Warning: flowery language alert.
Sometimes it’s such a long time. A year.
They feel like roar past at quite a rate as they end, but going back through the music in each one in detail in December they somehow see almost eternal. Some of the stuff on this page seems like half a decade back.
The records I liked a lot in 2011 provided – I thought – a fairly short list as I mentally worked them through the other night.
And then I woke in the morn and tried to write this list down. I scanned iTunes and pulled apart the recently neatly stacked records and CDs on the shelf to try and work out exactly what I’ve listened to in 2011.
Of course this list would be longer If I added in all the older records I either discovered or re-discovered in 2011. I’d be forced to add two Bowie albums from his largely ignored later years (the common wisdom of course is that his ‘interesting’ career path ended abruptly after Scary Monsters in 1981), Heathen and 1. Outside, or the compete 70s oeuvre of Gil Scott-Heron after he passed, or countless old 12” singles that took my fancy for a day or two whilst I banged them to death only to forget them again for a year or perhaps more – The timeless FK EP anyone?
I’ve added a couple of re-discoveries or reworkings, the Trax and Nu Groove re-edits, and the never actually fully released before Smile simply it seemed wrong not to.
However mostly the records here are new and new sounding enough for me to offer another blast of hogwash at Simon Reynolds’ Retromania thesis and to anyone who leapt all over it this year. So…
Various — Trax Re-edited (Harmless)
I’ve already done this one in detail, and my post had a couple of reposts. Suffice to say, I’m not wanting to re-edit those words. They’ll do.
And Trax Re-edited still does.
Various – Nicholas: Back on Track Nu Groove (Needwant)
As Trax was to Chicago I guess you could say that Nu Groove was to the big Apple. It was the label that rode the path to the future in that city in the late 1980s, and in a way it was more important. Not only was it not run by charlatans, as Trax was, but it encouraged invention (at Trax that was largely incidental/accidental) and created a huge part of what we thought of as electronic music (Dance Music doesn’t work – this wasn’t just music to dance to) in the next decade and beyond.
Nicholas is a 25 year old Italian who has embraced all that, perhaps in a way that only a younger person not in awe of the legacy could do, and twisted a dozen key moments into something both vaguely contemporary and reverential, albeit not claustrophobically so.
As with the Trax album, he hasn’t tried to force these songs onto a modern dancefloor, and in a world awash with awful remixes of songs you loved that’s important to me.
The remix of Houz’ Nergroz (producer Rheji Burrell, who along with his brother Ronald played a key role at the label) ’92 classic How Do You Love A Black Woman, a dramatically sensual fusion of raw r’n’b, King Tubby, and what we were to call deep house in years to come, is worth the price of admission to me. He tags it the “Fierce Beats Remix” but it’s far more provocative than that. Instead he draws out and teases with the famous lo-fi organ refrain and taunts with a snippet of the vocal sample that punctuated the original. It pads and sways in a way that simply restates just how important Nu Groove was to so much that came afterwards.
That music is as important to me as this next record:
The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions (Capitol)
As I tweeted or maybe Facebooked – if you don’t get Brian Wilson I can’t help you.
I’d like to develop that line just a little more, but it may offend.
How does somebody not get Brian? Unless they’re Mike Love in which case they make up for it by consciously and continuously belittling him, screwing him and then bathing in the credit and income he’s brought you thereafter. And reforming the band to bleed him just one more time.
I digress – but I probably needed to, and now I’ll finish the diversion the way it should always be finished: Fuck Mike Love. Really.
Prior to 1966 just about the only people to have added external sounds to American pop music were Shadow Morton and Spector, and they limited it to rain, thunder and a motorbike. In ’66, with Pet Sounds Brian Wilson took that a little further. Let’s Go Away For a While and the title track were the amongst the first pop records that tried to conjure something more than just fun and emotional attachment to a person or a thing. The first of the two, an instrumental that blissfully evoked a journey and was an aural and subjective precursor to Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, offers the most direct suggestion of what was to come – or not come at least for some 45 years (officially) – with Smile.
