Albums of 2011

It’s December again, miraculously, so I’ve taken all the released-this-year CDs that Em and I have bought, put them in a couple of piles, and taken a photograph of them. It seems to be becoming a tradition. You can click on the photo to see a larger version and read all of the spines, if you like.

Anyway, ten is a nice number, and words about records are good, so here are words about my ten (arbitrary) favourite records of the year, in reverse order, because, y’know, tension…

10. Wilco – The Whole Love
There can, and often does, come a time when you have the sad realization that you don’t so much love a band, as love a small part of a band. In my case, with Wilco, I love I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and Reservations, and Spiders (Kidsmoke), and Company In Your Back, and At Least That’s What You Said, and Misunderstood, and I Can’t Stand It, and Poor Places, and Sunken Treasure… but there are whole big chunks of them that I’m not bothered about, even if there’s very little (maybe nothing) that I dislike. So I pretty much ignored Wilco (The Album), having been a little nonplussed by the smooth, mature proficiency of Sky Blue Sky. And I was trepidatious about The Whole Love, despite talk about it being a (slight) return to more experimental textures. In truth, I’m staggered by the two bookends, and especially Art Of Almost (when Cline and Kotche let rip for the last two or three minutes!), and could (almost) take or leave the rest of the album. But I’ll take it; the whole thing sounds stunning, and there’s something intrinsically pleasurable about watching (or listening to) human beings doing something they’re very good at; even when the songs are traditional and/or predictable, there’s always a skill, dexterity, and panache to the playing here that is impressive. And on top of that, songs like I Might and the title track are good pop/rock tunes in their own right, even if tracks like Capitol City veer a little too far into pleasantly inconsequential Beatles homage.

9. Walls – Coracle
I reviewed this for The Quietus; it’s very good. The opening track, Into Our Midst, rivals Art Of Almost as my favourite opener of the year. Lots of records tried something similar this year – The Field, Blanck Mass, Tim Hecker, Robag Wruhme and more all had at least something in common at some level – but Walls seemed to do it best.

8. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
We saw Laura Marling perform at Exeter cathedral a month and a bit ago; I’d say that her voice was possessed of a surprising power in a live context, except that it wasn’t surprising. Her debut now sounds callow and naïve, and even last year’s excellent I Speak Because I Can, which I adored, has paled a little in relief; A Creature I Don’t Know adds a sensuality and tension to her tunefulness and musicianship which provides a new dimension. On The Beast, the album’s central, emotionally unhinged, most electrifying moment, Marling channels something of the dark magic that crept into Mojo Pin and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley. I look forward greatly to watching her career develop even further.

7. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
I was initially a little nonplussed by this much-hyped record when Tom played it at Devon Record Club; it seemed at first to be a clattering mess. But at some point in autumn it opened up to me, and clicked neatly into place; the energy and chaos of the opening trio, clattering hooks and beats and amazing, corrupted and pure voices, and the beautiful swoons and twists of Powa, still imbued with a passion and strength. Garbus is an intriguing musician and a great, soulful singer.

6. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
A continuous, sensuous, aesthetic pleasure, Jaar’s debut isn’t quite the minimal house odyssey some people wanted, but it is immaculately constructed, captivating and unusual, a strange nowhere land between techno and jazz and minimal and Germany and South American and east and west. I love it, and I can’t wait to watch him grow.

5. Destroyer – Kaputt
My first dalliance with Dan Bejar has impressed me enough to make me go back and investigate Rubies, Your Blues, and Trouble In Dreams; I like them all, especially Rubies, but Kaputt has something else going for it. Maybe it’s the aesthetic of smooth, 80s sophistication, the tight, highly held guitars, the saxophones and synthesizers. Or maybe it’s the strange nostalgia for other countries and other cultures. Bejar seems to do something different with every album – Bowie pastiche, bizarre orchestral midi-dreams, shoegaze overtones – so I doubt the aesthetic adopted on Kaputt will be continued into whatever he does next, but right now both Em and I are finding moments of this buzzing through our heads between plays.

4. Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
I reviewed this for The Quietus too. It accompanied us on car journeys throughout the summer, something Patrick’s not done since The Magic Position. The first four tracks are almost too much to bear, too ebullient, too happy, too in love, but the album fulcrums on Time Of My Life, which might just be Patrick’s best pop song yet, and which tilts the emotions out of fairytale happily-ever-after into something much more prosaic and, therefore, more moving and real. And the tunes! Bermondsey Street! House! The Falcons! Together! I want Patrick to make an album of full-on German techno next.

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s previous effort ended up being my accidental favourite album of 2009, a long-burning grower that crept up on me (and Emma, too) over months and months, intriguing and beguiling us. So there were high expectations for Strange Mercy, especially when she let Surgeon into the world as a teaser. In truth, the album didn’t strike me straight away, but I kind of wasn’t expecting it to after Actor, and I’m glad it didn’t. We saw Annie live last month, and I wrote the following:
“Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.”

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I wrote this, and also this, and also this about PJ Harvey’s latest album, which is taking plaudits left, right, and centre this year, as well as various tweets, messageboard posts, and snippets in blog posts about other things. So I’m not sure I can write anymore, except to say that it’s wonderful, and poetic, and enticing, and moving, and a massive, massive accomplishment.

1. Wild Beasts – Smother

Likewise I waxed extremely lyrical about Wild Beasts’ third album back in May; it’s stayed near the top of my pile, where it’s accessible, because it needs to be, because I play it often, ever since. It, and its b-sides (especially the marvelous Thankless Thing), and Two Dancers, have been in the car, on the iPod, on the hi-fi, more often than any other records over the last 12 months, even Polly’s. Between These New Puritans last year and Wild Beasts this year I now feel like there are bands of boys with guitars (as opposed to bands of men with guitars, or lone women with guitars, or bands of women with guitars, or lone men with computers) who I care about, who I can invest in, who I want to go and see play live, and wear t-shirts adorned with their name. Smother is a subtle, creeping, emotionally and sexually tense and intense affair, passionate and impassioned at the same time as being incredibly controlled and nuanced. It’s my favorite album of the year.

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5 responses to “Albums of 2011

  1. What no Florence? Crazy omission.
    Also suggest Emika and Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble for ice cool and warm Euro beats respectively.
    And Despond by Loss is the best funeral doom album ever. Try it even if you don’t like the genre – passages of real melancholic beauty.
    Finally I thought the White Lies one was worth a mention – not usually my thing at all but really excellent songs on there.

  2. Pingback: St. Vincent – Strange Mercy: Round 19 – Tom’s Selection | Devon Record Club

  3. pitchfork much?

    • Actually I barely ever read Pitchfork (and certainly not regularly), or reviews on any music site; I get most of my recommendations via people I know on Twitter and via a couple of messageboards. But given that several people I used to write with at Stylus now write for Pitchfork, and that Mark Richardson and I have a lot in common in terms of our approach to music (so much so that he sent me a copy of his book on Zaireeka), it’s hardly surprising that there’d be some crossover. But not Bon Iver. They’re shite.

  4. Pingback: Let’s talk about Destroyer | Sick Mouthy

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