- Osees – If I Had My Way
Osees remain one of garage rock and psychedelia’s most consistent and exciting bands at the moment. One of a frankly absurd number of releases by the band’s guitarist, vocalist and main creative force John Dwyer this year, “Protean Threat” saw the band retreat away from the expansive, more jam-oriented sound of recent albums in favour of condensing the rhythmic, quirky brilliance of their recent albums into a shorter, more concise package. “If I Had My Way” is one of the most accessible releases from Osees (or any of their other names) since their song “Tidal Wave” founds it way onto Breaking Bad. The tight, dense krautrock groove is turned into a piece of mellow garage rock here, with a Doors-esque organ grinding behind as Dwyer lays down typically quirky fuzzy guitar and some of the nicest, least gory lyrics from the band. The song has a casual, hypnotic quality reminiscent of the poppiest songs of German krautrockers Can, along with the compelling energy of proto-punk garage rockers of MC5 or The Seeds. Whilst it is rare to see an Osees release that disappoints, let alone is bad, “If I Had My Way” was an unexpectedly soft and accessible song for a band who have becoming increasingly bizarre and arty over the last 4 or 5 years.
- Melt Yourself Down – Crocodile
The jazz and afrobeat mania of Melt Yourself Down have been for a number of years an exciting part of the vibrant UK jazz scene, and on third album “100% Yes” they arguably perfect their manic, bizarre style. As with many albums on this list, there were a number of excellent singles released in anticipation of the album, but the zany “Crocodile” wins out here. Opening with shards of angular saxophone, as has now become typical for the band, the squelching synth bass and the hyperactive vocal presence of Kushal Gaya enter, with an energy that the band permanently seem to exude. There is also a sense of melody that is slightly more refined from the band, with the chorus being infectious in a way entirely different from the band’s usual reliance on exhilarating percussive sax licks. As the song goes on however, the hailstorm of saxophone exerts itself more and more, and Gaya’s vocals become more frantic, just adding to the ecstasy of the track. Melt Yourself Down may be the most straightforwardly fun artist on this list, and “Crocodile” is the epitome of the band’s danceable, unpretentious style.
- Pottery – Hot Heater
Canadian dance-punk band Pottery’s debut album “Welcome to Bobby’s Motel” is a zany, anxious record that is among the most polished pieces of punk from this year. Whilst the band certainly wear their Talking Heads influence fairly obviously, they add a sense of angular modernity that David Byrne and co. were never as inclined towards, alongside a use of electronics that is far more sophisticated than the New York band. “Hot Heater” is probably the peak of the record, with an infectious groove and cutting guitar sound that is hard not to enjoy, alongside the commanding, Byrne-esque strangeness of Tom Gould. The way the song opens, somewhat minimal and very angular, before opening up into the exhilarating funk groove and group vocal chanting, is also very accomplished. The lyrics are also full of the fragmented, anxious soundbites that could be found in almost all of the albums that will likely have inspired the band, creating a convincing tribute to some of the most cryptic and compelling lyricists in rock’s history. Pottery created an excellent album in “Welcome to Bobby’s Motel”, an arty, expansive punk record filled with danceable but strange tracks.
- Them Airs – Reciprocate
It is a testament to the quality of Them Airs’ “Union Suit XL” as a cohesive experience that 6 other artists sit ahead of the New Haven band. Practically any track from the single-less album could have been picked, but in the end the helter-skelter math-rock of “Reciprocate” was chosen. One of the most frenetic tracks on a fairly bizarre and energetic release, the song veers between a huge range of different sounds. Opening with a bizarre dissonant guitar riff before breaking into its intro-proper, the band immediately begins the sonic trickery and playful technicality that made the band so immediately compelling. The way in which all the riffs seem to hang on for just a moment too long to feel anything but alien, and the noisy outbursts that always seem just around the corner is insanely impressive for such a young independent artist. Also intriguing is the quiet banjo melody underneath much of the parts of the song, adding another quirky aspect to the dense art-punk. The song’s outro then sees the band suddenly become pensive and slower, ditching the sonic terrorism for a melodic yearning ending. The music of Them Airs is difficult to describe, a strange melding of an indie naivety with tight, intelligently written songs that are as thrilling as they are complex. With the release of a second album this year in “Doped Runner Verse”, hopefully this will be the beginning of a wider success for the band.
- Everything Everything – Violent Sun
Manchester art-rock artists Everything Everything have long been an exciting and innovative presence in UK rock, and although new album “RE-ANIMATOR” is at times guilty of somewhat derivative, Radiohead-esque songs, the singles were all remarkable for different reasons. Whilst the futuristic glitch-pop of “In Birdsong”, “Arch Enemy” and “Planets” are stunning for their fractured beauty, “Violent Sun”, also the album’s closing track, is the pick of the bunch. The surprising simplicity of this release is part of what makes it stand out so much within the dense, depressive polemics that “RE-ANIMATOR” leans on (to often excellent effect). The simple, thumped out drum beat and synth pads allows Jonathan Higgs’ superb lyrics and theatrical vocal style to shine through, creating a dramatic and beautiful ending to the album. Whilst the guitar lines of Alex Robertshaw certainly have the same tense beauty of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, the sheer unpretentious energy of this track is something Radiohead aren’t known for. “Violent Sun” is the purest expression of Everything Everything’s outstanding songwriting chops, making a song so simple yet euphoric.