And that makes Brian Wilson a spiritual and conceptual godfather of much of what I’m writing about below, from sonic guitars to the bass-based revolution that dominates the last part of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
So here we have a story – I think, as I’m still not quite sure what it is in this Barnum and Bailey concoction – built using farmyard and building site noises, layered/structured warm analogue audio complexity that we seem to have lost the ability to create in these digital days, gorgeous harmonic progressions and cadences, intensely psychedelic melodic tangents – sometimes rambling — with such scope they could really only be handed down by a semi-crazed drug-fucked genius deaf in one ear.
And of course inclusive of Brian’s finest composition – Surf’s Up.
A few million words have been expended on Smile since 1967 and I don’t feel much need to add many more (although I guess I have), suffice to say this release is perfectly structured to accommodate the level of intense anorakism – with boxed sets and outtakes galore, many of which offer more insight into the semi-finished album on offer than the album itself – the customer feels comfortable with. And now resplendent in the sort of sonic quality and finality those shitty bootlegs never offered (and I own a few).
It’s everything you wanted it to be, way better than the still worthy solo remake in 2004, and it’s every part of what you wanted to hear or deconstruct of the legend – you choose – and as with the mighty Pet Sounds Sessions Box, offered in way that adds to the magic rather than stripping the mystery.
Me? I’m in the corner under a blanket with headphones very tightly on, listening over and over to the sublime Surf’s Up demo, ironically with all that stuff I rambled about up-thread stripped away.
She’s So Rad – In Circles (Round Trip Mars)
Let’s start the new stuff with an album that – and this and the one after are the only ones on this list I think – almost, and just almost — justifies Reynolds’ loudly voiced circular-obsessive pitch.
Does that matter? No, not at all. Music does not always need to be radical. I also like Nick Lowe and Mayer Hawthorne. And I dig this.
Guitar based rock has become an indulgence rather than a journey of discovery for me, but I still thrill to it — nothing quite kicks like amplified noise.
For all that, this sparkling record – which I first heard on 95bFm, so radio still offers discovery sometimes, albeit less and less if I’m honest – which draws a direct line back to Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, stopping off along the way at early power-pop, Wire’s Chairs Missing and that debut Jesus and Mary Chain longplayer (and yes, the opener Iceblock steals a chorus and melody from Real Life’s Send Me An Angel without obvious shame), was my day starter for several weeks. I’d wake with the ‘Don’t Forget / you never forget’ chorus of Circles, or the pseudo-modernism of Disco’s intro and tinsel chorus in my head.
The touches of electronica in the construction do give it a sheen of modernity but at its soul, this is closer to The Ronettes or The Righteous Brothers than any reference point it might try to claim in 2011.
I don’t think this is a record for the times, but it was my record for a time.
Disco by She’s So Rad, released 01 August 2011
Thundercat – The Golden Age Of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
When I bought this unheard from Conch in Ponsonby, I asked what it sounded like. It sounds like an album made by a bass player Dustin said.
Marcus Miller? Paul McCartney? Stanley Clarke? John Entwhistle? Bootsy?
But, yeah, he was absolutely right. I get it now.
A year or more in being recorded, The Golden Age Of Apocalypse seems to exist mostly because it was fun to make. There is no grander reason for it in the greater scheme, and the story goes that co-producer Flying Lotus, for whom Thundercat (= Stephen Bruner) plays bass, had to push the artist into finishing the fun and putting the thing into the marketplace so we could all enjoy.
Bass players make those sorts of records. Nobody else quite can. Think of The Fireman, or Jah Wobble, or, hell, the complete works of Larry Graham, post Sly – they simply groove and more or less ignore the commercial or artistic imperatives that limits or corrals the records made by musicians who were driven instead to be vocalists or lead guitarists (McCartney straddles both camps, but he’s Paul McCartney, and he either invented or at some stage restated most camps).
Dreamy, lazy, unpredictable, soulful, and — I keep trying to convince myself — thoroughly modern despite the fact it wraps itself around the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and George Duke, I’ve dug this album a lot in the last few months.
And yet without aggressively struggling to achieve that artistic imperative, it achieves it nevertheless as it builds towards the last two tracks, the almost surreal semi-cinematic double act of Mystery Machine and the all too brief expanse of Return to The Journey.
