Albums of the Year 2011
Another year ends and along comes another Bubblegum Cage III end-of-year list. The usual caveats apply: this rather lengthy post was pecked out over a disjointed series of sittings. No critical rigour or close proofreading was applied at any stage. What is more, there was a major technical calamity at one point, which caused an entire evening’s worth of work to be lost forever. The upshot of all this is that the grammar may be marginal and the writing a little half-baked. But the music’s all that matters and the music is great.
So, what’s been happening? Well there’s this… and then…
Well… sometimes, it seems like every year is simultaneously a better year for music than the previous one and a worse year for music than ever. Let’s look on the dark side first, get that out of the way. It’s hard to remember a year when music per se was more marginal to western popular culture or when mainstream pop music was more shamelessly heinous. For most people, music has become little more than an optional feature of smartphones, designed to pump out shitty-sounding MP3s of hyper-compressed uber kitsch at the most antisocial of opportunities. And while the mainstream squanders the astonishing potential of digital audio technology in that manner, the greatest creative minds of the musical underground have turned into a bunch of look-back bores, intent upon steadfastly refusing to explore the full potential of the vintage synthesizers they just bought on eBay. Bah!
Then there’s digital maximalism, which just seems like a wearying, indiscriminate outpouring of collective incontinence. Still, there is a different type of torrential digital maximalism that can’t help but yield some positive results, if only by statistical probability. That is to say there continues to be an ever-gathering cascade of interesting-at-the-very-least new (and old) music raining down on us all on a daily basis – to the point that it’s utterly impossible to keep up, let alone appraise it all in a meaningful way. While this means that most of the truly great, potentially important albums end up getting overlooked… well, hasn’t that always been the case? The cream rises to the top, sure – but it usually takes a while.
It can sometimes seem like the greats are drowning in a sea of merely-goods. But let’s face it, there have only ever been about half a dozen truly classic albums released in any given 12-month period. That hasn’t changed in the last 50, 60 years. And even the most perceptive of critics will find it hard to figure out precisely which albums those are until said albums have been around for at least a couple of years. Of course, at the Bubblegum Cage III, we think the most perceptive of critics are losers. We know full well what the most important records of 2011 were and we know it right now. So what are we waiting for? Here they are…
Top 10 Albums of the Year
1. Seefeel – s/t (Warp) LP
Quite the comeback from the UK post-rock legends – this is exactly what Bubblegum Cage III wanted to be hearing in 2011. Which is to say it sounded like nothing else this year and flew recklessly in the face of fashion. No vintage synths, four-track fug or aimless eclecticism for this band.
Like all Seefeel albums, Seefeel explores variations on a very limited sound palette. In this case, the palette is anchored by ponderously hypnotic beats’n’basslines and topped off with Sarah Peacock’s cooing vocals. In the middle, you get Mark Clifford’s DSP-distressed guitar giving off all manner of bass wobbles, granular detonations and disorientatingly modulated delays.
Whereas most guitar/DSP combinations in the post-Fennesz era have aimed to humanize or naturalize experimental electronic music, Clifford’s work here essentially makes rock sound more alien and uncanny than one might reasonably think it could in this day and age. This is a brave, brilliantly realised and multi-dimensional album; genuinely dreamlike in its smeared clarity and as alienating as it is beautiful. (The Moritz von Oswald Trio has been pulling off a similar trick over the last few years.)
Fennesz is extra-relevant here, by the way. The great man’s combination of classic-rock guitar stylings and cutting-edge DSP deconstruction has been responsible for some of the most thoughtful, innovative music of the last 15 years. But his style is perhaps too fractured and abstract to have a direct impact on the broader culture of popular music. Seefeel represents an attempt to apply Fennesz-esque techniques to the “traditional” rhythms and structures of pop/rock. As such, it sounds like a proposal for a more reflective, less destructive – but not unrealistically utopian – future.
In the past, many people sought out music that sounded like the future. Nowadays, some of us are just searching for music that makes us feel like there’s going to be a future. Seefeel shoots the beast of inevitable entropy down with a single enigmatic glance. Seriously.
