At the beginning of December my brain entered into a contract with my ears. The deal was that at the end of a months worth of procrastination I’d have come up with a top 10 albums for the year. A month later I decided on two things, that a) 2011 was a year that lacking in truly great albums and b) I really fucking hate making these lists.
Initially I struggled to find 5 albums that I’d be prepared to put  radio’s name to but eventually ended up with about 14 that merited a mention without being truly great. I also had to discount two records that I couldn’t be objective about, due to them being made by two of my best friends (Sorry Ben and Barry). Until finally, I’ve reached my decisions (at the expense of my own sleeping patterns) and these are  radio music blog’s top ten albums of the year:
If I had an award for meditative album of the year, Balam Acab (AKA Alec Koone) would have to win. The 20 year olds debut LP has been the soundtrack to all the novels I’ve read since its release. It’s 8 tracks are a work of subtle beauty, that whisper and haunt the ears with delicate ‘witch house’ melodies that were in such vogue last year. A musical fad which has reached a graceful coda on Koone’s Wander / Wonder.
It’s been three years since M83 (AKA Anthony Gonzalez) released his last album, Saturdays = Youth, and by the sound of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming that time hasn’t been wasted. Across this double LP he delivers some of the years most epic soundscapes, which like the rest of Gonzalez’s music is inspired by eighties popular culture.
So far, so great right? Well, yes and no, whilst there is no doubt that the album has its share of dizzying heights like ‘Midnight City,’ (probably the best song of the year) ‘New Map’ and ‘Steve McQueen.’ It also has a fair share of songs which act as the foundations of these musical set pieces and are just too subtle and indifferent to stand out. It’s an album that will probably continue to grow on me over the next year and will improve in its standing as it does so. For now despite the albums surprising accessibility and obvious ambition, it has left me cold and wishing Gonzalez had condensed the best parts of two good disc’s onto a single great one.
Let England Shake is the result of a seismic change in PJ Harvey’s approach to music and a landmark album in an already incredible body of work. Whereas her previous records were passionate and introverted, Let England Shake saw Harvey painstakingly research Britain’s history in war until the album ended up as a form of musical documentary. The record still sounds distinctly like Harvey, but this new academic approach shows she is ready and capable of turning her considerable talents to the wider issues of politics, society and religion. Providing her music with a new mine of inspiration for the coming years, which is an exciting prospect for fans and critics alike. In the case of Let England Shake the bleak subject matter makes the record worthy of it’s art with a capital ‘A’ label, but also difficult to endure in it’s entirety. Maybe that was exactly Harvey’s point?
Panda Bear’s (AKA Noah Lennox) previous album, Person Pitch (2007), was one of the best albums of the last decade. It’s sprawling ten minute plus songs owed as much to the repetitive nature of dance music as they did to the melodic charms of the Beach Boys. So it was difficult to see how anyone, even a musician as prodigiously talented as Lennox, could follow up that masterpiece. This year he delivered his best shot and came close to repeating the act with Tomboy. Those expecting more of the same may be left slightly disappointed, but when you’ve created an album that perfectly captures your artistic intent, why try to do the same thing again? On Tomboy, Lennox unsurprisingly goes for something new, simplifying his song structures to a more conventional runtime of four minutes whilst keeping his sonic palette as fresh and avant-garde as ever. This give’s Tomboy one quality that Person Pitch didn’t really have, accessibility, which isn’t something you usually associate with music this challenging.
Last year I was seriously taken by Gauntlet Hair’s debut single, “Out Don’t,” a gloriously raucous, reverb soaked, fist pumper. It was an artsy, Lo-Fi take on the stadium rock-pop served up by chart topping behemoths like Coldplay or U2. It had a catchy as hell melody, lyrics that are nearly indecipherable (in a different way to Coldplay’s generic tales of nothing), but still delivered an emotional punch. All these qualities could be found in abundance on their self titled debut LP, which seemed to underwhelm the musical blogosphere upon it’s release, but captured my attention. Sure the album is only 9 tracks long and each track sounds similar to the last, but what’s important is that each is delivered with a gusto and thrust sorely lacking amongst most of their contemporaries. If they can find a way to pair back the reverb, make better use of silence and sharpen the vocal elements without losing the energy that makes them sound so vital, they’ll win themselves many more admirers.
