Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Four

And so the moment of truth - our number one albums of the year.

Have a Merry Christmas, and don't forget about tomorrow's bonus post, when we calculate our collective top 10 of 2011.

Ali Mason

Tiny Ruins – Some Were Meant For Sea (WooMe)

Coming from New Zealand, a country surrounded and divided by water, it’s perhaps no surprise Hollie Fulbrook is a little bit obsessed with the sea. It’s also unsurprising that to her the sea is not just the sea – it is a symbol of adventure, it is travel, it is newness. And it is this spirit of yearning and adventure which informs her debut album as Tiny Ruins. It would be easy to think there was nothing adventurous here musically – little more than a guitar, occasional piano and barely-there backing vocals in support of Fullbrook’s voice, a tremendous instrument which is occasionally tremulous but at the same time rich and thick. But such is the simplicity of the arrangements that a single note, a word or a pause out would be fatal. Fulbrook is a storyteller. Her characters, such as the residents of the ’Adelphi Apartments’, whose loneliness she expresses in heartbreaking detail (“At night she read Cannery Row before saying goodnight to the highway below”) are fully realised. As Tom Ravenscroft, on whose show I first came across Tiny Ruins, points out, she avoids the “applied angst” that can scupper many songwriters, and in doing so has created a debut of simple, devastating beauty.

Guy Atkinson

The Wonder Years - Suburbia I've Given You All And Now I'm Nothing (ADA Global

I've often heard people talk about albums that seemed to 'speak' directly to them. I don't think I'd ever experienced this sensation until this third album from The Wonder Years. Okay, I might not be in a pop punk band from Pennsylvania, but there is so much in the lyrics here I can relate to. Anger at religious brainwashing, homophobia, sexism and racism are just a few of the topics tackled that set these guys apart from most of their contemporaries. Life-affirming stuff.

Ian Parker

Middle Brother - Middle Brother (Partisan)

This one became something of an obsession of mine, to the point that giving number one to anything else would have been a lie. It might not be technically brilliant or groundbreaking, but the members of Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit that make up Middle Brother have stepped on to the dangerous ground of the side project and emerged with a record that outweighs the sum of its parts. Here is the playful spirit that was missing from Deer Tick’s last LP (having been so apparent on the first two), the edge that, by its absence, held back Dawes’ debut and that little extra craft that Delta Spirit have needed. Middle Brother might fall into the ‘supergroup’ category, but there is a wonderful intimacy here, the sound of three guys unwinding by letting rip on a record of good old-fashioned Americana.

Matt Collins

The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar (Atlantic)

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, but in fact the hardest working band in rock of the last five years, the fiercely independent Joy Formidable’s major label debut is an, ahem, roaring success. The standout singles 'Whirring' and 'Austere' are the joyously chaotic rock tunes that brought them Foo Fighters support slots at Madison Square Garden, and they’ve made the step up from singles and mini-albums to real albums with real aplomb.

John Skilbeck

Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Wichita)

As Dom quite fairly pointed out on day 11, Wild Flag hardly reinvented the wheel with their debut album. But what they did achieve was to replace the worn-out nuts and bolts, upgrade the tyres, attach said wheels to a top-of-the-range convertible and hit the fast lane. Consisting of parts left over from defunct bands, most recognisably with Sleater-Kinney’s high-kicking Carrie Brownstein and tub-thumping Janet Weiss, all high hopes for Wild Flag were exceeded once their songs began to seep out, initially with a double-A-side single, then the live shows on YouTube and finally the finished LP. It’s been repeatedly said they performed with the vim of a band half their age, but bring me evidence of a group of 20-year-olds playing with such ferocity, energy and sheer satisfaction as this quartet did in London earlier in the month. I’ve checked; they don’t exist. Wild Flag rendered the competition, such as it was, obsolete.

