In No Particular Order // My 10 Favourite Albums of 2011
What a year it’s been.
Having spent most of my adult life writing for and basically running Sputnikmusic, a couple of months ago I decided I had to make a clean break and leave the organisation in my past for good. Money was the main issue at the time, but the time since has taught me just how dysfunctional my professional life had become (through my own fault).
When the time came to submit year-end lists earlier this month, for the first time I found myself struggling for 10 records to fill the quota. It’s not that I haven’t listened to a metric tonne of music this year (I have) and it’s not that it hasn’t been a great year for new music (it has). The fact is that so much of my time this year was spent listening to records once and discarding them. For somebody who loves music as much as I do, it’s an appalling situation to find myself in, and it’s only since I took my editor’s hat off and started being a serious music fan again that I’ve been able to start enjoying myself.
So, with the caveat that I’ve spent the past couple of months gorging on music in an effort to reconnect, here’s a list of the 10 albums that have inspired me the most this year. I won’t present them in any particular order as I don’t have them ranked in any meaningful way in my head – they’re just 10 records that meant a lot to me. There’s a lot more music that I’ve featured on the blog, and a lot that I haven’t, that has inspired me too.
Cian Nugent – Doubles (VHF)
I really didn’t expect to ever be turned on to Cian Nugent’s music. It was a link on Twitter – from whom, I can’t remember – that alerted me to the release of the Dublin guitarist’s album, Doubles. Within a couple of weeks, his music was all over the web, with track premieres on NPR and reviews on Pitchfork. Clearly he’d struck a chord (though the chords in his music are mostly implied) with the international media – and I suspect he won’t be based in Ireland very much longer – though I think Nay‘s review over at Entertainment.ie is more visceral and unpretentious than anything the likes of Grayson Currin have to offer. Cian’s music is at once achingly simple and mind-numbingly complex: simple in the sense that it’s mainly just him and his guitar; complex is the range of styles he brings to bear, from simple blues to middle eastern scales and erringly dissonant folk. Over 45 minutes, it’s one of the most engrossing and moving records I’ve heard in a very long time.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Vagrant)
Let England Shake is kind of a weird record for me, in that it was the first album review I did for a website who had contacted me after I openly criticised them in a blog post. In the end, they turned out to be the kind of people who stop answering your emails once you start asking for money. I guess you can’t win them all. As I wrote: “In contrast to the intensely personal and introspective music that has characterised her 20-year career to date, Let England Shake is a brutal and harrowing examination of Harvey’s native land and the legacy of blood it has built up through the ages. From Gallipoli to Fallujah, Let England Shake is the musician’s answer to a journalist’s war diary.”
Big Monster Love – Game Over (Popical Island)
I somehow managed to leave this album out of my year-end lists and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks kicking myself because, of all the albums I’ve listened to this year, this is the one I’ve come back to the most. I blame my laptop dying a couple of months ago, causing me to lose practically all the music I’d collected this year (lesson – physical copies > digital) and my own failure to buy a copy of the CD (which now appears to be sold out – sadface). I was surprised to see Big Monster Love (aka Cormac McCanney of north Dublin) say that he was perceived as a novelty act. While there’s an element of whimsy to his music, for me it’s as honest and relatable as anything I’ve heard recently. A case in point is my favourite track, closing number ‘Hangover Quay.’ Though, really, any record that mentions a Guns N’ Roses is virtually impossible for me to resist.
Russian Circles – Empros (Sargent House)
You know the saying ‘never meet your heroes – they’ll only disappoint you’? Well, you could equally say ‘never meet a post-anything band because they’ll only be pretentious twats.’ My first and only conversation with a member of Russian Circles left me on the receiving end of a rant about how a particular Sputnik reviewer just didn’t ‘get’ his music. Looking back, I’m inclined to at least be a touch sympathetic as, despite his argument being more than a bit precious, his band does feature members of most of the best hardcore bands ever to walk the planet: These Arms are Snakes, Minus the Bear and the unspeakably fucking amazing Botch. Empros is their heaviest and most accomplished work to date. Perversely, it’s also the one that was premiered in mainstream publication Spin, but there’s nothing timid or compromising about Empros‘s mixture of thumping post-rock with fluid, astmospheric heavy metal.
