Cathode Narcissus’s Albums Of 2011
Before this blog goes into hibernation, there’s still one or two little bits to round up. And given that my love of music has been one of the driving forces behind a lot of my posting, why not round things off with a look back at the year’s releases? Besides, every other bugger has done a list…
It’s been an odd year: there’s been an astonishing amount of interesting, fun, exciting, intelligent new releases (as the number of honorary mentions might suggest - and even that left off a fair few good records), yet there’s only been a few unarguably big, excellent albums. It’s a sign of the times that while there’s more records that could have fought their way into my list than even a year or two ago, the actual top twenty probably isn’t quite as strong overall as it would have been for 2007, 2009 or 2010 (2008 to me seems to have had a similar issue of many good albums, but few great ones).
There’s the added problem that the new release that has delighted me the most isn’t really new - The SMiLE Sessions by The Beach Boys is a welcome look into the incredible artistic explosion from Brian Wilson that occured in 1966/67, and the reconstructed SMiLE that forms its focal point demonstrates even mroe clearly than his 2004 remake just how incredible and pioneering the music he was writing at that time was. Even my eventual pick for top album - despite being an album I adore that I’ve played hundreds of times during the year - doesn’t have the same definitive quality as, say, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year or Two Dancers in 2009.
But now, let’s get on with the show…
(in alphabetical order)
Andy Stott – Passed Me By and We Stand Together
Burial – Street Halo
Burial, Four Tet & Thom Yorke – Ego/Mirror
Future Of The Left – Polymers Are Forever
Hudson Mohwake – Satin Panthers
James Blake – Enough Thunder and Love What Happened Here
O’Messy Life - & The Quarter-Life Crisis Of Conan
Psychologist – Propeller and Waves Of OK
Radiohead – The Butcher/Supercollider and The Daily Mail/Staircase
Shift-Static – In Italics
Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics
Zomby – Nothing
(in alphabetical order)
Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells – Everything’s Getting Older
Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Bjork – Biophilia
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Wolfroy Goes To Town
Braids – Native Speaker
Cut Copy – Zonoscope
Drake - Take Care
Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam
Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo
Kanye West & Jay Z – Watch The Throne
Luke Haines – 9½ Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ‘80s
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Mastodon – The Hunter
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
Pinch & Shackleton – Pinch & Shackleton
Rustie – Glass Swords
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Tennis – Cape Dory
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - Belong
The Roots – Undun
Tom Waits – Bad As Me
Tune-Yards – W H O K I L L
Tyler The Creator – Goblin
Washed Up – Within And Without
Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage
20) St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Returning with an album far darker and stranger than 2009’s superb Actor, St. Vincent took her music in a new, less orchestral and more synthetic direction whilst still retaining much of the songwriting flair and intelligent lyricism that made her such a promising talent in the first place.
19) Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
The debut album from the American-Chilean producer was one of the year’s most resonant and oblique full-lengths: falling somewhere between minimal, trip-hop and house, his atmospheric and acoustic sampling-led take on electronic production made for a hermetically sealed debut whose subtle nuances revealed themselves to the careful listener, and slowly dug their way into the heart.
18) Battles - Gloss Drop
Frontman issues? What frontman issues? When singing Battles member Tyondai Braxton left during sessions for their second album, the omens might not have bode well, but the remaining trio have (with the help of a few special guests) delievered an album that builds on Mirrored whilst tackling a brighter, denser sound that shows that post-rock doesn’t have to be dry and dusty.
17) Death Grips - Ex-Military
It’s been a strange year for hip-hop. Whilst there’s been plenty of exciting new names breaking out over the last twelve months - A$APROCKY, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Odd Future and Shabazz Palaces to name just a few - there’s been a dearth of consistent albums. It took the debut mixtape from the collective Death Grips to right this: with its almost industrial rhythms, smash-and-grab sampling and violent, oblique lyricism from MC Ride, Ex-Military was one of the most sensational statements of the year.
