The sounds and songs the stars fell in love with in 2011
Anna Calvi, Ghostpoet and Leslie Feist all made great albums this year. Here, they and others pick the music that rocked their year
Friday 23 December 2011
Danny from Danny Fingers and the Thumbs stopped me in the street in New York City earlier this year and gave me the album What's Normal Is Weird. I fell in love with it and haven't stopped playing it since.
My album of the year is Adele's album 21. She's a superstar. I think people can understand her emotion and relate to that. She's so vulnerable and honest. It's fantastic.
Chris Karloff: Kasabian
Connan Mockasin's Forever Dolphin Love boasts some pretty insane bass- playing and as a bassist myself I have to applaud his technical prowess! I've been buzzing off the six live tracks the most – they're even better than the actual recordings.
I'm obsessed with Metronomy's The English Riviera. From the first soar of strings and seagulls on the opening track to the dance-floor indie-funk of "Love Underlined", it's the only album I've consistently listened to this year without skip track-itis or boredom setting in. I love the lyrics, their playfulness always puts a smile on my face. The melodies are darn right mean, gentle, danceable, fun, and emotional, all at the same time. The fact that time stands still when I hear a track off it out in a shop or in a passing car is another tick for me. It's a modern-day masterpiece, for sure.
I'm a long-time fan of the Constantines. I remember once I climbed down into a volcano in the Canary Islands with their album Shine a Light on my Walkman, and it felt like an apt soundtrack. I saw [singer] Bryan Webb play a couple of songs solo at a songwriters' night maybe eight years ago and was blown away. The power of the Cons' music was all the more potent for being delivered quietly by one guy – I felt like I was seeing Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen or Dylan, but of my own time. That show was a massive influence on me and this year he finally made a great solo album, Provider.
I'd say Example's Playing in the Shadows is my favourite album of this year. It's such a good body of work. Then seeing him live really helped me connect with the album in a different way. There's bangers on there and some feel-good songs, too.
Hayden Thorpe: Wild Beasts
An album which you love is often an album that you wish you'd made, and that's how I feel about Burst Apart by The Antlers. It's unapologetically beautiful, and that's a rarity that's ballsy and tricky to pull off. The melodies just keep giving; it sounds like falling in love.
I'm a big fan of the bass clarinet, so when one reared its lovely head at the beginning of WhoMadeWho's Knee Deep album, I knew I was going to fall in love. It's a dark and moody record which I think of as the perfect melding of the organic and the electronic. You can tell they've studied music, but not in a bad way. It's also a smart but not annoyingly clever, uplifting and inspiring album. It makes me feel refreshed and throw around the word "genius".
If I was a man, I'd like to sing like Hayden Thorpe from Wild Beasts. Their album Smother is great. It's full of subtleties; chords are implied rather than over-emphasised, and the drums are integral to the melodic interest of each song. Wild Beasts have their own unique sound, and I love it.
My album of 2011 has to be Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch the Throne. I feel like it's such a creative album, and while it's a collaboration, it sounds like it comes from one mind. Listening from start to end feels like you're somehow watching a movie.
Colin MacIntyre: Mull Historical Society
I love Feist's Metals for its lights and darks. She writes little ear-worms that keep reappearing weeks after you last listened. She isn't afraid to reinvent herself, and the album has this feeling of being near the sea about it. I like the percussion that sounds like fishing implements being knocked together in some romantic way, and the menacing backing choirs. Feist also manages to say "chickadee" a few times, which is nice. Plus, the bittersweet "Anti-Pioneer" has a killer title.
Stella Mozgawa: Warpaint
Let England Shake by P J Harvey is simply a masterpiece. She oscillates between intimate and extroverted levels of protest, and I don't think I've ever heard an album that's quite so sure of itself. It's powerful without being preachy and I love the way it sucks you in and continues to unravel with every listen. My favourite album of the last five years, let alone 2011.
