Speaking of Spotify, the playlist for this year's list is here:
It's probably been the best year for music since I started doing this list, with the entries at 1, 2, 4, 7 and 9 all coming from records that I've felt are my album of the year at some point or other. And while I usually have to scrabble around to find music for the bottom end of the top fifty, this year I had a shortlist of 65 to choose from. This is all very good stuff.
50. Random Name Generator - Wilco
There are big pop hooks in here somewhere, but they're protected like the soft belly of a porcupine by spiny guitar-stabs. Meanwhile, its word-salad lyrics sound like you've misheard a fascinating but distant conversation. Cold, emotionally-repressed, defensive and brainy, but still well-crafted enough to be accidentally danceable.
49. Dani's Blues - it was beyond our control - Bop English
Speaking of danceable, this one has "stomp" as its seventh word, a fair clue to its dominant mood. For all its yearning for wild roughness, it's engagingly mannered, the energetic hollering carefully arranged and designed. It's an alt-country bounce where the banjos have been filed off and replaced with a New York art school.
48. At Once - Beirut
It's definitely too early in my life to romanticise my second year at university, to forget the unrelenting deadlines and the fact that I lived in a filthy, slug-infested house, and remember it as some endless wheel of parties, plays and late night conversation. Beirut, with their lush rambling horns and non-specific yearning was pretty much the soundtrack to all that stuff. Most of their new album is, sleeker, poppier, less baroque and less interesting, but there is the occasional, brief moment which imitates their old days. Much like life really.
47. Masters - Treacherous Orchestra
Bagpipe-based thunder. In the post-Bellowhead folk landscape, there are now a few bands with seemingly infinite members playing high-octane traditional music for partying purposes (this is certainly a fair description of what The Half Moon All Stars [the band I'm a member of] is trying to do). Treacherous Orchestra are applying these methods to Scottish instrumental folk, and pummelling this listener into submission. Masters is great from the start, but improves immensely when the electric keyboards come out, and everything goes cheesily widescreen.
46. Debt Free - Paul de Jong
After beginning with a piano, a twilit stream of glitchery - strings cut up and reassembled into a rhythmless fast-forward blur. And then, as everything fades, quiet laughter, a dialling tone, a recording of tender words, the warm glow of late evening. Paul de Jong was a member of The Books, whose manipulations of found sounds were virtuosic, flashy and witty. This uses a bunch of the same techniques to create something without any visible force or strain.
45. Better Not Wake the Baby - The Decemberists
A two minute pastiche of English folk music, it's a deliberately minor song on a disappointingly minor album, but in the hands of a band as writerly as The Decemberists, it works. The words are just so damn nasty, with bile in every syllable and every image violently compressed. Using the folk song form gives the illusion of universality to a squalid scene of petty bitterness.
44. Sunshine on my Back - The National
I suspect my critical faculties are blinded by obsessive fannishness of The National's perfect run between 2005 and 2010: they could release any damn thing by this point and probably end up somewhere on this list. But even if the single they recorded this year doesn't match their heights, they can still produce rigorous, shimmering melancholy better than anyone else: it's full of striking phrases and long shadows.
43. The Long Strange Golden Road - The Waterboys
They weren't kidding about it being long: it goes on forever, verses piling upon verses, each more linguistically florid than the last, snaking through a vast and crunchy landscape of organ-led blues, the band jamming wildly. It's aiming for epic grandeur, but there's too much partying and posturing going on to take it entirely seriously. It also has a killer chorus, which is lucky, because you hear it an awful lot before the song is over.
42. Blood - Algiers
Electronic gospel punk, which is certainly the most exciting idea for a genre on the list: this is sweaty, serious stuff, full of anger and weight. With the handclaps, rumbling bass, howling vocals and burning guitars, this has all the ingredients for a singalong hurricane, but instead everything is measured and manipulated into a cold anger, never in danger of losing control or focus.
41. Dead Format - Blanck Mass
Recorded by one half of electronic sledgehammer merchants Fuck Buttons, this spends its first few minutes getting you comfortable in its sludgy magma hell-disco, and then introduces some weird clipped-up vocals halfway between ecstatic communion and tortured horror. It's sensory overload, basically, but with its pounding beat it's also surprisingly good fun, and much more accessible than a lot of the abstract, abrasive material Blanck Mass released this year.
