Thursday, 22 December 2011

It's About That Time!

As always, cataloguing 2011’s best albums was no easy task, particularly because I haven’t listened to most of the essential records that have been receiving rave reviews (St. Vincent‘s Strange Mercy, Bombay Bicycle Club's A Different Kind Of Fix, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, Florence & The Machine’s Ceremonials, Noah and the Whale’s Last Night on Earth… the “unlistened list” goes on and on).

Still, keeping up with traditions, here are my Top 20 Albums of 2011, in no particular order.

(Quick note: I have to thank my BF for giving me most of these records. He’s pretty much my music dealer and deserves due recognition, as he’s provided for most of my 2011 soundtrack. Thank you! Love you!)

1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

As most girls my age, I grew up adoring PJ Harvey: she was – and still is – the coolest thing ever. Edgy and oddly beautiful, she’s truly groundbreaking and genuine. She doesn’t write or sound like anyone but herself.
I was deeply intrigued by To Bring You My Love, my first PJ Harvey album, and found it difficult yet brilliant. Is This Desire was for a long time my favourite and I remember the thrill of buying the same t-shirt Polly Jean’s wearing on the album’s cover: I wore that top so many times the picture of the lips eventually washed out. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was pretty much the confirmation that this woman was nothing short of a genius (that duet with Thom Yorke? Heavenly!) and White Chalk, although under-appreciated, was the perfect set-up for what most critics have considered the best album of 2011: Let England Shake.
Summing up PJ Harvey’s 8th album as a cross between an homage to her homeland (with oh-so-British songtitles such as The Last Living Rose, England and The Glorious Land) and a war-record may seem odd and nonsensical but that’s pretty much what Let England Shake is: a concept album with references to all sorts of battles (from Anzac’s siege of Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire to World War I, without forgetting Iraq). The songs are vivid portraits of struggle and conflict, with a strong political and historical undertone which made Polly Jean worthy of sharing the floor with David Cameron on Andrew Marr’s political talk show.
An album like you’ve never heard. And that’s why you’ll love it.

2. Feist, Metals

I love Leslie Feist, I really do: I’ve been a loyal fan since her early Broken Social Scene days and her Monarch debut, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to hearing Metals.
Recorded in California's Big Sur with minimal post-production, Metals has a genuine, gritty almost acoustic feel to it, filled with rattles and thumps, breaths and handclaps. It’s raw, in a beautiful way.
Although I won’t say I was disappointed with Metals, Feist’s prior record The Reminder seems impossible to top and, admittedly, I had impossibly high expectations which weren’t, unfortunately, met.

3. Metronomy, The English Riviera

I mentioned these British beaus a few weeks ago and already hinted to their high ranking in this year’s Best Albums list.
A cross between an anthem to the British Summer (the record opens to the sound of cawing seagulls) and a soundtrack to a John Hughes film, The English Riviera is an incredibly clever album, with witty lyrics, sweet synths, sexy basslines and, overall, just really good vibes.

4. Alex Turner, Submarine EP

My favourite Artic Monkey songs are the folky, soppy love ballads, so when Alex Turner made a record solely composed of these sweet tunes, I was over the moon. Listening to this on a rainy Sunday, curled on the couch under a merino wool blanket, flipping through a book: pure bliss. And, as mentioned here before, the movie ain’t bad either.

5. James Blake, James Blake

Not since Burial’s Untrue back in 2007 have I been this keen on dubstep. James Blake is one talented boy who can write and compose eerily beautiful songs, set an out-of-this-world atmosphere and deliver stunning vocals. Although it has this ghostly, chilling undertone, Blake’s homonymous debut is warm and soothing. Plus, he shot to fame covering a Feist song so that alone deserves some serious brownie points!

6. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

I adore Justin Vernon. I mean, he could take a dump in MP3 format and I'd probably still buy, listen and love it. But, just as with Feist’s Metals, expectations were sky high for Bon Iver’s homonymous record and, when compared to For Emma, Forever Ago, possibly the most perfect album ever made when Justin disappeared into the snowy woods to nurse a broken heart, Bon Iver falls a bit short.
Still, the record stays true to Vernon’s soulful lyrics, gloomy melodies and eerie arrangements. As soothing as honey tea and a sweet ointment, the album unfolds as a sort of dreamlike journey (each song title is a place, real or imagined) on winding roads over snowing forests and shiny lakes. National Geographic gone hipster, if you will.

7. White Denim, D

I shamefully only discovered this Austin-quartet earlier this year but this record was such a pleasant surprise I had to include it in my best of 2011.
Somewhere between country and folk, with a touch of tropicalia and high-pitches, D was a real cheer-upper and overall really fun record.

