2011 in Music

In Culture on December 30, 2011 at 3:21 PM

Inevitably, as time marches inexorably on, people proclaim music’s death. What with that pint-sized buffoon, Bieber, ruling the charts (and, somehow, hearts), female equivalent in the axis of evil, Ms Black, racking up more than 17 million Youtube views, anodyne X factor winners butchering more perfectly decent songs (this year, Cannonball), saccharine sack of shit Buble crooning his way to the top of the charts with Christmas schmaltz. And, just generally, music being consumed in the distinctly unromantic form of bits of data, often seemingly subservient to advertisers’ needs or those of making some of the next automatons off the factory line look sexy and cool.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. However, ‘evil’ the aforementioned may be, some of it’s undeniably catchy. Plus there’s a plethora of great lesser-known music in many of the end-of-year music lists, including this one. I don’t claim for this to be by any means a definitive list since music is a notoriously subjective thing. Nonetheless, it’s a list of 25 or so albums and singles I like/love, arranged into (very vague) order of quality. Feel free to praise/berate my selections as you see fit…

Albums of the year

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

After the lonely – but lovely – log-cabin mourning of the loss of titular Emma on his first album, Justin Vernon seems to have stepped out into human civilisation with this sophomore effort, and it’s all the better for it. It’s still distinctively Bon Iver – cryptic lyrics and soulful voice are still present – but now allied to far more expansive arrangements of percussions, drums and brass and even Vernon’s voice auto-tuned (inspired by a certain Mr West), which oddly works…brilliantly.

Frank Ocean – Nostalgia/Ultra

This is actually a mixtape, but such is the popularity and quality of this prodigious Californian offering, it warrants inclusion here. His is one of those voices currently in vogue in R&B, notably Drake; half-sung, half-rapped, as adept at either. But what sets Frank Ocean apart is the production and the lyrics; tales of suicide, drugs, love, childhood, marriage and more over a variety of synths, drum machines and Spanish guitar. Even the standard R&B fare of sex is given a certain frankness: “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden” (on Nature Feels – one of the several brilliantly reworked covers; this, of MGMT’s Electric Feel). As an uber-cool reflection of both the grit and glamour of California Life, developers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with its revolutionary soundtrack, are no doubt thinking Mr Ocean came about seven years too late.

Sbtrkt – Sbtrkt

With the unsubtle Wob-Wobbing of Dubstep growing, Sbtrkt – alias of enigmatic Londoner, Aaron Jerome – created an album of rare beauty for the genre. Though this pigeonholing doesn’t do justice to the scope of this album, which takes in two-step, soul, funk, Chicago house and RnB, and is lifted by the soulful voices of Roses Gabor and frequent collaborator, Sampha.

Wild Beasts – Smother

The Kendal four-piece released their third album this year to relatively poor sales (it reached a peak of 17 in the UK), but great critical acclaim for its intricate, sparse marriage of funk, indie, electronic and Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive falsetto. Though executed with more style than many poppier contemporaries, the four lads’ salacious intentions are quite clear. On this evidence, it’s a good bet they’re now reaping the rewards.

Ben Howard – Every Kingdom

Given a helpful ride by Danny MacAskill in his viral bicycle video, this Devonian is gradually earning long-overdue attention for his heartfelt, expertly crafted indie-folk, which betrays his relatively tenders years (23). Evocative of cold winter nights, in traditional country pubs of his native county, with the log fire burning. Or maybe that’s just me.

Jamie Woon – Mirrorwriting

After a good five years touring, Mr Woon finally broke through to the mainstream with this fine album. His is a unique blend of acoustic backing, blessed-out electronica and a voice smooth enough to sell prophylactics to the pope.  Only reaching number a high of 15 in the charts, it deserves to be heard by a much bigger audience. He’s got far more soul than Rihanna, anyway.

Friendly Fires – Pala

Friendly Fires’ second album came strutting, clad in dayglow, into the charts in May, ushering in the summer with their melodic, funky indie-dance hybrid. Some of the ballads are a bit wet, but their technicolour blasts of dance-pop could have even the most earnest musos putting on their dancing shoes.

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Feisty indie-pop songstress returned this year with this long-awaited successor to 2008’s hipster’s album of choice, Youth Novels. Thankfully, her sophomore effort is every bit as good, even better than her debut – ranging as it does from tender ballads to the kind of quirky, claustrophobic indie-electronica (indietronica?) that Sweden currently specialises in (see The Knife, Niki & The Dove, Fever Ray, Robyn and others). Imagine a Scandinavian Lady Gaga with some sophistication and restraint and you’re in the right ballpark.

