Best of 2013: Johnny Feeney’s Albums of the Year

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The ever knowledgeable Johnny Feeney has frequently featured on the blog throughout this year, popping up time and again to share his musical musings and words of wisdom with us all. So ahead of my own list of albums of the year, Johnny has kindly compiled his top ten albums from 2013.

Before I leave you in Johnny’s very capable hands, I’d like to thank him for this, and all the other posts during the year. He’s a top man. So, without further ado, here are his top ten albums of 2013.

10. Creep – ‘Echoes’

Echoes, the Brooklyn electronic duo Creep’s second album, is a dark, atmospheric record laden with spectral, woozy trip-hop beats and are joined by lots of guest vocalists including Romy-Madeley Croft of the XX and trip-hop royalty in the form of Tricky.

9. Cults – ‘Static’

Static is a tightly packed album of breezy, infectious indie rock with lo-fi production and errs on just the right side of sickly sweet. There are some incredibly catchy songs on here that can lodge in your head for days. Great stuff.

8. Drenge – ‘Drenge’

This debut album from the Loveless brothers, Eoin on guitar/vocals and Rory on drums, is a treat of primal, visceral blues rock. There are some great clattering drums and thundering power riffs throughout. Raw and raucous, this is an excellent rock album.

7. London Grammar – ‘If You Wait’

Ploughing a similar furrow to the XX, Nottingham trio London Grammar specialize in beautifully understated, minimal pop on their debut album. In Hannah Reid, they have a commanding vocal presence that lends a gorgeous intensity throughout. Some real gems on here.

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Guest Post: Johnny Feeney Picks 3 Albums – Fuck Buttons, Big Deal & London Grammar

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The ever reliable Johnny Feeney is back once again with another guest post about three albums that have caught his attention. With that I leave you in Johnny’s very capable hands.

Fuck Buttons – ‘Slow Focus’

Despite, rather surprisingly, Fuck Buttons playing the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony last year and getting a taste for a wider audience, there’s still no fear of this Bristol electronic duo attempting to go even remotely mainstream on record. Slow Focus, their third studio album and follow up to 2009’s brilliant Tarot Sport, is a much darker affair than its predecessor. The album opens with ‘Brainfreeze’, an eight and a half minute barrage of relentless, bludgeoning electronica, and rarely lets off. ‘Year of the Dog’ is a deeply unsettling piece of work with its slowly-building-but-never-quite-getting-there synths and off-kilter strings, while the brilliantly sinister ‘Sentients’ pulses along menacingly. The closing 20-minute salvo of tracks ‘Stalker’ and ‘Hidden XS’ just may be the aural equivalent of getting attacked with a sledgehammer – but don’t let that put you off. The music is bleak, repetitive and hypnotic throughout and may not be to everyone’s taste. The longer and louder you listen to this album the more it reveals itself, and is well worth the effort.

Big Deal – ‘June Gloom’

For their second album, the London-based Californian duo return with a more fleshed out sound and more bite to their songs –the band had no rhythm section on their debut – and are much the better for it. Primarily an indie-pop/rock record, the boy-girl pair of Alice Costelloe & Kacey Underwood’s overlaid vocals nicely complement each other, while the music is breezy and catchy. This was released back in June and has a real summertime feel to it. The dreamy, upbeat tracks such as the rousing ‘In Your Car’ and ‘Call and I’ll Come’ effortlessly pull you in with their infectious hooks while the duo show they can also slow it down to excellent effect with the beautiful ‘Pristine’. Album highlight ‘Teradactol’ is a rockier affair with its dirgy guitars and snapping percussion but doesn’t veer too far from the template. The album tails off somewhat in the final third but still has its moments. All in all a fine attempt and hopefully a sign of better things to come.

London Grammar – ‘If You Wait’

It would be almost impossible to talk about British trio London Grammar without making some sort of comparison to the XX. Their band makeups are the same (one girl, two guys) and they both specialise in minimal, slightly haunting pop but, in vocalist Hannah Reid, London Grammar have a much more commanding vocal presence although she keeps herself restrained through much of this. The album opens with the delightful, sparse ‘Hey Now’ and is a sign of the pleasures that are to follow. The supreme ‘Wasting My Young Years’ opens beautifully with melancholy strings, delicate pianos and shimmering guitars before slowly building and easing off, building and easing off. The brilliant ‘Strong’ lopes along wonderfully with a solitary guitar line and stuttering percussion. The closing title track is a spellbinding masterclass in understated, stripped back beauty showcasing Reid’s vocals at their most potent. A superb debut album and one that proves once again that, sometimes, less is more.

