Best albums of 2012: 40-21

It's the moment you've all been waiting for – the start of our countdown through this year's best albums. The list has been compiled following an extensive poll of the Guardian and the Observer's music writers – we'll reveal more on Wednesday

40 Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

What we said about Godspeed: "A decade on from their split, this Montreal collective still sound like nothing else … It's beautiful, thrilling and exhausting. The Godspeed ethos of wordlessly eliciting universal truths is remains as devastatingly effective as ever."

39 Killer Mike – RAP Music

What we said about Killer Mike: "Earlier this year, Killer Mike made quite a splash with his latest album, R.A.P. Music. Critics couldn't help but marvel at the unlikely pairing of Mike, with his distinctly southern credentials (and drawl to match), and New York producer EL-P, an underground figure known for his aggressive, frenetic sound. But it was one track in particular, Reagan, that really raised eyebrows."

38 Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

What we said about Fiona Apple: "Over a musical backdrop of chimes, feedback and bursts of percussion, Every Single Night at times teeters on the brink of exploding with emotion ('I just want to feel everything,' Apple sings), but the restraint gives it power. In fact, it's so good you ignore the squid and just focus on the anguish."

Fiona Apple - Every Single Night on MUZU.TV.

37 Orbital – Wonky

What we said about Orbital: "Title aside, Orbital's first album in eight years doesn't induce the comeback cringe. It's that rare thing: a reunion album that's neither dated nor desperate. The 90s electronic titans use vintage analogue synths, subtly retro-fitting their sound in a way that, ironically, brings it bang up to date."

36 Beach House – Bloom

What we said about Beach House: "Every song is like an Arctic landscape: Victoria Legrand's husky voice skates across glacial keyboards and Alex Scully's shimmering guitar, layers of sound compacted together so tightly that no note feels inessential. It's a surprise when each track ends, because it could go on for ever."

35 Nite Jewel – One Second of Love

What we said about Nite Jewel: "Ramona Gonzalez still hovers under the radar, despite being a gifted songwriter with a knack for reconfiguring the smoothest sounds of 1980s rock ballads and 1990s R&B into alluring new shapes. Her most recent album, One Second of Love, was inspired by a love of Kraftwerk, but amid a superstructure of strict robotic heartbeats, her unearthly voice – with echoes of both Tracey Thorn and Florence Welch – imbues every synthesised drum loop with emotion. It's affecting on record, and even more so live, with Gonzalez backed by a multi-tasking three-piece band."

Kevin Rowland with Dexys
Still running … Dexys. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Guardian

34 Dexys – One Day I'm Going to Soar

What we said about Dexys: "Kevin Rowland hasn't written mere songs for his Dexys comeback; rather a West End musical. To call it a concept album underestimates its high-camp, red-velvet theatricality … Even if it isn't autobiography, the man's heart-on-sleeve individualism and resistance of any attempt to 'overpigeonary' him are pure Rowland."

33 Mala – Mala in Cuba

What we said about Mala: "The result of a trip that dubstep pioneer Mala – aka Digital Mystikz – made to Cuba with Gilles Peterson last year. Back in London, stitching together sounds that he sampled including contributions from the likes of pianist Roberto Fonseca, he created an album of hypnotic beauty, rhythms and melodies echoing in the cavernous space carved out by the bass of south London."

Farrah Abraham
Farrah Abraham and daughter Sophia Photograph: PR

32 Farrah Abraham – My Teenage Dream Ended

What we said about Farrah Abraham: "What's the weirdest record you've heard this year? Whatever it is, chances are it won't register on the same WTF scale as Farrah Abraham's debut. Boasting the tragicomic title My Teenage Dream Ended, and released as an accompaniment to her premature autobiography, this is a truly bizarre mix of generic Guetta-pop beats, those dubstep drilling sounds that feature heavily on Ministry Of Sound brostep compilations, and Abraham's abrasive AutoTuned vocals."

31 Marina and the Diamonds – Electra Heart

What we said about Marina and the Diamonds: "The album's highlights are those Diamandis came up with in collaboration with the producer of The Family Jewels, Liam Howe. On Fear and Loathing and Teen Idle, they strip back most of that album's excesses to let the melodies breathe and focus attention on Diamandis's singing: coolly enunciated and slightly folky, her voice is much more appealing than you might have realised, overshadowed as it was on The Family Jewels by her apparently unquenchable desire to shriek, deploy a horrible vibrato and do animal impersonations."

