The standard music recommended in Christmas gift guides across the globe can get rather dire. A selection of albums from the most commercialised of "talent," which quickly loses all musical value in a storm of stereotypical song structure and torrenting. With that in mind, we've counted down the Top 25 albums of this year, all of which will make a great present in both physical or downloaded form.
Ceremony - Zoo
After the initial fusillade of drum fills died down on opening track 'Hysteria', I was surprised to hear that frontman Ross Farrar had considerably toned down his vocal delivery. Whereas on prior releases he sounded like a bipedal jackal with a constant hate-boner, on Zoo he resembles more of an angst-ridden Damon Albarn. Although their sound has always been a perfect aural distillation of blind rage, this effort is far more Pink Flag than Black Flag.
Around half of the album retains a semblance of the hardcore influence from their immediate past, only dialled down. If you loved the skeleton-excising existential malaise of 'The Doldrums' from 2009's Rohnert Park, then you'll love the other half.
Zoo is a solid release with a few really great tracks, I just hope that they reintroduce a little more of their quintessential ferocity next time.
Best tracks: Citizen, World Blue, Nosebleed, Adult
Grouper - Violet Replacement
Grouper's music has always sounded like winter, like fading in and out of a dream, like a peaceful death. It's eerie and profoundly beautiful, but I could never listen to her work for extended periods of time without having to lie down for a while afterwards, feeling like my diaphragm had been punctured, tumescent with grief.
Violet Replacement's bipartite structure and sprawling, slowly evolving drones mark a departure from the refinement of her previous efforts. Its instrumental nature makes for an album less accessible but also less depressing. How much you appreciate this switch is dependent on your proclivities.
'Rolling Gate' is a crescendo in slow motion, submerged in reverb, evoking the sense that you're looking up at refracted light from the bottom of a lake. 'Sleep', while similar in style, introduces Liz Harris' spectral voice which hovers over a landscape of tape delayed guitars. This second track is more in line with Grouper's past records, particularly reminiscent of last year's A I A double LP.
Put this on at night time.
Best track: Sleep
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
There aren't many genres I can't relate to one some level, but R&B tends to be one of them. However, I can appreciate the obvious classic quality of Ocean's voice as well as the more subtle innovations he weaves throughout Channel Orange. Plus, it includes features from the effortlessly cool André 3000 and perhaps the only other interesting member of OFWGKTA, Earl Sweatshirt. I like it. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Best tracks: Pyramids, Bad Religion, Pink Matter
Raime - Quarter Turns Over a Living Line
Blackest Ever Black
Quarter Turns... is tasteful in its application of minimal elements, a moody and thoughtfully-crafted noir debut that sounds like the cold meditations of an abandoned, monochromatic industrial complex. Despite its ambient form, it has a baseline level of urgency as if something unknown is stirring, a precursor to some vague yet inexorable doom. This is gothic music without all the unnecessary spiked collars and trench coats.
Best tracks: Passed Over Trail, Soil and Colts, The Dimming of Road and Rights
EL-P - Cancer For Cure
Fat Possum Records
Beginning your album with a William S. Burroughs sample is a good way to grab my attention. Following on from that with futuristic beats and dense flows is a good way to hold it. People pretend that EL-P is more leftfield than he really is, but it doesn't matter all that much because Cancer For Cure is executed with the confidence and precision of an expert. It's got a kind of Brooklyn tough guy vibe going on, and I like my hip-hop with as little posturing as possible so it does lose me in a couple of places. But overall this is a compelling, consistent effort from a compelling, consistent artist.
Best tracks: Request Denied, The Full Retard
Flatbush Zombies - D.R.U.G.S
'Flatbush Zombies' debut mixtape is saved from its trite horrorcore lyricism and occasional awkward flows by an unpretentious attitude and excellent production comprised of slick, memorable synth hooks and eclectic samples.
The more skilled of the two MCs, Darko, evokes an Ol' Dirty Bastard vibe in both his appearance and his frequent vocal eccentricities, but not in a derivative way (unlike ODB's actual son). Juice, the second of the two, has a lot of character but his verses are mostly asinine and forgettable. It doesn't really matter though; it's obvious that these guys are more interested in blowing smoke than blowing minds.'
