Another great year for music! Check out our list of the best albums of 2011, complete with a forward by our conservative correspondent, the ever-miserable Steven Sourman.
“Sigh… Music used to be so much better when I was young. You used to be able to watch music television or mainstream radio and really be told what you were supposed to like. Not like these kids these days: it’s all interwebs and deciding for themselves. How are they supposed to know which Rolling Stones re-release or new album by an aging 1970s folk singer to buy, when there’s all this new music getting in the way of the classics? This freedom of choice will be the death of us, just you watch. It’s practically communism! Have we already forgotten Vietnam, people?”
- Steven Sourman, 2011
15. Blood Orange – Coastal Grooves
Mike: A semi-concept album about mid 80s New York drag queens written by a black London indie rocker, you say? Wait, wait, come back… it’s really good, I promise. Just listen to opener “Forget It” and if it doesn’t blow you away then we’ll just agree to disagree, OK? I mean, if that’s not the best guitar solo you’ve heard all year, then I’ll be the male sibling of one of the parents of some form of higher primate.
14. The Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde
Dan: Sometimes nothing needs to stand out – especially for an album – to just be a ‘favourite’. It could be the jangly, uplifting guitar, it could be the cute, simple and sweet songs, it could be that the band sound faintly like what it is that appeals to you about other bands you like: Teenage Fanclub, Orange Juice or any number of post-something guitar pop bands, without sounding slavishly like any of them. It could be any of these things. Or it could be all of them.
13. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
Mike: The hardest thing about liking Radiohead is that a lot of their fans (and let’s face it, most of the band members themselves) are pretentious knob-jockeys. Which can make enjoying Radiohead’s music for what it is a challenging experience at times. It’s even harder when they release an album like this: dense soundscapes, repetitive electronic beats, no obvious singles or even standout tracks. But it’s a real grower: one of those albums you just keep coming back to. An ambient masterpiece, despite the ridiculous “Daily Sigh” newspaper album nonsense that accompanied it’s release. The remix album that followed a few months later was boss too.
Dan: I can see my 21 year-old self standing aghast as I say this, calling me a cunt and then pulling on his head-phones to listen to Andy C’s “Body Rock”, but I actually like King of Limbs. Firstly, unlike their previous albums and particularly Kid A and Amnesiac it didn’t decide to be a ‘one or another’ album; it didn’t have to be either an ‘electronic’ album, or a ‘guitar’ album; something I have always felt Radiohead did badly when they tried to do one or another anyway. While King of Limbs is heavily in the ‘electronic camp’ by comparison to 1990s Radiohead (as evidenced in the practically dancey “Feral” and “Morning Mr Magpie”) it is the variation that shows on their begrudgingly admitted song writing talents. “Giving Up the Ghost”, for instance, shows they can still write a good middle-class moanscape. My personal stand-out track is the thoughtful and sweet curtain call, “Separator”, laying an unusual and haunting guitar hook over an almost soporific break-beat.
12. Theophilus London – Timez Are Weird These Days
Mike: It’s been a very good year for hip hop, or at least the type of hip hop that I like (upbeat, poppy and danceable, I’m slightly ashamed to admit). This embodies the type of thing I look for: electronica influenced tracks, unforgettable tunes, great delivery. Just a superb album in all respects: there’s not a dud tune on here, and pretty much any of them could be a single. “Last Name London” is a superb opener and serves as a business card for newcomer London’s credentials. But second single “Love is Real” is a better indicator of what the album holds in store:
11. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
Mike: This one was probably the biggest surprise of the year. After a justifiably acclaimed debut, their last two albums have had some great songs but ultimately fell short of their illustrious predecessor. And while Suck it And See is still no Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, it’s a completely different album and very accomplished in it’s own right, to the point where it seems ridiculous to compare them. Preceded by two average singles, I wasn’t expecting much from this, but was hugely surprised and thrilled on first listen. This is the sound of the Monkeys throwing out their garage rock roots and gratefully trading them in for Smiths-esque jangly guitar pop. Great songs which give Alex Turner’s lyrics (which have always been excellent) room to really shine. “Those other girls are just post-mix lemonade” (from the album’s title track) is lyric of the year for me, no question.
