A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top 100 Albums Of 2011

2011 has been another amazing year for music, and albums in particular.

Below is a list of 100 that I enjoyed listening to over the course of the year.

As always I should thank various people/websites/publications for helping me discover these amazing albums. So – my thanks go out to The Wire, The Liminal, musicOMH, Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone, Headphone Commute, futuresequence, Fluid Radio, Boomkat, eMusicLate Junction, Tom Ravenscroft & Gideon Coe.

100) Laura Cantrell - Kitty Wells Dresses
It has been a while since Laura Cantrell released new material and although this was essentially a tribute to country singer Kitty Wells it was still a very welcome return. I saw her play much of it at a lovely show at Union Chapel earlier in the year.  

99) Miracle Fortress - Was I The Wave?
I had enjoyed Five Roses, the first Miracle Fortress album and expected the second to follow in similar suit but Was I The Wave? saw Graham Van Pelt move in different musical directions. I gave it a slightly lukewarm review for musicOMH, but further listening showed this may have been a little harsh in retrospect. 

98) Terrors - Lagan Qord
Lo-fi, warped guitar-folk musings from Elijah Forrest, each track covered in a nice thick coat of surface hiss that helped the album foster a real intimacy. Maybe an album for those that found the Josh T. Pearson album a little underwhelming (like I did).
97) Other Lives - Tamer Animals
Alt-orch-rock that possessed elevated harmonies and a widescreen sound. In terms of mood it occasionally reminded me of Midlake circa The Trials Of Van Occupanther.

96) Pechenga - Helt Borte 
Quietly nuanced, delicately synthesised musical landscapes from Norwegian duo Rune Lindbaek and Cato Farstad.

95) Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit
A lovely collection of mellow, unobtrustive songs from Laurel Canyon based folk musician Wilson (one of several great albums released on Bella Union in 2011).

94) Sidi Touré - Sahel Folk  
Earthy, gently hypnotic Malian guitar-blues from Sidi Touré, at times recalling the work of fellow countryman Ali Farka Toure.

93) Mountains – Air Museum
Air Museum was a worthy follow up to 2009's excellent Choral. The acoustic elements of their earlier work were largely absent on this album, the sound being far more electronic in nature resulting in arguably a more dynamic listen.

92) Kontakte - We Move Through Negative Spaces
An impressively cinematic album from upcoming post-rock outfit Kontakte. I reviewed it for musicOMH.

91) Tamikrest - Toumastin 
They quite often (and to an extent understandably) get overlooked in favour of fellow Malian countrymen Tinariwen but second album Toumastin saw Tamikrest consolidate their position as a desert blues outfit of some distinction.

90) Moritz Von Oswald Trio - Horizontal Structures 
A series of five free-moving, unconstrained, dub-informed pieces rich in sonic detailing. The album title was particularly apt, conveying the linear and spatial dimension to the music.

89) Contemporary Noise Sextet - Ghostwriter's Joke 
Their name may have suggested music of a slightly different nature but Ghostwriter’s Joke proved to be an album of momentum-rich, eminently listenable modern jazz.

88) The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow 
The comparison has probably been made before but the closeness to the collaboration between Alison Krauss & Robert Plant from a few years ago hinted at the quality on display here. Emotive, tender and at times simply spine-tingling modern country music.

87) Laura Veirs - Tumble Bee
July Flame was my favourite album of 2010 and Laura followed it with Tumble Bee, a collection of songs primarily for children but one that also held wider appeal. I reviewed  it for musicOMH. 

86) High Wolf - Etoile 3030 
Dubby textures, distorted guitar sounds, oblique electronics all sat together in pleasingly murky fashion on Etoile 3030. I really need to find time to listen to full length album Atlas Nation that came out later in the year. 

85) Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact 
The fifth album from Gang Gang Dance was an enjoyably headspinning affair, both vivacious and exotic (and overspilling with ideas as usual) but seemed to be much more cohesive and focused than some of their other work.

84) Semiomime - From Memory 
An intriguing album of electronica that incorporated swirling ambient passages, scattered beats, spectral effects and melodic strands. 

