Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Albums of the Year 2011

The first thing I notice about this list it felt like effort. Not because I didn't like any of these albums, but because my 2011 purchases have been minimal and after the Top 5, numbers 6-10 was difficult to choose from what was left. Despite this year's purchased collection of older music, I've bought 15 albums from this year. I've listened to a few more on Spotify, but I've been far from my usual keen self for music.

The second thing I notice is my last blog entry here was the Top 10 Albums of 2010. This disappoints me as I love writing, and have been told by a good friend I'm far better at it then I think. It does surprise me that I have offered nothing to the blogosphere, but this is no different to my art output this year. I've simply been distracted by work, exams and trying to have some sort of social life. This will change next year, but I'll change the way I blog, I expect. Possibly a new blog as BTSS seems to represent a younger, less wittier me, so this may well be my last blog here, so enjoy.

10) ANTHRAX - Worship Music (Nuclear Blast)

It's been ten years since Anthrax released their last studio album of brand-new material, and considering the vocalist soap opera in that time, it feels like a miracle that Worship Music ever got made. In the end, 80s frontman Joey Belladonna sorted the vocals out for an album that sits firmly with other great Anthrax records. The familiar stomp of Earth on Hell sits happily alongside the great choruses of The Devil You Know and Fight 'Em Til You Can't. However, it's the slow-burning triumph of In The End that shines this album's light. You can indeed keep your faith in Metal based on this.

Fight 'em Til You Can't

9) MIRRORS - Lights and Offerings (Pure Groove)

This Brighton four-piece named themselves quite appropriately. Throughout this debut, it feels like all four synths are constantly reflecting and amplifying each other. A sense of identity is still being searched for amongst the familiar Kraft-League-OMD-isms, but writing good songs is one hurdle they have leapt with ease. Textured soundscapes underpin the flow Fear of Drowning and Ways to an End. Look At Me and Hide and Seek throw up the necessary chorus while Searching the Wilderness and Write Through the Night show they can master different tempos with confidence. A sparkling debut.

Look at Me

8) OPETH - Heritage (Roadrunner)

The surprising thing about this album was how much it surprised a lot of Opeth fans. Compared to their previous offerings, Heritage is pretty much a full-on Prog odyssey, albeit one with Metal guitars. Considering the scope of previous albums like Still Life and Ghost Reveries, Heritage's bouts of indulgence isn't surprising at all. However, Opeth realise that their strength is still complex metallicisms, hence the likes of Folklore and Slither. But in truth, tracks like Nepenth and I Fell the Dark are no different to the more restrained tracks of their past that dotted past efforts. The fact that one album is full of them should be commended.

The Devil's Orchard

7) WHITE LIES - Ritual (Polydor)

The Joy Division comparisons are probably never going to disappear unless the Ealing trio go all pop-punk on us, so they may as well just carry on with improving the songwriting. Debut To Lose My Life... was good and showcased a handful of classic tracks, and Ritual thankfully has more of them. In Love and Turn the Bells represent a better approach to their mellow introspection but it's when the really let rip that they prove they're a band in the own right. Stranger and Bad Love shine an epic shadow and light respectively, while Holy Ghost storms through at a comparatively frenetic pace to a storming climax.

Holy Ghost

6) AND ONE - Tanzomat (Machinery)

Knowing your strengths is the first key to success in this business, and Berlin's And One certainly know theirs. For fifteen years, they've been very good at being the world's best Depeche Mode tribute band, despite the fact that Basildon's finest changed yearly from 1981. Tanzomat's 2006 predecessor Bodypop rooted itself deep in Depeche's 1983 sound, which seems fair considering Depeche recorded much of their 80s output in Berlin, and Tanzomat follows much the same route. Bodypop's strength was its contribution of the best synthpop tracks Depeche never wrote and Tanzomat has a fair old whack at the same title. It's not quite there, but it passes the exam by a long shot. The hook of Shining Star compliments the slow baroque of Playing Dead but it's the otherworldly throb of The Aim is in Your Head that raises this album's bar alone.

