Another cover album here, Elzhi's interpretation of Nas's 1994 debut Illmatic is a labour of love; not a case of another rap artist chasing success through a half-arsed sculpting of a classic. The critical response to the mixtape (considering the reworking of Illmatic is a task on apar with reworking the Bible) was surprisingly near unanimous in praise! It's deserved praise though, the choice to integrate the live band Will Sessions to record the beats was a particularly inspired choice. Elzhi's addition of lyrics relating to his own position in the rap game ensures the record's soul is not still lingering with Nas in the early 90's. A great release.
Passed Me By/ We Stay Together
On his return to the public eye after a lengthy absence, Mancunian dub artist Andy Stott produces an apocalyptic visage. Each track's ambient buzzes spiral over traditional R&B Vocal samples, reverberating around the hollow recording space. The drones eb and flow in a meditating state all too rare in modern electronic music. It's certainly not the most accessible album this year and paces itself incredibly slowly with no real payoff but the overall vibe of the album makes up for this. One of my favorite album sleeves of the year as well.
House of Balloons
Definitely one of the most blogged artists of 2011, in House of Balloons, The Weeknd collated a debut mixtape in March that replicated the Internet age; both technically advanced but also lacking the warmth of humanity. For every example of well constructed sampling, strong vocal delivery or tight beats there's one drawback that, in the end, brought the whole album down a notch for me; the lyrics. Regardless of how appealing he is to the party lifestyle, I very rarely found The Weeknd referring to girls as anything but objects of desire; clumsily depicted in a leering and frankly quite creepy manner. The emotive vocals suggest we should sympathize with the persona... when in reality The Weeknd just needs to man up and stop sulking about the inevitability of a millionaire lifestyle that awaits him following the popularity of House of Balloons and Thursday.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
[Sub Pop/ Rock Action]
Though it's common knowledge the band will never rekindle the kind of form they had for the Young Team era. But this is a welcome addition to the aging Glaswegian collectives' discography, leading a great balancing act of maintaining the sound that made them so great while introducing new aspects to their musical spectrum to not just take the Bob Dylan route of writing 23 albums of rambling so-and-so's refusing to alter their sound. Most importantly the band still rock and they still come up with the best song titles (George Square Thatcher Death Party the highlight on this album!)
We're New Here
[XL/ Young Turks]
Released months before Heron's death, We're New Here brought together two artists on complete opposite ends of the spectrum; Jamie XX a newbie coming from a gritty, British dance background while Heron a legend in the jazz and soul scenes prominent in the 70's. This album is more the work of the former, taking on the task of reworking Heron's gritty and poetic final album I'm New Here into a piece more accessible to the mainstream dance audience which he has taken to the helm. The dedicated commitment by Jamie XX results in an album that's both sonically interesting and stays true to it's source material, which heightens my disappointment at seeing the song "I'll take care of U" be recently recycled on the new Drake album in an idle manner.
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
I have to admit, I was really excited for this record after 2008's Saturdays=Youth and, with the blogosphere quick to rave about it in their masses, I perhaps over-appreciated it for the first few listens. Its overblown, epic scale and ambition in correlation with the nostalgic quality of childhood references gives an initial sense of depth. Split over two discs and spanning 80 minutes, the bubbly, electronic warmth reminiscent of the likes of MGMT tired way too quickly for me. Nonetheless tracks like Intro and Midnight City are definitely up there with the strongest of the year, it's just Anthony Gonzales's (leader of the group) insistence on replicating tracks so they mirror on each disc eg. Track 1 on Disc 1 sounds like Track 1 on Disc 2. It's an admirable concept but this album's over an hour long!!! For me, had M83 taken the Strokes treatment and had a 40 minute-tops album, with catchy, individual songs and none of the ponderous interludes I could have loved it, but in it's current form I can only give a merely good reaction sadly.
A veteran in the film scoring game, I was introduced to Cliff Martinez only this year through my pursuit of this album. This score does what a film soundtrack should do, both remaining musically endearing while not intruding on the visual content of what's on screen. As an album on it's own, it's certainly a "night" album, the ambient warbles of each track replicate the cold, brutal atmosphere of the film perfectly. The Tarantino-esque use of classic originals as well really works well both on CD and at the big screen, formulating one of my favorite soundtrack albums since Johnny Greenwood's masterpiece for There Will Be Blood.
