Friday, December 30, 2011

we would chase ourselves until the sun forgot to shine

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

3. Snow Patrol - Fallen Empires (bedshaped)

For me, Snow Patrol have always been a consistently good band. The brilliant Eyes Open was a particular favourite of mine, being responsible for the wonderful ballad that was Chasing Cars and the gorgeous Set The Fire To The Third Bar. I have to admit, I think I’d kinda written them off as a good band, but a band that would never amount to anything near what they deserved. A bit like how I felt about Elbow, before they exploded, got over-exposed and produced a piss poor follow up to one of my all time favourite albums.

In my opinion Snow Patrol have smashed it this time. This really is a great, great album. They usually fare better with their ballads, and even though they have the lovely Lifening, the stunning The Garden Rules and the radio-play smash This Isn’t Everything You Are, there’s much more to hear on this collection. The more uptempo songs have the makings of classic songs, and there’s a few scattered here and there that build and build into those crashing anthemic songs that bring to mind stadiums filled with singalong fans. Yes, they are touching Coldplay territory here, but delivering it in a much more.....well, a much more mature and convincing way. As if these songs may have begun life as a simple piano driven ballad, and through growth and experimentation, developed into a huge wall of instruments, chanting, chanting. These songs don’t feel forced or primed, they feel natural.

Lead singer, Gary Lightbody has such a lovely, warm voice. His Irish accent drips through on his vocals, particularly in the ballads and I can’t help but feel drawn to him. Warming to him like he’s the nicest person in the world, right now. A strange feeling. His accent only helps with his emotional delivery and you find yourself believing every damn word he sings. He undoubtedly comes into his own when singing the ballads. This is where it feels like his heart is.

Snow Patrol are treading some new territory on this album. The instruments seems to be mixed much better, and I hear looping, programming beats and lines and even some electronic slipping in. But, it’s all quite subtle and they don’t seem to stray too far from their ‘sound’. For the rockier and more epic tracks; pounding drums provide the foundations for some great thumping bass, and some of the guitar work is wonderfully ambitious. For the more mellow tracks; piano or acoustic guitar tends to lead the way, with Gary spinning his stories alongside . The tracks that stand out the most to me, are the ones that cleverly and quite neatly blend the two styles together. To say some of these gigantic rock-ballads are epic is selling them short. If Snow Patrol can do one thing well, it’s produce a mighty fine ballad of mahoosive proportions. These songs almost demand vast stadiums to be performed in.

Listen to – The Garden Rules

3. Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys! (Swisslet)

Following up an album as good and as successful as The Seldom Seen Kid was always going to be a bit of a struggle, wasn’t it? Apparently not for these boys. Look, I’ll be honest with you: I bought this record as soon as it came out, but it took several months for it to take hold. I didn’t think it was a bad record or anything, it’s just that it didn’t grab me immediately and instead took several months before I realised that it had wormed its way underneath my skin.

It wasn’t until I heard Lippy Kids on the radio one day that I realised that they’d bloody well done it again. Listening to those lyrics, I realised that there can’t be many lyricists around with Guy Garvey’s gift for exuding warmth and humanity, even when he’s singing about kids hanging around in bus shelters. Build a rocket boys! I can’t think of another lyricist with such a gift for bringing a lump to my throat and making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Seeing them live at Glastonbury sealed the deal: another gorgeous singalong with nearly 100,000 people singing their hearts out. We were eating out of the palm of Garvey’s hand and well he knew it. I was crying like a baby by the end. Brilliant. All of their albums have taken a little while to grow on me, actually, and much though I love The Seldom Seen Kid, my favourite remains Leaders of the Free World. I’m not sure that I would say that this record represents progress, as such, but it does surely demonstrate that the success of their last record was not a fluke. The Birds, Lippy Kids, Neat Little Rows, High Ideals, Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl…. There’s not a bad song on here. Success has been a long time coming, but boy do they deserve it.

