10Go 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

WU LYF, 'We Bros' - Live At Midi WU LYF, 'We Bros' - Live At Midi
Video: WU LYF, 'We Bros' - Live At Midi

9Whokill

"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. But where she appropriates African styles it’s more Tony Allen than Peter Gabriel. Music to dance to, not sing along to. Which is lucky: you’d be hard pressed to follow the combination of screams, whoops and purrs that make up Garbus’ vocal range. The album’s mixture of politics and real life, strained through an infectious concoction of African rhythms, yodeling and the clatter of drums, is a huge leap forward from the fried bedroom sounds of 2009’s ‘Bird-Brains’. With studio equipment and growing confidence, Garbus peeled away the fuzz of her debut to make new songs that blasted and shone. Under the glorious noise, stories lurk. Surprised by sudden riots while she was living in Montreal, Garbus penned the soft menace of ‘Riotriot’ (“Right before it happens, there’s no sign at all”). On ‘Gangsta’, sirens wail around the suburbs as anger rises in the hearts of kids trapped inside houses. Later, living in Oakland, Garbus wrote ‘Doorstep’ in response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, 2009. “Don’t tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this,” she whispers, lyrics lost in Latin textures, unless you’re paying attention. Garbus aims shots of her own kind at America, the “world gone wrong” in ‘Wolly Wolly Gong’ that’s “walkin’ all over you” in ‘My Country’. But if ‘Whokill’ is angry, it doesn’t give apathy the time of day. This is a radical album that’s emerged at a radical time, when riots and rallies are making a comeback and people are feeling, for once, like they don’t have to shut up and suck it up. Maybe that’s why, when Garbus screams, “”, the growing crowds before her go mental. HS

8On 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. In the end, 
it felt like no understatement 
to call ‘On A Mission’ the best British dance album for years. PE

7Strange 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. Yet it doesn’t sound that way. It sounds fun, addictive and just a little bit like Blondie playing at being Arcade Fire. Clark is arguably the most freaky guitarist since Jack White right now, and the fact that this album managed to crack the US Top 20 signals her arrival in the big time. That alone should be major cause for celebration. MW

NME: Which song are you proudest of? “I’m always partial to the stranger songs, 
they’re more fulfilling to me. I love ‘Strange Mercy’, the song, and I’m really partial to ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’, because it’s quite strange. I like the textures and the syncopation in that song so much, I’m very fond of it, and 
of playing it. With ‘Chloe…’ it needed to 
sound breathless, right, because it’s a song about sex, so it needed to sound high and breathless. It just didn’t make sense in my 
brain any other way! So I had to sing it just a little too high…!”
Is there anything you’d change about the record? “No! There’s nothing I would do different about that record – whatever I would do differently I will do on the next record! It’s a learning curve, and I don’t lament decisions. They all seemed very intuitive at the time, so we must have done an intuitive thing.”
Do you have any plans for album four? “I have some ideas… but I don’t wanna spoil it!”
What has been your favourite album of the year? “I have no idea! I heard that Destroyer record,
 I liked that record a lot. It sounds like Steely Dan. And I’ve seen him do it live, in Dallas. There were a lot of people on stage, a full 
brass section!”
Why do you think the album has struck a chord with people? “That’s such a weird question. ‘Why do you think people like you?’ Ha! I think it’s more fully formed. It’s more emotional, easier, more palatable. I like it more!”

6Suck 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’). This was their finest, most complete record yet, proving Alex Turner will one day be a totem of British music as tall as a Marr or McCartney. And you get the impression that Helders’ leathers won’t be wearing out for a while, either. JF

Arctic Monkeys - 'Suck It And See' Arctic Monkeys - 'Suck It And See'
Video: Arctic Monkeys - 'Suck It And See'

5Smoke 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. More epic still are the songs that carried him there, from the snotty fuck-you of the Lou Reed-esque ‘Puppet To The Man’ to the ‘Goo’-era Sonic Youth stylings of ‘Society Is My Friend’. But it’s ‘Baby’s Arms’ that propelled it so high in this list. A disaffected doom ballad that kicks at the world yet craves comfort at the same time, it’s as tender a love song as any of his heroes could have written. Not bad for a chain-smoking dropout from the badlands of Philadelphia. MW

