Father John Misty – Fear Fun

So, it turns out that the chap who quietly drummed for Fleet Foxes – and made morbid country music as J. Tillman – is actually a showman full of charm, humour and swagger. Confessing that he was on auto-pilot, Josh Tillman packed in the band gig, headed out on the road with some hallucinogens, ending up in a shack in Laurel Canyon attempting to write a novel. That never quite worked out but the experiences came together on Fear Fun, his first record under the name Father John Misty.

A personal – yet dripping in irony – record that’s full of west coast pop, folk and country music, Fear Fun is kind of a cross between Neil Young and Harry Nilsson, writing songs which touch on sex, death, drugs, Hollywood and all points in between. It’s never anything less than brilliant at all times, from the disco-tinged ‘Nancy, From Now On’, the raucous country stomp of ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ which threatens to fly apart at any moment while squeezing in references to talking dogs, Canadian shamans, Young, Heidegger and Sartre, or the truly touching ballad ‘Everyman Needs a Companion’ where Tillman explains how he ended up here: “Joseph Campbell, and the Rolling Stones/Couldn’t give me a myth/So I had to write my own/Like I’m hung up on religion/Though I know it’s a waste/I never liked the name Joshua/I got tired of being J”. Tillman sings “Let’s just call this what it is” on his scathing and honest look at music-making ‘Now I’m Learning to Love the War’, and we should recognise Fear Fun for what it is: the best record to come out of Laurel Canyon for a long, long time.
- Andrew Hannah

El Perro Del Mar – Pale Fire

Some artists revel in the little details, digging into life’s minutiae in search of unexpected meaning. Others turn their eyes away from the street and cast them towards the sky, sparring with grand forces on their abstract home turf. El Perro Del Mar, a.k.a. Gothenburg-born Sarah Assbring, has made her home in the latter camp.

Backed by gauzy compositions and softly lilting vocals, she eats everlasting joy for breakfast, then turns around and thumbs her nose at darkness and desolation before tea time. The clashing forces of hope and despair figure strongly in her music, love and sensual joy ranged against the bleak ranks of despondency and desperation.

Although there are times where Assbring’s melancholy lyrical swing matched with her restrained songwriting make Pale Fire seem difficult compared to the luminosity of previous material, dedicated listeners will in fact be rewarded – as with any El Perro Del Mar album – with layer upon layer through which to delve. And as downhearted as the album can be, it’s still possible to see through the gloom to the hope on the other side, even if it takes an act of faith to spot it.
- Chris Lo

Echo Lake – Wild Peace

This debut finds Echo Lake throwing a rather extraordinary sonic party; Beach House, the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine wander in and out and we’re sat propped up against walls in silence with totally blissed grins on our faces. Guitarist Thom Hill and lead singer Linda Jarvis plus band conjure up a graceful storm, and it’s as if nothing and everything happens all at once. And you’ll never want to leave, because once you’ve heard these ten tracks the outside world will seem like a painfully noisy, pointless irritation compared to the ethereal kicks you could be having with this London-based bunch.

Every so often a debut comes along so full of elegiac beauty that you can’t fail to fall for everything about it. Wild Peace is this year’s addition to the list. Prepare to be enthralled.
- Camilla Pia

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Japandroids’ raucous second album, Celebration Rock, opens and closes with the sound of fireworks off in the distance, and it only gets more explosive in between. The Vancouver duo of Brian King and David Prowse capture both the recklessness and revelry of youth in this highly combustible batch of songs, spinning high-octane tales of living each crazy night as if it were your last, while having no regrets come morning other than the fact that the evening had to end.

The album churns with an unrelenting urgency straight from the start, as King’s fierce but focused guitar work is matched perfectly by Prowse’s driving, uncomplicated rhythms, both of which lift their unified lyrics heavenward as one unholy howl. The breathless, blistering album is over in just a scant 35 minutes, leaving the listener with a need to either give it another spin, or go and find a party somewhere.

