Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Best of 2011

It's that time of year again, (well, I'm a little late actually but what the heck) time to look back on the best albums of the year. I know some people dislike lists, yes, they are fairly arbitrary, completely subjective & cause endless debates, but that last bit is the bit I like the most! It's all highly subjective because you know, I like what I like and I'll bang on about what I've been playing to anyone who'll listen. So, this is not a review as such, I'm a photographer for a reason & other people do that better than me so I've linked to some good ones. This is just me getting excited about music and sharing it.

I have been known to declare 'I don't like female singers' but given that over a quarter of this years list is taken up by the girls, I think it's safe to say I'm going to have to stop saying that now. 2010 was a tough act to follow, but there have been some absolute gems this year. So, contrary to how everyone else does theirs, I'm starting from the top, and as much as I've tried to put this in some kind of order... it's interchangeable in many places... put simply, these are the songs I've been obsessing over this year, the ones that have been on repeat, the ones I have been bugging people to listen to.

1. The Front Bottoms by The Front Bottoms 
After falling head over heals with the New Jersey  two pieces 'Slow Dance To Soft Rock' EP and various demos earlier this year, this was one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2011 for me. However, I was worried. So many demos and EPs that I love have  become over produced and lost in translation on the way to becoming full length studio albums (Dave Hause I'm looking at you) but this is every bit as good as I had hoped. All the twiddly bits are left in and none of the charm has been lost at the mixing desk. Infectiously good choruses and anthemic instrumentals sit next to beautiful, neurotic, almost confessional lyrics that also raise a smile. This album has been on repeat since it was released in September and there's no doubt in my mind that it deserves the top spot, as well as wider recognition. The band are currently touring in the states, we just need them to visit this side of the pond now and show us what they can do live.

2. Simple Math by Manchester Orchestra
The third long player by Atlanta's best indie noise merchants sees them hitting their peak, and living up to their name; there are orchestral pieces a plenty on this offering. Quiet, simple opener 'Deer' gives way to the pounding beat, growling vocals, soaring choruses and orchestral moments of 'Mighty' that typify the rest of the album. The whole thing can only be described as epic, it's a hugely ambitious album with a big beefy sound and they've really pulled it off. I saw them play in November and they even managed to get this huge sound across in the live arena, no mean feat given the choral vocals and strings that appear on the album. Andy Hull has one of those distictive voices that sends shivers down my spine, quiet and apologetic in one moment and spitting accusations and anger the next. It's a very personal album, sometimes painfully so ('Apprehension') but it's all the better for it.  

3. Last Of The Country Gentlemen by Josh T Pearson
So much has been written about Josh T Pearson's stunning debut album debut album that I feel quite inadequate to add anything further, I simply dont have the vocabulary to objectively assess the vast scope of this record. Needless to say it featured high up the rankings in most end of year lists and was Rough Trades album of the year. I think 'unflinchingly honest' just about sums up this album, As David Edwards says in his review for Drowned In Sound. He adds that like listening to Elliott Smith or Ian Curtis, you know he means every single word. It's a huge regret to me that I managed to miss every single one of his live appearances in the UK this year. Thankfully Pearson is getting the recognition he so deserves so I hoping for more UK dates this year to make up for my loss.

4. Gracious Tide Take Me Home by Lanterns On The Lake  
Lanterns On The Lake are a perfect example of a band who are so good live, that when you see them for the first time, it doesn't matter if you know them. They supported John Grant at The Royal Festival Hall earlier this year and anyone who didn't bother to show up for the support that night really missed out. They left me speechless... gawping at the stage and wondering how on earth they'd escaped my radar. I sat down after photographing them and tried to express to the person with me how I felt about what I was seeing and hearing. I failed miserably, but then so did he. We sat in silence then, occasionally giving each other 'holy shit how good are they' looks. The album followed not long after that gig and I swear, I played nothing else for a solid week. Stunning, ethereal and completely mesmerizing it's compelling listening from beginning to end. Folk Radio UK review it here.

5. Departing by The Rural Alberta Advantage 
The Rural Alberta Advantage are one of those bands that had been hovering around the back of my consciousness for about a year and a half. I even listened to the new album, and then didn't listen to it again for months. I don't know why I gave it another try, but I'm glad I did because this is a perfect album. Yep, every single song, no skipping tracks here. 'Barnes' Yard' is in contention for one of the best tracks of the year for me, a fast paced helter-skelter ride lasting a mere 2 minutes and 24 seconds that cries out to be played over and over. 'Muscle Relaxants' is edgy and slightly paranoid while 'North Star' is a love song for the road and couldn't be more different. By the time you hear Nils Edenloff singing the refrains of 'Good Night' on the album closer, I promise you'll be in love, or swooned at the very least. Read the Guardian review here.

