The 50 best British acts right now

 

Did Radiohead make it? What about Morrissey? And who the hell is James Blake? Here it is: the list of Blighty’s best, as chosen by JIM CARROLLand LAUREN MURPHY

IT WAS the editor’s fault. She decided it was time for a list and said we should have a look across the Irish Sea. Not “go across the Irish Sea and check out these bands on an all-expenses-paid jolly”. No, just have a look. Times are tough.

Lauren Murphy and I went to work. We were guided by three simple rules: (1) all solo acts had to have been born in Britain and/or hold British passports; (2) half or more of each band’s members had to have been born in Britain and/or hold British passports; (3) all acts had to have recorded or released music or played a gig since January 2009.

Each of us began by drawing up a list of 50 acts. The names who were on both our lists made the chart, but there was heated debate about the pecking order and the other acts who would make the cut. We were in firm agreement about the top 10. I gave in to Lauren’s insistence about Radiohead and Morrissey once she stopped saying “who the hell is James Blake?” So here it is. We know you’re going to agree with our choices. Right? JIM CARROLL

1 LAURA MARLING

Artists such as Marling come along perhaps once in a generation. The young folkie doffs her cap to her elders and betters, but there’s something indefinably enchanting and original about her turn of phrase, her passionate yet steely delivery, and her incredibly astute lyrical prowess. The scariest (or perhaps most exciting) thing, apart from Marling’s tender years, is that she’s only going to get better. LM

2 WILD BEASTS

Scoff all you like at the sum of their parts: Hayden Thorpe’s (untrained) falsetto, Tom Fleming’s baritone, their wilfully abstract lyrics, their gleefully quirky melodies. The undeniable truth is that Wild Beasts are the most original, strangest band that have straddled the mainstream in years. Try to pigeonhole them (baroque? pop? indie?), and fail miserably. LM

3 THE XX

Winners of the Mercury Prize the other week for their hypnotic, haunting album, xx, The xx’s music for the wee small hours is set to reach a much wider audience in the coming months. Certainly that Mercury accolade has done sales of their debut no harm, but we’re already feverishly anticipating album No 2. JC

4 HUDSON MOHAWKE

Scottish kid Ross Birchard is producing the sounds of tomorrow. After gaining his stripes with the LuckyMe crew and on the Heralds of Change collaboration with Dubliner Mike Slott, it was HudMo’s prime-time releases of 2009 (the Polyfolk mini-album and the Butter beauty) that showed where his head was at. The go-to guy for raw, alien, woozy, wonky 23rd-century soul beats and bobs. JC

5 PJ HARVEY

She’s been comparatively quiet – well, low-key, shall we say – in recent years, but PJ Harvey remains so influential that she could join Kate Bush in Recluseland and easily maintain similar levels of devotion. Harvey’s most recent material suggests a slight taming of her trademark ferocity, but last year’s A Woman a Man Walked Byconfirmed that by ’eck, she’s still got it. LM

6 THESE NEW PURITANS

Head and shoulders above their peers when it comes to audacious sounds and concepts, Southend’s These New Puritans are a band already capable of anything. Hidden, their second album, is awash with twitchy, brainy, pointy-headed sounds. Any act inspired by Benjamin Britten, Steve Reich, Wu-Tang Clan and modern r’n’b should always feature at the business end of one of these polls. JC

7 FOALS

Math rock? What’s that? Apparently it’s the genre that Foals have found themselves pointlessly bundled into, thanks to their complex beats and jerky guitar riffs. But the Oxford band put paid to the notion of easy classifications with a stunning second album. The dreamy scope and diversity of Total Life Forever has meant that Yannis co earned their go-fast stripes faster than anyone expected. LM

8 FLORENCE & THE MACHINE

The biggest question for Florence Welch is how the heck is she going to repeat the success of Lungs? In 2009 you couldn’t escape British pop’s newest queenpin as she ascended the ranks with one fantastic show after another. Going on the evidence of new tunes at recent gigs, the follow-up album might well be every jot as impressive as her debut. JC

