Heroes

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I never connected hard with David Bowie’s music. It’s one of the great misses of my musical life. For those of us who were not experiencing pop music when he was performing wrenching transformations on it with his bare hands in the early 70s, we had to wait for a way in, and for me that never came. I had friends who were into almost everything else, but none who wanted to impress Bowie on me. He was around in the early 80s, when I was fresh for imprinting. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ freaked me out as a nine year-old, partly because of the enduring image of a radioactive clown about to be crushed by a bulldozer. That song, above any others, has stayed with me and still transports me back to a time where I was discovering that music could change my world.

I envy those many millions who did get Bowie. His records and the worlds he built around them were clearly so rich, so rewarding, so deeply meaningful for those who immersed themselves that I know I have missed something that I will never know. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years, as many of my favourite artists and writers began to look back to Bowie, to reminisce about him as a past force rather than a current one (before his wonderfully successful re-emergence in 2013) that I really felt the size and shape of this absence. To hear Adam and Joe, for instance, discussing Bowie as a figure they obsessed over as teenage boys, is to hear the strange sounds coming from a club you will never be able to join.

I wish I had really fallen for the music, so much of which I really like, but of course there is still time, in theory, for that to happen. Perhaps even more I wish I had been there at the time to fall hard for Bowie the artist. The lessons he taught the generation lucky enough to be turned on to him as Ziggy Stardust and to follow him through Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and beyond were truly life-changing. Lessons about defying convention, being yourself, living your own life, and then embracing reinvention to live a completely different one. From the vantage point of the new millennium, Bowie’s peerless influence on Western culture is clear, unassailable and incredibly positive. He opened up worlds of possibility and entire generations followed him and populated those worlds. I may not have genuinely loved his music, but it is likely responsible for a good 60% of the music that I do love, so much of which would not have been conceivable without him. To my mind he has had a career that no-one else in the history of popular music can come close to rivaling in the breadth of its achievements. No-one else has gone on for so long, built guise after guise, created art so fearlessly and done it for so very long without ever settling back and trading on past glories. Not Elvis, not the Beatles, not Dylan, not anyone.

In thinking about the artists that I did give my heart to as a younger man, I’m forced to reflect that to some extent I chose heroes that I either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to emulate. Captain Beefheart. Mark E Smith. Nick Cave. Bob Dylan. Lou Reed. Ian Curtis. Morrissey. It seems to me that all of these were wildly iconoclastic, inventive, shocking, one-off dead-ends. No-one can follow any of these heroes, because they each identified new cultural territory and then filled it. The only exceptions I could come up with this afternoon were JG Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. Perhaps writers are different.

Bowie, however, opened up new worlds and then the hordes piled in behind him and built entire cultures. He was, perhaps more than any of the guiding lights in my own firmament, a leader.

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2014: My music of the year

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When I think back over 2014, I think of albums fleetingly, I think of songs, mostly and, pretty quickly, I think of specific moments. Three audio moments and one video moment in particular.

The sound moments all seemed to emerge from the same genus. They were these:

1. The moment in ‘Digital Witness’ by St Vincent when the chorus kicks in and the gear shift delivers a gentle, but with time unmistakeable, jolt. You feel you’ve been shoved into motion, have received a gentle blow against your inertia.

2. The moment in ‘Queen’ by Perfume Genius when Mike Hardreas gives a ‘WUH!’ as the main refrain hits. You can feel the wind being slammed out of him as the song he has created delivers a belting blow to the solar plexus.

3. The incredible passage in ‘Daughter’ by Wild Beasts, which follows perhaps my favourite lyric of the year. “From the egg / Broke my little girl / Destroyer of worlds”. What happens next is a heady, organic attempt to recreate the wub-wub dubstep drop. It’s a moment both amusing, impressive and, eventually, moving.

In their own ways each of these moments seem like attempts to recreate the feeling of standing too close to the big speaker and suddenly realising that the bass beats are too much for you to handle. Each represents a primarily rock artist delivering a sensation only previously available via the dancefloor. That’s not a particularly noteworthy observation, but it’s all I’ve got.

And speaking of the dancefloor, here’s that video moment again.

