The Black Keys – Turn Blue
After scratching just under the surface of chart success for about a decade, The Black Keys finally hit the big time around 2011 with El Camino, a foot-stomping, drumming-on-the-wheel, open top American road trip album if there ever was one. However, while their professional lives were soaring, their personal lives were coming off the rails – singer Dan Auerbach going through a messy divorce and drummer Pat Carney having new-found huge success overwhelm him to the extent he sought treatment from a hypnotist. Turn Blue channels this into a more “moody” album; finding a great, woozily psychadelic middle-ground between the vaguely glam rock stomp of El Camino and the atmospheric if often unremarkable bluesy rock of their earlier six albums. Nowhere else have they really produced a song like Weight of Love, an almost-seven-minute epic which moves from a long instrumental intro into a slow bluesy number and culminates in a wig-out of screaming guitars which Led Zeppelin would be proud of.
Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow
Bombay Bicycle Club returned in February, two and half years after A Different Kind of Fix, with a handful of new ideas to make this album their most successful (number 1) and probably their best. Frontman Jack Steadman wrote it having travelled to Europe, Turkey, India and Tokyo and, while it would be an exaggeration to call it ‘world music’, it does have definite nods to these expanded horizons, and mixes them with electronic and funk touches. (Their name, which came from a now-defunct chain of restaurants, actually arguably belied a fairly typical English guitar band sound in their early days – although to be fair they hadn’t even passed their GCSEs when they started out). Most notable is the Indian influence. Steadman stayed with an Indian studio owner for a month, the most obvious fruit of those labours being Feel, in which the band sample a 50s Bollywood film and make it their own. It’s confident and happy without being cheesy or sentimental – the sound of a bound coming of age.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
The War on Drugs finally got some – very deserved – acclaim this year with this album, two albums and over ten years after their first beginnings. ‘Lost in the Dream’ is an apposite name for the hazy, vaguely psychedelic Americana within. ‘The War on Drugs’, however, is not such an apt name, as it’s what you’d imagine Springsteen would sound like if he’d done some weed, chilled out a bit and stopped stressing about taking on The Man as just a Regular Joe from New Jersey. And brilliantly so.
Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
The fear – or mine at least – with Ben Howard’s second album was that, following impressive popularity for his fine first album Every Kingdom, he would move a bit more towards James Blunt territory with a mediocre stadium-filler. In fact, he’s moved the other way. I Forget Where We Were sees Howard explore far richer, more expansive terrain – only one of the ten songs comes in at under four minutes and three pass the six-minute mark – making a strong claim for him to be spoken of in the same breath as songwriters like Jeff Buckley and John Martyn.
Goat – Commune
I can understand why this African-electronic-rock-jazz-infused psychadelica has not reached a bigger audience, but that does not mean Goat’s relatively anonymity is merited – because they make such a thrilling, inventive mess of noise, with a refreshingly flagrant disregard for anyone’s neat little musical boxes (Yeasayer are probably their closest musical bedfellows). They hail from a small town in northern Sweden called Korpilombolo, which they claim has a long tradition of voodoo practice which have affected the music of the town and, in turn, their own. As Paul Lester writes in The Guardian, it’s probably rubbish, but the fact they even claim it is telling. The lead singer’s vocals may grate on some but – like fellow Swede from the not-dissimilar Knife, Karin Dreijer Anderssen – they have undeniable passion and give Goat’s music character. Anyway, they’re secondary really to the crazy musicianship.
FKA Twigs – LP1
Continuing the recent genre of ‘Noir & B’, which has included Weeknd, Kelela and Banks, FKA Twigs, this year brought us probably the weirdest, example of the sparse, ethereal marriage of R&B and electronica – adding some healthy dollops of Kate Bush and Bjork in the mix too. With her high-pitched, vaguely choral/classical voice – influenced from her time at a Catholic school – singing of things such as seducing another woman’s man (Two Weeks) and female masturbation (Kicks), it’s certainly the most NSFW. In the video for Two Weeks, which Guardian critic Kitty Empire described as “ecstatically filthy”, Tahliah Barnett sits on a chair, writhing around dressed and spray-painted as a golden Egyptian goddess as she pours milk from the end of her fingers on a submerged version of herself below, and sings: “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in.” (“If it’s a raw subject, I write lots of things and then pull out all the fluff words.”) Admittedly, some songs, with eery, dissonant, disconnected sounds, are arguably mood over music, but there’s so much vision and ambition. Robert Pattinson, her boyfriend, is a lucky guy.
SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land
Aaron Jerome – under his masked alter-ego of course – returned with his sophomore effort this year. Some of it works better than others, some of it is of the instrumental stuff is unremarkable and for my money his debut album is (marginally) better, but what’s impressive about it is its range and confidence (there’s 15 songs and 21 songs on the album and bonus album respectively, albeit a few small interludes). It covers similar soulful electronica with Sampha as the first (Temporary View), piano torch music (If It Happens), electro-funk (Gon Stay) and whatever the fuck New Dorp. New York, with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, is. It’s awfully pretentious to say music is a ‘journey’, but this album really is.
Royal Blood – Royal Blood
….On the other hand, Royal Blood are not a complicated band – two blokes, songs recorded in one take (mostly), ten songs over in just over 32 minutes…number one album. Thank you very much. But that’s testament to just how monstrous the hooks and riffs are, and perhaps a gap in the market for a band offering straight-up rawk, among indie bands with various pretensions and affectations. Bassist/singer Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher create a very loud and skuzzy sound you would expect to see in a darkened bar in a film as a fight between rival biker gangs breaks out. To the uninitiated, that will probably give a pretty good idea if you’ll like this album. I read one comment on their nomination for the Mercury Music Prize being like having a Mars bar as a dish on Masterchef. It’s a fair comment, but I still love it.
Jamie T – Carry on the Grudge
Jamie Treays compiled a whopping 180 songs since the release of Kings and Queens in 2009 to choose from for this album – and it shows, because this is an album of real class. It shows Jamie maturing with age, moments of light and dark, and touches of soul (Love Is Only a Heatbeat Away), funk (Trouble) and punk (Rabbit Hole, Peter) among his distinctive indie/ska.
Lykke Li – I Never Learn
It’s a surprise our love of all things Scandi has not translated to Lykke Li, her three albums having only reached numbers 112, 37 and 33 in the chart (compared to 3, 2 and 2 in her native Sweden). And it’s a shame too, as she makes some fine, alternative, emotional and grand pop music. But pop music with proper strings, piano, drums and guitar – it is to most current pop as a Michelin Star restaurant is to McDonalds.