A producer by trade, Chad Vangaalen this year stamped his lo-fi aesthetic onto his fourth solo effort. The album dips in and out of various genres and sounds, ranging from the 90's slacker indie of tracks like Peace on the Rise to nods to psychedelic rock on Freedom for a Policeman. Lyrically, though titles like Shave my Pussy may contradict this, this is VanGaalen's most personal and mature release to date, with each line tinted in a sense of angst. Diaper Island really puts Chad VanGaalen on the map as a musician and shows his true talent may lie beyond the mixing desk.
Faris Badwan's first of two LP's in this list was sadly overshadowed by the presence of The Horror's psychedelically-brilliant 3rd LP. However his collaboration with Canadian opera-singer Rachel Zeffira was a lot more ambitious and spread over so many different genres successfully, rooted in the eras of the 50's and 60's. The influences contain themselves to specific, single tracks; the cliche spaghetti-western vibe to Bandit while personal favorite Face In The Crowd holds a debt to the work of Phil Spector with The Ronettes. Sadly the album's over far too soon and the tracks are so varying and so daring that the final product feels a lot more like a compilation than a solid album in itself but who cares when the tracks are this good!
Primarily a hip hop producer, AraabMuzik took his reliability on samples over to this; his debut release. It harks back to 90's rave and dance, a period which is hardly the greatest time to relive! But what makes this release so attractive is it's urgency, the producer rushes through each track with gritty intent. The album certainly owes a debt to British garage (despite AraabMuzik's American origins,) and there's a real woozy sense on a couple of tracks attained by the swirling synths and constant 4/4 beats. Where this album belongs is in clubs, having said that to be put alongside the current dance scene (Skrillex, Chase & Status etc) would do Araabmuzik an injustice!
Responsible for one of my favorite albums of last year, (Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest) Bradford Cox returned to his long-running solo project in 2011 under the alias Atlas Sound. After being a personal highlights for me at May's All Tomorrows Parties festival and pleasantly wowing me with a percentage of tracks on his vast Bedroom Databank collection given away in the late months of 2010, this was a must-buy for me upon initial release. The majority of tracks on Parallax are well-written, catchy guitar tunes but where Cox lets himself down is in his production. This album loses most of the lo-fi charm of past recordings, instead opting for an airy Beach Boys sound that lacks the oomph and sonic intricacies found on past Atlas Sound projects. Nonetheless, a below-standard Atlas Sound album, for me, has way more charm than the average effort from the majority of indie outfits!
With their close binds to Yorkshire, I've always had a soft spot for Wild Beasts and in 2009, with Two Dancers, they really nailed it for me, balancing theatrics and subtlety to great effect. Their third record Smother retracts from the guitar basis of past efforts for a more airy, atmospheric tone. Many have embraced the record, many have shrugged it aside, I'm in between; Hayden Thorpe's vocals in particular prosper in a more prominent position in the mix sacrifices the human grit of past efforts. Even then, the lyrics are once more elegant and enjoyably theatrical and the album is the most atmospheric of their discography. I just wish they'd play Leeds sometime soon!
Completing their transition from semi-joke Goth-poppers to one of the most exciting bands in Britain, The Horrors took the influences from 2009's Primary Colours and exploited them further to create Skying. The psychedelic edge moulded by the likes of Jesus & The Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine makes this album a colourful one suited to its Summer release. Much more responsibility is thrust onto the vastly-underrated Joshua Hayward, whose guitar sound become expanded to one of brimming elegance not far from that of John Squire. I'm quite shocked how well received this album actually was, yes it's a great record but I found more than a couple of the tracks to be quite indulgent, overrunning their stay and becoming frankly, quite boring! But, as a whole, this is the step I wanted to see The Horrors take and there are many standout moments that more than make up for moments of tedium, they were great at Leeds Fest as well which certainly didn't harm their position on this list!
Nostalgia is as prominent in todays music scene as it ever has been. The problem with this is that an increasing proportion of artists embrace the past not as a homage, but as a propaganda tool (I recently saw The Kooks' lead promising a "massive dance project"- kill me now!) This record however is 50 minutes of charming 80's patronage, the saxophones in full voice and the smooth vocals of Dan Bejar compliment the stories of love and frustration. The albums as deep as you can make it, the layered instruments reveal intricacies upon each listen. In my ears though, the album, like it's cover, is very grey, lacking in some of the brighter synths of the 80's era, but this never hurt Hitchcock's films and it has minimal effect on the music here.
