Wednesday, 14 December 2011

All The Colours: 2011's Best Albums

1. D - White Denim
Downtown / Cooperative

White Denim's previous two albums saw this gifted and spirited three-piece innovating with limited equipment and whimsically meandering through classic and garage rock. It was brilliant at times, patchy at others. But it turns out everything the Austin band had been doing was leading to this, a most extraordinary, near-flawless LP. When restrained songwriting is called for ('Street Joy' and 'Keys'), they are experts. When ebullient, melodic jamming was the go ('Back At The Farm') they were astonishing. And as ever, their take on the concept of the 'riff' was wonderfully askew and varied. Having employed an extra guitarist to complement James Petralli they have somehow lost none of their primitivism, yet are notably more advanced as musicians and composers. If a better band exists right now they must be performing for the gods, as there is none better down here.

2. Gentle Stream - The Amazing
Subliminal Sounds

Overly accomplished musicians are generally a drag. But The Amazing (two things to remember: don't call them a Dungen side project and don't say anything so nauseating as "with a name like that they'd better back it up" as too many reviews did) have a restraint, taste and lightness of touch that makes their technical prowess more palatable. Gentle Stream is a pastoral, melodic, textured and deeply spiritual second album based around Christopher Gunrup's Romantic perceptions as both singer and songwriter. This is music aiming seriously high, and indeed minute by minute reaches loftier plains.

3. Ashes & Fire - Ryan Adams

Housewives dropped their pots and pans and stood still. Men ceased chopping the wood and listened to the air. Obama asked "can I have the room?" when he heard the news: the first
Ryan Adams album in three years was on the way. Ashes & Fire is his best since 29 (2005) and similar to that album sees him assuming the role of trembling romantic. As heavily pointed out in reviews, this was a throwback to a different period of his life before he started those endless jams with the Cardinals, therefore the emphasis is on the strange poetry of his lyrics as well as some typically beautiful songwriting - case in points being 'Kindness' and 'Rocks'. Time has mellowed him, but not blunted him.

4. WIT'S END - Cass McCombs

The best song from Cass McCombs in 2011 came on his second album of the year (see below) but as a rounded, comprehensive statement, WIT'S END was the superior effort. His theme since 2008 has been defiant misery, with doses of terrifying urban imagery thrown in too, and on here it really was often a case of the rather overused term 'beautiful pain'. Opener 'County Line', 'Memory's Stain' and 'A Knock Upon The Door' revealed his growing awareness of the power of different instrumentation to add to the gravity of his sound, while his lyrical narratives about those depraved characters remain as stark as ever.

5. Humor Risk - Cass McCombs

When a measure of light returned to McCombs' music in November it was a little confusing. The varying degrees of energy and excitement on this album led to some accusing it of being somewhat disjointed and inconsistent, but say what you will, this contains some fascinating songs. None more so than 'The Same Thing' of course, but multiple listens to the strange 'Robin Egg Blue' reveal another brilliantly constructed example of his art and increased the mystery surrounding the man himself. The two albums taken together are, to coin a phrase from 'The Same Thing', 'cut from different sides of the same cloth'.

6. Don't Act Like You Don't Care - Luke Temple
Western Vinyl

Temple, whose Here We Go Magic material never quite hit the heights, referred to this as his 'country' album as it was being recorded. Given that it is not country at all suggests the departure it is from his usual aforementioned band. These are all old songs of his given a new interpretation, with the results being startling. Accessible but slightly odd, Temple reveals depths as a songwriter he has only hinted at before. This is somewhat reminiscent of Phosphorescent's Here's To Taking It Easy (2010), and pleasantly echoes that mix of humor and pathos.

7. Tripper - Fruit Bats
Sub Pop

It's debatable whether Tripper is the best thing Eric D. Johnson has ever done, but it is certainly his most eclectic. Using his familiar folk-rock template as merely a launch pad he explores such things as glam, synth-pop and his really very attractive sense of humour from start to finish. There are many touches of sentimentality amid the grit and glitz, but never does anything obscure the fact that Johnson is at least the creative equal of his pals and collaborators James Mercer of the Shins and Andy Cabic of Vetiver.

8. Smother - Wild Beasts

I am one of the few who believes Wild Beasts' first album, Limbo, Panto, to be their masterpiece. That record was full of the joys of bounding young men finding their musical feet and was an audible testament to their friendship. Smother is the logical next step from Two Dancers in establishing them as bona fide artists, demanding they be taken very seriously, and taken seriously they must be. This is their first slow-burning album that will take a few listens to sink in, yet it will eventually reveal itself to any listener to be triumphant. Since they started out, there is not much more they could have done to achieve perfection.

9. Sun & Shade - Woods

When a band is as marvelously consistent as Woods it is sometimes difficult to examine an album in isolation and assess it on its own merits. But Sun & Shade genuinely is probably a class above the rest of Jeremy Earl's output, forcing together all of his influences - from Fairport-like folk-rock to the drone of the Velvets to their most obvious debt this time around, early Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield. Earl is a beautiful, if derivative, songwriter whose maturity never gets in the way of playfulness. Woods may not have released their Sgt Pepper yet, but this may be their best album to date. And give me them over Fleet Foxes any day.

10. Konkylie - When Saints Go Machine

When Saints Go Machine have equal reverence for sugary house, out-and-out pop, hip hop, trip hop and by the sounds of Konkylie, lush orchestral music. This is not an album to listen to in the background, because every note and nuance from the Danes must be heard and its puzzle worked out. The title track sounds like a strange medieval piece played out on synths, while other tracks, such a 'Kelly' are superbly crafted pop tunes. There's Scott Walker in here, as there is The Human League, Grace Jones and Beck. It's that confused, and that good.

