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.

BEST OF 2012: 13. Jessica Pratt – Jessica Pratt

Tucked away in a long, thin shop at the back of St Nick’s Market in Bristol is one of the finest second hand record shops I’ve ever had the luck to visit. It is a place where one can find both hard to locate pressings from the Nineties and mint copies of Sixties relics. Wall displays tease and taunt with the quite staggeringly splendid wares. Want to see an original Nick Drake pressing? A mono ‘Revolver’? Original pressings of forgotten treasures recently dug up by Light In The Attic? All this and more have graced this particular store in recent months and John, who runs the whole shebang at Wanted Records, is very particular about the stock he gets in. Not for him battered discs with barely half a dozen plays left in them. Hold these discs up to the light and you will be more than pleasantly surprised. Add in the fact that these records are reasonably priced and soon you’ll be happy to take a punt on something simply because it looks good. Which is exactly how I could imagine having come across the self-titled debut by Jessica Pratt. Except, of course, I didn’t, for it is a new and very recent release. But the presentation, both in terms of packaging and audio production, speaks of a time long gone and had I pulled this out of the same box as a few Joni Mitchells and a touch of Karen Dalton, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

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Yes, indeed, bold as this claim might be, this album would arguably not be out of place in such company. The black and white, textless cover, the frankly gorgeous back of the sleeve and the charming presence of a bit of gentle tape hiss throughout reveal a record which seems to have been frozen in time forty-two years ago. The truth is, I only purchased this album a few weeks before I set about finalising this list of albums of the year and I am, to a point, taking a wee punt in popping this as high up the pile of particularly splendid musical offerings of the past twelve months. I do this safe in the knowledge that it has lost none of its charm over the excessive number of plays it has received in a short space of time and is a very real contender for being one of those albums I mentioned just before I started counting down this list that end up neglected, only to rise in my affections. Well, balls to that and here goes. In with a bullet at 13 because it is utterly beguiling and if I change my mind I may have taken leave of my senses. Should that happen, please alert the authorities.

And what of the music I hear you ask, through gritted teeth and incredibly close to abandoning this almost stream of consciousness splurge of a review. Well, it has hints of those early Dalton tapes that have emerged in lieu of her having only recorded two studio albums, with delicately plucked acoustic guitar, occasionally background noises and that tiny bit of oh so utterly adorable creaking on the vocals. ‘Half Twain The Jesse’ should do the trick. Click the delightful artwork above and Spotify should allow you to undertake that particular pleasure.

As it goes, it was another record shop in Bristol that alerted me to this one. Adrian Dutt, Rise employee and man behind some of the finest gig posters you’ll see anytime soon, mentioned it to me in a tweet and implored me to seek it out. He was, of course, right. He also recently recommended Rachel Zeffira’s quite sublime ‘The Deserters’ which came out even later than this album and thus missed out on an almost certain placing in this list, if initial listens are anything to go by. He’s clearly a very wise man indeed. Enjoy either or both of these albums, why don’t you. If they do nothing for you, I’m not sure we can ever be friends.

BEST OF 2012: 14. Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne

Some bands seem to never stop toiling at the coal face, regularly delivering new albums, preaching to the converted and seemingly content to simply do what they do. Most utterly lovely amongst such bands are the fine folk of Saint Etienne. After years of deluxe edition reissues, fan club only box sets and Christmas compilation curios, it was a cause for joy to be on the receiving end of a new set of songs in 2012. In fact, we already knew it was going to be great before we heard a note. The album artwork is a masterpiece and one of the finest covers to grace a slab of vinyl in recent years. Having had the opportunity to re-evaluate why I loved them in the first place, I approached ‘Words and Music by Saint Etienne‘ with the ears of an enthusiast and was not in any way disappointed.

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The timeless classic pop nous that Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and chart enthusiast and all round music keeno Bob Stanley possess has always been an innocent pleasure. Their music may evoke memories of times and tunes gone by, but never in an ironic or artificial way. Where the Pet Shop Boys can deliver magnificently self-deprecating, even sardonic material of great quality, Saint Etienne provide the sincere enthusiasts approach. The glory in a good bassline well deployed or a neat bit of house piano attached to an intro radiates from their work and this utterly open approach, free of calculating agenda, is hugely infectious. ‘I’ve Got Your Music‘ evokes those early Nineties TOTP thrills, whilst opener ‘Over The Border‘ narrates the early life of most Smash Hits buying, chart monitoring, single collecting music fans of a certain age.