Listen to - Lippy Kids

3. Noah and the Whale - Last Night On Earth (LB)

It's been a strange journey for me and Noah and the Whale. I bought their debut album Peaceful The World Lays Me Down mainly for my missus, seeing as she liked the jaunty (but frankly quite annoying) breakthrough single Five Years Time. Having become quickly bored by the tedious ukelele and chirpy, folky jauntiness I almost immediately wrote them off.

Then, one day, bored at home I decided to listen to their follow-up album The First Days Of Spring. And immediately listened to it again. And again. And again. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful albums ever committed to CD - melancholy but utterly beautiful.

So, buying the band's third album Last Night On Earth was always a bit of a no-brainer. This time, however, the band seem to have adopted neither a folk nor a beautiful orchestral approach, going for the sort of sound you'd perhaps expect to hear on a sunny American freeway with the top of your Cadillac down and your hair blowing in the Arizona wind.

And, on the whole, it works. Last Night On Earth seems to broadly be telling the tale of the band's origins - songs refer to their early days performing in school assemblies and them getting out of their small provincial towns 'promising they would never go back' and whilst it's not the most original record ever made, it is one of the most entertaining.

The songwriting is of the highest quality here with radio friendly singles L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N, Life is Life and the brilliant Tonight's The Kind Of Night particular highlights. Whether they have sold out in favour of more commercial success is another question, but for now it's simply a great record.

One caveat, though - don't expect it to be brilliant live. Having seen the band this autumn I was immensely disappointed. They can't recreate their sound live on stage and so their show lacks charisma and power. It's a very wet reproduction of some great material and ultimately rather a waste of time.

Buy the record instead. It really is rather good.

Listen to - Tonight's The Kind Of Night

Thursday, December 29, 2011

it's only been a year

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

4. The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (LB)

It's not big and it's not clever. As Swisslet has already pointed out, there's nothing much original here either, but I have found myself loving this, the debut release from the Vaccines.

Packed full of punchy and short guitar pop records, it's a record full of fun and great tunes. Post Break Up Sex is one of my singles of 2011 despite not actually being particularly representative of the rest of the album) and I also really like it when the band chill out a bit on the likes of Wetsuit and A Lack Of Understanding.

Great live - their Glastonbury slot was a highlight - and slightly less of a Ramones tribute act than a lot of people believe, the answer to What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? was, in truth, an album that was less joyful, entertaining and downright catchy than the one they produced.

Listen to: A Lack Of Understanding

4. Chapel Club - Palace (bedshaped)

Another album that I was tempted to download after reading a review. That review didn’t give the album the justice I think it deserves. This is a terrific album!

Guitar driven rock and indie is what’s on the cards here. Pure and simple. The basslines are particularly prominent, giving a nice Bunnymen, White Lies, Joy Division, Interpol feeling. The drums are great in places; really crashing, throbbing and just....booming! The vocals are honest and delivered effortlessly, perfect for the style of music. There’s no danger of the greatest male vocal in the world being found on here, but his voice fits really well with the music. Not too sombre and down-beat. Enough hope and inspiration can be heard and that’s why this album is much more uplifting than its most likely influential predecessors.

Feeling decidedly short, but clocking in around 44 minutes, this is ten full blown, cracking tracks. The opening instrumental track doesn’t count, but sets the tone very nicely into “Surfacing”, a dirty bassline driven rollocker. Moody vocals add to the ambience and even the nursery rhymish chorus fits perfectly.

What’s drawn me back to this album time and time, again is the good old earworm. There’s plenty to be found here. The guitar hooks are vindictive, and the chorus’s are perfectly shaped. Quite often I would find myself enjoying one of the tracks, then when the chorus kicks in, it just makes me peak my interest in the song that little bit more. Days, sometimes weeks later, something would trigger that particular earworm, and I’d spend the rest of the day trying to figure out who the hell it was. When I pinned it down and listened to it again, I’d find myself picking back through the rest of the album. With more listens of each track, a new section in the song could be heard. Like, with each listen, a layer was being peeled back to reveal it’s true nature. That’s the sign of a damn good album!

There is hope for real bands yet!