The highest placed debut album on our list, comes from South Dakota’s EMA (AKA, Erika M. Anderson) and is probably the most emotionally wrought debut LP since Elliott Smith’s, Roman Candle. Anderson’s violently bold songs are often uncomfortable to listen to, but constantly captivating because of her extraordinarily skilful arrangements and songwriting. Whereas most modern contemporaries like Lana Del Rey or Feist give their music another dimension by sounding cooly indifferent, Anderson’s sounds like she’s ready to take a razor blade to her arteries and bleed herself dry. This makes Past Life Martyred Saints sound like a form of creative therapy, used by Anderson to expel her own demons. The track ‘Marked’ which we previously blogged is a disturbing highlight on an album that will leave scars on anyone who dares to listen.
This record wasn’t originally in  radio’s top 10 albums of the year at all. For various reasons I’d overlooked it’s beach bum inspired melodic charms and it wasn’t until I listened to it whilst on a train did I began to revere it’s qualities. Sometimes context is everything. It has since revealed itself as one of the finest albums to travel to that I ever heard. The record has a warm and calming quality that when listened to on the move, make even the most mundane of commutes dream like.
Musically the guitars are the highlight, shimmering and swaying on a warm summer breeze, covering up what is a somewhat average rhythm section. In amongst this interplay of guitars are some deliciously hazy vocals, that provide some of the sweetest choruses that you’re ever likely to hear. The track ‘Easy’ is the best example of this and is my favourite track on a record full of highlights. The record is not without fault, as although the vocals are sweet they lack personality, which is something that lead singer, Martin Courtney, will have to work on if they are to realise their obvious potential and make a truly great album.
The trouble with making ‘art rock’ is whilst your music is easy to admire, it’s not always easy to enjoy. The same troubles plagued Wild Beasts debut album, the baroque inspired Panto Limbo. Which was thematically brilliant, but polarised listeners in the same way marmite does toast eaters, due to Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto shrieks. On their follow up, the funk infused Two Dancers, Thorpe toned back on the glass shattering vocal’s and the band began to sparingly use bassist/keyboardist Tom Fleming’s sultry northern baritone as a counterpoint. It was a large step forward, and tracks like ‘This Is Our Lot’ and ‘Hooting & Howling’ filtered across into the indie mainstream.
On this years record the band have made another step forward, with the minimalist sounding but sexually active Smother. Sonically the album draws as much from the compositions of Steve Reich, as it does the pop sensibilities of the brilliant Talk Talk and there’s a far greater delegation of vocal duties from Thorpe to Fleming. By making the best of each vocal quality, Wild Beasts, spin ten sensual tales of late night sex, lust, and above all vulnerability. Tracks like ‘Plaything‘ prove their commitment to sharing their darkest fears and intimate desires on record. It’s this willingness to be at the mercy of their listeners that resonates to dazzling effect and set the band apart from the norm. Given their rate of improvement it’s not hard to imagine that someday, Smother may eventually be seen as one of Wild Beasts lesser albums,which is an exciting prospect indeed.
In 2008 I fell in love, not with a women but with a record. A record which whispered introverted tales of loneliness, guilt and heartbreak, that took hold of my inner emo and still hasn’t let go. That record was Bon Iver’s (AKA Justin Vernon) debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, which has the kind of back story that sends music journalists into a trouser wetting frenzy. At the time of it’s recording Vernon had acrimoniously broken up with his band (and girlfriend), was sick with mono and decided to retreat from the world to a secluded cabin in the wild. He emerged with one of the most memorable debut records of the last decade and begun a whirlwind three years that would see him win a legion of fans, tour the world, collaborate with superstars like Kanye West, start a side project and put out another well received EP.
With this in mind it’s fair to say that the last three years of Vernon’s professional life has been a resounding success, so I have one question, why does he still sound so fucking miserable? Why do all the song’s on his second album, Bon Iver still sound like he’s ready to drink himself to death on whisky? The answer I’ve come to is, I don’t know, and to be quite frank I don’t care. I don’t care that some of the romanticism of his music has been lost because he didn’t record it on vintage music equipment in a cabin that was so basic, he had to risk frostbite by taking bare cheeked craps in the snow. All I care about is how his new music sounds and on his new album, the self titled Bon Iver, he has made exceptional use of a full studio to create a record which is sonically superior to his debut. This is exemplified on the elegant choral pop of ‘Calgary’ which exhibits the misty eyed synths and deft pacing that makes the entire record such a joy. Despite this newly rendered production, it’s Vernon’s voice that still remains his most affecting instrument. Throughout Vernon sings like he’s rubbing his eye’s in wonder and disbelief at the praise that has come his way since emerging from the dark solitude of his cabin. A disbelief that’s washed away in a haze of synths and horns on album closer ‘Beth/Rest,’ as it dawns on Vernon that he’s talented enough to deserve it.