It’s the time of year when for no reason other than I want to know what I’ve shelled out for new music this year, I offer my pick of the albums that have brought me the most joy over the past twelve months.
It’s been a good year for unexpected comebacks and vintage acts producing their best work in years. With so much good stuff around it’s been a little tricky picking an outright winner but one album has consistently risen to the top of the pile, constantly and invariably putting a smile on my face and making me feel good to be alive every time I listen. More on that later.
So, here’s a thirteen of the best of the best in no particular order, followed by a top five:
Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball demonstrated that the boss is still at the top of his game. It’s an album driven by anger at what the bankers have done to the ordinary people of America. But it’s also a record that’s brimming with reflections on what it means to be a man of faith in troubled times. The closing track is an amazing affirmation of resurrection in the teeth of injustice.
Clock Opera is a British band who’ve been bubbling around for a while. Their keyboard-driven debut album, Ways to forget, is full of quirky, jerky rhythms, dead pan humour and great tunes.
Dead Can Dance came back from the dead – or at least a decade or so away – with an album named after the resurrection, Anastasis. The trade mark epic mix of dance rhythms and eastern flavours is present and correct giving rise to a truly satisfying 56 minutes.
Damon Albarn cemented his place as all-round renaissance artist with an opera based on the life of Elizabeth 1’s conjurer Dr Dee. We went to see it performed at the ENO. It is a truly magnificent piece of work, Blur meets John Donne in a gorgeous suite of songs about the nature of Englishness in both Elizabethan ages.
Patti Smith’s Banga is everything you expect from the queen of punk and a lot you wouldn’t. My copy came in a hardback book, giving me the opportunity to read the words, which stand on their own as musings on the absurdity of life and the reality of faith. Only a couple of tracks misfire but overall the journey is worth the taking.
Richard Hawley dropped the croon for something more psychedelic and gave us Standing at the Sky’s Edge rolling in on waves of distorted guitars and angry reflections on the state of the nation. Hawley has an eye for detail and the ability to conjure tunes from nowhere. Wonderful.
Tracey Thorn has done the near impossible which is to produce a Christmas album that you might listen to in May. Tinsel and Lights is a beautiful collection of mainly covers – including the most gorgeous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s River – with two self-penned originals; it is bold and beautiful. It is also one of the few Christmas albums that does not contain a cheesy take on a Christmas carol. It almost replaces Low’s magnificent Christmas in my affections…almost, you understand!
Smoke Fairies returned with a second collection Blood Speaks, full of their trade mark lush vocals over edgy guitar. It’s the work of a band hitting their stride and promising great things for the future as their writing matures.
Deacon Blue is the unlikeliest comeback of the year. The Hipsters could well be the best thing they’ve ever done, awash with great tunes and jaunty reflections on the passing years.
Soulsavers, after two albums with Mark Lanegan, produced a collection of songs with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. And a thing of wonder it is too. Called The Light the Dead See, it’s a brooding set about life, love, death and what it all adds up to. Presence of God is the stand-out track with its observation ‘I can feel the presence of god/In need of my attention/In this room and in your words/In too many ways to mention’
Talking of Mark Lanegan, he produced the best album he’s done under his own name. Blues Funeral, as the name suggests, is not a collection of jaunty ditties, but no one does gothic gloom like Lanegan…
Then of course, there’s the irrepressible Bob Dylan. Sounding brighter than he has for a decade, he returned this year with Tempest, an album full of shuffle, groove and great stories. He can’t recapture the impact of the great albums of the 60s – they changed the art form forever – but this is a danceable collection from an old master.
And finally, the hugely accomplished debut from Alt-J, An Awesome Wave, deserved winner of the Mercury Prize came my way via a recommendation from my 16 year old niece (who says I'm not down with the kids?!!). Baffling but affecting lyrics, lovely tunes, great rhythms – what more could you ask for?
And so to the top five.
The year opened with Leonard Cohen, a man old enough to know better, giving us Old Ideas, an album bristling with new insights into life and faith, wrapped in some good tunes and great arrangements by a band at the top of its form.
Anais Mitchell released a storming folk opera a couple years ago based on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld. This year she topped that achievement with a collection of songs called Young Man in America. She combines a childlike reverie with a wise eye for the world we live in. The stripped down arrangements and startling vocals draw you in and great story telling – especially on the title track (a song worth the price of the download on its own) – does the rest. She’s a reminder – if one were needed – that keeping it simple always packs the most powerful punch.
The autumn brought us Neil Young’s blistering return to form, the 86 minute Psychedelic Pill with its opening 27 minute track that rambles across his life bringing surprisingly moving insights into what it’s like to be inside his head. It’s the best thing he’s done with Crazy Horse since Sleeps with Angels almost twenty years ago and it demonstrates that he’s not run out energy yet; long may he run…
Bill Mallonee’s fiftieth album, Amber Waves, finally came out in November. It’s his best collection in ages, world weary, insightful, faith-affirming; great tunes and a guitar sound to die for.
Album of the year, however, is Bill Fay’s Life is People. This is also a come-back album from an artist who had a couple of albums out in the early 70s (not that he crossed my radar then). This is a collection of songs about life, faith and hope played by a great set of musicians. There isn’t a wasted note or syllable here; it’s a collection that makes you feel good to be alive and thanking God that you can hear such tender and lovely music. If you buy only one record this Christmas, you should buy this one.