I guess it’s nothing special, it is after all, a bass player’s album. But in aspiring to be nothing special it is.
Altered Natives Presents The Guild Of Synchronists (Eye4Eye Recordings)
If this album contained only Danny Native’s 18 Ghost Hands it would be enough to sell it to me – the mighty Dee Patten revisited and stripped back to the rhythmic essence that made Who’s The Bad Man (originally on Leftfield’s Hard Hands label about ’95) one of my favourite singles of that decade.
But it doesn’t of course. This collection of assorted mostly unknowns, produced by Londoner Danny Yorke (ie. Danny Native), a follow-on to 2010’s Tenement Yard album (there was a volume two this year), doesn’t break any new ground but still sounds rather magnificent at some volume as I bounce around the house (I no longer do clubs – I don’t want to be the sad old guy at the end of the bar), as it pulls together and lovingly restates the most thrilling – noisy — elements of dance and rave culture and does so with some panache.
It’s a joyous record, which just works.
Danny tweeted a few days back that he was somewhat disappointed at not being named in any end of year lists. Well, I might not be Pitchfork or Factmag but this was one the records I thrilled to most in 2011. Ok, Danny?
Blood Orange – Coastal Grooves (Domino)
Devonté Hynes was also Lightspeed Champion. Then he was the brief flavour of the month, with a most-likely spread in Mojo – which must be the kiss of death – and he released a country-folk-rock-lite album that had mixed reviews. As has this, but I don’t care because I like it. Lots.
It’s odd. Like the misplaced soundtrack to some lost half-finished David Lynch movie – the cliched one where a confused and lost couple in an old broken Impala stumble into a beaten-down club for respite where they find David Sylvian fronting a pick-up band – played by Orange Juice.
Unless you place it that context it doesn’t make sense. Once you do, it does.
Yep, its eighties’ reference points are strong but structurally – the arrangements, and the space – have a now about them that betrays the latter part of the decade it was made in. It has to have arrived post-Massive Attack, but, more, after Mathew Dear’s two solo longplayers and that solitary astounding album from Damian Lazarus.
Hell, there is no way this record could’ve arrived before The XX.
King Krule (True Panther Sounds)
The Guardian described this EP from the 17 yr old Londoner, known to his Gran as Archy Marshall, as dub-lullabies, delivered in a post-Strummer twang.
Formerly Zoo Kid, this stuff is simply astounding. All of it.
Kuedo – Severant (Planet Mu)
Jamie Teasdale takes the noises made on machines before punk came along in 1977 and pushes them into holes created by the urban soundscrapings of the twenty-first century.
To borrow without apology: It’s like Tangerine Dream and DJ Roc are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company, then mixed in Cinemascope (remember that).
Various – Bangs & Works Vol.2 (Planet Mu)
A year or so back I listed volume one of this in my 2010 list. In the twelve months since this sound has exploded, becoming the dominant game changer in contemporary music in 2011. From hip-hop to bass to IDM — plus anything else that touches on any of these — juke has radicalised the way music was made this year.
The whole Juke/Footwork ethos thrills me: brutalised snippets of random melody (with a clear debt to J Dilla although he was gentler in his appropriations) and sound, often violently digitalised and reassembled without respect or deference. It excites.
And I guess I’m not alone – at least half the releases on this page wear an influence, sometimes substantial, from the rush to embrace this sound.
I’d be foolish to describe this album as anywhere close to easy to listen to – it loops, crashes, soars, speeds and then often unpredictably stops in 26 sometimes rather brief (although the tracks are mostly longer than Volume 1 – there are actually semi-songs here) melodramatic bursts of intense energy. Like Dilla, it draws the melody out from small parts of larger creations and amplifies that element before quickly casting it aside and moving on.
I don’t ever expect a wide audience for this, as much as I personally buzz to it. Its wider influence is undeniable, though, which takes me to:
Patrice & Friends – Cashmere Friends (Sulk Records)
The most fun I had with a record in 2011.
