Apologies for the long blogging absence. Not dead, just busy :-).
I always do a rundown of my favourite albums of the year every December – in fact I’ve done it for as long as I can remember, going right back as far as high school. I’ve usually done the traditional top 10, but sometimes the year in question has spoilt listeners so comprehensively that I I’ve gone to a top 20. This time I’ve gone all out and settled on a top 30 that I think I can live with – although there are so many albums I’ve not heard yet but really want to, albums I just haven’t given enough time to yet, or simply am not yet aware of, that I could probably go a lot further. So be thankful that I decided to stop at 30 ;-).
All of the records in this top 30 are superb and come to you without any real reservations; consequently it’d be easy for me to say that they’re in no particular order. But I’ve done my best to end up with what I feel are the best of the bunch. A couple of things I want to mention, though: if Charlotte Church‘s two magnificent EPs (Two and Three) that she released this year had been combined to make an album, it would have broken my top 6 or 7 without too much trouble. I’ve also not included Camel‘s 2013 re-recording of The Snow Goose, since it is essentially the same album that they released in 1976. If it wasn’t essentially a re-issue, it would have nailed my top 5 without breaking a sweat.
With all that in mind, here’s the tail end of my rundown :-).
 Megadeth – Super Collider
It seems incredible to me that Megadeth will soon have been active for 30 years, and whilst there may be those that find the idea of a 50-year-old Dave Mustaine and his band running out on stage to play thrash classics likes Rattlehead and Holy Wars faintly ridiculous, their recent output is all the justification that is required. Whilst not as full-on as their last album, Th1rt3en, Super Collider is still a superb offering and further evidence that Mustaine and company still have plenty of fire in their bellies and are not content to endlessly Xerox their back catalogue. This seems to frustrate the die-hard thrash fans no end as they continue to hanker after more albums exactly like Rust In Peace, but that’s their problem: the head-spinning fury of Dance In The Rain (based around one of the most titanic riffs they’ve ever delivered), the headlong rush of Kingmaker, and snarky fuck-you anthem Never Turn Your Back… are sure-fire crowd pleasers. If you then add in the pure radio friendly crunch of the title track, the bluegrass intro of The Blackest Crow and the heads-down, no-bullshit cover of Thin Lizzy‘s Cold Sweat, you also have ample proof that Megadeth have still got the fire, but are also not about to lie down and be what they are expected to be. The thrash purists can say what they like: this is a thrilling and addictive record guaranteed to have you turning up the volume, and up on your feet playing air guitar between your speakers.
Favourite tracks: Dance In The Rain, Kingmaker, Forget To Remember
 NoSound – Afterthoughts
NoSound are one of the bands on the KScope roster. That fact alone is probably sufficient to strike instant fear into fans of latter-day progressive music, whose wallets are probably that much lighter already as a result of KScope’s astonishing roster of prog talent (the amazing The Pineapple Thief, about whom I’ve already waxed lyrical many, many times, among them). NoSound, directed by guitarist/songwriter Giancarlo Erra have been around for several years and half a dozen albums already, but they’ve really come up trumps with this one.
NoSound’s latest is a beautifully restrained piece of work. Taking its lead from their recent album The Northern Language Of Things, it dials down the more self-consciously progressive leanings of some of their earlier albums and cranks up the atmosphere. NoSound are very careful about the use of space in their music, giving each note time to land – they’re the masters of “less is more”. Afterthoughts takes their approach to its logical conclusion, matching lush acoustic instrumentation (complete with some gorgeous cello) with humming organ, lyrical, liquid guitar and languorous vocals to mesmerising effect. Reminiscent by turns of No-Man and Pink Floyd‘s more chilled early 70s work, this is gorgeous record – beautifully delicate, haunting and filled with feeling, it’s a triumph. I’m not all that familiar with NoSound’s previous work, but based on this I’m very much looking forward to spending some time discovering it.
Y’know, I’ve just realised that there’s more KScope talent to follow in this rundown. Just a word of warning to those on limited incomes: do not go poking around the KScope website unless you’re feeling a bit flush, OK? OK.
