Best Albums of 2011 (Part 1)

* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

The list exists as a way of celebrating the known things which we all share that make us part of the same adventure, but the list also exists as a way of referring to the less-known things, which can remind us that the adventure does not have to be the same for everyone. […] The unfamiliar lists are routes at the edges of the city, in the shadows […] that make us feel a different kind of excitement, the excitement of discovery, the excitement of change. The change that makes the adventure constantly surprising. (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here’s the first part of my list of the best albums released this year; i hope in some small part it lives up to what Paul Morley is talking about.

40 | Uh Huh Her – Nocturnes
Uh Huh Her’s EP Black and Blue, released in the spring (and included on yesterday’s Best EPs list), hinted at what was coming, and that promise has been abundantly fulfilled on this album, the duo’s first in three years. Their edgy rock sound, propelled by synths, makes for a fascinating combination with the girls’ trademark lyrical vocal style, resulting in a rare kind of electropop that packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Occasional influences reveal themselves (Björk, Elizabeth Fraser) but Uh Huh Her have finally developed a sound all to themselves. It’s a shame the album is yet another victim of the loudness war, but the songs manage to rise above it. [UhHuhHer.com | iTunes]

39 | This Will Destroy You – Tunnel Blanket
You can’t mess around if you’re going to call yourselves This Will Destroy You, and there’s absolutely no messing on the group’s second album. The eight tracks progress at a sedate pace, made highly dramatic through the strategic use of lengthy quiet episodes. Subsequent loud eruptions solemnly plough noisy doomgaze territory, but TWDY’s interests extend beyond the confines of conventional post-rock; “Glass Realms”, in particular, inhabits a place of radiant ambient calm, and while the overarching theme is clearly a dark one, there’s so much beauty in evidence that it’s all too easy to forget that. [Amazon | iTunes]

38 | Philippe Petit – Nyctalopia
No-one destroys sound like Philippe Petit, and on this album there are more grit-scarred layers than ever. The distinction between treated recordings and live sounds created in the studio is similarly broken down, each track embodying both a ruthless sense of method and an aggressive spontaneity. Petit’s method, though, isn’t too far removed from madness, layer heaped upon layer until the ear can barely make sense of the complex textures that result. The power and intensity of this music mean that Nyctalopia is not a particularly easy listen, but it’s an undeniably rewarding one. [Free download]

37 | Kate Havnevik – You
Continuing the trend of outstanding Scandinavian pop, Kate Havnevik has clearly put the five years since her debut album to good use, as Youfinanced via PledgeMusic—is a huge leap forward. There are still occasions when she strays a little too closely to the sound of Imogen Heap (perhaps due to Guy Sigsworth’s involvement), but many of the songs are now nicely distinctive; the shuffling “Castaway” shows off the power of Havnevik’s voice, while “Soon” and “Tears in Rain” surround her with scintillating analogue electronics. [KateHavnevik.com]

36 | Aleks Kolkowski & Ute Wassermann – Squall Line
Ute Wassermann’s collaborations with Aleks Kolkowski go back a number of years (a pair of recordings from the 2007 Interlace concerts can be downloaded here), but this is the first time their bewildering music has been officially released. Anyone familiar with Wassermann’s incredible feats of vocal gymnastics will, at least in part, know what to expect—and, in fact, a few of the pieces (each inspired by weather systems) feel a little too gesturally familiar; but for the most part, it’s impossible to know who’s doing what or indeed how, and their combined music is a delirious triumph of improvisation.

35 | Kate Wax – Dust Collision
Kate Wax is the pseudonym of Aisha Devi Enz, who describes herself as “Swiss-born, half-Tibetan”. Hardly surprising, then, that’s she’s prone to do things a little differently, and while her songs have a recognisable dance aspect, this is always at the mercy of a determined urge to experiment. Take “Maze Rider (Live From The Cave)”, for instance, where a cold sawtooth bass underpins Wax’s twisting vocal line; later episodes with beats seem almost a concession in such a context as this. Elsewhere—as in the title track and “Holy Beast”—she’s more recognisably conventional, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and as a whole this is one of the year’s most interesting and successful albums of truly experimental songs.

