Saturday, 31 December 2011

Albums Of The Year 2011 - 24 to 1

24 - The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
Recorded in a couple of weeks during the Autumn of 2010, 'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines' is quite simply one of the great debut albums of this day and age. And coming from a band who haven't even been together for a year, this record is astonishing. But it has to be said at this stage in the band's career, the album as a whole certainly isn't the most diverse, but the formula of surf/garage/punk/pop/indie works well enough for the record's first half, that some of the songs seem to have companion tracks on the second half. For sure these songs HAVE to be heard.12 incredible songs and many, many melodies that will stick with you for a long time. And all in just over 33 minutes.

23 - Miles Kane - Colour Of The Trap
He was in a band called The Rascals and teamed up with Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner to form Last Shadow Puppets, but this is his debut solo album and what an impressive one it is. Packed full of textbook pop hooks and instant melodies, this is a record that also benefits from some brilliant production. Opener 'Come Closer' has a dirty garage rock riff that starts the album with a swaggering swing, before the wonderful 'Rearrange' brings some breezy, soulful elegance, with a charming 60's pop vibe, and a woozy string hook that recalls Mercury Rev or The Flaming Lips. 'My Fantasy' is also incredibly beautiful and has the air of classic T Rex as well as featuring backing vocals from a certain Noel Gallagher. Lots of instantly accessible pop melodies, dirty rock n roll riffs, touches of psychedlica, 60's soul as well as good old British indie make up an eclectic collection of often very catchy songs. Definitely worth checking out.

22 - Babybird - The Pleasures Of Self Destruction
At first 'The Pleasures Of Self Destruction' seems to hint that this may be the dark, wicked masterpiece that its title suggests, along with the front sleeve depicting a distorted face with two fingers pointed at the head miming a gun. But it turns out the tone of this album is mostly light and lovelorn, only occasionally do we see the "bad old man" of old rear his ugly but most enjoyably evil head. This twisted and unsettling element of Jones's music is at the forefront of opening track 'Jesus Stag Night Club', the lyrical imagery documenting Christianity and debauchery, while musically offering a filth-covered blast of mean brass, angry guitars, distorted bass and 'Sympathy For The Devil'-esque "woo woo"s. When Jones gets it right, the results can be stunning, and one such moment is the glorious 'Not Love' which provides one of the album's finest moments, using a simple piano melody and other basic ingredients to build a wonderful verse and lead into an unforgettable chorus. Not one of Stephen Jones's best works, but with at least five Babybird classics it certainly isn't a failure, and some people may warm to the tracks that I'm not too keen on. There is a great sadness at the heart of this collection of songs, a record that tells stories of failed romance, lost love and bitter regrets. When Jones is at his best the results are nothing short of incredible, but overall this album is not consistent enough to be ranked as one of Babybird's best. But it's still well worth investing in for those magic moments that this truly gifted musician is capable of.

21 - Cashier 9 - To The Death Of Fun
Cashier 9's debut album was one that only attracted my attention later on in the year, a while after it had been released. Full of swooning melodies, blissful guitars and shimmering warmth. Even when at their most melancholic the record still sparkles with a joyous atmosphere and is packed with irresistable hooks. A few listens to the likes of 'Lost At Sea' and 'Oh Pity' will have you addicted in no time at all.

20 - Arctic Monkeys - Suck It And See
'Suck It And See' does have a few things in common with 'Humbug': its heavy production, its often slow pace and its sense of creeping menace. But the darkness has made way for a slightly more wistful sense of melody, although they've made sure none of the songs slip into ballad territory. The youthful zest of the first two albums has disappeared but the songs concentrate more on melody and intelligent songwriting. Opener 'She's Thunderstorms' sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album with a beautiful melody and an almost Smiths-esque guitar jangle that go brilliantly with the puzzling lyrics. Often the tunes can recall Spector-esque 60's pop, like the luminous sigh of 'Black Treacle', the bittersweet sparkle of 'Piledriver Waltz' and the slightly ridiculously-titled 'The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala', but at the heart there is the sound of uncertainty and sadness. The darkness from 'Humbug' is still there, but this time the melodies are softer, more tuneful and yet more complex. The youthful adrenaline of the first two albums has made way for strong, mature songwriting that in hindsight makes 'Humbug' look like a transitional album. Despite being clever and intelligent songs, none of the tracks sound like they were difficult to write, in fact this album is the most relaxed Arctic Monkeys effort yet and without a doubt the most cohesive of their four albums so far.

