Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top 40 Albums Of The Year - Part 3

Finally the blog you've all been waiting for... the top ten albums of 2011.


10)Watch The Throne – Jay Z & Kanye West
It’s an album made by the two best rappers in the business – what did you expect? Watch The Throne’ is a match made in hip hop heaven where each player simply does as they do best. Each brings their own personality, tongues often tucked firmly in cheeks: Jay Z’s threat on Otis; to 'Call the Papparazzi on myself' only topped by Kanye’s boast that he made “Jesus Walks”/ I’m never going to hell’.

So far so ludicrous, the usual rap themes are present in abundance – money, cars, diamonds and women make up 99% of the lyrical themes, but somehow, the pair get away with it, their casual misogyny attracting a ‘well, it IS Jay Z and Kanye West!’ response rather than outrage. Often coming across like two brothers trying to outdo each other, odd tracks do end in tears, (Who Gon Stop Me over-eggs the pudding somewhat) but when mediator Beyonce turns up on Lift Off, the true magic happens. As her soaring vocals intersperse the raps, it’s obvious who really Runs The World, and it seems a bit of a shame that she doesn’t appear on more than the one track. The dynamic between the three is something truly timeless.

But, the focus here is on Kanye and Jay. This isn’t an album they had to do. Both men have more than enough in the bank that this is simply a project of friends, a chance to push each other creatively. And when it works, it really, really works. Best of all, their energy is infectious: I defy anyone to come away from listening to Watch The Throne without feeling like there is a little more swagger in their step.

Download: Lift Off, N***** in Paris, Otis

9)What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?- The Vaccines
In end of year lists, there’s often a pressure for the top albums to be the most profound ones, the ones that say something about the state of society, the ones who provide a message that stays with you forever. This isn’t the case with The Vaccines. What we have here is 40 minutes of good times: simple, gleeful rock and roll. Who wants to an eight minute instrumental piece about the state of the economy when you could be pogoing up and down in a beer stained venue, repetitively howling ‘Ra Ra Ra!’, ‘Blow Blow Blow It Up’ or even ‘ifyouwannacomebackitsallrightitsalright, itsalrightifyouwannacomebacktomeeeeeee!’ at the top of your voice? It might not be clever, but its definitely big.

 Slaying crowds wherever they go, what The Vaccines have created with this album is an arsenal of unavoidable tunes that yes, might have no overly deep meaning but certainly contain themes that near on any man, woman or child could relate to and enjoy. For those who want a little more substance, All In White and Post Break Up Sex both provide great lyrical narratives and in turn prove to be amongst the band’s best work, hopefully hinting at the kind of songs their next album might explore. But for now, we love them for taking things back to basics in the true spirit of rock and roll: leather clad, breakneck speed guitaring that will paint a smile on even the most hipster of faces.

Download: Wreckin Bar (Ra Ra Ra), All In White, If You Wanna

8)Mylo Xyloto – Coldplay
Everyone hates Coldplay. Chris Martin’s boring. They desperately want to be U2. Yeah yeah, we get it. As it happens, I myself had gone off them a little during the Viva La Vida... era. But all of those preconceptions go out of the window as the band with the gloriously pretentious album titles and penchant for emotional stadium fillers are back, and this time it really is Life In Technicolour. Say what you like about their intentions, but Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall and Paradise still sound as positively gargantuan as the first time I heard them, smacking you round the face with skyscraper melodies that attack your consciousness in a way that makes you realise that actually, you don’t even need to buy their cd to know all the words. Coldplay are everywhere.

 Although you get the usual Coldplay fare , (Don’t Let It Break Your Heart, Us Against The World, and the beautiful Up In Flames that would have slotted snugly onto Parachutes), the sense of experimentation is what makes Mylo Xyloto such a thrilling listen. The sugary 90s RnB of Princess Of China (featuring the commercial kryptonite that is Rihanna)  and the wired synth of Hurts Like Heaven are delightfully unexpected and remarkably vibrant for a band who could have easily rested on their laurels. In this way, the message is clear: just when you think you know Coldplay, they go and surprise you. Don’t give up on them just yet.

