40. Shirley Bassey – The Performance (Polydor)
With songs by Rufus Wainwright, Pet Shop Boys and Richard Hawley, the Dame from Tiger Bay returned with her first studio album in a decade.
Bond themes man David Arnold was on hand for orchestral arrangements and, with David McAlmont, Manic Street Preachers and even Gary Barlow contributing songs, The Performance duly paid off.
WHAT WE SAID: “She’s legendarily at her most powerful with the biggest of emotions, that inimitable voice soaring. Diamonds Are Forever, as the song said. Shirley Bassey is already as timeless.” – Michael Hubbard
39: Antony And The Johnsons – The Crying Light (Rough Trade)
Right at the start of 2009, sometime Mercury Prize winner Antony Hegarty returned from his disco turn with Hercules & Love Affair to rather more broody matters.
With arrangements by Nico Muhly and concerts backed by a full orchestra, Antony continued to carve out a torch song corner for himself that was as captivating as it was occasionally unsettling.
WHAT WE SAID: “The Crying Light is as intense, serious and melancholic… the gloomy atmosphere means it’s not one for anyone who wants a bit of fun. Yet you don’t buy an Antony And The Johnsons album for fluffy escapism.” – John Murphy
38: Soap&Skin – Lovetune For Vacuum (PIAS)
Austrian multi-instrumentalist and composer Anja Plaschg may only be 18 but her debut album, piano led and augmented by glitchy electronica and childlike touches of recorder, marked out an extraordinary talent.
Classically timeless yet touchingly exuberant, Lovetune For Vacuum could be the missing link between Bat For Lashes and lafur Arnalds.
WHAT WE SAID: “If this is the kind of art this young woman is making at 18 years of age, who can imagine the heights she will reach in future? Not only one to watch, but very much one to discover right now, on this extraordinary piece of work.” – Jude Clarke
37: Ólafur Arnalds – Found Songs (Erased Tapes)
As we publish this Top 50, Ólafur Arnalds is set to release another record, Dyad 1909, the soundtrack to a recently premiered Wayne MacGregor ballet.
As talented as he is prolific, the Icelandic composer fuses stark piano-led atmospherics with minimalist electronics and a string quartet to create music for the soul on this suite of instrumental pieces, released for free on Twitter and recorded in just a week.
WHAT WE SAID: “Found Songs is by turns reflective, sad, cinematic, beguiling and blissful. If this essential record is what Arnalds can do in a week, his second album proper can’t come soon enough.” – Michael Hubbard
36: Sunn O))) – Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord)
Performing ear-splitting drone metal dressed in monks’ cowls, Sunn O))) are to Metal what Nyman is to classical; other.
Monoliths & Dimensions continues to polarize between those who love them and those who’ll never get them, but it also takes them to places they’ve never been.
WHAT WE SAID: “Sunn O))) are in danger of becoming a neo-classical act. The final minutes suggest they’ve been checking out pastoral symphonies and cramming a lot of Gorecki into their ears. No longer reliant on bombast, they’re allowing orchestration to take the lead, and it works beautifully.” – Sam Shepherd
35: Pet Shop Boys – Yes (Parlophone)
There are hardcore ‘fans’ of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe whose hands flew up in horror at confirmation that Girls Aloud’s hit factory Xenomania would be producing this album.
But Brian Higgins and his crew have brought new sounds and methods to the Pets’ arsenal, while Tennant’s lyrics have rarely been more poignant.
WHAT WE SAID: “A super-concentrated hit of everything there is to enjoy about the Pet Shop Boys: danceable yet everyday pop, with irony behind the warmth and warmth behind the irony. One of their best.” – Darren Harvey
34: Micachu And The Shapes – Jewellery (Rough Trade)
Originally slipped out on producer Matthew Herbert’s boutique label Accidental at the tail end of last year, this debut was snapped up by Rough Trade for a full release at the beginning of 2009.
Mica Levi’s classically trained musical head turns this way and that on a debut album with surprises at every turn.
WHAT WE SAID: “She makes music of extraordinary diversity and power, though finds time for asides of surprising grace and poise. It’s a joyful sound when she cuts loose and, wedded to an attitude you wouldn’t mess with and a style that evades categorisation, it works a treat.” – Ben Hogwood
33: La Roux – La Roux (Polydor)
The singles In For The Kill, Quicksand and Bulletproof established the duo as more than a critics’ choice as they shot into the charts with minimal airplay.
Elly Jackson’s aloof vibe squared with the synthetic ’80s-mining evident in the music. Fellow electropop newcomer Little Boots gave her a run for her money, mind.
WHAT WE SAID: “Elly Jackson was born to be a star, with alabaster skin, a shock of red hair teased into an almighty quiff and dress sense that would make Adam Ant baulk.” – Michael Cragg
32: Major Lazer – Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (Downtown)
With their Goldie Lookin’ Chain apeing album title and a cartoon one-armed freedom fighter at the helm, Diplo and Switch mined everything Jamaica had to offer and made the summer’s most hooky album and thrilled crowds across the globe.
With videos as gaudy as some of the lyrics, this colourfully inventive release zapped its way into every brain it happened upon.
WHAT WE SAID: “It sounds like nothing you’ll have heard before, a technicolour carnival of styles that blurs genre boundaries in the name of having a good time. And if there’s one sound to remember Major Lazer by, it’s the klaxon.” – Ben Hogwood
31: Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions (Independiente)
The desert bluesmen from Mali, with their sartorial spleandour and evocative music, release their music to the UK through the label that brought us Travis. That in itself is fantastic.
Like its predecessor, this is a heady mix of wide open skies, western rock influences and an indiginous spark entirely of their own that’s meant they’re amongst the best known African musicians.
WHAT WE SAID: “Builds even on the successful Aman Iman album, Tinariwen’s sound forging its own distinctive path with real emotion and a sense of togetherness.” – Ben Hogwood