[2011 in records] let the good times, let the good times rock and roll;
…in which this blogger does not manage to be the only person who didn’t list Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes or PJ Harvey who didn’t draw attention to the fact that she didn’t list Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes or PJ Harvey.
As ever, this is the product of one woman’s opinion and is intended as a neat summation of my own year in music only. Note that I did in fact purchase two of the albums I maligned above, as well as the Destroyer one people have been raving about which… what?! Also note that it was only yesterday I checked to see how many list-style posts I’d made last year, by which time it was already far too late to produce anything like a similar effort, but that I doubled the number of albums I ranked this year anyway as it would have made me very sad to leave out some of the ones below the line. Hey, this blogging technology is nothing if not an evolution, right?
LAST YEAR’S GIRL’S FAVOURITE, IF NOT THE BEST, ALBUMS OF 2011
20. REM: Collapse Into Now [buy]
In which the band you’ve adored since childhood go ahead and release the first thing they’ve done worth getting excited about in approximately a decade, and then go ahead and call it quits – but what a fantastic collection of anthemic, stadium-sized refrains and New Adventures-style complexity they left us with.
Download: “ÜBerlin”, “Blue”
19. Emmy the Great: Virtue [buy]
The Emmy the Great of this album is the older, heartbroken, scarred sister of the girl whose whimsical wordplay marked her 2009 debut. Virtue does not present its secrets so easily, layering them in lusher compositions and colder, mythological references but once it opens its heart you’ll wonder how you managed to misread the signs for so long.
Download: “Paper Forest (In The Afterglow of Rapture)”, “Cassandra”
I said: “I had this half written post in my head a couple of months ago about how I didn’t think I liked the lusher, more layered sound of sophomore album Virtue but it turned out I’d listened to it more than anything else; and also how Emma-Lee Moss was indiepop’s anti-Gaga. It never got written, obviously.” [September]
18. Ryan Adams: Ashes and Fire [buy]
An unexpected entrant in that special category reserved for the artists you love enough to buy their albums mechanically, having given up on being touched by anything they’ll produce again some time in the mid-00s. Combine with a magnificent live performance slotting these songs in between the “hits”, stir… and you’ve got your boy back.
Download: “Dirty Rain”, “Ashes and Fire”, “Lucky Now”
I said: “Reviewers slightly less emotionally invested than I have variously billed it a ‘career high’ – perhaps his best work since solo debut Heartbreaker… but comparing it to a beloved release of a decade ago is to miss the point.” [November]
17. Chris T-T: Disobedience: Chris T-T Sings AA Milne [buy]
Chris T-T was probably the most important musical discovery I made this year, which is why I put on a gig with him in it because isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you really like someone? In some ways including his self-released album of AA Milne’s children’s poems set to music, a spin-off from his Edinburgh Fringe show of the same name, is a bit of a cheat because those aren’t the songs that suckered me in so completely but these were the ones I first saw reduce grown adults to tears. The kid in your life will like this, sure – the sound effects more than the hidden political undertones, probably – but the kid in your heart will be bowled over by its magic.
Download: “Halfway Down”, “The King’s Breakfast/Where The Wind Goes”
16. Death Cab For Cutie: Codes and Keys [buy]
See some combination of the comments under REM and Ryan Adams, mixed in with enough little hooks to keep you humming this one halfway through the summer.
Download: “Some Boys”, “You Are A Tourist”, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”
I said: “Oh, how I scorned. How I forgot that it doesn’t matter how middle-aged and middle-of-the-road and settled in their happiness they become, Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla and the rest can still wreak more havoc with a single lyric or a well-placed chord change than any band I’ve ever known.” [June]
15. The Moth and the Mirror: Honestly, This World [buy]
It shouldn’t really be surprising that a group of Scottish musicians with so many fantastic projects to their combined names released something so lush and beautiful as this spellbinding debut. Easily one of the most talked-about homegrown records this year and deservingly so.
