Scotland on Sunday’s experts pick out some of the best albums of the last 12 months
The Next Day
It still remains hard to divine which was the greater surprise: the announcement on 8 January that David Bowie had released a new single and would shortly be unveiling his first album in a decade, or that it was actually very good. Produced by long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, The Next Day swatted away rumours of poor health with a brisk sound which married the austere edge of his Berlin era and the clean sonic lines of his early 1980s output. Although it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever tour or grant another interview, Bowie hasn’t retreated back into seclusion – an appearance on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, a Mercury Prize nomination and a three-disc edition of The Next Day featuring four more new songs would also emerge in 2013.
My Bloody Valentine
Continuing a brief but exciting trend in 2013 for unexpected and much anticipated albums released in pleasingly rapid or unconventional circumstances (see also: Bowie, Boards of Canada), London-Irish shoegaze icons My Bloody Valentine presented their third album and first in 22 years from amidst a fog of rumour. Self-released online one Saturday night, the demand promptly crashed mbv’s website. A powerful album which could have been released in the months after 1991’s Loveless, its well-named closer Wonder 2 was among their finest ever songs.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Push The Sky Away
Those who are convinced by Australian-by-way-of-Brightonian force of nature Nick Cave’s saturnine sexuality will have to look hard to find a bad album by him. Yet following the more cathartic Grinderman period, what made this a high watermark in his career was the sheer reserve atop wells of barely contained tension. Highlights included the very 2013 conflation of nuclear physics and Miley Cyrus in Higgs Boson Blues and the title track’s epic desperation.
Trouble Will Find Me
Already alternative icons turned huge mainstream success, Cincinnati’s The National consolidated their position in often breathtaking fashion here. The album’s title gives a good account of where it comes from in four words, as a record which takes the simultaneous hard time despair and tarnished hope of country music and updates it with the shimmering urban clang of modern alternative rock. On highlights like Demons and Humiliation, Matt Berninger sounds like a beautifully worn-out Springsteen for the downsized 21st century.
Unfussy but utterly in control of their own style and message, the Glasgow indie-pop group’s fifth album felt not so much like a peak as like a few further steps on a lengthy plateau they’ve been atop for some time now. Integrating lovelorn orchestral sweeps and rattling odes to love and its confounding necessity, their hard to resist sound continues to hinge on Tracyanne Campbell’s gorgeous, swooning vocal.
Boards of Canada
Eight years after the electronic duo’s last album release, Tomorrow’s Harvest snared international attention through its opaque pre-publicity campaign, which saw parts of a website-unlocking password secreted in hidden vinyl releases, YouTube videos and adverts. After all that, taciturn brothers Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison managed to create a great record too, one which stayed true to the idiosyncratic depth and moody textures of their past work in impressive fashion.
Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action
Although it didn’t come close to mirroring the success of labelmates Arctic Monkeys, this fourth studio album from Glasgow post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand pulled off the same trick – taking a group whose deservedly worshipped first album had been subsequently rehashed to unit-shifting but decidedly unsatisfying degrees and making them sound fresh again. With production help from Hot Chip and Todd Terje, Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action was a burst of thoughtful but crucially not overthought pop majesty, finally giving fans the follow-up to 2004’s debut which they deserved.
Sheffield indie-rockers Arctic Monkeys’ commercial success over the years has belied a stagnating artistic sensibility which hinted that their best days might have been their earliest. Yet their fifth album finally, belatedly blew such ideas out of the water, and gave them their biggest success yet in US. Fronted by Alex Turner’s newly minted rockabilly look and buoyed by their appearance at 2012’s London Olympics opening ceremony, they welcomed Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, former Coral musician Bill Ryder-Jones and Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke into the fold for a confident album of designer rough edges.
The Bones Of What You Believe
Hype over substance was not an accusation which could be levelled at Glasgow trio Chvrches in 2013, although there was a lot of chatter about them during the early stages of pre-marketing for this record and a lot for it to live up to when it finally emerged. A respectable top ten position is on the way to being overshadowed by even greater slow-burn success in America, although commercial concerns are secondary. Their slick electronic pop and singer Lauren Mayberry’s vocal blend of innocence and experience give them a youthful cachet and an emotive richness which makes them unique.
Taking original inspiration from a title track by one of his heroes, DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall, London-based electronic artist Daniel Avery’s debut was one of the critical crossover albums of the year. These acid house-flavoured songs were almost uniformly instrumental and designed to be played on a dancefloor, yet there was something universal about the hard-to-resist hooks and melodies. Where Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was lovely in parts but broadly over-rated, this record deserves to be filed alongside the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Leftfield. David Pollock
New recordings wise, this wasn’t such a vintage year for this jazz fan. Indeed, one of my most-played CDs is probably not even readily classifiable as jazz – though it’s by Madeleine Peyroux, the 21st century’s closest thing, sound-wise, to Billie Holiday. Her album The Blue Room ramped up the country aspect which has always been part of her unique sound and is a highly personal and compelling listen, with gut-wrenching blues and torch-singing offset by joyful rock ’n’ roll.