[youtube:http://youtu.be/1Ee4bfu_t3c%5D

I wrote about it at length here.

Elsewhere there are more moments, big and small. My music is inexorably becoming more about the song and less about the album, with some notable and important exceptions. For the first time since I got my first CD player and could skip back and forwards without having to hold down a RWD or FWD button, the means by which I listen to music is fundamentally altering the way the music lands and what I go on to make of it.

Because I enjoyed putting together an end of year playlist at the end of 2013, a playlist I listened to over and over again in December and January and which in a slightly pernicious way came to represent the year for me, I started doing the same much earlier this year. And so, much more quickly, my sense of what music has meant and done for me in 2014 has been winnowed down to single tracks to represent albums, artists or larger bodies of work.

Sometimes whole records fell away. I love Liars and I really liked ‘MESS’, the album they released earlier in the year which forced home the steps toward the dark dancefloor they had begun to take on ‘WIXIW’. But almost immediately I decided the track ‘Darkslide’ would go onto my 2014 playlist, and that’s the last time any of the rest of the record got a look in. The blinkered stupidity of this approach is betrayed by the fact that each time I hear that one song, my first thought is ‘I wonder if I chose the right track?’.

Sometimes there is only one piece to choose, for instance ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ by Jamie XX. Released as a stand alone, it encapsulates something perfectly and doesn’t need any supporting body of work to prop it up.

In other cases specific tracks genuinely did force their way out from the crowd. I wasn’t immediately smitten with ‘Present Tense’ the fourth album by Wild Beasts, but it grew and grew on me and now I think it may be their best. But even when that status had been attained, one track continued to grow. ‘Daughter’ caught my attention the first time I listened to the album on headphones. The drop in the middle really is a stunning moment, enough to keep bringing me back to appreciate the exquisite sonics of the rest of the track. Only then did I realise how perfectly the lyrics summation of the feeling of awe, horror and obsolescence that comes as part of parenthood. I think it’s my favourite song released this year.

Other albums felt like single movements and choosing a single track felt like randomly sticking a pin in. Mica Levi’s masterful soundtrack seeps from every alien pore of Jonathan Glazer’s absolutely extraordinary film ‘Under The Skin’ and, once seen and heard together, the music alone is enough to rekindle the dread of the movie, and one track does that as effectively as the whole suite.

‘Atomos’ by A Winged Victory For The Sullen hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s beautiful but, currently, a single indistinguishable piece for which one track can stand as well as almost any.

Meanwhile some records simply couldn’t be picked apart. ‘Everybody Down’ by Kate Tempest and ‘Benji’ by Sun Kil Moon made this year’s strongest arguments for the album as an art form. Tempest’s was a traditional concept album built around a narrative of lust and violence and lifted to the rafters by her lyrics, by turns hilarious and brutal:

Gayle was Pete’s Mum’s new boyfriend’s son
He had a mouth that was too small for his tongue
Teeth like a ladder that was missing a rung
Chin looked like it was trying to run

Meanwhile Mark Kozelek used ‘Benji’ to almost redefine what narrative albums could be. Under the cover of word-of-mouth blank poetry he builds a fractured picture of his life, zooming in on personal details and out to the grand sweep of life, meeting death every time he moves. It feels both matter of fact, as if he had sat down and written it in the time it takes to perform it, and at the same time a delicate, near perfect construction bristling with call-backs, cultural and person references and the laden deathlorn sadness of everyday life.

My musical inputs are now apparently so fatally fractured that albums like ‘Benji’ or Ought’s ‘More Than Any Other Day’ or Swans ‘To Be Kind’, works which demand or somehow earn the right to be listened to in full, are now the exception rather than the rule. I still pick them up and I still listen to them, but I picked up most of my musical leads this year through podcasts or online reviews, and followed them up through Spotify. I still bought a bunch of records, but most were after-the-fact.

I’m not entirely saddened by this, but I have to reflect it. My listening is now much broader than it ever has been, but it is also, necessarily, much shallower.

My song of the year? That might be ‘Lah Di Dah’ by Jake Thackray, but that’s another story.

Setting records

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I just built some new shelves for my records. I spent all evening doing it, my records are now on those shelves and now my records feel like someone else’s records.

