24.06.11

Words by: Ruth Saxelby

The best albums of 2011 so far

As we hurtle towards 2012, few things remain clear. Next year, the world may end, pop music may eat itself, the state may collapse. But out of the debris of the last six months, there have been some great albums made, and we thought it proper to pull these together. Even by music list standards, the increasingly standard half-yearly is a daft undertaking. Absurdly subjective, sprawling, they should never be thought of as definitive. Their joy is in their incidence – rather than any final headcount, it’s a bunch of records that that have chimed with us, and stayed with us. We have attempted to sketch out below the reasons why, and please let us know tips and ones we missed in the comments below. Ordered by release date, not preference, every one on this list is a gem.

There are trends are here – music about music, from Nicholas Jaar to Ford & Lopatin, would be one, the pastoral wanderings of *AR, Maria Minerva and Hype Williams would be another, the ongoing influence of bass pressure from SBTRKT and James Blake to Instra:mental and Surgeon would be a third – but the striking thing is how divergent a year we’re having. There is no central scene, just floating satellites, trying to make music for now and get something lovely off their chests and into the world. Some of those are superstars releasing million-budgets hi-concept opuses, some are Stoke Newington homegirls sticking out tapes referencing Sonic Youth about sonic youth. But what we like doesn’t sound that alike, and, as we’re pulled inexorably towards end days, I for one am glad. – Charlie Robin Jones

  • Diddy Dirty-Money ‘Last Train To Paris’

Polydor // January 24th // Buy

Within the framework of this lost-love narrative Sean Combs has, with the help of new crew Dirty Money (Danity Kane’s Dawn Richard and Gaga/Ciara collaborator Kalenna), reclaimed his place in rap’s A-game, rivalling Kanye’s university cycle in the concept album stakes. Despite the ludicrous number of guest vocals – including Grace Jones, Lil’ Wayne and Wiz Khalifa – some of the most surprising and invigorating content of ‘Last Train…’ is in its beats, a stunning and unexpected mix of progressive ‘Tour De France’-era Kraftwerk, subtle 808’s reminiscent of Dot Da Genius’ Kid Cudi productions and, in its masterpiece opening intro, minimal Air-esque shuffling techno. [WO]

  • How To Dress Well ‘Love Remains’

Tri Angle // 31st January // Buy

This album feels so much it’s positively confrontational about it. It’s giddy, tender, in pain, ecstatic, lonely, and yes, in love too. You’re supposed to take it personally – you can’t actually help not, it’s so saturated with soul. Producer Tom Krell gets that this is the best thing about R&B, that its focus is on eliciting such a big feeling in a single moment that the ripples can be felt far beyond. As You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going crackles upwards, Decisions beats its insides out, My Body gathers its velvety self together, you realize ‘Love Remains’ is great because it’s no less than about the emotional pieces of being a person, whatever kind of an odd, scruffy, mess that is. [TEE]

  • James Blake ‘James Blake’

Atlas // 8th February // Buy

It’s easy to skate around this album in favour of the more abstract work of his EPs, and while ‘James Blake’ sits easier in the coffeeshop that CMYK or Air ever could, it’s far stranger and less comfortable album than is often thought, full of awkward moments, leaps of sonic faith and snatches of absolute tenderness. [CRJ]

  • Peaking Lights ‘936’

Not Not Fun // 8th February // Buy

Peaking Lights make looping and grainy music that can melt your heart. Branding themselves a reggae band, the Wisconsin duo’s latest release ‘936’ on Not Not Fun is not only a whole-heartedly simple and air-floating production, it’s a gem of an album, imbued with healing powers. It’s one of those records that you can put on when it’s pouring outside, or when you feel depressed, because on listening, you’d know everything’s going to be alright: as they sing, “all the sun that shines, will shine on you”, you feel the sunbeam piercing through to the inside of your heart. [KKYC]

  • Nicolas Jaar ‘Space Is Only Noise’

