The best of 2011

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Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

A year ago Montreal-based ambient/noise artist Tim Hecker spent a day in a church in Iceland, recording the ambience of the building’s vast spaces along with a collection of sketches for pipe organ. Whilst the occasionally explosive violence of the record that Hecker went on to make with these recordings couldn’t be further removed from its contemplative beginnings, the music of Ravedeath, 1972 inhabits the same imposing, cavernous space as that of its birthplace.

Central to the record is the juxtaposition of the opposing forces of the organic and the digital; the church organ, itself often contorted beyond recognition, is pitted against waves of harsh guitar noise. In less skilled hands, the dichotomy that Hecker has introduced here could easily have come across as emotionally divisive but Ravedeath, 1972 isn’t that simple; the album is laced with an almost forebodding sense of anxiety and alienation.

The striking emotional subtlety of this record is an extremely rare thing to find within the strict confines of ambient music and the same goes for Hecker’s attention to detail in production. Whilst the compositions on Ravedeath, 1972 certainly betray the workings of a perfectionist, nowhere does the music come across as at all clinical. Hecker sculpts rather than constructs, lending his pieces a remarkably non-linear flow and the result is an entirely immersive listening experience. A beautiful collision of order and chaos, Ravedeath, 1972 is an album staggering in both the scope of its artistic vision and the skill of its musical execution. When faced with music of this quality, the rest is just noise.

-Tom May

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Helplessness Blues deviates a little from what one might expect from a Fleet Foxes album. They use the same elements that made their eponymous debut so highly successful, yet the sound on this year’s offering is decidedly more intricate, more mature and so much deeper than before. Sunny clap-along romps of romance and pasture are superseded by a greater depth and precision, giving way to a vastly interesting record.

The tremendous care that must have gone into this record is plain to see: a expanded range of moods and experimentation with new instruments gives way to textures that we’ve not heard from Fleet Foxes or arguably any of their folk rock contemporaries. Fronted in this album are the feelings of unease, discontent and bittersweet victory. Instrumental ‘The Cascades’ flickers between a mystical, almost medieval feel that resolves into a happier tone and then back again. ‘The Shrine / An Argument’ is a similar journey, but here the sound is kept fresh with the addition of discordant saxophones and a synthetic hum oddly reminiscent of traditional Indian folk.

Robin Pecknold admitted that writing the album put so much strain on his relationship that his girlfriend asked to take a break. His confusion and personal conflict are aptly reflected in the incorporation of very different ideas within the same track. This isn’t to say that Fleet Foxes have shirked their original methodology. In equal measure to this newfound depth are songs of beauty made through their trademark simplicity (‘Lorelai’ and ‘Grown Ocean’), where vocal harmonies and uncomplicated guitar reign supreme. The rate at which they’re evolving is a testament to their self-reflective approach to their music and their lives. Helplessness Blues is a wonderfully crafted composition worth everyone’s attention.

-Moneeb Nasir

Jenny Hval – Viscera

‘The extreme perfection that we’re seeing now in music is very disturbing. So I really want to make music where there’s room for lots of imperfections.’ So Hval told me in a June interview. Viscera, the Norwegian singer’s first recording under her own name, boasts the most startling opening lyrics of any 2011 album: ‘I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris, After a few weeks it ran out of batteries, humming silently between my lips.’ It clearly marks a significant change from Hval’s previous outings as Rockettothesky – 2006’s To Sing You Apple Trees and 2008’s Medea – with the erratic chimes of ‘Engines in the City’ and the smeared blocks of sound in ‘Golden Locks’ openly embracing textural experimentation. And indeed Hval’s musical journey over the years, shifting further and further away from the mainstream and traditional pop structures, has been one of increasing liberation.

