2013 - the year in review: The best pop music of the year


Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Push the Sky Away

Push the Sky Away is Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ best album, a thoughtful, oceanic work whose pulsing, mesmeric keyboard and string drones establish a brooding, contemplative mood which perfectly fits Cave’s ruminations on age and desire and spirit and the infinite flexibility of truth and belief in the internet age: big themes, dealt with imaginatively by a singer and a band both operating at the peak of their powers.

Laura Marling: Once I Was an Eagle

Once I Was an Eagle is a mature examination of turbulent emotional terrain, undertaken with typically unflinching honesty. A song cycle shifting gradually from anger and frustration to regret and acceptance, it’s set to a sparse palette of guitars, hand percussion and cello most completely realised in the 16-minute opening sequence, four songs segued together along an unspooling thread of guitar figures and hypnotic modal drones.

David Bowie: The Next Day

Rarely has a comeback been effected with such panache as David Bowie displays on The Next Day. These songs fizz and crackle with echoes of Bowie’s classic Berlin period, but somehow sound fiercely contemporary, charging along with bullish rude health as Bowie muses upon such matters as memory, misery and the celebrity undead with their “radium smiles”.

Elton John: The Diving Board

Mostly recorded with just piano, bass and drums, The Diving Board is Elton John’s most vital release since his mid-1970s heyday, with reflective, intelligent lyrics addressing themes of art, ambition, age and adversity, set to emotively apt melodies: a collection that both harks back to the intrigues and interests of his earliest recordings, yet manages to break new ground – quite an achievement for an artist in their seventh decade.

Jake Bugg: Shangri La

Recorded with producer Rick Rubin, Shangri La depicts an artist expanding exponentially beyond the rudimentary rockabilly diatribes of his tyro debut, finding his true voice in spiky protest skiffle and poetic folk-rockers about the need to escape the restrictions of circumstance and expectation, rendered in a forthright, strident tone which brings to mind Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Discovery of the year

Valerie June

Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone is all about her strikingly individual voice, a reedy, piercing intonation that owes little to contemporary R&B mores, but instead is grounded as much in bluegrass and Appalachian singing as in Southern soul, gospel and blues. It’s utterly disarming in its directness, whether oozing sultry sensuality, sincere devotion or brooding menace, and it’s sensitively presented here in arrangements (co-produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach) which imaginatively apply flavours drawn from gospel, girl-group pop, swamp rock and even Afrobeat. A prodigious talent.

Turkey of the year

Johnny Borrell

In a year when former child-star icons plumbed new depths in their desperation to leach the teenage dollar, and established heavyweights such as Clapton, Texas and Depeche Mode offered creaky, withered echoes of former glories, it took some going to secure the title of Turkey of the Year, but Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell did it easily by managing to sell only a few hundred copies of his debut solo album, Borrell 1, an achievement which sets the career-limbo bar at an almost impassably low level. “I heard some words and music, but it didn’t sound much like a song,” runs one lyric, and by jingo he’s not wrong. Expect the new-look Razorlight to be back in the studio earlier rather than later.