Near perfect and damn well necessary, Seefeel is this here blog’s album of the year. The fact that nobody else seems to regard it so highly is distressing on any number of levels.
2. Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place (12k) CD [& To Describe George Washington Bridge (Dekorder) 10″ & Remain (Line) CD]
An absolutely glorious excursion into pure ambient bliss-out from one of the tried-and-tested masters of digital electronica. The methodology here is probably pretty simple, as anyone who’s spent time playing with SoundHack will tell you. But while digital technology might make it easy to create sounds a bit like this, it’s something else to weave those sounds into an gigantic, undulating eiderdown of heavenly cumulus.
A Static Place consists of five pieces, four of which are exactly 10 minutes long. Like the Seefeel album, it’s based around a very limited selection of signature textures – the repeated deployment of spectral twisting and twinkling in the high end being the key to precisely why A Static Place is so seductive.
Most of the audio samples at the root of these twinkly textures were apparently sourced from Mathieu’s collection of vintage 78 RPM records – hence the “static” in the title. But any surface noise here is rendered as an unbroken, oceanic pink noise bliss-hiss, with no pops or irruptions to disrupt the flow. So seamless is the sound, in fact, that it seems faintly ridiculous to keep referring to Mathieu as a “glitch” artist, just because he’s a German guy with a laptop.
In spite of its restricted sonic parameters and its seamless flow, A Static Place is anything but one-dimensional. You could lose your mind in the heady heights of this album – this goddamn heroic inner space voyage.
3. Tape – Revelationes (Immune) LP
Perhaps the loveliest album yet from Sweden’s digitally-enhanced pastoral post-rock trio. There’s nothing unexpected here – beautiful guitar and keyboard melodies buoyed upon lightly-brushed rhythms, topped off with some unobtrusive granular audio manipulations. Tape’s music has always been just edgy enough to prevent it becoming blandly decorative but – in this case – the more-than-usually-beautiful melodies really kick things up a notch. Revelationes is absolutely bloody gorgeous; ravishing!
There’s a truly utopian sensibility to this music, albeit an unassuming, decidedly non-didactic sensibility (all of which is compounded by the lovely cover art). Compared to this, most 2011 releases sound unattractively decadent, bloated and pointless. Like the Seefeel album, this record hints at a better future that can only be glimpsed through the abstract medium of experimental music (in these blighted, dogmatically politicized times, a least). That may be reading too much into what is basically just a very pretty instrumental post-rock record but an album quite this pretty can really give you ideas.
4. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (Software) LP
If the already-classic Returnal felt like the culmination of something, Replica feels like the start of something – something good and something less tied to recognizable analogue tropes – but just the start of something, nevertheless. Whatever it is, Daniel Lopatin hasn’t quite perfected it yet, which is the only reason Oneohtrix Point Never hasn’t been awarded Bubblegum Cage III Album of the Year two years in a row.
Sampling has cropped up in Lopatin’s work before (on Memory Vague, for instance) but it has never been pushed quite so far to the fore. Oneohtrix is associated with the whole synth drone thing but Lopatin is clearly making an effort to prioritize digital methods. He’s even – sacrelige! – worked a laptop into his live set-up.
Apparently, most of the samples come from vintage TV adds, so Lopatin is still exploring the intersections of memory and popular culture. But he’s doing so in a more vivid, critical way than most of his hypnagogic peers. The sound here is spacious, raw and glitchy. The deployment of sound is both achingly beautiful and disarmingly witty. The most obvious comparison might be to 94 Diskont-era Oval, which is interesting because the last Oval album was a close runner up to Returnal in last year’s to 10.
Oh and c’mon guys, it’s a pun on 106.7FM (Boston’s soft rock station), so it’s pronounced “one oh tricks point never”. Is that really so hard?
5. Woebot – Chunks (Hollow Earth) LP
More sample-collage fun, this time concentrating on re-situating slices of 70s hard rock heaviosity. Part of the fun comes from hearing these big beer farts of sound hermetically sliced’n’diced and arranged with neat (but unfussy) precision. The real fun, though, comes from the fact that this approach doesn’t drain the idiot joy from the source material. If anything, the mighty Woebot’s attention to detail and ear for a hook only make things sillier and more energizing.
