From wuthering heights to the dark, delightful depths
Barry Egan chooses his top 10 albums of the year, and tells us why they made it on to his hit list
2. The Waterboys
An Appointment With Mr Yeats
An Appointment With Mr Yeats, importantly, "isn't a hack job of forcing two unwilling disciplines together". What it is, however, is a great rock album in the tradition of Lou Reed and that ilk.
Anyone who saw The Waterboys' show at Tower Records in Dublin at the end of the summer, where they played songs from An Appointment With Mr Yeats, would have been struck at just how rocking these songs were. This isn't poetry set to music. This is something else entirely.
The Edinburgh-born bard and Waterboys founder first adapted Yeats's work with The Stolen Child on the Fisherman's Blues album in 1988. "I wanted it to be like Yeats was in the room collaborating with me," Mike Scott said. The lyrics of The Song of Wandering Aengus, Scott said was like "conjuring in my mind's eye a moonlit wood on a hallucinatory night in some old Celtic dream time, and the bard Aengus, silver-bearded, wandering out on his quest. This music is the soundtrack to that vision".
His vision came from his literature lecturer mother Anne who took him to Ireland to the Yeats summer school in Sligo when he was 11. He heard Seamus Heaney recite before visiting Yeats's grave with his mother.
Scott, who lives in Dublin with his Glaswegian wife Janette, is a bit of a wandering Aengus in search of his muse himself, of course. In the mid-Nineties, he appeared to withdraw from the music industry entirely when he lived in the spiritual community of the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland off and on for a few years. Mike has never stopped that spiritual quest.
On The Lake Isle of Innisfree, one of Yeats's most famous, and perhaps saddest, poems, Scott imagined as a Delta Blues song. The line about "hive for the honey bee", Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker would have loved.
3. Gemma Hayes
Let It Break
Imagine Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters mixed with a bit of Patti Smith and Sylvia Plath and you have Tipperary singer Gemma Hayes singing about suicide with disturbing beauty on Brittle Winter: "Both of us hanging on to driftwood passing/The sun has been now gone/The water's bloody freezing/What were we thinking? Why did we ever jump?"
"The song is a lament," she told me last summer when the album came out. "It is about my friend who killed himself. I don't want to cheapen such a life-changing and immense tragedy by chit chatting about it if that's cool?"
Whatever way you look at Let It Break, it is a very cool album. It is disarmingly eclectic, almost cinematic in parts, but definitely so left-of-centre that it almost meets itself in the electronic/ quirky middle. I love her for it.
On All I Need she is lamenting the feeling when the world kicks you on the inside. On Keep Running she is singing about three years and miles of sea "and you're in every face I see". On To Be Beside You, Gemma sings, intriguingly, "I have longed but never stirred. This could almost be love. This could almost be enough."
4. Kate Bush
50 Words for Snow
She's as unconventional as two left feet. But beautiful for it. She hasn't toured in decades. She is rarely seen in public, yet in 2011 she released two strangely magical albums, Director's Cut and 50 Words for Snow.
To say the latter is a mysterious, engaging, slightly out-of-kilter record is a bit like saying James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake is a light, easy read. Imagine bizarre percussion and even weirder piano bits, and breathless Kate Bush's middle-register vanishing vocal swoops that appear to take pride in going nowhere, and you have it. Kate sings a duet of sorts with her 12-year-old son Bertie about the birth of a snowflake. Bertie: "I was born in a cloud/ Now I am falling/ I want you to catch me." Kate replies: "The world is so loud/ Keep falling."
Kate, who has inspired Florence Welch as much as Bjork and PJ Harvey perhaps, also sings about drowned women who rise alive from lakes, about being in love with a wild snowman, and seduction in a cold climate -- or, to put it another way, sex with a snowman. "I can feel him melting in my hand," Kate sings on Misty. Lay Misty For Me, anyone?
On Among Angels, she sings: "I know what you mean when you say you fall apart/ Aren't we all the same?/ In and out of doubt." 50 Words for Snow is a record full of wuthering heights.
5. PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
"Smile, smile Bobby," she sings on The Colour Of Earth from the new album Let England Shake, "with your lovely mouth/Pack up your troubles, let's head out to the fountain of death".
Let England Shake is a dour, even joyless anti-war record made of blood-soaked battlefields and dying soldiers. "Death was everywhere/ In the air and in the sounds coming off the mounds of Bolton's Ridge/ Death's anchorage..."
Polly Jean Harvey was born in 1969 and grew up on a sheep farm in Dorset, brought up by her quarryman father and her artist mother. You would think this record would work outside your living room, or even more so, outside your head.
But PJ, and the songs from Let England Shake in particular, was incredible at the Electric Picnic festival in September. The Dorset chanteuse opened up with the title track: "Pack up your troubles, let's head out to the fountain of death and splash about, swim back and forth," she sang to the crowd, who couldn't get enough.
Just a great, great, great soul album from one so astonishingly young. In 2008, The Observer said Adele possessed "a fully formed personality -- exuberant, bawdy, disarmingly honest, effortlessly funny, gasping for 'a fag', devoted to her beloved music".
That burning devotion to her music is self-evident and 21 is an emotional record of tender, bluesy yearning. Adele herself admitted recently that she was "a bit worried about going down the blues route. I only got exposed to blues and country music when I was in America because of my bus driver. He used to radio to all the other bus drivers, 'Can you pick all your favourite country and blues songs and send them to me?' I've got thousands and thousands of them, all sorts -- Wanda Jackson, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, then the Carter Family."
It shows; in a good way.
7. Florence & The Machine
Probably the finest star to emerge in a good few years, Florence Welch set the world on fire with her look, her voice and her attitude.
It was a look that was at home on the cover of Vogue as it was on the cover of i-D. Ceremonials, the otherworldly record that finally made her, had, she said, "the sorts of sounds I've been attracted to since making Dog Days -- especially big drums. The whole song was written in about half an hour, so there was nothing especially pre-planned about it. Producer Paul Epworth had these organ chords and there was something quite reverential about them, which sparked off the heaven and hell imagery in my head".
The sound is almost spooky. Something she referred to herself recently. "I can spook myself really easily," she laughed. "I've got quite a vivid imagination and I'm easily overwhelmed by sensations and things that are beautiful or scary. I don't think I've ever seen a ghost -- I think I'm probably haunted by my own ghosts rather than real ones."
Past Life Martyred Saints
Erika M Anderson, from South Dakota, has a penchant for Patti Smith-esque vocalising. Past Life Martyred Saints is like Sonic Youth with a whole new edge.
Erika M Anderson -- aka EMA -- sings on Butterfly Knife: "C'mon, look me in the eye, 20 kisses with a butterfly knife." An album which one US critic put as a majestic, looming edifice "of layered vocals and exotic strains of distortion, its Norse folklore-touched lyrics heavy with yearning for and fear of home". Ah, yes, take me home EMA.
9. Bon Iver
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
I put down my Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joy Division albums for a few weeks to listen to this when it came out. I haven't stopped listening since. The man is incredible.
10. Declan O'Rourke
Mag Pai Zai
You can see why Paul Weller not just covered Galileo, by Dublin singer/songwriter Declan O'Rourke, but described it as one of the best songs he'd ever heard. This album is something special; a bit like Declan.