I was discussing it with a friend late the other night – my delay in publishing my ‘top albums of 2011’ list, that obligatory list that every blogger (or avid music connoisseur) needs to tackle in some shape or form as the end of the year draws nigh.
“A battle of head versus heart” I had phrased, somewhat dramatically, in explaining why I was struggling to order my top two records of the year. Dramatic it may be, but ultimately, a nugget of truth lay at its core. One album up for consideration was an impeccable journey in songcraft and production – wry, insightful, with enough left of centre melodic twists to keep your ears at slight unrest. The other was a journey of the emotional – raw, potent and an album that I carried with me through a dark winter, both season and metaphorical.
Am I head or am I heart? There is a big question there, with the obvious answer that answer music lovers around the continents know – the two are never mutually exclusive. Ultimately, you have to go with your gut, and think about the album that most changed your life. For that’s what music is; life-changing, gutteral expressions of humanity, soul and everything else that makes up this slightly dramatic cocktail of life. So lets get drunk.
#1. Adalita – Adalita
And so it was. I was never really a Magic Dirt fan. I didn’t even know much about the Australian rock royalty that was Adalita. Yet somehow this album ended up in my hands, almost by impulse – and it slowly started working its way into my life. It’s an incredibly powerful album, that much is easy to say; Adalita’s voice is a weapon against any happiness you had felt – ever. With sparse, stark instrumentation, the music is dark but never too dense that you feel trapped on the outside. From the chilly yearning of ‘Perfection’, the emotional turmoil of ‘The Repairer’ and the sexy-but-sad ‘Invite Me’, it is a timeless piece of work, up there with the best of PJ Harvey or any other obvious comparisons one could throw around. Ultimately, it was not just the best Australian album of the year, but the best album, period.
#2. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me
In a year where some of alt-country’s biggest names put out outstanding albums, the album by this young songstress was too easily overlooked – for shame, world. Offbeat, at times lyrically brilliant and just darn razor-sharp (not to mention impeccably and tastefully produced by Dan from the Black Keys), this is the best album you probably didn’t hear this year. Mayfield writes and sings with offbeat swagger, about love and lust and all the mistakes of youth – never taking the easy cliché or obvious emotional route – and ultimately, it is just a brilliant example of songcraft. The new generation’s best storyteller, all others be damned.
#3. Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender
Over The Rhine have put our numerous superb albums of the years, including their (until now) defining opus Ohio. Yet, with this independently released collection, free from expectation and pressure, they’ve remarkably produced a body of work that somehow encapsulates everything fans have loved about them, and didn’t quite realise they loved. Always soulful and thoughtful, Over The Rhine capture something new here – that tiny little spark that starts a wildfire. From the tense craving of ‘Rave On’ through to the (wait for it) sexy swagger of ‘The King Knows How’ (Over The Rhine get sexy! Indeed!), there is a new confidence that only comes from making music entirely on your own terms. And has it been mentioned that Karen still has one of the best voices on the planet?
Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest
“I had no desire to be a child of sin, but then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek…” sings Gillian, on the albums defining track ‘Tennessee’, before recounting “of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you might be my favourite one of all”. And so it is, as she reveals more of herself than ever before, that the queen of alt-bluegrass (is that a genre?) puts out the album of her career.
Lucinda Williams – Blessed (The Kitchen Tapes)
The second disc of Lucinda Williams Blessed’ is the moment Lucinda fans (and the world, if only they knew it) had been waiting for. Ripping the heart of her songs out and laying it bare on the kitchen table, these stark, acoustic renditions show Lucinda in all her remarkable glory.
Joan As Police Woman – The Deep Field
“I’m looking for the magic… I’m looking for the alchemy to release me” Joan coos, in the sultry, vinegary voice that can only be hers. An album largely about the search for relief and release, it is the work of a songwriter totally on form.
Live Performance of the Year
Portishead – Harvest Festival, November 2011
One voice holds an entire festival hostage. And we loved it.
Best Cover Song
Birdy – Shelter (the xx cover)
One word: brilliant.
Tune-Yards – Bizness
A new album from Kathleen Edwards.
Until next year, folks…