The best of the past four years. Rock columns, Mail on Sunday, December 14 2008, December 2 2007, December 10 2006, and December 11 2005

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2008
This has been a middling year in rock and pop, but two things went spectacularly right. The first was the fact that a great songwriter finally achieved popular success in his mid-seventies. He didn’t even release a record in 2008, yet the man of the year, without much doubt, is Leonard Cohen.

His comeback tour opened at the Manchester Opera House with 11 outstanding songs in a row, and never looked back. Cohen and his band served up more treats in one evening than Bob Dylan has managed in 20 years of the Never-Ending Tour. By December, even the laminated wannabes on The X Factor were singing Cohen’s signature song, Hallelujah.

The second thing was along similar lines. The Mercury Music Prize, which has tended to lurch between the obvious and the baffling, went to exactly the sort of band a prize should have its eyes on: Elbow, who are intelligent, under-rated and long-serving, with a voice all their own. After 17 years on the margins, these five indie-rockers from Bury found themselves inching towards stardom with The Seldom Seen Kid (Polydor).

The album, like the band, slips into your affections stealthily. It has its faults – touches of bombast, the odd corny string part – but they are outweighed by the surging empathy of the songwriting. Dedicated to a friend who died young, and whose mum now has the Mercury trophy on her mantelpiece, The Seldom Seen Kid feels like life after a loved one’s death, without the pain and shock: vivid, heightened, suddenly real. In a three-star year, this was the one five-star album.

The second most rewarding album was a debut from four young New Yorkers, Vampire Weekend (XL). On first hearing, it seems like a novelty record, or a response to a question in a comedy quiz show: can you write a bunch of sophisticated Manhattan new-wave songs in the style of a South African township band? As time goes on, and especially once you’ve caught them live, you see that this strange collision is just a way of forging something exhilarating. And with their crystalline production, songs like Walcott and I Stand Corrected have solid craftsmanship beneath the bubbling sense of fun.

Not many British bands are so willing to put their music into a cocktail-shaker. One who do are Goldfrapp, who abandoned the disco-glam sound that had influenced both Madonna and Kylie and switched to lush electronic pop with tinges of hippie folk. Seventh Tree (Mute) was a satisfying, grown-up record that delivered not just instant hooks but intricate details.

The rest of the best albums came from veterans. Randy Newman returned with his first proper album for nine years, Harps And Angels (Nonesuch). Lyrically, it was classic Newman, bristling with jokes, barbs, irony, politics, history lessons and fearless self-revelation. Musically, it was lighter fare than usual, mostly rollicking trad jazz. The combination was a delight.

Grace Jones returned after an even longer break – missing, presumed weird – with Hurricane (Wall Of Sound), and took up exactly where she left off at the end of her golden run in 1985. The good bits were very good indeed, tuneful, dramatic, and reassuringly scary. Her finest hour, Nightclubbing (1981), is one of many albums now available to download at Amazon for £3, which is almost indecently good value.

Nick Cave, who has entered his fifties on a roll, rejoined the Bad Seeds to make Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Mute), the first top-five album of his long career. The music was largely traditional, drawing on folk, dirty blues and Velvet Underground-style garage rock but it was done with a fierce energy that shot new life into these well-worn genres, and the words were the wittiest thing this side of Randy Newman.

Neil Diamond is on a roll too, at the grand old age of 67. On Home Before Dark (Columbia), he stuck with the recipe from 12 Songs: strong melodies, spare arrangements, production from Rick Rubin, and piercingly honest lyrics. It gave him his first No 1 album in his native America, and his first in Britain with a non-compilation. If the public had got their timing slightly wrong – 12 Songs was even better – it was still rough justice.

Behind these seven were four albums that were good to live with in their different ways: Coldplay’s stirring Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (Parlophone), Fleet Foxes’ enchantingly odd debut Fleet Foxes (Bella Union), David Byrne and Brian Eno’s touching electronic gospel record Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Everything That Happens), and the Killers’ barnstorming bid to revive the Eighties again, Day And Age (Mercury). Compilation of the year was The Best Of Radiohead (Parlophone), which brought together the scintillating anthems of their early years and the most listenable of the jagged experiments that followed.

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2007

Historically, years ending in a seven have been highly significant in popular music. 1967 was the heyday of the hippie, 1977 was when punk took off, and 1987 was the year of acid house. But 1997 isn’t remembered for anything special – unless you count Candle In The Wind – and 2007 brought no great eruption, no mass movement.

In live music, which is booming, it has been the year of the reunion. When the past keeps coming back, rock writers tend to start blaming the present. But it may just be that rock is now behaving more like other art forms. We don’t fret about a revival of Pinter, or Britten, or Warhol.

The acid test is whether good new music is coming through, and there is plenty. When it comes to choosing an album of the year, there are five strong contenders.

