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.

BEST OF 2012: 8. Tindersticks – The Something Rain

Opening with a nine-minute spoken word piece, with a neat sting in its tail, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be a desperate stab for populism and huge sales. ‘Chocolate‘ has been described as a sequel to ‘My Sister‘, one of many highlights on their second album. And it’s somewhere between the passionate intensity of that classic record and the languid soul of their fifth studio outing, ‘Can Our Love…‘, that ‘The Something Rain‘ sits. It is an intense and deeply emotive listen when taken in one sitting and the fact that the band subsequently released a live recording of all bar ‘Chocolate‘ with no additional material perhaps underlines the power of this suite of songs.

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Whereas ‘Falling Down A Mountain’ lost some its charms over time, this latest effort feels truly substantial. It doesn’t give a toss what anybody else thinks and doesn’t expect to sell thousands upon thousands of copies. It’s the sound of a band who have reached a point where they’re happy in their collective skin, with a guaranteed hardcore of fans waiting excitedly for each release and who will give things time to sink in. The feeling that Tindersticks songs are always slowly evolving has been with me for years, often returning to the first three albums in particular to see what I would notice this time around. ‘This Fire Of Autumn‘ is the perfect example, having appeared on the album in a manically intense form, only to be recast as a disco stormer for a singe release. The swaggering tracks are, this time around, a fitting match for the predictably excellent sombre moments like ‘Come Inside’.

Self-produced and with a grandiose sound borne out of recent performances of their many film scores, this represents their finest work since their return in 2008 by some stretch. Although this phrase seems a little like a Tindersticks trademark, having been used about them plenty of times in the past, ‘The Something Rain‘ really is a collection of understated majesty.

BEST OF 2012: 9. Hannah Cohen – Child Bride

Initially released quietly on vinyl only in a blank sleeve to hide the fact that Hannah Cohen is actually a model and photographer, with label Bella Union simply wanting the music to do the talking, ‘Child Bride‘ has ended up one of the better kept secrets of 2012. In fact, when I submitted my list for the magazine’s end of year chart, my reviews editor replied with ‘who the fuck is Hannah Cohen?’. Perhaps, sometimes, it is possible to market something too softly. By this point in life, I will listen keenly to anything on that particular label and so am one of the initiated. A quick listen to ‘California‘ and ‘Don’t Say‘ and you’ll be joining me in this enlightened land.

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Sitting somewhere between Joni and Norah in terms of textures and delivery and having grown out of a personal interest in songs and songwriting which simply formed yet another artistic outlet for the multi-talented Cohen, this is an album which can feel a little slight at first. In the same way that the first listen to ‘Come Away With Me‘ was like walking through freshly fallen snow while someone threw rose petals at you and gave you a head massage, the opening moments of this album are luscious in the extreme. The slightly unsettling ache in ‘Shadows‘ offers a little shade to the more frequent light, with the production having an echo of Godrich’s indie ways of old.

The slightly jazzy feel to ‘Boy‘ which opens the second side offers further evidence that this record has rather more to it than might initially seem obvious. Indeed, the sonic landscape that has seen this dismissed as gentle folk by various reviewers not paying much attention, is actually subtly intricate and a good pair of headphones will see you right. Under such circumstances, you might even find ‘The Crying Game’ a little too much to take. When you’re thumbing the racks looking for alleged sale items next week, leave the predictable piles of £3 shite and take a punt on this little beauty instead.

BEST OF 2012: 10. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Every year you get a couple of albums which smoulder across the months, obviously good from the first listen but not immediately revealing just how much they’re going to dominate your listening thereafter. ‘Tramp’ is one such record, arriving in February to much deserved plaudits and with a stark and simple sleeve. It simmers with the anger of a ruined relationship but the gut wrenching emotions at its core do not make for a ‘difficult’ listen. Indeed, this is a powerful crossover record, much like The National‘s ‘High Violet‘ represented a phenomenally high watermark for the band in 2010, after years of producing still excellent music. Aaron Dessner of that band had his oen part to play in this wonderful album, taking on production duties having previously covered a track fom Van Etten‘s previous release ‘Epic

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Soaring guitars have their place and are sparingly but beautifully deployed throughout a collection of songs united by purpose and content rather than one specific sound. The demure acoustic strum of ‘Ask‘ sits alongside the far spikier ‘Serpents‘, while the mandolin tinged majesty of ‘Leonard‘ is a joy to behold on every listen. It also makes for a rather splendid end to a Best of 2012 compilation, should you be searching for that elusive conclusion. There’s a hint of old PJ Harvey here at times and the staggering vocal lure of prime Cat Power, to attempt to offer a little context. The delicate arrangements cannot entirely mask the stinging lyrical content.

