Saturday, May 12, 2012

SWSL Albums Of 2011

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...

Exceedingly Underwhelming:

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
Just 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 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 a 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
What 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'

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 iron's hot.
Key track: 'Pact To Stay Cold'

From 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
'Vessel' - 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
That 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
With 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'

An 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
Headline 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 track 'Romance'.
Key track: 'Romance'

Stripped-to-the-bone 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
A 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)


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
Dense, 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'

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 Women's demise.
Key track: 'Flying Into The Sun'

FLEET FOXES - Helplessness Blues
If 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
The 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 like...
Key track: 'A Kingdom'

LOS CAMPESINOS! - Hello Sadness
Los 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'

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
My, 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
Sparse, 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
Simplicity 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
Sultry Swedish 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
Everything's 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
Horrors 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
Bloke 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, 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
So 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'


Lanterne Rouge said...

Superbly written Ben and I agree with you in a number of cases - you yourself have introduced me to Blanck Mass (a reminder of how keenly I am awaiting the next Fuck Buttons material) and I Break Horses and EMA and Fucked Up would certainly be squarely in my own top 10.

You are not the first person whose opinion I respect who has recommended the Shabazz Palaces LP either and other areas of convergence would be Zola Jesus (to date, her collaborations with Orbital, M83 etc. have been more convincing than the solo material), Metronomy (good on them for trying a change of pace but I preferred the dancier first album) and Radiohead - to reprise the football chant de nos jours, ‘They do what they want, they do what they want...Radioheeeeead, they do what they want’

Where I disagree is over Gang Gang Dance - nothing less than the album of 2011 for me!

Nick Ascroft said...

Brilliant stuff. And I love that you start with the complaints, most of which I agree on. What I heard of Mascis's album I preferred to what I heard of Thurston's, but will listen to the rest now on your reccy. A few others in there I will definitely put ears to now as well. I really didn't like Fucked Up, EMA or The Antlers this year, though did come around, if not over-exuberantly, to PJ Harvey's LES. But I like that you put her number 1, despite the hype.

I'm more love the single hate the album, as you know. But my more obvious top 10 for what's it's worth was:

1. Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes
2. Creep on Creepin’ On. Timber Timbre
3. The Rip Tide. Beirut
4. Suck It And See. Arctic Monkeys
5. Angles. The Strokes
6. Beer In the Breakers. Wave Pictures
7. Tripper. Fruit Bats
8. Fading Parade. The Papercuts
9. Portamento. The Drums
10. Diaper Island. Chad VanGaalen

Nick Ascroft said...

... and meant to say, great to see Youth Lagoon there!

Ben said...

Lanterne Rouge: You've got your work cut out if you want to persuade me to even contemplate listening to that Gang Gang Dance album again! I knew I didn't think much of it, but revisiting it for this round-up that disinterest rapidly became virulent dislike...

Nick: Must get Mascis' album too. As for Thurston Moore's, the song I've linked to ('Circulation') is pretty representative. Interested to hear about what you didn't like - I found the EMA album did take a bit of getting into, and I'd admit that I don't like the Fucked Up or Antlers albums as much as their predecessors (were you a fan of those?). As for your own list, I've not come across many people who rate the Fleet Foxes album that highly - better than the first for you? Also surprised to find someone that keen on the Strokes album. I should investigate the Beirut album, and ought to invest in the Drums album too, having quite liked the first one.

Nick Ascroft said...

Ben: I think it’s more I was blown away by how good the J Mascis songs were, than disliking ‘Benediction’, the only song I’ve heard of Demolished Thoughts. But while that song had much I liked, and seemed a good direction to challenge Thurston’s Sonic Youth autopilot, something about the ‘whisper “I love you” one thousand times’ lyric maybe had me eyebrow-raising. But I L.O.V.E. Beck, and if it’s half as good as the brilliant Seachange … The Antlers and EMA I realize I have now written off purely because I don’t like the voices of the respective vocalists. A great enough song by either and I’ll float back. Fucked Up I heard first last year, and the overhyping damaged my appreciation. I downloaded half the album, but ultimately couldn’t love it as much as other pals raved. I think part of this is the current hump I’m in with anything that wants to be punk. You know how sometimes whole genres fall into your bad books for a few years; I’m that way with modern punk. Too many recycled ideas, and I’m just not angry enough. I think Helplessness Blues is a fantastic album. Is it as good as the first? That’s a tough ask, but it is consistently great. Ask me in ten years. One thing important to note in my top 10 list is how few albums I listen to in whole. I restricted my top 10 to only those, so a lot of artists I dug a whole lot last year didn’t get a look in. The Strokes album grew on me. Not their best or worst album, but completely carried by the imaginative genius of Albert Hammond Jr’s guitar lines: so varied, and nothing like them elsewhere. Beirut is always brill if you love some trumpet and the Drums for basslines. Portamento is ultimately a disappointing album, seemingly too quickly written, with too many flawed songs. I’ve gotten used to it though and that Drums sound is a beautifu thing to listen to. Days and Money are the best tracks, and that says a lot.

Nick Ascroft said...

... and I enjoyed 'Mindkilla' by Gang Gang, but wouldn't listen to the whole album ...

Ben said...

I'd given up on/lost interest in the Strokes, but perhaps I've done so prematurely. As for EMA and the Antlers, you could do worse than start with the tracks I've linked to in the post.

Also meant to say I'm intrigued by Diaper Island, given VanGaalen's work with Women - what's it like?

Nick Ascroft said...

Diaper Island is really likeable with a few standout songs (e.g. Peace On The Rise and Sarah). But it didn't push past the few-fine-songs thing and compell me to continually relisten. You can't not like it, but can you love it? That said, if Chad VG put out a world-killer of an album, I wouldn't be surprised. Talented man.

Every Strokes album is a blessing after the awfulness that was Julian Casablancas's solo effort. Capital yuck.

OK, going to do a massive listen this lunchtime to your links.

Nick Ascroft said...

I zinged through most of the new-to-my-ears songs, only skipping four times.

IceAge: Another great track from them. OK, gotta get album.

Best EMA track I’ve heard, and as a Red Star Belgrade fan I approve. Nice build. Still not hearting them.

Thurston Moore: Much better. Dig it. Violin ‘feedback’. Nice tonal changes in the song. ‘I just came back to shoot you baby.’

Cat’s Eyes. I admit I had avoided this. But yeah, dead on. Lovely.

Wells & Moffat: Shoot me. He is as great a storyteller as ever.

Josh T Pearson: Wow. Beginning to get the online worship.

Moon Duo: Officially turned onto them now. Thanks.

Los Campesinos: What a video! Not a bad song either. I had gotten a bit sick of their yelping, after initially loving them. Half-body one-eighty.

Lanterns on the Lake. Hmm, will reserve judgement. SKIP.

Cristal Stilts: Ooh. Really like this. Some reason have never got anything by them. A clear oversight.

Cave Singers: Slickly delivered and I am shamefully all about slickness. But not for me, this.

Blanck Mass. Zzzzz. SKIP.