It gets more and more difficult to whittle down all the amazing new music I hear in the course of a year to a list of ten favourites – which is why, since 2011, I’ve settled on making a longer list. When the long-discussed Hippy Towers website goes online, I’m going to have to bite the bullet and settle on top tens for each year as I’ve been insisting I would all along, but until the site goes live you’ll have to forgive me if I indulge myself a bit here. Whilst there are some big names here, a lot of the bands I’m going to mention in this year’s rundown are small, independent bands who could really use a bit more exposure, even if it’s courtesy of my miniscule dusty corner of the web. So if you like what I say about anything hear – go and listen. I promise you that anything I mention on this page is at the very least worthy of an hour of your time – most likely more, if they make an impression on you in the same way they made an impression on me.
So without further ado…
 Knifeworld, The Unravelling
Lately it seems that everyone’s become so bored by genre labels that press releases proudly trumpet that the bands they describe are “uncategorisable”. Most of the time that’s optimistic hyperbole, but Knifeworld really do defy easy categorisation – and that’s just one of the things that makes them, and this album, such a delight. It’s a rather different beast to their squalling, riffy debut Buried Alone: Tales Of Crushing Defeat – whereas that was more of a solo project from guitarist/vocalist/chief songwriter Kavus Torabi, this album is more of a collaborative band effort. Occasionally it misses the feverish, frantic energy of their debut, but it compensates with more complex arrangements, more emotion – for instance, Send Him Seaworthy is a lovely, wonderfully idiosyncratic tribute to Tim Smith (of Cardiacs fame, who recently suffered both a heart attack and a stroke) – and more atmosphere. The unpredictability of Torabi’s muse is alive and well, though: songs settle into a groove, only to suddenly charge off in a totally different direction, sometimes numerous times in quick succession, which makes this a thrilling, immersive and often truly disorienting listen. Welding psychedelia to indie rock, metal riffing, folky balladry and immense pop hooks, this is a magical, swirling cloud of beauty and tension.
 Curved Air, North Star
In the wake of a glut of better-late-than-never female fronted progressive rock bands in recent years, it’s become easy to be cynical about a now overcrowded subgenre. Thank your deity of choice, then, for the timely return of 1970s legends Curved Air, fronted by the force of nature that is Sonja Kristina, the original prog rock pin-up (er, so I’m informed *bashful grin*). It’s been 38 years(!) since the band’s last ‘proper’ studio album of original material (the intermittently great Airborne), and there’s always that slight concern that after all that time away – a period longer than many band’s whole careers – the band may have lost its edge. Fear not, this is a magnificent return: right from the winsome opener, Stay Human, it’s immediately apparent that Kristina’s voice has retained its magical properties, and the instrumental interplay on songs like, er, Interplay and the fabulous Magnetism showcase a band that has rediscovered its mojo. The album does contain some re-workings of past favourites alongside a few covers: normally this would sound like padding, but anyone who can deliver such a lovely reading of hoary Beatles warhorse Across The Universe and make you forget that it’s not their own song can be forgiven a great many sins (plus that new version of Situations is great). This is an absolute triumph – let’s hope that we don’t have to wait so long for the next record.
 Aphex Twin, Syro
Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin) has lost none of his ability to surprise and innovate. Syro is his first ‘proper’ studio album of new material since 2001’s sprawling double album Drukqs, although he’s been very busy in the interim with compilations of his sought-after remixes and limited vinyl releases. Previously Aphex Twin’s back catalogue has cleaved towards two extremes: his ambient experiments and his more dancefloor-friendly, techno/EDM material. Syro goes some way towards combining the two strands of his work, marrying the mesmerising rhythms of his more danceable output with the atmospheric and experimental tendencies of his ambient music. James himself describes it as his “pop” album, and by Aphex standards it probably is just that. The result is welcomingly womblike, yet shot through with icy tendrils of his more uncompromising material, as if to remind us that everything is only as pleasant as he allows it to be. Syro has been well worth the wait, an intelligent, atmospheric yet delightfully groovy offering that shows that James’ extraordinary muse is alive and well, over twenty years after releasing the seminal Surfing On Sine Waves (under the name Polygon Window). Dance record of the year, with a bullet.