Save the Hate

5) FEIST - Metals (Polydor)

An album title that raised my hopes that Leslie Feist had done a Dave Grohl and recruited Metal's finest into her fold. Not so, although she is covering Mastodon for their split-EP next year. However, Metals abandons the Indie whimsy of 2007's The Reminder and takes its cue from the Chain Gang songs of the Deep South. The likes of Caught a Long Wind and Comfort Me stand head-to-head with any great Blues track of the last 80 years, while How Come you Never go There and The Circle Married the Line lends a welcome sense of familiarity to the proceedings.

Comfort Me

4) LADYTRON - Gravity the Seducer (Nettwork)

The annoying thing about Ladytron is they make this lark sound too easy. Hip digi-electro coolness? Check the first 2 albums 604 and Light & Magic. Melding cool synths with wistful gothic impulse? Hello 2005's Witching Hour. Synth-pop that uses the biggest beats and the deepest bass? Gotta be 2008's Velocifero and this writer's Album of that Year. So what next? Unsurprisingly, Liverpool/Scotland/Bulgaria's finest opted to chill out a bit, as Gravity the Seducer happily drifts the electronic ether. White Elephant and Ambulances prove the notion that 'beats' are not the be-all and end-all of good music, while White Gold and Moon Palace throw up some sinister restraint. One of 2011's more stark and beautiful albums.


3) COLD CAVE - Cherish the Light Years (Matador)

2009's debut Love Comes Close was an assured and intriguing tribute to New Wave's slightly more pretentious artists. There were some great sounds, but too much introspection and experimentation seemed to get in the way of creating some great tracks. And it appears someone told them so afterwards as the 'difficult second album' is anything but. Hurtling in with some unexpected post-punk guitars colliding with some classic synth, The Great Pan is Dead waves its songwriting flag high up before smacking you hard with a killer chorus. From then on, Cherish the Light Years sways and lurches, while all the time, a guitar lines hug synthesizer hooks like the best mates they are. Stand-out track Icons of Summer proves that they can do 'the build-up' as well, while ending single Villains of the Moon is one of 2011's great pop songs. If there's a criticism, it's that the 80s influences are pretty obvious, and it sometimes feels like a New Order tribute album. Luckily, the tracks are that good.

Villians of the Moon

2) MACHINE HEAD - Unto the Locust (Roadrunner)

Ten years ago, Robb's boys didn't paint a pretty picture. Their fourth effort Supercharger seemed to quite happily throw its lot in with the commercial Nu-Metal crowd, to unpleasant results. Realising that their strength was, quite simply, Metal, they quickly found the right path and have increased in muscular Metal beauty since. If you thought 2007's The Blackening was a career-definer, then this follow-up will make you seriously rethink things. Unto the Locust takes all the strengths of The Blackening and distills them into seven massive tracks that lay to waste any claim that seething Metal can't be 'accessible'. Be Still and Know's triumphant chorus would ensure Number One status in some Metal-Friendly Scandinavian countries. This is the End pays homage to both Metallica and Maiden without stealing wholesale while Who We Are borrows the local kindergarten choir to scary effect. All that, plus it would fit on a 45-minute-long cassette side, and that's the best compliment. Metal Album of the Year.


1) LYKKE LI - Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic)

If you had heard Lykke's stripped-down poppy debut Youth Novels, then her sophomore effort may very well had scared the bejeezus out of you. The degree to which she clambered into her own soul and unearthed something quite different is astounding, and Wounded Rhymes frequently astounds. There certainly appears to be almost no instrument that hasn't been used in concocting this stellar album and it wouldn't surprise me to know that steel drum sound was in fact the kitchen sink being hammered.

Youth Knows No Pain kicks off with it's Hammond-Organ hippy riff and rides a classic 'come on' chorus. I Follow Rivers continues the pace before Love out of Lust wists through and steam-cleans the vibes of before. Unrequited Love and I Know Places offer much the same sense of creeping caution, the former as if the Ronettes covered the great Blues artists and the latter a simple strum in the park. But as hinted, the dark overtures rear their head very often with the likes of Rich Kids Blues and Jerome blending typical pop accessibility with an overwhelming sense of introversion. The album's 'low'light, however, is Sadness is a Blessing, the most tearfully intense track you're likely to hear all year, its 'Be My Baby' drumbeat ready to make the hardest of males burst into tears.

