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.

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 – #70. Paul Simon – Surprise

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.

2006 – #10. Paul Simon – Surprise
(Warner Brothers)

Funny how one can fall in love with an artist. Surprise came at the perfect time. I had been working my way through Paul Simon‘s entire life. And by the time I caught up, there was an excellent new chapter.

Of course, everyone knows Simon And Garfunkel. But it was in 2004 that I picked up the Complete Studio Recordings, all of Paul Simon‘s excellent solo albums on WB. Not that I knew how excellent they all were just yet. So I started at the beginning – 1972’s self titled debut – and worked my way up, falling in love with all his songs on the way. For my money, the four albums he made before Graceland are the best work he’s ever done.

I learnt the songs on guitar. I bought a badly written biography. I read anything I could on the internet and I downloaded live shows and bought live albums. This may have been the last time I really fell for one of those artists whose career spans decades. So it was with some excitement when he announced a new album.

So, I know how this shit works. For forgotten legends. No one cares for the new album. Publications like Rolling Stone and Billboard (with their misjudged sense of hero worship) would rave, but most of the world are not going to buy the newest Paul Simon album, because they hadn’t bought one in 20 years. It wasn’t even something I could share with anyone. I’m honestly struggling to think if I’ve ever had a conversation about this album with another living soul.

The album, Surprise, is brilliant. It’s his best since Hearts And Bones (ie. better than Graceland). There are some very simple reasons for this. One is Brian Eno, who produced the record but brought so much to the sound that he gets the occasional co-write. The other is the lack of love songs, which made his last album so bland. In an interview, Simon said something like no one wants to hear a man my age sing about sex. So he found something new.

Musically this record is Paul Simon in the 00s. There’s some buzzy guitar and studio effects (but in that organic Eno kind of way). The world music sounds are gone (although some of the rhythms remain), and it is far from just a man and his guitar. In fact, I think there may be more electric guitar on this album than any solo or S&G record he’s ever been on.

Amazingly, Simon sounds like he’s having fun and not taking himself too seriously. It’s best shown on Outrageous, the song that did the round of talk shows when this album came out. A great rhythm, a great song, and a silly lyric about not wanting to turn into a grumpy old man yet he has to dye his hair.

With the self-imposed no love songs rule, Simon returns to some of his other strengths. The story of the young bride who runs away on Another Galaxy is one of Simon‘s best. Father & Daughter is so sweet it became a minor hit in several countries. Then there’s How Can You Live In the Northwest, Simon‘s best political song, where he questions the questions, and if they are the right ones. There’s plenty more.

So yes, when this album I dived right in. And I loved every note. This is not a Sydney album, a Europe album or a London album. This is a Paul Simon album, and Paul and I stretch back 20 years. He’s an old friend who, no matter how much time is passed, we pick straight up from where we last left off.

Top 10 of 2006: 7. Paul Simon – Surprise

7. Paul Simon – Surprise
I get annoyed when artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young etc make these sorts of lists. Modern Times was good, but is it realy one of the best albums of the last 12 months? The most interesting musical work? Relevant? Will we look back at 2006 and think of Modern Times?

Bob, Neil, Bruce, Elvis Costello and a bunch of others all released albums this year but there was one old fart that made a record that I thought truly breath-taking, truly 2006, and truly one of the top albums of the year.

Simon is a great songwriter, singer and an acoustic guitar player. But his best work has always had stunning production. The darkness of Sound Of Silence, the huge Phil Spectorness of Bridge Over Troubled Water and the world music colours of Graceland all make Simon one step above, say, James Taylor. After a couple of samey low-key albums, Simon has found a collaborator that bring his sound into 2006 and beyond. His name is Brian Eno.

The album starts How Can You Live In the Northwest? Not a political critique, but a wonderful circle of questions we ask of eachother (“How can you live in the northwest? How can you live in the south?”) but it’s the sound of the thing. Distorted e-bow’ed guitars, humming and buzzing…it sounds like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

It’s a gorgeous sounding album. I can’t think of a Paul Simon album that has this much guitar, this many keyboards or this much distortion. It’s not Nine Inch Nails, but it’s not James Taylor either. Look, it sounds like Actung Baby, ok?

In interviews for this album, Simon said that now, being 64, no one wanted to hear about him having sex. So that was the challenge…no love songs. Or at least conventional ones. Fathers & Daughter is, as the title suggests, a touching song about his daughter. Another Galaxy is about the freedom felt by a woman who runs away on her wedding day. His lyrics are playful and insightful as always. The premier Paul Simon site, Lasers In the Jungle, has essays on the first few songs and it’s pretty easy to get right into them and unravel the wealth of images in there. It’s a delight!

Last year I loved Songs For Silverman by Ben Folds for it’s maturity. That’s a big selling point for Surprise too. It’s a gentlemanly album, about looking at the world of the past and future, with tenderness and hope, from an older age. Simon himself sings on Outrageous: “It’s outrageous a man like me standing here and complain/but I’m tired/900 sit ups a day/I’m painting my hair the colour of mud/mud ok?” Later he asks “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?”. It’s definitely not a flower power pop song like Mrs Robinson. That was a long time ago.

And the cover? Simon just has no sense of design. Bad album cover after bad album cover. Still, it’s his best work, I would say, in 30 years.

Danny Yau
London