[Best of 2011] Rhys’ List

I don’t really feel like 2011 has been one of those years where one album or artist has just dominated indie music press coverage like we’ve seen in the past couple of years. We’ve had nothing like 2010-style Kanye, no world conquering magnum-opus like Merriweather Post Pavillion, no truly incendiary debut like Myths of the Near Future. Let’s be honest, even GaGa had quiet one compared to 2010, meat dress and “Judas” aside.

But in a lot of ways I enjoy that fact. I don’t feel obliged to really include anything for appreciation’s sake. When I came to writing this list, I was just able to look around and think “what did I really enjoy the most this year?”  My list is pretty Brit-centric – all top 4 are British acts in fact; and I wonder how many of those 4 will feature in US lists this year. Also, there’s only 2 debuts featured, and 1 is from an artist established long beforehand through other projects anyway. But those are the albums that really delivered for me, and that I’ve found myself able to consistently return to throughout the year. So, here we go!

10. Girls // Father, Son, Holy Ghost

I never got Girls the first time round, but their Broken Dreams Club EP last year was one of my favourite records and got me incredibly excited for this album. A massive departure in many ways from their old stuff, a stylistic mish-mash at times, this record is just full of great, great songs. Christopher Owens just takes you through every emotion you could think of when you’re in love – the playful “Honey Bunny”, the reticent “How Can I Say I Love You?”, the utterly heartbroken “Vomit”. There are one or two forgettable tracks, but they are vastly overshadowed by the brilliance elsewhere.

[mp3] Girls // Vomit

9. Josh T. Pearson // Last of the Country Gentlemen

I didn’t know anything about Josh T. Pearson at the start of 2011, and his long-time-coming debut nearly snuck under my radar this year, but Last of the Country Gentlemen is just magnificent. The idea of a 13 minute song called “Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her”, written and performed by some crazy Walt Whitman/Ginsberg look-alike, armed only with an acoustic guitar originally had me VERY sceptical, but every song on here is breathtakingly beautiful. That word is bandied about a heck of a lot in this day and age, but it’s truly appropriate here. I was left awestruck by this album, bottom jaw hanging heavily down on the desk. The hushed, restrained, tearful tales of heartbreak, uncertainty and religion are as frank and honest as song writing can get. It’s such an intimate record, Pearson’s wearied, all-American voice makes you feel like he’s taking you on a tour of every sorry dive and bottle-bottom he’s ever visited.

8. The Decemberists // The King is Dead

I owe a massive debt to Tympanogram here. This was one of the first albums I was privy to  when I joined the team, and I doubt I’d have listened to it otherwise. This was released way back in January, but I haven’t tired of listening to it since. “Don’t Carry It All”, with it’s Springsteen style harmonica blast and MASSIVE, jubilant chorus is one of the best album openers I’ve ever heard. This is one of those albums where a band are just in full flow, whether they’re totally kicking ass with some bluesy james on “Down By The Water”, lulling you with a gentle ballad on “Rise To Me”, or casually performing a stadium-sized anthem on “This Is Why We Fight”. A testament to great song writing and band chemistry.

7. The Mountain Goats // All Eternals Deck

A trend on this list of albums is that I just love good songs. I adore innovation, the totally unconventional and revolutionary, but I just can’t resist a brilliantly written song – and All Eternals Deck consists of 13 absolute crackers. I was a big fan of what I’d heard of John Darnielle before this, but this is really where I really found a way in. Like a lot of Mountain Goats stuff, Darnielle is facing his past and his demons – except here, he’s starting to overcome them. My personal favourite, “Never Quite Free”, is a heartbreakingly triumphant song about not quite being able to believe that maybe – just maybe – things could turn out OK: “It’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward, with no fear of shadows spreading where you stand”. Darnielle still has his vicious and acerbic moments though – the defiant “Damn These Vampires” and wild “Estate Sale Sign” being perfect examples. These distinctive Mountain Goats traits, alongside the bare bones instrumentation, make this a strikingly human record.

6. Elbow // Build A Rocket Boys!

Bands like Elbow give me hope. Hope that a band can stay together for 20 years and not hate each other, or not turn into douche bags. They finally made it big in the UK with The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008, and how do they respond? Just make another storming, reflective and coherent album, that’s how. Manchester and proud, the lyrics on this are stunning sketches of Guy Garvey’s youth and childhood – seeing his teenage self in kids on the corner during “Lippy Kids” or reminiscing on moving out into the big bad world on “Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl”. The songs here make me feel like someone is sharing their most personal anecdotes and memories with me over a quiet drink. “Open Arms” is a majestic, euphoric love-in, “The Birds” is the band indulging their prog-rock tendencies, and “Dear Friends” is another breathy lullaby which signs the album off with the kind of nod and wink that only your closest friends and relatives can give you.

5. Bon Iver // Bon Iver

Everyone has had something to say about this bad boy. From what I’ve seen, this is the record putting in the most appearances on end of year lists across the board – and, let’s be honest, with very good reason. I adored For Emma, Forever Ago, and the sound of this record was a shock to me, but it didn’t even have to grow on me. This is just a beautiful record, pushing at the boundaries of the kind of soundscapes you can create with a guitar. The song writing is slight and a lot sketchier than Justin Vernon’s debut, but that adds to the hazy, bleary-eyed beauty of it all. I’ve gotten lost in this album late at night countless times this year. And – what the hell – “Beth/Rest” is the best track on here.

