31 Dec 2011

The List 2011

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. Cold War Kids — Mine Is Yours

This was a crazy sleeper for me, and even now it just creeps in at the bottom. Much as I love the first two records from this band (and the EP from last year for that matter), this album never clicked for me. If it were an album by a new band I would have given up on it after a couple of listens, but I know what CWK are capable of, and after a half-dozen plays I started to find it. There’s still good stuff here, it just feels a little more dilute than previously, and certain tracks (e.g. ‘Royal Blue’ & ‘Sensitive Kid’) are plain irksome.

  1. Rival Schools — Pedals

A long time coming, and in some respects it’s like they never went away. Schreifels’ voice is immediately recognisable, and still has the same emotive power and limited range as previously; the sonic make-up of the album as a whole is very similar to United By Fate. That there is a span of 10 years separating the records and yet they sound like they could be from the same recording session is about all there is to know. I’m still fond of this music, but it’s a nostalgic fondness; it would have been nice to have seen some experimentation.

  1. R.E.M. — Collapse Into Now

And so it comes to pass that one of the most long-standing and consistently interesting rock bands calls time on its career. When the album was released we didn’t know it would be R.E.M.’s final studio record, which is to its benefit as it deserves to be assessed on its own merits. What we have here is not revolutionary, not nearly a match for their finest work, not quite a match for 2008’s Accelerate, and yet it’s beautifully made and possessed of many great moments and a couple of great songs. The legacy was set in stone by 1992, but this isn’t a bad noise to go out to.

  1. Say Hi To Your Mom — Um, Uh Oh

A seemingly effortless encapsulation of all that is best in so-called ‘indie’ music, without falling into the genre’s worst traits. Opener ‘Dots On Maps’ is one of the year’s catchiest singer-songwriter efforts, and it’s followed, in ‘Devils’, by a song groovier than one man making music in his apartment has a right to be. This LP is shot through with charm and neat observation, great lyricism and catchy tunes that feel sculpted in the ease with which they sit warmly atop the brain. Zero pretention, just great songs.

  1. J-Live — S.P.T.A. (Said Person Of That Ability)

My discovery of J-Live’s All of the Above stands as one of the formative moments in my love of hip-hop; alongside Buck 65’s Square, and Edan’s Primitive Plus it expanded my ideas about what rap was capable of. I’ve been waiting almost 10 years for him to match it, and despite good moments with the last two albums (2005 & ’08) it was clear from first listen that this was the record I’d been hoping for. Laid-back, smooth delivery combined with dense, intelligent lyricism and warm beats make this easy to listen to and rewarding to re-listen to. Great stuff.

  1. TV On The Radio — Nine Types Of Light

There’s a consistent level of quality that you know you’re going to get from a TVOTR record, and Nine Types Of Light doesn’t disappoint. The material here, if not quite as instantly memorable as that on Dear Science, is wall-to-wall engaging rhythms and hum-along vocal lines. You’d have to try hard not to be charmed by this music, and though it doesn’t completely live up to the standard of its predecessor it’s still of enormously high-quality. (R.I.P. Gerard Smith)

  1. Floex — Zorya

On which one-man Czech electronica producer Tomáš Dvoák creates some of the most enchanting, beautiful music of 2011. Almost tidal in its gentle pacing, but enhanced with elements such as a jazz clarinet (‘Casanova’) or an ethereal female vocal (‘Nel Blu’) this caught hold of me straight away. The string heavy ‘Veronika’s Dream’, and the impressively lyrical ‘Precious Creature’ are highlights for me on an album I loved from start to finish.

  1. Wild Flag — Wild Flag

This record came as an unexpected pleasure: one of the year’s best surprises. Having heard the single ‘Glass Tambourine’ from SXSW coverage I had been waiting impatiently for the album to come out, not really knowing what to expect from it. I hadn’t dared to hope that it would be of quite this high a quality, devoid of any pretention about its genesis, and just this much pure fun. This is joyful pop-rock made by musicians who sound like they’re having a lot of fun doing so. There’s a bushel of excellent 3-minute pop songs, balanced with a couple of more ambitious tracks like ‘Racehorse’, and it’s a balance that works perfectly.