Download: “Boxes”, “Closing Doors”
14. Milk Maid: Yucca [buy]
This is why you need to write these things down: because otherwise, it’s the low-key lo-fi debuts that slip your mind when you come to pull a list together. Wonderfully understated, ramshackle yet melodic.
Download: “Girl”, “Not Me”
I said: “Milk Maid… make this beautiully melodic racket that might just be the best new thing I’ve heard all year.” [May]
13. Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo [buy]
One of those dreamy, minimalist records you didn’t realise has worked its way under your skin until it has firmly taken up residence there; this has a hazy, home-recorded feel that doesn’t take away from the simplicity of its songs.
Download: “Baby’s Arms”, “Jesus Fever”
12. The Low Anthem: Smart Flesh [buy]
I seem to remember my more Americana-focussed music blogging colleagues absolutely raving over the Low Anthem’s last album, which didn’t grab me at all. This, though? This is a ghostly, gorgeous, harmonious folk record that was probably more deserving of a title involving ashes and fire than anything else on this list.
Download: “Apothecary Love”, “Boeing 737″
I said: “Ancient and beautiful. Jim James wishes he could sing like this.” [July]
11. I Build Collapsible Mountains: The Spectator and the Act [buy]
Yeah yeah, I know The Gothenberg Address returned this month but it’s always been Luke Joyce’s ‘other’ project – the understated, half-magical, I Build Collapsible Mountains – that has gotten me most excited. One day I will have lots and lots of money and then he won’t have to rely on (admittedly ace) US labels to put his records in front of a wider audience; see if I don’t.
Download: “History Making…”, “Trail Song”
I said: “The truth is it’s records like this – unassuming, familiar, the sound of seashells and sunsets and introspection – that are the hardest to write about.” [April]
10. The Decemberists: The King Is Dead [buy]
By this stage in the proceedings, it’s beginning to look as if the return of old favourites I have written off has become something of a theme. After a series of increasingly impenetrable concept albums involving shape-shifting, bestiality, suicide pacts and – worse! – ten minute rock operettas I got incredibly excited when Portland’s Decemberists released an album that sang with shades of REM at their most folky although was not without its theatrical flourishes. Funnily enough Peter Buck lent his mandolin to some of the tracks, while Gillian Welch provides backing vocals.
Download: “This Is Why We Fight”, “Rise To Me”, “Don’t Carry It All”
I said: “No matter how self-indulgent the territory they might stumble into on record, you can’t attend a Decemberists show and not have fun.” [March
9. Wilco: The Whole Love [buy]
Yeah, I’ll be over here in the corner, taking the piss now… but seriously, what did it for me was the opening. “Art of Almost” gurgles and ticks for over a minute before Jeff Tweedy’s unmistakable vocals get anywhere near it, then carries on for a full seven minutes. Keep listening and find that this band, which I was beginning to suspect had become a bloated joke that wasn’t funny anymore, have produced one of the most gorgeous things you’ll ever hear in the riff through “One Sunday Morning”. Would I have loved this quite so much if I hadn’t heard these incredible compositions as they were meant to be heard, live in a purpose-built concert hall? I don’t care. Welcome back, Wilco.
Download: “Art of Almost”, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”
8. Ben Marwood: Outside There’s A Curse [buy]
Although I’d heard good things from mutual friends (and sneaked a track or two onto a mix), the night I saw Ben Marwood in Dundee I wasn’t expecting much more than an above average one-of-those-guys-with-an-acoustic-guitar-and-a-wry-outlook-on-life opening for two of my favourite artists. And he is that, yes… but there’s something extra about the Reading songwriter it’s hard to do justice to without forcing whatever copies of this frank, funny debut survived the Xtra Mile warehouse fire upon you and just telling you to trust me.