19 - Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding
So with the immediate formation of a new group in the wake of the Oasis split, this was going to be rather interesting to see how Oasis would sound like without their guitarist and songwriter. With a fresh start and a lot to prove, Beady Eye's debut album is the sound of rejuvenation, although definitely not a big change in sound. But the vibe of this record is one of carrying on as well as leaving the past behind and relishing the future with excitement.... The debut album from Beady Eye isn't perfect, it's just frustrating how great it could've been if they removed the three tracks that really weren't needed. the album would've still been a healthy 10 tracks long, and would've made for a far more consistent piece of work. However skips out these songs and you have a very strong album that gets better with every listen. Running through these songs is a strong sense of belief and confidence, Gallagher telling the world he doesn't need to rely on anyone and proving that he is indestructible. You can tell he truly believes in these songs and where he's moving to musically. And no matter how bad terms the brothers are on, I think Noel would admire how far Liam has come as a songwriter in the last decade, although many of the album's best moments are written by Andy Bell and Gem Archer. I'll give the album 7.5 out of 10, it would've got at least a 9 with the appropriate editing.

18 - Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys
'Build A Rocket Boys' is an album about youth, friendship, old places, memories and the awareness of growing up. Rather than follow 'Seldom Seen Kid' with a more commercially accessible model of their sound, or follow it up with a similar record to its predecessor, they've honed the best aspects of their first four albums into a clever, subtle sound that with each listen reveal more and more about each song, and about the musical shape of this group over a decade since their debut. Consider this album as Elbow being comfortable with their music and not feeling the pressure of feeling the need to sell even more albums than last time. Pure, natural genius.

17 - The Leisure Society - Into The Murky Water
The Leisure Society's sound is part folk, part indie and this album is a textbook example of how that style could be done the greatest justice. The title track 'Into The Murky Water' makes a wonderful introduction to the album, characterised by elegaic strings, splashes of flutes and bright ukelele. A slightly difficult-sounding stomp of a verse makes way for a beautifully gentle chorus, before 'Dust On The Dancefloor' picks up the tempo and gradually builds into a melancholic but upbeat highlight that demonstrates their knack for matching catchy upbeat tunes to sorrowful lyrics sung rather solemnly. Quite often the downbeat lyrics will come as a surprise to anyone enchanted by the uplifting prettiness of the music. Intelligent and superbly crafted indie folk pop, and one of the finest records I've heard this year. Masterful arrangements, brilliant ideas and a cohesive yet eclectic enough album that will charm many listeners just as it has charmed me.

16 - Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
Beginning with the very avant-garde 'Bloom' and its weird percussion that sounds a bit like a broken train running across ruined tracks, the first track certainly doesn't ease you into the experimental sound of this album gently. Right from the start you can tell this is not going to be a return to straight forward indie rock. 'Lotus Flower' is probably as accessible as this record gets, with an infectious bassline, some dusty beats and claps,  along with Thom's hypnotic vocals and what is possibly the only chorus on this album. Very pleasing, but very difficult. It'll take quite a few plays that's for sure. Another daring leap forward, and a sound that is again completely their own. A difficult, awkward and uncomprimising triumph.

15 - The Fall - Ersatz GB
Since The Fall's inception in 1976, over SIXTY SIX different members have come and gone, and now with an all British line up of the ever-present Mark E Smith, wife Elena Poulou, Dave 'The Eagle' Spurr, Pete Greenway and Keiron Melling, this album marks the third time the same line up of the Fall have released a record together, which in light of the band's history is certainly an achievement in itself. Has Smith finally found the right Fall line-up? It's certainly a combination of musicians that seem to deliver the music with an instinctive precision. Ersatz GB is an album that continues a run of records that represent some of The Fall's best material yet, and again it sees another effortless shift in style. Overall 'Ersatz GB' is another stellar and impressive album from an unmistakable genius and the tightest, most skillful line-up of his band yet. This time around they've embraced heavy metal, Krautrock, psychobilly, glam rock, post-punk and lots of other odd ingredients to great effect, creating another fine album.

14 - Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
The first time I listened to this album, apart from the two singles I was already familiar with none of the other tracks really jumped out at me. But with a few listens to this album it reveals itself to be a progressive work of brilliance. Nicely crafted songs and lots of interesting, intricate melodies that come and go, but link up nicely with other parts of the record. Fleet Foxes have made a record that uses all their greatest strengths and builds on them with intelligent, and carefully crafted development. Like a lot of records, these songs make much more sense late at night, when you're relaxed enough to appreciate the beauty of the arrangements and the flourishing melodies.

