2011 turned out to be a year in which the majority of my most beloved artists put out an album (or even two). This meant that I didn’t end up making many new musical discoveries this year - and still have many 2011 releases to catch up on (Ryan Adams, M83, St. Vincent, Metronomy, Camille... I'll get to you). But it did offer the very great compensatory pleasure of finding old favourites continuing to surprise, delight and inspire by producing some of their best-ever work. What’s more, in their attention to structure, transitions, pace and song-by-song flow, most of the records featured here prove conclusively that there’s plenty of life in the album-as-art-form yet, despite claims to the contrary. To quote the venerable Mr. Sexsmith: “This ain’t no random shuffle/There’s reason in these rhymes …”
|Night of Hunters, Tori Amos |
Tides and waves. Fires and storms. A relationship hitting the rocks. A 3,000 year flashback. Epiphanies. Imperatives. Blood by your thorn. A fox, a fire muse, and a constellation show the way. Adapting classical pieces by composers including Schubert, Granados, Bach and Satie and recruiting a select band of collaborators to help realise her vision (including the phenomenonal Apollon Musagete Quartett, currently ripping it up with her on tour every night), Amos’s latest opus of empowerment is a stunning thing: by turns dramatic and delicate, full of grit and grace. One of her finest achievements, it's an exquisite long night’s journey into day - and one that might just have created a few new classical music converts as well. Full album review here. Live review here.
|Ashore, June Tabor|
|Ragged Kingdom, June Tabor and Oysterband|
"If you don’t like June Tabor then you should just stop listening to music," advised Elvis Costello. A little over-zealous, perhaps, but 2011 certainly proved to be a rather good year to be a Tabor fan. An appropriately immersive experience, Ashore, Tabor’s brilliant album on maritime themes, requires and deeply rewards the listener’s commitment. The choice of material is superb (a seamless mix of the political and the personal, the ancient and the contemporary, the intimate and the epic), the singing characteristically sublime, and the spacious arrangements so richly evocative that you may feel the need to bundle up in a big cuddly warm jumper every time you put this album on. If I had to pick just one song for the ages it would be the dolorous, windswept take on Cyril Tawney’s “The Oggie Man,” an indelible vision of human transience compressed into a chorus and two crisp verses. But from the stately re-visiting of “Finisterre” to the widescreen 11-minute close of “Across the Wide Ocean,” Les Barker's great song about the Highland Clearances, there are no weak links on this ship. Ditto for Tabor’s long-anticipated second collaboration album with Oysterband, a vibrant reunion that even exceeded the glories of Freedom and Rain (1990) for me. Full reviews here and here.
|Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, Tindersticks|
Another place to set up home, this one. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Tindersticks perform live this year but this six-CD collection of their stunning soundtracks for Denis’s films was compensation enough. Full review here.
|The People's Key, Bright Eyes|
“You got a soul? Use it.” Catchy but contemplative, sketching both tough and redemptive times on the way to the Apocalypse, the songs on The People’s Key are some of the sharpest and most substantial that Conor Oberst has written. The sound is cohesive yet diverse. Check out the thrilling stabby guitar-work in “Jejune Stars,” the heavy chug of “Haile Sellassie,” the steely crawl of “Approximate Sunlight,” the beautiful echoy piano intimacy of “Ladder Song,” and, especially, the utterly gorgeous electro-rock exuberance of “Triple Spiral.” Even the portentous Malick-ish spoken word segments - musings on time, the universe, and the whole damn thing - have grown on me by this stage. I sincerely hope that this isn’t, as has been claimed, the last Bright Eyes album. But if it so proves then Oberst, Mogis and Walcott have gone out on a high with this great offering.
|Hard Bargain, Emmylou Harris|
|The Harrow & the Harvest, Gillian Welch |
Three of the most loved and respected artists in contemporary country music (aka the O Brother Sireens) released new albums this year. As usual Alison Krauss’s record with Union Station didn’t get far beyond the “pleasant” box, for me, and wasn’t an album that I felt compelled to return to that often. But Emmylou Harris’s Hard Bargain and Gillian Welch’s The Harrow & the Harvest have continued to absorb and beguile throughout the year. The artists’ approach seems similarly minimalist, with just two musicians accompanying Harris on Hard Bargain and Welch and David Rawlings returning to their patented duo format for The Harrow… after the more expansive sound developed on their recent work. But the results couldn’t be more different: the underrated Hard Bargain turned out to be Harris’s most ambient and fullest-sounding release in some time, its clear-eyed confessions and poignant remembrances cloaked in lovely sonic layers, while The Harrow & the Harvest was quiet and hushed, offering a series of distilled hard-luck tales that combined the mythic and the everyday with consummate ease. Americana classics, both. And two very cool album covers, to boot. Full reviews here and here.
|Bon Iver, Bon Iver |
“Wake up to your starboard breath”? “Sat down in the soup”? Surely not? As readers of this blog might be aware, I’m a fan of “bad” diction - when it comes to singing, at least. And the fact that I can barely make out a word that Justin Vernon is intoning on Bon Iver - an effect accentuated by the recourse to over-dubbing -only adds to the fascination and beauty of its haunting, gauzy songs to me. A gorgeously atmospheric work; very special. "Towers" is favourite.
|Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys |
What’s always set Arctic Monkeys apart from the (many, many) guitar bands who appeared in the noughties is Alex Turner’s particular lyrical genius. (I’d nominate Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not  as one of the best-written rock albums ever.) There’s less of that genius on display on Suck It and See, it must be said : recorded in the States (like its predessor, the brawnier Josh Homme-helmed Humbug ) this album bleaches some of the gorgeous Britishness out of Turner’s lyrics and out of the band’s sound which is smoother and slicker here. Still, the stand-out moments - “She’s Thunderstorms,” “Black Treacle,” “Library Pictures,” “Piledriver Waltz,” and “Love is a Laserquest” - convince me that this is a band I’ll always have a soft spot for.
|Cinderella's Eyes, Nicola Roberts|
A list book-ended by redheads, therefore. A stronger singer might give the surprisingly sparky lyrics the punch they deserve. But for the most part Ms. Roberts acquits herself admirably on this very enjoyable solo debut, an album that contains several of my favourite pop songs of the year. Rhian Jones, of Wears the Trousers, sums up the album's appeal best: “It’s like finding extracts from The Bell Jar slipped inside a copy of Heat.” Cream of the crop: "Gladiator."
Honourable mentions: Don’t Stop Singing (Thea Gilmore), Let England Shake (PJ Harvey), Long Player, Late Bloomer (Ron Sexsmith), American Folk Songbook (Suzy Bogguss), Horses and High Heels (Marianne Faithfull), Walk (Israel Cannan), 50 Words For Snow (Kate Bush). And, from 2010, but not heard until this year Olympia (Bryan Ferry) (oh, “Alphaville”!) and Have One On Me (Joanna Newsom). (With thanks to moviesandsongs365 for finally convincing me on the Newsom front.)