30. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
Following closely in the footsteps of Mumford & Sons (and their checkered-shirted, straw-in-mouthed imitators), came this Icelandic collective, banjoing and harmonising their way into charts and hearts. The whole scene has grown old quickly for some (including me a little, hence why Mumford & Sons’ second, similar to this, didn’t make the cut). But these guys kept it just fresh enough with a lot of energy and some memorable hooks.
29. Cat Power – Sun
‘That woman you’ve always heard of but never really got into’, Cat Power, real name Chan Marshall, returned this with a career high of no. 10 (on the Billboard chart). And it’s easy to see why, as it keeps her unique voice and personality but allies it to a more toe-tapping blend of vaguely electronic indie-folk.
28. The Maccabees – Given to the Wild
The quintessential indie boys from South London this returned with what was hailed as their career-defining album, it was certainly a step up from their previous two albums which largely seemed to pride themselves on their twee indie sensibility. The change works for the most part, as the usual tremulous vocals and fuller ‘stadium’ sound – and a dalliance, albeit slight, with some electronic touches – seemed to please fans and critics (it charted at number four and got a Mercury nod). Just don’t expect the ‘stadium’ tag to mean Foo Fighters.
27. The Staves – Dead & Born & Grown
These three sisters, the Staveley-Taylors, started off by playing open mics in between pints at their Watford local. But you wouldn’t guess it from their sound; sophisticated folk/country, lifted above the crowd by some superb voices and clever harmonies, that sounds, lyrically and sonically, like it hails from Houston, Texas. Pleasant but not revolutionary; one for mum for Christmas, in other words.
26. Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II – The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
While by pretty much all but his own estimations, this is not the great American rap album, it is certainly a solid one – ‘backpack hiphop’ that deals smartly with important issues of modern urban America, albeit with a slight tendency to paint Mr Fiasco as a kind of ghetto prophet – a kind of self-righteousness that may grate or alienate.
25. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Say what you like about marital break-up, it can certainly make for some great music. As here, as Mr White dissects the remains of his marriage to model Karen Elson. But this is no mopey break-up album (the two threw a joint, celebratory divorce party, and Elson appears here). It’s more an introspective but a fun post-marriage analysis, if you will, from a Gary Neville-like figure (a compliment, honest…) – potentially biased but not so, and scathingly honest.
24. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
She came from nowhere, everyone loved her, people found on she was a bit fake, and then people didn’t know what to think. To some, the fact that a boarding school-educated daughter of an dot.com investor called Elizabeth Woolridge Grant from upstate New York was so self-consciously recalling the seedy underbelly of California showed a fundamental lack of authenticity, rendering her schtick shallow melodrama. To others, it was a masterclass in stage persona, pop culture theatre; in the same vein as greats such as Madonna and Bowie. I was somewhere in between, but more inclined to the latter, enjoying the visuals and the catchy, yearning Americana (lite) balladry.
23. Norah Jones – Broken Little Hearts
With this new album and a surprisingly funny turn in TED, in which she joked of fucking a toy bear, the purveyor of quieter-than-thou pop-country went a little bit more edgy this year. OK, given her previous reputation, this may sound like infinitesimally faint praise to be damned with – but the reinvention this album transformed Ms Jones’ music from that which had an apparent sole purpose of being talked over at dinner parties, to smoky, noirish tales of love and loss one can imagine soundtracking the angst of a criminal in a Coen Brothers movie in a down-at-heel motel bar. Far more interesting than smoked salmon in Guildford, I’m sure you’ll agree.
22. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
At the ripe old age of 63, Bruce Springsteen returned (if indeed he ever left) for his seventeenth album this year, a massive Hyde Park show, and a lot of campaigning for Obama’s re-election. For a man who almost self-parodically sings of the hard-working heart and soul of America, he could certainly never be accused of not practising what he preaches. This album, released in March, is a typically classy offering of ‘dad rock’, lifted above the perfunctory with some soulful brass and piano flourishes, and one which, on repeat listening, has gained extra poignancy for how Romney and Obama so tirelessly campaigned for the swing vote in the type of everyman, hardscrabble smalltown America Bruce sings of (albeit on almost every song he’s ever written).
21. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg
Being hailed as ‘the next Dylan’ is enough to set anyone up for a fall. So it’s to this 18-year-old Nottingham lad’s credit that he has almost universally lived up to this billing with this self-titled debut, which manages to both sound authentically bluesy and rootsy and paint a vivid picture lyrically of the drab Clifton council estate of his childhood.
20. Calvin Harris – 18 Months
OK, so it’s hardly going to win any prizes for originality or depth, but Mr Harris has an almost unparalleled consistency for creating – as they say (or at least said) in the trade – bangers, and a seemingly endless contacts book, put very liberally to use here (it’s telling how mediocre the tracks with no featured artists are). 18 Months has dominated dancefloors, gym playlists and dancefloors alike for…well, around 18 months, and surely that’s got to be worth something. And can any other artist regularly create beats so big they are basically the chorus in themselves?
19. Chromatics – Kill For Love
After Ryan Gosling cruised and raced his way around Los Angeles to a soundtrack of moody, electronic-pop ballads in Drive last year, eighties music is officially cool again. Chromatics, with this their fourth album, profited (Tick of the Clock featured on the soundtrack), with probably their most acclaimed album to date – a bumper collection (16 track, 77 minutes) of brilliantly atmospheric, shoegazey synths and washed out vocals. And now you can pretend you’re an uber-cool stunt driver-cum-getaway driver-cum-hearthrob when listening to it, rather than navel-gazing bore.
18. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – Trouble
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – TEED for short – is one of those acts you probably unknowingly know. Their song Garden soundtracked the advertising campaign for the Nokia Lumia phone – and seemingly managed the feat of still sounding cool and uncompromised by the association. But Orlando Higginbottom is more than a one-hit-wonder, as shown by this collection of electronica that has appealed to many a raver and rocker (Damon Albarn is a big fan). Plus, he has some great hats.
17. Django Django – Django Django
How to describe the sound of this album?! This Mercury-nominated album seems to have had nearly all the tags under the sun thrown at it – electronic, indie, psychadelica and all manner nu-s, alt-s and proto-s. Unsurprisingly given the kitchen sink approach, it doesn’t all work – but it’s joyously anarchic when it does. And surely, in a world where Adele, Coldplay and co. are proclaimed the death of music, this should be applauded. But perhaps the best description of their sound is offered by VaporizerBrothers as the top comment on Storm: ‘Gonna come back to this when I’m high’.
16. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Geography teachers, as one critic claimed the lead singer of this unsurprisingly Alabaman band looks like, do not usually make the best rock stars. But she and the rest of Alabama Shakes have a sound right out of the classic stable of blues rock. It might not break the wheel, but it sounds like one of those albums the whole family could listen to and not be ashamed of – not an easy feat by any means, and one I think there’s something to be said for.
15. Santigold – Masters of My Make-Believe
While the Biebers and Rae Jepsens of this world continue to dominate the charts, a lot more interesting pop is being made at pop’s fringes; brilliant weird electronic stuff from Scandinavia courtesy of Lykke Li and Niki and the Dove, newcomers Haim with their sunny Californian Fleetwood Maccy pop; and Ms Santigold. It’s hard to describe exactly what she does, but it’s some sort of scratchy, frenetic blend of R&B, electronic and pop. That the American has here worked with everyone from Mrs Indie, Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame), to DJ and R&B super-producer Diplo, shows the breadth of this album. Maybe it’s actually for this reason – it’s determined resistance to be pigeonholed – that it’s had relatively little success, peaking at just 33 in the UK chart. Whatever it is, and whatever the reasons for its relative anonymity, it deserves a bigger audience.
14. Plan B – ill Manors
Say what you like about Mr Ben Drew, and much has been, but he’s certainly a smart cookie. After a no-holds-barred debut which was well-received critically but only mildly so commercially, he went away for four years and decided to make an album that would appeal to Radio 1, even Radio 2, listeners – which it duly did, going to number one and three times platinum and gaining good reviews -all so he had the platform that people would hear this, his unrelenting state-of-the-nation film and album. Some of those newer fans with gentler musical tastes may be turned off by this unrelenting return to his roots, but for those who persist it’s a good marriage of the two.
13. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
The year’s customary critics’ darlings were these Mercury Prize winners. The former Leeds Uni students introduced the UK to an esoteric brand of indie being touted as ‘folk-wave’ or ‘folk-tronica’, for their mix of Foals-esque intricate guitar riffs and ‘quiet bits’ with Joe Newman’s haunting/annoying falsetto, a little reminiscent of Wild Beasts’ frontman. It’s sometimes easier to appreciate than love – music for the head rather than the heart – but this listener’s warmed to it.
12. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Surprisingly, given the massive hype and the impressive mixtape Nostalgia/Ultra, this is actually Mr Ocean’s debut album. Helped by his controversial (in the rap world at least) declaration of a previous homosexuality relationship, which forms much of this album, Channel Orange garnered huge fanfare (though not to say the move was purely a PR stunt). It debuted at number two both sides of the Atlantic and earned rave reviews (an average of 92 on Metacritic). It’s certainly an accomplished album; a quintessentially modern soul record, with clever touches on all from funk to jazz, even to electronica on the outstanding Pyramids. Also, the album starts with the noise of the old Playstations firing up, which makes any male of my generation very happy (or me at least). Basically, it sounds like the record Marvin Gaye might make if born a few decades later and allowed to indulge his carefree hedonism. Yet for all its considerable merits, some of the tracks, to me at least, do feel a bit average – easier to admire than adore.
11. Lucy Rose – Like I Used To
Ok, so a new demure female twenty-somethings from the Home Counties (Camberley, Surrey) with a nice voice and a guitar is hardly, on paper at least, the most exciting thing in music at the moment. Indeed, Ms Rose is basically a carbon copy of Lucy Marling. Or Alas I Cannot Swim-era Laura Marling, anyway, before she got all mature and grown up (and, frankly, a little over-earnest and dull). Apart from the odd electronic flourish here, and slightly drummy bit there, Lucy Rose seems pretty ordinary – but she’s got a great way with a melody and a voice so lovely and beguiling even Abu Nasir or Voldemort might be won over. Or maybe that’s just this observer, who frankly is just a little besotted with Lucy (creepily so?) – and wants to join her in, just like she does in Scar,skimming stones, driving in an open-top vintage car, climbing in a treehouse and wondering around non-descript parts of London looking all indie ‘n’ that. And indulge in some of her home-made jam and tea she offers at gigs. The soppy twat that he is.
10. Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
Al Spx actually hails from suburban Toronto – but you would never guess it from her sublime, yearning voice, right out of the heart of the Midwest in the civil rights-era America. In the hands of most others, the songs here could be mediocre indie-folk fare, but thanks to her voice, and some lovely orchestral touches, they never are here.
9. Polica – Give You the Ghost
You know you’ve done well when you can count among your biggest fans both bedwetters’ fave, Mr Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) – “the best band I’ve ever heard” – and Mr Hip Hop, Jay-Z. But this seems strangely appropriate for this Minneapolis band, who create a cool, fittingly spectral sound out of auto-tune – like Bon Iver on much of his last album, reclaiming the studio trick from the likes of T-Pain and Cher – and who ally it to some unstoppably foot-tapping electronic/indie grooves which it’s not too outlandish to imagine Mister Zed might lay out a verse or two on.
8. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Since Prince, or whatever the hell he calls himself now, has been reduced to anaemic pastiches of his former genius in Mail on Sunday freebies, the mantle of recreating the pint-sized singer’s innovative brilliance has been taken up by Miguel (real name Miguel Pimentel). And this is what the Californian does on Kaleidoscope Dream – a fitting name for an album full of colour and fantasy – with Miguel’s soulful falsetto playing over a mix of piano, funky drum beats, and reverbed guitar. May not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, in short, smoother than Bond in a freshly pressed suited with a Martini in hand.