It is Jenny Hval’s voice on Viscera that is most striking, slipping in and out of spoken poetry and sweet lyricism. Her crafted vocal edges, from opening attack through to breathy drifting, manage to convey an incredible sense of improvisational spontaneity. It’s a lyrical approach that always seems to verge on timbral instability. Of course, for an artist consciously working within the feminist tradition, there is important intent behind her choice of words. Uncompromising references to the internal body – erections, bleeding, itching – reverse the photoshopped pornography that the female artist is often subjected to, in striking juxtaposition to music that is often hazy, often dreamy. Here, imperfection is beautiful.

-En Khong

Danny Brown – XXX

There’s a striking scene in 1989’s Roger & Me in which the viewer is driven around the shuttered streets of Flint, Michigan – its livelihood destroyed by auto plant closures in the 80s – to the tune of the Beach Boys. The postwar exuberance of the California quintet is undercut in bitter visual irony. Things are even worse in today’s Detroit; the city is now in a state of permanent collapse, the reverberations of calamitous deindustrialisation: a 60% reduction in population since 1950, middle-class flight, emptying of the inner city, drugs, crime, ‘ghost’ neighbourhoods: ‘Abandoned house, field, field. Field, field, house.’

Such is the world that Danny Brown inhabits, and he is its chronicler: ‘Living in the system working kitchen for chump change / Lost in the streets, niggas playing that gun game / Where nobody wins, just a bunch of mommas losing.’ How to escape? Adderall. Hennessey. Newports. ‘Blunt after blunt after blunt after blunt.’ XXX is a drive through Danny Brown’s life: the substance-induced highs (the album’s first half), the sober realities (the latter half).

Brown’s flow – admittedly amphetamine-driven – is frenetic, his voice chameleon-esque; on the album’s early bangers (‘XXX’, ‘Monopoly’) it is frenzied, nasal, spastic, mocking: ‘Ready to hit the studio and shit all on your mixtape / Nah, literally, shit all on your mixtape / Wipe with the credits, leave stains on the jewel case.’ But Brown comes down from his narcotic fantasies, his voice gets deeper, huskier, angrier: ‘I’m living in the city where the weak get swallowed / Belly of the beast, we don’t care about tomorrow.’

With dark, stripped-down production from production wunderkinder Brandun Deshay and Skywlkr, the album’s lyrical intensity is matched with infectious beats just spacey enough to emulate the drug-delirious verses. Brown’s subject matter appears sombre, but he pulls it off with panache and characteristic humour: ‘Kush got me high like Pac’s bandanna’. Half party record and – dare I say it? – half sociology, XXX is one of the finest hip hop releases of the year, and with free distribution on the Fool’s Gold website, there’s no excuse not to listen.

-Simon Torracinta

The Weeknd – House of Balloons

Abel Tesfaye’s debut album is definitely cooler, sexier, and quite possibly more intelligent than I can ever even hope to be. It makes me want to use words like ‘grimy’ and ‘delicious’ and generally be louche. His soaring vocals vie for attention with clever sampling from Beach House and Siouxsie, amongst others, to tell dark and nocturnal stories. All the standard hip hop tropes are there – narcotics, sexual conquest, giving the girl what she wants – but with a heavy dose of emotional awareness, open vulnerability and all-purpose self loathing. This album has edge, and makes for highly sophisticated, clever R&B. It’s almost three-dimensional at times: the slow jams feature lush, shag-pile carpet sounds over spaced-out synthesizer beats. ‘What You Need’ is perhaps the best example: a creamy, dreamy ballad that feels almost sinful at times. The harder hip hop, like ‘Coming Down’, matches glitzy beats with luxurious vocals. The lyrics themselves are raw, desolate and often very humble, in sharp contrast to some of Tesfaye’s peers. House of Balloons transcends my general disdain for contemporary hip-hop with charisma, intelligence and sparkle.

