Archive | January, 2012

2011 in Review

4 Jan

Top 60 albums

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Top 50 Singles
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Lets go back twelve months; 2010 saw a distinct lack of big releases – by that I mean albums that were universally anticipated and/or universally applauded, either critically or commercially. It meant the end of year lists were of interest, mainly because nobody could decide on the best album released that year. According to NME it was ‘Hidden’ by These New Puritans. Pitchfork gave the honour to ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ by Kanye West, as did Rolling Stone. There were some left-field choices from Mojo (‘Queen of Denmark by John Grant’), Uncut (‘Have One on Me’ by Joanna Newsom’)and Drownedinsound (‘Does It Look Like I’m Here’ by Emeralds). I gave the title to the debut album by Avi Buffalo, a nicely restrained, humble and unspectacular record that perhaps summed up the lack of ’event’ music that year. Commercially, the biggest release of 2010 was ‘The Fame Monster’ by Lady Gaga, an album that wasn’t even an album, but a bonus disc to an already massive selling record (‘The Fame’).

2011 has been the opposite in many respects – we’ve had a whole year of ‘event music’, and highly anticipated releases. When an album becomes an event, it also becomes a big floating target for naysayers. Whilst highly anticipated albums by Tyler the Creator, Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, The Horrors, The Strokes and The Vaccines have revealed their charms over time, they received a mixed reception on release, initially disappointing some fans. But  these are the albums that have dominated this year’s lists. One above all others has been acclaimed like no other record in recent memory – ‘Let England Shake’ by P.J Harvey. It is number one on three of the above publications lists (NME, MOJO, UNCUT), and top 5 in the others.

It’s an album that doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, and it’s not even in my top 60. Let me explain; War, death, suffering, identity, nationality, politics – it’s all very weighty stuff, and Harvey deals with it quite admirably in her work, but I don’t listen to pop music to hear about all that. Obviously PJ Harvey has the right to sing about these subjects if she wishes, and people have the right to say she’s amazing (I personally don’t agree – her lyrics are heavy handed and often cliched; the music is like a death march, although perhaps that‘s the point) but I also have the right to completely ignore her. That’s also why you won’t find acclaimed albums by St Vincent, Tune-yards, Destroyer or Tim Hecker on here either; these albums are difficult, and music shouldn’t be difficult – music should be natural, and honest, and direct, and catchy.

If I want to be challenged on an intellectual level, I’ll read a book, or poetry, watch a documentary, go to a gallery or maybe even a cinema – I won’t put on an album. Those other things, mostly, appeal to my head, and music appeals to my heart, or maybe my feet. Music makes me happy or it makes me sad. It makes me angry or it makes me depressed. The best music does make me think, but the second I start over-thinking is the second I turn off, both physically and metaphorically.

The number one album on my list this year is ‘Suck It and See’ by Arctic Monkeys’, an album that, in its own way, is more perfectly scripted and nuanced than ‘Let England Shake’ could ever hope to be. And yet it never draws attention to its wordiness; if you wanted to you could get lost in the syllables, the rhythms and rhymes, Alex’s punctured delivery and the breathy harmonies; you could forget about something as arguably meaningless as meaning. However, if you’re so inclined you could allow yourself to be bowled over by the finer details – the delicious adjectives (‘thunder suckle fuzz canyon’), the proper nouns that distinguish time and place (‘Rarer than a can of dandelion and burdock’ – and by the way, drink in the way Turner slurs ‘ACANADAN-ddilion and burdoch’), the surrealist metaphors (‘Topless Models doing semaphore, wave their flags as she walks by and get ignored’) and the canny observations about ageing (pretty much every song on the album, but ‘Love is a Lazorquest’ in particular.)

Turner has grown as a SONGWRITER – it was first in evidence on the wonderful ‘Submarine’ released earlier this year, an e.p that shares the top spot with ‘Suck It and See’ on my list, as it‘s equally important in its own way. Here we have six songs that deal with growing up slowly, sadly and innocently. These stories were set to music as far removed from the brash urgency of the Arctic’s famous debut as it is possible to get. This is a quiet, delicate and old-fashioned e.p that shows off Alex’s newly found confidence in his own voice.

The subject that links the two records, or rather the person that links the two records, is an unnamed femme-fettle, perhaps the same woman who left her footprints all over The Last Shadow Puppets ‘Age of the Understatement‘, and perhaps the same woman who just broke Alex’s poor heart. A woman so captivating that she actually IS thunderstorms, a woman so dangerous that her hands may well have done the Devil’s manicure, and a woman so spellbinding that topless models can’t draw your eyes away from her.

On ‘Black Treacle’ the stars hide away because she won’t come outside, whilst over on ‘Stuck on the Puzzle’, from the Submarine e.p, she’s pulling the same trick again – as Alex observes, ‘something in your magnetism must have pissed them off, forcing them to get an early night.’ Alex tells these stories with a wit and humour we’ve not seen from him since the early days of the band, and it’s a pleasure to listen to his observations. Romance, lust, longing, heartbreak – here we have the arena In which the best pop music excels – forget about politics!

