Honorable mentions

Numbers 25-21

Numbers 20-16

fifteenth: Swans – The Seer

Few albums are as evidently intended as career-defining masterpieces as The Seer is. Its two hours encompass everything that Swans have been, in all their different permutations, as they enter their fourth decade: grinding industrial assaults and drones, sweeping apocalyptic folk, quasi-doom-metal stomp. In every sense, this is an album as Defining Statement: Swans are going for broke here and aiming for the stars. If, taken all in one go, it can get wearying in its relentless confrontation and nihilism, that seems to be entirely the point: this isn’t meant to be pleasant. “Harrowing” would probably be a better term. But it’s undeniably mesmerising, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in its overwhelming, unrelenting power. It is a remarkable achievement, however you look at it.

fourteenth: Beach House – Bloom

The music of Beach House’s first two albums is haunted: it is the sound of empty rooms, gaudy old trinkets, incense and dust. In its claustrophobic spaces sat Victoria Legrand, melancholy, intense, in communion with some vanished spirit, a memory of something lost. Their third album, Teen Dream, was like a window being flung open and the world bursting in, a ray of light piercing the darkness. If Teen Dream was the first bright day heralding the end of winter, Bloom is high spring, warm, fecund, flowering, languid. Its songs unfurl themselves, appropriately enough, like flowers coming into bloom: delicate, contained beginnings exploding into brightness and colour. Beach House’s sound has never been this rich, but it’s arguable that something has been lost along the way: where a Beach House song used to be a perfect articulation of a moment of longing, an expression of desire or devotion, wrapped in evocative imagery that suggested a world beyond the borders of its verses, all too often the songs here slip into vage generality. I still think this is a great, great album, but it’s also the first Beach House album I wouldn’t unhesitatingly place near the top three for its respective year. But when everything connects – as it does in the commanding majesty of “Myth”, the Cocteau Twins-meets-The Carpenters lament of “Wishes”, the gorgeous flight of “Lazuli” – Bloom offers us a mesmerising new Beach House, where new-found confidence and clarity complicate their aching melancholy rather than obscuring it.

thirteenth: Purity Ring – Shrines

I initially dismissed Purity Ring as The Knife Lite, before this album burrowed its way into my heart. Shrines might hit some of the same notes and display very similar sonic textures to those of the Norwegian duo’s epochal Silent Shout, but the resulting effect soon reveals itself to be very different. Where The Knife are icy, Purity Ring are warm and organic, anchored by Megan James’  intimate, affecting voice adrift in its austere, electronic setting. In what must be a very deliberate irony, this is a proudly unchaste album, with the body, and the transgression of its boundaries, a primary theme: it’s an album of “weeping chests and trembling thighs”, where ribcages are torn open and holes are drilled into eyelids.  In “Fineshrine”, James pleads, “Cut open my sternum and hold my little ribs around you”: it’s a line that’s both startling and beautiful, a declaration of intimacy that’s equal parts unsettling and tender. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, but Shrines maintains that brilliantly uneasy balance throughout.

twelfth: Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks

Is it suddenly no longer okay to like Of Montreal? I don’t get it. This astonishing, ambitious, raw, overreaching, grandiose album is easily their best since Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, and if it doesn’t quite equal that unquestioned masterpiece, it’s a towering return to form after the slight misstep of False Priest. Kevin Barnes wraps his tales of destructive relationships, dysfunctional families and self-hatred, all delivered with his typically lacerating self-examination, in layer upon layer of ostentatious wordplay, theatrical flamboyance and ambitious arrangements that bridge the gap between synth-pop and twentieth-century avantgarde. It’s often ugly, chaotic, atonal and uncomfortable, but just as often (and frequently at the same time) it’s catchy, even danceable, hooks and melodies coming at you at the rate of several dozen per minute: it’s almost overwhelming and it definitely needs more than a few listens before it all begins to cohere. At the heart of it all, as always with Of Montreal, is a despairing soul tearing itself and its world apart, trying to get at something more beautiful: here, the violence is more apparent than ever, but the despair is no less keenly felt.

eleventh: Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze EP

If I were to judge an album’s quality purely by how much I’ve listened to it, I would have to conclude that Dum Dum Girls’ Only in Dreamswas one of the very best albums of 2011. And yet, this EP is a massive step forward, with new textures, spaces and intimacies emerging as the Girls’ sound receives a new dose of polish. The (very evident) set of influences at play here – 60s girl-group pop, riot grrrl, shoegaze – have never been as seamlessly synthesized into a whole that is distinctively the Dum Dum Girls’ own, and the five songs here are all, in their own way, astonishing. From the way “Mine Tonight” starts off as post-breakup dirge before reaching for the rafters in a chilling death-wish/premonition of a chorus,  to the way “Season in Hell” closes the album with a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel – “Doesn’t the dawn look divine?” – this miniature masterpiece takes the listener on a perfectly-judged, powerful emotional journey. Along the way, “Lord Knows” is surely one of the very best songs of the year.