Best tracks: Face Off, Thug Waffle
Trash Talk - 119
Trash Talk Collective/Odd Future Records
Tumultuous and irreverent, this stompy, thrashy hardcore album will probably offend the oxymoronic and just plain moronic punk elitists, but if there's one thing I doubt about this L.A based quartet it's their capacity for giving a shit about what old people think. Since they've started hanging out with OFWGKTA it looks like they're having a lot more fun these days, but 119 is still as caustic and destructive as ever. Trash Talk's sound hasn't evolved significantly over the years, but neither have great white sharks and they seem to be doing all right.
Best tracks: Eat The Cycle, Exile on Broadway, F.E.D.N
Andy Stott - Luxury Problems
My mild case of synaesthesia interprets this album as a very white piece of art. Not that it's bland, just sterile, if the distinction can be made. It's cool, in both senses of the word, evoking no real identifiable emotional response. But it works. Luxury Problems is calm and detached on the surface but exudes some palpable violent undertones in places; an uneasy, psychopathic record.
Best track: Numb
BADBADNOTGOOD - BBNG2
BBNG's second eponymous album is another smooth, occasionally hectic blend of instrumental hip-hop and jazz which includes covers of Kanye West, Earl Sweatshirt, Feist and My Bloody Valentine, amongst others. Sadly there are no sublime Legend of Zelda renditions this time around, but in every other way this album surpasses its predecessor. Their frequent use of low-pass filters allows for both the original stems and their own virtuoso compositions to merge together seamlessly. Walk down the street with this on and I guarantee you'll feel a lot cooler than you actually are.
Best tracks: Earl, Limit To Your Love, UWM, Flashing Lights
Grizzly Bear - Shields
Shields is spacious, yet focused. Nonchalant and detached, yet bold. Layered with subtle details and interesting time signatures, yet immediately accessible. Upon repeated listens it reveals more and more of itself, deceptively multi-dimensional in its use of texture, an exemplar of restraint. Its value isn’t always overt, but it’s always there.
Best tracks: Sleeping Ute, Yet Again
Alt-J - An Awesome Wave
Hailed as the new Radiohead by some guy on Youtube, Alt-J's Mercury Prize winning debut is attracting hyperbolic praise from all over the shop. Their vapid Tumblr-esque obsession with triangles notwithstanding, they are a constantly inventive and intelligent outfit. They're the kind of band to attract all sorts of meaningless double-barrelled genre labels such as ‘Avant-pop’ and ‘folk-step’, but this is really a testament to how singular their style is, contrived and overdone or not. There are a lot of acapella harmonies, a lot of beatific looping guitars, and potentially a lot of times when you'll castigate yourself liking it so much. An Awesome Wave is undeniably good, even if it is painfully trendy.
Best tracks: Breezeblocks, Tessellate, Fitzpleasure
Purity Ring - Shrines
Purity Ring's association with the quasi-satirical 'witch-house' genre is apt, as they blend saccharine vocals and high fidelity synthesizers with glitch samples and macabre lyricism. Hearing such a childlike voice sing 'Cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you' will unsettle - and I don't know - maybe even arouse you a little. If you played this record to Albert Fish he would have involuntarily cum in his pants.
Best tracks: Fineshrine, Belispeak
Silent Servant - Negative Fascination
Negative Fascination emanates high tech/low life dystopian vibes throughout. Unintelligible voices pan around pulsing bass grooves that evoke the filth of future-metropolis streets below shimmering synths and synthetic strings that embody the sterile skyscrapers rising above. Cyberpunk as fuck, yo. Post-Singularity dance clubs will play this kind of stuff all the time and everyone will be wearing ridiculous headgear that serves no obvious purpose and drinking iridescent cocktails with silly names and it will be a great time.
Best tracks: Invocation of Lust, The Strange Attractor, A Path Eternal
Billy Woods - History Will Absolve Me
If the photo of Robert Mugabe on the cover and the ominous title weren't enough to warn you, this is an acerbic, militant and intimidating hip-hop album. What you might not have guessed is that it's replete with articulate wit that flows naturally over gritty lo-fi beats. Over the course of the 17 tracks Woods lets you know in no uncertain terms that he's very pissed off the world and probably with you too. It could have had slightly more of an impact if it was leaner, but the majority of History Will Absolve Me is as potent as it is erudite.