The fact that “Argos” has not yet topped the UK pop charts is proof positive that the world has gone mad.
6. Alva Noto – Univrs 2LP [& Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto – Summvs CD & Cyclo – Id 12″] (all Raster-Noton)
An astonishing year for Carsten Nicolai. Three releases so consistently compelling that it’s extremely hard to pick a favourite. His latest piano-versus-laptop duel with Ryuichi Sakamoto is perhaps the duo’s most satisfying face-off yet. But Univrs is just so stridently rocking and robotically funky that it seems like the real award winner here. And it truly is a winner – there are numerous moments on this album where you’ll simply want to stand up and applaud. Explosive stuff!
7. Kellarissa – Moon of Neptune (Mint) LP
Exceptionally lunar tunes from the pride of Vancouver. There was a fair bit of hype about solo, female avant-synthpop artists this year. The fact that Kellarissa got left out of the mix was a grave injustice. Maybe we can put it down to her duties as keyboard player in Destroyer taking up the time that would otherwise have been spent promoting this album. In any case, take a listen to “Undock” and then try to say that shit ain’t world-class.
8. Hype Williams – One Nation (Hippos in Tanks) LP
Smirky, lo-fi retro pastiche that should be annoying but is actually weirdly affecting. This London duo’s “we’re so mysterious” self-mythologizing is unnecessary – the real mystery is how so much beauty results from such an unpromising approach. One Nation is almost Ween-esque in its ability to confuse, irritate and beguile.
9. Charalambides – Exile (Kranky) 2LP
The wholly other avant rock duo’s best album yet? The words “peerless” and “singular” are doubtless used repeatedly elsewhere in this post but… what the hell: PEERLESS AND SINGULAR!
This is an unusually rugged and upfront Charalambides release, with Tom Carter spooling off endless desert psych/blues guitar lines while his ex, the divine Christine, croons diary entries close up into the mic. The results are at once stark and hypnotic. A tough trick to pull off but a damn effective one.
Five years in the making. A major release.
10. BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa – Big Shadow Montana (Helen Scarsdale Agency) LP
A truly epic and brilliantly structured ambient excursion from Scandinavia. A Static Place is lovelier and Cindytalk’s Hold Everything Dear (see below) is perhaps more ambitious but Big Shadow Montana has an impact all its own, perhaps because it manages to pull off the difficult balancing act between expansiveness and concision.
Sounds like a David Lynch movie. Let’s get this clear, though: it doesn’t sound like the soundtrack to a David Lynch movie, it sounds like the film itself. Does that sense? No? Well, neither does the record. This is that ol’ space shit!
Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky) 2LP [& Dropped Pianos (Kranky) 12″/LP]
Ravedeath is basically a consolidation of the more-droney-less-glitchy work Tim Hecker has been doing since Harmony in Ultraviolet but that’s not to damn it with faint praise – this is a brilliant concentration of everything that has made his recent work so irresistible. Add strangely melancholy, faux-rave gated synths and you’ve got a very strong contender for a top 10 spot.
The Dropped Pianos mini LP provides some insight into the raw material behind Ravedeath and is an unusually “live”-sounding release for Hecker.
Moritz von Oswald Trio – Horizontal Structures (Honest Jon’s) 2LP [& Vladislav Delay Quartet – s/t (Honest Jon’s) 2LP & Vladislav Delay – Vantaa (Raster-Noton) CD]
The Basic Channel man takes his trio on its most recognizably musical excursion yet. Horizontal Structures lacks the alien weirdness of previous releases but it’s irresistible and singular nonetheless.
The quartet led by MVOT percussionist Vladislav Delay is a much darker proposition, perhaps because of the the jet-black electronic madness unleashed by Mika Vainio (ex of Pan Sonic) throughout.
Vlad’s solo album on Raster-Noton seems a bit like a step back into his electronic comfort zone, after the more “live” sound of Tummaa. Maybe the Trio and Quartet are satiating his need to jam with “proper” musicians.