Guest Post: Johnny Feeney Picks 3 Albums (Foals, Eels & Foxygen)

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The blog has been rather lacking in album reviews and picks over the past month or so, all down to my lazy neglect I’m afraid. So, it’s a pretty opportune time for the ever reliable Johnny Feeney to step in and fill a void with another guest post. On this occasion, as before, he’s here with three albums that have caught his attention. With that I leave you in the capable hands of Johnny.

Foals – ‘Holy Fire’

Foals continue to develop for a fuller, more expansive sound on this their third album, moving further away from the angled indie-rock of their earlier work. It feels like it’s been designed perhaps for bigger live venues than where they currently find themselves playing. Having a bona fide radio hit in ‘My Number’ will certainly help them reach the wider audience they seem to be targeting.

With tropical rhythms providing the backbone throughout, there’s a real swagger to tracks such as the funky ‘Late Night’, the colossal ‘Inhaler’ and ‘Milk & Black Spiders’, with its brilliant use of steel drums. The slower songs have never been their strongest suit, and the closing pair of ‘Stepson’ and ‘Moon’ do nothing to reverse that trend, leaving the album peter out somewhat tamely. However, don’t let that take away from what is otherwise a highly accomplished and assured album.

Eels – ‘Wonderful, Glorious’

LA alt-rockers Eels’ tenth studio album sees front man and creative force Mark ‘E’ Everett in a cheerier mood than usual. Everett’s distinctive, gristled vocals are ever present with a gritty defiance on show in songs such as ‘Bombs Away’, the excellent ‘Stick Together’ and on the gentler ‘On the Ropes’ – (“I’m hurting bad, and fighting mad, I’m not knocked out, but I’m on the ropes”).

The smouldering ‘Peach Blossom’ is an album highlight with its scuzzy guitars and clattering drums. Everett allows himself a brief lapse into more familiar, lovelorn territory with the morose ‘True Original’ but quickly returns to a more upbeat outlook, closing proceedings with the beautiful ’I’m Building a Shrine’ followed by the joyous title track. Wonderful indeed.

Foxygen – ‘We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic’

The second album from Californian duo Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century… is tightly packed full of breezy, catchy psychedelic pop songs, perfect for a bit of easy summer listening. There’s a real lo-fi, ramshackle feel to some of the production on here with various instruments popping up intermittently (Richard Swift of the Shins produces). The sound is reminiscent in places of early MGMT, especially when vocalist Sam France goes into falsetto mode.

The chorus on the rousing ‘On Blue Mountain’ bears an uncanny resemblance to Elvis’ ‘Suspicious Minds’, which may be one of the reasons why it’s so catchy but it’s also a fantastic rock song. There are directional changes occurring throughout which always leaves the listener guessing – ‘Shuggie’ varies wildly in the course of three minutes and the title track starts off as good time rock’n’roll before evolving into a sort of hands-in-the-air funereal wail. A highly enjoyable listen that flies by in under 37 minutes.

Guest Post: Johnny Feeney Picks 3 Albums

The ever reliable Johnny Feeney returns with another guest post, this time around he’s sharing three albums missed or overlooked on the blog. Take it away Johnny.

Alt-J An Awesome Wave

This quite astonishing debut album from English four-piece Alt-J has been earning rave reviews from near and far and recently, deservedly, won the 2012 Mercury Music Prize. It’s not difficult to see why. This is easy listening, but with backbone. Short, snappy drums propel the songs forward with shimmering layers piled on top along with lots of vocal repetitions, harmonies and lead singer’s Joe Newman’s unique, almost nasal vocals, which is a potent weapon in its own right.

The additional flourishes throughout make the album – the dreamy guitars and pianos on ‘Something Good’, the mantric repetition in ‘Breezeblocks’, the deliciously delicate xylophones in ‘MS’, the Eastern-style guitar line on the exceptional closer ‘Taro’, the squelchy synths in ‘Fitzpleasure’. Everything comes together effortlessly without a duff track in sight. Even the three short interludes are a class apart. Some of the lyrics are cryptic at best but with music this good it’s hard to complain. An Awesome Wave? An awesome album.

