6. Before Today – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
For years shampoo-avoider Ariel Pink recorded his songs seemingly using masking tape, a coat hanger, a toy guitar with one string and a bar of soap. Or something. His early recordings made that album Devendra Banhart recorded on people’s answering machines sound like it was produced by Stuart Price. So, it was somewhat of a surprise when Before Today emerged, loaded with lyrics you could actually make out and a production technique that wasn’t ‘bury everything as low in the mix as possible’. It’s an album that takes its cues from just about every decade since the ’60s, with psychedelica rubbing shoulders with ’80s teen movie soundtrack songs and ’90s grunge. The centrepiece is Round and Round, a song so good it somehow sounds like Michael Jackson fronting The Lemonheads in the early 1970s. Elsewhere, Beverly Kills and Fright Night (Nevermore) are delirious synthpop, Little Wig is a more stoned Super Furry Animals and Bright Lit Blue Skies the most joyous thing you’ll hear all year.
Best track: ‘Round and Round’
7. Crazy For You – Best Coast
Sometimes all it takes is a simple pop song. Best Coast – aka singer/guitarist Bethany Consentino and bassist Bobb Bruno – aren’t going to change your world or make you re-evaluate the core values of music as a means of entertainment, instead they’ve made a debut album loaded with near-perfect indie-pop. These are songs that serve up three-courses of melody goodness with an extra side order of melody and a sweet melody coli. Added to that melodic meal is an extra helping of that other vital pop ingredient; sadness. The songs may be sun-kissed and perky on the surface, but beneath the fixed grin is a slightly broken heart. The brilliant ‘Boyfriend’ is a tale of longing at the one that got away, ‘Goodbye’ an ode to loneliness whilst the gorgeous ‘Our Deal’ bands about lyrics as sad as “when you leave me, you take away everything” like there’s no tomorrow. Crazy For You is so good that they even got away with leaving off the brilliant early single, ‘When I’m With You’. In your face blog-buzz-single-only haters!
Best track: ‘Boyfriend’
8. Rivers – Wildbirds & Peacedrums
Originally released as two separate EPs, Retina and Iris, Rivers saw the two put together into one 45-minute long album of creeping chamber pop. Recorded in Iceland with Bjork collaborator Valgeir Sigurosson, the former features an Icelandic choir adding texture to Andreas Werliin’s heartbeat drumming and wife Mariam’s emotionally swollen vocals. Tracks like ‘Fight For Me’ and the opening ‘Bleed Like Their Was No Other Flood’ work brilliantly because at their core is an acute understanding of dynamics. They build slowly, carefully, letting a new layer reveal itself at the perfect moment, before retreating. Iris, however, strips everything back to Mariam’s steel drums and Andreas’ cymbal splashes, but it’s no less devastating. ‘The Drop’ in particular is gorgeously affecting, Mariam sounding particularly crushed as she sighs “I’ve suddenly been left all alone, like waking up in a foreign country”. Like all good bands they build their own world around them and listening to their albums is an invitation into that world, no matter how briefly. They’re also one of the best live bands on the planet, real talk.
Best track: ‘Bleed Like There Was No Other Flood’
9. Have One On Me – Joanna Newsom
In an age where mini-albums and single track downloads rule the roost, it’s something of a novelty to be presented with a triple album featuring eighteen tracks, many of which sail past the seven-minute mark. Never one to present the obvious, Joanna Newsom’s third album may have toned down the vocal eccentricities slightly, but it’s also musically far more interesting. ‘Good Intentions Paving Co.’, for example, is all intricate percussion and jaunty piano, whilst the regal ‘Kingfisher’ rides a bed of medieval drums, piercing strings and delicate harp. Amongst the meandering, constantly evolving tracks there are devastating moments of simplicity. ’81’ is just Newsom’s unique vocal and a harp, it’s re-imagining of Eden lyric unfurling itself in the most delicate of ways, whilst the short ‘On A Good Day’ may well be the best thing she’s done. It takes patience of course, but Have One On Me is the perfect soundtrack to a lazy Sunday wrapped up against the cold outside.
Best track: ’81’
10. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West
The original title for Kanye West’s fifth album was due to be Good Ass Job, a continuation of the theme set out by by his first three albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation). But, after 2008’s minimal and pleasingly out-of-step 808s & Heartbreaks, it would have seemed perverse for him to look back or link back to those albums in anyway. By wiping the slate clean and testing new waters – 808s was brittle doom-pop – West was now free to indulge that almighty ego still further. It was an ego bruised by the backlash to his Taylor Swift attempted robbery, an event fuelled by alcohol and – one can surmise – the fall-out from the death of his mother and the end of a long-term relationship. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is just that, a dense, typically OTT insight into the mind of a man pulled between roaring egomania and a desire to be loved. The plaintive Aphex Twin-sampling ‘Blame Game’ veers constantly from apology to apoplectic, whilst the single ‘Runaway’ features a line so crushing you worry for the man’s health; “Never was much of a romantic, I could never take the intimacy, and I know it did damage, ’cause the look in your eyes is killing me…I don’t know how I’m gonna manage if one day you just up and leave”. Elsewhere, ‘All Of The Lights’ is pop gone maximal, with a chorus of about forty famous people yelling over horn blasts and a head-spinning beat. All this and we haven’t even mentioned Nicki Minaj‘s ridonkulous guest verse on ‘Monster’ or Bon Iver crooning mournfully over the emotionally bare, ‘Lost In The World’. An album to get lost in.
Best track: ‘Runaway’