13 albums I loved in 2011

I’m bored with the amount of times that I’ve read and people have said to me that ‘2011 was a bad year for music’. Their main complaint revolves around there not being a single musical style that emerged or could be termed as defining the year. I think that’s a perfect year for music; variety is the spice of life to coin a stock phrase, and 2011 has brought a stream of fascinating and surprising releases.

What thrilled me about 2011 was the vast range of influences being pulled into new music and the nuanced use of these influences. From John Maus’ Moroder and Vangelis inspired shoe-gaze to Arthur’s Landing’s mid-1970s New York disco interpretations, they weren’t aping like an Acid Jazzer but using a range of tonal colours to express compelling songs.

Contemporary music in Britain is sometimes strangled by a rich subtextual layer to every sound. Fashionable releases are often over-thought, over-postured and then smeared with irony that strips them of any emotive connection. Listening to We Are Hunted’s emerging songs of 2011, I found myself hating the postured Shoreditch / Brooklyn faux-eighties gutter pop ( like Washed Out ) that’s vomited out the party circuits and Kissy Sell Out’s Jive Bunny Megamix each week. I also groaned in agony as cutesy indie-pop ditties cooed to Channel 4 audio-bed choosers, advertising agencies and 6 Music daytime listeners (see Grouplove ). This could start getting very bitter, so let’s accentuate the positive.

Within the affected dross were glorious life affirmers, insightful illuminators and charging grooves. Good song writing is eternal and genreless; my thirteen of the year all display innovative musical storytelling that left a lingering taste and were transportive in some way.

Arthur’s Landing – Arthur’s Landing

Arthur's Landing artworkA haunting 1970s inspired disco and country blend. Arthur’s Landing brought back the quality disco of Candido and Loose Joints, whose It’s All Over My Face they cover on the record. The melancholic horns and grooves really gripped me on this record. It’s not ground breaking but is haunting.

Best moment to listen to it: winter sun coming through the window and no work today.

Dark Dark Dark – Wild Go

Dark Dark DarkDark Dark Dark are Adele in an alternate universe where her lyrics are more developed, her music less staid and her vocals aren’t over sung. Not dissimilar in tone to Adele, Nona Marie’s vocals are bold, direct and expressive. Her lyrical themes are personal wants and woos, but within insightful rhymes. Meanwhile her band construct fascinating scenes for her to inhabit: wonky mid-west fields, Franco-Canadian church halls and Cornish fishing villages. Daydreaming is already one of my favourite songs ever.

Best moment to listen to it: driving down to Cornwall for a week of crab eating.

The Horrors – Skying

The Horrors - Skying artworkFaris and The Horrors are often denounced as the archetypal postured Shoreditch band. They came on the scene in 2006 sporting extreme Gothic dress and Psychedelic Garage rock music. They had the feel of style over substance, hiding behind costumes and distortion. Although their previous album, the highly enjoyable Primary Colours, contained My Bloody Valentine style distortion by the bucket, the nauseating scene that surrounded them was shed and they appeared less pastiche. When Skying arrived on t’internet, it was a gleeful surprise to hear bolder more open sounds, even horns. The intensity comes from the Krautrock driving rhythms and Faris’ pleading vocals, that often croon sensitively like a broody Lou Reed. Their talent for turning a tune and a mood is apparent on tracks like Changing the Rain.

Best moment to listen to it: getting ready to go to a gig on a Thursday whilst wearing black denim.

John Maus – We Must Become The Pitiless Sensors of Ourselves

John Maus (courtesy of http://www.loudandquiet.com/ )Drawing on science fiction horror soundtracks of the early 80s, like Georgio Moroder’s Cat People, John Maus created a deeply resonating set of songs. Perhaps being a child of the 80s makes his sound so evoking, but there’s also beauty within his muffled vocals and swooping Juno keyboard layers. Like a bound captive he cries amidst tracks like the droning cover of Ice T’s Cop Killer and the elating modulations of Street Light. Although tense at moments, he relieves the dark mood with a jaunty Sqandau-like Move To The Country whilst the child-like harmony of Hey Moon is a simply lovely ode to sleeplessness.

Best moment to listen to it – driving down country roads towards a town at 2am.

Martyn – Ghost People

Martyn - Ghost People artworkI hadn’t listened to this album as much as the others in 2011, but it feels like the history of electronic dance music made to sound like the future, as the track We Are You in The Future indicates. The evolution of breaks, synths and bass are blended into something so complex, it shouldn’t work but does with a riveting lack of compromise. The influences of deep house and Masters At Work are as evident as early rave releases from the likes of Kickin Records and Reinforced.

Best place to listen to this- driving on a motorway or walking through a German city.

