Happy New Year folks. Dramatic Internet issues in late 2012/early 2013 has delayed this somewhat, so sorry about that. I thought I would embed the entire album for each of the top 10. How about that then? Also see the footnote below, regarding some of the other albums that didn’t make the top 20, but have still made very good listening this year. So here we are: numbers 10-1.
10: Alabama Shakes – “Boys and Girls”. Having closely monitored this band, since August 2011, I am thrilled to buttons that the release of their debut album has made such an impact this year. Not that they have produced a new innovate sound, but that there vintage country rock soul blues knees up hootenanny sound about partying, loving, fucking and fighting has a tremendous energy and grit with Brittany Howard’s drawl and prowess to croon and snarl with the greatest ease. “Hold on”, “Heartbreaker” “You Ain’t Alone” “Hang Loose” and “Boys and Girls” will give you a sense of what this lot are all about for starters. Not to be missed, and the next stage is to try and catch these cats live, where the party will undoubtedly come to life even more. So get down and sweaty at your nearest barn dance, grab a beer, and your partner and enjoy this, boys and girls.
“Oh why can’t you see/that I’m not trying to be/No kind of bother/I’m just trying to save what was left between you and me”
9: Paul Banks – “Banks”. Having set aside his Julian Plenti moniker, the release of Paul Bank’s new solo album under his own name hears a fresh selection of sound and influences. With one of the most interesting voices in music, it’s impossible not to associate the Interpol front man with… Interpol, surprisingly. Just as well I love Interpol then. Yet “Banks” cements Banks as a solo artist of his own accord, with an awakening of swelling guitar lines and beautiful arrangements. He sings about the passing of time and missed opportunities (“Over My Shoulder” and “Young Again”) but also interspersed with hope and optimism (“Arise, Awake” and “Summertime is Coming”). As well as an insanely intense instrumental “Lisbon”, the album boasts “The Base”, one of the best tracks I’ve heard this year. The guitar hook alone, will make you melt, but the four plus layers to this song with bass, violins and keys blending beautifully together as Banks hypnotic tones sets fire to this delightful solo effort.
“Now and then I can see the truth above the lies/Now and then, oh I feel, you’re truly anesthetised”
8: Bat for Lashes – “The Haunted Man”. Natasha Khan’s highly anticipated third outing draws on a variety of influences. The connections to Bjork have been abundant since the release of “Fur and Gold”, but the spirits of Bush, Harvey, Smith, Joplin, Goldfrapp and Merchant shine through in this LP. Khan, while wearing these icons on one sleeve demonstrates her most compelling music to date up the other. Naked album sleeve aside, the tracks are striking in themselves, each offering a different sound and energy. “All Your Gold” – an angry and relentless tribal drum backed with spooky synth and an increasingly powerful set of Khaaaaaaaaaan lungs. Compare this with the stripped back (naked almost) “Laura”: one piano, one voice (and a few horns here and there) – heart wrenching and beautiful, it remains a simple but no less startling single. “Winter Fields” hears her sing fondly of her roots on the Sussex Coast, filled with a complex arrangement by contrast, with pipes, violins and some mega bass drum action, while “Marilyn” and “Rest Your Head” (the latter is very Kate Bush) are both awesome examples of Khan’s abilities to deliver some seriously intense rhythmic synth pop. The Haunted Man” is a slick and rich return to the fray for Bat For Lashes.
“Drape your arms around me and softly say/Can we dance upon the tables again?”
7: The xx – “Coexist”. It was always going to be difficult for any band, let alone The xx, to top their masterful debut, and let’s be clear, while “Coexist” certainly is not an improvement, it delicately demonstrates a quiet and subtle evolution. Lyrically, the subject of love loss and separation is evident, sung to breathtaking perfection by Romy Madly Croft and the increasingly prominent and confident Oliver Sim. Working tirelessly in the background, Jamie Smith offers, at times, less minimal and more BPM on tracks like “Ficton” and “Sunset”, just one glimmer of the band’s tantalising progression. The electrifying signature suspense of their sonic soundscaping (too much) remain with “Missing” and “Unfold” offering us “oh classic xx darling, classic”, not to mention that xx guitar sound which cannot and must not be replicated elsewhere on “Angels” and “Reunion” (the latter featuring a fetching set of steel drums, no less). Aesthetically pleasing on the ears, and rich in atmosphere, The xx are going to keep on doing this, you know that right?