 Steve Rothery, The Ghosts Of Pripyat
It appears to be insanely difficult for well-respected rock guitarists to record solo albums without resorting to dull none-more-authentic acoustic albums or shred-filled showboating blow-outs. Kudos then to Marillion‘s much-loved Steve Rothery for delivering a beautifully evocative instrumental album that totally avoids both extremes. The Ghosts Of Pripyat showcases Rothery’s soaring, soulful playing over seven fairly lengthy tracks, allowing him to stretch out in a way that his day job in Marillion doesn’t often afford him. Freed from lyrical narrative, Rothery’s guitar takes up the storytelling to hugely impressive effect – perhaps the closest parallels are to Camel‘s Andy Latimer and Dire Straits‘ Mark Knopfler. Add a stellar band (Mr. So & So‘s Dave Foster on guitar, ex-So & So drummer Leon Parr, Panic Room‘s Yatim Halimi on bass and Italian prog rockers Ranestrane‘s Riccardo Romano on keys), and you have the recipe for one of the best purely instrumental albums of recent years. Let’s hope that Rothery finds more time to spend in the studio when his Marillion schedule allows.
 Within Temptation, Hydra
Within Temptation can be relied upon to deliver the goods. So much so that on first listen, I found this, their latest offering, somewhat underwhelming. Almost certainly their slickest and most radio-friendly offering to date, it feels comprised entirely of singles – sort of a greatest hits package made up of new material. The addition of several guest vocalists strengthened this apparent longing for crossover appeal. However, watching the band translate this material to the live arena earlier in the year has unlocked the album for me, and there’s no question that they remain on top of their game. Every song is filled with irresistible hooks and is topped off with the astonishing vocals of Sharon den Adel, a woman who effortlessly wrings every ounce of emotion out of even the most straightforward material. The commercial face of symphonic metal, perhaps their biggest problem is that they just make it all look so easy. Instantly memorable, gloriously anthemic, this is a great band consolidating what they do so well: a perfect record for the diehards and newcomers alike.
 Decapitated, Blood Mantra
Decapitated have always been as uncompromising as their name might suggest. The Polish band have overcome – or rather, survived – all kinds of tragedies and setbacks in the course of their near 20-year career, not least the tragic demise of their prodigiously talented drummer, Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka at the age of 23 in an automobile accident that also put their vocalist into a coma (thankfully he did recover). Despite all of this, the band have served up arguably six of the best death metal albums ever recorded (certainly some of the most technically accomplished, despite their tender ages: they were still teenagers when their debut, Winds Of Creation – now hailed as a genre classic – was released). Blood Mantra is their second album since the band reconstituted itself after Vitek’s passing, and is quite possibly their finest hour to date. It starts out pretty much business as usual, with thunderous, breakneck and hugely skilled technical death metal, but about three tracks in it slowly dials up the intensity, not only in terms of technicality, but also in terms of atmosphere and emotion, and somehow manages to maintain this blistering power right to the end of the record. A icily bleak but tremendously powerful and focused record, this is the finest blast of death metal I’ve heard in a very long time. Don’t let the band’s name fool you: this isn’t the gleefully OTT torture-porn metal so beloved of genre hacks, this is the real deal. A throughly modern, deeply unsettling and powerful record.
 Cloud Atlas, Beyond The Vale
Heidi Widdop is nothing if not determined. After time in Mostly Autumn, Breathing Space and the excellent but short-lived Stolen Earth, the York-based singer-songwriter has served up what is undoubtedly her finest work to date with her new band Cloud Atlas. A winning mix of Zeppelin-esque classic rock and Floydian atmospherics, Beyond The Vale unfurls slowly, like some beautiful orchid, its unhurried and highly emotive songs hiding within them a wealth of staggeringly effective set pieces. Widdop herself is in rare form, delivering some superb lyrics with her powerful rock voice, but whilst she is the core of the band, the other musicians provide the perfect canvas for her to paint on – most notably Martin Ledger, whose Gilmour-esque guitar playing is simply to die for. An album that epitomises Kate Bush‘s line that “just being alive, it can really hurt” as well as providing some powerful hope that the glass is half-full after all, Beyond The Vale is one of those records that you can truly lose yourself in. A special mention too for the cover art, which really is gorgeous.