Circus Company // 14th February // Buy

Nothing about ‘Space … ‘ is spontaneous, everything is controlled. From the static bristle of the vocal samples, the drooping rhythms, instruments sounding like they’ve been glazed. There’s thought behind every sound. The loose, deadpan hand-claps on Colomb up-end the conventional tight, techno clap. The sensual, low-BPM swing this operates at breaks with the rolling insistency of most club music. The title track is catchy, a pop song, but it’s not direct about it. This is an album that won’t come to you, it takes time and space to find a way in. Just because the drive isn’t emotion, it doesn’t mean it’s not sincere. ‘Space Is Only Noise’ shows that ideas, when this well thought out, are strong enough on their own. [TEE]

  • Yuck ‘Yuck’

Fat Possum // 21st February // Buy

Tenderness walks a tightrope between pain and pleasure, both a sensation and an emotion that you feel beneath the skin. Young as they are, Yuck are a band with an innate, poetic understanding of human vulnerability. Like frontman Daniel’s illustrations – one of which adorns the cover art – Yuck’s grungy guitar songs are at once naïve and knowing, sweet and raw, timely and timeless. From the touching lilt of Rose Gives A Lilly and the quiet flame of Stutter to the weary frustration of Holing Out and the hurt of Shook Down, their debut album strikes a chord because its bold and honest enough to simply show a little tenderness. [RS]

  • Hype Williams ‘One Nation’

Hippos In Tanks // 14th March // Buy

An album without equal this year, ‘One Nation’ is a deep, drugged drift into memory’s heady pastures, history’s hidden places and the hearts of the two weirdos who made it. Sardonic but sincere, tough but tender, revolutionary and romantic, ‘One Nation’ is a triumph. [CRJ]

  • Katy B ‘On A Mission’

Rinse // 28th March // Buy

Last year, Popjustice tweeted sardonically that he wished more people would write songs about going to “the club”. But what was missing from so many of Black Eyed Ke$ha Guetta’s tracks, and what Katy B so perfectly captured on this brilliant album, was a sense of how clubbing felt – the pressure on the breast as the bass rattles, the fizzling of the synapses as your poison kicks in, and the nervous thrill of catching a fit stranger’s eye. [CRJ]

  • Surgeon ‘Breaking the Frame’

Dynamic Tension // 28th March // Buy

Birmingham techno old-timer Surgeon has been promising to produce a work of true greatness for 10 years, and this year’s ‘Breaking The Frame’ is just that. Taking his trademark brutalist techno into new, ambient realms, breathing life into a cold sonic palette, he’s made an album of blinding scale. [CRJ]

  • Wiz Khalifa ‘Rolling Papers’

Atlantic/Rostrum // 28th March // Buy

The radical thing about ‘Rolling Papers’ is its quiet, subtle and confident soul. Full of sparkling, effervescent beats, Wiz brushes easy sketches about race, love, fun, work, talent and self-definition on a ridiculously enjoyable, lightly profound and subtly ground-breaking record. [CRJ]

  • Morphosis ‘What We Have Learned’

Delsin // 7th April // Buy

You can totally trust the venerable Amsterdam techno label Delsin for quality, and Italy’s Rabih Beaini’s debut album as Morphosis, ‘What We Have Learned’, is no exception. Deeply sombre and immensely atmospheric, this full-length is on top of my most-listened-to list. It may come across as spooky, but it’s definitely not daunting. Rather, its percussive techno clatter, occasional raw house throb and subtle synth twirl bring about its intriguing, almost exotic features, in which the free-flowing textures and structures lie. Hypnotic, dark, and immersive, Morphosis has redefined techno on this unconventional record. [KKYC]

  • Grouper ‘A I A – Alien Observer / Dream Loss’

Yellow Electric // 11th April // Buy=

In a year that’s seen more music about listening to music, Grouper’s double album stands out from the crowd. Though there’s touches of tape music, modern classical and the obvious 4AD bands, it sounds totally Viking – ancient, ancestral, it’s the music of wilderness and wind. A vast, unbearably sad mediation on loss, energy and the outside in every sense, ‘A I A’ is staggering. [CRJ]

  • Instra:mental ‘Resolution 653’