“I always thought it was sad/The way we act like strangers/After all that we had/We act like we had never met”
6: Richard Hawley – “Standing at the Sky’s Edge”. Holy hell, Richard. A storm. A beautiful, dark shimmering storm thou hath released. Hawley embarks on a dramatic departure from the likes of “Trueloves Gutter” with an explosion of euphoric noise, psychedelic reverb and wavy Eastern strings and drones. This album has to be played extremely loud. Sky’s Edge hears a tremendous release of energy with Hawley breaking out some serious amps and mega power chords. The anger on tracks such as “Down in the Woods” seems removed from the soft crooning seductions we know and love. The psychedelic “She Brings the Sunlight” is a wonderful opener, that slowly builds and builds, and a strong indication of the album’s direction, but Hawelites will be pleased that a couple of familiar sounding tracks exist on “Seek It” and “Before”. Interestingly, “Don’t Stare At The Sun” bridges the gap between the two styles very well, containing one of the sweetest melodies you’ll hear this year (and the guitar line at 4.30 is just epic). The title track as with most of the album also proves once again that Hawley can tell a good story. In that familiar, comforting, rich baritone, Hawley offers us ominous tales of love, loss, redemption, anger, hatred and outer body experiences, making it a certain highlight this year.
“He was standing at the sky’s edge/And out there who knows what he’s thinking/He was sliding down the razor’s edge/And watched his life slowly sinking”
5: We Are Augustines – “Rise Ye Sunken Ships”. Nothing has come close to capturing such a euphoric sadness than the debut offering from Brooklyn’s We Are Augustines. It’s proper heart on sleeve music, as Billy McCarthy and Eric Sanderson channel their similar traumatic family upbringings, with the main subjects surrounding McCarthy’s schizophrenic and institutionalised brother, James (who killed himself during recording) and alcoholic mother (who died in a homeless shelter when McCarthy was nineteen). He also never met his father, so one can see that life hasn’t been too kind on McCarthy. Unlike albums, which centre around heartbreak, and remain focussed on the tragedy itself, “Rise Ye Sunken Shapes” is more exultant and seeks redemption, and focuses on hope through lively guitar lines, propulsive drums and strained, howled vocals. “Book Of James” is heart-wrenching account of a moment between Billy and James, while “Headlong into the Abyss” sounds like the car journey Billy drives to rescue his brother, his voice hoarse as if about to, or having just cried his eyes out. All songs conclude with a sense of light at the end of a murky tunnel, even “The Instrumental” which tales off the album. This will really have a go at your heart, and has done so to mine throughout the year (Note: the UK release was 2012, despite it coming out in the US in 2011).
“Well call the police, go ahead call your shrink/Call whoever you want but I won’t stop the car/Well call the police, go ahead call your priest/Call whoever you want, call in the National Guard”
4: Grizzly Bear – “Shields”. Oh sweet hells yeah. The triumphant return of Grizzly Bear was joyful this year. The General Managers’ of Expectations, the album is a chaotic departure from “Veckatimest” and utterly enthralling. Flourishes of the word of the year (or so it would seem for these past two posts) psychedelica and distortion, stamped with classic Bear manoeuvres like Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste’s melting falsetto harmonies, as well as the inventive fusion of folk and pop. “A Simple Answer” is delightful, marching and upbeat, while “Yet Again” is about as pop as the band will go, and stands out as one of the best songs I’ve heard this year, from start to end, this is quite special. “Gun Shy” is awesome and demonstrates an inventive variety of instruments and shimmers along a hallucinogenic trip, while the concluding songs “Half-Gate” and “Sun In Your Eyes” are both wonderfully expansive and comforting. “Shields”, demonstrates the band’s relentless energy and craft, combining familiarity with new directions. “And I can’t help myself” sings Rossen on the swirly soundscape of opener “Sleeping Ute”. It’s a powerful return to the fore, as I wrote here.
“The sky keeps staring at me/Frozen in my tracks/Nothing else to see/And when I move my face left/You’re always standing there/A shadow I can’t see/And even then I can’t trace/You’re walking away”
3: Django Django – “Django Django”. Trendy trippy time-warped avant-garde robot psychedelic (!) rattle and roll science fiction cowboy pop – in sum. From intense harmonies, tickly guitar, glitches, blips, synth and tribal drumming, this fine debut offers much. “Default” will seal the deal with a choppy guitar line that goes straight into your eardrums. In fact the whole album is toe-tapping and infectious, full of irresistible and rhythm centric melodies. “Waveforms” captures the essence of the band’s creativity, a whirlpool of sound and inventiveness exploding from one’s speakers, but the menacing opening to “WOR” – the first song I heard way back in September 2011 gripped me into a Django death grip. “Firewater” and “Love’s Dart”, provide further proof of a band pushing boundaries with this confident and heady eponymous debut, and well worthy as one of the innovators of 2012.
