Here’s what I’d like to tell you about my 25 favourite albums of 2011.
25. MIRACLE FORTRESS – Was I The Wave?
Angular, almost architectural art-pop, sort of like the Brewis brothers’ Field Music and The Week That Was projects rolled into a one-man band, but with emphasis on keys, not guitars. Expansive, widescreen concepts with one foot in each of the minimal and complex camps, and one of the great headphone records of the year. I think the restraint straightjackets his brightest pop song, “Spectre,” which is a lovely, soaring thing missing only a live drummer’s gristle. Others – “Raw Spectacle” and “Miscalculations” among them – are fine as they are. Delicate but sturdy, unmistakeably ambitious.
24. WASHED OUT – Within And Without
Most of the chillwave class polished their presentation skills for this year’s records. Whether money, label pressure or a dose of ambition’s the reason, the wonky gaucheness and hit-and-miss brilliance of yore’s been buffed to a blinding sheen, which is actually rather easy to do with synths. Think “Avalon,” as opposed to “Virginia Plain.” Despite the absurdly reverbed vocals – stop being so precious, Ernest – I really like the first batch of songs, especially the sporty pair of “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati.” I saw Washed Out with Small Black last year and didn’t think his then-unreleased stuff was any great shakes, so this rates as a pleasant surprise.
23. PJ HARVEY – Let England Shake
“Soldiers fell like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief.” A world away from Rid Of Me, Peej’s still pushing buttons whatever she’s singing about. What gets me is her delivery: pitching her voice close to trilling, sing-songy blitheness, and matching it to melodically catchy – even breezy – tunes about the Gallipolli Campaign and its impact on England’s psyche. From the army bugler almost trampled underfoot in “The Glorious Land” to the villagers diving into the sewage-infested rivers to escape the carnage in “Written On The Forehead,” Harvey’s characters are drawn right at the life-altering moment of realization. Like love and other personal politics, war cuts across the boundaries of fashion and era: her subject matter, as ever, has a timeless, challenging appeal.
22. ST. VINCENT – Strange Mercy
Less immediately gratifying than previous records – and disfigured by the abominably self-conscious opening tune – Strange Mercy doesn’t rewrite the rulebook so much as it rearranges the furniture, but it’s still the Annie Clark show, her placid singing masking querulous lyrics, leaving the harrumphing to angular guitar bursts. The “Cruel” single – daft, deftly charged art-rock – is another good stab at Kate Bush’s Dreaming-era territory, although it’s slightly undercut by milky production. “Surgeon,” “Cheerleader” and “Champagne Year” rise above the straightjacketing sound, but the reason this isn’t higher is because I don’t like the development. Hey, I care.
21. ANNA CALVI – Anna Calvi
In contrast to the St. Vincent record, here’s a beautifully visceral recording I may like better for the sound than the songs. Early in the year I wrote: vividly dramatic accompaniment for the RKO studios B-movie playing in your head. A motel crime scene, a cop on the take, a shifty femme with a gold-plated cigarette lighter, sweltering air you could cut with a letter opener. A little freshman-year creative writing, but it was worth a shot. Speaking of the songs, I’d put “Suzanne And I,” “First We Kiss” and “Love Won’t Be Leaving” on the podium, each benefitting from Calvi’s sinewy guitar and muscular singing. Vibrant stuff.
20. DUM DUM GIRLS – Only In Dreams
J &M Chain/surf-beat-girl-group amalgam given the latter’s period raunch by Richard Gottehrer’s knowing production. At 36 minutes it won’t overstay its welcome, humming and thrumming along with great sound and groovy singing. “Teardrops On My Pillow” is my jam right now, a blister-in-the-sun mesh of shoegazey guitar blur, nervy singing and a soaring harmonic hook you’ve heard a hundred times before. Done right, it’s impossible to put down. That’s why it’s never that far out of fashion. Check out “Coming Down” too: six minutes’ worth of “Fade Into You”-style mope given an intense buzzcut. Something that’d sound great at the end of a Californication episode.
19. MAGAZINE – No Thyself
No Thyself’s erudite snark buttresses the Magazine rep. Despite absences (John McGeoch is RIP, Barry Adamson did a short tour but returned to scoring film), the classic Mag sound’s intact, corrosive and cinematic to the last drop. I think it gets better on the backside, where “Holy Dotage” runs religious faith into the ground to a tune as insistently catchy as ‘79’s “Rhythm Of Cruelty,” while “The Burden Of A Song” stomps along like “The Light Pours Out Of Me.” Running throughout: glutinous basslines, arch keyboards, Howard Devoto’s needling voice. It really was quite a sound, wasn’t it? Well, here it is again! Message to my post-punk peer group: ignore at your peril.
