2013 is only half way through and it’s already been an incredible year for music. David Bowie shocked the world by releasing a new single and new album completely out of the blue, while fellow legends Black Sabbath gave the proverbial finger to the 70s critics who mocked their music, by topping the charts with their first Ozzy assisted album since 1978.
Live music has been just as fascinating. Glastonbury was headlined by two of the biggest acts of the modern age, Arctic Monkeys and Mumford & Sons; who both offered entirely different visions of the future of guitar music. The Rolling Stones on the other hand, either delivered the best headline set in the history of humanity (possible overstatement) or the most embracing spectacle ever broadcast on live TV (definite exaggeration).
There’s still six more months of madness to come, but it’s time to take stock. Let’s look back on the five best guitar albums of the year so far, and lick our lips with anticipation at what is still to come.
Here at Guitar Planet we tend to keep things electric, but when a predominantly acoustic artist creates an album as sweepingly majestic and heartbreakingly insular as The Low Highway, we have no choice but to sit up and take notice.
Steve Earle has been making humble but incisive roots music for the best part of 30 years. The Low Highway is the work of a team of seasoned veterans who have an instinctive feel. Mandolins, steel guitars, violins and accordions flit in and out of these skeletal arrangements with devastating effect. There’s a wonderful floating in the cool breeze feel to the entire album. Earle is constantly switching personas, providing these deeply personal and defiantly lowly tales of frustration, heartache and resilience in modern America.
Steve Earle isn’t the type to filibuster or make sweeping gestures, he and The Dukes are far more interested in using their intuitive touch to bring these unassuming individualistic insights to life. At times The Low Highway recalls Springsteen’s Nebraska and Welch’s Harrow & The Harvest, but in truth its neither, this is a record that only Steve Earle could have made.
When Guitar Planet went in depth on Black Metal earlier this year, in an attempt to explain the genre’s evolution from satanic Scandinavia legends to environmentally conscious American upstarts, secretly we believed the scene had peaked in the public’s eye. Then, on June 11th, Deafheaven dropped Sunbather.
Not only did Deafheaven’s new album rival the artistic highs of Allagoch and Wolves In The Throne room, but it single handedly wowed the mainstream writers at the Rolling Stone and Guardian. The message read loud and clear: Black Metal isn’t going anywhere. Picking up where Agalloch’s Marrow Of The Spirit left off, Sunbather seamless merges what was once the most extreme metal sound on the planet with indie, post-rock, shoegaze and, yes, even the kind of stadium sized riffs you’d expect to hear from Kings Of Leon and U2.
In hindsight it’s a marriage made in heaven. The corpse-paint-wearing fanatics were never that far removed from My Bloody Valentine’s beautifully tortured guitars or Godspeed My Black Emperor’s lingering atmospherics. There’s a joy to seeing these two distant streams of music history intertwine to form one ferocious torrent on Sunbather. The separation between delicacy and brutality has never been so slight, or so intoxicating.
“Please, please, please don’t embarrass yourselves”, it’s not pretty, but it’s the exact thought that was running through my head the first time I pressed play on 13. Black Sabbath, both with and without Ozzy Osbourne, have worked hard to establish their status as national treasures, metal godfathers, and to dismiss claims that they’d lost it. When they reformed in 2012 and stole the show at Download 2012 (sadly without Bill Ward) it seemed like the perfect endnote: Black Sabbath doing what they’ve always done, grinding their opposition into the dust with the sheer weight of their riffs.
Then the rumoured album actually became a reality and the metal world started to get nervous. Luckily, we had absolutely nothing to worry about. Not only is 13 an improbable chart topper; it’s really good in its own right. The production might be a little too clean and sure the band might be remaking some old hits, but my God they are good at it. Tony Iommi isn’t just knocking out some basic blues and waiting expectantly for a paycheck, his playing is devilishly intense.
Ozzy might warble some less than convincing lyrics but the tone is spot on, even if his range isn’t, and “End Of The Beginning” sounds genuinely portentous. 13 is the sound of an elderly but still active band coming full circle and signing off on the right note, with timing changes galore, mood altering riffs and dynamic arena ready choruses. Well-done lads.
It’s just too hard to decide; is …Like Clockwork a return to sleazy, grinding form, or a new dawn for an old set of hands? The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between. On this wilfully epic new album Josh Homme and company both wander the desert drenched in sweat and open themselves up to the theatricality of Broadway.