 Luna Rossa, Secrets & Lies
Luna Rossa is a semi-acoustic side project from Panic Room‘s Jonathan Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder, and whilst the similarities are undeniable – the pair write the lion’s share of the material for Panic Room as well – their sparser, more introspective approach gives rise to a very different vibe to Panic Room’s albums. This, their second album, is even sparser than their first offering, Sleeping Pills and Lullabies. The ingredients are all still in place, however: Helder’s astonishing vocals, Edwards’ less-is-more economy behind the keyboards (among other things) and a finely-tuned ear for melody that means that even after one or two listens, these songs will haunt your every waking moment for weeks. The themes are universal: love, loss, depression, joy, and all the attendant problems and breakthroughs that day-to-day living provides us with; consequently this album frequently can’t help but hit quite close to home. Not rock, not folk, not jazz, but inhabiting a hushed and wonderful world somewhere in-between, this honest, beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking record is a triumph.
 Delain, The Human Contradiction
Delain – formed by Within Temptation‘s ex-keyboard player Martijn Westerholt – are an intriguing amalgam of the gothic/symphonic stylings of their parent band and the more metallic crunch of bands like Lacuna Coil. In many ways it’s the best of both worlds: they have the relentless energy of the latter and the glorious drama of the former, and in frontwoman Charlotte Wessels they have a real one-off, an engaging and very technically able performer who also happens to be a gifted and intelligent lyricist who ensures that in terms of subject matter, Delain are more grounded in reality than many of their peers. The Human Contradiction is their fourth album and sees the band in rude health. Ably assisted by Nightwish‘s Marco Hietala, veteran growler George Oosthoek and Arch Enemy‘s blue-haired wunderkind Alissa White-Gluz, the band power through an album seemingly comprised of anthem after anthem, and a good time is guaranteed for all. Dig below the surface, though, and there’s a great deal of thoughtful and emotive writing about the problems those who are “different” face in society, including the powerful and well-observed Your Body Is A Battleground, which makes an argument that the multi-national drug corporations are not necessarily our friends and that there are those for whom difference is an illness to be ‘treated’. Powerful, finely-wrought and as hooky as all hell, this album is Delain’s finest hour. So far, anyway.
 Mastodon, Once More ‘Round The Sun
The Atlanta-based Mastodon have served up some of the finest, most inventive metal albums of recent years. Once More ‘Round The Sun marks a slow retreat from the more concise song-oriented material featured on their previous album The Hunter, and frankly is all the better for it: this band is at its best when they are given the space to stretch out and indulge their progressive tendencies. Whilst this is not as obviously conceptual as some of their previous records, it feels very much a complete journey all of its own, and manages with great success to marry the band’s highly melodic writing with eye-watering instrumental skill: nowhere is this more evident than in songs like Chimes At Midnight, Ember City and the anthemic The Motherload. And then there’s Aunt Lisa, with its visceral, blackened verses and climactic fist-in-the-air clarion call of “hey, ho, let’s fucking go“, which sums up the spirit of this fearless and increasingly popular band perfectly. The perfect marriage of classic rock hooks, progressive virtuosity and crunching riffage, Mastodon seem unstoppable at the moment. Oakland-based artist Skinner’s astonishing sleeve artwork also deserves a special mention. For me it’s the most eye-catching and inventive of the year – as psychedelic, intense and multi-layered as the album it houses.
 Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
Lana Del Rey somehow managed to notch up massive commercial success with her last album Born To Die, despite coming on like Mazzy Star on laudanum. A deeply personal record with a jaundiced yet romantic view of the world and the people who inhabit it, it was hardly crammed with glossy pop hits, and yet it captured a world-view that clearly hit a chord; and so it was with Ultraviolence, the even less commercial follow-up. The theme here is emotional violence, from the point of view of both the attacker and the (often willing) victim – consequently it makes for difficult listening at times, even when leavened with sardonic humour, as in the case of the Machiavellian Fucked My Way Up To The Top, or the wryly despairing Brooklyn Baby, whose hipster heroine spends her time monged out on “hydroponic weed”. Grimly compelling, hopelessly romantic and irresistibly memorable, this is a gorgeous record, all slow-mo rhythms, chiming shoegaze guitars and clouds of synth that drift like opium smoke. Del Rey describes her bewitching lyricism perfectly on the title track: “He used to call me DN / That stood for deadly nightshade / Cause I was filled with poison / But blessed with beauty and rage”. How very true.
