1. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Virgin) 09/09/2011
Laura Marling’s third album, ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ shows her as an already accomplished artist developing within her trademark folk roots, whilst bringing tinges of jazz to her sound. Marling is clearly in control throughout, and never more so on than first track, ‘The Muse’, where she ponders wanting a man, confused at what he might do for her. The vocal is ironic and the story is told as a series of questions and quips. Marling’s more folks roots are ever present in seminal ‘Salinas’ and ‘All My Rage’. Guitar is immaculate as you would expect from her first two outings, and the accompaniment is as rich or as minimal as the track allows. What’s apparent is the hugely inventive quality and conviction from which the songs are crafted. Themes wander through the darker side of love and longing and introspection. It’s a very deep record steeped in riddle and metaphor. Centrepiece, ‘The Beast’ flirts with suicidal feelings of contempt for a lost lover. Marling doesn’t flinch to turn up the hatred and loathing. In turn, delicate love songs (‘I was just a Card’, ‘Night after Night’) delve into how love might evolve; ‘Would you watch my body weaken, my mind drift away?’ sings Marling sincerely, as if her life depended on it. Comparisons with Leonard Cohen and Jonie Mitchell are entirely justified. Marling’s song writing and composition are staggering. The simplicity of the track is almost always a mask for an underlying complex metaphor or arrangement to keep the album revealing more layers. ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ is an absolute triumph and a modern classic.
2. Foster The People – Torches (Startime/Columbia) 23/05/2011
The first offering from California three piece, Foster The People, is a masterclass in dance sensibilities, immaculate writing and sublime production. They are never afraid to take an old trick and reinvent it, and no dance music technique is left unused throughout. We have build-ups, drops, break-downs and generous helpings of house-inspired funky piano. It’s all for the taking. Behind these astonishing crafted dance tracks lurks an even more composed and confident writer, in front man Mark Foster. ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ and ‘Call It What You Want’ are the obvious singles, with vocals turning an already blinding dance record into something more anthemic. Lower key ‘Waste’ focuses on more emotional territory, and details a relationship breakup and the longing which follows. Behind the bass and drums there is great storytelling, and tracks which could exist in any genre. Like last year’s Everything Everything and Yeasayer albums, it’s the ideas within each track that really keep you coming back for more. It’s a record of huge invention, one that take risks, reinvents ideas and will no doubt be around for a long time to come.
3. Beirut – The Rip Tide (Pompeii Records) 30/08/2011
Beirut’s third album was no doubt a difficult one to write. Following the success (and subsequent Brazilian fan-based street festival) of their previous two offerings, ‘The Rip Tide’ brings more maturity, and hones their sound to an epic scale. While ‘The Flying Cup Club’ and ‘Gulag Orkester’ had an almost busking quality to them, here Beirut have had their production upgraded, and Condon has developed his vocals hugely. Still present are the trademark trumpets and accordions, but now mixed with some of the electronica ideas developed from last year’s ‘March of the Zapotec’. It’s an album that’s orchestral in scope. Lyrically the tone is down-beat and there has clearly been some introspection in Cordons writing. ‘Goshen’ reeks of self contemplation and fear of failure, while title track, ‘The Rip Tide’ lingers on loneliness and the longing to find solace. It’s a very beautiful and accessible album despite some of the weightier themes. Musically (particularly in the brass sections) it’s epic, and it’s an album that will stay with you long after listening. Beirut have crafted a sound that is very much their own, and produced an incredibly polished record to showcase it.
4. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix (Island Records ) 26/08/2011
Picking up where the Crouch End four piece left off with last years ‘Flaws’, ‘A Different kind of Fix’ is equally as delicate. Far away from the bombast shoe gazing of their début, this record avoids dwelling on the technical showcase that they’re very capable of, and goes for a more experimental ground, using loops and drum machines. Trademark aching vocals from Jack Steadman intact, the record uses repetition to build songs into huge soundscapes. Most typical is the first single ‘Shuffle’ which uses an uneasy piano riff looped to base its melody and structure. On first listen it’s easy to see why this could be ‘a different kind of fix’, being that it’s a very different record to one you might expect. It’s an album of experiments and ideas, and Bombay Bicycle Club continue to amaze.
5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island/Vagrant) 11/02/2011
PJ Harvey’s tenth studio album has won the hearts of critics worldwide, and earned her a second Mercury prize win. Using the conceptual approach taken for her last two records, ‘Uh Huh Her’ and ‘White Chalk’, Polly Jean focuses on England, all that it stands for, and all that she sees wrong with/in it. Musically in the vain of her earlier work, with stark echoes of ‘Dry’ and ‘Rid of Me’, Let England Shake takes on similarly personal themes. Breezy guitars are used throughout, and although weighty issues are up for debate, musically it’s a very accessible record to listen to. Lots of the material focuses on the state of the nation, how England was built, the wars it fought, and the damage being done to it politically, as pride is replaced by greed. On ‘The Last Living Rose’ Polly chants; ‘The Thames river glistening, like gold hastily sold for nothing, NOTHING!’ pointing the finger firmly at Governments selling industries for short term goal and political greed. ‘The Glorious Land’ opens with soft guitar chord changes swaying, with military bugle playing over the top to signify the glory and pride with which England was created, only to see it wasted in the shadow of political gains. It’s an incredibly serious record, but not without a subtle beauty and prose. Lyrically it’s breathtaking. Polly Jean has created a record which is a testament to the current hard times. She wants us to remember how England was built, and she wants to regain that same glory. It’s a stunning addition to an already very accomplished body of work.
