Roy Stannard’s Top Fifteen Albums of 2011
- The Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
- Smith & Burrows – Funny Looking Angels
- The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
- Radiohead – The King of Limbs
- Bon Iver – Bon Iver
- Adele – 21
- Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX – We’re New Here
- James Vincent McMorrow – Early in the Morning
- Wild Beasts – Smother
- Yuck – Yuck
- The Decemberists – The King is Dead
- Feist – Metals
- James Blake – James Blake
- Frank Ocean – Nostalgia/Ultra
- The Weeknd – House of Balloons
- 1. The Fleet Foxes:
A wonderful testament to West Coast harmonies, courtesy of six Seattle guys who patently grew up on a staple main course of CSNY and America. An masterly patchwork of guitars, harmoniums, bells, woodwinds and Tibetan singing bowls that expands on their debut, Helplessness Blues is equipped with signature vocal arrangements that sound out of this world – except that the voices you hear here are grounded and real. This is a wonderful move on from their debut, deeper, more heart-felt and in the title track seriously contending for the title of one of the best songs ever recorded: Check it out, where Robin Pecknold laments growing up while a skyward rush of harmonies makes it clear his sense of wonder is vibrant, poetic and still operating at full force.
- 2. Smith & Burrows
A Christmas album that caught us old cynics unawares when it came out in late November – with Tom Smith from the Editors and Andy Burrows (ex Razorlight and nowadays with We Are Scientists) – it may be just be the best seasonal album ever apart from one or two ill advised covers. ‘When the Thames Froze’ is magnificent with tramp-soulful vocals lamenting the state of the economy, young men sleeping in fields and the process of getting older. The spirit of Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life permeates the album with references to Jimmy Stewart and even a cover of the Black song ‘Wonderful Life’. Careworn but caring and absolutely mesmerising.
- 3. The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars are a duo consisting of John Paul White, hailing from Florence, Alabama and Joy Williams, originally from Santa Cruz, CA, but now residing in East Nashville. They have already altruistically shared a free concert album “Live at Eddie’s attic” which remains available on their My space site for those of you seeking fine new music and now we have this wonderful debut album “Barton Hollow” to tantalise our aural tastebuds. The word which best epitomises this record is “passionate”. Check out the performance of the swampy folk title track and try not to be smitten by its drive and force whereas ‘To Whom it May Concern’ is quite simply one of the most affecting tracks of the year with its refrain:
“I missed you
But I haven’t met you
Oh but I want to.”
- 4. Radiohead
The eighth studio album from the rock band that no-one can second guess has a misleading restraint: lush electronics, thickets of digitally tweaked percussion and cryptic lyrics, sung in a prayerlike daze. At 38 minutes, it sounds unfinished and quietly perverse, even more anti-rock than Kid A – at first. Repeated immersion, though, reveals a seductive concision and insistent undertow: the space-alien-Beach Boys effect of “Bloom,” the dark, muted-treble blues of the guitars in “Little by Little,” the nimble charge of “Separator.” This was a record that insidiously crept up on your subconscious throughout the year and then took over.
- 5. Bon Iver
The second album from Wisconsin’s Justin Vernon thrives in an unlikely sweet spot between Nick Drake and Peter Cetera. Bon Iver deploys horns, banjos and Auto-Tune amid Vernon’s Möbius-strip lyrics, which luxuriate in emotional vagueness. Vernon’s private world is a soft-rock heaven of the mind.
- 6. Adele
“Turn my sorrow into treasured gold,” cried Adele Adkins on “Rolling in the Deep.” It was a confession and a prophecy. 21 was this year’s most stunning pop success, transmuting the young Brit’s personal sorrow – the collapse of an 18-month relationship – into a 13-million-selling smash that leapt across borders and oceans and united everyone from teeny-boppers to baby boomers to hip-hop-heads. The sound is state-of-theart retro soul, with touches of Motown, bossa nova and 1970s piano pop. But at its heart was that voice: giant, classic-sounding, promising emotional depth way beyond its years. More than any other album this year, 21 made you feel its pain – from the triple-hankie tear-jerker “Someone Like You” to ripsnorting revenge songs like “Rumour Has It,” where Adele rides a roiling groove and flattens everything in her path.
- 7. Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX
Rather than being passed around from remixed to remixer, ‘We’re New’ Here benefits from the focused attention of Jamie Smith of The xx.
