50 Watch The Throne
Apart, they’re two of the biggest hip-hop artists ever. Together, they’re the most ridiculous blowhards ever to join forces. This is a good thing. When two egos as outrageous as this come together, incredible things happen. Think Kanye’s “Coke on her black skin made a stripe like a zebra/ I call that jungle fever”. Think Jay-Z beating down young pretenders on ‘Otis’ (“I invented swag”). The result was epic, and the most enjoyable rap record of 2011. MW
Every time we heard some brilliant bit of midnight bass romance this year, it always turned out to involve SBTRKT. The DJ changed the aim of dubstep’s sonic cannon, from the bowels of Bristol drug dealers to the hearts of urban romantics. His debut was bruised basslines that beat heavy with anxiety, but his masterstroke was bringing together a group of unknown vocalists – Sampha, Jessie Ware, Roses Gabor – who embodied a lifetime of sprawling city pain in a single sighed note. This was the UK bass album you could cry in the shower to. SW
Back at the beginning of the year, Slow Club were a band wrongly tagged with some of the most undesirable adjectives around; a twee duo cut from the Mumford cloth of rambunctious folk, they had devoted fans but were hardly contenders for any boundary-pushing crowns. Cue ‘Paradise’ – an album that showed the band’s true colours in all their sassy yet soulful glory.
Oh, for more bands like Real Estate. The New Jersey trio were initially lumped in with the chillwave subgenre that reached its hazy apotheosis last year, but there’s nothing ‘borrowed’ about their particular brand of nostalgia. Their second album was every bit as poignant as its self-titled predecessor, deftly pulling at the same thread of ’80s guitar lyricism that runs through the work of Johnny Marr and Vini Reilly. Real Estate’s ability to conjure past idylls without the crutch of lo-fi production became a whole lot clearer in the light of ‘Days’. AD
46 Bon Iver
2011 was neo-Americana’s sophomore crunch, with the genre’s two most prominent scions – Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver – releasing follow-ups to breakthrough debuts. While ‘Helplessness Blues’ offered a deeper shade of beige, Justin Vernon’s second LP was an expansive, impressionistic effort, every bit the equal of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’. It takes a while for its greatness to register – but as the year has progressed, it has become NME’s go-to album for those troublesome dark nights. BN
45 Feel It Break
One of the crispest electro-pop records of 2011, this Toronto outfit’s debut was as buoyant as it was bleak. The celestial lightness in Katie Stelmanis’ operatic vocal shone light upon the darker 5am beats, making for an altogether engrossing listen. With tracks like ‘Spellwork’ and ‘The Choke’ leading the charge with their dancefloor undulations, the piano-led ‘The Beast’ touched on compositional beauty. ‘Feel It Break’ was a work of simple pop pleasures and dark electronic emotions, with depths as grand as the group’s auspicious future. TW
Turbo-charged twonk Calvin Harris eulogising the ’80s was one thing; Destroyer’s Dan Bejar doffing his cap to the bygone decade with smooth lashings of saxophone and honeyed vocals was decidedly sweeter. But ‘Kaputt’ – his 10th album under the Destroyer moniker – didn’t merely plunder the past, it captured sounds and froze them in time, with Bejar’s voice floating above the swoonsome strains of ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Savage Night At The Opera’. Suddenly, all of those misspent hours obsessing over Roxy Music and Hall & Oates records didn’t seem quite so wasteful after all… BH
43 Wasting Light
Foo Fighters’ seven-year itch ended up lasting the full seven years. It followed that the make-up sex was always going to be phenomenal. Grohl made up with the spirit of Nirvana by getting Butch to produce and having Krist pop over too, but he also made peace with the white-hot, throbbing testoste-rock that had marked him out ever since his early days as Nirvana’s engine room. Recorded in Grohl’s garage, the Foos rediscovered their mojo but also other unfussy, blue-collar virtues like, you know, songs. DM
““This is the greatest peace I’ve ever known”, belted out a blissful Patrick Wolf from under his mop of shiny russet hair on ‘House’, the towering pop pièce de résistance on the Londoner’s epically loved-up fifth album. He made it pretty hard not to believe him, too, as he sandwiched cartwheeling romance with a defiant lyrical honesty that made the slushy moments on ‘Lupercalia’ sweet rather than sickly.
They call it “post-Satanic, post-Christian”. We’ve branded it dangerous and narcissistic. Lots
of people tar it with Odd Future’s brush. One gushing writer exhumed the spirit of avant genius David Foster Wallace to provide a literary analogy.
