I always enjoy compiling this list and it’s been particularly difficult this year to decide what should be No 1. There are four or five records that, at some point, I’ve thought, this is definitely going to be No 1. And then I’ve thought the same about something else. So here is the top ten in order; but honestly that could be different if I did this in a couple of days’ time. They are all great records.
No 1 – “When I Have Fears” by the Murder Capital
An extraordinarily powerful album, best listened to in proper sequence, as it moves from all- out attack to quiet reflection and back again. It’s dark, intense, and moving in all sorts of ways. The band hail from Dublin and their name, and this album, are inspired (if that is the right word) by a friend’s suicide. They are amazing live performers – I saw them at three festivals over the summer and I’d have to rate them the best live act of the year. This album captures the menace and energy of their live performance, but it is also imbued with a melancholy that comes to the fore on songs like “Green & Blue” and “On Twisted Ground”. And the best guitar I heard all year is on “Slow Dance II” – raw and full of celtic passion. They are described as post punk, and certainly you can hear a bit of Joy Division in the sound. Equally, there are elements of U2 in there – and I don’t just say that because they are Irish. Listen to “On Twisted Ground” – it could hold its own on “The Unforgettable Fire”. They can do brutal rock’n’roll too as “More is Less” – what a song! – and “Feeling Fades” demonstrate. If you haven’t heard this album try it. It may not be for you, but it might just knock you out.
No 2 – “Crushing” by Julia Jacklin
This is a powerful album too, but in a very different way to the Murder Capital’s masterpiece. This is the sound of a person who has been crushed – by the breakdown of a long term relationship, and is just beginning to pick herself up. That person was Julia herself, at the time she wrote the songs. It is shot through with sadness and vulnerability, and is beautifully, painfully sung. There’s a theme that runs through many of the songs about the body, her body, and how she is claiming it back. It’s not a particularly bitter album, just sad; but it is, ultimately, a defiant one. The music is a similar mix to that on her first album, “Don’t Let the Kids Win” – some up tempo Americana and a lot of heart-wrenching balladry. My favourite song of the year is on this album: “Don’t Know How to Keeping Loving You”, which is a wistful, bluesy reflection on the crumbling of the relationship, which has a tinge of Neil Young, especially in the guitar solos (which are quite rare on Julia Jacklin’s music). Other favourites include “Pressure to Party”, which has become a real live favourite, and has Julia grappling with trying to return to “normal” life; and “Turn me Down”, in which she pleads with someone not to tempt her into another relationship. When the song stops, and her plea turns into a cry, it is stunning. Live, it is an extraordinary moment. On this wonderful album, it just breaks your heart.
No 3 – “In Plain Sight” by Honeyblood
My favourite band of the last few years, and another great album. In this one Stina Tweeddale has gone solo and experimented a bit with her sound. It’s less indie and more pop, up to a point. There are guitars, but as Stina said in interviews, she wanted guitars that didn’t sound like guitars. The songs reflect a turbulent time in her life, but exude a defiance amid the vulnerability and angst. The sounds are quite upbeat for the most part, but less rock’n’roll than in the two previous albums (which are two of my favourites from this century). It took me a little while fully to appreciate its depth and musicality, but I got there. Good albums often reveal themselves gradually. There are three songs which have already become staples of the live show: “The Third Degree”, with its 60s feel; “Glimmer” which owes a debt to glam/punk; and “She’s a Nightmare” which could easily have fit on the mighty predecessor “Babes Never Die” and really rocks live. Other highlights for me include the feisty “Gibberish” and the sinister “Twisting the Aces”. Like the previous albums, you can put this on and enjoy everything on it, time and again. Yep, still my favourite band!
No 4 – “Doggerel” by Fontaines DC
Another great debut album from Dublin. Fontaines DC are poets as well as punks. Live you get more of the punk than the poetry, but listen to the lyrics: they have plenty to say. What I love about this album is the joyousness of the sound. Songs like “Too Real”, “Big”, “Chequeless Reckless”, “Boys in the Betterland” and especially, for me, “Liberty Belle” are just awesome rock’n’roll. They look back to punk for sure, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Need a bit of energy? Stick that lot on. There are more reflective efforts too, like the excellent “Television Screen” and “Roy’s Song”; and at the end you even get a ballad, “Dublin City Sky” which could be Shane MacGown doing one of his sozzled and poetic laments. “Doggrel” was voted No 1 in the BBC 6 Music DJs’ poll and by Rough Trade. I am not surprised at all. It could have been mine.