Non-Plus // 11th April // Buy

We know Instra:mental are good at rumbling in a cold, dark, hard way, as on opener Sun Rec or 8, and there are few things that bludgeon with quite the competence of Thomp. What is maybe unexpected is that they can balance this with something as lovely as Waterfalls, with its cooing warmth and psychedelic swirling pads, or the sprightly, bright twists, trickles and turns of Love Arp, or the languid house of Talkin’ Mono. There’s a balance about ‘Resolution 653’ – it’s deliberately aiming not to hit you in any one way. Tied to its many influences, yes, but it’s also one of the most convincing love letters to the various ways late night music can move people. [TEE]

  • Kode9 & the Spaceape ‘Black Sun’

Hyperdub // 18th April // Buy

This long-awaited follow-up to the duo’s 2006 debut ‘Memories Of The Future’ is an album album: a world to inhabit rather than dip into. Its landscape is that of a post-apocalyptic narrative forged from the darker corners of 40 years of electronic music. Like all hefty tomes, it demands close attention, offering in return for your attention plenty to pick over, growing richer and more pungent with each return. It prickles with an energy that hums and burns yet the current running through its core is not one of fear and warning. Instead it speaks of rebuilding, of regrouping and refocusing, driven by the primal – sometimes desperate, sometimes measured – reflex for survival. [RS]

  • Grimes & d’Eon ‘Darkbloom’

Hippos In Tanks/Arbutus // 2nd May // Buy

Two voices, two artists, two ways of seeing the world – distinct but twinned. This split release from Montreal enfants Grimes and d’Eon might not be an album in the traditional sense but it’s as whole, realised and visionary – if not more so – than any on this list. The two contributed a handful of songs each, finding common ground in balancing playfulness with solemnity. Grimes’s Vanessa and d’Eon’s Transparency are like mirror reverse reflections of one another: a pair of massive tunes, as strange as they are familiar, from two of our brightest hopes in reinventing what it means to be pop. [RS]

  • Maria Minerva ‘Tallinn At Dawn’

Not Not Fun // 2nd May // Buy

Released on tape by LA’s ever-more productive Not Not Fun, Tallinn-born, London-based singer and producer Maria Minerva made this album of subtle, mournful and funny songs about being a pop fan clouded in magnetic fog and dub echo, as luminous a wander as you’ll hear this year. [CRJ]

  • Cymbals ‘Unlearn’

Tough Love // 9th May 2011 // Buy

Scruffy-haired, lanky-limbed and sparkly eyed, London trio Cymbals have made a debut album that sounds just like how they look. Clearly indebted to Talking Heads, the result is scrappy and a little rushed but charmingly, freshly so. It takes grit to make pearls and, given time, there’s much to fall for here. From the red-faced, untied shoelace pogo-ing of Single Printed Name to the slow, shy smile of Jane, ‘Unlearn’ is a perfect lesson in the pleasures of imperfection. [RS]

  • Hyetal ‘Broadcast’

Black Acre // 9th May // Buy

There’s a high-point in every DJ set, a peak collapsed into. On a song like Phoenix, Hyetal gets all that build out of the way ASAP, and then works at and prolongs the explosive moment. He knows that’s what everyone is holding their breath for anyway, so why not build and build and build from there, see how much ecstasy one can squeeze out of a synth? There’s all kinds of reference points – Beach Scenes is basically New Order-style post-punk, Searchlight has a kind of techno roll, Ritual is a noise cliff-face, and then everything is accented with a rich, technicolour flourish. ‘Broadcast’ is actually closer to a band like Blondes than it is to, say, Peverelist – a conceptual, dramatic, work where all music really wants to do is grow wings. [TEE]

  • Wild Beasts ‘Smother’

Domino // 9th May // Buy

In the time since 2009’s ‘Two Dancers’ Wild Beasts have, it would appear, fallen in love. Where their last effort was the sound of smutty late-night booty calls down Dickensian alleyways, ‘Smother’ is Sunday morning in the arms of a lover. The themes of commitment and maturity in the lyrics of Bed of Nails, Deeper and more are further hints at their development since the boisterousness of their 2008 debut, while the interplay between vocalists Hayden and Tom continues to set the group apart as one of the UK’s most unique guitar acts. [WO]

