Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year

This year I return to the tried and trusted formula of the meaninglessly numbered list. The reason? I looked at last year’s entry to see which album I’d chosen as my number one, and was disappointed to find I hadn’t bothered. Too lazy, I reckon, and it wasn’t a particularly good year. This year, though, I was spoilt for choice, and so (already thrilled readers, musicians and music biz executives), I gift you the shivering anticipation of the countdown. As ever, my criterion was simple: I chose albums I wanted to keep playing, again and again. It’s not really a list of records classified for technical or creative or cultural reasons, but a list of albums I most fell in love with (though from around number 30 downwards it’s less love, and more ‘fancied a lot/bit’).

20. Beirut – The Rip Tide (Pompeii Records)
With this band, you feel that anything’s possible, although more than likely it will involve brass bands and some kind of folk influence from an unlikely source. iTunes laughably classifies this as “indie-rock”. Think of any other combination of genres besides indie-rock, throw them into a catalytic converter and let Beirut toy with the result using seductive syncopation, blasted riffs, and a pale but fetching vocal. Track you’d want your town band to play at the annual parade: The Rip Tide

Classically Deathcabbish
19. Death Cab For Cutie – Coats and Keys (Atlantic)
I sometimes buy albums by bands like Death Cab For Cutie out of a sense of duty that they’re the kind of band I ought to be into, rather than actually being into. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when their records turn out to be far better than I’d expected. This is a solid, archetypally articulate DeathCabbish collection, though it sometimes takes years for their best songs to sink in – I only realized when I saw them live how much I love their earlier work. Indie-pop track to the core: Doors Unlocked And Open. Advice I won’t take track: Stay Young, Go Dancing.

18. The Feelies – Here Before (Bar/None)
Seeing as no one makes blissfully good old-style indie-pop any more, call back the old hands that did it right the first time around, as the album title hints. Okay, second time around, given that so many 1980s bands like The Feelies and Galaxie 500/Luna unblushingly but very successfully rode on the riffs of the Velvet Underground. They’ve still got what they always had – cheerfully shambolic but somehow addictive scratchy guitars on top of understated vocals in a world beyond Autotune. Track to dance badly to while wearing your retired leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and drinking get-pissed-quick, extra-strength lager: the whole album

17. John Foxx and The Maths – Interplay (Metamatic Records)
Keep your eyes shut – it’s still the early 1980s. John Foxx is back with a collaborator to play cold, smart, revivalist electro-pop. Tracks to dance to with a blank facial expression while wearing a freshly ironed shirt with a slim, neat tie: Evergreen, Summerland

16. Bonnie Prince Billy – Wolfroy Goes To Town (Domino)
This handsome royal is so prolific that he surely wakes up every morning, reaches for his guitar, and doesn’t stop writing songs until he falls asleep again long after midnight, pausing only to have some bad experiences as inspiration. At some point the genius will have to take a rest, but there’s no sign yet of a quality drop, assuming that your idea of quality is folk-doom Americana, a surely more apposite category than the iTunes suggested ‘Rock’. Only album I’ve ever bought with a free sticker in Gothic script proclaiming Fuck Birds In The Bushes. Tracks to accompany contemplation of a beautiful apocalypse: most of them, but especially Time To Be Clear and Cows. Incongruously upbeat song about hunger: Quail and Dumplings

15. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)
Great fizzing waves of synth-metal transposed with reflective acoustic interludes. Knowingly melodramatic, M83 seem to revel in their own indulgences with a smile that says, “It’s just pop. Enjoy, then keep or throw away” (though that’s just a guess – they could be deadly serious for all I know). Tracks to play air synth to: Midnight City, New Map. Tracks to definitely keep, not throw away: OK Pal, Wait

Surrender to this record
14. Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender (Great Speckled Dog)
OTR are seemingly incapable of making anything other than deeply affecting songs that resonate with sentiment as pure and real as the stars you’ll see from the mountain-top on a clear night. Karin Bergquist’s simultaneously delicate but solid bronze vocals make her a worthy successor to decades of divas stretching back through Aretha Franklin to Billie Holiday, while the band’s sound shifts effortlessly between late-night lounge jazz and melancholic Americana. It’s not obligatory, but I recommend these songs be taken with low lights, an open fire, and a stiff glass of malt whisky. Track to break up to: Oh Yeah By The Way

13. My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO)
Meticulously crafted pop songs that hookworm their way into your consciousness. I wouldn’t go and see them live for fear that I’d turn up and find hundreds of cloned Blokes Like Me there, nodding our half-bald heads to the beat and quite loudly applauding while thinking about not missing the last train home. Song that makes you feel your tastes may have mellowed a little too much: Wonderful (The Way I Feel)

12. Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane (Rounder)
An Alison Krauss and a Gillian Welch album in the same year represents a musical windfall for those of us who feel that the soul of rural America is best expressed through its most sensitive and tuneful practitioners of country and bluegrass. Though I’d happily pay to hear Krauss sing the recipe for deep fried chicken wings. Every last track is an outstanding example of melancholy’s transition into brilliance. Track you must hear before you die: My Love Follows You Where You Go

11. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (RCA)
Featuring a healthy din of heavy guitars and a ton of tunes too, this quickly dismissed record has borne serial re-listening. Like almost every other band, they’re breaking absolutely no boundaries, but when your comfort zone is so artistically lucrative, why leave? Instructions: take a night in on your own, skin up, rock out. Air-guitar posing tracks for middle-aged men: Arlandria, These Days, and several others if you’ve still got the stamina.