16) The Antlers - Burst Apart
When Hospice saw the Brooklyn three-piece break out, it was hard to see how they could follow up its heartbreaking concepts and bittersweet songwriting. By expanding their horizons into epic, post-OK Computer arrangements though, The Antlers produced a beautiful album that shifted the sonic goalposts for the band whilst keeping their stirring, emotional qualities intact that perhaps bettered its illustrious predecessor.
15) Josh T Pearson - Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Finally breaking his decade-long silence, ex-Lift To Experience frontman Josh T Pearson unleashed this weighty behemoth to critical delight earlier this year. Whilst it’s certainly not an easy listen - consisting of seven acoustic laments with the mood set to pitch black throughout, some reaching past the ten-minute mark - it’s a formidable artistic achievement, and hopefully the start of a second act for this much-missed talent.
14) Low - C’mon
Whilst their last two records - the distorted rock of The Great Destroyer and the icy studio constructions of Drums And Guns - saw Low trying to move from the soft lullabies that made their name, C’mon finds the band applying the lessons learnt from their experiments to a record of more stripped down, typically Low material, and in doing so made one of the highlights of their career.
13) The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
Another indie-rock lifer returning this year, John Darnielle and co. didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel on All Eternals Deck. But when you’ve got songs the calibre of Damn These Vampires, Birth Of Serpents and Never Quite Free on your album, sticking to the same old approach really isn’t a bad thing. The man just keeps dishing up the goods.
12) The Fall - Ersatz G.B.
Remarkably, Mark E. Smith has now kept the same line-up intact over three albums (2008’s Imperial Wax Solvent, 2010’s Our Future Your Clutter and Ersatz G.B.). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these last three records have seen The Fall on a real winning streak, and this suitably eclectic latest offering (including raging rockabilly, krautrock drones, synth-pop and, in a Fall first, heavy metal on the standout Greenway) does nothing to buck the trend.
11) Atlas Sound - Parallax
Despite his prolific nature and consistency, Bradford Cox’s solo project Atlas Sound has always worked under the shadow of his band Deerhunter. The third official Atlas Sound album Parallax might be the one to change this though: featuring some of his most lucious and fully-realised recordings to date, Bradford’s new-found vocal confidence especially marks this out as a gem in his highly accomplished catalog.
10) Panda Bear - Tomboy
Although the trailing of pre-release mixes for many of the album’s tracks throughout 2010 might have diminished the impact of Tomboy once it was finally released this year, once the hype has cooled down we’re left with an album that trades Person Pitch’s diverse sampling and colourful palette for a darker yet more immediate and no less sophisticated set of songs. American indie’s favoured sons deliver once again.
9) British Sea Power - Valhalla Dancehall
“Over here! Over there! Over here! Every fucking where!” Thirty seconds into Valhalla Dancehall, and it’s clear we’re back in the charming, eccentric world of British Sea Power. Their longest and most stylistically diverse record to date, Valhalla Dancehall expanded the BSP sound whilst keeping their totally unique identity intact - superb.
8) Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow
By this point, getting a Kate Bush album already makes for a fairly special year. But to get two records from her - the re-edit album Director’s Cut and the ambitious new song suite 50 Words For Snow - marks 2011 out as one of Kate’s most active musical years ever. None of which would matter though, if 50 Words For Snow wasn’t such a brave and supreme record, seeing Kate Bush give up the pop game and plunge more firmly than ever into the sensual in this slow, ambient, imaginative effort.
7) The Horrors - Skying
On Primary Colours, the challenge was to prove that The Horrors weren’t just another flash-in-the-pan, style-over-substance NME band. On Skying, the challenge was to prove that their previous album’s dramatic reinvention wasn’t just a fluke. Thankfully though, the band more than rose to the challenge, taking the post-punk, new wave and shoegaze touchstones of the previous album and pushing them into bigger, more adventerous places that made them one of the rare acts these days to combine artistic worth with (richly deserved) commercial success.
6) Richard Dawson - The Magic Bridge
Of all the entries in my top twenty, this is almost certainly the most obscure. But this can’t be allowed to remain the case for long. Written over the last two years and finally set to tape this year, The Magic Bridge is the sound of a supernaturally talented singer, lyricist, guitarist and songwriter starting to reach his artistic peak. Very few albums speak so well of the human condition, in this year or any other.
