It's probably heresy to include such an album in a serious review of the year. There's no way anyone could possibly consider a full-on comedic pisstake of the idiotic excess of '80s glam metal in an end-of-year spotlight - it's bad enough it was enjoyed in the first place! Well, comedy or not, this is certainly one of the most enjoyable records of the year, both in daft, exaggerated lyrical output ("What'd you have to do for that backstage pass, 'cause I found a poisoned laminate inside of your ass..." - Girl From Oklahoma), to gloriously questionable song titles - Asian Hooker, Fat Girl (Thar She Blows) - to some of the best glam metal hooks heard in many a year. The sound of men old enough to know better, and doing it anyway 'cause they're bloody good at it.
9) Vitalic - Flashmob (Citizen)
If there's one thing we've learnt in recent years, is that it's never a bad idea to give anyone of Gallic persuasion some synthesizers, samplers and all the rest as they'll probably get it absolutely right. Pascal Arbez's second offering under his Vitalic pseudonym picks up where debut OK Cowboy left off - subtle bleeps and beats juxtaposed alongside robotic lady vocals and introverted rhythms. With a sound more interesting than fellow countrymen Justice and Chromeo, the likes of Terminateur Benelux, Your Disco Song and the title track prove that Arbez is the natural successor in a line including Jean Michel Jarre and Daft Punk. French hands are good for something after all.
8) Alice in Chains - Black Gives Way to Blue (Parlophone)
There are rules in this business. Your first album after fourteen years should be a tepid and slack-jawed affair with only a hint of the fire that kept you going in your classic period, even if there has been a tragic event since. The last thing we should expect is such an assured belter that draws on history whilst adding something new. AIC's return effort takes that distinctive sound but applies it to an epic assurance where there was once utter despair. Check My Brain and Lesson Learned are righteous classics while the title track and Your Decision reminds us that a delicate touch was as much their forte as their riffs. A justified comeback.
7) Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers (Sony)
If the headlines were a bit predictable ("The Holy Bible, the sequel", etc.), then the album wasn't. Yes, it was the most caustic and visceral they'd been after a lengthy period of daytime-radio friendly material, but it was by no means a complete retreat to a time when they were the UK's angriest rock band. If anything, delving into missing guitarist Richie James' remaining lyrics book allowed the band to tap into the unique catharsis that they had left behind and apply it to the maturity and assured grasp of songwriting they've developed since the mid-90s. As a result, tracks such as Me and Stephen Hawking and All is Vanity summed up all of the Manics' best attributes from the last 20 years.
6) Florence + the Machine - Lungs Island)
As much as it's easy to disregard folk who blindly follow hyped artists like they eat cake, we shouldn't forget that those who purposefully avoid said artists are just as foolish. Now and then, there will be a damn good reason why there's hype and Florence is it. Even before the album's release, her live show with her band The Machine was getting justified good press for it's energy and great tracks - tracks which are kinda folk, but a bit rock, and very pop, and slightly dancey, and just plain unique. It translated to an album that was as breathtaking and beautiful as it was epic and hard-hitting. "Worth a listen" doesn't even come close.
5) Between the Buried and Me - The Great Misdirect (Victory)
I have no idea where to start. Is it the Grand-Guignol-organ inspired madness that permeates through the lurching death metal of Disease, Injury, Madness? The jazzy honky-tonk that underpins the ragged hardcore of Fossil Genera..? The sublime bliss of the Western-tinged semi-acoustic Desert of Song? Or do I go with the truly epic brutal prog that is Swim To The Moon? What I will say is this is as good and awe-inspiring as previous effort Colors, and that enough is all you need to know.
4) Depeche Mode - Sounds of the Universe (Mute)
If anything, SOTU is a relief. Previous album Playing The Angel was solid but seemed to tread water and felt frequently uninspired. While nothing on their twelfth album can be described as a radical departure, there's definitely some newly-discovered life in these synthesized bones. The likes of Fragile Tension and Peace are respectful additions to their established canon, but it's tracks such as the grandiose Wrong and disturbing Corrupt that prove that something a bit different is still in reach. There's also the likes of Come Back, which could be their most impassioned offering since Condemnation in 1993. The best thing is, there's nothing to suggest they should call it a day just yet.
3) La Roux - La Roux (Polydor)
It's guaranteed that duos and synthesizers are winners. Soft Cell; Eurythmics; Yazoo; Pet Shop Boys; Erasure; La Roux. Granted, the final name may be twenty-odd years too late, but Elly and Ben are worthy additions. At worst, they're a fantastic '80s tribute act. At best, they're a talented partnership that have mastered the art of colourful songwriting in one shot. Such a triumph will always yield the obvious classy singles (In For The Kill, Bulletproof) but will throw up more aggressive fare in Tigerlily or something as dreamy as Armour Love. Debut of the year, but only just.
2) Converge - Axe to Fall (Epitaph)
British metal fans will probably be a bit fed up with the ignorant criticism "It's just noise" after recent events in the national singles charts. However, it's always been a compliment with Converge, as they have spent the last fifteen years taking the concept of noise and twisting and fucking it into something uniquely primal. The applause that Axe To Fall justifies is not that they continue to do it so well, but that a cleaner, more pristine sound still results in one of the harshest things they've done. Dark Horse, Reap What You Sow and Cutter are relentless bouts of the kind of calculated-but-unhinged savagery we've come to expect, but better. However, it's the unsettling one-two climax of Cruel Bloom and the disturbing ambiance of Wretched World where Converge prove that whatever they do, they are rarely bettered. The other argument of its comparison to the legendary Jane Doe is not one I want to get into right now, but give me a couple of years.
1) Metric - Fantasies (Last Gang)
Simplicity is the key. Stripping rock music to its core and just nudging the vitriol away with a bit of warmth and reason. Taking the bare elements of pop music and adding some epic flourish. You could end up with Fantasies, but it's unlikely now as it's been done and probably won't be done again. These Canadians continue to confuse logic by not being bloody huge already. This is rock music without the headache. Pop music without the feeling of a saccharine overdose. Dance music without the established boundaries. There is no question that this band should be loved and adored by everyone, but they're not. And maybe that's part of their mystique and appeal.
The whole thing is proof that with the right ingredients, magic can be conjured up. Help, I'm Alive is epic beauty without an epic touch. Gold Guns Girls is what a driving compilation really craves. Satellite Mind and Front Row are perverse little bastards that you know you want more of while Sick Muse and Gimme Sympathy are very different but still the two best pop songs you'll hear all year.
Whether they'll be as effective without Emily Haines' dreamy vocals is worth a debate, but there's no denying this is a fantastic group effort. Beautiful, inspired, sexy, magic and pretty much every other positive adjective you can think of - Fantasies should be the album to convert you to this stunning and individual band.