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2013: the records of the year

This has been an interesting process. I started compiling my list a couple of weeks ago in something of a grump, feeling that it had ended up being a somewhat disappointing year – with some of my established favourites not quite hitting former heights and not many new people bursting through, in a way that tickled my rather particular eardrums. Then I went back and re-listened to the year's acquisitions.

After that further reflection, I am happy to tell you that it has been a more than solid year for record releases – and, as usual, I've had to do a lot of crossing out and rewriting to limit this Top Ten to just ten.

A few broad points to make before unveiling the list: 

  • there's a danger in acquiring too many records (alongside all the obvious plus points). There were quite a few this year that I thought I'd got the measure of pretty quickly and moved on to other listening targets. But I should know by now that the best ones don't always reveal their charms immediately;
  • no-one can listen to everything and my tastes seem to be off to one side of any mainstream. Our excellent Brighton record store Resident produced a top 100 for the year. I have just seven of that 100, and only one out of their top 20 - and I don't like that one very much (step forward, Devendra Banhart). Just two out of my top ten are in their top 100 (David Bowie and Yo La Tengo, since you ask). Looking elsewhere, the recent Grammy nominations are similarly mostly mysterious to me (but a big shout out to Kacey Musgraves and to Secret Sessions for grabbing her while she was still bubbling under). And it's not as if I'm immersed in one particular genre – my overlap with, say, No Depression's Americana favourites will only be partial;
  • how do you compare the n-th release of someone's decades-long career with a youngster's fresh, exciting and inevitably flawed debut? There's no scientific algorithm. I'm ready to give credit for the thrill of the new, but can also expect old dogs to show a pretty good grip on their established tricks before branching out. It can go either way, folks;
  • so I make no claim to my top ten being the best records of the year - they are the ones that have given me the most pleasure. As we'll see, some of that comes about from associations with memorable live shows. But these are ten records I can unequivocally recommend as worthy of any music fan's investigation, regardless of those associations.

Here we go, then, in the traditional reverse order:

10. Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses): The Low Highway. This is one of those I didn't give enough time to first time round. May be not the strongest set of songs Steve has ever put out, but there are some good ones. More persuasively, he is in great voice and musically it's great. Hats off to the Mastersons – Chris on guitar and his wife Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle. The convincing crunch of 'Calico County' is an excellent place to start.

9. Laura Marling: Once I Was An Eagle. Brave, intelligent and inventive. Laura continues to develop and grow: this is her fourth album and she is still just 23. Hugely impressive poise and control - and some lovely arrangements (seek out the Al Kooper-style organ on 'Where Can I Go' and 'Once'). I tend to find it head music rather than always feeling it in the gut, but there are certainly intense and gripping passages here.

8. Del Barber: Headwaters. It was a real pleasure to interview Del in September, having seen his impressive performances at the Canmore Festival the month before. This is his third album, with a fourth due in February. Excellent country/folk music, well sung and played by an engaging performer - he's an impressive story-teller both in his songs and between them.

7. Yo La Tengo: Fade. Their 13th album in 27 years of recording and it's remarkable they can still bring the openness and vulnerability to their music-making that the best songs display. 'Ohm' and 'Paddle Forward' are the stand-outs here for me - as they were at their Bexhill concert last week - but it is a strong set overall.

6. Hiss Golden Messenger: Haw. Another burst of leftfield Americana, featuring MC Taylor's distinctive, yearning vocals and frequently bible-referenced lyrics. The album gains a lot from some able collaborators and nicely varied arrangements, featuring, amongst other things, banjo (from Black Twig Picker Nathan Bowles), lugubrious saxaphone and field-recorded soundscapes of local wildlife...  A live solo set I saw, though certainly powerful and enjoyable, was comparatively lacking in range and dynamics.

5. Wussy: Wussy Duo. A seven song mini-album (released in a numbered 600 CD pressing for Record Store Day) from the band's writing and vocal core, Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker - and some of those seven are lightweight, verging on the throwaway. But there's more than enough here to justify its place on this list while we wait for a full band album, particularly Lisa's gorgeous 'New American Standard' and 'North Sea Side'. She has one of those strong/vulnerable voices that just hooks itself into my heart, while Chuck's gruffness provides a perfect foil...

4. Steve Gunn: Time Off. A new discovery for me this year, via another RSD release - his Golden Gunn collaboration with MC Taylor which was itself a contender for this list. Steve has previously played with Kurt Vile (and his album of this year, Wakin' On A Pretty Daze, was also in the running...). The guitar is the star on this record, chiming, luminous and occasionally jaw-dropping in the John Fahey/American Primitive tradition. Beautiful.

3. Braden Gates: Break It To Me Gently. I came upon htis young Canadian singer/songwriter, fiddler/guitarist by chance at the Canmore Festival and was struck by his verve, confidence and sheer ability. This is a short release (just 30 minutes) and there are rough edges: some slight songs, a tendency to the sentimental alongside his crisper observations, not enough use of his excellent fiddle-playing. But if you listen to, say, 'Last Boat In The Harbour', 'Gator's Gym Girl' or the title track you'll recognise a talent with huge potential - and enough convincing character to carry you through the lesser ones.

2. Roy Harper: Man And Myth. An extraordinary return to form. This is a record that sits entirely comfortably alongside his classic albums from 40 years ago, from Stormcock through to HQ. A lot of ambition and a familiar unconcern with being thought pretentious, mixing in amongst the love songs a lengthy reworking of Greek myths, social commentary and science fiction imagery. Beautifully arranged, beautifully sung and reproduced superbly live in his concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Roy is a one-off and it was very sad news that he is now facing sexual abuse charges – but let's leave that sub judice and concentrate on a really good album.

1. David Bowie: The Next Day. Another one-off at the head of the list and another unexpected pleasure. He managed to spring his new recordings on us and, for once, the slew of publicity that followed was entirely justified. No resting on laurels from an elder statesman here, with some crunchy confrontation, powerful playing and striking lyrics, alonside lush melodies. If in doubt, try the unexpected twists in 'I'd Rather Be High':

I stumble to the graveyard and I

Lay down by my parents, whisper

Just remember duckies

Everybody gets got.

The bubbling under category, almost making it into the top ten, included the likes of Bill Callahan (lovely sound, songs less strong than usual), Billy Bragg, Kurt Vile, Ahab, Black Twig Pickers and Promised Land Sound.

As usual there were some great archive releases in 2013 to listen to alongside the new stuff: special mentions for Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait and the Grateful Dead's Sunshine Daydream.

Finally,there's no competition for my favourite label of the year - North Carolina's splendidly-named Paradise of Batchelors has been exemplary in both the music they've chosen and the way they've packaged and produced it. I've just bought Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel – yet more lovely guitar playing, hmmm, do I need to reconsider the ten?

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