11. The Errant Charm - Vetiver
Sub Pop

Of course, The Errant Charm is not even close to being as good as To Find Me Gone (2006), but Andy Cabic deserves credit for allowing Vetiver to recover from the really very boring Tight Knit (2009). Granted, there are several hangovers here from that album that prove he is not quite over his 50s rock and roll fetish quite yet, but there are enough gems on here to suggest that something incendiary still lurks inside the San Franciscan. Opener 'It's Beyond Me' and 'Can't You Tell' are among his most interesting tracks - he is has not succumbed to the pitfalls of being too nice just yet, then.

12. No Witch - The Cave Singers

In the four years since they formed, The Cave Singers' profile has remained surprisingly stagnant, mainly, despite the fact they have released three excellent albums of passionate, sometimes nearly hysterical, devil's music. Like many on this list, the trio have made repetition and sparseness the source of their emotional energy, with the voice of Pete Quirk consistently astonishing in its nasal beauty. This was slightly better that Welcome Joy (2009) and is deserving of considerably more attention than it got. One of the year's understated folk gems.

13. Zeroes QC - Suuns
Secretly Canadian

To many, this is the standout album of the year, and it is certainly one of the most original. Like When Saints Go Machine, they have taken all the most accessible and infectious elements of several other painfully modern styles (in Suuns' case, more on the side of industrial, indie, drone and dance) and constructed a mesmerising tribute to their own tastes. This is nothing less than a triumph of studio production and craft, and that it trumps even the latest Battles album suggest just how excellent Suuns' debut truly is.

14. Pajama Club - Pajama Club

It's true that Neil Finn's devotion to having his wife so closely involved may be on the verge of stretching too far, and it's also true that there are some uncharacteristic lyrical disasters here, but there was a lot to love about this idiosyncratic little morsel from the great man. 'Can't Put It Down Until It Ends' is everything that is good about weird Neil (hear below), while 'Go Kart' felt like a regression back to his pre-Split Enz teenage attempts at songwriting, and is all the better for it. And when the inevitable sentiment comes ('Diamonds In Her Eyes', 'Golden Child), it's not out of place. A super trick.

15. The People's Key - Bright Eyes
Saddle Creek

The emotion surrounding the fact this may well be the last Bright Eyes album should not get in the way of the fact that on its own merits, this latest instalment was certainly worthy of Conor Oberst and his band, and indeed is probably the best album he's done of any kind since 2005. The easy route would have been to tone down the ideology, but if anything he has ramped it up a notch, with his familiar cryptic take on it still adding a mystique to his darkly-lit folk rock that none can match. The enigma and charisma of the (still) young man ensures this is a fitting farewell, if farewell it must be.

16. Who's Breathing? - Ryan Driver
Fire Records

The Silt's 2009 debut Cat's Peak was a wonderfully interesting thing - equally indebted to the rough folk of Will Oldham or Iron and Wine as well as the meandering soul of Marvin Gaye or a host of other Motown artists. Ryan Driver's voice rose above the sophisticated arrangements of this uncategorisable group to take centre-stage then, and his second solo album is even more imaginative. Anything rustic has been binned as Driver seeks out a musical domain somewhere between exemplary singer-songwriter (Ron Sexsmith, Tom Brosseau) and indeed a distinct jazz-club, after-hours sense of romance.

Bachelorette - Bachelorette
Drag City

Annabel Alpers did not find a huge number of friends among reviewers when she released this, but it is nevertheless an extremely satisfying, indulgent and syrupy work of electronica that genuinely does explore its own themes and ideas. It's not hard work, this, but it is instantly gratifying - a tricky thing to pull of. Alpers' vocals tie the thing together, those tremulous tones a stark and beautiful assertion of humanity amid all the artificial noise. She has made better songs in the past, without everything coming together as nicely as this.

Country Ways - Carlton Melton

Perhaps for the first time, Carlton Melton settled down in 2010 and put their minds to making an album, rather than a slew of unfocused jams that they released without a whole lot of thought. The result of that new-found structure is an album of pounding psychedelic, improvised rock and roll that was both a fascinating headphone listen as well as a good example of their legendary live show. This was also better mixed, arranged and produced than their previous material. That said, their fearless pursuit of the loud and messy remains their most attractive feature. Their ultimate statement.

19. Starry Mind - P.G Six
Drag City

If only for that sumptuous opener, 'January' (below). For all the talk of the 60s folk-rock-revival revival, there are few who have been able to capture the essence of Fairport Convention, The Youngbloods and perhaps snatches of Neil Young quite as brilliantly as this. Of course, P.G Six, an exceptional guitarist, has been around for ages so this is no blistering opening statement, but it is the latest in a career that has plodded along with no fanfare but with a great deal of soul. Derivative as hell (add the Jayhawks and some Britpop in there too), he truly tapped into the spirit of the Paisley Underground, and a whole lot more besides.

20. Violent Hearts - Shimmering Stars
Hardly Art

It's never a very good idea to name your band after the way you sound, but these Canadians can be excused, I suppose. 'Shimmering' or 'glimmering' describes their shameless take on the Everly Brothers, with their deliberately shabby recordings ensuring we are in no doubt as to who they are aping. That is going to infuriate many, but the trio do seem very sincere and frankly obsessed with the Phil Spector approach - plus the songs are excellent. Another pretty disposable listen but one that is as warm and emotive as anything else this year.

Highly Commended

Two-Way Mirror - Crystal Antlers
The Whole Love - Wilco
Napa Asylum - Sic Alps

Reissues Of The Year

1. Time Capsule - Lone Pigeon
2. Love Has Made Me Stronger - Carol Kleyn
3. Smile - The Beach Boys
4. Tomorrow The Green Grass - The Jayhawks
5. The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy

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