Right. So, having surveyed a whole host of albums I didn't actually hear in their entirety, it's (finally) time to get down to business writing about the ones that I did, classified using roughly the same categories as in recent years...
ATLAS SOUND - Parallax
I'm going out on a limb in writing off this album. Bradford Cox has proven himself to
be someone whose releases - either with Deerhunter or solo, as Atlas
Sound - make little impression at first but gradually come to colonise
your whole consciousness. But - I fear - not
this one, which just IS the ill-conceived, hastily knocked-out album
I've been dreading.
Key track: 'The Shakes'
BON IVER - Bon Iver
Fast becoming the male Joanna
Newsom, as far as I'm concerned. Occasionally interesting musical
arrangements, but with a voice that just sets my teeth on edge. Get back
in your cabin in the woods, Vernon.
Key track: 'Holocene'
DEERHOOF - Deerhoof vs Evil
my luck: I get into a band and their very next album's an unloveable
dud. Still, at least there's the consolation of an extensive back
catalogue to explore.
Key track: 'Secret Mobilization'
GANG GANG DANCE - Eye Contact
Gang Dance have a reputation as risk-taking experimentalists. And fair
play to them - it's a risk kicking off an album with a track ('Glass
Jar') that, at 11 and a half minutes, is twice as long as anything that
follows and therefore twice as irritating to match, just as it is to
throw in something that sounds like an appalling mid-80s Madonna
pastiche ('Romance Layers') and hope to get away with it.
Key track: 'Glass Jar'
MALE BONDING - Endless Now
Was Endless Now
classic case of clunky, over-egged production (courtesy of John Agnello)
suffocating or glossing over most of what was once exciting and fresh
about Male Bonding? Or,
alternatively, was it a case of that production only helping them to
out themselves as a tediously perky pop-punk band? There's a
reason good things often happen in garages.
Key track: 'Seems To Notice Now'
METRONOMY - The English Riviera
I flirted with liking this album, mainly after seeing them at Glastonbury and being infected by some of its earworms, but The English Riviera soon came to seem about as appealing as a wet weekend in Bognor.
Key track: 'The Look'
RADIOHEAD - King of Limbs
Such has been the excellence
of their previous records, no one can deny that Radiohead have earned
the right to do just as they please. Doesn't mean we have to applaud
them for it, though. King Of Limbs is at best a curio or a
stepping stone to something much better, and at worst a sketchy
testament to solipsistic self-indulgence.
Key track: 'Morning Mr Magpie'
Decent Enough But Evoking A Measure Of Disappointment:
THE LOW ANTHEM - Smart Flesh
was tender and spellbinding live, somehow capable of transforming
Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage into an intimate setting, was less effective
on record. Compared to breakthrough album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, this was a slow, snoozesome train journey through Hicksville that only occasionally offered pleasant scenery.
Key track: 'Boeing 737'
RINGO DEATHSTARR - Colour Trip
Having praised their
debut EP to the skies, I'm perhaps judging the ensuing album a little
harshly - but maybe you can only hear transparent pastiches of My Bloody
Valentine (first track 'Imagine Hearts') and The Jesus & Mary
Chain (second track 'Do It Every Time') so many times before hankering
for the real thing.
Key track: 'Tambourine Girl'
SPARROW & THE WORKSHOP - Spitting Daggers
Following not much more than a year after Crystals Fall, second album Spitting Daggers
had its moments, hinting at a more abrasive future, but overall it
served as a warning of the dangers of over-eagerness to strike while the
Key track: 'Pact To Stay Cold'
TINARIWEN - Tassili
war-torn Mali and Libyan refugee camps to international acclaim and
having American indie-rock royalty clamouring to appear on their records
(in this case, members of Wilco and TV On The Radio) - it's been quite a
journey for Tinariwen. Tassili scooped a Grammy, but personally I soon tired of the all-too-regular rhythm of their dusty Tuareg blues.
