BEST OF 2012: 4. Field Music – Plumb

After the extravagant sprawl of 2010′s double album ‘Measure‘, ‘Plumb‘ lasts for half the time, despite seeming to contain at least as many ideas and melodies across its thirty-five minute run time. Mere moments after tracks have got going they segue effortlessly into others, and while not as safe as Sir Thumbsaloft can sometimes be, it evokes at times the creative schizophrenia of early McCartney solo albums. ‘Choosing Sides‘, itself several songs in one, wails pleadingly: “I want a different idea of love which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit,” while ‘A Prelude To Pilgrim Street’ has a glorious drum workout, accompanied by Who-esque shimmering keys, which offers an affectionate nod to Keith Moon.

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Plumb‘ cements Field Music’s reputation for truly magnificently crafted classic pop-rock, with an unashamed love of the grandiose soundscapes of the Seventies and a taste for adorning songs with neatly selected sounds from real life. The highly strung plastic-funk of ‘Is This The Picture?‘, all runaway drums and falsetto screech, serves an unlikely precursor to the string-laden, percussive swoon of ‘From Hide And Seek To Heartache‘. This paves the way for the a cappella burst of ‘How Many More Times?’ and near-instrumental orchestral flourish ‘Ce Soir‘. The simple fact is, every song here could merit a special mention and the forensic attention to detail sets standards very high.

Plumb‘ genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else in their catalogue, partly because it doesn’t even sound like itself for more than a few songs at a time. An exhilarating and ambitious collection, it should have brought Field Music a deservedly larger audience and, while the Mercury nomination cast a spotlight in their general direction, the nation’s failure to take the Brewis brothers to its heart continues to baffle me. Despite this, those in the know can’t help but adore them, leading to forthcoming vinyl outings for their early releases and promoting a rapturous response for their Saturday night set at Green Man in August. They are quite remarkable musicians doing so much on such a small scale and ‘Plumb‘ is their masterwork.

BEST OF 2012: 5. David Byrne & St Vincent – Love This Giant

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when it was announced that David Byrne and St Vincent were working together, but a smart, swaggering and downright joyous collection of wonky pop tunes (and I don’t mean that in a Hoosiers kind of way – let us never speak of them again) was not it. It may not have the beautiful harmonies of ‘The Lion’s Roar‘, the perfectly balanced textures of ‘Tramp‘ or the raw emotion of ‘The Lovers‘, but it has balls. Enormous ones. Big, brassy ones. You can only begin to imagine the grins on the faces of Byrne and Annie Clark when some of these songs were played back in the studio.

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From the first sight of the double-take artwork, to the final note of ‘Outside Of Space and Time‘, it is clear you are in the presence of something special. Whether it’s the simple charms of the vocal melody on ‘I Am An Ape’ or the unexpectedly perfect way in which Clark’s vocal blends with Byrne’s unmistakeable yelp, there are plenty of slack-jawed, repeat-play moments to be found. The two have said that ‘Love This Giant’ ended up sounding completely different to what they had anticipated themselves and any sense of arty pretension soon evaporates.

The plentiful use of deft horn stabs lends a certain vintage quality to a lot of these tunes, as swirling programmed drums rise and fall around these two distinctive voices. ‘The Forest Awakes‘ skips along, driven by Clark’s breathy vocal to be followed the clamourous racket of ‘I Should Watch TV‘, with Byrne’s excitable yelp at the fore. But this album is at its best when the two fully intertwine, as on ‘Lazarus‘ with its irresistlable swagger. It is this pure pop momentum that so many of this songs possess that makes it quite such fine release. It’s peculiar, hard to define, tricky to describe and even difficult to look at. It is wilfully awkward, cheerily playful and unlike anything either of them have previously created. And for all of these reasons and more Love This Giant‘ stands tall as an incomparable record and one which has held its own in a very strong year for new music. It has, however, split opinion amongst people who judgement I trust and so, out of all thirty of the recommendations in this list, this is perhaps the one most needing of trial listen before stumping up your hard earned. I’d love to know your thoughts.

