So here we are again, putting names and feelings and rationality in boxes and ranking… Not sure what for once more and I agree that it may seem pointless in such a history-weighted year with acceleration of events everywhere on our little planet, except as always the envy of sharing a great artistic passion in these troubled times. A year spent seeing many bands live, buying, listening and hearing literally hundreds of records, files, videos, sites, magazines, etc.. and here are the results with a Top 20 albums of 2011. Please comment, buy, listen, take a guitar and play, go to a show, whatever but any little action would mean a lot for your host. If you could particularly give your Top 3 of the year in the comments, that would be very much welcome. And if you had not been on the blog since a year ago, there are plenty of reviews to read so advertise it!
Album of the Year – Metronomy “The English Riviera” Really easy choice this year as this gorgeous LP did not suffer any competitors to get the number one tag, as far as I am concerned. Lead by Joseph Mount, Metronomy is an English band and this is their third album. Last one was quite good but what makes a band go from good to great is always a fascinating phenomena. With a new rhythm section (and what amazing drummer and bassist Anna Prior and Gbenga Adelekan are…), this record left a bit aside the electro side they were famous for to create pop music that is at the same time smart, danceable, intelligent, popular and…well, simply great. I would assimilate this record to the best done by LCD Soundsystem but with an English perspective. In “The Bay”, one of the best tracks of the LP, Joseph Mount sings the following lyrics “…You may have the body but do you have the songs?”. Dear Joseph, you do not have one but eleven fantastic songs and you made by far the album of the year.
My number 2 – Bill Callahan “Apocalypse” Bill Callahan has been an old friend (metaphorically speaking of course) of this blog and you might want to review the two concert reviews done this year on the blog. What makes the former Smog leader get in such a high position in our best of this year? Probably the fact that with these seven songs he succeeded more than ever to make simple and acoustic music sound deep. A very deep voice, deep lyrics and deep emotional music, I strongly recommend this LP to anyone who is attracted to ageless music.
My number 3 – Low “C’mon” Talking about emotion, simplicity, many albums done and two shows reviewed this year, here is my bronze medal of the year. Still based on the core married couple of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, Low plays very very slow music which could be compared to grunge music played for churches. I admit this is an easy shortcut but their music has been a beauty for many years and this record is amongst their best.
Other great records of my top 20 (by alphabetical order)
The Black Keys “El Camino” The Black Keys took everyone by surprise with this record that went out late in the year in December but their formula is more efficient than ever. Written with the help of DJ Danger Mouse (cf. below), this LP is less soulful than the previous one “Brothers” and closer to their original drums and guitar formula but sooooooooooo good! Video of the year as well for the “Lonely Boy” video ; if your feet do not move, you must be reading this from heaven or hell.
Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi “Rome” I would never have enough words to praise the great Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton) whose projects are all great, either mixing The Beatles and Jay-Z for the “Grey Album”, making an album with the singer of the Shins or as half-part of the soul/pop/hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley. This year, he recorded an homage to italian movies of the 70’s with one Daniel Luppi, actually playing with musicians that used to play on Ennio Morricone records. The two guest singers really made the difference here: Norah Jones (her best work ever!) and Jack White always on top and concentrating on his beautiful voice. THE surprise of the year.
Daniel Darc “La taille de mon âme” Our usual Frenchie in this list is once again Daniel Darc. Please read his story in this blog’s review of his late concert in Paris. It may be a bit tricky for non-French speakers to get it and awkward for French-speakers as well as this is pure emotional music but with a rock’n’roll mindset as well. Most funny lyrics with “J’ai peur des noix de coco depuis Keith Richards, j’irai en enfer avec Richard Hell”!
The Horrors “Skying” Very close to the podium for this English band for their third LP. Their second one was already one of the best of 2009 and for this one they decided to produce it themselves. They are now definitely amongst the great and these guys are really in love with music, mixing 60’s psychedelic and post-punk influences in a great way. Faris Badwan is for me the man of the year as he did another great album as half of duo Cat’s Eyes (great name too!). Please click on to read review of their Rock en Seine show.
Iron And Wine “Kiss Each Other Clean” When one clicks Iron and Wine in allmusic website, one gets Iron Maiden as first choice of related bands! Thank you allmusic as I could describe their music as completely the opposite although I have nothing against pure good metal once in a while. Lead by the multi-talented Sam Beam, this record is beautiful as always as far as melodies are concerned but this time with more musicians and richness which makes it above what he did before. Best show of the great Austin City Limits festival as far as I am concerned as well.
Okkervil River “I Am Very Far” Another one of these bands coming from Austin, Texas, mixing at the same time epic songs in a very subtle environment. One more, why this record compared to the previous ones done before? Probably a question of timing and the fact that I had been very enthusiastic about the show they played in Paris this year. Discover this band and you will be rewarded.
Josh T. Pearson “Last Of The Country Gentlemen” A resurrection here coming from the former leader of Texas band Lift to Experience. After years spent in the wilderness and thanks in part to a Creperie (!) restaurant in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, Josh Pearson gave us this year his first solo LP, mainly acoustic and with very long but captivating songs. Click on for review of the show he did this year at the Café de la Danse in Paris.