Listen to – All The Eastern Girls

4. The Pierces - You & I (Swisslet)

Sisters Catherine and Alison Pierce been releasing records together as the Pierces since 2000, but it’s only now, with their fourth album, that they seem to have found some genuine mainstream commercial success. Critical acclaim (and a song – Secret - featured on hit US TV shows Dexter and Gossip Girl) never really converted into sales, and the band seemed on the verge of calling it quits before fate intervened in the unlikely shape of Coldplay bassist, Guy Berryman and an offer to produce their next album.

The result, You & I reached number four in the UK Albums chart – the first of their albums to make the chart in the UK - and although the singles You’ll Be Mine and Glorious didn’t really bother the top 40, both featured heavily on national radio playlists and can still be heard over the PA system in Boots, of all places. It’s not especially original sounding, perhaps, with the most obvious reference point being Fleetwood Mac, but this is smart, well-written pop music for grown ups.

It’s something of a shame that the sisters seem to have lost the waspish edge that informed some of their earlier albums (Boring, for instance), but this is more than made up for by the wealth of fantastically written tunes on this album. They just keep on coming: You’ll Be Mine, It Will Not Be Forgotten, Glorious, Kissing You Goodbye…. As something of a rock fan, this sort of thing isn’t usually my cup of tea, but I’ve surprised myself with quite how much I’ve taken this album into my heart.

Listen to - Kissing You Goodbye

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the fast goes fast and the slow goes slow

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

5. The Young Knives - Ornaments From The Silver Arcade (Swisslet)

Ashby-de-la-Zouch probably doesn’t produce all that many rockstars, and it somehow seems fitting that the ones that they do produce like to perform onstage wearing tweed suits. Formed as long ago as 2002, the band found ‘instant’ success with their Mercury nominated debut album, 2006’s Voices of Animals and Men. Although that album is packed with great tracks, for me, the Young Knives have only got better with each successive album they’ve released: 2008s Superabundance and now this year’s Ornaments from the Silver Arcade.

Their distinctive, pastoral-edged, rock has got more and more sophisticated and, a bit weirdly, given how they look, their music has now got an almost sexy swagger about it –if you don’t believe me, then just check out Woman or Silver Tongue on this record. See what I mean? The sad truth is that the band have also become less commercially successful with each release, and this album only scraped its way to number 80 in the UK chart.

It’s such a shame that a record like this isn’t heard by more people, although the first I heard about the new album was when I heard Human Again played on BBC 6 Music; it sounded so distinctive and was so obviously by the Young Knives that I looked it up the moment I got home and found out that the album had actually already been out for some time…. And I’m a fan who has seen them live several times. If I nearly missed it, what chance has someone of discovering the band now? Such a shame, because they’re a great band and real originals too. Cherish them whilst they’re still bothering to scream into the void.

Listen to - Human Again

5. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto (LB)

If there was ever evidence for this year being a pretty poor one for albums, it's the fact that a distinctly average Coldplay record is still much better than all but four other records in 2011.

I'm a huge fan of Coldplay but am still not entirely convinced by Mylo Xyloto. However, unlike lots of other Coldplay records which I have liked immediately (I remember loving Speed of Sound from the very time I heard it) I am finding myself liking Mylo Xyloto more with every subsequent listen. Single Paradise has grown on my immensely while Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall is one of my top ten sngles of the eyar.

Coldplay remain lyrically suspect and there are one or two tracks which disappear in one ear and out of the other. However, despite what I thought on first listen, the band's collaboration with Rihanna - Princess of China - actually works and the likes of Charlie Brown, Hurts Like Heaven and Up In Flames are solid and likeable Coldplay songs.

I don't think it is their best album by any means but in a year where I have listened to more new music than ever before, the fact this album still makes my top five is rather a sad indictment of the state of the music business.

Listen to: Princess of China / Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall

5. The Naked and Famous - Passive Me, Aggressive You (bedshaped)

I think this is their debut, but I could be wrong. What I do know though, is that this album grabbed me on the very first listen.