13 - The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
Back in January of 2011 I said about this album " in 11 months time there is every chance I will looking back to this as one of the albums of the year". The songs are just astounding, imagine Frank Turner, REM and the Levellers thrown into a blender and served with a country twist and you'd come up with something that sounds very much like this record. Every track is a standout, from the naggingly upbeat 'Calamity Song' to the simple acoustic beauty of  'January Hymn' to the folk stomper 'Rox In The Box' to the Smiths-esque jangle and potential hit 'This Is Why We Fight', this album is well and truly essential.

12 - Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones
'England Keep My Bones' is his fourth studio album and sees shades of Frank's usual influences but mostly sees him settle into his own sound with an album of sincere and open-hearted anthems. It certainly isn't a great departure from his previous work, but Frank is sticking to what he knows best and adding to it more detail and more definition. Even though a lot of my favorite Frank Turner tracks can be found on the second album 'Love Ire & Song', when it comes to consistency and overall quality, 'England Keep My Bones' is his most complete and accomplished work to date. A clever, honest and thoroughly enjoyable collection of songs from one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

11 - The Horrors - Skying
For their third effort 'Skying', the band built their own studio and decided to tackle the task of recording and producing the album themselves. The result is a fine set of songs that grow with stature and impact with every listen. While you can spot little bits of the influences (Echo & The Bunnymen, My Bloody Valentine, Kraftwerk, amongst many others) the group have managed to twist these inspirations into their own unique sound, and a sound that this group sound very comfortable with. The songs are strong and the album moves along with a truly inspired confidence, taking in big anthemic choruses, 80's synths, lots of phasers, droning guitars and songs that explore many different musical places while still managing to work as perfectly accessible pop numbers. 'Skying' reshapes many musical ingredients into a strong, confident piece of work that shows a band hungry to progress with every record, exploring lots of diverse musical territories while still maintaining a firm grip on perfectly accessible pop melodies and memorable hooks. The grooves and sounds are all played incredibly tidily and in a most orderly fashion, yet the music is well and truly liberated, sounding wild and free. The Horrors have produced an incredibly satisfying album that may take a few plays to really get into, but sounds awesome when the sounds and melodies capture your ears. This record should win The Horrors plenty of new fans and should be more than enough to keep their existing fanbase satisfied.

10 - Tom Waits - Bad As Me
 'Bad As Me' is Waits's 17th album and offers a diverse collection of tracks which touch upon various different genres. However Waits makes sure his own characteristics are stamped all over each and every song and turns every genre into his own eccentric musical vision. For someone who has been curious about the music of Tom Waits for a while now, 'Bad As Me' was the first Waits album I investigated, and has proved to be a most pleasing introduction to an innovative and legendary musical force. Quite clearly this record makes me want to explore his back catalogue further and discover more of the music he has created throughout his long and interesting career. For those looking to discover something slightly different to everything else, that is also packed full of well written and high quality songs, this album is exactly that. Be sure to give this record a try because like me, you may end up being truly converted.

9 - Brett Anderson - Black Rainbows
'Black Rainbows' is the fourth solo album from Suede's Brett Anderson and follows his old band's successful reunion. There's nothing here quite as anthemic as 'Trash' or 'The Beautiful Ones' but instead these songs reflect a beauty that is more subtly engaging. Definitely a perfect soundtrack for those long cold Autumn nights that are about to come. It seems that the time spent back with his old band has rejuvenated Anderson's songwriting, which shines with an alluring confidence. Unlike his previous solo work 'Black Rainbows' sees him return to a full band sound, so it may be inevitable that some of this is going to sound like Suede. The lyrical imagery is here too: the "ashtray eyes", "antiseptic skies" and "carpet burns". But rather than attempting to revive former glories this album sounds like the work of a man using his honed skills to look forward to new possibilities. The album runs pleasingly from start to end and is kept perfectly brief at just over half an hour, showing that although Brett is great at writing the huge epics he can also use this style to great effect in shorter and more subtle songs. With Suede reformed and confirmed to be recording new material, 'Black Rainbows' could easily be seen as some sort of warm up, but this is certainly no substandard gap-filling solo project.

8 - The Black Keys - El Camino
The fifth album from The Black Keys is without a doubt their finest collection of songs yet, and the album that was quite literally top of my Christmas list this year. It didn't see the light of day till December but it proved to be a late contender for album of the year. From start to finish packed full of great songs and unforgettable tunes, ranging from the hard hitting country-soul of 'Lonely Boy' to Motown handclaps and hard hitting emotion of 'Dead And Gone' to the smart funk of closing track 'Mind Eraser', this album embraces garage rock, surf punk, soul, blues, stoner rock and many more ingredients that are mixed superbly into a filthy, no-nonsense rock n roll brew. Simply an excellent album.

