Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Discopop Directory: Top 10 albums of 2012

Happy New Year!

As 2012 disappears in the rear view mirror, I've tackled my iTunes library to see which albums I listened to most. There are a few surprises (I don't remember listening to this much Michael Kiwanuka) and some glaring omissions (Emeli Sande - presumably because she was on TV so often it rendered the album redundant).

But I am glad to say the Frank Ocean album didn't make the top 10 because, let's be honest, it's patchy and inconsistent and that Forrest Gump song is utter balls.

10) Jack White - Blunderbuss

Where would rock be without failed relationships? From Fleetwood Mac's Rumours to Amy Winehouse's Back To Black, other people's tragedies have inspired some of pop's best songs. Jack White is no exception - his break-up from Karen Elson fuelling his first solo album. It is by no means a coincidence that it's his best work since The White Stripes' Elephant.

"When they tell you that they just can't live without you," he sings at one point. "They ain't lyin', they'll take pieces of you". The lyrics on this album prompted one newspaper to write a hysterical rant about White's supposed misogyny. Admittedly, it seems cruel that he made his ex-wife sing the backing vocals, but there's more to this album than a crude hatred of women. Blunderbuss is blistering with hurt, fury and cynicism - and it's all the better for it.

9) Scissor Sisters - Magic Hour

"You may not hear this on MTV," sings Jake Shears on Best In Me. "No big deal. Fine by me." Sadly, he was right - programmers on radio and TV never really threw their weight behind this album, leading the band to announce they were going on "indefinite hiatus" at the end of the year. If Magic Hour proves to be their swansong, at least it was a good one. Highlights included the Neptunes-produced Inevitable and the sleazy Shady Love, featuring Azealia Banks.

8) Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

Proving that singing like Kermit The Frog needn't necessarily be a handicap, Alt-J walked away with the Mercury Prize in November. An Awesome Wave is one of those records that makes awards committees feel smart, with its intricate pararhythms, lyrics about maths, and a capella interludes. But it wears it lightly, burying all the trickery beneath some gorgeous tunes, in particular the hit single Tessellate. Which is about interlocking body parts, of course.

7) Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again

Poor old Michael Kiwanuka. A winner of numerous hyperbolic "sound of" polls in January, his profile seemed to flatline around Valentine's Day. He probably prefers it that way, though. Home Again is shot through with a sunny spirituality that megastardom would have destroyed... Listening back to the album this morning, I was struck by how the sepia-tinged Al Green grooves would have been the perfect soundtrack to the summer. If only we'd had one.

6) Grimes - Visions

Grimes is Canada's Claire Boucher, and Visions is her third album. It sounds so completely unlike anything else that critics all seemed to come unstuck trying to review it. "The sound of an internal war," said the NME. Pitchfork described it as "post-internet" and if you can work out what this reviewer (who actually uses the vomit-inducing phrase "wet dream pop") is on about, I will give you £10.

The Onion's AV Club got it right for me, calling the album "a cryptic blur of impressions" - capturing the way Boucher's floaty, ephemeral vocals and echo-drenched electro beats slowly coalesced into a work of sublime, unhinged genius.

5) Marina & The Diamonds - Electra Heart

Marina went off to LA to construct this album with top-flight songwriters like Greg Kurstin and Rick "Belinda Carlisle" Nowles and, by God, did it produce results. The first 30 minutes of the album are flawless - the best "side one" of the year.

Electra Heart was initially touted as a "concept" - something to do with American femme fatale archetypes - but, as Marina later confessed, all it's really about is "being young and being in love with someone who doesn't love you". It's the female counterpart to Jack White's break-up album - but with monstrous godzilla pop hooks destroying everything in their path. Awesome.

4) The Staves - Dead and Born and Grown

The Staves were my bandcrush of the year, even if everyone else ignored them (this album crept into the charts at number 42 for a single week). Three sisters from Watford, they perform bluegrass-inspired folk harmonies with unnerving clarity and beauty. Their debut album was produced by Ethan Johns (Laura Marling) and his dad Glyn (The Beatles) but all these veteran knob-twiddlers really had to do was sit back and let Staveley siblings sing. Uncluttered and beguiling, Dead And Born And Grown is like snuggling up under a warm duvet on a stormy night.

3) Regina Spektor - What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

At first it seemed underwhelming - Regina retreading old ground and even recycling old tunes (Ne Me Quitte Pas first appeared, in a very different guise, on 2002's Songs). But What We Saw From The Cheap Seats was one of those albums that kept calling me back. In particular, the heartbreaking ballad How, about fading memories of love, and All The Rowboats, written from the point of view of a painting in a museum. It's a subtle record, refining rather than reinventing Regina's style, but it will take root in your soul.

2) Jessie Ware - Devotion

People compared her to Sade. That was unfair. Jessie Ware's album had more blood and grit than anything Sade ever produced - from its rumbling sub bass, to the self-sacrifice in Taking In Water. The sensual Wildest Moments was my single of the year, while 110% is the best song about dancing on your own since Robyn's... Dancing On My Own.

One of the few R&B albums of the year to make any kind of attempt at melody, Devotion rivals Solange's Losing You in signposting where the genre should head in 2013.

1) Lana Del Rey - Paradise

What the top three albums on this list have in common is that the artist has carved out a sound that is instantly, undeniably their own. Lana Del Rey's debut album is equal parts 1950s torch songs, hip-hop insouciance, and the car crash scene from Great Gatsby. Half of the songs here wouldn't work if they were sung by a pitch-perfect X Factor melisma-meister - they need that louche, knowing wink that Lana delivers in her ridiculously affected drawl.

All the brouhaha about her "authenticity" seems ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight. In fact, the confidence and self-belief it took to construct Born To Die's noir pop aesthetic is more authentic than a million Jake Bugg albums. Oh, and the songs are amazing: Video Games, Off To The Races, National Anthem, Blue Jeans, Summertime Sadness. Brilliant work that reveals new secrets even on the 50th listen.

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