Best Albums of 2011 part 1: 6-10

6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
(Xtra Mile)

This, and the next 5, all swapped and changed for number one. As I re-listen to this album to write this, I just feel like this is a perfect record by an artist at the very top of his game. I started my year watching him at the Annandale. He’s finishing it playing Wembley Arena. That’s quite a year Frank Turner has had.

It’s part Clash, parts Bragg, but all brought up to date. He is the only musician today who has anything interesting to say about the themes of punk (ok, maybe Craig Finn) – but he long ago left the shackles of punk behind. This record is his most eclectic – mixing up folk, gospel, power pop and more.

Line after amazing line, idea after amazing idea. The straight-to-the-point-ness of ‘I Still Believe’ contrasts ‘Glory Hallelujah’, a gospel song celebrating the lack of God. It’s all about believing in the right things.

The other big thread in this album is England. The idea of home, and writing about England, is all over this record. “Wessex Boy”, the a capella “English Curse” and “Rivers” do for England what Springsteen did for Jersey. “If I Stray” seems to sum up both halfs of the record quite nicely.

7. Gillian Welch – Harrow & Harvest
(Acony)

8 years? For this? That’s almost a year a song. It probably says more about how amazing their sounds and songs are that in 8 years away, they are still the top of their game, despite many duos popping up and trying to fill the gap. It helps that they always sounded out of time.

It really is business as usual. Even the nice left turn of drums found on 2003’s ‘Soul Journey’ has gone. Rawlings is still one the best guitarists of his generation. The songs are dark and spooky. Their voices still sound great.

So yeah – more of the same, but that same is still pretty special. “Dark Turn Of Mind” is a highlight. ‘Hard Times’ is perhaps the sweetest thing they’ve ever done. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 8 years for more.

8. Leader Cheetah – Lotus Skies
(Spunk)

Only one Australian album made my top ten this year. Probably my fault – I wasn’t really paying attention. (And I don’t put mate’s records on these lists, so that discounts a couple….) And amazingly – it’s from Adelaide!

They fit quite clearly in the world that My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Beachwood Sparks and the more experimental rootsy stuff lives. A long, lonesome voice out front recalls Neil Young. But this is far from retro postering. The record is amazingly modern.

And it’s epic. Huge guitars. Big choruses. Clever arrangements. All tied down by that slide guitar. I don’t know why everyone makes a fuss over bands like Boy & Bear, who sound like wannabes, when we have great original country indie rock right here. Oh well.

One of my faves – “Our Lives

9. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
(Domino)

I just like this band. According to Last.fm, out of all the albums from 2011, I’ve listened to this one the most. So they’ve lost none of the magic for me, although I am aware that people have kind of written them off.

In parts it’s almost fun. It’s pretty much the most pop the Arctic Monkeys have ever been. There’s nothing to prove now, and they are just kicking out tunes that interest them.

The first five tracks are just back to back radio hits (in another world). I’m guessing Turner just craps out 3 minute rockers this good all the time. Clever riffs, great lyrics – it’s all there, and never boring. As usual, there are a couple of pretty ballads on here – Piledriver Waltz is the best amongst them.

It might not have the highs of a ‘Crying Lightning’ or something as straightly gorgeous as ‘Cornerstone’, but it’s a sharp consistent record throughout.

10. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
(Decca)

Every year a really old guy seems to sneak into my top 10. The Dylans and Youngs and the like. 5 years ago it was Simon again – with his fantastic, Eno-produced, ‘Surprise’. That 2006 album was a lively return from his worst record to date (2000’s ‘You’re the One’), and that reinvention continues. Interesting sonics, electric instruments, but a return to songs over rhythm.

On ‘Surprise’, Simon made a concious decision to abandon love songs (no one wants to hear about an old guy having sex, he said), and write about bigger things. God has returned to his song writing in a big way. Big meaning-of-life songs that recall ‘America’, or ‘Sound Of Silence’.

The best song of the lot, the one that has been getting quite a bit of attention, is “Questions For the Angels”. Just a beautifully plucked guitar, and the amazing image of a pilgrim walking over the Brooklyn bridge, and pondering at Jay-Z on a billboard.

At times funny, at times beautiful, we now have a roadmap for the fourth phase of Simon’s career, and the return of a great songwriter.