On A Mission
On the subject of nostalgia, Katy B's debut was quite a nostalgic album for me! When I was 6ish, upon getting my first CD player (before my discovery of the Internet) one of the first purchases I loved was Ms Dynamite's debut A Little Deeper- I don't think I had many CD's to be honest. But anyway, this is the first record in personal memory to have related in anyway to the dancy-garage vibe of Dynamite's album. The songs on here are absolutely great, centralizing around a club setting, the lyrics are not sexualized but contain a grittiness reminiscent of some of The Streets' early work. In a world where most female singers feel forced to tag their music with some sexualized, indulgent video (ahem Lady Gaga) Katy B is all about the music, and with On A Mission Katy B really excels to make one of the years' best debuts!
Hailing from New Jersey, Real Estate seem to have taken the baton from Arcade Fire in depicting the suburbs on their 2nd album, Days. Though the lyrics don't cut as strong an impact as their Canadian cousins, this record is simply so joyous in it's depiction of childhood and adolescence within America it's very easy to ignore any flaws prevalent and just enjoy the thing. The band lead a very relaxed, slacker rock sound reminiscent to the stories of friendship, boredom and nature. Sure the band seem to stay on one gear for most the record but the tracks are very tightly putting together giving a sense of unity and brotherhood all too absent in the modern music business.
The Golden Age of Apocalypse
Making up for the absence of a solo release this year, Flying Lotus collaborated with Thundercat in the role as producer on the debut of the Los Angeles bassist who'd previously served on FlyLo's last effort, Cosmogramma. This is definitely a bassist's record, an album driven by rhythms and grooves. It's certainly branches from 50's Jazz but is textured through advanced, modern electronica. Under FlyLo's helm, he give freedom for improvisation, shown in the awesome bass solo on Is It Love? but also keeps the tracks condensed and the album tight as possible. This is yet another record proving Brainfeeder's credentials in the advancement of dance-jazz fusion.
50 Words For Snow
[Anti- / Fish People]
After one disappointedly flat album in Director's Cut released this year, Kate Bush shocked me by announcing a swift follow up in the form of 50 Words For Snow and boy-oh-boy did it shock me! I was always attracted to Bush's pure weirdness but, musically, I simply could not connect, up to now. To me, Bush's voice has matured with age, now a lot less wild and more measured, riddled with elegance. Each track extends to around ten minutes and tedium can set in, especially on the simplistic title-track which even Stephen Fry's presence can't save! Kate Bush's weirdness is stamped on each track though, most prominently on Misty depicting what comes across as a sexual act with a snowman. Even for the ridiculousness, the record is mesmerizing and captures Winter at it's finest.
The English Riviera
[Atlantic/ Big Beat/ Because]
A homage to their hometown upon the Devon coastline, The English Riviera shows Metronomy at their most romantic, singing longingly of their roots. The record moves like the subtle waves of the coast, the rhythms subtle and yet flowing. The lyrics hark back to days of innocence but also give a sense of opportunity- to the future, to the idea of ripping up your past and starting again. Even amongst such a relaxed, personal approach the tracks border on dance music, in particular defining Summer anthem The Bay. As a prominently British record, I expected a little more connection with the album's personality than I did but, nonetheless, as a fundamental pop record it is great.
The "supergroup" of Daniel Lopatin (Aka. Oneohtrix Point Never) and Joel Ford of the group Tigercity really surprised me with this album, producing a record that wouldn't be too out of place on a Miami Vice soundtrack! Though both coming from completely different brands of music; the two have clearly embraced the 80's Casio era debunked from any of their individual works. These tracks are just so catchy and cheesy that they're just too irresistible! Digital and analog synthesizers and drum machines are commonplace in the record and it gives authenticity, harking back to the days when the likes of Gary Numan would write the sort of techno tunes sadly neglected in modern music. It's an incredibly unique record that doesn't challenge the listener but invites them to a world of 80's weirdness.
As they close in on their 25th anniversary as a collective, The Roots continue to outstrip the majority of hip-hop in terms with their style and substance. This record is no anomaly to their prolific discography. Undun, the band's 10th album, is perhaps their most ambitious yet; loosely following the life of the fictional character Redford Stephens, a creation of Sufjan Stevens on the track Redmond. But, if the telling of a whole life in itself wasn't complex enough, The Roots do it in reverse! It covers topics commonplace in the rap genre; drugs, money, jail all traverse in the lyrics however the band do not glamorize the subject, instead creating a form of tragedy more relatable to books. It's very efficiently executed, the guest-spots are great and each part of the lengthy support team do their job to a tee. The fact such a great hip-hop album appears so low on my list shows the strength of the genre this year.