  • Gang Gang Dance ‘Eye Contact’

4AD // 10th May // Buy

“This one felt wide-eyed, as if we were just staring at the listener,” Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw explained in an interview when asked about ‘Eye Contact’. True – this album gives a feeling of honesty, sincerity, and naturalness, all concealed behind the abstract and elevating rhythmic groove that points towards one direction. Its upbeat and multi-layered soundscape opens up a very welcoming dreamy space, and makes me realise that music is not about closing your eyes or escaping, but keeping them wide open to perceive as much as you can. [KKYC]

  • Friendly Fires ‘Pala’

XL // 16th May // Buy

“Don’t hold back,” pleads Ed Macfarlane on Live These Days Tonight. It could be the mantra of ‘Pala’, pop band Friendly Fires’ second album, which plays out like a love letter to letting go. Intros are almost non-existent, each song leaping into life from the off like desert flowers after the rain. Choruses are super-sized, each build and subsequent drop – and there are many – perfectly choreographed, every moment bursting with colour. Listening to it from start to finish is like seeing the world from a great height: nothing is significant except the thrilling urge to fall. [RS]

  • Various Artists ’116 And Rising’

Hessle Audio // 16th May // Buy

You shouldn’t worry about what’s next for music; not when this exists. Elgato’s paired down Music (Body Mix) breaks straight into the hammer and anvil bursts of Untold, and already there’s more than enough going on. Pearson Sound’s tense, distinctive drums, the ravey sprint of Pangaea’s Run Out, the lolling strut of Joe’s Twice with its knowing “I don’t really know if I need all that bass” snippet. The producers here are all resistant to easy taxonomy – “All that bass” indeed. ‘116 & Rising’ is full of possibility, every track stripped, pulling in different directions. It’s exciting for what it is, but also for what it might mean. [TEE]

  • AR ‘Wolf Notes’

Type // 6th June // Buy

Originally printed as a book of poetry, later as a self-released CD, and finally as a record on Type, composer Richard Skelton and singer Autumn Richardson’s 5-track album is a restful, profound work about “the landscape, place-names, flora and fauna of Ulpha, in Cumbria, northern England”. It’s a set of songs that takes you further than any album I’ve heard this year, from the laptop and mass aggro of networked city life, a trip to to the silence and space of places where sheep graze and stars come out at night. [CRJ]

  • Ford & Lopatin ‘Channel Pressure’

Software/Mexican Summer // 7th June // Buy

By showcasing their love for space disco, funky jazz, and R&B, Ford & Lopatin have morphed these elements into a 14-track concept album that draws listeners into some kind of retro-futurism. Personal favourites are Too Much Midi (Please Forgive Me) and Break Inside – the most R&B sounding track on the record, which takes me on a nostalgic trip to a childhood spent fantasising about boy bands and listening to commercial R&B. What’s so clever about this record is its immaculate and multi-functional dimension – you can listen to it everywhere, and it fits perfectly into different contexts. It’s pure pop, pure American power rock. [KKYC]

  • WU LYF ‘Go Tell Fire To The Mountain’

LYF Recordings // 13th June // Buy

WU LYF are a weird bunch – wrapped up in revolutionary / religious iconography, aping Wu Tang and Barcelona Football Club they played cat-and-mouse with the industry for most of last year. But their barrel-chested, wide-eyed album, was more a testament to the power of rock music’s ancient traditions – blood, sweat and tunes. [CRJ]

  • SBTRKTSBTRKT

Young Turks // 27th June // Buy

Chemistry is everything on London producer SBTRKT’s debut album, songs of soul and strife fit for a generation that dances out its heartache at night. While his sound springs from smoke-filled corners of the dancefloor, vocalists Sampha, Jessie Ware, Little Dragon’s Yukimi and Roses Gabor lead the songs out into the sun. As his name suggests, SBTRKT’s strength is creating spaces within which the various voices and vulnerabilities of his collaborators are allowed to truly let go. From the cutting sweetness of Hold On to the moody bass blues of Right Thing To Do, this is 21st century pop with every chance of making it to the top. [RS]