Friday, 20 January 2012

Top 5 Albums of 2011

The start of my annual review of the year. This could take a few weeks so forgive me if it gets boring, this is as much for me as it is for you!

2011 turned out to be a year in which I listened to a lot of music. My eMusic subscription, some excellent BBC 6Music shows and Spotify combined to allow me to hear pretty much any album I wanted to. This proved to be too easy for me to take advantage of and I think I listened to well over 150 albums, old and new. That’s clearly too many for anyone to take in properly and a lot of those never made it past play one. Despite that I discover a good 20 cracking new albums. Of course my taste in music is a little quirky at best so you might not enjoy them all.

1. Mogwai "Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will" – When I first got into music I was like a loyal dog. Once I had decided I liked a band I would obsessively buy everything they released; LPs, 7 inches, 12 inches, picture disks, solo albums by the singer, solo albums by the drummer, even solo albums by the bassist’s ex-girlfriend. Whilst I remain obsessive about music (and just about everything else as this blog proves), these days I am a more fickle fan. I loved the first two or three Mogwai albums, but my interest had waned. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed their later releases, I just haven’t found myself playing them all that often. I’d probably have let “Hardcore” pass me by completely if a friend had not gone to see them live earlier in the year and piqued my interest.

It’s an album that combines the edge of Mogwai’s early releases with a poppier sensibility. Simpler tunes than previous albums, that build into brooding crescendos like opener “White Noise”. Though still largely an instrumental band Mogwai are now more comfortable offering the occasional vocal even if it is vocoder enhanced. “Mexican Grand Prix” is a fine example of this approach and possible a candidate for replacing Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in a future series of F1 coverage. “Rano Pano” demonstrates majestic layers of fuzz guitar and the piano into to “Letters to the Metro” is genuinely beautiful. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” provides a bouncy bit of fun before the 23 minute epic of “Music for a Forgotten Future” proves the band have lost none of their zeal for instrumental majesty.

2. P.J. Harvey "Let England Shake" – This might be an obvious choice (the number 1 album for 2011 in Mojo, NME & Uncut) but PJ’s Mercury Prize winning album is outstanding and a very close second to Mogwai for me. Polly Jean is a songwriter who gets better and better. I missed the initial excitement generated by her early albums but her first Mercury Prize winning album “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” shaved off the rough edges and drew me in. Since then she has alternated between the bloody good, “Uh Huh Her” & “A Woman A Man Walked By”, and the absolute genius “White Chalk” & “Let England Shake”. One of the highlights of last year was seeing David Cameron fail miserably to appear “hip” and generally look a bit uncomfortable whilst PJ played “Last Living Rose” on the Andrew Marr Show.

3. Trembling Bells "The Constant Pageant" – One of my new favourite bands. I had not been completely won over by their 2009 debut album, "Carbeth", but was completely stunned by their second album, 2010’s “Abandoned Love”. That was still on heavy rotation when “Constant Pageant” came out this year – they’re nothing if not prolific – and this new release showed a further progression, hinted at in “Abandoned Love”, from folk to seventies rock. I’m desperate to see them live. Alex Neilson sounds like an amazing drummer and also provides complimentary vocals to the stunning voice of Lavinia Blackwall. They are in many ways a modern day Fairport Convention, no bad thing in itself, but have something a bit special that really hits the right buttons for me.

4. Beirut "The Rip Tide" – Zach Condon has brought the Beirut sound into the mainstream with this album. His first LP “Gulag Orkestar” (2006) was influenced by Balkan folk, whilst the folow up, “The Flying Club Cup” (2007) was influenced by Jacques Brel and French chanson music. 2009’s E.P. “March Of the Zapotec” didn’t quite live up to those early standards but added Electronica to Zach’s list of influences. Now performing as a fully fledged band Beirut seem to have got the balance between ethnic influence and popular music absolutely perfect. “The Rip Tide” has a lush sound that emphasises the best bits of his previous albums whilst retaining that fragile charm of a solo folk artist. It’s like a “Best Of” but with brand new songs.

5. Y Niwl "Y Niwl" – I spent some time considering whether this album ought to be in my top five. It is, after all, nothing you won’t have heard before. Instrumental Garage Surf rock basically. However, there’s something about this collection of songs that always brings a smile to my face. I first heard the band on a Marc Riley session back in January. It wasn’t just their Link Wray inspired sound that appealed, the band had a laid back manner and sense of humour that won me over. All the tracks on this debut LP are numbered, a la ¡Forward, Russia!, in Welsh (where the band are from. Y Niwl means The Fog, I think) which is exactly the sort of neat gimmick that appeals to me. I picked up the album pretty quickly and it’s brought a smile to my face every time I’ve played it since.

NOTE: I have taken a step into the world of commerce by signing up for the Amazon Associates program. That means if you buy any of the albums you reach from my Amazon links I'll get a small percentage. I'm hoping this won't screw up the nature of this blog but let me know if it gets annoying and I'll stop!

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