anything to go by (Conor J O’Brien baring his soul through a 3/4 guitar and a camera lens to absolute perfection) the biggest robbery in that ill-fated competition was witnessed by all who truly love the under-appreciated folk-genre. But, as I began with, music isn’t a competition, and Bright Eyes references aside, Villagers released the equally acclaimed follow-up Awayland this year, and moments were exceptional as the first was. “Judgement Call” and the “Bell” hit the mark the debut set, and “Nothing Arrived” exceeded anything that had come before, but for me the album lacked 2-3 tracked demo’d live which vastly outstripped the bulk of the remainder on the album. Apart from these 3, it’s hard to pick a track that is anything like as charming as Becoming a Jackal‘s ‘album tracks’ (if you will), and the sublime jaunty folk which bound the first album into a body of work is mostly absent, replaced by synth noise (lazy musicianship in this writers opinion). The fact is, Awayland feels rushed, and represents a collection of songs, not a story like the previous album. Having said all that, it’s still an exceptionally good record for the most part and the worst of Conor O’Brien’s efforts are still a credit to the genre and it’s persistence in the modern era.

9. Cold War Kids – Dear Miss Lonelyhearts 

Album number 4…again. The previous 3 had jumped around in quality; a solid debut, a patchy follow-up, a third with so much to love & now Dear Miss Lonelyhearts – an album that snuck under the radar. Again, the band, like many others on the list, has downed conventional instruments in favour of their semi-digital counter-parts. Cold War Kids were spearheads of the San Francisco guitar sound (Although from neighbouring Fullerton), so it’s jarring at the least. However, there are some real positives about the record; “Miracle Mile” has a very new sound to it, unlike their body of work – poppy, positive and not convoluted in the slightest – the majority of the music comes from drums and a piano – which is a bold move for a guitar/piano band. It really works and the subject matter is honest and revealing; a theme on the record. The stand-out track is probably “Bottled Affection” however, which is as good as anything they have released, or indeed anyone has put out this year; the likes of “Jailbirds” and “Lost That Easy” are adequate stooges to these heavyweights, but the rest of the album doesn’t stand-up in comparison to the great consistency of albums 1 & 3.

10. Mixtape Minus – Bedroom Head

A debut album (he does listen to some new music)…and one I’ve supported from the get go, so I’m hoping many of you have had a glance at it at least. I learnt of the band through meeting Eric & Nathan in 2012; the demo’s they shared with me then had a real degree of promise, even if recording quality and styles were somewhat disparate. This debut record is a pleasant surprise in many ways; although not so much of a surprise in others. I loved the stripped back, sometimes 2 track nature of the earliest stuff they recorded; it was demo quality, but the reflective and considered nature of the songs shone through and was really encouraging. The album is a genuine departure from that sound into something of its own, and although some of the beauty of the gently sculpted acoustic sound departed, the punk over-layer is well positioned and each track has its own take on the sound. It opens as a fairly simple sounding blend of riffs and gentle vocals, but each song builds into a wave of noise (not quite a wall, & in the early songs, never a crescendo either), which is unique and does a fine job drawing the listener in. Later tracks like Billboard… are one long crescendo, and they’re not afraid to mix it up more than that. Weston’s “Old Viewful Tree” takes my nomination for one of the riffs of the year, not bad for a teenager you’ve never heard of right? “Queen Anne St. Song” and “Left Handed” are brilliantly crafted lyric driven songs, with a lot of attention paid to building a piece that fits with the tone of the album – but the star track for me is the closer “The One With The TV” in the Background. It completely suits the album, and it’s finale displays that (almost) effortlessly [parenthesis, because I appreciate it must have taken great effort], however, of all of the tracks (even surpassing the likes of Left Handed, which was an early demo) in harking back to that sound as was drawn to – the confessional indie-folk sound, intertwined with an empty, hollow sound – perfect for placing the listener inside their own head, singing the song through their own eyes – powerful stuff for such humble beginnings. Go buy it.

11. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film

Well, I think we can safely dodge the “4th album” comment here – Studio album number 11 (yes, I lost count and had to Wiki that)…but seriously, doesn’t it seem like more than 11? It feels like the Manics have a catalogue stretching decades, covering a plethora of all the important themes, they are an immortal band. They’ve mellowed somewhat in sound on this record, but that only opens the door to harder-hitting lyrics than Nicky (& James!) have managed in a fair few albums…especially on tracks like “As Holy As The Soil“, “Anthem For a Lost Cause” & “30 Year War“. Yes, “Show Me The Wonder” is taken straight off the now redundant JDB second solo record (I’m mean really), but it’s catchy as ever (if a little “Shiny Happy People“). The themes of aging (& the struggle thereof) and being alienated by the modern age are obvious themes for a band such as the Manics to go for, but they do it to perfection and the record is much stronger than it should be because of it. “Manorbier” is a top top change of pace, and adds something new to the repertoire (if that’s possible), and the controversial and divisive (at least within the band) duet “This Sullen Welsh Heart” makes the record a success. Not their best, but above par, which is a massive positive – with a new record to follow in 2014.

