Release Date: February 26, 2016
Label: Moshi Moshi Records

Every year, when the year-end best-of lists come out, I make a good-faith effort to give each of the represented albums a good listen. Sometimes I agree with critics’ assessments, many times I don’t. Most often, the lists converge around some inexplicable trend sweeping the indie rock world. As much as I decry top-album lists as a symptom of lazy criticism, they are nonetheless useful tools for music discovery. And that is why I keep going back to them year-in, year-out, in the hopes that I’ll uncover at least one gem I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. In 2016, that album was (perhaps confusingly), 2013 by Meilyr Jones.

No, not that kind of British music…

I, like many, tend to fetishize UK music culture. From the British Invasion back in the ’60s, to the diversity and importance of Scottish indie rock, the British Isles so often seem to better anticipate my tastes than anything available stateside. Maybe it’s just the fascination of the foreign. I know that the opposite is true for many music fans on the eastern fringes of the North Atlantic.

Thankfully, modern music culture being what it is, we don’t have to work very hard to appease these predilections. Twenty or thirty years ago, we would’ve had to deal with the vagaries of imports and international mail. Now, with just a few clicks, we can close the distance. The internet brings us together, it seems. And it brought me to Meilyr Jones, who is Welsh. Given this quirk of nationality, the majority of coverage for his debut album came from the British press. If I only paid attention throughout the year, who knows what other music I might discover. Alas.

Perhaps Jones is taking lessons from Orson Welles.

Some albums are slow-burns that take a while to sink-in–several listens before I realize I like them. Not so with 2013. This record grabbed me from the outset with the driving snare-drum backbeat and blaring horns of opening track “How to Recognize a Work of Art.” The song digs into the value we place on authenticity and what happens when we perceive it is lacking:

“I take a picture, hold it up, to see the mark authentic authors leave on works of art. It’s not there, it’s a fake.”

2013 is pitched as a collection of songs meant to serve as an “anthology…of what happened to [Jones] in that year.” While that’s fairly flimsy as far as organizing concepts go, the end result is no less cohesive for it. The album is full of self-reflective statements that dwell on the art world and fleeting nature of fame. In “Featured Artist,” Jones begins as “the face of the Observer‘s free magazine” and ends in a lonely grave in Rome. Fleeting indeed.

Byron is pleased with his wavy locks.

Speaking of Rome, it dominates the lyrical geography, as it was a place that Jones traveled during 2013. And clearly, it made an impression on him. There is a song called “Rome,” the sound of Roman rain and birds, and a number of other references to the place. Somehow, Jones also managed to weave-in other famous figures who had “Roman periods.” Name-checking Byron and Berlioz in the same album might be too precious for some, but it feels natural in the context of this recording:

“When you caught my eyes: wavy hair like Byron, big nose, Berlioz.” from “Return to Life”

Berlioz is sad, wondering if everyone thinks he has a big nose.

Taking its cue from romantic era figures then, it’s little surprise that this is a romantic album. Passion, romance, self-inquiry, memory, and the glory of the natural world are all swirling around in here somewhere.

“Do I relive what I can’t repeat? … Love is left in memories, past illusions never to repeat it.” from “Passionate Friend”

Likewise, in “Don Juan,” which riffs on Byron’s alternative take on the legend (where Don Juan is a serial seducee, not seducer), Jones assumes the role, berating himself for his repeated failings. “Love is a weakness. Love is a curse. You think it’s getting better, but you’re making it worse–it’s called denial.”

Apparently, wandering above a sea of fog is quintessentially romantic.

It’s not only the lyrics that are awash in romanticism, but the arrangements as well. The album is full of sweeping strings, woodwinds, and more. Jones assembled his own 30-strong orchestra of friends for the recording. But there are also tracks with more “standard” pop band instrumentation. The album even features a few interstitial, mood-setting moments: the aforementioned sound of rain, birds chirping, a cavorting accordion. Overall, it comes together as some of the most detailed, inventive production I’ve heard on an indie pop album in a long time–there is always a little flourish or line that keeps the music in motion. I’m no Berlioz expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some of his musical quotations incorporated. At the very least, the album shares the sense of drama and propulsive energy that runs through a piece like Symphonie Fantastique

Aside from the brilliant arrangements, the sequencing of the tracks on 2013 is superb. The way the album flows from the orchestral to rock and back never feels jarring. It is all the more remarkable because it’s Jones’ debut solo album (though he was previously in the band, Race Horses). Normally, it takes a band an album or two to sound this assured, this fully-formed. It’s criminal that this record didn’t get more attention stateside. Maybe someday we’ll catch up and recognize greatness when it is upon us. Until then, 2013 has renewed my faith in my UK affinity and given me the strength to wade through 2017’s year-end lists when they arrive.