Sudden Little Drops has been recently resurrected so I could talk about music! Check out the new Albums of 2011 post below, and hopefully there will be more new content coming soon.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Albums of 2011

So here are my ten favourite albums from last year. Any list of favourites is obviously fairly subjective; there are plenty of albums I've been meaning to listen to but haven't yet. Then there are some - like the new Atlas Sound, or Julia Holter's Tragedy - that I've only got into very recently, but might have ended up on the list had I heard them earlier. Such is the nature of any list. These are just the albums that, based on what I listened to in 2011, really stood out, and which I think are worth talking about. I hope you enjoy reading and listening =)

 10. Cass McCombs | Wit's End

I think I can say with some certainty that ‘County Line’ was my favourite song I heard this year. It is the sound of a song replaying inside someone’s head; I can imagine him driving down a long open road back home, tapping it on the steering wheel, humming it under his breath. Traces of a fuller song remain – the gospel-inflected whoah-oh-ohs in the chorus, the touches of electric guitar – but they never entirely resolve, never offer an easy answer. Its opening lines are confused, lonely, fraught with paradox: “On my way to you old county / Hoping nothing’s changed / That your pain is never-ending.”  Then the chorus hits, and his voice almost disappears entirely.

But Wit’s End was more than just its perfect opening song. Its remaining seven tracks continue to unfold at the same slow, sad pace, scattered with illuminating details: the clack of unsettling, offbeat percussion in the chorus of ‘Hermit’s Cave’, the clarinet winding its way through ‘A Knock Upon the Door’ and melting into the languid coda at the end of ‘Memory’s Stain’. This is carefully composed, patient music from a true master of song.

Cass McCombs - County Line

9. Sean McCann | The Capital

Perhaps it’s just the name, but each time I listen to The Capital it feels like exploring a city, one that is slowly unfolding around me. The record takes in everything from the quiet gurgle of a drain (the strange noises on ‘Unfolding Angels’ sound like creatures living in a sewer) to the towering skyscrapers of synth and piano at the climax of ‘This Was Nearly Mine’. McCann has an intuitive feel for when to layer up these details and when to pull back, letting a creak of violin or a melodic turn on the piano suddenly show through unexpectedly. It’s like glimpsing through a window, a humanising detail in an otherwise bustling metropolis. But, as track titles like ‘Aerial Sapphire Show’ and ‘Star Charge’ suggest, this is not the grimy, real-life metropolis conjured up by the likes of Burial; rather it’s the sound of an imagined city, a celestial city in the clouds, powered by the fuel of molten sound.
  Sean McCann - The Vanilla Maiden

8. Julian Lynch | Terra

Pretty much the only music I remember listening to all summer was Terra. I kept it in our car, so that wherever I was driving – be it heading up to the woods on a lazy afternoon, or heading down the dual-carriageway for another day making donuts for ungrateful customers – it was there to lift the moment, to make it into something more. For despite Terra’s relaxed pace, Lynch is able to coax out moments of subtle power from his arrangements. ‘Ground’ swells from its sombre opening tones into something unexpectedly majestic. Layers of synth and strummed-guitar collide triumphantly at the end of ‘Back’. Yet Terra is just as effective in its quieter moments: the gentle piano figure on ‘Fort Collins’, the lilting clarinet on the title track. Different details reveal themselves on different listens, but what keeps me coming back is how it all coalesces together to create something full of warmth and comfort. Which, sometimes, is just what you want from an album.

Julian Lynch - Terra

7. Matana Roberts | COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres

In terms of sheer ambition, nothing else this year could touch Matana Roberts and the first instalment of her COIN COIN project. Drawing from post-rock, blues, free-jazz, and just about everything in between, she weaves a polyphonic narrative detailing the early history of black slavery. The album overflows with stories and ideas, veering into constantly unexpected places. Case in point: when the perspective shifts from one story to another at the start of ‘Pov Piti’, and Robert’s voice morphs from a kind of tentative scat-singing to a full-throated howl, in one of the most powerful minutes of music I’ve heard all year. Or when album centrepiece ‘Bid Em In – Libation for Mr. Brown’ (a song imaginatively sung from the point-of-view of a slave auctioneer) suddenly, following its a-capella first half, blossoms into a big-band gospel-romp, complete with plodding double-bass and jazzy keys. Or when the galloping piano that opens ‘Song for Eulalie’ is cut through by a screech of an electric guitar, like something off a Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. I could describe more, but you need to hear it. Amazing stuff.

