Best Albums of 2011 part 2: 5-3

3. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth
(Mercury)

I didn’t expect much from this album. I picked up N&TW’s first two albums, listened to them a few times, and dumped them. And isn’t it lovely about music, and the world of music, that the only reason I gave this band another chance was I thought the album cover was kick-ass. Just look at it. Looks so cool. (It looks like Jim Jarmusch’s “Night On Earth” actually) It’s metropolitan. It’s modern. It’s exciting. That’s just the album cover.

Then the music. It’s basically Springsteen mixed with LCD Soundsystem. And yes, that sounds like high praise, but it’s true. The Springsteen thing is that rock ‘n’ roll escapism. “Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change”. The idea that your dream is in reach, it’s just around the corner, and lets sing anthemic rock songs until we get there.

Then there’s the samples, the bubbles of synths and clatter of beats that gives the songs such urgency and excitement. It’s a long way from the folk rock of their first album. At 10 songs, it’s a short sharp adrenaline hit. The kind of album that would make a pop fan leave their home town and start a band.

And then an extra special mention to “Just Before We Met“. Every line is killer. The best song on this fine, fine album. You should hear it.

So these guys might still be second rate. Good records happen to bad bands all the time. But maybe not. I feel like the world needs more records like these. I know I do. If there’s one thing I need music for, it’s to remind me about the the greatness that is life if you’re brave enough to grab it.

 

4. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic
(Yep Roc)

For those not paying attention, Nick Lowe has been making some of the best music in the world for the last twenty years. Feeling his age, and not wanting to be an old man with long punk rock hair and reliving past glories, he decided to use his age to advantage. With silver hair, nice suits and classy, jazzy, dramatic songs – it is about as hip as music ever gets.

It is all about the songs. Gorgeous torch ballads about broken characters, shuffling through the rain, falling out of love, dealing with loneliness and joy in equal measure. Lowe has always been a great wit, and his lyrics continue to amaze. The stunning opener, “Stoplight Roses”, is a masterwork in paired down lyrics. It’s a vivid character study in 3 minute pop – and maybe the best song all year.

Like Gillian Welch, he’s found a sound and does it better than anyone else. It’s at once familiar and new. It’s retro, but hip. It’s old, but new. It’s all part of a reinvention that started with 1994’s “The Impossible Bird”, and Yep Roc saw it and reissued three albums from this period into a box set. I will even say that when the dust is settled, Lowe will be mainly remembered for his work in the last decade, not his 70s stuff. That’s how good this album is.

 

5. Laura Marling A Creature I Don’t Know
(Virgin)

My favourite album of 2010 was Laura Marling’s “I Speak Because I Can”. Another single (the far out cover of Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, produced by Jack White) and a whole new album came in 2011. It’s quite a pace, but maybe that’s right. Laura (or as I call her, Lozza), seems like the kind of artist that should have 20 albums under her belt.

This certainly feels like a “late-era” kind of album. Everyone compares her to Joni Micthell, but it took Mitchell til about album album number 8 (“Hejira”) before she gave up on writing pop hits in favour of following who restless muse. Marling has done it in three.

Sure, it’s weird. But wonderful. That muted organ, trumpet and cello that opens “I Was Just A Card” leads into a beautiful, jazzy place. Its one of many songs that occasionally stops dead. I hate reviews that talk about scales and keys and deep musicology – but if you like that stuff, this album is a banquet.

And she is still singing songs as if she is at the end of her life. She sings of children, old ladies and life’s biggest questions. And I guess that’s what makes her an important artist. But more interesting is how intimate these songs are. If you’ve not jumped on the Marling bandwagon, I suggest you start with “I Speak Because I Can”, and I’ll meet you at album 4 some time next year.

The Best Albums of 2011 (so far): 1-5

So part two of our two part round up of the year’s best albums so far.

Some other things to note about the year. I am sticking to the album format for these lists, even though my favourite song this year is by far (BY FAR) Think You Can Wait by the National, from the soundtrack to Win, Win. Also the EP by the UK band the Mummers, Mink Hollow Road, which found the strange meeting place of Todd Rundgren and Judy Garland.

But this list is about album, and a couple have really let me down. Voluntary Butler Scheme followed up their charming debut with an album that sounds like a tape player getting stuck. Nonsense, sampled drivel. The Danger Mouse led project ROME was similar. When did albums become about space to meander nowhere? The glow of a new REM album evaporates faster than ever. Bell X1 and Beady Eye both made average albums. Panic At the Disco is right back to being shit.