6. Real Estate – Days (Domino Records) 18/10/2011
The second offering from New Jersey four piece, Real Estate, firmly establishes their sound and demonstrates the effortless way they are able to underplay verse and melody, without ever moving away from the rich texture of guitars they’ve become known for. Shimmering riffs layer upon low sung vocals to create almost euphoric tracks. Opener ‘Easy’ is a lazy sounding sun bleached pop song which builds into a huge soundscape crescendo. It’s one of those rare records that can sound completely different played loud or quiet. ‘It’s Real’ takes things more upbeat, and could easily be a single release, demonstrating that they can do traditional pop track when they want to. ‘Kinder Bluemen’ is a delicious instrumental piece, no doubt developed from a jam session. The track works on so many layers, a vocal would destroy it. The whole album is a joy to listen to, it’s euphoric and gentle at the same time, without ever losing its momentum. More of the same please.
7. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Mirror Traffic (Matador) 23/08/2011
Stephen Malkmus is a difficult taste to develop. On first contact you could be forgiven for assuming he’s a tone deaf lunatic, ranting and spitting over ill developed musical arrangements. On closer inspection you’ll [hopefully] hear the genius of a throwaway songwriter. Now on his fifth album with The Jicks (equally his output with Pavement) Malkmus plays a blinder. All of the elements are here; random lyrics, equally baffling stories to tell, riffs which are seemingly made up during recording. Malkmus is getting it off his chest; ‘I am worth hating!’, he reaffirms on opener ‘We are the Tigers’. Using faux political satire on greed and (presumably) his US homeland Malkmus proclaims ‘I know what the senator wants, what the senator wants is a blow job’, and later on ‘Spazz’ Malkmus closes with ‘all roads seem to lead to China, how long till we learn to love?’. It can be difficult sometimes to see where he’s going, but always clear on what he’s getting at. The success of this record (as with Pavement) are the amazing tunes he manages to spin in amongst the (apparent) madness. The record uses guitar, piano, harmonica, and a brass section throughout, and despite its throwaway appeal it’s very carefully conceived. It’s a hard album to love initially, but once through it, it will taunt you to repeat listen until you’re under its spell.
8. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See (Domino Records) 06/06/2011
Having tried to move away from the kitchen sink drama they first became loved for, Arctic Monkeys seem to be (thankfully) moving back there. After the slightly muted reaction to last years ‘Humbug’ and mixed success of Alex Turner’s side project ‘The Last Shadow Puppets’, the Arctic Monkeys have returned to form. First single from the album ‘Don’t Sit Down ’cause I’ve moved your Chair’ sets the tone of the record completely, incorporating the humour and snide lyrics you have come to expect. Influences are clear from time spent with Josh Homme whilst working on this record, and guitars are heavier and dirtier. ‘Library Picture’ could almost pass as a Queens of the Stone Age record, which is were ‘Suck It and See’ really hits its stride, showing how capable a band Arctic Monkeys really are – Helders is stunning on drums. ‘All My Own Stunts’ and ‘Reckless Serenade’ follow a similar tone. ‘Piledriver Waltz’ (also featured in Richard Ayoade’s film, ‘Submarine’) begins the ballad end of the album. Turner’s vocals are authentic and his stories are told with complete conviction. This is not new territory for the Arctic Monkeys, save for the heavily guitars and dirty production, but it’s the record we all wanted them to make.
9. The Strokes – Angles (Rough Trade) 21/03/2011
Angles would appear to be ‘that difficult fourth album’ for The Stokes and you can’t help but wonder if they regained a lot of the earlier sound, recaptured here, by accident. The band were allegedly in disarray whilst recording Angles, and Casablancas is said to have recorded his vocals whilst not speaking to the rest of the band. Some might argue Casablancas vocals are at their best when ‘dialled-in’, and the uneasy detachment between him and the rest of the band seems to have almost helped capture the irresistible naivety of their earlier sound. Great records have always been born of conflict. Thankfully they haven’t lost any of their cool as opener ‘Machu Picchu’ showcases. The whole record has a very eighties feel to it, with guitar picking, keyboards and some delicious over production. Vocals delivered as lazily as you would expect and Casablancas is on form. ‘Two Kinds of Happiness’ further develops the eighties feel with a healthy smattering of fading bass riffs. It’s a record that could have been released in the early eighties and sit comfortably next to any New Romantic, if they could only be bothered to be so calculated. Overall it’s a record of great pop songs, reeking of cool and alluding to times more decadent than ours. The Strokes are back.
10. Katy B – On a Mission (Rinse/Columbia) 01/04/2011
Peckham born, Goldsmiths Graduate, Katy Brien has cooked up something of a storm with her dubstep drenched debut ‘On a Mission’, captivating the mainstream and earning a Mercury nomination in the process. Mix tempo drum and (lots of) bass tick along under Katy’s mesmerising vocals. It’s a record that is based on very clean production. Title track ‘On A Mission’ plays with timing and frequency constantly without ever missing a beat. Likewise ‘Why You Always Here’ plays an inverted drum riff underpinning a delicious soul vocal. It’s infectious beyond description, and there is often so much going on it’s difficult to explain how it works. At the centre is Katy’s amazing vocal ability which, production aside, holds the record together. On ‘Go Away’ Katy’s vocals spans a breathtaking three octaves without breaking a sweat. Ms Dynamite features on ‘Lights On’ alluding to the immense following Katy has already built on pirate radio, before her mainstream début (which Katy duly name checks on final track, ‘Hard to Get’). She has clearly worked long and hard to put together such an accomplished record. It’s a record that’s of its time, and a hugely refreshing shake-up to the mainstream.