Sunday, December 18, 2011

The top 10 albums of 2011

Before I start my top ten, let's just have a quick discussion about some of the honourable mentions and disappointments of the year.

First the negative: I despised Bon Iver's 80's baiting self titled record and it seems I'm largely alone in this. Bon Iver fans carried on like a bunch of whiney Justin Bieber acolytes against anyone who didn't think it was the greatest record since Sussudio and to all those BI fans I'd respectfully like to tell them that their taste is in their arse (I think I just lost a lot of readers right there - oh well). Iron and Wine went in a similar direction but I couldn't even listen to that record all the way through - I lived through the 80's once and I ain't going back. While some people don't like fingernails on blackboards, the particular sound that makes me cringe is metal scraping on concrete or St Vincent (sorry Adam). I actually think her music is getting worse (if that's possible) and really don't understand the fuss. Post-rock took a hammering this year with a just ok Explosions in the Sky and a good but unmemorable Mogwai record (sorry boys and Katie, that EP is boring). Jane's Addiction's first album in eight years was unfortunately not worth the wait and thank the Buddha Ben Gibbard split up with that She & Him girl because the music he makes when he is happy is pretty poor. Too harsh? It's a blog, get over it.

In the positives, The Antlers and My Morning Jacket both produced amazing records. The Foo Fighters record had no other ambition other than to rock your socks and succeeded while the Black Key's late in the year El Camino was a transcendent blues rock triumph. The biggest surprise was how enjoyable the Beastie Boys latest record was after years of so-so output. Yuck and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart kept the grunge flame alight while Tycho provided escapist mood scapes for recreational drug users. My second favourite Australian album of the year was Seeker Lover Keeper, a supergroup that was an excellent addition to a year which had a slew of strong releases by female artists. Anyhow, enough gibber jabber, here's the list:

10: Low - C'mon
Known for their hushed slowcore aesthetic, Low's excellent C'mon record was where they embraced their inner-Neil Young and rocked the fuck out. The eight minute Nothing but heart should put to rest any ideas that Low are anything other than consummate musicians following their muse and this album is peppered with a number of highs. Sure it's still slow moving but it's slow moving in the way a lethal snake moves - deliberate and deadly and ready to strike when you least expect it, this is a great rock record.

9: Wire - Red Barked Tree
In a pretty quiet year for quality punk and hardcore, post-punk lifers Wire showed the kids how to do it. Red Barked Tree sounded forward thinking, vital and an evolution of their sound while somehow sounding exactly like Wire should. For a bunch of men in their fifties, their message of environmental and financial destruction was no different from what they've been singing about for years but it seemed oddly prescient this year. Essentially, Wire were the occupy movement before the occupy movement existed but they are as astute and accomplished with their music as they are with their politics.

8: The Middle East - I Want That You Are Always Happy
The Middle East was a short lived band from Townsville whose debut album is nothing short of amazing. The record twists through a number of genres but with a solid indie-folk basis, it is unrelentingly moving without conceit or any self awareness. There is a beauty here that is strangely rare in Australian records and my bet is that being a younger band they grew up on a steady diet of Radiohead and Australian indie rock (for example, The Go-Betweens). Those reference points are obvious but not overwhelming and the Middle East walked their own oddly gorgeous step until they dissolved without a trace mid year.

7: Ty Segall - Goodbye Bread
I came late to the Ty Segall party but was floored by this record which sounds like some classic rock nugget that got lost somewhere in the 70's but oddly timeless at the same time. The psyched out tales of domesticity and love are all the better for the ramshackle instrumentation and off kilter delivery. However, what shines through is the heart in these songs, there is real love here in both songwriting and delivery which makes Goodbye Bread one of the most joyous and fun records of the year.

6: Feist - Metals
It's probably poor form to say an artist sounds better because their latest album sounds more like someone else but I'm the king of poor form so there you go. On Metals, Feist has edged closer to the soul sound Cat Power that has been mining for the last few records and she's all the more brilliant for it. Feist's voice is at times sensual, angry and powerful in a way that is absent on The Reminder. If anything, there is a lot of fight and retribution on this record and that passion bleeds through the speakers. Further, I'd say it's one of the most beautifully orchestrated and produced records of the year with a production that is as broad as it is intimate but what shines through most is the singular and expansive passion of Laslie Feist herself.

5: Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Tom Waits has always sounded like some rough hemmed circus barker from the depression era and thanks to the fucked world banking system, Waits is finally in time with his dark obsessions. As such, he sounds reinvigorated and devilish on Bad as me railing against the man, the wars we needlessly fight and general bad behaviour all round. Many of the narratives in this record are based on the poor man's point of view where hope is somewhere else (Chicago apparently), the hard times are hardest and darkness stalks every street. Somehow Waits sounds ebullient and focussed despite the material, a pure force of gravel voiced revelry, but most of all, this album is endlessly entertaining and fun to listen to. Waits hasn't sounded so vital in years and reminds us that he is one of the most singularly unique artists still releasing records today.

4: Wild Flag - Wild Flag
We all know that gender politics in music suck arse but Wild Flag (like Sleater-Kinney before them) blow all that 'pretty good for a girl band' shit out of the water - they are great band period. With so many big name rock bands failing to make a connection this year, Wild Flag just kicked down the door and announced where the party is happening. What's great about this record is that many of the songs themselves are about being in love with music which as music fans is something we can all relate to. The songs range from nuggets era break downs to White Rabbit-esque psych freak outs (Glass Tambourine) but they are never less than captivating and soulful. Easily the best rock album of the year by a mile.

