2011 in music held two personal truths. It was a year of awesome songs on albums that just weren’t strong enough to justify a Top Ten ranking. It was also the year my most beloved genre of drum ‘n’ bass was swallowed whole by its ugly dubstep cousin.
Tiger & Woods’ Gin Nation was the house track of the year on an otherwise solid, enjoyable but largely unremarkable album. Fleet Foxes’ Lorelai, a gorgeously melancholic song about love lost (and a heavy nod to John Lennon’s Norweigan Wood and, in particular, Bob Dylan’s 4th Time Around), was one of my most played (and brayed) songs of the year on an album that failed to fire as a whole.
Justice proved they hadn’t lost it with the scintillatingly grungey yet strangely pop-friendly Civilisation even if the whole album didn't quite pack the punch of their Cross debut. And the utterly magnificent The Roots snuck in a concept album right at the end of the year which will probably take a few listens to fully bloom, but contained instant standout track Lighthouse.
Dubstep’s increasing popularity continued to amaze me, and managed to seduce many drum ‘n’ bass producers with allure of both the big bassline and the big buck. But for gurnstep’s raging yin there was the soothing emotional yang of producers like Apparat, James Blake, Kuedo, Instra:Mental and a slew of others, who proved dubstep can have restraint, emotion and complexity. Who’d a thunk it.
And 2011 was also the year that made me proud to be Australian, with cracking, joyful-yet-introspective albums from Bluejuice, Gotye, Cut Copy and Eddy Current Suppression Ring (well, a re-release of their old stuff, but good enough for me).
We often debate feverishly, magnificently, passionately in the BMA Magazine offices about what makes a good song great. What is it about a song that makes you come back again and again, wanting more? It’s a difficult question to truly answer, I’d hope you’d agree. Difficult because there’s so many aspects. There’s emotional connection (maybe a song’s lyrics remind you of an old flame and the way they used to flick their head) or you could simply be a sucker for a fat beat.
Something we struck upon this year is the minutiae of a track; that leeeeeetle something that when it comes in, being laid on top of (or indeed snuggled underneath) everything else, makes a track truly great; the reason you come back; the magical moment that makes the neck hairs erect. And so it is with the ten albums presented to you below.
“Enough with the wafting intro already, Allan, you floppy ballbag, and get on with the list!” I hear you shout. Alright… Settle down. Here goes.
10. Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys! [Fiction/Polydor]
Straight off the bat, I’ve gotta say I didn’t love the album as a whole. I enjoyed it, sure, but elsewhere I’ll talk about albums that are start-to-finish brilliant. But God damn if Elbow didn’t fire out of the blocks for their fifth album with two of the year’s strongest tracks. The Birds is a classic album opener; at eight minutes, it’s measured and confident, slow building, gently introducing all the elements, taking a slightly electronic/percussive twist at the three minute mark before launching into utter euphoria.
Lippy Kids delivered the year’s most haunting, beautiful and emotive song about the nostalgia of childhood and enjoying its fleeting nature (“Build a rocket, boys!”). Brilliantly composed, concise, orchestral and just… Lovely. It’s a song that we will be listening to in 40 plus years time.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – The solemn "Mmmmm-Mmmmm" chorus that wafts throughout Lippy Kids. Makes the eyes glaze over and casts the head back to a place of memory.
9. Bluejuice – Company [Dew Process]
Back in 2005, Australia lost its way. We were always known as a sport-mad beer-swilling bunch of cheeky lovable larrikins, beloved in the same manner as the Irish. And then the Cronulla riots happened, and we started to suck at sport, and the world suddenly saw us as a sport-bad beer-swilling bunch of hate-mongering racists. It’s a reputation we’ve been trying to shake ever since.
One group looking to do their level best to redress the balance is Bluejuice, who delivered a third album of fist-pumping foot-stomping fun that captures, in musical form, all the things that make Australia great; energy, enthusiasm, talent, and a sense of humour. Yes, it’s nothing staggeringly new from the five-piece pop rock outfit; their keyboard-driven triple-vocal-harmony pop rock nuggets are instantly recognisable. But when they’re releasing gems like Act Yr Age why would you would them to change?
Bluejuice – Bringing the love back for Australia one tune at a time.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – The Act Yr Age chorus and it's brash "Wah -oooo-oooo-oooo-ooooooooo" wail.