Whether on the drunken blast of ‘The Nights Of Wine And Roses’ or the ‘American Girl’-echoing ‘Evil’s Sway,’ these songs never come close to being outsider anthems, and are instead as inclusive as it gets in the somewhat isolated modern rock ‘n’ roll landscape. These are piercing numbers that we’re meant to sing loudly together, a riotous soundtrack to good times that only seem to get better when these tracks are played. And when the party is over and life gets a bit too real, ‘Adrenaline Nightshift’ is there as a confident reminder to anyone working an interminable dead-end job that there are grandiose moments awaiting all of us elsewhere, and that this crippling frustration is thankfully only as temporary as the time clock.

After an untamed, surprising take on the Gun Club’s ‘For The Love Of Ivy’ closes out the first half of the record with a shot, the band really catches fire on the second side, with ‘Younger Us’ and the emphatic triumph of ‘The House That Heaven Built’ boisterously delivering on the promise suggested by Japandroids’ scorching debut. Celebration Rock is the volatile sound of an assertive group who have seized the spotlight entirely on their own terms, giving their fans and themselves music we can all grow younger to, with indelible songs that are imbued with the endless possibility and euphoric spirit of all our Saturday nights to come.
- Erik Thompson

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

‘No Future/No Past’, the first track from Cloud Nothing’s Attack on Memory, begins slowly and introduces its elements separately. Piano, bass, drums, guitar, and, finally, Dylan Baldi’s off-kilter wail. It is an incongruous start to the record, which thereafter resembles not so much several instruments playing together as one singular force, driving relentlessly toward its own end. It’s possible that you’ll hear ‘Wasted Days’, for example, and claim that you like the guitar solo, or the bassline on ‘Stay Useless’, but it feels somehow futile to pick Attack on Memory apart in such a way. It’s not that the album is more than the sum of its parts, it’s that Attack appears to have no parts: it is a seamless, continuous whole.

Critics of the album have frequently mentioned Baldi’s lyrics as a weakness. Yes, they come from a place of adolescent yearning and teenage angst. Yes, they are repetitive and would come across as banal in most other contexts. But they are not lyrics to ponder or identify with. Baldi is as much a part of the clattering, caterwauling, restless energy as anything else on the album, and if his lyrics are adolescent, it is because the music plays to a fundamentally adolescent sentiment. Attack on Memory is not a proactive record, it is reactive to the world and mind of Dylan Baldi. “I thought I would be more than this” is not a deep or original insight into the human condition; it is nothing more than a manifestation through language of the same emotion being expressed by the chaos underneath it.

It is crucial, too, that there is no baggage or excess weight here. At 34 minutes and only eight tracks long, Attack never becomes a tiring experience as albums with such unerring drive often do. Instead, it is endlessly rewarding, precisely because its few songs become so familiar to the repeat listener. This, combined with the early-emo sensibility imposed on the record by “engineer for hire” Steve Albini (whom Baldi famously claimed played Scrabble on Facebook for the duration of the recording), makes the record a contradictory amalgam of inviting, hook-laden power pop, and smothering, claustrophobically candid emotion. Albums often end up on end-of-year lists by doing several things very well, being many things to many men. Attack on Memory is here because it does one thing supremely, and pursues that end without rest.
- Adam Nelson

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

If any album this year deserves to be remembered for its musical and lyrical merits, it’s this one. While last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape alerted us to Ocean’s talent and potential, Channel Orange takes its greatest strengths and spreads them, top to bottom, across a whole album.

As Frank Ocean’s style has progressed, he is increasingly striking a balance between the warmth of ‘70s soul and the complexity of ultra-modern, woozy R’n’B. Channel Orange is the best example yet. The splashy keyboards and nimble vocals of ‘Sweet Life’ channel the pin-sharp popcraft of Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder, and some righteous church organs inject a little Motor City fizz into ‘Crack Rock’. The classical references casually rest alongside the kind of dark synth strains and glassy atmospherics you might find on one of The Weeknd‘s record, or a track by Ocean’s fellow Odd Futurites The Internet. It blends into a hugely appealing sound that flexes naturally between hedonism and humanity, desperation and devotion.
- Chris Lo

