And last but not least from the Riot Squad, we have John Preston’s Top 5 albums from 2012.  Starting tomorrow, you can find out what some of the artists we’ve reviewed this year have been listening to.  Of course, I’m not going to tell you who’s contributing yet; you’ll have to visit the website over the next couple of weeks for that.

 

Fiona Apple -- “The Idler Wheel…”Product Details

Her best album of 4, Fiona Apple is a true original; a breath taking talent and completely, criminally overlooked in the UK. You can change this; buy this outstanding albeit challenging (worth it though, believe me) CD and show her the respect and love she deserves for continuing to make songs as brave, bare and uncompromising as she has here. You’re not worthy of course and she’d rather spend a weekend with her piano and dog than share a beer with a hipster like you but you won’t find a better singer songwriter to fall head over heels with. Listen to ‘Regret’ and be quietly, hopelessly terrified and then just surrender.

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra -- “Theatre is Evil”Product Details

Charismatic, tireless, controversial and forever ‘on’; Amanda Palmer’s fan-funded, 16 track opus is a thumping and relentless feel good(ish) blast. The chamber pop strings and piano of “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” has, on the whole, been traded in for massive 80’s synths, rock guitars, thuggish pop choruses and has an energy and vitality that nothing else I’ve listened to this year comes close to matching. This is probably best demonstrated in the garish, hysterical and euphoric “Do It with A Rockstar” video where all of these elements collide beautifully. My go to choice to blow the morning blues away when you’re still half asleep and making your way into work on a rainy Thursday morning; it may be a cliché but play this one LOUD!

Brandy – “Two Eleven”Product Details

In 2004 Brandy released what was probably her most consistent and cohesive album, “Afrodisiac”. Crucially it was also one of the last top notch productions that RnB superstar Timbaland (and Missy Elliott’s musical soul mate) was responsible for before his, and also RnB’s, decline. He went on to produce Miley Cyrus and New Kids on The Block and Mary J Blige was produced by Eurotrance cheese maker RedOne and autotune replaced real vocals. Brandy resisted jumping on this ill-conceived bandwagon and has now returned with a heartfelt, beautifully sung, sleek and modern RnB album. Timbaland isn’t around this time but Frank Ocean and Bangladesh are and they really do provide Brandy with a sound-scape that enables her to fly.  Check out the Lykke Li-sampled, dancehall-incorporating and completely bonkers “Let Me Go” if any further proof is needed. So along with new comers such as Dawn Richard and Solange, things are thankfully moving forward again in a very positive, new direction within the RnB genre.

Lana Del Rey – “Born To Die Paradise Edition”Product Details

When one of the most intriguing and original pop stars of the last ten years debut album didn’t quite deliver the goods as expected in the wake  of her destined to become classic single “Video Games”, the disappointment was palpable. Lana Del Rey has more than redeemed herself however on this re-release featuring 9 (on the ITunes version) new, very high quality songs which ditches some of the kitchen sink production mistakes of the original album and replaces them with a warmer but, importantly,  even more desolate sound. “Ride” demonstrates that vocally and songwise Del Rey is no one-trick pony and possesses enough personality and pathos to carry a big song in a way that her contemporaries may struggle with. America’s new sweet heart.

Rachel Zeffira – “The Deserters”Product Details

Released at the beginning of this month, this is a late comer but without doubt an essential release which you will thank me for tracking down. This is beautiful, ornate and soothing music of the most other-worldly kind and also the most seasonal (as in winter not Christmas) of my picks. Last year I included Cat’s Eyes on my Top 5 and Rachel Zeffira is one half of that duo so it’s nice that this album, which has the DNA of that debut but mixed with something altogether more spectral, has proved that she can stand alone and make an album which sounds unlike anything else I’ve heard this year.

Product DetailsThis time last year, when I was considering my top 5 albums of 2011, I had no hesitation in including the sublime eponymous debut album from the Horrors front man Faris Badwan and classically trained, both musically and vocally, Rachel Zeffira duo; Cat’s Eyes. On the tracks where she took lead vocal, Rachel created images of sad, 1950’s high school girls lost in the alienating fog of a very David Lynch, night-time world; it was heartbreaking. There are in fact many similarities to Zeffira’s style and that of Julee Cruise; Lynch and composer Angelo Badalementi’s definitive nightclub chanteuse, and her (surely?) classic album ‘Floating Into the Night’ released at the tail end of the nineties and during Lynch’s successful ‘Twin Peaks’ period; but more on that later.

Whilst there were some industrial sounds and more explicit 1960’s surf pop influences played out on the Cat’s Eyes album, Zeffira has really homed in on the baroque, classical elements that always sonically threatened to take over their debut and, understandably, seem to be where she excels and feels most comfortable. And where that album cast her as a schoolgirl steeped in adolescent angst, albeit in a very adult sounding setting (“The Best Person I Know”, “I’m Not Stupid”), this is told from a far more adult perspective where decisions have been considered and consequences accepted and reflected upon. The sadness and beauty is striking and “The Deserters” captures the sense of loss, or change, at least, in almost every song. 7 out of the 10 songs here (which include a lush version of the My Bloody Valentine song “To Here Knows Where”) feature either the words ‘go’, ‘gone’ or goodbye’; the title track doesn’t but then it doesn’t need to.

Rachel Zeffira’s angelic, soprano vocals (Canadian born, but now living in London, she shockingly references Brixton in one song) are sometimes multi-tracked and often have a slight reverb which in no way detracts from the emotional strength delivered and along with the pop song sensibility and the subtleness of the orchestra used in many of the tracks this is not, maybe surprisingly, a depressing album. “Break the Spell” swirls and beats strongly enough for you to dance to it (listen to those plush harps!) whilst “Goodbye Divine” with its blaring cathedral organ is a winter hymn. “Letters from Tokyo (Sayonara)” begins with a carousel effect,  a piano with the lyrics confessing ‘You won’t hear from me anymore, I told many lies and hid many more; nothing can make me change my mind’ and it’s on this track, an obvious highlight, that the resemblance to Julee Cruise gave me goose bumps. It’s striking just how much the song’s structure and content and the actual performance from Zeffira calls to mind Cruise at her most devastating and this is a positive thing.  No-one has filled the gap left by Cruise (Lana Del Rey is the most obvious candidate but hers is a more self-conscious, much more explicit variation) but where she often sounded like she was at the point of disintegrating, Zeffira has a strength and independence that Lynch would never have allowed his one-time musical muse.     

Like “Cat’s Eyes” before it, “The Deserters” is a cruelly short album (not quite 37 minutes!) but I guarantee you that some of the year’s most beguiling and surprisingly warming music is contained within it. The really magical thing is that Zeffira also recognises and understands how to displace the listener, transport them to somewhere not at all familiar and then close the door behind them for an all too brief trip to an alternate hinterland. Some incredible music on offer here then but will it make this year’s top 5?