83) Luup – Meadow Rituals 
A sparse and icy coming together of modern classical and contemporary European folk.

82) Fourcolor - As Pleat
Beautiful guitar-based ambient creations from Japanese musician Keiichi Sugimoto that sounded so natural and unforced.

North Carolina EAR PWR duo returned with their second album, full of effervescent, energetic, melodic leftfield pop that reminded me of John Peel favourites Solex (which I discovered kind of appropriately via his son Tom Ravenscroft’s fine 6Music radio programme).

80) A Hawk And A Hacksaw - Cervantine 
Cervantine successfully exhibited A Hawk And A Hacksaw’s  irrepressible musical spirit, vitality and energy.  Jeremy Barnes answered some of my questions for musicOMH.

79) Rene Hell – The Terminal Symphony
A stimulating album of experimental electronic-chamber music released on the excellent Type label.

78) Hallock Hill - The Union
A painstaking album of beautifully dexterous solo guitar that seemed equally concerned with soundtracking the natural environment as human moods and emotions.

77) Mark McGuire - Get Lost
The second solo release from Mark McGuire saw melodic guitars (both acoustic and electric) interplay warmly with keyboards and vocals to create a very listenable album that came close to matching some of his work with Emeralds.

76) Hong Kong In The 60s - My Fantoms
I came to this album later than I should have but having finally heard it immediately fell for its hazy, languid, sepia-tinted, synth-led alternative pop.

75) Marcin Wasilewski Trio - Faithful 
Piano-led beautiful, melodically propulsive jazz from the Marcin Wasilewski Trio which saw them maintain the high standards achieved in their earlier releases.

74) Ezekiel Honig – Folding In On Itself
Organically constructed, ambient micro-soundworlds from New York musician Ezekiel Honig. Rich in found sounds and soft electronic textures, this was an album that invited deep, close listening.

73) Jonny - Jonny
I saw Euros Childs and Norman Blake play two shows as Jonny this year (at Water Rats and The Borderline), that were equally heartwarming and rough-around-the-edges but their album was a much more accomplished experience. Candyfloss should have really been something of an indie-pop-hit.

72) Ensemble - Excerpts
The music on Excerpts veered between sophisticated Gallic orch-pop and Yann Tiersen-style soundtracks and had a real depth and svelte beauty to it.

71) Ryan Teague - Causeway
Ryan Teague’s 2008’s Coins & Crosses was a particular favourite of mine with its seamless mix of modern classical and textural acoustic guitar. On this album he concentrated exclusively on guitar based compositons (to equally beguiling effect).

70) Illuha - Shizuku
Shizuku borrows some of the structures from post-rock, but gently transforms them into something more beautiful via strings and acoustic guitar. A meditative and subtly evocative album on the excellent 12k label from Tokyo based musicians Corey Fuller and Tomoyashi Date.

69) John Vanderslice – White Wilderness
I’ve been a big fan of John Vanderslice for many years now and White Wilderness showed his versatility and reinforced his abilities as a songwriter. I saw him play a show at the Lexington earlier in the year (where he slightly strangely preferred to focus on his back catalogue).

68) Inch-Time - The Floating World
In my review for musicOMH I described it as “a satisfying album of unassuming, cerebral electronica” and looking back I think that’s a fair summary of Stefan Panczak’s third album under the Inch-Time guise, which never became any less listenable as the year passed.

67) The Caretaker - An empty bliss beyond this world
An album that seemed to be from a different time, most notably in its appropriation of Gershwin-esque piano pieces that have been coated in a murky layer of dusty, crackling sounds giving the impression they have been eroded over time.

66) Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion
A stand-out jazz album from Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset. I was fortunate to see him play a thrillingly powerful and insistent show at Kings Place and this album goes some way to capturing the energy of his live performance.

65) Prefuse 73 - The Only Chapters
An abstruse, dense and textural album featuring various female guest vocalists over the course of 18 tracks (each beginning with 'The Only' hence the title). In particular The Only Hand To Hold (with vocals from Shara Worden) stood out, combining the best of both Massive Attack & Cocteau Twins.

