Most publications that review music (or anything) have their “best of” lists; it’s not so much an indication of quality but more that they have space to fill over Christmas and there’s not much going on.
As far as papers like the NME go, if Arctic Monkeys released a blank CD, it’d still be album of the year. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memory was good in bits but not the album everyone raved about.
But this list is different. It strips out all my biases and preferences and it’s what I’ve actually played over the year, for pleasure. It’s often surprising what rises to the top; I really liked both Nick Cave albums but don’t play them much.
I’m including an album that came out last year (a) because I got confused and thought it came out this year; (b) because it’s really good but won’t have sold many copies and (c) because they/he’s got a new album out soon so it gives you a nod.
Album of the year has to be The Bazaars’ self-titled album (called The Bazaars, then). Occasionally I wish thousands of people read my reviews, then I could help a band’s career; such is the case with this band, for no reason other than they’re very good.
They make the sound that Courteeners’ Liam Fray is probably making in his head but can’t recreate. The album’s tight, slick and enjoyable with some crisp guitar, and a nice live sound. It’s not ground-breaking or new, it’s just enjoyable. The singer can sing, the music is interesting and varied and they’re a bit different.
It’s retro sounding pop/rock: bluesy 60s rock meets jazz, Henry Mancini and Jimi Hendrix. The Bazaars are from Leeds and presumably all have day jobs (as do all the performers in this list, I’d guess). It’s out on their own Tomartyrs label and it’s my 2013 recommendation to pop/rock fans.
As for Robert Vincent’s Life In Easy Steps: when I reviewed this I said it was the best album I’ve received in 12 years of writing CD reviews and still think that’s the case.
As a body of work — in fact as a work of art in the broadest sense — it’s hard to see how it could be bettered. It’s just really, really well done. I can’t find fault with this in any way. Vincent has it all: great voice, strong tunes, good arrangements, clever lyrics. If you want a downside, he’s got no distinctive “sound” or track that leaps out and it’s downbeat. His voice reminded me in tone and delivery of Del Amitri’s Justin Currie and musically his country-tinged pop is a bit Travelling Wilburys, a bit Beatles in places. This would be my 2013 recommendation to all fans of folk/ballads/thoughtful pop — and country.
For the rockers, Belgium’s Triggerfinger and their All This Dancin’ Around have been on rotation all year, especially since I saw them supporting the much-less-exciting Rolling Stones at Hyde Park. They play QOTSA-style blues rock. They are dudes.
Finally — and this is from last year — any fans of ambient or atmospheric music should buy Land Observations Roman Roads IV-XI. James Brooks, who is Land Observations, has a day job teaching art and is interesting in cartography. Roman roads are obviously mappable — though many roads that are claimed to be Roman, aren’t — and apparently likes the idea that Roman roads exist (they’re there somewhere) and don’t, as they’re under modern roads. This is an electronic album more akin to Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick than the more famous road-based composition from Krafwerk. It’s contemplative and gentle and, despite its electronic-ness makes me think of fields and hedges every time we play it, which is often.
On the year’s other albums, Foals Holy Fire proved that Foals can do no wrong. Another Belgium band, Balthazar, turned in a fine pop album with Rats.
For prog fans, Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories has been played a lot, well after I stopped reviewing it.
I’d also like to mention Steve Martin and Edie Brickell Love Has Come For You: Martin is now a world-class banjo player and this album saw him turn aside from joking altogether.
Finally, depressing release of the year: Andy T and Life At Tether’s End. Andy is a punk poet and vents the anger that other bands merely mutter platitudes about. Never mind album sales, he struggled to even get the album reviewed, despite the fact that it contains a track called “I Still Hate Thatcher!” and came out just before she died. Its failure is a depressing testament to X Factor Britain. It’s a good album though; if you want to know about punk or the 70s, or think effective poetry has to use long words and be clever, buy it.