8. Radiohead – King of Limbs [XL]
Thom Yorke has been his typically prolific and experimental self this year, popping up as guest vocalist on many bass music proponents’ work including Modeselektor, and allowing bass music artists in to remix Radiohead tracks. It seems the genre has grabbed the man’s interest as Radiohead’s 2011 contribution King of Limbs is very much an album of now; a surprising and delightful exploration into bass music but with live instrumentation and Thom Yorke’s vocals. As such, it is an album that came out without much fanfare and confused a lot of people. It was also brilliant, delivering songs of complexity, restraint and beauty. Codex, with its sparse, haunting piano, gentle horns and Yorke’s instantly neck-hair raising falsetto was a 2011 highlight.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – Codex is a beautifully sparse, haunting song as it is, but when that brass section glides in... Boy howdy.
7. Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, DJ Big Wiz) – Are You Gonna Eat That? [Rhymesayers Entertainment] PICTURED
Well, this came out of nowhere. And thank God it did. Ever since Aesop Rock’s magnificent None Shall Pass way back in 2007 I’ve been waiting around for another release. And he’s come firing with fellow wordsmith Rob Sonic and cutmaster DJ Sonic with a bombastic, beat heavy album akin to Funcrusher LP era Company Flow (a bonafide seminal classic, and a hip-hop Hall of Famer no less). Indeed the production duties are split between Rock and Sonic, and it’s Rock’s cuts in particular that could easily sidle up to Co Flow El-P’s work; Smock with its spirit-synths and crunchy beat swagger and Mailbox Baseball with its stipped stilted fat beat would have El-P smiling and nodding his head.
But it’s not just the production that makes this one of 2011’s finest additions to the hip-hop pantheon; Rock and Sonic are two supremely talented vocalists delighting in the tumbling rapid-fire wordplay variety of MCing, and the sound and cadence of their voices match each other pleasingly. Big Wiz also provides some welcome breaks in between vocals, allowing us to return to the lyricism with renewed vigour. A joy from start to finish, the record is as catchy as their namesake’s Typhoid (Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant cook and became the focus of one of the best-known episodes in the history of communicable disease when U.S. health officials identified her as a healthy carrier of the organism causing typhoid fever… You learn something new, every day).
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – The call-and-response vocals between Rock and Sonic on Grubstake.
6. Balance 19 Mixed By Henry Saiz [530db]
I generally try to avoid mix series of any kind in ‘Year in Review’ list, but why is that? Perhaps it’s because critics, and indeed punters, feel a need to reward one particular group for one particular body of work as created by themselves. “A mix? You say? Why, they’re not even your tracks! You just ran them in order using a programmer!”
Well this scores a worthy addition to my Top Ten for two big reasons – the deserving Balance series as a whole never makes a misstep; and Spain’s Henry Saiz has poured a particularly impressive amount of effort into his two mixes. With a modus operandi of “exploring how music has the power to contain and store personal emotional experiences”, Saiz has created a modern yet lo-fi sound through varying analogue, 303 mixes and edits especially produced that are both unique and otherworldly. The blending throughout is seamless and long and the pacing perfect.
With such effort put into the whole it seems unfair to track select, but the stirring closers of each disc encapsulate each respective mix perfectly – CD1’s Uroboros by Saiz & Pional and CD2’s Nodo 6 by Sistema (Saiz Balance Rework). If the sound of a computer game in medieval times excites you, you’re in luck (just wait for those drums to kick in). The brilliance is continued on this excellent series.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – When the drums kick in on Nodo 6.
5. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light? [Interscope]
There's something so reliable about a new TV on the Radio album, and at the level they operate at, that's nothing short of astounding. They release LPs with no dud tracks, not even mediocre ones; each song that ends has you immediately yearning to hear it again until the next one plays and you're swept up once more. They take full advantage of their five core members and 17 guest instrumentalists to deliver joyous "rock" that has their music described in a manner usually reserved for wines (depth, complexity, richness) without resorting to experimental ethereal nonsense; their songs are inclusive and will have you gleefully braying along. Nine Types of Light also serves as a timely testament to bass player Gerard Smith, who died shortly after the album's release. I could think of no greater legacy to leave behind.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – The opening guitar stabs of Caffeinated Consciousness.
4. The Antlers - Burst Apart [Pod]
I had the pleasure of heading back to the UK – not the place of my birth, but the realm of my formative years – for a month mid-2011 to show off my new family to my old mates. Upon my return to the BMA Magazine offices – ask asking my beloved friends what I has missed – wide-eyed I was told about this new The Antlers record, and how it had rapidly become the office favourite.
