Hello everyone and welcome to my Records of the Year 2011. I could probably have tried to produce a more balanced list (more rock maybe; more dance) but instead I’ve just been honest and plumped for the ones which have spent most time in my CD player – and a lot of it, for whatever reason, does seem to err on the side of stoner folk. Or “wrist-slitting music” as some of my more rockist US friends tend to think of it. Still, I maintain that my taste is immaculate and I know that there are some of you out there who have come to rely on my records of the year list as the perfect way to stock up your collection with music which doesn’t suck. This list is for you. I hope it brings you joy.
Pale, young and sensitive, steeped in the wispy feyness of trad and nu folk, with even a name that sounds as drippy as a wet dish cloth, Laura Marling is not the type of artiste who makes you go: “I’m gagging to hear her new album.” You should be though. This, her third, is a triumph of poised, coolly elegant, slily seductive folk which stands comparison with the best of Joni Mitchell (whom she greatly resembles at times) and the early 70s Laurel Canyon scene. Some of it – the lilting Salinas – is nakedly Californian; some – Night After Night – could be Leonard Cohen; my favourite is the very trad, shanty-like Rest In The Bed. But it’s all lovely, her voice is perfect, the tunes are growers: a classic.
I love this album and I was quite shocked when John Grant (as in, you know, John Grant the singer/songwriter/genius) told me the other the day that he can’t bear it. What doesn’t he like about it? “Everything.” Well he’s a Kate Bush fan and I’m a Kate Bush fan, so take your pick. What this is, basically, is a Kate Bush remix album with Kate Bush doing the remixing of tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. Because Hounds Of Love was such a total masterpiece it’s easy to underrate the two albums that followed – and one of the joys of Director’s Cut is rediscovering old favourites like Never Be Mine and weirdities like Rubberband Girl – and realising how much they meant to you and how much you’ve missed them. The title track of The Sensual World is given a new name – Flower of the Mountain – and lyrics from James Joyce (as Bush had always originally intended: she just couldn’t get the permission first time from the Joyce estate); the other stuff is given new arrangements and performed in a lower vocal register, which for me conveys maturity, wisdom and comfort-in-the-skin, but which I can see if you prefer your Kate Bush high and youthful might feel a bit of a comedown. I compared the extended Never Be Mine here with the original: both work for me, just in different ways. Oh, and because it’s all recorded in analog, the sound is much warmer than it would be on digital. Why can’t all music still be made with this loving attention to detail?
Seasick Steve needed a bass player and now he’s got one: John Paul Jones. Truly, it’s a match made in heaven. I caught them at the Latitude festival (not enough of them, unfortunately: there was some kind of child-related crap that delayed me) and the magic wrought on Seasick Steve’s act was a joy to behold. Where before he was an amiable, but slightly annoying bluesy raconteur whose stuff went on a bit, suddenly you were experiencing loud, thrilling breaks and duels between guitar and bass, giving the material drama and space and yes, even a judicious hint of the spirit of Led Zep. You didn’t want the songs to end – whereas in the old days, sans John Paul Jones, you kind of did. Anyway, the album bears this out. It’s worth getting.
If you like Roy Harper, Gravenhurst, Badly Drawn Boy or Nick Drake you will adore Jack Cheshire’s Copenhagen, for this is exquisitely wrought, gorgeously melancholy song-writing in the finest traditions of mildly psychedelic, quintessentially stoner folk. There’s also a bit of Logh in there too, perhaps imbibed from the remote Swedish studio where it was recorded. The vocals are attractively slurred and sleepy, the lyrics dreamlike and beautiful, and the melodies and arrangements – check out the superb Magic Eye Lens, for example – get right under your skin. I especially recommend the title track. So much do I recommend the title that you should stop what you’re doing right now, listen to it instantly on Spotify – then try telling me it’s not your new favourite melancholy stoner folk song.
And while we’re in melancholy folk mode, he’s another excellent offering – from a proper actual undertaker. Roch’s vocal range extends from a very creditable, Antony and the Johnsons soprano to a winsome, cracked , mildly Oirish, Tom McRae-like baritone, his songs are often infused with the kind of dustblown, vaguely Old Testament bitter-sweetness you find in Johnny Cash or Nick Cave (which will be why Roch is touring with Grinderman), his arrangements are adventurously baroque and his tunes often enormously catchy. It’s a grower.