9 EVERYTHING EVERYTHING

Listening to Everything Everythingis like strapping yourself into a roller coaster while blindfolded. The Manchester-based band have an unbelievable talent for blending funky melodies with sharp, angular beats and startling key changes, filling the spaces in between with spacey melodic twinkles. Live, they’re as upbeat and tight as their razor-sharp debut album Man Alive would suggest. An exciting proposition. LM

10 GORILLAZ

Who would have predicted back in Blur’s Britpop pomp that Damon Albarn – Damon bloody Albarn – would become pop’s favourite renaissance man? Leaving aside his other pursuits (The Good, The Bad The Queen; Africa Express), Gorillaz makes the cut because of Albarn and crew’s consistent run of ace, off-the-wall pop. JC

11 RADIOHEAD

It’s inevitable that Radiohead will show up on most lists of this ilk, but their placing here (despite a current lull in activity) is not just earned through their longevity or authority. Radiohead are here because, even after 25 years, they’re still making albums as innovatory as In Rainbows, proving themselves as relevant and as crucial to music as ever. LM

12 MOUNT KIMBIE

Its going to be fascinating to see where dubstep’s current brood go from here. On the basis of their ambitious Crooks Loversalbum, Mount Kimbie’s Dominic Maker and Kai Campos seem set to be producing space-age symphonies for some time to come. After all, their sound, with its rounded nods to Erik Satie, Bernard Herrmann and J Dilla, was always aimed at a post-dance-floor place. JC

13 HOT CHIP

It’s been a fantastic zig-zag journey for Hot Chip. Along the way they’ve shown you can produce razor-sharp dance tunes without having to dumb down. Their current album, One Life Stand, sees them continue to write hugely satisfying tunes that show an obvious fondness for the dance floor and an empathy with pop’s more eccentric moments. JC

14 THE CORAL

All-too-often dismissed as “that band who had that hit debut album”, The Coral remain one of the most overlooked acts on the planet. Throughout their career the Scousers have been quietly prolific, releasing album after album of top-quality guitar-pop songs branded with their distinct style and no little panache. Their new album , Butterfly House, is one of the year’s best. LM

15 RICHARD HAWLEY

There’s nobody quite like Hawley on any scene, anywhere. A songwriter of supreme depth and beauty, his pedigree was one of pure indie (Pulp, Longpigs), but his heart beats pure old-time rock’n’roll. Maybe that’s what makes his songs all-encompassing to all ages. Hawley’s live shows are nothing short of stunning – and he’s bloody cool, too. LM

16 BELLE & SEBASTIAN

They’ve been around for 14 years, yet Belle & Sebastian are still mainstays – elders, even – of the UK indie scene. They’ve moved with the times while remaining true to their foundations (rampant tweeness). Their last two albums unleashed the pop beast within Stuart Murdoch & co, and their new one provides more of the same charming folk. LM

17 THE UNTHANKS

Last year’s Here’s the Tender Coming from Rachel and Becky Unthank was a bracing, bold and vibrant document of folk songs from Northumberland and its environs. With strings and brass providing the ballast, it’s the gorgeous, bleak and powerful voices of the two sisters that bring these songs of desperation and heartache to life. JC

18 DJANGO DJANGO

An as-yet-fully-unearthed gem, the comparison this Scottish-based quartet (which includes Derryman Vinny Neff) usually hear are The Beta Band – but their propensity for beats means there’s less heads-down shuffling and more self-assured shoulder-shimmying to their songs. Singles Storm/Love’s Dart and Wor/Skies Over Cairoare mouth-wateringly tantalising; an album (due next March) can’t come soon enough. LM

19 ARCTIC MONKEYS

It seemed like the only people disappointed by Arctic Monkeys’ new, heavier direction were those expecting the Sheffield band to continue plundering the “cheeky chappy” coffers for the rest of their career. For everyone else, it was the sound of a band cracking open a horizon of possibilities. When it comes to lyrical wit, Alex Turner remains the voice of his generation. LM

20 FLOATING POINTS

Every little thing Sam Shepherd has done so far has been magic. The Manchester-born, London-based producer has turned out a run of truly wonderful tracks that cut across all styles and sounds (check out Peoples Potential or JW Beat). Shepherd’s latest move is Floating Points Ensemble, a full band affair currently recording a debut album for Ninja Tune. JC

21 FRIENDLY FIRES

Their fusion of pop, rock, indie, dance, electronica and even Afrobeat isn’t particularly revelatory in 2010, but somehow it sounded so on their eponymous debut, itself something of a slow-burning success. They’re one of the most exciting live bands out there, their driving, twangy beats and bass lines tailor-made for cramped, sweaty indie clubs. Album No 2 is imminent. LM

22 DIZZEE RASCAL

This No 1 singles lark is easy, isn’t it? Well, that seems to be the case for Dizzee Rascal, who has become British pop’s most unexpected new star. A string of hit singles – Dance Wiv Me, Bonkers, Holiday– saw the grime star jump from the underground to the mainstream without much fuss or bother. JC

23 ANTONY THE JOHNSONS

Born in Chichester before his family headed to sunnier climes in California, Antony Hegarty has moved on gracefully from the avant-garde scene where he first came to attention. These days the man with the voice of an angel tucked inside the frame of a giant works with orchestras and Björk as well as with ballet groups and film-makers. A new album, Swanlights, is out next month. JC

24 MICACHU THE SHAPES

Vocals. Guitar. Electronics. Vacuum cleaner. Mica Levi officially plays them all on her Matthew Herbert-produced album, but “experimental” doesn’t come close to describing the sound of Micachu the Shapes. Beginning live as a grime DJ before undertaking her own idiosyncratic project, the diminutive Londoner cuts a slight figure on stage, but the cacophony she makes is strangely compelling. LM

25 LA ROUX

Elly Jackson’s self-titled 2009 debut saw her set the controls back to the 1980s with a string of fine tunes, among them In for the Kill and – especially – Bulletproof. Aside from a hair-do and pout, it’s Jackson’s arresting falsetto and smart approach to a pop song that sets her apart. She is currently getting the angles right on a second album. JC

26 FOUR TET

Once upon a time, Kieran Hebden was the youngest electronic whizz-kid on the block. Five albums into his career as Four Tet, not to mention releases with Fridge and collaborations with the late, great Steve Reid, Hebden may be older, but his grasp on electronic music’s twists and turns has become that of a maestro. Four Tet’s latest album, There Is Love in You,is a colossus, showing he still possesses the ability to make imaginative musical leaps and bounds. JC

27 PAUL WELLER

There’s no discounting Weller’s influence. Both his work with The Jam and his solo musings hold major weight, yet the 52-year-old’s output over the past decade has been largely iffy. That said, his latest album, Wake Up the Nation, caught many off-guard. A quality selection of swaggering mod tunes, it afforded the Modfather a stay of execution on “old fart” status. For now. LM

28 MASSIVE ATTACK

There’s been much drama coming this way from England’s west country since Massive Attack began to rumble nearly 20 years ago with Blue Lines. There have only been five albums in those two decades, but there have been some beautiful moments (not least their current collection, Heligoland) during this time from 3D, Daddy G and those others who’ve come and gone from the fold. JC

29 BRIAN ENO

If we were to count the reasons why Brian Eno deserves a place on this list, we’d be here quite a while. The one-time Roxy Music man released a string of astonishing experimental albums before becoming the one to call when superstar rock bands found themselves in a creative pickle. Next up: Small Craft on a Milk Sea, an album for Warp Records. JC

30 PET SHOP BOYS

It’s a long way from West End Girls. These days, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are pop’s senior statesmen, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone to a retirement home. In recent years the duo’s spectacular live show has wowed festival crowds, reminding us of the duo’s unerring ability to pen melancholic pop gems that can get a full tent singing, swinging and swaying along. JC

31 BASEMENT JAXX

Acts that can flit between genres not only convincingly, but successfully, are few and far between. Basement Jaxx are one of them. Since their first album, Remedy,in 1999, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe have been making floor-filling club tunes that are okay for indie kids to like. And with songs of the quality of Good Luck, Romeoand Red Alert, why shouldn’t they? LM