 Mostly Autumn, Dressed In Voices
Whilst they’ve always enjoyed a dedicated following since their inception towards the fag-end of the 90s, Mostly Autumn have largely failed to capitalise on their formidable early momentum despite making some outstanding records. Whilst the band are more of a collective than a true band, a pool of skilled musicians who come together periodically to give voice to guitarist Bryan Josh’s creative vision, the departure of long-standing vocalist Heather Findlay a few years ago really seems to have injected some fresh vigour into their work. This, their 11th album, is a positive watershed moment for the band: their first truly conceptual album, Dressed In Voices is quite simply the best thing they’ve ever done, by some distance. It’s a simple enough premise: a man is senselessly gunned down, and the universe intervenes, stopping time and allowing the dead man’s spirit to enact its own revenge, forcing his murderer to experience the dead man’s life, experiencing all the joys and sorrows of a life lived well, in the knowledge that this is a life that he has taken from the world. Part It’s A Wonderful Life, part A Christmas Carol, the album is deeply moving, beautifully written and expertly performed by everyone involved (especially vocalist Olivia Sparnenn and keyboard player Iain Jennings). This is a rare case of a band catching lightning in a bottle; Dressed In Voices is the record they were always destined to make.
 Epica, The Quantum Enigma
There’s no faulting Epica‘s ambition. We’ve already had concept albums about the fallacies of organised religion (The Divine Conspiracy), the progress and extinction of cultures (Consign To Oblivion), and a particularly scathing attack on our own inertia as an increasingly decadent society (Reqiuem For The Indifferent). The Quantum Enigma picks up where 2009’s Design Your Universe left off, exploring the world of quantum physics and the degrees to which we are responsible for the world which we live in. It doesn’t get much more high-concept than that, and Epica’s extraordinarily huge sound – “like Meshuggah covering Andrew Lloyd Webber“, as a friend memorably put it this year (thanks, Bruce!) – is the perfect medium: big music for big ideas. Musically, principal writer/guitarist/vocalist Mark Jansen and his ensemble are more strikingly ambitious than ever before, delivering crushingly heavy death metal-influenced riffery as well as huge pop choruses, orchestral drama and, memorably, a mid-album homage to oriental classical music which is spine-tinglingly beautiful and disperses the tension of the darker pieces wonderfully well. Add in chanteuse Simone Simons in tremendous form and a crystalline production, and you have a real feast for the brain and the ears. If it’s not their finest hour to date, it’s as close as makes no difference.
 The Pineapple Thief, Magnolia
It’s been a difficult couple of years for Pineapple Thief‘s songwriter and driving force Bruce Soord, which led to rumours of this potentially being the last Pineapple Thief album; all I can hope is that this is not the case, as this band have made some of my favourite albums of the last decade. Magnolia continues the band’s trend towards writing shorter, punchier songs, but then the band were always considered prog more by accident than by design, and their hugely emotive and cathartic material is served well by the change. The band’s extremes are well catered for, with limpid ballads cast somewhere between Radiohead and Pink Floyd and thunderous riff-based rock not a million miles from the work of Muse and Biffy Clyro both well represented. Lyrically, Soord wears his heart on his sleeve, as ever, and the results are never less than memorable. Beautifully produced and passionately performed, Magnolia is a treasure for established fans and newcomers to the band alike. If this is how The Pineapple Thief go out, at least they’re going out on the top of their game.
 Gazpacho, Demon
There’s no surprise that Norwegian masters of atmospheric progressive rock Gazpacho have served up another winner in the shape of Demon. Like all of their albums since their ‘breakthrough’ album Night, it’s a conceptual piece: this time based on the ideas contained in a fabled manuscript left behind in an apartment in Prague. The scribbled notes detail the author’s awareness of a demon, an evil presence that haunts mankind, inducing people to commit evil acts. Easy listening this is not: unhurried, and full of the deepest unease, the eerie tension it generates is formidable. The music frequently breaks away to feature sparse duets between piano and violin, or piano and Jan-Henrik Ohme’s soulful vocals before building up into crushingly powerful crescendos, even flirting with Balkan folk music and dabbling with electronica; it is, fittingly given the subject matter, properly haunting. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself holding your breath whilst you’re listening to it. Dense, dark and unpredictable, it’s not an ideal entry point for newcomers to the band’s material, but if you’ve already fallen under their spell this is just further proof that Norway’s finest band are just going from strength to strength.
