Monday, December 24, 2012

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Four

And here they are. After 23 days of pre-amble, we've finally made it. Here are our favourite albums of the year.

Andy Welch

Bat For Lashes  - The Haunted Man

I'm a sucker for a backstory, and they don't get more endearing than the one behind The Haunted Man. There was heartbreak, tour-induced exhaustion, writers' block, soul-searching and a new beginning. To overcome the obstacles in her way, Natasha Khan threw herself into writing and recording the album in a way she, even by her own immersive standards, had never done before. Everything about the album feels like a statement, whether it's the bold cover image, the minor-key beauty of 'Laura', or the elaborate theatre of 'All Your Gold'. In the same way PJ Harvey's Let England Shake was, The Haunted Man is brilliant not just because of the strong ideas, but because they were realised so completely. It's a sensational record, and the most imaginative and enjoyable I've heard all year. 

Matt Collins

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (Wichita) 

The second album proper from ridiculously young Swedish sisters First Aid Kit only came out in February. After listening to it once, I tweeted it as my album of the year already. Ten months of music later, I've been proven right. They mine a classic folk country vein that artists 40 years their seniors have yet to master, and write superb story based songs of heartbreak that they surely haven't even had time to experience themselves. Standout single 'Emmylou' is probably song of the year, the harmonies are absolutely perfect, and there just isn't a duff track to be found. A worthy album of the year.

Pranam Mavahalli

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)

I like to think that my choice of album of the year signifies...something. In previous years, Bjork's Biophilia opened my mind to how ambitious music can still be, Caribou's Swim renewed my love for electronic music, and Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest just blew me away through sheer beauty. But this year, the reason I've chosen Dirty Projectors is perhaps less lofty. It's simply the album of all in my list that I would recommend to anyone with any kind of interest in songs. The band have always been original, but their wilful abstraction has been replaced by warmth here, which makes these songs easy to embrace and despite moving and turning in surprising directions. Beautiful songs, beautifully recorded, and expressing a range of sounds and emotions, I've liked a lot of records this year, but Swing Lo Magellan is the only album I can say I've loved.

Ali Mason

Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America (Wilderland Records)

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Anais Mitchell is the best lyricist out there right now. Trying to pick out some of my favourite lines from Young Man In America, I realised what I was actually doing, more or less, was writing out every song word for word. I study her lyrics like I haven’t done with anyone since I was a 14-year-old dreaming of being Jarvis Cocker. My absolute favourite, from He Did, is: “Your daddy didn’t leave a will/ he left a shovel and a hole to fill/ and it how it feels to be a child of his.” It’s so good because it sums up the emptiness of bereavement, and also encapsulates one of the major themes of the album: how one generation is influenced by the last. This is as much a state-of-the-nation album as a personal one, political as much as emotional. Mostly, though, it’s blue-collar folk stories sung powerfully and tenderly by perhaps the most precious artist around.

Guy Atkinson

The Menzingers - On The Impossible Past (Epitaph)

"I've been having a horrible time..." is the line that introduces this album but never has an opening been so far removed from the feeling I experience at the end. This collection of melancholic punk anthems is destined to last for an age and will long be held up as a high watermark for what melodic punk bands should be be striving for. This is genuinely an album I think I will still love as much when I'm 50 as I did when I first heard it.

Dom Farrell

Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)

Almost every review I’ve ever read on Grizzly Bear has referred to “chamber pop”. Now I won’t be doing that, not only because I don’t have the foggiest idea what it means (I just Googled it), but because Shields is far too brilliant an album to plaster a silly genre label onto. Everything that made 2009’s Veckatimest so wonderful is still largely in place – intricate arrangements played with a vivid and precise beauty. However, there is a sense of urgency and toughness about Shields that drips down from the fractured, modulated guitar riff that kicks off ‘Sleeping Ute’ and infuses everything thereafter. Grizzly Bear have rarely been accused of sounding like they’re having fun, but when ‘Yet Again’ – a euphoric pop song without a chamber in sight – descends into a euphoric outro, distorted Flaming Lips drums and all, they sound like they’re having a ball. Penultimate track ‘Half Gate’ seems a certain high watermark – all bruised, aching introspection pitched expertly – until closer ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ brings the house down. The climb from stately piano ballad to skyscraping epic is implausibly good, touching perfection. It feels a fitting place for this magnificent band to sign off until next time.