  1. Lykke Li — Wounded Rhymes

A couple of years ago I downloaded the second Bat For Lashes LP not really knowing what to expect from a follow-up to such a singular debut. I found myself in a similar position on release day for the second Lykke Li album: was it going to sound like Youth Novels, or (a, seemingly, equally likely scenario) was she going to spin out in a completely different direction altogether? In the end it turns out that the former is closer to the truth, though Wounded Rhymes exhibits a sure-footedness beyond the idiosyncrasies of the first album, and perhaps a touch of darkness that wasn’t present before. That’s not to say that this is Lykke Li’s The Empire Strikes Back, but there’s a notable shift to darker tones in some places, even if the music remains pleasingly wrapped around bombastic percussion and pretty, melancholic vocal lines. Turns out that’s all she had to do this time - but what’s next?

  1. Foo Fighters — Wasting Light

Holy smokes? This has been a long time coming. Speaking as someone who adored the first three Foos records, and has endured everything since 1999 with decreasing levels of interest and rising levels of contempt, Wasting Light comes as something of a surprise, and a very welcome one. To me this is a turn around of almost (not quite) Death Magnetic proportions: a genuinely exciting rock album full of grade-A riffs, powerfully delivered vocals (and lyrics that don’t (always) suck), and a self-assuredness earned after 15+ years in the business. I couldn’t be happier that Grohl et al made this album; I honestly doubted that they still had it in them.

  1. Emmy The Great — Virtue

Spoiler time: there is no Laura Marling album on this list. For whatever reason A Creature I Do Not Know failed to capture my imagination much: it seemed to be lacking the infectiousness of Marling’s first two albums, ending up feeling a little watered-down and less than vital. By contrast Emmy The Great’s second album is thrillingly alive, rich in colour and packed with wonderful tunes. There’s a joy to this music, and it’s delivered with unmistakable passion, but it’s also tonally diverse: ‘Creation’ and ‘Iris’ seemingly belong at different ends of a spectrum, but they are both built assuredly with the tools of an impressive songwriter.

  1. Battles — Gloss Drop

Nothing all year sounded like this. Maybe nothing since Battles’ debut sounded like this. I was somewhat worried, last year, by the departure from the band of Tyondai Braxton: it seemed an obvious equation at the time that a Battles LP without him would be something lesser than the debut, but for whatever reason it hasn’t worked out that way. Gloss Drop contains more energy and freneticism than any three other art-rock records combined (John Stanier’s drumming in particular is, frankly, ridiculous), and the very fact that it’s harnessed into roughly song-shaped bursts between one and eight minutes is impressive. This record comes across like the love child of Mars Volta & The Go! Team, but with more glitter and streamers.

  1. Das Racist — Relax

So, my favourite hip-hop LP of the year is from an NY trio with a penchant for obscure humour and a talent for word-play so intricate that it takes weeks of re-listens to begin to pick it apart. And then all that is true about this record too. Relax has been on repeat for me for a long while as I switch my favourite lines on almost every listen and always find something new that makes me smile with how clever or arch it is. The production is all warm synths and crunchy beats, and all three members have the sort of laid-back flow that makes me fall in love with listening to this record first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening: a great wind-up/down album and one of my most listened to in the latter half of the year.

  1. PJ Harvey — Let England Shake

I can hear it now: the glockenspiel melody that opens this album is one of 2011’s most indelible sounds. Unfortunately, for me, the horn which ruins the next track of the album is a close runner-up. But that’s one misstep on an otherwise masterful record of truly haunting, thought-provoking and beautiful music. Musically complex and unafraid of difficulty, the album remains accessible by virtue of being so pretty almost throughout. It’s by no means an optimistic album, but there’s a lot of life in there and I always felt I came away from listening to it feeling like I’d gained something.

  1. Bright Eyes — The People’s Key

Though a little more rock-oriented than much of their previous output this record is unmistakably from the people who brought you Lifted… and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The vocal delivery is instantly recognisable, the lyrical smarts are present and correct, the rousing choruses are in place and we’re all set for another super-enjoyable Bright Eyes record. I enjoyed walking around listening to this one, humming parts of it, singing others. It feels expansive (and not just because of the liberally used echoey production), assured and unafraid to be positive. ‘Shell Games’ and ‘Jejune Stars’ may be two of my favourite songs from the Omaha lot.

