What a complete cracker of a year it’s been for music. Beside me on the desk is a small tower of CDs, all of which I’ve bought this year and almost all of them could – or should – appear in any kind of best-of-2011 list. As opposed to this year in reading, where, in the main at least, the books I’ve read have been slow-burners, the records that have come into my house in the last twelve months have demanded immediate attention. Some of these records will go on to achieve the status of classic, which is thrilling for all concerned, even if the 80s seems to be having a greater influence on contemporary musicians than is strictly necessary. Anyway, enough introductory crap from me. Here’s the best of music of 2011. I’ve tried to keep it to only six albums, but who knows what will happen.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 – this record is so extraordinarily ambitious that it’s impossible to ignore. It’s also made with such craft and love, and you can’t ask for more than that. This time around the main M83 provocateur Anthony Gonzales has created a double album of depth, delight, texture, joy, sadness, and – like Coco Rosie and DJ Shadow, who are a little further down the list – sheer inventiveness. Sure this is synth-pop shoegaze with a touch of Toto, Thompson Twins and Simple Minds thrown in for good measure (there’s also a hint of the Seinfield theme tune to a couple of songs, which is rather worrying), but somehow it all hangs together so magically that it traps you until you realise that you’ve been playing it for days on end without a break. ‘Midnight City’ on the first disk makes me want drive up to Sydney in the middle of the night, which would be a five-hour return trip, and it’d never happen, but when I listen to music as fine as this it makes me think that anything might be possible. ‘Midnight City’ is also the song of the year, there’s no doubt about that.
Grey Oceans by Coco Rosie – it’s true that this album came out in 2010 but it seemed to go under the radar until this year, so it’s going to be in this year’s list, damnit. I’ve written about this album previously, and it’s clear that Grey Oceans is Coco Rosie’s masterpiece. It’s just as inventive as their previous albums, but this time the half-sisters at the core of the Rosie are searching for purity of musical expression. They’re achieving a greater musical range, from balladry to weird-arse pop, to even nudging the dance-floor, though Christ knows what sort of dance-floors exist in the Coco Rosie universe. If M83’s ‘Midnight City’ is the song of the year, the title track of Grey Oceans is a very, very close second. In a just world, every household would have a copy of this album.
The Less You Know, The Better by DJ Shadow – Josh Davis is undoubtedly a cantankerous bloody thing, refusing to do anything other than make the music that he wants to make, and he’s had his missteps, that’s for sure. He’s also in that infinitely tricky position of having made a much revered first album, that being Entroducing… from 1996. Is The Less You Know as good? Almost. It’s more like the Psyence Fiction album he did with James Lavelle as UNKLE (1998): it’s widescreen, sentimental, experimental, all the while refusing to be categorised. It’s fair to ask the question: what’s the point of DJ Shadow? He’s neither a rap/hip-hop artist nor MC, nor is he the sort of bloke who spins records in nightclubs. Davis makes music with samples, but the samples are put together so cleverly and seamlessly that it may as well be the product of an actual band. But who cares when the music is as good as this. The best way to approach The Less You Know is as a mix-tape put together by a friend who decided to make his own music because he couldn’t find any real stuff he liked. In a way, ‘Border Crossing’ is atypical of DJ Shadow; then again, because he does whatever the fuck he wants, it’s a good illustration of his modus operandi.
The Riptide by Beirut – again I’ve written about this album previously, but let me say at the outset that I love Zac Condon and his wandering (wondering?) band of troubadours, and I’ve been following this lot from the beginning. This time, Condon strips things back to carefully crafted songs that are almost pop but thankfully – luckily – the melancholy remains. These are intimate vignettes, almost as though they weren’t made for public listening. In the past Beirut has sounded like a bunch of street-drunks trying to remember the hymns from their childhoods, but now they sound as though one of them has made a go of things, getting a flat, maybe even a dog, and is starting to think that the world may not be as hopeless as previously thought; perhaps there will be comfort, maybe even love. The Riptide could be Beirut’s best yet. Search out the title track if you want to hear what all this is about.
Rolling Blackouts by The Go! Team – yet again I’ve already written about this album, but I still mean every word of it. I’m just so happy that I live in a world where bands like this exist. Perhaps like Beirut (or M83 or DJ Shadow for that matter) The Go! Team shouldn’t work: a mix of Sonic Youth, Spice Girls, school-yard rap and 1960s TV-show theme tunes anyone? No, didn’t think so. It’s just that it’s all so freakin’ clever (‘freakin’’ really is the right word in this context), and the song construction so faultless. It’s true that at first Rolling Blackouts didn’t initially grab me as much as I wanted it to – as others have said, it did sound like The Go! Team had run out of puff just a little (and who wouldn’t, quite frankly, when you’ve made a habit of making every song on an album sound like a single). But I now realise that this one of the band’s best, because there’s more devil in the detail, and, dare I say it, maturity. In the end this is bubble-gum pop-music with an edge, and it’s bonkers, but it’s also genius. Here’s T.O.R.N.A.D.O., which kicks-off the album.
Bon Iver by Bon Iver – the world’s probably written enough about Bon Iver, and I have too, but suffice it to say that music lovers around the globe were relieved to discover that Justin Vernon and Co had come up with something as good as For Emma Forever Ago (2008), potentially even going one step further. I’m not entirely convinced that Bon Iver has anything truly meaningful to say, but in this purposeful obtuseness is also a very majestic kind of beauty. Everything on this record is impeccably constructed so that not a nano-second is wasted. I’m also not convinced that ‘Beth/Rest’ was a good idea – it’s just too REO Speedwagon for my taste – but there’s no mistaking Justin Vernon’s ability to make music that moves listeners, and we can’t ask for much more than that.
I can’t stop. So here are two more wonderful albums from 2011.
Metals by Feist – if there’s anyone who could turn me from my wicked gay ways it’s this Canadian songstress. Not only is she completely gorgeous, she has the voice of honey – if hers was the last voice I heard I’d die a happy man. She follows up the resolutely poppy The Reminder (2007) with this collection of ballads; there’s nothing to get the toes tapping here (though it’s not hard to imagine that many of the songs become punchier live). This is aloof music, austere even, and there’s more than a hint of Kate Bush, which is never a bad thing. But what makes this record so very special is Feist’s strength (so to speak) in saying, I will not get poppier, I will go in the opposite direction, I don’t want popularity, I just want to be good. Any artist who does that is an artist of confidence, and Feist is confident. But also humble – how does that work? If you want a good place to start with Metals, go looking for the soulful, bluesy meander of ‘Anti-Pioneer’.
Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf – here is yet another fiercely original artist, even if on this record Mr Wolf does get dangerously close to being this decade’s Rick Astley. But everyone has a soft spot for a bit of Astley, don’t they? What I love about Lupercalia is that as opposed to Feist, Patrick Wolf has specifically set out to make a poppy, commercial record. Strange then that not much of it got commercial-radio airplay. Perhaps Wolf is just too camp for these supremely conservative times. Which is exactly why we need an artist like this, an artist who refuses to be anything but himself. Despite his pop intentions, Wolf hasn’t lost his keenness for exploration, for experimentation, for new musical perspectives. This album includes ‘William’, a song he wrote for the man he clearly loves and will marry in 2012; in his rich, articulate baritone he sings, ‘And I showed you my ugly/heart yet you did not/surrender’. Now we just need Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to listen. Here’s another gem from Lupercalia: ‘House’.
With that, happy festive season. Whatever that may mean to you.