In an effort to get back into writing about things after a hiatus, I said that I was going to write an Album of the Year post for the first time in five years or so. My first real blog post in 18 months and an excuse to finally utilise the WordPress pages that I have on my web space that currently sit as pieces of nostalgia for me to look through.
In previous years, I have often written a long first entry where I summarise my opinions on every album I deem worthy of listing, before posting a few days later my top 10 or so records. I know how long-winded this was (with the benefit of hindsight) so I have changed the format for this entry. I will countdown my top 10, but outside of my #1 pick this year, I don’t really have a set order, so I am going to post my nine favourites in alphabetical order, with my favourite album at the very bottom. In between, I’ll cover the albums that just missed the cut, the albums I wasn’t really fond of, and the records I am most looking forward to hearing in 2014. Advance warning: if you are expecting me to pick from one genre exclusively, you will be disappointed. A lot of fantastic stuff was released this year from artists across my musical palette and I will attempt to give as many of them credit as possible.
One thing does remain from previous years – my criteria. Must be released in the 2013 calendar year. No reissues. No remixes. No live albums. No compilations.
(All of the album covers used in this post are taken from the indispensable All Music Guide).
Alice in Chains – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
My expectations for Alice in Chains’s previous studio effort, Black Gives Way to Blue, were low due to the long hiatus the band undertook after the death of Layne Staley. Could the band survive without such an influential piece of their puzzle? Would time away sullen the band’s sound? This second album with new lead vocalist William DuVall, follows on from the 2009 effort and is another monster record. All the band’s hallmarks – dark lyrics, haunting melodies and the grungy guitar – are ever present, but offering a different spin half way through the album are the tracks co-written by bass player Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney such as “Low Ceiling”. DuVall has certainly settled in and proved a great addition to the band alongside guitarist Jerry Cantrell and the duo shine throughout the album.
Alter Bridge – Fortress
After a brief hiatus, Alter Bridge returned with a big statement in the form of Fortress. Three quarters of the band have spent recent times with other projects, with Myles Kennedy’s work with Slash gaining arguably the most notoriety. Picking up right where 2010’s ABIII left off, with this effort Alter Bridge can rightly take their place at the top table of today’s hard rock acts. With Kennedy working alongside the incredible Mark Tremonti, the album weaves magnificently over it’s just over 62 minutes. From the driving “Addicted to Pain” to the epic title track, taking some inspiration from 2008’s “Blackbird”. After years of waiting, I finally caught the band live in Cardiff in October alongside Shinedown and Halestorm, and they rightly main evented the evening’s card, with the album translating live as brilliantly as you would expect. Alter Bridge can only go onwards and upwards.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
The indie darlings had a tough act to follow, given the unprecedented success of the band’s previous effort, 2010’s The Suburbs. Creating a double album is a big risk in the iTunes era, with so much stock put into the sales of singles; it was admirable of the band to stick to writing longer songs. You also wouldn’t fault them for resting on their laurels after winning critical acclaim for their previous album, as well as picking up awards a plenty. But, the album gives a fresh feel, whilst also retaining some of the hallmarks that made the band stand out in the first place. The album closer, “Supersymmetry” is an epic in all senses of the word, and there isn’t a single “bad” song on the whole record.
Albums that I didn’t enjoy as much…
Damage by Jimmy Eat World didn’t grab me and hasn’t got better with repeated listens, which is such a shame as I really wanted to like the album. If anything, the greatness of Futures grows simply because the band hasn’t come close to matching that record from start to finish since, although I honestly believe that they still can. Megadeth’s Super Collider is easily the weakest work of the band’s career, and not even a blistering opening track can save it. The guest appearance from David Draiman had to be pointed out to me, which is such a shame as it was what I was most looking forward to on the whole record (partly because if I could have told 15-year old me that two of my favourite bands would one day work together, it would have blown my mind).
Dishonourable mentions also go to two songs which I found cringe worthy, Daughtry’s “Long Live Rock & Roll” and Sick Puppies “Gunfight”. Both of these songs feature such insipid lyrics I think I banged my head on the desk repeatedly after listening to them.
