Wednesday, 4 January 2012

2011: The Year in Albums (New and Old)

A sobering statistic for people who like such things: According to my account at RateYourMusic, I bought 461 CDs in 2011. Four hundred and Sixty One. That's 1.3 albums every day (or one Neal Morse album.)

It's also one hundred times as many CDs as I bought in 1991, when I got my first CD player. My thoughts about why this is and whether it was a good idea or not can wait for a separate blog, but when you buy that many CDs, how on earth do you come up with a 'Best of the Year' list? And how do you determine whether an electro-pop album is 'better' or 'worse' than an acoustic guitar album or a prog concept opus?

Don't do this with your CDs. When I was about 15, my friend Graham
and I did this with all mine to test how indestructible they were.
 I took them all out of the boxes, chucked them all on the floor and
 then rolled around in them throwing them up in the air like
 Scrooge McDuck and his piles of gold. It didn't end terribly well.

The answer, dear friends, is with more statistics. Yep, the only way I can remember what was good in 2011 and make some kind of sense of the massive splurge of new music which entered my brain this year, is by looking at my trusty iTunes library. What got played once and then languished in the deepest recesses of the Billy bookshelf? And what got listened to on loop until Karin threatened to slap me?

Here, then, is my year in Playcounts - the results may shock those who think I only listen to prog rock. In fact they shocked me slightly. They might not actually reflect the exact order of how much I like these albums - but it's a start.

New Albums of 2011

Interestingly, of those CDs I bought, only 34 were actually new releases in 2011. What does that mean? Am I officially at the age where new music is beyond me? Well, I hope not. I think it has more to do with the fact that about 400 of the CDs I bought cost me less than £2 from charity shops and Amazon Marketplace. 

Anyway, I thought it was a cracking year for new music. Some great albums from old favourites, and some new discoveries, too.

10. Metronomy - The English Riviera

The first of several Indie-ish, dance-ish albums, and a discovery via my friend Mark (the only way I make sure my finger doesn't leave the pulse for good), this was a surprise hit towards the end of the year. A sort of concept album about living by the coast in Devon (no, really), it's a great mix of moody electronic-based tracks and more upbeat, jangly guitar pop. 

Key track: The Bay

9. Matt Stevens - Relic

Matt Stevens came to my attention all by himself earlier this year by being one of the hardest self-promoting DIY musicians out there - whether he's spamming his music all over Twitter or standing outside a gig handing out flyers with his face on them, he's been hard to miss this year in certain circles. And all this would be pointless if the music was utter guff - but luckily it's not. Live, he's a one-man guitar orchestra, building up layers upon layers of acoustic guitar loops - but on record, there are drums and even a spot of violin, making his brand of instrumental rock appeal to fans of post-rock, prog and acoustic or folk music. The first two albums were good, but Relic steps it up a gear.

Key Track - Nightbus 

8. Wobbler - Rites at Dawn

Let's start with the obvious things about this album. The band name is ridiculously bad (perhaps in Norway it means something else). And yes, they sound an awful lot like vintage Yes, in instrumentation. And I have been known to disparage prog bands for deliberately trying to sound like old Yes and Genesis albums - but somehow they still manage to sound fresh and inventive in their compositions whilst absolutely nailing that sound. And there aren't any bits where I'm going 'Oh, that's "Close to the Edge", and that's "Supper's Ready"'. Unlike many other bands, who I won't name. One of the surprise hits of the year - thanks to David Elliott and the European Perspective podcast for the tip.

Key Track - All of them, really, but La Bealtaine is as good as any...

7. The Feeling - Together We Were Made

Yeah, I know, that's a horrible album cover. And The Feeling have never exactly been hip, having become ubiquitous very quickly by spearheading a kind of Soft-Rock revival with the amazing, AMAZING song 'Sewn' , then a string of jaunty, indie-ish, Supertramp/Queen-ish summery hits before being dumped over to Radio 2 territory for the second album and largely disappearing from the limelight. But I've always enjoyed their songwriting and saw them live earlier this year when they premiered tracks from this third album, which includes guest appearances from Roisin Murphy (formerly of Moloko) and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Not every track here is up to their early standards, but it's still a very solid effort which deserved more promotion than it got.

