Rock column, The Mail on Sunday, December 9 2012

When you’re trying to sum up the year in music, it’s not a good idea to use the mainstream as a yardstick. You may get depressed.

Ten days ago the Official Charts Company published Britain’s ten best-selling albums of 2012 so far. Six were released in 2011, led by Adele’s indestructible 21 – the last mega-seller that was also memorable for its content.

The other four were by Emeli Sande, Lana Del Rey, Mumford & Sons and Paloma Faith; all respectable, none a classic. Del Rey’s Born To Die came closest, but its best tracks, Video Games and Blue Jeans, were from 2011 too. This year was so last year.

Music has almost vanished from the high street, now that HMV is a gadget store that sells CDs on the side. But an independent record shop, if you can find one, will still point you to the many excellent new albums out there.

These are mostly made by old stagers or young thrusters, and the best of all came from a band who are, in a sense, both. Tim Elsenburg only became a full-time musician at 38, after working as a handyman round the M25.

Crown And Treaty (Luxor Purchase/EMI), by Elsenburg’s band Sweet Billy Pilgrim, is my album of the year. The songs are deliciously artful, working both as art-rock and as folk-pop: no album this year has had more soul.

How it missed the Mercury shortlist is a mystery to rank with the rise of Ukip. Sweet Billy Pilgrim are a well-kept secret – their London show in September, at a pub in Muswell Hill, was attended by about 40 drinkers and a dog. But that makes the album a natural Christmas present.

Two other young bands delivered the goods. Take the dynamism of Arcade Fire, add the warmth of Mumford & Sons, export across the North Sea, and you get Of Monsters And Men, five young Icelanders who always sound as if there are ten of them.

Their debut, My Head Is An Animal (Island), is the biggest Icelandic album ever in America, beating Bjork. It has done all right here, but not as well as it deserves, with its stirring moods and stomping rhythms. That should change with Of Monsters’ British tour, starting in February.

Alt J, winners of the Mercury Prize, are four friends from Leeds University. Their debut An Awesome Wave (Infectious) is packed with electronic pop songs that are like bright teenage boys: angular at first, but eventually lovable.

Leonard Cohen, now 78, crowned his comeback with Old Ideas (Columbia). Bluesy and witty, it is his best record since The Future in 1992 and his most popular since Songs From A Room in 1969. He also laid on the year’s best gig, playing for four hours – 90 minutes longer than the Stones, whose cheap seats cost more than any of his.

A more unlikely comeback came from Bobby Womack. In between bouts of pneumonia and cancer, this soul survivor made The Bravest Man In The Universe (XL Recordings) with Damon Albarn, who placed his blazing vocals in cool modern settings.

The protest album of the year, just pipping Bruce Springsteen, was Ani DiFranco’s ?Which Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe), which served up fury with finesse. The best number one album was Jake Bugg (Mercury), by a Nottingham teenager who wowed his contemporaries with the sounds of the Fifties.

The best Sixties-style girl pop was on Ren Harvieu’s Through The Night (Island). Lana Del Rey may have sexier marketing, but Harvieu has a mighty voice. The best new girl band are The Staves, three sisters from Watford whose debut Dead & Born & Grown (Atlantic) glows with pinpoint harmonies.

The covers album of the year is The Jazz Age (BMG) by The Bryan Ferry Orchestra: Ferry covering himself for the first time, and turning an eclectic bunch of his songs into vibrant Twenties jazz. The best single-act compilation is Grrr! (triple CD, Polydor) by the Rolling Stones. It has a silly title, a naff cover and a dull ending, but the first two discs are irresistible. The best variety pack is The Backbeat Of Rock’n’Roll (triple CD, Famous Flames, out tomorrow), a set of 94 instrumentals that add up to a great blast of innocence.