Arctic Monkeys – AM
The fifth album from some of Sheffield’s most famous sons was highly anticipated, with three terrific singles released alongside an exhaustive tour to promote the record before it was even released in early September. It was worth waiting for. Many critics more qualified to judge than I have stated this is the best record of their career to date and I can’t disagree. Drawing upon influences far and wide, with a distinct hip-hop touch in some areas, it thrills from start to finish. To pick just one track as a real standout would be incredibly unfair to all involved as each song has its merits. But from the moment the opening stomps of “Do I Wanna Know?” hit, you know this is going to be a record you won’t forget in a hurry.
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
After the departure of creative colossus, Mike Portnoy, in September 2010, you might have expected Dream Theater to fall apart. Instead, the band has gone onto further commercial success, with the previous album, (the rather aptly named) A Dramatic Turn of Events, being the band’s highest charting album to date. With new drummer Mike Mangini being involved in the creative process from the start for the first time, for a band with usually terrific album titles, a self-titled album might be disappointing. What follows is Dream Theater’s most fluid and complete record since 2005’s Octavarium. The epic album closer, “Illumination Theory”, is constructed in a similar style to similar closing epics like “Learning to Live”, “Finally Free” and “Octavarium” itself. The first proper instrumental since 2003’s Train of Thought (“Enigma Machine”) is a pleasant surprise, as is the album’s first single “The Enemy Inside”, which has defied the band’s usual shunning of the shorter track to be a big success.
Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Describing the period between releasing the previous album, Era Vulgaris, and this fantastic record, as “tumultuous” ranks as a gross understatement. QOTSA had been through the mill. Josh Homme nearly died (and subsequently battled depression). The band’s long time drummer was asked to leave, allowing Dave Grohl to take the reins on some tracks (which in turn saw former bass player Nick Oliveri return to the fold). You would be forgiven for thinking it could be a disjointed mess. Instead, …Like Clockwork is the most focused record of the band’s career, firing on all cylinders. Josh Homme said that he “found” the album whilst “looking for something in the dark” and the darkness is apparent on the record. There are a number of guest appearances ranging from folks you might expect (like Trent Reznor, who worked as a producer on the album), to the Arctic Monkeys’s Alex Turner and Sir Elton John, whose appearance on “Fairweather Friends” is a highlight.
Albums that just missed the cut…
In any other year, I think Helloween’s Straight Out of Hell would have made this list, but I just felt stronger about the other albums I have on my list. Quietly, Helloween have built up a solid run of albums since 2000’s The Dark Ride, with only Rabbit Don’t Come Easy falling short of expectations. Even the token daft song, the imaginatively titled “Asshole”, is the best silly song that they have done. “Waiting for the Thunder” shows that they can still write a proper metal anthem too. Jon Oliva’s self-titled solo effort, the first since the death of Jon Oliva’s Pain guitarist Matt LaPorte, showed all the hallmarks of great Jon Oliva song writing, with a few writing credits for his late brother Criss too. A Day to Remember delivered Common Courtesy, shunning a record label to release it, and it’s rather good. Loved “I’m Already Gone”, and “Right Back at It Again”. Five Finger Death Punch released two albums this year, both of which were hit and miss, but they must get full credit for “Lift Me Up” featuring the Metal God himself, Rob Halford. You can’t help getting totally amped up after listening to it.
Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche
Queensrÿche are in turmoil and two albums were released by bands under the name this year; one featured original lead vocalist Geoff Tate entitled Frequency Unknown (F.U. – get it?) and sounded just like every Queensrÿche record since Promised Land and was horrible. I liked Mindcrime II because it followed on from the outstanding epic original, but as a collection of songs, it didn’t live up to expectations. The second record, featuring the rest of the band and featuring former Crimson Glory singer Todd LaTorre, is this particular album. At 36 minutes, it’s incredibly short for a full-length album, especially for a band that is categorised as being “progressive”. I was on the fence as to whether to include this album in my main list. But, honestly, this is the best that Queensrÿche have sounded in almost two decades. LaTorre is an incredible singer and he shows hints of being inspired by his predecessor, whilst standing out on his own too. Whether this form of Queensrÿche lives on in name depends on the settlement that is due soon (the band performed under the name Rising West and might return to this moniker in the near future), but it is proof at least that the members of the ‘Rÿche can still go and go well. “Fallout” is short, but an absolute monster of a track.
