22 Dec 2011

Ten Favourite Albums of 2011

New Year is actually my favourite time of the musical year by far. I'm perenially propelled through midwinter on an avalanche of new music, aggregated from the year-end lists of all those many bloggers who've had better (or less scrupulous) access to more albums throughout the past year. Yet before I begin my annual attempt to soak up as much as I can of the good stuff that has dripped through my fingers, I still want to talk about my ten favourite albums of the year (especially since I'm bound to start regretting my decisions as soon as I sink properly into my January playlists).

As tends to happen when I compare my lists with those of more full-time bloggers, some of the space usually reserved for zeitgeist-definingly new stuff has been given over to exceptional new offerings from some of my favourite old stalwarts - the kind of album that Pitchfork will acknowledge gladly as an addition to an established band's existing oeuvre, but then overlook around list-time. Still, these ten weren't too difficult to assemble, since between them they easily demanded the majority of my aural attention as the year proceeded.

(Very honorable mentions have to go firstly to Washed Out - Washed Out, Hercules & Love Affair - Blue Songs, and Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure, each of which is blessed with one truly immense track in the shapes of 'Amor Fati', 'Painted Eyes' and 'Too Much Midi (Please Forgive Me)'.)

10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

One could easily call this band out as being nothing but retro reconstructionists, involved in the mere recreation of historically-situated sounds, even if those sounds may be chosen from a particularly superb period of musical history (the early '90s no less), and revitalised in a particularly attractive and effective manner. However, for all the cries of "Smashing Pumpkins!" which accompanied its release, Belong is more than just a shuffle along the record store shelves from 'doing' British indiepop on the previous album to 'doing' American college rock on this one. Little of the band's brazen sensitivity and melodic finesse has been lost between the two records, even with their expansion into more diverse '90s guitar signifiers (alt-rock buzzes and crunches, as well as shoegaze whooshes and howls).

Instead, what the band give us is a kind of '90s fantasia, eclectic and unfastidious in breadth, and pulling together to serve a very specific lyrical sentiment. The Pains aren't theatrically twee, neither are they ironic or bombastic like the Pumpkins. Their sentiment is more complex and mature (or, fittingly, more grown-up), lingering in the realms of ambivalent relationships, personal crises, social exclusion and unsensationalist drug stories. The result is such a complete and well-integrated survey of '90s tropes that it seems like it may have precluded the need for a full-blown '90s alt-rock revival altogether...

Heavens Gonna Happen Now -The Pains of Being Pure at Heart by Amaury Wolfgang

9. Austra - Feel It Break

I'll admit that this album was given a hefty leg-up by the band's mesmerising performance at this year's End of the Road Festival, as well as its inclusion of my definitive song-of-the-year (and that's official): 'Lose It'. Still, when lined up alongside all their musical near-relations, Austra really do hold their own, and it says a lot for this album that it stands out while maintaining a musical style and set-up (exotic/dramatic-girls-with-synths-and-big-voices) that has been really au courant for a number of years now. This is partly because the band's tracks aren't just sparse terrains to showcase the stylings of their very own ice queen. The arrangements are many-coloured, dense with attractive motives, and able to evoke - through a kind of exoticising, anthropological lens - the old gods of disco at its steamiest. Shot through the album as well, and gradually unveiled with each success track, is the warm throb of a real grand piano, preventing the soundscape from ever freezing over. Katie Stelmanis's vocal melodies are all very strong and nothing is ever just left for beat or bass to carry. Where Austra's spells work, they work on every level.

Austra - Lose It by Annie Mac Presents

8. James Blake - James Blake

And so James Blake went where few self-respecting masters of mood, texture and bass dare tread, and that is to the singing of songs: lyrics, a vocalist-persona, structural conventions, the relinquishment of beat, etc. etc. And besides being a sure-fire way to endear me personally to any electronic artist, this apparently retroactive move also pretty much guaranteed (albeit paradoxically) that this would be an innovative album. His moods and textures are retained, the production - especially with regards to vocals - is still taken to experimental lengths in order to transform meaning. Yet the real power of the album comes from the fact that, no matter how far Blake pushes at any particular margin, he always uncovers the same thing - an unlikely yet unmistakable resource - and that thing is gospel music (or at any rate, those places where the blues meets faith songs).

