Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - The Year In Music

I'll be honest. 2013 peaked too soon. The return of His Dameness on January 8 set the bar preposterously high for anything and everyone else.

David Bowie's brilliant, enigmatic reappearance early that Tuesday morning - his 66th birthday - with social networks spluttering noisily to life like old-fashioned newswire printers, announced to the world that he was anything but dead. And to prove it he gave us the beautiful, melancholic, nostalgic Where Are We Now, setting the keynote for my year in music.

Now, to set things straight, just because this steaming carcass of a blog features Bowie in its title doesn't make it his unwavering lapdog. But there was, I'm glad to say, universal welcome to Bowie's first single in nearly 10 years.

That welcome extended itself at the beginning of March when The Next Day, the album Bowie had been working on in unfathomable secret for the Web age, appeared to relief and delight. Relief that Bowie hadn't taken the route of so many of his contemporaries and cheaply knocked off a covers album for his comeback, or a lazily compiled reworking of old hits. And delight that it was actual Bowie, proper Bowie, original Bowie, doing what everyone who's had the faintest degree of appreciation for him would recognise as being what they have liked about his material since forever.

So in order to get it out of the way, let me declare The Next Day What Would David Bowie Do?'s Album of the Year, 2013, suck up the brickbats, and move on to the rest of what made this a year in music to remember.

While I'm at it, let me also declare Bowie Artist Of The Year, purely for orchestrating pop's most compelling and well executed comeback. Even the Victoria & Albert Museum's stunningly curated retrospective, David Bowie Is, appeared with equal enigma (was he behind it or not?), uniquely turning out to be both one of the year's cultural highlights and tourist draws (Eurostar have even cited it as a reason for their record passenger numbers this year).

In this vein of transparency, I must also confess another proprietary interest. My friend Steven Wilson - who has been writing and recording since he was teenager, for goodness sake - took his burgeoning solo career a massive step further with his third solo album The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories).

Recorded the previous summer with Dark Side Of The Moon engineer Allan Parsons in assistance, The Raven... provided a healthy outlet for Steven's love of the macabre, combining Poe-ish ghost stories and tales of the supernatural with a broadening fusion of melodic rock and jazz sensibilities.

In the title track (and Jess Cope and Simon Cartwright's stunning video) along with the ballad Drive Home, Steven delivered two of my musical highlights in one album. And, in gigs in Paris and at London's Royal Albert Hall, two of the live moments of the year as well.

The 1980s, when my musical interest really engaged gear, gave plenty to condemn. All that over-production, chorused guitars and drums with the gated reverb turned up to 11. But as in every era the wheat is easy to separate from the chaff, with the decade producing some of my favourite and most enduring pop acts, some of whom made welcome returns in 2013.

Lloyd Cole is one. After years as a Massachusetts-based folk singer, the 52-year-old former jingle-jangle bedsit mainstay emerged with Standards, a crowd-sourced album staffed by hand-picked sessioneers that produced a motherlode strike at Cole's rich seam of melodic and lyrical dexterity, resulting in gems like California Earthquake, Women's Studies, Myrtle and Rose and Silver Lake.

Robyn Hitchcock, another constantly overlooked national musical treasure, also produced one of his strongest post-Egyptians albums to date, Love From London.

As a self-confessed devotee of Syd Barrett's form of surrealism and occasional swirls of Lewis Carroll-like whimsy, in Love From London Hitchcock marked the arrival of his 60th year with an angrier fist shake at the modern age, launching fuzzboxed barbs at bankers and the financial crisis they caused, along with a laundry list of other modern social ills. A compelling record.

Edwyn Collins, once of Orange Juice, continued the rehabilitation from the massive brain haemorrhage that nearly killed him in 2005 with the highly rated Understated. For someone who, just a few years ago was rendered unable to say more than four words, Understated is a typically eloquent   example of Collins' ability to pack a lot of meaning into generous dollops of guitar pop, his signature croon only partially impaired by his condition.

Once of Barking, now of England's southern coastal shires, Billy Bragg has continued to plough a sturdy but lone farrow of Pete Seegerish folk infused with his trademark singing voice which, to be polite, will never be the sweetest, but is at least sincere. And in some respects, it's what made Bragg's Tooth & Nail such an enjoyment, showing all the bluegrass newcomers and wannabes clogging up summer festival fields how to be 100% English and still be authentically country without resorting to rhinestone underwear.

But for all the 80s acts to emerge or reappear this year, pride of place must go to Elvis Costello for his stunning collaboration with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs. No one - not even the mercurial, shape-shifting Peter Gabriel - has managed to cover as breadth in their careers as Costello. From angry young member of the Stiff Records vanguard of New Wave to a musician of unique diversity, every new Costello release - and they come thick and fast - continues to deserve attention. Wise Up Ghost could have been a disaster - riled-up English singer-songwriter meets hip New York rap outfit? - but it wasn't. Relevant and dynamic in equal measure, Wise Up Ghost comes closer to The Next Day as album of the year than any other.

The principle joy of being a music consumer is not always the satisfaction of buying something on spec and knowing you were right, but buying something on spec and being pleasantly surprised. Laura Marling delivered just such an outcome this year. Impervious as I am to hype - indeed Superman has been corrupted with greater ease than I've given in to excessive popular opinion - I'd remained indifferent to all the fuss about Marling. But then one throwaway comparison to John Martyn in a review of Once I Was An Eagle, and my interest was purchased. A fourth album at just 23, Eagle rings of emboldened maturity, recounting a doomed love with the sort of aching intimacy that was indeed Martyn's trademark.

