Monday, January 02, 2012

what makes me love you despite the reservations?

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Swisslet)

It is no exaggeration to say that the debut album by the Fleet Foxes, released in 2008, is one of my favourite ever records. There is just something so perfect about those magnificent harmonies, and I can’t recall hearing a band who sounded remotely like them. It was as though they had stepped out of the fifteenth century.

So magnificent was that record that I found it difficult to imagine where the band would go next. They couldn’t just release more of the same, but where can you go when your major influences appear to be from the Middle Ages? The answer, it seems, was to become a more traditional sounding band: those amazing vocal harmonies that were such a key part of their sound on the debut, are still present but are much less prominent here. Instead we have a more traditional set up of a band supporting a much clearer lead singer in Robin Pecknold.

This doesn’t sound all that promising on paper, as it seems to take away the band’s unique selling point, but actually it works really well. The reason? The songs are strong. Montezuma, Sim Sala Bim, Battery Kinzie, Helplessness Blues, Lorelai… wonderful, warm songs all, brought to life by Pecknold’s crystal clear voice. I could live without that jarring free jazz sax solo that breaks in towards the end of the record, but that aside, this is a lovely record by a band that sound like no other. I can’t wait for the next one.

Listen to - Sim Sala Bim

2. Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys! (LB)

Considering I bought Asleep in the Back a decade or so ago, it's taken an awfully long time for Elbow to clamber their way into a list of acts I'd name if you wanted to know who my favourite bands are. I've seen them live on numerous occasions over the years - mostly in the company of Swisslet - and have always enjoyed their shows without falling in love with them. Sure, there have been moments - the beautiful Newborn and Puncture Repair, the brilliant Station Approach and Leaders of the Free World - but I can't say I'd ever been their biggest fan.

Therefore, I am not sure what happened. It certainly wasn't The Seldom Seen Kid as there are Elbow records I like better. Perhaps it was simply repeat listens, getting a bit older or simply my love of the amazing One Day Like This that unlocked the door, but whatever it was I am delighted it finally happened.

Build A Rocket Boys! is a traditional Elbow album in the sense that it isn't something that grabs you instantly. Indeed, it probably took me a dozen listens or so before I really began to adore this brilliant record. Combining Guy Garvey's lovely and 'real' lyrics with yet more great instrumentation, this is another great Elbow record. I love the anthemic Open Arms, the beautiful Lippy Kids and the gradually building The Birds but it is on the utterly beautiful (and very true, in my experience) The Night Will Always Win that Elbow have again produced a beautiful and majestic pop record that will live with me forever.

I was lucky enough to see Elbow twice in 2011 also, and both times they were astonishingly good, largely thank to Garvey's gregarious and endearing personality (although, if there is a criticism, it's that both gigs were a little too focused on the recent two albums).

Elbow are a national treasure, and this is another fine record.

Listen to: The Night Will Always Win

2. Radiohead - The King of Limbs (bedshaped)

It’s no secret how much I love Radiohead. Even in their ‘difficult’ period, I can still hear the genius, in the background, fighting for attention. People will say they find it difficult to associate the same band that produced The Bends or OK Computer with Kid A and their last album, In Rainbows; a monumental album of pure genius. And I can understand that. And I can totally respect it. But one of the reasons I love this band so much, is listening to them grow and evolve and change and experiment. Considering I feel like I’ve been with them since Pablo Honey, they are probably one of biggest musical influences in my life.

Eight tracks, running in at just under 40 minutes (some say the perfect album length!), this is Radiohead in a much more playful mood than on In Rainbows. There’s a lot more knob twiddling, sampling, scratching, looping, vocal play going on here, particularly during the first half. Lots of programmed percussion, but their drummer is also getting mixed in (the fabulous Lotus Flower being a great example) and overall it’s the beats that really dig in here. Thom’s vocals are typically great, but there’s lots of vocal sampling, scratching, back-mixing and the likes on the up-tempo tracks. I like it, but it does take away some of the fragility of his voice. And that’s such a shame. That said the pulsating rhythms are infectious and hypnotic. There’s a certain ravey-trance vibe going down here

Thom’s vocals really come into play on the final three tracks; Codex; a piano led ballad, haunting backing vocals, wonderfully effective brass sections, sombre cello moments creating a chilling song that sets off those all too familiar goosebumps, Give Up The Ghost; heartbeat percussion, minimal chord strokes on an acoustic guitar, light bongos, amazing backing vocal samples and Thom has never sounded better, Separator; busy drums, boomy basslines that walk up and down the frets, again some fantastic backing vocal playaround, then about half-way in, a guitar hook sneaks in from outta nowhere and sinks itself deep inside your head. And you hear it days later. It’s soulful, it’s rhythmic, it’s swirling, it’s hypnotic, it’s trance-like, it’s dreamy. It’s a bloody stroke of genius!

For me, Radiohead just keep getting better and better. I secretly like the fact that when they release albums like this; slightly more experimental, their fan demographic changes. The more I read about the band members, what they stand for and why they love making music so much, the more I fall for them. Radiohead are like my bestest friend ever. They never let me down.

Listen to – Separator

1 Discussions:

Blogger bedshaped said...

Ahh, Fleet Foxes. I struggled a little with their debut album, but I found with repeated play in a more matter of fact way, rather than persistance and a desire to like the sound more, the album just fell into place. Something that sounds like the best course of action for Elbow's album; their only release I've really struggled with.
"Helplessness Blues" is a great follow up album, and if anything, their grown-up direction and maturing is much more up my street.

I listened to "Build A Rocket Boys" again today. It's Elbow. It's growing on me, but it's a million miles away from where I hoped they'd go. The critics loved this album, it's been in both of your top tens....I'm clearly missing something.

10:00 PM  

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