Favourite tracks: In My Fears, I Miss The Ground, Paralysed
 London Grammar – If You Wait
I have a tendency to be deeply suspicious of any record that is relentlessly hyped, and If You Wait was no exception. Even before its release, frothing music journos were queuing up to fall over themselves to heap praise on the band, and some mildly ludicrous accolades were being handed to London Grammar before they’d even released a record. Not their fault, of course, and the great purpose of music journalism is, after all, to spread the word about artists that the journos find exciting, but when things are carried to such an extreme, it’s hard not to imagine the hands of the labels jerking on the strings from behind the curtain. I can’t help thinking that the world would be a better place if there was less hype around, since hype is what so often leads to unrealistic expectation, both on behalf of the audience, and the labels, who then panic if said artist doesn’t sell a bazillion albums and drop them; so ultimately everyone loses. But, hey, I digress :-).
A friend sent me a YouTube link to one of their songs (Strong), and you may well imagine my surprise when I was actually blown away by it. No, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff, and I still find some of the accolades being heaped – somewhat presumptuously, I feel – on them by the press squirm-inducingly unrealistic, but now, having heard and enjoyed the album many times I have to admit that the media were absolutely right to be excited by them. Lately there seems to have been an avalanche of over-emoting singer-songwriters and tepid three-chord indie, and I was imagining from the little I had heard that they fell into some crossover point between the two. Happily, this is not the case. Vocalist Hannah Reid is unquestionably the hook on which everything else depends, but happily she is more than up to the task, delivering with real depth of feeling some show-stopping performances without over-egging things. The music is restrained and atmospheric, giving Reid plenty of room to take centre stage, but neither is it the dull, unimaginative fare that has tended to clutter up commercial radio for years now. Sitting somewhere between a fatalistic Saint Etienne or reflective mid-period Depeche Mode, with hints of Mazzy Star, Florence + The Machine and Lana Del Rey, this is a wonderful record, evocative of rain-swept pavements under street lights, flickering city lights and the distant rumble of traffic. In other words, the honest sound of life happening, the very antithesis of what the likes of Duffy and Emelie bloody Sandé have been foisting on us for months.
Favourite tracks: Wasting My Young Years, Strong, Metal And Dust
 Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Well, what a nice surprise this was. I had no idea what to expect from this, but had heard a lot about it from friends who were into their ambient electronica, so it was off to Spotify to check it out. I think I was about halfway through when I realised that I was going to have to buy it :-).
Superficially, this is glitchy ambient not entirely unlike the more chilled work of the likes of Aphex Twin (except not as weird) or Autechre (but not as cold or dark). A warm, womblike feel is maintained throughout, and whilst it does have its moments of rhythmic momentum, the album has a steady heartbeat that anchors it to Earth, not allowing it to float off into the heavens. The stamp of Hopkins’ soundtrack work is there, but with a shifted emphasis on rhythm and melody: these are recognisable “songs” or pieces rather than ephemeral atmospherics, although Hopkins’ knack for atmospherics is clearly apparent. It’s a great mood record, superb for chilling out to, or coding to (it soundtracked the work on my last Open University assignment). I can’t help wondering how Hopkins will up the ante for his next record, but he doesn’t strike me as someone who would want to make the same record twice, so for now I am optimistic.
Favourite tracks: Collider, Sun Harmonics, Immunity
 Sound Of Contact – Dimensionaut
Here’s an album I actually didn’t think I liked all that much at first listen. Sound Of Contact have a pedigree ‘issue’, in that mainman Simon Collins is the vocalist/drummer son of… yes, you guessed it, Phil Collins. With such an illustrious bloodline, Collins Jnr’s decision to make a prog concept album with his bandmates is a bold one, since he must realise that the press – and indeed many listeners – are just going to hold it up against his dad’s band’s best work and stroke their chins. Courageous stuff, then.
Still, Collins Jnr can certainly (a) sing and (b) play the drums – and sounds uncannily like his dad at both (especially the drums), so any misgivings I might have had on that score were instantly dispelled. Unfortunately, at first it seemed to me a bit like Dimensionaut fell into the trap that so many albums (especially prog concept albums) fall into, being a touch samey throughout and a bit overlong – especially the closing ‘epic’ track, which seemed like it could profit from some judicious editing. Consequently, although it wasn’t a bad album at all, I was underwhelmed and actually didn’t pick it up again for some time – not, in fact, until after we’d seen Sound Of Contact supporting the mighty Spock’s Beard on their tour later in the year. Further plays have persuaded me that I rushed to judgement and it just needed more time (although I still think that last track is a tad overlong). I’m thoroughly enjoying it now, and have been observed to play air drums to it occasionally, which is a reassuringly Genesis-y good sign ;-). Great thought this is, though, I do still think that we probably haven’t seen the best of this lot yet.
Favourite tracks: Cosmic Distance Ladder, Pale Blue Dot, Only Breathing Out