Sunday, December 25, 2011

Top 100 (and a bit) of 2011 (In One Place)

100)Feist - Metals (Polydor)
99)Cornershop - And The Double-O Groove Of (Ample Play)
98)Fatoumata Diawara - Fatou (World Circuit)
97)The Field - Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
96)Tyshawn Sorey - Oblique 1 (Pi)
95)Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Wichita)
94)Kuedo - Severant (Planet Mu)
93)SBTRKT - SBTRKT (Young Turks)
92)Meg Baird - Seasons On Earth (Wichita)
91)CANT - Dreams Come True (Warp)
90)Africa Hitech - 93 Million MIles (Warp)
89)Cass McCombs - Wit’s End/Humor Risk (Domino)
88) Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica/Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure (Software)
87)A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen (Erased Tapes)
86)John Escreet - Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross)
85)Battles - Gloss Drop (Warp)
84)Roly Porter - Aftertime (Subtext)
83)Ambrose Akinmusire - When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
82)Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol.1 (Southern Lord)
81)Phil Robson - The Immeasurable Code (Whirlwind Recordings)
80)Andy Stott - Passed Me By/We Stay Together (Modern Love)
79)Peaking Lights - 936 (Not Not Fun)
78)Sidi Toure - Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey)
77)Six Organs Of Admittance - Asleep On The Floodplain (Drag City)
76)Twelves - The Adding Machine (Babel)
75)Deerhoof - Deerhoof Vs. Evil (ATP)
74)Kode 9 & The Spaceape - Black Sun (Hyperdub)
73)Kairos 4tet - Statement Of Intent (Edition)
72)Singing Adams - Everybody Friends Now (Records Records Records)
71)Outhouse & Hilmar Jenssen - Straw, Sticks & Bricks (Babel)
70)Rustie - Glass Swords (Warp)
69)Clams Casino - Instrumentals (Type)
68)Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town (Domino)
67)Moritz Von Oswald - Horizontal Structures (Honest Jon’s)
66)Hiss Golden Messenger - Poor Moon/From Country Hai East Cotton (Black Maps/Paradise of Bachelors)
65)Isolee - Well Spent Youth (Pampa)
64)Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes (Night Slugs)
63)The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (Rough Trade)
62)St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4AD)
61)Mara Carlyle - Floreat (Ancient and Modern)
60)Julia Holter - Tragedy (Leaving Records)
59)Avishai Cohen - Seven Seas (Blue Note)
58)Machinedrum - Room(s) (Planet Mu)
57)Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta - Tirtha (ACT)
56)Destroyer - Kaputt (Dead Oceans)
55)Keith Jarrett - Rio (ECM)
54)Bill Callahan - Apocalypse (Drag City)
53)Micachu & The Shapes with London Sinfonietta - Chopped & Screwed (Rough Trade)
52)Dean McPhee - Son of the Black Peace (Blast First Petite)
51)Nils Frahm - Felt (Erased Tapes)/Nils Frahm and Anne Muller - 7fingers (Erased Tapes)
50)Sully - Carrier (Keysound)
49)Bill Frisell and 858 Quartet - Sign of Life (SLG)
48)Bon Iver - Bon Iver (4AD)
47)Khyam Allami - Resonance/Dissonance (Nawa Recordings)
46)Kit Downes Trio - Quiet Tiger (Basho)
45)The Weather Station - All Of It Was Mine (You’ve Changed)
44)Aquarium - Aquarium (Babel)
43)Joe Lovano - Bird Songs (Blue Note)
42)Dalglish - Benacah Drann Deachd (Highpoint Lowlife)
41)John Taylor - Requiem For A Dreamer (CamJazz)
40)Phaedra - The Sea (Rune Grammofon)
39)PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Universal)
38)The Advisory Circle - As The Crow Flies (Ghost Box)
37)Tom Waits - Bad As Me (Anti-)
36)Three Trapped Tigers - Route One Or Die (Blood and Biscuits)
35)Kate Bush - Director’s Cut / 50 Words For Snow (Fish People/EMI)
34)Becca Stevens Band - Weightless (Sunnyside)
33)King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine (Domino)
32)Low - C’Mon (Rough Trade)
31)Thundercat - The Golden Age Of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
30)Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD)
29){Ma} - The Last (Loop)
28)Boxcutter - The Dissolve (Planet Mu)
27)Bjork - Biophilia (One Little Indian)
26)Mark Hanslip & Javier Carmona - DosadoS (Babel)
25)Kathryn Calder - Bright & Vivid (File Under Music)
24)Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
23) Hallock Hill - The Union/There He Unforeseen (Hallock Hill)
22)James Blake - James Blake (A&M)
21)Colin Stetson - New History Of Warfare Vol. 2 (Constellation)
20)Bill Orcutt - How The Thing Sings (Editions Mego)
19)Brad Mehldau - Live In Marciac (Nonesuch)
18)Tinariwen - Tassili (V2)
17)Pinch & Shackleton - Pinch & Shackleton (Honest Jon’s)
16)Matthew Herbert - One Pig (Accidental)
15)Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter One (Constellation)
14)Grouper - AIA: Alien Observer / AIA: Dream Loss (Yellowelectric)
13)Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau (ACT)/The Impossible Gentlemen - The Impossible Gentlemen (Basho)
12)Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We’re New Here (XL)
11)Charles Lloyd Quartet/Maria Fantouri - Athens Concert (ECM)
10)Zomby - Dedication (4AD)
9)tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)
8)Alexander Tucker - Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey)
7)Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)
6)Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion (Edition)
5)Julian Siegel Quartet - Urban Theme Park (Basho)
4)Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel (ECM)
3)Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 / Dropped Pianos (Kranky)
2)Radiohead - The King of Limbs (XL)
1)Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 5: 20-1

