Fashionably late, of course. Make that very fashionably late. Let's begin, as ever, with a selection of albums that I didn't clap ears on but that, judging by a brief scouring of other more reputable end-of-year lists, might well have featured prominently in my own run-down had I done so:
...AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD - Lost Songs
BLOC PARTY - Four
BLOOD RED SHOES - In Time To Voices
CAT POWER - Sun
CLOUD NOTHINGS - Attack On Memory
ECHO LAKE - Wild Peace
ERRORS - Have Some Faith In Magic
FUTURE OF THE LEFT - The Plot Against Common Sense
LIARS - WIXIW
METZ - Metz
PURITY RING - Shrines
LEE RANALDO - Between The Times And The Tide
SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS - Ghostory
SWANS - The Seer
THE TWILIGHT SAD - No One Can Ever Know
THE WALKMEN - Heaven
Now onto those records I did hear, roughly classified in the usual way - fewer than usual, and certainly a lot fewer than in 2011 (a bumper year, with hindsight).
GRIMES – Visions
Visions was hailed almost universally as a, well, visionary electro-pop album that managed the difficult trick of bridging the gap between the leftfield fringes of the mainstream and the genuinely out there. Not by me, though - I'd say Claire Boucher's third solo album was actually caught unproductively between the two stools, and I'd much prefer either Chvrches and Bat For Lashes on the one hand or Julia Holter (see later) on the other to this poor facsimile of Zola Jesus, right down to the esoteric obscurism of some of the song titles.
Key track: ‘Skin’
MILK MAID - Mostly No
Once upon a time, Fat Cat cast their gaze far out into the leftfield and wouldn't have given a second thought to signing a slacker (read: lazy and half-baked) shoegaze-grunge band founded by a former member of Nine Black Alps. Was Milk Maid's debut decent? Mostly no.
Key track: 'Do Right'
Decent Enough But Evoking A Measure Of Disappointment:
DIRTY THREE - Toward The Low Sun
Confession time. What I love about Dirty Three is not so much the songs as professional mentalist Warren Ellis's onstage ramblings and ruminations on what said songs might be about. Call me a philistine for failing to appreciate the intricacies of their improv approach, but I've never really got on with their records and Toward The Low Sun, their first in seven years, was sadly not really any different.
Key track: 'Sometimes I Forget You've Gone'
THE LOVELY EGGS - Cob Dominos
A bit unfair, perhaps, as Cob Dominos delivers pretty much exactly what it promised: a gaggle of rougher-than-the-morning-after-a-Blackpool-stag-do ditties that are sometimes raucous and sometimes just whimsically silly. Live, it's a grin-inducing reimagining of riot grrrrl if it were northern and raised on a diet of Vic and Bob, but over the course of a record of undulating quality the jokes wear a bit thin.
Key track: 'Don't Look At Me (I Don't Like It)'
SIGUR ROS - Valtari
Valtari was all nice enough (and a good child-soother, I've discovered of late) - but whither the peaks and troughs of yore? Whither the drama? Whither the tension? This collection undulated gently but suggested a band content to merely soundtrack rather than truly stir up the emotions.
Key track: 'Fjogur Piano'
SLEEPY SUN - Spine Hits
I'd feared the loss of Rachel Fannan would deal a significant blow to Sleepy Sun, her vocals arguably being the band's USP, and certainly her absence was conspicuous on Spine Hits - though the album also, to my mind, suffered by virtue of the decision to straitjacket their natural impulse towards elongated drugged-beyond-the-eyeballs jams. By comparison with Embrace and Fever, the three- and four-minute nuggets felt undernourishing.
Key track: 'Martyr's Mantra'
SPIRITUALIZED - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
There can't have been many more schizophrenically uneven albums as Sweet Heart Sweet Light released last year. At its best - single 'Hey Jane', the heady Eastern-influenced 'Get What You Deserve', the deliciously dense 'Headin' For The Top Now' - it was brilliant, but at its worst - the clunking by-numbers self-parodies 'Little Girl', 'Mary' and 'So Long You Pretty Thing' - it was worthy of the exclamation that featured on the cover: "Huh?"
Key track: 'Hey Jane'
THE XX - Coexist
Crafting the follow-up to one of the most original and well-received debuts in years must have a formidable challenge, and the tracks aired at Primavera in Porto in June promised much, but ultimately Coexist was even quieter and less substantial, as a result struggled to make itself heard. Perhaps now it's out of the way and the pressure's off, they can come back stronger.