34 | Arlene Sierra – Arlene Sierra Vol. 1
Just when you start wondering whether contemporary instrumental music doesn’t have anything new left to explore, along comes this, the first compilation of Arlene Sierra’s music. The earliest included work (Ballistae) is a decade old, but the rest of the pieces date from within the last five years. Sierra’s music is fresh and unpredictable, and the works connected with creatures—the chamber piece Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects for solo piano—make a particularly strong impression. A vocal work, Two Neruda Odes, indicates a lyrical streak to her work, but this appears to be of only secondary interest; Sierra is most in her element exploring rather hectic, scurrying textures. Superb performances throughout; the “Vol. 1” in the CD title is nicely optimistic—one hopes it’s not too long before there’s a Vol. 2. [Amazon]

33 | John Cage – 108/109/110
John Cage’s number pieces, composed late in his life, are among the most enigmatic of his entire output. They break down all kinds of conventions, adopting a form of notation known as the “time bracket technique”, constructing works from fragments of material with indications as to when they take place. The titles derive from the number of players involved, and frequently Cage stipulated that one piece could be performed simulataneously with others to form new compositional entities. This album focuses on Cage’s largest number work, 108, performed by itself and in conjunction with One8 and Two3. The performances (by the wonderfully-named “Chance Philharmonic”) are magnificent and the soundworld is riveting throughout, demonstrating anew how our understanding of Cage’s music is still a work-in-progress. [CDBaby | Amazon]

32 | Autechre & The Hafler Trio – ae3o3
i dare say this release, quite apart from the intentions of its creators, got hyped up way more than it should have, being announced and postponed repeatedly for about three years. When it finally emerged, back in the summer, the resulting music probably thwarted more than a few expectations—but taken on its own terms, this is a fine addition to the previous collaborations between these artists. Quite what Autechre’s involvement consists of remains unclear; once again, in both style and duration (lasting 3¾ hours), ae3o3 comes across entirely as a Hafler Trio work, forming large-scale sound sculptures from slow-moving, granite-like slabs of noise. The first of the two tracks, ‘ah3eo’, is a little bland and goes over ground pretty much covered before, but the second track, ‘ha3oe’ is very exciting indeed, one of the finest electronic compositions i’ve heard this year. [Norman Records]

31 | David Lynch – INLAND EMPIRE (Original Motion Picture Score)
Since relaunching his website, David Lynch has been primarily concerned with releasing supplementary material connected with Twin Peaks. But this year he also released a new version of the soundtrack to his last film INLAND EMPIRE, doing away with the songs and incidental music, replacing them with an additional 25 minutes of the score Lynch himself composed for the film (in a break with tradition, Angelo Badalamenti wasn’t involved this time). As such, the album is now far more consistent and genuinely representative of INLAND EMPIRE, a sound tapestry that’s as dark and intractible as the film itself. Lynch has clearly enjoyed experimenting with pop this year, but it’s in territory like this that he’s clearly most adept and at home, creating some of the best and most telling dark ambient ever made. [DavidLynch.com]

30 | Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
Finding love has clearly had a wonderful creative impact on Patrick Wolf. There’s an audible spring-in-the-step on many of the songs, such as “Time of my Life” (with some stylistic echoes of Florence), “Together” and “The Falcons”, intermingled with elements of electropop, a broad palette of experimental sounds, and assorted mannerisms—both synth and vocal—that evoke the 1980s. The standout track, though, is “House”, a song celebrating that most prosaic and profound of things, setting up home with a loved one: “I love that here you live with me/Gives me the greatest peace I’ve ever known”—in both style and sentiment, this song is all glory. [Amazon | iTunes]

29 | Roly Porter – Aftertime
i’ve been little interested in Roly Porter’s work as one half of Vex’d, but this, his first solo album, is something else. Porter revels in his own aspirations; ejecting beats, but without betraying his bass-fuelled history, he’s drawn on a welter of hitherto untapped resources to forge Aftertime. The spectrum of music it covers is courageously broad, encompassing harsh noise, lush chords and intimate melodies (featuring the wonderful ondes Martenot). Despite its novelty in Porter’s output, there’s nothing about this album that feels experimental; there’s a confidence throughout that makes each track utterly compelling. [Amazon | iTunes]

28 | Braids – Native Speaker
i’m regularly impressed by music from Canada, and Braids are the latest. Their first album came out at the start of the year, and i’ve been returning to it constantly; their spritely brand of art rock is imaginative and uplifting, aided in no small part by Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s ever-dominant vocals. The songs are rich and substantial (most are 7-8 minutes’ duration), characterised by colourful and unexpected arrangements that serve only to propel the narrative. Standout tracks are “Plath Heart” , which both lyrically and vocally bears strong similarities to Joanna Newsom, and “Lammicken”, a brooding number fixed above a softly pounding beat; its final explosion is fantastic. [Amazon | iTunes]

