Here are my favourite albums of this year starting with the very best and working down towards the almost very best.
1. Touch and Flee - Neil Cowley Trio
The Neil Cowley Trio created one of my favourite albums of 2012 - The Face of Mount Molehill. Molehill, with it’s 30 piece string section, was a kitchen sink production with great big bells and whistles on it. This time out it seems that the trio have decided to take a slightly more pared down approach and many tracks here are more fragmentary, spaced out. It’s a less immediate album than previous but is all the more rewarding for it.
2. In Droplet Form - Stars in Battledress
This album was a total surprise to me. I heard “A Winning Decree” and thought it pretty enough in the manner of chamber music, but hardly exciting enough to quicken the heartbeat. I’m very glad I got hold of the album because it really is quite remarkable. The arrangements largely stick to piano, guitar and close harmony singing but the intricacy of those arrangements and the beauty of the melodies really bowled me over. Just listen to the capitalist satire Buy One Now or the folk-tinged Unmatchable Bride. It might not be rock and roll but it's like living in a beautiful Georgian mansion.
3. The Unravelling - Knifeworld
Kavus Torabi is a man of many bands, including Cardiacs and Gong, but Knifeworld is very much his own personal monster. Their previous album, Buried Alive, was an interesting record but lacked the killer thrust; The Unravelling is where it all comes together. It’s a swirling brew of prog and psych that never wanders too far without a killer riff or a pop hook - no mean feat. In fact it’s this amazing knack of weaving pop into the unlikeliest of musical settings that really shows that his professed adoration of Madness is no affectation - although you’re not going to find many lyrics about trousers or condoms here.
4. Lucid - Matt Stevens
One of my favourite albums from last year was Spooky Action by The Fierce and the Dead - well here’s their guitarist coming out for another solo voyage. Normally on Stevens solo albums he plays acoustic with loop pedals but this time the electric guitar is in greater evidence and often he has the backing of a full band. The end result has a bit more grit than his previous solo records but isn’t quite as ferocious as Spooky Action - and it turns out this is a very smart move. Lucid is an album where chiming guitars build tension only to launch King Crimson-like fusillades of noise.
5. Brill Bruisers - The New Pornographers
The New Pornos have been producing impeccable power pop about fifteen years now and amazingly they’re still able to pull rabbits out of hats. They seem incapable of making a bad album, and while this isn’t their greatest, it’s far from their least exciting releases either. If you’re new to the band then go and get Together or Electric Version - but for those of us already well versed in the wily ways of The New Pornos this is an enjoyable trip. I always look forward to the Dan Bejar songs on any new New Pornos record but this time they lack his usual spark. Carl Newman on the other hand still seems to able to write a floor stomping pop song at the drop of the hat, while still bringing out the unexpected, with Hi-Rise and Backstairs bringing something fresh to their catalogue.
6. BOSH! - Cleft
Out of the whole river of math rock that has washed through my home this past few years I really think Cleft is one of the most exciting bands around. They have ready access to something many of their colleagues struggle to find - joy. BOSH! is really infectious stuff and never allows it’s impeccable musicianship to get in the way of a good time. And go and see them live - they really can play this stuff.
7. Bleak Strategies - The Dowling Poole
Apparently Random Jon Poole and Willie Dowling met on a Ginger Wildheart session and immediately hit it off. The result is an album where every single song has more pop hooks than the ABBA Gold. It won’t change the world (they can leave that to Russell Brand) but it’s irresistible stuff.
8. SLUG / School of Language / Paul Smith & Peter Brewis
I might be cheating slightly here. Field Music, one of my favourite bands, didn’t release anything this year but the brothers Brewis did produce two albums and a stonking single.
SLUG is a solo project of their touring bass player Ian Black, which they’ve lovingly produced resulting in the single Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped in Plastic - listen to it and tell me that isn’t one of the best things you’ve heard all year. I saw SLUG play live previewing the album that will arrive next year and it all sounded fucking amazing.
School of Language is the side-project of David Brewis. He decided that for this SoL album he would go back to his first love - 80s electro funk. Oh dear. I suddenly had horrible memories in my head of Living in a Box and Curiosity Killed the Cat. I should’ve had more faith - Old Fears has some really terrific moments that are way up there with Field Music at their best.
Finally Peter Brewis worked with Maximo Park lead singer Paul Smith, converting some of Smith's poetry into songs. The poetic origins are sometimes quite evident but the rich and inventive string arrangements make this a pretty and playful collection that’s a joy to listen to.
9. Rave Tapes - Mogwai
I think Mogwai are a tremendous band but buying their latest album can sometimes feel like buying a remaster of your favourite record and finding it doesn’t sound much different. This can’t be said about Rave Tapes that really does feel like enough of a departure to inject some excitement, but not so much as to lose the magic. The main change is the extensive use of synths, very often leading the way rather than background textures. If you haven’t bought a Mogwai album in a while then this is worth a spin.
10. Black Moon Spell - King Tuff
This is the sound of Scooby Doo soundtracked by T-Rex. It’s irresistible bubblegum pop covered in fuzz. It’s a lot of fun - check it out.
I’ve been doing these top tens for years and I’ve never had a harder time deciding what should go on the top ten - there’s just been lots of great stuff.There were two albums I heard far too late to decide if they belonged in the top ten or not. La Isla Bonita by Deerhoof is already proving hugely enjoyable and I suspect that come mid-January I will regret not putting it on this list. [schack tati] by Mats/Morgan came into my life just two weeks ago and got even closer to being on this list when I just lost my nerve at the last minute - but it really is tremendous and very much worth your time if you fancy something melodic yet experimental.
There’s two other records that I feel bad about excluding. Fujiya and Miyagi released Artificial Sweeteners which I listened to a hell of a lot but when I came to compiling this top ten I just couldn’t convince myself to remove anything else to give it space. The album just doesn’t stand up as well as their two previous excellent records. Trojan Horse released their first album World Turned Upside Down and it’s great - inventive and with cunning twists and turns that make them a unique voice. So WTUD has a lot going for it and is worth your money and time - it just wasn’t consistent enough to make it on my top ten.
Happy new year!