  1. The Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2

It was on, it was off, it changed its title, re-arranged its tracklist (and then rearranged it back)… but it was worth waiting for. It’s hard to believe that To The 5 Boroughs is seven years old (and Hello Nasty 13!), and putting the kind of forgettable instrumental album from ’07 aside this is the first we’ve heard from the Boys in all that time. The fact that any doubts are set aside within literally the first 11 seconds of the album came as a huge relief, and from there on in it’s just a masterclass in goofy wordplay, infectious beats, and raps about food. Sometimes a quick flick through Spin or Pitchfork has me feeling that musicians right now are far too concerned with how they dress, and their ’image’ in general - fine, but it seems to impact the music, and make for a lot of self-serious, super-credible albums that lack a sense of fun. The Beasties have been the answer to that for a while, and whether it’s the hardcore-esque ‘Lee Majors Come Again’, the slow groove of ‘Here’s A Little Something For Ya’, or the built-for-a-ghetto-blaster ‘Make Some Noise’… no one else does it quite like them. There’s another album full of this stuff in the locker, and you’ll be seeing it on this list next year.

  1. Radiohead — The King of Limbs (& TKOL RMX 1234567(8))

Long awaited and yet unexpected, this was another surprise release strategy from Radiohead which brought us an album that felt instantly familiar and yet no less impressive for it. Around the album’s release I read a bunch of comparisons to The Eraser, and that feels apt, though TKOL feels warmer, a little less downcast. The album has some serious swing to it (e.g. ‘Little by Little’), and moments of real beauty (e.g. ‘Lotus Flower’) - this feels like a band harnessing the power of Kid A / Amnesiac for good, a project they arguably started with In Rainbows but which is in full bloom now (pun intended).

I’m cheating here a little bit by including the set of 8 remix EPs that were released throughout the summer and autumn. I was constantly impressed with what other artists brought out of the tracks from TKOL, whether it was turning ‘Give Up The Ghost’ into a trance floor-filler or making ‘Bloom’ sound like it was going to kick your teeth in, it made me see the Radiohead album in a bunch of new lights and really enhanced my enjoyment of it. I probably listened to the remixes more than the original in the latter half of the year.

  1. Feist — Metals

I wasn’t expecting this. I enjoyed The Reminder, though I came to it too late to get caught up in its spell of omnipresence in 2007. Perhaps as a result Feist has taken a back seat in my mind to Chan Marshall and Regina Spektor; it was immediately clear from my first listen to this album that that wasn’t fair. Metals is a gentle, measured record filled with sunlight and beauty - it’s truly a joyful listening experience. Both the instrumentation and production are warm and inviting; Feist’s voice is capable of impressive range and has a great inner strength to it which carries these songs skipping along irresistibly. ‘A Commotion’ is quite brilliantly agitated, and ‘The Circle Married the Line’ is surpassing beautiful, and they are but two highlights on a flawless document of incredible talent.

  1. Björk — Biophilia

Nothing I could say about this album could make it appeal to you if you’re not already interested in Björk’s continuing project to find new forms of musical expression. I could use terms like gravity harp, Tesla-coil organ, and MIDI-controlled gamelan–celesta hybrid… but you’re unlikely to care if you didn’t already find Björk fascinating. This album, a concept record dealing with life’s place in the universe, is perhaps less accessible than 2007’s dancier Volta, and is certainly full of music that would rightly be considered difficult. I can only say that I’ve had some of the best listening experiences of my year with this album and I find it endlessly fascinating, stunningly ambitious, and as close to genius as music came in 2011.

  1. Le Butcherettes — Sin Sin Sin

This came out of nowhere, a mention post-SXSW that Omar Rodriguez Lopez had signed the first band to his new label, produced the record, and played bass on it. That was enough to ensure that I put it on my mental list, and when I finally caught up with it my socks were well and truly blown off. There are similarities to Distillers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and maybe even a touch of SoaD in there too - but in truth Sin, Sin, Sin sounds entirely of itself. The sound of a passionate bunch of people making music with heart is impossible to fake, and in his production of this album Rodriguez Lopez has been sensible enough to capture it whole and not mess with it. Pretty much every time I put this on I had to listen through it; there’s not a weak track amongst the feisty bunch. So, 39 minutes of ridiculously catchy hooks, twisted-genius lyrics, and volcanic levels of energy… there’s your album of the year.

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