Saturday, December 24, 2011

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 1: 100-81

100) Feist - Metals (Polydor)
Metals didn’t quite have the same personal impact on me that The Reminder had (save for The Bad In Each Other, a truly remarkable song placed first that rather overshadows the rest of the album). That said, it was still a remarkably refined and controlled offering full of exceptional songwriting. Occasionally, it veered out into rawer, less polished territory, with intriguing results.

99) Cornershop - And The Double-O Groove Of (Ample Play)
These days, Cornershop seem entirely comfortable with their status as more-or-less one hit wonders. Brimful of Asha hardly seems to be an albatross around their necks. Rather, it has freed them to veer off in more artistically fruitful directions. In fact, this collaboration with Bubbley Kaur may be the highlight of their career. The fusion of traditional Indian sounds with funky grooves is surprisingly successful.

98) Fatoumata Diawara - Fatou (World Circuit)

Although born in the Ivory Coast and of Malian heritage, Fatoumata Diawara now resides in Paris and this may explain the refreshingly diverse, cosmopolitan and summery sound she achieves on this delightful album. It’s one of the most accessible albums to have emerged from the World Circuit staple in recent years - immediate, light and catchy - but this is by no means a criticism. Diawara seems brilliantly assured and her vibrant songs deserve a wide audience.

97) The Field - Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)

Axel Willner here continued his persistent explorations of repetition and cumulative intensity. Yet with every release as The Field, he continues to give the sound a slight new twist. Looping State of Mind has ratcheted up the intensity and energy levels to offer something yet more muscular and insistent.

96) Tyshawn Sorey - Oblique 1 (Pi)
Sorey is one of New York’s most astonishing, visionary drummers, having concocted the sort of rhythmic support that seems so proficient as to be near-physically impossible for the likes of Steve Lehman, Fieldwork, and Steve Coleman. This is his first album as bandleader (his solo work Koan is an entirely different beast altogether), and the work shows him to be an intelligent composer as well as a gifted musician. Sorey studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, and Oblique 1 demonstrates a contemporary approach to composition, perhaps inspired by musicians such as Henry Threadgill, in which cells and intervals are the founding blocks for development rather than melodic lines. By Sorey’s own description, many of these pieces are ‘strategies for improvisation’, and the resulting performances are turbulent and inspired.

95) Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Wichita)
This collaboration between Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Mary Timony ended up being much greater than simply a Sleater Kinney album minus Corin Tucker. Anything powered by Janet Weiss’ irresistible snare drum thwack is always going to be an enjoyable listen - but Wild Flag distinguished themselves by adopting a poppier approach. Many of these songs are blisteringly exciting but also memorable and enduring.

94) Kuedo - Severant (Planet Mu)
Former Vex’d member Jamie Teasdale’s first album as Kuedo shares with Zomby’s Dedication a rather fuzzy sensibility - a series of auditory hallucinations perhaps, or vivid dreams, although it is not as boldly fragmentory as the Zomby album. Throughout, there’s a nostalgia for sci-fi visions of the future that never quite arrived, and Vangelis’ work, particularly for Blade Runner, appears to have been a major source of inspiration.

93) SBTRKT - SBTRKT (Young Turks)
Of all the albums to emerge from the post-dubstep landscape, this is actually one of the most conventional. This, however, turns out to be its refreshing virtue. Working with a range of guest vocalists, SBTRKT works as something close to a pop producer here, and the resulting work shows a great deal of respect for the song, as well as a drive for sonic experimentation. There is a clear sense of intention throughout and the results are immediate and soulful but not overly dazzling.

92) Meg Baird - Seasons On Earth (Wichita)
I had rather casually and unfairly dismissed Meg Baird and Espers because of their association with Devendra Banhart, a musician I’m afraid I’ve never been able to take entirely seriously. This has been a big mistake, for Seasons on Earth is one of the most honest and affecting folk albums in recent memory, one that continues to grow with every listen. Baird’s voice is understated but perfect for this style, and her songs are delicate but beautiful. She is also versatile here, moving from lightness to emphatic authority with apparent ease.

91) CANT - Dreams Come True (Warp)
This side project from Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor may lack the meticulous compositional design and rich harmonies of his parent band, but it more than compensates for that with other examples of musical invention. By simplifying the writing, Taylor is freer to experiment with sound design, instrumentation and texture, the results of which take him some way from Grizzly Bear’s modern folk-tinged psychedelia.

90) Africa Hitech - 93 Million MIles (Warp)
Why has this one slipped through unnoticed? This collaboration between Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek takes slices of post-dubstep and footwork and reworks them through the prism of sleek soul. There’s a really great spirit of exploration here - finding the connections between various examples of human rhythmic experience and electronic production techniques.

