So Last Year

Time for a look back on my favourite music of 2011, before we get too far into 2012. (Early February isn’t too far, is it?) I heard more music last year than in the preceding few, thanks in part to a general relaxing of objections from one of the junior members of our household; in part to buying a Squeezebox Touch so I could move all my CDs up to the attic; and in part to my increasing conversion to buying digital music over CDs. It wouldn’t make sense to focus on 2011 releases alone, or to try to rank everything below, so instead I’ve gone for a list in order of Date Added to iTunes for a chronological wander through my year, listing songs, albums, or both, as seemed most appropriate.

These New Puritans, “We Want War” (2010)

I first heard this extraordinary track when the Freaky Trigger poll for 2010 was being counted down, and ordered the album on the spot. Hidden doesn’t always match the heights of this, though: it’s hard to top seven and a half minutes of martial drums and drones, wasplike synths and sharpening swords.

Pearl Jam, “Gonna See My Friend”, Backspacer (2009)

I was a Pearl Jam fan in their early days and loved No Code in particular, but felt they went off the boil after that, and stopped paying attention a decade ago. But after reading about this, their first Brendan O’Brien-produced album in years (since No Code, in fact), I picked it up—and was glad I did.

Radiohead, “Codex”, The King of Limbs (2011)

Biggest Rock Band on Planet Confounds Kids with Proper Grown-up Music. The King of Limbs seemed to divide fans and critics, but I liked it; maybe not as much as their 1995-2001 run, but at its best it was breathtaking. “Codex” is almost a match for my favourite slow Radiohead track of all, “The Pyramid Song”.

Elbow, “The Birds”, Build a Rocket Boys! (2011)

Elbow can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, although funnily enough their Mercury-winning album The Seldom Seen Kid made less of an impact on me than usual. Build a Rocket Boys! put that right: in March I listened to little else. Its opening track “The Birds” is as good an encapsulation of their sound as you’ll find.

Röyksopp, “Keyboard Milk” (2011)

This B-side to the “Forsaken Cowboy” single from Röyksopp’s 2010 album Senior is every bit as good as that album was, a typical synth-driven instrumental building to a massive crescendo.

Split Enz, “Hermit McDermitt”, Frenzy Remaster (1979/2006)

In April and May, prompted by the discovery of a podcast retrospective, I went on a major Split Enz kick, revisiting all their albums and catching up on some recent remasters. Of these, the most revelatory was Frenzy, a lacklustre affair in its original 1979 mix but a revelation in the remaster; it now stands comparison with any of their best albums. I also enjoyed catching up on Tim Finn’s The Conversation (2008), which reunited him with some early Enz bandmates. Neil’s new Pajama Club album (with wife Sharon) never quite got its hooks into me; I think by then I’d Enzed myself out.

Bon Iver, “Calgary”, Bon Iver (2011)

Bon Iver’s follow-up to his excellent debut was equally good, apart from a slightly jarring slip into 1980s MOR noises towards the end. Hard to pick one track to represent the whole, but this is as good as any.

Battles, “Atlas” (2007)

I can’t remember who or what put me onto Battles, but it was probably a blog or a tweet. It’s hard to describe their sound, but “nuts” would be as good a one-word description as any. This track is one long relentless drumbeat with instrumentation and vocals that border on the irritating, but I couldn’t stop listening. Their albums can be a bit much in one sitting, but in isolation their individual songs are often amazing.

The Naked and Famous, “Punching in a Dream”, Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010)

This New Zealand band employs a range of styles on its debut album, which Amazon’s mindless robots helpfully suggested to me mid-year. This track in particular is a bit like an electropop take on Arcade Fire.

Mo’ Horizons, “Make it Real”, Mo’ Horizons and the Banana Soundsystem (2011)

I’ve loved Mo’ Horizons ever since Triple J worked their debut album hard in 1999/2000. Their latest is their usual melange of jazz, bossa nova, drum’n’bass and anything else they can get their hands on; “Make it Real”, which first appeared on an EP in 2010, is a highlight.

Nicola Roberts, “Lucky Day” (2011)

I tried this thanks to a Popular comment, and loved it; the equal of any of Girls Aloud’s best, I thought, even if the UK charts didn’t. Probably my second most-listened-to track of 2011. The album was a bit of a disappointment.

Uniform Motion, “Our Hearts Have Been Misplaced in a Secret Location” and “I Will Put My Life on Tape” (2011)

These guys, two Frenchmen and an American vocalist, were mentioned in one of the many online copyright stories I read last year, as an example of an unknown band experimenting with pay-what-you-like options. I tried out a few tracks and ended up shelling out some sheckels for their new album, One Frame Per Second, which made for a good listen on a drive up to the Cairngorms in the autumn: fragile, guitar-driven pop with a hint of Jeff Buckley about the vocals. These two tracks are the standouts.

Kate Bush, “Lake Tahoe”, 50 Words for Snow (2011)

Two Kate Bush albums in one year! Neither matched 2005’s Aerial, but I did like 50 Words for Snow a lot. No one track stood out for me (not even the single, “Wild Man”), but the overall mood was perfect for the onset of winter and driving after dark; “Lake Tahoe” captures that best.

Adriano Celentano, “Prisencolinensinainciusol” (1972)

Another blog find—or was it Robert Popper’s Twitter feed? This funny and infectious track features a 1970s Italian singer mimicking English sounds—not just the English rock and roll sounds of 1972, but the sounds of English, as filtered through an Italian ear. One of my earworms of the year.

The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy”, El Camino (2011)

My cousin visited in October and got me into the Black Keys, just in time for their new album release. Best no-nonsense rock album of the year, and this lead track shows why. Excellent video, too.

(I’ve embedded videos for all of these—most official, plus a few live performances—on my underused Tumblr.)

4 February 2012 · Music