A LOOK BACK AT OUR FAVOURITE 20 ALBUMS OF 2011
Released: May 9
The superlative praise for the raw but captivating ‘In Limbo, Panto’ and the perplexed cynicism that inevitably met follow up LP ‘Two Dancers’ set up ‘Smother’ as an odd prospect. First lauded then left relatively unloved, it felt like Wild Beasts were still a band who polarised opinion, and with Hayden Thorpe’s vocal doing much of the divide and conquer, his determination to be the grand story teller was under scrutiny. Whether they ever felt under pressure or not, ‘Smother’ was utterly enthralling. Typically twisting and twirling prose to bend to Thorpe’s operatic vocal, Wild Beasts found the balancing point between their greatest lure and fatal attraction. Where they once over-indulged, this time they reined in any ostentatious impulses with a measured discipline, and the end result was rich, tremulous and elegantly refined. From the simplicity of ‘Plaything’ to the flickering immersion of ‘Burning’, ‘Smother’ was a step back from the crude lust of ‘Two Dancers’ and all the more riveting for it.
Released: 3 October
Upon the release of ‘Metals’ back in October, comparisons were made with Feist’s previous incarnation as the almost quintessential manic pixie dream girl, all sequinned onesies, dance routines and songs about counting. Against type, ‘Metals’ was broody and towering, masculine and meaty; there wasn’t a ‘1234’ in earshot. But what that overlooked is that Feist’s latest (and greatest) record is one full of dynamic outbursts, not just some constantly brutal guitar snarl. Indeed, much of it is still seeped in Feist’s sweet voice, dainty melodies and folksy guitar playing, and that sensitivity is only made more affecting by its new surroundings of chain-gang chants and cavernous drumming. But ‘Metals’ isn’t just a great album because of what’s been before it – if it were a debut it’d be just as thrilling. Exquisitely paced, it carries the listener over its many undulations without ever a jolt, and while undeniably muscular, it’s also 2011’s most versatile and well-rounded release.
Released: 29 August
We’re prepared to admit that our perception of this record might be skewed. The San Franciscan space rock troupe were L&Q cover stars forever ago and (this is rare) underneath the ten minute freak-outs was a group of kind and considered human beings; smoking American Spirits and waxing affectionate about their city’s social policies and Silver Apples. We were far more skewed by their live show; an ear-bleed affair at Borderline in 2009 and a 5am ecstatic conversion of 200 Bretons at Trans Musicales last November both stand out. Suckers though we are for nice bands who blow minds it’s possible to see through that bias and recognize this third LP as a bewilderingly impressive response to ‘tricky third album’ pressure from a band who’d established themselves and set a bar. Frontman Ripley Johnson’s interim work with Moon Duo shows his feverish creativity (and love of Repeat-Forever psych riffs) hasn’t calmed and (modest) success hasn’t estranged them from their roots. The cover and title are a fair indication of what those are.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
Released: 22 August
In terms of sheer unfathomable endearment, ‘Slave Ambient’ has been unbeatable this year, forever finding its way onto our stereo without us ever really knowing how or why. Perhaps it’s its seamless ability to merge atmospheric, ambient experimentations with classically structured pop songs, or maybe it’s just down to its darn right inherent and infectious nature? Either way it’s a losing fight not to get sucked in by it. The tonalities of the guitars are intrinsic to its success. They become an ever-looping string of melodies that wrap you up and hold you captive until it’s all over and you can start it over again. When glued together with the floating, melodic keys, they create an almost electronic feel that makes the atmospherics and sounds created psychedelic and expansive, yet concise and self-aware. There are nods to classic influences from Dylan to Tom Petty, which could be trite in the wrong hands, but here they’re manipulated, moulded and disguised to slip quietly in the back door, creating a wonderful concoction of the old and new. Undeniably inspired by time touring as one of Kurt Vile’s violators, this could have been a sub-standard emulation of another man’s very specific sound, but it’s not. Wonderfully original in its execution, the world that ‘Slave Ambient’ creates may be one that is unclassifiable, but it’s one that you undeniably need to be a part of.