Key track: 'Angels'
A Bit Of Alright:
BO NINGEN – Line The Wall
As ATPs have repeatedly proven, Japanese bands take whatever Western bands do and turn it up to 11 (and beyond). But why should Japan have all the fun? Bo Ningen are a Japrock band we can call our own, the quartet having formed in London, and while Line The Wall didn't quite capture the intensity of the Bo Ningen live experience, it did at least serve reasonable notice of their maximalist pedal-to-the-metal approach to psych, shoegaze and rock 'n' roll.
Key track: ‘Nichijyou’
DINOSAUR JR - I Bet On Sky
Guitar solos far more articulate than the drawling and mumbled lyrics about disaffection and disconnection, a couple of token Lou Barlow songs - this was pretty much textbook Dinosaur Jr. If not quite as strong as their other two post-reformation records, I Bet On Sky nevertheless had its moments - not least 'Pierce The Morning Rain' and its rampant, driving riffage.
Key track: 'Pierce The Morning Rain'
EFTERKLANG - Piramida
This was a rather darker, bleaker, more sombre affair than its predecessor, the uplifting gem Magic Chairs - perhaps a consequence of the visit Denmark's answer to Grizzly Bear paid to Piramida the place, an abandoned town in the Arctic Circle where some of the material was recorded. The backstory might have been better than the songs, but this was a subtle and intricately crafted record all the same.
Key track: 'Hollow Mountain'
FIELD MUSIC - Plumb
OK, so regular readers of this site should know the drill by now: North-Easterners who emerged with the endorsement of The Futureheads and Maximo Park and who plough very much their own intelligent yet accessible pop/new wave/prog/funk furrow, whom the critics generally adore but whom the not-so-great British public hardly spares a second thought. Well, Plumb - their Mercury-nominated fourth album, and second post-hiatus - was more of the same, a post-punk Sgt Peppers.
Key track: '(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing'
JULIA HOLTER - Ekstasis
Unlike Grimes' Visions, Ekstasis was a genuinely otherworldly experience - an album that was at once simplistic, naive and nursery rhyme-like and yet also rich, dense, baroque, experimental and esoteric. The songs twined themselves around you like tendrils of ivy, and to listen to it was to get lost in the maze of an enchanted garden. Domino were among those smitten, promptly signing her up.
Key track: 'Goddess Eyes II'
THE MEN - Open Your Heart
Talk about schizophrenic. Open Your Heart laughed in the face of pigeon-holing, instead offering tasty titbits from the smorgasbord of rock - everything from punk, post-hardcore and metal to krautrock, drone and shoegaze. It's hard to trust a band who are too busy trying to sound like each of their heroes in turn to bother sounding like themselves, but most of the pastiches hit home. (Incidentally, you'll find the follow-up - already out - filed under "Country"...)
Key track: 'Presence'
MARK LANEGAN BAND - Blues Funeral
Blues Funeral didn't quite have the knowing eclecticism of Open Your Heart, but it did nevertheless showcase the gravel-throated crooner's love of a broad range of music. You'd think his voice would have suited the whisky-soaked barroom confessionals best (and it probably did), but the throbbing riff of opener 'The Gravedigger's Song' betrayed his longstanding association with Queens Of The Stone Age (and the involvement of Josh Homme with the album) and 'Ode To Sad Disco' signified a not wholly unsuccessful foray into electro.
Key track: 'The Gravedigger's Song'
PAWS - Cokefloat!
While their Fat Cat labelmates Milk Maid were soporific slackers, PAWS were spunky and sprightly, approaching grunge from the perspective of punks for whom time was clearly of the essence. Cokefloat! had edge and needle, but it was also sufficiently soft-hearted to open with a tribute to vocalist/guitarist Phillip Taylor's mum.
Key track: 'Sore Tummy'
DEFTONES - Koi No Yokan
I'm wary of labelling Koi No Yokan as a return to form, given that I had shunned the previous two albums since being left largely cold by 2003's self-titled record - but there's no denying it was satisfyingly aggressive and atmospheric in equal parts, the brawn tempered by a keen sense of dynamics, and a treat for any fans of White Pony.
Key track: ‘Rosemary’
DIIV - Oshin
If the nagging concern with The Men’s Open Your Heart was its scattershot catholicism, the opposite was true of Oshin, the debut offering from the band formed by Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith; after a few tracks it started to seem somewhat samey – anything distinctive submerged beneath daydreamy jangle and echoey vocals. But Oshin’s quality as a mood piece proved to be its strength, as underlined by the repeated listening it somehow compelled.
Key track: ‘How Long Have You Known?'
