Tracks of 2013 — #24 Biffy Clyro

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Olly Murs (almost), Margaret Bergen (post deleted), Autechre (almost), Katy Perry (post still in draft) – the last place on this In No Particular Order Run Down of Songs from the Year could have ended very differently. Dice thrown, cards dealt, stars consulted, the final place has gone to The Biff. And why the heck not.

In a parallel universe, Biffy Clyro are all over the sodding place. Maybe that’s the case on this planet, but if it is, I ain’t looking hard enough. I know there’s a metric shit-ton of people around the world who go cuckoo bananas for them, it’s just hard to find any corroborating evidence. If it turns out that they’re on the lips of every ASOS wearing music presenter, I’m sorry. (I was going to write “every TopMan wearing VJ”, only that would have made me out to be around 48 years old.)

There’s plenty of songs on new album ‘Opposites’ which works in my ears as flip-side companions to Arctic Monkeys’ latest stuff, and maybe that’s why I’m surprised to hear so much about the latter and so little about Scotland’s Angriest Tattooed Rock Stars (patent pending). I could have gone for ‘Modern Magic Formula’, which  has the faint whiff of petrol fumes and nightclub smoke about it. I would have gone for ‘Picture a Knife Fight’ had it not drifted so far into Foo Fighters territory that I was disappointed not to see Dave Grohl in a dress on the sleeve. I have plumped for ‘Victory Over the Sun’. The usual Biff formula is in place comfortably, and I’m all for that. It’s got the spark, it’s sensible with its use of strings (take note oh so many bands trying to sound earnest by hitting ‘violins’ after the second line), it’s got a proper ending. I’m a happy man.

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Tracks of 2013 — #23 Lloyd Yates

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Jersey isn’t just potatoes, you know.

Firm of beard, gravelly of voice, thick of hair, Lloyd Yates has been boosted by plenty of support through the BBC Introducing fandango. Alas he wasn’t helped by me very much earlier this year when I tried to gain success in an on-line forum’s ‘Alternative Eurovision’ contest, where the islander failed to make it through the first round. Sorry Lloyd, I tried.

Looking and sounding like a mix of badgers rights protester, vegetarian cafe owner and 40-a-day smoker, which he may well be, Lloyd is already quite the name on the folk and acoustic stage circuit, for which many an ear should be grateful. High on heart-ache and melodies (and to avoid any legal action, high on NOTHING ELSE), ‘Runs Like Fire’ is simple and complex, light and heavy, offering an outstretched hand but not necessarily for a handshake. That voice, somewhere between a croak and a quack, fills the song with an extra fragility which seems missing from so many equivalent fellas-with-guitar songs at the moment. (How or why did male soloists, particularly, begin to sound all breathless wide boys with L-vocalisation issues and pop diva-style warbling?)

I guess Eurovision glory was always going to be a stretch. Always worth a punt, though, eh.

 

Tracks of 2013 — #22 David Bowie

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Another entry to be filed under ‘Bit Obvious Really’.

Surprise album releases has been the theme of the year, with Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ the most unexpected of all. The ponderous lead single ‘Where Are We Now?’ had me chin-stroking, and the triumphant “The Stars (Are Coming Out Tonight)” got me punching the air. (That opening guitar melody sounding so classic and old-school, like a riff that’s been hiding for years ready to burst out at the first sign of iTunes stagnating under all that autotunedroboticshiphopsludge)

I have ‘Valentine’s Day’ as the stand out because it’s such an angry little song all cooped up and squashed against the cage eager to burst out, just over three minutes long but seeming like a cut from a much longer, much darker track from an earlier part of his career. It’s not easy to review Bowie, he’s produced some dirge in his time/the 80s, whilst this is one of the richest seams of his career.

