2013's been a year filled with great music but, at times, it has felt like you've had to search it out.
It's been a year of truly brilliant sounds even if there may have been a few disappointments along the way. Take hip hop, for example: unlike 2012's records by Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, there was nothing that really demanded your attention. Yes, Kanye's album 'Yeezus' was technically brilliant, but it's a record I'm still struggling to digest properly. Similarly, Jay-Z's 'Magna Carta, Holy Grail' (which, in my opinion, is as good as West's effort) was less immediate than the likes of 'Blueprint 3', which means it's got somewhat lost in the public consciousness.
Both those records had an interesting release as well, materialising on shelves seemingly from nowhere. They're not the only ones either; My Bloody Valentine's 'mbv' appeared online out of the blue in February after a gestation period of 20 years. Equally, Mazzy Star, Boards of Canada, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie made unexpected and impressive returns following long hiatuses. There were also some great reissues and live records; Rilo Kiley's 'Rkives' acted as the epitaph the band deserved, Bob Dylan repainted his self-portrait with the 'Bootleg Series' and revealed songs well worth revisiting, Steve Albini finally got to share his vision for Nirvana's 'In Utero', The Velvet Underground's 'White Light, White Heat' finally got the deluxe treatment it deserved following Lou Reed's sudden death and Neil Young presented what could well be his best live album to date with the 'Cellar Door' addition to his archives series.
I've tried to avoid that whiff of nostalgia when considering my top records of 2013, though. Instead, I've collated the ones that simply refuse to get lost on my iPod.
Biffy Clyro 'Opposites' - Perhaps the January release date for Biffy's ambitious double concept album 'Opposites' did it little favours in terms of the public consciousness. But the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-and-bagpipes attitude here is hard not to love. They don't try to re-invent the wheel, but when it sounds this good why do you need to? There's surprisingly little flab over the two discs providing a treasure trove of great material to discover.
My Bloody Valentine 'mbv' - Yes, it took Kevin Shields twenty-odd years to make the follow up to 'Loveless' but, far from being a pale imitation of that record, 'mbv' is a sonic experiment of epic proportions. Shields takes everything that was great about My Bloody Valentine and injects a dark industrial tone. That means the focus shifts from the guitars to the drum patterns by the end of the record. It may not be a better album than its predecessor, but 'mbv' is just as intoxicating.
John Mayer 'Paradise Valley' - It seems it's unfashionable to actually like John Mayer's music. His sixth studio effort 'Paradise Valley' is among his best though. A natural continuation from 'Born and Raised', this new set of songs finds Mayer in a contemplative mood. But it's also clear he's made peace with many of his demons. It's a grown up and laid back record that benefits from the contributions of Frank Ocean and Katy Perry. I'd also argue that it features some of his best song writing too.
Frightened Rabbit 'Pedestrian Verse' - Album number four from Frightened Rabbit found Scott Hutchison and co. return with an arresting and dark set of songs. Improving on their previous effort, they embraced their Scottish roots to produce a big sounding, fully-fledged, indie-rock record. Hutchison also reinforced his position as one of the best lyricists out there with lines like, "Her heart beats like a breeze block thrown down the stairs".
The National 'Trouble Will Find Me' - Following up 'High Violent' was always going to be difficult for The National. But 'Trouble Will Find Me' takes their widescreen sense of melancholy to new levels. Matt Berninger remains a compelling narrator amongst the subtle and delicate orchestration that sounds like it could explode or crumble to dust at any given moment. As lead single 'Demons' demonstrated, it's a dark and contemplative record but one that's well worth immersing yourself in.
Vampire Weekend 'Modern Vampires Of The City' - Quite simply Vampire Weekend's third album is their best. It's a wonderful grab bag of ideas and sounds that refuse to conform to normal pop sensibilities. Koenig and Batmanglij's compositions are more accomplished and memorable because of it. They also cherry pick ideas from across the musical spectrum to craft an immaculate set of songs. Indeed, in my review I suggested it was the "most ambitiously and confidently produced album you're likely to hear all year". It is.
The Besnard Lakes 'Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO' - 'Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO' is like the best bad dream you've never had. Full of drama and noise, the album stretches across imagined soundscapes populated with soaring melodies and feedback-laden guitars. It's dark, uplifting and mysterious all at the same time. The Canadian quartet aren't afraid to take the odd detour and, overall, it works to create an album that rewards closer inspection.
Local Natives 'Hummingbird' - In a similar way to The Besnard Lakes, Local Natives plumbed the depths of a dreamlike sound to create their best album to date this year. At the time, I said it was likely to end up being amongst 2013's best, and it still stands up. There's a sense of confident sophistication to the catchy melodies here, and while it's not a perfect album it's pretty damn close.
Typhoon 'White Lighter' - Lead single 'Young Fathers' led me to Typhoon's 'White Lighter'. As the band name suggests, they're not exactly a quiet proposition. But while Arcade Fire were off noodling with dance beats, Typhoon seem to have stolen their eclectic crown. Full of strings, drums, brass, guitars and possibly the most diverse instrumentation of the year, 'White Lighter' is like Arcade Fire's 'Funeral' turned up to 11. Boasting one of the biggest line-up's of an indie band in 2013, lead singer Kyle Morton grounds the Portland musicians compositions with a weary world beaten realism. There's hope amongst the sorrow too, which makes it a compelling and satisfying listen.
Sigur Ros 'Kveikur' - Sigur Ros were straying dangerously close to complacently re-treading old ground with 2012's quiet and pastoral 'Valtari'. But then 'Kveikur' exploded through my headphones. It's a record that I still can't stop listening to and is exactly the album that Jonis and co. needed to make following the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson. Stripping back their sound to reveal a dark and brooding side that previously had only been hinted at, Sigur Ros created an album that doesn't need recognisable language to convey subtle shifts in mood that often culminate in angry explosions of sound. At the time I described it as sounding "quite simply like they've opened the gates to hell and strolled inside"; if that's not a reason to listen to it then I don't know what is.