All entries for December 2011
December 31, 2011
And here’s the top 10! These are the ten albums I would take if I could only have ten from this year, although why anyone would be so cruel as to only allow me ten albums from any given year is beyond me…
1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
It’s actually illegal in most countries for the under-18s to listen to albums are sexeh as this one, so be grateful we live in an enlightened nation where a woman cooing/bellowing about desire/the devil over Spanish-influenced guitars and occasional bouts of lush strings is totally acceptable. Oh yeah, this is bloody good. It’s all lyrical gender swapping, and bursts of thrilling sound. Heck, it starts with a guitar solo without making you want to frisbee the record right out of the window.
- ‘Suzanne And I’ – everyone loves big, ambiguous anthems about lesbonics/friendship/who knows.
- ‘Desire’ – ecstatic chorus alert.
- ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ – kitchen sink outro of joy.
2 Austra – Feel It Break
Do you like a bit of chilly 80s-style synth music? How about it with an ex-opera singer, ex-punk, ex-singer-songwriter in charge? Yes, that is a good plan. That is Austra’s plan. Lobbing lovely glacial synths onto a live rhythm section gives the songs quite a lot of heft and crunch, so even if the album’s a little one paced it’s a good pace, like the march of an army of sad robot penguins. There’s also the matter of Katie Stelmanis’s vocals – it’s pretty standard in chilly synth pop world to have singers who can’t really sing, but she can. So it’s all dizzying harmonies, wordless pizzicato bleeping and big stentorian bellowing, although thankfully none of that diva, singing-more-notes-than-is-necessary shit. Marvellous stuff.
- ‘Darken Her Horse’ – the best ‘big soaring chorus’ of the year, hands down.
- ‘Lose It’ – sounds a little like those Lloyds adverts but is really really good.
- ‘The Beat And The Pulse’ – juddering, Knife-ish, chug, one of the singles of the year.
3 Suuns – Zeroes QC
An ominous drone, a sinister groove, vocals drifting in on a distorted yet still human-sounding wind. Who are Suuns and what do they with our computers and guitars? They’re the twisted, sinister end point for all that indie-electro-dance stuff which has been around in varying degrees of palatability for the last few years, and they have made a damn fine album which isn’t as hard to listen to as it might seem at first. Its ideas are kept brief and breezy, nothing outstays its welcome. It invites us to dance, but in the style of a close second place in the Turing test – these robots have almost made a record which sounds human, but not quite. And that’s why it’s so good.
- ‘Arena’ – a real grower, in that it grows from nothing in a danceable number.
- ‘Up Past The Nursery’ – sparse but still funky, quite a feat in itself.
- ‘Armed For Peace’ – the only track serves as a pretty much perfect introduction to the rest of the album in just three and a half minutes.
4 Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance are one of those special bands who can release an album where the first track is eleven minutes long and mostly ambient noise, and yet the album is still their most poppy. There’s a duet with him from Hot Chip, which sounds like a sad nerd serenading a crazy witch. Y’see, Lizzi Bougatsos has a voice like a tiny, eight year old serial killer, which makes it doubly unnerving when she starts singing lyrics nicked from nursery rhymes or ditties about “mindkillas”. It helps that all the tracks are brilliantly buzzy electro stompers, sometimes with thrilling guitar solos, sometimes with basslines you can feel from space.
- ‘Thru And Thru’ – best closing track on any album this year, bar none.
- ‘Mindkilla’ – shaking the foundations with that bassline.
- ‘Adult Goth’ – a floor-filler from a dimension where floor-fillers are made by super-smart computers not slavering morons.
5 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Oh come on, of course this was going to be in here. It’s ruddy, bloody marvellous, with the emphasis on blood because this is one of those albums where EVERYONE DIES! It is, frankly, the best album of the year. Why is it not at #1 in that case? Only because it’s heavy as anything, and I sometimes can’t listen to it for the same reason I am not always in the mood to watch Grave Of The Fireflies. EVERYONE DIES!!! But yeah, you’ve read a million reviews of this, it’s visceral, it’s heartfelt, it’s brilliant.
