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.

Why Pearl Jam are on Target

Pearl Jam - bullseye.

Pearl Jam - bullseye.

Pearl Jam are copping a lot of criticism the last few days. It has come to light that their next album, rumoured to be called ‘Backspacer‘, will be an exclusive release at Target stores (in the US only). This rings false against the band who publicly fought off Ticketmaster, pioneered recyclable CD packaging and are generally, lets face it, hippies. But look further and we think Pearl Jam are doing the right thing.

The press is focusing on the Target story, they have missed the caveat. The agreement with Target allows Pearl Jam to release their album in “a number of smaller, independent stores” (according to Digital Music News). Is that not the prefect solution in this day and age?

Where some press have taken the indie store additions as an afterthought – they are no competition to Target – we think it’s the main piece here. Pearl Jam are far too big to release their albums in just Indie shops. But that’s the world they come from, they are not leaving them behind. It’s only in the arena of big box chains that Pearl Jam are having an exclusive. Are PJ fans and the Indie Police really against Pearl Jam‘s decision to not have their records in Wal Mart or Best Buy?

For us, it hits all the right buttons. Music lovers can support their local music store. Casual fans of Pearl Jam, who number the millions, can go to Target. They were never going to walk into a record store anyway. And Target will pump advertising and marketing into the album for the exclusive – exposure that the indie stores will benefit from. Of course, there will be a digital version that you can buy from your couch.

This is very different from AC/DC, who screwed indie retail over with their last album. You had to go to Wal Mart. No other choice at all.

This type of retail exclusive has not branched out of the US yet. The US is more it’s own island. Europe with so many countries around make this model almost impossible. We don’t like it, and we hope it’s a trend that will pass. But somehow we don’t think so.

And back to the music…we love Pearl Jam and wait patiently for the record. They are out of contract with Sony now. They are such progressive, forward thinking fellows. We can’t wait to see what they do now that they are one of the biggest independent bands in the world.

Pearl Jam official site – http://www.pearljam.com

We love Stereogum, and they broke the story – http://stereogum.com/archives/pearl-jams-fixer-to-debut-in-target-ad_071831.html