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

Nicolas JaarNicolas Jaar has been an unlikely hot act on the club scene this last year. Whilst the David Guettas and Armin Van Burrens have been slamming out banal epic synth to the stadium ravers, Nicolas Jaar has crafted something rather subtle and nuanced from a wider scope of influences. Jaar’s Chilean-American upbringing has obviously given his music a broad rhythmic palette to play with. Avoiding obvious four to the floor beats he instead puts in place curious clicks, staccatos and shudders. Melodically rich too, Jaar pulls in sorrowful blurred piano sounds from Argentinian tangos, Parisian gypsy-swing violins and contrary vocals akin to David Byrne’s Talking Heads in maturity. There is a great similarity between Ghostly International’s Matthew Dear in Jaar’s release, but I see more warmth and nostalgia in Space Is Only Noise, as well as less posture.

Best moment to listen to this – As the sun descends and the night begins on a Sunday in July.

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 artworkAmbient without fading into the background, Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972, evokes some of the earthier Brian Eno experiments like On Land. Whereas Eno drew out a sun soaked desert like scene with On Land, Hecker pulls in distorted icy metal as you’d find on subtler Mogwai records. The dissonance often pulls together into delicate melodies as tracks evolve, some to quite immobilising effect. There is also a warmer side to Ravedeath,1972 , almost sentimental, as with the track No Drums.

Best moment to listen to this – watching Frozen Planet with the sound off on a winter’s evening.

Wild Beasts – Smother

Wild Beasts

Dubstep and Post-Rock can be cowardly. Hiding behind distortion and augmented vocals, it can feel very evasive. Almost afraid to express meaning for fear of judgement, so disguised and deceptive in its smudging of sounds. By standing as an affront to the fashion of foggy distortion, Wild Beasts make me admire Smother more than I may have done had this record been released 10 years ago. Bold melodies, exposed eloquent vocals and unafraid lyrical turns make this release braver than those hidden behind wobbly voguish basslines. Starting with the crisp piano lits of Lion’s Share and ending on the symphonic End Come Too Soon, Wild Beasts show a confidence in the power of their material. Uncluttered, every component is added to enhance the core song, never to hide it in the swell of reverb. I saw them live a few months ago and across the festival season, they brought a refreshing honesty to the stage in addition to accomplished musicianship.

Best moment to listen to this – a bright summer’s afternoon row around a lake.

WU LYF – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

WU LYFNot a million miles away from The XX, but with caterwauling vocals that you’d expect on a Bring Me The Horizon record. I fell for this record for its demanding pleas atop of electric twanging, jaunty riffs and cathedral organs. The blend isn’t original but is well brewed.

Best moment to listen to this – Cycling at sunset as you reach the peak of a hill.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Let England Shake artworkToo much has already been said about this authentic proclamation of independence against the Tory Press image of Britain. It was an album that showed you can express meaningful political views without resorting to Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg re-versions or nihilistic Rage Against The Machine roars. Musically as interesting as lyrically, this record forged a style of Folk that avoided the cloying nostalgia that ruins many a well intentioned musician.

Best moment to listen to this – a crisp morning.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Kurt VileI’m a bit bored of the damaged, guitar welding slacker look. We only need one Gram Parsons, without Ryan Adams and Evan Dando trying to re-igniting his charred corpse. So cynicism abounded when Kurt Vile came over the hill. Thankfully he came over the hill having collected a set of original songs with some unique turns of phrases and changes of key. Kurt is hard to pin down, sometimes twanged out on tracks like Puppet To The Man whilst other times drony and delicate.

Best moment to listen to this – a dingy bar by a freeway in southern California.

Richard Buckner – Our Blood

Richard BucknerRichard Buckner has long been one of my favourite singer-songwriters. His life lessons and tenderising melodies, are so near to touch but guarded by the low growl of his guard-dog mutters. The vocals sound as if words are swilled around his mouth like red wine before being blown out as smoke, a totally unique delivery. Our Blood is vintage Buckner, chunky atmospheric music, be it on organ or rifted acoustic guitar, give Buckner a road to recount his tales on. Don’t bother putting this album on in the background, you’ll stop your tasks dead as he posts his anecdotes within pronounced instrumented notes. I was privileged enough to see him play at St Pancras Church in November, if you get an opportunity to witness his intensely gripping performance please do.

Best moment to listen to this – walking down a dusty road to an uncertain future.

Richard Swift – Walt Wolfman

Richard Swift - Walt Wolfman artworkA refreshing curt and playful package of 50s fuzz-rock. Walt Wolfman plays with uptempo soul beats and southern rock (as on MG333) and Phil Spector curated Ronnettes rifts (such as Zombie Boogie) to joyful effect. Never taking himself too seriously, Richard Swift seems to keep the rhythms tight enough to offset his wailing and wandering vocals. This a seriously funky album that turns and twists enough to keep you twitching through each track.

Best moment to listen to this – a dirty basement club in Montreal, way too late.

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