It’s that inevitable time of year again – time for the ‘top 10 lists’ – and we begin with 2011′s best albums.
10. St Vincent – Strange Mercy
With profoundly existential and darkly emotional lyrics, wailing baroque guitar riffs, and art-rock tendencies that take in influences as broad as Peter Gabriel, Franz Ferdinand and Kate Bush, former Polyphonic Spree member Annie Clark has undeniably produced her masterpiece thus far on her third album as St. Vincent. A masterclass in achieving the balance between accessibility and musical complexity, Clark’s sonic innovation is underpinned by starkly candid and confessional lyrics, making this one of the most emotionally engaging albums of the year.
9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
How do you follow an album that, despite being only three years old, is already the soundtrack to a million broken hearts? This was the challenge faced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon when he sat down to pen the band’s second studio album, the follow-up to 2008’s hugely significant For Emma, Forever Ago. Although laced with the same emotional sincerity as their debut, Bon Iver cuts a more reconciliatory tone, emerging from hibernation with a new, mended sense of clarity, both musical and lyrical, with a fuller and more polished sound that unites Vernon’s haunting falsetto with earthy and poignant instrumentals.
8. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
The best debut album of the year, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain announced the arrival of World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation (WU LYF) with a great big colourful splash. Refusing any interviews or publicity, WU LYF preferred to let their abandoned-church-recorded album speak for itself, and boy did it; cosmic keyboards, bone-rattling percussion, and a musical ethos that lies somewhere between early Arcade Fire and Doves’ more recent work. A record of wild celebration and fist-pumping togetherness, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain sounds like it was recorded by a bunch of giddy ten-year olds who’ve broken into a music store, smashing around on the instruments and making exactly the music they want to make.
7. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
Well, obviously. Jay-Z and Kanye West aren’t going to release an album that’s NOT going to be one of the best of the year, are they?! West’s last album stakes a pretty solid claim on being the best piece of work of this century so far, whilst Jay-Z is so hot right now that he takes his bath in a volcano just to cool off. Featuring collaborations with Beyoncé, Mr Hudson, and Frank Ocean from the Odd Future crew, Watch The Throne is just as musically progressive as 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and has lyrical content fitting for its solid gold cover, the two kings of hip-hop garishly and lavishly ruminating on opulence, wealth, greed, materialism and success.
6. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
A violent, bloody, and forceful record focusing on the two themes of England and War, PJ Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning tenth studio album is her best since 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, which also won the Mercury Prize. Let England Shake’s win makes Harvey the only act to win the prize twice, and there couldn’t be a more deserving album; citing influences as broad as The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Pinter, and T.S. Eliot, Harvey has produced an album of remarkable musical power, rooted in a guttural anger and palpable national dissatisfaction. As a musical and political meditation, it’s the year’s strongest work.
5. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
Omitted from many end-of-year lists because of its late release, 50 Words For Snow entered the UK charts at Number 5 when it came out at the end of November, making the 53 year-old Bush the first female artist to have studio albums of all-new material in the top five in each of the last five decades. Like For Emma, Forever Ago, the album is a hymn to winter, and for all its complex and layered production techniques and orchestrations, retains a stillness, a calm, a quiet sensuality that is both contemplative and arresting. Caesar has a great line in Antony & Cleopatra, ‘Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets’. It’s always been one of my favourite Shakespeare lines, and its image of frosty contentment goes hand-in-hand with Bush’s latest record.
4. Adele – 21
No two ways about it, 2011 belonged to Adele. Yes, it’s been played to death, yes, we’re all sick of every X Factor contestant blubbing through ‘Someone Like You’, yes, Adele’s rough-and-ready cockney charms started to wear off after her 50th chat show appearance, yes, your mum loves it, but there’s absolutely no doubting that it was all deserved. What is there left to say about the record-shattering, hyperbole-hogging 21? Soulful, relatable, earnestly- and lovingly-written, ballsy, deeply personal yet globally accessible, it’s an album whose heart and soul are bursting out at the listener with every note. Combine that heartfelt candour with broad yet innovative Motown-flavoured grooves, and you’ve got one of the best records of the century, never mind the year.
3. The Weeknd – Thursday
Many critics are pointing instead to The Weeknd’s debut effort House Of Balloons, also released this year, as one of the finest of 2011, but for my money it’s this second mixtape, Thursday, where Ethiopian-Canadian R&B singer Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. The Weeknd) really surprises and excels. In the recent spate of anti-Chris Brown new-school R&B singers such as John Legend, Drake and Frank Ocean, The Weeknd stands alone as the most cohesive and fully-formed artist making this kind of music at the moment. Dark and menacing in content yet playful and irreverent in delivery, Thursday’s looming and macabre production is in constant conflict with The Weeknd’s pipe-thin and sugary vocals; the two wrestle lovingly yet violently, like the best kind of angry yet tender sex.
2. The Horrors – Skying
A fantastic, intellectual, lush, melodic, beautiful, complex, teasing, explosive, personal, sizzling, wonderful album. Expectations were high for The Horrors’ third album after their 2009 post-punk revival masterpiece Primary Colours, and Skying certainly didn’t disappoint; the album is like cracking open the drug-addled, psychedelia-soaked brain of a space-travelling hippy, and drinking its Technicolor juices. Melodramatic, haunting, and above all, gorgeous, Skying is perhaps less consistent than Primary Colours, but offers more scope and more depth both musically and personally. The journey that it takes you on is one that nobody can afford to miss.
1. Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
Remember how good Lungs was? Triple it, and you’re close to the barnstorming tour de force that is Ceremonials. Florence Welch’s follow-up to her 2009 debut is an unabashedly confident and powerful piece that ties together elements of Britpop, Baroque pianos, majestic orchestral stabs, howling choirs, neo-soul synths and lush, chugging melodies, all underpinned by Welch’s own bizarrely genius lyrical insanity. Not just bigger than Lungs, it’s better, too.
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