Best tracks: Crocodile Tears, Ca$h 4 Gold, Duck Hunt
Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory
No gimmicks, no pretension, just an affirmation of what a couple of guitarists, a bassist, a drummer and a singer can do when equipped with modest resources and a lot talent. Attack on Memory is at its best when it eschews its poppier aspects and whines with futile aggression. If Pixies, Radiohead and The Smashing Pumpkins somehow conceived a child (I'll leave you to figure out that logistical nightmare) you might get something that somewhat resembles Cloud Nothings.
Best tracks: No Future/No Past, No Sentiment
Torche - Harmonicraft
Torche’s seismic guitar riffs are complemented with raspy pop punk vocals in an album that’s both agile and bone-shatteringly heavy, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of the band’s sludge metal antecedents by keeping things fast, short and upbeat. You can imagine hearing a lot of these songs on one of the first three Tony Hawk games -- i.e. the good ones. This is what A Day to Remember would be doing if they weren't shit.
Best tracks: Kicking, Walk it Off, Reverse Inverted, Harmonicraft
Tame Impala - Lonerism
If you can get past the fact that vocalist Kevin Parker sounds almost exactly like John Lennon you'll discover a kaleidoscopic daydream of a record - saturated in effects - that oscillates and hypnotizes, leaving you locked to the couch as if you've just hit a bowl of the dankest Indica that East Hull has to offer.
Tame Impala definitely owe a lot to The Beatles for their sound. Lonerism could be called derivative, atavistic or outdated, but it could also be called an exceptional continuation of 1960's psychedelia. I’d go for the latter.
Best tracks: Gotta Be Above It, Endors Toi, Apocalypse Dreams, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, Elephant
Deftones - Koi No Yokan
'With Koi No Yokan, Deftones refine their fusion of the ethereal and the visceral that has remained consistently effective since their inception, whilst continuing to transcend the boundaries of the reductive and frankly insulting 'nu-metal' label so often applied to them.
Whereas its predecessor Diamond Eyes was a partial revisitation to the groove-oriented style of Around the Fur, this release is more evocative of White Pony in its spacious atmospheres and invariably enthralling vocal melodies. Aside from 'Tempest', there aren't any particularly standout tracks, but that's only because the level of quality is uniformly excellent throughout.'
Best tracks: Swerve City, Leathers, Poltergeist, Entombed, Tempest
Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
A friend of mine asserts that Fiona Apple is like a gender inverted Tom Waits; idiosyncratic, always anomalous and totally inimitable. She comes off like an emaciated spinster - albeit a pretty, talented one - rocking back and forth on the floor attempting to soothe herself with disturbed lullabies.
Beneath the delicate facade of The Idler Wheel… is a seething neurosis that never fails to allure. The piano melodies often sound like a haunted fairground as Apple's voice wavers in injured tones about feeling as if there's a second skeleton under her skin. The Idler Wheel… is emaciated, fragile, emotionally raw, sincere and quirkier than this emoticon: (◡‿ ◡ ✿).
Best tracks: Every Single Night, Left Alone, Regret, Hot Knife
Swans - The Seer
Young God Records
The Seer feels like the conjuration of an elusive sixteenth century swamp mage, brooding in self-imposed exile, surrounded by an excessive amount of crystals, sigils and leather-bound tomes of arcane knowledge whilst channelling the Gnostic wavelengths of the firmament. Its eerie occult mood is crafted with absolute mastery and you get the sense that there are always some enigmatic mechanisms operating beneath it all.
Bandleader and vocalist Michael Gira chants, moans and warbles cryptic and often demoralizing words of nihilistic wisdom as if he's some demented jester heralding an ineffable darkness. It can be quite overwhelming. After chanting the word 'Lunacy' at you thirty times (on the opener of the same name) above a crescendo that wouldn't be unsuitable at a witch burning, Gira softly sings 'Your childhood is over' in a tone so strangely beautiful and understated that it becomes more insidious.
Although this double album is lengthy, every second feels deliberate and necessary. Its ambition and intricacy are extremely admirable.
Best tracks: Lunacy, Song for a Warrior, Avatar, The Apostate
Death Grips - NO LOVE DEEP WEB
NO LOVE DEEP WEB is exactly what was promised in their Pitchfork announcement: it's minimal, cold and bass heavy. An entirely different vibe to The Money Store, this release is bleaker and more subdued in places but still retains the schizoid ferocity you've come to expect, so much so that Ride strains his voice on the first track. There's nothing as standout as 'I've Seen Footage', 'Hacker' or 'Hustle Bones' on this album, but what it lacks in catchiness it makes up for in cohesion and sheer filth. Instead of references to Lady Gaga and sherm sticks, we have allusions to the Tor network, abandoned buildings and suicide. If The Money Store was Death Grips on PCP, NO LOVE DEEP WEB is them on Krokodil.
