Star critics flag up what’s given them the most listening pleasure in the last 12 months
Of the three grooviest jazz albums of 2012, two have their heartbeats in Africa.
The first is Heritage by the extraordinary guitarist from Benin Lionel Loueke who was trained in European classical music in Ivory Coast, then migrated to the US on a scholarship and found himself playing with veteran maestros like Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard.
It's his third Blue Note album and is full of Africa's sounds, voices and rhythms - as in the resonating opener Ife, where his guitar sounds like nothing else in jazz, or in the zestful invention of Bayyinah and the intense timbral optimism of Hope where Robert Glasper plays a kindred piano.
Heritage is a beautifully virtuosic musical journey.
In the verve-filled album Keep Your Heart Straight, diverse continents and generations create a rampaging achievement. Cape Town-born drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo is 72 and Oxford-born pianist Alexander Hawkins is still in his twenties. Yet the twosome combine and empathise to forge a jazz of the present and the future with astonishing sonic aplomb.
Hear them groove, first querulously then defiantly, on the 14 minutes of Heavy Manners. There are two drummers here and in the sorrow-baked Amaxeshi Osizi or the essence of Hear Our Hearts, the prodigious Hawkins strikes his keys like Moholo-Moholo's twin percussionist.
Yet in ballads such as If I Should Lose You or Ellington's Prelude To A Kiss there is an unleashed and tender passion. A many-sided and galactic duo indeed.
Tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, longtime confrere of Max Roach and inventor of The Saxophone Choir, declares in his sleeve notes of his new album Odean's Three that "music is like the wind."
The other two in the trio are the ever-brilliant Washingtonian drummer Billy Hart and springing bassist Lee Smith - and how they surge. Their Fresh Breeze sounds nearer to a gale and the septuagenarian hornman blows with huge power all through the album.
The Garden of Happiness is earthed with a rare elegaic beauty.
This is an album where age keeps its serenity of sound while it bursts out with a restored youth. Simply sublime.
Frank Ocean's debut album Channel Orange is an astonishing late-night reimagining of the possibilities of soul and hip-hop.
Singing from the musical space situated somewhere between LA and Las Vegas, 25-year-old Ocean carves himself open with wise tales of unrequited love and the first-world problems of super-rich kids.
An ambitious, sophisticated and thoroughly modern album.
Working at the opposite end of his musical career is aging singer-songwriter Neil Young, who rode high again with long-time backing band Crazy Horse on Psychedelic Pill.
With a self-indulgent 87 minutes of music spread over two discs, Young is back to his pig-headed best with songs about listening to Like A Rolling Stone for the first time and getting "a hip-hop haircut."
Swirling opener Driftin' Back is an incredible 27-minute nostalgia trip.
Like Young, contemporary jazz composer John Surman has long been influenced by the geography of his own life.
The instrumental album Saltash Bells takes him back to his West Country childhood. with Surman's sonorous saxophone and clarinet melodically multitracked over programmed synthesisers.
It's an atmospheric, slightly spooky journey and the title track fades out with church bells ringing.
The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project's The Journey Is Long is an engrossing selection of material by this uncompromising working-class rebel from the industrial suburbs of El Monte in LA.
The music is an original blend of punk, country and delta blues - aka swamp and possesses a magnetic, authentic energy.
It's delivered by Nick Cave, Hugo Race, Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch, Mick Harvey and Cypress Grove with the superb musical economy clearly inspired by the esteem Pierce which is held in by this illustrious line-up.
The brooding and political City In Pain sung by Nick Cave and the panoramic, majestically flowing The Breaking Hands are mesmerising.
The ExSenators with their epomymous album are a politically alert quintet from Chicago who play a hard, pulsating rock of intricate and melodic arrangements delivered with superbly compact musicianship.
Their politics are equally uncompromising: "Does anyone read history any more ... as in the Joe McCarthy era in the US or what happened to the unions in the UK under Thatcher? Fear and hatred are great tools for controlling people," says vocalist Dmac, adding "does anyone check the details behind what's being said today, or are they too busy surfing the web instead of using it to figure out if they're about to lose their own rights?"
Iradelphic by Clark is the electronic album discovery of the year, coming as no surprise as part of Warp Record's brilliant and unique work with experimental music.
The beautiful piano movement of Black Stone stands out and synth-driven, hybrid prog-rock makes an unusual mark in Com Touch.
