I like lists. Even a brief browse of the site should make that pretty clear. As a result, read on for the first half of Just Played’s Top 20 albums from the first half of 2011. Where I’ve already reviewed the album in question, there is a link through to it, along with a listen link to Spotify and a buy link through to the marvellous Rise site, who’ll sort you out with the tunes pretty sharpish. Feel free to agree, mutter abuse or supply your own lists below. Right then…
20. Noah And The Whale – ‘Last Night On Earth’ (MERCURY)
I didn’t see this coming. The debut annoyed the hell out of me and, as a result, I came late to their rather lovely, if raw, second outing, ‘The First Days Of Spring’. This is a long way from either and is a record which took some time to learn to love. However, it’s one of the feel-good indie pop records of the year to date and will sound amazing should we get much more sun. Lovely vinyl pressing comes with bonus 7” too.
“‘Last Night On Earth’, however, is the one I’ll be merrily recommending to all who’ll listen and cherry picking for my end of year compilation. Only the ruptured heart of a self-loathing blowhard could find anything to dislike about ‘Waiting For My Chance To Come’.”
19. Wild Beasts – ‘Smother’ (DOMINO)
The bold and sizeable leap from ‘Limbo, Panto’ to ‘Two Dancers’ was an impressive enough feat, but with ‘Smother’ Wild Beasts have honed their craft and perfected their sound. There’s been much talk of Talk Talk in recent pieces about the band and there’s certainly something of the Hollis sound to parts of this album but it’s far from being derivative. Slightly less wilfully and protrudingly pervy than its predecessor, ‘Smother’ possesses a layered and fluid sound and has been produced superbly. Guitar lines are contorted and extended, serving to underline emotions conveyed by the typically forthright lyrics. A gloriously musical album, if that doesn’t sound too stupid, Wild Beasts’ third outing is one which I still think has plenty to reveal, even at this stage.
18. The Leisure Society – ‘Into The Murky Water’ (FULL TIME HOBBY)
The first album resulted in Ivor Novello triumphs and bemused Five Live presenters having to interview frontman Nick Hemming, despite seeming to know nothing about him or his music. While ‘The Sleeper’ featured a number of beautifully constructed songs, it’s on ‘Into The Murky Water’ that they’ve truly blossomed. Although frequently described as folky, this is orchestrated indie pop with an arch sensibility and a raised eyebrow. I’m reminded, and I mean this as a compliment, of some of Mull Historical Society’s finer moments at times and ‘You Could Keep Me Talking’, a ludicrously catchy little tune, is a good snapshot of the album’s joyous sound.
17. Radiohead – ‘The King Of Limbs’ (XL RECORDINGS)
It’s not perfect and it’s not their best. But, that doesn’t make it bad or, to these ears at least, a disappointment. There’s much to love here and the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve warmed to its eight tracks. Wonderful moments like ‘Little By Little’, ‘Codex’ and ‘Giving Up The Ghost’ are enduring delights which all have aspects of the familiar Radiohead approach People seem to be complaining that the band haven’t taken a massive leap forward with their sound and yet eleven years ago there were cries about them failing to do another ‘OK Computer’ and fourteen years ago there were some complaints when ‘OK Computer’ wasn’t another ‘The Bends’. Yep, the band have got familiar with a certain sound but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some wonderful songs here. Forgive the defensive tone of this comment, but I do really think there are some great songs here, some months after all the hype, and, as I said in the original review, people would benefit from switching all desire to judge and simply listening…a lot.
“Once it clicks, you’ll likely find yourself sitting there wondering what exactly it was about it that confused you in the first place. Just like walking down dark streets to find somewhere you’ve never previously been to before only to find the return journey seems much quicker and considerably less threatening, the more full plays you give ‘The King Of Limbs’, the less any of it jars or seems wilfully perverse.”
16. Sarabeth Tucek – ‘Get Well Soon’ (SONIC CATHEDRAL)
Following up a debut which was already no slouch, Sarabeth Tucek’s next step was this utterly beautiful record; a soundtrack to a number of difficult and distressing events, packaged like a late Sixties, cult singer/songwriter album of note. And that’s sort of how it sounds too. Cat Power, Callahan and Karen Dalton fans should all check in here for some wonderfully understated and finely crafted music for the soul.
“It’s the sort of album you’ll tell people about excitedly and buy for the sensitive types in your life. The album’s final lines offer a measured sense of optimism and triumph: “It just takes time, get well soon. I was once just like you, get well soon.” Many great records have been birthed out of traumatic or intense periods of an artist’s life, and to that list of fine albums can be added ‘Get Well Soon’.”