7 - Yuck - Yuck 
Imagine a lo-fi Teenage Fanclub with flavours of Husker Du, The Smiths, and Pavement...  sometimes a little bit like Ash if they used the guitars more thoughtfully.... or little hints of a far more melodic My Bloody Valentine played by a British shoegaze version of Sonic Youth and that's a bit like what this incredibly strong debut sounds like. For me, wonderfully easy to listen to and on the 2nd play it really made an impression. With their distorted basslines and inspired use of guitars, their sound is probably influenced by late 80's/early 90's shoegaze bands more than any other British based genre. And unlike a lot of groups influenced by that sound, not only are Yuck hugely tuneful, but also nice and varied, their sound drifting from sweet acoustic bliss ('Suicide Policeman') to what sounds a little like the Pixies playing The Cure ('Georgia') and then to muddy slow paced drone-grunge ('Rubber'). What is so striking for a debut album is how cool they sound, totally at ease and sounding like none of these songs were a struggle in the slightest. It obviously comes naturally to them. Now go and hear for yourselves just how good this band are....

6 - Doyle And The Fourfathers - Man Made
While this record certainly doesn't live in the past, it's built on classic British songwriting that has a sound and style unique but composed of very discreet influences. There are sometimes occasional shades of classic Britpop, and i'm talking Longpigs, Pulp, Puressence and the Bluetones. But it's a sound that also learns from the best bands of the last 15 years, and in their short existence this band have finely tuned and refined their style in an impressive way, sounding completely at ease with their development, with structures and arrangements far more accomplished than most new groups. 'Man Made' is a stunning piece of work, finely crafted songs that grab your attention first time round and become closer to your heart with every listen. The best debut album you'll hear this year, in fact one of the best in recent memory: accomplished, clever, nicely constructed and mature while still sounding fresh, vital and very much perfect for 2011.

5 -  Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
'Wasting Light' is their finest album in years and possibly a career best. The lyrics of the fantastic closing track 'Walk' seem to sum up where this record is coming from.... "I think i lost my way, getting good at starting over every time I return". And now rather than attempting to learn to fly, it seems that they are simply "learning to walk again", in other words getting back to basics and doing what they've always done best, as well as using their past experience to craft some excellent songs. 'Wasting Light' was recorded in Dave Grohl's garage by 'Nevermind' producer Butch Vig, on analogue tape and with guitarist Pat Smear returning to the band full time after many years away. And with the incredible 'Walk' the group created not only a great way to close a fine album, but perhaps a defining moment. A massive chorus, relentless pounding, the bombast of eighties stadium rock and Grohl sounding like man standing at the top of the world, bellowing "forever, forever, i never wanna die". Stunning. 'Wasting Light' is the Foo Fighters at their very best, their strongest and most consistent set of songs for years and (just maybe) their defining work.

4 - The Living End - The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating
 'The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating' is the band's sixth album and sees the strength of their output expand with even more power and scope. The record opens with 'In The Morning', a tale of breaking free from suburban misery powered by a pulsing rhythm and providing a brilliantly energetic yet thoughtful introduction to the album. But even this burst of vibrancy only sounds like a mere warm up to the incredible 'Heatwave'. A blistering and powerful highlight of the band's career, 'Heatwave' thrives with urgency and comes complete with an intense anthemic chorus. Elsewhere 'Machine Gun' combines a fat, menacing riff with a Clash-like skank, and 'Song For The Lonely' mixes a 'Baba O Riley'-esque loop with an electrifying riff similar to AC/DC's 'Thunderstruck' and incorporates it into another infectious rhythm. During the course of this album, the sound recalls late Bad Religion, AC/DC, The Clash, Green Day, Foo Fighters and various other great bands but never once comes across as imitation or bandwagon-hopping, for this album is undoubtedly and distinctively TLE. Chris Cheney's use of the guitar chorus pedal expands the strength and scope of the songs throughout this album, while his voice is commanding and exhilerant. The lead single and title track rounds off the album with a bang, impressing with its massive "whoa"'s and a fierce galloping rhythm that leaves you hungry for more. As the album concludes, it becomes clear that The Living End have made their best album in over a decade. There's massive choruses, face-melting guitar solos, powerful riffs, airtight rhythms, and some of the best rock anthems you will hear this century. The band's sound has developed and matured, yet their passion and impact has not dimmed one bit and neither has their rousing spirit.