This is like....erm....indie songs, but with electronic and pop elements in it. There’s elements of Arcade Fire here, along with Subways, Friendly Fires, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and even Radiohead. Loose indie songs; some of which are driven by a guy singing, some driven by the girl, coupled with some great guitar work, some looping, and oh yes, they weren’t shy in the feedback and reverb areas and some infectious keyboard strokes. The percussion is pretty good too. Imagine The XX on RedBull. No?

This album would have a perfect second album for Sleigh Bells or even The Ting Tings; should they wish to drop their sugar-pop trend and go all out adventurous. There’s songs on here that have a certain pop element to them, then in from nowhere comes a twisting loop, or some vocal sampling, or some sampled feedback, and it sends the song in a completely new direction. Most of these songs aren’t just songs, they’re like mini-plays. They have layers. They have acts. They even have slight intervals.

Songs will begin with programmed percussion, bombastic basslines and keyboard rinky-tinks, then switch direction with some clever vocal play or some monsterous guitar riff. Other songs are driven by keyboards and dual vocals, then burst into life with bass and guitar whooshing in to add depth, then switch to something else. Others begin with pulsating beats and low-fi keyboard strokes before crashing into a frenzied dance beat, with all sorts of crazy samples and loops. And it all makes sense.

I don’t know where this album came from. I picked up a review online and convinced myself it was worth a listen. The more I listen to it, the more it digs itself into me. The more it means something. Different, diverse, interesting. Definitely worth a listen. Albums like this give me great hope in the future of music. With the charts dominated with auto-tune R & B, there’s a distinct lack of new bands and artists coming through who show much promise in the talented department. This is a lovely breath of fresh air.

Listen to – Frayed

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

what if I’ve been trying to get to where I’ve always been?

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

6. Manchester Orchestra - Simple Math (bedshaped)

Not from Manchester nor an orchestra, these guys from REM’s neighbourhood have produced a great rock and indie album, with imaginative arrangements and hooks a plenty. There’s quite a scope within the album, as such it’s quite difficult to pin them down. And that’s one of the nice things about it. Tracks begin with gentle intros, grow into indie, touch on a country twang, then mature into rock. Then we have the orchestrations adding bulk and emotion to the songs. There’s certainly brushes with REM, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Young Knives, Noah & The Whale, Smashing Pumpkins, The Decemberists, even They Might Be Giants.

This album is packed with great songs; bringing together rock ‘n’ roll, blues, indie, folk and AOR under one roof. And melting them with some lovely orchestra arrangements that compliment the songs perfectly. Especially the strings. Oh mannnn, it’s always the strings! The orchestrations add to the growth of the songs. Pale Black Eye is a perfect example, beginning in a dirty, bluesy style, then finding itself more of an indie tune before the orchestral backing sweeps in and grows the song to anthemic proportions.

It may be unfamiliar territory for many people, but as the album plays through, (and I can remember this, the first couple of times I heard it) it all sounds so strangely familiar. Without being an album that treads old ground. It’s not breaking new boundaries by any means, but it’s different enough to have captured my ears for the year.

Listen to – Simple Math

6. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Swisslet)

I stumbled across PJ Harvey at some point around 1993 when, as a student, I innocently picked up a copy of Rid of Me after reading about it in the NME. Oh my goodness. I was somewhat ill prepared for the assault on my ears that followed, and Harvey’s exhortation to “lick my legs, I’m on fire” has stayed with me ever since. To say that record is raw and angry doesn’t really even begin to do it justice. I was hooked.

I can’t think of anyone else in the British music business who has so steadfastly followed their own muse as Polly Harvey. Trends come and trends go, but PJ Harvey can always be relied upon to go her own way and she certainly doesn’t repeat herself. Sometimes, as with Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea and To Bring You My Love, her work has been accessible and popular, but many of her other albums are far less immediate, even if they are generally uniformly excellent. White Chalk is a stunning record, but it sounds like nothing else recorded in 2007, that’s for damn sure.

Perhaps it should be no surprise then that, if anyone was going to record an album about the horrors of World War I and the post-War chaos that ultimately led to the rise of the Third Reich, that PJ Harvey would be the person to do it. As she did on White Chalk, Harvey sings much of Let England Shake in a kind of falsetto, and this lends an air of almost detachment as she sings about “soldiers falling like lumps of meat”. It won the Mercury Prize for the record of the year, and although it isn’t my number one choice, it’s a damn good choice.