Key track: 'Tenere Taqqim Tossam'
THE WAR ON DRUGS - Slave Ambient
They had the band name, they quoted all the right references - Arcade Fire, Spiritualized, drone-country - and yet ultimately Slave Ambient failed to amount to much more than a missed opportunity.
Key track: 'Come To The City'
ZOLA JESUS - Conatus
- essentially Bat For Lashes self-harming with Nine Inch Nails -
promised much. Too much, perhaps inevitably. Nothing else in this
collection of brooding electronica had quite the same visceral impact.
Key track: 'Vessel'
A Bit Of Alright:
BRIGHT EYES - The People's Key
The People's Key hardly compared to masterpiece I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, but in ditching the grand scope and po-facedness of predecessor Cassadaga and just cutting loose, indie-rock poster boy Conor Oberst again came up (mostly) smelling of roses.
Key track: 'Jejune Stars'
THE MEN - Leave Home
PCP-fuelled street brawl between the Ramones, the Icarus Line, Melvins,
the Stooges and Spacemen 3 that you always dreamed of.
Key track: '( )'
THE RAVEONETTES - Raven In The Grave
the rest of the world at last seeming to have caught up with their 50s
rock 'n' roll revivalism just as they turned in their weakest album
(2009's In And Out Of Control), where next for Sune Rose Wagner
and Sharin Foo? Winsome indie-pop cloaked in gothic garb as well as the
usual reverb, as it turned out.
Key track: 'Recharge And Revolt'
SHABAZZ PALACES - Black Up
album that took me way out of my comfort zone (as it did Sub Pop, the
label on which it was released), but that was sufficiently dark,
deconstructed, enigmatic and downright odd - and removed from the usual
bling 'n' hoes rap guff - to keep me making the journey. Complete with
song titles even Wayne Coyne would baulk at.
Key track: 'Swerve ... The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)'
WILD FLAG - Wild Flag
news: two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney reunited, and with Mary Timony
involved too. Wild Flag's eponymous debut, without being revolutionary,
was nevertheless a blast - not least hand-clapping, high-kicking opening
Key track: 'Romance'
WOODEN SHJIPS - West
garage and stoner rock riffs ridden long and hard to appease a
krautrock muse. Music to lose yourself down the back of the sofa to.
Key track: 'Black Smoke Rise'
YUCK - Yuck
time machine to transport those of us of a certain age back to the
halcyon days of the late 80s. A second album pastiching the styles of
all the major alt-rock figureheads of the period might be pushing it,
but this one was just fine.
Key track: 'Rubber' (NSFW)
...AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD - Tao Of The Dead
OK, so Tao Of The Dead
has frankly preposterous artwork, huge glossy production and no
'Richter Scale Madness' or 'A Perfect Teenhood'. But it's a far more
satisfying realisation of their grand ambitions than the previous three
albums. A sprawling prog-punk album that concludes with a multi-part
song cycle ('Strange News From Another Planet')? This could be their Daydream Nation. Hell, it even sounds like Sonic Youth's masterpiece in places.
Key track: 'Strange News From Another Planet'
BLANCK MASS - Blanck Mass
absorbing abstraction courtesy of one half of Fuck Buttons, who clearly
has an ear cocked to the sounds of the outer reaches of the universe.
Out-of-body experience this way!
Key track: 'What You Know'
ANNA CALVI - Anna Calvi
With PJ Harvey preoccupied with
paying tribute to the First World War dead, there was a vacancy for a
fiery, feisty femme fatale. And right on cue along came Anna Calvi,
armed with a guitar, curling her lipsticked lips around dark tales of
obsession and lust.
Key track: 'Desire'
THE CAVE SINGERS - No Witch
From humble folksy beginnings No Witch
- the Cave Singers' first album for the wonderful Jagjaguwar label -
took the occasional welcome diversion into amped-up blues riffola, positioning them profitably somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Dead Meadow.
