Tindersticks – What Are You Fighting For?

For the most part, the ten tracks on Tindersticks’ career retrospective album Across Six Leap Years aren’t radically altered from their original versions. You have to know the back catalogue fairly well to be able to spot the tell-tale signs: the slightly more relaxed feel of many of the re-recordings; the changes in instrumentation – guitars have come more to the fore since the departure of Dickon Hinchcliffe; new backing vocals.

One song in particular, however, stands out as having been truly reborn into something that the band would have wanted to capture with the original recording. Originally released as a non-album single in 2008, “What Are You Fighting For?” has been made delicate and beautiful, where once it was sluggish and (dare I say it?) a bit awkward.

For comparison – try the original version…http://youtu.be/5dl8dA_-jqY

The version that closes Across Six Leap Years is a sign of a band that has fought against and then embraced new directions, and which after a period of uncertainty has truly found its feet again (last year’s The Something Rain was their best album in many a year); a band that is comfortable once more in its own, new skin. And that, I feel, seems like a reassuring, comforting way to end the year.

Jon Hopkins – Open Eye Signal

Proving that there’s more to his work than just endlessly mesmerising soundtrack pieces, Jon Hopkins added a bit of thump for his 2013 album Immunity and found himself a little closer to the center of attention than normal with a Mercury Prize nomination.

He probably should have won for the title track alone; a ten-minute trip featuring vocals from King Creosote, continuing the duo’s collaboration on 2011’s Diamond Mine. But if you’re not into the slow, long-drawn-out bleepy side of Hopkins, then you could opt for “Open Eye Signal” instead, and enjoy his slightly faster long-drawn-out side…

The National – Sea of Love

The really odd thing about Trouble Will Find me is that Drowned in Sound’s snarky-sounding comment that the album somehow isn’t the sum of its parts is actually fairly on the mark. It takes a lot of listens before its 13 tracks begin to separate out from the whole. While listening, it feels like an album of high-points. After listening, it feels oddly intangible. You’re sure it was good, but can’t quite recall which tracks in particular have made you feel that way. It doesn’t really make sense for an album that is less one-paced than Boxers, and not as glossy as predecessor High Violet

Gradually, though, shapes start to appear: “Pink Rabbits” is another in a long line of painfully beautiful Berninger ballads with deft lyrical touches (“I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”); “I Should Live in Salt” turns out to be a stately opener; “Heavenfaced” is deceptively simple and MORish; “Sea of Love” barrels along in a land of confusion (“Sorry I hurt you, but they say love is a virtue, don’t they?”), its chorus providing a dramatic change of pace, not to mention the album’s title (“If I stay here, trouble will find me, I believe”).

And in the end even the most concerned hardcore fans of The National can breathe a sigh of relief: the day they release a middling to stinker of an album is not upon us yet.

Hookworms – In Our Time

I haven’t yet experienced the absolute euphoria that led Drowned in Sound to name Pearl Mystic as their album of the year, and winner of the Neptune prize, their part-popular vote, part editorial decision alternative to the more anodyne Mercury prize. Perhaps one day it will come; most likely shortly after smoking something pretty potent.

Once or twice, however, it hits the heights, as the meandering actually gains something approaching focus. Album opener ‘Away / Towards’ builds slowly but surely into a fierce rage; “In Our Time”, in contrast, is a stoner shoegazer’s wet dream: each player seems barely aware of the path they are taking, yet somehow their collective drunkard’s walk comes together as they simultaneously peak. When the bass comes back in for what passes for a chorus, it marks the start of a gorgeously hypnotic few bars.

Mutual Benefit – Advanced Falconry

Singer-songwriter Jordan Lee gathers round him whoever happens to be available at the time; together they make sweet, sweet music. Love’s Crushing Diamond won critical acclaim across the board, and rightly so: it’s a delicate – some would say naively so – collection of beautiful folk dreams.

“Advanced Falconry” is an unashamed love letter very much cut from the Sufjan Stevens banjo-pop mould; an aural mandelbrot pattern, endlessly flowering and completely captivating. In the wrong time or place its homespun charms could grate, but played to an open, accepting heart, it will spread itself around you like a warm hug of love.

Cate Le Bon – Are You With Me Now?

Little emptinesses abound on Cate Le Bon’s 2013 album Mug Museum: the emptiness of loss; the emptiness of memories; the emptiness of musical arrangements that less bold artists might be tempted to fill with strings, trills and embellishments. On “Are You With Me Now?” the result is a succession of staccato phrases, very subtly separated, so that each small section of melody gets its own space to play in. Combined, and added to Le Bon’s distinctive vocals, they make a beautiful whole.

