2011 Re-Reviewed: Top Ten Albums
Welcome to part two of my 2011 reappraisal – this time looking at my re-evaluated favourite music releases. I did compile a list in December last year, but my opinions have shuffled around in the last twelve months. There’s a new entry in the form of St. Vincent, and the album headlining this list was previously kicking about down at the #7 mark. As per usual, please do get your opinions in, or even link me to your own lists from last year. Enjoy the list!
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2011
Note: After much soul-searching, for simplicity’s sake, I’ve decided to focus this list on clean-cut albums, rather than include soundtracks and EPs. However, I’d like to give special mention to the Submarine EP / OST by Alex Turner, and the Drive soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, both of which stand among the following ten as containing some of the classiest sounds of 2011.
The Black Keys
After the moody growl of 2010’s fantastic Brothers, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney deftly sidestepped rising expectations by rejecting the more lavish aspects of their arsenal and just having fun in the studio. It shows on El Camino: a brisk set of crazily simple but bruising balls-to-the-wall rockers which finally tipped them into the big league. It still hasn’t worn thin, either, with the likes of the itchy Lonely Boy and the outstanding Run Right Back standing among the strongest in their career.
Standout: Run Right Back
Space Is Only Noise
Nicolas Jaar’s debut album is more of a collage than an album, with few tracks to its name which could be recognised as standalone songs. The squelchy Space Is Only Noise If You Can See and the ominous Problem With The Sun might hit hardest at first, but Space Is Only Noise rewards patience, with its smaller moments uniting to form an unsettling and unique collection. Although it treads close to sounding a little too smart-aleck for its own good, it makes for a fascinating, enveloping listen.
Standout: I Got A
Once derided as gimmicky, now becoming national treasures, the members of The Horrors set their sights further than ever with their third album. Brimming with colour and madness, Skying utilises a multitude of strange ideas, but anchors itself with some catchy-as-hell pop hooks. I Can See Through You, Still Life and Moving Further Away proved that they could make envelope-pushing psychedelica palatable, and Faris Badwan’s vocals have become instantly recognisable.
Standout: You Said
Suck It And See
Hands down, my 2011 summer soundtrack album. The Monkeys threw another curveball with their fourth full-length release, counterbalancing the aggressive singles Brick By Brick and Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair with a plethora of sweet, lovesick pop songs. Pulling influences from The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen and Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner’s songwriting flowered as his bandmates honed in on a euphoric sound tinged with reverb and – yes! – swooning harmonies. Sing another “shalalalala” indeed.
Standout: Suck It And See
The most recent addition to this list, I’ve got to thank two people from the University of Warwick for encouraging me to check out the music of Annie Clark and St. Vincent. So, thank yous are in order for Ollie Guthrie and Paddy Lavin for prodding me to buy Strange Mercy, and for introducing me to a wildly wonderful world of sound where blissful, Disney-pretty compositions rub up against explosive fuzzballs of guitar. This is an album which manages to be as catchy-as-hell (Cruel), spookily spaced-out (Champagne Year) and incredibly powerful (the title track’s “… dirty policeman” refrain is profoundly affecting), all the while retaining its own unique voice.
Standout: Strange Mercy
The first of my triumvirate of folky gems of last year, Bon Iver’s self-titled second record was surprisingly different to For Emma, Forever Ago. Both records perfectly reflect their covers: the debut’s cabin-grown isolation expanding into a braver, more widescreen worldview, as evident on the stylistic shifts of Perth and Beth, Rest. But even amid these new flavours, Justin Vernon never forgot about the nucleus of his music, keeping his delicate acoustic fretwork and that angelic falsetto at the core of Bon Iver’s appeal.
A Creature I Don’t Know
I bloody love Laura Marling, and her third album turned out to embody everything which I cherish about her music. There was a slight conceptual bent veiled behind her storytelling this time around, and her literacy proved to be as powerful and evocative as ever, as she sang of Steinbeck on Salinas and the heavens on the rapturous Sophia. A Creature I Don’t Know also found her pushing the boat out a little more musically, with The Muse rambling into countrified territory and The Beast snarling from a wall of electric guitars. Riveting stuff.
There’s not much of a difference in terms of quality between Fleet Foxes’ eponymous first album and Helplessness Blues, but their second record feels slightly more focused, and easier to invest oneself in emotionally. From the chamber guitars of Montezuma onwards, Helplessness Blues echoes with a depth and warm resonance, with Robin Pecknold’s musings on life and its meaning capable of achieving a poetic transcendence damn near every time. It’s complimented with a musical sweetness, with Bedouin Dress lifted by a skipping fiddle melody and the title track churning into something both rousing and heartbreakingly honest.
Let England Shake
Last year’s “big” album, Let England Shake has deservedly topped a fair number of Album-of-the-Year lists. Deceptively simple in sound, but with plenty of layers to its tone, Polly Jean Harvey’s exploration of the devastation of war is grounded on her poise and commitment. The sentiments of these twelve songs are shaded in such a way that the album never once falls into the trap of sounding too solemn or sombre. Instead, it’s an affecting and quietly inventive piece of work from a top-quality musician, and a landmark album in Harvey’s impressive catalogue.
Standout: Written On The Forehead
Album Of The Year
The best and most forward-thinking bands are often applauded as such because they are masters of a certain way of making music: a particular approach which makes everything else – temporarily at least – sound as dull as dishwater by comparison. On the evidence of their three albums thus far, Wild Beasts have that formula mastered. Their work is consistently recognisable, unusual, exciting and beautiful, evolving with each album to explore their capabilities in different waters. Off the back of the florid, mysterious Two Dancers, Smother found the band reaching further by stripping back.
From the opening thrum of Lion’s Share to the dazzling catharsis of End Come Too Soon, Smother pulses with a striking dramatic undertow. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming (surely two of the strongest and most distinctive vocalists currently working in the industry) plunge into the grim waters of sexual tension and lust, but their tales are delivered with a melancholy and warmth which never falls into parody. Musically, too, Smother manages to make simple indie-guitar components sound transcendent, with a taste for the theatrical balancing out the icy atmospheres. Smother is as all-encompassing as its title suggests, but it’s a trip well worth taking.
Standout: Loop The Loop