Top Two Albums of 2011

by Steve

Man holding record proudly, in record shop.

It’s what you’ve all (not all, maybe some, probably none) been (maybe, maybe not) waiting for! My albums of the year! I would provide a full sentences of convoluted reasoning for coming up with these picks, but I realise that you’ve probably had enough of all that from me for now. So, in short: I liked these albums more than any others released in this calendar year.

2. Smoke Ring For My Halo – Kurt Vile

In the White Boy Alternative Rock firmament it seems like murk is a pervading recording technique and ethos/pose. The standard nineties murk found in lo-fi of course had some aesthetic qualities, but was basically a consequence of people recording on shitty equipment. Come 2011, pretty much everyone can produce something with some degree of half-decent (if not hi-) fidelity, for very little money – should they wish to.

The murk now feels very much like a definite and deliberate stance. It may be an attempt to distance oneself from digital developments, or a quest for authenticity. If digital clarity lacks soul, then is a cheap analogue recording a shortcut to soul?

Smoke Ring For My Halo coverThen what of those who use digital means to create that classic lo-fi, murky sound? Perhaps it is based in nostalgia, trying to trigger some long-repressed/forgotten feeling. Maybe the murk is another instrument, a tool. It adds a particular texture, or feel, to a track that a clean recording would lack. The sound of a song can be just as important as the sound itself.

Of course, the suspicion is that the murk is there to hide the song’s, or performers’, shortcomings. So, it is a relief when interesting artists step out of the murk and are still as compelling, or perhaps even more so. Ariel Pink achieved the transition from home-recorded-murk to proper-studio-effort last year, and this year Kurt Vile made the leap just as successfully.

Smoke Ring For My Halo showcased a great songwriter, singer and guitarist. Yet beyond that, it set a mood throughout. There might be a clarity of sound, and a heap of reverb, but it doesn’t sound sterile or calculated. Kurt Vile pulls in all these folk and blues tropes, yet manages to sound like nobody but himself. I’ll be listening to this one for a long time yet.

1. Slave Ambient – The War on Drugs

And on to Kurt Vile’s old band…

I like their older stuff, but this really was a huge leap forward. I kind of feel that an album of the year should either be a bit of an Event Record (if those even exist anymore – a discussion for another time) or should feel like a genuine progression musically (ideally generally blowing the music world apart – not that ever really happens anymore, but y’know – to change the whole scene or whatever, but in reality either a progression from an existing band, or a new sound coming from a new band). Someone carrying on with the same-old, same-old won’t make my number one.

Slave Ambient coverSlave Ambient isn’t without its influences. You can spot the shoegazing stuff, the seventies German motornik rhythms, the classic rock Springsteen-isms. There are parts that sound uncannily like mid-period The Verve. But what makes it really interesting as a record, and gives it longevity, is that it combines all these influences into a coherent whole and sounds more of itself than of its influences. I’m not convinced many other bands pulled this trick off as well this year.

A beautiful, brilliant album – and it certainly sits together as an album, rather than a bunch of individual tracks, showing there is still life for the longplayer in the midst of the iTunes track-at-a-time-shuffle-shuffle world.

These were easily my top two of 2011, and seem to compliment each other pretty well. Now, should you feel inclined, why not tell me yours?

Top image from Affendaddy, via Flickr

Record covers from the artists’ websites. I’m hoping they won’t mind too much.

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