- ‘All And Everyone’ – the way the track builds and threatens a cathartic release but then… doesn’t. Only more misery. Brutally effective.
- ‘The Last Living English Rose’ – swaggering and proud musically, broken and crushed lyrically, a beautiful juxtaposition.
- ‘The Glorious Land’ – for those painful lyrics – “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is deformed children”.
6 Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes
Yeah, that’s right, a Girls Aloud solo album. Nicola was clearly always the best member of GA, and by making an album with Metronomy, Diplo and Dragonette she’s shown that it needn’t be death by Will.I.Am and auto-tune robot vocals. What Nicola has realised is that all the best pop music is really really sad. And god, taken purely on its words this is a contender for the most misery-filled album of the year, with lots of lovely minor key synth pop and occasionaly shonky piano ballads driving it forward so you don’t end up wanting to kill yourself just by listening.
- ‘Gladiator’ – surprisingly lyrical dexterity and freakiness (Nic can apparently fire bullets from her chest, who knew?) with a nice martial guitar strut.
- ‘Yo Yo’ – top notch sad pop.
- ‘Beat Of My Drum’ – initially disorientating but after a few listens it’s great in a MIA-without-the-edge-or-the-bouts-of-cringey-stupidity way.
7 Young Galaxy – Shapeshifting
Young Galaxy are a bit hard to describe. They’re not really electro but they use a lot of synths to twinkle and parp. They’re kind of indie, in that they make songs of conventional structure and use guitars to jangle sometimes. They certainly like their percussion, and some songs are just a single guitar or synth line over an array of claps, whacks and other percussive sounds (castanets, steel drums). They have moments of small-scale Arcade Fire-ness. Ok, they have quite a few Arcade Fire style moments, albeit with fewer instruments going off at once. Then again they are Canadian. Must be in the water up there.
- ‘Peripheral Visions’ – if only for the big sing-a-long at the end which is quite affecting.
- ‘Blown Minded’ – stately march which nicely shows off the whole epic-but-kind-of-minimalist vibe of the whole album.
- ‘We Have Everything- – unashamedly anthemic.
8 Those Dancing Days – Daydreams And Nightmares
Adorable Swedish scamps who look like a bunch of off duty Brownies and sing sweet little ditties about… threatening violence against crap boyfriends and bitchy girl rivals alike. Wait, that can’t be right. Oh but it is, TDD serve up ADHD nuggets of joyful indie-pop, none of which overstay their welcome. It’s as if they need to wrap it up quickly and get home for tea and biscuits. I always find myself loving one album a year purely because it does a simple trick very very well, and this year it’s TDD. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but they have a scary mastery of their chosen form. Plus they’ve split up now, so no more fun for us. :(
- ‘Fuckarias’ – there’s no way this track should sound as muscular as it does, like being chased by a big pink truck.
- ‘I Know Where You Live pt.2’ – brilliantly huge chorus.
- ‘Can’t Find Entrance’ – breakneck speed sugary indie joy.
9 Washed Out – Within And Without
As the man who spearheaded the terribly named ‘chillwave’ invasion of the music blogosphere a couple if years back, there was a good chance that Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out, might have left it a year too late with this debut. The good news for Greene, and us, is it’s never too late for good albums and this is a very good album. It sounds suitably fuzzy, as if you’re remembering these songs rather than listening to them, with vocals floating around in the ether. But it’s not indulgent, and it doesn’t lack melodies, Greene grasping that lovely sonics mean little if they’re just tapering over a lack of decent tunes. There’s even a couple of sing-a-longs if you can decipher the words. Maybe it’s more fun to sing along in a fuzzy, distorted style.
- ‘You And I’ – simply gorgeous diet with Caroline from Chairlift, which just oozes class.
- ‘Amor Fati’ – gorgeous jangler.
- ‘Eyes Be Closed’ – keyboards splashing around like the ocean.