Weeknd – House of Balloons

One of the oddest album sounding albums of the year in theory, but, or rather because, utterly brilliant, in my eyes and obviously the thousands who freely downloaded it causing the site to crash. The album’s blend of hip-hop, trip-hop, shoegaze, R&B and electronica is, I imagine, what Prince (i.e the Prince of old; not whatever the fuck we’re supposed to call him now) may sound the morning after getting lost, in a weed-induced haze, in an electro club in a German red light district.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

This year’s Mercury Music Prize winner, and topper of many end-of-year lists, and with good reason. In a year dominated – commercially at least – by fluff, however enjoyable, such as Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and One Direction, Ms Harvey gave us a strident offering of rough-around-the-edges indie-folk which articulatedthe unease of a nation. But these weren’t glib, change-the-world sentiments from someone who judges inflation by the price of Freddos; Harvey worked for two and a half years on it and cites Harold Pinter, T.S. Eliot, Salvador Dali and Iraq soldiers’ and civilians testimonies as influences. It shows, in a seemingly career-defining album.

Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials.

So, your 4x platinum selling debut album has been a mainstay in the charts since about 1967 and become loved by everyone from critics, to Rihanna fans, to hipsters, to housewives. What do you do for that ‘difficult’ second album? Why, ramp up it up to 11 with this collection of ‘chamber soul’ – grand gothic songs shot through with a great pop sensibility – of course.

Kasabian – Velociraptor!

Kasabian seemed to have mellowed with the birth of Sergio ‘Serg’ Pizzorno’s first child if the evidence of this album (not their interviews) is anything to go by. ForVelociraptor! is a far more mature, coherent and rounded album than its predecessors, incorporating their default classic rock riffage but also tinges of blissed out electronic and Beatles-y pscyhadelica. It’s an art to make an album so indebted the 60s and 70s sound important, but Kasabian have – finally – mastered it.

White Denim – D

While this fifth offering from this Texan four-piece – who have been plugging away at the seams of the indie scene for over five years – may not have troubled the charts, it made a few waves in critics’ circles. And unsurprisingly, given its catchy blend of funk, psychadelica and indie; what one might the Kings of Leon to sound on a Speed and LSD induced bender, and, on a few of the songs, such as the Pink Floyd-esque Street Joy, evocative of the post-bender comedown.

Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix

Such was their hype for two years while taking GCSEs and A-Levels, Bombay Bicycle Club now feel like veterans of the indie music scene with three albums under their belt just three years after leaving school. This effort manages to combine the best elements of their energetic but often uninspired first and their earnest but often over-earnest solely acoustic second to create an album of real quality.

Adele – 21

What with her now being sold to, god forbid, middle-aged women in Tesco, it’s become very cool to hate Adele. But, to these ears at least, this is largely from a mere contrarian spirit. For this is a sterling collection of modern-day soul, with choruses as huge as big as Ms Adkins’ rich voice, which, somehow, manages to sound both authentically New Orleans and Saaf London.

Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure

One of the (very welcome) surprises this year was the return of the Tom Vek. After a very promising, albeit commercially ignored, first album, We Have Sound, he returned in June with Leisure Seizure without so much as apology note for his mysterious six-year hiatus in the musical wilderness. The story was much the same. The tracks are guitar-inflected, drum-heavy electronica toe-tappers; sonically joyous, but deadpan lyrically and in delivery deadpan (i.e. he can’t sing, but strangely it works). And again, it garnered positive reviews, but largely failed to register with the public, reaching a peak of a mere 79 in the charts. So come on, let’s get behind him, lest he be out in the cold for another half-decade.

Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys

While the (much deserved) post-Mercury success Elbow have garnered has been warmly received by the Bury five-piece, it has left them with a significant problem. For a band whose subject matter is typically subdued, sometimes melancholic, they are now “too happy” to write personal, instrospective lyrics. So Guy Garvey shifted his attention to childhood; his memories of it and, his eyes, the unfairly deemed errant youth on the streets, and came out with an album of distinctively Elbow understated beauty.

Ed Sheeran – +

Perhaps a more tame offering than his prodigious early talent and hype suggested, this was nonetheless a solid album telling of young love, set apart from the legions of lads with acoustic guitars by Sheeran’s homespun humour and wordplay. It does suffer a little, though, from the sanitised treatment it has been given, probably due industry pressure, in comparison to more sharp-edged demos or personally better songs that did not even make the cut. Hopefully, with the chart-topping success of this, he’ll be given more freedom to really pursue his love of folk and hip-hop.

