music / Columns

The Album Of The Year, Every Week: 2011

November 2, 2015 | Posted by David Hayter

Four weeks into our trawl through music history and we’ve already reached a year that feels foggy and distant. 2011 is still familiar enough territory, memories of great gigs and festival experiences quickly come flooding back, but it’s hard to recall a single album that defined the year.

Now, before we delve too deeply into the sounds of 2011 I ought to bring the first timers up to speed. In this column I (David Hayter) will be going back through music history one year at a time to discover my all time favorite records from 2015-1960 – the one’s that truly mean the most to me as a person. In the process we’ll revisit the sounds and trends of the past discovering how opinions have evolved and how well certain works have held up.

If you want to catch up before reading this weeks edition, click the links below:

-2014

2013

2012

Now let’s try to figure exact who and what captured the imagination in 2011.

Welcome To 2011

There was only one name on the world’s lips in 2011: Adele. She dominated the world with a sound that was timeless in its sentiments, but built on an utterly modern sense of intimacy. Blending soul, pop, a dash of folk and plenty of brass lunged balladeering, Adele’s sophomore LP stumbled upon a sound that could unify young and old, artful and mainstream. Indie clubs where happy to drop “Rolling In The Deep” and “Rumour Has It” into the mix while “Someone Like You” outsold every other single in sight.

It’s worth reflecting on Adele’s achievements. Her astonishing pan-Atlantic success came at a time of genuine panic for a music industry. New stars were not being made, album sales were in the toilet and conventional wisdom suggested that the days of the global uni-culture were at an end. Adele confounded the doom-mongers and naysayers: with the right combination of personality, vocal talent and songwriting, the impossible could be made manifest. No gimmicks, no raunchy videos, no multi-millionaire tours, just one lady, a songbook and a knockout voice.

So know we’ve tackled the biggest story of 2011, let’s take a look at those end of year lists:

My List (Published Dec 2011)

1. On A Mission by Katy B
2. House Of Balloons by The Weeknd
3. Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls
4. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
5. James Blake by James Blake
6. Space Is Only Noise by Nicholas Jaar
7. Section.80 by Kendrick Lamar
8. WHOKILL by Tune-Yards
9. Bon Iver by Bon Iver
10. The Harrow And The Harvest by Gillian Welch
10=Tragedy by Julia Holter

The Critic’s Choice (Via Metacritic)

1. Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down by Ry Cooder
2. The Greatest Story Never Told by Saigon
3. Bad As Me by Tom Waits
4. Undun by The Roots
5. No Devolucion by Thursday
6. The Wonder Years by 9th Wonder
7. Celestial Lineage by Wolves In The Throne Room
8. House Of Balloons by The Weeknd
9. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
10. WHOKILL by Tune-Yards

It’s quickly becoming apparent that 2011 was a year dominated by micro and not marco trends. The best new music came from the arty corners of the music industry. Glaswegian noisenik and king of the warehouse scene Rustie made revolutionary waves with his debut album Glass Swords – a maximalist call to arms that would change the face of pop, hugely influential but still largely unknown.

Artists like EMA and The War On Drugs found ways to make the old new by exploring the distorted fringes of guitar music. “The Grey Ship” and “Your Love Is Calling My Name” suggested that a new wave of ambitious alternative music lied in wait. It may have left me cold, but we’d be remiss if we discussed guitar music in 2011 without mention The Black Keys. El Camino proved that Brothers was no fluke; the lo-fi duo were now platinum hitmakers and future festival headliners.

 

2011 is one of those impossible years, there are so many artists who deserve a mention, but so few who actually grabbed the world by the scruff of the neck. Jamie xx entered the world’s consciousness by remixing Gil Scott Heron’s work while Carrie Brownstein reasserted her relevance with Wild Flag’s excellent and unexpected debut. Both were brilliant, but neither truly captured the world’s attention – Jamie would have to wait four more years to have his name on every clubber’s lips and similarly 2015 would see Carrie re-find fame with her oldest friends.

St. Vincent, The Pistol Annies, Destroyer, Wild Beasts, Ice Age, Fucked Up, Tim Hecker, The Beastie Boys, Thrice, Colin Stetson, Polar Bear Club, Kurt Vile, Frank Ocean, Fiest and hell even Drake all released albums that amazed critics and rewarded fans, but together they speak to no singular scene, no sense of unified progression. 2011 was a cobbled together mess of brilliant music where each individual obsessive could feel wholly satisfied, but completely isolated from the experience of his fellow music fans.

 

It’s worth reflecting on The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons and what would eventually become the trilogy (three free mixtapes). Abel Tasfaye has a magnificent voice and, before he realized his pop future lied in channeling Michael Jackson rather than obtuse misogyny, the Canadian R&B starlet was focused on one thing and one thing only: having mind blowing orgasms while sky high. His debut is a lurid world of hypnotic lurching beats. Abel’s worldview is blurry, images of sensuality and excess slip in and out of focus as he leads an array of lovers by the hand into this murky underworld. The album’s sub-aquatic beats would hit hard and, unlike so many of his PBR&B peers, he didn’t forget to bring the five star hooks along for the ride.