20) Bill Orcutt - How The Thing Sings (Editions Mego)
Bill Orcutt is that rare breed of artists who can actually break established boundaries on his chosen instrument and seem as if he is approaching it from a new angle entirely. All conventional techniques are abandoned. In their place comes a visceral, almost violent approach, yet at the same time an ability to draw out resonance and emotion as well as tension. The centrepiece of How the Thing Sings is the triumphant, visionary A Line From Ol Man River, one of the most shocking and remarkable recordings of the year.

19) Brad Mehldau - Live In Marciac (Nonesuch)
Recorded in 2006 but only now seeing the light of day, this extraordinary live package was one of the year’s most essential investments, consisting of 2CDs and a DVD. It captures Mehldau in a solo setting, at his most expressive and musical, improvising with extraordinary harmonic and melodic skill and a world away from the neutered Highway Rider. Every quality that has lead to Mehldau being hailed among the greats is here in abundance - his refined touch, his extraordinary separation and integration of parts, the long, fluent lines and his openness to a range of source material.

18) Tinariwen - Tassili (V2)
Opinion seems to have been divided as to whether Tinariwen’s move into a more acoustic sound world compromised their distinctive musical quality. Certainly, one of the most appealing aspect of the Malian group’s approach has been their dogged consistency of tone and attack - a bubble that Tassili defiantly pierces. It’s a bold move - but this album retains the group’s sense of hard won experience whilst expanding their lexicon. For me, it’s something of a triumph.

17) Pinch & Shackleton - Pinch & Shackleton (Honest Jon’s)
Shackleton seems to be building a career on releasing fantastic albums that little bit too late to be considered for most end of year lists. Is this a noble abrogation of the media PR circus? Or is it simply his obvious desire to release as much of his work as possible? Either way, this collaboration with Pinch is dependably brilliant - sometimes dark and oppressive, sometimes sinister, always masterfully controlled. It is a coherent whole rather than a collection of mini-masterworks.

16) Matthew Herbert - One Pig (Accidental)
By some distance the year’s most controversial album, One Pig had already enraged PETA and other animal rights supporters many months before its release. Whilst the idea of recording the life cycle of a pig farmed for meat and making musical instruments from its remains may seem like anathema to some, I found One Pig to be a thought provoking and intelligent statement from a consistently radical and committed political artist. Herbert’s intentions were less to shock and more to once again draw attention to industrial food processes (see his previous masterpiece Plat Du Jour, a particular favourite for this blog) and, most importantly, the sheer level of waste involved in animal rearing. The music itself was tough, abrasive and - at least until the daring irony at the end - entirely unsentimental. One Pig was another imaginative triumph of modern electronica and sampling techniques.

15) Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter One (Constellation)
Chicago/New York saxophonist Matana Roberts appears to be the sort of constantly restless musician ideally suited to the field of improvisation. So far, she has yet to establish a regular stable ensemble, instead recording with various groups depending on her musical intentions and location. Coin Coin Chapter One, apparently the first part of a hugely ambitious project in twelve parts that aims to document her ancestral heritage back to the 1700s, was recorded live in the studio in front of an invited audience. It utilises a huge fifteen piece ensemble from Montreal. It has the urgency, passion, excitement and danger of a live recording. Much of it sounds highly liberated. But it also has plenty of compositional flair, clarity and organisation too, much of it dealing with the difficult subject of slavery. The use of the human voice is frequently masterful.