Natasha Frost

Acid House Kings – Music Sounds Better With You

The Swedish indie-poppers Acid House Kings’ Music Sounds Better With You is the kind of album that you listen to on repeat, until every melody is permanently stuck in your brain and every word is memorised. At just over 30 minutes long, it’s a collection of ten songs built on the pop principles of the crafted and succinct. Every second charms; every note builds and breaks in just the right place. Music Sounds Better With You is all clinking keyboards and cute choruses, the sweet echoing interplay of male/female vocals, spiraling horns, and classic, love-worn lyrics. This album is a crusade for memorable moments, combining the influences of Felt, Saint Etienne and Motown with what must be the year’s most egregious use of castanets, and somehow, it works. At the risk of sounding syrupy and false, Acid House Kings plunge headfirst into the well-explored waters of twee, and emerge victorious and endearing — never cloying or forged. Standout tracks include ‘Are We Lovers or Are We Friends?’, and the silvery, bouncing ‘Heaven Knows I Miss Him Now’, but Music Sounds Better With You is that rare thing: a steady, consistent album containing only good songs.

Kiley Bense

A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP

It’s amazing that in 2011 you can still get away with a name made of capital letters and dollar signs, and rapping about blunts, broads and Benjamins. What is perhaps more incredible is that it works. A$AP Rocky is a bit like what the bumblebee does: fly, when you think it should be impossible. And he’s creating a lot of buzz. Straight out of Harlem, Rocky’s sound takes in the best of Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, Los Angeles and his native New York. A mix of dystopian grime and high-end gloss, it would be perfectly possible to sneak a couple of tracks from LiveLoveA$AP onto either of Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne or Tyler’s Goblin without arousing suspicion. His flow switches between sharp-shooting syllable-fire and the type of sluggish drawl – an exercise in studied laziness – that allows you to rhyme ‘billion’ with ‘forensics’. A$AP Rocky is doing all he can to live up the superstar price tag of his deal with Sony/RCA (reportedly a cool three million dollars), and 2012 will show if he has the swag to match the swag-bag, but on his full length debut, this self-styled ‘pretty motherfucker’ has produced something pretty motherfucking special.

Steffan Blayney

Phaeleh – The Cold in You

Most of us are familiar with the proclamation that 2011 was the ‘year of dubstep’; artists such as Benga and Skream have become almost household names. Phaeleh’s album provides a masterly example of the mellowed, pared-down timbre that has loosely become associated with ‘post-dubstep’. Whatever label seems most appropriate, this is chilled-out music at its best: beautifully crafted and mesmerisingly ambient. Phaeleh is a classically trained musician, and a certain sensitivity derived from his thorough musical knowledge is very apparent here: he is a true IDM artist. At the album’s core lies a kind of frozen serenity, which chimes perfectly with its title. This is the kind of music that inspires lofty metaphors: it washes over you in icy waves, its beats are soft and subtle, yet still driving and edgy, while vocals are minimal but thoughtfully crafted. The resonance of the solo piano at the beginning of ‘Think About It’ provides a delicate and beautiful moment, as do the harmonies of the string quartet which open ‘Should Be True’. 2011 has been a year of exciting sounds, and this album is among the most exquisite.

Rachel Coombes

Fionn Regan – 100 Acres of Sycamore

For me, this year belonged to the tender, hushed and startling 100 Acres of Sycamore. With his pudding-bowl haircut and hand drawn album covers, troubadour Regan’s previous two LP’s were often unfairly dismissed as ‘kooky’ by detractors, despite the almost uniformly excellent quality of his output. Here, there is a poise, fluidity and ease to the album that sounds anything but try-hard. The lush strings behind many of these tracks underscore the density and subtlety of his songwriting, the almost languid clarity of his melodies and delivery easily standing their ground within an orchestral backing. The four tracks that comprise the core of this album could stand as the best of the year by themselves, from ‘Dogwood Blossom”s stark observation of a friend’s life going off the rails, to the sparse depiction of a crumbling relationship in ‘1st Day of May’. What in lesser hands could sound trite and sentimental is executed with unshowy serenity, revealing new layers of quiet brilliance every time you hear it. These are songs given space to breathe, and have the weight of a gentle hurricane.

