1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I love Kanye. I love his arrogance and unpredictability. I love his cartoon fun-fair hip-hop on his early albums. I love the sparse honesty of 808s & Heartbreaks. His habit of pissing people off is a testament to his insistence on telling it how he sees it. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s a breath of crazy, fresh air in an industry of shallow, meaningless posturing by ‘stars’ who are too afraid of blowing their fifteen minutes to step out of line. Hyper-confidence and bragging are part and parcel of the hip-hop game, but Kanye has always been more ambitious than most. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he raised the bar even higher, to a point where only he can realistically improve on it. The album is huge in its scope and delivery, not to mention cast. From Nicki Minaj’s mind-blowing verse on ‘Monster’ to Chris Rock’s inexplicable cringefest on ‘Blame Game’, the other contributors add to the theatrics of the whole album. But for all the special guests, Kanye towers over it all as the most ambitious of ringmasters. What really gets me about the album is that virtually everything on it sounds important. These aren’t just songs, these are statements. The brass on ‘All Of The Lights’, the chants on ‘Power’; these songs know how great they are and – like Kanye himself – are utterly unapologetic about this fact.
2. Yeasayer – ODD BLOOD
These days an album that captivates me in January and still demands regular listens as we near Christmas is a rare and wonderful thing. This time last year when the first trickles (‘Ambling Alp’ followed by ‘O.N.E.’) of Yeasayer’s second album emerged, I was totally taken by surprise. I had very little interest in their meandering debut album so was somewhat startled by the rambunctious confidence they added to their experimentation this time around. ODD BLOOD is an album stuffed to the gills with ideas and tracks that unfold to reveal more and more layers of brilliance. It’s wildly creative and thoroughly danceable and I don’t intend to give it a rest for quite some time.
3. Villagers – Becoming A Jackal
Has anybody pointed out what a strong year it’s been for Irish music yet? Oh. Right. Never mind then. For all the great music that came out of this godforsaken island in the past twelve months, it was the diminutive figure of Conor O’Brien who stood tallest amongst the international competition. The backing of a label like Domino helped no end, but with captivating performances like that Jools Holland appearance, you can see how the simple, heartfelt songs won over legions of fans. Relentless touring, snazzy videos, perfect diction, they did everything right and got their reward. The album is addictively good and one that will surely stand the test of time. Long after Ireland’s manufactured pop shame has been forgotten, this could be the album people point to as a representation of what was really going on in this generation.
4. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Scott Hutchinson has apparently promised to stop writing songs about girls for the next album. The subjects of love and loss have served Frightened Rabbit as well as it did most other songwriters over the years though. Their most recent effort is the soundtrack to the resurrection after the anger and misery of the previous album The Midnight Organ Fight. On The Winter of Mixed Drinks, the mood is more hopeful and at times even rejoiceful. The scope of the album’s sound though is what makes it such a rewarding listen. It’s not just that there isn’t a dud track on this album, it’s that virtually every song provides a riveting, soaring narrative that remains gripping from start to finish. This astounding album shows there’s life after heartbreak for Hutchinson and his band, we’ll just have to wait and see if the band can produce this kind of quality again without drawing on tales of love won and lost.
5. Beach House – Teen Dream
This album swooped in at the start of the year and carried us all away on spiralling guitar while Victoria LeGrand’s deep, haunting vocals provided the strangest comfort. The melodies on this album are as delicate as tissue paper and, from track to track, they weave together in a luscious dreamscape. From the slip-sliding opening of “Zebra” the whole album treads similar territory but it never feels repetitive or dull. Rather, the listener is more than content to set up camp within the cozy confines of their sound for as long as the band are willing to have them. Their grand, enveloping sound is so rich that one could be immersed in it indefinitely and really, I can think of worse ways to spend eternity.
6. Cathy Davey – The Nameless
Cathy Davey’s 3rd album proved what many had already believed: that she is one of Ireland’s great singular artists. Her sound owes much to vaudevillian spook but it is now entirely her own. This is the album in which Davey finally reached for the heights she knew she was capable of and succeeded. It’s a brave album that, for the most part, shuns the pop hits that catapulted her last album into the national consciousness. Here she strikes out in a new direction that satisfies her own creative thirst while keeping the dedicated listener enthralled. The album sounds like something that could have been recorded solely for the enjoyment of those that created it then left to gather dust in a closet in a haunted house. There is a timelessness in the sound they’ve created though that makes it consistently interesting and each listen brings you deeper into their world, where stories creep out of dark corners and songs seep in through the windows.
7. Sleigh Bells – Treats
POW! POW! These guys hit you hard and fast and don’t stop till you’ve come round to their way of thinking. Their way of thinking is that a guitar is a weapon and vocals are for drilling your point right into the listener’s temple. Treats, despite its title, is no easy listen. From the get go, it thrashes out vicious riffs and lunatic lyrics at high speed and higher volume. Theirs is an efficient working method, with most tracks clocking in at impressively brief lengths. There’s not a spare second left to waste on this record with clattering noise inhabiting every space imaginable. But for all the chaos, there’s plenty of melody here to grasp, with every track delivered with riotous glee and nonchalant venom.
8. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Without making reference to her age, the quality of Laura Marling’s output speaks for itself. Her debut album was a thing of immense promise and she more than followed through on that promise with this second album. I Speak Because I Can takes her carefully constructed lyrical charm and marries it with hugely improved instrumentation. The album sounds lived in and world weary, which is something I think most people can identify with. Across the album, there is a huge breadth of influences spanning decades – from old folk and blues to classic rock sensibilities and contemporary indie – that surround her powerful vocals. A commanding performer in a live setting, Marling has managed to bring her captivating personality into this record and give us something that will still sound impressive in years to come.
9. The National – High Violet
They’re crafty ones, The National. Everything they release seems to be slightly unimpressive on first listen but it always creeps up in your estimation as time goes by. Little snippets of songs wind up on repeat in your brain on any given day until eventually, you give in and accept that they’ve done it again and recorded a quite brilliant album. The problem with High Violet is not a lack of quality songs; there are many here. The problem is a lack of diversity in the sound throughout the album. The songs just sound too similar, to the point where, after countless listens, I still can’t identify all of them. This uniformity stops the album from being the standout record it should have been as it simply sounds like one long, if admittedly very good, track.
10. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Being hailed as the new Bob Dylan might be the kind of ill-advised praise that has been thrown about for years, but in the case of The Tallest Man On Earth, he seems not only to have the same style of wordplay but the wealth of lyrical riches to at least attempt to live up to such acclaim. On this, his second album, Kristian Mattson brings the razor sharp, crystal clear, breakneck speed guitar playing from his debut and adds a new broader range of vocal delivery and lyrical depth. Perhaps wary of the ‘one trick pony’ accusations, he even lays down his trusty six string for the final track, the piano-led “Kids On The Run”. Mattson brings greater emotion to his voice on this record and it’s much better for it. Listening to The Wild Hunt, it feels grand, bright and sprightly but there’s a tension in everything he does (if you’ve seen him live, you’ll know) that keeps the album teetering on the brink throughout.