Download: Hurts Like Heaven, Paradise, Up In Flames

7)the English Riviera – Metronomy
At number 7 is an album that soundtracked my summer, quite an accolade considering that I only had a passing interest in them before. However, this is a band who make significant growth between each record: If Metronomy’s Nights Out was a beat up Ford Fiesta, then The English Riviera is the musical equivalent of a Ferrari, pulling into a valet as Joe Mount exits in his trademark cream suit, throwing the keys to an attendant and telling them to keep the change.

As mentioned above, Mount is seemingly settling into frontman status, whether that be because of the protective guise of this album being concept based, or simply because he has more belief in the songs. It’s understandable: The Look and The Bay are obvious singles with their sleek hooks, but my personal favourite is Everything Goes My Way – featuring guest vocals by Roxanna Clifford of Veronica Falls, it’s a perfect example of how a song can sound mainstream without losing its sense of sultry ambiguity. Perhaps this kind of songwriting is the one that Mount should have whipped out when he was writing with Nicola Roberts…

Download: The Look, The Bay, Everything Goes My Way

6)Build A Rocket Boys! – Elbow
For an album to rank this highly in my list, it needs to mean something to me on a personal level. Guy Garvey has long been one of my most favourite songwriters, quintessentially British and endearing in his approach, but on Build A Rocket Boys! he excelled himself, tapping into many emotions that I experienced throughout this year.

Musically, it’s typical Elbow fare, bold vocals over soft guitars, the perfect accompaniment to a lazy Sunday. Whilst Open Arms, With Love and Neat Little Rows were my initial favourites, 2011 was the year I left my whole life behind to go to uni, and three months in, I already feel like my life has changed drastically. Certain tracks embodied that so nicely that it felt almost as if I’d written them myself. When Garvey sings ‘nobody knew me at home anymore’ on Lippy Kids, it speaks perfectly of the transition between childhood and adulthood, ‘do they know these days are golden?’ already evoking a feeling of loss and nostalgia as I look back on life as a child. 

These same emotions are pushed out on Dear Friends, my highlight of the album. ‘You stuck a pin in the map I was in/ You are the stars I navigate home by’ is the perfect summary of how I felt when I first left, lost in a new place far away from home and relying on my friends and family back home to reassure me that I would get used to my new surroundings. Now, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else. I have since listened to this track every time I’ve come home from uni or gone back on the train, and its begun to garner a certain significance, Garvey’s ever soothing voice acting as a sort of comfort blanket. I hope that in years to come it’ll remind me of this hugely exciting and new period in my life, and in my mind, that what all truly special music should do.

Download: Lippy Kids, Dear Friends, Open Arms

5)Pala – Friendly Fires
But enough of that soppy nonsense. Sometimes it’s just good to dance. With Pala, Friendly Fires have taken a Saturday night and slapped it on a CD, complete with highs, lows and euphoric snapshots that end up becoming lifelong memories. Each tracks makes up a different part of the evening, from the mission statement of Live Those Days Tonight (‘you claim your history is beyond a man like me/but I’ll live, I'll live, I'll live those days tonight’), to Blue Cassette and Chimes which make lost love sound like something to be celebrated, glimmering with disco beats that threaten to burst out of the stereo and drag you bodily onto the dancefloor.

 For anyone who has seen Friendly Fires live, you’d know of Ed McFarclane’s trademark ‘dance like no one’s watching’ routine. Pala acts like an unofficial indie workout, chock full of heart skipping ecstasy, synths, cowbells and frantic drumming aplenty. The title track also explores a leaner, sexier side to Friendly Fires, the slow beats sounding more RnB than Indie Disco. Escapism at its best, Hawaiian air runs to the same blueprint as old favourite Paris, Mcfarclane detailing his longing to escape mediocrity. This is in essence what Friendly Fires stand for – adventure, an exotic diversion from grey Britain.

Download: Blue Cassette, Chimes, Hawaiian Air

4)Hello Sadness – Los Campesinos
The first time I heard anything from Hello Sadness, I was on a train on the way to Leeds for Constellations festival. A friend handed me his headphones, told me to listen to the title track, and within three minutes, I was forced to completely reevaluate my preconceptions about a band. That track was the best thing I heard that day. Festival included.