Belong – Common Era (Kranky) LP
Fans of Belong’s de facto Fennesz tribute album October Language looked askance at the New Orleans duo’s move into lo-fi pop territory but Common Era is actually the sound of a band coming into its own. Dreamy.
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact (4AD) 2LP
Gang Gang has been threatening to go pop for some time now and Eye Contact is pretty much that threat made a promise – parts of it sound like a dangerously out-of-control Black Eyed Peas! Somehow, though, this band has never quite delivered on its promise and it still seems like the best is yet to come.
Secret Pyramid – The Silent March (Nice Up International) cassette
Incredibly beautiful and accomplished space rock from here in Vancouver. Essential for all you fans of Flying Saucer Attack and lovesliescrushing, assuming you can track down this (as yet) tape-only release. Vinyl releases in 2012?
Fennesz + Sakamoto – Flumina (Touch) 2CD
Christian Fennesz’s collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto have never been as satisfying as Carsten Nicolai’s and this is really just more of the same, only three times as long and with rather darker, more probing piano work from Sakamoto. Nice though.
Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow 2LP [& Director’s Cut 2LP] (both Fish People)
The “real” new album, 50 Words for Snow, is like a more stripped-down version of the previous “proper” album, Aerial. It’s not up there with her best but it’s solid and often deeply evocative, other than the truly abysmal Elton John cameo. Director’s Cut is a reasonably successful attempt to redeem some of Kate’s lesser works – essential for committed fans but not for the rest of you.
- King Midas Sound – Without You (Hyperdub) 2LP
An album of remixes and “revoices”. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? But listen, it’s a Kevin Martin album with Green Gartside from Scritti Politti singing on one song – it’s obviously going to be awesome. “Come and Behold” is SONG OF THE YEAR. The Hype Williams and Gang Gang Dance remixes are just gravy.
Cindytalk – Hold Everything Dear (Editions Mego) 2LP
It was a good year for epic, highly structured ambient albums. This effort from art-goth veterans Cindytalk was up there with the best of ‘em.
The Field – Looping State of Mind (Kompakt) 2LP+CD
A slight step back artistically but a reliably vivifying collection of blissed out tech-house, all the same.
Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke – Indeed (Editions Mego) 2LP
Reliably excellent and abstract duo album from two avant rock/electronica A-listers.
James Blake – s/t (Universal) 2LP
Probably the most divisive album of the year – you either loved it or hated it. This here blog loved about 75% of it but the emo element and nagging repetition of lyrical phrases does grate after a while. Basically, “I Never Learned to Share” sucks.
Hauschka – Salon des Amateurs (130701) LP
Prepared piano, electronics, live drums and a whole bunch of lovely.
Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Miners’ Hymns (130701) 2LP
An oddly ominous-sounding anthem to the glory days of the union movement. It’s a movie soundtrack, so maybe it makes more sense with the visuals. In any case, a real kick in the arse for those who think this kind of post-minimalist eclecticism (see also Sylvain Chauveau, Max Richter etc.) is just so much apolitical pleasantness.
In Sepents & Seas – Notes from the Quiet Household (no label) download
More spooky soundscapes from the ever-reliable Charlie Martineau aka Esperik Glare. Name-your-price download from here.
Kelvox1 – Grazed Red (no label) download
Large scale contemporary UK post-rock. Not currently available, as the band is planning a hard-copy release for 2012. It’ll be worth the wait.
Loscil – coast/range/arc (Glacial Movements) CD
Another great ambient record from 2011. Vancouver’s Scott Morgan abandons the glitch beats and live instruments for some serious electronic flotation tank music. Glacial in its pace, crystalline in its clarity.
Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond) (Probe Plus) LP+CD
It’s hard to imagine anything more different from the Loscil album than this latest effort from England’s greatest comedy rock (sorry Taylor) institution. “L’Enfer c’est les Autres”, in particular, is absolutely pant-pissingly funny.