Tracks of 2013 — #21 Boards of Canada

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I’m a twice failed ‘NaNoWriMo’ entrant, which as an opening sentence is comparable to ‘I bought ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men”. My two failures at pouring 50,000 words onto Microsoft Word without ever looking back were, in brief:

*’Falling Together’, an attempted satirical side-swipe towards provincial local government and the murky goings on behind the doors of Town Halls across the country;

*”Whitcop”, an attempted alternative-history satirical side-swipe towards the extremes of both right- and left-wing politics, with specific focus on a far-right nationalist group running holiday camps in England (“Downfall meets Hi-di-Hi”, as a friend put it)

I mention all this as context for the inclusion of Boards of Canada as one of notable tracks of the year. I can barely do justice to the English language at the best of times, particularly when conscious of repetition in successive post, particularly when whipped by numerous content editors taking scissors to my copy, and particularly when my OCD/Autism/memories of High School English Language lessons/whatever slap me over the fingers whenever they dance across the keyboard to type “strong”, or “tight”, or that old chestnut “anthemic”. When trying to explain Boards of Canada, let alone describe them, I can sense the double-doors leading towards Pseuds Corner opening up.  This is where my safety net gives way entirely. Abstract beats and dark ambience with skittish regard towards melody, you say? Hand me my Metaphor Hat!

It’s been quite the year for unexpected album releases, with Boards of Canada perhaps surprising everybody that little bit more by repeating their traits to come under the radar like Milk Tray men. ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ attracted more top scores than Chinese gymnasts, as dark and uninviting as ever but always hiding the unexpected within each track. ‘Reach for the Dead’ was in effect the ‘lead single’, insofar as BoC deal in such conventions, although it is not the track I’ve gone for here. That song bristled, literally in places, as its initial hard-beat/soft-chanting combination grew towards a sparkier version of their usual dichotic hopscotch. I’ve chosen something slightly different.

‘Palace Posy’ flops and flits around two sounds at odds with each other, developing into the familiar vocal trickery at the close. It’s an envelope of noise, much closer and colder than expected. The conclusion, when it comes at the end of what may be someone repeating “down to the urban”, poked my stern face into a smile. A fade-out drifting to static ending, BoC? You spoil us. (I may have gone on a bit about endings yesterday, I’ll resist).

My next novel idea will probably focus on sorting out how to resist run-on sentences, incidentally.

Tracks of 2013 — #20 Everything Everything

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Let’s talk Alfred Hitchcock. By far the most celebrated mould-setter and convention-breaker in cinema. The watchword of invention, imagination, intelligence and ingenuity. Unrivalled at the time, barely matched since.

But by the grin, could Hitchcock not finish a movie. Go on, tell me the ‘ending’ of ‘North by Northwest’ was worth so much as a pinch of salt. Or even ‘The Birds’, for that matter, an entire ball park of deflated balloons after being shown around Hampton Court Palace. Nobody dares say it, but I believe many think it. Hitchcock’s films are almost entirely ruined by their endings. There, that’s off my chest at last.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Ooh, clickbait. Well, no. Clickbait is hosting a video on the Daily Mail website in which Liz Jones and Katie Hopkins give up the pretence and just go for each other using wooden instruments and no lube. This is my roundabout-and-hazy way of introducing ‘Duet’ by Everything Everything; a great little number wobbling off its perch by the ending.

Great song up to that point, mind. Coldplay meeting Hurts, broadly speaking, breaking out into Bastille-via-Delays. Who says I’m too mainstream and safe with my references?  My pop sensibilities melt at the first sign of verses like this, and when the layers are pulled away things get very interesting indeed. What I doff my cap to is the brazen attempt to write a commercial radio’s next favourite anthem, not a trick to be easily pulled off or sensibly repeated, although with ‘Duet’ it’s done with such charm the effect is disarming. Oh for the better way to end the song though. Is that deliberate, I ask? The almost-ish post-rock guitar stomp to a barely noticeable peak and sudden stop? I could have done with one more whammer of a chorus, old fogey that I am. Still, they’re not covering 90s dance classics in an ‘ironic’ fashion, so there’s hope.

 

Tracks of 2013 — #19 Pet Shop Boys

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Eyes down for a full house. 58, 86, 44, 111, 196, 105, 61.

Lottery numbers? My vital measurements? Number of MPs currently claiming for tartan paint and long waits at twice the going rate?

Nope. They be the top (that is, the highest, the peak, the very pinnacle) chart position of the most recent Pet Shop Boys singles, from ‘Together’ in 2010 to ‘Thursday’ some weeks ago. Just as a point of fact, in  between the song that only got to number 196 (‘Axis’, the lead single from the most recent album) and the song that just reached number 105 (the one I’m nominating today), was ‘Vocal’, which didn’t even chart at all. The great veterans of the single, maybe the last great single releasing band of the golden age of pop excess, reduced to the status of Eurovision entrants and novelty singles.

