11 from '11
2011 was, in my opinion, a wonderful year for music. Despite all the headlines proclaiming the death of the music industry, we were still given what I think was the finest collection of albums of this century so far. Try as I might, I can't narrow such a great selection down to a Top 10, so you're getting my Top 11 albums of 2011.
As is usual, January gave us a whole trove of interesting new releases. A great time to pick up some albums as record labels try to take advantage of a quieter period in the calendar.
We'll start with my first album to feature in the Top 11 of the year: 'Cape Dory' by Tennis. This husband-and-wife duo's debut features some beautiful songs; Alaina Moore's vocals perfectly complement the light, melodic electro arrangements to creat an album which should appeal to fans of bands such as Howling Bells.
Among my other favourite January releases were acclaimed new albums from the likes of British Sea Power ('Valhalla Dancehall') and Tapes N Tapes ('Outside') – the 4th album from this still relatively little known American indie group. White Lies released the follow-up to their successful debut album, giving us a more electronic, 80s-sounding LP in 'Ritual' (which was kept off the No.1 spot by the huge interest in Bruno Mars' debut), while the ever reliable Wire released 'Red Barked Tree', proving that even after 35 years together, the band can still record some of the finest material of their impressive career.
January also gave us the year's biggest selling album. Wherever you turned, it was hard to get away from Adele in 2011. She's not a personal favourite of mine, but the north London singer broke records in the UK as well as topping the charts across most of the world and remained in the UK Top 10 right through to Christmas.
Other noteworthy albums released in January were from The Decemberists ('The King Is Dead'); Destroyer ('Kaputt'); Deerhoof ('Deerhoof Vs. Evil'); Hercules & Love Affair ('Blue Songs'), and Iron & Wine ('Kiss Each other Clean'). The end of the month also saw the release of the second album from Chase & Status ('No More Idols') in what was to prove a successful crossover year for dubstep and drum & bass artists. The success of the Chase & Status album, Katy B's Mercury nomination, the excellent 'Welcome Reality' by Nero (probably my twelfth favourite album of the year), Beyoncé's employment of producer Switch on her album '4' plus key chart singles produced by the likes of Benga, Diplo and Skream have created an exciting time in a truly homegrown genre.
The next album from my top 11 was released in February and has proved to be the year's most acclaimed album. PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' has topped many end of year polls as well as winning this year's Mercury Prize and showed the singer / songwriter to be in excellent form. Tracks such as 'The Glorious Land', 'The Words That Maketh Murder' and 'Hanging In The Wire' rank among the finest of her career and she has surely cemented her position as one of our finest songwriters.
Released on the same day as PJ Harvey's album 'Hotel Shampoo' by Gruff Rhys. The Super Furry Animals frontman's third solo album featured some typically memorable melodic vocals and a wide range of pop arrangements. Not as good as some of his previous work, perhaps, but a fine album nonetheless.
Other favourites from February were Cut Copy's 'Zonoscope', Mogwai's 'Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will', 'Yuck' by Yuck and the lovely 'Wounded Rhymes' by the excellent Swedish singer and songwriter Lykke Li. However, the less said about the Beady Eye album 'Different Gear, Still Speeding', the better.
Established artists featured heavily in March. Elbow followed up their multi-award-winning 'The Seldom Seen Kid' with 'Build A Rocket Boys!': another fine collection of songs and beautiful arrangements from the band everyone seems to like. REM released their final studio album 'Collapse Into Now' before announcing their break-up – the cynic in me trying hard not to point out that this maybe should have happened ten years ago. The Strokes showed they could still compose fine bursts of 3-minute new wave pop songs with 'Angles' and, in what has proved to be, overall, a barren year for hip-hop, we had decent releases from Lupe Fiasco ('Lasers') and Raekwon ('Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang'), the former album containing one of my favourite singles of the year in 'Out Of My Head'.
The three months from April to June are traditionally a quieter time in for albums, but we still saw releases from some of the big hitters as the likes of Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Arctic Monkeys all hit the top of the charts.
The next album to feature in my Top 11 was released in April: 'C'Mon' by Low. This is another band who, in my opinion, continue to improve and now, nine albums in, still have the ability to move with their heartfelt songs and minimal arrangements.
