1 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I’ve respected and admired PJ Harvey for many years – and I’ve got almost the complete set of albums to prove it – but until now, the respect and admiration has rarely translated into out-and-out love. It’s difficult to locate the precise reasons, but this latest reinvention of PJ as some sort of post-traumatised Cassandra – head-dressed and gowned, brandishing her auto-harp like a lyre, skipping across charred battlefields with ghoulishly unnerving gaiety – is compellingly complete, and perfectly timed.
2 Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
We had booked a holiday in Goa, but K was too ill to travel, so we took a badly needed week in Cornwall instead. Acting on a recommendation, we checked ourselves into a split-level barn conversion, owned by the ex-wife of a rock legend. Although the design favoured form over function in a way that might have been irksome to some, we revelled in its minimalism. One bright morning, as Nicolas Jaar’s album reverberated through the barn’s high-spec, surround-sound kit (well, you’d expect nothing less), I found myself pacing around the double-height living space, experiencing each sonic element as a distinct, architectural plane (*), and realising that the building offered a perfect locational fit for Jaar’s equally sleek, pared-down, clean-lined approach. The association has stayed with me since, taking me back to my “happy place” with every repeat playing.
(*) No, I wasn’t on drugs. But I can see why you might think that.
3 James Blake – James Blake
My initial distaste for Blake’s fractured, treated vocals seemed insurmountable, but something kept pulling me back, as it sometimes does with records which I think I hate. It all clicked into place when Said The Gramophone posted James Litherland’s “Where To Turn”, covered by his son as “The Wilhelm Scream”. “Cover” is the wrong word, though. “Palimpsest” expresses it better, and really that’s what the whole album’s about: rubbing away at song structures and vocal lines, and smearing over the residues. It’s an approach which I’ve long valued in painting – think of Gerhard Richter, for example – and Blake’s album proves that it can work in music, too.
4 Origamibiro – Shakkei
There are seven albums from Nottingham acts in this year’s list, which is six more than there were in 2010. That’s partly because 2011 turned out to be a landmark year for the music scene in my home city, but it’s also because I finally sat up, took notice, and had my ears opened to what was lying right under my nose. I reviewed Origamibiro’s Shakkei for the current issue of LeftLion magazine; have a read, take a listen, and see what you think.
5 Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest
Music as scented candle? In this instance, I’m guilty as charged – for if there are darker undertows to be found in any of these songs, then I have remained contentedly unaware of them. Maybe it’s a careering-towards-fifty thing, but “soothing” is a quality that I seem to have started valuing more highly, and in this respect, Gillian Welch’s music has soothed more than most. I like the sparseness, the timelessness, the gentle intimacy, and the relaxed, unhurried mood, which transfers itself from artist to listener as the album progresses… even when the listener is equally focussed on reading the weekend newspapers.
6 Katy B – On A Mission
I only went clubbing three times in 2011, which is more than most men of my age would countenance, but the London gay scene can be quite accommodating to the older gentleman, and I still felt just about able to blend. Katy B’s style of club music didn’t feature on their playlists, so these places did nothing to help me place her music in its full context, but – just as with the terrific student house-share sitcom Fresh Meat – I can still find enough familiar elements to make the imaginative leap. Clearly a committed clubber herself, Katy succeeds in communicating her love of club culture to the rest of us, winningly combining the roles of shining-eyed evangelist, front-line reporter and dancefloor companion. At the two live shows that I witnessed, teenage girls dominated the front rows. I don’t see that too often – not with female artists, at least – and so it cheered me to think that this particular mission had, for once, hit its right and proper target.
7 Lou Reed and Metallica – Lulu
I almost felt bad about placing this year’s critical consensus choice at the top of my list, but the critical consensus and I didn’t always converge so happily, and here’s the prime piece of evidence. The Wire might have placed Lulu high in their year-end poll, and Wim Wenders might have raved about it, but these people are hardly my usual kindred spirits, and as for everybody else: what’s WRONG with you all, this is GENIUS, you blinkered FOOLS! OK, so it’s overblown and preposterous genius, which teeters at times on the brink of utter risibility, but what the HELL is wrong with THAT, for pity’s sake? This will be an unimpeachable cult classic in thirty years’ time, you mark my words.