Daniel Dylan Wray
‘House of Balloons’
Released: March 29
The rightful soundtrack to 2011’s least salubrious moments, for us and likely for you and your most imprudent wreckhead mates as well. As corny as it may be to let a Parental Advisory mixtape encourage your own sordid behaviour, it’s hard to keep your mind on the straight and narrow once you’re hooked on the narcotic, nocturnal pallor of ‘Wicked Games’ and ‘High For This’. Taking slow jams to the dark side, the precocious voice of 20-year-old Abel Tesfaye kicked up a good ol’fashioned wave of buzz in March, with bloggers fawning over the indie samples (Siouxsie, Beach House, Cocteau Twins) and the positively opiatic production style, which smears the gothic mood on thick as the beats sludge along despondently. Tesfaye candidly imparts his tale of regret with a vocal that’s preternaturally capable of intoning the red-eyed wisdom of someone twice his age. Shame that the follow-up mixtape, ‘Thursday’, seemed baggy and repetitive in comparison, but re-listening to tracks like the Aaliyah-sampling ‘What You Need’ confirms ‘House of Balloons’ as a highlight of R&B innovation this year.
‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’
(Upset The Rhythm)
Released: June 28
The downright lunatic sonic expulsions of John Maus’ previous records could never have led one to think that this record could or would ever be made. However, here we have quite possibly the finest produced record of the year, a sea of glistening synths and electronic waves washing over us in 80s gloss splendour. The sci-fi-tinged production, while rooted in decades of old, feels scarily futuristic and progressive (a rare achievement), while Maus’ mumbled vocals almost act as an additional layer of synthesised sound. The apparent sonic cohesion of the album doesn’t equate in a loss of sense of experimentation or weirdness, it’s simply refined and honed to create a gorgeous journey that is palpably palatable. Rising from the ranks of Ariel Pink, they now seem to have shared a similar career trajectory, except Maus, in his own idiosyncratic way, has written an album full of ‘Round and Round’s.
Daniel Dylan Wray
‘David Comes To Life’
Released: June 6
“The real Suburbs. 8.5/10” – this is how reliably irresistible/infuriating Village Voice critic Christopher Weingarten rated ‘David Comes to Life’ in his Twitter review, and it is somewhat difficult to find a flaw in that assessment – except maybe with the rating, which could easily be bumped up by one point. The plot of the Canadian punk rock stalwart’s third album rarely makes sense (something about a factory worker in an English town in the 80s who falls in love and then either sees his loved one die or kills her himself), but the overriding themes – unconditional love, depression, guilt, and redemption – are conveyed in songs of such melodic quality and sheer vigour that listeners stopped paying attention to the characters and embraced the Hüsker Dü hooks, relentless pounding drums and the glistening shoegaze guitars played at punk rock speed. Arcade Fire’s last record was a comfort blanket for thirty-somethings with acute nostalgia; ‘David…’ a musical lighthouse for those who are young right now.
Released: October 17
It wasn’t until we interviewed Veronica Falls last month that we realised they had recorded their debut album twice, so unhappy with their first attempt that they couldn’t even bring himself to listen to it. Comprised exclusively of songs about love and death, the band remade the whole thing in 3 days, scuffing the edges that had been buffed in a hi-tech studio used by pop prats N-Dubz. It worked, ultimately because of the strength of the songs that were worth saving from a fate worse than ‘Let It Be’. ‘Right Side of My Brain’ particularly is a fine example of girl group revivalism, with the added bonus of deadened male harmonies – the record’s calling card. Elsewhere there’s a bit of Roxy Music going on on ‘The Box’, and The Concretes on the closing ‘Come On Over’. To say there’s nothing new about ‘Veronica Falls’ isn’t to say anything that the band don’t already know, but the indie attitude of it remains honourable, and the doomed drama of songs like ‘Beachy Head’ completely inescapable.
‘The English Riviera’
Released: April 11
This has really been the tipping year for Joe Mount and his wonky-pop troupe Metronomy. When they released ‘The English Riviera’ in April, they suddenly rocketed from cult status to mainstream players as the brash, whirring synths, blips and erratic beats of 2008’s ‘Nights Out’ were exchanged for a subtler sound that swayed on oceanic vibes, coddled in Mount’s falsetto and the vocals of new drummer Anna Prior. No longer were this foursome – newly so, having taken on bassist Gbenga Adelekan after the departure of Gabriel Stebbing – skirting around the hundreds in the charts, ‘The English Riviera’ shot straight into the Top Twenty. But not everyone was pleased. Fans of Mount’s instrumental, dancier tracks, especially from debut LP ‘Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe)’, dismissed the new polished and more conventional song structures. What makes this such a stand-out record, though, is the great strides that Mount has made. From the bedroom-project Metronomy began as, he has proved himself to be an ever-evolving, innovative master of electronic music, and although this is unlikely to be the final step in the band’s journey, it’s a dreamy, sure-footed one and we can’t wait to see what next year brings.
