Friday, December 23, 2011

the 2011 festive fifteen

Well, it’s high time for my festive fifteen, the stand-out albums of the year fast slipping away. One record secured its place in the top spot early in the year and, as expected, nothing has dislodged it. But other artists have produced music of outstanding quality this year. So before we get to the top of the spot, here’s ten of the best in no particular order.
Early in the year, Radiohead surprised with a download only release of startling quality. King of Limbs has since made it to all formats and is a joy (if you can use that term of a Radiohead album), full of great tunes and packing an emotional punch.
American Justin McRoberts has been putting out a multi-EP collection called CMY, of which C and M have emerged. Thoughtful lyrics swinging from robust and beautifully played tunes make these collections worth repeated listenings. There’s also great digital booklets available for each on the artist’s website (here).
Another find from the States are Civil Wars, a sublime country-tinged duo with amazing voices and guitar led tunes that are to die for. They’ve justifiably won some awards this year; they are destined for great things.
The ever reliable and permanently touring (though I can’t get him to the UK!), Bill Mallonnee released a new proper studio album – after a string of works in progress. The Power and the Glory is majestic and muscular, full of wry observations set to electric guitar heavy music and is quite lovely.
Ron Sexsmith, after years of working away in the shadow of lesser song writers, emerged with a mature collection of finely crafted tunes, Long Player Late Bloomer.
Still in the States, the Decemberists followed their epic The Hazards of Love, with an altogether lighter and at first blush rather ordinary record, The King is Dead. Repeated listens, however, reveal it to be a work of great depth with infectiously catchy tunes.
From our side of the pond, Elbow turned out another classic full of songs of aching beauty and wry observation from a writer hitting the heights of his powers. Build a Rocket Boys is full of reflections on growing up, of losing and finding love, of lessons learned along the way that barely misses a beat.
Fold produced an EP with proceeds going to the tax justice campaign. As if that wasn’t reason for buying it, the fact that it’s full of samples of great speeches over a fine electronic wash that provoke thought and conversation certainly is.
This year saw the passing of REM. Athens, Georgia’s finest called it a day seemingly at the height of their powers. Collapse into Now, the last studio record, is full of great tunes and Michael Stipe’s voice sounding wonderful. Then they top it with a career retrospective of 37 of their best songs and three new ones that show they’ve lost none of their magic. If you only buy one REM record, make it Part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage1982-2011.
And fast becoming a favourite is Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work. I found his first record a trifle twee and annoying with its half-finished songs and chilly arrangements. This more than makes up for it, demonstrating that Justin Vernon is a fine song writer, not afraid to push the boat out on arrangements that range from folk to jazz, gospel to ambient which all fit snugly together in a hugely enjoyable 40 minutes.
And now to the top five.
Find of the year is split between two American Christian-hued artists, Josh Garrels and the Afterlife Parade. Both show a lyrical maturity and questing, evening questioning and imaginative faith that so rare in Christian music. Garrels is giving his album away at Noisetrade but don’t let that put you off. Afterlife Parade’s two EPs meditating on death and life are sonically and lyrically a treat. The stand out track is Simple off the death EP, a song that  captures the longing of the human heart for connection with God like nothing I’ve heard before.
The other new band that I got to see live this year at a gig in St Giles in the Fields church in November is the wonderful Other Lives. Think Fleet Foxes with depth and attitude (and I like Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues almost made the cut). Each song on Tamer Animals is musical adventure with the five members of the band playing a cornucopia of instruments to create little pop symphonies. It’s fabulous.
Paul Simon released his best album since… well, maybe his best album ever. With songs reflecting on life well lived and awash with the possibility of God, So Beautiful or so What would have been the hands-down best album of the year, but… It’s full of wonderful turns of phrase and is incredibly funky.
But album of the year is P J Harvey’s Let England Shake. This is an indescribably beautiful and heart-breaking record. It is also fiercely intelligent and serious. It’s a suite of songs that reflect on how England, a land  Polly Jean loves with a passion, has been shaped by war and conflict. She takes words from world war one veterans – especially the Dardanelles campaign – and weaves them with brief, episodic reflections on the shape of English character. It is an album as deep as an ocean, at turns desperately sad and wryly funny, played with panache and skill by a tight circle of musicians. It’s been described as her masterpiece, won the Mercury prize and is, quite simply the best record of the year bar none.

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