I’m scrolling back and remembering the significant record arrangements of my life so far. Most recently, up until this afternoon, my records lived in two remaindered Habitat shelving units which were stacked on top of one another and slotted into an alcove in our dining room with my stereo bits and bobs slung on top. I’m pleased to say that these had become packed to bursting and, since what goes around comes around, are suddenly in high demand for storage in someone else’s room where they will fit rather conveniently, thank you very much.

Prior to this I had them in the same units side-by-side upstairs. And prior to that, I reckon, I had them in the same shelves alongside our bed in our two-up-two-down in South Manchester. My records and the means to play them were, for what now seems like a brief period in sunlit uplands, within arms reach as I slept.

And prior to that? Let’s think. I can’t recall shelving of any variety. Steve and I lived in a flat in Didsbury for a year or so. I can remember little about the layout of my room, but I’m assuming my records were stacked on the floor. I do recall that at one point the heating system began to leak and a pool of water spread from the centre of the flat out to the periphery over the course of a number of weeks, eventually forming a perfect circle of dank, essentially stagnant carpet. I must have moved my records outwards to keep pace with the moist advance.

I have photos of shelves full of CDs from our house in Rusholme. Whilst my records are permanent, undislodgeable features, I have thrown away, or ‘decluttered’ in modern parlance, almost any other relics of my past, including bin bags full of letters and photos. Unsurprisingly, one of the shots I think I opted to keep and which I’m sure, is lurking upstairs still 20 years later, is of bedroom bookshelves shelves full of CDs. I was pretty sure that if we were burgled and they went, no insurer would believe I’d actually had as many as I would inevitably have to claim for. So I took pictures of the shelves, assuming that would be enough. Later that year we were indeed broken into and my collection remained unpilfered. Months later, when we moved house, I realised one of the reasons why. It would have taken 10 men to lift the whole lot.

Prior to that? I was at home briefly having returned from University, where my records were stacked on the floor. In my final year, they extended out next to my bed from the head end. If I woke up on my left side, my eyes would be flicking up and down the row of album spines before I’d fully registered that I was awake.

I’m not sure exactly when they became alphabetised, but I know it was relatively late. Prior to that, there was a topography to the collection, a joy in understanding the terrain of what was ultimately a random ordering. Arriving at one record, I would know what was next and the trail would unfold in my mind’s eye and my finger’s touch. Looking for a specific album I could intuit its position and almost reach in and grab it blindfolded.

Now I have more records, and now I also have more shelves. For the first time in a little while my records have some room to breathe, although not enough in their 13 by 13 compartments, to be properly flicked through. Still, I can now pull them out without having to pinch the spines, and push them back in without having to first pull out three or four neighbouring albums to force back in with them in a brute force attack.

The whole thing looks different once again and seems, somehow, new. In a literal sense, this is a dream come true. Surely all record collectors share that dream of finding that the collection that they thought they owned actually contains hidden subsections, albums by their favourite artists that they’d never heard of and whole new annexes of music to explore at leisure. My collection feels opened up in some way by this rather small change,

Billy Bragg – ‘Don’t Try This At Home’

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Billy Bragg - Don't Try This At HomeBilly Bragg’s fourth album was released in 1991. I bought it the week it came out in possibly the least user-friendly format imaginable: a box set of eight separate seven inch singles. To listen to the whole thing front to back required 16 visits to the turntable. Inevitably this ended up in – encouraged even – dipping in and out in a highly manual form of skipping tracks. I remember different songs getting heavy play at different times and others languishing, their names only firing distant recollection.

I’m listening to it now for what I would guess is the first time in around 15 years. How come I can sing all the songs, either completely or in part?

‘Everywhere’, the earnest, Seeger-indebted, but similarly pure and un-swerveable paean to interred Japanese Americans.

‘Sexuality’, one of his more forced songs but still brimming with pleasure, shanks to Johnny Marr’s effervescent guitar playing and some of Bragg’s best, if almost completely out of context, couplets (‘I had an Uncle who once played/For Red Star Belgrade/He said some things are really best left unspoken/ But I prefer it all to be out in the open“)

‘You Woke Up My Neighborhood’, with half of REM adding a swing to proceedings and Billy adopting his rubbish cod-American accent, used to make me smile in recollection of the wild girlfriend who had been part of my life so briefly and had never actually existed.

