Top 20 albums of 2011

Lists are irritating – mainly because a definitive list is so hard to define these days, because music (for me anyway) is very much dictated by moods and circumstance.  It is therefore incredibly difficult to pinpoint a list of albums, which I could listen to any day at any time. The other annoying thing is that no matter how unique or kitsch you think your list is, the chances are there already exists many lists containing your cherry picked choices.   Having said that these 20 albums have really made me sitandupandlisten2011 – Shall we?

20:  Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues:  They sure know how to make a good melody.  The Seattle outfit returned this year, with a similar, but no less beautiful sounding album than their debut outing. The acoustic blues folk is dreamy listening and touches on an array of subjects from growing old and the unpredictability of one’s travels through life.  This is a sound that doesn’t need changing.  Plus the beards are still very much there. (Helplessness Blues)

19:  Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure:  Effortlessly cool stuff from Tom and his indie breakbeats.  It’s taken him six years to produce album number 2, but the wait was certainly worth it.  Sneering, pretentious and someone you would want to have a glass of indie wine with. (Aroused)

18:  Little Dragon – Ritual Union:  a triumphant third outing from the Gothenburg quartet who’s mixture of harsh electro beats and soft synths come together in a most endearing manner.  Full of contrasting songs, but each give the same amount of dedication and attention, Little Dragon progressed quietly this year. (Ritual Union)

17:  Fool’s Gold – Leave No Trace:  The Californian band return with the follow up to their eponymous debut with a catchy guitar album full of life, emotion and thankfully less brass and Hebrew.  The 80s-indie-wave disco guitar pop is a worthwhile listen, and subtle air-guitar on the back of the bus would be greatly understood. (The Dive)

16:  Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome: A modern day spaghetti western soundtrack, Bryan teamed up with Italian composer Luppi and got some help from Norah Jones and Jack White to produce this stunning arrangement of music featuring strings, choirs and chimes.  Danger Mouse certainly has added another string to his enormous bow, as this filmic album sound tracked mid 2011 very nicely.  A fistful of talent. (Morning Fog)

15:  Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi:  Apart from being beautiful and mesmerising to watch on stage, Anna Calvi’s eponymous debut struck a chord this year.  Shortlisted for the Mercury Awards, Calvi’s free-flowing guitar album with hard drums and mixed with her most beautiful and intense voice has been a joy to listen to.  For someone so petite, to produce such a voice and to play the guitar the way she does adds an extra wonder to this debut masterpiece.  Marry me Anna. (Suzanne and I)

14:  Radiohead – The King of Limbs:  Radiohead caused quite a frenzy this year, when they released without warning The King of Limbs online.  It impresses the die-hards without even scratching a new direction.  As with a lot of latter day Radiohead, it requires a few listens to enjoy it, and this has plenty of great moments, all chaotic and uncomfortable, with an overriding sense of simultaneous crisp and neatly layered experimentation.  It’s innovative, it’s exciting and that’s just the way they promote it.  I tip my bowler your way, boys. (Lotus Flower)

13:  Wild Beasts – Smother:  The 3rd offering from Wild Beasts is beautifully atmpspheric, with a variety of sounds and vocal sounds floating gently through the air.  Surprisingly not shortlisted on the Mercury’s, 2011 has finally placed them on the marauding musical map.  Endearing, haunting and ever so tender songs. (Bed of Nails)

12: The Horrors – Skying:  How do they manage to change direction so freely?  A lot of bands have reproduced successful sounds this year, but the mystical band from Southend, have somehow channelled simple minds and other 80s synth pop into their music.  Faris Badwan is far more intelligent and talented than most originally thought, especially when he called himself Faris Rotter.  Skying is a dreamy, perfect summer accompaniment album, which surprised me in the level of depth and attention given to the songs and the successful overuse of slow keyboards, synths and guitar effects.  Soothing and calming listening and works well in the outdoor environment (Sunsets optional). (I Can See Through You)