How reassuring it is to be reminded in this uncertain, changing world that some things remain immutable: the Germans still know how to make a seriously good trance/techno album. Though you might not have heard of Leipzig’s Kalkbrenner, he’s huge elsewhere and was recently assessed as Germany’s 11th biggest brand name (between Mercedes Benz and Porsche). His fifth album is your chance to find out why. Some of it’s warm, pulsing, mellow trance in the manner of Ulrich Schnauss; some of it – Des Stabes Reuse sounds like the distorted crashing of goosestepping Soviet boots – is more abrasive. It’s cerebral, inventive and constantly entertaining. Highly recommended.
Cashier No. 9 are a trio from Belfast who think they’re from late Sixties California: in a most excellent way, obviously, or they wouldn’t be on this records-of-the-year list. This is sun-drenched, breezy, driving-down-the-freeway-with-the-roof-down melodic rock, with jangly guitars, a widescreen ambiance, wall-of-sound arrangements, and echoes not just of the obvious West Coast suspects but also of Simon & Garfunkel, a bit of the Smiths, a hint of Tindersticks, maybe even a hint of Syd Barratt. Really, really good anyway. If you don’t like it probably means you’re dead.
Here is our finest, weirdest, most original singer-songwriter on probably her best form since Hounds of Love. By turns endearingly, defiantly kooky (eg the title track, in which Stephen Fry intones increasingly weird made-up euphemisms for snow “ankle-breaker” while a whispering Bush eggs him on) and hauntingly, eerily lovely (eg Wild Man, in which she empathises with the plight of a fellow, rare, elusive creature, the Yeti).
If anyone else were to make a folkie protest album laden with references to soldiers getting their limbs blown off in what might be Afghanistan, it would be irksome, predictable and to be avoided like the plague. But this being PJ Harvey, it is apolitical, unpreachy, subtle, eerie, poignant, and beguiling. It’s also her most English album yet, recorded in a Dorset church, and rooted in that folk tradition somewhere between Cecil Sharp House and Kate Bush in away-with-the-fairies mode. She’s come a long way from her early arid hard rock period and her mid-career Americana, yet still she sounds unmistakably like herself. All hail the mighty Polly, a veritable one-woman Radiohead.
Five years in the making, Rome is an imaginary soundtrack homage to Ennio Morricone by super-producer Brian (Danger Mouse) Burton and Italian LA-based film score composer Daniele (Sex and the City, etc) Luppi. It could so easily have been a precious vanity project: recorded in Rome with Morricone’s studio with several of his old musicians, now in their 70s and 80s. But in fact it’s a swoonsome, exquisitely judged affair whose lush, tasteful, lounge-tastic orchestral tendencies are nicely undercut by the down and dirty vocals of Jack White and Norah Jones. Besides the obvious (though not overdone) hints of spaghetti western, it ranges from edgy Love-style psychedelia to Zero 7 smoothy soul to dustblown lo-fi of Calexico. If you hear a better chill-out album this year I’d be surprised.
This record is so obviously commercial that I almost feel embarrassed to recommend it. And it’s produced by Coldplay’s bass player Guy Berryman, which may put you off even more. Give it a couple of plays (or even one play, frankly), though, and you’ll find resistance futile. Catherine and Allison Pearce are Alabama-born sisters who sing songs with the drama and catchiness of Abba, the jangliness of the Byrds, the melancholy West Coast summeriness of the Mamas and the Papas with clear vocals and lovely country harmonies, unapologetically overblown production and such absolute assurance that you don’t mind one bit that at least half the songs sound like California Dreaming.
Other Lives are a five-piece from Stillwater, Oklahoma who exude much the same pastoral loveliness and wispy delicacy as Fleet Foxes, allied with the moody, subdued epic quality of the National and something of the electronic portentousness of Arcade Fire. There are also passages where they sound extraordinarily like Pink Floyd. All in a good way of course. This is mellow, wistful, widescreen, dustblown Americana with ace tunes which creep under your skin
Also worth consideration: Feist – Metals (Polydor); Fleet Foxes – Helplesness Blues (Bella Union); The Unthanks – Last (Rabble Rouser); Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will (Rock Action); The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Rough Trade); Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (RCA); Jamie Woon – Mirrorwriting (Polydor/Interscope); DJ Shadow – The Less You Know The Better (Island)