Listen to - The Words That Maketh Murder – somehow rendered all the more effective by her echoing of Summertime Blues in the lyrics.

6. Kelly Clarkson - Stronger (LB)

Sometimes you just can't beat a bit of high quality pop music. And, since winning American Idol in 2002, that's exactly what Kelly Clarkson has been providing us with.

In many ways Clarkson is the Belinda Carlisle of the 21st century. She's beautiful, has a great voice and produces guitar power pop of the highest order, including classics such as Since You've Been Gone and My Life Would Suck Without You.

On Stronger, it's more of the same classic Kelly and the album weaves its way through a wide array of styles from the gentle R&B of Mr Know It All to ballads such as the excellent Dark Side. And, of course, there's a smattering of classic uptempo pop here - title track Stronger is brilliant as is I Forgive You and Don't Be A Girl About It.

There's nothing particularly big or clever about this record, and that's one of the reasons I like it. It's pure entertainment but with Clarkson's brilliant voice and knack for picking tunes from the higher quality end of the pop spectrum, it's a cheery, likeable hour of pop goodness.

Listen to - Mr Know It All

Monday, December 26, 2011

nothing's going to hurt as much as that final touch

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

7. Lady Antebellum - Own The Night (LB)

Last year, the second album from Lady Antebellum, Need You Now, was my #3 album of the year. Over the intervening twelve months it's not shifted from that position and remains one of the best records I've bought in the last few years.

Despite being country music's biggest stars, there's plenty to like about this lot. Lush production, great songs and a lovely mix of male and female vocals mean that Own the Night pretty much takes on where Need You Now leaves off, but there's not a lot wrong with that.

While they may not have hit it big on this side of the Atlantic, Lady Antebellum are massive in America and it's not hard to see why. While this record won't covert you to their cause if you didn't like them anyway, if you are a fan you'll be delighted with it.

Listen to: As You Turn Away

7. Katy B - On A Mission (bedshaped)

I had such high hopes for Jessie J. But she failed me, miserably. Then from out of nowhere, along comes Katy B.

I first heard her when she did vocals for Magnetic Man on a couple of tracks on his album. Which I also loved, by the way! Then I heard Katy On A Mission; a fantastic dancefloor pounder, with so many hooks it must be illegal! And from then, I was pretty much hooked.

She’s not got the best voice in the world, but for the style she’s dropping, it’s perfect. This album is choc-a-block full of dirty grime, pulsating beats, filthy basslines, samples and loops, and hooks bigger than an ambitious fisherman on his maiden voyage. There’s some brief encounters with the drum ‘n’ bass posse, but in the most it’s clubtastic, with the occasional surprising slow beat, chill-out track.

The production is great, although to me, it feels a little too polished. With all the sampled loops, programmed beats and emulated sounds, I can’t help feeling just how much of this album could have produced entirely on a Mac. It’s not gonna give any listener the best lyrics in the world. There’s no twisted lyrics or deep meanings here, it’s all about the clubbing, the dancing, the guys and the music. It’s dance beats in the finest style, with a great vocalist adding more depth and interest in the songs. For great songs to lighten the mood, you couldn’t really go wrong with this. It’s shallow with meaning, but deep in vibes.

Listen to: Broken Record

7. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (Swisslet)

On paper, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago ticked all my musical boxes: mournful, enigmatic and absolutely indie-er than-thou. In practice though, it just didn’t float my boat and I could not seem to find the key that would help me really get into it. I really wanted to like it, but was forced, a little reluctantly, to write it off as basically slightly annoying.

Not surprisingly then, I didn’t rush out and buy the follow up. In the end, although I could ignore the deluge of rave reviews in the music press, it was the recommendations of friends that persuaded me to give it a go. I’m so glad that I did. The addition of a full band gives a fuller, richer sound to this record, and for me makes Justin Vernon’s distinctive voice seem so much more accessible (even if I’ve now got almost no idea what he’s singing about most of the time).

