Last year’s top five albums held up surprisingly well in my memory: if I’ve returned to Midnight At The Movies or California as much as I have to Merriweather Post Pavilion, it is for simpler pleasures than the sometimes demanding latter can offer. To this end, I’m brutally omitting great albums from 2010 from this year’s list, such as Riverboat Soul, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, or, most painfully, the inventive but at times cold Antifogmatic. Great melodies are essential, but the defining albums of a year need to offer a coherent, compelling something on top, right?
5. John Grant – Queen of Denmark
It’s difficult to ignore a record which adds honest-to-goodness pop hooks to lyrics such as, “Jesus / He hates homos son / We told you that when you were young.” Lest we forget, Grant had practically given up on the music business; what he achieved in 2010, at the urging of Midlake, was a shimmering pop record of at times uncomfortable depth. Once heard, Queen of Denmark lingers in your ears, and your head, and demands relistens even when at first you may fail to love it. It is a troubled, triumphant LP – and it worries away at its listener. Shyly remarkable.
4. Roky Erickson – True Love Cast Out All Evil
Not so very different from Queen of Denmark in many respects, True Love Cast Out All Evil has the sweet surface, the demons beneath, and the redeemed singer at its centre. Both its genre and its tenor, however, are quite different: produced by Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Roky Erickson here inhabits a grimy, garage Americana, plucked acoustics giving way to distorted soundscapes before falling back to earth again. Throughout, Erickson’s winsome lyrics are rescued from naivety by their sense of earned weight. This is a life-affirming record not because it pretends everything is OK, but because it knows things aren’t. Despite all the ugliness in Erickson’s life, which is often much in evidence here, this record is quite beautiful. Everyone should own it.
3. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Simply chock-full of consistently good songcraft. A quintessential coming-of-age album, I Speak Because I Can finds Marling a far more disciplined, and more creative, songwriter than she was on her patchy debut. Her voice, her lyrics, and her way with an arrangement have all matured, meaning that this record represents what is now a sadly rare thing: a release from a proper singer-songwriter which is truly essential. Crucially, it develops Marling’s sound whilst also hanging together as a collection: where another singer-songwriter might have settled into a single mode of expression, or crafted a series of songs without much in the way of a single identity, Marling has achieved both variety and coherence. A delight all year.
2. Villagers – Becoming A Jackal
Villagers take their place in a long line of solo artists (Mr E, Damon Gough) who prefer to hide behind what sounds like the name of a band. Bands are, of course, usually cooler and more popular than solo artists, who tend to strike a lonesome pose on stage and warble sadly about it. In defense of Conor O’Brien, Villagers has a bona fide line-up, but one imagines that all except him are expendable – not least as a result of his mesmerising solo performance at this year’s Mercury Music Prize, which exploded outwards that stereotype of the solitary songwriter on stage with an intensity unmatched by all the other nominees, up to and including the eventual winner, the xx. Becoming A Jackal reflects that forcefulness, couching spectral melodies in haunting musical contexts. It is in many ways very nearly a perfect record.
1. Have One On Me – Joanna Newsom
I suggested shortly after the release of this three disc monster that it would be difficult to displace as the year’s best record, and it is therefore with a certain inevitably that it earns its place here. Difficult to like, even harder truly to know, Have One On Me is nevertheless an ambitious, sonically inventive, deftly delivered, and fiercely unapologetic, record. It refuses any single statement you might make about it, including as it does pop songs and prog epics, love songs and fabulist fancies. It is infuriating, but almost addictively so. In a year which saw many more albums get greater splurges of attention, Have One On Me simmered constantly, endlessly rewarding. Bravo.
Bubbling under these top five are albums from Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Sufjan Stevens and The National. Of all those, The National are most cruelly served: that quintet, either over-long (The Suburbs) or over-cooked (False Priest) have their issues of consistency or flow; High Violet, however, has simply failed to register beyond an initial impression that it was quite good. It may also be excellent and over-looked; but to this listener at least, it has not been wholly memorable.