Once again it is time for my albums of the year. As ever I’ve tried to keep things fairly concise with nine new releases and one re-issue. As I said last year when compiling my best of 2010, I still approach end of year polls in newspapers and magazines with extreme caution as I agree with some choices and vehemently disagree with others. The following simply consists of the records that have meant the most to me and of course, those I think are the best. It’s all subjective. I have included links to songs and performances from the artists featured should you wish to investigate more. The list is in no particular order and I am sure there are some albums I have forgotten to include but there it is. Here then are my top ten albums of 2011.
1. The Middle East – I Want That You Are Always Happy
Quite simply, this album contains some of the most beautiful, melodic and at times haunting songs I’ve heard in quite some time on the same album. This was obviously a band with great musical ambition and it seems rather strange to speak about them in the past tense as shortly after this release, the group disbanded. One can’t help and wonder what might have been if they had stayed together, it seems a real shame to produce something this good only to call a halt to proceedings. It is a great epitaph though.
Click here to watch the video for Jesus Came To My Birthday Party
Click here to listen to As I Go To See Janey
2. Jeffrey Lewis – A Turn In The Dream-Songs
I went to my first Jeffrey Lewis gig this year in London and I hadn’t experienced a show like it in a long while where I was hooked from first song until last. His opening number that night was Time Trades from this album and displays brilliantly his lyrical dexterity. Some of the set was also accompanied by a backdrop of Lewis’s own cartoons leading to a mixture of DIY music making and almost Harvey Pekar-esque story telling. An intoxicating concoction to witness live, a great album in its own right.
Click here to listen to Time Trades
Click here to watch The Guardian How I Wrote Session for Try It Again
3. The Phoenix Foundation – Buffalo
I really do think that is as strong an album as has been released by anyone this year. This is actually the fourth album by the Kiwi band as well as two soundtracks so they could never be labelled as workshy at least. Their live shows, two of which I’ve been in attendance at in 2011 comprised music from all four albums and certainly helped to showcase a band with expert musicianship and an ear for a nice hook even in the more psychedelic parts of the show. Weirdly at times, the percussionist seemed to act as if he’d won a competition to play on stage with a signed band if his dancing like a loon was anything to go by but regardless, this album is quite magnificent and has yet to achieve the wider acclaim it deserves.
Click here to watch the video for Pot
Click here to watch the band perform Buffalo on Later With Jools Holland
4. Stevie Jackson – (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson
The most surprising aspect of this debut solo release from Belle&Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson is that it took until 2011 to see the light of day. It was worth the wait though, for the albums title alone. Thankfully the music is also a joy to behold. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Stevie’s songwriting in Belle&Sebastian in songs such as Jonathan David, The Wrong Girl and To Be Myself Completely and this craft is exemplified superbly on this album. From the lush Gretsch driven melody in Richie Now, a song concerning the dreams shared with a school friend about one day becoming rock stars to the humourous stresses of sending an e-mail to someone you’re attracted to in Press Send, this is a most accomplished debut album, albeit by someone with more than a little previous experience in music making.
Click here to watch Feel The Morning performed at Dr Jimmy’s in Glasgow
Click here to listen to Kurosawa
5. The Warm Digits – Keep Warm… With The Warm Digits
The first time I heard The Warm Digits was when Andy Weatherall played the song A Warm Front, Coming From The North as part of a mix he was doing for BBC 6Music. I mistakingly thought I was listening to a great lost Nue! or Tangerine Dream song. As it turned out they are from Newcastle which isn’t in Germany, not even close really. Whatever the case, their take on krautrock and electronica works very, very well indeed.
Click here to listen to A Warm Front, Coming From The North
Click here to watch a live performance of Keep Warm
6. AgesandAges – Alright You Restless
This is the debut album from the Portland band and has been described in some circles as “raw choral pop”. There certainly seems to be a “less is more” philosophy to the music making which is something I’ve always been drawn towards. Having said this, it never sounds too sparse, just beautiful and rather uplifting. The musical equivalent of someone you fancy complimenting you on both your dress sense and bone structure.
Click here to watch the video for Navy Parade (Escape From The Black River Bluffs)
Click here to listen to No Nostalgia
7. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
Hearing this album again after the news of Moore’s split with Kim Gordon certainly makes for a more poignant listen but regardless of relationship status it’s still a winner. With no new Beck album this year (I hope he does another soon) I was interested in this long before it came out as Beck was producing and he does so with aplomb. I imagine some still immediately associate Moore with loud, feedback driven guitar music but this is a far more acoustic effort with violins taking prominence over the more traditional harsh guitar sounds of Sonic Youth.
Click here to watch a short Thurston Moore documentary with performances from the album
Click here to listen to Illuminine
8. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
I imagine this record will be popping up in a quite a few other end of year lists and with good reason. They have been compared to everyone from Spiritualized and Bob Dylan to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. To be honest, I see more Jason Pierce in here than any of the others but that’s just my take on it. I sometimes in moments of ponder, think that along with the melodica, the harmonica is a somewhat underused instrument in modern music. Thankfully, the use of it on this album, albeit subtley at times, is most welcome.
Click here to watch the video for Baby Missiles
Click here to listen to I Was There
9. The Shivers – More
Based in New York and signed to Fence Records in the UK, the first song on More is only thirty seconds long and features a piano and nothing else, no bad thing. The theme of love seems pretty prevalent throughout the songs contained or more precisely lovelornness, but it certainly isn’t a morbid listen. As a slight aside, I think that a Transformer-era Lou Reed would have done a terrific cover of Love Is In The Air. If an album on this list benefitted from repeat listens more than any other I would say it was this one, sometimes immediacy takes a bit time.
Click here to listen to Irrational Love
Click here to watch the video for More
10. Primal Scream – Screamadelica (re-issue)
I felt obliged to include this re-issue not so much for the original album but for all that came with it. I re-bought this on iTunes for £12.99 and I think it may have been the bargain of the year, all the more so if I didn’t already own most of it on vinyl but now isn’t the time for nit picking. As well as a re-mastered version of the original “classic”, the price included the Dixie Narco EP, various remixes and a quite brilliant live show from the Los Angeles Palladium. I went to see them play Screamadelica at the Manchester Apollo and while it was a great show, Bobby Gillespie seemed intent on asking the crowd if they were ready to “testify” before launching in to Movin’ On Up at the start of the show. This led to some confusion on my part as for a second I was unsure if I was at a gig or a bystander at the Salem witch trials. As it turned out I was at a gig. Either way, it’s hard to better this re-issue on value for money at least, but the music is rather good too.
Click here to see Bobby intent on the crowd testifying
Click here to see the band perform Come Together live at Glastonbury