In reality, though, it’ll take more than a few months and a scrabble for words to assimilate just what it was that Death Grips left on our doorstep earlier this year. A hip-hop wrapped package, sure, but way, way more than that.
40 Cherish The Light
‘Cherish The Light Years’ was less fractured than 2009’s ‘Love Comes Close’, but no less fraught as Wesley Eisold observed his grim surroundings, blackened his synths and faced the coming apocalypse. The likes of ‘Pacing Around The Church’ and ‘Underworld USA’, despite choking with bitterness and isolation, were proper pop bangers. Rather than marching around with a ‘The End Is Nigh’ placard, Eisold plonked himself down on a bar stool at the last throes of the Death Disco and pulled up a chair for you, inviting you to drink with him and watch the world tear itself apart. BH
39 Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
It’s easy to maintain a dignified silence. Harder is keeping that credibility intact over 10 tracks that made up one of the debut albums by a man named Gallagher this year. The Chief struck just the right balance of well-matured comfort-tune and welcome surprise, doing gruff Manc melancholia as well as so-called master Guy Garvey. Not bad for a bloody guitar player. KM
And now for the science bit. After many years in the coffee table wilderness, it was too much to ask for Björk to return to the bosh simplicity of ‘Big Time Sensuality’. As it was, her multimedia rollercoaster was far more compelling. A song and app-based project including but not limited to the invention of exciting new musical instruments, the exploration of Alan Turing’s work applying mathematics to biological patterns, tectonic plates, daring orange haircuts and awesome video games, it quite possibly amounts to Björk’s defining statement. DM
Finally freed from the self-imposed confines of their Silver Bullet caravan, guitar-toting Texans White Denim dazzled and dumbfounded with their audacious fourth album. Last time we looked they were a raggedy-arsed garage rock combo. Here, they expanded their remit to include ‘Who’s Next’-style theatrics, Afro-Cuban funk and downhome country rollers, pinballing between genres without pausing to draw breath. A rollicking ride, ‘D’ was a glorious endorsement for the apparently outmoded concept of actually being able to play your instruments really well. Great solos, great guys. SR
36 New Brigade
While some albums are custom-designed to shock (hello, Tyler, The Creator), others were simply born that way. For all its bleak charms, the less-than-fluorescent adolescents’ debut – released on XL imprint Abeano – didn’t so much fall into the latter camp as torch its fields, slay local livestock and entice its women with stony Danish allure.
35 Nine Types Of Light
‘Nine Types Of Light’ was the record that made Dave Sitek’s mob one of the best bands in the world, rather than simply one of the most revered by people for whom ‘lost weekend’ means watching Suuns at an ATP three-dayer. Slingshotting straight into it after his fun-funk solo album as Maximum Balloon, the sense of Sitek actually having a laugh making music – rarely present in TVOTR’s previous stuff – duly shone through.
34 Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Sometimes it takes insanity to unlock genius. Other times, a shitload of drugs. UMO’s Ruban Nielson subscribed to both schools of thought, manipulating his already unhinged mind with a dangerous cocktail of pills and acid, before retreating to his bedroom to weave his masterpiece. The result of all the narcotic boshing? One of the most unexpected contenders for album of the year. The record drips with psych lo-fi nostalgia, unsurprising given his heroes are Syd Barrett and RZA.
33 Audio, Video, Disco
Vulgar, crass, undignified, and many other wonderful things, Justice’s long-awaited second was an up-middle-finger to the taste-gendarmes who felt that melding baroque, AC/DC, 10cc and Ali Love might be anything less than a really swell idea. From the moment ‘Horsepower’ landed, seemingly designed to soundtrack a hundred slaves dragging an obelisk through the desert, through the pagan pop party of ‘Civilization’, to the ‘Baba O’Riley’ space-thunk of ‘Newlands’, this was Big Music on every level.
32 Submarine OST
When Submarine, the directorial debut of The IT Crowd star and comedian Richard Ayoade, came out on a limited release in March this year, it did so well that the people in charge of these things quickly started showing it in some 40-odd extra cinemas. Alex Turner’s soundtrack to the movie has been an equally unexpected success. While Arctic Monkeys albums, since their 2006 debut, have grown darker and odder, ‘Submarine’ was a stripped back affair, with just an acoustic and some unobtrusive keyboards.
Success can change a girl, but from the moment she announced her return with a song based around an image of Virginia Woolf’s suicide and named after a neurotic Frida Kahlo painting, any doubts that Flossie would let global success dampen her possessing spirits were duly drowned.
