Top 55 albums of 2011

So, I’ve sort of cheated. Normally these lists are properly rounded (top 50, top 100), and I’m always happy to conform, but for some reason this year I’ve found it really hard to narrow my list down to 50. I just couldn’t bring myself to cut out 5 more albums. But thankfully, since this is my blog and this list is objective, I can happily settle for 55 releases.

As always, this list is considerably subjective. It’s not a list of the best albums out this year (objectively speaking, in terms of influence, skill, originality etc), it’s just a list of the albums that I’ve enjoyed immensely in 2011. Though they are in order, that order is at best half-assed (and that  includes the top ten).

So, without further ado:

55.   Immanu El – In Passage

54.   We Are Augustine – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

53.   13 & God – Own Your Ghost

52.   Sun Glitters – Everything Could Be Fine

51.   Leyland Kirby – Eager To Tear Apart The Stars

50.   CANT – Dreams Come True

49.   Yuck – Yuck

48.   Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island

47.   Barn Own – Lost In The Glare

46.   The Field – Looping State of Mind

45.   Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien

44.   Polinski – Labyrinths

43.   Savaging Spires – Savaging Spires

42.   Shlohmo – Bad Vibes

41.   Apparat – The Devil’s Walk

40.   Explosions In The Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

39.   Balam Acab – Wander/Wonder

38.   Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

37.   Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

36.   Noveller – Glacial Glow

35.   Mark McGuire – Get Lost

34.   And So I Watch You From Afar – Gangs

33.   The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – From The Stairwell

32.   Blanck Mass – Blanck Mass

31.   Raised Among Wolves – Bear Tracks EP

30.   Stumbleine – For All Your Smile

29.   Matthew Cooper – Some Days Are Better Than Others

28.   Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

27.   Trouble Books and Mark McGuire – Trouble Books and Mark McGuire

26.   Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel

25.   Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

24.   Wild Beasts – Smother

23.   Benoit Honore Pioulard – Plays Thelma EP

22.   Grouper – Dream/Loss

21.   Giraffes? Giraffes! – Pink Magick

20.   Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

19.   Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere

18.   Braids – Native Speaker

17.   St Vincent – Strange Mercy

16.   Sleepingdog – With Our Heads In The Cloud And Our Hearts  In The Field

15.   Lanterns On The Road – Gracious Tide, Take Me Home

14.   Big Deal – Lights Out

13.   The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

12.   Colin Stetson – New History Warfare vol 2: Judges

11.   The Antlers – Burst Apart

And the top 10:

10.   Nils Frahm – Felt

With microphones inside his muted piano, capturing every nuance of sound as well as the hammers and the keys, Felt is a tour-de-force of Frahm’s ability as a pianist and a musician. Every key, every chord is full of dynamics, of a sense of space and time. Felt is littered with elegant, meditative pieces, all of whom are as comfortable with silence as they are with melody. Frahm’s approach is dynamic despite being calm and though it is an album ultimately of piano pieces, Frahm’s makes it seem so much more (even though, admittedly, there are some post-production flourishes).

9.   Zola Jesus – Conatus

I’m going to be a bit disingenuous here and compare Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova) to Florence Welch (of Florence & the Machine). Though I was once a fan of Welch, I found myself quite disillusioned with her this year, primarily because out of nowhere her propensity for hysterical vocals drove me up the wall. Danilova, for me, is what I wish Welch could be – a powerful vocalist who knows what restraint actually means, who knows that at the end of the day her voice exists to be moulded into a great song, rather than to have great songs moulded to her voice. Conatus is a perfect example of a musician writing an album, rather than a vocalist. Tracks like Hikikomori and Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake are quite dissimilar, but they’re held together by Danilova’s voice as it pierces through the music. Her vocals are powerful yet never overwhelming – at times you feel like you’re listening to a post-modern opera, bereft of the ostentatious and straight to the point. Though there’s much to admire in Danilova, her strongest suite in invariably her ability to craft exquisite songs and ensure that the strength of her voice carries through to the songs. Conatus was a much awaited release after the exciting Stridulum EP, and to claim that it’s done anything other than deliver on Danilova’s talent would be a considerable lie.