Radiohead “The King Of Limbs” One of our favorite bands ever, Radiohead went on playing tricks with their fans this year by getting this new record out of nowhere at the start of the year with the same policy as their last album “In Rainbows” with download first before any physical format such as the traditional CD or a limited edition with vinyl and newspaper inside. And the actual music in here? Well, a bit weird as impossible to remember a song from scratch but every time the needle gets on the record, one has to admit that Radiohead is still a top band, mixing electro sounds with great rhythm and the gorgeous voice of Thom Yorke.
Lou Reed & Metallica “Lulu” This may be probably the record that brought the most hatred in the music press and web community. I think I had never seen the critics so divided but boy, when people did not like it, they made it known! I personally liked it a lot and felt that this improbable meeting of two kinds made tremendous loud…but quiet music as well. I had seen Robert Trujillo in the audience attending Lou Reed show in Paris this year and one has to know that the great Lou is not in good physical shape, suffering from diabetes. The story “Lulu” is based on the play adapted by Robert Wilson on the story of this 19th century lady who fell down from high society in the gutters of life. Listen without prejudice.
The Roots “Undun” 2011 has not been the best hip-hop year for your host as I did not get the fuzz around the Odd Future crew and as Jay-Z and Kanye West’s common album was nice whereas we were expecting much better. So back to one of hip-hop oldest and best bands to deliver the goods…very late as this LP went out mid-december. The Roots are now hosting the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” show in the US and it gave them access to their studio on a 24/7 basis, allowing them to experiment basically with whatever they have in mind. “Undun” is based on the story of a guy growing, living and dying in the suburbs and was inspired by an old track from Sufjan Stevens. Mixing genres, beats and singer, this LP is a real grower, better with every listen and finishing with a classical suite (not very common in hip-hop) on which Sufjan Stevens plays the piano.
St. Vincent “Strange Mercy” This is the third album done by Annie Clark under the St. Vincent moniker and she really grows in stature with every year that goes on. This pretty and shy young woman makes today the most original music I know from a female perspective but always with a sense of melody. Discover this great artist, either by clicking on earlier review of her reinterpreting Tom Waits or in the excellent 4AD label sessions.
Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter “Marble Son” One of the best surprises of the year for me as I had associated Jesse Sykes with nice but sometimes boring pure Americana music in the past. Wrong! Her new album mixes at the same time nice melodies and handcrafted American epic songs with a kind of drone Sunn O))) influenced slow metal mood, which made it one of the most fascinating music of the year. And great music to drive to!
TV On The Radio “Nine Types Of Light” One of our regular bands of the end-of-the year list, TV On The Radio went from NY to California to record their new LP and one can really feel a more relaxed mood. Are we as surprised by this record as we used to be when we discovered this band? No, for sure. Are they still leading the pack in terms of excellence, creativity and emotion? Yes! If you have never heard about this band, this is a very good way to enter their world. And I give you not one but two concert reviews for 2011 you lucky readers!
Kurt Vile “Smoke Ring For My Halo” Or how to be inventive and sound as completely new with a familiar basis (talk Beck or Sonic Youth but on a more laid-back mood). Kurt Vile went one step ahead this year and his album is an ongoing pleasure for whoever wants cool but demanding music. Please check the video I took in Austin to get a better idea of what I am talking about.
Wilco “The Whole Love” Having a new Wilco record is a bit like what getting a new Pavement record used to be 15 years ago : excitement, pleasure and with the same sound overall but always with a few changes in their sound or song structures. “The Whole Love” could be described as a kind of summary of all they do well, that is to say pure American rock with weird sounds interfering once in a while the whole project. They also regularly are in our best-of but that is very much deserved as Jeff Tweedy and his guys are one of the most interesting and fascinating bands of our times.
Wild Beasts “Smother” This band came on top with their second album “Two Dancers” in 2009 and their latest LP is really as good as the last one, going further in the typical English vein of great voices but with groovier tracks. And they were also at Austin City Limits!
Jonathan Wilson “Gentle Spirit” Not a newcomer in the music business as this guy owns a studio in Los Angeles and produced many records for all the US bands we cherish but this is his “real” first LP. A fantastic album with songs that own as much to Neil Young as to American great vocalists bands, this is a record either to listen to near the fire or on the beach in the summer.
Very close to this list : Arctic Monkeys “Suck It And See” / James Blake “S/T”/ Cascadeur “The Human Octopuss” / Coldplay “Mylo Xyloto” / Cymbals Eat Guitars “Lenses Alien” / Death Cab For Cutie “Codes And Keys”/ The Decemberists “The King Is Dead” / Dutch Uncles “Cadenza” / Foo Fighters “Wasting Light” / Eleanor Friedberger “Last Summer” / Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “S/T”/ Arthur H “Baba Love” / Joan As Police Woman “The Deep Field” / Justice “Audio, Video, Disco” / J. Mascis “Several Shades of Why” / Red Hot Chili Peppers “I’m With You”/ Suuns “Zeroes QC”/ Vivian Girls “Share The Joy” / Tom Waits “Bad As Me” / Wild Flag “S/T”… and many, many, many records not in this list!
