Our profoundly subjective selection of the year’s finest long-players runs the gamut from the dirty instrumental pop of Civil Civic’s Rules to the gossamer-light beauty of Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow, writes David Davies.
Hailing from Australia but now based in London and Barcelona, respectively, Civil Civic’s Aaron Cupples and Ben Green propagate a cerebral form of electronica with a strong rock undercurrent. Compared to artists as diverse as Sonic Youth and Max Tundra, Civil Civic set out its stall convincingly on last year’s single release, ‘Run Overdrive/F*ck Youth’. Now they’ve delivered an album chock-full of dirty instrumental pop, Rules (Gross Domestic Product), which follows through on much of their early promise.
Billy Bragg is one of several artists to have bemoaned the current dearth of politically-engaged young songwriters. Fortunately, some members of the old guard are still ready and willing to stir up trouble, and none more adeptly than Ry Cooder on his career-best album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). A thrilling confection of blues, rock, tex-mex and, on ‘Dirty Chateau’, a kind of existential balladry, Pull Up Some Dust... is nothing less than a state-of-the-Union address to the financiers, war-makers and politicians who Cooder evidently believes are dragging his country to hell in a handcart. Not a duff track, and viscerally recorded by Martin Bradler.
Having retreated from the music world altogether for 12 years from the early ‘90s onwards, the likelihood of Kate Bush releasing two albums in the space of 12 months seemed very remote indeed. But that it is precisely what transpired in 2011. Having issued the glorious double album Aerial in 2005, Bush returned in May this year with Director’s Cut (Fish People) – a reworking of 11 old songs, drawn from 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes, that retained some elements of the original performances while adding new vocals, keyboards and drums. Consolidating the more pared-down aesthetic forged on Aerial, Director’s Cut is sparse, measured and – especially in the extraordinary ‘This Woman’s Work’/’Moment of Pleasure’ sequence – hauntingly beautiful.
During interviews to promote Director’s Cut, Bush alluded to a prospective album of entirely new material. Few would have expected a second release in the same year, but in early autumn Bush confirmed the completion of 50 Words for Snow (Fish People). Released in late November, the album received rapturous reviews – and rightly so. An album of two halves – three long, piano-dominated pieces followed by four more accessible compositions – 50 Words for Snow finds Bush abundantly inspired and in the most ambitious form of her 30-plus-year career. Was there a better song this year than the extraordinary, 13-minute-long third track, Misty?
Strictly speaking an album of 2010 but still making a big impression at PSNE Towers in 2011, Pendulum’s third studio album, Immersion (Warners), offers a further refinement of its infectious electronic rock/drum & bass fusion. Featuring co-writes and guest appearances from Prodigy’s Liam Howlett and Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, the frequently thrilling Immersion captures a band in full creative flight.
Originally released in 1994, Global Communication’s 76:14 (Dedicated/BMG) remains a benchmark of modern electronica. The ten-track ambient-infused album has gone on to influence scores of experimentally-minded musicians, with its landmark status confirmed by several reissues. In 2011, GC’s Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard decided to bring the album back to the live arena, performing most of it as part of the British Library’s Out of this World event. The result was one of the year’s most memorable live shows – and a strong argument in favour of electro-nostalgia.
Other highlights? Well, King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’s Diamond Mine (Domino) contains moments of almost spectral beauty. Laura Marling’s third album, A Creature I Don’t Know (Virgin), confirms her status as one of Britain’s most gifted young songwriters. Gillian Welch’s The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony) is probably the greatest Americana album since the last Welch album – eight long years ago – and was supported by some astonishing live shows. The brilliant Joan As Policewoman (aka Joan Wasser) added a twist of deliciously sultry funk and soul to her fourth studio album, The Deep Field (Reveal). PJ Harvey's award-bedecked Let England Shake (Island) was a haunting evocation of war's immediate impact and memory-traces. Wilco’s The Whole Love (dBpm) contained one of the year’s most startling opening tracks, the Krautrock-infused ‘Art of Almost’, while Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit (Bella Union) channelled the spirit of Laurel Canyon harmony-rock into striking new compositions that somehow never strayed into pastiche.
Compilation and reissue-wise, it’s been another strong year. The Beach Boys finally issued Smile (Capitol) in (more or less) complete form, confirming the validity of its iconic status and adding a wealth of bonus material and studio rehearsals for good measure. The Pink Floyd reissue campaign (EMI) included lavish box sets for The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, collating alternative studio material alongside rare outtakes and illuminating live recordings. Finally, a digital and physical reissue programme surrounding the work of Roy Harper may – finally – earn the much-underrated singer/songwriter his full and just rewards. The uninitiated should start with the compilation Songs of Love and Loss (Salvo), and wonder how anyone capable of writing songs as exquisite as ‘I’ll See You Again’, ‘Another Day’ or ‘On Summer Day’ could ever have been sidelined.
That, in a nutshell, is PSN-e’s pick of 2011 – a year that, despite its many negatives, has confirmed the enduring vitality of the album form. Once again, predictions of its demise have turned out to be rather premature.