“Take one for the team/You’re a cog in the machine/It’s like a default”
2: Alt-J – “An Awesome Wave”. What a fitting name for an album. Alt-J have taken over this year, with a debut to savour. Worthy winners of a strong shortlist of Mercury nominees, the band from Leeds and or Cambridge have demonstrated an endless cascading creativity and a sign of change (literally: ∆). Intelligent, sophisticated lyrics are matched with an exciting variety of sounds, samples and instruments. The music is an exciting concoction, which often builds from a quiet intensity to an explosion of electricity and passion. There is a lot going on, but rather than overwhelming, it is absorbing. You can dance to this; you can sit on a beanbag; wake up or fall asleep to the likes of “Tessellate” or “Matilda”. The energetic “Fitzpleasure” or “Breezeblocks” cemented their name on blogs, and began the hype, and rightly so, but the brilliance of the ‘folkstep’ “Dissolve Me” and “Taro” must be experienced. Each song offers something different, maintaining the album’s elegance. References to life experiences abound from childhood (special mention must be made to “Where the Wild Things Are” on “Fitzpleasure), escapism, love, passion and loss. Alt-J have successful produced one of the most rewarding sounds of recent times, and we can only wait for more.
“She bruises, coughs, she splutters pistol shots/ But hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks/She’s morphine, queen of my vaccine, my love, my love, love, love”
1: Beach House – “Bloom”. Every now and then, you need to remain loyal to those you love. Despite Django Django and Alt-J, producing two innovative sounds in 2012, my soul became entombed to the sounds of Beach House and their fourth album “Bloom”. It is impossible for me to not to love this album, and while you may think that I’m not looking at this objectively, and I’ve not given the nineteen who preceded any justice because of bias or blind loyalty, you’re probably right. The album remains fixed in its dreamy ways, but delightfully sees an added texture, not previously heard in Beach House records. The husky vocals and epic lungs attached to Victoria Legrand are matched with a spine-tingling combination of synth and shimmering guitar from Alex Scally. Yet closer inspection reveals more surface and layers to their music, including some seriously heartfelt lyrics, an aspect often overlooked on dream-pop as a genre. From opener and soothing “Myth”: “You can’t keep hanging on, to all that’s dead and gone” to “Troublemaker” both discloses a fading relationship: “In the night we stick together/the walls are shaking in their skin” while “Wild” takes your breath aware, with surprisingly brazen guitar from Scally and lyrics such as: “Our father won’t come home/Because he’s seeing double”. Each song contains flickerings of utter beauty, and is difficult to isolate individual songs which make the album complete and oh so charming. The songs are tightly woven to work off or through each other, and indeed the ways in which each song could probably tumble on forever, is certainly no coincidence. Filled with an atmosphere suitable for all occasions, Legrand and Scally have produced their most complete albums to date. You could spend an eternity listening to it, and it might feel like time has suspended itself on your behalf. There is something entirely comforting about a band who continue to do what they do, so very well and as closer “Irene” suggests, Beach House selflessly create a “strange paradise” for us all.
“All I wanted, comes in colours/Vanish everyday/I keep these promises, these promises/ Stranger things will come before you/Always out of the way/We keep these promises, these promises”
And that’s the year that was. I’ve already heard some forum murmurings about the sort of comebacks, which may be gracing us for 2013, as well as some breakthrough artists to enjoy, so I confidently look forward to what the year holds in store. Well done, 2012, you did me proud. Be sure to check out Radio Juan shortly for more on the top 10 albums.
Footnote: Those who didn’t, but deserve mention:
Jesse Ware – “Devotion”
The Black Keys – “El Camino”
Best Coast – “The Only Place”
Friends – “Mainfest!”
Dogtanion – “Japan”
First Aid Kit – “The Lion’s Roar”
Tame Impala – “Lonerism”
The Maccabees – “Given to The Wild”
Beth Jean Houghton And The Hooves of Destiny – “Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose”
Paul Weller – “Sonik Kicks”