As someone planning to take English at University, it's hardly promising that my mind began to utilize words like "swag" and "Golfwang" at the end of every other sentence. Thankfully this was in March, when I, like most the youth population, was an Odd Future obsessive. While I waited for what would be the disappointment of the year- Tyler the Creator's Goblin, fellow OF member Frank Ocean had already released nostalgia, Ultra for nothing! Only recently have I embraced it and it proves a million miles away from OFWGKTA's ringleader. While Tyler spits about "raping pregnant bitches" Frank Ocean used his debut mixtape to dictate his views on issues like the Pro-Choice/ Pro-life debate while covering the common themes of traditional R&B (partying, girls etc.) The songs are great and show an incredibly advanced talent, the only strict down side for me were some of the corny samples- I cringed a little at the MGMT backing track on the album's closer but this is a free mixtape- so who can complain!
The initial release of this project was centralized so much around the simultaneous iPad App, I feared the only way I'd get to hear anything from Björk was to commit another £500 to Apple. Thankfully we were given a physical release and it sure lived up to my expectations! As the title suggests, the album expands from the intricacies of nature to the surreal outer realms of our universe. Each track builds layer upon layer, as Björk creates a more atmospheric, zonal feel to the record and gets rid of the ridiculously showy production of some of the recent releases. My favorite moments come when the album's at it's most abrasive, the sonic explosion on Crystalline, the electro-blast-beat of Sacrifice. To me, Biophilia is the album that best balances Björk's recent brand of weirdness with the catchy melodies of her early work!
Suck It And See
Primarily, the Arctic Monkeys are one of the defining bands of my childhood so their may be a little bit of bias in this placing. For me though, Suck It And See proved a massive return to form for the Monkeys following the dull plodding of Humbug. Alex Turner, though many have hated his transformation to LA Rocker, still has floods of charm and wit showering down on tracks like Piledriver Waltz. The songs are a lot more, well, song-y now, no longer rotating around the gritty lyric but instead prioritizing structure and tightness of the band. This leads to perhaps not a better band on record but live the band are a whole different beast now, I was lucky enough to see them at the Don Valley Bowl homecoming gig and it definitely showed a band at their peak who I hope can conduct themselves to world domination!
The British dance scene this year has appeared to become more and more united; Burial's collaboration with Massive Attack and the Radiohead collation of remixes renewed my personal faith in the prominence of a new generation of British electronic anchormen. The success story this year within the genre would have to be SBTRKT, whose popularity exploded with the Little Dragon collab, Wildfire. For me, that track still remains the highlight on this album but kudos has to be given to Sampha, who plays a big part of humanizing SBTRKT's amazing beats! The album is very cleverly put together, almost too cleverly for me, but his Leeds Fest performance proved this is someone whose musical output has no sign of drying up anytime soon.
24) Kendrick Lamar
Coming from Compton, a landmark with a gangland reputation engraved into it's hip-hop output, Kendrick Lamar defies the common expectation and delivers an album way more complex than those from whom it takes influence. The album's laid out like a sort of book of short stories, sharing tales as wide as a generation of racism (Ronald Reagan Era) to more intimate, tragic stories (Keisha's Song.) Even when Kendrick's rhyme scheme (a very rare occurrence) goes a little flat or the sound goes in a bit of a shaky direction; Kendrick's lyrics and the general instrumentals on this track are near flawless. It's quite a strange record but, from what I can make out, it's also an incredibly personal one distinguishing Lamar as one of rap's most likable figures in 2011.
23) ASAP Rocky
[RCA/ Polo Grounds Music]
ASAP really is the hip-hop success story of the year- going from next-to-nothing to a 3 million dollar contract with Sony in a process that was, frankly, incredible. ASAP is no Eminem, he's hardly a great rapper in fact, but over the past 6 months he has spawned enough of a reputation for fans to break multiple servers due to the insane demand for this free mixtape. The guy's flow is quite clumsy but LIVELOVEA$AP he never fails to sound cool; holding a classic hip-hop sound akin to that of the 90's. Where the album prospers though, and boy does it prosper, is in Clams Casino's production. Once a producer for the likes of Lil B, here Clams really nails the mellow, quite spaced-out sound that parallels the blunt raps from ASAP, with tracks like Peso and Bass suggesting it is in fact the producer who is at the creative helm of this record. Definitely the funnest hip-hop record this year and I can only hope the $3 million will be spent on an incredible physical release.