Scott-Heron’s original album of 2010, produced by XL head-honcho Richard Russell, let the poet’s crack-ravaged vocals do all the talking, lo-fi production hiding in the wings. Eschewing this, Smith uses Scott-Heron’s vocals as illustration to his industrial and innovative production. It’s his subtle, back-lit percussion which gives The xx their edge, and this album lets Smith turn things up a notch to create a bass-driven collection the dancefloor in Hoxton.
Last year witnessed dubstep implode, but from its ashes an exhilarating selection of electronic music emerged. Chameleon-like, Smith assumes many of these styles, makes them his own, and produces a sonic snapshot of dancefloors across the UK. NY is Killing Me pays homage to the original movement, carrying the dark swagger of early Benga, whilst the clangourous and spare percussion of Home and My Cloud shares a sound channelled by Mount Kimbie and early James Blake. The thuggish UK Funky of Lil Silva is present in Running, before it gives way to the 8-bit sound Ikonika spearheaded. The tripped-up beats and ephemeral melodies of The Crutch feels like a relative of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder family – but this is not just an onslaught of club tracks. Moments of lightness appear in interludes and the exceptional euphoric endnote, I’ll Take Care of You.
Just like the radio that switches between frequencies in the opening of Ur Soul and Mine, Smith’s use of sampling tunes the listener in and out of his musical predecessors. He rewires a personal musical canon into something utterly contemporary. As Scott-Heron says in an interlude: “The spirits are your parents, your bloodstream moving through you constantly, because they want you to live on and because they want to live on too, they are trying all the time to tell you s*** and if you just listen to yourself, you will hear them.”
Those approaching this release as fans, exclusively, of either Scott-Heron or The xx might be at a loss, but this collection works on separate level. Whilst I’m New Here marked an introspective turn from Scott-Heron, this set offers a multi-layered retrospective of the music which bore and surrounds Jamie xx. It’s not merely a rehash of the original, but a cohesive, considered masterpiece in its own right.
- 8. James Vincent McMorrow
A few of the artists that have influenced McMorrow’s style include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and The Neptunes. In fact, Donny Hathaway is one of the primary motivations for McMorrow to basically take 3 years off to learn how to sing more convincingly. He then banished himself to a secluded beach house in Ireland and for 6 months created this art now titled Early in the Morning. For those familiar with the story behind Justin Vernon’s recording, this could be another reason why McMorrow is compared to Vernon.
It will come as no surprise to those who hear this album that McMorrow describes himself as a “quiet individual.” Early in the Morning is filled with tracks like “Breaking Hearts” and “From The Woods!!” that will get you hooked and keep you listening, not because of the complexity of the harmonies but because of the simple integrity of the songs. Recorded in a cabin with one mic and no professional production equipment or personnel within hundreds of miles, the album couldn’t have more integrity.
- 9. Wild Beasts
Smother was created in relative isolation, in Wales, and it sounds like it: on Deeper, Tom Fleming sings that “all else falls away”, and while in the company of this record it’s entirely likely that the outside world will, indeed, fade into insignificance. It’s that sort of special collection, one that manifests an entirely believable, almost tangible soundworld which one can’t help but inhabit alongside its creators. And it’s only a few steps forward before the first rabbit hole blocks the path, into which a stumble is inevitable. Hayden Thorpe introduces Lion’s Share atop a synthesised throb; but it’s when the plaintive piano begins that the piece commences its hypnotic charm, and one becomes deeply enveloped. “What are you running from?” asks Fleming, here taking the lyrical spotlight more frequently than on the past two albums. Truth is that we’re not running from anything at all. Rather, we’re racing towards the band, eager to discover what’s around the next compositional turn.
Lion’s Share is gorgeous, no question about it. A simple, seductive song that opens an album which, largely, continues in a similar vein: here lies mystery, romance, tall tales told by men who surely wouldn’t just make this stuff up. It’s there in their eyes, the reality of the experience and the sincerity of their stories. Again, Thorpe’s thematically entrenched in a loved-one’s undergarments on more than one occasion: Bed of Nails is one such number, albeit with lines like “surround me like a warm bath” conveying a more emotional connection than the borderline smut of their last LP, Two Dancers. Plaything is a little more teasing, rather more distant with its affections – although it discusses uncertainty with what its protagonist’s paramour is thinking, suggesting tentativeness where once there was thrust and swagger. Invisible is wholly different – Fleming, flanked by understated instrumentation, seems lost in melancholy, offering farewells to “things I thought I’d want”; its final line, a literal kiss-off, is devastatingly exquisite. The song is another tender, almost unsettlingly touching moment on a collection replete with them.