A Place to Call Home by Wide Sea. I've adopted them. They're from Frankfurt, or near it anyway, and came to Kilburn. The four of them live in one tiny stinky room, two bunk beds. For [the love of] music, you see? I was learning to read again [after his stroke], and MySpace helped me a lot. They found me, I heard their songs, and [recording engineer] Seb Lewsley agreed we must record them. Huge tunes, four-part harmonies, clear thinking – maybe it's because they're brothers, Arthur, Paul and Patrick; Bart is the cousin. It's beautiful, it's easy. The record companies are over now, so we formed AED and hatched a plan. We'll release it, lads!
Lou Rhodes: Lamb
The buzz prior to the release of James Blake's eponymous debut made me a little sceptical, but when I finally listened I was intrigued from the opening bars of "Unluck". It was his half-cracked vocal that really got me – it seems too soulful for his years. The album has been the soundtrack to my 2011, each song evoking its own significant moment.
Nicola Roberts: Girls Aloud
When I heard that Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" had sampled Major Lazer's "Pon de Floor", I was excited that she might have done a whole record of hard electro beats. When I downloaded the album 4 and it wasn't what I expected, I was a bit disappointed but not for long! In time I could see that the songs represent exactly who Beyoncé is. I play "Countdown" before I go on stage. It's a vocal marathon that Beyoncé sails through, five key changes and all. She inspires me to do my vocal exercises and stay dedicated. I keep telling myself Beyoncé wasn't built in a day.
Chris Difford: Squeeze
If Jimmy Savile were still with us I would ask him to fix it for me to be in the Arctic Monkeys for a day – no medal needed! Suck It and See is the sound of a band in its prime, and the production brings out the best in the songs without distraction. "Brick by Brick" is a fantastic festival song and "Piledriver Waltz" coughs me up into a silk hanky. I ramp the album up in the car and dream of a studio where I can make an album so good.
Rhys Webb: The Horrors
While most provoke with volume, Connan Mockasin's delicate touch is captivating and mind-melting. Forever Dolphin Love is beautiful, psychedelic pop music that sounds like it's been beamed down from another planet. Kraut rhythms drive slinky bass-lines over expanding soundscapes, and ethereal melodies take the listener to a galaxy far, far away. The title track and "It's Choade My Dear'' are great starting points for those who want to fly with Connan.
Aidan Moffat: Arab Strap
I fell in love with Slow Club's Paradise as soon as I heard it. It's a gorgeous, soulful, sexy record with an undercurrent of sadness, which is exactly the way I'd describe Dusty in Memphis. I can offer no higher praise. The melodies sound fresh yet familiar, the lyrics are great, and the production's bright and perfect. When I listen to it, it makes me physically ache.
Tim Burgess: The Charlatans
I've watched The Horrors grow and mature into Britain's best band – and potentially Britain's biggest export. The US, South America and Japan can't get enough of them, and mainland Europe loves them too. Albums that make these lists are often those that are universally liked, but overlook Skying at your peril. It's a Northern-soul-meets-shoegaze-meets-stadium-rock-meets-whatever-Roxy-Music-were kind of thing, and it's not a compromise. Go and buy it from a proper record shop!
As a big fan of Josh T Pearson's old band, Lift to Experience, I was intrigued to hear that he'd resurfaced with a solo album, Last of the Country Gentlemen. I wasn't prepared for what lies within it, though. It's harrowing almost beyond belief. The lyrics are laid bare on a sparse acoustic canvas and they cut like broken glass. It's a masterpiece in which Josh channels the darkness of failure in love.
Jim James: My Morning Jacket
When I hear Tripper by the Fruit Bats it's like the beginning of the universe. It's so pure and crystal clear, like the hollow inside of a single feather from the wing of Pegasus, or a tiny molecule that is part of the DNA that makes up the cells of a unicorn's horn. It's so simple it's almost impossible. I weep with joy whenever I listen.