Originating not far from Animal Collective, in Manhattan, the similarities are certainly at their most prominent in Gang Gang Dance's 5th record and, thankfully, it's for the better. Eye Contact both strays into weirder but also more exciting, more catchy territory. It really holds a sonic punch from the off, the 11 minute Glass Jar opens the album; a patient crescendo, building layer upon layer of synths. The only downside of the record is that it never regains the high of the opener. However this is definitely a party record, owing quite a depth to samba rhythms with multiple nods to 80's disco! This is by far the band's most accessible album and yet does that intricate thing of maintaining their past weirdness built on previous releases which, in a live setting, really fleshed them out above the rest when I saw them in May.
Written in the process of Danny Brown hitting the big 3-0, XXX, to my ears, is a sort of social commentary by the rapper; tying in his humorous depiction of American culture with his own tragic drug problems. It really is a no-holds-barred rap record which doesn't necessarily sculpt itself to make the best album possible but the most appropriate for the subject matter. Take, for example, the track Radio Song, Brown uses a deliberate, generic beat to rap over or the track Bruiser Brigade that appears to depict jock culture, brutally chanting clumsily put-together lines about sex and beer and fighting and so on and so forth. That's the great thing about this record, Danny Brown can really mould himself into any character because he has lived through these phases, giving XXX a sense of reality that makes the tragic, personal numbers pack so much more of a punch!
A I A: Alien Observer/ A I A: Dream Loss
Ambient music is too commonly associated with a lack of physicality; merely pressing a button or two and you've made an album! On this addition to her infinite discography of demos and tapes and LP's and 7"'s, Liz Harris delivers a double album that is brimming with discovery. There is the regular buzzing reverb that underlays each track on the two albums but on this album, Grouper really focuses on the concept of space which is, in my opinion, a lot more suited than the subtle folk influences on previous album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. It also helms a lo-fi aesthetica harking to 70's sci-fi movie soundtracks and giving what could be a shallow collection of songs some warmth. On a personal level, the lack of punchiness on these records made them the soundtrack to my AS Level revision and, for that, I will be eternally thankful for Mrs Harris!
Smoke Ring For My Halo
Finally, on Kurt Vile's 4th LP, the lo-fi expert began to trace his rock and roll roots and produced an album that's both more accessible and, ultimately, better than past releases. The songs have a traditionalist rock feel that reminded me somewhat of some of Springsteen's albums in the guitar sound at least. Tracks like Jesus Fever serve as real traveling songs, sparking from the album's origins being written on tour. It's, in parts, a homage to the idea of an adventure while at the same time being a quite autobiographical account of the World's (and more specifically) America's current dirge. All I can hope is that Kurt Vile continues to direct his talent into this Rock sound that suits him so well on this magnificent album.
w h o k i l l
On Merrill Garbus's sophomore album under the tUnE-yArDs alias, she loses none of the sheer madness of her past demos. Thankfully this Bjork-esque insanity is shone with a slightly cleaner, more direct sound on w h o k i l l, a fun album with a hidden depth. Underlined throughout the trill vocal samples and blaring horns, Garbus speaks of the riot culture that became so prominent in 2011 with her tribal voice. The production is certainly the album's calling card; it's pure zaniness is definitely an acquired taste and can go a little too A.D.D but without this overendearing strangeness we would not have the same florescence that makes this album one of the most endearing of this year.
Fife's King Creosote's discography is like a diamond mine in itself, there's plenty of rubble you have to dig through but what's good is incredible. I make this his 49th release since his career began in 1998 (completists will argue over this figure I'm sure!) but for a casual outsider like me this is his best work to date! The songs are just incredibly genuine, with Creosote's heavy accent relaying lyrics about aging, almost serving as a solo memoir for his children, shown most poignantly on closer Your Young Voice. Hopkins, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Eno, adds a new dimension to the generally acoustic music, implementing atmospheric synths in the style of early Sigur Ros albums to the tantalizing guitar melodies of Creosote. Definitely one of the most devastatingly emotional record I've found all year.