5) Wild Beasts - Smother
Following an album as game-changing and powerful as Two Dancers is not an enviable task. But in softening their sound and reaching out for beauty, Wild Beasts’ third album was another masterpiece in idiosyncratic art-pop totally distinct from any trends, sounds or styles around it. Even if Smother falls slightly short of Two Dancers, it’s still a triumphant record from what might be the finest British band to have emerged in the noughties.
4) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
The signs before Let England Shake’s release were not good. A middle-aged guitar hero(ine) ditching the axe and the angst for autoharp-led tales of war and destruction with a direct lyrical fixation on the Gallipoli disaster of World War I? Yet what emerged was PJ Harvey’s finest work to date, angry and forceful but substituting rockist bluster for intelligence and twisted folk. Despite the arguments that a more unknown act could have used the publicity and money more, for once Let England Shake made for a Mercury Prize winner it was hard to disagree with.
3) James Blake - James Blake
Where his three 2010 EPs pioneered post-dubstep forms and added whole new depths of emotion and subtlety to the genre, his debut album proper aimed for an even more ambitious target: to fuse singer-songwriter structures and tradition to the technology and possibilities of modern electronic production. James Blake proved to be one of 2011’s most inventive releases, the astonishing sound of a new boy wonder proving that yes, there really is still something new under the sun.
2) The Weeknd - House Of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes Of Silence
Yet even this wasn’t 2011’s finest new artists. At the end of 2010, very few knew of The Weeknd, a unique new R&B star. Yet with the release of three remarkable free mixtapes over the year, by the end of 2011 The Weeknd has emerged as the year’s most stunning innovator and most heralded new talent. While the first installment in his trilogy, House Of Balloons, might get most of the acclaim (partly for its quality, and partly for the shock of the new it provided), the two follow-ups Thursday and Echoes Of Silence expanded his sound and made for an incredible, bold statement of intent. Any one of these three albums would be praiseworthy enough - but to release all three in one year as part of a cycle has made The Weeknd 2011’s brightest star.
1) Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
On their list of stereotypes according to your favourite album of 2011, fans of The King Of Limbs were described as “Increasingly world-weary 30-somethings who can’t quite bring themselves to admit that this probably wasn’t actually the best album of the year.” It says something of the slight dissapointment that many experienced when this small-scale, curious recording was unleashed with only five days of warning back in February.
I wrote a post about my initial response to the album when it first came out (http://cathodenarcissus.tumblr.com/post/3364871557/review-radiohead-the-king-of-limbs), and although my initial response to the album hasn’t changed - I’m still a massive fanboy, I still love this album, and the heightened split between electronics and acoustics this time around actually makes for a far more cohesive listen than Amnesiac or Hail To The Thief managed - it still looks like The King Of Limbs is set to go down in history as one of Radiohead’s more minor releases. And in a way, that suits it.
After the more inviting In Rainbows saw the band grab headlines and acclaim (public and critical) outweighing any they’d received since Kid A, it makes sense that the largest truly alternative band out there would make a move back into the left-field. It’s the small scale and subtle inventions that really make the record, from the swirling rhythms and astral horn section that made Bloom their most provocative album opener to date, the dancefloor propulsion of Feral and Lotus Flower (sure, they’ve made plenty of electronic material by now, but as the remix album TKOL 1234567 underlined, they’ve never engaged with actual dancing like this before) to the pastoral folk beauty of Give Up The Ghost. It’s arguably their most inventive and challenging release for a decade, and the idiosyncratic nature of everything about it - the artwork, the release method, the subsequent single releases, the addition of a second percussionist live, the decision to delay full touring until 2012 and, of course, the music itself - makes it another triumph for the band. Instead of a doomed attempt to replicate the inadvertent populism of In Rainbows, they’ve gone the other way and listened to their own distinct muse, and made an album unlike anyone else - again.