Drake – Take Care

Contrary to how he may come across to the passing observer, Aubrey Drake Graham does actually think about more than his riches and his penis. Or at the very least he’s acutely self-aware about his adherence to the tired old hip-hop cliché, and in that sets himself apart from it, as this surprisingly introspective and sophisticated second album shows. Less sympathetic listeners would be wise to steer clear, for it often comes as a cathartic project set by a therapist in a kind of Priory for those addicted to the intoxicating drug of celebrity, but for everyone else there’s some sincere storytelling over forward-thinking electronic production.

Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron – We’re New Here

Jamie Smith of The xx cemented his position as one of the producers du jour with this accomplished reworking of the Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here, released the year before. The nuances of what constitutes ‘Dubstep’ will be argued over by its devotees until the apocalypse the genre sonically heralds. But using a broad definition (i.e. basically anything dance-y/electronic which isn’t Calvin Harris), Jamie XX is one of dubstep’s few exponents capable of dub-step reworkings without choking the original into submission as many do, indeed often giving them an interesting reimagining, as here as his electronica perfectly complements Scott-Heron’s soul and spoken word. The album thus proved a spookily prescient and fitting tribute to American’s lesser-known king of the counter-culture when he met his untimely end in late May.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

The Seattle sextet’s second placed the group, sonically, even further back in time and deeper into the forest. For their woozy, folky medieval-sounding psychadelica sounds as if The Beach Boys might if, for some reason, they were playing as part of Oberon’s crew of mysticals in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Having said that, that pretentious bollocks is more likely to put you off this album. If so, just read that it’s catchy and…well, good.

The Black Keys – El Camino

More rollicking rock & roll from the Ohio duo; like that band you always see in the downtrodden, unpopular mid-west bars in films, just really, really good. It practically demands to be played on a clapped out old Chevvy (indeed, the titular El Camino) on a dusty American highway, with hair blowing in the wind, cigarette in mouth and steering wheel as surrogate drum.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You

The Chilis returned with their 583,865th album this year, and while it’s unlikely to reinvent the wheel or go down as a classic, it was a very solid offering of their trademark brand of gibberish, sing-along punk-funk.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.

Yes, so Noel doesn’t exactly stray far from the Oasis mould (or indeed anywhere from it), except from perhaps AKA…What a Life, but this solid collection of dad-rock proves once and for all that Noel was the Brains behind Oasis. Not to downplay Liam’s essential rock & roll swagger, indeed some of his…Liam-ness could spark this up a little, but Beady Eye’s album this year proved this can be limited without  decent songs to back it up.

Foster the People – Torches

These Californians burst onto the scene with Pumped Up Kicks (yeh that one) – destined to have feet subconsciously tapping and to be played on an advert somewhere in the world from here until eternity. The rest of their debut album features similarly pleasant if pointless pop, tinged with the very smallest amounts of electro and rock. Torches falls somewhere between early MGMT, when they had some bite, and second album MGMT when they crawled up their own respective arses into lifeless pscyhadelica-lite.


Katy B – On a Mission. A couple of good, innovative singles and guest spots masking an album of dull, generic dance filler.

Metronomy – The English Riviera. Don’t see how it’s particularly innovative. The singer’s voice grates and, much like the Devon coast it details, it’s nice enough but dull under the surface.

Arctic Monkeys – Neither the thrilling urgency of their early work or sombre poignancy of later work and side projects. Resulting in mediocre, mid-paced indie. It also seems Alex Turner is running out of things to say now he can’t really chronicle, say, stories of the twats queuing up with him to the big new band (now being that big new band and all).

The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from the Vaccines. I thought everyone got bored of this bargain-bucket indie circa 2004?!

Michael Buble – Whatever Christmas (or other) shit he did. Do we really have to listen to this cheese-merchant just because it’s Christmas and he’s handsome. Men don’t actually like Girls Aloud’s or The Saturdays’ music.

Songs of the year

Frank Ocean – Swim Good. Only a song this good could warrant commercial success for such a dark subject matter (suicide).

Beyonce – Schoolin’ Life. Far more fun than any of her singles; an irrestible electro-soul masterpiece, which would probably be the result of putting Whitney, Aretha and Tina Turner in a blender.

Adele – Rolling in the Deep. Bar-room stomps, stabbing piano and some great harmonies made for that rare pop phenomena; a massive hit that critics universally liked too.