3 - Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
On their seventh studio album, the structure of the songs is less 'loud-quiet-loud-quiet' than before, and  less repetitive. Instead it makes for a stronger focus on the riffs and the way the songs build out of often contrasting parts. More subtle structures and arrangements, yet no less dramatic. Over the course of this album you will find gentle piano soundscapes, electronic textures,  scenic arpeggios an panoramic slow burning symphonies. Ear splitting noise comes just as naturally as fragile balladry, with layers of savage guitars contrasting nicely with joyous, majestic melodies. 'Rano Pano' begins with a mournful and highly distorted riff that gradually builds into a powerful array of sounds as the bleak melody builds itself with repetition, and by the end we have a scene of dark, heavy beauty. This use of doomy noise rock alongside delicate light melodies is employed to spectacular effect all over this recordas the darkness occasioanlly gathers like clouds over the calm, bleak ambience. 'San Pedro' is thick, no-nonsense symphonic post-metal, an intense dramatic piece of work, with towering melodies unfolding around some fine riffage. The peaceful heartbreak of 'Letters To The Metro'  throughour remains calm and untouched by the heavy distortion many would've expected Mogwai to attack it with. Like 'Mexican Grand Prix', the nicely titled 'George Square Thatcher Death Party' uses vocoders to great effect, but rather than against a driving electro backdrop, it is complimented with another one of those beautiful sky high melodies together with its frantic riffing. With every listen it reveals more hidden depths, and many precise touches of brilliance. Their most multi-faceted record yet, yet brilliantly cohesive and definitely their most accomplished.

2 - Kasabian - Velociraptor!
The album's title is a rough translation of "swift thief", perhaps an indication that these 11 tracks will capture you on the very first listen. However this wasn't quite as immediate as I was expecting it to be on its first play, the songs still sounded great but not that special and certainly not overwhelmingly instant. On the second listen a number of tracks stood out as early favourites, by the third play the melodies begin to dig their way into your head, and by the fourth play you realise that this IS in fact an amazing album. Soon after that fourth play you'll be hooked. This record is quite possibly the ultimate grower. Wisely what the band have done is employed a high level of quality control. For example if you took the four best tracks from each of their 3 previous albums to make one album, you would get an incredible filler-free collection of classics. Maybe they used their very best songs as the watermark that the new songs had to rise above. And 'Velociraptor!' certainly sounds like a complete album, and a consistent body of work where every minute of every song counts. Over the course of 'Velociraptor!' the group take key ingredients from musical history and present them in a modern and vital way, complete with excellent melodies and awesome sounds. These songs are designed for repeated listens that reveal new things every time. It's better like this, the songs are made up of so many interesting melodies, hook and sounds that after they've been in your ears a few times will creep up on you and make a huge impact when they do. Some critics have written this record off after not getting into it on the first one or two listens.... But can anyone who has heard these songs as many times as I have say that this album is in any way a disappointment? Each track is incredibly infectious and every time you give the album a spin you'll have a new favourite song. Overall 'Velociraptor!' is as refreshingly diverse and eclectic as it is consistent, yet it shines as a cohesive body of work due to the high quality of each and every song.

1 - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
Free from the pressure of writing for Oasis, it seems that Noel Gallagher has learned to relax and let whatever he writes flow naturally. The early 2000's saw his songwriting suffer as a result of trying too hard, as well as a lack of confidence in trying new things. Years later and his first solo album delivers a collection of assured, intelligent and accomplished tracks that make up Noel's finest album in years. It isn't an overstatement to call this album a classic: from start to finish there isn't anything that could have possibly been done better. The expectation to write number one hits and multi million selling albums meant that Noel could never stray too far from his musical comfort zone, but now free to take risks he only embrarks on new sounds when they come as a natural result of his creativity. Style wise there aren't too many surprises, but the thing that grabs you on the first is the consistent strength of each and every song. In a way similar to Paul Weller's creative rejuvenation in the 90's, Noel's debut solo album can easily stand alongside those first two classic Oasis LPs that everyone's been waiting for him to match for over 15 years. But he's not trying to write stadium anthems anymore, instead Noel sounds relaxed, refreshed and confident while the songs are more defined, intelligent and accomplished than before. This is the first record Noel has written by himself since 1997's 'Be Here Now', and perhaps the fact he left some of the songwriting to other members of Oasis suggests he may have been having doubts about his abilities. But here he produces a solid album that flows perfectly and at 42 minutes 27 seconds it's pleasingly concise. It's packed full of incredible and accomplished songs that show spending a few years soaking up new influences and going by instinct has helped revive the craft of this legendary songwriter. This album reflects a more mature, settled collection of songs that show just how much Noel's progressed over the last few years. This is a legendary figure showing everyone else how it's done and producing an album that like those first two legendary Oasis albums, we'll still be reaching for in over 15 years time. Simply essential.

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