11: Dirty Beaches – Dirty Beaches:  Filthy neo-noir, Alex Zhung Hungtai was a man after my own heart, with this incredibly filmic Lynchonian album.  With distorted amps, whelps and yelps, and ultra-rough sounding songs, this gritty rockabilly album sends you right back to the 1950s, which is no easy feat these days.  Some are filthy two-tone riff-tastic ha-cha-chas, others sweet crooning ballads.  Dirty Beaches stood out this year as something a little different in the sense of a well-used sound being somehow appropriate in a dissillsioned and chaotic 2011.  Like I said at the time, think Elvis on Acid. (Speedway King)

10:  The Kills – Blood Pressures:  A grand old year for VV and Hotel – marriage, tours and a back to best Blood Pressure album, full of filthy reverb, sultry lyrics and catchy little hooks and drums, The Kills still and will always have ‘it’.  Listen to this, and you will feel like a bonafide chain-smoking, whiskey drinking, leather jacket wearing rock star. (Future Starts Slow)

9:  Arctic Monkeys – Suck it and See: Suck It and See’s brilliance is its combination of the previous three albums.  Its entertainment levels of wacky and obscure lyrics and metaphors are matched by an increasingly beautiful poet in Alex Turner and well-produced mixture of clean sounding ballads with raw and rough rattle rock and roll.  It’s very listenable and a sure sign of progression. (The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala)

8: Metronomy – The English Riviera:  Admittedly I was a little quick to dismiss The English Riviera as a decent album, but nothing in the way of the fellow contenders in the Mercury Awards.  Only after the awards were announced, did I give the album a proper listen.  And it’s rather special. This is a small apology to Metronomy. The lead singles are all fantastic, but the running premise of the dreamy trip through seaside towns is a wonderful exploration into British nostalgia.  It’s a summery sound, but the recent long winter nights allows one to drift off at bus shelters across London, and romanticise about far-flung Riviera nights.  Catchy melodies, smooth intelligent playful words, with a persistent restlessness (to return to the Rivera) in tireless use of synths and drums. Positive and reflective desires to revisit the past, Metronomy are deservedly frequently featured in many end of year shortlists. (Everything goes my Way)

7:  NewVillager – NewVillager:  A tiny, not that well known band from Brooklyn takes on an awful lot of styles within one album and is both endearing and unique, but has also provided something a little different.  Backed by an artistic concept, the sheer variety of vocals, styles and pace of the songs makes this a thoroughly entertaining contribution to 2011. There’s dance, grimy electro, folk, ballads with guitars and pianos all climbing all over each other to reach some kind of destination by the end of the album. A wild, exciting, powerful soundtrack to my 2011, and well worth a place in this illustrious list. (Shot Big Horixon)

6:  James Blake – James Blake:  With all this talk of Dirty Beaches and English Riverias, what would it take to produce a brand new sound?  Step forward a polite little London lad, Mr James Blake.  Experimental Trip/Glitch Futuristic Electro Techno Soul Dub – for starters.  The music is quite extraordinary.  A mega mash of sounds and styles, slow-paced and remarkable vocal harmonies and exploitation, it’s a breathless journey, because even after six or seven listens, you still hear something new.  It’s unpredictability, and at times unnerving progression really could define the future of music – bold statement, but if there is but one artist who can do this every year, the music industry will continue to progress nicely. (The Wilhelm Scream)

5Bon Iver – Bon Iver:  It’s so ambient, it’s so folky, and it’s so MOR.  I love that.  MOR.  Middle of the Road music.  Where Emma was the focus first time round, Justin Vernon’s love is in the form of towns, cities and cultures as he does indeed amble down the middle of some kind of road travelling in a dream like state with a variety of vocal styles and effects, guitars, keyboards and saxophones.  His journey is filled with a similar sadness, but sounds more progressive and liberating than the slightly stifled and introverted Emma. Bon Iver’s sound has that powerful effect of taking you places, when the world around you in full of chaos, commuters and cars. It’s tenderness, emotion and waves of nostalgia makes Vernon’s follow up one to cherish this year and beyond. (Holocene)