Xela – Exorcism (no label) download
Instead of releasing his final album as Xela as a nice vinyl edition on his own Type label, John Twells has chosen to go the free download route. This is slightly perplexing as, to these here ears, Exorcism sounds like the best Xela album evar! Dark but not as doomy as the title might suggest. More bliss, less horror and all the better for it.
Byetone – Symeta (Raster-Noton) LP
Another great year for Raster-Noton. Actually, it’s incredible how first-generation glitch labels like Raster and Mego have managed to stay relevant (Mille Plateaux, not so much). This is like a more organic, dubby version of the Alva Noto album. Other Raster artists (Frank Bretschneider, Senking…) have been exploring similar ground over the last couple of years, with mixed results. This immediately jumps out as a more successful expedition than most.
Lawrence English – The Peregrine (Experimedia) LP
English seems like someone who is yet to make his definitive musical statement. Reports that The Peregrine is his masterwork have been greatly exaggerated. Basically, it’s a more expansive take on the recent Tim Hecker sound. It’s not unsatisfying but you’re left with the feeling that he can and will do better.
Singles, EPs etc.
Burial – Street Halo (Hyperdub) 12″
Bloody hell, he just gets better! Albeit gradually. The post-dubstep pioneer is progressing at his own sweet pace. A tiny step for him is a giant thrill ride for the rest of us. This may be his most purely beautiful release so far.
Fennesz – Seven Stars (Touch) 10″
Very, very solid four-track release from the governor. The introduction of a steady, live drum beat on the title track is a nice touch but the rest is business as usual. Nothing wrong with that, in this case.
Shackleton – “Fireworks” 2×12″ & Actress – “Harrier ATTK”/”Gershwin” 12″ (both Honest Jon’s)
It was a stellar year for Honest Jon’s. “Fireworks” saw a return to form for ethno-dubstep lurker Shackleton, after his rather underwhelming Fabric mix CD, while Actress gave us more of his trademark hyper-compressed avant techno.
The Automatics Group – Auto 17 (Or) 12″
Generic analogue synthesizer drone continued to be big news this year but genuinely otherworldly synth weirdness was thin on the ground. Thank goodness, then, for this impeccably odd release from York’s Automatics Group.
Spell – Hex (Panospria) download
Thankfully, this is not the Spell which features (gag!) Boyd Rice. And sadly, it’s not a song-by-song reinterpretation of Hex by Bark Psychosis. Instead it’s a Vancouver duo purveying a hard-to-classify mix of effects-pedal haze, laptop beats and incantory vocals. Free download from here.
Andy Stott – Passed Me by (Modern Love) 12″/LP
It almost did! Andy Stott seems to be operating in the same hyper-compressed, sample-based, post-techno space as actress. Seductive stuff but – as with Actress – the deliberately excessive use of side-chaining compression can lead to ear fatigue pretty quickly. Perhaps that’s why both artists are concentrating on short-form releases, rather than full-length albums. Stott released another mini LP in 2011 (We Stay Together – haven’t heard it yet) and the two releases are now available together on a double CD.
Disco Inferno – The 5 EPs (One Little Indian) CD
Probably the most important re-issue of all time, so why the fuck isn’t it available on vinyl?!? WHY???????????
Now, RELEASE THIS FUCKING THING ON VINYL, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!!!
My Bloody Valentine – Lost Tracks & Rare Cuts (Alti Philosophi) LP
A bootleg – obviously – but a very welcome one. True MBV fans will definitely need those recently-discovered demos on wax, after all.
***BEGIN EDIT – MAJOR OVERSIGHT***
The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (Beggars Banquet) 3CD
Something important always gets left out but the fact that this lavish box-set was absent from the original version of the list… well, that ain’t okay. Put it down to this being the year that the Bubblegum Cage III finally got sick of The Fall. Still, this is essential. While it doesn’t quite scale the heights of 2010’s essential Wonderful & Frightening World of… 4CD set, this should still stand as a stern corrective to those who believe that The Fall ran out of steam after finally leaving Rough Trade for good or that Ersatz GB is the best Mark E. Smith can do. More, please!
***END EDIT – SORRY ABOUT THAT***
Arthur Russell – Let’s Go Swimming (Audika) 12″
A classic slab of electro-pop wildness, again and again and again. How can you resist?