Okay, okay, harsh. Not so good though, is it? The three-figure chart ‘peak’ should be for struggling one-hit wonders and songs recommended by DJs on BBC Three Counties Radio. Not the Pet Shop Boys. Not them. That’s worse for the soul than realising your mortgage repayments really don’t actually kick in until about the ninth or nineteenth year. Reaching number 105 with ‘Love is a Bourgeois Construct’ is the PSB equivalent of having London Grammar as your first dance. Just not right.

Maybe I’m being as romantic as the subject of the ‘Vocal’ single, one of the washed-up but still hopeful 90s refugees who lived through rather than actually lived the era of high NRG weekends spreading out into months and years. Based around a hook taken from Henry Purcell via Michael Nyman, ‘Love is…’ takes itself with all the seriousness of a running order at the British Comedy Awards. There’s only so much tongue a cheek can handle, if you will. I’d accept ‘Vocal’ as the stronger song, but this as the broader, wider, higher piece of music. When a song is this silly, there’s no escaping its charms. It’s the ITV4 mission statement of music, IN A GOOD WAY [studio posse laughter, jingle].

I may take some time to accept that the little reward in following PSB as a single’s outfit these days. Albums are where it’s at, boys, didn’t you read what they said in last month’s Melody Maker?

 

Tracks of 2013 — #18 Veladrome

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It’s been Year Of The Woman, has it not? Another Manchester band too, with Veladrome doing all the things I like when not in the mood for singa-longa choruses. ‘Violent Deer’ is as lo-fi as a wind-up radio but what power they get out of it. All those words music journos are not supposed to use – ‘ethereal’, ‘raw’, ‘inventive’ – burble out of my brain like so much overflow from an out of control dictionary.

“Year Of The Woman” is nothing official, it just feels that way. Maybe all that feminism circulating around Twitter has leaked out or something. You can’t move on 6Music for all those women having something to say, and how many of them with down and dirty guitars and their real voices, rather than that chart-bound robotic warble over on other, less enjoyable radio stations. (Related Sidebar: How ‘Monster’ would have sounded without Rhianna copy-and-pasted inbetween Eminem makes for interesting discussion points while timetabling where this feature of mine has yet to go before Christmas Day.)

I hope Veladrome make 2014 their own. What I’ve heard is worth the entrance fee for Soundcloud, that’s for sure. Vocals calling out over the kind of moody rock guitars usually left for all male shoegaze bands to noodle around with. I’d love to hear a remix of this playing on the softly-softly intro in a kind of “remember when we all listened to Lamb and got frothy on red wine and resin?” sort of way. As you may have heard earlier this month, Manchester is sounding very post-punk-cum-chill-out-zone at the moment, which tickles my fancy and no mistake. Male or female, there’s an interesting year ahead for music from there, out there, indeed.

Tracks of 2013 — #17 Alison Moyet

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My pop sensibilities are showing again.

The current index of this Tracks of 2013 run-down should give you an idea of where I stand in the great scheme of music appreciation. No, not ‘rubbish’. come on now. If there’s a chorus so strong it features on the Scoville Scale then I’m going to be all over it. Enter stage left, Alison Moyet, for whom no song is complete without a real whammer of a tune. She’s been getting it right since 1984, and with ‘When I Was Your Girl’ this year has knocked many a lesser singer out of the park.

I make no apology and have no shame in calling this a highlight of the musical year. There is a great serving of honesty and emotion, with a quite unusual structure of the verse incorporating stark, almost bitter, lyrics. It was the lead single of ‘the minutes’ album, and made the lofty heights of number 104 in the charts. I will get onto another artist doing badly in the sales figures later in the run-down, by the way.

(Do the charts matter article coming up……probably)

If I’m skirting around tubthumping for Moyet, it’s because I’m getting all defensive (and this from a man who has already nominated Lady Gaga and Charlotte Church). I’m told that when appearing on a television chat show, David Tennant reacted with the glee of a child at Christmas when Moyet went up to perform one of his favourite songs. I share his glee. I’m rarely disappointed when talented artists release new material (again, I’ll be discussing something related to this statement later on) – I have no apology for being gleeful about this track.