 IQ, The Road Of Bones
Who’d have thought that IQ would still be active over 30 years after their inception, and making the best music of their career to boot? No-one, that’s who, and I suspect the band are just as surprised as everyone else. Since vocalist Peter Nicholls returned to the fold in the early 90s, they’ve been practically unstoppable, turning in the boldest and most exciting work they’ve ever put together – and considering their back catalogue includes gems like The Wake and Nomzamo, that’s pretty impressive in itself. When long-serving keyboard player Martin Orford left and the rhythm section saw some changes around the same time, there was perhaps a sense that the band was coming to a natural end – and yet they’ve bounced back with two of their finest albums ever: 2009’s formidable Frequency and now The Road Of Bones. Taking their pre-existing prog metal influence and dialling it up, this new offering offers some of the darkest, most claustrophobic material to date, notably the title track, sung from the point of view of a serial killer, which is deliciously macabre. New keyboard player Neil Durant has settled in beautifully, his more modern playing style the perfect foil for Nicholls and IQ’s chief writer and guitarist Mike Holmes. It’s also great to see previous bassist Tim Esau returned to the fold and kicking copious bottom. This is superb work from a veteran band who seem never to run out of ideas. Like Marillion, they seem indefatigable.
 Iamthemorning, Belighted
This oddly named Russian duo, newly signed to the ever-reliable Kscope label, are my new discovery of the year – and I have to give props here to Gary, who pointed me in their direction, feeling sure that it would be a case of love at first listen. And it was. Assisted by a host of musicians (including Porcupine Tree‘s Gavin Harrison on drums), pianist Gleb Kolyadin and vocalist Marjana Semkina weave a mesmerising spell for an hour. Taking influences from classical music, progressive rock and folk and blending them in a way that’s almost seamless, this is a richly atmospheric and multi-faceted piece of work. The songs themselves are things of gossamer beauty, albeit with an iron-clad heart at times, when momentum gradually builds and drives them onwards, displaying surprising muscle. Vocally and lyrically, Semkina’s work is reminiscent at times of both Tori Amos and Kate Bush – but that’s hardly a criticism. Unassuming but hypnotic, she is the glue that holds everything together, from the feisty rhythms of tracks like The Howler and K.O.S. to the spacier, dreamlike interludes (perfectly entitled Intermission and numbered with Roman numerals), whilst Kolyadin’s playing and arrangements are brilliantly inventive but never showy. For me, this was an instant favourite. Belighted is only Iamthemorning‘s second album proper, but on this form, the world is their oyster.
 Triptykon, Melana Chasmata
Thomas Gabriel Fischer’s Triptykon picked up where Fischer’s much-beloved Celtic Frost left off, after the latter disbanded following the release of 2006’s mighty Monotheist. Fischer’s own struggles with depression and his singularly dark vision of humankind’s eternal battle with mortality are unquestionably an acquired taste, but Fischer’s difficulties have led him to create some extraordinarily powerful, very human and emotive music. This is especially true of Triptykon, and particularly so of this album. Triptykon’s first offering, Eparistera Daimones, was informed by Fischer’s loss of Celtic Frost and was brutally and brilliantly angry, brimming with a black and seething fury. Melana Chasmata certainly is a crushingly heavy and obsidian-black album too, but this time around there’s less of a sense of anger, and more a sense of a desolate acceptance. This is a more atmospheric album, with bigger and more varied arrangements – and for all that, it is comprised of some of the heaviest and most inventive riffery you’ll have heard for years. Once in a while an album comes along that is both artistically superb and destined to become a future classic – Melana Chasmata is just such an album. Newcomers to Fischer’s bleak, blackened world should start here and bask in the wonders of one of the best metal albums I’ve heard for a decade or more.