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (Ba-Da-Bing) LP
Over the last few years, original vinyl copies of Talk Talk’s extraordinary swansong have been going for about $100. Earlier this year, an apparently rather dodgy bootleg seemed to be doing the rounds. Now, finally, we have this legit re-issue. Essential to own for all serious avant/post-rock fans. The hair-raising feedback solo on “After the Flood” would be worth the price of admission alone.
Slowdive – Pygmalion (“Creation”) 2LP
The label name is in quotes because this kinda has to be a bootleg. Ah well, it’s still nice to have the marvelously abstract final album from this legendary shoegaze band available on wax.
Hecker – Sun Pandamonium (Pan) LP
Seriously mind-bending EXTREME COMPUTER MUSIC from Florian Hecker, in seriously luxurious packaging. Very classy.
Lawrence English – Kiri No Oto (Digitalis) LP
A very welcome vinyl edition. Just as good as the actual new album.
Releases by connect_icut & on CSAF RecordsObviously, it would be a massive conflict of interests to include any connect_icut/CSAF-related stuff in any of the actual lists. But it would be remiss not to encourage you all to grip these free downloads…
connect_icut – Let’s Hear it for the Vague Blur (Panospria) download
The fifth album by connect_icut, gloriously remastered by Joshua “Magneticring” Stevenson. Imagine a mid point between those Heckers, Tim and Florian. Now, get it here.
Not Me – 2011 12s Vols. 1-5 (CSAF) downloads
Deep, dark Chain Reaction-style beats plus whatever the remixers felt like doing. Said remixers included Loscil, Fieldhead, Kuma and Vincent Parker. That’s right: Loscil! Get them all here.
Not Me – “lss (Lim’s Verges of Tears)” from Vol. 2
connect_icut – They Showed Me the Secret Beaches (CSAF) download
The fourth and best connect_icut album, originally (and still) available as a vinyl LP, now available as a high-quality, full-album download FOR A DOLLAR! How can you resist? Get it here.
The Fall – Ersatz GB (Cherry Red) LP
Look, every Fall album has its moments but it’s hard to make a case for this rather half-hearted exercise. Down there with Are You are Missing Winner and Reformation Post-TLC.
Mountains – Air Museum (Thrill Jockey) LP
Okay, so it’s not that bad but it is a dispiriting exercise in unimaginative analogue synth drone. This Brooklyn duo has spent years sticking to its guns, gradually building an audience for its consitently-unfashionable-but-equally-consistently-affecting mix of field recordings, acoustic guitar picking and electronic sound manipulation. Why jump on someone else’s bandwagon at this stage? And why do it so clumsily?
What Didn’t Get Heard Yet?
Oh, all sorts of “exotic” music from other cultures, that footwork business, various synthpop ladies, countless releases on Dekorder, Editions Mego, Kranky, Raster-Noton, Touch and Type plus stuff by Actress, Anarchist Republic of Bzzz, Beequeen, The Caretaker, Destroyer, Hype Williams, Giuseppe Ielasi, Mount Kimbie, Nochexxx, No UFOs, Oval, Pinch & Shackleton, Andy Stott, SunnO))) meets Nurse with Wound and goodness knows what else.
The Oval is obviously this year’s big missing piece. As previously mentioned, O was number two in last year’s top 10. OvalDNA, a 2CD collection of rarities, unreleased tracks, samples and software seems to have been released in Europe at the end of last month but there doesn’t appear to be any North American release planned, let alone a vinyl release (which would be technically impossible, to a certain extent). Anyone out there heard it?
Hard to recall. Fennesz and Philip Jeck in London stands out as a memorable highlight, as does Oval and Mountains in Vancouver. Going to see Prince this week!
Bert Jansch 1943-2011
Trish Keenan 1968-2011
Other Lists You Should Take a Look at
(Updated regularly – more coming soon)
Blissblog (Simon Reynolds)
Everything’s Exploding (members only)
Largehearted Boy (list of lists)
Metacritic (chart of charts)