7. The xx – Coexist
Everyone’s favourite miserablists were back this year – fittingly, in September; heralding the post-Olympics malaise, the rain and the shorter nights. But the silver lining is that this is a fine soundtrack to ennui, successfully negotiating the ever-tricky path between heartbreak and warmth; introspection and connection. Some were slightly disappointed that it was not more of a departure, lyrically or sonically, from their sleeper-hit, self-titled first album, but there was some interesting electronic touches courtesy of uber-producer Jamie XX.
6. The Weeknd – Trilogy
It’s quite an achievement if you can unite self-styled hipsters and musos with the type of people who still buy Chris Brown records and for whom ‘YOLO’ is a regular (and unironic) part of their lexicon. But this is what the enigmatic Canadian Abel Tesfaye has done under his nom de Guerre, The Weeknd. This, as the name suggests, is a bumper collection of three albums, all released as free downloads over the last two years – The Weeknd being of a new brand of musicians confident/generous enough to give music away for free online. Perhaps because of this, though, the album in this physical form didn’t gain much fanfare here, debuting at only 37 in the UK chart, then quickly exiting it. Which is a shame, because for the price of a tenner it’s a very generous – and handsomely-presented – collection of Noir&B, as some have dubbed The Weeknd’s unique style; intoxicating nocturnal tales of love and lust set to a backdrop of atmospheric electronica mixed with R&B. Like Prince on the comedown from a wild, psychadelic night in some underground German techno club, as one observer put it – and if that doesn’t sell it to you, you either need to listen to vintage Prince or you’re never gonna be convinced…
5. Niki & the Dove – Instinct
Sweden has excelled itself of late in a distinctive brand of left-field indie-tronica, if you will, with the likes of Lykke Li, The Knife, Fever Ray, and this year, the latest on the sterling production line, Niki & The Dove. But – beneath all the weird strained vocals, visuals the Mighty Boost may turn down as too ridiculous and talk of being animals or musical instruments – this is, at its heart, just a great pop album, with echoes of everything from Fleetwood Mac to Prince.
4. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
Apparently, Hot Chip are trying to break America. Part of me hopes they make it because they are obviously nice blokes and they sure as hell deserve the success, but part of me hopes they don’t so we can claim the Putney lads as purely our own, free from the clutches of West Coast hipsters and young girls who have just discovered Deadmaus and David Guetta. Because they really are a national treasure, up there with the NHS, stamps, pints, Cornish pasties and John Motson with their quintessentially British warm eccentricity. Their fifth studio album, a tribute to staying young while growing up and getting married, has a few dull syrupy moments, but mostly shows the band at their best; making dance music for the hearts as well as the feet.
3. Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan appeared on the cover of this album, probably the most ambitious cover art of the year, naked, except for an unaware man draped artistically over her shoulder and modesty. The image signalled an album stripped a little of the mystical production and sometimes bizarre lyrical creations of her previous two albums, to reveal some truly great songwriting to orchestral and electronic instrumentation, like a great, modern-day Kate Bush.
2. Jessie Ware – Devotion
Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round), this North Londoner earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT. And it shows, as Ware mixes the best of modern production – synths, piano, guitar riffs and multi-layered vocals – with classic female soul singing, to create something sophisticated, sexy and catchy, and distinctly her own.
1. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe
The age-old adage ‘good things come to those who wait’ certainly holds true here. This is the soul artist’s first original material since 1994, and he’s certainly amassed some stories to tell in that time, with his diabetes and pneumonia, and subsequently getting colon cancer (thankfully since free from), in addition to controversially marrying Sam Cooke’s widow, a son committing suicide, frequent drug abuse and even more. This tells his many tales via is a superb blend of soul and electronic, which manages to combine the heart of the former with the innovation of the latter, produced with the magic touch of a certain Mr Albarn. So, not dissimilar from Jamie XX’s clever reworking of Gil Scott Heron (who features here too) on last year’s We’re New Here. With others such as James Blake and The Weeknd mixing classic soul with innovative modern production, let’s hope the trend doesn’t get old.