Paramore – Paramore
For the longest time, this was my favourite record of the year, which would surprise people who are under the impression that Hayley Williams is the princess of pop-punk. Paramore have changed. After coming close to splitting back in early-2008, the band forged on with brand new eyes being released to commercial success, the band’s sound has changed with this, their fourth studio record. Whilst still calling back to previous works (“Part II” is a sequel to “Let the Flames Begin”), the deviation from the pop-punk formula is what makes the record stand out. The latest single, “Ain’t It Fun”, features a choir singing along to the chorus in the song’s closing, with other songs showing an alternative rock influence (there are hints of U2 showing up in a lot of records these days). “Still Into You” is a remarkable song in that almost a year after its release, it’s still gaining radio airplay and still sounds quite fresh. Among the longer tracks, “Hate to See Your Heartbreak” is a real favourite of mine, a slow ballad devoid of the pomposity you might expect. A mature record for a band that has gone through a fair bit in the past few years and deserves all of the recognition it is getting.
Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep
A rare second progressive album given a nod. Spock’s Beard’s eleventh studio album is the first with new lead vocalist Ted Leonard and has confounded expectations by becoming arguably the highlight of the band’s extensive catalogue, no mean feat considering the band has produced some of the best pieces of progressive rock over the past decade or so. There are strong influences from past prog epics, especially King Crimson and Genesis, although the influences are more spread out than just straight up progressive rock. “I Know Your Secret” is a great, funky piece. Like some others I have listed here, Spock’s Beard could have so easily have rested on their laurels and played it safe, but have instead produced what many consider to be the best work of their long career.
At the time of writing, two albums I have been looking forward to have dropped. New works from both Bruce Springsteen and Iced Earth will dominate my listening for a week or two. I am excited to hear that the Foo Fighters are in the studio, I’m also curious as to what Iron Maiden will come up with, maybe given how they have been revisiting the late 80s, a concept album perhaps? The album I’ve probably listened to the most in 2013 was actually released in 2012 – Channel Orange by Frank Ocean, which is an incredible piece of work that defies any description I can possible give. Had I done an Album of 2012, it was an easy #1 pick. If Frank Ocean provides a new album this year, I have a feeling it will be in the running for more than just the number one spot in this little review. I’ve also been getting into Kendrick Lamar’s back catalogue thanks to playing GTA V, and a follow up to the beloved good kid, m.A.A.d city is rumoured to be in the works, delighting hip-hop/rap fans everywhere if it comes to pass.
My Album of 2013
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
When I heard that Daft Punk would finally return to the fore with a new studio album, I was quietly excited. Their previous effort, 2005’s Human After All, whilst a great record, failed to live up to the expectations set forth by the highly influential Homework and Discovery. Working with the legendary Nile Rogers and Pharrell Williams (among others), the duo created a record inspired by the albums and sounds of their youth, with an overwhelming disco influence. Some fans were disappointed that it wasn’t the next Homework or Discovery, but from start to finish, this was an incredible piece of work. The near ubiquity of the infectious grove of “Get Lucky” on dance floors and radio stations over the summer of 2013 was a testament to what a great record this was. I’d argue it’s not even the best song featuring Pharrell Williams on the album, “Lose Yourself to Dance” showing hints of the duo’s past, married with a thumping bass line. “Instant Crush”, featuring Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, was an inspired collaboration and the album ending with samples of the Apollo 17 crew on “Contact” was a terrific way to sign off. I know that some tracks have their critics, but from start to finish, I found this record was not a victim of the almost overwhelming hype prior to release, and deservedly picked up the Grammy award for Album of the Year.