A strange year for pop, with very few really stellar albums. So I've become more selective: the albums below were solidly played, with additional great records listed further down. As I said on an earlier list, I wish that many albums this year had been EPs. There's no real need for 11 songs if only 6 are truly worthy. Of course, it's all subjective: one man's perfect playlist is another man's argument. Several of my reviews below were first published in an alternate form in the American (print) magazine, Instinct. Have at it...
Album Of The Year is a TIE
Jessie Ware Devotion
Play the flawless Devotion for the first time in the dark, with wine. London’s Ware – formerly a backup singer for Paloma Faith - is living proof that less is more: she knows when to hold back and when to give. Devotion’s sleek tunes recall the era of Sade and Lisa Stansfield, with a contemporary edge. The pounding drums on killer single Wildest Moments anchor the story of a love affair that only the lovers understand ("From the outside / Everyone must be wondering why we try"). Night Light’s cellos and cascading electric guitars create a seductive bed from which Ware can cut loose vocally. This is goosebump territory. [full review]
Standout tracks: Not a dud track on Devotion, but I'll choose Night Light and Wildest Moments as my favorites, followed by No To Love, Something Inside and Running.
Marina And The Diamonds Electra Heart
I love that everyone thought this album might be doomed. It's actually perfect. Marina pulls off an amazing trick: carpet-bagging it to her much adored Hollywood to record with chart topping producers. That the final LP still sounds like Marina is not only testament to her X factor, but to the strength of her artistic vision. At the end of the day, Marina Diamandis has something to say. Bonus points for writing several songs with longtime legend Rick (Belinda, Stevie) Nowels. If this were 1984, Electra Heart would have sold 10 million.
Standout tracks: Radioactive, Hypocrates, Power And Control, Starring Role, Sex Yeah and Valley Of The Dolls, but it's all great.
...and more fantastic albums/EPs, in no order:
Bright Light Bright Light Make Me Believe In Hope
Rod Thomas – or BLx2 as I say – was one of a handful of men doing literate pop music in 2012. This is electro with a beating heart. Songs like Disco Moment have an honest emotional core beneath the strobe-lit keyboards. Make Me Believe is stacked with highlights, from the ecstatic Cry At Films, a collaboration with Scissor Sisters' Del Marquis, to the summer jam Feel It. The latter’s wailing diva - actually a man - was the C and C Music Factory moment we didn’t know we craved. “Just open up your lips and say you love me.” We did, Rod.
Standout tracks: Feel It, Disco Moment, Cry At Films, Debris, Waiting For The Feeling
No Doubt Push And Shove
Gwen Stefani is the Great American Girl, isn’t she? She's still got her SoCal style and accent and her red, red lips; the only roots she’s ever denied are in her hair. Amazingly, Push And Shove is the band’s first album since 2001. “Everything’s changed, I’ve changed a lot,” she sings on Heaven, but this band still has the tunes. Gwen, Tony, Tom and Adrian deliver eleven near-perfect songs adding up to what may be the most listenable, kick-ass pop record of 2012. For more, see my full review on Idolator.
Standout tracks: Dreaming The Same Dream, Looking Hot, Push And Shove, Easy, Settle Down, Undone.
Gossip A Joyful Noise
When the iconic Beth Ditto released her 2011 dance EP, there was a collective wail of "more please." She and her band come through with the aptly titled A Joyful Noise. Producer Brian Higgins (of Girls Aloud fame) takes the trio's melodic rock and sprays it with a sleek disco sheen. The dark Perfect World literally glistens with twilight synths, while Casualties Of Love is a rare Gossip ballad, with Ditto turning down the volume for a tune documenting quiet heartbreak ("I'm fighting tears, you couldn't tell. I'm not as strong as you thought I was."). Get A Job is built on a slayer hook: "I’d love to stay and party, but I gotta go to work!" This is the sound of a band letting its pop heart shine through. [full track by track]
Standout tracks: Perfect World, Move In The Right Direction, Casualties Of War, Get A Job and Love In A Foreign Place
David's Lyre Picture Of Our Youth
David's Lyre - now defunct - was the professional moniker of Paul Dixon from Manchester, UK. After a long gestation, he independently released this sublime debut in February. Vocally, he reminds me a bit of Dr Robert from Blow Monkeys, but the sound fits right in with Patrick Wolf and even, at times, groups likes Camera Obscura. Some of the tracks have an 80's Scottish pop feel (English Roses), while others (Heartbeat) are totally in the now. This is not the indie bedsit fuckery that sometimes pops up on bandcamp (where you can buy it); it's an accomplished - and very British - gem of an album.
