The Critics: The Best of 2011
The most memorable albums of the year, plus the top DVD releases
Sunday 18 December 2011
In a year of Identikit anniversary recitals, Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Liszt Project eschewed the rhinestones and examined the Hungarian showman's influence on Bartók, Ravel and Messaien.
Liszt-refusenik András Schiff turned instead to Schumann's poignant Geistervariationen, while Alexei Lubimov explored Beethoven on an 1828 Graf fortepiano, and a 1632 Ruckers harpsichord, was the star of Christophe Rousset's Bach Fantasy, while violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk traced the limitless curves of the same composer.
Paul McCreesh's bone-shaking Grande Messe des Morts and Andris Nelsons' propulsive Francesca da Rimini had grit and glamour. Ivá* Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra delivered a sublime account of Schubert's Ninth. Hilary Hahn, Vassily Petrenko and the RLPO dazzled in Jennifer Higdon's laser-cut Violin Concerto. Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker kept their cool in Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, while Marc Minkowski and Anne Sofie von Otter smouldered through Berlioz's Les nuits d'Eté.
Antonio Pappano gave a bodice-ripping performance of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. Theatre of Voices tripped out to Berio's Stories, Quatuor Diotima scintillated in American Music , the Smith Quartet shimmied and jived in Dance, and Theatre of the Ayre beguiled in Blow's Venus and Adonis.
And my disc of year? René Jacobs' fast and fabulous recording of Handel's Agrippina.
Rock and pop
PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, an album based on the Crimean War and rooted in British folk traditions but carrying heavy echoes of our present-day imperial entanglements, won the Mercury Prize from a position of bookies' equal-favourite (alongside Adele's 21) and topped many a magazine's end-of-year poll with much talk of "the album of her career". It was, indeed, very good. But was it that good?
The aforementioned Adele may have dominated the sales charts, but the best British pop album of the year was Katy B's On a Mission. Smart, subtle and sassy with an understated cool, it felt like an instant modern pop classic in April, and at the end of the year, it's still feeling that way. Meanwhile, over the Atlantic, Lady Gaga's Born This Way was a relentlessly exuberant Ibiza juggernaut with a defiantly pro-gay, freak-power agenda.
The collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne made all the headlines, but LA's OFWGKTA gang, the most exciting collective since the Wu-Tang Clan, proved there was intelligent life beyond the hip-hop heavyweights with Tyler the Creator's Goblin, Frank Ocean's Nostalgia Ultra mixtape, and the 12 Odd Future Songs compilation.
James Blake was mystifyingly mislabelled as "dubstep", but the 22-year-old Londoner was actually an electronic singer-songwriter whose superb self-titled debut had more in common with Robert Wyatt, John Martyn and Secret Life of Plants-era Stevie Wonder than with Nero or Magnetic Man. Wu Lyf lived up to the anti-hype with Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, which sounded like Tom Waits fronting Arcade Fire.
The Horrors moved on from 1970s psych-Krautrock and 1960s psych-garage to take on the 1980s with their third, and best, album Skying, whose lead single "Still Life" was actually playlisted on Radio 1. The dependably excellent British Sea Power returned with Valhalla Dancehall, whose opening track, "Who's in Control?", uncannily captured the mood of insurrection and discontent.
Other fine British releases include Glasvegas's Euphoric Heartbreak, Patrick Wolf's Lupercalia, Ladytron's Gravity the Seducer, Guillemots' Walk the River and Luke Haines's self-explanatory 9 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early '80s, with superior synthpop arriving from Europe in the form of M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, Little Dragon's Ritual Union and Yelle's Safari Disco Club, and indie dream-pop from New York's Cults' self-titled effort.
The ever-elusive Kate Bush ended a six-year hiatus with not one but two albums: the enjoyable but arguably unnecessary reworkings of her old material on Director's Cut and the wonderfully wintry 50 Words for Snow. Another classy release from a veteran act was Duran Duran's Mark Ronson-produced All You Need is Now, which recaptured the fizz and fun of their Rio prime.
