Albums of the Year: Numbers 21 to 11

Continuing our countdown of the Spend Matters top albums of what proved to be a very good year for contemporary music.


21           Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Cohen’s death was not as tragic as that of the Viola Beach youngsters, or as shocking as Bowie’s passing, but it nonetheless leaves a big gap in the world of popular song and indeed poetry. His voice growls rather than sings here but the backing is surprisingly contemporary and fits the words and voice perfectly. The words of course have an additional resonance given he knew time was short – all in all, as good an album as he has made for many years and a fitting sign-off from a genius. (If you didn’t read my colleague Nancy Clinton’s piece on Cohen, read it here – it’s brilliant).


20           Jack Garrett - Phase
Young Jack is a ridiculously talented keyboard player, guitarist, singer, percussionist, electronics wizard… at times it feels like he has so much talent, he doesn’t quite know where and how to use it on his debut, which straddles rock, dance, electronics, R&B.. but there are some great songs here ("Weathered" here is one of the songs of the year) and there is huge promise for the future.


19           Suede - Night Thoughts
The Suede come-back is one of the more unexpected music stories of recent years. They don’t sound like an old band re-treading past glories, this is fresh and vibrant, with memorable songs – and Brett Anderson's voice sounds better than ever. If this had been a new young band, this would have got more attention. Very enjoyable.


18           James Vincent McMorrow – We Move
The most exciting “singer songwriters” (see also Bon Iver, who might just pop up tomorrow in our top ten) are paying attention to what is going on in hip-hop and electronica rather than open-mike nights in local pubs. McMorrow started out as a folk-rock genre, but this is different – using top producers who have worked with artists like Drake, McMorrow writes emotional songs with lyrics about life and love. He uses his falsetto vocals to great effect and this blend of the acoustic and R&B worlds works remarkably well. (Not the video takes a while to get into the music).


17           Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
Another Irish artist – again with a folk heritage – and again a blend of genres. There is a watery theme throughout with these delicate songs, accompanied with pretty minimalist and mainly acoustic backing.  Produced and co-written by the brilliant Aaron Dressner of The National, this is dark in places but overall a beautiful collection of strong songs.


16           David Bowie – Blackstar
“Look up here, I’m in heaven” is how Lazarus, the third track here, starts, and two days after the album’s release, Bowie died. His timing was always immaculate when it wasn’t ten years ahead of everyone else. Some of this is too close to jazz for my liking with the sax and drums going well beyond conventional rock, hence our relatively low position compared to many critics. But there are more conventional (by his standards) and brilliant Bowie songs here too. There are touches of past glories, but he was pushing the boundaries right to the end.

15           Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth 
We tend to like uncategorizable artists and Simpson is certainly one of those. He tends to be classified as country but with a cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom and songs with a “big band” brass dominated sound, this certainly isn’t Hank Williams. At other times it is in Kings of Leon territory, but the quality of the songs is consistent. There is a concept running through this although we didn’t quite get it, but it’s an original and very entertaining album.


14           Bastille – Wild World
Bastille are highly unfashionable in most of the music press, with many seeing them as lowest common denominator pop with just enough indie / dance credibility to appeal to young adults as well as the teens. That’s most unfair – just listen to these songs without preconceptions. Dan Smith has the ability to write incredibly strong hooks that he sprinkles though his songs – and there is nothing wrong with that, Lennon and McCartney could be accused of the same thing! A really, really good pop album.


13           Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
Another unique album. Faris Badwan, lead singer of the Horrors and his girlfriend, Rachel Zaffira, classically trained artist, opera singer and composer, have produced a wonderful album. It is cool, sometimes sinister, atmospheric, soft-focus pop which sounds like a 1960s film soundtrack at times, but with more disturbing sexual undertones (or perhaps overtones) in places. When on this track she sings, “the things we do when we’re together, if they ever knew they would keep us apart”, we predict you will feel a certain frisson…  Warning – this video gets really violent!


12           Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
More accessible and immediately enjoyable than many of their albums, not that it is full of three-minute pop songs, but generally it is easier to listen to and enjoy than some of their. Still experimental in places, sounding like modern classical music at times, soundtrack music at others. But much to enjoy, including the funny / scary video for Burn The Witch. It is often beautiful, atmospheric, almost dream-like; it wanders and meanders, and I’m sure the lyrics are deeply meaningful too.  I’d still pick The Bends as my favourite ever album by the band, but this isn’t far down that list.


11           Beyoncé – Lemonade
Another “what can we say” moment. On Metacritic this is vying with Blackstar for the overall Album of the Year based on dozens of end of year lists and we can absolutely see why.  It is a work of art – the film of the album is well worth watching, but the music isn’t bad either.  From her reworking of Maps by the brilliant Yeah Yeah Yeahs (see video here), to hard-edged R&B, to a collaboration with British electronica artist James Blake, this is a deeply personal album driven by (supposedly) her marital issues, and with elements of political and social commentary too. But it is also just full of strong songs, interesting music, great vocals … one of the biggest talents of this generation.



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