It's that time of year again when I ponder what new music I've listened to this year and why - and which album should sit at the top of my Christmas tree. Unlike previous years, there's a clear, runaway winner this; and for the first time, more of this year's entries were acquired by download only than bought on CD.
The clear winner is Arcade Fire's The suburbs, an album of sublime tunes and lyrical brilliance. It's probably the album of the decade and seals Arcade Fire as the hottest band of the moment, worthy successors to Talking Heads in their ability to put a finger on what's happening and what it might add up to.
The rest of year's crop, in no particular order, are:
Tracey Thorn Love and its Opposites, a great collection of songs reflecting on growing up, even growing older, of being with same person for an adult life time and having kids who are growing up and flying the nest.
Laura Veirs July, a wonderful, lyrical, celebration of life
Laura Marling I speak because I can is clearly a good record by a hugely talented song writer. I reckon in a decade or so, she will produce a true masterpiece. When you listen to her songs against the likes of Veirs or Thorn, there's a sense of something lacking which I suspect is life experience. it's not surprising as Marling is only 20! It's a fine album none-the-less with great tunes and quirky instrumentation.
The Smoke Fairies debut album finally arrived in the autumn, after a couple of storming EPs. Through Low Light and Trees is full of heavenly harmonies, delta blues guitars and great tunes.
It's been a good year for women singers and in the late autumn the peerless Mavis Staples produced an album to get you marching for justice and worshipping Jesus. You are Not Alone is a stunning mixture of old gospel and new protest songs which doesn't put a foot wrong.
Cherry Ghost followed up 2007's Thirst for Romance with darker fare. Beneath this Burning Shoreline is full of chilly brilliance; great tunes and opaque lyrics that is technically wonderful but hasn't grabbed the emotions like the debut did. Maybe it will. It's definitely worth repeated listens, however.
Gorillaz Plastic Beach, the third outing from Damon Albarn's cartoon group is full of quirky, wonderfully realised pop. I'd love to see it live.
Delphic's Acolyte flowed out of Manchester on a wave of good will. Feeling like Soul Savers lite, it bounces along very tunefully. They sound like a youthful New Order.
This year's great find is undoubtedly the National. Their album High Violet is a fabulous concoction, though having snapped that up on its release, I then got Boxer having heard them on Glastonbury TV. Their music is dense and multi-layered, often in several time signatures simultaneously with Matt Berninger's rich baritone vocal musing on life and loss (mainly loss). I think Boxer has the slight edge over the new one but both are truly gorgeous.
Two bands that I discovered on line this year are Gungor whose Beautiful Things is the best worship music I have heard for years; and Evils that Never Came, a band that I know next to nothing about except that they have followed up their debut, 2004's June, with this year's Northerly Winds. They play what can best be described as indie power pop, waves of organ and choppy guitars over driving rhythms. And both albums are available free form their website.
And finally, Mr E (Eels) came storming back this year with not one but two wonderfully tuneful and thought-provoking albums. The spring brought us End Times, fourteen heartbreaking and witty songs about the end of a relationship and the autumn delivered Tomorrow Morning, fourteen life-affirming songs about the start of a new relationship and fresh starts generally. I'm not sure which album I prefer, though the latter has two of the best songs E has ever written, Oh So Lovely and That's Not Her Way
And at number 15 is a reissue which contains a first official release. It's David Bowie's Station to Station, in my opinion the grand dame's best ever record, released at the start of a flurry of creativity that included Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters. But Station to Station with its stumbling after faith and geometric rhythms sees him at the peak of his form. This analogue mix - so much better than the remastered version that came out a few years ago - is packaged along with his storming 1976 gig at The Nassau Coliseum in New York. This has been available as a bootleg for years but this is its first kosher release and very welcome it is too: Bowie is fronting the best touring band he ever put together. They play tight and loud and his vocal performance is peerless. One of the truly great gigs of all time.
So, there you are, fifteen Christmas present ideas for you to give or ask for, each one a gem.