Key Track: Dance for the Lights (featuring Roisin Murphy)

6. Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys

Ahh, Elbow. In "cool terms" this year, I suspect that they may have gone from "The Coldplay it's alright to like" to "The Coldplay it's still not alright to like", but dammit, I've been a fan since their first album came out back in '99, enjoying frontman Guy Garvey's gruff, Gabriel-esque voice, and the melancholy yet not-depressing nature of their darker songs. And then there was "One Day Like This", which catapulted them into becoming every Radio 2 listener and BBC Sport's programme viewer's new most-heard band. A couple of years on and whilst this new album doesn't seem to have made the huge impact of its predecessor, it's somehow all the better for it, containing many hidden delights, most notably opener 'The Birds', which is a strong contender for my track of the year with its slow, hypnotic, driving rhythm, gradually building up to a huge, soaring climax. Is it rock? Who cares?

Key Track - The Birds (I promise you I'm not just picking the first track from every album, honest.)

5. Yes - Fly from Here

At the start of this year, I would not have predicted a Yes album making my end of year list. Pretty much reduced to a joke of a band by firing their ill singer and replacing him with a soundalike from a tribute band last year (no, really), I'd pretty much given up on anything of relevance ever happening again under the 40-something year old brand. 

But, with legendary producer and owl lookalike Trevor Horn on hand to sort them all out, and his fellow Buggle Geoff Downes back on keys, they managed to churn out something which was far better than we had any right to expect. True, some of the material was about 30 years old, but it hadn't been released on a Yes album, so that doesn't count, okay? With a sound somewhere between a Buggles album and an Asia album, it's a fun 40 minutes of prog-pop which doesn't outstay its welcome and definitely deserves the reputation it's received as the best Yes album in at least 20 years. And the gig was good fun, too. Some of it anyway.

Key track: Into the Storm

4. Guillemots - Walk the River

Following a foray into out and out pop with 2008's 'Red', and frontman Fyfe Dangerfield's surprisingly chart-friendly solo album, eclectic alternative quartet Guillemots headed for rather more subdued territory on this third album, and they were all the better for it. With  gorgeous, spine chilling moments like 'Inside' nestling alongside the unbridled joy of the more upbeat tracks like 'The Basket', it was great to have them back.

Key Track: Walk The River

3. Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning

A predictable choice, maybe, given that it's topped lists all over the place this year, but given the quite dark, forbidding nature of Steven's previous solo album 'Insurgentes', I hadn't quite expected this. Taking its cues from all of Steven's influences from King Crimson to jazz, to Nine Inch Nails, this double album (actually two albums in one package) manages to achieve the feat of being both challenging and accessible, with prog-jazz workouts like 'Remainder the Black Dog' rubbing shoulders with electronica-influenced tracks like 'Index'.

Key Track - 'No Part of Me' has a bit of all of the above, I reckon...

2. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

Another album making end-of year lists (although not the same ones as the Steven Wilson album, to be fair), M83's latest album is also another double CD album which would easily fit on one CD, but is much more accessible as two 10-track discs. Another one of my indie-dance-electro discoveries of this year, and recommended to me by a blog reader after my review of the Cut Copy gig, M83 are a French act which is, in the studio, largely comprised of multi-instrumentalist Anthony Gonzalez. After a series of critically well-received but not huge-selling albums featuring more ambient and electronic music, before moving to a more indie-dance sound with 2008's 'Saturdays = Youth', this year saw the 'band' finally receive some attention with this absolute masterpiece combining the best of both worlds. 

20 tracks, around a loose concept of dreams, there really is something for everyone here, from the 80's synth-pop of hit single 'Midnight City' to uplifting, stadium-esque rockers, to the touching sounds of an old French lady wistfully recalling her youth over haunting, ethereal synths. What's more, I've played this more than 20 times since November and I don't feel like I've scratched the surface - especially since I've tantalisingly read that every song on the first CD has a 'partner' song on the second disc. An album and a puzzle all in one, what's not to love about that?

Key Track - Oh, all of them. But 'Reunion' is probably my favourite at the moment, one of the most joyful tracks of the year. (Unfortunately, it seems that there is no really good Youtube video of this song, so maybe you should go and listen to it on Spotify. Or better still, buy the CD - yeah go and do that.)

1. Cut/Copy - Zonoscope

This album came out so long ago, and it's become so ingrained on my musical memory, that I could scarcely believe this was a 2011 album when I was compiling this list. But given that it is, it was always going to be number 1 - it's accompanied me to work, to the gym, in the car, out on runs, and even around the streets of Sydney. Yep, imagine how cool I felt wandering the streets of Australia's biggest city, listening to my cool Australian indie-electro meets Beach Boys album. Just like a real Australian, I thought. True, nobody I met had heard of them, but still. That wasn't the point. 