3: James Blake - James Blake
Nothing splits the kids in the room like a record that on first listen is either revelatory or incomprehensible. To me, coming somewhere between Antony's sense of otherworldly melodrama and For Emma, Forever Ago's hushed aesthetics, James Blake's music is simultaneously unsettling, spellbinding and gorgeous. While it's not impenetrable, James Blake ultimately rewards repeat listens and the music slowly reveals its inherent complexities and subtleties. While the auto-tuned vocals, tilted loops and sparse instrumentation may seem alien, the record is extremely intimate and affecting as if the technology between the music and listener acts as bridge to the soul rather than a deterrent. If anything that exactly what this is, 21st century soul music.

2: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
After the puritanism and austerity of 2007's White Chalk, PJ Harvey turns war correspondent reporting on the ills of modern England. While she speaks of the past, the record ruminates on the cultural shifts and complexities of the modern state but its focus extends beyond ol' blighty into a more universal narrative and can be easily understood outside of this context. However, it is a peculiarly British record. I returned to my childhood home in England this year and saw the disarray of country - the sense of what it is to be English in the face of cultural and social change. This is the struggle at the heart of Harvey's narrative, not just the literal war the UK is engaged in but the battle for British identity. As always, Harvey's gift as a lyricist is that she can get to the truth of any topic with raw verve and insight but here it is particularly frank and brutal:

Withered vine reaching
From the country that I love
England, you leave a taste
A bitter one

The music itself is deceptively simple but closer examination reveals layers of vocals, samples and sounds that almost seem incidental to the music itself but subtly enriching from a measured distance. To me, this is a deeply personal album that speaks to a sense of identity I share with my family and my English community but it is a candid exploration of this without sentiment or mercy. England does indeed shake and wither under Harvey's pitiless examination and the result is this exceptional album.

1. Gillian Welch - The Harrow And The Harvest
The first time I heard this record I knew it would be my favourite of the year and with each subsequent listen, this became clearer and clearer. Gillian Welch and partner David Rawlings have created a master work which has rewarded fans who have patiently waited eight (count them, EIGHT!) years since her last record. There is a pared down asceticism on this record that could have been the musical equivalent of Lars Von Trier's Dogme 95 manifesto: two voices, two instruments and simple production with no bells, whistles or artificial flourishes. In lesser hands such confined instrumentation could have been a handicap but Welch and Rawlings create whole worlds that are haunting, dangerous and gorgeous. Some of the songs sound as if they have been could have been written a hundred years ago and rediscovered on some crackling old 78 but it never feels like a hokey journey in nostalgia or simple folk or country.

The narratives here are ultimately explorations of adult issues and themes of betrayal, love, loss and change dominate the album. These are tales that come from experience, the exuberance of youth long dimmed and the weariness of life underpins each of these tracks. Welch's voice is an exquisite instrument, her phrasing and tone is flawless and is ably supported by Rawlings' sympathetic backing vocals. Rawlings guitar playing is particularly great on this record, elevating the simplest songs and almost a running counterpoint to the vocals such as on The Way it Is. At the centre of the record though is fantastic songwriting and at a brief ten songs, each one is memorable but also plays a part in the larger narrative of the album. Like any great record, I feel that your understanding of it will change as you change and there is a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of anyone who embraces this record. It is an album that is ageless but will stay with you long after you switch off your stereo.



  1. Not meaning to question anyone's taste, but I thought it was a decent year for Punk/post punk/Hard Rock/Metal. Check out some of the titles on my "not a best" list. Sure, our tastes vary a bit, but I'm willing to bet there are at least two of the 15 beyond the two we already agree upon that you'll find to be quality stuff...

  2. Hey Matt, I'll absolutely check some of those out. Since I was travelling for half the year, I missed a lot of things. I'm the first to admit that the list is very much based on an incomplete picture of the year so that comment about it being a lean year in punk etc was probably pretty ignorant - oh well, it was a lean year for me at least, I haven't even heard that Gang of Four record yet. However, you have inspired me to spend my Christmas break catching up on Boardwalk Empire though...

  3. I'm actually pretty tough to please when it comes to TV- I think you'll be rewarded by Boardwalk Empire- I mean, I'll watch stuff like True Blood,Hawaii Five Oh, etc, because my wife likes it, but there are relatively few shows I'd say are high quality- I didn't even go in for the Sopranos ( I thought there was a bit too much stunt casting, a bit too little real development in the characters, and quite frankly Gandolfini is like Broccoli- an excellent side dish, but not the main course.) Boardwalk Empire is up there with some favourite movies, like Miller's Crossing, and Heat, and Manhunter (yes, I dig crime flicks)
    Anyway, as for music, yes, Gang of Four- they took some heat for Auto tuning some vocals, and for not having Dave Allen, but I think they had good reason for all decisions. Also, really do give Red Fang an honest shot- they're a great hard rock band, along the same lines as Kyuss- too hip for straight metal, but too metal for hipsters. And Coliseum, if you can't get behind the parasites EP, you really have to give "house with a Curse" a fair hearing- It's like Fugazi getting a beat down from Motorhead- yes, that good.
    But, don't stop with my list- there really are some great bands out there, even if not quite up to "best of" levels. I mean, Quiet Arcs, and Halo of Snakes are even keeping philadelphias' thrash scene going....