Eighties r&b vocal samples – the big gorgeous but wretched ballad type, think Alexander O’Neal, Morris Day and Paul Lawrence – stripped of their post-boogie synths and structure and dragged in pieces, sometimes a tiny fraction, other times a whole verse, to a bass soundscape mostly defined by the aforesaid Chicago juke and the urban inventiveness of Britain’s eternally bleak urban spawls.
And thus, appropriately, this is made in Liverpool, in the same way the UK garages and clubs have ripped apart and subverted US underground sounds since The Beatles (and then often handed them back – witness the interesting US made stuff in the often very regressive and somewhat depressing Pitchfork 50 this year: it almost all draws from Britain’s cities).
Half the fun is trying to work out exactly where that verse comes from – what battered 12” tucked in the back of a box that I haven’t played for decades has that very familiar few seconds been lifted from? It’s a game that can drive you nuts.
Rustie – Glass Swords (Warp)
Most fun, part dua. A record to lift you back to mid-nineties rave culture, albeit with twists added from the present day.
What? No, me neither. I was well past rave culture by the mid-1990s, hanging out blowing whistles and sucking on various gases to get a thrill never quite did it for me. It was little like the ugly end of the punk era after 1980 – when the distant ‘burbs who never quite got it earlier on, all rushed to town and misunderstood. And, yes that’s as elitist and old-ist as fuck because it wasn’t my scene but it’s my page, so be it.
So mostly I liked this because it was both uplifting at a time when I needed inspiration and because of – once again – how it gathered past strands together and unashamedly modernised. A track like Surph might have all the synths and sway of an old Network kiddie-rave tune but the vocals and the production takes it bang into 2011. In late 2012 it will probably sound dreary, but I rarely take more than a handful of records I love with me from year to year, and this is one I know I’m just loving for the moment.
Omar-S – It Can Be Done But Only I Can Do It (FXHE)
House music has lasted far longer than it should have. It’s overstayed its welcome by a decade or more, and yes as cynical as I want to be about it, like rock’n’roll, which had its last inspired, non-recycling, moment around 1990, I’m still a sucker for a recording like this and I’m a sucker for Omar-S, who’s raw grooves travel their own individualist course.
This album is almost an anachronism in 2011 as electronic music flows and mutates at an increasing speed, driven by the past, the future and the technology, but it really doesn’t matter because – with the sole exception of the grating Look Hear Watch — with an unnecessary porno sample swamping the whole track – every track on here is agelessly sublime.
What really gets me – at this particular moment, probably not in five minutes but I’ll write it down whilst I think of it in case it slips – is: who are all these people? Not specifically the two people who made these two records, but the hundreds of people who arrive every year, make astounding records and then seem to slip away. It’s mostly a 2000s phenomenon — at least to the levels we now see it.
The thing is, at least half the people who have made the music I’m talking about on this page are new to me. I have never heard of them before. And I may not hear of them a year or so from now. Our turnover has accelerated and continues to do so.
Maybe I’m ignorant. Maybe the world has passed me by and I simply don’t know anything anymore. Or maybe it’s just become so pepper-shot democratised out there that the taste or market makers no longer make any rules that matter.
Almost no records make every list. In 1979 when I was a kid, Talking Head’s Fear of Music, Gang of 4’s Entertainment, Armed Forces, London Calling, Setting Sons and about a dozen other albums made every single end of year summation.
That was it unless you niched yourself in jazz, classical or country.
No longer – there are literally hundreds of records that are now amongst the best of 2011, and that’s a mighty thing. No longer are a few scribes and a few content-creating corporations defining what we like or should like. There is no need to feel insecure because you simply don’t get the widely touted top album. Or know who they are.
Now you make your own list and the rest be damned.
So — returning to this — I’d not spent much time with Travis Stewart, despite the fact his name had gone around and round since 2001, and he recorded for a well trendy label (Merck). It was more a case of other folks mentioning him and me not really taking the time to notice, and then when I heard Room (S) somehow feeling insecure or inadequate in the knowledge that I’d also missed things like this (from 2009):
Thus I comforted myself with the above personal meme. You can’t know everything.