18. SOFT METALS – Soft Metals
Crisp, neon-lit, night driving record cast in various shades of spare club music from the tag end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. If the Chromatics band name wasn’t taken – by a similarly inclined group, mind – the moniker’d fit like OJ’s glove. I’ll give you two more specific reference points – Bertrand Burgalat’s work with Lida Husik, and early Saint Etienne: “Join Our Club” springs to mind, as does Etienne offshoot Cola Boy, especially in Patricia Hall’s vocal on “Pain,” which strongly recalls that band’s “He Is Cola.” These were all good-sounding records: acres of open space, pinging synth washes, floating femme vocals, rounded, insistent basslines. Comedown/chillout music without the hipster taint of ‘60s soul loops or horn samples. While “The Cold World Melts” breaks formation – it’s a little dirtier, like early Nitzer Ebb with a girl singer – the gleaming, chrome stuff – “Psychic Driving,” “Eyes Closed” and “Pain” among ‘em – would’ve fit, say, the Drive film soundtrack beautifully.
17. JOHN MAUS – We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves
Madcap analog synthpop with ridiculously vampiric bellow-singing, and it’s great. Censors is a gauzy, gothic, Halloween romp with the structural backbone of an Ariel Pink record, but it succeeds on those wiles, whether evincing a Miami Vice death scene vibe (“Cop Killer”) or a heroic, you-’n’-me-’gainst-the-world-babe stance (“Believer”). The grainy, mid-‘80s, station ID song intros often recall the first Neon Indian record. The most normal-sounding song, a hauntingly dark piano ballad called “Hey Moon,” is an obscure modern cover that wouldn’t be out of place on a Peter Murphy record. Murphy dared you to take him seriously too.
16. DURAN DURAN – All You Need Is Now
I’m all for fountain-of-youth recoveries because there’s nothing beats overspending on a club gig by a former chart stalwart playing recognizable versions of pop classics which don’t utterly embarrass the current material sprinkled throughout the evening. Duran hired Mark Ronson to Memorex their loftiest achievements, and the product had all the swishy disco chug and zeitgeist insouciance of bygone days. Even the “Girl Panic!” video had the swagger of old. Sure, the album’s too long and a little bit form-over-content, but it’s the best Duran since Nick Rhodes was about 12 and thoroughly redeems the notion of Duran as an ongoing proposition. The April 25th concert review was my biggest blog hit of 2011, by the way. A place in my heart, then.
15. HOLY GHOST! – Holy Ghost!
Idiot-proof Italo-disco/new wave off the DFA imprint. They found a way to crap it up by adding a guitarist for the end-of-year tour, but the record’s a summer vacation of simple pleasures and direct hits. And there’s surely no song I spent more time singing imperfectly than “Wait & See,” an irrepressible, pop ‘n’ lockin’, Baltimora-styled throwback that would’ve ruled middle schoolers’ walkmans in 1986. Honestly, if this ends up in the Fox & Fiddle karaoke songbook, watch out. Sony’s making cassette walkmans again, simply to play this tune in its proper place. Ghost! stays peppy and preppy until the last number, when Michael McDonald stops by to belt the soulling “Some Children” outta the park like the yacht rock slugger he is. Style points.
14. THE DRUMS – Portamento
“Ridicule is nothing to be scared of,” sang Adam Ant, and so I admire The Drums’ thrift-shop sound and musical pilferage for the insular things they are. I imagine The Drums are in terminal decline already – one of the guitarists quit, everybody flipped musical instruments, sales and airplay dropped through the floor – which is a shame, because they have excellent musical taste and a real commitment to getting it across genuinely. At its best, Portamento’s grumpy tunes distil the essence of indie – always a day late and a dollar short, doggedly pursuing the production trickery and musical chops their favourite records sported at something less than the original’s cost. The Drums still don’t sound like they could play anything but their own songs. The band is a perfect, closed circle. Portamento isn’t as good as 2010’s bigger and bolder The Drums, but I know the music they’re compelled to recreate, and they’re doing a nice job. Even if it kills them.