Radiohead’s In Rainbows (download only at www.inrainbows.com until December 31; then on CD from XL) was the commercial event of the year, a major album whose price was set by the buyer. But it was also an outstanding record. Thom Yorke and co didn’t just make a splash: they moved back towards the mainstream, producing an album that was visceral as well as cerebral. If you’re unsure, start with tracks two and three, the blistering blues-rocker Bodysnatchers and the fabulously ethereal ballad Nude.

Yorke might be the most interesting British musician of his generation, if that pedestal were not firmly occupied by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, who added two more strings to a phenomenal bow. On stage in Manchester, he premiered the circus-ballet-cartoon-video-opera Monkey, which was great fun.

In the studio, he assembled a supergroup to make an audacious record: The Good, The Bad & The Queen (Parlophone), a set of songs dealing with London and using musical forms that have flourished there, from vaudeville to dub reggae. Elegiac, human, drenched in history and geography, the album was closer to Peter Ackroyd’s books than to most pop. But it featured one Albarn speciality: gorgeous tunes that appear only fleetingly, like rare birds flying past your window.

The year’s most stirring record was Neon Bible by the Arcade Fire (Merge Records), the furiously committed art-rock septet from Montreal. Their second album was like their first, Funeral, but even better – bigger, more intense, and, on songs like the superbly martial anti-war song Intervention, more engaged.

The reunion album of the year was the Eagles’ Long Road Out Of Eden (Mercury). Some of the reviews were sniffy even by the standards of us critics, but once past the period features – a double album! With a ten-minute title track! And hippie values! – you found yourself enjoying a series of treats. The tunes are sweet, the themes are big, the styles are varied, the harmonies are lovely, and half the 20 tracks are vintage Eagles.

The up-and-coming talents in America are mostly female solo artists – such as Holly Palmer, the under-rated Los Angeles soul singer. Songs For Tuesday (Bombshell, on iTunes or CD from CDBaby.com), her fourth album, is her second successive gem. A short album about love, it largely consists of intimate ballads that set smart modern lyrics to timeless melodies. And as Palmer remains a well-kept secret, this is a present for the music-lover who thinks he has everything.

And the winner is … the Arcade Fire. But the others are all excellent. And there were several fine runners-up: the Arctic Monkeys’ punchy, clever Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino), Feist’s artfully sparky The Reminder (Universal), Paul McCartney’s varied, Abbey Roadish Memory Almost Full (Parlophone), Patrick Watson’s dreamy, rousing Close To Paradise (V2), Bruce Springsteen’s heart-warming Magic (Columbia) and MIA’s exhilaratingly noisy Kala (XL).

The best cover albums were Bryan Ferry’s super-elegant Dylanesque (Virgin), Mark Ronson’s slyly educational Version (Columbia), and the family-friendly Radio 1 Established 1967 (Universal), which roped in today’s stars to remake 40 well-chosen oldies, from Lola to Lovefool via lashings of Bowie and Roxy. The best compilations were Dylan (Columbia), sensibly done as a single disc for beginners and a triple for fans; and the Rolling Stones classic Rolled Gold+ (Abkco), reissued, expanded, released on CD for the first time, and housed in a surprisingly sexy cardboard box.

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2006

Last December I wrote that it had been the best year for ages, and this year was just as good. Rock’s biodiversity, which might have been expected to shrivel in the face of the industry’s troubles, has actually expanded. The rise and rise of the internet has allowed singers whose sales are modest to make a good living. They may choose to stay within a major record company, but it’s a choice, which means they are under less pressure to march to the corporate drum.

The best music of 2006 was like a Hollywood cast list – dominated by older men and younger women. In the movies, this is because the decisions are largely made by older men. There’s an element of that in the music world too, but another, more edifying factor is at work. Making an album that is built to last takes maturity, and women, broadly speaking, get there quicker than men.

The album of the year came from a man of 65. Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs (Columbia) was a revelation. It was produced by Rick Rubin, confirming his status as a saviour of lost giants after his magnificent work with Johnny Cash. Rubin played Diamond some records he liked – records Diamond himself had made as a young man, when he was hungry, driven and too poor to afford a drummer.

This simple move led Diamond to find himself again. He tore off the toupee of schmalz and made an album of bald honesty. The 12 songs, all new, are folk-pop, shrewdly underproduced, mostly with just an acoustic guitar or piano backing. They’re as tuneful as you expect from Diamond, and as serious: they tackle love and fear, age and God. But they are more urgent and alive than anything he has done for decades. The album sold well in America and less so here, which makes it an even better Christmas present.

Over the years Bruce Springsteen’s records have divided sharply into two categories: big and small, band and solo, rock and folk, uplifting and bleak. With We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia), he finally merged the two sides of his artistic personality, infusing a set of antique folk songs with the rollicking exhilaration of his rock records.

