It’s been a momentous year for music – or at least that’s the conclusion I glean from my record collection, which has never been healthier. We’ve had new albums from artists in their prime and a cacophony of fresh-faced newbies all helping to expand the musical spectrum ever more. The critics have laid down their end of year verdicts, and so too have some of my friends.
Now, it’s time for my own subjective list of the year’s top ten albums.
10. The Milk – Tales from the Thames Delta
The debut album from this unlikely four-piece was always going to be an event. After all, never have four discerning-looking white dudes from Essex sounded so soulful. Huey Morgan brought the band to my attention in spring 2011 with ‘Danger’, a soul-funk blend packed with enough energy to send a rocket to Mars and back. It’s one of those tracks you stick on repeat for weeks. ‘Broke Up the Family’ is just as addictive; a modern blues joint powered along by a raucous rock n’ roll beat. When you aren’t nodding hypnotically to his lyrics, Rick Nunn’s omniferous tones will leave you wondering how he gets his voice to perform such feats. Producer Brad Baloo of the Nextmen mixes the band’s multitude of styles into nudges of pop joy that’ll get you moving, though, as an album, it feels all over the place. The Milk is still finding its voice, but its debut has just the right amount of off-the-wall ideas and eye-catching hooks to make it worthy of a place in the top ten.
Listen to: (All I Wanted Was) Danger, Broke Up the Family, Chip the Kids
9. Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
If Michael Kiwanuka really had uncovered never-before-heard songs by Otis Reading and Bill Withers, recorded and released them as his own on his debut album, this would still be in on the list. The non-stop drive for what’s new and what’s next frequently means we forget things that were good about the past. Kiwanuka proudly continues the legacy of the greats from Motown and Stax. Home Again’s stand out track, ‘Tell Me A Tale’, like many a timeless rhythm and blues track, is instantly hummable and impossible to shake. Kiwanuka’s dependable guitar rhythms are backed by docile bass lines and key strokes, seasoned with the occasional flute and or muster of strings, and the result is an inviting collection of gospel-born soul tracks. It’s an album of contemplation that’s best heard when at rest rather than when in a rush. Lately, reviving the soul sounds of the 60s has made Aloe Blacc a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Kiwanuka’s sound maybe vintage, but the sentiment is all his own – and that’s timeless.
Listen to: Tell Me A Tale, I’ll Get Along, Bones
8. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe
After returning with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, and showing that he could still pull heartstrings like none other, the thought of a new studio album from Bobby Womack was a tantalising thought. The result was something unexpected, magnificently intimate and gratifyingly personal. The story of Womack’s return from the brink of drug addiction to the making of The Bravest Man in Universe is inspiring to behold. It was Albarn and XL Recordings’ boss, Richard Russell, who brought him back, and the duo are also responsible for the unusual neo-soul recipe that serves as the soundscape for the album. But regards of its genesis, it proves that the old dog can still make life-affirming new music that will resonate for generations. Womack’s voice keens with intensity and compassion as he reflects on his life and muses about the world; its beauty and its hypocrisy. In moments of intense foolish or knockbacks, Womack’s album is a smoothing cure. They say with age comes wisdom. Here’s proof.
Listen to: The Bravest Man in the Universe, Daygo Reflection (feat. Lana Del Rey), Stupid (feat. Gil Scott-Heron)
7. Labrinth – Electronic Earth
Poor Labrinth. Despite all his chart success, there’s still an overwhelming number of people out there who just don’t like his swagger. And though he played an undeniably important part in Tinie Tempah’s success, those same people still refuse to recognise his musical chops. He plays the guitar, the keyboard and, of course, produces his own music. Labrinth shouldn’t be thought of as a rapper, which he is not, but a producer, adept at infusing electronic beats with unlikely samples and otherworldly sounds. Live, his music can be painful to hear. With backing beats as uncomfortable as nails scrapping along a chalkboard, ‘Sundown’ is one of the worst songs of 2012 or any year. And no matter who the artist, nothing can be more uncool than a shout out to your label boss – especially when it’s Simon Cowell. Yet, the urban bangers on Labrinth’s debut album have had me hitting it up again and again. ‘Climb on Board’ while on the Tube, let loose an ‘Earthquake’ at a house party and check in for some ‘Treatment’… ah, you get the idea. A guilty pleasure filled with electro anthems that are sure to be 2012 favourites.
Listen to: Earthquake, Climb on Board, Beneath Your Beautiful (feat. Emeli Sandé)
6. Damon Albarn – Dr Dee
Bet you weren’t expecting this – and nor was I to be honest. Albarn’s original score for a stage play of the same name based on the life of advisor to Elizabeth I and occult obsessive, Dr John Dee, was rich in theatrical timbre, but lacking a sense of musical cohesion. So it was a shock to find that this is an album that beckons to be listened to as you rise from slumber, on a rainy day huddled in bed and on navigations through seldom travelled woodland. Like Bob & Barn’s thematic score to the video game MediEvil, you don’t have to be a connoisseur of classical music to enjoy Dr Dee. Organ chimes, glacial flute playing and rousing angelic choruses enchant your eyes. While the vocal cast convey the pomp of Elizabethan period dramas, Albarn keeps one foot in modern day, sprinkling the tale with his familiar drawl. Dr Dee is an album of theatrical moments made whole by masterfully arrangement. This year’s most unrated musical gem.