The year biggest reissues came from the Rolling Stones, with the over-mythologised Exile on Main Street, then the far superior Some Girls. While Kurt Cobain wasn't around to stop Nirvana's Nevermind getting the 20th- anniversary box-set treatment.
Rock, folk and Americana
The PJ Harvey album rang a lot of bells for me this year, less for its subject matter (which was nevertheless compelling) than for Harvey's successful attempt to combine musical spindliness with prosey phrase-making.
My two other favourite records were also voiced by women, at equally low amplitudes but from very different geographical starting points. Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest was, I thought, a scintillating return to form. Equally delicate, albeit without quite the same subtlety, was Marry Waterson & Oliver Knight's The Days That Shaped Me, which ignored many of the clichés of Anglo-folk in favour of a tender rummage in family cupboards.
Tom Waits' back-in-the-groove Bad as Me was splendid. Meanwhile two much younger things kept their discourse equally intense. Austin Lucas's A New Home in the Old World lived up to the expectations wrought by his debut. Israel Nash Gripka demonstrated, with Barn Doors and Concrete Floors, that his past included sides two and three of Exile on Main St, which obviously can't hurt.
Honorable mentions go to Nick Lowe, Hayes Carll, Jackie Oates and Ry Cooder; formal farewells to Glen Campbell and Etta James who signed off on formidable careers with fine digitised adieux.
Cold economic winds are silencing the labels which used to bring us the real music of the world, so hats off to Smithsonian Folkways for two stunning additions to their Music of Central Asia series. In the Footsteps of Babur: Musical Encounters from the Lands of the Mughals has five outstanding instrumentalists creating pieces on the spot – appropriate, given the jam sessions in courts and Sufi gatherings where this music developed. Meanwhile, In the Shrine of the Heart: Popular Classics from Bukhara and Beyond purveys Sufi love-songs, some rumbustiously cheerful, but many inhabiting dark and mysterious realms.
The Ocora Radio France label is also still going strong, with a series of fascinatingly out-of-the-way musical snapshots. Canti & Musica: Anthology of Profane Songs and Music includes Corsican a cappella polyphony at its powerful best, with songs ranging from shepherds' calls to laments and satirical comments on mothers-in-law.
I was charmed by Gurrumul Yunupungu's Rrakala. As the Aboriginal answer to Stevie Wonder, this blind singer-songwriter from Arnhem Land creates music that goes straight to the heart. As does the latest from the celebrated township a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Songs from a Zulu Farm.
Generally speaking, 2012 was a good year for trumpeters. X/Y by the Swedish-Croatian musician-producer Goran Kajfes invoked the spirit of Don Cherry on one disc (X), while exploring subtle electronica on the other (Y). The Californian Ambrose Akinmusire made a hot-shot Blue Note debut with When the Heart Emerges Glistening and Wadada Leo Smith re-invented Tutu-style free-funk on the excellent Heart's Reflection.
In the heavyweight pianist's sector, Keith Jarrett continued his solo resurgence with the live double-album Rio, whose second disc comes close to best-ever form, while the relative newcomer Brad Mehldau made his most satisfying record yet with Live in Marciac, a solo CD and DVD combo.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano yet again confirmed his mastery by performing Charlie Parker's music on Bird Songs, and Norwegian newcomer Marius Neset came out guns-blazing with Golden Explosion.
At that unstable point where sort-of-jazz meets Scottish spoken-word indie, Everything's Getting Older, a collaboration between the multi-instrumentalist Bill Wells and the former lead singer of Arab Strap Aidan Moffatt, proved enormously enjoyable.
My favourite blast from the past? The Jazzman label's "best of" Jef Gilson – a survey of the neglected French composer/pianist with everything from jazz waltzes to groovesome modal vamps – would take some beating.
With PJ (am I the only one who misses Duncan?) mentioned elsewhere and no other clear-cut stand-outs, let's concentrate instead on some of 2011's less-universally-approved pleasures.
In no particular order, the albums I listened to most included Jonathan Wilson's lives-up-to-its-title Gentle Spirit, the ever-excellent Decemberists' The King is Dead, the only-slightly-disappointing Fleet Foxes follow-up Helplessness Blues, Bill Callahan's disturbing Apocalypse and, making a late surge, the Black Keys' El Camino.