- Fiona Apple – For Her
Fiona Apple’s “Fetch The Bottle Cutters” probably takes the award for the most fully-realised record of the year. It is a dense, passionate and deeply personal project that, like much of Apple’s work up until this point, will almost certainly be a topic of discussion for years to come. One song that immediately stuck out within a fantastic collection of avant-garde pop was “For Her”. In an album heavily inspired by the MeToo movement’s uncovering of unchecked sexual abuse in much of society, “For Her” is the uncompromising, uncomfortable epitome of this. The song’s lack of instrumentation, with only Apple’s rough, furious vocals and moments of equally furious, thumped percussion, creates a discomfort that few songs manage to create, let alone in under 3 minutes. The lyrics are some of the most unfiltered and horrifying depictions of the abuse highlighted in high society by MeToo, with Apple’s incredulity and anger hidden behind the soulful acapella vocals. The off-kilter tempo changes only add to this discomfort, creating a song that is remarkable yet horrifying in equal measure. “For Her” is unquestionably one of the most important songs of the last few years, and is one of the most harrowing pop songs heard for a long time.
- Desire Marea – Tavern Kween
From one of the year’s most acclaimed records to one that has largely been slept on, Desire Marea’s “Desire” has a similar sense of morbid, personal grief to Fiona Apple’s latest record. Whilst the infernal “Studies In Black Trauma” also deserves a mention, “Tavern Kween” is the unquestionable highlight of the record. The echoing synths that open the track are immediately captivating in their seediness, before Marea’s vocals enter, soulful and off-kilter. The song is arguably the clearest fusion of the music of Marea’s native South Africa, the avant-garde club sounds of an album like FKA Twigs’ “Magdalene” and industrial-esque hedonism. The way the song breaks into a plaintive horn section and subdued guitar solo before breaking back into the synth-heavy ecstasy for its closing chorus shows a command of atmosphere that makes Marea such a thrilling breath of fresh air. In a year of excellent transgressive pop music, “Desire” is perhaps the best of the lot. Its energy and authenticity see it stand out in a crowded field, and songs like “Tavern Kween” become immersive experiences in of themselves.
- Yves Tumor – Kerosene!
Yves Tumor, or Sean Bowie, could lay claim to having two of the best 5 or 6 singles of the year. Whilst “Gospel For A New Century” is also a beautiful, endlessly catchy piece of pop, “Kerosene!” is the highlight. Opening with a sparkling, 70s soul-esque guitar part that creates an ominous sense of seedy energy, Bowie’s duet with guest Diana Gordon begins, with the two’s voices reverberating through this sultry power-ballad. The song manages to take the industrial sound of much of Tumor’s early records and apply its strange lust to a sound more befitting of 70s soul or glam rock. Bowie and Gordon deliver one of the most remarkable vocal performances, soulful yet playing into the song’s slightly alien feeling. The cries of “I need Kerosene” that accompany the song’s joyous crescendo from Gordon are stunning, adding an energy to the song’s psychedelic breakdown that feels utterly joyous. The album didn’t really live up to the excellent singles, but astonishing releases like this do suggest that Tumor has the potential to create a career-defining album in the right circumstances.
- Dan Deacon – Sat By A Tree
Another album that didn’t live up to the lofty standards set by its singles, Dan Deacon’s “Mystic Familiar” is still a very intriguing record in its mixture of vibrant psychedelia, classical minimalism and ambient textures, but nothing matches up to the kaleidoscopic beauty of “Sat By A Tree”. The song is filled with gorgeous chirping synths, violins, droning piano notes squelching basslines and an entwined sense of melody and rhythm that is almost like the minimalism of Steve Reich or Harold Budd, all driven by a thumped drum beat. The song’s lyrical themes of returning to nature are also excellent, just adding to the sheer joy present in the song’s sound. Deacon’s vocals are also at times heavily modulated, adding a certain alien strangeness alongside the dense, maximalist approach to the instrumentation. It is both ethereal and strangely danceable. Little has been released this year that is quite as vibrant.
- Jessie Ware – Spotlight
Whilst every song from the top 5 could make a strong case to be the best, Jessie Ware’s lead single for new album “What’s Your Pleasure?” has a sense of magic and pristine, sweet melody that is particularly touching. In a year filled with artists from Dua Lipa to Kylie Minogue releasing disco-inflected pop records, “What’s Your Pleasure?” is the most comprehensive realisation of the “nu-disco” sound. “Spotlight” has both a nocturnal energy that the best disco is filled with, but also the flourish of strings and a huge range of irresistible melodies that highlights how effectively Ware has combined the budget of the modern pop star with an appropriate and tasteful nostalgia for disco and early 2000s pop. Ware’s beautiful, soulful vocal presence shines through here, only aided by the yearning strings and the constant new textures taking to the fore, whether a convulsing synth melody or the immaculate scratched chords of the guitar. The attention to detail and embrace of lush, modern production creates an almost heavenly veneer over the already beautiful song. All this and the song’s lyrics are the best expression of romance in music, not cryptic but so effective in conveying the emotional weight of the music. “What’s Your Pleasure” is among the finest pop albums of the year due to the almost obsessive detailing of the songs, creating songs that represent the best of pop’s desire for smooth, accessible music. “Spotlight” was the first glimpse of this and remains the best among a hugely consistent set of tracks.