Listen to: Apple Carts, The Moon Exalted, The Dancing King
5. JJ Doom – Key to the Kuffs
JJ Doom should be on every top ten list this year purely because it has a song about washing your hands. Seriously, women, if you knew how many drunk dudes don’t even bother to wash their mitts before getting their filthy fingers on you and your curves, you’d be more than disguised. This collaboration between enigmatic masked supervillain, MF Doom, and leftfield producer/rapper Jnerio Jarel is one of the hip hop highlights of the year. Doom’s verses typically draw on the absurd, the ridiculous and the so-crazy-it’s-got-to-be-true. Here, he riffs on exile and belonging with hilarious results. In Jarel’s capable hands, the warped, mystifying beats undulate with the air of a Twilight Zone episode – where this parody vision of Britain would also live quite nicely. The entire album feels like a huge step change from his concoction of Brazilian-soaked space jazz, with the irresistible ‘Viberian Sun Pt. II’ being the closest thing to his previous solo productions. With the lyrical master that is Doom on top form and psychedelic sounds from Jarel, JJ Doom will leave your mind bugging. And it might just make a few dirty slobs think twice before leaving the loo.
Listen to: Wash Your Hands, Borin Convo, Rhymin Slang
4. Quantic & Alice Russell – Look Around the Corner
Emerging from a historic summer of sport, bound by a feeling of national unity that has never been felt on such a scale in my lifetime, it was a harsh autumn that arrived to snap us back to reality. That reality being long, laborious hours for millions across Britain – as friends have expressed to me many times this year. What was needed was a winter warmer, something to remind those scraping a living to hold on to hope. Look Around the Corner was the answer. While the British jazz producer and songstress may be surprised to find me hailing this as the austerity record of the year, it’s really quite simple. It’s a record about change, community and hope. Russell’s voice bellows full of vibrato and soul, accompanied by Quantic’s effervescent jazz arrangements. “She works late and wakes at dawn to pay her rent at city hall” is one of the most poignant lyrics of the year from an album that’s sublime at giving all who listen the courage to make it through hard times.
Listen to: Magdalena, I’ll Keep My Light in My Window, Boogaloo 33
3. De La Soul – De La Soul’s Plug 1 & Plug 2 Present… First Serve
Some hip hop artists still take themselves way too seriously. De La Soul, on the other hand, know how to have fun, and the with help of French producers 2+4, they’ve created a party record that also happens to be a hilarious story of friendship and the pressure fame puts on any relationship. Groggy bass lines and nervous alien sounds on ‘Small Disasters’ cast the duo as amateur MCs, doubt creeping up on their confidence. The triumphant fanfare of ‘We Made It’ arrives as they hit the big time. Throughout this album, De La’s already eccentric Plug 1 and 2 are clearly enjoying playing over the top hip hop stars. And with Da La’s trademark lyrical hooks and sense of humour, this an album made for good times.
Listen to: We Made It, The Top Chefs, Move ‘em In, Move ‘em Out
2. Electric Guest – Mondo
Unknown and underappreciated – and unjustly so. Electric Guest’s debut album deserved to get a lot more attention than it has. The indie rock duo of Asa Taccone and Matthew Compton are responsible for what is, for my money, easily the most additive song of the year: ‘This Head I Hold’. Taccone’s ice cool vocals are sandwiched between hi-speed hand claps, piano chords and bass loops that meld into the perfect three-minute head-rush of 2012. Comparisons have been made to Broken Bells, which is fair with Danger Mouse at the production helm. But that’s overlooking what he does so skilfully as a producer, which is to bring out the very best of the artists he works with. From the quixotic refrain of ‘American Daydream’, to the feverish guitar throngs of ‘Waves’ and the linger twang of ‘Control’, every track stirs acoustics with electro to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. Mondo is an album of first steps. It might not have been unanimously held up as a groundbreaking record, but it proves that this duo can roll with the best of the psychedelic pop circuit.
Listen to: This Head I Hold, Troubleman, Waves
1. Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?
There can only be one album of the year, of course. And no album on this list has been there in way Lianne La Havas’ debut has. Like a reliable friend through the good times and the bad, the heartbreaks and the successes. Havas’ music is uncomplicated, evocative and honest. Her voice, steeped with vigour and conviction, is all you need heard for your ears to be hooked. Delicate, yet powerful when the moment calls for it, you can feel the scope of her voice on ‘Age’, ‘Lost & Found’ and the heartbreaking ‘Gone’. There’s regret (‘Everything Everything’), there’s abstraction (‘Au Cinéma’), there’s reprisal (‘Forget’). It’s an album about love and loss, but from its zenith, to its nadir and eventual conclusion, there’s a reassuringly wholesome sentiment to it. That’s a feeling echoed by the very first track I heard from Havas, ‘No Room for Doubt’ with Willy Mason. The title track captures Havas at her most energetic, but her angelic vocals and captivating guitar riffs make every inch of this album something to savour. That’s why Lianne La Havas is my sound of 2012.
Listen to: Is Your Love Big Enough?, No Room for Doubt (feat. Willy Mason), They Could Be Wrong
Top 10 songs of 2012
10. ‘Hey, Shooter’ by Rocket Juice & the Moon
9. ‘Aaliyah’ by Katy B
8. ‘Sunshine’ by Little Dragon
7. ‘Friday Night’ by The Busy Twist
6. ‘Do Ya Thing (feat. Andre 3000 & James Murphy)’ by Gorillaz
5. ‘Your Love’ by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
4. ‘Magdalena’ by Quantic & Alice Russell
3. ‘Do My Thing (feat. Janelle Monáe)’ by Estelle
2. ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’ by Lianne La Havas
1. ‘This Head I Hold’ by Electric Guest
Image: Collage of album covers by Aaron Lee; album artwork belongs to respective parties