"I’ll be the judge of that!" I roared, and 43 blissful minutes later, I was converted. The album is the perfect soundtrack to all the best emotive part in films. Opener I Don’t Want Love sounds like a euphoric slow burning pop gem until you realise it’s a heartbreak of a song about fractured love; and the utterly beautiful Rolled Together will have you thinking about all the significant moments in your life.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – The haunting opening frains of Rolled Together. It's the soundtrack of waving goodbye to a long lost love on a train platform on a rainy day.
3. Cut Copy – Zonoscope [Modular/UMA]
I’m a Cut Copy tragic; I’m happy to admit that. In fact, one of my only dribbling fanboy moments was to lead singer Dan Whitford backstage at the inaugural Trackside festival (it wasn’t pretty, but they took it in good spirits). In Ghost Colours was my album of 2007 (I was only too eager to point that out to Dan and cohorts at the time), so anticipation for their follow up was, needless to say, cloud bound.
What they delivered was an album that captured what popular musicians struggle with most; a body of work that pushes the sound forward without alienating long time fans. Zonoscope was a perfect record in this regard, dripping in that four-four synth powerchord sound they’ve made their own whilst dropping a sublime ten minute prog closer in Sun God and jagging into indie-pop territory with one of the tracks of the year in Where I’m Going (picked up by Hollywood to promote the Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogan flick 50/50 no less). A beautiful, joyous record that makes me proud to be Australian (I was in England recently and they were played everywhere; didn’t fail to swell the chest every time).
Sidenote: CC are also an act that has cleverly embraced the internet, often giving us free tracks and mixes as the year goes on. Way to build the faith, you clever, lovely fellas you.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – The "Woo, Woo, Woo, Yeah!"s in Where I’m Going. Hard not to shout along every time.
2. Com Truise – Galactic Melt [Ghostly International]
With another year without a Boards of Canada release the synth-heavy mind music landscape was traversed by New Jersey’s fabulously named Com Truise, who gleefully peppered the grounds with blips, beeps, scrapes and snares as he went. With Galactic Melt the keyboard obsessed Truise takes us on a trippy skip through his synth museum, delivering an album akin to spinning through 2001 A Space Odyssey’s psychedelic ‘through the infinite’. In short, it’s music to stare off into space and blissfully vague out to. Describing himself as producing “mid-fi synth-wave, slow motion funk”, Seth “Truise” Haley has created something truly mesmerising; music that paradoxically uses all the hallmarks of the‘80s – synths, 808 drums, more synths – to create something futuristic. Yes, Haley’s sound smacks of Boards – with its cloudy synths and crackling snares VHS Sex sounds like a BoC B-side – but Haley has crafted his own synthy beast that’s more uplifting in tone. Brokendate, with its driving, insistent low synth stabs, steady punch-beat and soaring high synths should lure you into Truise's Chuch of Synth. And one listen to Flightwave will have you converted. As a Twitter fan said recently “@comtruise live is like finding yourself in Tron’s Grid and having a drummer follow you around. Wow.” That sums it up nicely.
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – When the high-hats kick in at the 3:44 mark in Flightwave. Gets me every time.
1. Machinedrum – Room(s) [Planet Mu]
One of the wonderful, wonderful things about being the self-appointed Grand Pubar of a magazine that covers music in all its forms is that I, much like you, get the best advice from specialist listeners in the genre. And so it is that I’m not going to lie; I completely stole this release off Tha Realness columnist, longterm friend, and fellow newly minted father Rowan "Roshambo" Thomson. I didn’t trawl through the recesses of the underground, nor did I pore through every release sent our way; I can not lay claim to the discovery of this release. Ro recommended, I listened, I loved. The man’s a basshound after all, and you’ve gotta learn to listen to those in the know (I’ve seen the man’s collection; it’s the only thing other than the Great Wall of China that can clearly be seen from space; and that doesn’t even include his digital collection).
There’s much to love about Machinedrum, but the main one is clear; drums, drums, drums. Drums that make you cheer and sneer, drums that elevate and devastate, drums that make you shit blood and eat dust. I’ve always been a sucker for drums, and the patterns to be found lacing these melodies are some of the more intricate and devastating you will come across. The whole album is a wonder, but for you iPod low attention span digital generation kids, have a listen to Come1 and the utterly fabulous Now U Know Tha Deal 4 Real (which starts off sounding like a John Carpenter theme tune before morphing into some blissful Boards of Canada-esque beauty) and let the beats wash over you. WARNING: Do yourself a favour, and be sure to play this on a good sound system. All hail the mighty Planet Mu label!
That truly great neck-hair-on-end moment – Absolutely everything, from start to finish, about Now You Know…; the opening bass pulses let you know immediately you're in for something special, and when the Boards of Canada style synths take over at the 1:32 mark, it's pure bliss.