Darkest Era – The Caress of Light (Metal Blade)
It’s no exaggeration to say that – in terms of musical and commercial achievement – 2011 may have been the greatest year ever for Irish heavy metal, with major international releases from Primordial, Altar of Plagues and Cruachan supplemented by a burgeoning domestic scene featuring the likes of Ilenkus, Gacys Threads and Bacchus (more of whom later). Somewhat against the grain came Darkest Era, playing a fairly traditional form of celtic metal without the bleak black metal influences of Primordial and Cruachan, but with plenty of melody and a vivid rendering of Irish history in tow. They were signed – on A.A. Nemtheanga’s recommendation – to stellar US label Metal Blade and have made impressive inroads in the UK and Europe, though curiously less so in Ireland. I interviewed Ade for the Sun earlier in the year and he had some interesting perspectives on why that was.
Awesome New Republic – New Kids (Ten Thousand Islands)
Awesome New Republic (or ANR as they seem to be called now) have been a favourite of mine for a couple years now, ever since I got hold of their fantastic 2009 album Hearts, and particularly upbeat disco-pop jams like ‘Digital Love’ and ‘Alley Cat.’ Awesome New Republic are unashamedly camp, but what really sets them apart from virtually everybody is the sheer quality of their production – the instrumentation is fantastic, Michael John Hancock’s vocal range is incredible and there’s a leftfield turn in virtually ever song that leaves my mouth agap. New Kids is a little more conservative than its predecessor – though still breaking new ground – and is the sort of album I can, and do, spent hours and hours listening to.
Bacchus – Bacchus (Distro-y Records)
Tying in with my comment on the Darkest Era record, it was actually hardcore/black metal hybrid act Bacchus who were the catalyst for that Irish Sun feature on Irish metal, though I didn’t end up interviewing them for the article. It actually makes me kind of sick that I’ve now missed the Galway crust band playing on my doorstep three times (the next time they play I will literally crush old ladies to get there), but luckily they’re generating publicity far beyond these shores. Like all good metal/punk releases, it’s turning heads all of its own accord on the internet – so much so that my former colleague Tyler Munro recently wrote about them in Canadian magazine Exclaim! alongside the biggest names in the genre.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons (Self-Released)
Another one that I reviewed immediately upon its release earlier this year, House of Balloons is a record that has just grown and grown on me, despite my growing realisation that Abel Tesfaye is a thoroughly self-satisfied moron. It was also my dead cat Claude’s favourite record – some of my final memories of my old mate involve him bopping his head to the sleazy morning-after r&b that makes up House of Balloons. I’d like to think that, as a typical Frenchman, Claude was instinctively sympathetic to the hedonistic longing and existential confusion that makes House of Balloons such an interesting and slightly repulsive listen. RIP old boy.
Butch Walker – The Spade (Dangerbird Records)
Of all the records I didn’t get around to reviewing this year (there are plenty of them), this is the one I feel most guilty about, because Butch is the musician I admire most in this world and he was the main casualty of me falling off the edge of the planet after I left Sputnik. I will write a proper review for this record because it is a properly brilliant record, it has a song called ‘Dublin Crow’ on it that I suspect Butch wrote about my face after I interviewed him here last summer, and it’s been so long since I felt the thrill of writing about music for pleasure rather than money that I feel I owe it to myself. Check out ‘Summer of 89’ for an all-out ’80s metal chorus matched with ’70s rock sensibilities, but for all-round Tom Petty/Neil Young-inspired romp check out the whole album.
Gacys Threads – The Ignorance of Purity (Savour Your Scene)
This is technically cheating since it’s an EP rather than an album, but it made enough of an impression on me that I’m prepared to disregard all sense of order and reason. Last month, I caught the Belfast metalcore act in the Pint supporting awesome proggy Galway act Ilenkus at their album launch and it reaffirmed my view that they’re going to make a real impact on the European metal scene in the next couple of years. I wrote: “The haunting title track is a touch misleading, giving off clear Metallica vibes with a clean minor-key guitar melody before vocalist Aaron Vance encroaches with some tasty deep growls. The rest of the CD is a more brutal affair, leaning more towards the hardcore end of the metal spectrum with some nice Converge-like tempo changes and harsh, dissonant chord chords to counteract the furious riffing.”