8.    Little Kid – Logic Songs

One of the reasons lo-fi always appeals to me is that there’s an inherent honesty in music that’s recorded on nothing but a four-track. Kenneth Boothby’s Logic Songs is the very epitome of lo-fi, an album full of starkness and tape hiss rendered atmosphere, full of lyrics that paint an atmosphere of melancholy. Boothby’s voice, to me, resembles Conor Oberst’s in timbre, but not in effect – whereas Oberst can be at times melodramatic, Boothby’s vocals are pensive and restrained; he’s telling you a story, rather than singing about it. The guitar work is sublime not because of its virtuosity, but because of how aptly it backs Boothby’s voice and words. But this isn’t an album that’s just a man with an acoustic guitar – though organs and keys occasionally make appearances, it’s when a fuzzed out guitar hits you in the gut during the latter half of You Might Not Be Right that you realize you’re listening to something truly wondrous. With field recordings to boot, Boothby’s songs also play around with structure, abandoning the banality of verse-chorus-verse for more freedom to involve the various tools he plays with. I don’t remember how I came across Logic Songs, but I couldn’t be happier that I did. It’s a testament to the very idea of music as a whole – of music as transcending expensive equipment and studios; of music as something majestic and natural.

7.    WU LYF – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

There’s a substantial non-musical element to WU LYF – the band name (World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation), their predilection towards ‘mystery’, insofar as not giving interviews and so on – but paying any attention to it would lead to formation of opinions that have nothing to do with music. And that, ultimately, would be folly in the case of these fantastic Mancunians. WU LYF are probably the best guitar-oriented band to emerge from the UK’s shores in the past few years, and though they are far from derivative, their heritage is traceable. Recorded in an abandoned church, Go Tell Fire has swathes of reverb, with the crash cymbals sounding like nothing I’ve ever heard before. The vocals can be shouty and unintelligible at the best of times, but that’s what makes them extraordinary; they’re deliberate and visceral, fighting valiantly the urge to break free and let loose. The guitars call to mind British Sea Power and at times Interpol, masked in angular taint and melancholy. Everything about the album falls into place on every song, with highlights We Bros and Heavy Pop in particular going through a gamut of emotions before magnificent crescendos hail the end. Though the vocals will start to grate on the next album, for now at least Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is a stunning release that recalls great guitar and rhythm driven indie rock.

6.   A Winged Victory For The Sullen – A Winged Victory For The Sullen

With SOTL’s Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran directing things, half-way through the cello and the violin leading into Requiem For The Static King Part 1 you have to stop and take note of your surroundings, because by the time part 2 ends, you’re going to be asking who decided to start cutting onions in the room. Written for Mark Linkous, they broadly encapsulate the very essence of this spectacular release – beauty and melancholy. Drones are paired with strings and O’Halloran’s soft, ponderous keys for one of the year’s sincerest releases. Though it would’ve probably been easy for both these incredibly talented musicians to make a hash of things, they have instead come out with one of the most focused musical experiments of the year. By the time the slightly uplifting string work on Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears hits you, you’re fully aware that this isn’t just an astonishingly pretty album, it also happens to pack a pretty significant emotional punch. Though with O’Halloran and Wiltzie, could anything else really be expected?

5.   Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – Everything’s Getting Older

Birth, love and death, the only reasons to get dressed up” ponders Moffat on The Copper Top, narrating in his own less-than-remonstrative manner about the mundane nature of funerals. Everything on Everything’s Getting Older is borne from Moffat’s tryst with age, and as always, he’s in fine lyrical form. Moffat’s a genius because the worlds he creates aren’t fantastical (like, let’s say, Dan Bejar’s), but within his very Glaswegian, downtrodden worlds are fantasies of his own – scenarios that are as surreal as could be dreamt up. On the jaunty Glasgow Jubilee Moffat weaves a story full circle, yet it as crude and lugubrious as anything he’s written, when his whore chalks up events to “we could all be dead tomorrow.” Bill Wells too provides more than ample backing for Moffat. Ultimately though, you’re listening for more gems from Moffat, and as he rambles,  “and remember: we invented love, and that’s the greatest story ever told” on The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s hard to deny that you know life is, oddly enough, just that much better for you after hearing (or knowing) about Aidan Moffat.

4.    Low – C’mon

Even though it’s Low and it’s natural for me to be embarrassingly excited for a new album from them, I still couldn’t resist being astonished and giddy when I first heard bootleg versions of Witches or Especially Me. There’s seemed to be an excitement within the songs themselves, a sense of movement that’s not often present in the band’s meandering, languid songwriting. C’mon is probably the happiest Low record so far and even then there’s enough melancholy on here to make Lars Von Trier look like a maudlin mug. There’s far less indication of the band being the progenitors of slowcore, as Witches and Majesty/Magic clock up an impressive BPM. Moreover, C’mon features Alan Sparhawk turning up the fuzz and manic with his guitar, recalling the noisenik genius of songs like Pissing or Do You Know How to Waltz. In Nothing but Heart, you have the song of the year as the constant refrain “I’m nothing but heart” flows over Sparhawk’s rapacious guitar. It is, by all intents and purposes, a Low album, and just another stellar addition to the band’s exceedingly phenomenal catalogue.