Thematically, this record is not just about heartache and loss this time around either, and the wider palate makes the whole record a little less… well, limited.  Beth/Rest is perhaps a little bit too Richard Marx for my tastes, but the rest of this record is so stunning that I’ve even been persuaded to revisit the other one again, and you can’t argue with tracks as good as Calgary, Towers and Holocene. Beautiful record.

Listen to: Calgary

Sunday, December 25, 2011

make no mistake, i don't do anything for free

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

8. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Rome (Swisslet)

Another album discovered purely by chance on the basis of a recommendation from a trusted source.  I’ve heard of Danger Mouse, obviously, but although I own the first Gnarls Barkley album (who doesn’t?), I don’t really consider him to be my cup of tea and haven’t really paid all that much attention to his work.  Wrong, so wrong.  This one very nearly passed me by and my life would have been all the poorer for that.

This, a collaboration with the composer Daniele Luppi is an absolutely gorgeous homage to the work of the great Ennio Morricone, the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.  Featuring lush, sweeping orchestration and the contrasting vocal talents of people like Jack White and Norah Jones, this is an album that is definitely worth donning a Stetson for and squinting into the desert wind as the tumbleweeds blow by.  If this was a film, you just know that it would star Clint Eastwood.  Or maybe Jack White as Clint Eastwood.  It’s an epic, sweeping record and is entirely brilliant.

Listen to - Two Against One (feat. Jack White)

8. Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know (bedshaped)

I don’t normally warm so much to such a voice, but there’s something rich and warm, seductive and sexy about Laura’s voice. Sometimes she holds a familiar voice, then others she’s quite unique. I don’t really know anything about her, but I do know she writes a great song.

This album holds hands with folk. It’s best friends with American AOR. It brushes alongside some country. And it rubs shoulders with good old rhythm and blues. It shares it space happily with gentle acoustic ballads as much as it does with grinding guitars and pounding drums. It’s such a great album to listen to in the evening. It can fool you into thinking you’re in for some acoustic female fragility, and whilst you are, the occasional track can throw you offguard with it’s blazing guitars and belting drums. And it always feels more comfortable when listened to all the way through. Almost like a concept album. It’s fine to dip and out, but the album in its entirety gives the most satisfaction. Wonderful album from a fantastically talented singer songwriter. For people who appreciate a great singer songwriter in the realms of Alanis, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Melissa Etheridge, Ani Difranco, Fiona will really love this album. And there’s banjo and mandolin. Not loads of it, just enough.

8. Claire Maguire - Light After Dark (LB)

From the reviews I read, there didn't seem to be a lot of love for this album.  The debut release from the 24 year old Brummie was on my radar from the first time I heard the terrific Ain't Nobody (no, not that one) and while the critics seem to agree that she has a great voice, no-one was quite sure about her choice of material.

However, I really like Light After Dark.  It's little more than a pop album but the quality of the songs and Maguire's voice means it compares very favourably to, say, Adele's 21 (an album with some superb highlights but quite a lot of dullish filler).  Singles Ain't Nobody, The Last Dance and The Shield and the Sword are tremendous upbeat pop records and my only regret was that I never managed to see Maguire live in 2011 (a jippy tummy at Glastonbury put paid to my 'must see' performance of the weekend.)

It's a likeable, upbeat album of great tunes from a real talent.  Highly recommended.

Listen to: The Shield and the Sword

Friday, December 23, 2011

i know you'll come through

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

9. Joss Stone - LP1 (bedshaped)

Aah, Joss, how I’ve missed you so. I don’t care what anybody says, Joss Stone’s smoky, rich and sexy vocals do it to me every freakin’ time. Unfortunately, it’s the quality of songs that can let her down on previous albums; with eleven or twelve track albums only boasting a couple of stand out tracks at best.

