I love a good musical smartass. Be it Prine or Newman or Wainwright, someone who can have a clever turn of phrase will always get me. Rarely do they come with such optimism, and in the frame of a 24 year old woman.
This album is a delight. It just brings a smile to my face, line after line. There’s a girl here who knows who she is, and doesn’t pander to the pop market now, and reaping success because of it. She’s so cool I want everyone to know her. Someone with something to say that isn’t just about her.
Follow Your Arrow has been getting a bulk of the acclaim. If you aren’t bowled over by the opening couplet then this probably isn’t for you. If you do, then you will find more sweetness in My House and Silver Lining. There’s a beating heart under all this too – closer It Is What It Is cuts to the core, but in a clever way too.
Being clever is not often rewarded, and it’s not what this album is about. There is a sweetness and an optimism that seemed to be missing in all other music I heard this year. And it’s not banal, brainless happiness. In fact, it’s the smartest album of the year.
1. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart
Broken people can get better if they want to.
This has been a terrible year, one of the worst. Music played the least role in my life than any year I remember. And there was only one record that I returned to time and time again for solace. When you love something so much that just listening to it makes you feel better, like the drag of a cigarette.
I’ve never really been one for sad music. This is one of those escape-your-sadness albums. It’s an age old rock n roll trope – our lives can be better (yeah!) but given a new set of clothes. The fact that Turner is around my age helps.
The album opens with Recovery, a plea for help but also something stirring, moving out of the fog. Throughout are thoughts on the fleeting nature of life, seizing every moment and all that jazz. Polaroid Picture and Losing Days are other highlights.
For Turner, it’s a slight change from his last album. It’s more a love story, and the piano is now an integral part of his sound. The songs are just about the strongest his ever written, and it’s now my second favourite of his after Love, Ire and Song.
But it’s my favourite album of the year so more about me. Artists are people who teach you something, who see the world in a way most people do not, and then captures that lightning and shows it to you. In a depressing, confusing, frustrating year, this album and this man taught me more than every other album this year combined.
In the end, life is a fight, but a good fight. And I’m thinking of getting my first tattoo.
6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones (Xtra Mile)
This, and the next 5, all swapped and changed for number one. As I re-listen to this album to write this, I just feel like this is a perfect record by an artist at the very top of his game. I started my year watching him at the Annandale. He’s finishing it playing Wembley Arena. That’s quite a year Frank Turner has had.
It’s part Clash, parts Bragg, but all brought up to date. He is the only musician today who has anything interesting to say about the themes of punk (ok, maybe Craig Finn) – but he long ago left the shackles of punk behind. This record is his most eclectic – mixing up folk, gospel, power pop and more.
Line after amazing line, idea after amazing idea. The straight-to-the-point-ness of ‘I Still Believe’ contrasts ‘Glory Hallelujah’, a gospel song celebrating the lack of God. It’s all about believing in the right things.
The other big thread in this album is England. The idea of home, and writing about England, is all over this record. “Wessex Boy”, the a capella “English Curse” and “Rivers” do for England what Springsteen did for Jersey. “If I Stray” seems to sum up both halfs of the record quite nicely.
7. Gillian Welch – Harrow & Harvest
8 years? For this? That’s almost a year a song. It probably says more about how amazing their sounds and songs are that in 8 years away, they are still the top of their game, despite many duos popping up and trying to fill the gap. It helps that they always sounded out of time.
It really is business as usual. Even the nice left turn of drums found on 2003’s ‘Soul Journey’ has gone. Rawlings is still one the best guitarists of his generation. The songs are dark and spooky. Their voices still sound great.
So yeah – more of the same, but that same is still pretty special. “Dark Turn Of Mind” is a highlight. ‘Hard Times’ is perhaps the sweetest thing they’ve ever done. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 8 years for more.
8. Leader Cheetah – Lotus Skies
Only one Australian album made my top ten this year. Probably my fault – I wasn’t really paying attention. (And I don’t put mate’s records on these lists, so that discounts a couple….) And amazingly – it’s from Adelaide!
They fit quite clearly in the world that My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Beachwood Sparks and the more experimental rootsy stuff lives. A long, lonesome voice out front recalls Neil Young. But this is far from retro postering. The record is amazingly modern.
And it’s epic. Huge guitars. Big choruses. Clever arrangements. All tied down by that slide guitar. I don’t know why everyone makes a fuss over bands like Boy & Bear, who sound like wannabes, when we have great original country indie rock right here. Oh well.
One of my faves – “Our Lives”
9. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See (Domino)
I just like this band. According to Last.fm, out of all the albums from 2011, I’ve listened to this one the most. So they’ve lost none of the magic for me, although I am aware that people have kind of written them off.
In parts it’s almost fun. It’s pretty much the most pop the Arctic Monkeys have ever been. There’s nothing to prove now, and they are just kicking out tunes that interest them.
The first five tracks are just back to back radio hits (in another world). I’m guessing Turner just craps out 3 minute rockers this good all the time. Clever riffs, great lyrics – it’s all there, and never boring. As usual, there are a couple of pretty ballads on here – Piledriver Waltz is the best amongst them.
It might not have the highs of a ‘Crying Lightning’ or something as straightly gorgeous as ‘Cornerstone’, but it’s a sharp consistent record throughout.
10. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What (Decca)
Every year a really old guy seems to sneak into my top 10. The Dylans and Youngs and the like. 5 years ago it was Simon again – with his fantastic, Eno-produced, ‘Surprise’. That 2006 album was a lively return from his worst record to date (2000’s ‘You’re the One’), and that reinvention continues. Interesting sonics, electric instruments, but a return to songs over rhythm.