13. NEON INDIAN – Era Extrana
I’ll miss Psychic Chasms’s cosmic farts and bleeps and may forever wonder whether Alan Palomo might’ve done even more with its bonkers blueprint, but he’s got hefty writing chops and may well be cut out for bigger things than blog love. You see that PAL198X informercial? Why hide your light under a bushel, right? Era Extraña is the new normal for Neon Indian, an almost-solo record that sounds like a almost-band record, stuffed with what would’ve made nice, left-of-centre U.K. radio singles circa 1983. More than a few times I’ve caught myself comparing Neon Indian to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, never moreso than during a gig performance of “Fallout” in October, in which a wordless bridge transmogrified into the kind of gracefully spare passage that powered Architecture & Morality-era tunes. An album written in a lonely, wintry place, about being in a lonely, wintry state of mind.
12. JUNIOR BOYS – It’s All True
Some amazing manoeuvres on this one. Whether sparely cinematic (“Playtime”) or sparely danceable (“Itchy Fingers,” “You’ll Improve Me”), Junior Boys stitch parts – and I mean both sound fragments and song fragments – together with the touch of great film editors. Most songs are arranged to peak twice, like classic disco twelve-inchers. The resulting tension’s delicious. The release is thrilling. The dizzy echo orgy at the climax of “Second Chance” is as good as Junior Boys gets, the payoff after five minutes of painterly bleeps and squibs and faux peaks. Christ, that’s good stuff! It’s All True closes with the super-sized, house-influenced “Banana Ripple,” which offers more of the same push-and-pull for a longer run-time and is surely the giddiest thing they’ve done yet. They wear it well, surprisingly.
11. SMITH WESTERNS – Dye It Blonde
All Pop Rocks ‘n’ Coke and Michael Kelso throwing the devil’s horns, or, less impressionistically: woozily high-pitched vocals over pillowy classic rock, spiked with declamatory guitar lines recalling the taffy tang of T. Rex. Dye It Blonde’s emotional gravitas is somewhere below heavy-hitting, but its best songs are affecting anyway. Maybe it’s in the way these kids fill their songs with tempo changes (“All Die Young,” “Dance Away”) or where-have-I-heard-that post-chorus guitar hooks (“Weekend,” “Still New”). Maybe it’s the redemptive quality of something normally defaulting to masculine softened by the youthfully wan singing. Blonde’s time capsule qualities don’t exactly scream sound of tomorrow, but the tracks are so pleasingly layered I found lots of little treasures while trying to figure it out. The only trick these Smiths left out is glammy handclap accompaniment. You may find yourself supplying your own.
10. GIRLS – Record 3: Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Sad songs about regret and resignation, with a kind of stark confessionalism that’s alternately depressing and strangely uplifting. In “Vomit,” the limited lyric’s spun into hypnotic gold by means of repetition and discipline – at seven minutes it takes after the first record’s “Hellhole Ratrace” – but by never relaxing its white-knuckle grip the post-song track break which follows sounds like room tone jumped up several db. In “Forgiveness,” Chris Owens sings “nothing’s gonna get any better if you don’t have a little hope, if you don’t have a little hope in your soul.” It’s as simplistic as Conan’s speech on cynicism on his final Tonight Show, but it’s a bullseye. Girls have progressed from blistered indie rock to ‘70s FM sumptuousness. Quickly, too: two LPs and a long EP in 24 months. All worth a listen during dark nights of the soul.
9. CRAFT SPELLS – Idle Labor
Why don’t I just buy everything out on Captured Tracks? Although Idle Labor toes the label’s dusty ‘80s UK indie line, I think it most closely resembles Magnetic Fields circa Holiday and Get Lost, minus the lyrical acuity. Fragilely pretty, tinkly keyboard melodies tied to thrusting new wave basslines and simple drums. There’s a lot of this going ‘round right now – Radio Dept., Wild Nothing, Kisses – but Craft Spells steals ahead on the strength of lead Justin Vallesteros’ splendid Curtis-lite baritone. Like most of this brat pack, he’s content to douse his vocals in reverb – doesn’t anyone want to be heard? – a minor grievance that doesn’t imperil songs like “Scandanavian Crush,” “Given The Time” or “You Should Close The Door,” but undoes some of the good. Get this record to Martin Hannett up there in heaven, stat.
