Artist: PJ Harvey
Album: ‘Let England Shake’
Released: February 11
I’m not trying to be contrary by not putting this in my top 20. ‘Let England Shake’ is a brilliant, accomplished album – probably much more so than several of the albums in my list – but I never find myself wanting to listen to it. It doesn’t do anything for me in the way that albums I love usually do (though the song above is the exception).
Artist: A Winged Victory For The Sullen
Album: ‘A Winged Victory For The Sullen’
Label: Kranky/Erased Tapes
Released: September 12
I just came to this too late to put it in my list. The first time I heard it was on the Eurostar to Paris at the end of October, when it made me fall asleep and have such horrendous nightmares that I’m about 95% sure I was trying to scream in my sleep on a train full of families making half-term trips to Euro Disney. In spite of that, I listened to it a lot afterwards – particularly when going to bed in our noisy house – and really adore it.
Label: Sub Pop
Released: April 11
Spotify // Buy
I love Low, so I must have been having a serious mental blip to have forgotten this when making the list. See also: Mogwai’s ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’.
Artist: Julianna Barwick
Album: ‘The Magic Place’
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
Released: February 23
Again, I came to this too late, because I am an idiot.
Released: May 9
Just at the point where I should probably write some profound essay about how much my album of the year means to me, I’m just going to re-run the review I wrote of it for NME in May. Much of what I wrote in it now seems very prescient. It’s probably the best album review I’ve written all year, though if I could edit it, I would like to get in more about how the record actually sounds. In lieu of rewriting it for my own silly satisfaction, I suggest you read Rory Gibb’s excellent dissection of ‘Smother”s tones and timbres in his review for The Quietus. In the meantime, here’s mine:
In 1993, journalist Auberon Waugh established the Bad Sex In Fiction Award while editor of London’s distinguished Literary Review. It was intended to draw attention to what he called the “crude, tasteless and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it”. Last year’s winner, Rowan Somerville (key line: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with too blunt a pin, he screwed himself into her” – ack), on receiving his award for his novel The Shape Of Her, declared: “There is nothing more English than bad sex.”
Wild Beasts might beg to differ. Since their first album, 2008’s ‘Limbo, Panto’, singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have relished singing about shagging with a kind of ribald nobility, tempering potentially awful leeriness with artful, archaic language and a satirical tongue. The title of their debut single alone – ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ – rings with hope and pride for those newly anointed knackers; ‘She Purred, While I Grrred’, on the same album, is more directly lascivious: “My fruit was ripe /She bit/Huffing and puffing on the mattress stuffing/Upon the bunk a fervent funk”. Is that the sound of collars loosening? ‘Limbo, Panto’’s follow-up, 2009’s ‘Two Dancers’, recognised what Somerville might have been referring to as classically English bad sex – the sheer indecorousness of it all, characterised in ‘Hooting And Howling’’s “a crude art, a bovver boot ballet”.
Released: September 12
I feel a strange sort of disconnect from this record now and haven’t put it on in a while, but it still thoroughly deserves such a high placing. Annie Clark is well on her way to becoming one of the cult musicians of her generation; I’ll be thrilled to tell my grand-nieces and nephews that I saw her play. Here’s a feature I did on her for NME, more after the jump:
SERIAL KILLER RIFFS
St Vincent’s reinvention as an axe-wielding heroine has produced arguably the guitar album of 2011. And, as she tells Laura Snapes, she owes it all to her obsession with murder
“Shit, fuck it up!” Whereas your average strumming Jim might rally his band into song with a steady, “ah-one-two-three-four”, St Vincent – aka 28-year old Dallas native Annie Clark – has different ideas at the London’s Barbican venue, shouting this order at her surprised saxophone player.
That was back in July, when she covered ‘Big Black Mariah’ for a night in tribute to Tom Waits’ feted 1985 album ‘Rain Dogs’, a yarn of salty hounds and seedy coves that doesn’t require much help in the fucked-up department. One minute in, Clark was transformed – snarling, clawing at the body of her Harmony Bobkat guitar (the same brand Jack White plays); a world away from when we last saw her, touring 2009’s elegantly poised ‘Actor’. (more…)
Label: Dead Oceans
Released: June 13
A consummate album in a similar vein to Metronomy’s ‘The English Riviera’ (though rather more accomplished). I reviewed this album for NME, which you can read here, and interviewed Dan Bejar for The Guardian, which you can read below (more after the jump).
Destroyer and the return of soft rock
Along with Gayngs and Ariel Pink, Dan Bejar’s Destroyer seem to be bringing back the high-gloss, sax-laden radio rock sound of the 80s. But it’s not about irony
Dan Bejar, the creative linchpin of Destroyer, is surprised. “I’ve been making records for a long time,” he says. “So it’s strange to get swept up with some zeitgeist after doing this for over 15 years.” The reason for this surprise is the fact that his ninth album, Kaputt, has inadvertently become the final corner of an indie soft-rock triumvirate, in the wake of last year’s efforts from Gayngs and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. There’s no community or geographic connection to bind the three, yet each bears the hallmarks of a sound that was, until recently, revisited only through irony-tinted lenses: brittle, 80s drum machines, languorous sax and a louche smoothness akin to sporting a silk thong under velvet pyjamas.
Released: October 10
If this record had been made by 19-year old boys from London/New York, they’d be hailed as the new Strokes or something. Anyone with a brain knows that Wild Flag are WAY better than The Strokes ever were. I wrote a short essay for NME’s Albums Of The Year issue about politically engaged music in 2011, in which Wild Flag and their ferocious debut featured. You can read it below (more after the jump).
