December is the season of three things: Christmas, bloggers making lists of stuff they like and bloggers complaining about other bloggers making lists of stuff they like. Me, I like a list.
Casual Reader beware, with the exception of The Mountain Goats, I haven’t seen ANY of the albums below on other end-of-year lists, and none of them are massive artists in the UK, so you may not have heard of them. It crossed my mind that this may look like I’m being contrary to the prevailing wisdom by not listing more widely acclaimed records. I’m not. I’ve chosen the music that excites me, not the music that others agree is cool.
They’re obscure, but accessible, entertaining and emotionally engaging so if anything piques your interest have a listen: a playlist link is below.
Please leave your comments/disagreements/own list below the line, I always like to read them when people do.
Undoubtedly the best classical-hip-hop hybrid album produced by a Canadian emigrant in France all year (GO ON INTERNET PROVE ME WRONG), The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales gave hip-hop a blaze of orchestral glory. The album delivers at every level – an inventive and eccentric orchestra record; a witty, vocally dexterous rap record. But the two sounds also compliment each other. After all, why wouldn’t they? Hip-hop is all about pulling all sorts of things out of the music box and spinning them round til they break – why not cello and piano? Like most art that reaches ahead of the trends, this album speaks to itself (and to other art) way too much. But thank god it lets us listen.
Swedish pop music is some of the best in the world and their most striking export this year (to my ears at least) is by Norwegian emigrant Ane Brun. The lyrics are ridiculously slight – like a hesitant, unreciprocated conversation, answered only by wind-swept instrumentals and, later on, pounding storm-like drums. I don’t think it undersells the work of either to say that Brun will come over to most British listeners like a slower, gentler Florence + The Machine, albeit with more depth both musically and emotionally. Some reviews felt this album was too managed, not free enough – there is a certain rigidness but for me this only helps measure the distance between the singer and her estranged subject.
Most other write-ups are claiming this to be the eighteenth studio album from the John Darnielle-fronted American acoustic rock band The Mountain Goats. It’s a hard number to measure amongst their early lo-fi tapes and other almost-albums, but who am I to disagree? Darnielle revisits many old themes on this record, particularly mythology – used how it’s meant to be used, as an allegory, psychological prism and emotional crutch. Mythology here meets a bit of mysticism, a bit of a’cappella barbershop (yes, they went there) and even a big old panoramic piano ballad – ‘Never Quite Free’, both one of the best and most populist songs the band have recorded to date.
An artist I’ve already written much about this year, Eliza Carthy not only had a storming year of live shows, but also made one of its most exciting albums. Bringing in influences from all over the place – folk, motown, jazz – and, more importantly, using them all in just the right places, no album I heard in 2011 was as varied and, one a purely instrumental level, as exciting as Neptune. There was a time a few years ago when all sorts of multi-instrumental arrangements were becoming really fashionable all over the place – in pop, punk, everywhere. I liked that trend. I like albums that just throw every musical trick they’ve got at something, keep whatever sticks and adds some backing vocals. This is one of the best.
It’s hard, most people think, to make art that’s happy, that’s optimistic, to make entertainment, excitement, fun and to still make it serious and weighty. Luckily, not everyone thinks this way – some people with serious stuff to say also like Manga comics and pop records and computer games. Akira the Don makes music as exciting and colourful as his various (and multifarious) influences and this year he completed the second record that he seems happy for people to call a proper studio album (he does an inexhaustible amount of collaborations, singles and mixtapes the rest of the time).
Akira is known as a rapper, but The Life Equation feels more like a pop album to me, with a very old fashioned foot-tapping sensibility propping up its rhythms – due in part to the influence of co-producer Stephen Hague (a man whose varied CV includes albums by Robbie Williams, Mel C and New Order). It nicks stuff from all over the place, mixes it up and lets it rip, like a massive Transformer robot made from a load of worn-out cars: “No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s not what you do but how it’s done” sings Akira – even the very phrases he uses to talk about re-hashing are themselves conspicuously re-hashed.
Yes, the album has its moments of extreme corniness. But it’s Baz Luhrmann-esque – the showmanship that sells cliché back to you as vintage chic. And what is cliché, as Craig Arnold once asked, but a poem that won?
The Drive-in Bingo’s Songs of 2011 Spotify playlist featuring Nicki Minaj, Arctic Monkeys, Los Campesinos! and The Decemberists is now online.
Come back soon for AT LEAST TWO more end-of-year posts.