#1. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Over the past couple of years Arcade Fire have slowly confirmed themselves as one of the best bands working today. Neon Bible found an even mix between U2-inspired foot-stompers (No Cars Go) and quietly reflective soul-searchers (Windowsill). Even when they're playing at a stadium level their music is uniquely heartfelt and stirring. The Suburbs is no exception to the rule - in fact it builds on it beautifully. The opening track, The Suburbs, is a bold, hot-summer inflected strumming song, and equally upbeat and heartbreaking. It's an incredibly mature song about living in fear, growing up amongst conflict and wanting to escape, and live while you're still young. As the lyric "we're still screaming" echoes over that beautiful guitar, recalling a sweltering day in the park, a tear slips down my eye. It's a masterpiece of songwriting and fifteen tracks later it's lost none of it's power. Empty Room is an urgent, classical, rocky scream of independence, Half Light II (No Celebration) sounds like a primal, electronic rave at the end of the world, and Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is a stunning voyage into the multi-coloured unknown - and an uplifting vocal masterpiece. The perfect penultimate track to the tragic The Suburbs (Continued), a denouement that leaves the heart in a place of confusion. There hasn't been another album this year that has given me so much to feel, so much to think about and so much to experience. Absolutely stunning.
#2. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM
As well as being a tremendous actress (see Antichrist, Lars von Trier, 2009) Charlotte Gainsbourg is also one of the finest female artists working today (despite the disappointing 5:55). This year saw her deliver her masterpiece - a soft, dreamy and sensual series of songs, instrumentally and vocally accomplished beyond what I had ever expected. On initial listens the first half of the album may appear stronger. The paranoid, robotic IRM is followed by the gorgeous Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes, which, sung in French, sounds like the the score to the hazy, midnight-set climax of a shoegazing espionage movie, directed by Godard. Lead single Heaven Can Wait is a lovely strumming song with a great piano line and Vanities has a swelling middle third that sounds like it comes from the same score as the Godard spy thriller. This time two lovers look over a neon-lit river, danger lurking on the other side. Their shadows are entwined, their fate uncertain. But on further listens the second half reveals itself to be a much more careful, ambitious affair. Trick Pony is the loudest song on the album, a seductively sexy tease that begins with the banging of a drum and ends with a quietly screeching guitar. Dandelion sounds like a long-lost Beatles song and Voyage like a companion piece to the existential monolith movie Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009). La Collectionneuse is a five minute epic, softly sung and evocatively stringed, it's another masterpiece of feeling that ends in a spoken-word French verse. If you haven't already, buy this one now.
#3. Jónsi - Go
The lead singer of Icelandic sensation Sigur Rós, Jónsi's debut album isn't as strong as the bands finest moments, but it's still an assuredly strange work of art. Lead single Go Do sounds like nature having a party - icebergs reflecting like crystals in the sunlight, butterflies swooping over burning, hallucinatory deserts, plants evolving at the speed of light - bursting into pastel greens, reds and yellows, the wind whistling through a forrest, fish plummeting to the magical, unknown depths of a mysterious ocean. It's like a day in the cycle of the Earth being watched from the misty, supernatural viewpoint of space. In a word; beautiful. Animal Arithmetic is another blinding exploration of nature and being - almost like a journey through life itself. I don't mean this to sound pretentious, but it's the sound of existentialism. Most tracks sound pretty similar to each other but Boy Lilikoi is the poppiest track on the album, slowly building up to an explosion of pure joy that rings through the ears and the soul. With nine tracks at only 40 minutes, Go Do might, at first, seem disappointing. But further listens will reveal that this is a uniquely beautiful album in its own right, and an experience that goes beyond what most albums could merely hope to achieve.
#4. The Chemical Brothers - Further
I've never really been a fan of The Chemical Brothers, or the electronic/techno/dance scene that they are a part of. I'm a huge fan of New Order, and I can tolerate Massive Attack, Underworld, Daft Punk and Moby in small bursts. But nothing has ever grabbed me in the same way as Further, an eight-track, 50-minute assault on the senses - both brash and beautiful, pulse-pounding and poetic. The best thing about this album is that every track has an accompanying short film, made specifically to match the tempo and beat. Lead single Escape Velocity is an 11-minute instant classic which spirals through different stages of dance, beeping like the countdown to a world rave. Second single Swoon, another instant classic, is an intoxicating reminder of love which crescendos into an electronic burst, calling to mind a bustling city of strobe lights. Third single Another World actually sounds like a heart beating in electronic skin, the soft female chorus echoing through the big beats. It fades out beautifully into album highlight Dissolve, a feel-good big-bang of tech groove, which recalls the end of The Who's Baba O'Riley (Teenage Wasteland) in its finale. The album ends on the transcending Wonders Of The Deep, a song that slips into your heart and won't let it go. An amazing record that everybody should own.
#5. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk
Isobel Campbell, ex-member of Belle & Sebastian, and Mark Lanegan, former Screaming Trees vocalist, couldn't have been a more unlikely collaboration. On paper it sounds like a failed experiment, but it comes out just as strong as Dance Hall At Louise Point and A Woman A Man Walked By, collaborations between PJ Harvey and John Parish. This is their third effort and lead single You Won't Let Me Down Again is perhaps their most mature work to date - the world-weary rambling and soothing dream vocals complimenting each other against a strong bluesy guitar and soft drum. It's three minutes of unabridged genuis and the highlight of an absorbing, emotional work. In conjunction Campbell and Lanegan have a way of creeping into your soul and taking you over. Snake Song could have been written by Johnny Cash or Nick Cave, but it somehow sounds captivatingly original. The whole album sounds like the score to a road trip across the vast desert - the sweltering sun scorching the land where strangers roam. Come Undone is a different beast - it's the sort of song you expect to be playing as a glamourous woman in black glides across a hotel lobby - in fact, it would be right at home on Gainsbourg's IRM, next to La Collectionneuse. Get Behind Me is a tougher, rougher, more rock 'n' roll track - again, nothing new. But it sounds fresh. Title track Hawk is a stomp through a bar brawl during lock-in and Sunrise would be right at home in a Tarantino Western. Classic.