Albums and gigs of 2010

Our music pundits pick their personal favourites

By Duncan Seaman

ALBUM

Robyn

Body Talk

2010 was a year of impressive albums from the Avett Brothers, Delphic, Magnetic Man, John Grant, Villagers and Lone Wolf.

Danger Mouse produced brilliantly textured work for Broken Bells and Sparklehorse. Gil Scott Heron made a welcome return.

But for sheer verve, audacity or workrate in the studio, no-one could quite match Robyn. The 31-year-old Swede's Body Talk trilogy was not only a thrilling combination of electro pop, hip-hop, floor-fillers and balladry, it also flouted the idea that major-label artists could only release one album a year.

If such productivity was akin to acts from another era, Robyn took the concept a stage further, suggesting the album could be a fluid work-in-progress that could be chopped and changed, reordered and reworked, depending on artist's mood. For that she deserves this year's laurel.

GIG

Goldfrapp

O2 Academy Leeds, November 16

The standard gig follows a familiar pattern: it starts with a bang, (maybe the lead single from a band's latest album or an old crowd-pleaser), meanders through new material, perhaps takes a diversion with a cover version then wraps up with the hits. The stand-out show will dare to do things differently.

Goldfrapp's set at Leeds Academy was a great example of the latter. It began in rather pedestrian fashion with a couple of album tracks then cleverly shifted gears. By the time we reached Ooh La La, the whole place was stomping in unison. But there was more to come from an encore that combined the sensual, the whimsical, the weird and the wonderful.

All this delivered in front of a giant silver Polo mint by a band in sci-fi attire and a singer dressed in tinsel. Really, this was some show.

By Rachel Gardner

ALBUM

Plan B

The Defamation of Strickland Banks

A huge departure from his debut album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks catapulted Plan B into the mainstream. To the annoyance of some of his original fans, Plan B turned from a brutish rapper to retro soul singer with an album about a ficticious singer who gets incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit.

The album shows how an artist should never feel it necessary to stay in one particular genre with great songs, funky basslines, thought-provoking scenarios and refreshing originality giving the album its edge.

GIG

Imogen Heap

LMUSU, February 9

Not only is the music that Imogen Heap makes beautiful but also the way she creates it. Extracting basslines from aviation devices, using a Boomwhacker, 'keytar' and all manner of exotic instruments, then manipulating their sounds and layering up tracks, Heap's is experimental music at its most inventive.

She floats around the stage gracefully, whilst her breathy but powerful voice sends first-date shivers down your spine. Instantly endearing, there is a magical quality to her and the songs. With some artists you feel like they are baring their soul on stage, with Imogen Heap it feels like you are watching her imagination explode in dazzling fashion.

By Martin Hutchinson

ALBUM

JON ANDERSON & RICK WAKEMAN

THE LIVING TREE

Finallythe heart and soul of Yes have made an album together.

Written and recorded via the internet, this nine-track album formed the basis of the duo's recent UK tour.

All the songs mean something to the men that created them. Just One Man, which has been hitting the airwaves, reflects Jon's faith in a higher spiritual power.

The Living Tree is about the necessity of trees to the planet's well-being, and Morning Star is about the power of youth.

Most poignantly, 23/24/11 relates to the current war in Afghanistan and how a soldier counts down the time until he goes home.

All the music is performed by Rick and the musical connection between these two is undeniable.

"Listening to these songs," says Jon, "I realise how connected I am with Rick. We have this natural singsong way of creating that seems to roll off the tongue."

The nine songs demonstrate that Jon and Rick not being in Yes is not necessarily a bad thing for them (although it is a bad thing for Yes).

By Claire Cameron

ALBUM

Skunk Anansie

Wonderlustre

Lead singer Skin said of Wonderlustre: "It was time to take a risk and do something new with our sound but we still wanted to make a rock album. This album is all about connecting emotion with sound, we wanted to make a record that was touching, enduring, fun but solid."

It is clear from first listen that Skunk Anansie have succeeded in this endeavour.

From the wonderfully dark and melodic moments of Talk to Much and My Love Will Fall to the euphoric style and anthemic qualities of Over The Love and God Loves Only You this album has got it all.

GIG

Skunk Anansie

O2 Academy Leeds, November 19

Red searchlights come to rest on the giant shadows of three distinctive shapes. The band are revealed enveloped in red mist with Skin at their centre, sporting jet black feathered wings.

The intensity of Yes it's F*****g Political hits us between the eyes. The set moves to the new, lush and layered sound of Wonderlustre. Talk Too Much is spot-on and Over the Love is euphoric and anthemic.

With the familiar strains of Weak, Skin literally stands on the crowd, who hold her as she doesn't miss a note...she then crowd surfs as she sings, giving it every fibre of her being.

Skunk Anansie don't just raise the bar; they smash it through the roof.

