Was it a great year for pop music, in its many, ever more diverse forms? No, it was not. Truly outstanding new artists were hard to find. The current crop of stars seemed to be preoccupied with having babies, guesting on Simon Cowell's various vehicles or posing as the reverse of fashion icons. In the all-pervading gloom, however, there were a few lights a-shining. Below we list our favourites. Yes, it's personal. No, nobody paid us to plug anyone. Yes, it's a list full of contrasts. Happy listening.
1. Emeli Sandé. Our Version of Events. We first met Emeli on her aptly-named solo debut single, Heaven. We loved it as the the finest British pop song released in 2011. A striking similarity to Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy just supports the case. Then, suddenly, she was everywhere, every track released from the album deserving its single success. Let's just recognise it as the most consistently great pop album since Adele's 21.
2. Words and Music by Saint Etienne. A soundtrack to our lives? Or a roadmap back to the that sheer joy of pop that Saint Etienne created 20 years ago. Remember single, Join Our Club, that reprised the Lovin' Spoonful's question: "Do you believe in magic?" If you do, you will know that the place to rediscover that magic is right here with those trademark interesting lyrics, seductive tunes and the superb voice of Sarah Cracknell.
3. Beach House. Bloom. Strikingly expansive on first listening, Bloom's easy sense of beauty weaves a charm that disguises the small moments where the real intensity lies. Those touches, uncomplicated and meticulously constructed, might not emerge at first but they build the songs towards the blissful climaxes that make this the best work of Beach House so far.
4. Jessie Ware. Devotion. Time to put the feet up for soulful, old-school, late-night pop from South Londoner Jessie Ware. As for the voice, it's haunting and bewitching, and perfectly polished with the help of production from the likes of Julio Bashmore, Dave Okumu and Kid Harpoon. Devotion is a refined, classy affair that floats the careeer of a second starry Jesse high into the Brit-pop firmament
5. Frank Ocean. Channel Orange. One of the most talked about releases of 2012, Channel Orange is a reinvention of the modern R&B album. Varied, political and poetic in equal amounts, it’s an album replete with musical references. Ocean's comments about his sexuality (see the Related Story below) have added a layer of celebrity to a disc whose musical quality more than justifies its fame.
6. Orbital. Wonky. Here comes the eighth album by a band 20-plus years into its career. Paul and Phil Hartnoll are back on exhilarating top form. They were first proper dance act to graduate from the rave scene to emerge as festival headliners, way before the likes of Leftfield and The Prodigy. Loyal fans have now been rewarded with a set driven by a glorious new energy. Wonky will leave middle-aged ravers ecstatic, and a new generation appreciating what their folks have been banging on about all these years.
7. Spiritualized. Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) has, in 25 years of music-making, shaped a sonic template from which he’s never really departed: psychedelic space-rock, at once minimalist and deeply layered, flights of strings and soaring choirs, all of it suffused with truckloads of classic rock‘n’roll. So, no surprises that this, Spiritualized’s seventh studio album, comes awash with those stonking melodies and symphonic crescendos that Pierce has branded his own from the outset.
8. Elton John, Pnau. Good Morning To The Night. It's impossible to fault Elton's awareness of the ever-evolving musical milieu that surrounds us. From Groove Armada to Empire of the Sun, he has been quick to support the brightest emerging talent. For the full story of this collaboration with Aussie electro wizards,P'nau, see the Related Story below. Meanwhile just enjoy a rarely successful concept: remixes that enchant, awash with the sound of Ibiza’s sun-soaked terraces.
9. Hot Chips. In Our Heads. Good news item 1. Rarely does a band put out an album with no bum tracks! Here's one. Good news item 2. This album is lighter and more dance focused than previous ones. It's highly acessible but without predictability. It's a balance that delivers catchy tunes, and beats that disenable you from staying still in public. Good news item 3: the band even issued a video to support their single, "Don't deny your heart" that turned football gay. Are there no limits to this band's ambitions. We hope not!
10. Alt-J. An Awesome Wave. Originally from Leeds, this four-piece indie unit spend their time in a Cambridgeshire basement making their own brand of uniquely dubbed "folk-step". The result is a stunning mix of both innovative and electrifying musicianship. Each song blurs and stutters through jarring beats and time signatures, all of it adding up to something wierdly accessible, sufficiently so that it won this year's Mercury Music Prize.
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