Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Albums of the Year 2011

I can't pretend its been a year when I've gone out of my way to listen to new music, and with a few exceptions, that which I have heard hasn't been that exceptional. There seems to be a lot of competent music in whichever genre you like, whether Americana, indie, electronica etc. but few records that crossover to a wider audience. Meanwhile, the biggest selling albums of the year hardly get a mention in the critics' polls. The days of a "Lexicon of Love" or a "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" or a "Different Class" gaining both sales and kudos seem a thing of the past. The music press divides between a love of UK indie bands such as the Horrors, Wild Beasts and Metronomy, on the one hand, and more Jools Holland type music on the other. As ever, I won't have heard all the good stuff's that out there, but listening to a few of the favourites in the various polls released to date, I'm not expecting to find a Caribou or a Warpaint; though I've finally got round to ordering Kurt Vile and White Hills sound interesting. So this is a very partial selection of albums that I've enjoyed, whatever their provenance. And with the year's best moments being singles like "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey, Drake and Rihanna's "Take Care" or even multi-million seller Adele's instant classic "Rolling in the Deep", I'm sure my year's best of would probably contain as many singles as album tracks.

James Blake - James Blake

Probably my favourite record of the year, a dubstep artist that has retained credibility whilst gaining critical acclaim. His debut album showcases strong songwriting and singing (on Feist's "Limit to Your Love") as well as a spirally, ghostly production that owed as much to old 4AD records as the late night dubstep of Burial. I was reminded of the late Arthur Russell's beguiling sub-disco productions as well. A short, beautifully sequenced and inventive album, it made the top 10, but was always going to be too beguiling to truly crossover - though it soundtracked more than a few hip wine bars.

Welcome Reality - Nero

A UK number one, packed with hit singles, and apparently not particularly favoured by critics or dubstep afficiandos alike. I really don't care; I picked it up on a whim, and I've been listening to it with great pleasure ever since. A great anthemic pop dance album, that reminds me of the debut by Utah Saints as much as more hip properties. I first heard Nero with the BBC Philharmonic recording a "Dubstep Symphony", and their signature anthemic breaks, which wouldn't be out of place in a Prodigy show, were in full effect. The number one "Promises" is a great place of retro pop-soul, but the album is full of such highlights, confirming my suspicion that rather than being a recognisable sound in its own right, dubstep is a smorgasbord of dance styles from house, to hip hop, to jungle to old skool funk. As a connoisseur of pre-house electronic dance music, Nero's nods in that direction are particular welcome, reminding me of forgotten classics such as Haywoode's "Roses" (and even covering two, with the Jets' "Crush on You" and a remake of Carmen's "Time to Move.")

Build a Rocket, Boys - Elbow

I was perhaps a rare dissenter in finding Elbow's last prize winning album, "The Seldom Seen Kid", a little on the dull side, albeit well written and recorded. It was more one paced than this band usually are, particularly given their tendency across the 3 previous records for sonic invention - the reissue of debut "Asleep at the Back" reminding me of how they could be thrilling as well as anthemic. I shouldn't have worried, for "Build a Rocket, Boys" was perhaps their most complete album since their debut - including another handful of Elbow classics for their ever growing live audiences, especially the title-quoting "Lippy Kids." Guy Garvey's singing, always emotional, is given an even cleaner canvas this time round, and there's echoes of John Cale at his most emotional. Single "Neat Little Rows" Sounded like a Simple Minds outtake from their Arista period, whilst "Jesus is a Rochdale Girl" continued Garvey's knack of adding a gritty edge to what might otherwise be sentimental material.

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Almost universally acclaimed as album of the year, Harvey's latest took a while to grow on me, and still I'm not as convinced as the critics that it stands out from her always fascinating discography. For me, its an album with a number of incredible tracks (most notably the stunning "All and Everyone") around which the other songs act as a welcome setting. The "concept" element of the album reminds me of artists like Robert Wyatt or Fairport Convention, and its very English sense of place and time - picking apart a century of conflict, is obviously ambitious. To me, a good, rather than great record, but with Harvey's own songwriting and singing at a high level of excellence. If I'm at all underwhelmed its probably because it lacks the harder edge of works like "To Bring Me Your Love."