No 5 – “It’s Your Bed Babe, it’s Your Funeral” by Maisie Peters
This is actually a six track EP, and follows another EP from 2018 called “Dressed Too Nice for a Jacket” as well as some excellent stand-alone singles. Maisie’s place in my top ten reflects all these efforts: put them together and you would have a real contender for my album of the year. She’s a young singer-songwriter, who describes her music, with a just a bit of irony, as emo girl pop. So yes, most of the songs are about either falling in love, or more frequently, being let down; but then when wasn’t most pop music about one of those themes? I first came across Maisie’s music when I read an interview in Line of Best Fit. At one point the article compared her with Laura Marling. I don’t quite get that, but the truth is, I have probably ended up listening to all her songs on shuffle more than anything else this year. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics are sharp and it makes you feel good! “It’s Your Bed, Babe” has a more sophisticated pop/dance sheen to it than its predecessors – you can sense that the producers are getting to work on making her a genuine pop star – but it still combines the wistful, the celebratory and the melancholy in a really engaging way. And it’s defiant: opener “This Is On You” isn’t taking any nonsense from an ex who is looking for a bit of succour. I love the bounce of “Adore You”; “Take Care of Yourself” is a sensitive plea to a friend; and “Personal Best” has a touching nostalgia to it. I saw Maisie play to a full Shepherd’s Bush Empire recently and I was really impressed by her poise and the responsiveness of the audience – everyone knew the words! Not my usual world, but Maisie Peters is special.
No 6 – “Designer” by Aldous Harding
Just about every review of Aldous Harding, a singer-songwriter from New Zealand, talks about her eccentricity, her weirdness. And yes, “Designer” continues the tradition of elliptical, quirky lyrics: a highlight, in “The Barrel”, suggests you show the ferret to the egg. Quite why is never made clear! Live, there is something incredibly capitivating about her performance – the audience takes it in, in rapt silence. She says very little – at the Roundhouse recently one of her few utterances was I’m quiet because I’m focused…but I’m open. “Designer” is her third album. The first merited the epithet gothic folk. The second, “Party”, like “Designer” melded pop, folk, jazziness and torch songs into an intriguing whole. “Designer”, if anything, has an added level of sophistication, as well as ridiculously catchy melodies at times – check “Fixture Picture”, “Zoo Eyes” and “The Barrel”. The fact that the lyrics seem like random fragments of speech just makes them even more interesting. (A lot of Radiohead’s lyrics are like that too). And there’s a fragile beauty to songs like “Treasure” and “Damn”, which really comes across live. A fascinating album from a very distinctive performer.
No 7 – “Feeding Seahorses by Hand” by Billie Marten
This is my chillout album of the year. Everyone needs one! It is just so beguilingly lovely, something you can really wallow in, or have soothing you in the background. Billie Marten is a singer and guitarist from Yorkshire. This is her second album, after the equally wonderful “Writing of Blues and Yellows”. The lyrics are mostly melancholy, and involve a lot of soul-searching on Billie’s part, I imagine. Her voice has a dreamy, rather lost quality. The guitars are subtle and gentle, but they have a rolling rhythm which comes across quite strongly live. My favourites include “Mice” (which isn’t about mice, but about being alone), “Blue Sea, Red Sea” which shuffles along engagingly, and the drowsy “Vanilla Baby” – I am only as good as you want me to be. Thinking about it now, you can hear a bit of Joni Mitchell in the music, the Joni Mitchell of “Blue”. There’s something of that 60s French balladry in there too. But really, “Feeding Seahorses by Hand” is simply a mellow delight and has become, with its predecessor, real go-to music for me.
No 8 – “Western Stars” by Bruce Springsteen
Now, here’s an interesting one. When I first heard this, I wasn’t that taken with it. Of course, I’ll always give Bruce a lot of chances, as befits my favourite singer and performer of all time. But I kept on thinking, this is a bit bland. It felt like the sound of growing old. He is 70 after all. I got all the musical references to the likes of Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach, but I didn’t need Bruce to be doing that. I set the album to one side. But then the film of the album came out and I went to see it with my friend Dave. The film is a combination of a live performance of the album, with a thirty piece orchestra, in his barn. It’s a big barn! The songs were played in the same sequence as the album, and each was preceded by a video, in which Bruce talked about the meaning of the song, sometimes over film of the Californian desert, or a deserted highway (all very Bruce), sometimes showing old family clips, sometimes, just focusing on Bruce, as he talked about life, and how this album, for him, is the third of his storytelling albums, after “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. And I completely got what he was talking about. Some of it I found very moving, and I absolutely loved the show. And so, of course, I went back to the album, and discovered its depths, its beauty, and its sadness. It is a cinematic album. It is the sound of growing old and still searching for meaning. It is Bruce Springsteen – and I love it!