Speaking of which, and though this should, in principle, be a roundup of the year's best new music, an honorary mention must go to Martyn's 17-CD opus The Island Years. Probably the most lovingly collated collection of original studio albums (all for the Island label), live recordings, outtakes and miscellany, it also takes the prize for the heaviest music release of the year, requiring the lavishly packaged collection to be brought back from the post office atop my right shoulder like a brick hod.

Marling's polymath producer, Ethan Johns (son of legendary producer Glyn, nephew of another legendary producer Andy, who passed away in April) also wandered into the darker world of roots music with his superb If Not Now Then When?, proving that you can be too talented and not have it become either a millstone or a detriment. Exploring a corridor of the many shades of Americana and a darker shade of blues, Johns produced one of the year's outstanding mood setters. Amazing he had the time to fit it in, quite frankly.

On a stubbornly wet, drizzly Sunday drive from London back to Paris, just a few weeks ago, I came across the next two badge winners in the year's best. A brace of albums bought on past reputation alone, and to my pleasant surprise, exceeding expectation in large amounts.

Goldfrapp's Tales Of Us found Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory exploring a more ethereal line than their previous 80s glitterball efforts. Now I know that saying an album is perfect for a Sunday excursion sounds like the musical equivalent of string-backed driving gloves, but here was a joyous return to their earlier dabbles in ambient EDM, creating a warming, autumnal blanket of a delightfully dour nature.

Ejecting Tales Of Us from the CD deck, I managed to single-handedly wrestle Stereophonics' Graffiti On A Train from its packaging. The effort, and clear case of driving without due care and attention, was worth it. The Welshmen continue to sit in an awkward-to-place position in the pantheon of maturing Britpop acts. And yet for all the plaudits Noel Gallagher deservedly earns for his continued ability to lead audiences on football terrace singalong rock, the Phonics' Kelly Jones consistently misses out on attention. Despite some indifferent reviews, Graffiti On A Train - their eighth studio album - elegantly lifts the Stereophonics into an older plane, one of ponderous blues and a darker mood without abandoning Jones' gift for melody and hook, and their respectful nods towards guitar rock of decades past.

The transition from critical acclaim, and being a unique addition to pop's great universe, to establishment and the conveyor belt of commercial progress is a rubicon that only the few cross with ease. There are, even now, (very) old heads who complain that Dylan lost it when he went electric. But in this age when album consumption is, it seems, only for those with patience and the attention span to endure sitting and listening to a record from start to finish, The Arctic Monkeys' passage from choppy Northern guitar rockers to Glastonbury-headlining A-listers was confirmed with their stunning AM. For a start, Alex Turner and gang conspicuously avoided the safe and the predictable with it, combining Beatlesque melody with hip-hop, scratchy guitars with thundering riffs. Their fifth, their best.

Earlier in this review I mentioned my deep anathema towards hype. Sometimes, however, it is warranted. One such example - and the final selection of WWDBD?'s Albums Of The Year - is Daft Punk's Random Access Memories.

The cynic in me was fully prepared to dismiss it as derivative irony, like a camp, 70s theme night at a provincial pub, all puffball skirts and men who should know better dressed as The Simpsons' Disco Stu. And, yes, to some extent, it is that, but with so, so much more intelligence and knowing.

Hiring Nile Rodgers and Pharell was a masterstroke. Bringing in Georgio Moroder to reminisce like Dark Side Of The Moon's Roger The Hat was a brazen piece of musical nerd-dom. You can intellectualise - or groan - as much as you like about Random Access Memories, but there are times when trying to get too deep about a record really isn't worth the energy. This is an album that can simply be enjoyed from start to finish. And if open car windows are still blaring Get Lucky at high volume as they cruise your street next summer, so be it. At least it means a change from Will Smith's Summertime...

I Am Kloot at close quarters © Simon Poulter 2013
I couldn't conclude this tiptoe through the tuneful tulips of 2013 without giving some thought to the extraordinary number of gigs I've packed in to the calendar. Ticket stubs have been retained for the mighty Popa ChubbyI Am Kloot (whose Let It All In deserves a mention in dispatches in the year's best albums) and Roger Waters, with his final tour of The Wall show.

The Stone Roses came to Paris and the insane intimacy of a small theatre packed to the gills with pogoing, adidas and Carhartt-clad ex-pats in their mid-40s. In equally close-quartered experience, Prince induced foot and calf cramps with his exhausting but utterly mesmerising show in Montreux, while Depeche Mode surprised me with their rock chops at the Stade De France. The Eagles told their story at New York's Madison Square Garden while The Who pitched up in Paris with Quadrophenia pristinely reproduced with a degree of passion that belied the advancing years of its surviving founders, Daltrey and Townshend.

© Simon Poulter 2013
But, by a country mile, the accolade of What Would David Bowie Do?'s Gig Of The Year must go to Bruce Springsteen.

From every angle you regard his July 2 show in Paris, Springsteen demonstrated that no one - not even U2 - can hold a candle, a cigarette lighter held aloft, or an iPhone's torch app, to him as the most engrossing and infectious live performer in the business today.

Of course, any self-respecting music fan shouldn't have any truck for a stadium show, least of all one performed in the elephantine arena that is the Stade De France.

But Springsteen - as his reputation dictates - turned a 81,000-strong mostly French audience into a Messianic gathering, holding them all in the palm of his hand for almost four hours with a comprehensive barrage of American music at its very best. If anyone is likely to come close in 2014, let me know now. The calendar is wide open.

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