10. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine (Domino)
Diamond Mine’s album cover pictures two men from a bygone era, seated on a bench. Behind them a deserted coastline arcs away towards the horizon and the possibilities it holds. It’s an image suggestive of time and place removed from the flummery of modern living.
Beyond this prescient portal lies one of the year’s most peaceful, beautifully constructed and evocative albums, one that rewards with repeated listens and works best if listened to in that old fashioned way – from beginning to end. Veteran Scottish folkie King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, longtime soundtrack composer, have in Diamond Mine created an album that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the result of two people coming together to openly share ideas and what possibilities they might create out of found songs, previously recorded material and improvisational inspirations.
An unexpected nomination for the Mercury Prize brought Diamond Mine to greater attention than it might otherwise have received, but by then the word of mouth plaudits were already in full swing. The duo have since followed it up with an EP, Honest Words. Proof, then, that collaborations, for the right reasons, can work.
What we said: “Reveals more with each listen… a record of uncommon beauty. Secrets like this are meant to be shared, though, for this is a treasure chest of which every listener deserves a part.” – Ben Hogwood
INTERVIEW: Jon Hopkins
9. St Vincent – Strange Mercy (4AD)
In spite of already proving herself a dynamic and innovative artist with 2009s Actor, many critics still seemed to refer to Annie Clark as “the one who used to be in Sufjan Stevens band”. This may simply offer a route in for the uninitiated, albeit an unhelpful one given the considerable musical distance between Clark and Stevens. It may, however, in spite of the overwhelming critical and commercial success of female artists in 2011, still reflect a more general malaise in the way the music press responds to female musicians.
In fairness, it is often difficult to know exactly how to respond to Clarks wild, frequently bizarre pop music. On Strange Mercy, she veers between an attacking, crisp and contemporary sound and lush, sensual arrangements, often within the space of the same song. She has the same no holds barred approach to music making that also characterises Kate Bush and Björk.
Clark explores the possibilities of sound and studio production to their fullest extent here. Strange Mercy presents a masterclass in contrast, textural variation and playful juxtaposition. Whilst it is sophisticated and adventurous, it is also undoubtedly a pop album – brimming with memorable melodies, strong vocal performances and direct, immediate pleasures.
What we said: “Strange Mercy also rewards repeated listening never satisfied with a formulaic song structure or predictable chord progression, again Annie has offered us an album full of invention and intrigue, almost impossible to take in all at once. Funk, prog rock, garage, surf pop, Krautrock are all in there – and sometimes all within the same track.” – Darren Harvey
REVIEW: St Vincent – Strange Mercy
8. Björk – Biophilia (One Little Indian)
Björk is a polarizing and enigmatic presence, to be sure, but in terms of sheer creative ingenuity and willingness to experiment with all aspects of her art form, she’s unmatched. As a result, Biophilia feels like far more than an album – and, indeed, the music itself seems to take a backseat to the visual aesthetic, the creative process, the sense of discovery, and peripheral delivery mechanisms.
Biophilia risks coming off as gimmicky and bloated simply on the basis of its accompanying press materials – a suite of iPad apps complements the listening experience, but they’re not essential – and it’s been criticised for lacking in essential songwriting elements in favour of weird arrangements and instrumentation. Certainly eccentricity comes into play when you consider the Tesla Coil Synth, or the Gravitational Pendulum Harp, but it seems off-base to question Björk’s songwriting in terms of her visual stylistic choices or her constant sonic experimentation. A listen to Biophilia reveals that for all its excesses and its off-kilter forays into unexpected territory, it’s arguably Björk’s finest work since Vespertine.
It’s also arguable that Biophilia falls short of its ambition, or that it fails to support its complex ecosystem of accompanying visual elements. But despite all that, it is a magnificent experience. Björk performs a high-wire act over treacherous territory, and her singular vision is something rare, beautiful and worthy of praise. The music world needs outliers like Björk to challenge expectations, and with Biophilia, she succeeds marvellously.
What we said: “With Biophilia, Björk has deftly avoided many of the dangers inherent in grand conceptual projects. The paraphernalia that surrounds Biophilia does not undermine or diminish the impact of the music, and the ideas, approaches and sounds are all successfully integrated.” – Daniel Paton
REVIEW: Björk – Biophilia
7. The Horrors – Skying (XL)
When a band’s influences are readily identifiable, there’s a fine line between artistry and pastiche, between re-treading old ground and amalgamating those influences into something new. The Horrors walked that line quite well with their last release Primary Colours, and on Skying, they’ve evolved and matured as a band, smoothed the corners and created a big, satisfying album that sounds at once left over from the John Hughes days of teen angst and bracingly new despite its smudged mascara sound.
Certainly, there are tones of Ian Curtis and Mark Hollis in Horrors front man Faris Badwan, but his brand of drama and melody, of sullen baritone matched with fogged, barely bridled emotion taps into something archetypal. There’s a marriage of form and function, and a free interchanging of style and substance behind his phrasing (“When you wake up, when you wake up, you will find me,” for example) that feels ripped from anyone’s awkward, difficult coming-of-age moments.
And the music that surrounds him – synth washes and krautrock rhythms, that careful interplay between upbeat pop and grandiose melancholy, the shameless idolatry of Psychedelic Furs, My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses and others – is large-scale and cohesive, never a misstep or lost opportunity. It’s as if with Skying, The Horrors haven’t so much recorded an album as uncovered one, chipping away at a slab of rock until something fully formed and undeniably brilliant springs forth. Here, The Horrors solidify their place in a litany of favourite bands, of important bands, and in the digital age of cheap, reproducible, forgettable music, that’s an achievement.
