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Friday, December 30, 2011 

Best music of 2011 part 2 / 15 best albums.

Honourable mentions, in no particular order:

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Arctic Monkeys - Suck it and See
Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
Sepalcure - Sepalcure
DJ Diamond - Flight Muzik
Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Zomby - Dedication
tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
Africa Hitech - 93 Million Miles
Surgeon - Breaking the Frame
Machinedrum - Room(s)
Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We're New Here
Kryptic Minds - Can't Sleep

15. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Annie Clark's third album as St. Vincent comes across not so much as a howl of anger about America both past and present as an expression of bitter disappointment. The lead single Cruel, with its incredibly effective take on the crushing realities of family life would be enough on its own, but backed with Cheerleader, Clark singing of how she's seen America naked, and Surgeon, apparently inspired by Marilyn Monroe's diaries, it forms a critique that is all the more powerful for its world-weariness, especially impressive coming from a 28-year-old. Making it all the more fierce is Clark's eye for almost other-worldly hooks and riffs: Cheerleader's final 40 seconds simply don't last long enough, while the solos on Northern Lights in their fuzzed beauty beguile in equal measure.

14. Pinch and Shackleton - Pinch and Shackleton

Coming slightly too late for inclusion on last year's list was Shackleton's Fabric 55 mix, containing only his own productions. While only drawing from yourself for a mix can be incredibly self-indulgent, when your tracks are as multi-layered and occasionally sinister as Shackleton's it almost feels obligatory. Combining with Bristol's Pinch for this album on the exceptionally curated Honest Jon's label, it feels like a riposte to where dubstep seems to have been going in 2011: nowhere.

13. Emika - Emika

The writing process of bass music is such that very few tracks are ever made with the express intention of later adding vocals, let alone having the lyrics written alongside or even before. This often results in the jarring effect successful instrumentals suffer from when it's felt, often by record companies, that a vocal has to be added to make it commercial enough to be played on radio. Not all of the productions Emika has vocalled have been expressly written for her, yet her nuanced, breathy vocals, compared to Portishead's Beth Gibbons', make it sound as if they were always made to co-exist. Count Backwards especially is a triumph on an album that is very much of the city she used to call home, Bristol, while also nodding towards her new residence in Berlin.

12. Martyn - Ghost People

Having received plaudits all round for last year's debut Great Lengths, it seems more than slightly strange that the Dutch producer hasn't received anywhere near the same accolades for his follow-up, Ghost People. Perhaps that's because it looks just as much backwards as it does forward, often wearing its early rave influences on its sleeve (it could also be something to do with being released the same week as the albums by both Rustie and Kuedo). This is a shame, as although many are pretending to have forgotten about the "new rave" trend that never was, Martyn has been around long enough to trim the excess flab off and deliver only the good parts. The album's last track, We Are You in the Future comes with the breaks, while Masks' effervescent synths and main riff rivals anything from the post-dubstep stable this year.

11. 2562 - Fever

As a concept alone, Fever by 2562 deserves applause: every single sound on the album is sampled in some way from disco records released between the mid-1970s and early 80s. Not that you'd necessarily realise it if you were given just the record without any additional information. If you were, what you'd find was an album that simply doesn't sound like anything else released this year: sure, the syncopation of dubstep/post-dubstep is there, as you'd expect, but it's the warmth that's so invigorating, as epitomised on the opener Winamp Melodrama, and which then continues throughout.

10. Rinse CD Mix Series
Rinse 14: Mixed by Youngsta
Rinse 15: Mixed by Roska
Rinse 16: Mixed by Ben UFO
Rinse 17: Mixed by Elijah and Skilliam

Rinse FM, having started off as a pirate way back in 94, continues to astound with just how far it's managed to come in those 17 years. It's not hyperbolic to describe it as the best music radio station in the world: which other station with a licence after all starts off the week with a heavily dub influenced show by Crises, and then ends it on a Sunday with the dancehall sounds of the Heatwave? Its this depth and variety which comes shining through in the compilation CDs the station has released this year: the dungeon, roots dubstep courtesy of Youngsta, the upstart UK funky played by Roska, the current post-dubstep mixed with old-school house and techno of Ben UFO, and the upfront grime showcased by Elijah and Skilliam. Its the latter mix which impresses the most and also best captures the essence of their actual show on Rinse, both in the dexterity of the mixing and the sheer number of tracks packed in, although it doesn't come close to the near 90 they managed to fit into their allotted 2 hours at the beginning of this month.

9. Fabriclive 57 - Mixed by Jackmaster

One of the problems with officially released mixes in 2011 is that with music so instantly available, it's difficult for the DJ to put together a selection that is still new when it's actually released, usually the 2 to 3 months after they recorded it. Jackmaster got around this trouble (at least almost, as it was touch and go whether they could licence the DJ Funk track) by mixing almost equal parts current tracks with classics and old school: seminal tunes like Big Fun by Inner City and Vamp by Outlander thus sit alongside the latest from Addison Groove and Hudson Mohawke. As with the Martyn album, it's evidence if it were needed that sometimes you have to go backwards to keep on going forward.

8. Silkie - City Limits Volume 2

If for nothing else, the wait for City Limits Volume 2 was worth it simply for the long-awaited release of Silkie's collaboration with Skream. Having been around on "dubplate" for at least two years, possibly longer, and with it still "Untitled" giving the game away, it melds Silkie's innate sense of melody with Skream's emphasis on rhythm, creating a monster of a track. While nothing else on here quite touches the heights reached by their pairing, the rest certainly isn't filler: Boogie Boy and Rock Da Funk are great examples of what Silkie does best, adding soul and depth to what can in certain hands be dubstep's difficult to penetrate harsh core.