Niki and the Dove – Instinct

Aptly titled Instinct, Niki and the Dove’s debut is a patchwork of pop elements that refuse to sit comfortably in one genre for any length of time. Given a short sound bite, you might be led to believe that Instinct perpetuates just another pop paradise. Conversely you might hear a mash-up of textures and vocal wails that sound more like a pop-protest of sorts. The truth is that Instinct is neither and both of these at the same time, and if your first response is to turn away, rest assured it is only the uncertainty of the unknown that drives the urge. The Swedish duo prove to be skilled at creating sounds inspired by an ’80s dance ethos and fusing them to create something akin to a post-apocalyptic-electro-tribal-pop-opera. Instinct is a trailblazer in many ways and it deserves your undivided attention.
- Slavko Bucifal

DIIV – Oshin

It’s rare that a new band arrives with a sound as distinctive and fully formed as DIIV’s. On their debut album, Oshin, they take inspiration from trusted sources such as the Cure and Nirvana, but look beyond the obvious pleasures of these touchstones (the yelping histrionics of the former, the quiet-loud dynamics of the former), and instead swathe Oshin in a bleary atmosphere that recalls ‘Come As You Are’ as much as it does Disintegration. Primary songwriter Zachary Cole Smith’s boyish vocals appear sparingly throughout the dense, echoing album, sometimes disappearing for entire songs, as if Smith himself is being intermittently swallowed up by all the watery reverb and the whirlpool intensity of DIIV’s circular, krautrock-indebted rhythms.

Yet the crystalline beauty of Smith’s endlessly buoyant, wildly melodic guitar leads provides a foil to the blackened swirl of Oshin’s sonic seascape, wrestling hooks out of the album’s churning darkness. Though the typically indecipherable lyrics that bubble to the surface are repetitious and enigmatic, the omnipresent guitar jangle proves effective at suggesting everything from serpentine menace (‘Druun, Pt. II’) to wellspring purity (‘Follow’). The words sung in ‘How Long Have You Known?’ are nearly incantatory in their simplicity, yet the rise and fall of the band’s fluidly expressive interplay manages to evoke not just oceanic imagery, but the actual sensation of night swimming in all its mystery and exhilaration.

And while, on a cursory listen, Oshin’s smudgy songs may bleed together, after revisiting the album a few times, a remarkable sense of coherence begins to emerge, anchored by the band’s intuitive instrumental reciprocity. “I know myself completely”, Smith’s disarmingly plain voice seems to intone through the blur, churn and chime of standout pop moment ‘Human’; a fitting proclamation from someone leading a young band that is already so in tune with its own collective strengths.
- Michael Wojtas

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

Jens Lekman’s self-proclaimed “breakup album” could almost break your heart.

Were it not, that is, for the sheer, unbowed joy that remains in the music, despite the sadness with which the songs are seamed. From the title track’s perky endorsement of a marriage of convenience (“I always liked the idea of it: a relationship that doesn’t lie about its intentions, and shit”), ornamented with a giggle from the recipient of Jens’ “proposal” that would charm the most cynical of listeners; ‘Erica America’’s wry admiration of Frank Sinatra, a crooner who “had his shit figured out, I presume” and brilliant evocation of the aftermath of a demolished casino (“the air smelled like popcorn and ladies’ perfume); and the wonderful ‘Become Someone Else’s’, comprising sly masturbation references and a lovely response to Tracey Thorn (who referenced her good friend Jens in her 2010 track ‘Oh, The Divorces!’).

We’re certainly not spared the melancholy or the heart-rending, though: witness the slow and elegant despondency of ‘I Want A Pair of Cowboy Boots’ and the ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ echoes and reluctant acceptance in ‘The End of the World is Bigger Than Love’. It’s just that Lekman’s overall message – the key phrase probably of the whole album comes on the wonderfully meandering ‘The World Moves On’ when he philosophically declares “You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully” – is delivered with such realism, lack of ire and self-deprecating wit and warmth that, somehow, the album elevates the spirit rather than depresses the soul.

And this is an album that’s a keeper, for sure; one that bears repeated – enchanted – listens as gracefully as Jens himself has learned to carry, and sing about, that broken heart.

So, hard-heartedly, in a way that’s completely contrary to the spirit of this beautiful album, it seems that a debt of thanks is due to the person that broke our Jens’ heart. Thank you, Ma’am: you did us all a favour.
- Jude Clarke

Jessie Ware – Devotion

Of the many wars currently being waged within the music industry, the most dangerous is arguably that of the long game versus the short game: artist is signed, record fails to deliver, artist is dropped. While it’s a cliche and doesn’t happen half as much as we probably think, the fact remains – there’s a need to deliver on expectations, drawing out the public’s interest into that first big release and capitalising on it.