Outside my comfort zone? While the "serious" critics were fussing over James Blake, my ears were far more pleasurably tickled by Jamie Woon's Mirrorwriting. Favourite album? It's a toss up between two, both from acts I hadn't heard as the year began.
The Civil Wars' Barton Hollow is not officially released in the UK till next March, but it's been widely available for some time and is the sound of what happens when West Coast folky yin (her) teams up with Southern country yang (him). And finally there is Dawes' magnificently catchy Nothing is Wrong, which – though not "cool" or "clever" – has that all-too-rare ability to make the world around it seem a brighter place.
The year's most monumental electronic release was surely Arkives, a 17-CD career-spanning survey of the Canadian minimal techno producer Plastikman's playful and infinitely subtle variations on the theme of 4:4 drum hits and the acid squelch. It's also interesting that we've reached the point where techno artists afford themselves the kind of box-set treatment usually reserved for venerated dead guitarists.
But the two most audacious and fully formed musical statements of the year were both debut albums. On Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, the Midlands rapper Ghostpoet drawls wry but deep-from-the-heart observations of recession-era British city life over late-night electronics. And Space is Only Noise by the American-Chilean producer Nicolas Jaar is an alluring bricolage of found sounds and plaintive electronica.
Dubstep's fertile undergrowth bore more fruit, ranging from the comparatively poppy wonders of SBTRKT by SBTRKT to Pinch & Shackleton's contemplative self-titled album, and Zomby's Dedication (4AD).
And for dance music to actually, you know, dance to? Well Instra:Mental's Resolution 653 is precision-engineered machine music that just does something to your motor cortex. And Modeselektor's wildly eclectic and cheeky Monkeytown is so infectiously and exuberantly funky that you can even hear Thom Yorke getting his groove on for two of its tracks.
As it's been such a fruitful year for female artists (and I'm not talking Gaga or even Kate Bush), I'm sticking to the fairer and more idiosyncratic sex with all my choices.
Tulipa's Efemera was delicate quirky Brazilian indie-pop which managed to be simultaneously sophisticated and naive. While at the opposite end of the spectrum, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards separated the men from the boys with a corrosive mix of world rhythms, Broadway-style melodies and spoilt-brat dissonance with WhoKill.
For once the most-promoted world-music album of the year lived up to the hype, transcending its coffee-table credentials. Fatou by Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara had uncompromising lyrics playing off against a subtle interplay of congas, calabash, ngoni and guitar.
After more than a decade, Susheela Raman finally made the album she was born to make, in that Vel incorporated both her Indian/Tamil heritage and a life spent under the sway of Western rock in the style of Siouxsie Sioux and Nick Cave.
Finally – so close to home it only qualifies as "world music" in the most literal sense – Shropshire's Mara Carlyle produced a jewel of an album with Floreat. It earns its place among all the ostensibly more exotic fare mentioned above, simply because I couldn't bear not to mention it.
Sex, death and sunbathing seals: OK, some scenes were "faked", but Frozen Planet was still spectacular in scope (and icebergs).
But we all know size isn't blah, and one of the year's best documentaries was a personal story: Bobby Fischer Against the World, retreading the mental agonies of the chess Grand Master.
For those who like their docs news-based, Inside Story provided an accusatory overview of the financial crisis with an impressive array of talking heads; while Armadillo followed Danish soldiers in Helmand province, the camera grippingly putting viewers on the front line.
While everyone was talking about Denmark's The Killing, just as absorbing when it came to European police procedurals was season three of French whodunit Spiral, with its equally flawed heroine and ingrained political messages.
Of the annual Christmas deluge of comedy DVDs, the stand-out stand-ups were Greg Davies and his Firing Cheeseballs at a Dog – a commanding performance perfectly pitched; and Russell Kane's Smokescreens & Castles, which packed an almighty punch, intellectually and emotionally. And of the sitcoms, the second season of Modern Family was way out in front: sensational writing, strong character development and a superb ensemble.
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