27 | Deerhoof – Deerhoof vs. Evil
How on earth do Deerhoof do it? The similarities from album to album seem to grow ever more tenuous yet Deerhoof’s music is recognisable in a heartbeat. This short album is as quirky as ever; it gets off to a slow start, but many of the songs are among their best. “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” unites playful verses with an overdrive chorus (practically destroying Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals), “Must Fight Current” is delightfully skew-whiff lazy lounge music, while “I Did Crimes For You” effects the guise of relatively straightforward indie rock, but keeps getting pulled off course. It’s all beautifully leftfield. [Norman Records | iTunes]

26 | Talvihorros – Descent Into Delta
Ben Chatwin’s music has been growing in maturity for the last few years (his 2010 album Music in Four Movements featured in my best album list last year), and Descent Into Delta is his finest creation. The guitar remains his primary sound source but it becomes highly plastic, transformed into new forms that lose sight of their origin. Supplemented here by (in Chatwin’s words) “organ, harmonium, mandolin, bells, synthesizer and waves of electronic static”, the five tracks show some influence of Aidan Baker in their structure and focus, but Chatwin’s sound is entirely his own. Descent Into Delta inhabits a somewhat amphibious and claustrophobic soundworld, but Chatwin fills it with wonders. [Bandcamp]

25 | Christopher William Anderson – Moskenstraumen
Having abandoned his previous moniker Operations, Chris Anderson has struck out in 2011 under his own name. Moskenstraumen is his first release, and the physical edition demonstrates Anderson’s deep love of design, coming in an intricately hand-made case with off-kilter concentric circles. They’re an abstract depiction of the whirlpools in the title and Anderson’s music explores them further, opening with “An End to Calm”, a track that gradually draws in and envelops the listener at its centre. The notion of maelstrom continues throughout, and while that inevitably leads to music with a noisy demeanour, it also encounters some lovely softer episodes. [Bandcamp]

24 | Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place
While the majority of ambient music has sacrificed the creative spark in favour of dry repetition or hollow paralysis, Mathieu’s music continues to demonstrate it’s a genre with prospects. Despite the title, there’s little actual stasis in Mathieu’s textures, which move and evolve with glacial speed and grace. It lacks pretention too, Mathieu deliberately accentuating the artifice of creation by making all but one of the track durations exactly 10 minutes long (the other is 20). The territory is pretty warm and familiar, but the slow, constant flux of its combination of ambient, drone and noise elements is fascinating. [Norman Records | iTunes]

23 | Frank Zappa – Feeding The Monkies At Ma Maison
For nearly two decades i’ve been in awe of the final album Frank Zappa released prior to his death, Civilization Phaze III; this release of five synclavier pieces augments that experience, containing nascent versions of some of that material. “Buffalo Voice” is effectively a stripped-down version of the one on CPIII, and what it lacks in immersiveness it gains in the clarity it affords to the inner workings of Zappa’s counterpoint; it’s a beautiful track anyway, and being heard like this does it no harm at all. As for the rest, “Secular Humanism” isn’t quite so effective as its later incarnation, but the remaining three pieces—which effectively fall between CPIII and the earlier Jazz from Hell—are splendid; despite its brevity, “Worms from Hell” is perhaps the most effective, its semi-chaotic material sounding all the more wild compacted into just 5½ minutes. [Barfko-Swill]

22 | Leyland Kirby – Intrigue & Stuff Volume 2
Intrigue & Stuff is an ongoing series begun in 2011, which to date has three volumes. Volume 2 features just four tracks, but they draw heavily on Kirby’s formidably-refined technique of grinding down to the essence of a sound. The title of “Eventually, it eats your lungs” bespeaks disease, and everything about its music is encrusted and weighed down with sonic infection, out of which a voice struggles to sing—it’s definitely one of Kirby’s strongest and most moving pieces. But even this is superceded by the final track “Complex expedition”, a 20-minute foray into entirely new hauntological waters, the omnipresent hiss and slithering bass providing the framework for a procession of analogue synth ideas. Kirby practically invented hauntology, and to hear him re-inventing it in such dazzling fashion is exhilarating. [JunoRecords | Digital download only available to subscribers]

21 | Celer – Noctilucent Clouds
Reviewed in August, this is Celer at their best, creating the most subtle of ambient soundworlds. Back then, i alluded to the music of Feldman, and that still seems the most appropriate analogy; barely audible a lot of the time, barely moving the rest of it, music rarely gets as intense or focussed as this. To an extent, it suffers being broken into three arbitrary tracks, but at the same time duration becomes practically meaningless in music of this kind—one could almost listen forever. As the number of Celer releases asymptotically approaches absurdity, distinctions between many of the albums become harder to find; all the more reason then to celebrate Noctilucent Clouds which, both within Celer’s output and in ambient music generally, is unique. [Bandcamp]

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