- 10. Yuck
Two of Yuck’s members, singer/guitarist Daniel Blumberg and guitarist Max Bloom, used to play in Cajun Dance Party: ambitious and typically spazzy post-Arctic Monkeys NME faves who issued a Bernard Butler-produced debut album, The Colourful Life, in 2008 on XL. Together Blumberg, Bloom, drummer Jonny Rogoff, and bass player Mariko Doi, joined on certain tracks by part-time backing singer Ilana Blumberg, have taken a giant step forward. As Blumberg sang with his old band, the one he started as a 15-year-old, “This is now and that was then.” Or as he sings now, on instantly searing album opener, “Get Away”: “I can’t get this feeling off my mind.” Teenage Fanclub meets Nirvana and produces something spinetingling in its own right.
- 11. The Decemberists
The Decemberists’ first Number One album was their easiest to love at first spin, a smart step back from the ornate-epic reach of 2009’s The Hazards of Love. Singer-songwriter Colin Meloy packs his storytelling eccentricities into popsong packages of verse, hook and country-Smiths jangle, arranged with the introspective simplicity of Neil Young’s Harvest. It is hard to believe that Meloy was already planning a long sabbatical before this album was made. The earthy texture and economic buoyancy of “Calamity Song” and “Down by the Water” ensure that he – and his band – will be missed.
- 12. Feist
“Get it right, get it right, get it right,” sings Leslie Feist on her fourth album. Romantic strife is the theme, running through the shivery folk rock of “Comfort Me” and a series of tough-minded ballads. Hooks surface in unexpected places, and Feist’s supple voice pushes toward gospel – the promise that, someday, she’ll get it right.
- 13. James Blake
The James Blake album is where Dubstep came of age. On The Wilhelm Scream, the lyrics about being suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by love are gradually submerged beneath crackling static and chords that start out echoing blues and gospel but turn increasingly dissonant, while I Never Learnt to Share’s tale of family dysfunction – summed up in one, mournful, endlessly repeated line – is set to music that seems to have been blown apart; the sounds don’t properly connect with each other. More often, however, working out exactly what he’s driving at is like trying to grasp vapour, not least on I Mind: three minutes of incomprehensible vocal loops speeding up and slowing down, slipping in and out of time with the backing track, which unexpectedly shifts from the usual agonised crawl to a kind of pattering, vaguely Latin-American rhythm midway through. It’s worth pointing out that its incomprehensibility isn’t a failing. Even at its most impenetrable, the album leaves you in a state of ecstatic bewilderment with no idea where the man might go next.
- 14. Frank Ocean
New Orleans born songwriter Christopher Francis Ocean established himself as a solo artist of Worldwide acclaim in 2011. The 24 year-old OFWGKTA member moved from Louisianna to Los Angeles following hurricane Katrina to work on his first album, and legally changed his name from Christopher “”Lonny”” Breaux shortly after.
In L.A. the singer soon hooked up with the Odd Future collective and began work writing for the likes of Brandy, John Legend and most recently Beyonce on I Miss You. Ocean was also called up to work on two tracks from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne.
Collaborations aside, it was Ocean’s solo work which garnered most praise. Signed to Def Jam in 2009, Ocean delivered his debut mixtape nostalgia,ULTRA earlier this year, winning fans on both side of the Atlantic, including Zane Lowe, who debuted tracks from the release on Radio 1 in November. World class in one short hop – his peers must be feeling sick
- 15. The Weeknd
Yes on the surface it doesn’t look auspicious. The work of Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye and producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo (Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib, is not, as has been reported, involved in the project), it should be a standard sub r n’ b project, but it isn’t. House of Balloons is a remarkably confident, often challenging work that excels at both being forward-thinking, genre-mash-up dance music and good old-fashioned songwriting.
What makes this whole thing work in an album context is that all the thematic and sonic pieces fit together – these weird, morning-after tales of lust, hurt, and over-indulgence (“Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain,” goes one refrain) are matched by this incredibly lush, downcast music. Not since the xx’s debut has there been a more moody, sheer sky-at-night release.
Fifteen of the best here: