In descending order of preference…
20. Real Estate – Days (Domino)
19. Clams Casino – Instrumentals (Type)
18. Bon Iver – s/t (4AD)
17. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (Mexican Summer)
16. The Field – Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
15. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow (Fish People)
14. James Blake – s/t (Atlas/A&M)
13. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island/Vagrant)
12. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (self-released)
11. John Maus – We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (Upset the Rhythm)
10. Balam Acab – Wander/Wonder (Tri Angle)
I really fell for the Tri Angle records sound this year, witch house or whatever you want to call it. Wander/Wonder doesn’t quite match up to Balam Acab’s See Birds EP from last year, but is full of burbling sub-aqueous beauty. I have to catch my breath every time I hear the opening track, when, after minutes of murky marine rumblings, the bottom suddenly drops out, like the ocean floor giving way to reveal unexpected fathoms below. This was bass music in Jacques Cousteau territory.
9. Washed Out – Within and Without (Sub Pop)
Washed Out’s debut LP regrettably lacked the warped, melting tape wooziness of his glorious Life of Leisure EP, but was still a solid and hugely listenable collection of lethargic beach pop.
8. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
(History Always Favours the Winners)
The Caretaker uses looped and glitchy recordings of spooky old ballroom music to capture the sensation, both nostalgic and terrifying, of the past splintering in the memory. This is music fit for the Overlook Hotel.
7. Panda Bear – Tomboy (Paw Tracks)
No, not as good as Person Pitch, and it took some adjusting to get used to Panda Bear’s more pared down, bass-heavy new style. I wish he’d lay off the loop-upon-loop cathedrals of sound a bit, but at least half this record (mainly the first half) is pretty wondrous. ‘Last Night at the Jetty’, above all, reminded me why he’s been my favourite musician in the world these last years.
6. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (4AD)
I wasn’t too sure about tUnE-YarDs at first: it sounded a bit shrieky. It took their festival-highlight performance at Primavera in Barcelona to fully convince me. In a year when I wanted retro glo-fi drift or cry-baby R&B, tUnE-YarDs gave me neither, but their jerky, Dirty Projectors-like take on Afro rhythms could eat some of the other records on this list for breakfast.
5. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
P4k said this dreamy widescreen roadtrip record sounded ‘as if the Spiritualized and Springsteen albums filed alphabetically next to one another in your record collection had melted together on a hot August afternoon.’ Sold!
4. Sandro Perri – Impossible Spaces (Constellation)
The brilliant Mr Perri delivers possibly his finest record to date: a propulsive, primary-coloured avant-pop gem with twisting-turning song epics that suggest Andrew Bird channelling Arthur Russell.
3. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation (Lefse)
This lovely fuzzed-out bedroom pop debut by an early-twentysomething from Idaho who produces lo-fi mini-epics about forests, mountains and lake swimming came along at the perfect time to capitalise on a particularly acute bout of Pacific Northwest nostalgia.
2. Frank Ocean – nostalgia, ultra (self-released)
Call it the How to Dress Well effect, but I went looking for some R&B and Frank Ocean came along right place, right time. Given away for free as a download after a dispute with his record company, this mixtape kicks off with a cheesy but utterly wonderful cover of a minor Coldplay single and just gets better and better. It goes strangely flat for the final few songs (I’m no fan of the ‘Hotel California’ cover), but for the first thirty minutes this thoughtful, sombre and insanely catchy record is flawless.
1. How to Dress Well – Love Remains (Lefse/Tri Angle)
This is from 2010 really, and showed up on several end-of-year lists last year, but it wasn’t released beyond the States until early 2011. It’s a meaningless distinction in the age of the internet, and I could easily have found a way to hear How to Dress Well’s Love Remains at the time of its original acclaim if I’d taken more to the couple of mp3s I’d downloaded. But when it finally became available on iTunes in the UK, I took the plunge and promptly fell in love. One of my favourite things that I’ve read about the whole chillwave/hypnagogic subgenre, attributable (I think) to the original Wire magazine article defining the sound, is that it is music made by kids who’d listened to the Beverly Hills Cop theme tune and heard in it the Music of the Spheres. In the case of HtDW, it’s as if Brooklyn’s Tom Krell spent his formative years crying himself to sleep to Dangerous-era Michael Jackson ballads, and now summons up the ghost of such plangent R&B sentimentalism for this lo-fi pop of devotional intensity. What seems at first like a sonic ice floe of prettily distorted, glitched-out atmospherics soon reveals a surprising amount of dynamics going on under the distressed surface – pop songs emerge where once you heard only waft. If including this album is cheating, then I’ll have this year’s orchestral Just Once EP in pole position instead, which airbrushed away all the album’s hauntological pixie dust and retooled some of its best songs as achingly beautiful, wrenchingly affecting torch songs. This was the sound of my year.
And a favourite EP…
Holy Other – With U (Tri Angle)