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Crystal CastlesCrystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up.  But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor.  We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.

homepage_large.053aea55As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked.  In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all.  The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums.  Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers.  But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest.  As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third.  You really shouldn’t miss this.

Patrick WolfI’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour.  I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again.  Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed.  And intimate.  In short: a rare joy.

CoexistThis second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about.  The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent.  I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.

GodspeedLike Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger.  At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other.  Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself.  Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.

That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial.  The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect.  You can listen to it by clicking on this.

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 Beirutagain 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.

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.  Sadly I’m not the first to say this; it was Aldous Huxley, who was the first to say a stack of really interesting things.  Trying to put my jealousy aside, Huxley is right – music does express the inexpressible, which is handy because otherwise we’d be even bigger basket-cases than we are already.  Thankfully, the last couple of months have been awash with great music, and awash is an apt word, because one album I’m enjoying very much at the moment is Within and Without by Washed Out.  Frankly, that’s a crap name for a musical project, but it’s highly appropriate – twenty-eight-year-old former librarian Ernest Green (with a name like that of course he was a librarian) makes what the kids are calling ‘chillwave’ music, which, is also a crap name, but again it’s accurate.  This record reminds me of early 90s English shoegazers Slowdive (these names were never any good, were they), except Washed Out backs it all with shuffling dance beats.  Apart from ‘Amor Fati’, which is just a little too vacuously buoyant for my liking, this is finely crafted music.  It may have nothing to say, but it does say it pretty damn well.

I approached Patrick Wolf’s latest album Lupercalia with caution.  Early reports suggested that it was the poppiest Wolf record to date; someone even went so far as to say that Patrick is today’s version of Rick Astley, which is grossly unfair – and just a little hilarious.  I’ve been following Mr Wolf for some years now: he’s talented, hugely creative, takes risks, and he has the widest of emotional ranges (that’s not a euphemism, by the way).  Lupercalia is certainly the most straight forward set of songs that he’s ever done, but there’s still enough twists and turns to make it sound like nothing else on earth.  And Patrick is apparently getting married shortly, so we can allow him to be just a little chipper, can’t we?  Especially when he’s lucky enough to live in a country that allows more than one type of sexual orientiation to get married.  So I’ve found myself turning this record up loud and singing along and annoying the neighbours, who are probably sharpening their abattoir knives, or – perhaps, just perhaps – singing along as well.

Another artist I’ve been following for a long time is Zac Condon, otherwise known as Beirut.  Originally a solo project, Beirut is a band these days, though it’s an odd band to say the least, comprising brass and mandolins and accordions more than anything else (with the odd drum machine thrown in, just to keep us on our toes), the whole strummy-crash-bang of it all overlaid by Condon’s deep baritone that suggests an eighty-year-old drunk rather than the young and handsome chap he is.  Influenced by Baltic folk music, Beirut precariously straddles celebration and melancholia, more often than not ending up sounding like a bunch of homeless men having a Saturday-night jam down on the street corner.  The Riptide is certainly Condon looking for a poppier, snappier sound (perhaps he should do something with Patrick Wolf, which is a sentence I should have thought more about before I wrote it down; what would Mr Wolf’s fiancé say about that?), but it’s still utterly beguiling stuff.  Pour yourself a glass or seven, light the fire, and sing along to Condon and co as if there’s no tomorrow, which, you know, may well be true.

March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland by Beirut.  I’ve been following Beirut, which either is, or is very heavily driven by, the multi-talented, multi-located Zac Condon, since the first album, the completely wonderful Gulag Orkestar. This latest collection is essentially two EPs: in the first, Condon is backed by The Jimenez Band, a 19-piece brass outfit from Teotitlan del Valle, wherever the hell that is; the second contains a handful of electronic pieces under Condon’s pre-Beirut moniker of Realpeople.  If that all sounds like a bit of a mess, it is, but it’s a delirious mess – ‘My Night With the Prostitute from Marseille’ sounds like an early Depeche Mode b-side, while what’s on March of the Zapotec could easily have appeared on Gulag, which sounded like a bunch of Eastern European men getting really hammered on crap-house vodka, but managing to make great music while they were at it.  Charming, melancholic, flawed.  Perfect, in other words.

Primary Colours by The Horrors.  These guys have been on my radar for a while now, though they never really stayed there because they look like comedy Goths.  But this album is a pearler: My Bloody Valentine is a clear influence, but ‘Scarlet Fields’ and ‘Sea within a Sea’, which closes the album in the most majestic manner imaginable, are worth investigating.  Produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and on the latter it shows.

Over the Stones, Under the Stars by Ned Collette & Wirewalker.   I first heard of this guy – or should that be guys? – when Rage played the video to ‘Come Clean’: not only is the film-clip a ripper, the actual song is bloody brilliant, in fact I’d go so far as saying it’s one of my songs of the year (stay tuned for another best-of list, it seems).  Sure, in parts this collection sounds like a wondering drunk bemoaning the fact that life, at times, actually a fair bit of the time, can be very shit, but it’s all done with such a keen attention to detail that it’s pretty hard to ignore.  I hear in this more than a dash of Red House Painters, if that bunch of misery guts were fronted by a more tuneful Bob Dylan, and that’s a compliment.  Into the bargain, this album is a true grower: it might not get you first time around, but be patient and it’ll come back like a sad wet dog.  Perhaps.

The Bachelor by Patrick Wolf.  I’m a fan of Master Wolf: he’s as camp as all buggery (yeah yeah, I know), but he sure can write a tune, and he’s also interested in mucking around with sounds and forms, often shoving into one song as many things that squeak and moan as possible, probably thanks to Pro-Tools.  And there’s more than a bit of Celtic rock here, which may or may not be a mistake, not to mention quite a few choirs…possibly children’s choirs, which are never easy to make work. But if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s this guy, even though he might look like the bastard son of some Morrissey-Bowie coupling action (whoa, no one should have to imagine that).

Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective.  This is a pretty special album to me because, by design, it was the CD I had playing in the car when I was down at Bundanon in April/May this year – it made that long, windy trip to and from the rather downtrodden Nowra completely magical.  There’s such joy in this music; at times it’s hands-in-the-air ecstatic.  I’m sure I’ll still be listening to this in ten year time…when I’m fifty-one years old…Christ.

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