Two other singers whose albums struck a chord with me this year were Liane Carroll – whose unexpected choices of passionately performed songs were a delight on the unimaginatively titled Ballads – and Rene Marie, whose I Wanna Be Evil was a wonderful homage to the songs and spirit of sexual abandon of Eartha Kitt.
Undoubtedly the standout new instrumental CD was another one which conjured up the spirit of a legend. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s In The Spirit Of Duke is a terrific souvenir of the band’s Ellington concerts of autumn 2012 – undoubtedly one of the best live Ellington experiences in Scotland in living memory. This CD not only captured the thrill of hearing a young band getting a kick out of the glorious Ellington repertoire, but it also showcased its world-class ensemble playing and its ace soloists.
Of the reissues this year, a six-disc box set dedicated to Paul Desmond – The Complete RCA Albums Collection – earned its five stars for celebrating the great alto saxophonist’s body of Dave Brubeck-less work. It’s a wonderful introduction to Desmond’s sweet but melancholy-tinged sound, his gently swinging, intimate style and his bossa nova leanings.
The other CD worth adding to the Santa list is NDR 60 Years Jazz Edition Vol 3 – Stephane Grappelli Ensemble, a recording from 1957. This would be a gem even if it wasn’t a rare representation of mid-period Stephane Grappelli: the violin virtuoso’s playing is a joy throughout, but the ballads – rich, masterful and tender – are downright gorgeous. Alison Kerr
This year brought The Stray Birds and their beautiful self-titled debut album, with three-part vocal harmony and acoustic instruments from Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charles Muench. All trained musos, they are simply restrained yet emotionally powerful, and if Maya stands out by attending Boston’s famed Berklee music school, while the two guys grew up musically in their families, they make a convincingly great trio within their version of new Americana.
Even more harmony was added to the glorious Scots voice of Mick West when he was joined by Glasgow’s vocal sextet Muldoon’s Picnic in A Scots Chorus – a really great album of traditional and national chorus songs. During the current revival of Scots instrumental energy, the old songs are getting less attention, and this album repays many hearings of these melodies, and moving lyrics such as those in I’ll Lay You Doon Love and Time Wears Awa.
But my last CD, A Northerly Land, stands alone – a singular album which fuses the history and troubles of the Mackay lands of Sutherland in contemporary poetry readings, Gaelic song, fluent bagpipes, accordion, fiddle and the nestling of electronic, percussive and programming skills beneath, above and wholly intertwined with emotionally powerful abstract sounds. These are created by the strong-minded input of the likes of singer Fiona J Mackenzie, writer George Gunn and their Skye-based leading musician, composer, programmer and percussionist/drummer Iain Copeland. The sombre-coloured sleeve hides a powerful nested assembly of the ancient and ultra modern. Hear the late Gaelic traveller Ailidh Dall intone part of an Ossianic ballad, and his storyteller granddaughter Essie Stewart’s vocals, under subtly powerful grooves. Norman Chalmers
If this year an orchestra or opera house had performed nothing but the works of Dowland, Wagner, Verdi, Lutoslawski and Britten, all of whose births were celebrated this year, that would comprise a pretty full season. Add Gesualdo, Corelli, Poulenc, Hindemith, Dutilleux and Tavener, all of whose deaths occurred or were commemorated in 2013, and you would have covered your bases pretty fully in terms of early and modern music composers.
Among new recordings of works by recently departed composers, the first in a planned release of all Dutilleux’s piano preludes was the most memorable, in a sterling performance by Alexandra Dariescu.
Anniversaries tend to bring out the box sets: the Vienna Philharmonic featured in a 50-CD set that matched great composers (including Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky) with great performers.
Benjamin Britten’s centenary appeared suddenly but went large, with performances, films and a dedicated 50 pence coin: Decca’s
65-CD set featured every piece of his recorded music.
Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner was a significant and gloriously listenable contribution to that composer’s recordings.
Other composers came in for an overhaul: Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma presented this well-known opera in an audibly new guise, based on a new critical edition that divided the critics. George Gershwin’s music was cleverly reworked by American composer Andy Pape for An Amerikaner In Danmark, while the Buffalo Philharmonic brought its weight to bear on arrangements of Strike Up The Band and Promenade. Finally, Robert Schumann was given a highly personal performance in a recording by pianist Michael Gees in Beyond Schumann.