8. REAL ESTATE – Days
A sparkling guitar pop record, with nods to Television, Felt, The Feelies and the L.A. paisley underground scene, a beautifully played and paced twin-guitar attack – if that’s the right word – that wouldn’t sound nearly as great if either player held the upper hand. Days might not be chock-a-block with choruses built for bus-stops and arenas, but as sunny afternoon drive-time music, it’s a champ. (The notable exception, the giddy “It’s Real,” runs rings around Coldplay for wordless “whoa-oh-oh” refrains.) I also hear a little Grant MacLennan in Martin Courtney’s singing and in the comparatively dour “Younger Than Yesterday”’s bassline, and a little Go-Betweens is always welcome. After nine idyllic gems, waiting patiently at the end, lies “All The Same,” which is 2011’s “Desire Lines,” a hypnotic showpiece with a lengthy outro that might be termed “epic” if it didn’t seem so at odds with Days’s pristine glimmer. Lipsmacking.
7. COLD CAVE – Cherish The Light Years
Obsidian dancepunk for rhythmically inclined Goths, who would probably disagree even as they twisted the night away to this sneakily poppy stuff. It was the easiest damn thing in the world to turn a friend onto Cold Cave with the mighty, howling “The Great Pan Is Dead.” Who needs iTunes Genius, anyway? My favourite is “Confetti,” a spectacularly baleful homage to the spirit of 4AD and black mascara, dropping a magnificently anguished, Andrew Eldritch-styled vocal over a pulsing bed of electro-tom fills, crystal-clear guitar figures and churning synth lines. With a perfectly gothic yearbook quote-as-hook – “It’s important that evil people look good on the outside” – the spell’s complete. Cherish also goes in for muscular dance music in the vein of New Order’s Brotherhood, a spiky-but-frothy sound best repped by “Alchemy And You” and “Villains Of The Moon.”
6. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
No one, but no one, has ever made a great double album a trim regular-sized wouldn’t better, and the Saturday=Youth singles might trump anything here, but still. Even when he saddles the lead single with the worst bleating synth hook since “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” it still sounds like something Thor would work out to. “Midnight City” even got lingerie models to shake their ennui like a Polaroid. Hurry Up is essentially the same 36-minute record twice, meaning the blurry mistakes get repeated too, but there’s so much development going on – including plaintive Peter Gabrielesque peals from the suddenly mic-comfy Gonzalez and a killer acoustic-electronic ballad of woe – it’s hard not to admire the guy’s stones. Hurry Up’s release felt like an event, and while a touch short of its gonzo critical reception, its mammoth synth rock highlights are indicators of a great modern talent.
5. AUSTRA – Feel It Break
With but one notable flaw – elementary song arrangements – this is a great first record by an act with immense potential. Feel It Break sounds incredible: gloomy, taut synthpop in a darkwave vein, beautifully recorded and mixed, topped with an honest-to-goodness opera-schooled singer bright enough to restrict her vamping to displays of vibrato and dramatic positioning. Even within the relatively predictable song structures, tantalizing teases: the ghostly suspended breakdown in “The Villain,” the insinuating pulse driving “Hate Crime,” the blocky art-pop piano riff supporting “Shoot The Water.” Best of all: the slinky, twinkling “Darken Her Horse,” which has all the icy hauteur of early Goldfrapp, or even mid-period Banshees. Watch this one.
4. DESTROYER – Kaputt
Kaputt’s shivery, end-of-the-‘70s production sheen overcomes the record’s only shortcomings: samey song tempos (mid) and static basslines (no scales, all heartbeats). Then I realized I’d been hypnotized. Drizzling sax and flute over the glassy grooves like the second coming of Wild Bill Moore’s exploratory What’s Going On riffing, Kaputt conjures a twilit sky from atop the Love Boat with the house band playing disco jazz below deck. Soundwise, it’s a yacht-rockish paean to pre-MTV American AM radio, but Dan Bejar’s masterstroke is in identifying the sucker punch hallmark of great early disco records: regret and longing trussed up in a Cinderella-like desperation to make it to the ball on time. Nostalgia infuses the fat, held, synth notes and gingerly enunciated lyrics, Bejar’s ginger enunciation detailing his protagonist’s voyage from hedonistic young gun to sage mage. Eventually Bejar rouses himself and sends the last revellers home. Too mellow to be a dance record, too shifty to soundtrack romance, Kaputt is a terrific, sturdy, headphones album of intelligence and craft. Recommended songs? Nearly all of ‘em.