Effortlessness takes a lot of work, and there are few people who do such a smooth job of taking their technical geekery, dance obsessions and high-falutin’ lyrical inspirations and styling it out into some of the year’s most fetter-free and joyous pop music than our intrepid St Albans trio. Their onstage collaborations are inspiring to a new generation of bosh-heads, but ultimately, it’s all about those shining choruses, and Ed’s dancing. Always Ed’s dancing. EM
29 Dye It Blonde
Previous to ‘Dye It Blonde’, Smith Westerns were shouty, bratty, spotty and oiky fuckwits who didn’t actually need proper lyrics because nobody could hear what the fuck they were going on about anyway. That was fine, of course, but what a leap! In 2011 they returned obsessed with Suede, Marc Bolan and Noel Gallagher’s six-string set-up (circa 1995), churning out one of the great guitar albums of the year in the process. Is it any wonder Alex Turner and co have been banging on about it for months? MWk
28 Looping State Of Mind
When attention spans are increasingly shot to pieces, Axel Willner makes music that circumnavigates the Tumblr-numbed brain, tuning instead into some natural, eternal rhythm. On ‘Looping…’ he perfected his style of rich techno fastidiously built from loops of sound. There’s no slow build or euphoric drop (Jesus, please), no sonic cues telling you when its OK to, y’know, feel. Instead these songs are languid plateaux of musical pleasure that, even when pushing nine minutes, feel like all-too-brief portals into the sublime. LB
27 Arabia Mountain
Black Lips have said many things worth remembering this year: “Tourbuses are for bathrobe-wearing motherfuckers”; “We’re personally responsible for many people’s alcoholism”; and, most fittingly, “We don’t give a fuck!” These five words define everything they do, from their chaotic early albums to their dumbass, X-rated live shows. That’s why they demanded a producer with a Grammy for their sixth record (they got Mark Ronson). Then they nearly killed him (they fed him raw liver). That it all comes together sounding like the Ramones goofing on The Beach Boys is their enduring genius.
26 Father, Son, Holy Ghost
There’s something special about Girls going kinda overground in 2011. While 2009’s spiky debut was undoubtedly a brilliant record, the fact is no-one bought it. So to see touts scrambling to buy and sell tickets outside their tour dates here last month felt like a proper victory – that as well as being praised by every cool band on the planet, the wider world was finally starting to take notice too. This couldn’t have come at a better time, because here’s a band with gloriously immodest ambitions, yet the songwriting props to back it all up.
On first glance, Janine Rostron’s Planningtorock project seemed a peculiarly art-world experiment. Even discounting her co-writing credits with The Knife on ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’, there was enough eerie percussion and drone at play on ‘W’ to suggest an artist who spent most of 2011 poncing around Berlin’s avant spaces. And while pretentiousness is good, pair it with a pop instinct and you isolate the strain of brilliance which made her second album so good.
24 Big Talk
Way back in February, when Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr announced that he was releasing a solo album, we had a little laugh to ourselves and wondered for a minute if it’d be even half as good as the one the drummer from Slipknot put out. Ten months later and we’re still playing ‘Big Talk’ so often it’s probably quite unhealthy. But to be honest, it still feels very good indeed.
A quartet who didn’t so much take influence from the trailer trash halycon days of ’90s indie rock as dive head-first into its sharks-in-leather-jacket-infested waters and gleefully bathe in the swathes of muddied sonic H20. Sure, their debut dug deep into the combined, low-slung, tunneling DNA of messrs Mascis, Moore and Malkmus, but this wasn’t pure parody. Frontman Daniel Blumberg created a wholly believable (and transcendent) fiction that was his own.
22 Last Night On Earth
Tom Petty. The Cars. The Psychedelic Furs. Um, The Traveling Wilburys. Such legends of ’80s US radio rock were the touchstones of Noah & The Whale’s immaculate third album, ‘Last Night On Earth’, in which Charlie Fink left the relationship turmoils documented on 2009’s ‘First Days Of Spring’ for dust and hit the open highway with the top down, shades on and a roadmap to nowhere in particular.