8 Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
His best since Graceland, they all say. Well, I’m no expert. Still, there’s no denying that this is a masterful blend of great songwriting and superb musicianship, beautifully arranged and produced. Fantastic live show over the summer, as well.
9 Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk
A comparatively beatier, equally pleasurable companion to the Nicolas Jaar album, which shares its knack for interweaving atmospheric field recordings with understated arrangements.
10 Souvaris – Souvaris Souvaris
My last discovery of 2011, which I’ll be reviewing for the next LeftLion. It’s also the final album for Souvaris, who play their farewell gig at Nottingham Contemporary on the night of my fiftieth birthday. A shame that I’ve left it so late to discover them, but better late than never. To be filed under “instrumental post rock”, I guess, but this spans a wide range of moods, often within the same track.
11 Gallery 47 – Fate Is The Law
This was my most played album over the summer, while I was putting in the research for my Guardian feature on the rising fortunes of Nottingham’s music scene. Here’s what I wrote about it for LeftLion.
12 Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
Thanks to a rigorously organised routine for scanning new releases on Spotify, Ron Sexsmith finally drew my attention, God-knows-how-many albums into his career. (I’d heard some of his work before, on the second Feist album, but unwittingly so.) Apparently, his choice of Bob Rock as producer ruffled a few loyalist feathers, but the high-impact immediacy of Rock’s production felt, to me at least, like a good fit for Sexsmith’s songs. A wonderful show at the just-revamped Rescue Rooms brought out the best in them as well, particularly the irresistibly hooky opener “Get In Line” and the achingly affecting closer “Nowadays”.
13 Wolf + Lamb vs Soul Clap – DJ-Kicks
Fifteen years ago, I was buying more mix CDs than single artist albums. In 2011, I bought just three. This was by far and away my favourite: a restrained yet purposeful set, which readily lends itself to home listening. It doesn’t get properly beaty until the second half, by which time I’m warmed up and ready to, um, twitch my toes, just ever so slightly.
14 White Denim – D
I’ve never been able to reconcile White Denim’s live sets with their recorded material, which doesn’t fully represent their looser, wilder on-stage brilliance. With D, the difference finally ceased to matter. Although they still feel to me like two distinct propositions, this is where the two sides finally evened up, quality-wise. Best track: “Back At The Farm”, which presses all the buttons that require pressing.
15 Little Dragon – Ritual Union
I was alerted to Little Dragon when interviewing John Grant, who has been spending a lot of time in their home city of Gothenburg. When assembling my Best of 2011 Spotify playlist (which I should make more noise about, because it’s great), I began to detect a certain stylistic mood, which runs through many of the picks, particularly on the more electronic (but still song-orientated) end of the spectrum. I can’t quite describe that mood for you now, but it’s very much present here.
(That John Grant interview was one of my highlights of the year, by the way. We were booked for fifteen minutes, but he ended up giving me forty-five. Oh, and then he played the best show that I saw all year. And if the rules had been set differently, then his Queen of Denmark would have been my album of the year, for the second year running. Yes, I’m quite the fan.)
16 Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
As with Loutallica, I feel out of step with Radiohead, whose album slipped out without much fanfare (at least when you compare it to In Rainbows), before slipping away again just as quietly. Once my favourite band, Radiohead had been losing me by degrees from Amnesiac onwards, but whereas the much-vaunted In Rainbows raised little more than a yawn, The King Of Limbs engaged me in a way that none of their work since Kid A has managed to do. Most played track: the skittering, enveloping off-kilter funk of “Morning Mr. Magpie”.
17 Forest Fire – Staring At The X
18 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
19 SBTRKT – SBTRKT
20 June Tabor – Ashore
21 Bella Hardy – Songs Lost & Stolen
22 Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
23 Owiny Sigoma Band – Owiny Sigoma Band
24 Tom Waits – Bad As Me
25 Fatoumata Diawara – Fatou
26 Dirty Projectors & Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca
27 Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
28 Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
29 Tinariwen – Tassili
30 Panda Bear – Tomboy
31 Hhymn – In The Depths
32 Tamikrest – Toumastin
33 Swimming – Ecstatics International
34 Amira – Amulette
35 Trichotomy – The Gentle War
36 Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down
37 The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
38 Planningtorock – W
39 Manière Des Bohémiens – When The Road Bends
40 C-Mone – Dancing With Mirrors