There’s so much that I like about this album; released on her own label, now that she’s parted company with her former label who she’d claimed for a long time were being too constrictive, the fact that it’s been reported it was laid down within a week, and that it feels so laid back, loose and non intrusive. It should come with a label that states the listener should only press play when they are in a chilled out and slightly playful mood. The feel is groovy and laid back, and there’s definitely a sense of minimal production here, even though that’s probably not the case considering who co-produced it. Many of the songs have that ‘mastered in one take’ feel and it just adds to the quality in my opinion.

Typically soulful, pleasingly playful. This album touches a little more on a rinky-tinky blues feel, without taking away Joss’s own identity. There’s some wonderful piano and gorgeous Hammond sounds, coupled with some luscious strings and simple orchestral backing. Not to mention some wonderfully complementary backing vocals. And it all comes together under the watchful eye of Ms Stone herself and Dave Stewart serving knob twiddling duties. Even though the album is under-pinned with this loose feel, the great production sweeps some of the tracks into some great subtle directions; bouncy bass driven blues and tight funk, not to mention some wonderfully delicate and fragile ballads.

Typically panned by the critics, but I love it.

Listen to – BoatYard

9. The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (Swisslet)

Oh good grief, another in the long list of bands hailed by the NME as being the saviours of the British guitar band.  Save us.  I’ve only just recovered from the indignity that was (is?) the Kaiser Chiefs.  But you know what? I caught their set on the Other Stage at Glastonbury in June, and they were so much fun that I gave up and sought out the record. 

Interesting, thoughtful concept albums about war and misery are all very well, but sometimes you just want to have fun, right?  Although this is certainly not the most cerebral album that I’ve heard this year, it might just be the most fun.  It simply rollicks along: Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra) rolls into If You Wanna and you might as well surrender yourself to it now.  It’s not big, it’s not clever and it is certainly not original…. But who cares?  Plus Post Break-Up Sex might just be my favourite song of the year, godammit. Maybe those beer-chucking gibbons at gigs know a thing or two after all?

Listen to - Post Break-Up Sex

9. Christina Perri - lovestrong (LB)

I do like a nice female singer songwriter.  Over the years plenty of those have appeared in these lists from Chantal Kreviazuk to Tina Dico and Alanis Morrisette.  Now it's the turn of Christina Perri, a 25 year old from Philadelphia who shot to fame when her song Jar of Hearts appeared on the Fox TV show So You Think You Can Dance?

Jar of Hearts became a huge hit worldwide - alongside Lana del Rey's Video Games it's the best ballad of 2011 - and one of the top ten selling singles in the UK this year.  I half expected the album to be full of similar songs, but actually it's a lovely and eclectic mix of styles.  From the lovely opening track Bluebird to the jaunty Bang Bang Bang this isn't the most original album ever released, but it does tick an awful lot of the boxes for things I like in music.  Great female voice, great pop songs nicely produced.  What more could you ask for?

Listen to: Jar of Hearts (52 million YouTube views and counting)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

i didn't queue for an hour to leave straight away

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

10. The Wombats - This Modern Glitch (LB)

It's not been a stunning year for albums in 2011.  Despite listening to far more new albums than usual (many of which have been reviewed here), picking a top ten was easier than normal.

Saying all that, there were good albums that I left off the list, so credit should go to the likes of the Pierces, the Arctic Monkeys and Panic! At The Disco for producing decent albums.  And, huge kudos to Duran Duran for their All You Need Is Now album which is as good as anything they have ever done.

Still, onto the top 10.  I'll start with a band who I never would have envisaged having on this list.  Material from The Wombats' first album and singer Matt Murphy's voice annoyed me immensely and I had already marked them down as someone to ignore in future.  Then I heard a couple of their 2011 singles on the radio - Anti-D and Techno Fan - and I was suddenty converted.

This Modern Glitch is by no means a classic album - it's daft guitar and synth pop - but it's jaunty and catchy enough to put a smile on your face.  I don't love all of this record, but when The Wombats are good, they are very, very good.

Listen to: Techno Fan

10. Birdy - Birdy (bedshaped)

At just fifteen years old, you really have to take your hat off to this young girl. Where as most young teenagers, given the opportunity to record some of their favourite tracks in a professional recording studio would choose upbeat, probably angsty, but certainly well known songs to lay down, here Jasmine van den Bogaerde has hand picked some absolute gems to mould into her own style.