Having proved their avant-garde credentials with ‘West Ryder…’, album four allowed Kasabian to get on with the simple business of being Britain’s most beloved band. Not that there was much ‘simple’ in ‘Velociraptor!’ and its mescaline-drenched flights of fancy into the desert and beyond; it just had the new directness and, yes, even the subtlety of a band free of any need to prove themselves. The attendant interviews came with a delightfully revisionist take on palaeontology thrown in, just in case anybody got bored. But as it was, nobody did. DM
20 The King Of Limbs
You couldn’t get away with paying what you wanted this time, but Radiohead’s eighth album arrived just as suddenly as its predecessor, accompanied by little fanfare save for a video of Thom’s unsuccessful audition for the next series of So You Think You Can Dance. Its low-key release was appropriate – this was an album that revealed its secrets reluctantly. Heavily influenced by the sinuous electronica of Four Tet and the emerging UK bass scene, its slithering grooves also housed some of Radiohead’s most affecting melodies, not least on the heartbreaking ‘Codex’. SR
19 A Creature I Don’t Know
After the sweet acoustics of ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ and the slick ‘I Speak Because I Can’, Laura Marling put forward her most assured and coherent album yet. It tells of a demon Laura battles in her mind on ‘The Muse’ and in her bed on the rumbling electrics of ‘The Beast’. From the Dylan-esque ‘Salinas’ to the Leonard Cohen lilt of ‘Night After Night’, Laura grows in the shadow of the greats. But by triumphant Celtic finale ‘All My Rage’ she’s won her battle, and begun to step out alongside those heroes for the first time. HS
18 Cat’s Eyes
The beauty and the beast pairing that shouldn’t have worked, but did. The duo of The Horrors’ Faris Badwan and pearly-eyed opera singer Rachel Zeffira found each other in the sonic arms of Phil Spector, Joe Meek and Serge Gainsbourg. Together Badwan and Zeffira crafted an album of wistful ’60s longing, gossamer-hearted regret and playful, child-like intrigue. The sound on ‘Cat’s Eyes’ didn’t fall into the twin traps of parody or irony. Instead it stood tall with effortless authenticity.
17 Gloss Drop
“Uh… Huh… Uh… Huh… UH… HUH… UH HUH UH HUH UH HUH”. And thusly, with a whole load of grunting, was the world greeted by Battles MK II and their single ‘Ice Cream’, the first lip-smacking taster from ‘Gloss Drop’.
16 A Different Kind Of Fix
When Bombay Bicycle Club first broke into the public consciousness, way back on Channel 4’s The Road To V, surely no-one would ever have imagined that they would end up here. From the otherworldly coos that open ‘How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep’ to ‘Still’ – a Radiohead-recalling, piano-led slowie of entirely crushing beauty – ‘A Different Kind Of Fix’ blew the quartet’s jauntily lovelorn indie into a whole different dimension, grouping cerebral introversions and spacious atmospherics with bona fide, festival-baiting hits.
15 Wild Flag
‘A supergroup featuring members of The Spells, Helium and Sleater-Kinney’ wasn’t exactly an email header that had editors banging their desks and demanding cover shoots when Wild Flag’s coming-together was announced last September. Of course, had those same editors simply been given their debut record and told that these girls were 19 instead of ’90s survivors, they’d have been dialing the picture desk faster than you could say ‘New Strokes Speak: See Pages 2, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 18’.
14 What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
What did we expect? A really promising, slightly rushed album that’d tick the hype box for The Vaccines and see them through to make a slightly disappointing second effort. Instead we got the indie rock album of the year. The hit rate is what whacks hardest – ‘Post Break Up Sex’, ‘Nørgaard’, ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ and ‘If You Wanna’ are as good as anything off The Strokes’ debut – but beyond those, the slowed-down likes of ‘Wetsuit’ and ‘All In White’ mark out Justin Young as the greatest new voice in British guitar music. And he definitely wasn’t expecting that. JF
13 Zeroes QC
From the catatonic opening fuzz of ‘Armed For Peace’ to the pulverising, siren-flecked ‘Sweet Nothing’, Suuns can stake a claim for being the iciest newcomers in rock this year. Part garage band, part fruitloop FX geeks, their debut is at once bleak, haunting and heavy as fuck. It’s an undoubtedly awkward concoction that never tires, coming totally alive when played loud. While they’re still a cult concern in the UK, you’d be hard pushed to find a better band from Canada since, well, Arcade Fire stumbled into the open all those years back… MW
12 Again Into Eyes
The kaftans. The Factory dance moves. The messianic gestures. SCUM have always risked being Anton Newcombe-like figures of fun. We’d be taking the piss with this inclusion if it weren’t for every song exceeding its promise, turning pretension into prophecy. Distortion glimmers with an almost metaphysical sense of hope. Vocals are delivered like tablets from the sky. No joke, this album is far greater than the sum of its parts. Recorded on the sort of vintage equipment you thought only existed in Dr No, it’s no wonder SCUM think they’re from another age. SW
11 Anna Calvi
Part avant-garde guitar virtuoso, part gothic chanteuse, part grungy singer-songwriter, Calvi’s emergence was something unique. Her lyrics intrigued with their elliptic allusions, tunnelling around mathematical guitar lines and a voice of dominating authority. From the swishy, Ennio Morricone-style opener ‘Rider To The Sea’ to the weighty, purring PJ Harvey-isms of ‘Suzanne & I’, she was the missing link between Nick Cave and Patti Smith, appearing fully formed, brimming with a fully realised confidence and promise of wonderful things to come. PE
10 Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
Everyone was intrigued by the potential of shirtless Manc publicity-dodgers WU LYF, but no-one really expected them to come out with an album as stunning as ‘Go Tell Fire To The Mountain’. Apart from themselves, that is – their cockiness was duly converted into a record as unique as it was accomplished, Ellery Roberts’ dog-bark vocals fusing with the glowing guitars of ‘Such A Sad Puppy Dog’, capturing the essence of a band on a groove most take years to lock into. Following WU LYF was the musical journey of 2011, and this was the ultimate souvenir. JF
“Do you wanna live?” Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards screamed at crowds across the world this year, brow furrowed and voice a low growl, like she’d personally be over with her warpaint to sort you out if you didn’t answer yes. That attitude runs through ‘Whokill’, from ballsy sex-song ‘Powa’ to the elated ‘You Yes You’, on an album that could have garnered sneers for its theatrical honesty, but instead earned Tune-Yards an army of fans. ‘Whokill’ has originality in spades. A student of African dance, Garbus has rhythm running under her skin.