The songs, some of them centuries old, tend to start small, with a mandolin or a fiddle in the lead, before swelling into big-band blow-outs mixing country, gospel and Dixieland jazz. This is folk, but not as you know it. It’s both an education and a riot.

If the women making great records were younger, their styles of music were often old. Several of them set 21st-century lyrics to backings from more innocent times. Jenny Lewis, who had made an assured debut as singer with the Californian indie band Rilo Kiley, left the boys behind and joined up with two girls, the Watson Twins, to make Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love).

This is a record in the great tradition of Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield – soulful country music, simply played and warmly produced – which also deals with contemporary issues like dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships and the insularity of middle America. There’s even a gospel song called Born Secular. And the singing is as glorious as anything you will find in a Baptist church.

Over here, a similar trick is being pulled by Amy Winehouse. On her first album, she set her modern-girl thoughts to jazz, which didn’t work quite as well as most of the reviews suggested. With Back To Black (Island), she has ditched the jazz in favour of Ray Charles, Motown and the girl-groups of the Sixties, which makes for a swinging charm to offset the tartness of her fearless lyrics. Still only 23, she has a talent as big as her hair.

A quirkier variation on the theme came from Fiona Apple with Extraordinary Machine (Epic). Apple sings like Doris Day with a hint of Tori Amos, writes words with the deftness of the novelist Melissa Bank, creates settings like Kurt Weill, and ends up sounding like nobody else. It was a small scandal that her record company had initially rejected the album: the songs are catchy, polished and not difficult at all, displaying a playful excellence that belied their tortuous gestation.

The same jauntiness could be found on Begin To Hope (Warner) by Regina Spektor, the Russian New Yorker who writes in almost all the styles mentioned above, and a few others, including opera and punk. She puts pictures in the listener’s mind, she is refreshingly acidic about love, and she sings like a gymnast in a supperclub. Cat Power, meanwhile, borrowed Al Green’s band, and sound, to make The Greatest (Matador), an album of smouldering soul ballads.

Of all these outstanding women, only one set the tills in Tesco ringing: Corinne Bailey Rae (EMI), the Leeds soul singer who is the lone woman, apart from Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters, in the top ten albums of the year. Her best songs are gorgeous, her voice is distinctive and intimate, her words ring true, and her album, though a bit safe in places, is good to live with.

One thing that holds back male singer-songwriters is the way they form bands together and live, like sports teams, in bubbles of boyishness. It wasn’t a problem, of course, for the great songwriters of the Sixties, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping the precocious frontman of the Arctic Monkeys, Alex Turner. At 20, he is shaping up like Hogarth, from Sheffield, in a hoodie.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (Domino) has been the album of the year in many ways – for impact, youthful brio, winning the Mercury Prize, and outselling almost everything, despite being on an indie label. When an Arctic Monkeys song comes on the radio, it feels as if a shard of reality has cut through the prevailing blandness. Turner’s lyrics are exceptional. But the music is less original – choppy, insistent post-punk, more effective in concert than on record. It’s an album that demands to be owned rather than to be played.

Back to the elderly gents for the rest of my first XI. Surprise (Warner), produced by Brian Eno, is Paul Simon’s best album since Graceland, 20 years ago: a set of philosophical pop-rock songs, with lyrics that have the compressed eloquence of poetry, textures that mix guitars with electronics, and tunes that twist and turn while still delivering an emotional punch.

Tom Waits’ Orphans (Island) is a triple album, which is hardly ever a good idea, but he gets way with it because you can easily whittle the 54 songs down to 20, and there are about ten gems, ranging from the brilliant clatter of Lie To Me to the breathtaking ambition of Road To Peace, a sly blues which somehow manages to summarise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while still being highly entertaining.

Also well worth four stars were Jarvis Cocker’s debonair Jarvis (Rough Trade), the Pet Shop Boys’ wonderfully typical Fundamental (Parlophone), Lloyd Cole’s incisive Antidepressant (Warner), the Killers’ barnstorming Sam’s Town (Mercury), Damien Rice’s patchy but searing 9 (14th Floor), Gnarls Barkley’s psychedelic but entertaining St Elsewhere (Warner), and Johnny Cash’s dignified swansong, American V (American). Reissue of the year was Talking Heads’ post-punk classic Fear Of Music (WEA); remix of the year, the Beatles’ fitfully magical Love (Apple).



ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2005

Among pop fans, 2005 will be remembered for Live 8, which somehow lived up to its own hype, and for the runaway success of James Blunt, who was music’s version of David Cameron: he caused a sensation by being quite personable. But there was far more to the year than that. Outstanding albums arrived at the rate of one a month, and they were all markedly different from each other. It was the best year for years.