The album’s lead off track, the euphorically robust ‘Tonight’ nearly clinched the Popjustice £20 prize for single of the year, and the album’s softer moments serve to remind us of the velvety majesty of Cracknell’s legendary voice. But, I have yet to mention the album’s stand out moment. It is found on the album’s stand out track, ‘Last Days Of Disco‘. Since I first heard it, I have declared this the great lost Kylie single. A Minogue version would wipe the floor with anyone but, tucked away on a Saint Etienne album and heard by the devoted minority, it works most as a best kept secret charmer. Late on in the song, some clearly played on a keyboard strings come in that are so utterly demonstrative of the euphoric power of certain moments in music I can’t write this without having to put it on again and again and again. In fact, I’ll stop now, so you can do the same.

BEST OF 2012: 15. Nils Frahm – Screws

Everyone has a couple of artists about whom they are evangelical. You buy their albums for other people, certain titles get kept in a permanent spot by the hi-fi and when nothing else quite hits the spot you reach for their catalogue. This last year, one of mine has been Nils Frahm, whose piano-based music toys with my mind in a way which is both beguiling and unnerving. The thrill of good music is one of my great pleasures in life. The unspoken connection made when a record or performance takes off is majestic. But, very occasionally, you hear music which seems to chime with your soul, stop your thoughts and lay siege to your brain. For me, Frahm’s ‘Wintermusik‘ is one such example. I have lost track of how many times I have played that in the months since I finally got hold of it. It is heartbreakingly simple, utterly enthralling and quite fabulously crafted. Which is all the more remarkable when you learn that it was only ever originally intended as a Christmas gift for his family and friends. If I could afford to, I would offer to buy a copy for every person who reads this piece, in the hope that it would bring as much pleasure to you as it has me.

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Long introductions aside, and having since also released 2011’s best kept secret ‘Felt‘, Frahm unleashed ‘Screws‘ initially as a free download accompanied by a blog post explaining its creation. When you ply your trade and earn your crust by playing the piano, a thumb break is pretty much disastrous. Such circumstances befell Frahm early in 2012 but, rather than accept defeat, he crafted these nine pieces, all playable with one digit fewer than your average ivory tickler possesses. Going against doctor’s orders, these beautiful and sparse solo piano tunes came together during the empty late nights left when Frahm had to cancel his commitments due to the injury. ‘Screws‘ is blessed with the same emotive simplicity that made 2009’s ‘Wintermusik‘ such an essential listen and, while he regards it as something of a temporary stopping point en route to something more fully formed, ‘La‘ is one of several tracks to float free of the speakers and deliver an emotional punch.

As with much of the Erased Tapes output, once you’ve heard one piece by one of their artists, you’ll want the lot. And, when it comes to Frahm, I cannot urge you strongly enough to let ‘Felt‘, ‘Screws’ and, of course, ‘Wintermusik‘ into your world. Enjoy.

Screws is still available as a free download, including a delightful 24 bit lossless option. Fans are in the process of reworking it here.

BEST OF 2012: 16. Grimes – Visions

It’s funny how some people have to dress pop up to allow themselves to take it seriously. Allow me to make a few statements which should provoke some unfollows on Twitter and ensure a few people don’t visit this site again. Robbie Williams‘ ‘Candy‘ is a tremendous little tune, ticking all of the classic pop boxes and bearing multiple listens. The return of Girls Aloud is a wonderful thing and ‘Every Now And Then‘ is right up there with the berserker pop they so fabulously churned out in the past. Even ‘Beautiful ‘Cause You Love Me‘ works, despite its genuinely hilarious ‘basin/face in’ rhyme. Most people who are keen on their music had early exposure to such pop via chart countdowns and daytime radio and will have a few embarrassing early purchases loitering in the past. And yet, it would seem plenty lose this love of a straight up pop nugget as they age. It’s all very odd.

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And, however you might like to dress it up with artwork that looks like some sort of emo album or with kooky tales of Grimes‘ creator Claire Boucher, ‘Visions‘ is a pretty fantastic pop record. The clearest evidence for the prosecution is side two’s opener, ‘Be A Body’, which is a compilation staple for me and a great first toe in the waters of this upbeat muddle. Synthy, soulful and prone to the odd unconventional beat, the album is an unrelenting burst of ideas.

