Tuesday, 27 December 2011

My Favourite Albums of 2011 (Part 2)

OK, back to it. Those that missed the first half can check it out here. Now onto my top 5...

#5: "The Bomb Shelter Sessions" by Vintage Trouble

What a find these guys were! I first came across them on "Later... Live" when Hugh Laurie was performing (he even introduced them). They did a blistering rendition of "Blues Hand Me Down" which had me buzzing about them right away - such bombast, such energy. I kept my eyes and ears open eager to hear more.

I didn't have to wait long. While their album wasn't officially released in the UK 'til July, I found their album on Spotify literally the week after they were on Jools' show, and I was chuffed to hear the rest of the album was just as brilliant: straight up, good old fashioned Rhythm and Blues, and a breath of fresh air. Other highlights for me were "Nancy Lee" and "Total Strangers".

In a good year for soul music (Aloe Blacc and Raphael Saadiq made some great albums, and Michael Kiwanuka emerged as a promising talent for next year) these guys were the cream of the crop.

#4:"Anna Calvi"by Anna Calvi

Another of my favourite artists to emerge this year, this woman is pretty much the complete package. Her image is mesmerising: dressing virtually exclusively in red and black with vibrant red lipstick and guitar in hand, she turned a few heads on the red carpet at the Mercury's to say the least. I listened to her talk through her album track by track on 6Music, and her songwriting philosophy really struck a chord with me.

She spoke of her admiration for Bowie and in particular "Sound and Vision" where he doesn't include a vocal for a long period of time, making the audience anticipating his voice - a trick she'd use on the album by opening with the instrumental "Rider To The Sea".

Calvi also draws inspiration from classical music, and crafted the songs on the album so that the music matched the feelings and scenarios she describes in her lyrics: the build of adrenaline in "Desire", the escapism of "Suzanne & I", the haunting atmosphere of "Blackout".
This album was definitely a slow burner, but boy did it burn brightly once I "got it". I wish more people could make albums that create a sense of atmosphere like this one.

To steal Guy Garvey's go-to phrase he always uses on his radio show, "I love this next record! I love it I love it I love it!" The band had the unenviable task of writing a follow up to "The Seldom Seen Kid", their breakthrough success that made them a household name. But instead of over-reacting with some "look at what we can do" 180 turn that some bands can be guilty of (*cough* R.E.M. *cough*) the band stuck to their principles and to writing what they know.
Many in the band had moved back to the areas where they grew up, which had a major influence on this album. Title track of sorts "Lippy Kids" is the perfect example ("Nobody knew me at home anymore"), an ode to wasted youth and a call to arms for ne'er-do-well'ers to better themselves ("Do they know those days are golden? Build a rocket boys!").

The theme of self-reflection and returning to your roots runs throughout the album: "Neat Little Rows" was inspired by, of all things, Guy's education in a Catholic school ("don't point fingers, fingers are for pointing at the sky"), "Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl" is about living on his own for the first time when he decided to become a musician ("Nothing to be proud of, and nothing to regret. All of that to make as yet"), and "Open Arms" is all about home coming.
Strangely this seems counter-balanced by a theme of coping with grief: opener "The Birds", about a man reminiscing over an old flame, "The Night Will Always Win" (surprisingly my Mum's favourite track) and confessional "The River" being prime examples.
The most overriding feeling you get from the album though is a sense of gratitude, which is most blatant on final track "Dear Friends". An open thank you letter from the band, Garvey's earnest lyrics really shine here. Two lines really strike a chord with me on this song: "the truth never frays a good yarn" and "you are the stars I navigate home by", the latter in particular is such a touching way of looking at those that mean the most to you, I took it to mean "the thought of you brings me home".
This album is a triumph.

#2: "Wasting Light" by Foo Fighters

This album is an absolute BEAST (sorry Ksi). I often wondered if the Foos had another pure rock 'n' roll classic left in them after all their attempts at a more expansive sound on their previous two albums. Imagine my relief to hear the opener "Bridge Burning" for the first time: meaty, progressive riffs building up to Dave Grohl's rallying cry of "THESE ARE MY FAMOUS LAST WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORDS!!!". I knew instantly this was the record the band have always had in them.
The driving force behind this album is great musicianship, top notch production and riffs, riffs, riffs, great big huge riffs. "White Limo"'s riff is so great I don't even care that Grohl's voice is unintelligible on the song.
Of course there are also trademark huge Foo Fighters chorus' littered everywhere: take the unorthodox "Rope", "Back & Forth", and "These Days". The latter I find very relatable, having been told "ah you'll be fine" on numerous occasion when things have gone wrong.
My favourite track is album closer "Walk", it has all the hallmarks of a classic Foos song. In keeping with the rest of the album the guitar riffs are great. The build is fantastic, and the chorus anthemic.
In my view, this album is the crown jewel of the Foos already incredible career, their best, most consistent album and an instant classic.

#1: "Bon Iver" by Bon Iver

So here it is, my favourite album this year. I'm sure it's topped a lot of critics end of year lists too, so I'm probably going to look like a stereotypical indie kid by saying it's my favourite album, but the fact is it was hard to find anything else in 2011 that topped this.
I'm sure many of you have heard the story behind Justin Vernon's first record "For Emma, Forever Ago": I mean the guy has a huge break-up and retreats to the woods, becoming a recluse and records probably the best break-up record ever. I wish everyone was that productive when they're heartbroken. 
This is the follow up. It's notable that most of the song titles are names of places, indicating that Vernon is escaping the reclusion that drove his previous record.
"Bon Iver" also has a very contrasting sound to it's predecessor. "For Emma..." was a largely acoustic affair, the driving force of which was Vernon's unique voice. Whereas with this record, there's vastly more instrumentation, which takes up the heart of the record. Opener "Perth" is a perfect example: from the guitars in the opening to the horns and blistering drums that come alive as the song reaches it's climax. 
"Towers" is another good illustration of how escaping the cabin has helped rather than hindered the album. The electric guitar is most prominent in this song and gives it a lovely sound: it would have been acoustic on "For Emma...". This elevates an already catchy song (thanks to the "woah-oh-oh-oah"'s of the vocal) to a memorable one.
"Perth" then seamlessly morphs into "Minnesota, WI", which reveals the other part of this albums arsenal: synth. While it can be a touch overdone ("Beth/Rest" at times sounds like that part of 1984 nobody should really speak about ever again), for the most part it really adds to the feel of the record, and results in some unique sounds, like the banjo/korg mix in the aforementioned "Minnesota". "Calgary", for instance, is one song where the synths really are a central part to the build of the song, and helps it become a high point of the album.
The biggest highlight though is "Holocene". I defy you to fine a more tender, beautifully crafted song from this year, because I certainly can't: wonderfully simple guitar play and subtle drums, Vernon's voice at it's borderline unintelligible best and a chorus that helps highlight his oft-forgotten way with words ("and at once I was not magnificent... I could see for mile, miles, miles").
Hopefully this record gets talked about for years to come just like his debut, because it is magnificent.

And with that, I bid you adieu, and wish you all the best for 2012.