Even now, all those years later, as I’m in the midst of ‘Mother of the Bride’, a song which used to make me warm with adolescent self-pity, I’m already fearful knowing that ‘Tank Park Salute’ is up next, a devastating song about the death of Bragg’s father, which I used to force myself to sit through to attempt to confront my worst fears. It didn’t work, but the song is etched on my heart. It’s playing now, still burning.  Listen. It’s beautiful.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O51StLHCTrU%5D

‘God’s Footballer’ (“turns on a sixpence and brings the great crowd to their feet in praise of him”) a deft tribute to Peter Knowles. ’North Sea Bubble’ and ‘Body of Water’ as convincingly rocking as Bragg would ever get.

i reached for it just now because of some half formed desire to ‘listen to some songs’. I couldn’t say why this record sprang to mind, but it fits the bill perfectly. [Update: I know where it came from. For some reason I was whistling ’The Space Race Is Over’ as I tripped up and down the corridor at work this afternoon. I couldn’t say why.]

I think Bragg is vastly under-rated, or at least not sufficiently credited, as a pure songwriter. His politics, and their place in his work, are often seen somehow as mutually exclusive to him writing really great songs. But he does, or at least did. ‘Don’t Try This At Home’ absolutely bursts with them. It’s also one of his warmest collections, wherein the personal takes precedence over the political or, in the best examples, ‘Moving the Goalposts’, ‘Rumours of War’ the two are made inextricable.

It’s a great record, probably the best overlap between his blunt early passion and his growing confidence and range as a composer. And it’s just chock full of tremendous, moving, proper songs. Songs which feel like they could and should be passed down through generations. They are vibrant, living, energetic or quiet, intimate, moving, meaningful. If that sounds like something simple, then i’m sure it’s not, but the pleasures to be had here are simple in their own way, unpretentious, sentimental, rousing, honest and, 20-odd years down the line, still wonderful and memorable. How else would I know all of them when they were so bloody difficult to listen to in the first place?

[Update: I think I probably made a tape of this and so did listen to it through all the time, but my point still stands]

I Have Never – Novelists

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I used to feel strangely proud of the cultural monoliths I had bypassed. As a teenager I wrote an excruciating essay about never having read Hemingway (how pleased with myself I was for not knowing something) and every Christmas I felt a small but identifiable tweak when everyone moaned about schedules once again containing ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, ’The Great Escape’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’. I hadn’t seen any of them and still haven’t.

I felt as if the moment when I might have reached for most of these touchstones had passed. I was forging into the future, or so I thought, and had no time to reach back into the past. That’s not to say I read, watched or heard only new things. I exhausted Burroughs, Ballard and Vonnegut, hung out in the 70s and early 80s with Woody Allen and Steve Martin and tracked back to the reference points of post-punk. But to me these all felt like counter-points to some cultural orthodoxy I wanted away from, so I avoided some of the brightest guiding stars in the firmament.

Now I have less time and those decisions, made and never brought out for re-examination, seem completely stupid.

In conversation recently with Fiona from 940 Sundays and the foremost authority on Nabokov on the second floor of the building she works in, I suddenly felt faintly embarrassed for never having read him. I know things about him and I’ve read lots of writers who were profoundly influenced by him – almost all of Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo – but not Nabokov himself.that particular source.

Perhaps I’ve felt the same way about music in the past. If artist X is the freshest, most radical on the scene, why should I be interested in their influences, when they have presumably progressed from or built upon them? I only reached back to artists who seemed so iconoclastic that no-one had approached them since. Hence I love Dylan, Beefheart, Velvet Underground but care much less for the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Byrds.

I think it’s time to change this. To start doing things instead of not doing things. We’ve talked about this before.

I’m going to start with books. Here’s a list of 10 fiction writers, pulled from thin air, who i’m going to try to read within my next 20 or 30 books.

