Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Discopop Directory: Top 10 albums of 2013

Squeaking in at the last possible moment, here's my countdown of the Top 10 albums of 2013 (as played in our house). The usual terms and conditions apply: It's all based on iTunes playcount, so Kanye West's brilliant-but-abrasive Yeezus album doesn't get a look-in, while Lissie's happy-days rock opus Back To Forever does. It's as simple as that.

So, in reverse order....

10) Chvrches - The Bones Of What You Believe
And on the seventh day, Chvrches built a gleaming Jenga tower of emotive synth-pop. And verily, it began to wobble every time the beardy bloke wrestled the microphone out of Lauren Mayberry's hands. (Seriously, dude, let it go.)

Putting aside the po-faced muso moments, The Bones Of What You Believe is a gargantuan collection of anthemic pop. It even went to number 12 in the US, meaning Mayberry had to employ a "hamster carer" while she was off on tour. And they said success wouldn't change them...

9) Everything Everything - Arc
Dialling down the annoying vocal somersaults of their debut seemed to lose Everything Everything a few fans, but to me Arc is the far superior record.

Take Duet, for example, which appears to be a love song between 007 and a Bond Villain ("of all the dead volcanoes on Earth you just happened to retch and roll through mine"). Armourland, meanwhile, is the sound of Timbaland's interrupted dreams fed through a ZX Spectrum. But, crucially, the melodies are more coherent and the songs more songy.

It was all intentional, too. After hearing their debut one too many times, singer Jonathan Higgs thought to himself: "I wish I'd shut up. Every song was kind of 'woo-ah-woo' and I got tired of it."

8) Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
When many would have settled for Get Lucky x12, the Francobots went conceptual. Random Access Memories is an eccentric labour of love. A tribute to the men who inspired them: From Giorgio Moroder, narrating the story of how he invented disco, to Nile Rodgers, whose choppy guitar lines give the album every ounce of its soul.

But the masterstroke was employing Paul "So You Wanna Be A Boxer" Williams, to write and perform Touch. Inspired by a book about life-after-death experiences, the song is purportedly about a robot that's becoming human. But I defy you to hear a man who survived chronic, crippling alcoholism singing, "If love is the answer, you're home" without tearing up just a little.

7) Lissie - Back To Forever
Free-wheeling, open-chord rock with – YES! – guitar solos aplenty, Back To Forever is a great big sloppy kiss of a record.

Packed with mammoth choruses (Further Away) and rock-solid radio hits (Sleepwalking) it made a virtue of Lissie's easygoing southern charm, even when she was furiously ranting about US environmental policy on Mountaintop Removal (better than it sounds, I promise).

Radio 2 quite rightly played the crap out of it... And so should you.

6) Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady
Janelle Monae sheds pop songs like the rest of us shed skin flakes. The Electric Lady is every bit as audacious and inventive as her debut, its impact only slightly dulled by familiarity.

Eagerly cherry-picking from R&B, hip-hop, doo-wop, film scores and swooping torch songs, Monae's ambition and control of her material can be summed up with one fact: She got Prince to agree to a duet then relegated him to backing vocals. Astonishing.

5) Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (Part One)
"You could liken my chemistry with Timbaland to Marty Scorsese and Robert De Niro," said Justin Timberlake, taking self-importance to epic proportions as he promoted his 20/20 "Experience". Like Scorsese, he struggled with brevity, turning in an album stuffed full of seriousface 8-minute "jams" about his luxuriant sex life.

So I set about it with a pair of electronic scissors and created a pared-down 42-minute edit. Suddenly, the sprawling R&Boreathon became a taut pop classic (if I do say so myself).

The best bits: Timberlake channelling Lionel Ritchie's All Night Long on Let The Groove Get In, and the vocal hat-tip to N'Sync's Dirty Pop on Strawberry Bubblegum.

4) Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City
Giddy and playful, Vampire Weekend's third album saw them ditch the collegiate robes and grow up a little. But only a little.

Unbelievers is an utterly daft, summery pop song about going to hell at the hands of Christian fundamentalists; while Diane Young finds Ezra Koenig mucking about with an autotune to create the unlikeliest hook of the year.

Musically, it was more reflective without straying too far from the Vampire Weekend "upper west side Soweto" formula (they've never met a harpsichord they didn't love) but Koenig also hinted it was the "end of a trilogy". 
At the Q Awards, he told me the band hadn't worked out "phase two" yet "but whatever comes next, I'm sure it's gonna be different." 
I can't wait.

3) Beyoncé - Beyoncé
No matter how brilliant your record, there's always someone waiting to pour a bucket of scorn on it. In Beyonce's case, it was second-rate gossip website Mediatakeout, who claimed her whole "surprise album" plan was hatched because Sony thought the record was a dud and wanted to bury it. How wrong they were.

Instead, Beyonce got the best reviews of her career with a suite of slow, complex, introspective songs that rely on atmospherics as often as they do killer hooks. And, for once, a self-titled album kept it's promise of revealing the person behind the persona: Beyonce sings about marital difficulties and miscarriage with the same startling honesty she uses to describe her "pink skittles". (Don't ask).

Oh, and did I mention there were 17 videos? 17 VIDEOS!

2) Haim - Days Are Gone
The hardest-working band of 2013, Haim had to piece together their debut album while honouring a never-ending schedule of tours, TV shows and festival appearances. Not that they minded too much: "What's a day off? I don't give a fuck," Este told Rolling Stone. "I will do this until my tits are at my knees."

Days Are Gone finally arrived in September and it is something of a triumph - all hair-tossed pop hooks and nimble-fingered bass guitar. 
Someone recently described it to me as "Fleetwood Mac welded to Phil Collins' 1980s drum machine". I couldn't have put it better myself.

1) Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Pre-release, I was allowed to listen to Reflektor once, in the basement of a posh London club, while I was force fed parma ham. Regular readers may recall it didn't go well – I described the record as an "awful, trebly mess".

Turns out it was nothing of the sort. Unexpectedly lithe and funky, Reflektor has more hidden depths than a subterranean volcano. At times, the band don't quite seem in control of what they're doing – there's a scrappy tempo-change on Here Comes The Night that sounds like they're freewheeling down a hill on an unfamiliar bike - and it's all the more thrilling for it.

The album's dancefloor undercurrents were inspired by the Haitian carnival, midwifed by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and endorsed by pop royalty. "There was this amazing day when I was working on the lyrics to the song Reflektor [and] I met Grace Jones," singer Win Butler told Mojo. "She was on the beach playing with her grand-daughter. I played her an early version of Reflektor and she started dancing immediately.

"I'm like, 'All right! Grace Jones is dancing to our song – we’re definitely doing something right!'"

Recommendations don't come any stronger than that.

So that's this year's countdown. I've put a playlist of tracks from the Top 10 below which should keep any New Year's Eve Party in good spirits for an hour or two... See you in 2014!

UPDATE - JANUARY 2014: I belatedly realised that I'd forgotten to count Charli XCX's True Romance when I was compiling the chart. You can find out where she would have come in the Top 10 by visiting this page.

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