BEST OF 2011: 15. Björk – Biophilia

Having initially crept out, bit by bit, via an interactive app, along with a pile of remix 12”s, by the time ‘Biophilia’ actually arrived, it was nice to just sit and play the bloody album. Once you strip back all of the collaborations, soundtracks and remix projects, ‘Biophilia’ is actually only Björk’s seventh solo studio album. Fresh from the throat-singing and beat-boxing of the unfairly maligned behemoth that was ‘Medulla’, and 2007’s ‘Volta’, which sounded like the building of an industrial fridge, it is a relatively straight-forward affair. Although, everything is relative when it comes to Björk, having given the album its name because she thought the word meant “feeling up nature or something.”

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The glorious chiming of custom-built instrument the gameleste – a bronze take on the celesta, in which traditionally steel tune-bars are hit by various mallets – and pipe organs operated by computer programmes ensure that her habit of sounding utterly unlike anybody else remains very much intact throughout ‘Biophilia’. However, for an album so rooted in new technologies and ideas, it sounds beautifully warm and compellingly human. The processional ‘Cosmogony’, with its pitch-shifting brass mirroring lines like “heaven’s bodies whirl around me,” is a beguiling demonstration of her attempts to meld science to nature.

‘Virus’, a love song from the perspective of the “sweet adversary” itself – “I adapt, contagious, you open up, say welcome” – is quite possibly the prettiest thing I’ve heard all year, completely removed from the harsh, squashed and confrontational sounds of ‘Volta’. When the machine-gun beats do break through on ‘Mutual Core’, they’re augmented by a hymnal organ riff and a soaring, unprocessed and unleashed vocal which will leave you breathless. Her capacity for wondrous lyrics delivered in deceptively simple fashion remains: “my romantic gene is dominant and it hungers for union” she intones on ‘Thunderbolt’, as if trying out each word for size.

While much of the fuss around the album has centred on its innovative and hugely interactive app release, this music really doesn’t need any window dressing because it’s as good a collection of songs as she has put her name to in ten years. Having finished the album, Björk decided she wasn’t entirely happy with it as a purely audio experience, admitting that through all of the twists and turns of making the interactive version she had lost sense of the album as a whole. Deciding it needed a bit more bass and a bit more of a low end thud to it, she held up its release and went back to the drawing board. An absolutely remarkable artist, for whom the terms ‘genius’ and ‘unique’ are not journalistic hyperbole but simple fact, Björk is taking music to a place where we should all gladly follow.

BEST OF 2011: 16. Josh T. Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen

It was early evening on the Saturday of Green Man when I entered the Far Out tent, curious to see how an album I’d been increasingly engaged by might translate to the live environment, particularly that of a festival. The “I’m not Iron & Wine” (headlining on the Sunday) riff was a little over-used, although in such a charming fashion that it was hard to find it even remotely annoying and the seemingly spontaneous joke spot was a delight, even if it’s since become clear that it’s essentially guaranteed at every show. But it wasn’t the chit-chat that made the forty-five minute set so memorable. Within seconds of starting, the tent had been hushed and the sheer noise coming from one man and his dextrously played electric guitar was staggering.

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Pearson essentially fades himself in on album opener ‘Thou Are Loosed’, one of the album’s two conventional length songs, much as he does live. The song seems to creep up out of the floor until it surrounds you, the complex strumming drawing you in towards the voice at its core. And then, before you know it, ‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ is underway, picking up on the suggestions of a relationship in its death throes from the previous track. The crisscrossing between religious and romantic concepts is riveting: “You need a Saviour and I just am not him,” he sings, and it’s hard not to feel the punch of every word. The use of silence on ‘Last Of The Country Gentlemen’ is wondrous, often leaving us hanging on every syllable in the awkward pauses which fall after each emotional outpouring. It’s not easy listening and I can see why some people cannot connect with it – it’s every bit as torturous at times as those initial reviews said, but it’s a magnificent achievement.