3. LYKKE LI – Wounded Rhymes
This isn’t the first record to detail the reciprocal connection between joy and pain, but it’s a very good one, a lustrous – and lusty – record that brings to mind the writer Nik Cohn’s memorable description of Pet Sounds: “sad songs about loneliness and heartache; sad songs even about happiness.” That’s a telling interpretation, because even if there are a couple of places where Wounded Rhymes’ rainy day purview approaches the Spectorian-Wilsonian wall of woe, they’re only half of the story. The thematic centrepiece is “Sadness Is A Blessing,” which addresses the resiliency of youth over a “Be My Baby” heartbeat, with a gorgeously erotic vocal drag on the line “the only lover I’ve ever known,” and a clever bit of lyrical dexterity in the chorus. By following the titular phrase with “sadness is a pearl” instead of the expected “sadness is a curse,” you realize Li’s motored past the first four stages of coping, straight on into acceptance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt could’ve used this in (500) Days of Summer. “Silent My Song,” which sounds massive despite its spare instrumentation, offers more of the same. The production and economy of arrangement by PB&J’s Bjorn Nittling lavishes every bawdy lyrical urge with ravishing sound; even the cage-rattlers (“Youth Knows No Pain,” “Get Some”) that come out swingin’ with percussive “I Want Candy”-like clangour aren’t particularly angry: they’re rapturous, defiant, determined. So, if acceptance is the one state you’d prefer to meet in a dark alley, Wounded Rhymes is your ticket back to the light. Or, hell, as the artist herself puts it: “That must mean I’ll live again/And get back what I gave my men/Get back what I lost to them.”
2. CUT COPY – Zonoscope
Dan Whitford’s preference for trad song structure over cycling hooks is one reason Cut Copy look to have the legs to run awhile. For all the things Zonoscope could have been – a two-dimensional commercial sellout; an In Ghost Colours clone; a well-intentioned bummer – the most encouraging thing about its near-excellence is the clear sense of upward development: stronger lyrics, deeper arrangements, increasing mastery of form. CC blew a lot of ammo with 2010’s pre-LP single, the amazingly assured, giddily expansive “Where I’m Going,” and still more with “Take Me Over” in November, but there’s a lotta gold in Zonoscope’s hills, including the ab fab “Alisa,” the soaring successor to Colours’ “Unforgettable Season.” One saber-rattling, sugar-rush rocker per LP really isn’t enough when CC does ‘em so well, but we’ll make do when they’re this good. Zonoscope’s club-friendly bookends ply Whitford’s build/breakdown/release paradigm with the same assurance as their crowd-pleasing live shows: 15 minutes of “Sun God” went down a treat during the festival season. Cut Copy’s in pretty heady space after three LPs, with the discog already sounding like one of the all-time great dance-rock mixtapes. And there’s the feeling they’re only getting warmed up.
1. THE HORRORS – Skying
About 40 years ago the UK label Pickwick footed the bill for a weird series of cash-grab LPs aimed at the youth pop market, wherein hack studio players re-recorded chart hits for budget compilations. As a form of rights circumvention, it’s not as though the practice ever disappeared: Dancing With The Stars does it today. If ABC ever wants to up the ante for a new wave-themed episode, I’ve got the house band for them. Skying could be the next instalment in Rhino’s Postpunk Chronicles, only with The Horrors playing original songs while dressed up as Comsat Angels, The Teardrop Explodes, The Chameleons and Simple Minds. And doing a bang-up job. Throughout, the band’s grasp of dynamics is excellent: nervy (“Endless Blue,” “Moving Further Away”), stomping (“I Can See Through You”) or stately (“Still Life”), the sound and presence of Skying crackles with a ballsy sprawl melding chart ambition and record-collector wonk. It seems like a mainstream record only because the sound’s so familiar. But after playing spot-the-reference for 50 minutes, I’d like to note the only nod to Joy Division – seemingly every other postpunk-biting band’s go-to influence – is the drummer’s Ian Curtis bowl cut. He also plays more ride cymbal than anyone I’ve heard in ages. Many of 2011’s best albums sported shamelessly overt nods to once-derided and disinherited genres. In Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes about hypnagogic pop: “memory-mangled traces of eighties music…crisp funk bass and spangly guitar parts redolent of the slickly produced rock ‘n soul of that decade…the taut sequenced rhythms and bright digital synth sounds of eighties Hollywood soundtracks.” Dusting off these quarter-century-old signposts, The Horrors may simply be another band in an indie scene seemingly determined to eat itself to death. But they’ve also made the best record of 2011. Ultimately, music always comes down to songs, sound and playing, and Skying hits more targets than any other release of the past 12 months.
Honorable mention: Friendly Fires – Pala; Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong; The Cars – Move Like This; Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine; Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See.
Proof I don’t love everything Brian Wilson does: In The Key Of Disney missed the Top 50.