DISAPPEARS - Pre Language
How best to fill the unexpected downtime resulting from your band of more than 25 years announcing an indefinite (possibly permanent) hiatus? Moonlight in another one, of course. It’s a fairly safe bet that Disappears’ third album would have escaped more people’s attention had it not been for Sonic Youth sticksman Steve Shelley, who stirred his considerable talents into the New Yorkers’ pot to produce a curiously successful hybrid of Joy Division, The Fall, shoegaze, krautrock and industrial. Still the most conventional act on Kranky's roster, you'd imagine...
Key track: 'Replicate'
LOTUS PLAZA - Spooky Action At A Distance
... though Lotus Plaza run them close. As if DIIV's Oshin wasn't enough to tide us over until the next Deerhunter album, the latter's guitarist Lockett Pundt was on hand to help fill the gap too. As might have been expected from his (occasional) songwriting contributions during his day job (most notably 'Desire Lines' on Halcyon Digest), Spooky Action At A Distance offered ten nicely satisfying slices of hazy, shimmering Instagram indie rock/shoegaze.
Key track: 'Out Of Touch'
MOON DUO - Circles
Going round in circles is generally seen as a negative thing - but not by a band for whom the journey is everything. As first demonstrated with 2011's Mazes, Moon Duo - originally a side-project for Wooden Shjips' Ripley Johnson but fast becoming his day job - appear to have an uncanny knack for nailing their style in a one-word album title. Circles was dense and repetitious, the sound of brain-frazzled 60s acid casualties tripping out on krautrock, though slightly lighter in tone than previous outings.
Key track: 'Free Action'
WHITE MANNA - White Manna
The sound of drone/spacerock stoned (but of course) and wandering lost through a forest. White Manna might not have much expanded the minds of those who eagerly and regularly seek mind expansion through musical means, but it certainly delivered what had been expected of Sleepy Sun – with Spine Hits there was no comparison.
Key track: 'Keep Your Lantern Burning'
Close But No Cigar:
TALL FIRS - Out Of It And Into It
Proof that acoustic duos needn’t dredge up bad memories of Turin Breaks, Kings Of Convenience and the mercifully short-lived New Acoustic Movement (if it ever really lived beyond the pages of NME, that is). Out Of It And Into It was reminiscent of both Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts and J Mascis’ solo acoustic album, a collection of emotional vignettes viewed through the lens of the bottom of a glass and featuring a sumptuous cover of Arthur Russell’s ‘I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face’.
Key track: 'Crooked Smiles'
And now, the Top Ten:
10. BEST COAST - The Only Place
The title track which opened The Only Place, an ode to the joys of California, might have continued where the effervescent Crazy For You left off, but it struck an incongruously cheery, confident note. Overall this was a more insecure, more introspective, morning-after-the-night-before Beth Cosentino, still lyrically obsessed with fun but now largely concerned about it passing her by. The bedroom ballads threw cool to the wind by boldly aiming at (and coming close to bullseyeing) an old-fashioned classicism. Not remotely cutting edge or complex, and probably destined to be the soundtrack to a million US teen dramas, but as bittersweet indie pop with smudged eyeliner it could hardly be faulted.
Key track: ‘How They Want Me To Be’
9. JAPANDROIDS - Celebration Rock
Japandroids too seemed to have set out to mislead, and in exactly the same way - Celebration Rock certainly wasn’t uniformly celebratory in tone. The reflections on age and youth ('Younger Us') offered evidence that Brian King and David Prowse, who had hitherto depicted themselves as kidults fixated on living in the moment, might just be growing up and looking back with wistful nostalgia. Calls to Trading Standards about the titular use of the word “rock” will have been few and far between, though, the duo amply demonstrating that, despite the subtly shifting lyrical focus from present to past, they could still thrash out with the best of ‘em (not least on their own incandescent take on The Gun Club’s ‘For The Love Of Ivy’).
Key track: 'Adrenaline Nightshift'
8. TAME IMPALA - Lonerism
Far more conventionally reflective was the second album from Kevin Parker aka Tame Impala, a meditation on the splendid isolation of living within your own head. One man’s perspective on a solipsistic existence hardly sounds like something likely to resonate with or prove engaging to others, but Parker took the blueprint of Innerspeaker and carefully crafted a masterpiece that was comfortably psychedelic rather than extravagantly or wildly so.
Key track: 'Apocalypse Dreams'
7. BEACH HOUSE - Bloom
A very early frontrunner for the top spot, Bloom’s bloom faded slightly as the year wore on, perhaps because it constituted a more fully realised version of Teen Dream rather than a significant progression or development, or perhaps because its dreamily ambient drift was enveloping rather than outright arresting. Nevertheless, it was a superlative record, a perfect aural approximation of the experience of witnessing them live with suncream-blurredvision in the heat and haze at Glastonbury 2010.