Gospel traces are everywhere, from explicit chord changes and vocal turns (especially on 'Measurements' and piano track 'Give Me My Month'), to synthesised sounds which refer directly or obliquely to modern chamber organs and associated playing techniques, to the thick harmonies which Blake forms with himself. As a result, despite all its technology and signature gaping spaces, the album is a warm one (with some notable moments of exception, such as the absolute-zero stasis of 'Limit To Your Love'). It's still a sad album - Blake's gospel is a secular one, and his choir is comprised of shady virtual clones - but it is a warm sadness which, in all its paradox, is infinitely more interesting and affecting than cold, wet gloom.

Click to read my October article on James Blake and exclusion

James Blake - Unluck by allstarsandrew

7. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

I suppose the most fascinating thing about Justin Vernon in 2011 was how he came to embody (in a similar manner to James Blake) the 'betweenness' of musical cultures these days, and how that contemporary 'betweenness' differs from other pluralisms of previous cultural moments. Bon Iver, as an album, is something like a globe amongst atlases. It shows, in a self-evidencing manner, just how things join back together at the ends. Vernon inhabits surprising borderlands without feeling the impetus for hyperactive, self-congratulatory referencing games. The album is no more self-conscious or conceit-driven than his folk-grown debut, and yet it sits a long way from the familiar, nostaglia-by-numbers folk of 'Skinny Love'. Instead, it charts acres of uncovered terrain between folk, soft rock, classical minimalism and ambient synthscapes which, flagged by the place-name titles of each song, are presented as idyllically as the perpetual folksy go-tos of wild pioneer landscape.

One could react with cynicism to this 'folkifying' of arguably banal tracts of early-'80s schmaltz. For me, though, the sheer beauty of 'Beth/Rest' suggests an opening-up from the escapist kitsch of folk archetypes to a sincere belief in the possibility of an enduring and beautiful 'authenticity' being found within the rest of modern society and our shared relics, and not just through the ascetic devotion to a cult of socially-detached woodlands hermitry.

Calgary by boniver

6. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

Suddenly in 2011 we had Merrill Garbus, and it seems strange that there had ever really been a time pre-Garbus, so distinctive and assured and fully-realised and complex her music is. Having missed out on her 2009 debut, she crashed into my life pre-seated upon one of those rare thrones that I've always reserved for a select circle of technically-literate, conceptually-rigourous auteurs. And she fits the pop auteur role perfectly, commanding and combining a range of disparate influences in a totally unique fashion to construct an album not only cohesive in terms of subject and idiolect, but fortified with an urgent sense of purpose. And all that's before she even opens her throat. I think it's pretty safe to say that, now we have Merrill, she'll be sticking around for the long haul.

Click to read my November article on tUnE-yArDs and politics

BIZNESS Tune Yards by CristinaBlack

5. The Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts

The Go! Team are one of those bands whose aesthetic is so intensely focused, it'd be fair to expect some self-repetition by their third full-length, or at least their running somewhat out of steam. Contrarily (and controversially perhaps) I think that Rolling Blackouts is their best album, and I'd suggest that this is a testament to how superbly conceived their house aesthetic was in the first place. The two general types of track explored on the band's first albums are still present: their TV-theme-ready instrumentals continue to get stronger, while the Ninja-led playground-rap jams are as unique and effective as ever.

Where the Go! Team have really struck gold, though, is on the hyper-pop of 'Secretary Song' and 'Buy Nothing Day', adding a whole new element to the band's formula by applying distinctive guest vocal performances to their uncannily perfect melodies. The sheer strength of these two monumental songs magnifies the polarised effects of the surrounding tracks, whether superhero violent or disarmingly gentle, and in many ways they provide the referential link between these two poles of scrappy and twee, in a manner lacking from previous albums. Rolling Blackouts is the Go! Team at their best, and the more they can collaborate and absorb complimentary voices into their aesthetic, the more their sound will grow in mass and power - a bit like The Blob.

Click to read my July article on the Go! Team and postmodernism

The Go! Team - Buy Nothing Day by thegoteam

4. Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil

After the black-and-white austerity of their previous album Offend Maggie, I was so happy to find that (after 16 years) Deerhoof have come out with their most colourful, pop-oriented and accessible record yet. Deerhoof vs. Evil pushes away from the band's purist experimental side, foregrounding their concurrent tendency towards bricolage, the fantasy layering of clich├ęd riffs and vibrant clashes of style, all overlaid with Satomi Matsuzaki's melodies at their most infectious. It is a welcome shift not just because Deerhoof do pop so well (when they get round to it), but also because - by moving from their most formalist studies towards an investigation of other musical styles - the band manages to pull off some completely fresh ideas (not just fresh for music in general, but fresh for Deerhoof as well). Deerhoof vs. Evil is as heroic a release as its title suggests, stepping out from the band's arcane chambers and into the wide world with a catalogue of spectacularly bold tableaux, no pretence towards virtuosic asceticism, and a true celebration of how instant pop radiance can explode from the oddest of musical objects.

