Not a classic year for recorded music, in my opinion. No shortage of decent stuff from dependable folk, but not many game-changers you weren't expecting and you really love a few months on... I've spent more time this year telling friends about great live acts they really should try to see than new records they must buy.
Some specific disappointments too:
- Tom Waits' new one, despite a slew of 5* reviews, left me underwhelmed;
- after repeated listens I remain interested and impressed by James Blake rather than really enthused;
- Paul Simon's So Beautiful Or So What? has four or five amazing songs on it which really drew me in initially but doesn't sustain that quality across the whole record on more frequent listening (the underrated Surprise remains for me the best-since-Graceland the critics are always seeking);
- and Björk, Tom Russell and The Necks all came up with relative clunkers by their usual very high standards (for me, fellow fans, for me!)
But let's not be gloomy. No great difficulty in finding a top ten to recommend unequivocally, and that's without going into the always dependable stack of older material emerging from the archives for the first time in 2011. Recommendations there include:
- Neil Young's A Treasure, featuring his crack mid-80s country band the International Harvesters (with Rufus Thibodeaux's fiddle playing every bit as good as his name);
- the Grateful Dead's Europe 72 vol 2, matching the timeless quality of the original triple album which was my introduction to the band, way back when;
- and my newly acquired copy of Tunng's Live From The BBC - which, among other goodies, includes a lovely collaboration with Tinariwen.
So, here we go with the best of 2011:
10. Steve Earle, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
The latest in a run of consistently strong albums from Steve, writing, singing and playing at his best, with some fine accompaniment from the likes of Sara Watkins, wife Allison Moorer and producer T Bone Burnett. A realy good tour to promote it, too: the first time I'd seen him with a full band, including ex-Son Volt guitarist Chris Masterson, making a great noise. Steve's voice was a bit shot by the time he got to Brighton, but a contender for the best gigs list too.
9. Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
Not his strongest set of songs for me, but the best ones, particularly 'Drover' and 'One Fine Morning', are simply superb: simultaneously powerful and touching in their fragility. Beautiful playing throughout from a strong band, particularly Jonathan Meiburg's chiming piano weaving round the two-chord pulse of 'One Fine Morning' as Bill launches one of the best yearning reaches out into the mystic since Van the Man in his pomp... And who can resist the roll call of Nashville heroes in 'America'
Captain Kristofferson! Buck Sergeant Newbury!
Leatherneck Jones! Sergeant Cash!
What a navy! What an army...
8. Eat Light Become Lights, Autopia
Something rather different... a joyous burst of Krautrock laying strong and spritely melodies over the motorik beat, all skittering drums, squelching synths, chiming guitars. Like Neu's younger brother: irresistible.
I don't know much about them but they seem to be from London and you can find the album on Enraptured Records. (I suspect a glorious 7" of 'Test Drive' on square green vinyl from The Great Pop Supplement is sold out by now...)
7. The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
This striking country duo, Joy Williams and John Paul Wright, seem headed for success, with a Grammy nomination and endorsements from the likes of Adele under their belts. They've even done a slot for legendary starmakers Secret Sessions... Have no fear of hype, they fully deserve the attention: strong songs, lovely harmonies and the courage to take risks with striking and spare arrangements (check out their non-album covers of classics like 'I Want You Back', 'Billie Jean' and 'Dance Me To The End Of Love' for more evidence...)
6. Other Lives, Tamer Animals
Reviewed here. I've also gone back to their excellent, self-titled first album and seen them play a really engaging live set in Brighton. Very strong individual musicians entirely focused on ensemble playing of some intriguing songs. Think Calexico playing chamber prog with vocals by a youngish John Lennon - and then give them a go anyway, because they actually have a sound that is all their own...
5. June Tabor & The Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom
A worthy successor to their classic Freedom & Rain collaboration twenty years back, this is British folk-rock at its finest, setting June Tabor's voice in some strong and sensitive arrangements and blending the traditional and contemporary into an entirely convincing and cohesive whole. They were great live too...
4. Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts
I wasn't expecting to like this - one of those occasions when something you don't know is playing in your local record shop and it grabs your attention (thank you, Resident!). Compelling use of strings, great production by Beck and some very convincing performances from the man himself.
3. Gillian Welch, The Harrow And The Harvest
This may well be the record on the list that comes closest to perfection: writing, singing, playing all immaculate and the pair of them completely attuned to one another. There are no great surprises - it sounds exactly like a great set from Gillian and Dave ought to - but so what? The new songs are a worthy (and overdue) addition to the canon and have taken their place seamlessly in the pair's live repertoire.
2. Laura Marling, A Creature I Don't Know
Laura, in contrast, is a young woman still on the sharp upcurve of her musical development - and what a fascinating process it is to watch her moving through it. Comparisons with Joni Mitchell have been inevitable as she has moved from solo, strummed acoustic to powerful, fleshed out arrangements and an increasingly imperious edge to her singing. But Joni was over thirty by the time Court & Spark appeared; Laura is still just twenty one - there's plenty of time for her to just get better and better...
1. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
I've spent the year enthusing about The Decemberists, with all the zeal of a late convert. This album is more than holding its own to my ears, revealing a lot of continuity from their earlier efforts below the new (and highly attractive) surface of chiming Americana and the starry (and highly effective) guest contributions from Gillian Welch and Peter Buck. Once again, a great live show put the album nicely in the context of their wider oeuvre, and - thanks to a strong contribution on backing vocals and fiddle from Sara Watkins - they didn't even miss Gillian. Apparently, they're on a bit of a break now while Colin Meloy does some more writing - his children's book Wildwood is well worth a read and beautifully illustrated by wife Carsten Ellis. But there's a worthwhile out-takes EP Long Live The King out now to keep the pot boiling.
So, that's about it. I'll close by mentioning some of the near misses which are also well worthy of your attention: Iron & Wine's Kiss Each Other Clean, Lisa Hannigan's The Passenger, Cornershop's Double O Groove, Wooden Shjips' West and The Advisory Circle's As The Crow Flies were all there or thereabouts when I compiled the list.
And finally a note that of the top ten, only the Oysterband and Gillian Welch have failed to release their records properly, on vinyl - come on, now, this is 2011 after all: embrace the 21st century, chaps...