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The Best Albums of 2011 (so far): 6-10

I’ll be honest. My time for new music this year has not been great. Between going back to lots of old stuff (Loudon Wainwright III, R.E.M. and Cold Chisel mainly) and catching up on a lot of TV, time for music has not been what it once was.

Maybe it’s not just me. Seems like previous years, the year always kicked off with some big records – Vampire Weekend, Spoon, etc. Maybe it’s work too. Having not really worked on any new music that has excited me has sent me packing to my old collection mostly.

And finally, a couple of really terrible records have let me down. More about that in part 2, coming soon.

Anyway – here’s a list – parts 6-10.

6. Jonny – Jonny

(Merge)

This is fun. Take somewhat wacky wordsmith Euros Child from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and match him with Norman Blake, the elder statesman of popcraft from Teenage Fanclub. What you get is Jonny, both band and album. Both band and album are lighthearted, silly, lovely, charming and so British.

You can hear the joy on every track. Garage rock-lite (in a good way) of Wich Is Wich and Candyfloss. Crazy psych fun of Goldmines and Cave Dance. And the truly touching English Lady.

 

7. D Rogers – Natural Disasters

(popboomerang)

Dave Rogers is the former guitar player for Melbourne pop group Klinger. His new album is a lovely low key look at modern living. My friend Paul once described the type of song that was like a good pair of tailored trousers. Something to wear out every day. That’s what this album is. Every day songs.

It’s all about the songs. The slight country twinge and the piano twinkles add texture but don’t get in the way. Rogers sings about stuff like  unpaid bills and dishes. There’s a theme of money going through the album – Pay To Pay, Buyer’s Remorse. There’s even a song called Food & Electricty.

Not to say that this is some stylised study of urban living. It’s really just a great bunch of songs with no pretentions. It’s all wrapped up in some killer choruses (Breaking Bones is a highlight) and tasteful production. If you like the Pernice Brothers, et al, you’d probably love this.

 

8. Emmy the Great – Virtue

(Close Harbour Records)

Emmy the Great makes lovely, full bodied indie pop. Sort of Regina-ry, sort of Laura Marling-ish, all mixed together. Virtue is a major step up. It’s gotten remarkable reviews. If any of the many radio courting songs on here actually gets away, we have a hit on our hands.

So the big story of this record is that young Emmy was engaged, until her fiance discovered God and the relationship broke down. According to articles and interviews, it’s all over this album. I guess it’s there, but it’s more about her and dealing with a new life, and transcending something. It’s probably best heard on A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep.

There’s some digs at religion (I think). Lovely plays on words throughout, and some killer tunes. I just keep thinking this is a major record, and I hope people hear it.

 

9. Paul Simon – So Beautiful So What

(Hear Music)

The opening couplet of Questions For the Angels, one of the new tracks on here, is as brilliant as anything Paul Simon has done.

A pilgrim on a pilgrimage

Walked along the Brooklyn Bridge

Like America, or dozens of others of his masterpieces, Simon taps into something eternal, and puts it in a modern context. Sure, it’s been decades since he has been relevant – his career sidelined to that place that oldies go when they don’t get played on radio or make the cover of magazines anymore. But he can still mention Jay-Z and crossing rivers in one song and make it all work.

So Beautiful Or So What is actually the first album of a new record deal. His last, Eno-produced, album was a reinvention and a reinvigoration. It continues here. A renewed sense of song, and his own mandate of not writing about love anymore (claiming it’s creepy to hear from someone his age) leads to him playing on bigger themes. The Love he talks about on this record is more spiritual.

There’s a bit of that restless experimenting he is so good at. His sense of a smooth rhythm is still there, as is his guitar work (the lovely Dazzling Blue is filled with tasteful electric guitar). Hopefully another step into a lovely late career renaissance.

 

10. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

(Acony)

8 years? Has it been so long? I love the first 4 Gillian Welch albums. Obsessed over them. And 8 years later, we finally have a fifth. The entire world has changed, and Gillian and partner David Rawlings haven’t.

This record only just came out and after many frantic listens though, it’s as good as I hoped. It is slightly disappointing that the loose band sound of Soul Journey has been forgotten for a straighter, acoustic affair. They’ve somehow gone backwards in their sound. But that’s what they’re about, I guess.

There’s that unsaid spookiness of their early records that are back in force here. Just what is it about Scarlet Town that isn’t right? Or who is that person in The Way It Will Be that deserves such hate? As usual, weird shit is going down.