What we said: “The band’s amalgam of influences remains, but their effort has surprises in the shape of ’80s/’90s baggy tempos and kraut beats peppered from start to finish. Skying has a new swagger and panache, but it also possesses that lightness of touch which was first audible in Primary Colours.” – Ruth Davies
REVIEW: The Horrors – Skying
6. The Antlers – Burst Apart (Transgressive)
Peter Silberman may not be the man to soundtrack a Christmas party. His band, The Antlers, produced one of the bleakest and most brilliant albums of 2009 withHospice, a concept album about a hospice worker falling in love with a terminally ill patient. The follow-up, Burst Apart, was also quite brilliant. With 10 songs all about disintegrating relationships, and titles such as Every Night My Teeth AreFalling Out and Putting The Dog To Sleep, there was no indication thatSilberman had cheered up very much. Yet those songs were magnificent, ebbing, flowing and every so often breaking into a chorus that could break your heart.
It’s a subdued album, but also strangely anthemic. The chiming chords of I Don’t Want Love were sorrowful and resigned but made way for the oddly bouncy French Exit. Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out had some horrific lyrical imagery but one of the most gorgeous melodies you’ll hear all year. Rolled Together hypnotically repeated the same line over and over, yet seemed to express so much more.
It’s those contradictions at the heart of Burst Apart that make it such a great album – an album so sad and melancholic shouldn’t be this addictive, but it was one to keep coming back to time and time again. Silberman’s affecting falsetto had a lot to do with it – singing like a man on the verge of having his heart permanently broken, while his band howled and raged around him.
Closing track Putting The Dog To Sleep, despite that title, seemed to offer some hope and optimism, with its repeated refrain of “Trust in me… I’m not going to die alone”. It’s a fitting end to an album by a band that truly moved up another level in 2011.
What we said: “Burst Apart contains enough new elements to maintain listener interest, while incorporating some of what made Hospice so arresting. It’s an album that, while accessible and instantly engaging, rewards patience and begs for repeated listens, each time opening itself more and more to the listener.” – Gareth Ware
REVIEW: The Antlers – Burst Apart
5. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (4AD)
How to follow For Emma, Ever Ago? Having penned one of the most poignant albums in recent pop music history to speak of heartbreak, Justin Vernon has come in from that infamous three month hibernation in a Wisconsin cabin, shifted the title of his second album to focus more on himself, and concentrated on extending his style.
This has involved making Bon Iver more of a collective, along the lines of last year’s rapturously received Gayngs project, of which Vernon was part. That seems to have furthered his love for slow, 1980s synth-based pop – and has made his sound much bigger. Even several months on from release, the opener Perth is something of a shock as it reveals the sheer battery of instruments Vernon has at his disposal.
And yet the core of his sound remains these slowly working atmospheres and textures, travelling through time like slowly moving satellites and creating a strong sense of yearning – topped off, of course, by that extraordinary voice. Calgary is a wonderful example of this, drifting in weightlessly with its three part harmony before gradually building its armoury of percussion once again. Fragile, but powerful at the same time.
It may not be music for everyone, but Vernon’s full, mellow tones evoke melting heartbreak like no other singer, introverted yet strongly emotive in their projection – and in doing so avoiding the pitfalls of the allegedly difficult second album.
What we said: “Those who approach Bon Iver with open minds and open ears will with repeated listens find that Justin Vernon has not strayed too far from his original raison d’etre. The same spectral presence and romantic longing is everywhere here, it just comes with a panoramic gaze.” – Daniel Paton
REVIEW: Bon Iver – Bon Iver
4. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (4AD)
As if an alternating upper and lower case typeface was not irritating enough, Merrill Garbus waged further war on typesetters and subeditors everywhere with the title of her second album. This clearly formed part of her wider plan to be noticed and draw attention, all entirely justifiable after even the most cursory examination of her work.
Garbus is so relentless and inventive that her manic and unusual music can render the listener breathless. Now working in a real studio and co-writing with bassist Nate Brenner, w h o k i l l saw her make a substantial leap forward from BiRd-BrAiNs, not just in terms of recording quality but also in terms of versatility and execution. Whilst at times it sounds gleefully unrestrained, with intricate, multi-layered rhythmic patterns interlocking and Garbus idiosyncratic vocals veering off on unexpected tangents, it also has an attention to detail and intelligence that at least make it appear that Garbus is a skilled arranger. Its a satisfying combination of looseness and accuracy. Similarly, she also carefully counterbalances violence and sensitivity, dealing with power and protest but also in real human feeling.
Garbus travels in Africa have clearly been a major influence – few artists in the alternative pop spectrum have had such alchemical skills in producing gold from rhythm and phrasing. Yet she is also a boldly original, individual artist with an admirable work ethic. Her live shows over the course of 2011 were perhaps even more thrilling than this brilliant, peerless album.
What we said: “As good as BiRd-BrAiNs was, w h o k i l l represents a massive leap forward creatively. There’s an energy and atmosphere to w h o k i l l which seems to just pour off the record. In a world of identikit pop stars, it’s safe to say that you’ll not hear an album like this anywhere else this year.” – John Murphy
REVIEW: tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
• The rest of the Top 50 will be published over the remainder of the week.