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Albums of the Year, 2011

Commodore Record Shop, New York, 1947

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.

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5) Chilly Gonzales – The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales

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.

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4) Ane Brun – It All Starts with One

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.

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3) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

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.

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2) Eliza Carthy – Neptune

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.

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1) Akira the Don – The Life Equation

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?

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The Drive-in Bingo’s Songs of 2011 Spotify playlist featuring Nicki Minaj, Arctic Monkeys, Los Campesinos! and The Decemberists is now online.

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Come back soon for AT LEAST TWO more end-of-year posts.

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Albums of the Year

Say what you like David Quantick, 2010 was a great year for music. And as there is no better form to encapsulate a successful solar orbit than a top 10 list, the OxStu published ours in the last issue of term. Each writer submitted his or her own top 10 and, like all writers who have submitted to such collaborative lists, I of course believe mine is far superior to the amalgamation of our efforts. If anyone wishes to share their own favourites in the comments below the post, please do – the best thing about end of year lists is discovering new stuff from other people’s.

1) Bellowhead – Hedonism (OxStu #6)

Any list that doesn’t include this tour-de-force of joyous hermeneutic adventure is in my view not only invalid but laughably misguided and probably written by someone who doesn’t believe in Santa. Bellowhead, for those not familiar with them, play traditional songs but re-energised and reinterpreted them with lavish up-tempo multi-instrumental arrangements. But this is not about gimmicks or a few extra trumpets. The real trick is that the musical contexts that Bellowhead add to these songs sound more natural than the original historical contexts. Of course ‘Little Sally Racket’ should sound like a jazz-punk soundtrack to tearaway Beano-esque youths. Of course ‘A-Begging I Will Go’ is about a crutch wielding super-leper. With Bellowhead’s Hedonism the whole world just makes more sense.

2) Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me

Actually for the price of one album, we got an extra two on Joanna Newsom with the three disc Have One On Me. Some reviews sketched this as Newsom’s safest album to date but I think it is far more ambitious than The Milk-Eyed Mender. For me it marks an evolution in the definition of the human singing voice. What role does the voice play in a song like ‘In California’ where Newsom assumes the role of the cuckoo – is this impersonation? Or is the human singing voice always just an animal call? And if it is, what’s all that artistic percussion doing there in the background? In truth, I’ve never heard anything like it.

3) Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue

I don’t know Nick Hornby’s novels but if they’re as funny, heart-breaking and intelligent as this collection of his songs (arranged and recorded by Ben Folds) then I should check them out. Each song is a short story with some themes – mostly the emotional failure of the male lead – reoccurring throughout. It also plays with its listener a bit. The best bit is at the end: a failed romantic who’s chosen the wrong woman recalls how she “gave me complimentary champagne”. It’s the line’s repetition that kills you. At first it seems like genre convention – repeating the hook – until you realise how little, how shallow the memory is and how bitterly it is remembered. You can almost taste it.

4) Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring (OxStu #3)

“On the back seat of your car because it wasn’t safe to start it. You’re far too fucked to drive were the words that you imparted.” The best thing about Los Campesinos! is that lead singer Gareth always sounds like he’s too fucked to drive. Romance is Boring is an album full of all those things you’re too afraid to say sober. Or it would be if your drunken ramblings were written by some kind of post-punk inspired Louis MacNeice who has sexual fantasies about football players. Why? Because anything else would sound too much like romance, and that would be boring.

5) The Burns Unit – Side Show

The whole Burns Song Project and its first (and stunning) album release seems to have bypassed any major critical attention. Yet Side Show was a collaborative triumph for musicians as varied as Karine Polwart, King Creosote, Emma Pollock and MC Soom T who have created the most expansive and varied pop album of the year. It is in the Scottish tradition of Belle & Sebastian but blows their latest offering out of the water in diversity, quality and inventiveness.

6) Jim Moray – In Modern History

Jim Moray is a folk musician but I think he thinks about things more like a hip-hop producer. He is not interested in rendition but in the reaction between a musical base and a secondary riff; interested in collage and the smashing together of sources; in ripping open the concept of canon and ownership. The result is a series of weird but infectious rewrites and hybrid folk songs that feel both modern and timeless, like Matt Smith’s Dr Who. If ‘Spenser the Rover’ can be read as a model of the travelling song collector, then Moray’s rewrite with Art Brut’s Eddie Argos (see number 9 below), ‘Spenser the Writer’ is Moray’s rival model – not the result of travel but of a socially dangerous blend of gossip and penmanship.

7) The Indelicates – Songs for Swinging Lovers

Available as a pay-what-you-like deal from their record label, The Indelicates put their money where their revulsion with the mainstream is and backed it up with one of the year’s most thoughtful and thought provoking releases. Let’s talk liberal complacency. Let’s talk modern feminism. Let’s talk social malaise. Songs for Swinging Lovers is especially remarkable because it still has the ability to disturb: the female form has always been blazoned but not usually as a medical bill like it is on the rallying cry for female equality ‘Flesh’. This is perhaps the only album on my list that’s truly a record of and for our times.

8 ) Kate Nash – My Best Friend Is You

My favourite popular album of the year, My Best Friend Is You is a surprising absence from any end of year lists I’ve seen so far. Yet not only does it have its helping of foot stomping, hand clapping, hair brush as a microphone pop music fun; it’s also brave and imaginative and fired up with the joy of just being able to shout out loud. Nash’s world is one bursting with potential and the transformative and transgressive side of pop music that takes an obstacle (sexism, rejection, social anxiety), jumps on it, wrestles it to the floor and squeezes it until it gives provides a good guitar hook.

9) Everybody Was in the French Resistance… Now! – Fixin’ The Charts, Volume 1

The French Resistance…, an Eddie Argos side project, are a duo who respond to canonical pop songs like a cheeky school kid answering back to their teacher. The effect is as fun as it is charming. But it also has that dangerous whiff of heresy – perhaps why they open with (and name themselves for) a song about the French Resistance – leaping out of the crowd and overcoming orthodoxies. “Let’s have a vote and come to a consensus” Argos shouts on ‘My Way (Is Not Always the Best Way)’ – a response to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. This is more than a comic album, this is an assault on the singular and unvetted authority of the pop star.

10) Akira the Don – Superhero Music

A thirty-five minute single-track mixtape may not pass everyone’s definition of an ‘album’ but this list would be poorer without it. All of the segments and riffs on offer explore the idea of the superhero – from the simple joy of running around in a cape and having your pants outside your trousers, to society’s spiritual need to see its reflection in the form of a hero, embodied in a moving interview with Silver Surfer creator Jack Kirby, reproduced at length on the tape. The best art gives us an insight into the passions of others and more than any of the other mixes Akira the Don has produced, this demonstrated his impressive knowledge and enjoyment of the topic at hand. But the best art doesn’t usually have these kind of beats.

You can hear tracks from most of these albums and from some other excellent 2010 releases (by Chris T-T, David Rotheray and The Roots) on The Drive-in Bingo’s best of 2010 Spotify playlist – here.

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