Sunday, December 25, 2011

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 4: 40-21

40) Phaedra - The Sea (Rune Grammofon)
What an utterly beguiling album this is - at once icy and warm - and perhaps one of the most charming albums in recent years to be so thoroughly preoccupied with death and decay. It’s a beautiful, intensely focused work with a calm but magical presence. Ingvild Langgard already feels like a contemporary folk auteur. Sadly, it appears to have passed by unnoticed in much of the mainstream UK music press.

39) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Universal)
It would be easy to be distracted by the ubiquity of Polly Harvey’s dependably beguiling musings on war and empire. There was a crushing inevitability about her becoming the first artist to win the Mercury prize - as if going against the collective wisdom on this occasion would have been tantamount to sacrilege. Still, Let England Shake is a confident, and coherent album - a work of mature, direct and poetic artistry that somehow manages to be accessible and uncompromising in equal measure. What is perhaps more impressive is that it seemed to be a point of consensus in what is now a very disparate, fragmented and over-saturated music marketplace.

38) The Advisory Circle - As The Crow Flies (Ghost Box)
It’s tempting to be a little sceptical about the retrofuturist vision of the Ghost Box label - this new album from Jon Brooks’ Advisory Circle uses seventies and eighties government advice advertisements (from the now defunct Central Office of Information) for its main source material. ‘We make the decisions so you don’t have to’, as the introduction proudly (and somewhat threateningly) proclaims. There are hints of underlying sinister currents (Village of the Damned meets The Midwich Cuckoos, with a touch of Boards of Canada) and the swathes of old school synthesisers brilliantly capture a blend of menace and awe.

37) Tom Waits - Bad As Me (Anti-)
There has long been a sense that Tom Waits has journeyed so far across contemporary music’s wide terrain that there is little truly new ground left for him to cover. Bad As Me somewhat confirms this impression, feeling a little like a career summary in new songs. Still, it’s a typically thrilling, scattershot and engaging trip, made all the more appealing by virtue of being one of Waits’ more concise albums. Most wonderful of all about all this is Waits’ voice, which has never been more versatile or theatrical.

36) Three Trapped Tigers - Route One Or Die (Blood and Biscuits)
Bands of this level of invention and quality in the UK are all too rare in the UK, and often it seems like critics are unprepared to take the risk in investing time and energy in their progress. After a series of mind-blowing EPs, Three Trapped Tigers finally brought their slanted take on heavy post-rock to the full album format. If anything, the intensity seemed to have been amplified even further, to the extent that it’s often hard to believe just how attacking and visceral this music is. At times perhaps a little clinical, but always virtuosic and near-perfect in execution, TTT remain one of the country’s most exciting bands.

35) Kate Bush - Director’s Cut / 50 Words For Snow (Fish People/EMI)
Kate Bush albums, it would appear, are like buses. You wait several years, and then two come along at once. Director’s Cut was almost dismissed by a pop media for whom reworking older material appears to be anathema. It’s hard to understand this attitude, which appears in sharp contradiction to that same media’s obsession with constantly reaffirming the rock and pop canon. In almost any other art form, developing existing works is seen as an essential part of the artistic process. Director’s Cut is not consistently successful - and there are points at which one might prefer the original takes - but it is a challenging, ambitious set. At its best, it offers radical and satisfying reversions (Deeper Understanding, This Woman’s Work). Both Director’s Cut and the patient, graceful 50 Words For Snow are enhanced by the colourful, textural drumming of session legend Steve Gadd. He adds a lightly jazzy tinge that heightens the expressive qualities of the music. On 50 Words For Snow, Bush’s compositions are minimal but elongated - they take as long as required to deliver her typically eccentric, poetic narratives.

34) Becca Stevens Band - Weightless
Stevens is a singer-songwriter from New York deserving of much wider attention. She operates in that hinterland between jazz, folk and Americana beloved of Norah Jones, but doing so in a much more provocative and idiosyncratic manner. Far from coffee table music, Stevens’ own songs can be rousing and touching but are often also mysterious and charming. Even more impressive here are her radical interpretations of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Animal Collective’s My Girls and Seal’s Kiss From A Rose.

33) King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine (Domino)
For plaintive and disarming beauty, few albums could compete with this all too brief but thoroughly delightful collaboration between the eccentric Fife songwriter Kenny Anderson and film composer and arranger Jon Hopkins. Satisfyingly, this seems to have put to rest the brief but disconcerting drive to turn King Creosote into a bankable indie-crossover act. How much more affecting and honest his music is when it takes place in this kind of intimate, personal space. Diamond Mine provides the perfect setting for his peculiar musings (Diamond Mine may be the only album ever to contain a verse about the difficulty in gaining planning permission).

32) Low - C’Mon (Rough Trade)
Even by Low’s doggedly consistent high standards, C’Mon feels like something of a watermark recording. After a succession of detours through territory both more aggressive (The Great Destroyer) and more experimental (Drums and Guns), C’Mon returned them to their most accessible and familiar territory, reaffirming the fundamental strengths of their slow, repetitive songs and the beautiful blend of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices and the defiant simplicity of their performances. Yet, C’Mon felt fresh because of its brilliant, irresistible intensity.

31) Thundercat - The Golden Age Of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
In which the unfairly reviled fusion genre is reconstructed and modernised with mastery and effervescence. Few albums this year have been quite as overwhelming, quite as brazenly unfashionable or quite as fun as this effort from Flying Lotus’ bass player. It’s not just a set of rapid fire bass solos (Thundercat is astoundingly dexterous and is more than capable of turning the bass into a melodic, frontline instrument) - there is soul and fire in here too.

30) Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD)
Along with Radiohead’s King of Limbs, this probably ranks as among the most listened to albums of the year for me. Its polished diversions and unusual sounds may have proved too much for the Iron & Wine fan drawn in by Sam Beam’s acoustic ruminations, but I can’t help but admire Beam’s adaptability and willingness to absorb influences from outside the American folk tradition. His voice is stronger and more upfront now, although still charmingly understated and he remains a lyricist of peerless invention.

29) {Ma} - The Last (Loop)
Among top level US jazz musicians, a debate has been raging recently over the quality (or lack thereof) in contemporary jazz. Some have conservatively criticised the prevalence of hybrid forms, something increasingly common in the thriving London jazz scene. The Last seems to be a prime example of just how well hybrids can work - improvised music with reference to the jazz tradition but placed in vivid and compelling new contexts. The blend between Matt Calvert’s bristling electronics and Tom Challenger’s fluent, sometimes caustic improvising is brilliantly executed. The textures are multi-faceted and exciting and this feels like a complete work with a detailed, filmic quality.

28) Boxcutter - The Dissolve (Planet Mu)
One of 2011’s most criminally ignored achievements, The Dissolve shared with the stunning Thundercat album unfashionable preoccupations with fusion, jazz-rock and heavy seventies funk. It addressed these concerns through the prism of UK bass music, in which area Boxcutter has been an underrated pioneer. The vocal tracks should perhaps have reached a wider audience, whilst the music here is consistently intricate, nuanced and forged with a great sense of enthusiasm and fun.

27) Bjork - Biophilia (One Little Indian)
These days, Bjork releases, whilst still infrequent and conceptually extravagant, have delivered something dependable, with a diminishing sense of the shock of the new. Perhaps, long into a career that has consistently hit the highest levels of artistry, we no longer have the right to expect the breaking of new ground. Biophilia attempts to change the way music is consumed and utilised - with its technological and educational dimensions. The music itself is more of what we’ve come to expect from Bjork - detached and intellectual whilst also wonderfully intimate and tender. The arrangements are superb, with Bjork reunited with the Icelandic choir that helped make Vespertine such a masterpiece. If anything, Biophilia is more of a grower, its tracks highly nuanced and taking a while to reveal their magic.

26) Mark Hanslip & Javier Carmona - DosadoS (Babel)

A refreshing improvised duo session, with Carmona’s free flowing textural percussion providing the perfect counterpoint for Hanslip’s eloquent, occasionally visceral saxophones. There’s a real empathy and understanding between these two musicians and the results - captured permanently on disc but never to be replicated - are thrilling.

25) Kathryn Calder - Bright & Vivid (File Under Music)
Still woefully under-promoted in the UK, Calder (a member of New Pornographers and of the sadly now defunct Immaculate Machine) is undergoing a remarkably rapid development as a solo artist. Are You My Mother? was an affecting and mature debut - but Bright & Vivid succeeds in making a bolder, more ambitious, more cinematic musical statement. Again, the songwriting is infectious, melodic and touching, and the arrangements and production detailed and clear. This is indie-pop without any of the regression and introversion that sometimes stifles the genre. It is bold and brilliantly executed songwriting.

24) Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
James Blake may have been the name to drop for downtempo electronica in 2011, but the more stealthy choice may have been this superb album from Nicolas Jaar, another impossibly young and prodigious musician in this field. With a childhood spent in Santiago and influences ranging from Satie to Mulatu Astatke, Space is Only Noise presented a poised balance between reflection and rhythm.

23) Hallock Hill - The Union/There He Unforeseen (Hallock Hill)
Tom Lecky’s two albums as Hallock Hill were prime examples of composition through improvisation. The Union was a meditative, haunting reflection made up of layered guitars whilst There He Unforeseen somehow both broadened the canvas and managed to create a more claustrophobic atmosphere. Lecky also has an assured and confident hand when it comes to complex and intricate structure. His music is beautiful, spacious and compelling.

22) James Blake - James Blake (A&M)
Few albums seemed to divide opinion quite as sharply as this debut long player from the much feted Blake. Perhaps the criticisms sprung from subconscious resentment - Blake is young, having only recently graduated from a Goldsmith’s music degree, tall and handsome, and had been given a big PR boost through the BBC sound of 2011 poll. There was also his frequent creative use of vocoder - something that fascinated some but irritated many (although it bears repeating that he wasn’t using the device as an autotune). Even without the technology, his voice is decidedly odd, yet appealing in its inherent vulnerability. The most cursory listen to this debut should establish Blake’s musicality - he has embraced the song form with as much thought and intuition as he did production at the edges of UK bass music. He’s a master of space and tranquility, two qualities so rarely found in contemporary mainstream music, and he clearly understands harmony very well. Repackaged later in the year with the broody, strange Enough Thunder EP (which included a collaboration with Bon Iver), the album became a substantial, impressive document.

21) Colin Stetson - New History Of Warfare Vol. 2 (Constellation)
Saxophonist of choice to the American indie scene (he has spent much of the year playing as part of the massive extended Bon Iver ensemble), Stetson is a hugely creative musician in his own right. Occupying a hinterland somewhere between jazz, improv and contemporary composition, this second part of the New History of Warfare series was compelling and imaginative. Stetson approaches his instrument more percussively than melodically, challenging convention and building a broad palette of sound.

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