Panic on the streets of London, Europe on the brink of collapse, the Arab world in rebellion – but where was the protest song? Laura Snapes looks at how 2011′s unrest was soundtracked…
It’s easy to draw a protest singer wielding an acoustic guitar and a mouthful of neat rhyming couplets about the state of the nation. That is, if you’re living in the ’80s and doodling on a dog-eared copy of Socialist Worker. Befitting of recent dramatic, unnerving events, the profile of the politically engaged musician has morphed into unpredictable shapes, many of which you’ll find lurking in our Albums Of The Year list far from the obvious shadow cast by traditional rabblerousers.Of course, our list contains no direct responses to the unrest that’s permeated 2011 – those will come next year – because these smart artists understand the value of considered responses. They’re a far cry from Jon McClure’s knee-jerk reactions to this summer’s riots: “All the bins and bus stops set alight”, ‘Riot’. Incisive!
Label: City Slang
Released: April 4
Spotify // Buy
I reviewed this album for NME on its release, which you can read below. Part of me now thinks that I should have put this album much higher up my list, though I feel as though I should be true to the one I submitted to NME. In all honesty, I think I forgot about it a bit as I didn’t listen to it for a little while, for two reasons. The most significant was that all I could think of when I listened to ‘Riding For The Feeling’ was my Grandad’s funeral in January. The more weaselly reason was that I interviewed Callahan for The Quietus, and it went fairly terribly. He was difficult and not forthcoming in the slightest, I let myself get intimidated, and I felt sufficiently embarrassed afterwards that I couldn’t listen to the album without reliving it. So there we go.
Bill Callahan has, over fourteen albums – whether under his nom de gloom, Smog or, as on his most recent three, his own name – always swatted away personal interpretations of his often desperately bleak, magnetic songs like some pesky fly. Yet that torrid bond of trust between the listener and a songwriter who, over the past two decades, has continually put words to those formless doubts and dreams, remains. On ‘Jim Cain’ from last album, ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’, he sang, “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again.” That lighter shading continues here, losing the strings that plumped up ‘…Eagle’ to organically lock in and out of grooves that dilute from bleak to pleasantly beatific over the course of the record. It starts on a futile note – ‘Drover’ full of brontide clatter and pedal steel moans, followed by ‘Baby’s Breath’, a tale of hastily blooming marriage that wilts like its titular weed, capped by the tragic realization, “how could I run without becoming me?”
Aside from goofy paean, ‘America’ – where the notoriously stoic Callahan is made homesick by watching “David Letterman in Australia” – this heartbreaking self-indictment glowers through ‘Apocalypse’ like shame through a sanguine thought, even on its lighter moments. ‘Riding For The Feeling’ feels funereal, placing Callahan in front of an audience that he craves will ask him, “’who do you think you are?’ So I could tell them,” as if delivering his own eulogy. He even kills himself off at the end of each side of the record – sinking his own sailboat with a burning rescue flare on the tense ‘Universal Applicant’, and riding “out with the skeleton crew” on closer ‘One Fine Morning’, breezy with reverent piano and acceptance. His closing words are the record’s catalogue number – DC450 – repeated like the credits of a film, the final caveat that insists that this is but fiction. It’s testament to Callahan’s enduring skill that whoever’s story he’s telling, it still feels as though he’s written it for you.
Label: City Slang
Released: October 10
I wrote a few words about this for an NME blog on the most underrated albums of 2011:
“Eleanor Friedberger’s first album away from The Fiery Furnaces, ‘Last Summer’, was also enormously underrated. Whereas her brother, Matt, has got lost in some obscure doomhole where he’s released eight very iffy solo albums this year, Eleanor’s record seemed to pick up where the Furnaces’ ‘I’m Going Away’ left off. It’s easier on the ear than the band’s normal knotty work; full of deft, Todd Rundgren-indebted guitar fuzz and twang, and often wry, sometimes sad lyrics that trace obscure locations in New York. I love how she appears in the record – she’ll sing about herself in the first person, but then spot herself in mirrors, and find her own doppelgangers in the faces of girls she dislikes. And ‘Owl’s Head Park’ is one of the most beautiful, saddest songs of the year.”
I am absolutely in love with the way she sings/says, “The boys on the F-train said that frame was fresh/It was the colour blue”.
Released: June 6
It’s rare that a record devoid of mope will make it onto any list of my most beloved, but just where Battles had due cause to make a miserable, nihilistic record following the seemingly acrimonious departure of vocalist Tyondai Braxton last year, they returned with one of the most entertaining, wickedly fun albums of 2011.
I interviewed John Stanier, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka for NME earlier this year (I would post it here, but it’s not on this computer). Aside from the fact that they were completely brilliant dudes to hang out with for the afternoon (rather than intimidating and withdrawn, which I was afraid of), the thing that stuck with me most was a comment from John. I clumsily asked if, even though the majority of songs on the record have no words (and those that are there were written by the album’s guest vocalists), the instrumental parts resonated with as much emotion for the band as words with literal meanings. He said yes, and that no-one would ever be able to tell what they had gone through from listening to the record, but that those emotional triggers were there in every note – even the silliest bits.
I’ve seen Battles four or five times this year, and every single show was an absolute joy – even at their recent ATP, where Dave admitted they were all hugely hung over and they messed up loads of the songs. The robot tropicalia of ‘Gloss Drop’ has transformed them into a seriously weird party band, and as such Battles are responsible for much of my best-worst dancing this year, most notably on the beach at Les Eurockeennes this July. Here’s a great Blogotheque video of them doing Futura.