Tracks of 2013 — #16 Fuck Buttons

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Tucked away on my Facebook somewhere is a quote from my late mother attempting to pin-point my taste in music. “You like that heavy dum-dum-dum stuff don’t you?”. I never did fathom what this was, although I suspect she would call Fuck Buttons one or two things along those lines. While not mentioning the first word, of course, I can see her now just raising her eyebrows and looking around for something else to read.

In wandering around the interwebs looking for songs I may have missed or mislaid in the mind (‘forgotten’ seems so formal) I stumbled across ‘The Red Wing’ entirely by accident. As I may have said once or twice before this month, my finger is rarely on the pulse, so that the release of ‘Slow Focus’ as their new album passed me by completely. Whoops. What I’ve heard through perfectly legal means reminded me of the one and only time I’ve watched Fuck Buttons live, and that took me a week to get over. The fearless force remains unbound; considering how this might sound live scares me a little.

‘The Red Wing’ has two main elements squashed together in belligerent harmony. Grimy melody below, suffering the carpet burns but enjoying the mirrored ceiling, alien peeps and whistles firmly on top. What happens around them is guitars in panic, beats in flux, and just as the climax appears to have arrived…there’s a slow release to an almost apologetic end. Text and sub-text fully in working order. I’m glad to have accidentally stumbled upon this, slightly apologetic about not noticing it at the time. Such happy events are to be expected when reviewing the year, I suppose.

Tracks of 2013 — #15 Charlotte Church

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*troll-face.jpg*

Artists should go off-piste more often. It’s in their very career description, for the love of all things holy. Sticking to what you know gets you only to where you already know. Adventure is the heart of creativity and invention and what I’m saying is; Charlotte Church recorded something I want to call a highlight of the year and THAT’S FINAL.

Maybe context is needed here. We don’t live in the good old days, where bands turning up with a new sound was considered perfectly fine because both old and new hadn’t been invented yet. Now we know too much and expect far more. Ooh, Kylie Minogue is going all indie, YAWNARAMA. There’s our old friend ‘Establishment’ here too, among expectations of end product and basic evaluation of talent. So free pass to the old guys and favourites and M.I.A. because, well she’d eat you for breakfast, and You Shall Not Pass to commercial pop stars without the adequate amount of respect. Sorry boybands, you’re sausage….machines (*wipes brow*). No amount of new threads and dreads gonna get you credibility, back of the line.

The ‘voice of an angel’ part of Charlotte Church’s (very) young childhood career may have secured comfort in later life, or as much as any child star under the circumstances has enjoyed. Tenaciousness and determination turned up to the hilt were needed to fight the twin problems of growing up in front of camera lenses and the people ultimately responsible for those lenses.

How you measure the merit of the ‘experimental’ EPs released by Church earlier this year may well depend on the amount of cynicism you take to any claimed re-invention by a commercial artist. I’m wary of sounding like the biggest ever fan of her ever in the world ever by the sheer force of ‘WOW’ that comes from hearing ‘Glitterbombed’, one of the stand-outs from the year spent performing in very small venues to very small crowds. I’m a man with pop sensibility, I have little shame in admitting that my comfort comes from finding good songs, well constructed, and if that means analysing Kylie’s “Impossible Princess” as an indie album (which it is), then as the saying goes, come at me bro. There are duds in plenty of similar experiments in which artists and performers try something outside their comfort zone, if you want a fine example seek out “Green Man”, the debut solo album from Mark Owen of off Take That.

“Glitterbombed” is not a track from the Wire Magazine side of experimental excess, by any stretch. It is unusual – perhaps too slow in the verses and wildly untamed in the sweep up to the chorus with the plinky-plonk-guitar-squelch combo adding a confused flavour near the end. Bonkers, tentative, unexpected, silly – I love the song for all the reasons people may hate it. I recall a very early BBC reality show in which a couple would ‘live’ with people they disliked (homophobes with gay people, prim and proper parents with their teenage son’s favourite band Cradle of Filth, that sort of thing.) The highlight of the series was the traditional couple who couldn’t fathom modern art one bit, so they were given the full LDN tour of conceptual art, before being asked to create their own. Of course they came up with something which wasn’t particularly original or exciting, but they came up with their interpretation of modern art from their own perspective, a translation if you like. That’s “Glitterbombed” for me, a translation of indie/alternative, nothing you can’t pick apart for being a little Kate Bush, a little Cocteau Twins, a touch Björk. But for all that, it’s bloody stands up for itself.