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What's On's Albums of the Year

By West Briton  |  Posted: December 20, 2012

By Lee Trewhela

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Alt-J – An Awesome Wave

I may well have bored you banging on about the greatness of this album in 2012. Since bagging the Mercury Prize, there seems to be a snooty backlash against the mesmerising ebb and flow of these surprisingly erotic songs. The sound of indie boys discovering sex and the studio, and coming up with something genuinely innovative and heaven-sent. I declared this the best album of the year back in February and, somewhat sadly, nothing has changed my mind since.

Dexys – One Day I'm Going To Soar

Who would have thought mad old Kevin Rowland would come up with his masterpiece 27 years after the last Dexys album?

A brutally honest look at his Irish roots through his controlling Midnight Runners days and right up to the ageing man who, by his own admission, is incapable of love.

Epic soul is the order of the day. It's just a pity Sinatra isn't alive to sing the final, stately torchsong It's OK John Joe. Live highlight of the year too.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

If 2012 was to be celebrated for anything, it was the likes of Louisiana's Ocean turning the R&B genre on its head. Out went ballads, bling and bland production to be replaced by edginess, experimental electronic tunes and pop songs that sounded like they'd been beamed in from Venus. The likes of Pyramids and Crack Rock have the same out-of-nowhere thrill as primetime Prince. Challenging the über-macho hip hop world was a plus too. Forget he used to write songs for Justin Bieber ....

Hot Chip – In Our Heads

With the loss of LCD Soundsystem, London's Hot Chip became the world's best electro dance band and with every album they just keep getting better. Their "poppiest" effort yet, In Our Heads takes the baton for emotive yet machine-made music from New Order and the Pet Shop Boys. The double whammy of Alexis Taylor's keening falsetto and Joe Goddard's world weary baritone gives extra weight to this wonderful collection of songs, which are aimed just as much at the brain as feet.

Paul Weller – Sonik Kicks

For those of us who like Weller spiky rather than dad-rocking comfy, this was his best album since The Jam's Sound Affects. It shared an experimental vein with the preceding Wake Up The Nation and 22 Dreams; indeed these albums are his version of Bowie's Berlin trilogy. A dank psychedelia hides behind the rushes of Around The Lake, Paper Chase and Dragonfly while Study In Blue is an alluring dub odyssey and the closing Be Happy Children one of his most touching songs.

Grizzly Bear – Shields

The sheer baroque beauty of this album blindsided even their most hardcore of fans. Previously the US band have been almost wilfully arty – it's no wonder Radiohead love them. But on Shields they hit a featherlight groove producing some of the best adult pop songs you will ever hear. The serpentine Led Zep-alike stomper Sleeping Ute is one of 2012's greatest tracks. Shields is one of those rare beasts that's a bit "meh" on first listen and only reveals its subtle wonders on repeat.

Jack White – Blunderbuss

Despite being king of the collaborators – Raconteurs, Dead Weather, work with everyone from Alicia Keys to Insane Clown Posse – White proved he doesn't need anyone on his first solo album. Showing far more colours in his palette than previously, Blunderbuss was a fun ride and his best record since the White Stripes' Elephant in 2003.

Knowing that a bit of enigma counts for a lot, White is now the world's best demonic bluesman since Jagger circa 1970.

Graham Coxon – A+E

Blur may have continued to be his day job and their brilliant gig at Plymouth Pavilions showed there's still room for them, but in many ways Coxon has outgrown the band. His best solo album was as incendiary as the Falmouth hotel he sadly witnessed burning down. A visceral mix of Wire-y post punk, Van der Graaf-esque prog and Neu-like motorik mayhem, A+E was noisy but it was also big on tunes (What'll It Take, Seven Naked Valleys, Running For Your Life).

Patti Smith – Banga

Like Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen and, to a lesser extent, Neil Young (if only he had a quality control button), 2012 was a great year for the old guard. Patti's albums can be hit or miss but this was one of the greats. From the elegiac new world anthem Amerigo (my song of the year) to the fittingly Motown-esque ballad of Winehouse tribute This Is The Girl; the Sonic Youth swirl-beat of the title track to the ten-minute poetic meditation Constantine's Dream, Patti Smith proved she was still vital.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun

J Tillman demonstrated that walking away from Fleet Foxes wasn't as mad as it seemed because the drummer only went and released an album far better than anything that overrated lot have bored us with. Weird and wonderful tales are spun into twisted West Coast pop in a similar style to Bella Union labelmate John Grant. Ever wanted to try peyote in the desert but were too scared to try? Just put this album on and luxuriate in the sun-kissed, lysergic but always tune-heavy madness.