And jumped into Machinedrum’s 8th or 9th album, depending on how you measure these things, on its own merits, partially based on the fact that Planet Mu is the one label that’s not let me down in the last year or two.
Room(s) finishes with a tune called Come1, a joyous tune which leads from a piano and percussive riff that really could’ve been lifted from an old UK house stormer, circa 1992 (think Congress ), it seems rather out of place here although the point of the placement seems obvious: none of the tracks before could’ve existed without it.
The ten earlier tracks provide a complex but grand amalgam of contemporary styles, genres, sub-genres, and mini-genres and it is all but none of those exactly — the parts have created a greater whole. A gorgeous, unique and utterly confident release that was as perfectly pop as a record could possibly be without feeling the need to be subsumed by a charge for the charts.
And in that way, it will likely define this year far more as time passes than much of what we hear on radio and see in our top 40s. I feel the need to toss superlatives at Room(s), but can’t find anymore that don’t sound trite (I think I’m already sailing too close to that..), so I won’t.
Record of the year maybe?
And if that wasn’t enough, Sepalcure – Stewart with Praveen Sharma – have made an album that might also make claim to that. It’s odd to hear such a celebration of all things electronic, as filtered by the British underground, come from American producers, but so it is. The shambolic route that is the endless dissection and reassembly of all things dance and rhythmic by UK acts in the past twenty years or more provide the backdrop and elements necessary for this wonderfully soulful excursion that even borrows a line or two from Pete Townshend on one of the standouts, See Me Feel Me.
Less dense and arguably a little more flowery than Stewart’s epic solo disc, Sepalcure makes few claims to be much more than just a wonderful listen, an acceptable artistic indulgence. And so it is.
And I think I’m all the better for it.
Prison Garde — Système Hermès (Self Released)
Vaughn Robert Squire is from Vancouver and is a big part of the reason Canada has become really interesting musically in recent years. Free to all comers via his website (there is a new album up there in the past day or so, but I’ve had no time to listen).
Stylistically this sits in the never-never land from long long ago, where genres sat together comfortably — where house music and hip-hop were related and ideologically co-existed. And thus you have deep, deep house — with clear references to the music found on that Nu Groove record above, next to hip-hop that knows both Pete Rock and Shadow. And it’s extraordinary and sensual and quite timeless.
I like the way this record is intentionally un-numbered – you choose the track order that suits you. I find myself ordering the slower tracks – what could tentatively be called hip-hop – towards the end of this sprawling collection that embraces styles that supposedly clash. To flow from the faster tracks — house if you need a descriptor, and mostly we do, to the down paced tunes makes sense.
Shlohmo – Bad Vibes (Friends of Friends)
From LA and unashamedly lo-fi, this album, an almost perfect melding of hip-hop and an alternative, almost folky ethos, was perhaps the most immediate thing I listened to all year. I feel in love with it first after finding this video on some site or other, and the album followed quickly.
A collection of ghostly, intensely melodic and irresistible mini-symphonies that sometimes feel almost too fragile to exist in the real world beyond the creator’s head, Bad Vibes is the opposite of much else I’ve liked in 2011 in that it’s not complex or technology driven. But for all that, I find this sits comfortably with the surreal, spectral aura of much of the best music I’ve heard and loved this year.
Stunning – really – stunning.
The Weeknd – House Of Balloons (Self-Released)
And yes, it’s almost too late to say anything more about it as it became the hipster album – they call it a mixtape but the line is at best arbitrary surely — to own and love this year. I did both despite its ubiquity and omnipresence — and Drake’s latter day anointment.
A video or two will do:
and a remix:
I’ve long had a strong love-dislike thing going on with New Zealand hip-hop. Every time I fall head over heals with something – and there have been more than a few moments across the years – I get bludgeoned in short order by something else that misses the point so awfully that it drives me away.
And then there is this – a bonafide classic of underplayed homeliness, culturally unique, for want of a better word but there rarely is one, soul that buries all those cringe factors once again and takes me back home again.