But lots didn’t make this list. Wagons. Those Darlins. Miles Kane. The Del McCoury Band. Elbow. Yuck.

Anyway – here’s five more that did.

1. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth

This came out of nowhere. I own both previous N&TW records, and spent some time with them. The last one was a bit boring, and I figured that would be it for me and this band. Then I saw that brilliant album cover. It’s the best album cover of the year. Cool, urban, hip, stylish, modern and classic.

And the record is something special. It’s like a dancier version of the Velvets. Every track is fun and goes somewhere. Huge hooks and sounds great. And that thing I love most – that sense that music can save us, our lives can be better, that life is to be lived. The Clash had it, You Am I have it, the Replacements have it, etc. And they’ve tapped into it here.

It is a real step up from their last one, which was a depressing drag. This album is about stepping up and enjoying every moment.

 

2. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones

(Epitaph)

I have loved Frank Turner’s music for the last few years. It’s right up my alley – Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Springsteen. But he is also my age and around now. Singing about hipsters and Thatcher and not knowing anyone who plays slide guitar – made it mean a lot more to me than ghosts of protest singers past.

His new album is as good as anything he’s ever done. Hugely anthemic and all about believing in music and us. There is absolutely no irony here. Take the single “I Still Believe”, which under lesser hands would seems cringeworthy.

Frank Turner is fucking awesome. Punk rock for now people. It seems I keep going back to this stuff, and when it comes to this stuff, Frank Turner is pretty much the best there is.

 

3. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See

(Domino)

Another band I already loved. The press have been calling this album a mix between their last two Humbug and Favourite Worse Nightmare. It’s kind of true. There is the stoner rock riffing of their last album, with a bit more of the pop hooks that made them chart toppers in the first place.

But it’s a RAGGED record. It’s loose. Some of the tight, sudden arrangements from the last two records are gone. It’s their most throwaway pop album. Maybe it’s because Alex Turner has turned into a more conventional songwriter. Maybe they are just having fun (I mean, with that title and cover…)

So, I miss some of those jagged corners. But what is there is brilliant. And once again, there is a lot of sex on this record. And Turner has not lost his way with words.

And in the end, the slow songs are best. Love Is A Laserquest, Reckless Serenade and the re-recorded Piledriver Waltz (originally on the Submarine Soundtrack) shine brightest. Some really pop moments. It’s what pot will do to you. I wish they would try and piss people off again, but they are allowed some fun.

 

4. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

(Universal)

It’s no small feat to make a 16 track album with barely anything but a ukulele and Eddie Vedder’s singular voice and not make it sound samey. Instead it sounds really lovely. Who knew you could do this with just a ukulele?

In the right hands the ukulele is a very pretty instrument. Seems like Vedder has the right hands. Songs like You’re True, Without You and Satellite a touching ballads. His songs tend towards the torch song tradition, using interesting and dramatic chords to break things up.

Then there are a couple of belters. How do those strings not break? Can’t Keep never lets up. Some well chosen covers – Sleepless Nights, Dream A Little Dream – add to the casual air. And though it’s 16 tracks, it’s less than 35 minutes all up.

It’s a dreamy, nostalgic record. I imagine festival campfire singalongs will go mad for this stuff (unfortunately). But I’ve just kept going back to it over and over again this year. And I give him credit for doing something low key and left field rather than a shit, chart topping solo album.

 

5. The Damnwells – No One Listens To the Band

(Pledge Music)

If this was 1999, the Damnwells would be friggin huge. OK, not huge, but they would have a couple of huge singles and probably fall away like the Gin Blossoms, Buffalo Tom or Semisonic. It’s the space they fill – earnest, straight and slightly needy college American rock.

It’s almost retro their sound. But it’s great – if you loved that stuff. And I did. Something very sad sack about it, inevitably about or directed at pretty women with broken hearts, dashed off with that Springsteen escapism I love so much.

So much rock fun to be had (with a lilting sadness, or course). The single Werewolves. I can’t even type the title She Goes Around without that wonderful chorus echoing through my brain. Most beautiful of all is the Great Unknown with the obligatory ballad side getting a go. Another most excellent, solid record adding to a solid discography.