3.   Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

I don’t think there was an album released in 2011 that packed as much of an emotional punch as the first three songs for the latest Bon Iver album. One of my favourite musical moments of the year was when I first hear the second guitar join in on Perth with the main hammer-on riff. Despite a significant departure in terms of style from the debut, Bon Iver, Bon Iver retains Vernon’s fragile falsetto and his strong sense of melody, except this time it’s been fuelled further by a broader approach to song structures (something hinted at on The Wolves (Act I & II)). The result is an album that’s not got a single average song on it (though Beth/Rest’s attempts at pulling off a Phil Collins comes close) and never bores, primarily due to the strength of Vernon’s songwriter, but also because of his desire to not stick to a single formula. Like For Emma, Forever Ago though, you’d be hard pressed to get wind of what Vernon’s singing about. Though for many that might be a problem, for me it’s perfect because it leads to a greater focus on the music as a whole. With no lyrics to deviate your attention, your concentration is centered on the whole package. Often songwriters who’ve built their craft on starkness find the transition to a big band difficult (I’m looking at you, Sam Beam), but that’s comprehensively not been the case with Vernon. Bon Iver, Bon Iver as a result ends up as a statement of his strength as a musician and a songwriter, of a man at the top of his game, writing music to move worlds.

2.    Rustie – Glass Swords

No album this year has made me grin as much as this barn-buster by Rustie. Whether it’s the Seinfeld tribute Hover Traps or the staggeringly stunning Ultra Thizz, or even the drop to After Light which makes me want to dance till my legs come off, Glass Swords is the very epitome of a thrilling dance music record that does more than just acquiesce to a standard 4/4 kick drum beat. It references 80s new wave, funk, dubstep, techno, prog-rock, IDM and a whole host of other genres in a venerable tour-de-force of ideas that quite frankly have no right to be bunched up together yet sound this astonishing. Every track on the album has ideas layered upon ideas, all without missing a beat and without even remotely sounding like they don’t belong together. It’s a soundtrack to Blade Runner for the 21st century, to our generation’s ability to look towards the past and create something new with it, whether they be tired old labels (hipster/glam) or music (new wave/shoegaze). The last time an electronic music album blew my socks off like this was in ’07 when Burial’s Untrue was released, and I think in the pantheon of genre-moulding musicians, Rustie rightfully deserves his own section. Glass Swords, then, is overwhelming in the most brilliant manner imaginable, and I couldn’t be any more grateful for that.

1.    Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

There’s a beauty to the non-Derrida idea of deconstruction, of taking things apart and then putting them back together; to destroying and rebuilding anew. In a sense, with Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 there is no tabula rasa, everything follows a pattern, a greater theme and a greater melody. Hecker’s known for his sense of melody, often subservient to texture, tone, or noise – and on this album his art, his very aesthete has found perfection. Recorded in a church in Iceland with Ben Frost, Ravedeath 1972 is simultaneously solemn, eerie, captivating, gorgeous and ultimately a fractured, magnificent record where a church organ lays the basis for Hecker to mould noise and sound over, to give birth to the idea of music being slowly stretched and torn apart. Moreover, what sets Hecker apart from his contemporaries is his strong sense of melody – too often when mucking about with noise and sound it’s possible to lose sense of the essence of music, the shapes and contortions that make melody and harmony. Hecker’s ability to always keep melody in tandem with dissonance has never been in such fine form, complemented too by Frost’s appearance on the piano during the final movement, In The Air (Pt 1, 2, 3). Because ambient music is not predisposed to ‘entertainment’ the way perhaps most other genres are, it leads to greater explorations of what constitutes music and sound. Hecker happens to be at the forefront of this movement, so to speak, except he still manages to retain a sense of what music is, giving his efforts greater depth – in terms of both intelligence as well as beauty. Ravedeath, 1972 is an affirmation of this man’s unique talent and approach, as well as an album of undeniable beauty. No album this year has moved me emotionally or caused me to stop and wonder about music the way this album has, and I personally cannot offer any greater platitude than that.