10 Harrys Gym – What Was Ours Cannot Be Yours
More sad songs from the melancholic Norwegians. Harrys Gym like to bring along a dash of electronics to their eleagic little epics, each building up and spiralling down, like tides. The record is centred around Anne Lise Frøkedal’s beautiful voice, all poised sadness or restrained sexiness, harmonising over herself. It’s an album which seems fixated on the inability of humans to be strong or heroic all the time. Musically there’s a lot of heft to the surroundings, tricks stolen from dance, trip hop and rock are peppered around the place, rhythms juddering or basslines crunching underneath Frøkedal’s latest missive about someone having the spirit crushed out of them by age or feckless partners or the weight of expectation. Heavy and light at the same time.
- ‘Sailing Home’ – specifically at 1:34 when the bass and the drums pile in properly.
- ‘Old Man’ – for one of the most heart rending vocals of the year.
- ‘No Hero’ – the slightly odd pairing of the indie guitars, the wobbling synth bass and the vocals shouldn’t work but does, very well.
December 30, 2011
For part one we have 11-28, the albums which were very good, but not quite good enough. Except for some which were good enough only someone else made something which was even gooderer. Anyway, there are 28, which isn’t a nice round number unless you have 14 fingers in which case it is. Sorry. I couldn’t be arsed to write about any of the other albums I’ve heard this year which means that they either weren’t very good, they were disappointing, or I haven’t heard enough of them (Ghostpoet, Lanterns On The Lake, I Break Horses and Soft Metals need to be filed under this category). Part two with a more numerically coherent top ten is tomorrow. Lucky you. You’re welcome.
11 St Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clarke is a rock queen! No really, she is. She may not be death metal, but she’s throwing some guitar shapes here, alongside the stories about smalltown American scandals, sex, angry young women, sex, and lovers being shitty to each other. And sex. It’s a pretty lush album, each track a little wall of sound in itself, with strings, brass, wobbly electro basslines, and choirs of Clarkes all jostling for space alongside the guitars. Oh the guitars. This is more proof (alongside Wild Flag, below) that you don’t have to play every note on the damn guitar super fast to show you’ve got a mastery over it. Fun, thrilling, primal, sophisticated riffs are allowed too. Maybe it helps being a girl with a guitar, and if so, St Vincent is the head girl.
- ‘Surgeon’ – for that spiralling outro of layered vocals and the dizzying bassline.
- ‘Northern Lights’ – fuzzy chug-a-long rock out.
- ‘Cruel’ – starts orchestral then gets its claws out.
12 Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li has the sort of voice you’d expect to hear in an old 60s recording, and there’s a lot of almost retro sounding instruments and songs on display here. “Almost” retro because they’re not. This isn’t yet another album with a tedious obsession with olden days music (as so many of those desperate to touch the greatness of Winehouse have attempted) but one where those old style sounds are moulded into lovely, up to date numbers. It’s classy in the way that everyone pretends pop used to be (it wasn’t) hence why it doesn’t really sound like pop any more. So if you want to pretend that things were better in the old days slap this on and pretend its 1965 and we’re all so hip and happening and things are better. Just don’t look too shocked when she sings about prostitutes and other things which would have ensured this record would never have been released in 1965.
- ‘Youth Know No Pain’ – wurlitzer whirls, everyone gets up and dances.
- ‘I Follow Rivers’ – the percussion on this alone is worth the price of the album (unless you downloaded it for free in which case it’s worth more).
- ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ – how was this not number 1 all year? It would have been if Adele had released it.
13 Metronomy – The English Riviera
Apparently it’s a concept album about the English seaside except it really isn’t. Instead it’s more falsetto harmonies, more quirky little ditties, and more evolution for the band who still sound like they’re recording everything in their bedroom, in a good way. There’s more heft in the rhythm section this time around which is welcome without detracting from the charm, and it’s a thoroughly well-crafted piece of sophisticated pop elegance. It nicks from 80s smooth pop but without sounding like it should be soundtracking wankers snorting coke in yachts while wearing white jeans. No, it’s geek-indie at its best.