Matana Roberts - Pov Piti

6. Tiago Sousa | Walden Pond's Monk

From Dustin O’Halloran’s delicate and dreamlike Lumiere, to the playful experimentation on Hauschka’s Salon des Amateurs, it has been a spectacularly good year for piano music. None, though, quite captured my imagination like Tiago Sousa’s concise, understated exploration of the life and work of Henry David Thoreau. I’m always a little wary when composers tie their music to a very concrete idea, but the playing here is more than expressive enough to carry it off. It really does feel like travelling deep into the isolated wilderness. Though barely longer than half an hour, it covers an extraordinary range of ground: opening and closing with  solo piano, it merges on its way with sinuous twists of clarinet, ripples of tribal percussion and deep, ominous drones, while never losing sight of where it’s heading. The piano itself is fluid and elusive, coaxing you to follow it on its journey. It’s a journey worth taking time and time again.

Tiago Sousa - Walden Pond's Monk (Part I)

5. Panda Bear | Tomboy

Panda Bear’s last album, 2007’s Person Pitch, meant a great deal to me, so I was pleased to find his new one sounded nothing like it. He could never have recaptured what he achieved on Person Pitch and he didn’t try to. Instead, he made what was in many ways a more direct album, with actual choruses and catchy melodies, but which paradoxically took longer to fully wrap your head around. Tomboy is a grower; you have to soak in its bath of reverb and echoing repetitions for a while before it starts to soak into you. But as it does sink in, it begins to take on an almost hymnal quality, a quiet but deeply affecting power which stirred inside me for the rest of the year.

There are little touches of Panda Bear magic all over this thing. It’s wonderfully sequenced, its two most abstract cuts framing its centrepiece, ‘Alsatian Darn’, probably the most straightforwardly beautiful song Panda’s ever written outside Animal Collective. Then there are the little moments within the songs themselves: the “I know, I know, I know” coda in ‘Last Night at the Jetty’, the buzzy synth whipping suddenly into the mix on the title track, the hypnotic tribal loops that close out ‘Afterburner’. Yeah. I mean, it’s Panda Bear. Of course I love it.
  Panda Bear - Last Night At The Jetty

4. Colin Stetson | New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

Applying microphones to every part of his saxophone, as well as his own body, Colin Stetson captures the full experience of its being played: clicks of fingers on the keys, the resonances deep inside the bell, his own breathing. Much has been made of the technical achievement of this method, and rightly so. Stetson records each piece in a single take without overdubs, an astonishing physical achievement at a time when more and more music involves no physical creative act at all. But what really fascinates me about New History Warfare is the sound of the music itself, a sound at once strange and otherworldly, yet at the same time grounded, earthly and intimate. It’s a sound-experience that threw me completely off-guard. There are precedents, sure – the flurries of high-notes bring to mind Coltrane – but it doesn’t really sound like anything else. Rising as though from an abyss with the building growls of ‘Awake on Foreign Shores’, it proceeds in all kinds of unexpected directions – the hallucinatory spirals of ‘A Dream of Water’, the sorrowful, guttural ‘Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes’ –  while remaining, at its core, a solo-saxophone record.