40. Gagarin - Public Service Broadcasting
A big loud funk-pastiche party song that - if you relax into its charms - is also kind of moving and inspiring. Public Service Broadcasting's gimmick is taking archive recordings from between the 1940s and 1960s, and turning them into retro-futuristic pop. This celebration of Yuri Gagarin's journey into space is bright, clean and optimistic, illuminated by stabs of shining horns.
39. Spores all Settling - This is the Kit
Late night indie-banjo. Initially the singing and the playing seem so simple as to be almost naive, the lyrics' sentence structures fitting awkwardly against the melody. As the arrangement becomes subtly denser, it becomes clear that the naivety was always an illusion. The National guitarist Aaron Dessner produced this, and it shares The National's cool, intricate melancholy.
38. You Know Me - Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band
So Bellowhead announced that they were parting ways this year. And even though they were a literally life-changing band for me (as in, I probably wouldn't play traditional English music if they hadn't existed) it's probably fair to say that musically they'd got themselves stuck in a rut. So it's good to see that the generally godlike Eliza Carthy has started making the sprawling, brass-heavy high-energy stuff that Bellowhead specialised in. It’s a lot scruffier than Bellowhead, though. The lyrics are broad anti-Toryism, which gives it some punky heft, and there’s no better way to add grandiosity than a late-game children’s choir.
37. Willie O - Sam Lee
Some more trad English folk here. Sam Lee has the kind of weathered voice you expect to hear in a creaking pub at two in the morning, but it’s also the kind of voice which is going to make you put down your pint and pay attention. The more music he records, the harder work his arrangements get - there are points when his band almost starts playing free jazz. But it’s not really about the band, it’s about how far you can stretch traditional music while still serving the song above everything else.
36. To us the Beautiful - Franz Nicolay
A straight-ahead rock song, with a huge woah-oah chorus and buckets of theatricality. Franz Nicolay used to be the keyboard player in the Hold Steady (still The Greatest Rock Band Working Today, even if I can’t persuade anyone else of this fact), and this song shares a lot of DNA with Nicolay’s former band, not least the pleasantly overwritten lyrics. It’s a lot of fun.
35. Hand Cannot Erase - Steven Wilson
http://youtu.be/UqQIAAkw_Gk (not on Spotify)
Maybe Steven Wilson’s secret power is taking unfashionable things seriously. His (often magnificent) work with Porcupine Tree took prog and metal tropes and gave them an icy, unnerving sheen. But he’s also talked about his fascination with Abba and the Bee-Gees, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to tight, slickly-produced pop songs he can write material as good as this. Like much of his best music, it draws attention to its technical perfection, but churns with yearning and discomfort.
34. Unequal - Holly Herndon
Electronica that resembles monastic chanting. Initially abstract and impenetrable, it's unclear whether the music settles into something beautiful and hypnotic, or whether you start to tune in to the beauty that was there all along.
33. Get Low - Stornoway
A great pop song: there’s nothing here that isn’t a hook. I didn’t get Stornoway at all until I saw them live this year, and realised how much craft, invention and playfulness there was in songs that seemed so relaxed and free.
32. Angela's Eyes - Guy Garvey
Guy Garvey of Elbow impersonates Tom Waits, and even if he's a little smooth to fully inhabit the juddering junkyard he's created here, there's enough swagger and momentum to see him through. There's also a couple of mad spurting synth solos that show up unexpectedly and splatter themselves all over the furniture. It's invigorating stuff, especially after Elbow's recent lull.
31. Every Song Sung to a Dog - Fred Thomas
Raw, unkempt outpourings, specifically about the singer's reaction to his dying pet, but more generally about everything else: the wordy stream-of-consciousness reflecting the flashing and casting-about of severe emotional distress. The scruffy guitars and horns (and eccentric turns of phrase) are reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel at their most ebullient. And this *is* ebullient - anthemic and cathartic, despite being a song about grief.
30. Otherwise - Roomful of Teeth
In my experience, if they aren't interested in classical choral singing, a capella vocal groups tend to embrace a knowing campery. Roomful of Teeth are a long way from this: they are serious without sounding high-minded, whimsical without winking at their methods. This song is a bizarre cornucopia of vocal styles, weaving together to build an unearthly melodrama: I was barely aware that the human body could create some of these noises.
29. Stranger in a Room - Jamie XX
One half of The XX has started making music in a radically different direction to his old stuff, and has been receiving serious critical acclaim for it. So it seems unfair that I've chosen the track that sounds most like his old stuff. But in the end I prefer my icy melancholy without dance pop, and Jamie XX has proved that - even on his own - he's a world champion at creating emotional shockwaves with understatement and minimalism.