No 9 – “UFOF” by Big Thief
I really like Big Thief. They are a band from New York, whose sound combines Americana and folk with an other-worldliness which sometimes reminds you of Radiohead. Singer Adrienne Lenker has a beautiful, rather fragile voice that belies the punch of some of her lyrics. They are a rock band, but don’t really feel like one. They are great live – the performance I saw in Bristol in May was one of my live highlights of the year. “UFOF” is the first of two albums that they have released this year – the other, “Two Hands”, came out quite recently and didn’t immediately grab me. Unlike “UFOF”, which I loved immediately. It has a gentler, more bucolic sound than its two predecessors. One of the best songs on the album, “Cattails” sounds like it is out of the Appalachians and has a funny sort of danceability to it as Adrienne warbles along. That really comes across live – it has become a crowd favourite. There are songs of great beauty, like “Orange”; weirdness (in a Radiohead-like way) like “UFOF”; and rocking noise, like “Jenni”. This is a band that manages to sound really original while working in a tried and trusted American rock field. In the end, I think it is Adrienne who makes the difference. She is not like other singers. She is operating in her own dimension, and Big Thief are strangely different as a result.
No 10 – “Birthday” by Pom Poko
I had to find room for this album in my top ten, if only to reflect the fact that they are such a hugely enjoyable band live. Pom Poko are Norwegian art-punks – you might even call them prog-punk. Which is an unlikely combination. Their music is quite complex – there are frequent time changes, diversions, general craziness – but also some full-on razor sharp riffs. They are fronted by the most charismatic singer I have come across for a while: Ragnhild Jamtveit. On stage she leaps around to the rocking moments with abandon and is rarely without a big smile. She looks like she is really loving it, and that sense of enjoyment is there with the whole band. The best song of all is “Crazy Energy Night” which is wild. The guitar scythes through all before it, as Ragnhild shrieks over the madness. There’s a solo which sounds like speeded up Yes, or something like that. The guitarist, Martin Tonne, is pretty amazing. Live he has one guitar, hardly ever seems to have any issue with tuning, and makes it do all sorts of things, effortlessly. The record is the same – you never really know what is coming next. It is a lot of fun. Try this album, but even more so, go and see them live. They are sensational.
Pumarosa, with their album “Devastation” is the unluckiest to miss out on the top ten. It’s partly because it is very recent. But it’s a powerful, rather grandiose album, that was great live at EartH, Hackney the other day. There are some very fine jazzy albums, that take me back to the 90s, from a new generation of artists. They shone at the festivals this summer. Four to listen out for are “Displaced Diaspora” by Moses Boyd (from 2018, but there’s a new piece called “Stranger than Fiction just out); “You Can’t Steal my Joy” by Ezra Collective; “Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery” by the Comet is Coming, which features the awesome “Summon the Fire”; and “Blume” by Nerija. Sharon van Etten’s “Remind me Tomorrow” was a tour de force, with the Springsteen-esque “Seventeen” a highlight. Maybe just a tad over-produced to make my top ten. Two more entrancing break-up albums were “Good at Falling” by The Japanese House and “Ex:Re” by Ex:Re, aka Elena Tonra from Daughter. Japanese House is the vehicle of Amber Bain. Her album is a shimmering mix of pop and electronica, with a bit of vocoder. “Ex:Re” is more about the guitar unsurprisingly. It’s very atmospheric and has a great song called “Crushing” (not to be confused with Julia Jacklin’s album!).
Faye Webster’s new album, “Atlanta Millionaires’ Club”, is a lush delight, with “Kingston” the highlight – it’s maybe just a little too self-indulgent, compared with the previous, self-titled album, which was my introduction to her music. As she sings on “Room Temperature”, I should get out more. Rosie Lowe’s “YU” is soulful and jazzy (there’s a bit of a Prince influence, I think), while Hannah Cohen’s “Welcome Home” is just plain beautiful. Holly Herndon’s “Proto” challenges musical boundaries and she was amazing at the Barbican. Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett conjure up a dazzling Irish soundscape with violin and piano on their self-titled album.
Ward Thomas made an engaging country-pop album, “Restless Minds”, which was highly entertaining live – I saw them in March at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Spotify introduced me to a few artists this year – you know how when an album ends it plays you other things you might like? – and one was a folk singer from Nebraska with a beautiful voice called Andrea von Kampen. She had an album called “Old Country”, which includes a striking cover of Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello”. Finally Foals, a great band, released two albums this year: “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost”, Parts One and Two. I liked the first, which nodded to their early days of math rock; the second I haven’t really given enough time yet, but it’s their bombastic stuff, which I’m less keen on.
I was looking forward to Taylor Swift’s new album “Lover” after I’d enjoyed “Reputation” so much. But on the first couple of listens, it sounded like more of the same, but not as good. “London Boys” is a bit embarrassing. I’ll try again! And I haven’t even attempted Coldplay’s “Everyday Life” yet. But I will – I have a soft spot for them.
There’s just so much good new music around – there always is. My choices are just the tip of the iceberg, and don’t overlap too much with all the other lists I look forward to: the Guardian, 6 Music, NME, Loud and Quiet, Rough Trade amongst them. So check them out too. You might discover something new that you love.