[mp3] Bon Iver // Calgary

4. Laura Marling // A Creature I Don’t Know

I still remember the first time I ever heard Laura Marling. Standing in the lunch queue at school, aged 15. I heard “The Captain and The Hourglass” on one borrowed headphone from a friend. Literally since that moment, I’ve been in love with Laura and everything she’s come out with. She’s not written a bad song yet. People commented a lot with 2010’s I Speak Because I Can that she sounded as if she’d come of age, but THIS album is where that really happened. There’s always been a dark side to Laura’s song writing, and it finally came out in full force here with the raging “The Beast” and the lilting, detached, Leonard Cohen like “Night After Night”. This is a record about facing your demons, and Laura does it in spectacular fashion, and the triumphant finale of “All My Rage” is, as far as I’m concerned, the best song the girl’s ever written. AND SHE’S STILL ONLY TWENTY-ONE?! WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!

3. The Vaccines // What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

The Vaccines were yet another “saviours of British guitar music” at the start of 2011, sceptics imagining they’d fall by the way side like so many in the years before them. THAT’S what we expected from The Vaccines. But you know what? THEY UTTERLY SMASHED 2011. Dominated the festival circuit. Destroyed Jools Holland. Scaled the album charts. Released possibly the UK indie anthem of the year with “Post Break-Up Sex”. And then what about the album? Tune. After tune. After tune. After tune. Yes, weirdo-experimental boundary pushing is great and healthy, but sometimes, just piss off, grab me a guitar and SMASH THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF IT. “If You Wanna”, “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”, “Norgaard”, “A Lack of Understanding”… I am literally listing the whole album. And if you think The Vaccines are just dumbed down indie for the masses, then you can enjoy awkwardly swaying to Panda Bear at ATP whilst I’m leaping around having a mentally good time on the mainstream festival circuit. Well done lads. Well bloody done.

2. Los Campesinos! // Hello Sadness

I’ll level with you: this was never going to feature outside the top 2 of my albums this year. Hell, I’m surprised it didn’t quite take #1. I’m an unashamed LC! devotee, but I can still give a considered opinion of what makes this album so bloody great. The band – line up altered since 2010’s Romance is Boring – have left behind a lot of their traditional musical trademarks: erratic, shrill guitar counterpoints, whirring violins, and Gareth’s singing voice has been getting deeper with each album. Having said that, they’re still on their usual shouty, terrifyingly brilliant form. The chorus of “By Your Hand” is downright anthemic, same goes for “Songs About Your Girlfriend”. “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)” finally sees Gareth pen the ode to English football that we’ve always known he’s wanted to, from numerous references to blazing a header against the crossbar and idolising Tony Cascarino circa 1995.  Gareth’s lyricism is as frank and detailed as always, but he gets grimmer and more gruesome on this record – especially on “Hate For The Island” and “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope”. That’s drawn a lot of criticism from some critics, but it’s refreshing to see him move past the ever ironic and comic tone he’s adopted in the past which, whilst it’s part of what’s made the band’s output so good in the past, has always put a comfortable distance between him and the lyrics (odd seeing as they’re often so personal and anecdotal). There’s nothing comfortable about lyrics like “the black bird feasts upon my guts and bears its beak to fight”. But even with the dark subject matter, this record has that incredible Smiths-like quality of being an absolute, stone cold belter.

1. Arctic Monkeys // Suck It And See

I was REALLY worried when we got the first preview of Suck It And See. I adored Humbug, but hearing “Brick By Brick” – the album’s first taster – had me worried that there was such a thing as too much time spent with Josh Homme. Needless to say, my worries were assuaged. Hell, they were well and truly battered. My worries were left cold, embarrassed, barely clothed and quivering in the corner with no memory of the night before. The Arctics took things to a new level here. Even if you hated Humbug, there’s no denying the massive leap the Arctics have taken here. They are well and truly playing with the big boys now, and the great thing is that it’s on the back of fantastic songs and brilliant musicianship. Alex Turner finally indulges his ballad writing skills, which I’ve been desperate for more of since “Only Ones Who Know”. “Love Is A Laserquest” is a beautifully English reflective rumination on heartbreak, and “Piledriver Waltz” swims nicely onto this album from Turner’s  Submarine soundtrack. The band rock out like nobody’s business on here. Forgetting the aforementioned “Brick By Brick”, “Library Pictures” is just some crazy fun, already a staple of their live set, and gives Matt Helders a shining moment. Jamie Cook’s guitar work – the most underrated in UK indie music – is just phenomenal throughout and Nick O’Malley’s bass parts are genuinely superb. Tight musicianship is hard to find these days, but it’s found here in spades, and when it’s married with ready-made indie classics like “The Hellcat Spangled Shalala” or “Suck It And See”, you have, quite simply, a near perfect indie rock album.

Honourable Mentions //

St. Vincent // Strange Mercy

[mp3] St. Vincent // Surgeon

Coldplay // Mylo Xyloto (I tried not like it, really I did…)

Alex Turner // Submarine OST

Radiohead // The King of Limbs

Stuart Townend // The Journey

Yuck // Yuck

Suuns // Zeroes QC

[mp3] Suuns // Up Past the Nursery