Yes, it’s taken us a while to come up with this. We’re slow that way, you know?
To start this 2011 recap off on a slightly moribund note, the death of Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch (1943-2011) in October rather cast a pall over the past year. Jansch has long been a part of my everyday experiences of listening to music, and the influence of his unhurried acoustic guitar playing can be heard in several other musicians I admire as well (Neil Young and Nick Drake come to mind). I have always loved how his best songs always had this dry and infinitely mysterious quality, a sense of quiet gravitas about them that deepens upon his passing. And as much as one cares to obsess over his music, one comes closer to only disconnect. RIP, Bert Jansch.
The understated electronic pop of James Blake has been ubiquitous for the most part of 2011, more than often as the music swimming in my head when experiencing a case of excessive introspection. Saddled with the expectation that comes with being a well heralded dubstep producer, Blake delivers a fine debut LP that flows mellifluously between layers of carefully constructed electronics and unadulterated piano-and-voice musicianship. (The follow-up Enough Thunder EP has its high points too, including his elegant cover version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”.)
One of the year’s most thoughtful pop records is Last Summer by Eleanor Friedberger (better known for fronting the Fiery Furnaces with her brother Matt), a set of wistful summer songs that is a wonderfully paced throwback to the warmth of 70s FM pop. Part of the appeal is the whole sense of spontaneity about the album, its rambling lyrics scanning like placid memories — Last Summer succeeds as an honest mediation on lost love that never feels indulgent.
2011 proved to be another pretty fruitful year for indie-pop connoisseurs, with great new releases from the likes of Comet Gain, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and The Andersen Tapes. On their latest Fading Parade, Papercuts craft widescreen pop nostalgia for the incurably romantic. Veronica Falls bowl me over with their much anticipated self-titled debut, the latest in a long line of bands to have resurrected the shambling sound of C86 — I’m just about glad for their infectious, reverb-laden jangle to slip occasionally into my cracked consciousness.
Which brings me to Wild Beasts, purveyors of dense, darkly euphoric songs that merit comparisons to the outsider English pop of Kate Bush, Robert Wyatt and Talk Talk. Suffused with smoldering decadence, the startling Smother finds these leonine pale kings of unknown pleasures tapping into a more expansive and musically sophisticated vein on their third album. The results are electrifying, and incredibly sensual — Smother opens with “Lion’s Share” and singer Hayden Thorpe’s lascivious foreplay (“I wait until you’re woozy, I wait until you’re lame/ I take you in my mouth like the lion takes its game”) — in its heightened quests for carnal knowledge and intimacy. Elsewhere, “Plaything” quivers with Nabokovian menace (“New squeeze, take off your chemise/And I’ll do as I please”) while the melodic “Reach A Bit Further” shudders with sensuous abandon. With Smother, the ever intransigent Wild Beasts has served up a mesmerizing album of brittle, estranged beauty for the ages. – Keith.
Keith’s Favorite Albums of 2011
1. Wild Beasts: Smother
2. James Blake: James Blake
3. Eleanor Friedberger: Last Summer
4. Veronica Falls: Veronica Falls
5. Drake: Take Care
6. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse
7. Papercuts: Fading Parade
8. Real Estate: Days
9. The Weeknd: House of Balloons
10. Destroyer: Kaputt