Three Of My Favourite Albums of 2011
I decided several weeks ago that this year I would not attempt a “Favourite Albums of 2011” series of blogs.
1. Pretty much every single one of my “favourite bands” has, this year, released an absolutely stunning album of unbelievable quality. Not only would it be utterly exhausting to wax lyrical about each of them, it's also the case that in The King of Limbs, The Whole Love, Mylo Xyloto, Kiss Each Other Clean, Ravedeath 1972, Far Side Virtual, Waves of the Random Sea, Circuital, Lula, Helplessness Blues, Ashes & Fire, Collapse Into Now etc. etc. etc. - well, there seems to be about ninety different contenders for “Album of the Year” - I just couldn't. I just couldn't. “The album” isn't dead. It's so alive that to write about how strong a year this has been for that particular form is just beyond me.
2. My stance with this blog has always been one of reactionary positivity. The result has been a style of writing which comes across as a defence of my love for most things in the face of a world which seems to distrust, scorn and ostracise anybody who dares to suggest that perhaps everything isn't so terrible. This often extends to little more than criticism of criticism – an approach which is horrible to write and – I'm guessing – unbearably tedious to read. Which leads me to:
3. I simply don't enjoy reading or writing about music any more.
Yep, I think I like music far too much to read or write about it any more.
And that is NOT to suggest that all who can write (or read) about music are somehow less passionate am I. Probably it's just the case that they all have thicker skin than me.
Good for them. But, as far as I'm concerned, I started a personal war against the snarks and the cynics and the snarks and the cynics won.
I can't beat them. But I think I'd rather die than join them.
And yet, and yet:
Out of habit – and perhaps as a cleansing means of reminding me of how out of touch I am (which felt strangely comforting) – I have read a lot of end of year lists.
Of course I avoided The Quietus and The Collapse Board like I'd cross the road to avoid a pissed-up shadow-boxing lecherous defamed and deformed porn-star encountered on the street. But – whilst I've enjoyed those I did read like a lapsing junky on the brink of cold turkey might enjoy one last hit – three albums which have, for me, more or less defined 2011 have been notable by their unforgivable absence throughout.
So what will be - for the time-being at least - my final attempt at writing about music is just an effort to redress the balance. These albums are too good to go completely unmentioned. And, even if their only mention is to be found on my small and inconsequential corner of the internet, at least the silence will thus be that little bit less deafening overall.
So, here we go, then. For want of a better introduction, my three favourite albums of the year:
Norman Blake I acknowledge as one of the most consistent and beloved British songwriters of the past couple of decades. Euros Childs is something of a hero of mine. This year, they got together and recorded an album – apparently the fruits of a historical tour undertaken by Teenage Fanclub and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. The former are still something of a fringe interest for me. But, with every passing summer, they become that little bit more important. The latter, though, are nothing less than one of the major hubs of my musical landscape around which a lot of other acts orbit.
I think it says a lot about the prolific genius of Euros Childs that he recorded an entire solo album – probably his fourteenth in two years – whilst waiting for the Jonny sessions to begin. It's not quite the case that he can do no wrong, but I've long since realised that everything he does is always, apart from anything else, reliably interesting and really, really fun.
Jonny is therefore interesting and a lot of fun as a matter of course. But – and I'm not above attributing this to the melodic prowess of Norman Blake – it also happens to be beautiful, endearing, marvellous and genuinely warming throughout.
It's generally the case that every album I regard as “essential” didn't really connect with me on the first listen. It's no coincidence that the most enduring of albums only reveal their treasures on repeated listens. However – to judge this album on its own terms – from the outset it was a Goldmine. Every single track has something to recommend about it – be it a timeless melody, an insistent, addictive hook, a surprising middle-eight, a curious and amusing lyrical twist or an extended foray into spaced-out atmospherics.
Yes, some tracks are so short that they could never have clicked immediately, but even on the first listen I can still remember being struck by how – from You Was Me through to Bread – you had an incredible run of five flawless gems of songs – the sort of songs so simple, honest and beautiful that they could have been written by anyone in any year – and yet – at the same time – they simply couldn't have been written by anyone else.
Jonny is sweet, simple, addictive and was probably a lot of fun to make. Which, of course, also makes it a lot of fun to listen to.
I don't think I've ever heard a song which uses a sample quite like Shark Infested Waters does. It opens with the sound of a radio being detuned. We hear snatches of songs and snippets of melody, but the listener – whose ears we're apparently channelling – can't seem to settle. But eventually we stumble across a very agreeable little rhythm which is so worthy of our attention that it shifts sharply into focus and becomes the song.
And the entire song is built around this little captured iota of another song. And, as song's go, it's perhaps the first since Van Der Graaf Generator's Killer to be sung from the perspective of a hungry shark driven by raw animal instinct. It undulates like waves on the shore and – in an amazing master touch – right at the end order is restored as that insistent rhythm settles back into the gorgeous Burt Bacharach standard from which it was lifted.
This is a song, then, which doesn't try to hide the fact that it exists on the wings of another. This, in conjunction with the detuned radio conceit, creates an overall feel for the album that follows which couldn't be more appropriate – this is music which is so special that it feels like you've stumbled across it by accident whilst idly cycling through the radio waves. I'm terrified to even nudge the dial in case it's lost forever.
And then comes Honey All Over – a more perfect summation of the golden hazy joys of summer has seldom been evoked in sound. Such a title, indeed, goes in a long way to describe the irresistible voice of Gruff Rhys. Even in these bleak winter months it's as soothing as a syrupy hot totty on a frazzled flu-inflected throat and mind.
But all of it I'm afraid just leaves room for the insanely divine – the heaven-sent miracle that is Patterns of Power. I'm never really comfortable with defining entire albums by just one song, but I'm sorry – this lysergic, euphoric, fuzzy life-affirming psychedelic britpop sound is, for me, the sound of happiness itself. No other song this year has succeeded in inspiring anything less than pure unbridled glad-to-be-breathing joy than this mini-masterpiece.
Which by default might make Hotel Shampoo the album of the year.
But, in a year of masterpieces, I cannot and will not go that far.
Earlier this year, British Sea Power supported The Flaming Lips when they played Jodrell Bank. Originally, Brian Cox was to provide keyboard duties – the idea being, of course, that those long-untapped skills the eminent scientist developed in his time with D:REAM would really add something to the spectral wonder these gentle genii are capable of generating.
It didn't happen in the end. But it always seemed so fitting a union. For many of Valhalla Dancehall's widescreen epics would be perfectly suited for soundtracking those shots which are to be found in all of Bri Bri's shows – those bits where he walks around such panoramic landscapes as resemble alien landscapes looking utterly spellbound.
Which is my long-winded way of saying that Valhalla Dancehall is spellbinding throughout it's lengthy yet still short-lived runtime.
But an album of meandering soundscapes this certainly is not. No, British Sea Power are a rock band, and, like many rock bands, they choose to open their album with an immeasurably satisfying guitar chord which gives way to building, thumping drums and an addictive driving riff in a song which contains a call and response chorus and no small amounts of “Whooo!”. This could be described as “rock by numbers”, and “rock by numbers” could be construed as an almighty slight against them were it not for the fact that a) this just means that it's an energising serum of brilliance and b) few other songs have been so prescient in their defence of libraries and their proclamations of sexy protesting.
Yes. Besides all, this album's relevant.
British Sea Power are one of the finest and most fascinating of bands to ever emerge from anywhere. Like all the best bands, they exude not just a sound, but a feel – and theirs feels like the biting salty air of the British coast; the peaty sting of aged whiskey; the distant cawing of endangered wildfowl.
Long may be their reign.