64) Fatoumata Diawara - Fatou
The debut from Malian singer-guitarist Fatoumata Diawara was an impressively assured album. My review for musicOMH can be found here. She was also the star of the Another Honest Jon’s Chop Up event that took place at the Barbican in October (of which you can read more here if you're interested). 

63) Feist - Metals
Up to now the music of Lesley Feist had never really made much of an impact on me but I enjoyed this album – at once mellifluent, uplifting and rather pretty. 

62) Battles - Gloss Drop
Gloss Drop was a high octane, muscular merging of fast paced beats and powerful guitar riffs.

61) M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Like most double albums Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming had its fair share of peaks and troughs but those peaks resulted in some seriously liberating, life-affirming tracks.

60) Blanck Mass - Blanck Mass
An immersive album of pulsating, swelling dark electronic ambient released on Rock Action.

59) Esmerine - La Lechuza
The side project of GY!BE members Bruce Cawdon and Rebecca Foon, Esmerine returned with their second album. Their sound may incorporate certain elements from GY!BE (principally the elegiac strings) but there was much more going on musically – the minimalism of Steve Reich/Philip Glass as well as soulful, mournful vocals. I reviewed their show at Electrowerkz for musicOMH.

58) Marconi Union - Beautifully Falling Apart
I have enjoyed  the music of Marconi Union for several years now and this was another superb album of ambient electronica. Read my review for musicOMH here.

57) Christina Vantzou - No 1
The biggest compliment I can give this album is that it reminded me of Copia by Eluvium, for me still the best fusion of modern classical and ambient of recent years. Meditative, still, serene music.

56) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
On the whole I felt that Helplessness Blues was a more complete, consistent album than its predecessor. The vocal harmonies were still as sumptuous but it was underpinned by stronger arrangements and a higher standard of songwriting.

55) Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
A brilliantly unclassifiable album. I could talk about how it touched on electronica, bass music, modern classical and jazz but that wouldn't really do it's genius true justice. 

I didn’t initially expect to but I really enjoyed this album with its mix of dubstep, soul and electro. I tried to see them at Field Day but gave up after getting stuck outside the overcrowded tent they had been scheduled to play. 

53) When Saints Go Machine - Konkylie
An album of alternative electronic pop that didn’t really sound like anything else released this year. These days many artists seem more in thrall to late period Talk Talk so it was kind of refreshing to see a band apparently influenced more by their early synth-heavy albums.

52) Monsters Build Mean Robots - We Should Have Destroyed Our Generals Not Their Enemies
An excellent short album that although primarily inhabited the world of post-rock also showed itself to have a strong melodic core (at times combining the best elements of Sigur Ros and Explosions In The Sky). 

51) Barn Owl - Lost In The Glare
Lost In The Glare was a great follow up to the excellent Ancestral Star. Read more in my review for musicOMH

50) Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma
A fascinating album that British sound recordist/artist Watson recorded during a month spent travelling on the FNM train route from Los Mochis to Veracruz in Mexico. The train route is no longer operational (hence the title that translates as The Ghost Train) but Watson travelled along the route whilst working as a sound engineer for the BBC television series Great Railway Journeys. The album is constructed from field recordings taken during this trip, concentrating primarily on the sounds of the railway and the surrounding natural environment, making for an extremely evocative listening experience.

49) Jacaszek - Glimmer
His debut album Treny was quite an important album for me in many ways, highlighting the kind of unknown pleasures that exist out there, just waiting to be discovered. This was another excellent synthesis of dark ambient, modern classical and crackling, opaque soundscapes.

48) Olafur Arnalds - Living Room Songs
It may have only been 7 tracks long but the quality (and the fact it was all written and recorded in seven days) made Living Room Songs stand out. Read more about it in my review for musicOMH.

47) Roll The Dice - In Dust
An excellent album of a transportative, ambient space-drone.