She’s not unique by any means, but the arrangements and her style are such that most people might assume them to be original works handed down to her by writers and producers. It’s only when she delivers that slightly familiar line that as a listener, I found myself thinking, “where have I heard that before?”. And then all the pieces would fall into place like a luscious jigsaw puzzle.

For such a young girl, bearing in mind that she caught the attention of the music industry three years ago, when she won an open mic talent competition singing one of her own compositions, she has such a....well....a stunningly mature voice. I would challenge anybody who didn’t know her to listen to any of the songs on this album and not be stunned to discover she’s just fifteen. Signed shortly after winning the competition, the decision was made that she should spend the majority of her time concentrating on finishing her education, hence this album of covers, save the stunning Without A Word.

I’ve heard people call this album sombre and depressingly downbeat. I disagree. I find it extremely moving. Melancholy. Haunting. Intimate. Quite simply, it’s gorgeous. The production is bang on too, even though many of the songs are stripped back to bare bones in places with her delicate vocals and piano playing, it’s secretly dressed with loops, strings and vocal play. I can just imagine going to see her play live and the audience watching in stunned and respectful silence, desperate to make an enthusiastic and appreciative noise in between the songs.

A wonderfully sensitive album. A collection of hand picked songs delivered with grace, respect and emotion. It’s a perfect end of evening album. Delicate and pure.

Listen to – Without A Word

10. Fixit Kid - Three (Swisslet)

Bit out of left field this one, but much though I love the new records by old favourites like Coldplay and the Foo Fighters, the simple truth is that I’ve listened to this album far more.  Sorry Chris, sorry Dave, but it’s more honest to include this one in my list at the expense of more famous and successful albums. 
Derby based Fixit Kid first got together in 2000, and this is their third album.  Fixit Kid, when it comes down to it, a good old-fashioned punk band, but there is also a real sense of purpose and intent about these songs.  When opening track Release the Dogs really kicks in after a deceptively gentle intro, it is clear that this band mean business. The band claim influences from a cross-section of classic rock bands like Sabbath, Maiden and Kiss as well as noiseniks like the Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.  Both sets of influences are apparent in the music, with the end result hardcore punk with a distinctly metallic edge.
Too many bands in this genre sound as though they’re fronted by an angry town crier, but here the screaming has both fury and a purpose, as singer Mat spits out his black tales of horror, murder, perversion and violence.  It’s hard to pick out a standout track, as the album works well as an intense 35-minute hit.  Special mention should however be given to Dredge the Lake.  Perhaps that (brilliant) title is a deliberate Elvis Costello reference, but the song’s ominous bassline, screaming guitar and anguished vocals soon leave the ghost of Watching the Detectives far behind. Recommended.  Definitely worth looking them up.

Listen to - Dredge the Lake

Monday, December 12, 2011

Album Review: Charlene Soraia - Moonchild

Charlene Soraia - Moonchild

Spotify is a brilliant invention. There have been countless albums that I'd have never have bought had I not been afforded the opportunity to listen to them first and the ability to check out a record by an artist you are unsure of is a great way to listen to new music.

Of course, what is bound to happen eventually is that you'll listen to an album which you would have ordinarily automatically bought and find it to be a huge disappointment. And that's precisely what happened with Charlene Soraia's debut album, Moonchild.

Having heard the lovely Wherever You Will Go (the Calling cover from the Twinings advert) I was convinced this would be an artist I'd like. Wispy, acoustic piano pop by a female singer songwriter pretty much ticked every one of my boxes. That's why I am astounded that I enjoyed Moonchild quite so little.

I'll be honest - I nearly turned it off after two tracks. The first two songs sound so much like some ropey feedback or someone experimenting with a theramin that they made my head hurt. While Moonchild got way better after that - there are one or two nice tracks here - Wherever You Will Go is by far the best thing here and not at all representative of the remainder of the record.

If you like the single, be VERY careful before you buy the album. It might as well have been done by someone else.