Raphael Saadiq followed up his excellent Motown-influenced 'The Way I See It' with another piece of fine work, 'Stone Rollin', while Explosions In The Sky's 'Take Care, Take Care, Take Care', 'Who Kill' by Tune Yards, 'Demolished Thoughts' from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and 'Gloss Drop' by Battles are all certainly worth a listen.
As is The Beastie Boys' 'Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2' – I recommend watching the promo video for this track, which features Will Ferrell, Elijah Wood, Seth Rogen and numerous others. This is only the band's third album in the past 15 years, but it's well worth the wait.
Bordering on the edge of my top 11 are Fleet Foxes' 'Helplessness Blues' and Bon Iver's eponymous album. The Fleet Foxes album opens with one of the best songs I think they've ever written, 'Montezuma'. Overall, though, the album left me something wanting more. Similar could be said of the Bon Iver album: tracks such as 'Holocene' and 'Towers' are fine examples of a singer and songwriter at the top of his game; however, and this may be a petty comment, the album is let down by the awful final track 'Beth/Rest'. What was going through his mind when he decided to add this to the album is anyone's guess.
Not let down by any duff tracks at all is my next choice, 'D' by White Denim, the band's best album to date, filled with numerous hooks, excellent riffs and the rare ability of having a wide range of influences crammed into 11 tracks that still sound unique to the band.
The second half of the year begins with the next entry in my Top 11, Washed Out's album 'Within And Without': a laid-back collection of vocal pop perfect for a chilled out summer.
Little Dragon continued on from a fine guest spot on the last Gorillaz album with 'Ritual Union'. The rest of July didn't give us much in the way of releases. August saw the highly anticipated collaboration of Jay-Z and Kanye West with their album 'Watch The Throne' – overall, a decent album but another leaving me wanting something more. Red Hot Chilli Peppers, however, stuck to the same formula yet again, but this time minus guitarist John Frusciante – possibly the reason they then gave us one of the weakest albums of their career.
The latter third is traditionally filled with the biggest releases of the year as record companies aim to get their albums in the Top 20 for Christmas. However, this wasn't necessarily at the cost of quality, as amongst these releases were some of the best albums of 2011.
Wild Flag's 'Wild Flag', 'Tamer Animals' by Other Lives and Gardens & Villa's eponymous album all feature in my Top 11, and were all released within a matter of weeks of each other. 'Wild Flag' was the all-female supergroup's debut album, and provided a collection of pure American indie inspired by the likes of Pavement, Sonic Youth and Pixies, while the Other Lives album, alongside Garden & Villa's debut album, recalled some of the finest work from Mercury Rev and Grandaddy – 'For 12' by Other Lives surely being a contender for track of the year.
Wilco released 'The Whole Love' – another fine album of experimental Americana-inspired songs from Jeff Tweedy and co. There were also fine albums released by Feist ('Metals'), Gauntlet Hair's eponymous album, M83's double 'Hurry Up We're Dreaming' and a welcome return by Jane's Addiction with 'The Great Escape Artist'.
Zola Jesus' latest album 'Conatus' is next in the Top 11: a superb, dreamy collection of songs with, overall, an electronic and ambient influence, topped with the singer's idiosyncratic vocals.
Tom Waits proved that he is still one of the most interesting musicians at work today with his seventeenth studio album, 'Bad As Me' – one of the most successful albums of his career. Justice followed up their excellent debut with the slightly disappointing 'Audio, Video, Disco', and I'm not sure even James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Lou Reed could explain what on earth was going on as Lou Reed and Metallica joined forces for 'Lulu'.
The final couple of months gave us Kate Bush's '50 Words For Snow' – yet another established artist creating some of the finest material of her career. A true innovator. It just falls outside of my top 11 – possibly due to two albums released just in time to feature in the end-of-year polls – The Black Keys' 'El Camino' is, I think, among the band's best work. With Danger Mouse helping on production duties and the band full of confidence, they sound as if they have five or six members in the group. Danger Mouse's influence expands the album's range.
Also almost creeping in was 'The Dreamer / The Believer' by Common. The US rapper has released some of my favourite albums of the last ten years, and, despite just being released in the last two weeks of the year, this looks as though it could go on to become another classic.
So that was 2011 – overall, I think, an excellent year for albums, with established artists still releasing some of their finest work alongside some debut albums from artists who promise big things for the future.
Bring on more of the same for 2012.