10.The Men – Leave Home
Mike: This album proved more than any other in 2011 (except maybe Yuck) that there is plenty of life left in the old guitar rock genre yet. Recorded with analogue equipment, it really shows in their guitar sound. A grunting, sweaty rock ‘n roll behemoth, this was noise rock record of the year for me by far.
9. The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts
Dan: Rolling Blackouts is a rare thing in any album and a first for Brighton’s The Go! Team: a collection of single-worthy pop songs that are not only catchy, but varied enough from each other to make an album worth listening when they are put together. The album opens with “T.O.R.N.A.D.O”, which is a classic Go! Team tune through and through; shambolic, energetic and exploding with positivity. It is the following track, “Secretary Song” that really makes this album for me; the juxtaposition with “T.O.R.N.A.D.O” highlights for me what has happened to The Go! Team. “T.O.R.N.A.D.O” sums up 2004’s Thunder, Lightening, Strike; an ecstatic but very raw statement of intent. The Go! Team were the aural equivalent of snorting a line of pure MDMA less than expertly chopped out by your half-pissed mate. Secretary Song with is delicately crafted tune and catchy hooks sums up what they are in 2011; a band who still have the energy and the ecstasy but they’ve honed their song-writing craft. The classic Go! Team is on there in other places too; “Apollo Throwdown” and “Bust-Out Brigade” capture that beautiful fusion of indie-dance and old school hip-hop that so endeared us all to the Go! Team over the last five years. “Buy Nothing Day” and the title track in my mind are what make this one of the best albums of 2011 and the best Go! Team album to date; they show variation and the ability to write songs as well as floor-fillers.
8. Washed Out – Within and Without
Mike: The album that proved that chillwave was a real genre, rather than the favoured brand of chewing gum amongst helatosis suffering hipsters. I hate to use the words “beautiful” and “chilled out” too much, but yup, this album is very much both of those things; also, “sublime” and “breath-taking” are two other cliches that fit. Within and Without‘s main asset is that it’s never boring, as this sort of music often can be. Just great, blissed out tunes, great for walking around with headphones on. An excellent example of album artwork that perfectly fits the music contained within too.
7. Wavves – Life Sux
Mike: As a human being, Nathan Williams sure is hard to like: beating up his own band members, horrible personailty (see every tweet he has ever sent), the list goes on. But fucking hell: the man just writes the most amazing songs. Every song on here (including collaborations with Best Coast and Fucked Up) could have been released as a single. Yeah, it’s an EP in an albums list, but fuck you, I’d like to see you better this with one of those EPs you made.
Dan: Wavves have always been a bit hit and miss in the past. Sure, we all loved King of the Beach but listening to their self-titled debut can leave you with the impression they are about as good as the average open jam night band down your local punk hole. Wavves are also not very clever, not in the sense of ‘writing beautifully penned songs articulate in their complexity.’ They just rock. You have heard every song on Life Sux before, but the reason you remember, and the reason you listen to Life Sux again and again is they just fucking rock. In that respect then Nathan Williams – pretty much the very definition of scuzz-bag – does have song-writing skill that surpasses most musicians. And certainly the jam-band down the local pub.
6. The Roots – Undun
Dan: I will start by saying that I was always going to be giving Undun a slightly prejudiced run of it. On the one hand The Roots are one of my favourite hip-hop acts of all time, Phrenology and How I Got Over would rate in my top fifty albums of all time and to give this some perspective, The Beatles’ Revolver doesn’t make that cut, so naturally I was amping for it. On the other hand, 2010’s How I Got Over was always going to be a tough act to follow for me. Aside from there being three killer singles, the whole album just worked. In my mind at least, Undun was the stand-up comic following a Richard Pryor/Jerry Seinfeld double-act. It was also a concept album and concept albums, with a few notable exceptions, are ball-sack dribble. The thing was though is Undun is brilliant, and the stark story of urban poverty and failed redemption doesn’t so much hit you in the face, but is cleverly woven into the songs. Like all Roots albums, there is a myriad of different musical styles making this an album that stands up for a listen again and again.
Mike: While I’ve liked the odd Roots track here and there (what’s not to like?), I’d never sat down and really listened to one of their albums. This is the album that changed that for me. Absolutely perfect in every way. They even throw in a few orchestral instrumentals towards the end that somehow work perfectly with the flawlessly executed mid-tempo hip hop of the rest of the album. Amazing record.