Marina and The Diamonds - Primadonna on MUZU.TV.

30 Angel Haze – Reservation

What we said about Angel Haze: "Her craft – lyrics, hooks and storytelling – has been tightened up without losing any of her intense intimacy. Entire worlds are at stake when Haze raps, whether she's penning dreamy love letters of cosmic scope to current and former girlfriends (Hot Like Fire, Gypsy Letters), piecing together her fractured life experiences (the emotionally draining closer, Smiles N Hearts), or rattling off scornful contempt over clattering beats (New York, Werkin' Girls)."

29 Jack White – Blunderbuss

What we said about Jack White: "Presenting something deeply weird as entirely straightforward may be the whole point of Blunderbuss. Leaving aside the lyrics, the most striking thing is the way White uses his melodic skills to mask some off-the-wall musical ideas, next to which the fidgety prog-rock riffs that open the album and the irresistible vaudevillian arrangement of Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy are relatively straightforward. Elsewhere, the listener is treated to structures so wildly episodic that the closing Take Me with You sounds like three different songs – including a 70s stadium-rock anthem and a piece of library music – lashed together"

Jack White - I'm Shakin' on MUZU.TV.

28 Tribes – Baby

What we said about Tribes: "The songs are big on riffs, hooks, choruses, sex and swagger, although there's enough going on lyrically to suggest more depth … Every new year brings another guitar band burdened with expectations, but Tribes have every chance."

27 Poliça – Give You the Ghost

What we said about Poliça: "Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction software that squares off wobbly vocals until they resemble Tetris blocks, has come to symbolise everything that is garish and wrong about modern music. Yet Poliça have become one of 2012's most alluring acts by deploying the technique in unexpected ways. Their funereal, deep-sea R&B has made fans of everyone from Bon Iver to noted Auto-Tune sceptic Jay-Z."

NME - Polica - 'Lay Your Cards Out' on MUZU.TV.

26 Bright Light, Bright Light – Make Me Believe in Hope

What we said about Bright Light, Bright Light: "The best thing about pop is that you don't need a scene to emerge to have a good time. There are always good songs to be found, be they by indie bands doing the sparkly crossover thing or the stylish Bright Light Bright Light album, Make Me Believe In Hope."

Actress, AKA Darren Cunningham
Actress, AKA Darren Cunningham Photograph: PR

25 Actress – RIP

What we said about Actress: "RIP [is] a narrative that takes in death, ascension, blessing, and a journey across a purgatorial landscape dodging temptation and ravens, all before returning to Earth. This struggle isn't picked out in lyrics, but in track titles and a supremely evocative sound that lurches between blissful chiming, jacking snares and industrial churn. You could tag it 'techno', but that would do a disservice to Darren Cunningham, who has created for himself a totally singular voice."

24 Dawn Richard – Armor On

What we said about Dawn Richard: "Few artists have integrated R&B and dance as dazzlingly as Richard and producer Druski do here, from the intertwining snares and strings of Heaven to Faith's climactic filterdisco explosion and the tactile flair of percussive details in every song. Along with fellow ex-Dirty Money singer-songwriter Kalenna, Richard is setting the pace in R&B."

Jam City
Jam City, AKA Jack Latham Photograph: PR

23 Jam City – Classical Curves

What we said about Jam City: "There's something initially offputting about Jack Latham's version of post-dubstep funk: it's cluttered and jarring, almost inhuman-sounding. Stick with it, though, and it draws you inexorably into its world."

22 The Cribs – In the Belly of the Brazen Bull

What we said about the Cribs: "The Cribs' fifth album couldn't be more 90s if it styled its hair into curtains, donned a Global Hypercolor T-shirt and bought itself a ticket to Lilith Fair … It suits them, particularly when they adorn the feedback and squalling riffs with singalong melody, as they do on the raucous Chi-Town."

21 Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man

What we said about Bat for Lashes: "The uncluttered approach seems to fit Khan's voice – you notice her affecting ability to suddenly switch from strident to bruised in the middle of a phrase better when it's not fighting for sonic space – and the material. Opener Lillies has one of those effortless melodies that sounds immediately familiar. The piano ballad Laura doesn't need colouring with anything more than a gentle shading of woodwind because it's a fantastic song, with a simple, naggingly effective piano line and a chorus irresistible enough to make its lowly placing on the singles chart seem a bit baffling."

Bat for Lashes – All Your Gold on MUZU.TV.


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