  • Doris Lessing
  • Saul Bellow
  • Primo Levi
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Henry James
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • VS Naipaul
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky

To my knowledge I’ve read nothing by any of them (with the possible exception of Hemingway – I have a sneaky feeling I’ve read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ – but he needs to stay in the list as a symbol of my arrogance and ignorance). I make no claims for this list, and there are hundreds more who could and, in time, should be included. But it’s something. Perhaps if and when I finish I’ll know whether and how badly I’ve been missing out on all this time.

If you have anything to say about any of these 10, including specific recommendations, then do please comment. And before you scoff and file me under ‘Philistine’ take a little look at your own gap-lists, maybe submit them as comments too if you’re bold enough, and take a long hard look at yourself and your glass house before throwing stones.

I Give Up: Everything Else

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Football, Twitter and eating every day have gone.

What else?

As I look back over the last couple of years I see a trail of pockmarks, craters and holes where things big and small used to sit in my life. None of these smaller divestments were as sudden or as intentional as the big three, and perhaps not as permanent, but they all involved significant aspects of my milieu.

I can’t believe I just referred to ‘my milieu’. I should give up being a ponce.

Fiction

I’ve been a committed reader of novels since I was 15 or 16. They have shaped my sense of self, drawn me into places and positions I would never have occupied otherwise and essentially formed a central part of what I thought myself to be. I still read, and although the last few years have been a little slower than those which preceded them (less time on my hands, no public transport commute), I still managed to get through 25 books in 2013, which seems like a decent pace, all things considered.

However, I was taken aback to realise in retrospect that none of the books I sat and read this year were fiction. In fact the only two novels I consumed this year were as audiobooks and one of those, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, was a re-read.

I wrote about this here. This seems to represent a shift and I recognise some of the underlying currents, but it’s been largely sub-conscious.

Music

I love music.

Let me restate that. I love music.

Nothing has shaped my sense of who I am more than the music I happened to seize upon as a teenager and the places that music has taken me. I’ve spent many hours and years writing about music, talking about music and every year since I was a school kid listening to music.

I couldn’t give it up. If I say it’s a part of me, that’s not just a tired phrase, it’s a physiological truth. If i’m not actively listening to music (like now) I have songs playing on my Head Radio (currently ‘Sweet Jane’).

Nonetheless, last year when various things were pretty sketchy I had a significant wobble. I found myself needing to hear podcasts and books, specifically to have people speaking about things which would require second-by-second concentration. I wrote a little about it at the time as it crossed over with the 2012 Music Diary Project. At the time I knew it was a form of avoidance. I didn’t want the space that music affords the mind, didn’t want to wander. For several months I found myself deliberately turning away from music, putting on headphones and carefully, worriedly, needily digging for something spoken-word to play.

An aberration then, but even that seemed seismic at the time. 2013 was more balanced. Loads and loads of new music, but also loads of really enjoyable podcasts. There’s a connection here, perhaps, between me giving more time to non-fiction reading and non-fiction listening.

News

I stopped listening to the Today programme every morning at around the same time.

Now, fair enough, there are good reasons to do so. The adversarial he-said-she-said interviews. Even worse, an interviewing approach which seems aimed only at getting the subjects to make or admit to a mistake which they can then be taken to task for, rather than joining with them in search of, you know, the truth. I genuinely believe that the fear of saying the wrong thing on Radio 4 has led directly to a generation of politicians who deliberately, and incredibly irritatingly, say nothing at all. And hey presto! Our political life is broken.

I didn’t cut myself off entirely. I still listen to Five Live around the house, and PM kept me interested for a few months afterwards, but as I fell under the sway of various podcasts, so these came to replace my listening on the way to and from work.

And then I stopped commuting to the news completely, as a deliberate decision. How would it be, I asked myself, if I just decided NOT to engage with these irritating people? These horrible, intractable situations? With the uncontrollable outside world?

It turned out it was fine. I feel guilty for being out of touch, although I’m not sure I am terribly. As with Twitter, I felt a brief concern that I was retreating from our shared reality. And then I got over it and started feeling comfortable in some different realities. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do in absolute terms, but it feels like absolutely the right thing for me to do right now and ultimately I have to go with that.