Standout Tracks: English Roses, Heartbeat, Only Love
Tracey Thorn Tinsel And Lights
In the heap of plasticine Christmas albums, Tracey Thorn's holiday offering was a crisp, silvery bauble. Her song choices range from country-hip gems like Dolly Parton's Hard Candy Christmas to lesser knowns, like Sufjan Stevens' gorgeous Sister Winter. The presence of Scritti Politti's Green Gartside (whose voice has miraculously not aged) on Low's Taking Down The Tree is a particular gift to longtime fans. Occasionally, as on Like A Snowman or the self penned title track, the arrangements take you - thrillingly - back to the pre-electronic era of her group, Everything But The Girl. With a voice as comforting as any fireside Christmas classic, Tracey Thorn remains a gift to the wise men and women who love her.
Standout tracks: Joy, Tinsel And Lights, Hard Candy Christmas, Snow
Solange True EP
Hey, don't call her basement baby, m'kay? #rude Our beloved boho goddess Solange hooked up with Dev Hynes to produce a Brooklyn hipster chick manifesto. I'm excited to hear how she translates this to a full length album in 2013. This is fucking cool... be there or be square.
Standout tracks: Losing You, Lovers In The Parking Lot, Locked In Closets
Saint Etienne Words And Music By Saint Etienne
Flat out stunning. A band that hits full stride on its eighth studio album, a concept record about loving music. With shimmery disco pop (DJ), wistful spoken word (Over The Border) and rubbery 90's jams (I've Got Your Music), this trio finds the sweet spot in their 40's.
Standout Tracks: DJ, Last Days Of Disco, I've Got Your Music, Over The Border, Popular, Tonight
Pet Shop Boys Elysium
Elysium makes it to this list with a serious technical note: It is a very flawed long player. The album is an uneasy mix of stunning tracks and weak tracks (including a failed experiment or two). What would have been ideal is if the Boys had released an EP including some of the extended versions (think Introspective), highlighting the more pastoral sound of the record. To that end, this is the playlist I'd create for it, which is close to a full-length in running time:
Elysium (XO's version): Leaving (I Believe In PSB mix), Invisible, Winner (Andrew Dawson Extended HappySad Mix), Face Like That, Breathing Space, Memory Of The Future (Ulrich Schnauss Mix), Requiem in Denim And Leopardskin.
Rufus Wainwright Out Of The Game
Although it was recorded in New York, Rufus Wainwright’s smooth seventh studio album sounds like it was rolled in the haze of the LA canyons. Working with producer Mark Ronson, he created a low-key 70’s style singer/songwriter pop gem. The title track, like a Honky Chateau leftover, seems to be sung to his younger self with trademark wit: “You’re only a young thing, about to sleep with a sea of men. Just hanging around, wearing something from God knows where. Just having a ball.” Another highlight, Jericho, ambles along like he recorded it with The Band. "The openhearted have nothing to fear" he sings on a middle eight punctuated by swooning strings. Out Of The Game is a sweet return from one of today's best songwriters.
Standout Tracks: Out Of The Game, Jericho, Montauk, Respectable Dive, Sometimes You Need
More solid records this year:
Madonna MDNA (another that would make a better long EP)
Stars The North
Missy Higgins The Ol' Razzle Dazzle (best album title)
Andy Burrows Company
Deacon Blue The Hipsters
Lianne La Havas Is Your Love Big Enough?
Kristina Train Dark Black
St Lucia St Lucia EP
Amanda Mair Amanda Mair
Passion Pit Gossamer
What did I forget? Please comment or bellow at me/kiss me on Tumblr, lastFM, This Is My Jam and Twitter.
top photo by Hedi Slimane