- ‘She Wants’ – sinister slap bass pushing everything forward.
- ‘The Bay’ – smooth as hell pop which strays dangerously close to 80s wanker-pop without falling into those deadly waters.
- ‘Everything Goes My Way’ – all Metronomy albums must have a wonky duet crammed full of charm, this is it.
14 Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years
You what’s wrong with most 80s influenced bands these days? Irony. Now don’t get me wrong, I love irony, but the best things about 80s music was that everyone took themselves very very seriously, especially the synth pop brigade. Cold Cave take themselves insanely seriously. It’s proper synth pop iconagraphy ahoy with lyrics about graveyards and anguished lovers either facing impossible odds together or breaking up in melodramatic waves sadness. It’s all delivered with the subtly of a North Korean military parade, waves of drums and keyboards and bellowing. There’s not a lot of light and shade, just a juggernaut of seriousness, but the sheet sincerity of it all is infectious and endearing. I can’t resist its silliness and I advise you don’t either.
- ‘Catacombs’ – totally seriousface, very silly to start with, but by the end it’s sucked you in so much that the payoff is quite emotional.
- ‘Underworld USA’ – very 80s, nice guitars, silly serious sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Alchemy And You’ – best use of trumpets 2011.
15 Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Ah, y’know what, let’s not even begin to pretend this doesn’t sound loads like Sleater-Kinney. Wild Flag have Carrie and Janet from S-K, plus mates, and they have made a record which sounds an awful lot like S-K would have done had they decided to follow up The Woods with an album featuring more big, raw rock songs with twiddly (but not fretwanky) guitars, raw and zesty vocals, and retro, kind of 60s sounding keyboards. It is big, it is clever, it is endearingly life-affirming, with blasts of handclaps, 60s girl-group style backing vocals, and a pleasingly punkish edge to everything.
- ‘Romance’ – exactly two minutes in when the music drops out and it’s all handclaps. That.
- ‘Boom’ – for the breakneck crunching guitars.
- ‘Future Crimes’ – the contrast between the track’s general urgent heaviness and the twinkling keys.
16 EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Droney, fuzzy, scuzzy, it’s like Past Life Martyred Saints is making a case for “dirgey” to be reclaimed as a positive rather than negative adjective. Quite a lot of the album is heavy, not in a heavy metal way, but in an oppressive and all consuming way, like a humid evening. That’s another word which is appropriate here if we can accept it as a positive not a negative – oppressive. There’s something enveloping about Erika M Anderson’s world, with its tales of small town freaks, angry geeks, and ominous metaphors. There are also plenty of squalls of guitar noise, some of it stately, some of it pure rocking out. It’s shit. Sorry, it’s THE shit. Now there’s a negative adjective turned positive for you.
- ‘The Grey Ship’ – an epic in two parts, a swaying acoustic beginning and a massive rockout ending.
- ‘Milkman’ – distorted glam stomper.
- ‘California’ – fuzzy rant, less a song, more a thrilling sermon with guitar noise.
17 Grimes Geidi Primes/Halfaxa
It was quite odd seeing NME calling Grimes the future of dance music, if only because it’s not that easy to dance to. At all. Yeah I tried. I’m being cheeky and lumping these two albums together which probably isn’t fair. Also she released them as free downloads in 2010, but as they only came out on record this year I am counting them. They’re worth counting too, two albums of dreamy, fuzzy electro. That’s ‘dreamy’ as in the full range of dreams, from twinkling brief half songs, through to terrifying nightmares of sinister little-girl-lost vocals and disconcerting waves of synth. Both albums are hodge-podges of ideas in the best possible way.
- ‘Weregild’ (from Halfaxa) – if only for the bit where the drums kick in.
- ‘Swan Song’ (from Halfaxa) – Crystal Castles if they were dreamy rather than furious.
- ‘Rosa’ (from Geidi Primes) – almost a proper song, twangy guitar and nearly intelligible lyrics, but what’s best about it that it’s groovy.