Key track: 'Black Leaf'
CRYSTAL STILTS - In Love With Oblivion
Out with the fuzzy Mary Chain echo of Alight Of Night,
and in with shuffling, shambling 60s garage pop that might sound airily
light were it not anchored to the earth by Brad Hargett's lugubrious
vocals. A marked upgrade, and some consolation for anyone mourning
Key track: 'Flying Into The Sun'
FLEET FOXES - Helplessness Blues
there was any disappointment at the fact that this was simply more of
the same (namely beardy, angelic-voiced, reverently observed Crosby
Stills & Nash worship), then it was assuaged - in my book, at least -
by the sublime title track.
Key track: 'Helplessness Blues'
FUCKED UP - David Comes To Life
Trail Of Dead weren't the only bunch of punks exhibiting decidely
un-punk levels of ambition in 2011. Torontonians Fucked Up followed up
bruising breakthrough The Chemistry Of Common Life with - gulp - a
rock opera set in late 1970s/early 1980s England about the romantic
adventures and misfortunes of a worker in a lightbulb factory. Could've
been a car crash, but it really wasn't.
Key track: 'Queen Of Hearts'
LANTERNS ON THE LAKE - Gracious Tide, Take Me Home
Futureheads, Maximo Park, Field Music: north-easterners, yes, but sadly
hailing from Sunderland and County Durham. So it was with no little
delight that I came upon Lanterns In The Lake, one of Bella Union's
latest hopes and an indie-folk band pleasingly familiar with the work of
Explosions In The Sky. Finally, a band from Newcastle I positively
Key track: 'A Kingdom'
LOS CAMPESINOS! - Hello Sadness
Campesinos' fourth album had enough graphic imagery of pain and bodily
mutilation to have you hunting for the Samaritans' number - but, in 'By
Your Hand', 'Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)', 'The Black Bird, The
Dark Slope' and the title track, it also boasted four of their very
finest compositions to date. Consider me smitten once more.
Key track: 'Hello Sadness'
STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - Mirror Traffic
Gone were the glorious, carefree, hair-down jams that secured Real Emotional Trash the SWSL top spot way back in 2008, but Mirror Traffic nevertheless charmed, a classic Malkmus collection of slouching, rough-around-the-edges indie-rock gems.
Key track: 'Forever 28'
MOON DUO - Mazes
wasn't Wooden Shjips' Ripley Johnson a busy little bee in 2011? His
collaboration with Sanae Yamada found Spacemen 3 committing Suicide with
Neu! in the garage.
Key track: 'Seer'
JOSH T PEARSON - Last Of The Country Gentlemen
spare and just ten years in the making, Pearson having come to
prominence with Lift To Experience's extraordinary (and only) album The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads
in 2001. The sound of a man confronting his demons both personal and
spiritual. I'd hazard a guess that there wasn't a more uncompromisingly
intense and emotionally devastating record released last year.
Key track: 'Sweetheart, I Ain't Your Christ'
YOUTH LAGOON - The Year Of Hibernation
itself, for the most part - but on this evidence you have to ask: why
overcomplicate things? Dreamy, reverby, nostalgic shoegaze-pop that
bears the circumstances of its creation on its sleeve - in a bedroom,
cocooned from the world.
Key track: 'Montana'
Close But No Cigar:
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
As the title might suggest, the explosions on Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
were more controlled, more cautious, more gentle than on previous
offerings, but scarcely less affecting for it. Their imitators are
legion (and with good reason) but this album was more proof that none of
them does it better.
Key track: 'Last Known Surroundings'
LYKKE LI - Wounded Rhymes
songstress whose moody, richly percussive second album was a timely
reminder that pop can be satisfyingly sophisticated, forward-thinking
and yet conscious of historical context, even when it has domination of
the mainstream firmly in its sights.
Key track: 'Sadness Is A Blessing'
MOGWAI - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Sorry, chaps - just like its predecessor, the characteristically brilliantly titled Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will finds itself just on the wrong side of the divide.
It was a very close-run thing, though: 'White Noise' is arguably the
best album opener they've delivered to date, 'You're Lionel Ritchie' was
a muscular, toned closer and what came in between was hardly shoddy.
