Thursday, 13 December 2012

My Favourite Albums of 2012 Part 1

I wasn't particularly optimistic at the start of the year, but 2012 has turned out to be quite a good year for new music. In fact I don't think I've heard and liked so much new music in one year since Spotify launched and changed my listening habits forever.

It was quite difficult to pick out which albums from this year have been my favourites, but I think I've finally narrowed things down. Note the distinction: favourites. I don't necessarily think these are the absolute, definitive, ten best albums from this year, just the ones I've enjoyed most.

Before we get to it, a few honourable mentions for albums that just fell short:

Wild Nothing - Nocturne: These guys sound like a band that've listened to a lot of New Order, gloomy baselines ahoy!
Grizzly Bear - Shields: The likes of "Yet Again" and "Sun In Your Eyes" are just irresistible.
Jack White - Blunderbuss: Possibly the most consistent record White has ever made.

So, onto numbers 10 to 6...

10. Jessie Ware - Devotion

Even more so than usual it seemed pop was a dirty word in 2012: a word which tarred you with the same brush as chart dross like Tulisa, Bieber and Wand Erection... sorry I mean One Direction. But if anyone proved pop shouldn't be a bad word this year, it was Jessie Ware.
A true class act in every sense of the word, this year saw the former Jack Penate and SBTRKT cohort step into the limelight with a smooth, thoroughly modern album mixing smooth RnB, heartfelt soul and lo-fi electronica. Her voice is undoubtedly the star on this record. Though not a woman without ambition (as she divulged in an interview with The Fly, "why do you think I wrote a song called Running in an Olympic year?"), the restraint she shows on songs such as the delightful "Night Light" as far as when here vocals should veer from ethereal to powerful is truly masterful.
Blows the pop "music" this other bird called Jessie makes right out of the water.


 9. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

Before the release of Channel Orange, the album, or more specifically its creator Frank Ocean, was making headlines around the world. Frank posted an extract from the album's sleeve notes on his Tumblr page and in the process came out as a gay man. It was a brave decision for a man who walked in circles which are often deemed macho-ist and at worst misogynist. That same bravery is reflected in this record and results in the record living up to the maelstrom of expectation Frank's open letter on his sexuality created.

Ocean delivers sugar sweet Stevie Wonder soul on ballads such as "Thinkin' 'Bout You" and "Forrest Gump", fuses modern day electro-funk and classic Prince on the likes of album centrepiece "Pyramids", and features top guest-spots from Earl Sweatshirt ("Super Rich Kids") and Andre 3000 ("Pink Matter").
As if there were any doubt Ocean was going to take off big time this year, he would give a star-making performance of "Bad Religion" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and take the song's tale of love unrequited to even further heights.
An album we'll be talking about for years to come.

8. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

Take four nerds from Leeds who uproot to Cambridge, add in obsessions with Luc Besson, Sergio Leone and Maurice Sendak, sprinkle smidgens of folk, Massive Attack style trip-hop, artsy keys and smart riffs and what do you get? This year's Mercury Prize winners, and a lo-fi indie delight.

With the appreciation of space of The XX but without the starkness, the occasional menace of James Blake without the occasional ear-piercing lack of comfort and the inventiveness of Wild Beasts but with added innocence ("Tessellate" is my new favourite euphemism), An Awesome Wave's diverse influences come together as an impressive whole. This album is far more approachable than its oddball mix of genres and approaches would suggest, and the bright and breezy (no pun intended) likes of "Something Good" will sneak up on you and stay in your head for weeks.

7. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar

I hadn't realised that Sweden had such a rich history in folk music until I read Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist. It's not a genre I'd necessarily have associated with Scandinavia, and yet in a crowded year for the genre Stockholm sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg - better known as First Aid Kit - produced an album that soared above the competition.

With the Mumford-driven folk explosion, a lot of fuss had been made over authenticity within the genre, or rather the lack of it due to people attempting twee for the sake of it being in vogue. The Lion's Roar immediately dispels any such questions about First Aid Kit. Right from the opening title track the sisters really excel with their rich vocals which have the strength of character such that the songs become all that more tangible. The relative bleakness of the lyrics ("Oh the bitter winds are coming in, and I'm already missing the summer.") are balanced out by the warmth of the melodies, tender guitar play and the sun-kissed production.

Oh, and just to add to their credentials, Conor bloomin' Oberst turns up on album closer "King Of The World". An inspired second album.

6. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball

Springsteen is a man who prides himself on being a musician who documents "the distance between the American dream and American reality". Bruce can certainly consider Wrecking Ball as being "mission accomplished" in that regard: an album which is very much reflective of the climate we are in today and is probably Bruce's most relevant and pertinent record since The Rising.

Taking inspiration from another great American story teller, Woody Guthrie, and the rebellious nature of Irish folk (most obviously evident on "Death To My Hometown"), Wrecking Ball is in essence a protest record reflecting Bruce's anger at those few that frittered away the money of the many in the Wall Street collapse and who still have not been made accountable for their actions. "Gamblin' man rolls the dice, workin' man pays the bills" ("Shackled And Drawn"), "Send the robber barons straight to hell" ("Death To My Hometown"), "If I had me a gun I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight" ("Jack Of All Trades"): safe to say, the bankers don't come off in a very good light in this album!

It would perhaps veer towards being a bit one-note, however the album is counter-balanced by a resilience of the characters in the songs despite the hard times. The title track, originally written to commemorate the now demolished Giants Stadium, is a perfect statement of defiance: "We know that come tomorrow, None of this will be here. So hold tight to your anger... And don’t fall to your fear". 
Closing tracks "Land Of Hope And Dreams" (an old E-Street standard dating from their first reunion in 1999, and featuring the dearly missed Clarence Clemons on saxophone) and "We Are Alive" (which lifts elements of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire") even find resilience in death: in the former by taking solace in the fact that your suffering in this life will be redeemed in the next, and in the latter rallying those passed on "to carry the fire and light the spark" and assuring them of their legacy ("It's only our bodies that betray us in the end").
Proof that even at 63, an angry Bruce can still muster one heck of a fight.