This is terrible: for the first time in as long as I can remember the Sunday Telegraph hasn’t found space to run my records of the year. So here they are anyway. My taste is immaculate: you cannot go wrong. They’re in only rough order of preference, though the top five probably are my favourite top five. Enjoy!
The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love (Rough Trade) *****
Whaaaat? Can I really have given it just a miserly four stars when this came out? The Hazards Of Love is so totally my album of the year, imbued with the shades of all manner of leftfield Americana from early REM to Neutral Milk Hotel, but undoubtedly its main influence is the codpiece n beards hey nonny nonny of Seventies folk rock. Their pre-Raphaelite lyrics about maidens and mythical creatures are pure Fairport Convention; their light/shade dynamic of bucolic folk whimsy and heavy guitar breaks are echt Jethro Tull. It is, of course, an utter joy from start to finish.
Maps – Turning The Mind (Mute) *****
This offering from whispery-voiced Northampton DJ James Chapman came oh so close to knocking The Decemberists off their perch as most utterly essential purchase of the year. More than fulfilling the promise of last year’s We Can Create, it’s the missing link between the DIY electronica of Stereolab, the moodiness of Underworld, the epicness of epic trance, the drugginess of Spiritualised and the immense catchiness of the Pet Shop Boys. Possibly, there are some tiny weak moments but at its majestic best – Papercuts, especially – the only response is to prostrate yourself with awe.
Butcher Boy – React Or Die (How Does It Feel To Be Loved) *****
I’m worried that if I give it five stars you’ll go out and buy it and sniff: “Hmm. This is a bit slight” – because it does initially sound quite fey and fragile and it’s only a measly half hour long. Trust me, though, it’s a grower and a joy. Butcher Boy are fronted by a thirtysomething Scots poet named John Blair Hunt, whose sweet vocals, gnomic, off-kilter lyrics, neat, folk-tinged arrangements and restrained but gently lilting melodies call to mind Belle And Sebastian at their best.
Patrick Kelleher – You Look Cold (Osaka) *****
“Why does James always recommend music that makes you want to blow your brains out?” complains one of my Facebook friends. Because I’m a miserable bastard, obviously. But I do have immaculate taste and if you do too you’re going to love this Dublin-based bedroom DJ’s moody debut. It veers from morose James-Yorkston-type folk via eerie, distorted do-wop, to bleak Joy Division electronica to really quite heavy, brooding, urgent techno, all done with a fuzzy, home-made-on-cheap-instruments aesthetic. Not depressing, though, really, I promise. Just ruddy marvellous.
Wild Beasts – Two Dancers (Domino) *****
Leeds four-piece Wild Beasts aren’t much good at your catchy three-minute pop single. Their tracks meander slinkily and artily to some exceptionally Eighties sounding percussion and chimey guitars (and 80s production generally in fact) while the singer croons away in his odd falsetto. It’s like listening to the missing link between Antony and the Johnsons, the Associates and the Wedding Present, but in a good way obviously which is why I’ve given it five stars.
The xx – ‘xx’ (Young Turks) ****
Sparse, understated, and as jolly and lively as (and not dissimilar in sonic style to) Joy Division meeting Portishead on valium, this grows on you hugely with lovely, vaguely Lou-Reedy boy/girl duetting from songwriters Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. “Bedroom-reared concrete soul” it has been called. Oddly, they went to the same South London comprehensive – Elliot School – that gave us Burial, Hot Chip and Kieren Hebden. So if you want your kids to become electro-indie miserabilists, you know where to send ’em.
The Witch And The Robot – On Safari (Atic) ****
If you’re a fan of Love’s hippy classic Forever Changes, this delightfully authentic-sounding piece of retro psychedelic folk from a band of eccentrics from Ambleside ought to be just your cup of tea. I’m not totally sure about the spoken-word tale on the final track (another song would have been better), but for the most part it’s as if the years post 1967 – dig the twittery flute intro on track four, man – just never happened. Great tunes; lyrics at once bizarre and erudite, especially the song about the Beatification of St Thomas Aquinas; groovy arrangements.
The Veils – Sun Gangs (Rough Trade) ****
Led by Finn Andrews (whose dad was in XTC) the Veils get better and better. They started out as promising Morrissey impersonators hampered by thinnish material, they’ve now got a lot more sonically adventurous, sounding like a very pleasing cross between Talking Heads (but in a good way), the Smiths, the Doors, and Echo and The Bunnymen. Epic, tortured, doomy but most importantly catchy.
Calvin Harris – Ready For The Weekend (Sony) ****
“Embrace the cheese, my old mucker!” Such was my DJ chum Eddy Temple-Morris’s advice when I’d expressed doubts about the new Calvin Harris album’s borderline-handbag tendencies. And how right he was. The fly-eyed young Scotsman’s second album is one mighty slab of floorfilling summer fun: squelchily synthetic, and, yes, a bit girls-night-out-in Ibiza, but with some magnificent touches, such as the Radiohead-like guitar intro to Worst Day and his unusually attractive (for a DJ) vocals. Dance Wiv Me – his collaboration with Dizzee Rascal – is a work of such almighty genius I feel almost unworthy of dancing to it.