Picking a favorite album from 2011 is incredibly tricky; sublime, challenging music was not in short supply, and yet, looking back; it’s increasingly difficult to plump for just one LP. Nicholas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise is a dislocating listen: ill at ease, off center at all times, but surprisingly smooth – displaying a flair for subversion at the fringes. It’s not the sort of album that demands repeated obsessives listens, but when you choose stick it on, it will not fail send shivers shooting down your spine.

Similarly Bon Iver’s eponymous masterpiece has fallen out of favor with my ears, the insular beauty of this wood cabin creation remains intact, but, for whatever reason, it has failed to lure me back. PJ Harvey’s reflection on England at war remains stellar and I stand by what I said at the time:

Let England Shake is one of the great British records. Playing directly to the English psyche, our history of violence, and the post-war European intellectual tradition Harvey has created a seminal record. One that is at times terrifying, with its use of ghastly imagery and its unflinching assessments, but is always serenely light in its delivery. Harvey sings “England’s Dancing Days Are Done” on the albums title track, and while that may be the intention, this record is anything but maudlin. Let England Shake is a vibrant shimmering pop record complete with inescapable, albeit macabre, hooks. This is the sound of an artist pushing herself emotionally, artistically and intellectually; creating something that feels both poignant and original.”

…but like so many worthy records – even one as colorful as this – it’s hard to love Let England Shake with a sense of friendly intimacy. It remains the immaculate academic tome that might change your way of thinking, but will never replace your favorite novel. A similar fate befall Tragedy by Julia Holter (a stunning work so tenderly voiced that it escapes the pitfalls of a mere intellectual exercise). The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch was, by some distance, the best album released in 2011 that I’ve heard performed live, but it never stood a chance in this article for one simple reason: it’s no longer on Spotify or Apple Music and I couldn’t honestly claim it as my favorite record if I have no ability to listen to it.

So at long last we are circling the wagons and approaching an incredible tough choice. Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 can be dismissed, he has gone on to bigger and better things and the thrilling potential of the collection, while undeniable exciting, now feels uneven. As for Girls’ final LP, I don’t have a single bad word to say about it, but does not get the nod.

So then there were two – so who will it be?

On A Mission by Katy B

&

James Blake by James Blake

Favorite albums are often rooted to a time and a place. Nothing can capture the imagination quite like seeing the city you live in, the city you love, spitting out a burgeoning spark that would, slowly but surely, set the whole world a flame. Dubstep is a dirty word in many circles; a dualistic byword that represents both the epitome of hipster obfuscation and the depths of brain dead, artless, bro culture. This is the unfortunately legacy of a sound that came from the long besmirched heart of South London and changed the face of dance culture globally, and would, somewhat unbelievably, have Coldplay dancing to its tune within a decade.

First and foremost, Dubstep in its original form was intensely insular, faintly aquatic music that spoke to dangerous walk homes in the silent, still, blackness of night. This was a post-club sound, walking through the council estate with your headphones blasting, but even the coolest beats couldn’t keep out the eerie night air. From the spectral streets that Burial inhabited came a minimalist sound which embraced emptiness; big thudding slabs of bass would ring out from the void like siren calls. Try to imagine a crowded sweatbox in Brixton bouncing to the sound of silence as dislocated electronic sketches were brought to life by the lockstep thud of bass.

The summer was over and I was back at university in 2009 when Benga & Coki’s “Night” started to slip onto the nation’s playlist. Imagine going to a student bar, even today, hearing all the mainstream hits and then having this gem dropped into the mix. No one knew how to react, this was an outside invasion, the thrill of the new had arrived. Over the next two years Dubstep would develop into a mainstream force; first carefully crafted into club conquering machine, then dumbed down into the brash and bolshy sledgehammer that eventual conquered America. It took just three years for the genre to go from Burial’s “Archangel” to Flux Pavillion’s “I Won’t Stop”. The atrocities of Bro-Step beckoned, but first, the UK most progressive minds had a stab at moving the scene forward.

 

Post-Dubstep arrived in 2011 on the back of three names, each with a distinct vision. SBTRKT offered the least deviation blending softened, but still ghostly beats with the emerging sounds of a new generation of soulful Brits (notably Jessie Ware and Sampha), but his work didn’t quite go far enough.

James Blake and Katy B both moved things forward in distinct and daring ways. Katy B, a young woman raised on 90s dance and R&B, pre-empted a nostalgic lurch that the music world is still in the grips of. On A Mission was informed by the ideas of the past, but sounded utterly modern. Employing cutting edge production by Benga and Zinc she masterfully married London’s electronic past to its present; creating an album that spoke to a rich lineage while wholeheartedly embracing modernity. Taking a lead from Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, Katy B played the role of the true to life girl-next-door, coloring her songs with personal flourishes and presenting the world with the image of a girl in love with the dancefloor.