Prior to this album, I will admit I was ignorant. Having only heard (and enjoyed, but not grown attached to at the time) their debut, I saw them as just yet another band in the colourful twee movement of 2007. How sorely mistaken I was. In fact, I’ve never been so glad to have been so very wrong. I’ve since acquainted myself with their back catalogue, and now I’m finally old enough to ‘get’ the popular culture referencing lyrics, this band have wormed their way into a very special place in my heart.

This year’s line up changes have brought out the best in Los Campesinos – they sound fuller and more cohesive than ever. Gone is the cacophony of their past work and the tunes are rising to the surface.

It’s clear that Gareth Campesinos thrives on misery to fuel his writing, his brash, almost bratty vocals giving these tales of a relationship gone awry a realistic edge that stops them descending into self-indulgence. Love is exhausting isn’t it? And so is this album, in the best cathartic sense.

Whilst Hello Sadness is clearly borne out of a dark place (you only need to look at the title, one of the most summative and imminent of the year), it isn’t without its elements of hope: both By Your Hand and Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions) hint at a future post break up depression, the former wisely deciding that ‘I'm not sure if it's love any more, but I've been thinking of you fondly for sure.’, and the latter musing  'These things rattle round my head/If he hasn't blown the whistle/Then it isn't quite the end.' It is this new found maturity that suggests that Hello Sadness may only be the beginning for a band who clearly have so much to say.

Download: Hello Sadness, By Your Hand, Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)

3)Suck It And See – Arctic Monkeys
I love Arctic Monkeys. Always have done, undoubtedly always will. However, I can assure the more sceptical readers amongst you that this number 3 position is no bias. They have earnt the bronze medal by surprising me yet again with a revitalized zest for a catchy hook, raw delivery, and a new lyrical approach.

Even the hardiest fans feared that the band we loved were fading away after Humbug. Whilst I loved that album, I did feel a certain lament for the relateable lyrics of their early material, concerned that Turner was losing himself in his own lexis. However, the break between records and writing the Submarine soundtrack seemed to loosen him up, allowing Suck It And See to be an open, straightforward affair. Whilst Brick By Brick may have taken this to delightfully dumb extremes, the likes of The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala and That’s Where You’re Wrong proved to be pop driven delights that have earnt their place amongst Arctic Monkeys best work, all four players on peak form.

It is this that makes Arctic Monkeys so special. Each player is given their chance to shine, whether that be Matt Helders octupuslike drumming (Library Pictures), Nick O’Malleys laid back, enigmatic bass (Reckless Serenade), Jamie Cook’s beefy guitar (Don’t Sit Down Cos I Moved Your Chair) or Turners crooning vocals (Love Is A Laserquest). By the sum of its parts, Suck It And See seems far more of a band effort, a band who are enjoying just playing together rather than exploring abstract avenues for the sake of experimentation. Despite Turners’ claim that he  ‘poured (his) aching heart into a pop song/ couldn’t get the hang of poetry’, they’ve never been on better form.

Download: That’s Where You’re Wrong, Suck It And See, The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala

2)A Different Kind Of Fix – Bombay Bicycle Club
After making my number 1 album of the year in 2010 with the acoustic beauty of Flaws, the stakes were high for Bombay Bicycle Club. Luckily for them, they are just as proficient when the guitars are plugged back in.

Opening with the flowing, nomadic How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?, its obvious that Bombay have grown up. Whilst their previous material was very much NME indie, Jack Steadmans side project as a electronica producer has obviously leaked into his day job, the sampled vocals and beatbox quality backing making them very difficult to pigeonhole. It’s obvious that he is a highly talented musician, able to turn his hand to pretty much any genre he sees fit, a Willy Wonka gleefully skipping between his creations of shoegaze (Take The Right One), afrobeat (Lights Out Words Gone) and folk (Beggars).

