The end of every year is filled with top ten lists, a canned story about champagne and a certain amount of sentimentality. In the spirit of that, these are seventeen records I really enjoyed this year, each with a short summary of my thoughts.
Bon Iver — Bon Iver
From a Wisconsin log cabin to woking with Kanye West, Justin Vernon made an significant cultural leap in the last few years. Bon Iver separated the band from the reputation they’d built with For Emma, Forever Ago without removing what is quintessentially theirs. Mellow, beautiful and haunting, Bon Iver’s latest effort is just so.
Ego/Mirror — Burial & Four Tet feat. Thom Yorke
Burial and Four Tet have previously collaborated, and each has remixed a Thom Yorke song. The three working together produced just two eight-minute songs, but they’re both tremendous. Ego sounds most influenced by Burial, whereas Mirror edges closer to Four Tet’s sound, but both have the immediacy and depth of their distinct atmosphere mellowed with the addition of Yorke’s falsetto, hushed vocals.
Neverendless — Cave
I must confess that I’ve only listened to Neverendless twice in full. It’s exquisite, but like fudge, it’s hard to consume great amounts in a single sitting. Curious noodling combines with drones to produce something like Wilco, The American Analog Set and Brian Eno in a blender. Strangely satisfying.
Instrumentals — Clams Casino
Clams Casino’s mixtape is as significant as DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… was 15 years ago. Both were produced using similar plunderphonic methods, but whereas DJ Shadow used physical records acquired from the dusty depths of his local store, Clams Casino chose Limewire and arbitrary searches. In many cases, he wasn’t even aware of the song he was sampling from, but his collaging of these pseudonymous sounds is fascinating. A tremendous listen.
Cults 7″ — Cults
I chose Cults’ EP rather than the full length because I think it’s a tighter group of songs with far less filler. The EP has their poor-pun-intended cult hit Go Outside, along with two other playful, lo-fi songs. Very simple, yet supremely joyful.
Looping State of Mind — The Field
Super simple, often unbelievably repetitive, yet satisfying in the same way that the Caves record is. Warm-feeling chill-inducing tracks lay here. Can something this deep have such an ostensibly opaque surface? Whatever it is, it works.
Nostalgia, Ultra — Frank Ocean
The new king of smooth hip-hop is here. This is another mixtape on the list, yet it’s ever so good. Novacane is probably the most recognisable track from the album, but it’s all worth a listen. Bitches Talkin’ and Songs for Women is a sly, witty and elegant one-two punch. The former features a sample of Radiohead’s Optimistic, with a woman grumbling about Ocean’s repetitive over-playing of it, and in the latter, Ocean relents that his women can listen to whatever they want. Since I also have that choice, I’ll keep listening to this record.
Deep Politics — Grails
A few years ago, post rock became the thing that every new band was doing. Very few did it well, but nobody’s done post rock this well or this cooly for quite some time, likely because Deep Politics isn’t strictly post rock. It’s a molten, ever-changing mix of a wide variety of influences, culminating in an exciting, fizzing kind of record.
Watch the Throne — Jay-Z & Kanye West
I know, I know: Watch the Throne isn’t the revolutionary, game-changing record everyone was predicting. But it’s an hour-and-a-bit of fun. It’s grotesque, ostentatious and vulgar, sure, but it’s so self-aware that those attributes are almost a benefit. There are a couple of filler songs, and I didn’t care for Niggas in Paris as much as everyone else did, but it was one of my favourites from 2011 because of Otis. In under three minutes, Jay and Kanye spit verses back and forth like the most amazing rap battle you’ve heard. Other notable tracks include No Church In the Wild and Illest Motherfucker Alive, the latter of which is probably the closest rap has gotten to sounding like it’s been dipped in gold, covered in diamonds and served on a bed of caviar.
Destroyed — Moby
Destroyed has, unfortunately, the usual three or four throwaway songs that are standard for just about all Moby records. But somehow they make more sense when the record is listened to as Moby recommends: very late at night when almost everyone else in your big city is asleep. It is a record of the night, of loneliness and isolation, and yet doesn’t sound dreary. On the contrary, it sounds hopeful and excited. That is until you get to Stella Maris, which is probably the point where you will start remembering those you’ve loved and lost. But all is mended in your heart with the arrival of Lacrimae a short time later. Give solitude a spin.
Days — Real Estate
As if you didn’t already have enough sixties-throwback indie pop in your library, Days was released this year. It’s a really great interpretation of the genre, if nothing spectacularly original. It’s worth a listen on a lazy Saturday, when the sun is shining and with a glass of iced mint tea. For some reason or another, that combination works well with this record.
Inni — Sigur Rós
Sigur Rós released their first live album this year, yet it was also their second performance film. These guys are known to eschew the conventional approach and forge their own path. I’m a massive fan of live records, as they often allow subtle details and nuances in an artist’s music to surface. Inni is a spectacular double disc performance, showcasing the band’s career so far in a most intimate way. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hear it’s also excellent.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Three hours of a sparse tundra-esque soundtrack spanning three discs shouldn’t be listenable. For some reason or another, this is. It is Reznor’s signature sound, but it isn’t Nine Inch Nails, nor The Social Network. It is its own entity. Like Inni, I haven’t seen the corresponding film yet, but with Fincher, Craig and Mara, it can’t go wrong, especially not when aided by such a haunting, cold soundtrack. If you don’t want three hours of atmospheric soundtrack, at least grab Karen O’s cover of Immigrant Song, and the other cover, Is Your Love Strong Enough?, as performed by Reznor’s other band How to Destroy Angels. It’s the right thing to do.
Within and Without — Washed Out
Cute and charming as only Washed Out can do, Within and Without is also essential for that proverbial lazy Real Estate Saturday. I didn’t find it to revolutionise Washed Out’s past work, but it builds on that history with a delicate balance. Warm and engaging like so many records this year, but with a suave sense of style few can match.
House of Balloons — The Weeknd
What would you do if you had a voice like Michael Jackson’s at age 20? You’d make one hell of an R & B record. I did a full review of the Weeknd’s Balloons trilogy and as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed all three. But House of Balloons is still the strongest and is still the one I reach for. I can’t wait to hear what happens next.
The Year of Hibernation — Youth Lagoon
What do you get if you bury vaguely nostalgic lyrics and tinny bedroom recordings under gobs of reverb? You get most modern indie pop, actually. Youth Lagoon chose this well-trodden path, but his effort is one of the better ones. Astonishingly simple production with the requisite Tumblr-ready artwork? By the indie pop playbook, yes.
Conatus — Zola Jesus
Sounding kind of like the music of Nine Inch Nails hooked up with Florence and the Machine, the latest Zola Jesus record is a triumph. Supremely engaging and dangerous melodies combine with ethereal vocals and smothered in echo. The result is strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.
If you can’t grab all seventeen of these records, you should at least collect the following playlist. Songs are available on iTunes or, in the case of The Weeknd and Clams Casino, in a free mixtape.
- Svefn-G-Englar – Sigur Rós
- Hikkomori – Zola Jesus
- Novacane – Frank Ocean
- Before – Washed Out
- Afternoon – Youth Lagoon
- Municipality – Real Estate
- The Curse – Cults
- Towers – Bon Iver
- Adam Roberts – Cave
- Ego – Burial & Four Tet feat. Thom Yorke
- After – Moby
- Otis – Jay-Z & Kanye West
- Loft Music – The Weeknd
- Corridors of Power – Grails
- Motivation – Clams Casino
- Then It’s White – The Field
- Is Your Love Strong Enough? – How to Destroy Angels