I worry that the system is so restricted in New Zealand these days, so defined by a very few anointed big acts, that the wealth of fascinating acts, like @peace, often slip through the cultural cracks. Why isn’t this album everywhere? Is it on mainstream radio? Or then, perhaps it is and I missed it from afar. It did however, take a couple of clued up friends to point me towards it.
Why do I search YouTube and get “No video results for “@peace””? The NZoA grants list seems to be devoid of their name. Hopefully, it’s just because they haven’t asked.
Sure, it has a clear debt to the seminal Native Tongues posse, and whilst it is arguably somewhat unadventurous musically, the sounds are still sublime and it speaks to me in way most hip-hop in 2011 doesn’t. The words are considered, evocatively emotional and uniquely those of a young voice in the country I grew up in and call home, and that makes it much more than just another hip-hop record.
This is quite special.
Pinch & Shakleton (Honest Jon’s Records)
What any ugly word dubstep has become. It’s the ultimate musical hate word now. Much like Prog was in 1977 or Trance in 2000. Grumpy old men sit in cafes complaining that the clubs have become infested by ‘dubstep’. Forums rage against it. There are dozens of Facebook pages like <a href=“https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dubstep-needs-to-die/100427843330164”>this.
And then there are records like this: wonderful, dramatic, almost ethereal at times, inspired and organic collections that hover around the history of the term but have long ago moved on from the thing that so many love to despise.
These two – Pinch (Rob Ellis) and (Sam) Shackleton — defined the progressive edge of the genre and Pinch’s Underwater Dancehall, from 2007, sits comfortably as one of the decade’s classics. From it emanated so much, and yet here we are four years on with an album that makes Dancefloor seem almost Neolithic.
The ghost of post-punk past – not the sounds, but the ethic – infuses this. It’s radical, experimental and soothing all the same time. It takes few prisoners but offers up little resistance when you want to love it.
And then you do. Or at least I do.
Andy Stott – Passed Me By / We Stay Together (Modern Love)
A couple of years back I rather fell for Andy Stott’s Unknown Exception, a compilation of his earlier vinyl releases. I liked, then loved and swooned around to it, despite the fact that little on it was in anyway sonically innovative. It was – simply – a gloriously warm, heavily melodic, comfortable melding of classic deep-house and nu-techno that I loved to have around.
Despite my love affair (and the fact that I still play it all the time) I mostly lost touch with Stott’s releases thereafter. His name would appear on release sheets, I’d see the odd track on Boomkat or Phonica, but unintentionally I’d lose the thought to listen in the increasingly disorganised – and sometimes frantic — way I hunt the internet for new music.
And then came Passed Me By, and, a month or two later, its sequel We Stay Together. A couple of online reviews drove me back towards the guy and I bit.
In a way I’m glad I didn’t try and cross the ground between the compilation and this duo of less than full length releases (both are around 35mins) because that allowed me to approached the first of these, Passed Me By, as a novice – unprepared – and I wasn’t led down or confused by what may have been a fairly uncomfortable route to this place (I’ve since taken a couple of inquisitive steps backwards into 2009 and 2010 and I’m not unhappy I missed the stop 0ffs).
Passed Me By, and the record that followed, have almost no relationship with Unknown Exception, aside from a name. You can’t draw an unbroken line between the three.
So instead of the traditional electronic dance landscapes of the earlier work, Stott now confronts and challenges the listener with something that sounds like the aural equivalent of Logan’s Run. The albums, or album if we consider these to be one work – are almost leaden in their slow post apocalyptic grind, which sounds awful but is majestically quite the opposite.
There is an obvious debt to the fractured tonality of Actress, and yet Arthur Russell’s most adventurous and intriguing work is all over these records, as is the minimalism electronica of The Field, Shackleton and Maurizio and yet it is none of these as this work stretches the relationship between techno, dub and texture just that little further.
Bleak, dark, and extraordinarily beautiful, perhaps the album/s of the year.
This was an amazing, wonderful year to be listening to new music.
As an aside, every one of these — with the exception of She’s So Rad and Thundercat — I own the digital edition of. This is the year I mostly dispensed with CD altogether, and will now, unless unavoidable, purchase on file and vinyl.
Oh, I guess I missed these: