Come on feel the Illinois: Andy Gill's top five albums of the year

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The Independent Culture

Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens

This second instalment in Stevens' planned 50-album series about the individual American states describes the character of Illinois through a vast montage of local legends, small-town portraits, evocations of landscape, and accounts of industrial development, set to a bizarre but appealing blend of minimalism, alt.country, show-tune stylings and marching-band arrangements picked out mostly solo by the multi-instrumentalist Stevens. What sets the project apart from a mere touristic depiction is his refusal to buy into the accepted public image of a location: at the heart of the endeavour is a keen appreciation of the importance of community, and how that notion is in perpetual flux. The result is an extraordinary, multi-faceted work which makes most other albums seem small-minded and, ironically, rather parochial.

Chavez Ravine by Ry Cooder

Another exercise in American psycho-geography, Chavez Ravine charts the changes imposed upon the Chicano inhabitants of a Los Angeles suburb in the late 1940s when the city authorities decided to site a new baseball stadium in their neighbourhood. Rendered in Cooder's characteristic multi-ethnic musical blend, and featuring several Chicano musical legends, Chavez Ravine is an absorbing portrait of social mores and political skullduggery depicted with the flinty tone of a James Ellroy novel.

Employment by Kaiser Chiefs

Unquestionably the band of the year, Kaiser Chiefs provided an almost non-stop radio soundtrack with an album seemingly made up entirely of potential hit singles. Warm, wise and witty, Employment restored to the UK art-school pop tradition a demotic appeal somewhat lacking in the latest album by the arch Franz Ferdinand.

Demon Days by Gorillaz

There's something Beck-like in the way Demon Days yokes together post-modern pop playfulness and cool gravitas, twisting and turning musical modes cleverly to avoid settling into any generic formula. But it's a fair while since Beck came up with songs as engaging as "Feel Good Inc" and "Dare". It's significant improvement on Gorillaz's debut, and a rare example of how to seamlessly assimilate a diverse range of guests into a broader picture.

Hal by Hal

A delightful confection of catchy tunes and summery songs guaranteed to lift one's spirits, this Dublin trio's debut seems imbued with a panoramic history of quality pop, summoning echoes of Aztec Camera, Nilsson, The Band, Tim Buckley and, especially, Brian Wilson.

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