89) Cass McCombs - Wit’s End/Humor Risk (Domino)
Cass McCombs has been remarkably prolific and I’d rather lost touch with his output after A, a debut I felt showed some unrealised potential. His music has become considerably less ragged since then. Indeed, County Line from Wit’s End is essentially a soft rock ballad (but an utterly brilliant one) and the production on Humor Risk is crisp and clear. McCombs is still a minimalist at heart - his songs often have little in the way of structure, preferring to repeat phrases and lines until they become very well ingrained in the memory. These two albums together do feel like his strongest burst of creativity yet but, like Ryan Adams, he may need an editor.

88) Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure (Software)

Increasingly one of the most discussed and influential musicians at work today, Daniel Lopatin’s journey towards the critical and perhaps even commercial mainstream has been somewhat remarkable. Replica and Channel Pressure saw him journey yet further from the Tangerine Dream-esque dronescapes that made his name, incorporating sound effects, TV advertisement samples and rhythmic trickery, all in the service of his ingenious play on reconstruction, memory and recall. The retro stylings of Channel Pressure ought by rights to be horrifying - yet they are somehow completely irresistible. Any album with a song title like Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me) must revel in its own irony and gleeful subversion and Channel Pressure does exactly that.

87) A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen (Erased Tapes)

This collaboration between the Californian pianist Dustin O’Halloran and Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie has a rather European flavour to it, as well as an overriding sense of melancholy reflection. It’s a sensitive, patient beast - and one of the most haunting and beautiful releases to have emerged from the wonderful ‘post-classical’ staple on Erased Tapes.

86) John Escreet - Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross)

John Escreet is a musician I’ve only approached very recently (having seen his bizarre and compelling opening piano set at the Henry Threadgill show at this year’s London Jazz Festival). I need to spend a great deal more time with Exception to the Rule before I’m in any real position to assess it properly - but on first few experiences, it seems that Escreet is as unconventional a composer as he is a player, juxtaposing extremes for strange and disorientating effect. His touchstones must surely be the great avant-garde piano players (Cecil Taylor and perhaps Paul Bley) but he also seems to an intellectual, considered approach with his contemporary Craig Taborn. The ensemble here includes the great David Binney and the incredibly musical drummer Nasheet Waits - these two musicians alone are prime ingredients for an inspired session, There’s a subtle element of electronic sound here too which is fresh and exciting.

85) Battles - Gloss Drop (Warp)

‘Battles without Tyondai Braxton is like cereal without milk’, so I proudly declared on Twitter when learning of the departure of the group’s nominal frontman. Too often, Braxton has been desribed as the group’s former vocalist, when in fact his musical contributions were equally significant, not least his compositional flair. Without him, the remaining power trio is surprisingly effective. Much of this music is Battles stripped down to its fundamentals, powerful, attacking and imposing. It still grooves righteously, and some of the guest vocalists prove inspired choices (even Gary Numan).

84) Roly Porter - Aftertime (Subtext)
Listen to this next to Kuedo’s Severant and it is hard to believe that the two artists were once both part of Vex’d. Whereas Jamie has gone down the Vangelis-inspired cinematic synth route with Kuedo, Roly Porter has here produced something altogether more uncompromising and decidedly uncommercial. To call this album downbeat would be misleading, as that at least implies some sort of rhythmic impetus. Instead, it is mournful, perhaps even dark - characterised by drones and sustained sounds and often confidently confrontational.

83) Ambrose Akinmusire - When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
Still only 28 years old, Ambrose Akinmusire (who played with Steve Coleman from the age of 19) emerges as a fully formed mature talent on this debut album as a bandleader. There is an immense outpouring of energy, passion and soul on this collection, as well as a fearsome technical proficiency. The set neatly juxtaposes fiery exposition with moments of resonant beauty. With the talents of Walter Smith III, Gerald Clayton, Justin Brown and Harish Raghavan also involved (and with the great pianist Jason Moran producing), this is something of a dream team from this new generation of American jazz pioneers.

82) Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol.1 (Southern Lord)
More of the beautiful same from Dylan Carlson - slow, patient, epic doom rock and windswept desert blues. As with other recent Earth releases, there is a delicious tension underpinning these five long pieces. Some subtle differences occur due to the sweeping presence of cellist Lori Goldston. Carlson remains a brilliantly selective musician, making the space as important as the limited number of notes. Volume 2 is coming early in 2012.

81) Phil Robson - The Immeasurable Code (Whirlwind Recordings)
This impressive Anglo-American ensemble features the superb, mellifluous saxophonist Mark Turner, virtuosic flautist Gareth Lockrane, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Ernesto Simpson. The result, recorded live, is a combination of imperious groove from a crackling rhythm section and fluent, lengthy improvised lines from Robson, Turner and Lockrane. A tremendous, highly underrated ensemble gem.

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