6. The King is Dead by The Decemberists
Given that The Decemberists previous long player was 'The Hazards Of Love' one of my favourite albums of all time, 'The King Is Dead' had a helluva lot to live up to. I know many were disappointed by this album, but it's a grower. It may not quite reach the dizzying heights of The Hazards Of Love, but this is a truly superb album and after a good month of listening it's clear that this is another classic. The fact that it's not higher up my list is only tesament to the sheer quailty of albums released this year. Yes, it's exactly what you'd expect from The Decemberists, they are no breaking new ground here, but they do what they do so well, why change it? Here you have 10 perfect songs, at times heartbreaking (Dear Avery) at others foot stomping (Rox in The Box) but always, always of the highest song writing calibre. Pitchfork gave it an even review, if a little on the low scoring side.

7. Believers by AA Bondy
AA Bondy is another one who set himself a tough act to follow, but  I do believe (excuse the pun) that 'Believers' (his third full length album) is his best, most accomplished album to date, it has many more stand out tracks, it feels fuller and more rounded. Such a shame his live dates had to be postponed... the prospect of hearing something like the slowly pounding hypnotic lyrics of 'The Heart Is Willing' played live would have been such a treat. Thankfully he's back in March to play the rescheduled dates. The Line Of Best Fit review sums it all up perfectly for me.
Ex Gowns front woman Erika M Anderson has produced one of the most surprising albums of the year. Surprising in that I like it. I'm not known for my love of female vocalists, but this, oh this hits the spot. Noisy, unapologetic, shouty yet vulnerable, she sings, whispers, screams and chants over sparse keyboards, chunky guitar lines and screeching feedback. I love here when she's quietly cracking up ('Marked') I love her when she's spitting venom ('California') and when shes' just plain disturbing ('Breakfast') I love that she can wear a t-shirt and old long johns on stage and yet ooze sex appeal. She's intelligent, feisty and independent. Just how I like my girls on record. For half of May & all of June, this is ALL I listened to. The Line of Best Fit review here.
9. Diamond Mine by King Creosote & Jon Hopkins
I have to confess that I'm a total sucker for singers with more than a notable trace of a Scottish accent in their vocals, so it was a dead certainty that I was going to fall for this. Kenny Anderson's voice layered over simple guitar lines and swelling accordion on 'John Taylor's Month Away' are enough to reduce to me a wobbling mess and 'Bats In The Attic' enough to reduce me to tears. At just seven tracks and a little over thirty minutes long, it may be on the short side, but what it lacks in lengh, it certainly makes up for in sheer quality and songmanship. They are playing Shepherds Bush Empire in February and I have to say, it's one of the most anticipated gigs of 2012 for me. Read the BBC review here.
10. Civilian by Wye Oak
Wye Oak are one of the many support bands I saw this year that completely blew me away. Shame on anyone who doesn't bother to see who's opening for who these days as there have been a fantastic array of support bands on the london circuit this year. Anyway, at this particular gig, I liked Wye Oak more than the headliners and have grabbed every opportunity to see them live since then. Their third album is all delicious alt-pop wearing country underwear. It manages to be both warm yet stark with only singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and multi instrumentalist Andy Stark providing all the sound, a set up they reproduce live to great effect. Pitchfork gave it a 7.9 out of 10. It's at least a nine.

11. Field Songs by William Elliot Whitmore
The overriding impression you are left with after listening to William Elliot Whitmore, is that this, is the real deal. With nothing more that a banjo or guitar and his deep, rich voice that sounds like it belongs to someone else (you know what I mean if you see him) you're transported to an open sided rail road truck in the American mid-west, watching the agricultural landscape speed past under the blazing sun. Or you're gathered around a dying fire at night listening to Mr Whitmore spin tales of his travels and woes. This is a man who looked surprised at finding himself in London's Roundhouse in November, the only performer I've seen in a venue that size who crouched down to wave and chat with the front row before starting his set, just like he was still in some local bar.

12. Breakers by Gem Club
I'm beginning to see something of a theme here... a lot of what I've listened to this year could be filed under 'Sparse Icy Minimalism'... if such a sub sub genre exists. Whispery vocals and heart rending piano lines interspersed with cello lines that chill the spine. It's hardly surprising that the Gem Club duo are classically trained, this album has the traces of classical sensibilities running all through it. Personally, I didn't see much coverage of Gem Club this year, maybe I missed it, maybe they are still a little under the radar? I liked Dusted's review here. Dare I say it, on tracks like 'Red Arrow' they could even out Bon Iver Justin Vernon. Speaking of whom...
13. Bon Iver by Bon Iver
How do you follow up a debut like 'For Emma Forever Ago'. How do you live up to the hype and expectation? Justin Vernon doesn't stray far from his debut in terms of style, but there's something more uplifting, more hopeful about the self titled follow up. The swelling sounds of 'Holocene' make it an album highlight for me, full of the promise of fresh cold mountain air and self realization. My colleague at Ragged Words puts it far better of course, but you know what I mean. It's not better than 'For Emma' but it's not too different either, it feels more like a tentative exploration. The third album will be very interesting I think.
14. I Am Very Far by Okkervil River
I frequently have an on/off love for Okkervil River. From the first time I heard 'Rider' from this album though, I knew this was going to be a very much 'On' moment. It took a little longer for the rest of the album to grow on me and although sometimes it did feel like I was persevering where I shouldn't have to, it really really does grow on you. From the anthemic opener 'The Valley' via Bowie-esque 'Piratess' and the sheer genius of 'Rider' you arrive eventually at 'The Rise' and by the time you've traveled the journey a few times, you realize it was well worth it. The Guardians Alex Petridis tells it better than me though in his thoroughly brilliant review, worth the read if for nothing more than his description of 'Rider'.