On ‘Surprise’, Simon made a concious decision to abandon love songs (no one wants to hear about an old guy having sex, he said), and write about bigger things. God has returned to his song writing in a big way. Big meaning-of-life songs that recall ‘America’, or ‘Sound Of Silence’.
The best song of the lot, the one that has been getting quite a bit of attention, is “Questions For the Angels”. Just a beautifully plucked guitar, and the amazing image of a pilgrim walking over the Brooklyn bridge, and pondering at Jay-Z on a billboard.
At times funny, at times beautiful, we now have a roadmap for the fourth phase of Simon’s career, and the return of a great songwriter.
So part two of our two part round up of the year’s best albums so far.
Some other things to note about the year. I am sticking to the album format for these lists, even though my favourite song this year is by far (BY FAR) Think You Can Wait by the National, from the soundtrack to Win, Win. Also the EP by the UK band the Mummers, Mink Hollow Road, which found the strange meeting place of Todd Rundgren and Judy Garland.
But this list is about album, and a couple have really let me down. Voluntary Butler Scheme followed up their charming debut with an album that sounds like a tape player getting stuck. Nonsense, sampled drivel. The Danger Mouse led project ROME was similar. When did albums become about space to meander nowhere? The glow of a new REM album evaporates faster than ever. Bell X1 and Beady Eye both made average albums. Panic At the Disco is right back to being shit.
But lots didn’t make this list. Wagons. Those Darlins. Miles Kane. The Del McCoury Band. Elbow. Yuck.
Anyway – here’s five more that did.
1. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth
This came out of nowhere. I own both previous N&TW records, and spent some time with them. The last one was a bit boring, and I figured that would be it for me and this band. Then I saw that brilliant album cover. It’s the best album cover of the year. Cool, urban, hip, stylish, modern and classic.
And the record is something special. It’s like a dancier version of the Velvets. Every track is fun and goes somewhere. Huge hooks and sounds great. And that thing I love most – that sense that music can save us, our lives can be better, that life is to be lived. The Clash had it, You Am I have it, the Replacements have it, etc. And they’ve tapped into it here.
It is a real step up from their last one, which was a depressing drag. This album is about stepping up and enjoying every moment.
2. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
I have loved Frank Turner’s music for the last few years. It’s right up my alley – Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Springsteen. But he is also my age and around now. Singing about hipsters and Thatcher and not knowing anyone who plays slide guitar – made it mean a lot more to me than ghosts of protest singers past.
His new album is as good as anything he’s ever done. Hugely anthemic and all about believing in music and us. There is absolutely no irony here. Take the single “I Still Believe”, which under lesser hands would seems cringeworthy.
Frank Turner is fucking awesome. Punk rock for now people. It seems I keep going back to this stuff, and when it comes to this stuff, Frank Turner is pretty much the best there is.
3. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
Another band I already loved. The press have been calling this album a mix between their last two Humbug and Favourite Worse Nightmare. It’s kind of true. There is the stoner rock riffing of their last album, with a bit more of the pop hooks that made them chart toppers in the first place.
But it’s a RAGGED record. It’s loose. Some of the tight, sudden arrangements from the last two records are gone. It’s their most throwaway pop album. Maybe it’s because Alex Turner has turned into a more conventional songwriter. Maybe they are just having fun (I mean, with that title and cover…)
So, I miss some of those jagged corners. But what is there is brilliant. And once again, there is a lot of sex on this record. And Turner has not lost his way with words.
And in the end, the slow songs are best. Love Is A Laserquest, Reckless Serenade and the re-recorded Piledriver Waltz (originally on the Submarine Soundtrack) shine brightest. Some really pop moments. It’s what pot will do to you. I wish they would try and piss people off again, but they are allowed some fun.
4. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs
It’s no small feat to make a 16 track album with barely anything but a ukulele and Eddie Vedder’s singular voice and not make it sound samey. Instead it sounds really lovely. Who knew you could do this with just a ukulele?
In the right hands the ukulele is a very pretty instrument. Seems like Vedder has the right hands. Songs like You’re True, Without You and Satellite a touching ballads. His songs tend towards the torch song tradition, using interesting and dramatic chords to break things up.
Then there are a couple of belters. How do those strings not break? Can’t Keep never lets up. Some well chosen covers – Sleepless Nights, Dream A Little Dream – add to the casual air. And though it’s 16 tracks, it’s less than 35 minutes all up.
It’s a dreamy, nostalgic record. I imagine festival campfire singalongs will go mad for this stuff (unfortunately). But I’ve just kept going back to it over and over again this year. And I give him credit for doing something low key and left field rather than a shit, chart topping solo album.
5. The Damnwells – No One Listens To the Band
If this was 1999, the Damnwells would be friggin huge. OK, not huge, but they would have a couple of huge singles and probably fall away like the Gin Blossoms, Buffalo Tom or Semisonic. It’s the space they fill – earnest, straight and slightly needy college American rock.
It’s almost retro their sound. But it’s great – if you loved that stuff. And I did. Something very sad sack about it, inevitably about or directed at pretty women with broken hearts, dashed off with that Springsteen escapism I love so much.
So much rock fun to be had (with a lilting sadness, or course). The single Werewolves. I can’t even type the title She Goes Around without that wonderful chorus echoing through my brain. Most beautiful of all is the Great Unknown with the obligatory ballad side getting a go. Another most excellent, solid record adding to a solid discography.