D K Goldstein
‘Everything Is Dancing’
Released: July 4
Standing up for guitar music has been a thankless position to take in the last few years. Luckily, along with bands like Cold Pumas and Sauna Youth, Fair Ohs have been providing ample ammunition for those of us whose arm hairs stand up with rage whenever some arsehole claims that the only exciting music these days is being made by other arseholes with laptops. Initially a part of the Dalston DIY punk scene, Fair Ohs started out playing a heady mix of Minor Threat hardcore punk and Sonics-esque garage rock, which yielded some of the tracks on the sweet-ass ‘Pacific Rim’ 7” that came out late this summer. But Fair Ohs’ main contribution to 2011 was their debut album proper, on which the trio, from the front cover and the title to the last ringing chord, refuse to fuck around. Afro-punk super hit is followed by afro-punk super hit, with every song catchier than Abe Vigoda and less po-faced than Vampire Weekend. It’s a joyous record, rumbling, tumbling, jumping out at you to drag you down to the front where all the fun is. Drummer Joe Ryan just about holds it all together and Eddy Frankel’s shimmering guitar veers between discordant post-punk and mechanical, David Byrne-inspired phrasing. It’s a testament to producer Rory Brattwell that listening to ‘Everything Is Dancing’ is almost as fun as seeing Fair Ohs live, and if you have neither listened to the record nor seen the band play, we recommend you rectify both ASAP.
After the Balkan brass-infused charm of ‘Gulag Orkestar’ and the sombre ‘The Flying Club Cup’, ‘The Rip Tide’ burned much brighter than the more solemn offerings of its predecessors. Revitalised by his self-enforced hiatus, Zach Condon returned with an album that was breezy and almost carefree by comparison. Buoyed by a refreshed positivity after teetering on the edge of touring burnout for so long, ‘Santa Fe’ stood tall as the beaming sing-a-long, rich with vocal harmonies and a killer chorus that exuded a sense of summertime feel-good that has never really been the Beirut hallmark. But where ‘Santa Fe’ didn’t quite play to type, Condon’s world-weary presence did. ‘Peacock 1’ heaved and sighed, ‘The Riptide 1’ floated on Condon’s mournful vocal and a decadent orchestral backdrop and you got the sense that for all his determination to keep things upbeat, that snowy winter writing and recording in upstate New York quietly crept on. Ultimately it made the contrasts even more beautiful on an album already alive with rich variety and old country warmth.
‘Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam’
Released: Feb 7
Of our top 20 albums of 2011 Ghostpoet’s debut was released the earliest, and time has served ‘Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam’ well. A British hip-hop record that hangs on Obaro Ejimiwe’s mumbled prose and hazy, downbeat electronics, it slowly seduced even the Mercury Prize into giving it a deserved nod by the time we reached September, offering a far more modest view of urban living than the bombastic, slick Tinie Tempah, who also made the prize’s shortlist. If the hook of ‘Survive It’ (“No, no, no, no, n-n-no, ain’t got a licence to kill like double O/I just wanna live life and survive it”) didn’t say it all, ‘I Just Don’t Know’ did as Ejimiwe professed: “Other MCs want to rap about crime but that ain’t me lets talk about laughter” before going on to consider the wealth of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie as “sickly”. Ghostpoet was proudly normal, he was just telling us so on an extraordinary sounding record, inspired by electronic pop music and spoken word, and made all the more special for its lack of bravado.
Released: June 6
It was, for so many years, like being a cameraman on the BBC’s Planet Earth – patiently, never-endingly, waiting for a glimpse of the rarest animal. But… nothing. In truth, we’d all but chucked in the towel on the hope of a follow-up to 2005’s ‘We Have Sound’, tired of being teased by stories about Vek being fleetingly spotted in east London studios, splashing around in Victoria Park lido or, on one occasion, buying a KitKat in Costcutters. We dined on every morsel which suggested that a.) that he was still alive. and b.) he might – just might – be making some new music. And then it arrived, like some kind of comet born of another planet. Six months on, even after the initial glee of just hearing something fresh from the sound-scientist has settled, ‘Leisure Seizure’ still stands strong. ‘Hold Your Hand’, ‘Aroused’, ‘A Chore’ and ‘A.P.O.L.O.G.Y’ are all classic sounding Vek – trademark wah-pang drums, needle-eye synths and his hound-dog delivery. It’s a testament to his originality that after more than half a decade away still no one else sounds remotely like him. We’d be lying if we said ‘Leisure Seizure’ was perfect. There’s the odd duffer (namely the slower ‘World Of Doubt’ and ‘Seizemic’), the rest – pulling in Rhinana bass and truly original drums – made for the smartest pop record around.