15. Conatus by Zola Jesus
Zola Jesus is a different kind of 'Sparse Icy Minimalism' more gothic and electro, but still on the stark & chilly side. Vocally this album really reminds me of Fever Ray, musically, if Trent Reznor had been born a girl with Russian heritage and operatic training, I imagine this is what he might have come up with. In any case, as Pitchfork say Zola Jesus is far more than a sum of her influences. 'Avalanche' & 'Vessel' are clear album highlights for me. I wish I could have seen her live to see how they translated, and seen her perform, I imagine it's a pretty intense performance.

16. An EP by Frightened Rabbit
It feels a bit cheeky putting this three track EP in here... but honestly, it's that damn good that it can easily stand up to any full length album. I can, and have, listen to this over and over again. This tiny piece of genius is 99.9% perfect. the 1% is a lyric that jars so badly, it's like being slapped. You'll know it when you hear it. I hope they're being ironic, but either way, I hate that line. Not enough to put me off listening to the EP again and again. You know when it's good because even though I know every song word for word, it never gets to the point where I've over-listened and ruined it (don't you just hate that?) Middle track 'Fuck This Place' is one of THE songs of the year for me and if this were a full album it would be way higher up the list. I can't wait for the next album!

17. Out In The Light by Waters
You know how I said that new bands usually have to impress me live for me to love them? Well, Waters are the exception to the rule. I was indifferent to the point of boredom the first time I saw them play (supporting Wye Oak). The second time I saw them, supporting EMA some five months later, there was something there, some lyric or some chord change... something... a tiny shard of something good and irritating that forced me to check out the album. It's been on heavy rotation ever since. There's something quite infectious about this up-beat offering. It's one of those albums where you wake up humming bits of it and just have to put it on. For me, it's got a California sun soaked sound to it, retro but perfectly up to date at the same time, warm and friendly and joyous and just begging to be put on in the car to be sung along loudly too. I'm looking forward to the next Waters live outing in London... third time lucky? Drowned In Sound review it here.

18. Strange Moosic by Herman Dune
Herman Dune were another live revelation. My boyfriend suggested I put my name down to shoot them as they were something of a legend and a lot of fuss had been made about their video starring a blue muppet like character and Jon Hamm of 'Mad Men' fame. On the night I was so exhausted that my plan was to shoot the first three and leave. Not only did I stay until the end, I ended up reviewing it, so impressed was I. I've since found out that this is widely considered by hard core fans to be one of their weaker albums, which is impressive given that I couldn't stop listening to this. It's impossible not to smile at songs like 'The long Long Run' and every track is a toe-tapper. This BBC review sums it up perfectly.
19. Hurray For The Riff Raff by Hurray For The Riff Raff 
Hurray For The Riff Raff starts with what sounds like a ballet recital piece played on piano in an empty room, very 'Fevers & Mirrors' era Bright Eyes. Then Alynda Sigarra starts singing, the banjo and the violin kick in and it changes the mood completely. At points on early listens I wasn't sure I liked her voice, but that was just my natural aversion I think, because after a few months of listening, I think it's a pretty perfect record, heartfelt and honest and drenched in American country. It's one of those records that you don't consciously remember the first time round, but find yourself humming bits of and wondering where it came from. Read the Subba Cultcha review here.

20. Celebration, Florida by The Felice Brothers
I'm not sure this is the best Felice Brothers Album, but dammit, it's The Felice Brothers and they can't do much wrong in my opinion. It's a bit of a departure from their usual sound, more discordant,noisier and less sure of itself, loses it's way in places and then comes right back. Given they do what they do so well, it's brave for an established band to go lurching off at such a tangent, there are some real dark undertones here and it's less friendly and angrier than previous offerings ("fuck the news, fuck the house of blues, fuck my whole career, you don't want me here") )but maybe that's what I like about it. If you're new to The Felice Brothers, best not to judge them on this album alone, but you should absolutely listen. Read the BBC review here.

No comments:

Post a Comment