8 On A Mission
The Top 40’s bursting with a host of joyless songs about being at the club, and here was a genuine first: a whole album of songs that perfectly captured the fizz, intrigue and sheer fun of nights spent out at the discotheque. South Londoner Kathleen Brien seemed like an unsuspecting ambassador for the new wave of dance music, but if you dismissed her, you did so at your peril. ‘On A Mission’ proved that hers was a startling talent, one that harnessed the pop-nous of dubstep, UK garage and funky house with a fresh-as-a-daisy joy and an unerring ability to spot great tune after great tune.
7 Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s third album is not only her best yet, but her most beguiling too. Touching on the sheer weirdness that started creeping out of Brit-rock in the late ’60s (Bowie, Abbey Road-era Beatles) and combining it with the same ‘anything goes’ sensibilities of Kurt Vile and Ariel Pink, she’s become a siren for intelligent, pure alt-rock. And while on the face of it melody appears to be king, listen a little closer and you’ll find ‘Strange Mercy’ to be an album stuffed full of insecurity, depression and break-up blues.
6 Suck It And See
After ‘Humbug’, listening to ‘Suck It And See’ for the first time offered the ‘Yesss… still got it!’ relief of a five-hour tantric session the night after a spot of brewer’s droop. They’d later manifest their funtime credentials in leather trousers, quiffs and videos with tits flying all over the place, but the most potent evidence of the Monkeys’ renewed vigour was in this album, full of brilliant glam nonsense (‘Brick By Brick’, ‘Don’t Sit Down…’) yet still with ‘Cornerstone’-like moments of top Turner heart-grabs (‘Piledriver Waltz’).
5 Smoke Ring For My Halo
Three albums in, few people really knew or cared who the fuck Kurt Vile was – and then came March, when this beautifully gloomy slice of “epic folk” (his words) parked itself in the canon of classic American songwriting, turning its creator into a longhair antihero for generation meh. To come to be talked about in the same breath as Bob Seger, Tom Petty and – most fittingly – Bob Dylan in less than a year is epic in itself.
As a feast of aural eroticism it may have made us blush but, more importantly, as a piece of state-of-the-art indie-pop, ‘Smother’ was astonishing. The delicate choirboy grace of the Kendal quartet remained from their previous records, but on their third album it pulsated with urgent desire and need.
Before ‘Skying’, there was a lot of talk that The Horrors could be on the verge of creating their masterpiece – their ‘Screamadelica’, their ‘The Stone Roses’, their ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’.
2 The English Riviera
Losing to PJ Harvey must be about as galling as coming second at Scrabble to Stephen Fry – a foregone conclusion that’s unlikely to give Joe Mount sleepless nights. Indeed, he can feel pretty pleased with himself, because if ‘Let England Shake’ clinched the World Cup, then Metronomy’s ‘The English Riviera’ is at the apex of indie’s Premier League.
Like their Brit contemporaries The Horrors and Wild Beasts elsewhere in the top five, Metronomy are on album number three.
1 Let England Shake
There are many, many reasons to call ‘Let England Shake’ a masterpiece and the best record of 2011. So let’s just stick with this one, shall we? PJ Harvey’s 10th studio album is, at root, a work of serious engagement with the world, at a time when people on every continent seem to be grasping the importance of doing just that.
Everywhere you turned this year, there was the smell of fear.