4: tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L:  Merril Garbus, the woman behind tUnE-yArDs, and for the powerhouse 2nd album W H O K I L L.  Meshing together a cacophony of folk, funk, reggae, R&B, rock and afro-beats, it’s musical soup.  Any flavour you want.  And Garbus garbles through a variety of subjects from inequality, feminism, sex, race, social greed and police brutality, in a creative and playful way.  There’s anger, sadness, humour and assertiveness.  This individual fusion of expression has made for inspiring listening in a year where the man has been getting us all down, a bit of zany kooky mid-fi music is all I need to get by. (Bizness)

3:  Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam:  The well-spoken and wonderfully articulate MC Obaro Ejimiwe offers insightful slow-paced ramblings about a bleak urban life.  Imagine if Maxi Jazz or Andre 3000 were given horse tranquilisers; then add a bit of electro to Gil-Scot Heron and you get Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam.  Ghost Poet’s laidback softly spoken and thoughtful tracks on nights out, and general musings and observations on the modern day are more spoken word than ‘rap’.  It’s more chilled than grime and less aggressive than hip-hop.  It incorporates aspects of garage, a bit of house and most importantly those addictive electro-hooks.  The refreshing thing about this album is the diversity of sounds, not to mention the distinct vocal stylings of Ejumiwe.  The dulcet slurry tones, the lyrical content surrounding excessive drinking, nights out, KFC, and dead-end lives, not to mention those catchy electro beats, act as constant reminders that this is a British debut album, and one which I thought I would never go for, but what a year of surprises this has been.  (Liiines)

2:  Summercamp – Welcome To Condale:  Since late October, I haven’t stopped listening to the London duo’s homage to everything 1980s.   Summer Camp’s ability to romanticise is neither too over-done nor generic.  In fact it’s positively fresh and innovative. This draw to the sounds and style of the 1980s in music (with those synths and hooks galore) and lyrics (which delve through all those angst ridden high school teenage moments) can provide the ultimate John Hughes soundtrack but also an escapism to a simpler time where society could be microcosmed within those high-school walls.  One should not cite this attempt to snapshot this period as pretentious or lazy.  Maybe, just maybe, music needs to look backwards to look forward, based on at least half of these albums in the list, it certainly works…for me anyway. (Ghost Train)

1:  PJ Harvey – Let England Shake:  This is not only a brilliantly constructed album, but it’s a very important one.  Channelling a rage and sadness to the many injustices of the British Empire past and present, Polly Jean’s well thought contribution to music this year has been monumental.  The timing has been spine-tingling apt when we consider the busy year outside of music with various wars, protests and riots.  And here we have a soundtrack to how our bountiful green and pleasant land is actually murky, stagnant and rotten.  Powerful judgments stand alongside more remorseful songs, in an exciting variety of subjects and style. How appealing could an album get when one singer takes on a nation’s crimes and grave shortcomings in one exceptional album.  Breathtaking, beautiful and true, Let England Shake deservedly swept home the prizes in 2011, but I’m sure PJ Harvey will be glad to have expressed herself in this way, above receiving any coveted prize or featuring on some guy’s blog page.  There are not enough superlatives. (Let England Shake)

From filmic albums from Danger Mouse, Dirty Beaches to Summer Camp, to nostalgic journeys with Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver or Metronomy, the best of 2011 have revived that old cliché of taking me away from it all.  Arctic Monkeys, Ghostpoet and Polly Jean however, have provided poignant soundtracks to modern life, something which no one can do without.  Nothing more to say, just listen.

Here’s to 2012.

 

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One response to “Top 20 albums of 2011

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2012 (Part One) | strangefascinations

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