Ultimate

I’ve been an ultimate frisbee player for 20 years now. I started late, which means I’m now hanging on really, really late. Sooner, not later, it will be time to call it a day, and I’ve started thinking about it almost exclusively in those terms. A couple of years ago I wrote about how it feels to know that something, perhaps the only thing, you’ve ever been really good at is coming to an end. I don’t necessarily feel so dramatically about it now, but I sure do wonder whether any other pastime will ever get that time, energy and dedication from me.

Cycling

I have cycled a lot in the past few years and got a great deal from it. I love it, but I don’t do it any more. There are good reasons for this, and it’s not a conscious move away from something, but perhaps mentionable as another thing I thought I couldn’t live without that I’m living without.

Social contact

Now, this sound both dramatic and self-pitying, but over the last ten years I have basically moved from having constant contact with a network of family and friends all within a few miles to having no-one at all, except my wife. The relocation was quite deliberate (it’s a tricky thing to pull off by accident) but the isolation was an unwelcome side-effect. I still feel it, quite intensely at times.

I know lovely people where we live, and spending time with them is great, but we have some way to go. I want this to be different, but there are no easy fixes. In the meantime I could draw a 60 mile radius around my house and it would only contain one person I can call a genuine old friend.

Playing Ultimate gave me semi-regular contact with a big share of my best friends, but that’s going soon. Social media isn’t the same, and even that seems to be going too.

I’m not sure what’s happening. Maybe nothing, maybe something.

My Records of 2013

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albums2013Here’s the list of my albums of the year for 2013. I’ve had no problems whatsoever compiling this list as it features the only 11 new records I actually bought over the last 12 months.

My listening habits have changed a lot over the last year and Spotify is now my first reference point for genuinely new music, i.e. artists I haven’t heard before. This year i’ve spent much less money than usual on records, but that’s not because streaming has replaced purchasing. If money had been no object, I would have three or four times as many, and there’s a parallel list of albums which i’ve had on heavy Spotify rotation.

This list almost breaks down evenly into albums by established and well-loved artists which I would have picked up whenever I got the chance, and albums which I played so many times on Spotify that I felt either compelled or obliged to buy them.

Finally, I feel no sense of conflict or confusion as to why i’m writing this list. It’s because I want to and because, in some tiny way, I want you all to know that I’m the kind of guy who would buy these kind of records.

Deafheaven – ‘Sunbather’

I love the idea of Black Metal – a blast of noise and fury as cathartic and destructive as a nuclear detonation, channeling pure, dark rage and horror. But somehow, the product usually manages to undermine itself through the sheer puerility of everything which isn’t the music. In their titles, artwork, lyrics, names, so many BM acts seem just like silly, gloomy teenagers. I can’t get past it.

That leaves me with acts that eschew the posturing and just go for the noise. This year, that has meant Deafheaven, a black metal band who grew up loving Slowdive. ‘Sunbather’ is a red-roasting racket, without any other nonsense.

Deerhunter – ‘Monomania’

More or less a standard new Deerhunter record, which shouldn’t even be a thing. Regulation Deerhunter is okay for me and listening back I’m surprised by how many of the songs seem to have stuck. But, Bradford, fuzzing up your vocals and pretending you’re wearing a neon motorbike jacket is not a bold new direction.

Grouper – ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’

Grouper may be one of my favourite artists of the last few years. I can tell, because I have almost no idea whether I like her records or not, but I keep on coming back to them. And the more I come back, the more my grip on them seems to slip. ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ seems to hide its true identity under layers of gauze and haze, layering static, hiss, reverb and any other available aural opacifier between the listener and what seem, beneath it all, to be simple acoustic laments. But there’s nothing simple about this proposition.

All of which is a windy way of saying that no matter how many reviews I read telling me that this album is a moving evocation of loss, wrapped in a narrative that will have you wrung out by the closing track, I basically have no idea on earth what it’s about, can barely cling on to the details of any of the tracks, but it hasn’t stopped Grouper nagging away at me, and I love that.