But it is the exquisite vocal harmonies of Secret and the buoyant moods of The Pining parts 1-3 that give the most delicate tones to this most wonderful of new 2012 releases.
The year also welcomed in marvellous sounds from electro disco supremos Squarepusher, mutating wickedly once again for Ufabulum. Maya Jane Coles redefined deep house with DJ Kicks and Stubborn Hearts arrived with a superb soft and hard debut album of the same name.
After five years' absence Orbital released Wonky and with it came a blend of crystal-clear electronics and uplifting melodies that didn't just beg the soul to dance but actually caused it to do so.
Straight Sun recalls the flight of rising high, surfing on personal pleasures and astral plains, very much akin to the revolution once called rave and New France turns up the emotional heat.
Orbital are always highly recommended listening and this album, with terror track Beelzedub seething in the background, was definitely a wild and indeed wonky experience.
It's difficult to find fault with Scott Walker. He takes years to put out an album so you can always expect quality to be high.
On his latest, Bish Bosch, the beloved crooner is characteristically uncompromising but sure to be rewarding if you don't dismiss it within the first few seconds as pretentious noise.
Operatic onomatopoeia once again pervades throughout and one can't help but think his work is destined for stage or cinema of the distinctly experimental kind.
Forget 2012, The Seer by Swans is probably the most ambitious rock album for years.
It's a two-disc set filled with 20-minute plus recordings that takes the listener on a journey into outer space and beyond.
A thoroughly mature album that doesn't seek to patronise its listeners by giving them what they expect to hear.
Easily one step ahead of 2010's Before Today, Mature Themes by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti is a richly textured album that is skilful enough to be both melodic and challenging to listen to.
Combining a psychedelic edge with lo-fi recording techniques and catchy hooks straight out of the Beatles, this latest release is out there on its own.
I can't imagine many people putting Xiu Xiu's Always in the list of the best albums of 2012.
The band do after all describe themselves as "art rock," but I have to say the US electro duo's album of inner despair and misery was definitely a surprise highlight for me.
Admittedly the band have been around for about 10 years and for many the album will take at least four listens before appreciation kicks in, but thanks to songs such as Hi and Born To Suffer this is worth listening to as much as you can before you want to slit your wrists.
Perhaps their best and arguably darkest album yet.
Another decent US band to make it on the list has to be The Features.
Their album Wilderness could possibly be one of the best indie rock albums of 2012 - although technically the album was released in the US in 2011 - and it's certainly one of the most unconventional.
Perhaps unfair comparisons to Kings Of Leon have kept them in the shadows for too long, however funky and addictive tracks such as Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good and How It Starts set it apart from other bland rock albums this year.
And - purely because they deserve a mention in any "best of" list - Sigur Ros's stunning album Viltari, mixing classical music with ambient rock, was an exception to the many repetitive and monotonous albums you'll find in the charts.
It's not necessarily their best, but tracks Ekki mukk and Eg anda will keep their fans happy and more than likely to win over more.
Needless to say it won't have you jumping up to dance but Viltari does confirm they still remain one of the most talented and unique bands around at the moment.
Rock psyche has had a glorious renaissance via Tame Impala's Lonerism and Pond's Beard Wives Denim so it is only right that Paul Weller's Sonik Kicks proved irrestible.
It is impossible not to love the bubblegum pop of Attic - mod by numbers this is not - and, to further alienate those who regularly propelled him to number one 30 years ago, is the centrepiece Study In Blue.
The stand-out track is a duet with his wife Hannah which takes on classic Tommy McCook dub and Damon Albarn's Dr Dee to produce spectacular results.
The modfather is on one hot streak at the moment and long may it continue.
Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament's Violence was noteworthy too. The former Hefner frontman took to recording James Yorkston-esque tunes rather than rock music when he had a car crash which damaged his hearing. But on his third solo instalment he has conjured a seminal piece of art.
In these times of austerity and economic uncertainty Hayman's fragile vocals give a sound to the fragile emotions many feel today.
One of my favourites of the year is unlike any other. Bo Ningen are a Japanese four-piece based in London who on their second album Line The Wall have conjured up near-perfect rock'n'roll.
The vocals are often hypnotic with a hint of brittleness, reminiscent of Bobby Gillespie and Rob Harvey. Meanwhile the guitars are simply stunning.
They swirl around with the beauty of My Bloody Valentine and often explode in a way that will have Jimmy Page and John Squire questioning why they ever bothered.
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