On the loss of their lead singer, Gallows recently lost the soul of their fundamental rise to stardom. Battles, however, on losing their singer have risen to a level where, in terms of talent, they are on apar with anyone in the mainstream. Gloss Drop proves this, an album prominent in rhythms and beats distilled by the odd catchy pop song. On tracks like Wall Street the band show overwhelming tightness in their ensemble and build a sound that gives a sense of a samba group of 40, not a measly trio of white American hipsters! Vocals still feature in the form of guest spots; it's warming to see Gary Numan in such fine voice on the track My Machines (which incidentally has one of my favorite vids of the year as well!) This album is just an incredibly joyous, fun listen that, I hope, will gain Battles world-beater status!
At the beginning of the year Panda Bear's Tomboy was most certainly my most anticipated release, coming off the bat of an incredible sophomore solo effort in Person Pitch and holding responsibility for many of the more accessible and yet incredible, poppy moments that blew Animal Collective into the mainstream with Merriweather Post Pavillion. Sadly though this album was less of a success for me but even without the depth and built psychadelia of his past projects, Tomboy is another great album by Noah Lennox. Produced by Indie legend Sonic Boom, the record ditches the sample basis that had become so prominent in Panda's work up to now for a more guitar-based tone. Lennox said he was heavily influenced by the likes of Nirvana on this record but the guitar sound and songs in themselves carry less weight than anything off Nevermind. What Panda Bear really nails on this record is minimalism, relying on deft touches of reverb to depict his Beach Boys-like song structures on a bed of warm melodies. Hopefully he can reproduce this kind of form once more with the new Animal Collective record in 2012...
New History Warfare Volume 2: Judges
On this album, Colin Stetson seriously breaks the boundaries of what can be done with a saxophone. Though the woodwind instrument holds its roots in quite a free style of jazz and blues, Stetson really tears the walls down with his second record, a psychedelic, mind-numbing cloud of sound. Each track sees the saxophonist playing solo; often through loops but mostly through his own intuitive ways of playing Stetson builds arpeggio-on-arpeggio through whatever variant of the instrument he can find. Little intricacies like tapping the rhythm through the pressing of buttons or playing out-of-tune blares to depict horns all collaborate to make what is a quite cosmic, psychedelic sound unlike anything I've heard before. It really is a record that needs to be heard to be believed- remarkable stuff.
Let England Shake
[Vagrant/ Island Def Jam]
As someone who was perhaps a little too young to witness PJ Harvey's burst onto the music scene, I came in cold to her 10th studio album which has since been fluttered with overwhelming praise and for good reason too! The album is a harrowing, poetic dedication to the tragedy of War. It's clearly a labour of love from Polly Jean; each song replicating in particular the poetry of World War I. For me, as someone who was not old enough to become engaged with the political side of war at our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan (a focal point for this record) the lyrics perhaps had a numbed impact on myself. The musicianship, however, is incredibly rustic and stripped to the basics, giving justice to the hymn-like quality of the melodies that run thick and fast throughout the album. Sadly for me, I felt a little more detached to the tunes in the second half of the LP detaching me a little from this ambitious project; nonetheless I am being picky, this is a great album that warrants it's high position in this, and other, End of Year Lists.
Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Hailing from Texas, Josh T. Pearson was an integral part of folk band Lift to Experience, a short-lived project whom broke up in 2001 but have since gained cult status in the American music scene. In the ten years since, Pearson has been absent from the public eye but Last of The Country Gentlemen shows him returning at his most tragic. The album has a religious, almost-possessive quality; with each track stripped to minimal acoustic guitar and Josh's mesmerizing voice. The songs can last up to 12 minutes but they rarely don't justify their running time, with each story Pearson portrays in his lyrics as engaging as they are tragic. The spine of the album is Pearson's relationship with an ex-partner, chock-full of references to religion, alcoholism and heartbreak. It's by no means a jolly listen (refer to his Christmas album if you want that!) but it's one of the deepest, most engaging records I listened to this year!
The Magic Place
Artists in every artform often speak of "minimalism" and how it can be so effective but to people like me, "minimalism" is a sneaky code word for "needed to cut costs/ effort." In concept, The Magic Place sees Julianna Barwick, for the most part, using two instruments: her voice and a looping pedal and you can't get much more minimalistic than that! In practice however, the record is an incredibly elegant, dynamics-based piece of beauty. Barwick's angelic loops build in each carefully structured track to eventually reach a climax that feels expansively boundless. Admittedly each track feels a little linear but what made me fall for this album was the Godspeed/ Mogwai-esque patience and dynamic-control that was swept away completely with the introduction of the 21st century. I can only hope The Magic Place can spawn an influx of records as beautifully measured as itself.