4Smother

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. By reaching back and borrowing a few tricks from the sonic broom cupboards of ‘Sensual World’-era Kate Bush and The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan (at his most keenly romantic), they tempered this with a minimalism which meant the atmosphere was spare and pre-coital, a fitting soundscape for the dewy-eyed lyrics. In the end, ‘Smother’ was a complete work that brought up new and interesting surprises on repeated listens. The album etched its heart on the wings of spring, soundtracking not just the birth of a new love but the amazing rebirth of Wild Beasts as a band. PE

Wild Beasts - 'Bed Of Nails' Wild Beasts - 'Bed Of Nails'
Video: Wild Beasts - 'Bed Of Nails'

3Skying

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…’. ‘Skying’ isn’t quite their masterpiece – ‘Primary Colours’, NME’s Number One album of 2009, is actually a marginally greater piece of work by, well, just the two steps – but it was the album where they created something bigger: an entire, enclosed world 
where anyone 
other than the five bandmembers making a grasp for the controls would swiftly receive a ruler to the knuckles. ‘Skying’, the product of this rein-seizing, did in fact contain elements of all the albums namechecked above – a potent groove that slipped them into a spinny headspace far more driving, chaotic and narcotic than before (‘Changing The Rain’, ‘Still Life’), comedown brass breaks offering the 5am sunrise moments (‘Endless Blue’, ‘Wild Eyed’), a mastering of layers verging on the orchestral. But, self-produced in their Shacklewell Lane bunker and named after an instrument they invented for its recording, this was the record that cut them off from their peers in more than just pedigree levels. By turning inwards and relying on no-one but themselves, they found a sound that reached further out than ever, allowing them to trouble the upper reaches of the album charts, mainstream radio and some of their biggest shows yet. And they’ve stepped up to it: they look more noir-iconic than ever. Faris has refined his quivering bellow-croon into something more melodic than anyone who saw him dress up like a CITV horror show extra when 2007’s garage rock fumble ‘Strange House’ came out could have believed. Indeed, ‘Skying’ was more than an album – it was the new spearhead of a band for whom every tiny element slotted into place with a big black click, and it made them the ones to believe in more than any other this year. Not bad for a bunch of lads that includes one who used to insist on being referred to as Joshua Von Grimm. JF

2The 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. Such is our nation’s propensity to murder our bands in the crib, these acts might not have made it this 
far if they’d paid attention to how their debuts were perceived in some quarters. But their presence so high in this list is a victory for the slow and steady growth which cultivates the self-assurance required for unique records – see ‘The English Riviera’, which transformed Torbay into an exotic paradise. Joe and Polly Harvey hail from the same stretch of shale, but whereas ‘Let England Shake’ succeeded thanks to its wide-ranging dramatic narrative, ‘The English Riviera’ is a fantastical first-person view on embracing and shaking off familiar trappings. It’s a masterpiece in reservation. The lyrics are tempered ruminations on feeling like a big fish in a small-town pond, 
or rides on the quiet seesaw of romance. There are no bombastic declarations of breaking out of Dodge, or flares of heat under the collar, and the spare, trademark synths balance Gallic cool with English oddness, only ever cutting loose on ‘The Bay’ – arguably one of the few songs where lyrics about feeling “so gooooooood” genuinely induce that giddy sensation in 
the listener. ‘The English Riviera’’s utterly absorbing understatement recalls a scene from 
F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby where Daisy simply tells its titular hedonist, “You always look so cool,” inadvertently betraying a deep-set love affair. Much of this album concerns the simple joy of feeling like you and a lover share a kingdom, no matter where that is. On ‘We Broke Free’, Mount tentatively croons “[i]Thank God the gold is mine[/i]” as he leads a lady around town. He can rest easy that not only did he get the gold and the gal in the end, but that he and his band end the year bathing in much-deserved glory. LS

Metronomy - 'The Bay' Metronomy - 'The Bay'
Video: Metronomy - 'The Bay'

