Smells like Tyne spirit
It has been an exceedingly fine if not quite vintage year for albums. PJ Harvey's mesmerising Let England Shake ranks as one of the very best of her incredible career, spookily soundtracking all the palpable uncertainty and disquiet of life in the modern world.
Belfast noiseniks And So I Watch You From Afar produced the year's best Irish album hands down, while the Rubberbandits made the funniest. I also greatly enjoyed pleasing returns to form from Mogwai, Kate Bush and Noel Gallagher.
Yet one album stands head and shoulders over the rest as the most tender, moving, original and uplifting record I've heard in 2011.
Gracious Tide, Take Me Home by Tyneside-based sextet Lanterns On The Lake is the revelation of the year. It's been on constant repeat on my stereo, laptop, phone and car virtually every single day since September.
The Lanterns only formed in 2007 and released two EPs before being snapped up by the illustrious Bella Union label that had been established by Cocteau Twins founders Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie.
The imprint has provided a home for a hotbed of talent over recent years such as Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Dirty Three, Midlake, Fionn Regan, Cashier No 9 and the Walkmen, to name just a paltry few.
This 11-track home-recorded collection is an astonishingly accomplished debut, a dazzling fusion of electronica, folk, dream pop and some of the most heartachingly brilliant vocals you're ever likely to hear.
Virtually ignored by the mainstream press, a post on a blog aptly called Breaking More Waves puts it beautifully and succinctly: "Gracious Tide, Take Me Home is a sensual, near-spiritual record that picks the fibres from post-rock, ambient, acoustic pop and folk and creates something blissfully calming and toughly rising at the same time."
They manage to soundtrack and document a dazzling kaleidoscope of human emotion. The opening track, Lungs Quicken, introduces the glorious voice of Hazel Wilde with the softly sung lyrics: "It's a lively crowd tonight, there's a war on TV, and your heart grows old and tired with every beat."
However, Lanterns On The Lake ultimately prove to be the polar opposite of indie miserabilism with a clutch of extremely uplifting and empowering songs. Single Keep On Trying is an anthem for resilience and perseverance and A Kingdom and Tricks are as swoonsome as music gets.
It's an ambitious and beautiful album that grapples with love, loss, life, death and home.
"It took us a while to learn what kind of a band we were," says singer Wilde, who is blessed with a voice that pleasingly reminds me of Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star and Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.
"Paul, Sarah and I all live round the corner from each other in what's really a fishing town, although it's only a 10-minute commute into Newcastle. The sea turns up in many of our songs.
"We didn't intend it to but it just turned out that way. I suppose you just can't help being influenced and inspired by the place you're from."
Since their first baby steps as a band, Lanterns On The Lake decided to do things their way. "Newcastle is like a lot of other cities, in that you have all your standard venues," Ms Wilde explains.
"We always tried to do something a little bit different, because we got kind of bored of that scene. We put on our own gigs in places like a boathouse by the River Tyne. It's a bit more special and makes it different for people coming along to see it. You can go and see a band in a pub any day of the week."
Since the release of Gracious Tide, Take Me Home this year, things have got progressively busier for the Geordie outfit. The esteemed Rough Trade Albums Club awarded them an 'Album of the Month' accolade and they're now embarking on their first major headline tour, which is calling to the Workman's Club on Wellington Quay in Dublin next month.
"We've put all our energies into this but you need to pay the bills too," Wilde admits. "Three of us had to leave our jobs because they couldn't give us the time off work to go on tour for a month. The rest of us had to take unpaid leave and some of us are doing bar work and office shifts whenever we can to try and make ends meet.
"Now more than ever, it is difficult to make a living because people aren't buying music the way they used to any more. At the same time, there is a good side to this too. You've got to really, really care about what you're doing, otherwise you wouldn't do it."
Some of the plaudits for Lanterns On The Lake doing the rounds include: "They should be massive but they aren't", "A precious musical gemstone" and "They give me that feeling of coming out of the snow and warming up near a fire".
Truth be told, Gracious Tide, Take Me Home is all this and more. Do yourself a favour and check out the most captivating new talent around, because I've a strong hunch they're not going to remain modern music's best-kept secret for too much longer.
Gracious Tide, Take Me Home is out now on Bella Union. Lanterns On The Lake will play the Workman's Club in Dublin on Friday, January 20 (tickets €10) and the Out To Lunch festival in the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast on January 21 (£8). Visit www.lanternsonthelake.com for further information and music.