18 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
Ah, the unmistakable sound of drums and a car horn. A ragged guitar accompanied by the sound of falling wood. A raw voiced and angry woman harmonising with a police siren. Who knew Little Mix’s album would be so adventurous? Jokes, Merrill Garbus wouldn’t get past the first round of X Factor, if only because rather than some dirgey ballad her audition piece would be like one of the tracks off W H O K I L L, a righteous but often funny rant about the complete shitness of modern life, backed by a percussive cascade. Under Garbus’s command all instruments, including guitars, saxophones and, yes, sampled sirens, are merely shards of percussion to be used like some modern approximation of tribal rhythms.
- ‘My Country’ – a cascade of instruments and vocals, all falling down a hill.
- ‘Gangsta’ – strutting, jerky barrage of noise which somehow resolves itself into a cautionary tale with a sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Bizniss’ – the lyrical and vocal dexterity here makes it a winner.
19 Zola Jesus – Conatus
Lots of heavy percussion, thudding towards the listener like a relentless army of goth girls, each with a cryptic story of vague sadness to impart. And yet, there’s also a lot of arms in the air rave moments, albeit slowed down from the high tempos of dance music, giving the whole album a weirdly underwater mood to it. Dark and mysterious but still inviting all the neighbours around for a party with black cake, black balloons and black party bags.
- ‘Vessel’ – the mechanical percussion is great.
- ‘Ixode’ – spiralling, layered vocals lead to a thoroughly ecstatic conclusion.
- ‘Seekir’ – this could almost be a pure pop song if it weren’t for the weird backing vocals, but when the drums kick in the dancing’s good.
20 Katy B – On A Mission
Ok, so she’s pop as anything, this isn’t edgy dubstep, and there’s the end of the last track where she goes off on one like an Oscar winner thanking her parents, cat, local lollipop lady for making it all happen, but hey, here’s a good dance record in a year of bad dance records. It helps that Katy has a good voice, distinctive even if the lyrics are a little banal, albeit in a sassy way. Thing is, when this album is good, it’s very very good, exhilarating to dance to, and fun to listen to. And yes, it’s not an album of great lyrical insights, but it’s nice that the overall theme is a girl being confident and honest about wanting a good time on her terms.
- ‘Katy On A Mission’ – huge wub wub wub anthem, resistance is futile.
- ‘Witches Brew’ – captures all the worst keyboard parts from late 90s trance and makes them good again using bleepy bleeps.
- ‘Broken Record’ – the last 45 seconds are possibly the best fade out ending in ages.
21 British Sea Power – Dancehall Valhalla
In which British Sea Power make another British Sea Power record. If that means anything to you then it’s an endorsement. If not then let me explain briefly – someone forgot to tell British Sea Power about any and all developments in indie since 2001. Therefore they make quirky guitar led songs about esoteric lyrical themes (this time round is more military themes, more star gazing, and more celebrations of music itself). These songs are then polished with big epic guitar riffs, and occasional deviations into slightly leftfield areas, but always returning to the slightly unfashionable indie underneath. And then they stick an almost 12 minute wigout at the end. Typical.
- ‘We Are Sound’ – top notch outro, classic BSP tactic of piling more and more sheer stuff in til the song pops.
- ‘Mongk II’ – twisted vocals over a driving insistent beat.
- ‘Observe The Skies’ – the most BSP song on here.
22 Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis
Super-sinister, droning, hypnotic, it starts with a 23 second cover of a death metal song, and then soundtracks the most nightmare waltz through a haunted house you could imagine. Even the songs which don’t sound like nightmares are a bit off, love songs about being weirdos freaks. Glacial beauty, but only if the glacier is made of black ice.
- ‘Mer’ – guitar riffs strangely reminiscent of Brand New at their most haunting.
- ‘Tracks (Tall Bodies)’ – the most unnerving love song of the year, without being at all explicit.
- ‘Moses’ – builds around an unending creeping guitar riff into a woozy finale.