1Let 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. Westerners finally got a taste of their own mortality with the deepening recession and, conversely, there was hope that things could change decisively for the better, from the wildfire insurrection of the Arab Spring to the Spanish ‘indignados’ protests and Occupy movements that followed them. For many, such events brought an uncertainty about the future only previously glimpsed in the shellshocked months that followed 9/11. The latter, we know, has painful memories for Harvey: she acknowledged her first Mercury Prize win, for 2000’s ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, from a hotel room in Washington DC while the Pentagon burned. It was an experience which inspired ‘Let England Shake’, although Harvey felt compelled to wait until her skills as a songwriter could shoulder such a burden — a remarkable show of patience which has gifted us one of the most complete-sounding records in years. Ostensibly a meditation on the twin spectres of conflict and nationalism, the album is full of odd resonances you’ll struggle to, er, shake. ‘The Last Living Rose’’s sublime lyric could be about anything from euroscepticism and the banking crisis to ex-PM Gordon Brown’s flogging of the UK’s gold reserves — but there’s no mistaking the anger in the line “past the Thames river flowing/Like gold hastily sold 
for nothing — NOTHING!”. ‘The Glorious Land’ is a mythical exorcising of the wicked work the neoliberal project has wrought both at home and abroad, and ‘Let England Shake’ is strewn throughout with macabre inversions of the cliché about the motherland giving life to its citizens — the “withered vine reaching from the country that I love” in ‘England’, or the strange fruit recalled in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’: “arms and legs were in the trees”. It must be strange, though, people coming to you for soundbites as a kind of political sage off the back of one record. Harvey told NME she could see a “wave of unrest” coming in this country a full eight months before the riots kicked off, a quote which has come back to haunt her on a number of occasions. Does she get freaked out by all the questions? “I don’t find it strange that people ask me those things,” Harvey says. “Obviously, I’ve made quite a confrontational record. [But] I’ve always resisted making any personal comment, because I’m a songwriter, not a politician or a public speaker. I find that my strengths are within the writing of song, and that is the way I choose to discuss things I want to discuss.” Figuring, sod it, we’ll try putting that theory to the test, we chance our arm with a few questions that are met with pretty short shrift. According to Harvey, the riots “didn’t surprise me – I felt there was a building up of dissatisfaction that was going to culminate or erupt in some way or other, and that was the shape that it took”, while her thoughts on the Occupy protests are limited to a rather dry, 
“I support people being able to give voice to their feelings.” Harvey seems happier talking about the satisfaction she’s taken from the record’s success, which came as reward for an intense, two-year period of research on various conflicts and campaigns conducted by the UK (the disastrous Gallipoli offensive of 1916 reportedly became something of an obsession). This must have been particularly pleasing for the one-time queen of guitar-led confessionals. “[The reaction] strengthens the feeling I already had about trying to move into a different way of writing, and if I’m honest this album was the first experiment in that,” says Harvey. “I’m relieved that I finally reached a point where I could write a record like this. I’ve found as I’ve got older things are much more important to me — I care a lot about many things going on in the world, and I feel that at this stage in my life if I can put some voice to them there’s a sense of fulfilment at least trying to do so. “I’ve always been an artist who pursues what’s of interest to me at that time, and the thing I need to say right now is that I’m very, very interested in what’s going on in the world around me, so naturally that will take shape within my work.” Given her track record, it would be lunacy to predict where Harvey is headed next, but it looks like this increased sense of urgency isn’t about to evaporate any time soon. “I’ve been writing since the day we finished recording. I’ve been writing pieces towards the new album, and I’ve been writing every day because I don’t find it easy, and 
I find the more I work at it the more chance I have of producing something worthwhile. I have to throw away a lot of things. But I’m sure some of it will be heading in the direction of the new record. I’ve mostly been working on words, [but] I’ve just begun experimenting musically.” For now, Harvey’s latest work will continue to cast shadows on the shifting political landscape, a record tailor-made for times of reckoning. As the sampled strains of Niney The Observer ring out over the record’s penultimate track ‘Written On The Forehead’ (“let it burn, let it burn…”), a thought occurs: maybe this is what they’ll listen to in years to come, when the smoke clears and they’re trying to fathom the way we were. If it is, Harvey won’t be glorying in her posterity – there are things to be done, and times to be tackled. “Many factors come together to make a piece of work really strong, and I was just at the right time and in the right place with this record,” she insists. “If I just continue to work and focus then whatever happens as a result is sort of out of my hands. My job is just to do the work.” AD

Why PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' Is The Album Of 2011 Why PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' Is The Album Of 2011
Video: Why PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' Is The Album Of 2011

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