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.