ALBUM OF THE YEAR : Isis - "Panopticon"

Symphonic, epic, majesterial post-rock grindcore. A staggeringly heavy yet beautiful concept album, that goes further out into the void than even 2002's "Oceanic" did.
Isis mainman, Aaron Turner (who's other bands include the excellent ,but somewhat more challenging, Old Man Gloom) has created another concept album, this time taking on the growing horrors of our surveillance culture, a "Panopticon" being (fittingly) the concept of a prison made of glass in which you're watched 24 hours a day. I LOVED "Oceanic" and I wondered how they'd ever be able to top it. The closing track on that album "Hymn" one of the most powerful, beautiful and uplifting metal tracks I'd ever heard. Now, two years later, THIS is how they top it.
After hearing an officially released MP3 of "Backlit" I couldn't wait to hear more.
Taking "Hymn" as the blueprint, every track on "Panopticon" makes it easily as good as, if not better, than it's predecessor. Opening salvo, "So Did We" and "Backlit" introduce a deeper more atmospheric Isis. In some respects the continue where they left off, all power chords and gruff vocals interspersed with delicate guitar. But it's easy to see that with this album they have matured as songwriters, creating a much more focussed, concentrated sound. It's a million miles from the metal bluster of debut album "Mosquito Control"
The shortest track on the album is almost 7 minutes long and listening to it as a whole it's easy to lose yourself in the various emotions it conjures. Whilst "Panopticon" is undeniably a very, very heavy album, it's almost... soothing.

2 : Colour Of Fire - "Pearl Necklace"

Recently discovered (by me anyway!) four piece from York that make a truly riveting racket. Wearing their influences on their sleeves - think Pixies, Sonics, Deftones - they make some of the best punky rock I've ever heard.
The most striking thing is the vocal harmonys and the complex guitar work, with frontmen Owen and Stuart vibing off each other throughout, more than ably backed by a brutally strong rythmn section. Heavy tracks such as "???" and choppy title track "A Pearl Necklace For Her Majesty" sit alongside more melodic numbers, the excellent "???" and personal favourite "The Company Won't Colour Me".
Superb live as well as on record, and managed by the people behind Placebo, look out for them in 2005.

3 : Sophia - "People Are like Seasons"

Runners-up for "Richy's Band Of The Year 2004", due to some exceptional gigs on the part of Oceansize, Sophia nonetheless gain a well deserved place in the top 3 albums, with this, their third studio album.
Frontman Robin Proper-Sheppard seems to have put the ghosts to rest with this one. The music is less introspective than on previous releases, and in some case rocks like the proverbial bastard. The heaviest number and probably the highlight is "Desert Song 2" (more than a passing nod to his old band) which grows from an atmospheric beginning to an out and out riff-fest.
Elsewhere there's more humour - such as tongue in cheek number "Holidays Are Nice" - and more of the acoustics and strings that we've come to love on beautiful songs such as "Fool" and "I Left You".

4 : Interpol - "Antics"

Goth but not so Goth, NYC's finest (you can stuff your Strokes!) returned with a second album that doesn't so much fling open the curtains and let the sunshine in, but is definitely at least slightly interested in what's going on outside. A little warmer than debut album "Turn On The Bright Lights". On first hearing the single "Slow Hands" I had visions of indie disco dancefloors across the nation awash with converts to the Dark Side, turned on by its chugging rythmns and simple riff and the (almost, but not quite) explosive chorus. Dodgy lyrics and Nazi chic aside, Interpol have firmly esconced themselve at the top of the indie tree.

5 : Jesse Sykes - "Oh My Girl"

An existentially bleak record on first listen, this 10 track beauty grows warmer with each listen. That's not to say that it will ever be a bundle of laughs, though.
The incredible slide and steel guitar work of Phil Wandscher (ex-Whiskeytown) and the smoky, laid back vocals of singer/songwriter Jesse Sykes combine perfectly. Evoking heartbroken souls adrift in a landscape of sunsets, empty highways and deserted late night bars, the songs are all individually stunning, but as a collection it's perfect.
Personal favourites are "The Dreaming Dead" (the first song i heard courtesy of Uncut magazine's "Americana 2004" covermount) and "Tell The Boys".
I think I'm starting to like country and western music.