Last Christmas, with the iPod sweeping all before it and the individual song taking centre stage, it looked as if albums might be slipping into oblivion. Instead they underwent a revival.

The best album of all was also one of the most popular, yielding three big hits: Gorillaz’ Demon Days (Parlophone). Never mind the cartoons, feel the music. This was a Damon Albarn record with help from the producer Danger Mouse and a quirky little galaxy of guest stars. Albarn was in the form of his life – splicing genres, coining catchprases, engaging the feet and the brain, and writing gorgeous melodies that appeared only fleetingly, like sunlight in a painting glimpsed through a window. Inventive, uplifting and equally irresistible to children and jaded grown-ups, Demon Days carried Damon clear of all the dreary Oasis comparisons and placed him closer to Lennon and McCartney.

Just behind, for sheer creativity, was Jack White. The White Stripes’ fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan (XL), was recorded in a fortnight and entirely written and produced by Jack, yet each of the 13 songs had its own personality. He and his ex-wife Meg bent their own rules, adding marimbas and piano to their guitar-and-drums template, but stuck to their guns by once again making blues-rock of great force and finesse. White is such a gifted guitarist, we barely notice that he is also the deftest lyricist in the charts.

If you were drawing up a blueprint for a successful 21st-century band, you might not go for a bunch of earnest, dowdy Canadians who wear waistcoats and sing about death a lot. But that was the magic of Arcade Fire, whose debut, Funeral (Rough Trade), was the most emotional album of the year. They began 2005 as an art-rock cult championed by David Bowie and David Byrne and ended it selling half a million records and opening for U2, who had been using their song Wake Up as a curtain-raiser. Passionate, stirring and richly layered, Funeral was the album Brian Wilson might be making now if he had come through the Sixties unscathed.

Arcade Fire were one of several acts to break through from nowhere, including their neighbours in the racks, the Arctic Monkeys, whose first album arrives on January 30. The internet has made it easier for quirky excellence to bob to the surface. But there are still some well-kept secrets out there, and the best is Holly Palmer, a Finnish-Californian singer-songwriter who has worked with Bowie, Dr Dre and Michael Buble. Her third album, I Confess (Bombshell), is the perfect modern pop-soul record, combining timeless melodies, dextrous lyrics and lean contemporary grooves. On sale at CDbaby.com and iTunes, it’s a present for the music lover who has everything.

In a year that mostly belonged to younger voices, Paul McCartney flew the flag for the old masters. Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (Parlophone) was his rawest album since about 1971. The graceful tunes were to be expected; the rough edges were more of a shock. His new producer, Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame, was hell-bent on shaking McCartney out of his comfort zone. They nearly fell out, but it had the desired effect on the music, which thrummed with vulnerability. This was the sound of an ageing legend finding a voice that matched his seniority. It also had the year’s best sleeve, an inspired snap of McCartney taken by his brother Mike in 1962, shortly before he conquered the world.

The British discovery of the year was The Magic Numbers (Heavenly), two pairs of mixed siblings based in Ealing who built an unstoppable momentum by putting a smile on the face of everyone who saw them in concert. Their songwriter, Romeo Stodart, takes the innocent camp-fire pop of bands like the Mamas and the Papas and gives it a twist of modern minimalism, making a beautifully organised sound that goes straight to the heart-strings.

Hip-hop album of the year was Kanye West’s Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella). In West, rock’s wordiest genre has found the educated voice it was crying out for. He’s bright, he has a social conscience, he’s not dazzled by gold or diamonds, and his beats and samples are as seductive as anyone’s. His live show, coming in February, should be an event: according to the Los Angeles Times, he has ‘created a new standard’ for live hip-hop.

If you buy a disco album this Christmas, the chances are it will be Confessions On A Dancefloor, which has given Madonna a commercial comeback, if not an artistic one. You’d be better off investing in the woman who inspired it. Supernature (Mute), the third album from Alison Goldfrapp and her henchman Will Gregory, was the Saturday-night record of the year, a fabulous confection of disco, electro and glam which also went down a treat in a Sunday-afternoon tailback on the motorway.

New voice of the year was the riveting transgender quiver of Antony and the Johnsons, whose I Am A Bird Now (Rough Trade) was too patchy to deserve the Mercury Prize, but still magical in parts. Male singer-songwriter of the year was David Gray with Life In Slow Motion (Atlantic), an album with the rugged soulfulness of Van Morrison at his best.

For grown-up pop, you couldn’t do better than the Go-Betweens’ Oceans Apart (Lo-Max), the kind of record that feels like an old friend after a couple of plays. For a real old friend, seek out the young Bob Dylan. The soundtrack to No Direction Home (Columbia) is superb: a rummage under the bonnet of genius.