But, whatever ‘Tramp’ might start out as to your ears, it doesn’t take long to assume its own important place in your record collection. The beautiful ‘We Are Fine’ provides details of how Van Etten subdues a panic attack: “trying hard to breathe, head between my knees, take my hand and squeeze, say I’m alright,” blossoming into a folksy duet with Zach Condon of the band Beirut. Although much has been made about the visceral subject matter, not least by the artist herself: “I hate putting negative energy out into the world. But it’s either inside or out. I mean, it’s either get an ulcer or have a fight,” out of emotional pain has come some quite brilliant music.

BEST OF 2012: 11. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Quirky, engaging, obtuse. All words I’d previously have attached to the work of Dirty Projectors. I’d liked but not loved their output up to this point. Interested enough to give each new release a listen but not exactly twitching in anticipation. And, I suspect, this ambivalence allowed ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ to unwittingly lay siege to my brain in the week running up to the start of the Olympics this summer. An incorrectly labelled pre-order had resulted in me opting for the ‘deluxe’ edition of the vinyl for this one but the packaging – all tip-on gatefold sleeve and embossed lettering for both the cover and the included lyric sheet – caught my imagination and I ensured that the free WAV downloads provided were on the iPod before we set out on a summer jaunt near Brighton. From the hummed opening notes of ‘Offspring Are Blank’, past the fantastically over-egged pronunciation of the phrase ’About To Die’ in its chorus and on to the throbbing ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, the opening trio on this record are enough to get anyone hooked. And so it was.

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Day after day I would return to ‘Swing Lo Magellan’. It would rarely be my first choice but, at some point in proceedings, on it would go, again and again. It was catchy, it was clever and it was wonderfully arranged. David Longsteth’s vocals truly reach their peak on this record: masterfully controlled one moment, howling emotively the next. There is nothing wilfully awkward about this set of songs. It retains Dirty Projectors’ sonic quirks but puts the solid three minute so at the heart of its ambitions. And succeeds. The African influence on the guitar sounds is appreciable if not excessive, and – don’t worry – very much not in a Vampire Weekend kind of way.

Bucking the front-loaded album trend, two of the very finest songs on this wonderful collection reside on its second side. ‘Impregnable Question’ and ‘Irresponsible Tune’ are simple, vintage pop tunes. The piano on the former is foregrounded for the middle eight and, without being fancy, it is utterly spellbinding. Laden with hooks, if not attractive artwork, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is the surprise package of the year for me. It is one of two albums to truly change the way I think about a band. The other is still to come.

BEST OF 2012: 12. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

As I sat idly picking at a Costa muffin and ruing my choice of hot beverage one afternoon in the west country town of Frome, a tune crept through the general hubbub and myriad pronunciations of the word latte. Clearly, Shazam was called for at this point, but the various sounds contributing to this magnificent atmosphere thwarted such technological wizardry. Instead, I attempted to scribble down what words I could discern being sung by two staggeringly beautiful female voices. Unfortunately, my transcription was far from complete and thus some experimental googling was required before I alighted upon ‘Waltz For Richard’ from First Aid Kit’s debut album, ‘The Big Black & The Blue’. Said album was duly sought out and several tracks in addition to that which had a-costa-ed me that afternoon struck me as rather splendid. But it didn’t prepare me for the consistent magnificence of ‘The Lion’s Roar’.

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The gorgeous early seventies American feel to Johanna and Klara Söderberg’s voices gently aches across this fine collection of songs, stirring and soothing in equal measure. The xylophone-enhanced sashay of ‘Blue’ possesses a wonderfully warm bass sound and the quality of production on ‘The Lion’s Roar’ is not to be underestimated. The resonance of a well recorded rhythm section is one of the true joys of listening to vinyl from forty odd years back and, from the very first play, I experienced the same sensation with this album.

And then there’s one of 2012’s finest narrative songs, nestled away as the second track. From the title onwards, ‘Emmylou’ is a wonderfully conceived and constructed tune, with a chorus so simple but charming that it truly never grows old. “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too,” not only makes cunning use of country music based relationships, but also offers up a less than subtle hint as to the duo’s influences. The chorus is flat out gold and the whole song is an easy one to pick up: a guaranteed earworm without much exposure. The whole album possesses subtle but lasting melodic kinks and while I don’t doubt that it has soundtracked hundreds of polite dinner parties this year, it is a record with which to slowly, openly and happily fall in love.