15. The Middle East – ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ (PIAS)
This was a complete punt, having been drawn in by the artwork and its appearance on a couple of record shops’ recommended lists. Parts of it are hauntingly lo-fi, some bits are winningly janglesome and there are occasional moments of genuinely bleak introspection. It makes for a varied and curious early listen and my first impressions were muddled. Whilst at first the fluid approach to genre and sound can make the record seem fragmented, repeated plays give it space to breathe and time to ensnare you. For me, it was a walk in the rain, with the album seeping up from the background to suddenly coalesce into something which has held my attention ever since. I haven’t yet written in detail about ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ because it’s so hard to categorise but I may have to work on that, as I suspect it will be higher up the list when I come to put together the more detailed end of year overview. Hugely recommended, but make sure you give it a few plays.
14. R.E.M. – ‘Collapse Into Now’ (WARNERS)
It’s not perfect and it’s not their best. But, as a long time fan of R.E.M., it was a joyous listen and it is their best since the turn of the millennium. Yes, ‘Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter’ does contain some pretty shit lyrics and, no, I don’t know why there’s that needless reprise at the end of ‘Blue’ either but there are some wonderful songs here and, for the first time in a while, their capacity to genuinely move me is back. The chorus of ‘Uberlin’ is vintage mid-paced R.E.M. while the short, sharp adrenalin burst of ‘That Someone Is You’ is close to melodic pop perfection, departing just shy of the two minute mark. ‘Walk It Back’ is the album highlight and its shuffling, understated delivery is one of Stipe’s finest recorded moments since ‘I’ve Been High’. If you want them to sound like Eighties R.E.M. then move along now and buy the ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ reissue but if you still have time for this band then I would be very surprised to hear that you were anything other than pleased with this largely excellent record.
13. Iron & Wine – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ (4AD)
This album is curiously evocative of snow for me, despite sounding like it belongs in the sunshine. I was reviewing it during the ludicrously heavy snow fall of early December 2010 and, as such, I sometimes forget that this is actually a 2011 release. The cover is, clearly, ace and the music follows suit. While the gentle, lulling swoop of older material is rather less prominent now, Sam Beam’s music is never less than meticulously crafted and deeply affecting. ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Tree By The River’ are both absolute gems and just nudge several other tracks to be the highlights, but it’s a pretty close run thing. The music has smoother edges than on ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ and the Seventies FM radio references in the early press material do make sense, but this is still clearly Iron & Wine and, by extension, tremendous.
“These ten songs ooze warmth, littered with classic rock gear changes, acoustic thrums and shuffling bass but the rhythmic schizophrenia from the last outing still remains intact. Although ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is yet further down the road from ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, it is still quite distinctively Iron & Wine. That said, if early outings left you cold and wishing that there was a little more meat on the bones, then this might be the time to commit some cash for a re-evaluation.”
12. My Morning Jacket – ‘Circuital’ (V2)
Occasionally a song is so good it can eclipse the rest of an album, somewhat. That is the case with ‘Holdin’ On To Black Metal’, a song so absolutely enormous it is impossible to hear on headphones without commencing a strutting swagger replete with the sensation that you are now eight foot tall and completely invincible. It’s a song you’ll play five times in a row, a song with a children’s choir and a song with horn stabs to which you can thrust limbs in an angular fashion. And the rest of it’s pretty special too. Opener ‘Victory Dance’ is a thundering way to begin while ‘Wonderful (The Way I Feel)’ is intimate and positive without ever bordering on being saccharine, despite its title. There’s a cracking 45rpm double vinyl pressing which is the best way to experience such a sonically pleasing record.
11. Bon Iver – ‘Bon Iver’ (4AD)
It was always going to be tough to follow up critics’ choice and all rounder indie sleeper smash, ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ but Justin Vernon doesn’t seem to have struggled too much, on this evidence. While I liked the debut, I grew a little tired of it due largely to the good lady’s borderline obsession with it which ensured it was playing somewhere in the house almost every day for a year. This is a leap on, with a different mood, subject matter and sonic palette. Oh, the saxophone. It’s still relatively early days for this one and I can envisage it getting plenty of plays during hazy summer evenings and slowly becoming as well-worn as its predecessor. It hangs together splendidly and I’m even inclined to forgive ‘Beth/Rest’ its excesses the more I play it. Be sure to check out the cover of ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ I mentioned previously, which appeared as a b-side to first single ‘Calgary’.
“It’s an album which sounds curiously out of time. Which is not to say it is timeless, far from it in fact. ‘Bon Iver’ sounds pointedly dated at certain moments, not least on album closer ‘Beth/Rest’, which has predictably provoked buckets of wrath for its Eighties soft-rock tones. While there are undeniably contemporary references here and there, it has the feeling of a moderately successful record of old, its beauty shining through despite the particular clothes of the time it has come from.”