Every bit as good as 'GiggingForever-top-20-of-all-time' album 'In Ghost Colours', this album had everything I was looking for this year - beats, tunes and massive, massive choruses. That's all I'm going to say, go and read my review of this year's London gig if you want to know more about why Cut Copy were the best band of 2011 in my opinion, but then isn't everything on this page?

Key Track: I'm going to say "Where I'm Going", because you might have heard that one, and it has a decent video on Youtube. But "Take Me Over" and "Pharaohs and Pyramids" are just as good.

Old Albums of 2011:

So what of the other 420-something CDs I bought this year? Here are the ones I played the most and a couple of words about each...

10. Man on Fire - Habitat (2009)

Excellent prog-ish album with electro influences and some great modern production, featuring Adrian Belew as guest guitarist. A tip from Frost* supremo Jem Godfrey.

9. Joe Jackson - Night and Day (1982)

New-wave legend goes a bit wine-bar/jazz/salsa/punk. Massively uncool even then, I'm sure, but 'Steppin' Out' has long been one of my favourite songs so I thought it was time to check out the rest of this. And I rather like it. 'Breaking Us In Two' has to be one of the best ballads of all time.

8. Steely Dan - Aja (1977)

I don't suppose this is massively cool, either, but it's fun and it's way more funky than an album by two middle-aged white guys has any right to be. If you don't start dancing to 'Peg' then you're actually dead. Fact.

7.  Lindstrøm  - Where You Go, I Go Too (2008)

One of my very rare completely blind album purchases. Bought on the basis of a tracklist which contained only 3 tracks lasting a total of 55 minutes, and a picture of a beardy Norwegian in a jumper, I had little idea of the Orb-meets-Steve Reich minimalism which was inside. This (15 minute!) single edit of the title track is surprisingly good for running to. Described by as 'Space Disco'. Far out.

6. Hybrid - Disappear Here (2010)

Another tip from Mr Godfrey, it was suggested that, were there a third Frost* album, then this is what it would sound like. An intruiging mixture of rock music, electronica, dance music, and film soundtracks, it was a surprise hit amongst the prog fraternity this year. Jem subsequently announced that there would be a third Frost* album, but that it wouldn't sound like this. Shame.

5. Bent - Aerials (2004)

This year really was the year of dance, electronica and chillout for me. Picked up after hearing a few of their tracks on Ministry of Sound Chillout compilations, this later album of theirs is slightly more upbeat and poppy, with reminders of Zero 7 and Lemon Jelly.

4. Aeroplane - We Can't Fly (2010)

Primarily known as a remixer, especially for his superb version of Friendly Fires' 'Paris', this is Vito DeLuca (aka Aeroplane)'s first proper album, which is almost like Air's Moon Safari for the 2010's. Upbeat, dancey tracks, chilled beats and even an introduction which sounds disturbingly like prog rock. I love it. It gets slated on Amazon and RYM though, so what do I know?

3. Losers - Beautiful Losers (2010)

It seems (from the live show I saw) that this band are heading to a whole new level in 2012, but this first album is still top notch in my opinion. Electro-clashy tracks, straight ahead dance tunes and chilled out beats. And then, there's this track, which by all rights I ought to hate - but by jove, it's one of my tracks of the year.

2. The Avalanches - Since I Left You (2000)

What a flipping genius album. Made by some Australians by jamming together as many samples as they possibly could from their record collections, it pretty much sounds like nothing on earth. Possibly the most schizophrenic album of all time, it has to be heard to be believed. The classic chillout title track is the best known, but here's an example of something that sounds nothing like it... (ooh, excellent, it has a mental video too. Jolly good!)

1. Midnight Juggernauts - The Crystal Axis (2010)

Yes, another Australian band. Yes, I also listened to this all around Sydney. Yes, I am an idiot. Anyway - having loved their first album which was the first thing I'd ever heard to sound like both ELO and Justice, I knew I had to buy this when I read reviews in which people complained that they'd made a progressive rock album. I think my prog friends might disagree - but it's a mighty fine job anyway. Songs which run into each other, electronic sounds mixing with crunchy guitars, yeah, it's all good. Try this for size- another track of the year.

In Summary

So that's it, then. That was 2011 - the year in which I could have opened my own record store. The year in which I got bitten by the electro bug in a big way and found less and less to enjoy in the current prog scene.

I wonder how many CDs I'll buy this year? So far it's none, which means I need to buy 5 and a bit tomorrow to keep up, if I'm to maintain last year's rate. Maybe I ought to slow down though. My lounge is starting to look a little bit ridiculous and there are only so many Ikea trips I can be bothered to make.