10. Joan As Policewoman – Deep Field (PIAS)
This follow-up to 2008’s equally vibrant ‘To Survive’, sultry-voiced Joan Wasser’s latest features genre-defying songs bulging with ideas that fight each other for your aural space. Each incrementally more rewarding play unravels previously hidden sounds and songbursts, provoking admiration and, with patience, a certain awe. Low key but oddly uplifting. Tracks to make you melt inside: Human Condition, Kiss The Specifics

9. Amos Lee – Mission Bell (Blue Note)
Another night in is recommended – this time with your baby and the lights turned down low. What may at first appear as soft pop gradually seeps into your head as deep, wide singing on the back of songs that, you feel, would have been worldwide chart hits somewhere around 1975.  A mighty collection of consistently magnificent numbers delivered with perfection to slow-burning, gospel-tinged, semi-acoustic backdrops. Song to choke you up: Violin. Song to make him a millionaire: Hello Again

8. Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down (Sugar Hill Records)
And yet another amazing female singer-songwriter apparently born to sing about the sorrow of that great continental north American land mass still struggling to live its self-proclaimed dream. This second album, recorded by Jarosz before she turned 20, certainly knocks the hype about Joni-clone Laura Marling into a cocked hat. Jarosz is a multi-instrumentalist possessing an impeccably expressive folk/country voice, and superior songwriting talents. But she’s not a bloke, so Bon Iver will likely get all the awards. Tracks to be gobsmacked by: My Muse, Gypsy

Smothered in classical pop
7. Wild Beasts – Smother (Domino)
This wonderful pop record revolves around subtle rhythms, simple piano chords, and hooks both electronic and acoustic dipped in and out of songs. These are layered beneath an impassioned, sometimes pleading vocal almost classical in its sensuous scope. Track to listen to while reflecting upon your own past greed, vanity and selfishness: Lion’s Share

6. Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter – Marble Son (Fargo)
A little louder and more spaced out than their three hitherto mostly hushed albums, veering away from Americana and more towards sprawling psychedelic soundscapes. Side 2 of Abbey Road occasionally comes to mind, but in a good (even very good) way, and eventually this record shrouds you in the same delicious but deathly fog that made its trio of predecessors so irresistible. There’s still the odd pedal steel, and you can fall in love anew with Sykes’s every wistfully lisped syllable, sweet harmonies that tirelessly evoke haunting mortality and the hardness of loving. Track for road trip through small-town America: Come To Mary. Track for getting to lost to on a lonely country road on a dark and misty night:  Be It Me, Or Be It None

5. Destroyer – Kaputt (Merge)
Dismayingly, this is their ninth album, and I’ve not heard a note of the previous eight. I’m tempted just to stick with this one to divert that disappointment you feel when a band’s Other Works never quite give you the same thrill you got the first time you heard them. They’re not even that original – they could have passed as an indie electro-pop band 25 years ago, but there’s something so seductive in this record’s multiple, breathlessly crafted vocal and synthetic layers that I’m still returning to this record to find that every spin brings a new wave of sonic rewards. Track to stay alive to: Suicide Demo For Kara Walker

4.  Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
A series of mesmerizing electronic creations, each one captivating in its own tripped-out but cosmic, playful way.  Stick on your headphones and chill in. Tracks to float through space to: Keep Me There, I Got A, Balance Her In Between Your Eyes

3.  Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest (Acony)
I read years ago that Gillian Welch had four albums worth of material ready to release, and I was ready to buy all four. Then, silence and nothing for eight years, but this hardscrabble collection of roots and bluegrass soundscapes to latter-day Depression has been worth the wait. Dave Rawlings’ finger-picking genius adds another layer of melody to the already stellar backbone of Welch’s acoustic strumming and perfectly toned, country-lacquered timbre. One wonderful track of many: The Way That It Goes

2. Fatoumata Diawara – Fatou (World Circuit)
Lose yourself in the sensual, expressive voice of the France-based Malian singer and you may lose sight of how wonderful her songs are. A record of staggeringly gorgeous quality. Tracks that make your skin tingle: Alama, Wilile

