Favourite Albums of 2011 (December 2011)

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25. Jul. 2011, 21:24

Oh boy, 2011 has been a problematic year as far as choosing favourite albums was concerned. There seemed to be two themes to the year, for me. The first was that there was a lot of good music but very little great music. The traditional autumn surge of brilliant albums never really materialized and plenty were slightly disappointing, or impenetrable, or both (such as Björk’s effort). The second theme was an increasing tendency for retro sounds. Apart from a handful of electronic albums that weren’t actually good enough to be in my favourites, there was little music that didn’t strongly reference a previous musical period. This is not a criticism; retro influences can produce brilliant music, and many of the albums in my top 10 did this, but it does make picking out the innovative a difficult task. M83, Destroyer and Rustie, in particular, took imitation to the limits and all three just managed to steer clear of pastiche.

20. Biosphere - N-Plants
19. Clams Casino - Instrumentals
18. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
17. New LookNew Look
16. The HorrorsSkying
15. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
14. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
13. Kurt VileSmoke Ring for My Halo
12. Wild BeastsSmother
11. TychoDive

10. RustieGlass Swords
Where to start with this album? It’s on Warp and sounds a little bit like label-mate Hudson Mohawke but then again, it sounds like nothing else. The absolute antithesis of glitch, minimal and microhouse, Glass Swords is all about big, out-of-place sounds (the electric slap bass from Seinfeld features), almost but never-quite cheesy 80s melodies and enough ideas to fill a couple of albums with. I’ve heard this described as “digital maximalism”, which seems about right. Single Ultra Thizz is still a killer and, elsewhere, Surph and All Nite really hit the mark too.

9. Destroyer - Kaputt
There are a lot of layers to this set of tunes. It took me a few listens to acclimatise to Dan Bejar's weary voice and strange phrasing but the music reeled me in straight away - it's like a tour of the worst musical directions of the 80s, but somehow Bejar makes soft rock sound essential. Maybe I like it because I lived through the 80s, I'm not sure. Chinatown is a great opener with the refrain “you can’t walk away, I can’t walk away”. My favourite, Savage Night At The Opera is a relatively compact tune, given Bejar’s propensity for sprawling stream-of-consciousness numbers, and I like the guitar solo (words that I don’t often utter). Elsewhere, the title track is particularly well-polished. This is expertly-judged stuff that could have come off as cheesy but never once falls into that trap.

8. The Field - Looping State of Mind
Axel Willner has developed his sound in steps, and on this, his third album, he has achieved a near-perfect balance between his earlier techno-based loops and more expansive electronic sounds, including house and ambient. The loops are still there of course, and it’s fun to try to guess the original tune (I think that Bruce Springsteen is mashed up on Burned Out) but Willner now introduces far more structure into his tunes, with longer basslines, more pronounced breakdowns and more layers. A few tracks, such as the opener Is This Power even have a groove about them, which you couldn’t really argue about his debut. Even when the old formula is used, such as one the first six minutes of It’s Up There, everything feels more at ease and you realise that Willner is playing with house bpms as well as structures. The biggest surprise of the album is Then It’s White, a piano-led, almost ambient tune that works very well indeed.

7. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Annie Clark is a highly talented multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, with an angular, artistic guitar style, and a soothing voice that complements the rough edges to the songs. Clark’s lyrics make me think of American Beauty and Desperate Housewives – stories about a mistress in the afternoon, depression, the objectification of women and breaking away from the beauty queen stereotype have the same theme of tortured lives behind a veneer of normality. Cruel is the outstanding tune here, although Surgeon and Strange Mercy are also wonderful. There are clever and ambiguous lyrics, like “I spent the summer on my back”, which has at least three meanings in the context of the song (Surgeon) and plenty of other great one-liners, all of which makes Strange Mercy one of the picks of the year.

6. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
I’ve maintained a distance from Radiohead since Pablo Honey, which is the last album of theirs that I actually bought before The King of Limbs. That’s nothing to do with Radiohead – I was simply into more dance and electronic forms of music at the time and can say almost exactly the same thing about PJ Harvey. All that means is that I came to this not as a diehard Radiohead fan, not even really a fan, so I listened without any preconceptions at all. Watching the blogfest after the release of The King of Limbs was hilarious, although it was saddening just how much people seemed to want to distance themselves from the album just because they didn’t get it on play number one. Yeah, so I heard a rumour that it's not their best but I'm fortunate enough not to have all of that baggage when listening. I happen to love it. There’s a hell of a lot more detail in each track than a few listens can reveal. The skittering, feather-light electronica of the first half is interesting if not always captivating, but the delicate and melodic second half is just brilliant, kicking off with the almost militaristic rhythms and clapping of Lotus Flower, which hold back the pent-up Yorke until he lets go with “slowly we unfurl as lotus flowers”. Codex is the most immediate thing here (I only found out later that it was essentially a remake of Pyramid Song), Give Up the Ghost is a campfire lament and the best track, Separator, hangs back on the wonderful picked guitar line until mid-song, after which point Yorke keeps us all guessing with “if you think this is over then you are wrong”.

5. A Winged Victory for the SullenA Winged Victory for the Sullen
A Winged Victory for the Sullen are Adam Wiltzie from Stars of the Lid and American pianist/composer Dustin O’Halloran and their collaboration marries the emotive drone ambient of the former with the modern classical compositions of the latter. I’m a big fan of Stars of the Lid and the focus that O’Halloran (presumably) brings to A Winged Victory for the Sullen improves on the formula, with Requiem For The Static King Part Two encapsulating this perfectly: after a couple of minutes of trademark Stars of the Lid two-chord drone, O’Halloran’s descending piano line is draped over the top, and the effect is wonderful. Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears provides perhaps the emotional heart of the album and, elsewhere, there are variations, with opener We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced, for the Earth Had Circled the Sun Yet Another Year (yes, honestly) seemingly providing a showcase for O’Halloran. It’s difficult music to describe and I don’t have the vocabulary for it, but I find this to be a beautiful piece of work.

4. Cut Copy - Zonoscope
They haven't lost any of their touch since In Ghost Colours, thank goodness, and this is a real grower. At first I judged Zonoscope to be less playful, less laden with ideas than the predecessor, but 10 months on I’ve come to view it as a more focused, richer piece of work. Need You Now starts slowly, drifting in like Underworld’s Cowgirl but builds and builds to a fantastic crescendo. Then we have the expertly crafted Men at Work / Fleetwood Macimpersonating Take Me Over, which in common with Pharaohs & Pyramids (and, more generally, with many of New Order’s best tunes) has a big finale. Elsewhere, Alisa is great in a New Wave-y style and the ambitious 15-minute Sun God is an unreserved success. Friendly Fires must wish this lot didn't exist.

3. The Antlers - Burst Apart
Peter Silberman is a brilliant lyricist and, whilst the subject matter isn't as harrowing as Hospice, he knows how to describe the unease (disease?) in relationships. The first half of the album is almost flawless, kicking off with I Don’t Want Love, which captures Silberman in a emotionally numb sexual relationship that he sounds like he hates as much as the other person wants more from him. French Exit is lighter and more melodic, even if the sentiment isn’t that different from before. I was thrilled to read about some of the influences on the music; the beat of No Widows is very Boards of Canada. The middle section is less captivating, with Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out sounding a little mainstream by The Antlers’ standards, and there are some pretty, mainly-instrumental tunes that follow. The final two tunes are excellent, however, with Corsicana especially touching, using the metaphor of a burning room to signify the end of a relationship.

2. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
At first, this album didn’t stand out at all, maybe because it’s a sprawling double album of 22 tunes and maybe because it was released in the middle of a disappointing autumn of new music. It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate what a complete work of art it is, covering seemingly every angle where dance, pop and rock intersect. And as a double, it’s hardly a marathon at 74 minutes. The problem that the new listener faces is that there are simply too many ideas to process, but this is exactly the reward if you give Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming time to grow. I can’t name a single bad tune or dull moment on the album. Intro has Anthony Gonzalez going head-to-head with Zola Jesus and the way he belts out the vocals is surprising and refreshing. He sounds like a man who has found his voice. Midnight City follows, surely one of the tunes of the year, and it’s here that Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming stamps it’s mid-80s, US stadium synthpop sound. This is an era I live through and remember, and I can hear a number of these tunes soundtracking lots of Brat Pack and Michael J. Fox films, most of all New Map, with its spangly synths and frantic drumrolls, the triumphant, Howard Jones-sounding OK Pal and the epic Steve McQueen. Elsewhere, Wait sounds like Coldplay, in a good way, Raconte-moi une histoire has a little girl narrating a story of getting high from touching a frog and then there are the instrumental pieces that serve to keep emotions running high as you move from section to section through the album. Wonderful.

1. Metronomy - The English Riviera
Joe Mount comes from Totnes, which is halfway between Dartmoor and Torbay, and looked to the coast for the concept behind this album. It’s very English, in a good way, and traditionally pop, i.e. infectious and clever, with plenty of melody and some great – and often quirky – lyrics. Metronomy also succeed in melding a number of disparate styles, whilst building a strong identity for the album as a whole. Singles The Look and The Bay are both expertly crafted, the former building so carefully that the bassline is held back for half of the song. Everything Goes My Way is a duet between Mount and Roxanne Clifford of Veronica Falls, who sounds a lot like Charlotte Gainsbourg singing one of Serge’s melodies. Corinne sounds, bizarrely, like Pixies and Mount sings “they kicked me out of the forces when I laid a hand on you” – so is Corinne a girl or a gun? The back end of the album is more experimental, with Some Written meandering wonderfully into a Wurlitzer-led melody and Love Underlined signalling the most electronic, least retro references of the album. Compare that to the 70s rock of We Broke Free and you realise just how much ground Metronomy have covered in 45 minutes. In a year dominated by merely ‘good’ albums, The English Riviera is one of the few exceptions.

Kommentare

  • electrophile888

    Quite a lot of overlap on our lists so far this year. We both have tUnE-yArDs at #3, and converge on 6 albums over the list; far more convergence than last year for example. I am a little bit surprised by your one-two though. They both sound like average kind of albums to me, and I can't imagine for a second that by the end of the year they will be anywhere my top 10.

    28. Jul. 2011, 10:30
  • friday55

    Well... my glib response is that if we had the same 1-2 we'd be the same person. The top 10 changes like the wind and maybe GGD and Metronomy will slip down a bit, but I'm just loving both at the moment. I have a very soft spot for classic English pop (which is probably called "indie" these days) and Metronomy, at least on this album, have nailed it. As for GGD, there are so many things going on in the album it's astonishing. All change come December, I'm sure.

    28. Jul. 2011, 12:22
  • electrophile888

    Metronomy never stopped growing on me the whole year, I can now see why you rated it so highly. GGD really fell from grace didn't they? They were #2 in your mid-year chart, and now don't even make your top 20. I'm glad that Radiohead hung about as high as they did. You know how close to my heart they are; I don't know what I'd do if you didn't like them. Never even heard a couple of the albums in your top 10; I will have to give them a go at some point.

    24. Dez. 2011, 13:37
  • friday55

    I have Milly to thank for my love of Metronomy. I'd given the album a couple of plays and wasn't blown away but then I started taking her for long walks during the June and July weekends, in her stroller, to get her to sleep. I thought I'd give it another go and was blown away. GGD was an odd one... no desire to revisit it since about June. TKOL got some unnecessary press in my opinion... it's very good. I'm guessing that the 2 albums in the top 10 you haven't heard are AWVFTS and Rustie? Anything new to you in the 11-20 list?

    25. Dez. 2011, 23:06
  • electrophile888

    Lots's new in the 11-20 list as well. I have downloaded Rustie and AWVFTS (which looks like it going to pander to my current love of ambient). The others I may get round to at some point, but soon we are on a new year, time to leave the old behind.

    29. Dez. 2011, 21:15
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