6 : The Veils - "The Runaway Found"

Finn Andrews has the kind of voice that you can't help but take notice of, wether you want to or not. Sure, we've had to put up with a lot of Jeff Buckley wannabes over the last few years, but when this skinny indie boy opens his mouth it's truly startling.
Partially produced by Bernard Butler (and it shows) this collection goes through all shades indie rock from the obvious "The Wild Son" and "More Heat Than Light", the lushly orchestrated, heartwrenching "Lavinia" to the stunning piano driven "The Valleys Of New Orleans". Beneath it all though, it's Andrews that truly shines. Not everyone's cup of tea, but with bands like the Delays making it big, there may be a place for them in 2005.

7 : Lost Prophets - "Start Something"

Having initially dismissed Lost Prophets as nu-metal wannabes from the Valleys, this record was a major suprise. A much more mainstream effort than their debut "fakesoundofprogress", this has "radio friendly unit shifter" tattooed all over it's skinny white arse.
Whilst trying to convice hardcore fans that "We Still Kill The Old Way" it obvious that this is definitely a more commercial record, but it doesn't suffer from it. Taking the emo blueprint and adding a healthy dose of 80's metal, tracks such as "Last Train Home" and "Burn Burn" are pop rock of the highest quality. Best track is the bittersweet "Last Summer" which manages to be incredibly sentimental whilst ripping along at 20mph. Singer Ian sounds just like FNM's Mike Patton as well. Again, not a bad thing.

8 : The Killers - "Hot Fuss"

2004's biggest indie boyband. Las Vegas four piece fronted by the incredibly photogenic Brandon Flowers deliver a great, if somewhat flawed, album. Including the huge singles "Mr Brightside" and "Somebody Told Me" (so good they released it twice) and backed up by some excellent live shows it had to be in the Top 10, despite some rather dubious tracks.
Joyously retro and sounding like a garagey Duran Duran, or "lovecats"-era Cure they fuse spiky pop with the melodramatic style of Brandons vocals and the result is (mostly) intoxicating.

9 : Mastodon - "Leviathan"

Supposedly the future of metal, people are comparing the shockwaves sent out by this album as similar to those felt at the time of Metallica's "Kill 'Em All". Now I wouldn't know about that - being a "dabbler" I'm about as out of touch with the true metal scene now as I was back then - but I know a stunning album when I hear it.
From the startling opening riff of "Blood And Thunder!" through tracks with names like "Iron Tusk" and "Megalodon" the one thing that hits you is how daring the music is. It is so unbelievably complex and all played so ridiculously fast, the guitar riffs piling up, one on top of the other and the drums.. jesus... the DRUMS!!!
Bands that play this hard and this fast have a tendency to ignore atmosphere and real emotion, but somehow despite being the most METAL thing I think I've ever heard, it's all here. A truly exceptional album.

10 : Skinny Puppy - "The Greater Wrong Of The Right"

OK, so it's not their greatest album. Not by a long shot. But the mere fact that the industrial pionners back with us is reason enough to rejoice. Dissolving 7 years ago amidst drug addictions, personal and musical differences and the death a band member it would've been a safe bet that the world had seen the back of Skinny Puppy.
But in 2000 they played a now legendary gig at the Doomsday festival in Dresden Germany and rumours of a new album began to circulate.
This then is the comeback album. It's a different, more experimental SP. Not in terms of trying to be weird (they probably realise they couldn't get anyweirder that the heroin fug of "Last Rites") but more that they are open to trying new things musically - Ogr even tries a rap on one track (not entirely successful, but bravo for trying!). Musically it's a bit more generic industrial than some of their older albums but hey who cares.
15 years ago Skinny Puppy were my favourite band. News of their re-emergence prompted me to trawl through the back catalogue and I was reminded of why i loved them so much. "Smothered Hope", "Humann Disease", "VX Gas Attack" all awesome tracks which would be tough to top, even after all this time.
I never got to see them, but this year I got a new album and - 15 years since they last played the UK - I finally got to see their incredible show live.