In a move that bizarrely parallels Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, …Like Clockwork eschews bangers and immediacy in favour of glorious overwhelming sound. Where the French robots dealt in pristine production, Homme, unsurprisingly, deals in lugubrious murk. Album opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” takes its sweet time, as if its riff is being dragged reluctantly alongside the stiff industrial percussion. As the album evolves Homme positions himself somewhere between Bowie’s seductive inflections, Roger Waters’ unapologetic ambition and the strolling vaudeville sensibilities of Elton John (who guests naturally enough).
The result are a series of sauntering tour de force performances that play less like three-minute-pop songs and more like preposterously theatrical one man shows (“The Vampyre Of Time And Memory”, “If I Had A Tail, “I Appear Missing” and “Fairweather Friends”). They can hardly be described as radio friendly, but there’s a maniacal joy to be found as Homme laconically drools all over a track before a volcanic solo or a sensuous twist sends him spiralling into withering falsetto. It’s never quite clear whether Homme’s flickering mood is leading the music or whether the torrential surges simply sweep him along for the ride.
Thankfully, …Like Clockwork hangs together surprisingly well and this new found theatricality suits QOSTA and their meaty arrangements. If Bowie had ever made a (good) metal album, it might well sound exactly like this.
After a depressing take on modern America, some apocalyptic metal and an unabashed audio assault, the tender sun-soaked indie-pop of Vampire Weekend should provide the perfect escape. Unfortunately, while Modern Vampires Of The City is crammed full of divine melodies, majestic classical infusions and soothing airs - it is anything but a light-hearted listen.
Vampire Weekend’s third (and best) album cuts incredibly deep. Hidden behind all the self-effacing humour, hip shaking riffs and preposterously bookish lyrics, lies a melancholy heart. Thankfully, Vampire Weekend are the type of band who can turn a crisis of faith into one the year’s most irresistible anthems (“Unbelievers”). So naturally the heavy-hearted paranoia that permeates Modern Vampires Of The City fails to overawe the listener.
There’s too much warmth and joy for any amount of self-doubt to crush. Plus, Vampire Weekend still know how to have a good time. “Diane Young” is a proto-rock’n’roll riot complete with a surf-slide and a helium voiced coda, while the lost-young-lovers tale “Ha Hey” might centre around a crushingly poignant chorus, but it’s defused by a self-deprecating hipster ribbing bridge.
The album is a master class in forward thinking experimentation and songwriting, with jagged beats, strange structures and warped electronics sitting alongside the band’s tender melodies, calypso guitars and classical flourishes. All the alien elements come together serenely on “Hudson”, a devastating straight faced ballad that tells the tale of immigrants forgoing their identity to make their way in the vampiric New York City. Beautiful, forward thinking, and utterly brilliant, Modern Vampires Of The City is the best album of the year so far.
5 Pearl Jam – Lightening Bolt: 2009’s Backspacer quieted the critics and reasserted Pearl Jam’s relevance to a new generation of rock fans (a killer world tour didn’t hurt either), but now big things are expected of Lightening Bolt. Out October 15th.
4 Arctic Monkeys – AM: The Sheffield lads have gone from quick witted upstarts to sun soaked California rock gods in the space of just four albums. The deliciously thick grooves of “Do I Wanna Know?” have us purring in anticipation. Out September 9th.
3 Arcade Fire – [TBA]: Arcade Fire have always been critically acclaimed and acknowledged as an amazing live band, but The Suburbs transformed them into mainstream superstars. AF’s new album will be produced by hipster deity James Murphy; big things are expected. Out October 29th.
2 Kings Of Leon – Mechanical Bull: The Kings might have alienated a lot of rock fans with their more chart friendly sound, but their new album promises to merge the rough dynamism of old with an array of killer choruses. Check out “Supersoaker” in the mean time. Out September 24th.
1 AC/DC – [TBA]: AC/DC’s latest is still unscheduled but it has been heavily rumoured for release in 2013. It’ll have a tough time living up to 2008’s 35xPlatinum (world wide) Black Ice, but if anyone’s up for the challenge it’s AC/DC. Out final quarter 2013.
Enter Shikari renew their archly political assault while expanding their sonic horizons on The Mindsweep.
Brutish, brazen and ungodly satisfying, Royal Blood rode a barrage of chugging bass grooves all the way to the top of the charts in 2014.
Opeth may preach exclusively to the converted, but to overlook the Swedes’ staggeringly consistent brilliance is foolhardy.
Soothing and sorrow-laden in equal measure, Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs left Guitar Planet speechless.
Guitar Planet has had a love/hate relationship with Slash since Velvet Revolver split, but it remains impossible to deny his freewheeling riffs and slippery solos.