Regardless of how it actually stacks up out of the gate or once the dust settles, there are a number of high profile releases on deck for 2013, some of which have already landed over the first three months. Here are ten that I would mostly rank as my favourites so far in '13.
Foals - Holy Fire
I cannot remember when I did not prefer British music to pretty much all music being produced everywhere else by everyone. Foals, after two solid records, represent the text book type of intelligent and interesting modern Brit music that will make them huge in the UK and sadly and potentially on the outside looking into most of North America. Holy Fire carries on where Total Life Forever leaves off and builds their sound out with a bit more chunkiness without compromising melody and quirky little licks and grooves.
Certainly not surprising, but better than one might have anticipated, even with a clear growth trajectory across their catalogue. In some ways it feels like these guys have evolved among three records the way most of us hoped Bloc Party would have, although the Foals debut isn't their strongest, so growing into your genius might actually represent a better game plan.
Hilotrons - At Least There's Commotion
Ottawa is a cool city, but respectfully not widely known for producing large volumes of highly successful bands. I would suggest the bands like Wooden Stars and Hilotrons that do catch attention, get grossly overlooked compared to bands from other scenes. This is the third album by Hilotrons and even with some questions around full and official personnel involvement, it sounds every bit as quirky and engaging as their first two. There is a franticness that always struck me as reminiscent of Talking Heads or The Feelies, but with an obviousness nowness. A track like "My Number" sounds like the group is flexing a bit on Mowtown, with more than reasonable success. More people need to hear about this band. Not sure this blog will catapult them into millionaire status, but needless to say I have been listening to this one a whole lot.
Suede - Bloodsports
There are a number of seasoned British veteran acts releasing either comeback type albums, or follow-on records solidifying their positions as remaining relevant this year. This was the album I was most interested to hear, and weeks later, the album I continue to be most excited about. If one was to create a 90's BritPop bucket of the "big four", many would include Pulp, Blur, Oasis, and Suede. For my part in obsessing over the genre, Suede were always my favourite. They hit the scene like so many Brit bands, completely hyped beyond fairness by scenesters and were able to gain cred instantly for writing really strong songs.
There was an elegant swagger Suede had that translates on this record far better than it did on their last couple of albums prior to break-up. What I love most is Bloodsports wins at the unenviable task of being respectful to the genre and era fans remember so fondly and want to hear, without being at all retroish or contrived. This is the best possible Suede anyone could have hoped for in 2013. Fresh, strutting, full of vigour and reminding anyone who cares to remember that they were easily one of the best 10 bands to come from the UK in the 90's. Also, I don't care about whatever silly global trademark issues exist, I refuse to call them The London fucking Suede. They are just Suede, and they are still amazing.
Woodkid - The Golden Age
A friend introduced me to Woodkid (music video director Yoann Lemoine from France) a few months ago, so I knew this record was coming. I am still not sure the heads up prepared me for such a vast and wonderful combination of sounds and orchestration. Heavy use of strings and brass can end a number of ways on pop albums, and not always favourably. The Golden Age realizes on its own ambition in a way that leaves one wanting to listen again to hear something not heard the last time around. These are pop songs. Nothing clocks in over five minutes. There is also nothing unlistenable about anything here. It is a challenging listen without being the least bit contrived or forced. I am not entirely sure how you write songs like this, but there will not be another album in 2013 that sounds quite like this one, I know that much. Solid collection of ambition and art.
Girls Names - The New Life
I am a sucker for anything that sounds like late 70's / early 80's post punk. It's a sound that to my ears continues to be fresh and relevant, probably because it sounded so odd and ahead of its time to many ears at the time. Bands like Interpol and others have done a great job at borrowing from that sound and era, while being very much an 00's bands. There has been a risk in recent years of this space getting a bit cluttered and watered down as a result, but certain acts continue to find new ways to put a new spin on the melancholic dreariness of this sound. Ten songs with clean vibrato type guitar mixing, spacey vocals, head bobbing grooves and above all a real focus on the songs rather than the influence. Fans of Magazine, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Chameleons will likely really enjoy this record like I do. Pleasant and surprising find.
BOAT - Pretend To Be Brave
Continuing in the category of bands who are unabashedly great at showcasing their influences in fresh ways, Pretend To Be Brave is the fifth record (I know - crazy!) from this fun bunch of Seattle kids. In many ways if Time Life released one of those compilation sets with six discs of 90's lo-fi indie classics, complete with cheesy tv ad spots ("Hey who could forget this classic") it would look and sound a lot like what these guys do super well. A bit of an unfair categorization perhaps, but even their last record, Dress Like Your Idols, continued the tone and album cover visual of not being afraid to wear your 90's influences on your sleeve.