32 GOLDFRAPP

The ice maiden frontwoman and her unseen collaborator: Alison Goldfrapp may be the Dorothy to Will Gregory’s Wizard, but it’s not Munchkinland they’re bound for. Instead, the duo’s journey has led them through trip-hop soundscapes, tantalising glam-pop peaks and pastoral folk-tinged lulls, simultaneously almost single-handedly reintroducing the synthesiser to a new generation. This is what pop music should sound like in 2010. LM

33 BAT FOR LASHES

In a landscape glutted with musicians out there striving to be trendy and current, Natasha Khan’s ethereal pop gusts across the plains like some sort of aural decontamination. Establishing herself as a star pupil in the Kate Bush School of Pop Weirdness after just two albums, she makes music that sounds like it could be No 1 in the underworld forever. LM

34 STORNOWAY

Harmonies are big in 2010, and so is jaunty folk-pop – which means that Stornoway, a motley crew from Oxford, were destined for success. It helps when you’ve got songs as charming as Zorbing and an album as consistent and likeable as Beachcomber’s Windowsill. They’re like the Mumford & Sons it’s okay to admit a fondness for. LM

35 JAMES BLAKE

Like Mount Kimbie, with whom he has collaborated, James Blake is another producer making dance music that sounds nothing like dance music. In his case, the lush, electronic, dubby, other-worldly soul he has shown on his EPs for Hessle, Hemlock and RS have led to an increasing buzz about him and his talents. Check out The Bells Sketch and CMYK to whet your appetite for his debut album. JC

36 HURTS

Hurts have already proved one of the most polarising acts of 2010, and it’s easy to see why: they’re ultra-stylised, a tad pretentious and they pilfer heavily from a bygone era. But when it comes down to brass tacks, the Manchester duo simply have great songs. And even if their paradox of euphorically gloomy synth anthems won’t age well, right now they’re impossible to resist. LM

37 FACTORY FLOOR

The London band may only have released a handful of tunes to date, but we’re digging every scrap we’ve heard from them. Fans of pulsating, post-punk grooves ( Lying), metallic underworld disco ( Wooden Box) and thundering, gritty noise will dig these Blast First signings. By all accounts their live show is a thing of magnificence, so Irish bookers, get booking. JC

38 ELBOW

They’re the “nice guys” of the UK music scene, but who cares? Forget all that irrelevant jabber. Elbow were a great band pre- The Seldom Seen Kid; they just happened to hit their stride emphatically with a clutch of songs that were equally reflective and assured, rightly winning them a hard-earned place in the pantheon of UK greats. LM

39 THREE TRAPPED TIGERS

Three Trapped Tigers play freestyle instrumental rock, though that’s only the start of things. Borrowing their name from a book by Cuban dissident Guillermo Cabrera Infante, TTT make dizzy wig-outs that join the dots between free-jazz, straight-edge hardcore, psych-rock and drum’n’bass. Fearless and peerless. JC

40 M.I.A.

While M.I.A.’s 2010 will be best remembered for banned videos featuring red-haired terrorists, truffle-flavoured chips and scraps with hacks, let’s not forget the music. M.I.A. can still rock with the best of them, crossing and cutting across genres and sounds to make music that is futuristic and intriguing. JC

41 ACTRESS

When Flying Lotus is singing your praises, you know you’re on the right track. London producer Darren Cunningham makes adventurous sounds that distil what he hears – dubstep, grime, dancehall, techno, etc – into hypnotic, giddy and enthralling cuts. If Burial was the sound of the past few years, Actress is soundscaping for the years to come. JC

42 THE SOUNDCARRIERS

Two albums in and still hugely underappreciated, but it’s doubtful that The Soundcarriers are worried about having a No 1 record. The Nottingham quartet sound unconsciously out-of-step with current trends, like they’ve been raised in dusty second-hand vinyl shops. Their woozy, wispy, psychedelic analogue grooves evoke parallels with the likes of Stereolab and even Ireland’s own Twinkranes in places. LM

