George East’s Top Ten Albums of 2011

by George_East on January 1, 2012

The last 12 months were not a vintage year for music by any means.  However, what I found when going through the albums I had bought this year and listening to them again for the purposes of compiling this list, is that while there were not many great albums, there were plenty of  really good albums.     Although no album grabbed me  in the way that John Grant’s brilliant debut, The Queen of Denmark, did in 2010, I think overall the sheer number of good albums released in 2011 made it a better year overall.

Before we get to the list and the nearly made its, there were some disappointments.  The Arctic Monkeys followed the mediocre  Humbug with the only slightly better Suck It and See – it looks increasingly like Alex Turner should have stayed in Sheffield.  There were also sadly forgettable albums I was looking forward to by The Low Anthem (Smart Flesh), Okkervil River (I Am Very Far), The Felice Brothers (Celebration, Florida), Bonnie Prince Billy (Wolfroy Goes To Town) and, for my money at least, Bon Iver (Bon Iver) (though this at least may be as much because other than the Fleet Foxes debut, his first album For Emma Forever Ago, is my favourite of the last 5 years and was always going to be a tall order to follow).

Amongst the albums I really liked but that didn’t quite make my list were:   Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire; Metronomy – The English Riviera; Kurt Vile – Smoke Rings For My Halo; Wilco – The Whole Love; Feist – Metals; Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down; Bill Callahan – Apocalypse; Low – C’Mon; Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow; Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, Mirror Traffic; The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time; Jeffrey Lewis, A Turn In The Dream Songs; Drive-By TruckersGo Go Boots and J Mascis, Several Shades of Why.

Oh and one last thing.  I still don’t understand The Horrors.

Any way back to the all important list….

1. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

Eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, Gillian Welch returned, overcoming an extended bout of writer’s block, with her finest album since her masterpiece  2000’s landmark Time (The Revelator).   It is  an album of stripped down country folk songs with just Welch and her long time collaborator Dave Rawlings, over guitar and banjo, and the occasional harmonica and hand claps.   The songs sound as timeless as those on the Fleet Foxes’ debut.   Songs that have not so much been written as found.

It is hard to believe listening to these extraordinarily beautiful songs rooted in the Appalachian traditions of blue grass and old time music, that Welch is a New Yorker educated in California, rather than from the mountains of Tennessee or Kentucky.   They exude rural southern America.   Every song on the album is superb – Scarlet Town, Down Along the Dixieline, Tennessee and Six White Horses are personal favourites.

My only question is why on earth Dave Rawlings doesn’t get equal billing – he  co-writes, co-performs the songs and produces the album to boot, but Gillian Welch is the only name on the front of the album.

2. Josh T Pearson – Last of The Country Gentlemen

If Gillian Welch went missing from the music scene for 8 years, that pales compared to Josh T Pearson.  Back in 2001 his band Lift To Experience, released one double album, The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads and then disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.  That album sounded like nothing else around – a country rock cycle of songs apparently foretelling of the second  coming of Christ in Texas.   It was as bizarre and scary as it was compelling.

A whole decade later, Lift To Experience’s front man Josh T Pearson released his debut solo album.  The cover looked like he had just returned from a spell as a hermit saint in the desert and walked straight into a rock album shoot – Pearson with a beard of biblical prophet proportions kneels in front of a woman naked from the waist up and sporting a cowboy hat.

The album consisting only of 7 songs with Pearson and a guitar exploring themes of love and addiction, infused with the biblical imagery found on the Lift To Experience Album.  The long and slow songs use the language of redemption, sacrifice, damnation and salvation to produce an intense listening experience like no other in 2011.   Highlights: Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ, Sorry With A Song and Honeymoon’s Great, Wish You Were Here.

3. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

The consensus critical favourite of the year (winning album of the year in Uncut, Mojo, the NME and The Guardian) was Polly Jean’s tenth.  The accolades were deserved, it is certainly at least her best album since her first two: Dry and Rid of Me, though this was, compared to those, not an immediate or easy listen.   The album taking its influences not from PJ Harvey’s usual sources (the blues), but rather First World War Poetry and English folk songs, explored wars then and now, imperialism and the state of the nation in 2011.   An album which grows richer with each playing.

4. My Morning Jacket - Circuital

For the first time in I don’t know how many years a straight out rock album makes my annual top ten.  I was beginning to think it was me outgrowing the form rather than the truth of it: that there simply haven’t been many good rock albums released in recent years.    Circuital saw Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket return to the sounds that made their name with their first four albums after the misfire that was their last album, 2008’s funked up Evil Urges.   The sounds of classic early 70s southern rock with a spacey/psychedelic overlay using echoes, delays and repetitive beats.   Jim James’ vocals had an otherworldly and addictive quality that meant  that this album was on repeat when I first bought it.

5. Jonathan Wilson  – Gentle Spirit

My favourite new discovery of 2011 was a California based singer songwriter who recorded songs in the great early 1970s Laurel Canyon tradition.   This is an album heavily influenced by Harvest era Neil Young, Jackson Browne and Crosby Stills and Nash.   You can hear the California sun shine through the stunningly gorgeous guitar playing, with Wilson gentle at times almost whispered vocals over the time.

6. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Laura Marling is only 21 years old and yet she writes songs with the emotional sophistication of Joni Mitchell.   She is a startling talent.   Her third album showed a greater confidence and musical sophistication than her excellent first two albums, weaving the earlier Sandy Denny and Jacqui McShee (Pentangle) style folk sound with a jazzier mid 70s feel. The songs are heartbreaking but real.

7. King Creosote & John Hopkins – Diamond Mine

Scottish folk singer Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) teamed up with composer of electronica and cough cough former Coldplay collaborator, Jon Hopkins, to produce the most surprisingly brilliant album of the year.   Consisting of only 6 songs and an introductory instrumental, the album is a concept album about life in a Scottish fishing village.  The songs, dealing with growing older and loss, have an empathetic beauty and sadness that draws you completely into its world.

8. Beirut – The Rip Tide

New Mexico’s Beirut released their third full length album in 2011.  It is by some way their most poppy and accessible, but without losing any of the sounds that make them such a distinctive band.  This is a band which draws heavily on folk styles, particularly those of North Africa, Mexico and Eastern Europe.   Whereas their first two albums wore those influences on the sleeve, The Rip Tide is content to use those influences to its own ends.   This is an indie band full of confidence and an album which is a joy to listen to as a result.

9. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Probably the most eagerly awaited second album since the Arctic Monkeys or The Strokes.    When a band releases a debut album which has such a huge impact on the music scene as the first Fleet Foxes album, there is a risk that the follow up will be either a repeat of the first or damp squib of a stylistic change.  Robin Pecknold fell into neither of these camps, releasing a far more personal album than the band’s debut, if not as sublimely beautiful.  Helplessness Blues particularly in its title track and Montezuma showed a band still growing in ambition and with the capacity to have its best work ahead of it.    Where other bands have fallen flat, the Fleet Foxes soared.

10. Richmond Fontaine - The High Country

Willy Vlautin remains the most novelistic songwriter this side of Tom Waits.  The High Country was Richmond Fontaine’s tenth album and for my money their best since the brilliant, Post To Wire. Like that album, The High Country tells a tale of blue collar America – Arlene, the wife of a logger who can no longer work because of an accident, gets a job in an auto parts store falls in love with a mechanic and runs off with him.    It is filmic and beautifully rendered.  It starts evocatively with the spoken words: ‘I’m just fucked Arlene, I don’t have any guts’ and after that, how can you not stay for the ride.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth January 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

I was going to give you a good talking-to for leaving Cooder out of your list but (a) these things are intensely personal and (b) I’m still undecided about “Dust” myself. So I’ll content myself with thanking you again for introducing me to Gillian Welch, and wondering if you have ever heard either of these:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTGIkkxikxI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qWEmnNJyao

Both are from older albums, but both artists did have albums out in 2011 which I just haven’t gotten around to listening to.

My main interest these days, though, is jazz. I reckon you’re the right age, George, to be introduced to it gently! So I’ll post again shortly…

Reply

George_East January 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Thanks for this, Mike and apologies for the delay in replying. I hadn’t heard of either artist to my shame. I really like the Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald track – political delta blues. Terrific stuff. As you may have picked up from my song picks, I am a huge fan of most roots music. I will check out more of his stuff.

I have to confess I struggle with jazz, though I have some in my music collection. I find it difficult to get over its self-indulgence. When I read that the youtube clip was a jazz pianist covering a Pink Floyd song it sounded to me like the potential for my own personal musical hell – as the most self-indulgent musical style meets one of the most self-indulgent rock bands of all time. My younger self would have probably thrown something at my computer for having the temerity to play it (ask Ray or Jackie). As you rightly said, music is such a personal thing. (Having said that once I got over my well-developed prejudice against this kind of thing, it wasn’t so bad).

On the Ry Cooder album, as I said in my post it did make my shortlist and if the my Top 10 was picked on cover art alone the wonderful photographs on the sleeve would have made it a shoe in. I think as an album, though it has some wonderful tracks on it, for some reason it doesn’t really cohere.

Reply

Mike Killingworth January 2, 2012 at 10:23 am

Just about my fsvourite jazz album of last year (edging out Keith Jarrett’s “Rio” which I won’t subject you to – just yet) was from Brad Mehldau, doing a piano duet with Kevin Hays, “Modern Music”. Definitive jazz piano, but perhaps not the place to start, so try this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDePf5kQJxk

Next, jazz guitar, where I have to start with two Yanks, first Pat Metheny (playing Lennon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYcZ6s3z1jg

.. and then The Man himself, Bill Frisell, who has so many styles one clip could never do him justice, but here’s one anyway (another Lennon tune, as it happens):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4zfcezGg0s

And then there’s what I think of as “Baltic Jazz” (Scandinavia + Poland) which is hardly known in this country, which is definitely our loss not theirs. But perhaps I have taken up enough space already…

Reply

Ray_North January 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Mike – your comment that George has reached an age where he needs to be introduced to jazz is far and away the most incisive comment anyone has ever posted on this site!!

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