Click to read my February article on Deerhoof and postmodernism

Deerhoof - Super Duper Rescue Heads ! by Polyvinyl Records

3. The Weeknd - House of Balloons

Thursday was a surprising disappointment, but only because House of Balloons was just so good. From the threshold of the first song, in which we're informed by shady Abel Tesfaye that we're gonna want to be 'high for this', the mixtape submerges us in semi-conscious recollections of gruelling, unsettling and occasionally nihilistic decadence. Tesfaye's voice, mephistophelian in its unearthly perfection, sinks in and out of smoke and shadows while the listener sleepwalks from track to track, under his distant but distinct coercion. There are moments of regret, melancholy and suppressed horror along the way, but Tesfaye's control - along with his supply of sonic narcotics - remains unfaltering and absolute. The result is a supremely well-integrated, wholly-imagined and original 'concept' mixtape (in the best possible sense), a very creative employment of R'n'B moods and contemporary production tricks to specific dramatic ends, and a ridiculously accomplished achievement for an initial free release.

Click to read my August article on the Weeknd and the politics of race and sexiness

The Weeknd - House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls by BrandonBreaux

2. John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

The choice between this superb album and the winning record was a very difficult one. They achieve quite similar goals, I think, by professing (or proposing, even) a real, post-ironic aspiration towards beauty. John Maus's album glows with the kind of lustre that you could just fall into. Ostensibly 'lo-fi', it is neither detached nor ascetic, but bulges with the cumulation of each heavily-processed synth halo. Every song is blueprinted to perfection; they function perfectly within their own theoretical universe, like strange biomorphic architecture, modelled in miniature and sitting unrealised at some old utopianist design expo.

Maus has removed much that was frightening and alienating in his previous music - the strangeness of Pitiless Censors comes instead from the distance between his futurist designs and our own (musical) experiences. His songs remain sincerely idealistic despite their pan-historicism: foundations wrought in medieval styles, structural appendages jutting out in unpredictable harmonic digressions, melodies turning in on themselves and spiring effervescently in arcs of cosmic synth. Yet so neatly and organically constructed are these fantastically-arranged edifices, that any cracks are blurred to soap-bubble smoothness. In presenting these songs to his audiences in their unaltered completeness, at his sing-along live shows, Maus then challenges us to make the leap of imagination, and aspire towards inhabiting these distant and seemingly impenetrable biospheres.

Click to read my November article on John Maus and politics

John Maus - Head For The Country by felixnicklas

1. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

Whoever Kurt Vile might ostensibly be referencing, whoever he might list self-effacingly as key influences in earnest interviews, Smoke Ring for My Halo fitted effortlessly and comfortably into 2011 without requiring any self-conscious panic of name-checking. Perhaps this suggests that the 'retro' impulse needn't be as much of a dead-ended trap as people sometimes suggest. Certainly it suggests that guitar music can still be beautiful, direct and feel personal, without having to pass through some mediating tunnel of historical meaning validation, so long as the attitude behind it rings truthfully from the breast of our own contemporaneity. Appearance aside, Vile's posing is so slight that it hardly registers musically, and never does he resort to repackaging beauty or attitude as approved by the accreditation of pop cultures past. His music is far too sad and vulnerable for that.

Retroism is a game in unreality which can certainly be fun and can highlight contemporary truths in its gaps and its anachronisms, yet it could never communicate as directly as this album. Smoke Ring is concerned first and foremost with beauty, the longing for beauty and the barely-hidden earnestness which must accompany this. Any veneer of irony on these songs has been as shabbily applied and is as easily peeled away as the pretence of curatorial historicism. Crutches like these just aren't important here. Instead, Vile gives us the kind of album that could shake us from our millenialism, give us hope through the impending Mayan Apocalypse, and teach us to have faith in beauty again.

Click to read my October article on Kurt Vile and exclusion