46) Oddisee - Barron Carter
I really don't listen to as much hip hop as I should. This album from Oddisee was entirely instrumental if you exclude the opening track and conjured up memories of Endtroducing by DJ Shadow with its clever use of beats & samples. There were a couple of moments where you could detect an almost sunshine-pop feel also, giving the impression of what it may sound like if The High Llamas decided to branch out into instrumental hip hop.

45) Beirut - The Rip Tide
The fourth album from Zak Condon saw brass and strings enmesh together in glorious, effusive style and along with his bittersweet vocals, contributed to a set of characteristically moving songs. 

44) Aeroc - R+B=?
On R+B=? Geoff White created a deft tapestry of sound, seamlessly interweaving euphonious acoustic strands with digitised beats and glitchy effects. 

43) Vetiver - The Errant Charm
Cotton-wool encased, breezy alt-folk-pop from Andy Cabic and band that offered glimpses of Teenage Fanclub, The High Llamas and The Sea And Cake.

42) Belong - Common Era
If bands like I Break Horses and Still Corners (more of them later) offered something of an updated take on shoegaze music, Belong seemed to return directly to the source for inspiration, delivering an excellent album full of swirling, guitar-drenched melodies.

41) The Antlers - Burst Apart
An album that grew on me over the year. Soaring, sensitive alternative rock that had a tangible vulnerability and poignancy to it.

40) Bonnie Prince Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town
Arguably his best album since 2006’s The Letting Go although it had more in more in common with 1999s I See A Darkness. Musically hushed and desolate, with lyrics that (as always) invited scrutiny and deep engagement.

39) Crewdson - Gravity 
A truly innovative and original album of jazz-informed, leftfield electronica from south London producer/musician Hugh Jones. He managed to reproduce it at an excellent show at Cafe Oto that I reviewed for musicOMH. In said review, I may have used the phrase “a coagulant sea of bleeps, clicks and digital ephemera” to describe one track but this equally applied to much of the album. 

38) About Group - Start And Complete
Start And Complete contained one of my favourite tracks of 2011 in A Sinking Song which never got less affecting as the year progressed no matter how much I listened to it.  The album was a more varied affair - read more in my review for musicOMH.

37) Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
The show at the Roundhouse may have been a slight disappointment but the album contained several great songs, confirming Sam Beam’s ability to write emotionally engaging, harmonic songs to be undimmed.

36) Slow Club - Paradise
I guess I have came to them later than many but I enjoyed this album of roughly-hewn, soulfully-tinged indie-pop.

35) O'Death - Outside
A raw, melancholy and emotionally powerful listen. I reviewed it for musicOMH. 

34) Wye Oak - Civilian
One of those ‘surprise’ albums that seems to come out of nowhere and become something of a firm favourite. In that way it reminded me of Teen Dream by Beach House from 2010, although in terms of sound it was quite different. The title track was rather wonderful, allying some beautifully tender, vulnerable female vocals to some serrated electric guitars. I first saw them supporting Jonny at Water Rats in February.

33) Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
I loved In Rainbows and thought The King Of Limbs contained some similarly brilliant moments, especially Little By Little. The process of getting to know a new Radiohead album never gets any less thrilling.

32) Lanterns On The Lake - Gracious Tide, Take Me Home
A pristine album that managed to reconcile some of the magical, snow covered sounds of Sigur Ros with the gentle, bubbling electronica of early Mum.

31) Bjork - Biophilia
Occasionally Biophilia sounded avant-garde and cerebral but I always found it engaging. It might not have quite reached the heights of Homogenic or Vespertine but, for me, was an improvement on Volta. Hearing Crystalline for the first time was one of those jaw-dropping moments. Brilliantly ambitious and distinctive music, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from Bjork would you?

30) Nils Frahm - Felt
Another excellent release on Erased Tapes from German pianist Nils Frahm. Read my full review for musicOMH here and my interview with him here.

29) Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
It may not quite have reached the heights of his seminal albums Harmony In Ultraviolet or Radio Amor but Ravedeath, 1972 demonstrated that he could still forge impressively powerful soundscapes that ranged from the abrasive to the serene.