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

Without the shock of the new that characterised their debut, this second outing could have been a disappointment - but its almost as beautiful, and certainly has a wider musical palate. There's echoes of Brian Wilson at his best to match the pastel shades of the Laurel Canyon sounds of their debut. If anything its an even prettier album, and though the harmonies are still in force, it seems a less lyrical album in some ways; experience replacing innocence. That said, its a genre that they've made their own, and when the template was such a beguiling one, a second imprint from it was a welcome one.

I'm With You - Red Hot Chilli Peppers

I'll always like the Chilli Peppers but albums such as the bloated "Stadium Arcadium" make our relationship a little trying. Now without Frusciante, the new album is as chock full of the kind of nagging pop-rock melodies as they've always excelled at - but with a slight return to the more sinewy funk of pre-Californication days. At the end of the day, its a well crafted album with more than its fair share of memorable tunes, with Anthony Keidis and Flea working together as ever to make a kind of always-adolescent punk-pop-metal-hip-hop that done by anyone else would soon pall. In their hands however, nonsense like "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and Manics-style "Monarchy of Roses", still sound playful and refreshing. Not to everyone's taste of course, but in a year where big rock albums seemed perilously thin on the ground, "I'm With You", with its typically too-late-to-the-party Damian Hirst cover, was a welcome return.

Mofo - Liam Finn

I saw Liam Finn (son of Crowded House's Neil) a couple of years ago in the acoustic tent at a festival and loved his songwriting and his stage presence. This, his second album, expands on the more homespun charm of his debut, and should have got much more attention than it did. Like his father, he can write a good song, and sing it well. There's elements of Elliot Smith or even Bon Iver in his make up, but he's probably even more contrary than either of those and the instrumentation - less sparce than on his debut - is varied and inventive.

Passive Me, Aggressive You - The Naked and the Famous

This New Zealand band's debut is in some ways an old fashioned pop-rock album, aimed squarely at the mainstream (and a young audience) but with enough familiar tropes to ensnare older listeners such as myself. Its curiously avant garde in part - with the atmospherics of the XX or even later Cocteau Twins - though glorious single "Young Blood" could be Katy Perry riffing on MGMT's "Time to Pretend." Its basically an adolescent pop rush of an album, but feels homespun rather than created in the A&R laboratory of a major label.

David Comes to Life - Fucked Up

Here primarily as a soundtrack to my gig of the year, Fucked Up at Islington Mill at the FutureEverything festival, with the whole venue turned into a mosh pit, and one of the most incredible examples of audience/band bonding I've ever seen. This double concept album owes as much musically as American icons like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen as it does to the hardcore scene - perhaps a welcome reminder of that great fusion that took place in the early 80s with Bob Mould's Husker Du. In a year where guitar bands hardly set the world alight (though I've high hopes for rated albums by White Denim and Iceage)it was a reminder what the format could do.

Psychic Life - Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell

Though I've been a friend of Julie (aka LoneLady) for years, she kept this project under wraps until it was almost finished. Sneaking out at the end of the year, this unexpected collaboration got a bit of press for reuniting PiL alumni Wobble and Keith Levene. The unexpectedness continues into the music, where each track is very different - and though there are some influences, in a year where most music could be easily categorised, it does feel something of a one-off. Lead single "Tightrope" is as sinewy as the title implies, "Feel" would be as big as "Rolling in the Deep" in any sane world (and reminds me, distantly, of much loved 80s popsters the Motels), whilst "Slavetown pt.1" is an unexpected jazz/soul track. Her vocals throughout are superb, and Wobble (and Levene) provide an inventive and crafted backing. Running in at under 40 minutes and beautifully packaged nothing feels left to chance; a late year gem.

So, ten albums that I've listened to a lot, regardless of their credentials. I've managed to make more gigs this year than for quite a while, though mostly older bands. Electralane's reformation led to a stunning gig at the Academy 3, whilst Todd Rundgren's "greatest hits" set was also phenomenal at the Manchester Ritz. I was surprised and touched by Paul Heaton's MIF show - a musical tableau that turned into a "round the campfire" jam, made even more poignant by the stage collapsing before the show! And as stated above, Fucked Up's Islington Mill show was a phenomenon. John Foxx and the Maths at the University was also a surprising highlight.

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