Released: July 11
In a year where Tyler, The Creator and the rest of the Odd Future crew have been largely stealing the headlines, Shabazz Palaces stood as the media-shy flipside who mysteriously appeared and slowly drew attention with a series of sonically adventurous laid back vibes that wriggled with the inventiveness of Flying Lotus. At the helm, steering the project, was Palaceer Lazaro, perhaps better known as Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler of the Grammy winning 90s outfit Digable Planets, but Shabazz Palaces are not a collective that are largely accustomed with bling culture, nor are they schooled in spouting lines of braggadocio aimlessly. Instead they stand out as being the antithesis of commercial hip hop and with ‘Black Up’ they crafted a record that alternative hip-hop connoisseurs fell heavily for. With this album, Shabbazz Palaces can boast the grand accolade of being the first hip hop group to release an album on highly acclaimed Seattle label Sup Pop; they can also boast the honour of having released one of the hip hop albums of the year.
‘W H O K I L L’
Released: April 18
Arriving in an unexpected flurry of excitement in April, the second album from power-lunged anti-pop pixie Merrill Garbus took a running leap from the unadorned bedroom lo-fi of her debut ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’. Blending multi-layered vocals, skronk saxophone, highlife ukulele and African rhythm, ‘w h o k i l l’ was a spasmodic, cacophonous record that laughs in the face of convention, gleefully skewering song structures and revelling in the freeform mashing of picked strings, looped vocals and rich harmonies. Recalling the odd-pop of ESG, Animal Collective or Micachu, at times there was barely enough tape reel to contain Garbus’ relentless flow of ideas and impatient switch-ups, yet she’s never less than assured and effortless, with her idiosyncratic voice deftly leaping from down-low to up-high in a fractious trill that’s no studio trickery. A vital record that stands apart from anything else released this year, and with a quietly throbbing political heart underneath the blustering riffs and rollercoaster melodies.
Released: June 27
The scarcity of interviews combined with press shots of him looking like an Amazonian Burial made the illusive SBTRKT an intriguing prospect right from 2011’s get-go. Gladly, the tribal image didn’t end up masking the man’s talent. Twelve months on, London producer Aaron Jerome has Drake tweeting about him, artists clambering over each other for his remixes and a sold-out US tour. It’s all down to this, his debut album – an exceptional experiment in electronica. Most impressively, it’s an LP that both conjures the 4am fear of concrete suburbia and the feeling of coming up at sunrise at your favourite festival. An envious mix of R&B, 2-step and glitch. The crackling vocals of guests Sampha, Jessie Ware and Roses Gabor are this cake’s real icing though, promoting a record that’s inventive in sound to one that’s truly soulful. How it failed to capture the imaginations of this year’s Mercury Prize panel is beyond us (isn’t it supposed to reward originality?). Instead we’ll console ourselves with the thought that the monster-brain behind the mask is already working on the follow-up.
‘Past Life Martyred Saints’
Released: May 9
Erika M. Anderson is many things on ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’. A Scandinavian arriving towards a new home, a furiously confused northerner trying to comprehend her place on the west coast, a drug-addled manic-depressive psychopath, a tender little girl, a girlfriend abused into schizophrenia, and the only one who knew the suicide was coming. All dark tales emerging from a dark bank of memories, the record spares no details in the poetry, and unleashing such devastatingly true statements you wonder how she kept them in for so long. This is not a pretty album, but it’s beautiful in its genuineness. Rarely does a character so defined, so sympathetic as EMA emerge over the course of a single LP. Even without a contextual introduction you find yourself rooting for her, and while plenty of albums deal with heady themes, or sadness, or breakups, or even death, Anderson’s tale feels different. “The record was intrinsically motivated” she said to us on the previous page – ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ is the sound of someone writing songs before they consume them whole.
‘Dye It Blonde’
Released: May 2
Other than the fact that it ousted Smith Westerns’ eponymous debut album for the amateur hour it was, there was nothing overly smart about this year’s ‘Dye It Blonde’. It wasn’t an album to furrow the brow to, or discuss even. It was what it was: a record of extremely accessible, woolly indie anthems, made by three T-Rex-obsessed kids from Chicago who also like a bit of what Noel Gallagher’s early songs had going for them.
The basement-recorded ‘Smith Westerns’ (released in 2009) buried the band deep within the lo-fi set, seemingly inspired by nothing but the glam rock of Marc Bolan and recorded on a dime. It sounded like crap, but unlike many of their peers who embrace the scuzz punk aesthetic, Smith Westerns never wanted to be a hip DIY garage band, and once they had the chance to record in a studio they decided to make ‘Dye It Blonde’ sound as produced as they could. “We wanted to get away from that lo-fi thing immediately,” guitarist Max Kakacek told us in April. Bassist Cameron said: “I never understood why a band would go into the studio and record a lo-fi sound – you do it out of necessity.”
