Here at Spindle we like to be ahead of the curve, so thought we’d get in early with our end of year best-of lists. Unfortunately our music editor was busy waxing her moustache, so it fell to me of all people to compose this article.
Those that are acquainted with me know that I’m more likely to start the day with a blast of ABBA than Anna Calvi and generally exist in direct counterpoint to the muso-poseur, so this was always going to be a mixed bag.
So here we go, top albums of 2011, in no particular order.
Cosmo Jarvis ‘Is The World Strange or Am I Strange?’
Spindle regulars know we’ve had a bit of a thing for Cosmo Jarvis since his ‘Gay Pirates’ vid went viral and we decided to probe further into his murky youtube past and discovered a wealth of short films and immensely imaginative music.
Fair to say we were excited for his debut album and were not disappointed. Cosmo casts his net wide and nails everything he goes for, with a sound that encompasses sea shanties, hip hop, country n’ western and rock n’ roll. He manages to articulate a certain rage against the world while being unafraid to talk candidly about his own shortcomings.
Young, male singer-songwriters rarely make a real point about themselves or the world around them on a debut record, preferring to seek solace in what they perceive as the Greek tragic repercussions of a string of romances (we’re looking at you, Mr. Sheeran), but on this record Cosmo actually makes you step back and think. And he talks about wanking. So there really is something in there for everybody.
Standout track: ‘Is The World Strange or Am I Strange?’
Kate Bush ’50 Words For Snow’
Oh, there are so many generic ways to start an article on Kate Bush, but they seem kind of necessary so I’ll get them out of the way quickly. Wuthering Heights. Mental. Redhead. Reclusive. Genius. Rolf Harris.
In a nutshell, everyone was cacking themselves with joy because since The Red Shoes in 1993, Bush had waited until 2005 to release Aerial (a masterpiece), then did absolutely nowt until this year when she released not one, but two more albums. Saints alive! Personally I think this year’s earlier effort, Director’s Cut, was a waste of everybody’s time. Bush remixed songs from Red Shoes to little discernible effect; ‘Lily’ was pretty similar but with a bit more growling, whereas ‘Moments of Pleasure’ was so stripped down that it tore away all the elements that made the original song so beautiful.
Never mind, because 50 Words For Snow is Bush moving in the right direction, back at her experimental best. The album contains just seven tracks that unfurl glacially over the course of sixty five minutes, and the timing of the release is perfect as the vast, snowy tundras she evokes match up to the cold, harsh reality outside your very own window.
If I sound like the press release, I do apologise, but this album really does exactly what it says on the tin. Not least when Stephen Fry recites fifty mostly made up words for snow while Bush chants encouragement from the sidelines. Other interludes include an ode to a yeti and the obligatory appearance of a snowman, which I think she fucks. No sign of Rolf, though. What a damn shame.
Standout track: ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’, a duet with Elton John.
PJ Harvey ‘Let England Shake’
Infamous I suppose for having also won this year’s Mercury music prize, her second to date and only female artist to have won twice et bloody cetera, the album itself is really rather good.
This has been described as a ‘war album’ and to a certain degree it is – much of the anger and passion in the music comes from what Polly Jean had researched about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Let England Shake transcends the confines of protest music and deals with the existential crisis of those participating in these wars, in the process examining the very soul of an entire nation.
Musically, too, Pol excels herself, experimenting as she does with ‘several different guitars’ and an autoharp (whatever one of those is), with her extraordinary voice running the gamut from ethereal to husky to all out yowling.
Some parts of this album are not exactly easy, with lyrics such as ‘What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children’, but this is not a ‘heavy’ album, just that rarest of things – a great piece of music with a message.
And , presented without comment: NME gave the album 10/10.
Standout track: ‘The Glorious Land’
Wild Beasts ‘Smother’
Now, this is the kind of album that’s going to be showing up on most magazine end of year lists. I’m told Wild Beasts are cool and what-not, but I couldn’t give a flying fuck. This album is simply a lot of fun.
Vocally, they beat the competition by opting out of the current trend for mumbling, droning or look-how-many-buttons-we-can-push-in-the-studio throwing voices crap, and instead let lead singer Hayden Thorpe’s dramatic falsetto guide you. (The fact that he sometimes sounds a bit like Morrissey can be off-putting to some – well, me – but then everyone else seems to love Mozza so who am I to disabuse you all?)
There is of course a tangible 80s influence popping up here and there but, since these guys do it well, I’ll allow it, and actually most of the album is pretty pared down and, dare I say it…very sexy.
Standout track: Bed of Nails
Tori Amos ‘Night Of Hunters’
Oh, Tori. You either love her or hate her, and even those that profess to be her die-hard fans begin to spit fire at the mention of any of her post-1999 music. To be fair, whereas Tori carved a niche for herself as a piano-rock alt-goddess in the 90s she has spent the early years of this century upsetting her core fan base. Fair enough, Scarlet’s Walk was over-produced easy-listening, The Beekeeper’s earth-mother hippie stylings upset those that fell in love with the girl that sang about wanking off to the Bible, and the ‘sonic soundscapes’ of American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted To Sin got swallowed up on record and were only ever going to work if you heard them live. (I did, and they did.)
But I say that this is Tori’s best work in years. Perhaps it’s because the songs are based around pieces of classical music that have been re-worked into a 20th century song cycle that they seem to have liberated her from Jewel-hell and are much grander in scope and sound than most of her recent work . ‘Shattering Sea’ sounds like a stormy ocean, and describing as it does a relationship-ending altercation in the dead of night, is a deeply unsettling start to the album, while songs such as ‘Your Ghost’ are so heartbreakingly rendered that they move you to tears.
Standout track: Shattering Sea
Bon Iver ‘Bon Iver’
I feel a bit sorry for Justin Vernon (or ‘Bon’ as my friend called him before being reminded that this wasn’t actually his name). Nothing was ever really going to be good enough after the heartbreaking beauty of his debut album, and there was a sense that by naming the album eponymously, Bon was demonstrating a self-assured smugness that you were going to buy this and probably love it just because it was, well, Bon Iver.
Sure enough, his second go was indeed divisive; Spindle’s own Charlie Wood said it ‘sat uncomfortably between disappointment and mediocrity’. Though I concede that it did not pack as much of a punch as the first album there were some definite highlights and it has regularly been on my most-played list.
The difference this time round is that rather than ripping your heart out, Bon has decided to take your hand and be your guide around a number of seemingly inhospitable landscapes, with each track being named after a location in the US or Canada.
While that may frustrate some, the fact that he has branched out musically is to be commended – although he doesn’t nail it every time. With the sexy sax and 80s keyboards of final track Beth/Rest, I initially thought he was launching into a cover of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ or ‘Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong’. More’s the pity that he wasn’t.
And Foster The People ‘Torches’ – because these guys are young, pretty and their music is as sunny and upbeat as the LA backdrop in their videos. Pumped Up Kicks was one of the tracks of the summer, perfect for gloomy recession-y England where everyone spent the whole summer crying in the shower to Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’.
Quick hits: up and comers Cave Painting released their inventively atmospheric debut EP You’ll Be Running Soon, and with a full album planned for this year, we can’t wait to hear what this dynamic five-some have up their sleeves for us.
And the diverse talent Henry Johnson, storm centre of recent channel 4 doc ‘We Need To Talk About Dad’, has tantalised us with his warmth and depth of feeling on a selection of tracks and is also in the process of recording his debut album. In the mean time check out ‘Come Lay Down’, a perfect song for those cold winter nights.
Thanks for reading and merry fucking Christmas.