I'd have to concur with the band when they say this captures the ethos of Death Grips more precisely than their previous efforts. However, I take issue with their assertion that it would fit into a 'rave or dance club context'; I see it as fitting into more of a gang rape or mass suicide context. Rap music is usually synonymous with big egos, but Death Grips are all about the id.'
Best tracks: Come Up and Get Me, No Love, Lock Your Doors, Artificial Death in the West
David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
‘Love This Giant is, for the most part, even more than you could have expected from a collaboration between artists as accomplished and peculiar as these. Due to the centrality of the brass band its tone never strays too far from the whimsical and jubilant, although it does frequently reintroduce the ethereal elements from St. Vincent's last album Strange Mercy, which serve as a great counterpoint.
For the most part, this album is chock full of quirky rhythms, beautiful melodies and interesting juxtapositions, and strikes a good balance between the visceral danceability of the beats and the duo's cerebral lyricism. It's ambitious, intelligent and catchy. It's art-pop done right.'
Best tracks: Who, Weekend in the Dust, The Forest Awakes, Lazarus, Optimist
Deerhoof - Breakup Song
According to drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof's 11th album is 'Cuban-flavored party-noise-energy music'. It's a vibrant, fun, erratic glitch-pop mash up of metallic guitars, crunch funk basslines and super-kawaii vocals likely to disseminate Type 2 diabetes via your ear holes. Despite the discord and the noise, this is a fundamentally happy album that makes me fundamentally happy, which is rare. So it must be good.
Best tracks: Breakup Songs, There's That Grin, Mothball The Fleet, Flower, The Trouble With Candyhands
Portico Quartet - Portico Quartet
Real World Records
Regardless of their primarily jazz-based instrumentation, Portico Quartet remind me of a more organic Bonobo or Quantic. Their self-titled sophomore album is a wonderful, therapeutic synthesis of disparate elements. Crisp Downtempo beats vitalize yawning strings and reverse reverbed tape delays without detracting from their sedative effect and the use of the rare Hang adds a peculiar and fitting twist to their sound. There really isn't a bad track here. Its winding melodies relax and inspire with a transcendent quality. You can simultaneously lose yourself or find yourself within this lush, epiphany-inducing record. It’s a serene, exotic and mystical experience, like getting a totally platonic head massage from Deepak Chopra with an inordinate amount of candles involved.
Best tracks: Window Seat, Ruins, Rubidium, Steepless
Death Grips - The Money Store
'The Money Store is the kind of music that makes you want to snort bath salts, take off all your clothes and eat a homeless man's face. It's either the soundtrack to schizophrenia, or hip-hop taken to its logical conclusion.'
This enigmatic and prolific Sacramento trio (yes I will acknowledge Flatlander) have created two of the year’s best albums centred on a kinetic contrast of the futuristic and the primitive that hits hard, never relents. The Money Store is denser and more dance-orientated than NO LOVE DEEP WEB. Each has its own unique vibe, both demonstrative of a total clarity of vision, deftness of execution, and devotion to Futurist principles. The whole thing is off the proverbial chain, possessed by fervent genius. Not just new noise, but a new mythology.
MC Ride is the Colonel Kurtz of rap; his mind is lucid but his soul is mad. Upon his throne, Zach Hill is the physical manifestation of Thoth, ancient Egyptian deification of the Moon and cosmic housekeeping, whose frenetic grooves maintain the balance between chaos and order within the volatile elemental forces of their music. As for Flatlander, I’m convinced he was merely a hologram all along.
The Money Store is more than just the best album of the year, it’s tied with Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come and Wu Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang for my favourite album of all time. Buy it, because I've heard they're homeless and in need of legal fees after leaking NLDW online for free in October.
Best tracks: Get Got, The Fever (Aye Aye), Hustle Bones, I've Seen Footage, Punk Weight, Hacker
I am the Founder and Editor-in-chief of New Rising Media. You can follow me on Twitter @MrJasonEngland.