We who operate on music websites as an offshoot of the (supposedly) liberal, free-thinking media are quick to point out and attack such examples of near-sightedness on the part of bigger labels, especially when it’s an artist who cut their teeth in the indie league and finds themselves upgraded to a major. Nevertheless, we remain guilty of placing similar utterly unrealistic demands on the artists we cover: we’re just too modern for our own good and it’s ugly.

You see, the online world has bastardised the measurement of time to ludicrous proportions. A week may be a long time in politics but in the world of music consumption, it sometimes feels like an eternity. We’re a bunch of ruthless, unforgiving wolves, ready to absorb any morsel of musical nourishment we can find from the web’s latest wunderkids who we spit out mere weeks later when the second track fails to match the first. It’s taken someone like Dayve Hawk three records and several years for his Memory Tapes project to produce the masterful work we always knows he was capable of (this year’s Grace/Confusion), but just how many blogs and music ‘fans’ were ready to rip the New Jersey-native limb from limb when the second record didn’t quite give some of us hoped for? We invested fully in chillwave, a scene the web had a more than its share of responsibility in creating and developing – then shut the door in it when something brighter came along. With that rejection came an uneasiness in placing the artists we’d once embraced.

This is the way of the web: we are addicts, hungry for a bigger and better fix with every subsequent release, be it track, album, remix, video. The concept of breathing space has become alien to us. We’ve taken the build-em-up, knock-em-down formula perfect by the mid-90s NME to the level of a fine art.

The impetus behind choosing fifty albums to represent a year in music – and ranking them with some sense of ascending value – is nothing new and yet within the ranks of this site, we’ve tried to bring a sense of purpose to these lists and an ethos that combines both the subjective and objective. Jessie Ware’s debut Devotion is our number one record because it represents the most confident opening gambit from a new artist we’ve heard in a very long time. It’s a record that reminds us of the cynicism inherent in what we do and that we need to recognise those who we believe, without question, will continue to develop, surprise and entertain in years to come. As the first act in a new career, Devotion is peerless this year and as product of pure enjoyment, it’s taken root in our hearts. It challenges our weariness and the hideous online cycle we’re a part of.

At the heart of the Mercury-nominated debut is a deceptively simple concept: the transformation of influences through both a reductive approach to production and a delivery that combines personality with fragility. And those influences reek of quality, tracing Ware back to a lineage of soulful British pop music from Lisa Stansfield to Sade, Annie Lennox to Alison Moyet. Transposing them onto a record that draws from urban sonic references, broken beats, the ambience of the city requires a deft hand – a credit largely due to the production talents of The Invisible’s Dave Okumu, singer-songwriter Kid Harpoon and genius house producer Julio Bashmore.

The resulting album has created 2012′s breakout star and is arguably an iconic window onto the modern age of pop music. Ware is symbolic of this semi-golden period in which we currently find ourselves. Despite the abundance of manufacture, numerous careers where context and momentum is largely artist-driven continue to thrive. I encountered Ware as director of her Best Fit Session and there was little doubt that the South Londoner’s drive and grace was anything but an integral part of her music.

One has to also wonder whether her former role as a backing singer to Jack Peñate and work with the likes of Man Like Me and SBTRKT allowed her the time to observe and form a tactical response to the industry at an early stage. It’s surely played a part in shaping her approach to celebrity, which – so far – is nothing but delightful and charming, reflected throughout both her songs and performance.

Devotion didn’t win the Mercury prize and that’s a good thing form our point of view. The pressure and expectation on Ware would have increased tenfold and that same cynicism that blights music commentary amped up to kryptonite proportions. As it is, 2012 is at an end and we can enjoy one of the finest and purest pop records of quite some time without any blemishes. From the opening title track through to ‘Wild Moments’, ‘Running’, ‘Sweet Talk’, ’110%’….it’s an embarrassment of pop riches full of poignance, eloquent breaks and a rich talent that just gets better on every listen.
- Paul Bridgewater