The best album of 2013 so far? There are some strong contenders. Vampire Weekend’s inventive CD. Surprise returns by David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine. Laura Marling’s latest. Laura Mvula’s debut.
One name that has been on nobody’s lips -- so far -- is the Pet Shop Boys. “Electric” is an unlikely turnaround, a masterclass in dance which beats everything else, including Daft Punk with its summer hit “Get Lucky.”
The U.K. duo was all but written off as a 1980s relic after last year’s “Elysium,” a downbeat end to a 28-year contract with Parlophone.
Stung by criticism, the Boys return to their disco best with Stuart Price producing. They give the single “Axis” a pulsating synthesizer sound like “Heart” in 1988.
“The Last to Die” reworks Bruce Springsteen’s potentially naive anti-war rant into something ironic and questioning. The lines “die for a mistake, whose blood will spill, whose heart will break” are sugared by the seductive melody. Rating: *****.
The Boys’ reappearance threatens to rain on Jay Z’s parade. His “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” is better than the Gatsby soundtrack. It has as many stars in support, including his wife Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and the excellent Frank Ocean. Yet a lot of good names and expensive production don’t ensure magic.
His endless boasting irritates faster than it takes to start a Veyron: “Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel, I just wanna live life colossal.” Rating: **.
Like the Pet Shop Boys, Rod Stewart looked to be past his sell-by date. While the “Great American Songbook” series of cover versions and a Christmas disc has made the last decade his most commercially successful, it’s been some 12 years since his collection of new material.
“Time” is no embarrassing joke and his first U.K. chart-topping LP in 30 years. Of course it’s not as good as his 1970s peak, “Every Picture Tells a Story.” It’s a safe bet that he’s well on his way to being Sir Rod. He just needs to make a few stripped-down Rick Rubin-style records to become an elder statesman of rock. Rating: ***.
Other British 1980s synth bands are following the Pet Shop Boys in making a comeback. Leaving aside Depeche Mode, who never really went away, this year has seen a workmanlike album by OMD, “English Electric.” Rating: ***.
“Hearts and Knives” is the first new disc in 29 years from Visage. I was always amused by Visage singer Steve Strange, who I saw one morning in a London shop wearing his full nightclub regalia and makeup. He told the surprised shopkeeper: “I’m always on stage.” It’s good to have him back, though this isn’t a patch on past glories. Rating: **.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include James Clash on adventure, Warwick Thompson on London theater, Laurie Muchnick on books and Stephanie Green’s Scene in D.C.