Beholden only to the beat, dancing with the lights on and sharing a moment of anonymous seductive synchronicity with a “Perfect Stranger” – Katy B, perhaps unwittingly, penned the truest love letter to the UK’s club culture I could ever imagine. Every track thrives in the first person. This is not referential music designed to be admired at arms length, Katy wants to her audience to bounce, groove, grind and scream for a rewind.

Stacked with an implausible number of potential singles (“Power On Me”, “Katy On A Mission”, “Why You Always Here”, “Witches Brew”, “Movement”, “Broken Record”, “Lights On”, “Easy Please Me” and “Perfect Stranger”) Katy’s debut remains a joy to this day. Yes, despite its slick incorporation of the UK’s past, On A Mission has already aged, but that fits perfectly with the London’s electronic tradition from Garage and Grime all the way to Post-Dubstep and Maximalism. Britian’s superstars on a shoestring have always thrived by wholly inhabiting the moment, safe in the knowledge that the eccentricities of the past will sound thrilling wonky for generations to come. Like Prince in the 80s – who cares what a kid in 2015 will think? – when there’s coke to be snorted and a dance floor to decimate.

Finally a word on James Blake’s eponymous debut, which took post-Dubstep in an entirely different direction. Derided at the time as the sound of drunken pub singer warbling away his worries beyond the patience of even the most kind hearted listener, his album continues to invite ridicule. Blake rejected easy superstardom. This bedroom wizard could have cranked out “CYMK” knocks off on a conveyor belt and owned the London club scene for a generation. Instead, he decided to get lost in depressive loop.

The same stubborn thoughts echo around a landscape rich in silence and space that remains, somewhat inexplicably, claustrophobic. Snatched sentences and plaintive cries rebound and resound endlessly; pricking and stinging, offering the singer songwriter a torturous death by a thousand subconsciously inflicted cuts. James Blake is destined to drive away his potential saviors with his continued cries and his inability to move forward, but in many ways that is the point. His debut album is a slow unraveling, from a the tender beauty of “Unluck” and “The Willhelm Scream” to shivering misery of “To Care (Like You)” and “Measurements”.

It’s painful stuff held together by visionary and utterly unexpected production choices. To this day, I can’t quite comprehend Blake’s decision to sculpt “I Mind’s” illusively hypnotic beat and let it drift away in an understated transitional moment. It’s brilliant and poignant in its own little way, but symptomatic of an album determined to stifle.


Right, because I found it so tough picking an album of the year for 2011, I better pick up the pace and waltz through the singles:

My List (Published Jan 2012)

1. Swim Good by Frank Ocean
2. Vanessa by Grimes
3. 1+1 by Beyonce
4. Bax by Mosca
5. Video Games by Lana Del Rey
6. Gabriel by Joe Goodard
7. Palace by A$AP Rocky
8. High For This by The Weeknd
9. Quantum Leap by John Maus
10. Gucci Gucci by Kreayshawn

2011 was a big year for tracks: “Space Is Only Noise” by Nicolas Jaar (No.11), “Niggas In Paris” by Watch The Throne (No.12), “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator (No.13), “212” by Azealia Banks (No.15) and any number of songs by Adele, Drake or Jamie xx could easily have slipped onto this list – but let’s reveal the winner.

Vanessa by Grimes

 

The very definition of coin flip: Frank Ocean’s tale of misery hiding in plain sight remains poetic in the extreme. “Swim Good’s” suicide/baptism allegory creates the stunning vision of a car crashing into the ocean in one grand theatrical act of redemption. Vivid imagery aside, Frank’s lyricism is crafty in the way it paints the materialism we associate with Hip Hop culture as a fallible suit of arms designed to hide what’s going on inside. But, today, in this moment, I’ve decided to trade Frank Ocean’s suicidal visions for Grimes’ dreamworld.

“Vanessa” was my introduction to Claire Boucher, aka Grimes: a pixie sprite of a popstar who so sincerely and energetically commits to her every artistic whim that she transcends the trappings of knowing hipsterdom. She could not have hoped to make a better first impression. Grimes’ gorgeous sonic miasma has become ubiquitous now (we expect looped vocals and warped effects to disguise clever beats), but back in 2011 “Vanessa” was a shock to the system.

Like a ray of angelic light descending from the heavens, the track feels lighter than air. Grimes skips weightlessly atop the beat, caressing her own multi-tracked harmonies like an immaterial wisp, rapidly hurtling down the rabbit, tying her listener ever tighter in this phantom mesh.

Despite creating this dream like state, “Vanessa” is actually concerned with a very human and very discernable ache: starting in a place of desolation (“Oh, I’ve been waiting desperately/ And my heart is here right next to me/ And I’m caught waiting in the rain”) the track builds towards a chorus that feels like a triumph, but might simply be an admission of defeat (“hey hey wanna play, well baby I can go and go/and every other day you’re running off with so and so/And, baby I would throw you if I didn’t know you, but I’m paying for it”). A serene lightness of touch and a heavy heart, what more can expect from a pop song?