23 Bjork – Biophilia
A very sparse album which actually requires some concentration, but it’s worth it for the rewards. Of course Bjork would never do something as dull as simply release an album of songs you can sing along to, and this isn’t really a collection of songs per se, more some interesting sonic experiments with moments of startling beauty interspersed between moments of “WTF?” and “huh wuh?”. Guaranteed not to be to everyone’s tastes.
- ‘Crystalline’ – surprise drum’n’bass outro.
- ‘Cosmogony’ – like a really really weird Disney song.
- ‘Mutual Core’ – I love the ‘chorus’ (insofar as there is one) on this.
24 Neon Indian – Era Extraña
Could Alan Palomo have made it more obvious than starting this album with what sounds like Space Invaders launching? I wasn’t that impressed with his debut, but this follow up is a great slice of electro-pop, layering 80s computer game noises over Palomo’s chillwave-ish vocals. It sounds like a distant Wayne Coyne trying to seduce a room full of retro-gamers, probably unsuccessfully because they’re all trying to beat Donkey Kong and save the princess.
- ‘Polish Girl’ – chillwave with bleeps not woozy guitars.
- ‘Fallout’ – see above.
- ‘Suns Irrupt’ – see above… look, they all sound the same but I like it.
25 Lady Gaga – Born This Way
It’s too long, there’s too much filler, one track sounds like Shania Twain, but in the end there’s a reason the Lady is a pop juggernaut crushing all before her and that’s because when she gets it right, she gets it righter than most. The sheer OTT-ness of the album sometimes works a total treat and it is nice to hear a pop star wanting to talk about more than just being ‘in da club’. We all know what it sounds like, and I am cool with that.
- ‘Government Hooker’ – precision engineered for the dancefloor.
- ‘Judas’ – pop as if made by evil robots who will crush and enslave us all, but in a good way.
- ‘Edge Of Glory’ – we’ll regret it in a few years time when they are everywhere, but here is a sax solo which is great!
26 True Widow – An High As The Highest Heavens And From The Centre To the Circumference Of The Earth
Slowly slowly the downtuned guitars and sludgy bass unfurl into… something. Not really songs because they’re more like funeral grooves, as if someone decided to slow down a load of danceable songs then cover them using only guitars dug from prehistoric times. Whack a load of floating and distant vocals on top and voila. An album of gloom which isn’t oppressive. An album where all the songs seem to sound the same, but they aren’t, and besides too much variation would ruin the mood. Which is one of futile despair. One for dinner parties and social gatherings.
- ‘Jackyl’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘NH’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘Boaz’ – for the amazing drum and bass meets opera bit in the… kidding, it’s for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
27 Maybeshewill – I Was Here For A Moment Then I Was Gone
More heavy rock meets post-rock from Maybeshewill, the band who like to make post-rock songs but either cut out the first five minutes of build up and just slam in the bit with the loud guitars and drum fills, or they condense it all down into four minutes. It’s definitely worth it for people who like waves of uplifting guitars to wash over them, and I am one of those.
- ‘Red Paper Lanterns’ – for the best in guitar riff and xylophone interactions.
- ‘Critical Distance’ – the lovely cascading piano could have been Coldplay at their best but instead it gets to play with with skittering drums and big guitars and souds all the better for it.
- ‘Farewell To Sarajevo’ – stately and pretty.
28 Yacht – Shangri-La
DFA’s oddballs return with another album of strangeness which could be self-help motivational indie-dance, or an ironic act of such subtlety that it’s impossible to know who the joke is on. Whatever they’re on (and I think they’re being sincere) they’ve added some decent tunes, all in typical DFA style. It’s not up there with LCD Soundsystem, but in that vein cowbells are whacked, beats are dropped, basslines are wobbled and the pair have a giddy enthusiasm which means you’re about halfway through the album before you realise most of what they’re saying is bollox, but it’s danceable and fun bollox.
- ‘Dystopia’ – for sheer balls at nicking the chorus from elsewhere and the lolling rhythm.
- ‘I Walked Alone’ – for using autotune in a way which isn’t irritating.
- ‘Tripped And Fell In Love’ – the longest track, a Juan Maclean-ish groove.