Adam Lebovits

Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Seeping Through the Veil of Unconsciousness

My first experience of MSOTT’s music was the sublime ‘Electric Rain’ mix for mnml ssgs. The tracklist reads like a who’s who of the synth world, made up entirely of low-fi gems released in criminally small quantities on CD-R and cassette. Seeping was originally produced as a run of 80 tapes in 2010 and was repressed in similarly small numbers by Digitalis in 2011. I was extremely lucky to get hold of the third edition (white vinyl, catalogue no. ‘digiv032’, for all the trainspotters). It was certainly worth the wait and is quite simply the most beautiful, emotive hour of music I have ever heard.

Rachel Evans, the goddess behind the moniker, is clearly influenced by nature and the mysticism of the forest; reflections from her log cabin studio in LaGrange, Georgia. The tracks feel organic. Not acoustic, but, equally, not purely electronic. Evans laments in her Siren tones over hazy kosmische pulses, and a guitar can even be heard on ‘Mental Projection’. You can never quite decipher what she says, but the vocals transmogrify the sounscapes into something more accessible and human than her peers’ offerings. Evans’ aim with MSOTT was to make her voice sound as beautiful as possible. The voice here is the music. The synths are extra. And the synths themselves are incredible.

Considering Seeping is a collection of six tracks, each of unique character, there is a surprising coherency to the album. You are aware of the beginnings and ends, but in the middle you float, unaware of the passing of time. The album isn’t warm, uplifting ambience, nor is it dark, soul destroying drone. Instead, it strikes a perfect balance along the spectrum somewhere between melancholy and longing.

Harry Scholes

Beirut – The Rip Tide

Being asked to pick a favourite album is difficult, but statistics don’t lie and four of my top seven most-played songs on iTunes all come from the same album. This album is The Rip Tide by Beirut. Beirut are basically a folk band but they draw their influences, as the name might suggest, from all around the globe and combine eastern European influence with more traditional western pop.

The Rip Tide is a great album because it retains these less familiar influences whilst at the same time being the most accessible record they have put out. The frontman and sole song-writer is Zach Condon, a staggeringly talented musician, who originally started out as a trumpeter but seems to be able to play a bit of everything. He lived all over the world in his youth and his song-writing has, in the past, often focused on foreign lands, for instance the song ‘Nantes’ from second album The Flying Club Cup. With The Rip Tide, however, the focus has shifted to Condon’s homeland and with this homeliness comes a warmth and simplicity to the songs which see the band release their most pop album to date. Whether it be the teen angst of ‘East Harlem’ (which Condon wrote when he was 17!), the wistful piano of ‘Goshen’, or the bouncy ‘Santa Fe’, this album has at least something for everyone and is well worth having a listen to, if only to say that you’re into Balkan-inspired folk.

-Patrick Scott

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Breathe, fall into a couch and be soothed after a long day at work, writing those endless essays, reports, reading endless papers and books. Bon Iver is bona fide ambience at its best. They continue to charm us after the much adored debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, broke the mould in 2008. Forget about those noisy, cheesy pop tunes that seem to dominate the radio these days, this album offers something that is far, far from the repetitive and lack lustre drear that is Justin Bieber and the likes. Be ready instead to be captivated by Justin Vernon’s raw, crooning falsetto teamed with artfully processed choirs, alluring textured instrumentation and intriguingly poetic lyrics. The music is melancholic, hauntingly beautiful, lets you float away in a daze, in a dreamlike tranquillity. It exudes calmness, dripped with lush and even bizarre soundscapes. Perhaps, one is reminded of Sigur Ros or maybe Radiohead at times: ethereal and moving. Bon Iver does possess both those qualities, but their trump card is the sheer uniqueness and imagination in their sound. This gem of an album that is as intense as it is fragile, will grow with each play as each track gradually builds in tender, spellbinding layers. This eponymous album has truly put Bon Iver out there, not as a one hit wonder, a freak accident, but as a major creative player in the music industry that much craves the imaginative and truly mesmerising sounds which embody Bon Iver.  

-Susan Yu

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