Download: “Toil”, “JJ Abrams”, “It’s Harder Now To Break Your Stupid Heart”
I said: “Ben Marwood’s prose leaps to life with mischief and sparkle. New? Maybe not. Necessary? Fuck, yes.” [May]
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Here We Rest [buy]
It was Whitney who forced the last Isbell record upon me in a sorta “you always liked Jason’s songs best, you should give his post-Truckers stuff a go” kind of way, and I remember thinking you’d have to go some way to beat it. Well, guess what? Not content to be one of those artists that stumbles on a formula and delivers more of the same, Jason Isbell has instead produced this smoky, soulful hymn to a country I’ve never known but which still feels like home.
Download: “Alabama Pines”, “Codeine”, “Stopping By”
I said:“This is brooding, soulful, an ode to the girl who’s no longer there… Oh. God. Melt.” [May]
6. Frank Turner: England Keep My Bones [buy]
The year began with me excited to see the artist I’d fallen hardest for in 2010 in a tiny, sweaty room and ended with that same artist coming close to selling out Wembley Arena. In between the dates of that never ending tour Frank Turner also took the time to produce an album which… well it’s almost like Isbell’s, in a way, in that it celebrates the heritage and mythology of a particular place as well as the even greater mythology of rock and roll.
Download: “I Am Disappeared”, “I Still Believe”, “Redemption”
I said: “[Y]ou could argue that fourth album England Keep My Bones is as religious an album as it gets – but it’s the religion of rock and roll rather than any traditional understanding of the word.” [June]
5. Thao and Mirah: Thao and Mirah [buy]
As collaborations go this combination of Thao Nguyen’s exuberance and Mirah’s gorgeous, airy croon is inspired. Stirred together with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus production and what you get is one of the most joyous, emotive records of the year.
Download: “Eleven”, “Little Cup”, “Rubies and Rocks”
I said: “Thao is earth and Mirah is air; while beatsmistress tUnE-yArDs provides the fire.” [May]
4. Chuck Ragan: Covering Ground [buy]
As the architect of that same Revival Tour which over the years has featured most of the boys my mum would call my ‘pin ups’ I’m amazed it took so long for the Hot Water Music frontman to fall under my radar. The gruff vocals and earnest, simple songs pay tribute to many of the same influences with a gutsy, passionate root.
Download: “Nomad By Fate”, “Seems We’re OK”, “Meet You In The Middle”
3. tUnE-yArDs: W H O K I L L [buy]
Garbus herself, now I had only a passing familiarity with her work; but some early mp3s coupled with the sheer joyousness she brought to the Thao and Mirah record made this an essential. There’s something tribal about it, something wild and untamed and incredibly fun.
Download: “Bizniss”, “Killa”
I said: “Crammed with whacked beats and tribal percussion this is definitely not the sort of thing I usually listen to, but I’m glad that I did.” [August]
2. The Horrible Crowes: Elsie [buy]
Another voice from the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon – one that’s more personal, more pained. If his other band’s albums are all youthful exuberance, the Horrible Crowes is the other side of that – the first broken heart that hurts more than the others, the memories that catch in your throat.
Download: “Sugar”, “Ladykiller”, “Behold the Horricane”, “Crush”, “Blood Loss”
1. Wild Flag: Wild Flag [buy]
Next time the coolest girls in town throw a party, they might even invite you. And maybe I won’t miss my favourite band anymore.
Download: “Romance”, “Glass Tambourine”, “Endless Talk”
I said: “Wild Flag is one of those perfect, short sharp shocks of albums. With your headphones on in your bedroom, wishing you were dancing it clocks in at just over half an hour in length but in person there’s much more scope for dragging out those grungy guitar licks.” [December]
And the ones that just missed out…
Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams; Tommy Stinson, One Man Mutiny; Beerjacket, The White Feather Trail; Roscoe Vacant & the Gantin’ Screichs, Reckurdt; Cave Singers, No Witch
Honorable mentions to the albums that may have featured had I actually taken the time to listen to them properly…
EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints; King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine
Ace EPs I didn’t have time to make a separate list of:
Franz Nicolay, Live Free; Dave Hughes & the Renegade Folk Punk Band, Despite the Blackout; Kathleen Edwards, Wapusk; Yusuf Azak, Prizefighter