28) Julia Holter - Tragedy
One of those albums which like Nicolas Jaar merits inclusion solely for how utterly apart it stands from everything else. Equally avant-garde, challenging and ambitious, with many truly brilliant moments, this album seemed to exist in its own strange little world.

27) Zomby - Dedication
He may have risen from the dubstep scene but in Dedication Zomby released something much more wide-ranging and powerful. An excellent album of distinctive, impactful electronic-based music complete with vocal fragments, juddering metallic beats, melodic keyboard additions, resulting in blocks of sound that moved in and out of focus. Natalia's Song was one of my favourite tracks of the year.

26) Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
HWNDBYW was arguably Mogwai’s best and most consistent album since CODY. I particularly liked the epic final track which via aching, elegant strings saw them edge towards the realm of modern classical.

25) Marissa Nadler - Marissa Nadler
I thought Marissa Nadler’s fourth album was her most accomplished to date. I reviewed it for musicOMH and also saw her play a lovely show at Bush Hall in October.

24) Bon Iver - Bon Iver
I enjoyed Justin Vernon’s second album a lot more than his first, possibly due to the relative lack of hype compared to his debut, or maybe it was just simply down to these songs having a deeper personal resonance. What is beyond doubt is his ability to write affecting songs that possess an unique, exposed emotional quality.

23) Johann Johannsson - The Miners' Hymns
The Miner’s Hymns was inspired by the experiences of miners in the north of England during the 1980s and saw Johannsson concentrate on brass rather than strings, recalling his Virthulegu Forsetar album. It demonstrated his musical versatility, whilst never compromising on his characteristic grandeur and scale.

22) Peter Broderick - Music For Confluence
Another magnificent album from modern classical prodigy Peter Broderick. Read my full review for musicOMH here and my interview with him here.

21) Explosions In The Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Ahead of releasing their fourth album EITS talked about delivering an expanded, diversified sound but in reality Take Care, Take Care, Take Care contained more of their slow-building networks of interlocking guitar and percussion. It may have been slighted more nuanced in places but tracks like Trembling Hands hinted at a more powerful approach.

20) The High Llamas - Talahomi Way
A welcome return for The High Llamas, Talahomi Way was possibly their best album since 1999's Snowbug. Read my review for musicOMH here.

19) Deaf Center - Owl Splinters
Deaf Center may have taken their time to release the follow up to Neon City but Owl Splinters ensured the wait was worthwhile – an album of episodic tension, finely judged light and shade and consummate attention to detail.

18) Remember Remember - The Quickening
Arguably my favourite post-rock album of the year, although this was distanced from the genre in some ways by its use of different instrumentation and its progressive outlook.

17) Bibio - Mind Bokeh
Mind Bokeh was another impressive instalment in Bibio’s ever-expanding musical multiverse, taking in psychedelic soul, warped funk workouts, brief Boards Of Canada style electronic flourishes and thrashy guitar jams to sprawling, kaleidoscopic effect.

16) Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
An excellent album where refracted piano phrases and cut-up samples were added to his trademark progressive, densely ambient sound. OPN has always existed on the more esoteric and abstract side of electronic music, a view that was reinforced by Replica.

15) North Sea Radio Orchestra - I A Moon
When I read that the third album by the North Sea Radio Orchestra was, amongst other things, influenced by the sound of Deerhoof I dismissed it as too improbable a possibility to be true. Yet, amazingly, the influence is clearly there. Their pastoral chamber orchestration is still in place and although maybe not as immediate as their other albums it still showed them to retain a unique position in contemporary music. An admirable and brave attempt at expanding their sound. 

14) A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen
Dustin O’Halloran’s collaboration with Adam Wiltzie from Stars Of The Lid delivered an album of glacial, post-minimalist sadness, full of humanity, empathy and grace. Beautiful.

13) Grouper - AIA : Alien Observer / AIA: Dream Loss
Beautifully bleak, washed-out, abstract ambient sounds over two equally impressive albums by Liz Harris. Feelings of sadness and alienation were rarely captured quite as well on record in 2011.