Andy Welch

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Bella Union)

Fleet Foxes’ debut was pretty much perfect. Following it up was never going to be easy, but few, especially singer Robin Pecknold, could’ve imagined it would be as difficult as Helplessness Blues was. Seemingly driving him to the edge of madness, and the band to the brink of break-up, you can hear the struggle in the music. Not in a laboured sense – the album is anything but forced – but in each meticulous arrangement and lyric, which largely deal with the issues of mortality, responsibility and finding your place in the world. I’ve always loved bands who make music not because they want to, but have to, and Helplessness Blues, on which Pecknold longs for the utopia of Innisfree, where he can be left alone to live in peace, definitely falls into that category. This is a simply mesmerising album; beautiful, timeless and worth every bit of suffering that went into it.

Steve Pill

Radiohead – “The King of Limbs” (XL)

Radiohead were everywhere and nowhere for me this year. Everywhere in that The King Of Limbs was a constant on my iPod and had either influenced or been influenced by almost every pre-2011 album I rediscovered this year, from Caribou and Junior Boys, to Talk Talk and Duke Ellington. And nowhere in the sense that they dropped the album with minimal fuss – no pay-what-you-like gimmicks, Q front covers or whatever else it is that bands of their stature are meant to do. All we got was a viral video of Thom dancing like an epileptic Charlie Chaplin. And yet this was exactly what this economic, far-from-immediate little album deserved. The mood is as experimental as we've come to expect from post-OK Computer albums, but this was something else entirely – in turns soulful and tender, funky and insidious, textured and sparse. The paranoia has all but gone too. It felt like this was the record they'd spent the last decade trying to make but were too uptight, conflicted or successful to be able to get across. And with respective solo albums seemingly having accounted for any excesses, this was leaner and more passionate too. It almost felt too stripped back at first, yet repeat listens revealed subtle personalities to each song: the rhythm of 'Lotus Flower', the yearning of 'Codex', the sense of humour in 'Morning Mr Magpie'. I grew up with Radiohead and I'm as surprised as anyone that this is my number one in 2011, but this album simultaneously moved my head, heart and feet.

Pranam Mavahalli

Bjork – Biophilia (One Little Indian)

When I saw Bjork perform Biophilia in its entirety at the Manchester International Festival in July, I think I’d made my mind up it would be my album of the year. I had to wait a further three months to actually hear it, but thankfully when I did, I wasn’t disappointed. Much has been made of the apps that accompany it, and the bespoke instruments used to record it. But alleged gimmicks aside, and judged merely as a collection of tracks, this record ranks for me among Bjork’s best. Emotive, thrilling, melancholic and at times downright scary, this is ambitious, mind-expanding music, for both the heart and the head. Okay, so it’s not quite perfect (I continue to struggle with track 'Sacrifice'), but I’ve heard nothing else this year which matches it in terms of scope, vision and vitality.

Rory Dollard

Josh T. Pearson - Last of the Country Gentlemen (Mute)

In a year I’d happily chalk up as one of the biggest and best in terms of music that has really grabbed me, I found it astonishingly easy to pick my number one. Pearson’s labyrinthine country-tinged laments are not for everyone - and with their lengthy, meandering style and a poetic wordplay that rewards repeat visits, they probably actively discourage the casual listener. But for those who are up for the idea of being immersed in a gloriously bittersweet torrent of self-loathing and lost love, all set to near-virtuoso fretplay, this is set to be a timeless classic. So essential did it become to the Dollard household this year that we overlooked its subject matter and made it the soundtrack to our honeymoon.

Dom Farrell

War on Drugs - Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)

I fell head over heels for Slave Ambient on first listen, totally hooked as The War on Drugs meshed krautrock with psychedelia and Spiritualized with The Verve. You can imagine Dylan and Springsteen nodding their approval as Adam Granduciel drawls through his widescreen dreams of escapism. The highest of the high points comes as ‘Your Love Is Calling My Name’ hurtles into the sonic oblivion of ‘The Animator’ before ascending majestically with ‘Come To The City’. This year my band broke up. If I’m ever in another one, I want them to make a record like this.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. What kind of blasphemous things have you been writing Parks!?

  3. Ah, it was just something about the guy who picked Radiohead today, but I decided it was too much...