Colin’s no selfish guy, though. As well as producing extraordinary solo work, he plays in many a back-up band and brought his inimitable touch to a number of other great records this year, among them Feist’s excellent LP Metals, as well as the next album on my list…

Colin Stetson - Judges

3. Bon Iver | Bon Iver

“Somewhere baby a part of me apart from me.” There, in that line from ‘Holocene’, is the essence of Bon Iver. The album unpicks how our identities get mapped onto geography, how different memories and people and places collage together to form our sense of who we are. Its songs feel like scrapbooks of different sounds, each with their own emotional resonances, resulting in an album that is constantly shifting, re-making itself. Listen, for example, to where opener ‘Perth’ morphs into ‘Minnesota, WI’, which may be the best transition between two songs I’ve ever heard. This shifting geography is reflected in every part of the album: its impressionistic patchwork of lyrics, the gorgeous artwork by Gregory Euclide, and even the title, printed on the side of the record as ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’, like an American town. Most of all, though, it is infused into the music itself, ten intricate, transportive songs that I’ve only just started to uncover all the depth in.

The first Bon Iver record had such a feeling of capturing something special – a lightning in a bottle kind of moment – that it seemed impossible to imagine how Justin Vernon and his band could ever follow it up. Turns out the answer was simple: make an even better one.

Bon Iver - Calgary

2. Tim Hecker | Ravedeath, 1972

With Ravedeath, 1972, Tim Hecker created music through the process of destroying it. Taking some melodic sketches into a Reykjavík church and recording them on a gorgeous, ethereal-sounding pipe-organ, he then proceeded to compose the album retrospectively, manipulating and partially destroying the sounds he had captured to create – or uncreate – the recording we hear now.

At least, that’s one picture of what this album is. I can describe how the record was made, the processes behind it. I can describe how the resulting sounds manage to be both menacing and uplifting simultaneously. I can describe some of the conceptual ideas I feel it explores: digital garbage, the impact of technology on music, the contrary human impulses towards creation and destruction, the reasons someone might want to push a piano off a roof.

But none of these things would really tell you what Ravedeath, 1972 actually is. Nothing I could write could express what it sounds like, what it feels like to experience. Because, like the greatest of music, what Tim Hecker communicates here can only be communicated through sound. Therefore I can only urge you: hear it.

Tim Hecker - In the Fog I

1. Shabazz Palaces | Black Up

Wow. Black Up. What can I possibly say?

Like Tim Hecker’s album, it’s a very difficult one to put into words. Indeed, Palaceer himself (who is, of course, actually Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler from 90’s jazz-rap legends Digable Planets) recognises the limitations of words (“I can’t explain it with words / I have to do it”) and turns, therefore, to sound as his primary language. Every sound here – a sudden flurry of saxophone, the extra crunch of a drumbeat, an unidentifiable noise (there are a lot of them) swooping overhead – has clearly been laboured over, weighted to give the most expressive impact. But equally thrilling is the way all these little sounds come together: a psychedelic, jazz-inflected pool of noise, murky and echoing, swarming with deep bass, clattering with drums. It’s quite a dark sound, reflected in its often angry lyrics, its tirades against greed (‘Youlogy’) and hypocrisy (‘Yeah You’), which have the feel of trying to make sense of a strange world. That was something that was easy to connect to this year – it’s been one hell of weird year to live through. But the album also finds time for comedy and lightness (take, for example, its often hilariously verbose track titles) and it is in this lightness where the most profound moments are often to be found: when the album loosens, turns to others, asks “how are you?”

Because if there’s one thing that really hit me about Black Up ­– aside from how original and innovative the actual music on it is – it was its sense of compassion. “I’m free”, the opening track declares, and it sounds at once both a shout of celebration and a challenge. We’re all free to act how we choose in our strange world: to “be a slave to our most powerful instincts” or to stand out and live for something more. When the lyrics coalesce around a certain phrase, it often feels like a mantra for action, as on the stunning final track: “If you talk about it, that’s a show / But if you move about it, then it’s a go.” Doesn’t sound like much on paper, but bursting from the denseness of the previous nine tracks on a beat that’s suddenly spare and light, it’s both thrilling and challenging.

Like I said, Black Up. Wow.

Shabazz Palaces - Swerve... The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)

Shabazz Palaces - Are You... Can You... Were You (Felt)