Shaking up the English
1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island)
The greatest English folk album ever, streaked in a shameful past, portentous brass, and a selection of traditional and acoustic instruments that drive the album’s necessarily donned black cloak of inglorious doom. An immense, stunning work of art about the insanity of war, and England’s inability to heed its own history. Tracks to sing along to on peace demos: Let England Shake, The Words That Maketh Murder

Also unreservedly recommended: 21-30
21. Six Organs Of Admittance – Asleep On The Floodplain
22. James Blake – James Blake
23. Tinariwen – Tassili
24. The Unthanks – Last
25. Wilco – The Whole Love
26. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
27. Pepper Rabbit – Red Velvet Snow Ball
28. Priscilla Ahn – Prurient
29. Maria Taylor – Overlook
30. Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer

recommended only slightly less: 31-40
31. A Winged Victory For The Sullen – A Winged Victory For The Sullen
32. Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
33. Isolée – Well Spent Youth
34. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong
35. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
36. Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down
37. Low – C’Mon
38. Blondie – Panic of Girls
39. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
40. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

Bubbling under: 41-50
41. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
42. John Foxx – Translucence/Drift Music
43. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
44. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
45. John Foxx – Torn Sunset
46. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
47. Zola Jesus – Conatus
48. Hercules and Love Affair – Blue Songs
49. The Jayhawks – Mockingbird Time
50. Zwischenwelt – Paranormale Aktivität

Really wish I hadn’t bothered:
CornershopCornershop and The Double ‘O’ Groove of
BattlesGloss Drop

1. Autechre – EPs: 1991-2002
2. The Smiths – Complete
3. Fac. Dance – Factory Records 12” Mixes and Rarities, 1980-1987
4. Various Artists – The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
5. BEF – 1981-2011


AMD said...

Delighted to see the Amos Lee album getting props. One of five that'll feature in my top 20 (which probablt will be topped by The Harrow And The Harvest).

I'm afraid I still don't get PJ Harvey though. I've tried, which is all one can ask of me. But I don't get her.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

I think one of the striking things is not just the album's quality, but that it's unlike anything ever done before - either by Harvey or in the realm of popular music - and that's pretty rare nowadays. I find it a gripping listen - kind of terrifying, very hard-hitting and musically daring too. Will look forward to your list as always, AMD.

J3 said...

Good to see Foo Fighters got a top 10. I'm as guilty as anyone of dismissing them, but that's a great album. I liked The Decemberists's The King Is Dead better than the Gillian Welch. Though The Decemberists are guilty of too much vintage REM on that album, I don't feel like life has abandoned me after listening to it. The Welch and the Harvey for that matter? They're not in that category of sad therapeutic for me. There's a live Decemberists show from the Newport Festival available on NPR's music page that's in my top five. Even though it's not exactly new, the Stones finally officially releasing Brussels Affair is my number one. Everything about it is superb, not the least of which is that they had a better version than the bootleg just sitting there for almost forty years.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Number 11 for FF actually, but close enough. Another Harvey dissenter - easy to see why it wouldn't necessarily appeal, though I think it's intended more as a call to conscience than sad therapeutic. Heard one track from The Decemberists, but wasn't keen to take it any further. They just annoy me, like that actress in Six Feet Under who played Nate's wife, Lili Taylor, and whose disappearance (in the series, not real life) I met with unseemly celebration. Robin Williams - another one I can't stand. So don't ever let anyone produce a movie about a pseudo-folk supergroup starring The Decemberists, Lili Taylor and Robin Williams, please God no.

Nathan Duin said...


In full agreement with Autechre, Smiths, Zola Jesus, James Blake.

EmmaK said...

Kudos to you for making this list. One query where are Take That!! They do a reunion tour you know. Relight my fire. I guess they are an aquired taste for women approaching menopause like moi!!

Nathan Duin said...

Me again with a few favorites of my own.

JACASZEK - Glimmer
BURIAL - Street Halo EP
HOW TO DRESS WELL - Love Remains
TINDERSTICKS - Claire Denis Film Scores (1996-2009)
AUSTRA - Feel It Break
LEYLAND KIRBY - Eager To Tear Apart the Stars
RICHARD SKELTON - The Complete Landings
ZOMBY - Dedication

Many others of course, but I'll leave off here. I listened to PJ Harvey again last night and realized that what you had written made me appreciate more than I had.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Nathan - not heard most of those, though I did contemplate the Tindersticks boxed set as a Xmas request. I love and covet boxed sets, but the problem is I hardly ever actually listen to them. Pleased to hear about the PJ reappraisal!

Emma - I had indeed intended to write at length about the Take That reunion tour, but no sooner had I fought my way to the front of the concert hall, wedged between myriad sweating, screaming, mid-life housewives, than I myself fainted with the excitement, and was only revived once the concert was over and I was safely back at home in bed thinking the whole thing had just been a bad dream.