Jamie T – Kings and Queens (Virgin) ****
Jamie Treays’s second album is a real gem, and a huge improvement on the slightly whiney, irksome Mercury-nominated debut Panic Prevention. Of course one’s natural instinct is to loathe any friend of Lily Allen’s who raps a bit like The Streets, only with a black south London accent. But the hooks are way too strong, his compositions (a lot of them on acoustic guitar this time) too versatile – on Spider’s Web like a cross between the Kinks and Marc Bolan, on Emily’s Heart like Lloyd Cole, plus lots of urban beats – and his lyrics too pungent and potent for you not to succumb eventually.
Editors – In This Light And On This Evening (Kitchenware) ****
Finally they’ve done it. Up until now, I’ve always felt that Birmingham’s Editors were a squandered opportunity. They had the wonderfully rich, doomy baritone of Tom Smith; and both the Euro industrial portentousness and rainwashed miserablism of the bleaker end of late 70s/early 80s synthpop, but what they lacked was the conviction to be something a bit more exciting than Coldplay dressed in black. To those who criticise them for being just a modern update of John Carpenter, Kraftwerk and Joy Division, I say: “Well, Mozart was just a modern update of Bach.” A triumph!
Mumford And Sons – Sigh No More (Universal) ****
When I first heard this, I would have laid money on the fact these musicians all wore bushy beards and dungarees, lived in the backwoods somewhere in the Bible Belt and had all married their cousins. Not so. They’re a bunch of West London poshos – fronted by Laura Marling’s drummer/squeeze Marcus Mumford – who just happen to sound like a hugely authentic banjo-plucking, God-fearing, barnstorming yearningly emotional cross between early REM, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Pogues and every alt-country act you ever loved from Fleet Foxes to the more bearable end of Kings of Leon.
Florence And The Machine – Lungs (Island) ****
Until quite recently Florence Welch used to be our babysitter, but was obviously far too shy and modest ever to mention she was about to become the hottest property in weird, angry-girl pop, winning every best newcomer prize going and wowing audiences with her mighty tonsel power and insane charisma. Anyway, her debut has quite rightly made her enormous. It’s great – raw, gothic, bloody, strange but not in a way that’s going to put you off if you like a strong, catchy tune and the idea of a Kate Bush meets Bjork and Siouxie with the attitude of PJ Harvey, the cred of Sarf London and a judicious hint of posh then this will do you nicely. And live, she’s even better.
Trentemoller – Harbour Boat Trips (HFN Music) *****
Is there anyone out there with better musical taste than Danish DJ Anders Trentemoller? Not on the evidence of this truly awesome mix album whose sole duff truck – some arty French bird emoting drearily – serves only to emphasise how mightily gorgeous the rest is. The mood ranges from sinister folk of Gravenhurst and neo-psychedelia of Brian Jonestown Massacre to the pulsing techno of Muscleheads and an awesome cover with the Raveonettes of Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control. Most perfect downtempo compilation album you’re going to hear all year.
Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum (Columbia) ****
I’ve always loved Kasabian for not taking themselves too seriously and my only objection to their third album as that there’s a whiff of major-label-itis about it: sacrificing some of their shambolic, balls-out, hedonism to an excess of polish, sophistication and one slow number – Happiness – it almost nullifies their entire career. But not quite. These are minor quibbles about what is still essentially another great Kasabian album, with top floor-filling anthems, a sensibility between Oasis, the Prodigy and (this time) West Coast hippy rock and a greater willingness to experiment.
Nancy Elizabeth – Wrought Iron (Leaf) ****
One of my big musical treats of the year was catching Wigan multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Nancy Elizabeth at English-folk central, the ineffably odd Cecil Sharp House. It amazes me that such a great talent isn’t more widely known and adored. Her 2007 debut Battle And Victory is a gem I highly recommend – especially the liltingly infectious, hammer-dulcimer-enhanced I Used To Try, and this follow up is no less of a sly, subtle joy. This is melancholy, wistful, pared-down folk – like a cross between flintier, slowed-down Kate Bush and a less abrasive PJ Harvey – which really grows on you.
Franz Ferdinand – Blood (Domino) ****
Did I mention when I reviewed Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight how much it was crying out for a dance remix? Well if I didn’t, I meant to. This is it and it’s marvellous – knocking spots off the original album. Though it’s billed as a “dub” album – remixed by Dan Carey a student of the Mad Professor – it’s much more than just Franz Ferdinand with a skanking, boomy bassline tacked on. Some of it – notably Die On The Floor – tends towards the floor-filling clubland anthem, some towards the stoner chill-out. Almost enough to restore one’s faith in their precocious talent.
Little Boots – Hands (Atlantic) ****
Ten years ago pint-sized Blackpool lass Victoria Hesketh was rejected in auditions for X-Factor by Simon Cowell. Little Boots is her spectacular revenge: here she’s sounding very much like the new Kylie, with a similarly broad appeal extending from tweenagers (my kids were instantly smitten) through to gay clubs and even ageing musos like me. In places you could almost be listening to Goldfrapp, at others it teeters dangerously on the brink of Euro cheese, but the melodies are irresistible and the production as clever and sheeny as a Britney Spears record.
Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms (Peacefrog) ****
Patrick Watson and his band come from the same Montreal scene as Arcade Fire, but I much prefer them. I suppose the most obvious analogy is if Antony [and the Johnsons] Hegarty were to have made an album with late Radiohead – sweet, wistful, haunting vocals meets meandering, dreamy electronica – except it’s stranger and more complex than that with echoes of Michael Nyman, ghostly piano, shimmering strings, Tom-Waits-like waltzes, all very cleverly arranged with gorgeous bits of detail like when the balalaikas come in on the title track.