Key track: 'Rano Pano'
And now - the Top Ten:
10. BILL WELLS & AIDAN MOFFAT - Everything's Getting Older
getting older? Of course it is - we just don't like to admit it,
especially when it comes to ourselves. The collaboration between
composer Wells and piss-stained barroom bard Moffat was a poignant,
resonant meditation on ageing and mortality. Well, for the most part, at
least - the former Arab Strap man still found room for one song
('Glasgow Jubilee') so lyrically filthy you felt like scrubbing your
skin off after hearing it.
Key track: 'The Copper Top'
9. CAT'S EYES - Cat's Eyes
frontman who looks like a figment of Tim Burton's imagination teams up
with an Italian-Canadian soprano to record an album of lost girl-group
classics. Yep, you could argue that Cat's Eyes was the year's most unlikely triumph.
Key track: 'I'm Not Stupid'
8. THURSTON MOORE - Demolished Thoughts
comes to terms with age and marital breakdown by reaching for the
acoustic and releasing a solo album. No, wait, come back... The bloke in
question is a legendary noisenik, for a start, and Beck's lush, warm
production makes it a cousin of Seachange - just with better songs.
Key track: 'Circulation'
7. I BREAK HORSES - Hearts
Sumptuous electronica from Sweden, recalling both Sigur Ros' starry twinkle and that untouchable shoegaze touchstone Loveless. The sort of album that headphones were made for.
Key track: 'Winter Beats'
6. BATTLES - Gloss Drop
OK, OK - Battles, I forgive you. You're not wilfully perverse
show-offs, you're genre-busting, rhythm-loving, smart party fiends. All
it took to convince me was four live performances, 'Ice Cream', the
video for 'My Machines' and the departure of Tyondai Braxton and his
annoying pitch-shifted vocals...
Key track: 'Ice Cream' (NSFW)
5. THE ANTLERS - Burst Apart
How to follow up Hospice, the harrowing concept album that put the Brooklynites on everyone's lips? With extreme difficulty, I'd imagined. Not so. Musically, Burst Apart was an inviting aural comfort blanket
perfect for sinking and snuggling into; lyrically, it was a chill,
desolate wind from which such a blanket would be welcome shelter.
Key track: 'Rolled Together'
4. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
"Got a strange fascination", sang Erika M. Anderson on 'Red Star', the slow-burning climax of Past Life Martyred Saints,
and that was equally true of the record itself. Single 'California' was
unrepresentative, a knowing hipster anthem (albeit a darned good one);
the album was a bleedingly raw tour de force. For label Souterrain
Transmissions, it was just another high-quality offering in what proved
to be a bumper year.
Key track: 'Red Star'
3. ICEAGE - New Brigade
Let's set aside the vexed issue of politics, shall we?
There was very little more thrilling in 2011 than the sound of four
glowering, disaffected Danish punks battering the living crap out of
hardcore and then, like evil puppeteers, making its bruised, bloodied
corpse dance to Joy Division.
Key track: 'White Rune'
2. LOW - C'mon
After the traumatic electronic-tinged Drums And Guns,
this was a retreat to more familiar territory - safer ground, perhaps,
but I wasn't complaining. How could I, with husband-and-wife harmonies
this swoonsome, music simultaneously sinister and yet breathtakingly
beautiful? The band for whom the term "sublime" was invented.
Key track: '$20'
1. PJ HARVEY - Let England Shake
you've waited this long and waded through so many write-ups only to find
I'm in agreement with pretty much everyone else about the best album of
2011. I'm not about to apologise, though - for Let England Shake was a career high even for someone with as remarkable a back catalogue as PJ Harvey. A
howl of rage and despair, a bloody and occasionally blackly comic
depiction of war, a love letter to and sarcastic rebuke of the nation,
an ode to lost innocence and lost lives - it was all these and more. And it boasted the call-and-response couplet: "What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children". Not your average album, in other words.
Key track: 'The Glorious Land'