14) Grouper - AIA: Alien Observer / AIA: Dream Loss (Yellowelectric)
Whilst this eerie, beautiful double album doesn’t exactly tear up Liz Harris’ by now established sound, it does suggest that her work is becoming increasingly refined. Some reviewers have suggested that ghostly memories of composers past can be heard buried within these soundscapes (Satie, Messaien). I’m not sure I could pick out any possible samples, but I can be sure that A I A is a tremendous achievement - a consistently enthralling suite of sound.

13) Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau (ACT)
The Impossible Gentlemen - The Impossible Gentlemen (Basho)

Simcock, among the UK’s most virtuosic pianists, has long been a big name in jazz - but 2011 was the year in which he boldly stated his claim to artistic greatness. Whilst the young jazz scene in London is buzzing, it’s hard to see whether there is anyone among the legions of gifted, creative players who might join the ranks of legends or bring jazz to a wider audience. Simcock may now be that musician. On his last album, he was caught a little between his uninhibited improvising and his love for the formalism and rigour of classical composition. Good Days At Schloss Elmau, his first solo piano album, seems to integrate all his musical concerns brilliantly. At last, there’s an energy to his playing here - and a percussive quality that sometimes makes him sound, alone, like a complete ensemble. There’s also an abundant lyricism and an emotional richness to the material here.

Simcock also appeared on the debut album from The Impossible Gentlemen, a transatlantic jazz supergroup that could hardly fail to dazzle. Really, though, this album is all about Mike Walker - a superb guitar player with an incisive sound and a sophisticated composer sadly all too little known at home in the UK. He finds melody in every sequence here, playing with an authority that is genuine and devoid of ego.

12) Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We’re New Here (XL)
For some, remix albums are ineligible for these kind of lists, and it’s easy to see the argument for this. But Jamie XX’s take on Gil Scott-Heron’s final recorded work felt like a valedictory statement, and a fitting epitaph for a musical legend. Even though the two artists did not meet and communicated by post, We’re New Here still feels like a considered and complementary meeting of minds. Isolated from its original context, and contrasted with earlier recordings (including snippets from the classic Home Is Where The Hatred Is), Scott-Heron’s worn-down latterday voice acquired an even greater authority and lived-in power. Jamie XX’s music - minimal but inspired - pushed him to new artistic levels and showed that his solo career may well prove more fruitful than that of his parent band.

11) Charles Lloyd Quartet/Maria Fantouri - Athens Concert (ECM)
Along with Wayne Shorter’s Quartet, Charles Lloyd’s current ensemble are among the most stable and ceaselessly exciting in contemporary American jazz. Their concerts are completely unmatched for sustained spiritual intensity. This pairing with Greek singer Maria Fantouri is an unexpected setting for Lloyd’s rich and lyrical sound, but it works superbly, with both sides of the collaboration bringing passion, conviction and emotional depth. Lloyd’s latterday catalogue is substantial and inspiring.

10) Zomby - Dedication (4AD)
One of those strangely divisive 2011 albums, Dedication proved challenging not least because it saw Zomby branching far away from the musical approach and character that made his, erm, name - but also because of the necessarily disparate and fragmented nature of the album’s structure. Dealing as it was with issues of grief, loss and memory, this seemed an intelligent and reasonable approach to take, even if it made the experience for the listener unpredictable and strange (quite why this should be a bad thing is something of a mystery). Dedication was haunting, immersive and, perhaps most importantly of all, artistically courageous.

9) tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)
Merrill Garbus is so relentless inventive that her manic, exciting music can leave you breathless. w h o k i l l represents a substantial step forward, with studio production techniques making for a big improvement in sound quality. There’s also a feeling that these performances have been well orchestrated and arranged. Yet there’s still a certain roughness around the edges - a looseness and perhaps even improvisatory approach to songwriting that makes it all so unpredictable and wild. Certainly, few artists in the alternative pop field have made so much gold from rhythm and phrasing. She sounds entirely like herself - with little in the way of obvious reference points.

8) Alexander Tucker - Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey)
By far Tucker’s most successful fusion of electronic noise and arcane musicology yet - Dorwytch is a triumphant and innovative record - weird and wonderful at every turn. It’s also a world away from his sometimes stoically combative live shows. This sounds like a real narrative, incorporating drones, songs and some delicate passages of improvisation. What emerges is a fearlessly modern form of chamber folk.

7) Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)

This exquisite merging of musical history and modern technology really deserved more attention. Barwick loops her own vocals to create an ecstatic one woman choir - and the results are somewhere between early music and contemporary performance. Certainly, a return to the music of the distant past makes for far more stimulating retrogression than so much of the regurgitation of recent cultural history discussed in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania book. There is a purity and beauty in Barwick’s voice that makes her wordless reveries all the more haunting.

6) Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion (Edition)
Golden Xplosion was undoubtedly the year’s most virtuosic jazz album but it also stood out as uniquely thrilling and involving. The title is apt, given that much of this album sounds like a fireball of bright colours. There is a genuine restlessness at work here, not just in Neset’s tricksy, rhythmically challenging compositions but also in the individual contributions from all the musicians, not least the extraordinary drummer Anton Eger. Barely a bar goes by in which he is not putting in all his musical energy and resources in service of the impact of the ensemble. Neset’s brilliant mentor Django Bates is a characteristically mirthful presence, but is very much in a supportive role here. Whilst Neset is an outrageously gifted and articulate musician, he also finds space for some disarming lyricism and quiet reflection.

5) Julian Siegel Quartet - Urban Theme Park (Basho)
Julian Siegel is one of the great artists in British jazz and ought to be recognised as such. His work with Greg Cohen and Joey Baron is significant enough but, for Urban Theme Park, he formed what can only be described as a fantasy jazz ensemble. With Liam Noble on piano, Oli Hayhurst on bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums, Siegel armed himself with a rhythm section that is at once supportive, propulsive and creative. His compositions are deft and subtle, always seeming slightly elusive and mysterious. Yet there is also a vibrance and spirited interaction at work here that makes this a theme park of thrills and delights, which is exactly as it should be.

4) Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel (ECM)
With Gwilym Simcock’s brilliant Mercury nominated Good Days At Schloss Elmau, Brad Mehldau’s stunning Live In Marciac, Keith Jarrett’s Rio and this, the solo piano marketplace has been crowded with excellence in 2011. Taborn is a world away from Simcock’s hybrid of classical lyricism, gospel energy and jazz harmony however. He is inventing a language for the piano that seems bold and innovative. Whilst his technique is near-flawless and his flow of ideas often intuitive, Taborn is more interested here in a controlled minimalism. Every note is carefully considered and the result is a sparing, unconventional creation.

3) Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 / Dropped Pianos (Kranky)
There are few artists in the field of noise soundscaping more consistently compelling and haunting than Tim Hecker. Where sometimes this musical space can seem cold and forebidding - Hecker imbues it with a sense of longing and curiosity. Whilst the titles of the pieces hint at paranoia and anxiety - the music, particularly in its use of organ, also hints at something more mournful and a sense of faded grandeur. The additional material collected on Dropped Pianos is harsher and more unforgiving.

2) Radiohead - The King of Limbs (XL)
It seems utterly bizarre to have to refer to a Radiohead album as one of the most underrated releases of the year, but this has been the strange fate meted out to The King of Limbs. It is apparently one of the group’s more divisive recordings and can mostly be found languishing near the lower end of top 50 lists. Some found the transparent variation in style and mood between the album’s two halves difficult. In light of the special edition’s two 10” vinyl discs it would appear the track sequencing was entirely deliberate. To my ears, KoL marked a continuation and further development from In Rainbows, an even more seamless and successful fusion of a now super-relaxed, confident and impressive working band and their preoccupations with electronica and modern composition. Seeing the band live in 2012 with Clive Deamer joining as an additional drummer will surely be essential. Perhaps most impressive is how unshowy an album this is - unlike, say, OK Computer - it is completely unconcerned with being seen as important or epochal, and much more concerned with relaxed, consummate musicality. Together with the two additional singles that followed the album release, this represents Radiohead’s best music.

1) Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)
Good things come to those who wait. After eight years in the wilderness, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings returned with a near flawless album. Returning to the stripped down bare essentials that characterised their previous masterpiece Time (The Revelator), The Harrow & The Harvest proved a wonderful companion piece to that album, similarly intoxicating and so fluent in the language of traditional American songwriting that any questions of authenticity are simply meaningless. The balance of their harmonies, kept in serene proportion throughout (although in fact more sparingly used here - everything extraneous is jettisoned), the splendour of Welch’s telling lyrics, the sweet elegance of the melodies - everything just sounds so effortless, but behind it is the work of two musicians who have studied their craft with honesty, conviction and determination.

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.