The King of Limbs
Record Store Day, 8am, I was stood at the back of a 100-man strong queue, the majority waiting for their personal opportunity to snatch an exclusive (at the time) Radiohead 7" and, for the first time really since it's release, I decided to really dedicate myself to listening to TKOL. It was terrible: honestly, the dullest (bar that Cher Lloyd travesty) listening experience I'd had all year! When the queue finally diminished and my solemn request for "that Radiohead vinyl" was met with an even more sombre reply of "sold out mate" I cursed Thom Yorke's name. But it was this hatred and, frankly, the refusal to believe it was within Radiohead's capabilities to make a mediocre-to-poor album in their current state that forced me to relisten... and relisten... and relisten until it inevitably clicked around 2 months ago. There's no song on here as beautiful as the likes of Street Spirit (Fade Out) or, more recently, Nude but what TKOL does show is a band heading in a new direction; one spaced out with rhythms and exploring their sonic ability. Tracks like Lotus Flower are as catchy as anything they've written while the likes of Feral see the band finally making some form of transition to the dance music that they so explicitally love. Long-time followers may despair, but The King of Limbs, for me, shows a band who've adapted incredibly with modern music to finally reach what could be a momentous change away from the guitar anthems that have hung in their collosal shadow for so long.
Hailing from the suburbs of Montreal, Canada, Tim Hecker's sixth album shows his music travelling to the realms of the unknown; to the apocalyptic future that awaits us. Upon initial listens it is a simply haunting piece of ambient music, however repetition allows the listener to truly embrace the claustrophobic quality Hecker masters through devastating distortion and layering various sounds. Recorded in one day in an Icelandic church followed by an intensive editing process, Ravedeath 1972 is an incredible labour of love fusing the naturalistic sound of the pipe organ with digital masking to great effect. Hecker projects the album as a protest against the technical whoring-out of music; yes, this is quite an avante garde approach to music but here, the sour approach leads to an album that harks back to some of music's great innovators ironically while also digging up a cold simplicity unheard of in today's music.
A supergroup of sorts, this year Death Grips grasped everything I thought was right about the hip-hop genre and absolutely crushed it, creating a record that is about as insane as they come. Fuelled by sheer agression, Exmilitary shows a band, literally in a couple of cases, throwing everything at blood-stained walls and, for me, a lot of it sticks. From the off, this record spawns the kind of heavy guitar and drums we find commonplace in any Zach Hill project, but this isn't the forefront of the music, instead the nauseating synths and pounding rhymes from MC Ride create a wall of sound that reaches levels of sonic insanity rarely unearthed before. The Black Flag sample on Klink shows the hard-edged roots of the band and the lyrics are the stuff of pure horror- mass-murder, ritualisms and darkness. In terms of pushing the boundaries of music as a whole; I see no record matching this one this year, or in the future... well, at least until the band's full-fledged next album reaches us next year!
Return of 4Eva
Southern-American rap is something that has sadly been recently detrimented to the status of club music but this year has seen the likes of K.R.I.T., Yelawolf and Pill standing up against these stereotypes, a topic embraced on Return of 4Eva. Despite interest from the major labels, it is simply refreshing to see Big K R.I.T releasing an album that could easily have been retailed, for free. The rapper wears his influences on his sleeve, with catchy hooks that could easily be mistaken for anything from Outkast's early stuff. Where the record really prospers for me is in the guy's approach to lyrics; the bodacious, provocative bragging generally linked with Hip-hop is a million miles away from the issues this rapper presses. The album is one that explores K.R.I.T's conscience in being part of such an image-based rap game and his ambition in life, sharing his poor background tenderly on Lions and Lambs. It's an album of nostalgia, relaying memories of his father and his musical background while maintaining the same energy and fun more commonplace in Southern Rap records. This is someone of ridiculous talent, to say he produced the soul based beats that give the album such weight is frankly astounding. Part of me hopes K.R.I.T. sells out and makes a couple million
in the future, but for now,seeing a rapper so dedicated to his artform is inspiring in this modern age.
