If you’re still not sure what music you should have been listening to over the past twelve months, Cormac Duffy is here to bring you up to speed before the year is out.
Now that the end of this calendar year is upon us, Otwo is proud to offer you its list of the best albums of 2011. We tried our best to aspire to some sort of objectivity, aiming to mention the albums that were not only musically brilliant in their own right, but left a significant impact on the music world in one way or another. Each record is coupled with other releases from the year that we believe compliment it. Whether you’re using this list to catch up after living in a cave for the year, to nostalgically reflect on the year that was, or just to rage at our poor choices, we hope you enjoy it.
Adele – 21
Love her or hate her, 2011 was all about Adele. She transcended whatever boundaries of taste remain with stripped down, proudly old fashioned soul that appealed to your grandparents as much as your hipster friends. In doing this, she single-handedly kept the music industry afloat. While others pushed for ever more superfluous bells and whistles, 21 excelled in its simple nature as a break-up album of neatly arranged, melodically ornate tracks that showcased one of the greatest pop voices going.
– Also Recommended: Beyonce – 4, Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Altar of Plagues – Mammal
This Cork black metal trio perfectly captured the genre’s crossover success this year. Frontman James Kelly wails with a desperation that stirs the soul, over a dynamic mix of seething aggression and down-tempo moments of post-rock tension. In a typically bleak moment, they build the outro of ‘When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean’ around a tormented widow’s mourning song. Her voice is pulled apart by the growing distortion of the track, turning to a fragmented noise. It’s a microcosmic segment of a record of degradation and decay that still manages to find a poignant, resonant beauty.
– Also Recommended: Krallice – Diotima, Ulcerate – The Destroyers of All
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon, the isolationist heartbroken woodsman turned renowned collaborator of Kanye West, pulled out the big guns for this art-folk opus. His sound, once about sparseness and intimacy, was now lush strings and brass, intricately precise movements and impressionist lyrics that pine for something that feels just out of sight. It’s a work of unforgettable moments, from the opening military snares of ‘Perth’ and the breath-taking arrival of the brass on ‘Towers’ to that shocking first chiming electric piano note on the retro-minded closer ‘Beth, Rest’. Vernon has clearly left the cabin for a place much stranger and much greater.
– Also Recommended: Bill Callahan – Apocalypse, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Clams Casino – Instrumentals Mixtape
A collection of tracks originally made for the likes of Lil B and Soulja Boy, it was astonishing to see the aesthetic that New Jersey bedroom beatmaker Mike Volpe had developed in its unadulterated entirety. Smooth basslines, ambient chillwave-eque synths and chopped Burial style vocal snippets formed a mixtape that came across premeditated in its consistency. Beginning in obscurity, Volpe ended the year justly tipped as hip-hop’s next big thing, all due to the epiphany of these thirteen tracks.
Also Recommended: A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP, Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine
Death Grips – Exmilitary
Even in a year when the weirdness of rap seemed boundless, Exmilitary’s noise-punk-rap fusion was still an outlier. MC Ride delivers violent, paranoid rhymes with blunt aggression like the bastard son of El-P and Chuck D. Hella drummer Zach Hill and a secretive crew of co-workers manufacture a brutal backdrop of screeching noise
(‘Guillotine’), guttural bass bursts (‘Takyon’) and samples pushed a mile from their source. Regardless of whether anyone follows, Death Grips have contently cut a path that is truly their own.
– Also Recommended: Tyler the Creator – Goblin, Prurient – Bermuda Drain
James Blake – James Blake
Taking his cues from the headier, darker end of dubstep, Blake wrote a debut album that revelled in extremes of silence and noise, pedalling seemingly conventional songs warped away from the listener’s comprehension. His voice gave the album a richly expressiveness, whether heart-wrenchingly clear on ‘Limit to your Love’ or pushed to sonic extremes on ‘To Care like You’ and ‘Lindisfarne’. Rather than just carving out a niche in the dubious ‘post-dubstep’ scene, Blake found an altogether new approach to making pop.
– Also Recommended: SBTRKT – SBTRKT, Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Polly Jean’s latest was a record without peers. Over sinister, anxious, folk-inflected backgrounds, Harvey weaves a narrative that mourns the decline of a civilisation, whilst telling the tale of the brutality it engages in. In harrowingly vivid depictions of trenches, destroyed lands and dead comrades, war and its atrocities haunt the album. It takes a singularly fearless aspiration to confront these issues, and an immense talent to pull it off with such grace and empathy. A record truly for the ages, particularly the violent one we dwell in.
– Also Recommended: Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones, Björk – Biophilia
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Only Annie Clark could write an album of songs that are this immediately lovable without sacrificing any artistic depth. Armed with a sharp wit and a distorted guitar,
Clark wrote songs that existed only through her unique vision. The disco pulse of ‘Cruel’, the quiet/loud paean of ‘Dilettante’ and ‘Surgeon’s seam-bursting chaos all came wrapped in dazzling hooks as well as cryptic lyrics. We may never know the full story of the dirty policeman or the coach from her youth, but with this range of tones and textures, we will end up returning until we do.
– Also Recommended: The Antlers – Burst Apart, Wild Beasts – Smother
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
It became an oft-quoted truism that thirty years after punk broke, in 2011, everything broke. Leading the charge for genre-blurring maximalism was the sophomore effort of lo-fi ingénue Merill Garbus. A proud ethnomusicologist, she pushed boundaries both sonically and culturally. Layered world rhythms, avant-pop instrumentation and Garbus’ own manic vocals form the foundations for the staggering heights of tracks like ‘Gangsta’ and ‘Bizness’. Hyperactive, but also controlled, it is ten tracks of eccentric excellence.
– Also Recommended: Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact, Rustie – Glass Swords
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
There’s little that can be said about Abel Tesfaye’s overture to his masterful trilogy of releases that hasn’t be said before. Its atmospheric, brooding slow jams fused R&B to minimalist, reverb soaked passages and big groove-heavy hooks. Tesfaye’s smooth vocals delivered lines of excess, indulgence and regret that placed him in a long line of morally questionable but impossible to ignore lyrical protagonists. House of Balloons is a blueprint for an emotive and lovable approach everyone can learn from.
– Also Recommended: Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra, Drake – Take Care