Ben Ward

2011, in albums.

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Hark, a blog post! I don't write as much as like to. I don't have a lot of confidence in my writing tone at present, torn between short witticisms on Twitter, and lengthy documentation for technical consumption. That said, I consider the annual indulgence of reviewing the past year's music as something quite easy to do. This year was quite difficult.

I'm predominantly a listener of albums. I enjoy the form, both physically as records, but also the experience of listening to something over the course of thirty to forty-five minutes. Much of life is frenetic, and there's something precious in the albums that you can put on and enjoy without intervening every five minutes.

2011, then, appears to have been a weaker year for albums. David Emery noted the same in his review of the year, but I can't quite put my finger on what happened. I acquired more music this year than last, and have enjoyed the great majority of it. Yet in the great end of year sigh, a lot of those records feel less special in their entirity, less cohesive. Plus, whilst I'm far from the forefront of genre trends, my listening at the end of this year is far more varied in its electronic and dance influences than last year, and the year before that. I'm into that now, especially when it's all deliciously muddled together. Perhaps that makes very good, but conventional records like Slow Club's sophomore ‘Paradise’ feel less noteworthy, if no less enjoyable?

There's a lot in that very good, but… bucket. Austa's ‘Feel it Break’, The Horrors ‘Skying’, Low's ‘C'mon’, Papercuts ‘Fading Parade’. All really good. Battles post-Tyondai Braxton ‘Gloss Drop’ was pretty good, too (especially opener ‘Africastle’), although I couldn't really get over the persistent keyboard tone that sounds so much like a possessed ice cream truck. Emmy The Great's second record ‘Virtue’ also worked for me, full of charm, albeit without the quirks of her first.

So in the hunt for things that really stood above, I have four, and bravely I'm going to rank them.

4: Grouplove - ‘Never Trust a Happy Song’. Grouplove were quite a find this year, catching just the very end of their set at San Francisco's Outside Lands summer festival, and being sufficiently enticed to pick up their album without a further listen. I'm reckless like that, sometimes. What I found was an energetic, relentlessly joyful and charming record of quite magnificent, alt-tinged pop music. Vocals are shared amongst most of the group, resulting in occasional shifts in style and delivery that keep the record fresh throughout. I got to see them live again, in full this time, and they revealed themselves to be supremely talented, and adorably cheerful. Listen to ‘Itchin' on a Photograph’

3: Youth Lagoon - ‘The Year of Hibernation’. A late entrant as I caught it only near the end of 2011, but it's beautiful and I've played it more intensely than anything else this year. It's awash with keyboards and guitar leads, restrained drum machine, and delicate, desolate-yet-optimistic vocal in the middle-distance. Dreamy. Really lovely. Listen to ‘Seventeen’

2: PJ Harvey - ‘Let England Shake’. I remember bemusement when I first heard a live recording of ‘Let England Shake’, complete with “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” refrain; it was not endearing. But when the album arrived, the abrupt, cheery opening melody quickly slides away to expose something more integuing and broody. ‘Let England Shake’ is the most coherent album of the year, and probably of a number of years before too. Musically and thematically, it's wonderful throughout. It stands apart from PJ Harvey's other work too. Frustratingly, I've missed her touring the album, but I find it difficult to imagine it mixed in with anything else from her extensive career. The record has a high peak, ‘On Battleship Hill’, the incredible ‘England’ through to the final soaring refrain of ‘In The Dark Places’ is a really wonderful set. Listen to ‘All and Everyone’

Let England Shake, it turns out, is my favourite album of the year, because the record of the year is…

1: Mogwai - ‘Earth Division EP’. My favourite record of the year is… not an album. Mogwai did put out an album this year, and ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will’ is well worth your time. Grab the Deluxe Edition, though, because it comes with an unusually special addition: A 23 minute soundtrack entitiled “Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)”, which was composed for an art installation by Douglas Gordon and Olaf Nicolai.

This is a different side of Mogwai from the reputation of noise and distortion that punctuates much of their work. Themeatic, carrying a delicate melody and orchestral arrangement. To call it a ‘bonus’ track is absurd. Anyway, where ‘Hardcore Will Never Die…’ is an album full of aggression, the ‘Earth Division EP’—all 15 minutes of it—is a counterpart from some place closer to ‘The Singing Mountain’. It's made of sublime, delicate piano, acoustic instruments and simple melodies. ‘Drunk and Crazy’ is loud and electric, lest you forget this is still a Mogwai record, but in the break down it—like every piece in this short set—the piece is underpinned by a string arrangement so magnificent it defies all expectation. What's more, ‘Hound of Winter’ is the best Mogwai vocal piece ever.

You can reach the end of ‘Earth Division’ and desperately wish it lasted longer, but at the same time, can't argue with how perfectly formed it is. Listen to ‘Drunk and Crazy’


Updated 9th Jan, 2012: Added a fourth album of the year, Grouplove's ‘Never Trust a Happy Song’ which I was remiss to exclude first time around. Also added some Hype Machine links to choice songs from each record.

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