 Lunatic Soul, Walking On A Flashlight Beam
Mariusz Duda’s work under the moniker of Lunatic Soul has been nothing if not impressive. Quite far removed from the progressive metal of his ‘day job’ with Polish band Riverside, Duda’s work as Lunatic Soul is more experimental and hard to categorise. Taking influences from progressive rock, ambient electronica, drone music, world music and very occasionally the more metallic textures of Riverside, Lunatic Soul’s material tends to be less song-based and more abstract. His previous three albums under the Lunatic Soul umbrella examined mortality and the afterlife; this time, he tackles a more personal topic, that of a creative personality who creates best when isolated, and the problems that isolation and disconnection can have on their life. In that respect, it’s akin to Gazpacho‘s excellent (and ultimately tragic) Missa Atropos, although Walking On A Flashlight Beam is somewhat more optimistic. That said, there are moments of the album that will chill your blood: this is a deeply immersive record with a hypnotically compelling narrative. Between the shafts of sunlight and the icy sensory deprivation of the darker material, Duda’s skill with emotive lyrics and striking, memorable songs proves to be alive and well. This could well be the finest thing he’s ever put together, with or without his band, and that’s high praise indeed. Definitely not to be missed.
 Opeth, Pale Communion
It seems the critics are falling over each to talk about Sweden’s Opeth‘s transformation from a progressive death metal band into a good old-fashioned prog rock band, but for anyone who was paying attention, the band’s recent output is comprised of the same DNA as their first few albums: just the proportions have changed. It’s not been a sudden process either: 2003’s Damnation was entirely metal free. Other recent albums have featured acoustic ballads and lengthy instrumental sections built largely from distinctly non-metallic arrangements. Even their debut album, Orchid, featured several lengthy tracks with definite stylistic transitions within them – and 1998’s My Arms, Your Hearse was a concept album. Thus Opeth find themselves facing what I feel is deeply unfair criticism from “fans” who never really understood the musical ethos of the band in the first place. There may have been some cause for criticism when it came to their last album, Heritage – which, although very strong, cleaved perhaps a little too closely to some well-worn 1970s progressive rock tropes; for the first time in their careers, Opeth seemed content to be somewhat imitative. Pale Communion, however, integrates that same 1970s progressive rock influence into the Opeth sound in a much more effective and subtle fashion. The fact that this improved integration coincides with the band delivering some of their finest songs of recent years is just the icing on the cake. Beautifully desolate, intricately played, but extremely powerful when it needs to be, this has to be one of the band’s finest hours since their inception in the 1990s. If the “true metal” crowd don’t like it, it’s very clearly their loss.
 Anna Phoebe, Between The Shadow And The Soul
Veteran virtuoso violinist Anna Phoebe has previously been best known for her guest appearances: with Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, and Christmas-obsessed rockers Trans Siberian Orchestra. This is all set to change with this, her third solo offering. Assisted by a formidable band comprised of members of Asian-influenced metal band Jurojin, Phoebe turns in one of the best instrumental albums I’ve heard in a very long time. Beautifully varied – featuring everything from languid piano/violin duets to frenetic, string-breaking, muscular metal – Between The Shadow And The Soul takes on Balkan folk, pieces with a classical influence, Indian ragas, roaring metal riffing and jazzy counterpoint with fearsome intensity and staggering ease. Throughout Phoebe is a wonder to behold, pouring out what is surely her finest recorded performance to date, whilst the material is powerfully evocative; an emotional and mood-enhancing 50 minutes which had me pressing ‘Play’ again with glee as soon as it came to an end. If this music reaches the right ears, her time (well-deserved, and long overdue) will have finally arrived.
 Panic Room, Incarnate
Losing founder member, guitarist Paul Davies, led to Panic Room re-examining their sound. Although it’s not a huge sea change from their previous work, stand-in guitarist Adam O’Sullivan’s less-is-more style has helped the band make a sparser, more haunting album than previously. Incarnate manages to walk the thin line between introspection and hope in spectacular style, the songs without exception irresistibly memorable. In terms of mood, there’s a yawning chasm between the sunshiny optimism of the joyous Waterfall and the bleak, eerie Dust which closes the album on a powerful and ominous note, but so cunningly is the record sequenced that it never feels disparate; the flow is extremely well conceived. Vocalist Anne-Marie Helder is on the form of her life, vocally and particularly lyrically, and the writing partnership she shares with keyboardist Jonathan Edwards has never sounded so articulate and fearless. Songs about the missing, the ends of relationships, the civilian cost of warfare, and self-(re?)discovery all take on unexpected and powerful colours at the hands of this talented bunch. Quite simply, it’s their best work. One of the most affecting and heartfelt records I’ve heard all year – if you’ve not listened to this band yet, it’s more than high time that you did.