You’ll have seen by now the critical hysteria brought on by ‘Visions‘ and it’s pretty much all deserved. Indeed, you probably don’t need me to tell you why you need to listen to it as it has been talked about everywhere by this point. The BBC Music review memorably described ‘Eight’ as a “terrifying Cocteau Twins-go-dubstep number” and if that doesn’t sell you on a record, nothing will. In short, I know you already like it, much as I do and I’m fairly certain I like it for the same schizophrenic pop tendencies that always make Xenomania‘s work with the aforementioned Girls Aloud so enjoyable. And that’s fine by me.

BEST OF 2012: 17. Django Django – Django Django

I love the moment when a song from an album you know well appears on a compilation and, as it comes to an end, your brain cues up the opening bars of the track that follows it on said parent record. That involuntary reaction, that euphoric familiarity, is an intoxicating feeling, not unlike certain songs’ ability to conjure locations, times of year and even specific events. When the gloriously louche ‘Hail Bop’ retreats into blankness, I can already hear the stuttering, thumping start to ‘Default‘ beginning in my mind’s ear. And as all of this music, both real and imaginary, plays I am transported to the downstairs counter of Rise in Bristol, where for several months this album seemed to always be playing.

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I didn’t even like it much the first time I heard it, finding it somewhere between a limp Beta Band and a novelty record. I know, I almost didn’t tell you that. Wouldn’t want you doubting my clearly sizeable credentials. ‘Firewater‘ does have more than a hint of Steve Mason‘s old band but there’s much more to this album than mere pastiche. Psychedelic synth-driven repetitive chant favouring electro-indie is very much the order of the day on this startling debut. The product of two years’ hard graft, Hot Chip fans and lovers of beautiful melody should form an orderly queue.

The percussive dropout during the aforementioned ‘Default’ before the beat returns louder and lovelier may be one of my favourite musical moments of 2012. The whole record has an irresistible feel-good factor which perhaps explain why it was such a constant on the instore stereo in Bristol during the sunnier weeks of the year. As is becoming something of a theme across these little write ups, plenty of my favourite music of this year has been influenced by the human faces of the record industry. You can’t be conditioned into liking an album by frequent visits to the websites of the nation’s various nefarious tax dodgers. You won’t have an amazing album thrust into your hands by someone who remembers something else you liked recently by the 1-Click checkout procedure. This year, more than ever, I have appreciated the experience, enthusiasm and effusive recommendations of people who are at the forefront of music retail in this day and age. If any snivelling fuckwit tells you 2012 hasn’t been a good year for tunes, point them in the direction of their local independent record shop and tell them to speak to the staff, instead of standing in the corner checking their smartphone to see if they can get 47p off the CD in their hand by shopping online.

BEST OF 2012: 18. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Possessing one of the finest album openers of the year in the shudderingly malevolent ‘The Gravedigger’s Song‘, it would seem that the eight years since Lanegan last flew solo have provided the inspiration for songs of an astonishing calibre. This is a confident, bold and captivating record, and one which is dominated by that beguilingly ragged voice. Musical accompaniment includes turns from Josh Homme and Greg Dulli, with whom Lanegan previously worked as part of The Twilight Singers. ‘Gray Goes Black‘ picks up the electro touches from the opener and belies a penchant for Krautrock which puts in another appearance on the splendidly titled ‘Ode To Sad Disco‘. Having worked up some of these songs using keyboards and a drum machine rather than the guitar, ‘Blues Funeral’ possesses the fullest and most varied sound of his career to date.

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When the guitars are foregrounded, Lanegan can still strut like the best: ‘Riot In My House‘ offers a particularly fine burst of raw energy. ‘Harborview Hospital’ is a curious collection of synth swirls and plodding drum loops, whilst tucked sombrely amongst the album’s louder moments is the beautifully melancholic ‘Phantasmagoria Blues‘. ‘Leviathan’, a squally waltz, takes an unexpected turn towards the end when the repeated lyric “every day a prayer for what I never knew, this is one I said for you,” suddenly gains ‘Pet Sounds’ style harmonies, conjuring a sense of what Brian Wilson‘s more troubling moments may have sounded like in his head. In a good way, of course. There’s also a touch of a grizzled, hungover Richard Hawley in several of the vocal performances and those fond of the most recent release by Sheffield’s will find plenty to enjoy here.

‘Blues Funeral‘ is one of those albums where you end up playing it endlessly for several months before letting it retreat into the racks for a while, so as not to tire it out. But when you return to it, as you surely must, it seems as fresh and ferocious as it ever did. Although it sounds imperious on a pair of decent speakers, it’s also a mighty fine headphones record, with just the right blend of menacing bass and sickening claustrophobia. In a good way, of course.