28. Europe is Lost - Kate Tempest
The first thing you hear is the production, dripping with sparse, loping, mechanised menace. And then the words - an unfiltered outpouring of political anger, seemingly without structure or filter. Some of it is brilliantly direct, some of it clumsy and vague, but what makes it compelling is the despair: the system has already won and resistance is futile
27. Wolfkids - Inventions
Ambient loveliness, but spectral, subterranean, ambient loveliness, like waves of comfort coming from something vast and ancient and inhuman, with motives the human brain isn't constructed to understand. Every time I listen to to it, I'm surprised by how densely constructed it is, how many moving parts the wash of sound contains, how many brief hints there are of subtle changes in mood.
26. Dark Honey - Simpson, Cutting, Kerr
Traditional English folk, arranged simply and performed perfectly, which makes it quite hard to write about. It's melancholic in the way that a bright spring morning can be melancholic, wandering through warm shafts of thoughtful light. And there's a winning confidence in the musicianship here: it achieves brilliance without ever coming close to flashy.
25. Capable of Anything - Ben Folds
If you're going to rip anyone off, it might as well be Sufjan Stevens. Here, the agitated buzz and flutter of flutes, the dense hyperactivity of the string-section, and the sudden, minor-key instrumental breakdown are more than a little reminscent of Stevens' work. But they're reminiscent of his best work, and the soaring melody and detailed arrangement (treating orchestral instruments as if they were electronic samples) are more than worthy of their influences.
24. Piss Crowns are Trebled - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Godspeed You! Black Emperor (and goodness, that band name is fun to type) are an elemental force. This is oceanic, apocalyptic stuff, waves of guitars crashing onto waves of guitars. I saw them live this year - the band were unlit; it was impossible to tell who was playing what. But as the music roared, huge monochrome films played above them - of grain silos, skyscrapers, collections of obtuse photographs: it was an exercise in sensory overload. Godspeed You! is a band who make an awful lot of noise and take this very seriously.
23. Be Right Back, Moving House - Ghostpoet
Ghostpoet has the voice of a man who knows what he's talking about - it's weathered and crackling with experience. This is wintry stuff, full of tightly drawn curtains and whispering fires. The song is one long crescendo, but at the end it's not catharsis that comes but measured understanding.
22. Ducks and Drakes - Seamus Fogarty
https://lostmap.bandcamp.com/album/ducks-and-drakes (not on Spotify)
So I was doing the washing up late at night, with Radio 6 on, which is my usual way of doing the washing up, even if I feel I should like Radio 6 more than I actually do. And then this comes on and the mundanity evaporates, and the room is soaked by some trembling, forgotten ritual. There's a really lovely singer-songwriter thing in at the centre of this music, but it's warped by quiet electronic intrusions and jazzish moments that occasionally drift away from melody and into abstraction.
21. The Legend of Chavo Guerrero - The Mountain Goats
It probably points to a deep shallowness at the centre of my taste that I only really like The Mountain Goats when they're writing pop songs. But dammit, The Mountain Goats write good pop songs. It's so damn tight, with a monstrously catchy tune, eccentric subject matter (like everything else on this year's "Beat The Champ" album, it's about Mexican Wrestling) and an endless supply of startling turns of phrase.
20. Run Like the River - Vintage Trouble
Impossibly propulsive blues rock: you think it can't be driving any faster, and then the first chorus hits, sending the song into hyperspeed. It's set alight alight by muscular gospel vocals and a spine of taut, unflinching guitar. People have been making music like this for decades, but it's always good to hear it done perfectly.
19. Path 19 (yet frailest) - Max Richter
This is an extract from an eight hour cycle of music designed to be heard while you sleep: live performances are meant to begin at around midnight and continue through until morning. As a result, this isn't exactly a party song - a softly repeating sequence of piano notes with a violin gliding across it - but it is quietly, restfully beautiful.
18. Learning to Relax - Dan Deacon
There's a sort of poignant loneliness you only ever find in nightclubs. Nightclubs are places designed to create human connection, but walls of noise overwhelm attempts to communicate. The buzz of alcohol and cheaply emotive music contrive to elicit a highly specific emotional response, but if your feelings are distant from the ones the environment is pushing on you, the whole room seems distant, disconnected. And yet there's something to be enjoyed about this feeling: the opportunity to be introverted and thoughtful in a room full of so much noise and movement. So it's a compliment when I say that Learning to Relax reminds me of this feeling - exuberant electronic dance music with a core of distant yearning.
17. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure - John Grant
Midlife crisis as apocalypse: an outpouring of fear, bitterness and despair. But it's also incredibly funny. John Grant's voice is a smooth baritone, the production is thick and soupy, with washes of strings and insincere choirs, but the musical-theatre histrionics are undercut by witty deadpan grumbling. John Grant's music has been getting odder and odder with each album: the disparate moods of this song really shouldn't work together. But here the bleak and the charming sit comfortably side by side.
16. 24 Frames - Jason Isbell
Jaon Isbell is an alt-country singer, and for anyone familiar with the thousands of men who have flirted with steel guitars, rugged miserablism and checked shirts over the last fifty years, there won't be any surprises here. But Isbell is very, very good at his job. The melody is perfect, the lyrics heavy with Springsteenian grit. But there's also something oblique about its poetry - a strangeness verging on mysticism that Springsteen would never have attempted.
15. All Fighters Past - Yes
http://youtu.be/xH8x5_CPTIs (not on Spotify)
Yes are kind of important to me. The first band that I loved (I have a vivid memory of hearing Sound Chaser when I must have been about five). The first gig ever saw (their 35th aniversary tour, 2004. I was fourteen. I still wear the t-shirt sometimes). The absolute bedrock of my musical taste (for me, wild invention, virtuosity, pomposity, overreach and bombast will almost always beat simplicity or subtlety). I may not listen to them as much as they used to, and they may not have released a decent album for the last 15 years, but no band has produced a more consistently perfect run of music than the five records that Yes recorded between 1971 and 1974, and I firmly believe that Close to the Edge is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century. So when, for this year's remaster of 1971's Fragile, a brand new early 70s Yes track was discovered, it's a big deal. It's a two-minute jam with ideas that would later be used on future albums, but it still sounds incredible: five musicians at the peak of their powers producing something fleeting and joyous.
14. Figure 8 - FKA Twigs
Delicate and fragile, like a spider. Full of subterranean skittering, and waves of doomy electronic noise, FKA Twigs' pure and airy voice floats above the melee as if holding court at a carnival of the damned. Unlike a lot of the self-consciously arty electronica on this list (see the entries at 46, 41, 34 and 27), there's a practiced pop sensibility here, with a finely-tuned structure and subtle hooks, which makes the song a simultaneously comfortable and disturbing place to sink into.
13. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful - Florence and the Machine
This is how you do bombast. There's a moment, 58 seconds in, when the suddenly excited horns make a noise that goes cha-ba-b-ba-ba-BA!, and then the fun begins. The orchestration is vast, monolithic, ridiculous in the best possible sense. And somehow, impossibly, Florence Welch's voice manages to overpower the orchestra.
12. Milford - Leveret
Three of the finest English folk musicians of their generation, improvising around a tune. There's nothing showy here, no conspicuous virtuosity, but what happens is beautiful: ideas bouncing off ideas and taking flight. It helps that the tune they're improvising around is superb, but the fact that an arrangement this perfect comes out of a jam is stunning. I imagine this is what hearing jazz would feel like if I was really into jazz.
11. My Baby Don't Understand Me - Natalie Prass
Sweeping orchestral soul, diving across mountainous crescendos one moment, and into poised repose the next. It's all rather mannered, more interested in polish than the raw emotional horror the lyrics seem to demand. But the polish is something to get lost in - it gleams with quality and care.
10. S.O.B. - Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
A glorious, gospel-soul stomp, and the happiest song ever written about alcoholism and failed relationships. It also contains this year's best swearing. The performance is raucous, but it's easy to ignore how tight the songwriting is: experience has shown that this works excellently when jammed through late at night in several Oxfordshire pubs.
9. I Lost My Mind (+@) - Titus Andronicus
Ragged, wordy punk, and an unflinching look at the singer's history of mental illness. It's not dour - it works far too well as rock music for that. And there's something triumphant in the song, even if the only triumph is daily survival. Titus Andronicus like to play with pretentiousness: this year they recorded a two-hour long concept album about manic depression, with song titles like "No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming". But songs like this are a reminder that the pretentiousness is a pose - a way of containing and framing the wild directness of their best material.
