12. XTC, Skylarking (Geffen, 1986)

Neither XTC nor producer Todd Rundgren had much of a reputation for putting out consistent, tight albums until this shimmering song cycle appeared (seemingly from out of nowhere) and re-established both of their then-moribund careers. Although band leader Partridge notoriously butted heads with Rundgren during the recording sessions, the results sound seamless, harmonic and far-reaching. Maybe great art is born out of conflict (the similarly genius Apple Venus came out right before guitarist Dave Gregory quit the band). This wasn't the first (or last) time XTC indulged in a little late '60s lush, psychedelic pop, but it remains their strongest, least-dated effort. Thematically, Skylarking passes through the four seasons while likening them to the human life cycle (or vice-versa, if you prefer). Hardly an original framework, but it proves an ideal setting for miniaturist observations like "Grass", "Earn Enough For Us" and "Big Day" (only "Dear God", a former B-side added on after it became a big hit, grapples with weightier issues). Alternately swooning and tartly cynical, languorous and lucid, dreamlike and down-to-earth, Skylarking is high on a teeny tiny list of the very best Beatles-esque albums.