10. Josh T. Pearson – The Last of the Country Gentlemen
Former front man for Lift to Experience, Pearson reemerged from a ten year hiatus this year with one of the most harrowing albums your ever likely to hear. The Last of the Country Gentlemen documents the fallout from a failed relationship in bitter, vicious and sprawling style. Coming in around the hour mark, with just seven tracks, it’s not an easy listen, but these songs will consume you if you give them a chance. Mostly, it’s just Pearson and his guitar, but occasional strings from the likes of Warren Ellis augment the mournfulness. When I spoke to Pearson earlier this year, he told me that every time he plays these songs live, he vows it will be the last. He was subdued and admitted to still being an emotional train-wreck. After forty minutes of chat, though, he had come out of his shell somewhat and was giving me tips on touring Texas and growing beards. A true country gentleman, indeed.
Interview with Josh T. Pearson here
9. J. Mascis – Several Shades of Why
Along with Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs:Ohia, this is the album that helped calm my nerves when I missed a flight from Seoul to Sydney earlier this year. £800 out of pocket and stranded in a horrible airport, it had to be something special. I never really got into Dinosaur Jr., Mascis’ old band, and was surprised by how much I loved this. For a start, it’s completely different than anything I’ve heard from Mascis: stripped back acoustic songs, gorgeous strings swooning over his weary, gravelly melodies. Beautiful stuff.
8. Christina Vantzou – No. 1
Along with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid, Vantzou is one half of The Dead Texan. She’s apparently the former girlfriend of Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), and I first came across her through the videos she produced for him. I think those two names are a good starting point when trying to describe this album. It’s got the emotional weight of a Sparklehorse record, transmitted through the ambient swells of a Dead Texan. In a year in which Tim Hecker’s (admittedly excellent) Ravedeath, 1972 stole the plaudits for Kranky Records, his stable-mate Vantzou sneaked in under the radar. This is, in my opinion, the superior album. Best served with powerful headphones in a quiet room.
7. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
“There is little doubt whose band this is these days. But Granduciel’s voice is acquiescent throughout. Sometimes he whoops (‘Come To The City’), sometimes he sneers (‘It’s Your Destiny’), but for the most part, he is content to bury himself in the maelstrom of swirling guitars and driving percussion. In accepting sole control of the band he and Kurt Vile started in Philadelphia eight years ago, Granduciel has proven himself the equal of his celebrated, erstwhile sparring partner. Slave Ambient is a fine album that deserves to be recognised amongst the finest to have seen this lap of the sun.”
Full album review here
6. Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel
Rarely does a debut album manage to combine wonderful, fresh experimentation with intelligent, fully-formed songsmithery as well as Kammerspiel. Despite being loaded with bleeps, beeps and shuffles, it feels and sounds wholly organic. Anneke Kampan’s crystalline, elfin vocals are the most charming to have crossed these lugs in some time, and the songs are perfectly written to accommodate them. In other years, this would have been much higher up my list. That it’s not in the top five reflects upon how fantastic 2011 has been for albums.
5. Wilco – The Whole Love
I’ve been a big fan of Wilco since I bought A Ghost Is Born on the strength of hearing ‘Muzzle of Bees’ on a cd given away with a magazine in 2004. That said, my listening has mostly been confined to the albums that preceded that year. Sky Blue Sky was too light, the eponymous Wilco far too patchy. Finally, seven years later, A Ghost… has a worthy successor. The Whole Love is a wonderful listen, from start to finish, bookended by the two best tracks Wilco have recorded in years. Interviewing Glenn Kotche, the drummer, earlier this year, he said the band haven’t ever been this content. Rather than engendering complacency, it’s inspired them back to their ingenious best: a welcome, overdue return to form.
Interview with Glenn Kotche (Wilco) here
4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
“Taking his lead from some of the artists he’s worked with (Kanye and Mitchell, particularly), he’s surrounded himself with talent (the stellar bass saxophonist Colin Stetson is an especially noteworthy addition), and worked with them to take his songs to new and fascinating places. Bon Iver is a producer’s album, with the visionary Vernon at the helm. Far from inducing anthrophobia, his spell in the woods seems to have nurtured dexterity in collusion, which can only get more interesting in the years to come.”
Full album review here
3. Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere
“From the opening track, ‘A Great Divide’, O’Halloran raises the concept of thaw: the icy tinkling of light percussion, washed over, like daybreak, by the warmth of rising strings and sparse piano. It’s evocative and it’s brilliant. Even having played this album through the freezing, dark winter, the suggestion of spring is never far from the listener. Throughout, there is the uncluttered feel of a new start, breaths of fresh air and life. ‘We Move Lightly’ is loaded with hope and anticipation: the rising piano arpeggio being drawn towards something special and invigorating by the strings that surround it. The simple, sextet of notes that marks the climax of album centrepiece ‘Fragile No.4′ is breathtaking.”
Full album review here
2. Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
I’ve tried to describe this to a few people, and failed miserably. I usually start by saying: “It’s a woman singing; but there aren’t any words. There are hardly any instruments, either.” At which point, the person normally says: “You mean like Enya?” No, no, no. Let’s try again. Julianna Barwick makes her music by looping her voice, over and over, layering it, and adding subtle bursts of synth, percussion, guitar and piano. It’s unlike almost anything else I’ve ever heard and Magic Place is, quite simply, one of the most exquisitely composed bodies of music I’ve come across in years.
1. King Creosote & John Hopkins – Diamond Mine
The first time I played this, I was waiting for a bus, on a busy street in Gwangju, South Korea, which stank of fish and drying chilli. Fife? I may as well have been on the moon. But I was instantly captivated. After listening to the first track (proper) about eight times, I promptly did so with the others in succession. It took me a full day to get through the entire album. The songs on Diamond Mine already existed somewhere in KC’s never-ending oeuvre, but Jon Hopkins has brought them to life, in full technicolour. The production is breathtaking; the melodies spectacular and King Creosote’s voice heartrending; a devastating triumvirate. In the best year for music I can remember, this is, for me, head and shoulders above anything else.
Interview with King Creosote & Jon Hopkins here