Top 40 For 2011

TOP 40 FOR 2011

These lists are always fraught with indecision and much gnashing of teeth and chewing of nails. I’ve come to accept that for me the results can never be final – just a tentative conclusion at a point in time. This is especially true if there is a ranking order, something I have resisted in the last few years, however, this year I decided to put my head on the block.

This year marked the release of the second full length album from the Seattle-based Fleet Foxes which seems to have disappointed many. Some have said the band hasn’t moved on, while others held the view that they haven’t repeated the same gorgeous flowing melodies of their debut. I think it is a brave album. The band chose not to attempt a repeat of the stunning debut but produced a more intensely personal work, harking back to and drawing from some of the English folk tradition of the late 60s and early 70s. It heads up my list as I probably derived the most pleasure listening to it, more so than any other album this year. I think it’s an album that will grow in stature in the coming years and will be regarded as a classic in decades to come.

Gillian Welch follows closely behind with a haunting, traditional, perfectly formed album. It’s a work which blends beauty and despair perfectly and is performed by the two most accomplished acoustic musicians around.

Jonathan Wilson was a serious contender for album of the year with a lengthy album of startling quality – a debut of the same strength as last year’s Dylan Leblanc. Not only does he draw from the Laurel Canyon tradition but, aside from the obvious David Crosby references, he also reminds me of Gene Clark. The final song even has a hint of Neil Young.

Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs both appeared on each other’s albums and ended up neck and neck in the list although their albums are very different. Kurt Vile is a fresh sounding folky rock, while the War on Drugs is dense rock, sometimes reminiscent of the Verve.

Okkervil River produced an album of astonishing quality and variety which may well be their best record yet, albeit far less accessible than their recent efforts.

PJ Harvey, this year’s critics’ darling (particularly in the UK), produced a typically eclectic effort with an album inviting various interpretations, capturing the recessionary times (both economical and moral) but always quintessentially English. Ry Cooder also sung about the hard times from an American perspective.

Radiohead began this exercise rather lower on my list but as I recently engaged more fully in the album its brilliance quickly seeped into my consciousness. The band continues to push the boundaries of avant garde rock with their complex and experimental approach to their work, which still retains a soulful feel.

The releases from both My Morning Jacket (which I initially felt was rather weak) and The Drive-by Truckers were other albums that grew stronger in my estimation having given them a lengthy break. Early disappointment was washed away when hearing them afresh months after release.

It’s amazing how expectations can shape one’s initial impressions of an album. If one could only approach each and every album completely neutrally with no prior knowledge of an artist’s prior work it might, in many cases, allow one to form a better appreciation of the work in its own right.

Most of Bon Iver’s second album was good, revealing some variation and growth from his sparse debut, however, the last song is so appalling, recalling Bruce Hornsby produced by David Foster, that I could barely include it in the top 20.

Laurie Levine produced a sparkling and highly accomplished album of folk and Americana with an ambitious but hugely successful cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.

Albums that I enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut were Lilo, Thea Gilmore’s daring cover album of John Wesley Harding (some tracks are very impressive such as her version of All Along the Watchtower, while others are less so), the return of Magazine, the Dum Dum Girls, Arboretum and the indie band Hunx and his Punx (Soft Cell meets the Shangri-Las).

Amongst the albums I didn’t get a chance to hear properly, or in at all, that may have made the list were the Unthanks, TuneYards, Black Keys, Baxter Dury and Gang Gang Dance. I chose to omit two debut albums from singer songwriters that I am too closely tied to, emotionally and financially, both of which I strongly recommend you check out. The one is from Brendon Shields’ Truth and Recession from Bethlehem (South Africa, that is). Brendon is an artist whose writing recalls the insightful simplicity of, dare I say, Townes van Zandt.  The other is Wreck and the Mess from northern Michigan artist Scotty Alan, whose voice and songs are strongly suggestive of jay Farrar.

On the reissue front, aside from the obvious choices of Smile and Lifes Rich Pageant, amongst many others, my favourite was the double CD release of Chore of Enchantment – what I consider to be Giant Sand’s best album.

Without further ado and no further comment, here’s the list –

1 – Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes *

2 – The Harrow and the Harvest – Gillian Welch

3 – Gentle Spirit – Jonathan Wilson

4 – I am Very Far – Okkervil River

5 – Let England Shake – PJ Harvey

6- The King of Limbs – Radiohead

7 – Smoke Rings for my Halo – Kurt Vile

8 – Slave Ambient – The War on Drugs

9  – The King is Dead – Decemberists

10 – C’mon – Low *

11 – Bad as Me – Tom Waits

12 – Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down – Ry Cooder

13 – The Go Go Boots – Drive-By Truckers

14 – Metals – Feist

15 – Circuital – My Morning Jacket

16 – Smart Flesh – The Low Anthem

17 – Bon Iver – Bon Iver

18 – Last of the Country Gentlemen – Josh T Pearson

19 – Celebration, Florida – Felice Brothers *

20 – Demolished Thoughts – Thurston Moore

21 – Freak Flag – Greg Brown *

22 – The Whole Love – Wilco

23 – A Creature I Don’t Know – Laura Marling

24 – Riptide – Beirut

25 – Smother – Wild Beasts

26 – Motswafrika – Hip Hop Pantsula

27 – I’ll Never Get out of this World Alive – Steve Earle *

28 – Eleven Eleven – Dave Alvin *

29 – High Atmosphere – Diana Jones *

30 – Here We Rest – Jason Isbel

31 – Six Winters – Laurie Levine

32 – Nothing is Wrong – Dawes *

33 – Blessed – Lucinda Williams

34 – Apocalypse – Bill Callahan

35 – Kiss Each other Clean – Iron & Wine

36 – Ashes and Fire – Ryan Adams

37 – Skying – The Horrors

38 – 50 Words for Snow – Kate Bush

39 – The Majestic Silver Strings – Buddy Miller *

40 – Wooden Shjips *

*I have an interest in the success (in South Africa) of the albums marked with an asterisk as they are distributed in SA by MIA.

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