Musically, ‘Suck It and See’ was a move away from the heavy experimentation of ‘Humbug’, towards a jingly-jangly, indie-pop sound. Their influences haven’t been this easy to name since the debut; Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Beatles, Beach Boys etc – bands that were popular before the boys were even born. It’s all very traditional and not at all innovative, but it works, because nobody can play better than Alex, Jamie, Matt and Nick. They’ve never sounded as tight or as confident (and it takes a really confident band to release the semi-joke song ‘Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’ as the first single).

‘Suck It and See’ is my favourite album of the year because it ticks ever box. Great song-writing, great lyrics, great melodies, great harmonies great variety – and it’s by a great band with buckets of personality. Nobody’s saying Suck It and See is innovative, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t inspirational. Nobody’s saying it talks about weighty subjects like war and politics, but that doesn’t mean it’s not clever. And, nobody’s saying that this is going to be the album 2011 will be remembered for by most people, but it’s certainly the record I will remember 2011 for.

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Moving away from the Monkeys; what else has impressed me this year? At number two on my list is ‘What Did You Expect from The Vaccines’, an album that is perfect in its simplicity and directness – three chords and your out. Perhaps the quote of the year comes from Noel Gallagher, who brilliantly observed that ‘rock’n’roll is merely the re-telling of a great story for a new generation’, and in my opinion, The Vaccines re-told it better than any young British band has in years; this is a debut album to ignite and inspire a generation of guitar groups. There were also amazing rock records this year from Girls, The Drums, Miles Kane, Grouplove, Yuck, Noah and the Whale, and that’s just for starters – if last year had a distinct LACK of rock n roll, then 2011 has more than made up for it.

Hip Hop in 2011 was very much dominated by Odd Future. The general conscencious is that Tyler’s singles were much better than the album turned out to be. I’m not denying that ‘Goblin’ was hit and miss, it’s just that when it hit (‘Yonkers’, ‘Sandwitches’, ‘She’, ‘Analogue’, ‘Her’) it hit harder than arguably anything released all year. However, It now transpires that the real star of Odd Future may actually be Frank Ocean, who, among other things, released the marvellous ‘Nostalgia Ultra’, wrote the best song on Jay Z and Kanye’s lame duck of an album, and contributed a fine number to Beyonce’s ‘4’.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed Shabazz Palaces’ debut, (surprisingly the first ever hip hop album released on Sub Pop), Mellow hype also really impressed, as did Death Grips’ mix tape. On the other hand I was supremely let down by  Theophilus London’s first full length, and the aforementioned Jay Z/ Kanye West collaboration.

In Dance there was a great deal of stuff going on, but in my opinion a lot less of real interest than in years gone by. Rustie made the most ENJOYABLE dub-step record I’ve ever heard, Katy B and Jamie Woon crossed over in a very interesting way, as did James Blake. Washed Out, Toddla T, Kisses and The Rapture all made excellent stuff at the more indie end of the dance spectrum, and at the more ‘dancey’ end there was good new music from old favourites Joy Orbison, Burial and fresh faces like seplacure, Joe Goddard and the excellent SBTRKT.

The mainstream pop world was, as expected, dominated by vast amounts of guff and nonsense. JLS, One Direction and Katy Perry all had big years, as did all the awful x factor hopefuls. In retrospect the ambitious Lady Gaga album was not as good as I originally  thought It was (or probably wanted it to be), but the Beyonce album was really good, as was Rihanna’s latest run of singles. And I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I really enjoyed the Ed Sheeran album, in particular the brilliant ‘A-Team’ song. By all accounts Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts made a strong debut (not got around to hearing It yet) and Foster the People had a massive (and massively deserved) crossover hit single and album to boast about. Of course the real star of 2011, and justifiably so, was Adele, who had the biggest selling album of the millennium with the excellent ‘21’. Most pleasing of all was the fact that the album was massive because it had classic songs sung by a stunning voice, not because of hype, over promotion or dirty videos.

As per usual there was a lot of overly hyped indie coming from America, some of it good and some of it bad. I really didn’t get the fuss around Real Estate, Cults, Kurt Vile, St Vincent, Tune-yards, and especially the awful, just awful, Dirty Beaches. However, Smith Westerns released an amazing album after battling much blog attention, and I’m really looking forward to hearing more from EMA, and Surf Connection, who released justifiably praised debuts this year.

Of course, a large part of the list is made up of old favourites. Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, The Strokes, The Horrors, British Sea Power and Bombay Bicycle Club have all made some of my favourite albums of the past few years, and whilst none of the albums they released this year can honestly compare with their older stuff, they still really impressed me. Even more established bands returned this year, and some surprised with just how good they still are. Foo Fighters released their best album yet, and I was pleased to see the return of the Chili Peppers and Blink 182. Of course some acts proved they were stuck in a bit of a middle-aged rut (The Gallagher brothers, U2, and Metallica spring to mind.)

I don’t think 2011 has been a knock out year for music, in the long run it will probably be remembered for Adele, and not a lot else if we’re being honest. Of course a whole book could be written about how the way we consume music is rapidly developing, so I won’t even begin to dwell on that, but needless to say – everything’s changing and we can take nothing for granted. Who knows what next year will bring, but with already conformed release from The Shins, The Killers, Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective and Specter on the way, 2012 is already looking pretty promising…

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