 Pink Floyd, The Endless River
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan, so the likelihood was always that this would feature in this list somewhere – but after numerous complaints about the album being comprised of “off-cuts”, “out-takes”, “noodling” etc, despite my love of all things Floyd, I was getting nervous. The Endless River was to be Floyd’s swan-song: surely it wouldn’t be a disappointment? Thankfully, one listen was all I needed to reassure me. The people describing it as “out-takes” and “off-cuts” are being extraordinarily uncharitable. Keyboardist Rick Wright’s untimely death in 2008 meant that that the band’s final album is comprised of material built around unfinished recordings made by the three-man Floyd and bassist Guy Pratt in 1993-1994, but that is the very point: the archive recordings are only the core of these newly-conceived and completed tracks. In lesser hands, this could quite easily have been a half-baked curtain call, but the surviving members have built a mighty edifice around the existing recordings that is not only richly atmospheric and powerfully emotive, but also a beautiful elegy to their lost bandmate (or rather bandmates, since almost by inference the ghost of Syd Barrett lingers around everything the Floyd have done, and the band member’s personal if not professional reconciliation with estranged Floyd founder Roger Waters serves as a powerful reminder that life is short and not to be wasted) and to the Floyd’s legacy as one of the giants of music. Echoes (sorry) of the Floyd’s entire recorded history lie here, submerged in a sea of whalesong guitar, Rick’s trademark washes of organ and Nick’s sturdy, unfussy drumming. It may be almost entirely instrumental, but Floyd have seldom been more emotive. An almost ideal way to drop the curtain on an astounding body of work, this is simply wonderful.
 Anathema, Distant Satellites
Like Opeth, Anathema have undergone a (mostly) gradual transformation. Starting out as moody doom metal, they now plough a furrow that sits equidistant from metal, mainstream rock and progressive rock, albeit a singularly emotive one. After the breakthroughs, personal and professional, of their previous albums We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems, Distant Satellites serves as both a consolidation and the beginning of another new chapter: the first few songs are very much in the vein of the very successful Weather Systems material, albeit leavened with tinges of the band’s doomy past, whilst the second, more meditative half, is shot through with strands of electronica. The results are extraordinary: the title track in particular is a thing of shimmering beauty, the inexorable ticking percussion loops a perfect musical illustration of the underlying physics of a cold, beautiful universe and a wonderful counterpoint to one of the band’s most emotive, lyrical songs. The band, dependable as ever, deliver passionate performances and will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. The whole package is near perfect – this is another album where the artwork, simple as it may be, is incredibly striking and perfect for the record it houses. The only question is where they will go from here, but you can be sure the journey will be one worth taking.
 The Church, Further/Deeper
There were some raised eyebrows when long-serving guitarist Marty Willson-Piper was absent from the sessions that produced The Church‘s 24th (depending on how you count it) studio album, but if fans of the Australian-based legends are used to anything, it is change. The band seemed excited and rejuvenated by the challenge and by the arrival of Willson-Piper’s replacement, Powderfinger‘s Ian Haug – and against seemingly all odds, Further/Deeper is one of their best albums to date. Marrying their irresistible Byrdsian jangle to their latter-day spacey psychedelia and sturdy progressive rock influences, the album showcases a band that seems more at peace with itself and its legacy than ever before. Bassist/vocalist/lyricist Steve Kilbey is in rude form all round, Haug feels like he’s been there all along, the band’s other guitarist Peter Koppes is outstanding throughout and the whole is anchored to earth as always by Tim Powles’ safe pair of hands behind the drum kit and in the studio. It’s rare for bands with careers spanning over three decades to be this inventive; it’s rarer still to see them turning in some of their best work. From the moment this arrived at Hippy Towers, it’s scarcely been out of the stereo, and every play reveals something new and fascinating; it was an instant favourite but impossibly just seems to keep getting better. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Further/Deeper is my #1 this year. Energised, atmospheric, emotive, haunting and utterly addictive, this is The Church at their very best.