Albums of 2013: James

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

With the departure of guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009, Nick Cave’s right-hand man for nearly thirty years, the sound of the next Bad Seeds record seemed uncertain. As a result, the Bad Seeds embrace disarmingly minimal and intimate soundscapes on Push The Sky Away, focusing on textural instrumentation and contemplative lyrics delivered with conviction by Cave. PTSA looks both backwards and forwards on the band’s legacy, with the cataclysmic Higgs Boson Blues seeming an answer to their earlier Abattoir Blues, while the personal mantra Push The Sky Away gestures to the artistic boundaries which they continue to push and transcend. 

2. Anna Calvi - One Breath

Grander in scale, but more vulnerable than it’s predecessor. Anna Calvi still has a flair for the dramatic, but she seems to let down her guard more on One Breath, not letting the façade get in the way of expressing mortal frailty on the title track or brutal honesty on Love Of My Life. Calvi’s symphonic ambitions still remain intact on The Bridge and Sing To Me though, and that astounding voice continues to grip the imagination, even when it is but a barely audible whisper. 

3. Poliça - Shulamith

Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed debut, Poliça build on its momentum with their difficult second album. The basic elements of echoing vocals, glacial synthesisers and effervescent percussion are still present, but Shulamith is more confrontational than its predecessor (much like its namesake, Shulamith Firestone). The music is less introverted; the synths are brutalising and the pulsing beats are feverish. Meanwhile, Channy Leanaegh’s vocals and lyrics, concerned with conflicts of identity in relationships, are direct and forthright. Rather than courting mainstream success, you get the sense that Shulamith is the sound of Poliça staying true to their beliefs.

4. Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt

Twenty-three years and ten albums in, Pearl Jam could be forgiven for showing signs of age. But, on Lightning Bolt they prove themselves to be as lean and hungry as ever, equally comfortable delivering full-throttle punk (Mind Your Manners, Lightning Bolt) and gentle ballads (Yellow Moon, Sleeping By Myself). The only sign of age is a mature perspective on love and mortality, with Sirens seeing Eddie Vedder “overwhelmed by the grace with which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”. Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam ageing gracefully; still angry and still at the top of their game.

5. Josh Ritter - The Beast In Its Tracks

An album of dark nights and new mornings, The Beast In Its Tracks is the result of Josh Ritter retreating into songwriting to exorcise his demons from divorce, alcohol and insomnia. While much of the album sees Ritter happy in the arms of a new lover, songs like Evil Eye and Nightmares bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Between bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many and perfectly captures the turning point on Joy To You Baby. Ritter’s Blood On The Tracks? Possibly…

6. Eels - Wonderful, Glorious

No other album I heard this year was quite so aptly labeled, or half as fun. Wonderful, Glorious is the sound of E revelling in finally being in a band that can keep up with him, dishing up outrageous, scuzzy rock and gentle, mellow pop. Life affirming rock and roll!

7. Jim James - Regions of Light and Sound of God

Exploring life in an age cluttered by technology, Jim James blends genres to great effect, from new-age rock ’n’ roll to electro-gospel. As ever though, at the centre of this extended sonic horizon is his cavernous voice, which sounds like a man sending messages out into space.

8. Charles Bradley - Victim of Love

After the success of his debut, Victim of Love sees Charles Bradley find his own voice. Aided by the capable Menahan Street Band, Bradley moves effortlessly between Temptations style psych-funk (Confusion, Hurricane) and slow-burning ballads (Let Love Stand A Chance, Through The Storm) on an album overbrimming with joy and gratitude.

9. Julia Holter - Loud City Song

Not usually my thing, but there was something very compelling and mesmerising about Loud City Song which called me back for repeated listens. Each layer of Holter’s avant-garde pop intrigues with moments of tension and release, while her flexible voice adopts different guises and moves eerily between seeming distant and uncomfortably close. 

10. Kwes - ilp

On his hypnotising debut Kwes blends pop, ambient and electronic influences into a gluey fog of emotion that clings to you, giving it the deeply immersive quality of Portishead’s Dummy. While the understated melodies and blurred beats don’t immediately grab attention, it is the quiet confidence of the music which is ilp’s strength.