Other top 3’s (PJ Harvey quite loved in the UK and Bon Iver in the US…):
-> New Musical Express (UK weekly mag.): 1. PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” 2. Metronomy “The English Riviera” 3. The Horrors :”Skying”
-> Uncut (UK monthly mag.): 1. PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” 2. Gillian Welch “The Harrow And The Harvest” 3. Metronomy “The English Riviera”
-> Mojo (UK monthly mag.): 1. PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” 2. The Horrors “Skying” 3. Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”
-> Paste (US web mag.): 1. Bon Iver “bon iver, bon iver” 2. Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues” 3. My Morning Jacket “Circuital”
-> Pitchfork (US website): 1. Bon Iver “bon iver, bon iver” 2. Destroyer “Kaputt” 3. M83 “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”
-> Les Inrockuptibles (French weekly mag.): 1. The Black Keys “El Camino” 2. Metronomy “The English Riviera” 3. Wu Lyf “Go Tell Fire Mountain” Their “best of 2011 Hors-Série” is particularly recommended as excellent and coming with a CD of their prefered tracks of the year.
-> Magic rpm (French monthly mag.): 1. Girls “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” 2. Destroyer “Kaputt” 3. Baxter Dury “Happy Soup”
-> New Noise (French bimester mag.): 1. The Skull Defekts “Peer Amid” 2. Battles “Gloss Drop ” 3. Cheveu “1000″
-> Sound Opinions (US music podcast) Greg Kot’s 1. Wild Flag “Wild Flag” 2. The Roots “Undun” 3. tUnE-yArDs “WHOKILL” Jim DeRogatis’ 1. Le Butcherettes “Sin Sin Sin” 2. Wild Flag “Wild Flag” 3. Das Racist “Relax”
-> Robert Haymoncollins (Bristol, UK,blog): This is a Top 10 with no particular order but we have three records in common
-> Fargo (Paris records store): 1. Kurt Vile “Smoke Ring For My Halo” 2. Bill Callahan “Apocalypse” 3. Ryan Adams “Ashes & Fire”
-> Ground Zero (Paris records store): Top 10 – no order – 2 records in common
-> Other Music (NY records store): 1. Kurt Vile “Smoke Ring For My Halo” 2. Zomby “Dedication” 3. Andt Stott “Passed Me By / We Stay Together ”
Box Sets and Reissues
Always mixed feelings here as do we music fans have to enjoy beautifully remastered editions of great albums from the past with extra tracks, books and photos and do we have to be cynical, knowing that the records industry count on us to buy these overly priced sets? I think the right way as a consumer is to keep balance between what is really new and worthwhile vs. what is purely a repackaged stuff. Not always easy I must say… 2011 was clearly the reissue year : R.EM., Nirvana, The Jesus and May Chain, Paul Mc Cartney, The Smiths, Can, Smashing Pumpkins, Primal Scream, The Rolling Stones, This Mortal Coil, The Who, Serge Gainsbourg, Mikey Newbury, etc…
Best Box Set – The Beach Boys “The Smile Sessions” To make it short, here is the story of this music : in 1966, Brian Wilson (leader of the Beach Boys) following the success of their LP “Pet Sounds” and wanting to compete with The Beatles’s “Revolver” began work on his “Smile” project. Drugs, mental issues and heavy pressure he put on himself made him abandon the project later in the year and he would never be the same again. A few tracks appear little by little on official albums or bootlegs but the real discovery was to see Brian Wilson back in shape in 2004 playing “Smile” live and recording what could/should have been. Now seven years after, we are given the full package in this box-set for completists (5 CD’s and 2 LP’s) with the full sessions done by the band at the time. This is something that us music fans never thought we would be able to hear but this is true now. If your budget is limited and you do not want to hear 27 sessions of “Heroes and Villains” (which I can understand!), there is a shorter great 2-CD version. BUY IT!
Best Reissue – Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On” Your host will soon be writing a best of the year 1971 as this truly was one of the best years ever for music. Voted best album ever by New Musical Express in 1985, this is the record where Marvin Gaye emancipated himself from the Tamla Motown owner (and brother-in-law) Berry Gordy, wanting to stop singing silly love songs but giving his vision of the world. Best soul music ever for me on this record and the themes in it make it so 2011 : environmental issues, war in foreign countries, corruption and tax, etc… This reissue has one LP with the original mix and 2 CD’s with a remastered version and bonus tracks. Whatever the edition you chose, no one can live without this music at home!
So great year one more as all years for the music lovers since.. forever. A special goodbye to R.EM. who disbanded with dignity this year and whom we will never thank enough to introduce us to American bands and to the White Stripes. A special thought to the big man Clarence Clemmons who disappeared much too early (“Jungleland” sax solo forever!). Stay tuned to Virgins and Philistines blog and see you soon!