The best compliment I can give this album is that it is frequently indescribable. I hope you have as much difficulty. Utterly brilliant.

I Follow Rivers

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Albums of the Year 2010

10) JIMMY EAT WORLD - Invented (DGC)

Following up one of the "Albums of the Year" is going to be problematic, unless you're Jimmy Eat World, where every album holds that particular accolade, leaving the job in hand a simple one: Make another bloody great album. Oh, and what do you know...? As usual, the Arizona songsmiths have avoided the same approach as last time round, this instance being when 2007's Chase This Light sounded like the most uplifting and carefree thing in the world. Traces of that and past vitriols still shine through their crisply-layered guitar melodies, but it's the epic introspection of the title track, Stop and the truly majestic Cut that give Invented its own identity to sit beautifully alongside past glories.

My Best Theory

9) LOSTPROPHETS - The Betrayed (Visible Noise)

Ten years ago, Lostprophets were cited as being the band to outlast their shouty nu-metal peers and manage a couple more albums. Four albums and more Top Ten appearances later, they show no signs of stopping. After a couple of albums of working on both their riffs and their pop nous under the guidance of some big-name producers, the Pontypridd lads have taken everything in stride and done it all themselves, lock stock and production. And it's no surprise that The Betrayed feels 100% like a Lostprophets album, just like the classic debut. What they have now is better choruses (Where We Belong, Dirty Little Heart) and better riffs (Dstryr/Dstryr, Next Stop,Atro City). They may well have certainly sounded arrogant back in the day, but they deserve their "told you so"s now.

Where We Belong

8) VOLBEAT - Beyond Hell, Above Heaven (Universal)

Quiffs + "ELVIS" tattoos + harmonicas = Rock 'n' Roll. It's one of the great universal equations. If there's no Quiff, it's not Rock 'n' Roll, it's that simple. Denmark's Volbeat have quiffs and "ELVIS" tattoos, strangely enough. They also have a wonderful approach to effortlessly fusing together old-fashioned Rockabilly with old-fashioned anthemic Heavy Metal on the likes of the fist-pumping Fallen, the slide-guitar tinged 7 Shots and the pure rockabilly of 16 Dollars. Yes, the subject matter can be as dark as it is light, but the spirit of the record is overwhelmingly triumphant.


7) DEVIL SOLD HIS SOUL - Blessed & Cursed (Century Media)

The key to heavy music's evolution has never been about how brutal a band can make the riffs, but in what can be added to said brutality. Devil Sold His Soul's approach is to couple and underpin their epic, richly layered wall of guitars with such serene beauty. They make the difference between solid and epic and prove that heavy music is just as much music as anything else. Strip away the loud guitars and the core melody of within Drowning/Sinking and An Ocean of Lights could sit alongside any classical opus. The fact that DSHS are still quite young is a testament to their abilities.

Callous Heart

6) SLEIGH BELLS - Treats (Mom and Pop)

It's always worth approaching with caution any new act that has almost every blogger and hip music media outlet salivating, especially when comprised of the male/female duo, a formation also guaranteed to generate lazy comparisons that won't always hold water. You see, Sleigh Bells don't sound like any other duo/band/group/combo. They do, however, sound like the High School Marching Band following a sadomasochistic orgy with the Cheerleaders in the band room, and the likes of Tell 'Em, Crown on the Ground and A/B Machines are the catchy stains that won't wash off the guitars or keyboards.

Infinity Guitars

5) FREEZEPOP - Imaginary Friends (archenemy)

Despite synthpop's firm grasp of the catchy chorus during its original early-80s heyday, it still, for the most part, retained that icy, gloomy exterior. Nowadays, it seems that every band revelling in this glorious era are focusing on the colourful optimism that could be found in a select few bands. Freezepop represent this magnificently, with their fourth album breaking off the cautious shackles of previous effort Future Future Future Perfect and just dropping hook after hook with scant regard for your earworm tolerance. Choruses? Freezepop have abducted the definition of the chorus and locked it inside their keytars. Lose That Boy, Magnetic and the title track perfectly recall an era when pop music sounded as if it was offered up by intergalactic alien cyborgs as opposed to rusty robots from the Cowell Corporation production line.