When some severe and initially rather muted strings creep into ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’, there is a palpable sense of release, broadening the focus a little and airing the room a little. Although any respite is short-lived, with the thirteen-minute ‘Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her’ next up, offering stark, painful lyrics aplenty, not least “Whenever we make love, I’m made sadder every time” and “Don’t ask me what I’m thinking, Honey, you know I cannot lie.” The length of it seem irrelevant but the emotional exhaustion at the end of it is palpable. That it was recorded over only a few days only adds to the sense of one man offloading pretty much everything in his head.

And it’s that sense of offloading that runs through ‘Last Of The Country Gentlemen’ – “And, what little I am able to know of love, I know that it hurts” on ‘Sorry With A Song’ – without really suggesting that all this bloodletting is actually getting the poor bastard anywhere. He’s a genial stage presence but when he’s knee-deep in emotional castration, the look on his face suggests he’s reliving every second. If you’re a sucker for the moments where the sound builds in line with the rising feelings being dredged for the lyrics, then be sure to seek out remaining copies of the vinyl only live release, ‘The King Is Dead’, which offers some sense of the intensity of his live show, coupled with neat examples of that humour I mentioned earlier. At points, these renditions even top those on the album.

For a seven song album (eight if you buy the vinyl – and why wouldn’t you?) it’s lengthy at almost an hour but, just as you don’t notice how few songs he gets through in a live set, time is irrelevant here. ‘Last Of The Country Gentlemen’ doesn’t drag. Indeed, when it finishes, I have to actively fill the gap it leaves. But for my obsession with smart melodies, I suspect this album would be a little higher up the list but I think my reasons for recommending it are clear. Clear your mind of expectations, and clear your diary for an hour, and see where this truly remarkable record takes you.

BEST OF 2011: 17. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

It was one of those occasional Later performances where your ears prick up thirty seconds in, by a minute you’re sat mesmerised on the edge of the sofa and by the end of the song, you’re ordering the album online. The last one I can remember was Laura Marling’s performance of ‘New Romantic some years ago. However, a few months back, it happened again with this duo, during an episode I’d tuned into for a performance from the now rather more established Marling. Stripped back and simple, not massively dissimilar to the album itself, their appearance was spellbinding. This was, in part, down to the visible delight Joy Williams and John Paul White took in performing their songs and also the way in which the pair’s voices coalesced majestically across both their own compositions and a cover of ‘Billie Jean’ that really shouldn’t work, but nevertheless does.

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That’s the first of two songs I heartily recommend by this band which aren’t even on the standard edition of this enchanting album. The second – hey, let me get it out of my system – is another Jackson cover, this time ‘I Want You Back’. Now, this is one of the greatest pop songs of all time and I would, under normal circumstances, suggest any covers would be both unnecessary and exceptionally foolish. I’m looking at you, Devlin. But, this slowed, melancholy reading of the otherwise exuberant track is terrific. Unfortunately, it’s a download bonus track only, so buy the vinyl from your local independent record shop and then shell out the extra 79p to pick up this track, just to feel complete.

The album itself plays on all of the strengths I’ve already picked out, particularly the magical interplay of the two voices. ‘I’ve Got This Friend’ is an absolute gem and, with the most basic of drum thuds behind it, plucked guitar lines and turn-taking in the verses, by the time the chorus comes along with the two voices harmonising, you’ll be floored. Album opener ‘20 Years’ and ‘C’est La Mort’ are delicate pieces accompanied by little more than a touch of xylophone or plaintive piano beside their standard acoustic guitar. They may seem a little slight, but the melodies don’t take long to become comfortingly familiar.

The emotional turmoil of a relationship doomed to failure yet hard to resist is played out emotively in the slow-burning, slow-building ‘Poison and Wine’, featuring the repeated pained refrain “I don’t love you, but I always will.” You’ll probably need to pause and play that one again before carrying on with the rest of the album. When The Civil Wars shift up a gear, they demonstrate their capacity to carve up your cold little heart with the unleashing of just one aching, elongated vowel. While the musical backdrop may only occasionally reach ‘mildly raucous’, the vocals are what ‘Barton Hollow’ is all about, and its title track is a bluesy foot stomper on which both Williams and White soar above the music. For some it will be too delicate, and I would imagine it would be quite easy to dismiss in a ‘forty minute listen at the computer to rant at all my message board, ahem, friends’ kind of way. But if you want to hear something plainly beautiful then come and join the initiated.