12. The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law

Everyone’s favourite post-rock, female led three piece return with their second effort – the first much loved by friends and bands alike (notably Denver Dalley of Desaparecidos made them closer on much of the US tours), and with good reason after the stellar debut that was The Big Roar. Wolf’s Law is a similar effort, which is a little disappointing, purely because they had a lot of room in an unpopulated genre to move into, if they were feeling adventurous. “This Ladder is Ours” is a direct continuation of the Big Roar sound, but adds little to the repertoire. Solid, but not earth-shattering like the former, Cholla follows it up well, and is the most innovative of the effort. “Silent Treatment” is clever, but lacks the punch that made the first album such an impact. But the biggest disappointment was the decision to stick the best song (in terms of structure and lyrics) as a hidden track after a fairly poor closing track, by their own high standards. The record feels rushed, as they clearly had less time to play around with it than the first (which had developed with the live experience – a must if you haven’t already), and indeed, the left over tracks from the first represented a more cohesive effort (the Big More) than Wolf’s Law. Still much promise; just take your time with it.

13. Fugitive Empire – Escaping the Waves & Radiation

As a strange change of pace, my latest release – an album inspired by journeying across different parts of the States and Europe. I’m not going to review it as such; all the tracks hold significant meaning for me, & I believe it to be the most compelling and considered output I’ve done. It was let down by some average vocal mixing and a lack of better software, but it is a statement I’m proud of and think – in another life – would have been the one to really make people sit up and listen. – You can do so and appease my waning confidence in it via the usual links.

– Honourable mentions to Civil Protection and Pseudonympho whose records I need to invest more time in.


Non-Album Singles:

Desaparecidos – Te Amo Camila Vallejo/Underground Man/The Left is Right/Anonymous.

I can’t speak highly enough for both Desa split AA sides this year. The additions they’ve made to an already flawless, if ever too brief, catalogue is outstanding. Every bit the band I fell in love with a decade ago, but re-imagined in a new slant. They are catchier, more powerful, more important songs than ever. Maybe a band born out of time with the world, but one of the best it will see, nonetheless.

The Birthday Suit – A Bigger World.

Ok, it’s Rod Jones from Idlewild…and Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit; but this track is so much more. It doesn’t impinge on either’s previous works; in fact it doesn’t really borrow from anything overtly Scottish, or Rock based; it’s straight up Indie, with post-rock violin, perfect riffs and some of the finest lyrics of the year (or most other years). The fear is that the much anticipated 3rd TBS album won’t follow this deviation; but as a standalone track, it’s bigger than the sum of its parts; amazing – probably the best thing any of these musicians have been part of. Well done.

The Airborne Toxic Event – Hell & Back/Dublin/The Way Home.

Live, Hell & Back was a real revelation. The Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack benefits enormously from its inclusion. Dublin is a track worthy of a place on Such Hot Blood, but the best is The Way Home. I’d go as far as saying if it had featured on Such Hot Blood, it would place the album on a level or above at least one of their previous efforts, if not both. A stunning and sumptuous song – classic TATE.

Editors – Comrade Spill My Blood/The Sting.

Bonus tracks they may be, by they deserve a mention. As early contenders for a place on one of the best albums of the year, they missed out – and stylistically, it’s probably a good decision; but they offer something different, a throwback to Editors “You Are Fading” compilations, but progressive and better quality all-round.

Conor Oberst – You Are Your Mothers Child.

In a year which started with the promise of new solo music from Conor, only this track surfaced following a world tour. It’s a gorgeous song, worth any wait, something new in terms of his style and output – one fault; it’s not a patch on the session version he gave away prior to this songs’ inclusion on “Stuck In Love” soundtrack.

Friends of Gemini – Summersaults in Spring.

Corina Figueroa Escamilla, AKA Mrs Oberst, leads a rag-tag bunch of Saddlecreekers in a beautiful track, worthy of gracing any “Chick-Flick” (never my words). Her voice is flawless and the composing of the track is everything you want it to be. – Why are they not a band? (The feeling any astute listener will surely be left with).

Mike Mogis, Nathiel Walcott & Big Harp – At Your Door.

Of all of the pieces of composition on the Stuck in Love soundtrack, this is Mike and Nate’s best effort, and the addition of Big Harp on vocals (and some musical elements) is stunning. I want these guys to do this for a living, they’re too good at it to leave their efforts at this one score.

As Yet Unnamed Band (Fugitive Empire & Friends) – Walker, Texas…Something…

A few of us did this record a severe injustice, check out the results, I really enjoyed making it & I think that shows in the quality of a debut recording of this outfit.

Well done if you read this far…well done you – now go listen.

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