5. The Horrors – Skying
Dan: I used to think The Horrors were a joke band. Kind of like an indie The Darkness; even if they themselves didn’t think they were a joke band, I knew that deep down they were. They were a bit too camp, a bit too goth; a bit too much like The White Lies. Going on The Mighty Boosh didn’t help this image in my mind. I certainly didn’t think them capable of producing a brilliant album like Skying. Abandoning the hit-you-over-the-head-with-it droning, Skying has beat and rhythm making it almost glam. The Bolanesque seventies references don’t end there. As it rolls on Skying sounds more and more like an album David Bowie would have written if David Bowie had written all his best songs at once, in 1976; it is both upbeat but slightly spooky. It has been hailed as one of the Great 2011 Shoegaze albums, but I think that while psychedelic in parts, it maintains a whiff of camp and bombast making it maybe too rock for that label.
Mike: A lot of existing Horrors fans weren’t that sold on this album, but I guess the key to really appreciating it was to approach it as if it were a completely new band. Where their last album was a dark, indie rock experience, Skying took a lighter, more psychedelic approach on modern rock. Berlin-era Bowie meets My Bloody Valentine meets Syd Barret’s Pink Floyd. Just the right amount of psychedelia spread over a solid base of modern indie rock. Fucking amazing.
4. Jay Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
Mike: Rap album of the year for me, in what was a very strong year for hip hop albums. I totally wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did, but there’s just so much going on here that you keep discovering new gems every time you listen to it. From opener “No Church In The Wild” (see our 2011 tracks list), to the Cypress Hill gangsta of “That’s My Bitch”, to closer “Why I love You”, this is an extremely accomplished album (as you’d expect from these two heavyweights). First single “Otis” was amazing too: it really grew on me once I got over the rather unique use of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”. The sample is incredibly well used – it’s impossible to listen to the original without thinking of Jay Z and Kanye now. If that’s not a compliment, then I don’t know what is.
Dan: When Watch the Throne came out I was very surprised. Not just that I liked it: while I have been a massive Kanye fan in the past I haven’t rated Jay-Z since The Black Album. Hip-hop producers have a tendency sometimes to collaborate the same way I make curry; all in, layering ingredient upon ingredient. Sometimes it works, but often hip-hop collaborations aren’t collaborations at all; they are all the individual parts competing for attention. And much like my curries, they give you the runs. Watch the Throne is one that works. And then some. For a start the production compliments both heavy-hitters rather than simply showcases their styles one at a time. A huge plus for me is the over-all production owes a lot to the over-blown, almost trance-like production that has characterised Kanye West’s work over the last five years. Say what you like about Jay-Z, but he is man who knows how to get the best out of collaborative artists (to use 2003’s Black Album as an example…) and each track on Throne has a unique style. From the floor-fillers like “No Church in the Wild” and “Illest Motherfucker Alive” the gangsta swagger of “That’s My Bitch”, to the gentle pop beauty of “Made in America”, Watch the Throne is something rare in pop music and even rarer in hip-hop; a genuinely collaborative venture, greater than the sum of its parts, that covers all the bases. It is, therefore, literally impossible to dislike this album.
3. Yuck – Yuck
Mike: At the heart of London’s Yuck’s eponymous debut is a solid foundation of 90s rock. Not the shitty Bush, Stone Temple Pilots or Garbage variety – think more along the lines of those great grungy and overlooked bands that you used to love: Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh, the Breeders, Slint and so on. Yuck cover it all on here, all delivered completely effortlessly, superbly written and – most importantly of all – never, ever sounding like they are trying to recreate something or hark back to an earlier age. The latter is a large part of Yuck‘s success: they make the old sound new again.
Dan: Yuck is the album that we will look back on when we take the piss out of whatever fad, style or culture evolves out of the Rebirth of Shoegaze that started this year. Fuck, Weird Al Yankovich may even want to lampoon it by covering Shook Down. This is because Yuck encapsulates what it is all about. Interestingly enough, what jumps out at you is how American it sounds, which given the Shoegazer bands of the early 1990s were all British, is almost ironic. As Mike has said earlier, the feeling it inspires is one of reminiscence of the best of early-90s alternative rock, the Matador Bands, but there is also something else. Yuck have no end of fuzz but they also have song-writing skill. Each of their songs, while verging on heavy have a whiff of psychedelia to them and, and this is a matter of personal opinion more than anything, they have one thing Sebadoh, Pavement and, until a couple of years ago when they developed them, Dinosaur Jr didn’t have: well written songs. I think Yuck is set apart from the past by the fact they are better than the things they immediately sound a bit like and this is why I think that this album will be such a cultural landmark. So much so, I am trying to write my own parody lyrics for “Suicide Policeman”.
2. Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Dan: I was genuinely too scared to write a review of this album earlier in the year when it came out, so worried was I that I would be unable to justice to not only how good it was but how I felt about it. I was worried re-reading anything I had the capacity of writing would have the effect of cheapening and taking the shine off of an album so brilliant. Pains of Being Pure at Heart have always been amazing. Their 2008 self-titled debut was a heady blend of euphoric pop and Shoegaze psychedelic distortion. If I have one criticism of this album, and believe me, I only have one, it was that the songs themselves weren’t really there – Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s debut was a beautiful album but it was not, in any way, separate songs. Enter Belong. Belong is about the songs. And what songs. From the shiny power-pop of “My Terrible Friend”, the longing, almost mantra-like “Even in Dreams”, the simple beat-driven dance pop “Heart in your Heartbreak”, to the high-as-a-kite rock of “Too Tough”, it is all here. Literally all of it. Pains of Being Pure of Heart have also managed to maintain what was so loveable about their debut; the dreamscape pop is still there, just expertly crafted into pop songs. The best pop songs.
Mike: One of the most exciting albums of the year, Pains of Being Pure at Heart grab all the things that make modern rock, shoegaze and 80s pop great and fuse them together to make something so joyous and upbeat that it’s pretty much impossible not to like it. For anyone that says modern music is not as great as it used to be, I challenge you to listen to this album and not tap your foot and hum along at least once. You sad, Lou Reed-loving old bastard, you.
1. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Dan: Sometimes in life, you are like the 12th man in the deal team: last to know. Sometimes shit is going on that you miss out on and you go through life oblivious to something amazing you didn’t realise you were missing out on. Sort of how Foo Fighters fans must feel when they discover, well, any other music. I was like this with M83. Firstly, they are French which means I am going to be sceptical about them being any good right out of the gate. Secondly, their music isn’t exactly accessible; 2008’s Saturdays = Youth is a pristine slice of electronic music bordering on ambient. 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming made me feel my perfectly reasonable distaste for ambient music and love of good natured xenophobia were somehow so very, very wrong. M83 is probably closer to being an ‘aural sculpture’ than being a pop record. It incorporates all the elements of electronic music so often unusable in pop; ambient soundscapes, unusual beat sequences and lyrics mixed so low in the music that they in fact, become part of the soundscape. The key thing in the case of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is they incorporate them into actual, and very well written tunes. Far from being as pretentious as I have made this, and indeed it should, sound, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming works as a fun record as well as being undoubtedly art. It has made me wonder if I have, in fact, been wrong about the rest of the French…
Mike: This album more or less defies genre, but if you got me wasted and kept asking me over and over, I’d probably blurt out the words “chillwave” and “synth-pop” shortly before the sicking up on myself followed by a kebab stage. But there’s so much more to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming than those two (admittedly great) rather restrictive labels. Right from openers “Intro” and “Midnight City” (the latter of which manages the extraordinary accomplishment of featuring a saxophone and not being shit), you’re taken on a musical journey that covers epic rock (“This Bright Flash”), power ballads (“Wait”), twee pop (“Raconte-Moi Une History”) to indie dance (“Reunion” and the aforementioned “Midnight City”). And that’s just the first disc! That’s why this is my album of the year: for someone with as short an attention span as mine, there’s just so much to discover here, all of it amazing. I must’ve listened to this album right through 20 or 30 times and I’m still discovering new gems (disc two’s “New Map”, for example) that would be a stand out track on any other album. And unlike some double albums that cover a wide range of styles, there’s also an intangible overall sound and feel that makes it all just work. In a year with so many fantastic new artists and albums, this is the album that I keep coming back to the most; the album that’s its taking me the longest to tire of; the album that captures 2011 the best; the album that you listen to for the pure joy of listening to music. A musical work of art for the 21st Century, if ever there was one.