I read an amusing tweet earlier – Any Decent Music, the Scottish music review aggregator site, announced that “those laggards at TLOBF have finally completed their best albums list, so the Best Of The Best Ofs is now wrapped up”. That’s ADM’s epic undertaking which aggregates “best of 2011″ lists and has produced a top 50 from them. Of all the contributing publications TLOBF took the longest to get their list up, which I think says something about how seriously the editorial team took the exercise. Of course, the whole affair shows just how many publications want a look-in at the best albums game: to the music criticism world, they’re what this time of year is about.
At the same time, having an opinion is what us music writers do, and here’s my hat thrown into the ring. I make no claim that I’ve heard hundreds of records in 2011, and certainly I’ve heard a fraction of even the big ones – but this is my list of personal favourites, the records which have made the biggest impact on me and the ones which I’ll forever connect with the developments the year has brought into my own life. As usual, there’s not a lot of crossover with the lists ADM aggregated, but hopefully a few underheard gems which could do for you what they did for me.
#10 Jim Kroft – The Hermit & The Hedonist
Very technically speaking this is rule-breaking choice because Jim Kroft’s wonderful second album isn’t released in the UK until January, but I’m including it because it was put out a couple of months ago in Germany. I fell for Kroft’s music around the time of his first album last year, and by May it meant so much to me that when I was in Berlin I went on a pilgrimage out into the suburbs to see him play live in a sandpit cut into the grounds of a former brewery. It was one of those moments, and in “Canary in the Coalmine” Kroft has articulated the 2011 state of mind better than anyone I know of.
#9 Peggy Sue – Acrobats
Here’s a record I was surprised not to see on more lists, actually. When I caught them at Summer Sundae festival last year I was far from blown away by Peggy Sue, but in Acrobats they have put out a deliciously dark but accessible rock record retaining few traces of their folk past but packed with images of sex, tension and alienation that make it intoxicating in the way few albums are. Deservedly well-received at the time, a lot of people seem to have forgotten about this gem – a shame.
#8 Rebekka Karijord – The Noble Art of Letting Go
Originally released to some acclaim in Scandinvia in 2009, Rebekka Karijord’s The Noble Art of Letting Go went almost unnoticed when it was finally released in the UK back in January, when the country was appropriately frozen up. Herself frosty in that Scandinavian way but at the same time so full of emotion that listening to her was sometimes almost difficult to do, Karijord was in fine singer-songwriter form. Even Ane Brun, whose own album this year left me bitterly disappointed, puts in a great duet performance on this great, unsung effort.
#7 Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Staying on the Scandi scene, I’m of the opinion that the praise heaped on Lykke Li’s second LP is richly justified. While the Swedish pop heroine’s debut was sprawling and scattershot, Wounded Rhymes is the model of the concise and consistent comeback which further confirms her status as one of the foremost thinking men’s popstars. While the likes of “Get Some” gave Li an aggressive punch she’d previously lacked, other tracks reflected the fact that she still maintains a genuine emotional depth that other starlets can scarcely dream of.
#6 Cliffie Swan – Memories Come True
It’s around this point that the dominance of female artists becomes increasingly clear… Cliffie Swan, the Brooklyn outfit formerly known as Lights, really impressed me with this LP, which does an amazing job of reconciling ’70s soft rock in the Fleetwood Mac vein with more recent and scuzzy psych-rock. The result is a dreamy yet powerful and very feminine rock effort which didn’t get a fraction of the attention it deserved. Lead singer Sophia Knapp has a debut solo album out early in 2012, incidentally.
#5 Jookabox – The Eyes of the Fly
Even though Indianapolis madmen Jookabox were breaking up, critics still wouldn’t pay attention to their absolute blast of a final album. While 2008’s Dead Zone Boys was a fantastically entertaining rush through the Rust Belt nightmare of David “Moose” Adamson’s imagination, The Eyes of the Fly is a more concise and significantly improved effort which combines rock, hip-hop and any number of unidentifiable materials into something delirious, energising and completely unpredictable – simply amazing and so underappreciated.
#4 Mother Mother – Eureka
In 2010 the phenomenal Canadian rock band Mother Mother knocked me completely for six with their ace second album O My Heart (when it was finally released in the UK). When I learned that they had another one on the way, I feared it might not meet my lofty expectations but Eureka is another triumph. Another pop-rock opus with a real sense of humour fronted by a single with some daft rap elements (!), it again proves that Mother Mother are hot property – not least because they’re one of the few bands I’ve ever successfully converted other people to.
#3 Foreign Slippers – Farewell to the Old Ghosts
Very much self-released on a lovably tiny scale, the debut album by Foreign Slippers – the folk-pop project fronted by Gabi Frödén – was a long time coming for someone who fell in love with her first EP way back in 2008. Beyond another free EP there was nothing for almost three years and then there was this – a wondrous, immaculately put together set of emotive, moving, heartbreaking songs produced largely outside the music industry. Brilliantly, though, a couple of songs have seen national radio play in recent months so the future could be bright for this superb project.
#2 The Leisure Society – Into the Murky Water
Away from all this year’s navel-gazing about what “real folk” is and whether Mumford & Sons are Tories and/or the spawn of the antichrist, The Leisure Society were busily getting on with just being one of the best British bands still breathing. Into the Murky Water is another simply stellar effort, a broad-brush widescreen folk opus combining the talents of some incredible writers and musicians. To see them in Kreuzberg was my other Berlin pilgrimage and so worthwhile – that night opened the door to my becoming borderline obssessed with this record all summer.
#1 The Dø – Both Ways Open Jaws
So here it is – the big one, the record which most blew me away in 2011. And from such unexpected quarters – The Dø put out a commercially successful (#1 on the French charts) but ultimately extremely patchy debut in 2008, but I don’t think anyone expected they would come back three years later with something so incredible. Featuring no less than several of the best songs I’ve heard in years, Both Ways Open Jaws is a dizzying journey through rock, electro, hip-hop, ambient and folk which performs the almost impossible feat of remaining amazingly consistent. Those who have heard this staggering LP generally pour on as much praise as I (barring those at Q and Mojo who were baffled by it) but until more people hear it justice won’t be done.
Here’s to 2012, eh?