This record is interesting in that their really are not as many bands writing songs that sound like this as one might assume. Twelve songs, none over four minutes, and only two above three minutes. Regardless of whether you like really fun songs that sound like Pavement and Built To Spill, it's refreshing to hear bands that have figured out that sometimes less is more (bad cliche) and that just because you wrote 25 songs, not every fucking one of them is good enough to be on your album.
David Bowie - The Next Day
This album was destined to receive a lot of attention, not just because Bowie has not made new music in a while, but because it came out of nowhere and no one saw it coming. One day there was a new video on the internets for "Where Are We Now?" and an announcement that a new record would follow in March. Nice trick Ziggy. As a result of who this is, there is a risk in giving The Next Day top marks regardless of merit. Almost like when they miss some awesome old dude for an Oscar and end up having to right that wrong with a best actor nod for some shitty movie late in his/her career.
I actually think this is a very good album. I was hoping it might push the envelope a bit more, but it feels like even a fairly straight forward record from Bowie is well beyond what many of his 66 year old counterparts are capable of in 2013, or quite frankly what kids a third of his age can muster either. I fall into the camp of Bowie fans who like much of his output since Let's Dance, but also admit his career is littered with misses. A Bowie miss though, comes from giving something a shot and not being afraid to fall down.
The visuals that go with some of these songs enhance the sonics, but Bowie's always been a highly visual artist. I like a couple of the pop songs on this record, specifically "Valentine's Day" which feels like what even a completely mainstream sounding Bowie should sound like in 2013. I would have been fine with a record full of songs all in that vein to be honest. If he had made a dubby type album, I think it would have seemed panderish. I do wish it was a bit shorter. Fourteen tracks before bonuses, could easily have been edited back to about 10 tracks for a lovely and more compact recording. Nonetheless, regardless of whether you like these songs or feel like it's piggy backing a bit on legend, there is something that feels fundamentally right about David Bowie sharing new music with the world, in any era.
Suuns - Images du Futur
I saw Suuns two years ago at the Halifax Pop Explosion. Of the 30-40 artists I was able to check out, they were the single biggest pleasant surprise and new find of the festival for me. This record has even more focus than their debut (also a fantastic album). The eclecticism of the debut made it interesting albeit occasionally a bit manic. Images du Futur has that signature feel of a band getting to know themselves really well and every song slides into the next beautifully.
I think there have been comparisons to Clinic in the past which are fair, but with complete due respect, Clinic weren't nearly as focused or advanced by their second record. What is similar is the potential for Suuns, like Clinic, to become grossly under appreciated in the current musical landscape. This is a listenable record, but probably not for everyone. I love that they are from Montreal, but you could plunk this album in the middle of the best UK indie and alternative deep end and it would swim just fine. The band plays sounds that work for the songs, whether simplistic or involved. You can't lose when a band is thinking about the song above all else. I adore this record.
Dutch Uncles - Out Of Touch In the Wild
When I first listened to this record, I was racking my brain. Finally it felt fair to say it was an almost perfect mix of Field Music chops and Hot Chip vocal treatments. Then I saw someone else write the same thing in another corner of the internet. This means I am really smart, but more importantly, whether it is a deliberate homage or not, it also means Dutch Uncles are really smart. For fans that like a lot of the song structures of modern electro pop, a la Cut Copy, Hot Chip, or Junior Boys, but may not like the synthier realities and prefer something a bit more organically composed and orchestrated, Out Of Touch In the Wild should fit the bill. The production is clean, but not too glossy. The songs are busy, but with an under current of vulnerability juxtaposed with just the right amount of cautious cockiness. Put another way, it sounds like these guys know exactly how great they are without allowing their songs to get away from them. Ten songs, not one dud. Lovely record.
Local Natives - Hummingbird
This band's debut snuck by me, and admittedly, I have yet to remedy that (soon). The first thing I was struck by on my very first listen of Hummingbird was the gorgeous vocals. The vibe fits nicely alongside Grizzly Bear and even a more stripped down version of Yeasayer. My bias for British music tells me the falsetto and dreamy guitar tunings should be coming from England, but we'll give California full props for these lads. As seems to be the trend with my faves this year, Local Natives sound like a band settling into their skin nicely. Every one of these tracks is a unique rendering while forming part of a really consistent sounding collective of concise yet endearingly loose songs.
One of the biggest challenges for bands who are not likely to become millionaires is writing heartfelt songs they can assemble together as a sum stronger than the parts. It is a rare skill in today's soundscape for smart music listeners. This record is lovely example of how to create a bunch of songs that sound amazing together. I did not assign rankings with this blog post list, but Hummingbird has mostly occupied the slot for my favourite record of 2013 since it was released. Also, there are fucking handclaps all through this thing which makes it pretty much 10/10 even if it were U2 covers.
Yo La Tengo - Fade
Jamie Lidell - Jamie Lidell
Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse
Everything Everything - Arc
Xander Harris - The New Dark Age of Love
Atoms for Peace - Amok
Wire - Change Becomes Us
The Grapes of Wrath - High Road