'The SMiLE Sessions'
The Beach Boys
When an album can be listened to and its influence on modern music can still be heard some forty years after it was created, it’s an astonishing thing. For new listeners to The Beach Boys at their best, this is an insight into where that combination of happy hooks, psychedelia of the 60s and 70s and sheer genius song construction were put into place. The sessions behind the creation of the SMiLE album, which was never released on its completion, are amazingly fluent and for lovers of Sufjan Stevens, Belle & Sebastian, Kings Of Convenience, Fleet Foxes or Megafaun a possible inlet into what came before them. Perhaps the only masterpiece of 2011, and in fairness it’s from 1967 so it doesn’t really count, it sounds as relevant today as it perhaps ever has.
There’s something so right about Little Dragon, something so modern it almost hurts. From the sexy bordering disinterested vocal deliveries of Yukimi Nagano to the minimalist melodies it’s as if the time has been captured and recorded within almost pitch perfectly. Harvey may have written the best album protesting the predominance of ambivalence. Little Dragon gives the best rendition of it and that very ambivalence somehow pays off in spades.
'Let England Shake'
Polly Jean grew up in a way that escaped self-righteousness but yet managed to get her point across nonetheless. An astounding collection of protest songs that go beyond protest and land firmly, at the risk of damning praise, in the realm of importance.
The Antlers’ ‘Burst Apart’ takes everything great about modern music and creates what is ultimately a massive finger to the mainstream. There is nothing popular about this collection of moody mixed-up messes of songs that scream both a sense of the quiet and in your face at the same time. It’s a gorgeously confident set that should have had them break through a little more than they have.
'Breaks In The Armor'
Eric Bachmann had a big year with the rerelease of Archers Of Loaf’s Icky Mettle and this sixth LP from his solo venture, Crooked Fingers. Working with Matt Yelton and Liz Durrett, Bachmann created a beautifully subtle rock record. It’s proof that content still far outweighs gimmickry and production. Stellar.
James Blake is a crooner of the blues variety so beyond his years this collection of mood pieces is the perfect accompaniment to mindless wandering through cold, wet London streets and an example of how age means little when the storyteller gene is inherent within the one desiring to go beyond the surface of any emotion.
She’s a belter. She’s a mean instrumentalist. She’s a throwback to the Robert Palmer music video girls. And despite all of these things she’s able to somehow still come across as soft. Her diminutive size hinders in no way the fact that she arrived in 2011 and she arrived with a considerable thud through the music door.
'We're New Here'
Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx
Scott-Heron left a significant hole in the music world with his passing earlier in the year. What a triumph then that his I’m New Here from late last year and the Jamie xx remixed version, We’re New Here from this year ended his career on a huge high. It’s the perfect realisation of his immense writing skills being made more accessible through the work of Jamie Smith whose work as a part of The xx bears an at times beautiful echo of Scott-Heron’s work. A greater meeting of minds did not take place in 2011.
She’s the outcome of a sedated Björk or a somewhat chemically enhanced k.d. Lang. There’s a greater accessibility to her music and a gravitas and tone to her voice that even with her idiosyncratic charm Björk can’t come close to and a modern willingness that leaves Lang for dead. Carlyle should be a far greater name than she is. In fact, that she’s a practical unknown is beyond a musical travesty.
'Born This Way'
Everything about this album in its excess should spell disaster but as a whole it envelops everything that is glam about her and wraps it up in a perfectly grubby but entirely glossy set of electronic pop. There is an amount of filler on the album but its filler with purpose as she wails, scratches and bulldozes her way to that final edge she so brazenly tiptoes towards. Fantastically fun.