8. The Strokes, Angles

After a not-so-great solo album, Julian Casablanca has thankfully joined the rest of the gang and created a fun, catchy album that reminds me so much of this summer I can almost smell sunscreen when I listen to Under Cover of Darkness. Although Angles lacks the hard-core head-banging rock songs that characterize the early Stroke, I think the pop influence is, paradoxically, what makes this record so special.

9. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes

This sombre Swede has hit a home run with her sophomore record Wounded Rhymes, charged with heart-broken and –breaking lyrics and melancholic melodies that make you want to sway your arms around and drop your body whilst you mumble the song with your eyes closed. Or maybe that’s just me…

10. Jamie Woon, Mirrorwriting

Jamie Woon’s haunting rendition of the old American spiritual Wayfaring Stranger, remixed by the one and only king of dubstep Burial, really sets the tone for this dark, earthy debut album. The hit single Night Air samples wicker chairs and Cornish pebbles: it doesn’t get much more organic than this.

11. Foster The People, Torches

Poor reviews let this L.A. trio fall under the radar but I have to admit really enjoy this album. It’s a no-brainer, straight up catchy pop. It was the perfect summer soundtrack with its clappy rhythms and sing-along lyrics: it may not be as nerdy or obscure as Tom Waits, at least it won’t make you want to pull a shotgun to your temple. Dance away your blues, my children!, and surrender to easy, breezy commercial pop: it will do you good!

12. Beyoncé, 4

Quite a surprising follow up to I Am… Sasha Fierce, 4 is a much calmer record, heavy on R&B and ballads. Although I don’t like most of Beyoncé’s pre-baby album, the few songs I do like, I really, really like – the irresistible dancehall anthem Countdown, the über-soppy ballad 1+1 and the incredible Love on Top – make 4 worthy of a high spot in our best of 2011.

13. Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See

I think many die-hard Arctic Monkeys were disappointed with this album which abandoned their rocker darkness for wistful pop. Although Brick by Brick and other singles off Suck It And See are undeniably rock, this album values melodies over riffs and Alex Turner's clever wordplay and brilliant lyrics.

14. Wolf Gang, Suego Faults

LSE drop out Max McElligott has been dubbed both the new Byrne and Bowie. He’s great, no doubt, but I wouldn’t set the stakes that high… yet. But Suego Faults is a brilliant debut record. MGMT-producer Dave Fridmann’s touch is undeniable: catchy melodies, dancing tunes and strong choruses, it’s all there.

15. Other Lives, Tamer Animals

Described as a cross between Fleet Foxes and Radiohead, this Oklahoma quintet is one of my favourite discoveries this year: dreamy melodies, majestic orchestration, ethereal harmonies and haunting, sighing falsettos, their songs are epic without being over the top. It’s simply a beautiful record.

16. Cults, Cults
There’s a whole bunch of Phil Spector-inspired boy/girl duos this year: Jenny and Johnny, She & Him, below mentioned Summer Camp… and Cults. This adorable NYU couple, Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion, hit it big with their sensation Go Outside: it’s a great introduction to their homonymous debut, loaded with sweet, catchy tunes that transport you to an innocent 1960s prom-night. What’s not to love?

17. Summer Camp, Welcome To Condale

I guess if Instagram were a song, it would definitely sound like this London duo. Inexhaustibly compared to above mention Cults, Elizabeth Sankey and Jeremy Warmsley’s debut can also be described as retro pop, heavy on nostalgic synths and catchy lyrics. Their homage to the eighties goes as far as sampling Kelly LeBrock in John Hughes' Weird Science.

18. The Tree Of Life, OST

This is cheating a bit because the actual soundtrack of The Tree of Life only has Alexandre Desplat’s score which is shot-yourself-in-between-the-eyes boring. The tracks and songs, however, borrowed for The Tree of Life are a selection of the most beautiful masterpieces ever composed. Far from being a connoisseur, I do have a nerdy obsession with opera and French classical composers (I blame ballet) so The Tree of Life was all the more a treat.
19. Washed Out, Within and Without

Ernest Greene picked his band’s name very wisely, as it accurately describes its sun-bleached, hazy and nostalgic sounds.
With a distinctive, repetitive keyboard-based tunes – much like Memory Tapes, Neon Indian or Toro Y Moi – Within and Without is sort of really good background music: it won’t exactly stop you in your motions but you’ll find yourself happily swaying to the soft, soporific, summery synths. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll agree, but I certainly enjoyed it enough for the 2011 honour role.
20. Adele, 21

This album has been so over-hyped, I feel like punching a baby at the first notes of Someone Like You, that’s how much it gets so much on my nerves.
Still, rationally, I have to admit it is a pretty damn good album, with clever lyrics, beautiful arrangements and, most of all, incredible vocals. Just go hide somewhere for a long while, Adele, so we can miss and appreciate you.

Which were your picks?

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