In compiling this list, there were two acts I had to leave off for technical reasons. Burial’s Kindred EP was an incredible progression of his previous work and proof that demand for a new album may be unnecessary if he keeps churning out EPs like this. Alas, it was only an EP, not an album. TNGHT’s self-titled EP was disqualified for the same reason, but was there a more stomping tune to dance to all year than the awesome “Higher Ground”? Probably not. Without further ado, here are the albums that did manage to make the cut:
10. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
It seems that crisis is good for Jason Pierce’s creative juices. His band’s 1997 masterpiece Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (a genuine G.O.A.T. contender) was inspired, like so many albums, by real-life heartbreak, and his serious double-pneumonia induced illness a few years back, an illness that almost killed him, has led to a late career re-blossoming. This album operates in broad emotional strokes, but like the best of the band’s music, its widescreen production and familiarity with epic blues-rock and psychedelia operates in Sweet Heart Sweet Light’s favor.
9. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Truly an album of two halves. The first, a little underwhelming even after repeated listens (and containing one cover version that doesn’t work). The second, frankly irresistible. The Canadian rock duo hasn’t really altered their blueprint, and most songs on this album sound like an attempt to out-anthem Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” On the stunning “The House That Heaven Built,” the best song I heard all year, they almost manage it. The band also gets extra points for their live show, which was one of the best I’ve seen in many a year. What they lack in variety, they make up for with bags of heart.
8. Melody’s Echo Chamber – S/T
The brainchild of Melody Prochet, an Australian now based in Paris, this self-titled debut album was produced by Kevin Parker of Tame Impala and shares that band’s summery, shimmery feel. This felt like less of a nostalgic look back and more like an attempt to create something of substance from apparently lightweight elements. Melody’s voice floats ghost-like over the backdrop, but there’s a lot going on here, and it’s an album that grows in stature with each listen. “You Won’t Be Missing That Part Of Me” in particular got a lot of airplay in my apartment. It’s the kind of album you want to wrap around you like a warm blanket.
7. Bloc Party – Four
It was described as a return to the angular rock of their debut album, which it isn’t. It was described as something of a return to form, which it isn’t. Bloc Party has always had an aspect of trial and error about their records, but it’s the trial that makes them so interesting. Even the songs that don’t work aren’t boring, and rather than some diluted attempt to recapture the glories of Silent Alarm, Four was the sound of a band searching for a new direction, sounding angry and as urgent as they ever have. “3×3” was thrillingly heavy, while “Real Talk” is a surprisingly funky slow jam. Yes, the lyrics are still occasionally clunky, but in a moribund British guitar scene, they stand out as a shining light.
6. Gojira – L’Enfant Sauvage
The best straight-up metal album of the year came from France, specifically from a French band that has built up a serious reputation with aficionados of the heavy stuff over the last decade. L’Enfant Sauvage was a knockout, a punishing but precise exercise in metal dynamics with a handful of great songs. The title track’s mood shift between jazzy cymbal taps and crushing riffs was a fine example of what makes this band special, namely a dexterity and attention to detail rather than a desire to just clobber their audience (not to suggest that the album is anything less than really, really loud, of course). The thinking man’s metal band.
5. Purity Ring – Shrines
Another Canadian act and a much-anticipated debut album that saw the band emerge fully formed with their own seductive, beguiling, and distinctive sound. Most of the songs on Shrines draw from the same template, but luckily, it’s a fertile one. Trap beats, R&B influences, and deep, shimmering bass combine with Megan James’s reverb-soaked vocals to produce an album that is both gorgeous and a little creepy. They also dropped one of the year’s finest singles in “Fineshrine” with the memorable vocal, “Open up my sternum and pull my little ribs around you.” How’s that for a chat-up line?
4. Grimes – Visions
More Canadians! Actually just the one this time. Claire Boucher has been everywhere this year and with good reason. As a pop star, she has it all. As a songwriter, she certainly has chops. And as a producer of synth-based pop filtered through a curious imagination, she proved herself to be one of the year’s most alluring one-man shows. Bigger things surely lay ahead for Grimes, but in this case, the substance backs up the hype. Visions is resonant, fascinating, and hugely addictive, and Boucher should be applauded for bringing some relatively experimental music into the mainstream by sheer force of personality.
3. My Dry Wet Mess – Stereo Typing
After well over a dozen listens, I still can’t figure out how to describe the new album by My Dry Wet Mess, aka Italian producer Giovanni Civitenga, a Roman now based in Barcelona. It was the most eye-catching release in another strong year for LA imprint Brainfeeder. It was informed by dubstep, UK garage, house, and a bunch of other sub-genres, but then mixed in a huge pan and cooked up into an entirely unrecognizable meal. For all the crazy, pitch-shifted vocals, bleeps, and beats on the record, Civitenga grounds everything in melody and allows elements to coexist peacefully with a lightness of touch, rather than jarring styles. A startling album that I’m still unravelling, and left-field electronica at its finest.
2. Holy Other – Held
In a year during which EDM got even bigger and soulless dance music dominated festivals, Holy Other’s album stood out as a beacon on humanity in its field. An album of rich, warm depth and tangible emotion built from entirely synthetic elements, Held revealed a heartbeat behind the machinery. The Manchester-based producer created the latest in a long line of late-night, atmospheric soundtracks from the UK, a niche pretty much dominated by Burial in recent years, and the album has accompanied me on many a night since its release. The promise shown by the With U EP was fulfilled with some style.
1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
There was some serious internet buzz when Godspeed revealed they were about to drop their first long player in a decade, but for some fans, there was a sense of anti-climax when it was revealed that the two long pieces that make up the meat of the album were, in fact, pieces that the band had been playing live for years, finally committed to record.
To my mind, the complaints seemed absurd in the face of the fact that the album was a summation and progression on everything that had made the band legendary in the first place. This is music on the grandest scale possible, music that ebbed and flowed and swelled into titanic climaxes of real beauty. You can count on one hand the number of bands capable of generating the kind of power that Godspeed manages, and this was once again a release that had many reaching for the superlatives handbook, myself included. Another extraordinary album, as good as anything they’ve ever released.