Ian Parker

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)

Predictable, right? Well, yes and no, not least as I wouldn’t have predicted it until I was finalising the list and it kept creeping towards the top. Psychedelic Pill is not perfect. So far from perfect it probably has more wrong with it than any other album in my top 10 (and yet, here we are). Too many of Neil’s more recent albums have been hurt by some lazy lyrics, and the 27 minute opener ‘Driftin’ Back’ would have been considerably more awesome without his all-too-predictable rant about mp3s 20 minutes in. But Neil, being the stubborn old git that he is, has always demanded that we accept him warts and all or not at all, and I pretty much always have. I rank him as the Greatest Musician In the History of Ever, and this, bootlegs and reissues aside, is the best thing he’s released since 2005’s Prairie Wind. Winner.

:: I thought about using the four minute edit for Walk Like A Giant. But not for long. Here are all 16 glorious minutes of it.

Rory Dollard

Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)

If you managed to wade through the gushing Ode to Springsteen that constituted my number two pick yesterday, you'll know I must have some pretty mad love for any album I place ahead of the Boss' latest. Step forward Swing Lo Magellan, my offering for the most outstanding artistic statement of 2012. Dave Longstreth's songs are, without fail, remarkable constructions - shape-shifting and tetchy, prickly as hedgehogs and sweet as honey. They are blasts of smooth harmony and gasps of teeth-jarring discord. This mad scientist's brew was present to some degree on previous offering Bitte Orca, but here it has been distilled into its most irresistible form yet. I spent the whole year looking for music that would make feel like this and finding it is the reason I'll do the same in 2013.

Steve Pill

Christian Scott – Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord Music)

I’m willing to bet we've made it this far without this album cropping up on anyone else's list, but if the most recent jazz album you own dates from the 1960s, you'd do well to pick things up here. The first three tracks here act as a statement of intent. From the Sketches of Spain squall of 'Fatima Aisha Rokero 400', through the marching band roll of 'New New Orleans (King Adjuah Stomp)' and on to the tinkling Oriental pianos of 'Kuro Shinobi', this is the sound of an artist flexing his muscles in new and inventive ways. As with all double albums, you could argue that a judicious edit might have made this a really hard-hitting single CD but that would miss the point. In a year packed with plenty truly listenable albums but few landmarks, this deserves recognition for aiming higher, further and weirder than anything else.

John Skilbeck 

Frida Hyvonen - To The Soul (RMV Grammofon)
Frida Hyvonen was described this year - or at least she was according to Google Translate - as a “lady from space in rubber boots” by Benny Andersson of Abba. And if that doesn’t sell her to you, I’m sorry. Maybe these offerings might:
- Andersson volunteered his services to play ukulele for Frida on a Swedish TV show over the summer, and you can see that performance here.
- She also sang for Paul Simon in August when he was celebrated at the lavish Polar Music Prize award ceremony in Stockholm, attended by King Carl XVI Gustaf. You can see her take on The Sound of Silence here.
Both of those videos mislead the viewer a little though.
When I saw Frida play her only UK show of the year on Halloween, in a London concert hall (downstairs in the Guardian’s swish building), it was effectively a solo show: Frida and a grand piano - plus a friend who appeared to be on stage more for the company she offered than the occasional backing vocal. She nailed that show, owned that piano. One minute she’d be throwing her head back and writhing in an acted-out orgasm; the next (the one-song encore) she’d have jaws dropping with that song from album two about that abortion she had that time. Frida’s like that, puckering up one minute and booting you in the gut the next.
To The Soul proved right up there with her mighty second album, Until Death Comes, which topped my advent chart three years ago. A key segment of To The Soul is dedicated to her late grandmother, including a beautifully recounted telling of the funeral on Farmor (Swedish for grandmother). But it’s 'Saying Goodbye' that was the standout song, the one that really brought the goose bumps out. Here’s a live version that builds from a slow start to a full-paced climax, or here, should you prefer, is how it sounded on the album.

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