Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The 10 best albums of 2011

Its been another great year of musical discovery. Here are the ten records I enjoyed most...

    1. Whokill – Tuneyards

I, like many others, have spent much of the last decade moaning about the lack of decent guitar music. The majority of it is simply a re-tread of what we’ve already heard and therefore in my opinion effectively worthless. I spent a good chunk of this year really enjoying this album before actually realising that at its heart it is the most original guitar based album I’ve heard in years although its also so many other things as well (including making very effective use of a lo-fi sampler). At first listen the immediate reference points are post punk, dub, soca and afro pop but listen again and the guitar is as key an element as is Meryl Garbus’ wonderful voice (especially on the epic Po-wa which is one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard in years). This album doesn’t sound like anyone else and this lady is clearly one of the eccentric characters that make great pop music what it is.

  1. Space is only noise – Nicolas Jaar
The key components to music are generally considered to be rhythm and melody but this record focuses on something else entirely – atmosphere. Jaar isn’t doing anything particularly new on one level – trip hop based beats – but it’s the way he does it that’s so interesting – drawing individual glitchy sounds over the top of the mix to give you tingles and bumps. He draws from everything from American soul to Ethiopian Jazz and  constructs track in the style of a techno record but with much more warmth. This record is best listened to on immersive headphones while travelling or walking. Clearly a talented producer who is happy to forgo commerciality in the name of art.

  1. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey

 Yes it’s overheard, yes the critical consensus is dull but the simple fact is that Polly made a great (and somewhat timeless) record. This isn’t trad rock or indie, it’s a songwriter who has matured to the point that she is able to create an artistic vision and deliver it without ever once sounding like she’s trying to force the songs into it. Somehow bringing in influences as diverse as traditional folk, reggae, Eddie Cochran and the Doors to create something that is ultimately and undoubtedly hers. She like many is both disgusted by our nation’s history and in love with its beauty and this is a great commentary on the state of our nation (and you can’t say that about Coldplay can you?).

  1. House of Balloons – Weeknd
I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon this – I had no real expectations of a great R&B album when I clicked on whatever link it was but this was ace. A sleazy trawl through a weekend of vice girls, coke and cars it made me feel dirty by just listening to it but listen again and there is some really interesting stuff going on here. First, the production is clearly in debt to the forward thinking UK producers – most notably Jamie XX – post dubstep sounds aren’t really what you think of when you think of this genre. Second, Abel Tasfaye’s falsetto voice is wonderful – overwrought, emotional and smooth – perfectly complimenting the occasional 80’s guitar. This album makes me want to go on a bender…

  1. Dedication – Zomby
I love dubstep in small doses but very few of its LPs stand up to scrutiny on repeated listens. Zomby’s take on the genre has previously been to focus on the euphoria of rave and channel it through a bassbin but this (his second album) was different. Much more subtle than its predecessor and more comparable to the electronica of Dan Snaith, Alam Bacab or Kieron Hebdon. Reassuringly short and packed with short pieces (they aren’t really what you can call songs) this is a lovely record whether sat on the night bus through Hackney or in a field on a hot summer’s day.

  1. Peanut Butter Blues and melancholy jam – Ghostpoet
Who would have thought that the best hip hop album of the year would be from Coventry? It’s not hip hop in the purest sense and he is clearly as influenced by guitar music and dance as he is Jay Z or Public Enemy. Like Roots Manuva or Tricky (both of whom he bears comparison to), he is a story teller. Cash and Carry me Home is about a drunken night of regret while Survive it is a torch song beyond compare. If you want to like UK hip hop but don’t get Tinnie Tempah I suggest starting here…

  1. King of Limbs – Radiohead
There will no doubt be a suspicion that I’ve included this out of blinded loyalty to one of my favourite bands. Many consider this record not to be a patch on its predecessor In Rainbows. I loved it from the off though. Yes, its short and understated but that’s what makes it so good. It’s not indulgent (the video to Lotus Flower revealing Thom Yorke’s humour), it cherry picks influences from the best music (Jazz, Afrobeat, Flying Lotus, David Bowie) and yet sounds only like them. The ballads are fantastic and I can’t wait to hear them in a live setting next summer.  The most important band of our times – we just need to continue to realise that.

  1. Jill Scott – The light of the sun
neo soul ladies are prone to. There are ballads but I’m pleased to report an album dedicated to female empowerment played out in such a fun way -jams with Eve and Doug E Fresh, Gil Scott Heron style monologues and a song about her ‘rolling hills’ – the girl back y’all!

     9.Locussolus - Locussolus

 I was very cynical about this one before hearing it. Harvey is one of those DJs so name droppingly cool that you expect 12 minute long jams of 80’s Balearic throughout. Imagine my surprise then when this actually revealed itself to be a selection of well-focused dance pop songs. True, some draw out over a period of time and ‘go off on one’ but with focus maintained throughout and the use of guest producers (Weatherall, Prins Tomas etc) keeps things interesting. I want it even steals a snatch of Venus which is just ace. Definitely worst sleeve mind….

    10.ISAM – Amon Tobin

 The most unique record on my list. Some of this record (Surge for example) arguably isn’t even music – more a collection of sounds. It is completely original (one of the main virtues in music for me) and yet isn’t in any way difficult for anyone prepared to give it time. The lightness of touch on tracks like Wooden Toy ensures it’s a work you can return to time and time again.

And my favourite singles...
  1. Rolling in the deep (Jamie XX re-rub) – Adele
Two of the most significant musicians of the year combine to wonderful effect. Jamie XX doesn’t do anything particularly clever with the original recognising its strength but he strips it back, adds the odd touch of weirdness and bass and creates something that is great for both the dancefloor and home listening. Remix job done!
2.Street Halo - Burial
 This is exactly what I would want to be listening to in a dark nightclub at 4am – imposing and ‘diiiirty’ – the bass line just makes you want to blow your mind.
3.Ice Cream – Battles
 One can’t help but consider the scientific approach Battles bring to their records – this is so well constructed! Starting simply with a grunt it accelerates gradually until we are caught up into one of the guitar songs of the year (although the first half of the song is much better than the second). Should have been a huge hit – and the video is ace!

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