Ron Mael: Sparks
Once upon a time, I would participate in these year-end musical suggestion charades in the hope that an under-appreciated artist might have a small uptick in sales from my humble suggestion. Those days of "buying music" (so quaint, don't you think?) are gone, so nowadays I recommend packaging (although my suggestion is still better musically than Adele, Robyn and Gaga combined). The Genius of Miles Davis is another repackaging affair, but what a repackaging. Housing the eight already released but now hard to find metal boxes in one trumpet case, and including a replica of Miles' mouthpiece and, for fashionistas, a T-shirt, this is an overpriced, unnecessary, and wonderful box with, as a bonus, the most exquisite music of the past century.
Emmy the Great
There's a song called "I" on the Nicola Roberts album Cinderella's Eyes where she lists a series of hopes and fears, likes and dislikes. It's stuff like, "I don't like people who make comments on the internet"; "I hope one day we stop striving for perfection"; "I hope people like my new direction." It sounds a bit silly, but it's actually incredibly honest. Her whole album is similarly surprising and touching. I've listened to it more than anything else I bought this year.
Gruff Rhys: Super Furry Animals
I listened to The Strange Uses of Ox Gall by H Hawkline because he's my neighbour in Cardiff, but the songs seeped into my ears and never left. "Ballast" is an incredible song evoking his seafaring upbringing on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. It's a textured record sounding like some lost American college rock band crooning in the hull of a sinking schooner.
Reverie by Joe Henry is a beautiful meditation on the dreamlike half-light of the mind. Gorgeous melodies and lyrics intersperse with incidental sounds like the barking of dogs and the hum of lawn mowers. It's a record that creates an atmosphere all of its own.
Miles Kane: The Last Shadow Puppets
I first knew about Kasabian's Velociraptor! when I heard "Days Are Forgotten" on the radio. It reminded me of this amazing Serge Gainsbourg track called "Requiem Pour Un Con". It has a similar beat but Kasabian's song is heavier and more up-tempo. I'm on tour with Kasabian as we speak. When they play "Switchblade Smiles" – that's a real moment.
Tumble Bee by Laura Veirs is a children's album, but it's one of those magical records that appeals to both children and adults, not all cutesy as many albums for kids are. Veirs looked to the wealth of American folk songs for inspiration, and what gorgeous little gems she has found. My brother gave me this album for my birthday. I adore it and my two-year-old daughter loves it, too.
John Stanier: Battles
My top album of 2011 is Ghost People by the Dutch dance-music producer Martyn. It has a lot of energy, and on songs such as "Popgun" his mix of styles is flawless. My favourite track, "We Are You in the Future" takes me back to the early 1990s when I would shop for 12-inch singles at the now-defunct Container Records in Hamburg. The album's artwork is also interesting. It reproduces an 18m high painting on the side of a building in Poznan, Poland by his friend and collaborator, Erosie.
I really love the way Build a Rocket Boys! was mixed. I saw Elbow play it live at the Coachella festival in California and it was awesome. They seemed like really nice guys, too. I'd just got the record before I saw them, so that made the live show even better.
Becky Unthank: The Unthanks
Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell's voices intertwine to make the most beautiful sounds. From "There's a Disease", the first track on their album Kite, you are plunged into their hushed, magical world. Jonny's bittersweet, self-penned songs never cease to amaze, and he bares his soul with charm, intelligence and wit. Lucy's "Winter Got Lost" is poetic, intriguing and soulful. They're a perfect match.
I like the way Sam Beam [AKA Iron & Wine] keeps pushing the sound of his records. The Shepherd's Dog surprised me in a wonderful way with its more expansive instrumentation and band sound, and Kiss Each Other Clean brings more sonic surprises: distorted organs, electronic drum samples and funk bass-lines. Beam's gentle, expressive voice holds it all together, and the images his lyrics conjure up are wonderfully vivid.
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