Foster the People – Pumped Up Kicks. If you weren’t whistling, humming, head-moving or foot-tapping to this slice of ‘feel-good’ summer brilliance, then chances are you a) were living on Mars, b) are deaf, or c) have no soul. That basically no-one has realised it chronicles a shooting at a school is testament to its infectiousness. Might as well keep dancing now; pop music is just a nebulous vehicle for whatever advertisers need to sell now, anyway.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – AKA…What a Life! Unusually innovative for Gallagher; a rolling piano propels it along, but it’s still got distinct traces of classic Oasis.

Emile Sande – Heaven. A euphoric hybrid of dance and soul, bringing to mind Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. Hopefully her debut offers similar quality.

Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me. Florence returned with more soulful, baroque indie.  Sounds brilliantly like a gospel choir soundtracking a Daniel Day-Lewis movie.

Bombay Bicycle Club – Shuffle. The bookish London lads clearly know their way around onomatopoeia, for its jaunty piano riff and skittish guitar and general euphoria typical of the new album is meant to be shuffled to. Destined to soundtrack the happy moment in all Sundance-winning films for the next decade.

Wiz Khalifa – Black And Yellow. There seems few redeeming features to this latest flat-capped bechained rapper off the factory line…other than this huge beat and chorus and half-decent flow about shit he likes that is, you’ve guessed it, black and yellow.

Niki & The Dove – The Drummer. Irresistibly pulsating electonica from Sweden’s latest screwballs. Possibly even madder than The Knife. Simon Cowell needs to take some of what they have in Sweden.

Friendly Fires – Blue Cassette. A heady blast of colourful indie-disco, all carnival drums and yearning, nostalgic vocals. Manages the not easy task of making the 80s sound cool, and sounding current.

Sbtrkt – Wildfire. Never has dubstep sounded so tuneful or soulful. This time with the help of Little Dragon.

Drake ft. Rihanna – Take Care. Strangely, although on at least its third reworking, soul and life was still breathed into Gil Scott Heron’s original.

Rihanna ft Calvin Harris – We Found Love. Calvin Harris-produced behemoth so massive even (the fake Twitter account of) Sam Allardyce was referencing it: ‘I found love once in a hopeless place; Scunthorpe. Her name was Sally. Anal sex behind a skip is incredible.’

Wild Beasts – Bed of Nails. Hard to single out any from Smother, but this was even grander than others.

Aloe Blacc – I Need a Dollar. This melodic, barbershop soul telling of Mr Blacc’s financial woes struck a chord with many in today’s world.

DJ Fresh ft Sian Evans – Louder. Calvin Harris-esque dance beats over, some lite dubstep wob-wobs and some woman singer about getting louder. Just like the skateboarding, rollerblading and breakdancing yoof in the video; vacant, but fun.

Bon Iver – Perth. Washed out, acoustic beauty from Justin Vernon, brilliantly evocative of a military marching band with brass and thumping drums. Hard to decipher exactly what he’s saying, but he’s certainly expressing whatever it is with purpose.

Grenade – Bruno Mars. Though a few weeks after its broadcast, it could have a similar effect to waterboarding, you gotta admit, it’s an absolutely cracking hook.

Swedish House Mafia – One (Your Name). Yes, that beat. In Ibiza, it’s probably been elevated to equivalent heights as the Muslim call to prayer.

LMFAO ft Lauren Bennett and GoonRock – Party Rock Anthem. With the world economy going to ruin, and rock music supposedly lacking any soul, LMFAO caught the mood of millions by just sticking a big fat middle finger up to that and partying. It even spawned the ‘everyday I’m shuffling’ meme. For this, they deserve admiration.

Chipmunk ft. Chris Brown – Champion. A guilty piece of self-therapy, R&B guff.

Jennifer Lopez – On the Floor. A monstrous dance hit, shamelessly full of ‘la la la’s,  various demands to get on the floor and typically inane Pitbull raps. Works, though.

Ed Sheeran – A Team. Remember before he was all huge and therefore uncool; this was an catchy yet affecting song about the plight of an unfortunate prostitute on London’s unforgiving streets.

Pixie Lott – All About Tonight. An attractive young blonde singing over a dance beat about how she’s going to go to a club, drink, dance and possibly even bag a new fella doesn’t break any musical boundaries, much less solve the banking crisis or shed light on the Amanda Knox trial. But when the chorus is so infectiously huge as to be the work of some omnipotent deity of pop, this does not matter one jot.

Jason Derulo – Don’t Wanna Go Home. Brilliantly cheesy sample of 90s dance classic, Show Me Love.

Joel Durston

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