Saturday, 28 December 2013

HMM Presents: The Best Of 2013 - Album Of The Year (5-2)

Heavy Metal Mouth's 2013 album countdown ends here; these final five albums are, in my humble opinion, the greatest, most definitive releases of the past 12 months. Thanks to everyone for reading and stick with HMM for my first online magazine issue, which will be available with the full countdown and much more in January.

Without further ado, here are my top five albums of the year.

5. Reflektor- The Arcade Fire

The release of Arcade Fire’s 4th effort Reflektor was greeted with complaints of exceeding length; perhaps understandable given the extraordinary running time, but for true fans of the band these accusations will prove unfounded, with length acting as a gift rather than a curse as each sprawling piece is executed carefully and precisely with a measured pace to the very last beat. These songs may take time to build, but it's well spent time, and perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Reflektor is the extraordinary fact that despite its epic length it's never overstated, bloated, or unnecessarily filled; every single moment is totally justified and masterfully executed.

The band owe a certain debt to The Cure's Disintegration for several reasons; from the strangely danceable arrangements and hollow, dark themes to the exceeding song length and skilful pacing, there are more than several telling features of Reflektor that point to Robert Smith's magnum opus as a strong comparison, while U2 are also easy to credit for the band's ability to retain their melodic sensibilities throughout the experimentation process.

Admittedly, there were several things that had me dubious about Reflektor upon first listen, whether it was the previous niggling critical voices I'd heard or the daunting time, but this is a record that unfolds and opens new levels with each listen, resonating deeper each time and allowing us to discover new meanings within, exactly the way which great albums and great music should be made. Crucially, the band have started to realize their own brilliance (there's a definite swagger on the album that wasn't here before) without letting it affect their enormous talent, and that is perhaps the most significant and impressive element of Reflektor.

Best tracks: Reflektor/Afterlife/Supersymmetry

4. Old- Danny Brown

''I made XXX with the aim of getting great reviews. And when I started making Old, I was trying to think of artists that came back from getting great reviews and made an album that was just as good– or better. The only group I could really come up with was Radiohead. So if XXX was my OK Computer, then I’d have to make my Kid A next.''

That's quite a statement, and it's telling of Danny Brown; apart from the hilarious comedic personality that comes across throughout interviews with the Detroit rapper, there's another aspect of his character buried underneath, namely his hunger for success. Brown is as ambitious as he is talented, two characteristics you may fail to notice if you're not overly familiar with the rising star due to his eccentric nature and open attitude towards drug abuse. Many heads were turned with the release of XXX back in 2011, a surprising, original and entirely unique hip hop fusion album that found its way towards the top end of many critics best of lists come the end of the year. A follow up was always going to be risky business, but the above quote will assure you of Brown's fearlessness if nothing else.

For the most part of Old, the type of comedic turns and eccentric club anthems found on XXX are overrun by a prevalent darkness, as songs like ''Torture'', ''Lonely'' and ''Gremlins'' showcase heavy electronic beats steeped in bleak imagery, deep contemplation and hard hitting lyrics with Danny recalling the second half of Old's predecessor but travelling further into the void. Brown is honest to the point of brutality, confronting his inner demons, issues with family and friends, depression and, most importantly, his drug habit. Throughout these 19 tracks the listener finds Brown in direct confrontation with his party image and grown up self, most effectively exemplified through the contrast between opposites such as ''Smokin & Drinkin'' and ''Clean Up'' or ''Lonely''.

It's not exactly unheard territory for an artist to place the spotlight on themselves for such trouble, but the crucial difference here is the perceived reality of it all; Brown sounds as though he is genuinely conflicted, ruthlessly examining his own identity, and struggling to figure himself out over the course of 56 minutes, with the experimental, trippy production (courtesy of DB cohorts SKYWLKR and Paul White) seemingly representing the fragility of the rapper's mind and his bipolar nature.

Ultimately, Old is a daring, exceptional album that outdoes XXX for its focus, energy, honesty, bravery and direction. Brown has ignored fans who would have been happy just to hear the funny man again and built on the talent he exposed to the public intially while drawing from the tormented soul that came before fame and fortune. The perception of Danny Brown as an outsider or wild card should now be over; he's the real deal, leading the field alongside rising modern rap stars like Kendrick, Tyler and co., and most crucially doing something in modern rap than few can match and absolutely none can emulate, making him undoubtedly one of the most exciting talents in the rap game, and music world, at this moment in time.

Best Tracks: Old/25 Bucks/Float On

3. Random Access Memories- Daft Punk

‘’The idea was really having this desire for live drums, as well as questioning, really, why and what is the magic in samples? It occurred to us it’s probably a collection of so many different parameters; of amazing performances, the studio, the place it was recorded, the performers, the craft, the hardware, recording engineers, mixing engineers, the whole production process of these records that took a lot of effort and time to make back then.’’