7. Kromestar - Colourful Vibrations

Criminally overlooked on its release earlier in the year, Colourful Vibrations by Kromestar is one of those albums that will hopefully come to be appreciated more in time. Equally at home producing ear-shredding mid-range tunes as he is contributing to the more melodic side of the scene through his involvement in the Antisocial Entertainment grouping, Colourful Vibrations showcases the latter side of his output. The first release on the Dubstep for Deep Heads label, this is exactly that, although just as dancefloor friendly. If there is one criticism to be made, it's that it could have been better sequenced: the first five tracks are so exceptional, Disagree especially with its horn riffs, that what follows comes as a slight let down. That shouldn't distract though from what is one of the most impressive dubstep long players since the genre name was coined.

6. Author - Author

"I am a teacher and I am still a teacher". So goes the sample on the release preceding Author's self-titled debut, and also featured here as a hidden track. Consisting of Jack Sparrow and Ruckspin, two distinguished dubstep producers in their own right, their coming together as Author for this release on Pinch's Tectonic label saw them giving what ought to be a lesson to many of the new breed of producers: if there's no real feeling to your track, just the ticking of boxes, then it's not going to last long in the memory. Opener Turn, with lyrics from Ed Thomas, is as lush an intro as you're likely to hear, while the sax on Green and Blue, which can so easily turn out cheesy when done wrong is perfectly judged, all adding up to form the best straight-up dubstep album of the year.


5. Kuedo - Severant

As part of dubstep duo Vex'd, Jamie Teasdale had arguably a major hand in putting the mainstream part of the genre where it is now: the difference is that where his productions alongside Roly Porter had the harshness that has become the hallmark of the mid-range sound, their productions also had the technical skill which so often fails to underpin the either insipid or aggravating wobblers that have come afterwards. In his new guise as Kuedo he's left all that behind, imbibing influences as varied as the pioneering electronic soundtracks of the early 80s right up to the Chicagoan footwork which had such an impact on UK bass music last year. The overall result is dreamlike and an often overused description, cinematic, but which in this case is all too accurate. Best of all might be Scissors, sampling Carly Simon's Why, the riff coming in off-kilter as the jukin' backdrop kicks away.

4. SBTRKT - SBTRKT

One of the most remarkable things about SBTRKT's debut is what isn't on the album: Nervous, which came out on Numbers last year either couldn't be licensed to Young Turks or was felt to be too old for inclusion. What does feature is utterly immaculate pop, albeit with all the sheen and heft of bass music in 2011. While it features a number of guest vocalists, it's Sampha's contributions which are far and away the best, album closer Living Like I Do showing off his range to its fullest extent. Rumoured to have made the Mercury shortlist, its subsequent exclusion was all the more bewildering when efforts by both Tinie Tempah and Ghostpoet were deemed to be better. SBTRKT, in a different way to Jessie J, will hopefully get the last laugh.

3. Rustie - Glass Swords

Listening to the first three tracks on Glass Swords having already read the forum hype and reviews, many of which were either lauding it or eulogising about Rustie's debut, I was just a little non-plussed. Sure, they're better than average, but they weren't worth the effusive praise the whole was receiving. Then Hover Traps dropped, and so did my jaw. Once it does, the pace simply doesn't let up: to call it a sugar rush, or even a surge of serotonin doesn't really do Glass Swords justice. Put simply, it's the most outrageously loved-up, euphoric album of the year, whether you pigeonhole it as being of the post-dubstep movement or pure rave music. Ultra Thizz on its own would be worthy of this placing; accompanied as it is by twelve other tracks in a similar vein, it makes for the most exhilarating listen of the year.

2. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

If the critics have agreed on one thing, it's that Let England Shake is either very close to being or is the album of the year. Backlash duly prompted, the main criticism seems to be that Polly Jean Harvey's eighth studio record is slightly too worthy, a little too broadsheet to truly become a classic album. To which I say: bollocks. Rather than being too worthy, Let England Shake is vital, a corrective to the happy image currently being shoved down our collective throat of the military, or at least the wives of soldiers as embodying the best of British resolve, their husbands away "protecting Queen and country". We should be shaking at the continuing pointlessness of war in Afghanistan, a war our politicians tell us the most miserable of lies about. Let England Shake might deal mainly with the first world war, a conflict even more unnecessary than the current one in Afghanistan, but the message still resonates: the opening lines of The Words That Maketh Murder, "I have seen and done things I want to forget / I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat" ought and must retain the power to shock and to frighten. The Glorious Land's main refrain has it completely right, still: "Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet, feet marching".

1. James Blake - James Blake

"There's a limit to your love. Your love your love your love." To make a cover version the centrepiece of your debut album would normally be suggestive of a lack of confidence in the original material. With James Blake it was the opposite: his wonderfully simple yet brilliant cover of Feist, piano, vocals, rippling sub-bass and woodblock hits was there to show he could do almost anything he put his mind to. As Pitchfork put it, no one expected him to turner singer / songwriter when his dubstep productions were of such imperious quality. That he did, with material he apparently wrote while he was at university before putting together the likes of CMYK, and that it was so ahead of everything else this year was the surprise which has kept on giving. Might as well fall in.

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