8. The Only Thing to Do - Bella Hardy
Bella Hardy usually sings traditional English folk music, but there's not much that's traditional or folky about this. It's a brilliantly realised piece of art-pop, with startlingly idiosycratic production: bursts of horns, burbling synthesisers, and snatches of distortion, all just restrained enough to keep the attention on Hardy's voice.
7. The Blacker the Berry - Kendrick Lamar
I'm much more comfortable writing about aesthetics than politics, but politically and aesthetically, this is bracing stuff. As a white listener, the song comes across as a confrontation, a reckoning, until it becomes clear that any white listener is almost irrelevant to the song's mechanisms: for all its visceral directness, this is as much a piece of introspection as it is a demonstration of righteous anger. Aesthetically, it's a series of explosions: Lamar's rapping is startlingly percussive; Assassin's vocal hooks surge between the verses like rising floodwater.
6. Rey's Theme - John Williams
When I was a child, I watched a lot of Star Wars. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of film soundtracks. Everyone knows that Episode VII was a hyper-efficient nostalgia machine, but the fact that its soundtrack may well be the last new John Williams Star Wars music we ever hear, coupled with the fact that - for me - it arrived at exactly the sort of emotionally gruelling time when nostalgia hits hardest, means that this piece felt important. Williams has always created music that feels as if it's already part of the landscape, part of cinema's history. Rey's theme is grand and restrained, and slots alongside its predecessors with practiced ease.
5. Rock and Roll is Cold - Matthew E. White
Matthew E. White is so damn classy. There are enough musicians here to populate a small village, but it's not busy or overblown: there's just a warm brassy groove that White floats above and sinks into. It's also genuinely funny - simultaneously mocking and celebrating the ways people think about, talk about and make music. With its ooh-la-la-las and horn-stabs, it feels like the kind of thing you should be able to punch the air to, but the song is far too knowing, sophisticated and self-confident for that.
4. The Death of the Dining Car - Lau
With the possible exception of Kendrick Lamar, Lau are - for me - the most successfully adventurous musicians working today: they're doing more than anyone else to expand the possibilities of music. They're still working within the walls of Scottish folk music, but they're pushing hard against the walls of what 'Scottish Folk Music' might actually mean. I could talk about this song's cryptic, conversational poetry, the psychic interplay between its musicians, or its thumping momentum. But mostly I love it for its fiddle part: a flashing, leaping thing, unmoored from gravity.
3. Return to the Moon - El Vy
The National's perpetually gloomy frontman Matt Berninger sings a bouncy, almost cheerful, piece of pop music. Sometimes it's hard to say why a song hits so hard, where to find the kernel of excellence that makes you come back to a song again and again and again and again. Maybe it's the whiff of melancholy nestling between the rhythmic spring of the guitars. Maybe it's the flashes of sudden wit or insight in the surreal whirl of the lyrics. Maybe it's just hearing a vocalist and writer that I love working in a new context. In any case, this has probably been played in my flat more than any other song this year.
2. Elevator Operator - Courtney Barnett
I've already described Titus Andronicus's entry on this list as "ragged, wordy punk", and this is the same sort of electrified verbal outpouring. Unlike the Titus Andronicus song, however, this is sunny and joyous, though not uncomplicatedly so: it's a smart, witty and perceptive slice-of-life, even if the life it's slicing is a very strange one. I've been concentrating on the song's wry eccentricity here, but it's important to note that it's also blood-pumpingly exciting - you don't get a chorus until halfway through, but you hardly notice because every inch of the melody is explosive.
1. Should Have Known Better - Sufjan Stevens
I'm not sure where to start on this one. There are certainly songs on this list that are more fun, or cleverer, or more immediate, or more exciting. It's a song about bereavement, and eventually it's a song about hope, and love, and acceptance. Musically, it feels very simple. All of which, in the abstract, makes it sound like it might be a collection of platitudes, but it's the opposite of that. There's a knife-sharp precision and specificity to it, a shunning of cliche, which makes the grief Stevens sings about feel real, fresh, painful. And when the song moves on to sing about hope, and love, and acceptance, it's not that those moments feel earned - there's nothing so crude or artificial as a narrative structure here - it's that they feel true: the song doesn't walk out of the darkness into the light, it allows the light to coexist messily with the darkness. There are moments here that hurt, and there are moments that don't. But in his gentle, patient, devastating way, Stevens explains everything.
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