Inside that quote right there you’ll find the magic behind Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s eventual 4th album and their most epic to date. A conscious decision to abandon synths and samples all the way back in 2008 when the French duo started playing around with demos for RAM is responsible for the album we were finally gifted with this year; a throwback to the 1970’s and 80’s in American music, all the way from classic rock to disco, from funk to house, from psychedelica to pop. You’d be quick to dismiss the recording process of RAM as another created much the same way as the band’s first two classics before it, but the real truth and beauty of this record lie in its glorious structure. This is an album crafted note from note by live musicians, as Thomas Banglatar put it himself: "We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers, but with people."

Daft Punk didn’t want to just create an album from 40 years ago, they wanted to go back there. TV advertisements and billboards announced the band’s return, symbolizing their commitment to the past down to its core, and Random Access Memories swept the world much like an album, or record, would have in its prime time- this wasn’t just a case of download then delete, Daft Punk’s homecoming was an event that could not be ignored as they stole the summer with ‘’Get Lucky’’, now the ultimate smash hit of 2013 and a single which will more than likely suffer outrageous overplaying for the next few decades, held a global album launch in Wee Waa, the back end of a nowhere town in Australia (that didn’t stop the internet coming to a halt), and the world held its breath for a tour that we’re still desperately waiting on.

I could tell you about the songs- the triumphant, daring rock opening of ‘’Give Life Back To Music’’, the inexpressible beauty of Chilly Gonzales’ transitional key change wonder ‘’Within’’, the ridiculously complex, genre bending album centerpiece ‘’Touch’’ (composed of over 250 elements within the song), or it’s magnum opus and definitive piece ‘’Giorgio By Morodor’’, a track which defines not only the album’s purpose but much of the genres located on RAM- but whether you’ve already listened or not (and shame thosae who haven’t), my words won’t do justice; this is one journey that Daft Punk have designed to be taken alone and consumed whole, through headphones, a compact disc, a record player, just as it was originally intended in their borrowed era. In 2013, Daft Punk gave us something we didn’t realize we were missing; the album.

Best Tracks: Giorgio By Morodor/Touch/Instant Crush (Feat. Julian Casablancas)

2. My Bloody Valentine- m b v

22 years have passed since My Bloody Valentine changed the way music sounded to an entire generation of music fans in 1991 with Loveless, but this January the release of m b v made it sound like the past two decades had simply never happened. Time seems to have escaped Kevin Shields, whose unrelenting, overwhelming wall of noise returns on the bands incredible third album.

A chorus of guitars familiarly drains the listener immediately backed by Shields ghost like vocal droning on opener ''She Found Now'', before m b v explodes into life with ''Only Tomorrow'', a track acting as a modern day substitution for the classic Loveless opener ''Only Shallow''. ''Who Sees You'' continues in the same vein with the majestic, unprecedented guitar sounds that Shields perfected in the early 1990’s, but before the possibility of criticizing the band for remaining unchanged enters your mind, it will be muted by ''Is This And Yes''. Within the space of 5 minutes and 7 seconds, the band drop their guitars and utilize the synth in such a clear, shimmering beautiful and emotive way that’s totally unexpected of them, marking a sound we’ve never heard from My Bloody Valentine before. It’s a perfect fit on them though, bringing the near lost genre of shoegaze into the 21st century in some style. Further on, ''If I Am'' mixes past and present with a gentle guitar wall backing and atmospheric vocals, but in a crisper, almost HD setting compared to their early work, a feature of the entire record; MBV have never sounded so close and in focus, yet they somehow retain their otherworldly, alien sense of being. ''New You'' is a softly executed lullaby but things get weird again on ''In Another Way'', an obvious standout that recalls the very best of Isn’t Anything, their debut work. ''Nothing Is'' constantly builds on a nervous, intense loop that slowly climaxes in an anxious haze, perfectly assisting final track ''Wonder 2'', a drum led, droning guitar comedown that owes something to The Beatles’ legendary ''Tomorrow Never Knows''.

It’s a rare thing indeed for any band or artist to return after such a length and immediately fill the void, but to create a record of such quality that it can stand alongside an album like its predecessor is a near miracle. m b v welcomes fans back like an old friend with the so familiar sound of extreme, unique noise all the while unfolding into an unmistakably modern record, transitioning the band before our very eyes. For 22 years so many waited, hoping to hear another blank of Kevin Shields’ genius, and here, encapsulated in 46 minutes is everything they ever dreamed; an immersive, enthralling, hypnotic masterpiece. Typical My Bloody Valentine then.

Best Tracks: She Found Now/Is This And Yes/In Another Way

What made number 1? Continue to my next post for the answer plus the full list of albums and tracks that made my countdown this year...

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