John Grant – Queen of Denmark (Bella Union)
“I feel just like Sigourney Weaver/ when she had to kill those aliens”, sings the ex-vocalist of The Czars. We all do, John, and for expressing that eternal verity so perfectly in your honeyed baritone in this funny, messed-up, charming, endlessly beguiling collection of 70s-style folky, floaty, dreamy, trippy soft rock – with Midlake as backing band, no less – you win this year’s coveted top prize. Well, first-equal with Grasscut below.
(buy Queen of Denmark here)
Grasscut – 1 inch/1/2 Mile (Ninja Tune)
With Queen of Denmark this masterpiece by Brighton duo Andrew
Phillips and Marcus O’Dair is my most adored and played-to-death album
of the year, which is why it gets first equal prize. Imagine DJ Shadow
meeting Withnail & I in a Brighton bric a brac shop before making a
trippy excursion to the South Downs: samples of Chinese folk songs and
plummy- quavery-voiced old men meld with bleeps and shuffling hip hop
beats and pastoral melodies to create something poignant, beautiful,
nostalgic and quintessentially English.
(buy 1 inch/1/2 Mile here)
Caribou – Swim (City Slang)
Dan Snaith’s latest album will totally do your head in. Where it’s similarly brilliant predecessor Andorra was pastoral and gentle, this one is like a distillation of the very essence of classic, rave-era dance music, condensed into nine brilliantly realised tracks of, thought-provoking, intense, infinitely subtle, textured, techno genius. And he’s got a PhD in Maths, so he really is that clever.
(buy Swim here)
Phantom Band – The Wants (Chemikal Underground)
Think early Nick Cave’s gravel voiced Sturm und Drang meeting the mournful alt folk of The National with the proto-dance inventiveness of Krautrock in a forest of tuned percussion, fuzz guitars and medieval electronics. “What is this? Who are they?” your friends will ask. Epic, moody, poignant, swaggering, raw – but with naggingly lovely tunes – this Scottish sestet’s second album is the year’s dark horse.
(buy The Wants here)
First Aid Kit – The Big Black And The Blue (Jagadamba)
Cute sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg (16 and 19) became internet viral sensations with their artless cover of Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. Their debut album is even better: clear, penetrating vocals, the sweetest close harmonies, the most delicious country twang and gorgeous melodies, none of them predictable or samey – you’d swear they were from the Appalachian backwoods, not Sweden.
(buy The Big Black and Blue here)
Midlake – The Courage Of Others (Co Op)
It’s a measure of how stiff the competition is this year that an album this good can come so far down the list. With their twittery flutes and gentle harmonies, these melancholy Texans sing and strum as if we still lived in the era of the Laurel Canyon folkies, After The Goldrush and maybe a hint of Jethro Tull. Or The Decemberists meet Fleet Foxes if you prefer. And why not?
(buy The Courage Of Others here)
Robyn – Body Talk Pt 1 (Konichiwa)
Sweden’s Robyn Carlsson is the Madonna it’s safe to like. Her Scandi-pop melodies are so insanely catchy and the production so slick that it teeters perilously on the brink of Euro Cheese. But there’s a darkness, sadness, an edge of daring and invention too, in this richly varied and intensely more-ish album that make you realise: “No. This record is genius!”
(buy Body Talk Pt 1 here)
Husky Rescue – Ship of Light (Catskills)
More essence of Scandi-pop perfection, this time from Helsinki’s Husky Rescue whose gloriously catchy third album strikes a perfect balance between radio-friendly melodic jauntiness and fragile, yearning melancholy. Reeta-Leena Korhola’s fragile, tender bitter sweet vocals add a fairy tale magic. Live, the band resemble a glorious cross between Joy Division and a Seventies porn movie.
(buy Ship of Light here)
Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM (Because Music)
Don’t expect instant fireworks: this is a slow burn grower, sweetly folky and Francoise Hardy in places, lightly industrial and post-rave in others, with a slightly shambolic, small-hours feel. That’ll be the influence of Beck who produced and co-wrote the songs, based on fragmentary lyrics suggested by Gainsbourg. An odd couple but a match made in heaven.
(buy IRM here)
UNKLE – Where Did The Night Fall (Surrender All)
Like you, probably, I’d rather written off James Lavelle’s UNKLE project as a tired throwback to the days when you could talk of “trip-hop” without inverted commas. But this is a cornucopia of pulsing, trippy, beat-driven tracks ranging in style from psychedelia to afrobeat, and fronted by sundry cultish vocalists from South’s Joel Cadbury and Autolux’s Elle J to mister gravel larynx himself Mark Lanegan. Every one’s a winner.
(buy Where Did The Night Fall here)
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Yeah, like Kanye West needs the extra sales or the publicity. But I can’t not include this record because it’s so preposterously awesome: a towering confection of overblown hip hop egoism, polished by ten of the world’s top producers and featuring everything from Elton John to Bon Iver and La Roux, with influences from King Crimson to Aphex Twin. It’s really, REALLY good.
(buy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy here)