Richard Hawley Standing At The Sky’s Edge

The seventh studio album from Richard Hawley is an interesting change of direction for the Sheffield singer-songwriter. Hazy psychedelia is the order of the day here and Hawley proves masterful at it. With only one track clocking in under five minutes, the songs are suffused with snarling, meandering guitars solos and Hawley’s distinctive vocals. The title track is a masterpiece telling tales of a man who kills his wife and kids, a hard-up prostitute who ends up in jail and a young man involved in inner city violence respectively.

‘Down in the Woods’ is a real rocker with a venomous Hawley sounding not unlike Mark Lanegan. There are moments of real beauty here too with the woozy rock of ‘Time Will Bring You Winter’, the delicate ‘Don’t Stare At the Sun’ and the haunting ‘The Wood Collier’s Grave’. It’s the rockier material here that really stands out though such as the excellent closer ‘Before’, which begins gently before a mazy guitar line comes in, ‘She Brings the Sunlight’ and ‘Leave Your Body Behind’. One wonders where Hawley will go next but it will certainly be interesting to find out.

Grizzly Bear Shields

It’s three years since Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear released the superb Veckatimest. It seems Shields was not a straight forward follow-up, with news of a full album supposedly binned along the way. However this album could justifiably be called their strongest yet. With its dense, complex layers it’s certainly challenging but one that reaps rich rewards upon multiple listens. There’s certainly nothing as instantly accessible as ‘Two Weeks’ on here with no apparent radio-friendly songs, not that this is a bad thing.

The album opens with ‘Sleeping Ute’ and its disconcerting time signature is an indicator of what’s to follow You learn to expect the unexpected from Grizzly Bear. As always, vocals are shared between Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen with harmonies appearing throughout. The sublime ‘Yet Again’ has a really catchy chorus that can get stuck in your head for days. Album standout ‘Half Gate’ is a work of high art with its soaring, sweeping strings and jangling guitars. Brilliant stuff from a brilliant band.

Johnny Feeney’s 3 Albums of 2012 So Far

The ever reliable Johnny Feeney returns for another guest post to highlight his favourite albums of 2012 so far.

First Aid Kit  – The Lion’s Roar

Swedish country/folk duo First Aid Kit (sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg, aged 18 and 21 respectively) certainly had help from people in high places for their second album – The Lion’s Roar is produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk) with a guest appearance from Conor Oberst. Mogis adds flourishes throughout but the acoustic guitars and the remarkable intertwining voices of the Soderberg sisters are what rightfully come to the fore here.

One of the album highlights, ‘Emmylou’, is a song in thrall to country music with its sliding guitars and name checking of country greats such as Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris et al. The soaring harmonies on the gorgeous ‘To a Poet’ and ‘I Found a Way’ are breathtaking and heartbreaking in equal measure. The mainly melancholy lyrics of heartbreak and sadness on here are in almost complete contrast to the upbeat, cheerful music and it takes a few listens to realise the conflict. A delightful album from a band who sound much older than their years.

Of Monsters and Men – My Head Is An Animal

A debut album of rousing indie-folk/pop from this 6-piece band from Iceland. There will surely not be too many records released this year as constantly, positively uplifting. The joyous ‘Dirty Paws’ opens proceedings brightly and the mood rarely drops – there are lots of encouraging shouts, whistles and mass singalongs throughout. With a girl-boy dynamic switching vocals, the music is similar in places to Mumford & Sons with acoustic guitars, uplifting accordions and trumpets.

The impossibly catchy ‘Little Talks’ is an album standout along with the majestic, life-affirming ‘Lakehouse’, a song that builds and builds until it explodes into so much life it’s hard not to be affected by its contagious positivity. The band can tone it down too and do so with devastating effect in the beautifully sparse closer ‘Yellow Light’, reminiscent of the XX but if after taking their happy pills.

Grimes  – Visions

It’s difficult to pigeon hole this album by Grimes, aka 24-year-old Canadian Claire Boucher, into any category other than electronic as the sound veers so wildly throughout. Clearly not sticking to any sort of template, the album is bristling with ideas and songs can change direction at any moment. When it clicks it’s sublime but understandably not everything does. However, you can only commend Boucher for her bold experimentations.

A highly danceable record with synths and beats dominating, there are some gems in here – the dreamy electro of ‘Genesis’, the squelchy ‘Oblivion’, the claustrophobic ‘Circumambient’, the spikily evil ‘Nightmusic’. Boucher’s high-pitched voice is almost indecipherable in places and frequently and effectively used in loops as added layers of sound. The tender R’n’B of ‘Skin’ comes out of nowhere towards the end and, in keeping with the rest of the album, pleasantly throws you off one final time.