The Haxan Cloak – ‘Excavation’

My Christmas list is stuffed full of records i’ve lived with on Spotify and now need to own. Almost all are abstract, electronic – in influence if not always execution – and, to my inexperienced ears, representing a vanguard of new musicians stepping away from the dance floor and towards the contemporary classical performance space. Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak, is pushing downwards, finding ways to drag the sounds out from the depths of his psyche and into a world in which they may well never have been meant to exist.

Hookworms – ‘Pearl Mystic’

Pure nostalgia, pure pleasure, ‘Pearl Mystic’ proves that just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing again, or that it can’t be done better. It’s a bubbling, seething cauldron of guitar that will boil you down to bones.

I wrote about it here: http://devonrecordclub.com/2013/10/30/hookworms-pearl-mystic-round-56-robs-choice/

Iron and Wine – ‘Ghost On Ghost’

Sam Beam’s fifth album begins with a clattering, uncontrolled rhythm, rolling over itself before resolving quickly into a sweet, soulful shuffle. It’s a knowing dig at those who thought he would take Iron and Wine even farther down the discordant jazztronica of ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’. I thought that last record was unfairly maligned but, nonetheless, this unmistakeable step back towards the heart of what he does best has produced a warm and wonderful sound. It’s confident, brimming with effortless melody and open-hearted words. Amidst the noise and anti-noise of all my other 2013 playlists, the rhythm and roll of ’The Desert Babbler’ has perhaps been the most naggingly addictive pure sound.

The Knife – ‘Shaking the Habitual’

This triple-album, an unashamedly conceptual piece, whichever way you see its intent and execution made a big impact on release. It seems to have dipped below the waterline since. Perhaps it was too big to digest. Perhaps it was too ridiculous to take seriously. Whatever. There are sounds in here that you’ve never heard before. There are tracks which hammer and bang like nothing else you’ll have nodded your way through this year. There are places on this record which only The Knife have access to.

Low – ‘The Invisible Way’

Low and Jeff Tweedy made a lovely Low record, moving the sound on incrementally by combining the succinctness of ‘Drums and Guns’ with the accessibility of ‘The Invisible Way’ to create a smart, thoroughly enjoyable collection. I’m not damning it, and that’s not faint praise.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – ‘Push The Sky Away’

This was on hard rotation for a couple of months at the start of the year. The way Nick Cave has matured into an artist who so fully and completely inhabits his own unique space, embodying his mode of operation, delivering time and time again on the foundation he and his band have built for themselves, seems to me to be one of the wonders of the musical world. File him alongside Tom Waits and… erm…

‘Push The Sky Away’ is a perfect example, wherein he does things he’s never done before, taking a further step away from the swampy wild west and finding himself amongst sex-traffickers, sailors and theoretical physics wonks. Definitely the best album of the year to feature one song which opens with a description of the narrator completing the composition of one of the album’s preceding tracks.

Pinkunoizu – ‘The Drop’

A dizzying blend of sounds lifted magpie-style and blended with abandon by this Danish four-piece. Even if by some miracle the individual tracks manage to hold their disparate influences together, there’s no way this should work as a coherent album. Somehow it does.

I wrote about it here: http://devonrecordclub.com/2013/11/29/pinkunoizu-the-drop-round-58-robs-choice/

Vampire Weekend – ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

When ‘MVotC’ arrived it was trailed as the musical equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon novel, cramming in countless allusions, allegories and hints of hidden histories. I still haven’t sat down with the lyric sheet, but I know this is a smart piece of work. In fact, I think it’s the sort of record we should be hoisting shoulder-high and showering with garlands.

When so much alternative rock has been lauded for disengagement, dislocation and blurring out, or for just doing more, longer and with less focus, Vampire Weekend have produced a work of scope, substance and, crucially, concision. It crackles with energy and melody, rejoices in musical flourishes, stylistic invention and lyrical density, and pulls all these together into a whole which is as playful as it is intriguing, which will move the feet as much as it spins the head.

Talking Heads ascended to the firmament for doing something similar, for daring to aspire to being smart as well as musically gripping. It genuinely baffles me why we aren’t rushing to put Vampire Weekend up there with them.

So, that’s that.

My record of the year, you ask? That would be ‘Coexist’ by The xx. But that’s another story.