43 LONELADY

It’s no surprise that fans of edgy, wiry, jangling 1980s pop have been wowing about Julie Campbell all year long. The Mancunian’s Nerve Updebut for Warp, recorded in a couple of weeks in makeshift studios in one of her native city’s many ramshackle, abandonded former mills, is a beautifully understated clatter of catchy tunes and unexpected twists and turns. JC

44 PATRICK WOLF

Flamboyant, arrogant, strange, unpredictable – it’s this combination of factors that makes Patrick Wolf something of an unsung hero. He’s seen as an eccentric, but when it comes to his albums, the Londoner’s trajectory from oddball folkie ( Wind in the Wires) to pop warlock ( The Magic Position) to theatrical indie icon ( The Bachelor) suggests that he’s a musician with enough ideas to sustain a long and interesting career. LM

45 FRANZ FERDINAND

Over the past six years, Franz Ferdinand have evolved from a band in debt to Talking Heads, Josef K and Orange Juice to one with their own distinctive sound. The Scots’ compound of sharp, jerky stomping pop and broody, dynamic introspection makes them a completely loveable force in contemporary indie music. 2009’s Tonight also proved that they’re a band unafraid to take risks. LM
46 FUCK BUTTONS

Two albums into their run and Fuck Buttons are clearly the choice of a new noisy generation. On the back of the albums Street Horrrsingand, especially, Tarot Sport, the Bristol duo have built a rep for aggressive, edgy, stunning sounds that square the circle between growling post-rock and psychedelically enhanced raving. JC

47 THE PRODIGY

They’re still in the game, bud, and don’t you forget it. The best thing that ever happened to The Prodigy was probably their current album, Invaders Must Die. They’re always capable of turning on the style in a live setting, but that album showed that Liam Howlett and friends can still work their way around a banging tune or three. JC

48 RACE HORSES

The parallels are obvious ones: Welsh, bilingual, psychedelic pop/1960s garage protagonists. But take it from us, Race Horses are so much more than a Super Furry Animals tribute act. Their tight, joyous explosion of a debut, Goodbye Falkenburg,is as tasty and moreish as its lead single, Cake, and young frontman Meilyr Jones is a star in the making. LM

49 MARK RONSON

The producer who turned Amy Winehouse into a star has shown he’s no slouch in the pop-star stakes himself. After Version,his breakthrough album, saw him rejigging pop and indie songs in a brassy, post-Rehab style, new album Record Collectionfinds him taking a more synth-heavy approach to his songs. JC

50 MORRISSEY

“You don’t like me, but you love me? Either way, you’re wrong / You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”Never a truer word spoken for a man who supposedly deliberately “courts controversy”, but a musician who continues to make albums that inspire and invigorate, such as last year’s tenacious Years of Refusal. The last great British pop icon? No doubt. LM 

Listen up The Irish are coming

Okay, okay, calm yourselves. Just because we’ve chosen our top 50 UK acts right now doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten our roots. It would have been incredibly easy to draw up a similar list of Irish acts that are fully capable of going head-to-head and toe-to-toe with their British peers. In fact, Irish music has never been in ruder health. The past year or two has seen many of our bands make waves across the water: Villagers are the obvious candidates for international success after signing with Domino Records, but let’s not forget Adrian Crowley’s deal with the über-respected Chemikal Underground, and the superb Twinkranes’ contract with Twisted Nerve.

2010 been an exceptionally good year for Irish releases, but it’s the breadth of variation that’s most exciting. From Cathy Davey to Enemies, Two Door Cinema Club (left) to Shit Robot, Fight Like Apes to R.S.A.G., there’s so much quality spanning multiple genres that there is something for every musically inclined person on our compact island. And don’t be surprised if you see acts such as O Emperor and The Lost Brothers on Later with Jools Holland in the next 12 months. Put your dukes up, Britain: the Irish are coming.

LAUREN MURPHY

Agree with our top 50? Disagree? Are you happy Three Trapped Tigers made it? Annoyed there’s no Charlie Landsborough? Share your views at irishtimes.com/blogs/ ontherecord