By Martin Ross

ALBUM

GRASSCUT

1 INCH/1/2 MILE

Possibly thanks to the rise of the internet, the whole music scene in 2010 seems to have become more diverse and fragmented than ever.

Best capturing this 'anything goes' musical kaleidoscope was Manchester's Everything Everything with their slightly-too-clever-for-its-own-good album, Man Alive.

Hurts and Darwin Deez provided some genius pop thrills while ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougal's debut was winsome, melancholy and bravely out of step with everything else.

2010 also saw dubstep taking on commercially viable shapes with Magnetic Man and the criminally overlooked Lorn, a US producer who mixes dubstep and gangster rap sonics to rousing effect.

The album that proved the most rewarding, though, was Grasscut's 1 Inch/1/2 mile, a fascinating assemblage of found sounds and beats, arresting lyricism and emotive melodies that, taken together, sounded like a logical conclusion to the whole folktronica scene.

From nostalgic vignettes to Ted Hughes-style skewerings of the natural world, it's an evocative and very English album.

GIG

ULTRASOUND

Brudenell social club, september 10

The annual Live At Leeds all-dayer back in May was bigger and better than ever and delivered a bunch of performances that taken individually could have been standout shows.

The most memorable event, though, was the reformed post-Britpop band Ultrasound taking to the stage at the Brudenell Social Club and demonstrating that they've still got the magical musical chemistry that very nearly made them stars in the late 90s with their singles Same Band, Stay Young, I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours, Floodlit World and Aire & Calder.

The re-energised band are currently writing new material. Good luck to them.

By Susan Darlington

ALBUM

Revere

Hey! Selim

Many bands have tapped into the post-rock, post-Arcade Fire seam of inspiration but few have done it as convincingly as Revere.

The London octet's debut album, Hey! Selim, showcases an ambitious sense of self-assurance that sees them springing into life fully formed. There's little of the tentativeness that marks out most new acts and, while a couple of tracks show their influences too transparently, they imbue the material with such optimism that ridiculously over-wrought orchestration is realised as sweepingly epic grandeur.

Aware of when to reign in the string and brass section, the album also displays moments of poignancy and reflection. This is often done through the incorporation of Eastern European influences that recall A Hawk And A Hacksaw's work with The Hun Hagr Ensemble. The addition of Stephen Elli's show tune vocals, however, gives them a unique identifier that justifies their self-belief.

GIG

Beth Jeans Houghton

Howard Assembly Room, April 9

The psych-folk baton was passed from one generation to another when Beth Jeans Houghton supported – and upstaged – Vashti Bunyan.

With a clutch of EPs to her name, the Newcastle teenager conjured a visual aesthetic to match the slightly strange musical world into which she invited the audience.

Bedecked in candy-floss wig and garish smock dress she sang about dodecahedrons and Lilliput while her male backing band, The Hooves of Destiny, gamely cantered after her with painted Pierrot tears and inked Victorian-style moustaches.

Despite the fun conveyed by this theatrical artifice, there was a sense that it offered a protective wall against her heartfelt delivery of bluegrass, contemporary folk and intelligent pop. This easy spring-boarding between genres nonetheless saw her shrug off easy categorisation to align herself with the equally idiosyncratic Bat For Lashes and self-declared fan Devendra Banhart.

By Janne Oinonen

ALBUM

Caribou

Swim

For years now, Dan Snaith, pictured – the Canadian songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer lurking behind the Caribou brand – has produced reliably impressive psychedelic skull-squeezers. Despite a consistent strike-rate, Snaith's remained a marginal figure, seemingly unable to drum up the kind of wider support enjoyed by likeminded outfits a la Animal Collective and the Flaming Lips. As evidenced by the recent sold out Leeds show, Swim changed the situation. Aimed equally at the head, the heart and the feet, the album's perfectly balanced blend of sweet melody and pulverising beats – highlights resemble a heartbroken songwriter caught in the middle of a particularly messy rave - managed to match the irresistible rush of Caribou's incomparably exciting live extravaganzas.

Runners-up: John Grant's Queen of Denmark; Phosphorescent's Here's to Taking it Easy; Dungen's Skit i Allt, and Circle's Rautatie.

GIG

Richmond Fontaine

Brudenell Social Club, March 8

A no-frills show that makes zero concessions to grand gestures might be odd choice for the year's most memorable gig. But that's precisely where Richmond Fontaine's appeal lies. With more than 15 years of pain-blasted Americana under their belts, the Portland, Oregon four-piece has blossomed into a fearsomely potent rock 'n' roll band, equally at home with riff-wielding rockers and hushed laments. You don't need histrionics, fireworks or video screens with a seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of top drawer tunes – courtesy of acclaimed novelist Willy Vlautin – to draw from; music and songwriting this inspired – and the full house was treated to two hours of it – is more than enough. No wonder the band's cult keeps on growing.

We Are Scientists

Gig review: We Are Scientists at Warehouse 23, Wakefield