Tame Impala – Lonerism

Proving that prog rock's not dead, the Perth band (though essentially a solo record by the insanely talented Kevin Parker) looked and, at times, sounded like Pink Floyd in that dazed period after Syd went doolally.

If Flaming Lips had better songs (Apocalypse Dreams) or Led Zeppelin had taken different kinds of drugs (Elephant), they would have sounded like Tame Impala.

It still feels like the best is yet to come though.

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

Yes, she was hyped. But who cares when we suddenly had a pop star straight out of a David Lynch movie. Even the 1950s-music-through-a-demonic-red-curtain sounded like one of his and Angelo Badalamenti's soundtracks if remixed by Dr Dre. The album was a surprisingly mixed bag proving that the astonishing Video Games wasn't a fluke. And did you know that and many of the other songs' co-writer Justin Parker once fronted Cornwall-based band Maryland?

Grimes – Visions

The one standout on the increasingly mainstream and boring Later in 2012 was Vancouver's delicate Claire Boucher dwarfed by a mountain of synths and lights performing the alien bop of Genesis. A truly otherworldly but at times banging experience, this was where Cocteau Twins met techno and the increasingly influential J-Pop (Japanese pop) genre got mutilated by Aphex Twin. It's all over the place – no surprise that Boucher describes her own sound as "ADD music".

Can – The Lost Tapes

With every musician in existence rehashing old stuff for the lucrative heritage market, Can fans would be forgiven for not expecting much of this 3CD collection. But it proved the Holy Grail and equalled the Cologne band's very best 1970s albums, Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi. With every jagged-fringed indie band hijacking the motorik beat of the "Krautrock" era, it was timely to hear stunning "new" songs by the group who have become one of the most influential in rock history.

Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky's Edge

The award for most unexpected album most definitely went to Sheffield's answer to Roy Orbison. Gone was the cinematic balladry to be replaced by the sort of cosmic rock more associated with Hawkwind or Spiritualised. On Down In The Woods he even channelled the filthy boogie of The Stooges. She Brings The Sunlight with its hard-rocking ragga moves made us all realise the Stone Roses' Second Coming wasn't so bad after all.

The Weeknd – Trilogy

Like Frank Ocean, Canada's Abel Tesfaye completely reinvented R&B. If Ocean was dark this tweaked collection of three "mixtapes" previously available free online was positively subterranean. Everyone from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Beach House was sampled for a sound akin to The xx in a crack den. Heavy maybe but leavened by Tesfaye's God-given falsetto – best heard on standout Wicked Games. He even takes Dirty Diana somewhere dangerous and sounds uncannily like an evil Michael Jackson.

VCMG – Ssss

You'd be forgiven for feeling your heart sink on knowing former Depeche Mode buddies Vince Clarke and Martin Gore had got together. Both past their glory days it would seem, they surprised everyone with a thrilling collection of old-school techno. Opening track Lowly is one of the most exciting things you will ever hear. Both pioneers in electronic music, one area they'd never previously touched on was rave. The world didn't realise it needed a deep, visceral, nasty dance album from these two old gits, but it did.

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

A song featuring a chorale of what can only be called farts, and a tune about Ceausescu's death by bullet ending in a rendition of Jingle Bells. Scott proved as perverse but mesmerising as ever. The lyrics are better than most manage in whole careers.

Like his previous heavyweights, The Drift and Tilt, you will only listen to this album every couple of years but for sheer scale and chutzpah it demands to be in this list. Even though we all secretly wish he'd make another album like Scott 4.

Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

Calling Perfume Genius (aka Seattle's Mike Hadreas) the gay version of Lana Del Rey would be flippant, but there's the similarly haunted Twin Peaks feel to the music and his quietly subversive songs smothered by a melodic nous. The music world always needs a tormented soul and he was 2012's model, taking the seat left cold by Elliot Smith.

Now Sufjan Stevens has gone missing up his own fundament, Hadreas is the man to love.

Mark Lanegan – Blues Funeral

This album proved there was a lot more to Lanegan than a (tamed) rock animal reputation and booze-soaked growl. Here there was Drive-like Euro disco among pile-driving rock and Doors-indebted elegies. With the help of various Queens of the Stone Age and Afghan Whigs luminaries, the former Screaming Trees man forged an album of soul-blitzing blues once so beloved of Nick Cave.

One of the strangest sights of 2012 was this legend of grunge happily signing merchandise in Falmouth.

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