Key track: 'Myth'
6. BAT FOR LASHES - The Haunted Man
Much of the initial talk about The Haunted Man centred on Natasha Khan’s nakedness on the cover: a cheap attention-grabbing stunt or a visual attempt to signify a muted, stripped-back approach? Typically the truth was more complex than that. While the hippy-dippy healing crystal spiritualist trappings of the first two albums appeared to have been consigned to the cupboard under the stairs (if not the dustbin), and the lead single was a beautifully bare piano ballad (‘Laura’, co-written with Lana Del Rey collaborator Justin Parker), the album was actually stuffed full with bold pop gems that implied a determined assault on the mainstream – one that deserved every success.
Key track: 'Marilyn'
5. TURING MACHINE - What Is The Meaning Of What
In these days of incessant X-Factor sob stories, a tale of triumph in the face of genuine adversity really is something to rejoice about. Acknowledging that the groove must go on (and on, and on), Turing Machine duo Justin Chearno and Scott DeSimon managed to overcome the death of drummer Jerry Fuchs and single-handedly make up for the demise of their DFA associates LCD Soundsystem with a record that trumped This Is Happening in its sleep. How could you possibly fail to fall in love with an album that contained a song called ‘Slave To The Algorithm’?
Key track: 'Bovina 2/23/08'
4. GRIZZLY BEAR - Shields
As the stereotype would have it, Americans are brash, loud and overstated. However, as with its predecessor Veckatimest, it wouldn't have taken listening to much of Shields to have realised that there are at least four of our transatlantic chums who refuse to subscribe to anything remotely approaching that. Clever, innovative indie rock - though never self-consciously so.
Key track: 'Sun In Your Eyes'
3. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Who else would disappear without trace for the best part of a decade, reappear and put out a new album with no forewarning, the opening track of which is a 20-minute-long behemoth bearing the name of a Serbian war criminal that not only blasts allcomers to smithereens but also dwarfs pretty much everything they ever did in their pre-hiatus incarnation? The aforementioned 'Mladic' was simply stunning in its intensity, and while the other three tracks couldn't match it, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! was nevertheless a cast-iron case of often imitated, never bettered.
Key track: 'Mladic'
2. TY SEGALL BAND - Slaughterhouse
2012 was a busy year for young Mr Segall (though no busier than normal). It was a toss-up whether Slaughterhouse or Twins occupied top spot, and the latter has triumphed in a photo finish. The former – credited to the full band rather than just its leader – packed a heavier hook than his previous records, ‘Wave Goodbye’ in particular betraying a Sabbath influence. The album began with oodles of gorgeous feedback, concluded with an apparent tribute to Nirvana’s ‘Endless Nameless’ (the aptly named ‘Fuzz War’) and came with a brace of brilliantly executed cover versions.
Key track: ‘Wave Goodbye'
1. TY SEGALL - Twins
One of last year’s most surprising musical events was Paul McCartney following in Kurt Cobain’s footsteps by fronting a band with Krist Novoselic on bass, Dave Grohl on drums and Pat Smear on guitar. If you wanted to hear what the Beatles and Nirvana might sound like if their DNA was spliced, though, you’d have been much better off getting your hands on Twins. A concept album blissfully free of any tedious prog connotations that that label might imply, this was a riot of powerpop roughed up in the garage and blasted out at neighbour-distressing volume. Needless to say, personally speaking Segall was my most pleasing discovery of the year.
Key track: ‘You’re The Doctor'
It's at this point that I should offer a heartfelt thanks to Piccadilly Records, whose weekly mailouts sold me on the two Ty Segall albums, White Manna's self-titled record and Disappears' Pre Language (and possibly others too). Without their helpful nudges, I'd probably never have discovered some of them. Independent record stores: you gotta love 'em. Seriously. Thanks too to those individuals who've helped furnish me with some of the above albums: Dave, Suresh, Niall, Chris and others.
And finally, a little reminder of the Top Ten for 2011:
10. BILL WELLS & AIDAN MOFFAT - Everything's Getting Older
9. CAT'S EYES - Cat's Eyes
8. THURSTON MOORE - Demolished Thoughts
7. I BREAK HORSES - Hearts
6. BATTLES - Gloss Drop
5. THE ANTLERS - Burst Apart
4. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
3. ICEAGE - New Brigade
2. LOW - C'mon
1. PJ HARVEY - Let England Shake