4) IRON MAIDEN - The Final Frontier (EMI)

Thirty years after their debut album, and Iron Maiden entered the UK album chart at Number One with this, their 15th effort. That in itself tells you all about this extraordinary band and their devoted fan base. It also tells that you that, unlike their peers from that era, Maiden will never stagnate, will always try something they haven't before, and will never make an album that sounds like their previous one. Oh, granted, they know what they're good at, but they'll always keep you guessing. As such, The Final Frontier moves away from the bombastic grit of A Matter of Life and Death and, like its sci-fi baiting title suggests, travels down a more space-age highway. The likes of El Dorado and the almost balladic Coming Home positively soar, but it's Isle of Avalon and Starblind that really shine. The former rides a gentle guitar line before a massive chorus takes off through an epic prog bank that Rush would be proud of, while the latter provides the almost-orchestral soundtrack to being stranded on some desolate planet in tandem with some alien riff. Proof that Iron Maiden will continue to live long and prosper.

The Final Frontier

3) THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN - Option Paralysis (Season of Mist)

Option Paralysis is a fairly inappropriate album title - there's absolutely nothing paralytic about this monster. Dillinger continue to rip through any straightjacket with violent abandon, twisting and spasming in every conceivable way possible. Blast beats stop-start with stuttering hammerhead guitars while Greg Puciato's vocals lurch from hellhound shrieking to lounging cabaret. This is no un-easy listening classic, though. DEP continue to suggest that if they were left alone to write a pop album, they bloody well could. Sure, the tuneful aspects of Farewell, Mona Lisa and Endless Endings are tempered by tracks such as Chinese Whispers, a mainstream rock song masquerading as a psychpathic loon, and Widower, which veers from a piano-led croon into a climax of epic proportions. It's also one of the best tracks you'll hear all year.

Farewell, Mona Lisa

2) KYLESA - Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist)

The key to great Metal bludgeon is not always in the actual riff itself, but what surrounds it. The bands that perfect the dynamics and diversity within their sound are those that become legends and from here on, Kylesa could well join those ranks. Their Georgia, US background explains their assured take on the Southern-flavoured doomy sludge-metal that they've made their own on the previous four releases. What Spiral Shadow does is focus on those more atmospheric and melodic moments they'd merely visited in the past, making the likes of Cheating Synergy and Forsaken such an addictive proposition. While other bands try to be too clever with their time-signatures, Kylesa recognise that it isn't always appropriate, and sometimes something as basic as speeding up or slowing down works just as well when need be. They joy of this album is highlighted by the midway-twofer of Crowded Road, wherein the dual-drumming is complimented by several monolithic hooks and a line pilfered from Egyptian Folklore, followed by Don't Look Back, which could be the most twisted accessible Pixies track ever written. If Mastodon decided to give up their crown, Kylesa would be more then deserved successors.

Tired Climb


Great art isn't about just reaching into the soul of the person experiencing it, it's about lifting it up and transporting it elsewhere, placing it firmly in another town, another world, another dimension. But the artist has to THAT good, THAT assured of their craft. Crystal Castles' self-titled debut released two years previously filtered through a glut of electronic sounds pilfered from knackered samplers and video game arcade sound-cards and proceeded to astound fans and journalists alike. What this second effort does is lose some of that carefree abandon and focuses on the atmosphere that they occasionally touched on beforehand. Celestica and Baptism may sound like standard rave fare initially, but they begin to unravel into something far more soulful than the average HedKandi number. Doe Deer collides a hardcore punk drumbeat with a demented siren call while Birds violently pulses on the back of a classic electro rhythm. Empathy and Violent Dreams lose themselves in a concentrated mass of vocoded breaths and samples. The album's highlights come in Year of Silence, which lifts a vocal off one of Sigur Ros's more jaunty numbers and morphs it into the basis of a form of dark hypnosis, while Vietnam singlehandedly combines everything that they've done so far into five minutes of glorious wonder.

Speculating over what the next album will sound like is nothing short of pointless. It wouldn't be beyond an unrealistic realm to suggest they ditch all their equipment and go down a more aggressive punk route and still sound just as otherworldly. What we do know is that Ethan and Alice are one of the world's "perfect couples" when it comes to memorable music. Here's
to another self-titled album.

Not in Love (feat. Robert Smith