Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Year In Retrospect: The Musical Themes Which Have Shaped 2011

When I first set about writing this article, the vision I had was simple; a concise, coherent and informative summary of the past year in music without disappearing up my own backside or boring any unfortunate readers into submission. Alas, by the time I'd discarded my sixth draft, I began to accept that it wasn't possible, and so this long-winded, cobbled together mess was born - precisely the opposite of what I'd aimed to achieve! No one's reading this for the intro, so, without further ado, I present my 2011 retrospective, based around some of the major themes which have shaped the year in music...

Albums Of The Year
1) WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
2. Wild Beasts - Smother
3. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
4. Florence & The Machine - Ceremonials
5. Andrew Jackson Jihad - Knife Man
6. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
7. The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar
8. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
9. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
10. The Horrors - Skying
Debut delights... With the majority of "Ones to Watch" polls being dominated by female singers and synthpop duos, it was somewhat refreshing that a no-nonsense rock 'n' roll band released this year's first great debut album. The Joy Formidable's Big Roar stirred elements of shoegaze, indie rock and grunge into a single bubbling cauldron of noisy anthems, with the end product more than justifying the length of time they spent in its creation. The likes of Youth Lagoon, Yuck and Nicolas Jaar also made impressive bows, but they - along with everyone else that released something in 2011 - were all blown away by WU LYF and their astonishing call to arms Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. Even now, six months on from its release, it's difficult to summon adjectives which can do this record justice. That's not just some phony way of saying how good it is - it is genuinely really difficult to describe, and as such may take a few listens to sink in. Once it does, though, it reveals itself as one of those rare, rare albums which possesses the kind of magic that only a truly special band can call upon, and if you've not yet experienced it's wonders for yourself you're missing out big time.     

Songs Of The Year
1. Manchester Orchestra - 'Simple Math'
2. Florence & The Machine - 'Shake It Out'
3. WU LYF - 'We Bros'
4. The Horrors - 'Still Life'
5.  Bon Iver - 'Holocene'
6.  Foo Fighters - 'White Limo'
7.  Anna Calvi - 'Desire'
8. Andrew Jackson Jihad - 'American Tune'
9. Lana Del Rey - 'Video Games'
10. Little Comets - 'One Night In October'
Girl power... It's no secret that female singers are hogging the mainstream charts, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that they're still doing pretty well for themselves. Bjork, Kate Bush and PJ Harvey's reputations as musical legends have long since been assured, but that didn't stop them from returning with typically brilliant new efforts in 2011, with the latter's Let England Shake being arguably the finest moment yet in her illustrious career. Florence Welch meanwhile struck the perfect balance between sales and substance with her stunning sophomore Ceremonials, while the emergence of Anna Calvi proved that the supply line is far from running dry, with the Londoner's self-titled debut set rich in promise.

Live Performances Of The Year
1. Bright Eyes @ The Sage Gateshead
2. Pulp @ Leeds Festival
3. WU LYF @ Newcastle Other Rooms
4. Frank Turner @ O2 Academy Newcastle
5. The National @ Leeds Festival
6. Letlive @ Leeds Festival
7. The Horrors @ Newcastle Digital
8. Grouplove @ Leeds Festival
9. Frank Turner @ Whitley Bay Playhouse
10. Little Comets @ Leeds Festival
Stepping up... This year has seen plenty of great releases from huge bands such as Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters which have more than lived up to their hefty billing. What struck me the most, however, was the number of bands making the step-up and joining them in the A-League. The most obvious album to pick from this bunch is Bon Iver, Bon Iver, which has rightly made Justin Vernon's crew massive, but there were other rises to prominence which were equally impressive. The Horrors, for instance cemented their place among the UK's best bands with Skying - less than five years after most critics had dismissed them as a substance-free gimmick. Frank Turner, on the other hand, is finally reaping the rewards of his unbelievable work ethic, with fourth LP England Keep My Bones seeing his fanbase multiply like a legion of (friendly) bacteria, and Wild Beasts - while not enjoying quite the same levels of adoration - only enhanced their reputation as one of the most inventive bands around with sensational third album Smother.

Sunderland's Frankie & The Heartstrings
Brilliant indie-pop... For a genre that constantly toes the line between being blissful and infuriating, indie-pop has has a hell of a year. Brooklyn collective Grouplove could, and should, have stole the summer with debut LP Never Trust A Happy Song, but were tragically deprived of that opportunity by an autumn release date. The band that did soundtrack the mid-year months (here in the UK at least) was The Vaccines, but it was in fact two acts local to me who impressed me the most. Newcastle's Little Comets and Sunderland's Frankie & The Heartstrings haven't an original idea between them, but what both are gifted with is a rare ear for a hook which resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the year. If the likes of 'One Night In October' and 'Hunger' don't make you want to dance then I'm afraid you must be brain dead, and I fucking hate dancing.

Flying punk's flag... Andrew Jackson Jihad
Uncharacteristically quiet... Usually the primary sources of volume and chaos, metal and punk have both had a pretty disappointing year. Big heavy releases from the likes of Opeth, Megadeth and Dream Theater all failed to set the world alight, but thankfully it wasn't all doom and gloom. The ever dependable Mastodon did their reputation as metal's frontrunners no harm whatsoever with The Hunter, while melodeath outfit Insomnium unleashed arguably their strongest effort yet in One For Sorrow. Andrew Jackson Jihad meanwhile were left to fly punk's flag with their typically wordy new effort Knife Man, though New York noise makers The Men also excelled on Leaving Home, their second LP in as many years. It'll be interesting to see if they can maintain that momentum when they unleash their quickfire follow-up in March.

Sadly departed alt-rock legends R.E.M.
Coming and going... I'll be the first to say that reunions can be amazing. I've never been that into Pulp, but their headline set at Leeds Festival in August was genuinely one of the best live performances that I've ever seen, and not only brought them up in my estimations but enhanced their legacy as a whole. But they're Pulp; They have Jarvis Cocker, quite simply one of the best frontmen ever, so their return was always likely to be better than most, something which can't be said about musical excrement like Steps and S-Club 7 who have also announced new tours this year. Infinitely more respectable, but no less baffling is the return of The Stone Roses, who announced a series of massive outdoor shows and festival headline slots for next summer. Obviously money talks, so their motives are pretty clear, but I find it utterly bizarre that there's been so much hysteria over the live return of a band who were notoriously awful live. In fairness they also plan to record new material, but let's be honest; it's not going to be very good is it? On the flip side, 2011 has also seen some sad departures, in particular that of R.E.M., who despite their creative demise over the past two decades left millions devastated worldwide with the news of their split.

Currently recording... Frightened Rabbit
On a brighter note... Bright Eyes are staying together! It was widely reported that The People's Key would be Oberst & co's final album, but word that that was a misquote probably came as my favourite piece of news over the past 12 months - especially since they delivered by far my favourite live experience not only of this year, but of any in July. Things are also looking promising regarding the year ahead; new releases from the likes of The Gaslight Anthem, Frightened Rabbit and The National top my anticipated list, but there are also a number of newer acts who could also make waves in the coming 12 months. The two EP's that The Tower & The Fool released this year showcased a group of fabulous young songwriters ready to go places, while hardcore act Love American have also impressed on that format, and should also flourish on their forthcoming long-player. No marks for originality with my most anticipated debut of 2012, though - Lana Del Rey's succession of singles at the back end of this year have been nothing short of outstanding and hint that we may be in for something special when Born To Die drops. Will it live up to expectations? We haven't got long to wait...

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