Following up the unmistakably delicate Hospice, Burst Apart showed The Antlers channeling their passion into a quite tradionalist indie-rock sound to great success. The album's contents rotate around the concept of isolationism and the deterioration of relationships, the lyrics captivating in a way very few modern rock bands can truly nail. The music is near perfectly weighted and never intrudes on Peter Silberman's lush vocal performance. Sure this record brings nothing "special" to the table but it's a beautiful congregation of individual songs that I personally loved and that's all anyone wants out of an album at the end of the day!
[Mexican Summer/ Software]
As many rappers would say, this album is definitely "some next level shit." As someone who has been following Brooklyn-based Daniel Lopatin's solo project for some time, for me, he never seemed to quite live up to his potential on record until this release came around this Winter. Based around the 80's TV soundbites at it's core, Replica sees Oneohtrix steering away from his atmospheric, drone-esque roots and delving into sample usage making a generally more accessible pallette. Even British underground influence creep their way into a lot of these tracks, Child Soldier being the prime example of Lopatin's exploration. Though each song feels quite independent from each other, it's the haunting undertones of the record (replicated in the cover) that brings everything together. Though the album didn't sell that well (unsurprisingly- it's a bit of a tough sell) it's worldwide critical appraisal suggests, hopefully, Lopatin is, at last, onto a winner with his 6th album Replica.
I've got to be honest, before this record I was not 100% sold on Bon Iver, I mean For Emma... was a very well put together record but I felt Justin Vernon had something a little more in him; and that little more is portrayed on his sophomore self-titled record. After 4 years of hearing cover after cover after cover of Skinny Love on Youtube, I frankly was quite pleased to be listening to a more expansive, less emotionally-driven follow up. Sure, at the origin it's still one man and his guitar, but Bon Iver fuses genres from all over the place; country, soul, even 80's pop is placed in between quite homely, suburban lyrical journeys. To me, the album feels like a natural progression for Vernon and one that truly justifies the talent that got him the 100's of thousands of album sales!
In far too many cases 2011 has been the year where image compromised music; Lady Gaga continued to quite awkwardly look zany and wild, Lana Del Rey finally broke the mainstream with the help of her incredibly prominent fake lips while 50 Cent, the once brooding, ripped gangster, lost 4 stone for a role as a cancer patient in a film that inevitably flopped. Just reading reviews of St. Vincent's 3rd album, there was a sense her striking look was distracting critics from the music but Strange Mercy is, thankfully, an album that is hardly defined by Annie Clark's elegant image in the slightest! It has a real Lynchian-esque weirdness to it and yet comprises of songs that are just undeniably catchy. After the successful more-electronically-driven Actor St. Vincent returns with an album more structured and measured in each song's development however the wild spontinuity of Clark's guitar control nods to the metal that developed her into such an eclectic player of the instrument. The album, for me, relays messages of love and family but also touches on other more-subtle themes for those willing to delve deeper. And it's refreshing to see a record that sounds so outright joyous while the world is in such a miserable state itself and that's perhaps what puts it in such a generous position on this list.
Fleet Foxes' debut was one of those albums I simply loved, though it will most likely never be recognized as a classic it is one of the few albums I picture myself returning to as an old man with little regret. It was a record filled to the brim with nostalgic references to the era of the traditionalists of folk, the Fleetwood Mac's and the Joni Mitchell's of our past. When Robin Pecknold said late last year (I think!) the band had scrapped a whole albums worth of demos I feared the band's magic might have gone. But what manifested from the change in direction was Helplessness Blues, an album just filled to the brim with warmth seeing Robin Pecknold conveying a more personal approach to the band's lyrical contents. What delighted me so much was that it wasn't just Fleet Foxes (album) Part Two, the band expand their sound immensely on this record; sometimes in a manner a little too forceful but in the majority of cases the band sound a new, fleshed-out other beast compared to their debut. I couldn't help but come back to this album again and again throughout the year; its themes of love, nature and age were predictable folk cliches but this almost adds to what's so charming about it, not reflecting a specific "moment" but instead embracing themes that are omnipresent in humanity.It is this immense charm that will most likely have me reaching towards my Helplessness Blues CD regularly not just for the next year, but throughout my life.
So that's it. Hope you enjoyed the list, forgive the terrible writing on my part- I was fitting in writing about these in between doing masses of revision for my exams next month. There are some obvious omissions I know, but in most cases this will be either because:
b) Because maybe I didn't like the album... that much... won't name any names in fear of getting hunted down by trolls!