One thing about lists like this: of course, they’re not exactly scientific. The order of these albums tends to change just about every time I revisit an album and discover new facets I had previously overlooked. Some albums I thought would rank highly dropped out of the top 25 entirely; others I kept revisiting until I had no choice put to push them up the ranks. Still others I forgot about until I dug them up again once I decided to compile this list and remembered quite how great they were.

Anyway…

Honourable mentions

Numbers 25 – 21

twentieth: Animal Collective – Centipede Hz.

A relatively weak Animal Collective album is still an Animal Collective album, and as much of a mess as this album is, there’s still an embarassment of riches to be picked out. Take the manic colourburst of “Today’s Supernatural”, all screams, yelps, restlessly shifting rhythms and guitar riffs layered haphazardly over keyboard lines. Take the weary, descending-dark melancholy of “New Town Burnout”.  Best of all, take “Amanita”, which opens with a fanfare worthy of some mythical Oriental court before concluding with a departure into the mystery of a fairy-tale forest, with the promise to “bring back some stories and games”. I can’t wait to see what they find in the woods.

nineteenth: Chromatics – Kill for Love

Kill for Love opens with a cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” that cuts to the very heart of the album. Young’s anthemic rock ‘n’ roll manifesto is distilled into a repetitive, skeletal guitar line, a simple canned rhythm, some washes of neon-tinged synth, and frontwoman Ruth Radelet’s weary, distracted vocal take. It’s atmospheric, aglow with garish eighties neon, but also tired, oddly listless and melancholy. And the same is true of the album as a whole, which, far from a weakness, is kinda the whole point: Kill for Love is derivative, its sounds are the corpses of 80s electro and New Wave and 70s disco,  drained of blood and life but strung up for one more dance, and in this way they speak perfectly of loss, alienation, longing and emptiness. Front-loaded with its catchiest songs, the album seems to go on forever, so much so that it feels like it doesn’t actually end – it just dies down into ambient passages and meandering atmospherics that go nowhere, until your attention drifts off and you forget it’s still on. This is an album that suggests that, far from burning out in a glorious arc across the sky, rock ‘n’ roll is deep in the throes of a long, protracted fade-away.

eighteenth: Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

On this album, Jessica Bailiff’s musical touchstones range from gentle, piano-led ballads, to dreamy shoegaze-influenced pop, to heavy, funereal dirges that almost verge on doom-metal territory. But she never sounds like anything other than herself: what brings it all together into a coherent whole is Bailiff’s sonic investment in the textures and atmospheres of drone, which gives her music a hazy, indistinct quality, as if it is coming from far underground – or from some private chamber of the heart. Bailiff’s music feels private, painfully intimate, and it invites the listener to stand still, share in the intimacy and discover its secrets.

seventeenth: Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Julia Holter’s remarkable debut album, Tragedy, announced her as a major talent from the word go; her follow-up underlines that fact. Here, Holter emerges into a new-found clarity, shedding some of the abstraction and harsh surfaces of her first album without sacrificing any of her idiosyncracies.  Ekstasis is possessed of delicacy, grace and ethereal beauty, but it is also purposeful, meticulous and fiercely intelligent, its erudite literary references and gorgeous harmonies and details suggestive of mysteries constantly on the verge of being deciphered.

sixteenth: Burial – Kindred EP

Or, How I Learned to Finally Stop Worrying and Love Burial. I admired his self-titled debut and Untrue more than I loved them, but Kindred is something else. Its soundscapes are dense, dark and bottomless, weighed down with a heavy inevitability and pulsing with an unnameable  but almost unbearable ache. This is the sound of the city at 4am, the music of the night still ringing in your ears, disappointments and fears welling up, the orange glow of street-lamps and the red tail-light snakes on the tired drive home ignite some existential dread that is too deep in the gut for words to find any purchase on it.