12) The Middle East - I Want That You Are Always Happy
At times they may have sounded like 3 or 4 different bands but the more I listened to this album from this Australian four-piece the more I enjoyed it. It came across a little like the Monsters Of Folk record from 2009 with the variety of styles, ranging from folkish alt-country to power-guitar-pop. The track Months in particular showed their ability to write emotionally affecting songs.

11) Alela Diane - Alela Diane & Wild Divine
A set of really strong songs that saw Alela her take a step away from the periphery towards the musical mainstream, retaining elements of the free folk present in her earlier albums but also incorporating sounds of alt-country that positioned her closer to acts like Throwing Muses. I saw her play an excellent gig at the Village Underground in November.

10) Penguin Cafe - A Matter Of Life
Arthur Jeffes very much kept the music and spirit of his father’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra alive with the release of the excellent A Matter Of Life. Many tracks appeared to have been directly descended from PCO tracks. I saw them play a great show at Hackney Empire in July

9) Dustin O'Halloran - Lumiere
Lumiere saw Dustin O’Halloran join the likes of Johann Johannsson, Max Richter and Olafur Arnalds as a major player in the modern classical genre. He moved beyond the solo piano compositions of his previous albums, now employing strings and brass to beautiful, moving effect.

8) Still Corners - Creatures Of An Hour
I thought Creatures Of An Hour contained shades of Yo La Tengo, Broadcast, My Bloody Valentine and Young Marble Giants - not a bad quartet - all wrapped up in an air of mystery, quite an achievement in this age for a guitar band. 

7) Dalglish - Benacah Drann Deachd 
A staggeringly good album of low-lying, dark electronic textures and skittering, glitchy micro-effects from American electronic sound manipulator Chris Douglas. In many ways a really tactile, dense record that you could feel as much as hear. 

6) Petrels - Haeligewielle
A magnificent debut from Bleeding Heart Narrative member Oliver Barrett's solo project that took in reverberating drones, subtle post-rock style bass progressions, beautifully drawn out string passages, distorted noise and sounds of the sea. The unexpected appearance of vocals on Concrete was one of the most powerful musical moments of the year for me.

5) I Break Horses - Hearts
A brilliant album that married shoegazey, MBV-esque guitar sounds with heady electronic rushes and blissed out, breathless vocals. Their show at Cargo in December didn’t have as big an impact as I’d hoped for but the album was something I returned to many times over the course of the year.

4) Gillian Welch - The Harrow And The Harvest
It sounded so effortless and natural but the seven years since the release of previous album Soul Journey told a different story. The music itself was exactly what you’d expect from Welch and Rawlings – stripped down, poignant, bluegrass-toned alt country. A stunning album that saw no drop in quality over the ten songs.

3) Low - C'Mon
Another excellent album from the consistently brilliant Low. C’Mon showcased the many sides to their sound. You See Everything and Especially Me captured the band at their most sublime, whilst Witches and Nothing But Heart revealed some of the darker forces present within their music. I saw them play a great show at the Barbican in June. 

2) Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat - Everything's Getting Older
A truly outstanding collaboration between Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells that arguably contained Moffat’s finest work to date lyrically, both moving and funny. Wells’ piano alongside the use of strings provided apt accompaniment, resulting in a musically wide-ranging listen, both in terms of tempo and timbre. Their show at Cargo was one of the best I saw in 2011. Up to three weeks ago this had occupied number one spot but has been pipped at the post by.....

1) King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine
I have enjoyed the music of both King Creosote and Jon Hopkins sporadically over recent years without ever quite fully falling for either. However, on Diamond Mine this all changed. For the majority of 2011 it was a contest between this and Everything’s Getting Older as to which claimed top spot. In the end Diamond Mine came out on top, largely I guess due to the deeply engrained, melancholic emotion within the music, all held together by the beautifully fragile vocals of Kenny Anderson. These were complimented by humble, spartan guitar on John Taylor’s Month Away and sparse piano and percussion on Bats In The Attic, two of the stand-out tracks. Elsewhere the subtle electronic embellishments of Jon Hopkins provided a respectful backdrop. Just perfect.

1 comment:

Ash said...

Helluva list!