BEST OF 2012: 6. Lone Wolf – The Lovers

Having left the Bella Union stable, Paul Marshall goes his own way with this stirring collection of boldly arranged, electronically-aided songs, baring the hallmarks of a Talk Talk obsession and a fondness for the organised chaos of Wild Beasts’ hiccupping rhythms. With an achingly emotive voice, Marshall sounds like a man at ease with his music, if not the world. Stand-out track ‘Two Good Lives’ typifies the great ambition and meticulous craft present and will make you sob like a recently dumped fresher. The sincere sadness experienced as the head and the heart fall out is rendered magnificently by this slow-burning monster of a song. It’s not an onslaught, but it can leave you feeling like you’ve been through something emotionally exhausting and yet also make you want to play it again immediately thereafter. Every second of this record is finely sculpted and deserves your full attention. The spaces in-between are almost as important as the notes themselves on a headphone album with which to brave the winter.

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This is a markedly different album to ‘The Devil & I, but no less captivating. ‘Butterfly‘ possesses a chorus which sounds like a witching hour play of the Sugababes‘Hole In The Head‘ at the wrong speed, while ‘The Swan Of Meander’ has lost none of its mellifluous charms in the months since was unveiled as a taster for the record. When you consider the sizeable leap from Marshall’s debut, under his own name, ‘Vultures‘, to that first album as Lone Wolf, an even greater shift has occurred with ‘The Lovers’. For all of the importance of those aforementioned influences, this record manages to sound unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. The awkward blends with the smooth, as discordant noises simmer under beautifully simply synths, while the most crippling of emotions are explored within some truly euphoric vocal performances.

Self-released and hardly riding any current musical zeitgeist, ‘The Lovers’ has slipped quietly into the world. It will prosper based on word of mouth and, knowing what effect that very first listen on headphones had on me one Saturday morning, be sure to give it some of your time during the drifting festive hours. A few hundred fans helped get this out there via PledgeMusic, ensuring that those still in need of music which does more than just fill a car journey can pick up one of the most consistently excellent albums unleashed this year.

BEST OF 2012: 7. Beth Orton – Sugaring Season

In a recent interview, Beth Orton explained that she contemplated the idea that her music career “had run its course” when her contract came to an end not long after the release of 2006′s gorgeously understated and bafflingly overlooked ‘Comfort Of Strangers‘. The lack of expectation and the break from the promotional grind, coupled with becoming a parent, has resulted in an album which looks set to be as much a part of autumn as brown leaves and crisp mornings. Bolstered by the freedom and exploring a different view of songwriting born of a curious clarity gained when attending to a small child in the wee hours, Orton delivers her finest album to date.

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During a recent tour of the UK by train, Orton appeared at Bristol’s Thekla venue. It was heartening to see the genuine warmth for this album and, while classics from the early records were received with sizeable applause, the magic of ‘Magpie‘ and the ferocity of ‘Something More Beautiful‘ provoked that tragically infrequent occurence these days: a truly hushed venue. The evening served to underline that ‘Sugaring Season’ is a record which will endure, stripping back the production and revealing the stunning skeletal tunes below.

Whether its the pastoral subtlety of ‘Dawn Chorus‘ or ‘Poison Tree‘ or the stunning atmospherics of ‘Last Trees Of Autumn‘ and album-closer ‘Mystery‘, this is a record to cherish. The last of that list is the sort of track any Nick Drake fan should go bandy-legged and moist-eyed to, while ‘Something More Beautiful’ evokes the lush majesty of some of the highest points on 1999′s ‘Central Reservation‘. And that’s all without the mentioning the rather peculiar sub-two minute waltz ‘See Through Blue‘. It appears to have rubbed some reviewers up the wrong way but consider me smitten. As I’m sure you will be too. Whether this will be the fifth Beth Orton album on the shelf or she is an artist with whom you’ve never previously clicked, ‘Sugaring Season‘ is one of the most perfectly realised releases of 2012.