With the luxury of the studio also came inspiration from more past greats, like the mid-70s work of John Lennon, David Bowie, Oasis and Queen. No wonder ‘Dye It Blonde’ wound up sounding so hi-fi and commercial. And while we should have tired long ago of songs as enviably youthful and hook-heavy as ‘Weekend’ and ‘Imagine Pt. 3’, we haven’t, because ‘Dye It Blonde’ is the best guitar pop album of 2011.
Released: June 20
From the dusty old space of a log cabin in the outskirts of Wisconsin, to a disused veterinary practice in Fall Creek, WI – the choice recording spots for Bon Iver – the uninhibited sound of Justin Vernon’s music-making process always shines through, whether it’s in the sparse, acoustic echoes of debut album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ or the cluttered but beautiful soundscapes of this 2011 eponymous release, which knocked everyone for six. It was probably the one record to come out this year that everyone who heard it felt the need to tell all their friends about. It was certainly difficult to ignore when all sides of the music press were screaming Bon Iver at you too, but all the commotion was justified.
By combining his folk roots with two drum kits, multi-tracked vocals, the odd bicycle bell and more brass instruments than a marching band, Vernon birthed a unique sonic child that hinted at the soul of TV On The Radio in the singing and has done nothing but skyrocket, taking Vernon and his band around the world, including a two-night sold out stint at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in October.
The melancholy that hangs in Vernon’s voice is strangely uplifting, drawing you in even though half the time you can’t understand what he’s saying. A quick glance at the lyrics sheet shows a jumbled collection of poetic lines that don’t make much sense together, but the thing about Bon Iver is they’re an experience overall, rather than a band of individual qualities. This is probably why live they perform the album in order. It seems like a boring choice, but why mess with something so refined? It was the gentle, orchestral folk progressions that originally stood out to us and it’s those same distinctive reverberations that’ll keep us coming back for more.
D K Goldstein
‘Let England Shake’
Released: Feb 14
‘Let England Shake’ has become such a symbolic record over the past 11 months that at times it’s difficult to remember that it was, first and foremost, a piece of music. After all, in the year of the Arab Spring and escalating crisis of confidence in the West’s economic supremacy, PJ Harvey’s paean to the horror of the First World War, and the questions it posed about the developed world’s state of civilisation, became an almost uncomfortably apt soundtrack. The album has assumed importance almost by accident of release date – despite being written over the past five years, here we suddenly had one of the UK’s most consistently thoughtful, creative and distinctive voices delivering a state-of-the-nation address when it was most needed. Accordingly, during the course of its promotion, Harvey performed its songs in front of two different Prime Ministers on Andrew Marr’s Sunday sofa; coincidentally, it was released on the very same day that Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian government was overthrown.
‘Let England Shake’’s symbolism makes it an important album. What makes it our album of the year, though, is that it’s also a brilliant piece of music. For a start it’s curiously accessible – curious, that is, for a record heavy on the death and destruction themes and from a woman whose back catalogue has a penchant for atonal string quartet arrangements and production advice from Captain Beefheart. But where previous PJ Harvey albums have been easier to admire than to love, ‘Let England Shake’ is a joy: from the dive-straight-in opening bars of the title track, there are earworms aplenty, delicately swooping melodies and epic, evocative guitars. It’s also a deeply immersive record, in which Harvey uses musical devices as well as lyrics to tell her stories – the lone trumpeter on ‘The Glorious Land’, out of both tune and time, blasting a battle cry while the rest of the track soldiers on is a spine-tingling and inspired metaphor for the oblivion of war.
But while ‘Let England Shake’ is undeniably a record with serious things to say, it saves itself from over-earnestness by also being almost ghoulishly witty from time to time. When Harvey borrows Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ for the coda of ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, by far the album’s most gruesome song, the question of, “what if I take my problems to the United Nations” abruptly dislocates the line from its throwaway origins. Equally, the use of an addictively funky ska track to underpin ‘Written on the Forehead’’s bleak story of a city under siege is deliciously macabre, and, crucially, lifts the record’s mood ahead of its final funeral march.
And it’s this sort of versatility that is ‘Let England Shake’s true triumph. While the album has won deserved praise throughout the year for being the “definitive war album” – a sort of musical companion to Wilfred Owen’s poetry or Apocalypse Now – and may be remembered as such in the future, it should not be forgotten what a richly complex, diverse and bold musical achievement it is too.
Originally published in issue 33 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2011.