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.

Three reasons:

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:

Jonny – Jonny

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.

Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo

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.

 British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall

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.

That's all.


UnChristmassy Things Which Make Me Feel Unaccountably Christmassy

Sufjan Stevens's EPs. Home Alone. The Snowman. The Night Before Christmas. The Nightmare Before Christmas. That Coca-Cola advert. I love Christmas – and some things make me feel Christmassy because they are so damn Christmassy.

Some things, though, induce that Christmassy feel throughout the year – no matter when they're approached – even though they have nothing at all to do with the festive period.

Of course, the reason lies in association. I first encountered these things at Christmas, so they'll always be associated with the most wonderful time of year. It's the same with many, many things.

However, these things aren't just unChristmassy. They're so far removed from what Christmas is and should be about that they're probably powerfully potent in their ability to make some – I'm sure – feel downtroddenly unfestive.

Here, then, are some decidedly unChristmassy things which make me feel unaccountably Christmassy. 


Not the red stuff per se – more the 1997 PC FPS which contains said sangria by the bucket-full – only, the bucket's actually a haemophiliac heart in the middle of a botched transfusion. This game's violent, but not Manhunt violent. It's more Sam Raimi, early-Peter Jackson violent – in that it's so over-the-top vicious as to be ridiculous.

Yes, there are strong satanic overtones, but the tongue's firmly in cheek as you blast your way through pandemonium carnivals, haunted houses, mountains of madness and hospitals using such implements of destruction as voodoo dolls, dynamite and napalm launchers.

Yes, a lot of the levels take place in the snow (or by roaring fires on which chestnuts could comfortably roast), but consider that you can decapitate zombies and use their heads as footballs – and that the eviscerated remains of women tied-under water and left to the mercy of giant piranhas are not uncommon sights – no, it hardly embodies seasonal goodwill.

But it does for me. Sorry.

Mastodon – Blood Mountain

This, the 2006 epic from the hairy, scary genii – is probably generally loathed by the majority of the metal community. As a lot of the vocals are sung rather than screamed (the bastards), it succeeded in attracting a much larger non-metal audience to their enthralling visceral thrills. Like me. Hello!

It's a concept album about a mountaineering jaunt for a crystal skull. It conjures up a foreboding landscape of dark forests, sleeping giants, mortal soil and colonies of Birchmen. And it really does ruddy rock in an almost overwhelmingly technically accomplished way. You can lose yourself in this music – just like our hero does in the landscape on his heroic, none-more-manly quest.

Yes, a lot of Christmas 2006 was spent listening to this on a big pair of headphones as I sat sequestered in the corner.

See? It's not just the brutal content which makes this an unChristmassy Christmassy treat for me. It's also the fact that I made something of an antisocial ne'er-do-well of myself in enjoying it for the first time that cements it's status as a Christmas tradition of questionable festive value.

Day of the Dead

For children, Christmas is very much about the presents. For a lot of adults, it's about the drink. For me, it's mainly about - well, I don't have the space or the time to divulge here exactly what Christmas means to me. Maybe later. Maybe next week.

But a lot of the appeal these days resides in the fact that Christmas presents an ideal opportunity to binge on films. There's always a decent marathon or two broadcast on the terrestrial channels – quality film after quality film – often back-to-back in a merciless “how are we to ever get anything done” solid wall of cinematic magic. Add to this the new DVDs and boxsets with which I and all else are often gifted and it's no wonder that last year I achieved a new record of 14 films watched in the space of three days.

And I enjoyed every single one of them.

They're seldom Christmas films, of course. But that's not the point. They're family films and are thus enjoyed with family. On subsequent viewings I'm therefore reminded of the context in which I first saw them. Christmas! And thus, I feel Christmassy.

But amongst the joy and not unseasonable warmth are a few strands of genuine heart-stopping terror which are more suited to a viewing two months previously. And yet, still I'm reminded of that initial warming festive context. And, like associating chair legs and cockroaches with sexual desire, it ain't right. Ain't natural. Ain't right.

Day of the Dead is such a film. It features possibly the most famous disembowelment in cinematic history – but the bit that really distresses me is the moment where that guy has his head literally pulled off. He screams as it's wrenched away, and in one of the most disturbing moments I've ever witnessed in any film, the pitch of his scream increases as his head is pulled further from his body.

And this atrocity – this bleak, dystopian misanthropic madness – makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

I'm not being funny when I ask – what the hell is wrong with me?