As always with Bombay Bicycle Club, there is a sense of tentativeness that gives their music a nervous energy, Steadman’s whispy voice often holding a questioning tone. Accompanied once more by long time collaborator Lucy Rose, he sounds slightly more at home, but is clearly still battling a certain lack of self esteem which makes their music all the more authentic and lovable. Reports suggest that much of A Different Kind Of Fix’s lyrical themes revolve around his ex girlfriends infidelity, and when he openly bears his loss on the cut-it-with-a-knife atmosphere of album closer Still (‘did he fill the empty spaces/ was he everything I’m not?’), you can’t help wanting to lean over and give him a cuddle.

Still, its not all doom and gloom. Shuffle and Favourite Day are both loaded with serotonin, the jerky piano and broad melodies reeking of late summer evenings spent dancing with friends. These rare insights serve as reminder to how young the band still are, only making the fact that they have produced three stunning albums in the past three years all the more impressive. Having proved their diversity, I expect them to be a pretty permanent fixture in my best of lists for years to come.

Download: Shuffle, Lights Out Words Gone, How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?

1)Smother – Wild Beasts
And so we come to my number one album of the year. For me, it was an obvious choice, and to my loyal readers, you probably saw it coming miles off. I am proud to announce that Safety In Sound number 1 Album of the Year is Smother by Wild Beasts.

My relationship with Wild Beasts has been a whirlwind affair. For a long time, they were merely a mutual friend, a name I was frequently recommended but never thoroughly investigated. However, when I heard word of a new album, I decided to give them a proper go, and it was kismet.

Put politely, Smother is a sensual affair. Wild Beasts have made no qualms in the past about their lyrics being highly driven sexually, but I feel that this is to do them a disservice: nowhere on the album is there crudeness, only evocative, lush imagery and metaphor that will undoubtedly mean different things to different people. For every Plaything (where Thorpe implores the unnamed female to 'unfold his body' over tribal, sparse drums before descending into a head swimmingly intense breakdown) there is a breath catchingly romantic Invisible, where Fleming confesses ‘you have walked through my dreams’, reinforced by spiralling backing vocals and gentle keyboard.

In fact, it is the delicate falsetto of Hayden Thorpe and the booming dominance of Tom Fleming that has long been Wild Beasts calling card, and the element that is so intriguingly explored here, adding well needed light and shade. They play clear characters, and it becomes hard to imagine them singing each other parts: both are selected purposefully for each song. It shows remarkable foresight for a band with two frontmen to discern who has the relevant qualities to convey the message.

So let’s talk highlights. Albatross is an obvious choice, a musical butterfly that is both intellectual and stunningly peculiar in its approach, so haunting that you find yourself feeling inexplicably empty when it ends on such a final note. Also a standout is Bed Of Nails, it’s loose, swooping beats glimmering with starry eyed intent ('surround me like a warm bath/ sum me up like a epitaph/ be blatant as a baliff/ I want our lips to blister when we kiss’). Their inimitable, almost Victorian turn of phrase is nothing short of a delight, making Smother a bizarre sort of  literary education, a more fulfilling listen as a music fan.

I could go on, but I don’t think there’s any need. Smother is something Wild Beasts have been building towards for a long time, far more focused and less playful than ever before. This is an album any fan of modern music should try, for it is the most blissfully absorbing record I have heard in quite some time. It’s a shame that The Mercury Music Prize didn’t pick up on it, but if this a body of work that they can produce on only their third full record, somehow I don’t think the band will be losing any sleep.

Download: Albatross, Invisible, Bed Of Nails


So that concludes my round up of the year, hoped you enjoyed reading it even if you didn't agree. What was your album pf the year?

4 comments:

  1. Top 5 should consist of THE HORRORS! CAT'S EYES! CLOUD CONTROL! TOM VEK! GHOSTPOET! THE HORRORS! THE HORRORS! THE HORRORS!

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  2. If Not Now, When? by Incubus definately should've made this list :) apart from that it's brilliant :D

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  3. Totally agree with number one, as 'Smother' is my top record of 2011 as well. I absolutely disagree with Beyone and Coldplay but that's just me. I just don't get what the fuss is all about when it comes to them. ;) Other than that, you definitely picked some great records!

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  4. Wow! I would've listed a lot of stuff on your list as well! Great choices. I'm actually surprised you picked Vices and Virtues. I love that album, but it's really underrated (probably because it's Panic at the Disco).

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