Maybe it’s just the joy of having new music that has propped this album up. Let’s see what time will bring. But this album is not short on all the things I look for in a Gillian Welch record.

The below is from 2004, and the song has not changed. Waited 7 years for this! Crazy.

100 for 2000 – #37. Gillian Welch – Soul Journey

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2003 – #7. Gillian Welch – Soul Journey
(Acony)

Yeah, this is a pretty obvious one. Gillian Welch’s fourth album took on a wider palette – drums, organs, electric guitars – and some of her best songs. Sad though, in that it’s seven years since Soul Journey was recorded and with no new album in sight, I’ve pretty much written her off.

How great it was though, when I first put this album on. From a career full of impossibly beautiful songs, this album opens with Look At Miss Ohio, a song it seemed that people started cover almost immediately. It started off as classic Gillian Welch, but then a minute or so in, there’s drums!

Looking back, all those additional instruments aren’t that shocking. They serve the songs, and they weren’t missed in a live setting. Wrecking Ball, Wayside – all worked well with or without drums.

The two best songs are not only without drums, they are mostly without David Rawlings, her long time guitar player/producer. The Welch only recordings – No One Knows My Name and I Had A Real Good Mother And Father – share a theme, alluding to Welch’s own life as an orphan. Then there’s One Little Song, as much a manifesto as anything she has ever written.

So we can only imagine how this new sound could have evolved. This year we got a debut album by Dave Rawlings, which gave us some clues. It would be so great to hear a new album, but word is they aren’t even close to starting.

100 for 2000 – #14. Gillian Welch – Time (the Revelator)

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2001 – #4. Gillian Welch – Time (the Revelator)
Acony

I’ve seen this album on many best-of the decade lists, and how can it be denied? Gillian Welch jumped into a new stratosphere. The limits to what could be done with old-timey, traditional American music would be forever challenged. Time (the Revelator) was all this and more.

Gillian Welch (and her partner David Rawlings) had made two albums of honest, down home bluegrass with T-Bone Burnett. Steeped in the past, the albums were black and white vignettes. They sounded like classics that have existed for all time – and songs were covered immediately by people like Emmylou Harris. Collaborations with people like Ryan Adams had brought their profile up, but there was one more important step they had to take before Time (the Revelator) was released.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the new Coen Brothers film. Always sticking to their quirky, one of a kind vision, they comissioned a soundtrack of old timey music of many sorts – bluegrass, mountain ballads, gospel and blues. It had been years since anything of such a sub genre had ever been a hit, even a minor one. To absolutely everyone’s surprise, the album sold 8 times platinum (could well be 9 by now), and became an actual hit record!

Welch served as one of the musical directors on the album. One of the performances on Time (the Revelator) is taken from the live showcase of the OBWAT soundtrack at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It was captured on the film Down From the Mountain. Suddenly, there was an large audience for banjos, finger picking and close harmonies.

If they had made another album like the two before, it would have captured the moment, made some money, and Welch would have followed the genre back into obscurity. By luck or design, they had an album that was far more than the albums they gave us before.

Tim (the Revelator) opened with Revelator. Had there ever been a 6 minute plus mountain ballad about betrayal that ever came close to sounding like this. The story continued with My First Lover. Sounding like the past, it quickly gives itself away as a contemporary story with references to Steve Miller Band.

It’s that hint of modernity that is so disarming. It’s like using an old dead language to describe todays events. I Want To Sing That Rock N Roll, Elvis Presley Blues… songs that sound like this should not be singing about stuff like that.

Rawlings was a revelation in himself. Taking production duties himself, his guitar work is original and phenomenal. Not relying on anything remotely like a classic country lick, it added to the spookiness of the proceedings.

Everything Is Free is a bluegrass song about new technologies (perhaps even downloading). It ends with the stunning, deadpan line “If there’s something that you want to hear/Go and sing it yourself.

And like Highway 61 Revisted before it, it ended with it’s longest track. An almost 15 minute road trip called I Dream A Highway, rolling the album back into the darkness from where it first appeared.

I am still very much in love with the work of this duo. And it was around here I fell for old timey things. On the street where I lived, King Street in Newtown, Sydney, there were a couple of awesome antique shops. Old coffee tables, lamps, record players, couches… I love it all. This fit right in with me. Traditiona and modern at the same time.