Public Service Broadcasting – Elfstedentocht Part I

The full annual “Record, rewind, play” awards haven’t quite been finalised yet, but here’s a sneak preview of how a couple of categories are sure to shake out, barring unprecedented levels of vote-rigging:

Band of the year: Public Service Broadcasting
Album of the year: Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain

In addition to releasing the year’s best album, PSB had time to work with the organisers of the Explore the North festival in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Using footage from the Elfstedentocht, PSB worked their usual magic on the images and soundtrack, marrying a simple blood-pumping guitar riff to footage of the arm swinging heroics of Elfstedentocht skaters.

Part 2 is also available on youtube:

http://youtu.be/vrPBTwwnpdc

Los Campesinos! – Avocado, Baby

How good were Los Campesinos! in 2013? Put it this way: “Avocado, Baby” features a children’s choir and it’s still gloriously catchy and fiercely intelligent. When not even caterwauling kids can derail your song, you know you’re on top of your game.

And when you can get both Tony Yeboah and Antonin Panenka into the same lyric (“Glue Me”), frankly all bets are off:

People laugh, they will call it folly,
but we connected like a Yeboah volley

I requested a room with a view, in the middle of a war between me and you,
and leave with all the dignity of a missed Panenka penalty

Rose Elinor Dougall – Future Vanishes

Look, this is just brilliant, Rose Elinor Dougall is magnificent, and there is really no good reason why pop fans everywhere aren’t making sure this flies off the shelves of every record store (nod to modernity: or downloading it from iTunes in droves). Why have vocal histrionics when you can have this? Why have endless wailing and shrieking when you can have this? Why have exactly the same production on everything in the charts when you can have this? Why, as Galaxy wisely asked, have cotton when you can have bloody silk?

Why have anything else in fact, when you can have immaculate synthpop such as this?

Tim Hecker – Black Refraction

I once had an argument about whether, in order to enjoy a piece of art, it was necessary to understand the piece. This was in an online forum, so you might think I would know better than to engage in futile dispute, but anyway…

My line was that it wasn’t really necessary. I can experience a piece by looking at it, or listening to it, and respond to it in my own personal way without being briefed on its entire back-story beforehand. After all, I still don’t really know what I’m doing here, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of having a good time.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to understand something, just that its not completely essential.

Which is how a piece like “Black Refraction” can be exciting as well as baffling, and strangely moving as well as confusing; always just out of reach, never quite fulfilling the promise of a steady rhythm, and, as with many of Canadian experimentalist Hecker’s pieces, decaying and dying rather than resolving itself.

The video for Black Refraction mimics the song’s life-cycle: hazy, barely focused images give way to nothingness as the film itself burns and decays.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street

With his side project Grinderman allowing Nick Cave to indulge in a bit of sweaty rock grunting, and periodically expunge that lust, Cave’s 15th album with The Bad Seeds drew from his more reflective persona. Essentially, that means you get quiet and moody Nick Cave, rather than loud and moody Nick Cave.

Push The Sky Away is largely sparse, generally menacing and intense (this is Cave, after all), but occasional fragments of electric piano create moments of touching calm and beauty. Over the course of its nine tracks, melodies are explored, allowed to grow and die naturally, and nothing is over-developed. Just when you’re welcoming in what passes for a chorus in “Finishing Jubilee Street”, Cave’s account of a dream he had after completing “Jubilee Street”, the track fades until all your left with is the dislocating feeling of having woken from your own dream; such joy if only you could better recall its shapes and patterns. Before you can truly wake yourself, “Higgs Boson Blues” comes drifting over, all talk of particle physics and Hannah Montana. All this would be unsettling if it wasn’t for the loops and repeated refrains that tether the album.

At the center of Push The Sky Away is “Jubilee Street”, a Cave/Bad Seeds tour de force of lyrical and musical storytelling. It builds, over the course of its six and a half minutes, to an almost euphoric string finale. By the close, only the guitar that’s been there all along, gradually growing in intensity, reminds you that this started out as a song about a murdered prostitute.

FYI… the official video, starring Cave alongside the magnificent Ray Winstone, is an edit of the track – for the full version of “Jubilee Street”, listen on Spotify or Soundcloud.

Ski Lodge – Just To Be Like You

If yesterday’s track was a bit much, this should make for a more appropriate piece of evening casualwear, perfect the your local friday indie night: the kind of indie-pop that just wants to take you out and show you a fun time; no strings nor doom attached.

Two other bands seem to crop up a lot in general Ski Lodge conversation; while guitarist and lead singer (and general all-rounder) Andrew Marr is not related to his Smiths-playing namesake, he’s clearly a fan. Tellingly, when asked by The L Magazine what album would get the most play in the van if Ski Lodge were on tour for a month, Marr replied with: “The Queen is Dead by The Smiths”. The other band folks seem unable to namedrop is Real Estate, and not without reason: filter out some of the Real Estate Sunshine and substitute in a touch more heft, and hey presto! Ski Lodge!