Honourable Mentions

Death In Vegas – “Trans Love Energies”

This album came out nowhere back in September and knocked me for six, a great comeback album if ever there was one. Admittedly it’s not always the subtlest of albums, both in terms of wearing its influences on its sleeves and in terms of its sometimes simplistic nature. However, these complaints are minor with Richard Fearless finding a balance between his art-rock and electronic music influences and blending them into a visceral whole. Though it may not be the most original album released this year it’s a joy to listen to and Fearless show he’s still a master of his music domain. His whispered vocals (which sometimes recall Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers) and those of collaborator Kate Stelmanis (Austra) are the icing on the cake. It is well worth getting the 2 CD edition too, which features remixes and instrumental versions of album tracks plus five non-album tracks all of which equal the quality of the album itself.

Spank Rock – “Everything Is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar”

After 5 years Spank Rock returned this year with a second album ‘Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar’. This combines tracks that consolidate what Spank Rock achieved on previous album ‘YoYoYoYoYo’ and while moving into new areas like four-to-floor dance music, grungy distortion and Can sampling single ‘Energy’. Spank Rock also tries out singing on ‘The Dance’, ‘Baby’ (on which he achieves an excellent Prince impersonation) and ‘Energy’ and does so with aplomb. The triple dance floor whammy of ‘The Dance’, ‘#1 Hit’ and ‘Turn It Off’ are the biggest departures but also the greatest successes. During the second half of the album the majority tracks recall ‘YoYoYoYoYo’s’ electro sound but here it’s been expanded and built upon to incorporate tribal vibes, industrial touches, grungy distortion and on ‘Baby’ a phat funk groove. Like on his debut, Spank Rock pushes the envelope of electro hip-hop successfully bringing together disparate elements and combining them as if they should be together. An excellent album full of energy, humour and electro.

DELS – “GOB”

Dels produced an authoritative debut album that balances catchy, memorable tunes with experimentation, unexpected twists and turns and a signature sound on a complete and engaging record. The first half is full of heavy hitting, bouncy electro inspired tracks but the second half to the album covers more serious topics including the recent political problems in the UK, rape and domestic violence. Dels is able to change the pace and the atmosphere to suit these changes in subject and this is proof of an artist with more than one string to his bow and great future ahead of him. Dels is a hip-hop artist with substance to match his unique style.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen – “A Winged Victory for the Sullen”

A Winged Victory for the Sullen is a collaboration between Adam Wiltzie of Texan ambient duo Stars of the Lid and contemporary pianist Dustin O’ Halloran and their self titled debut album is where their two styles meet in the middle. The music shifts in and out of focus as the two musicians interact, knowing when to play together and when to let the other have space, when to build a wave of sound and when to leave room between them. One of the remarkable things about the album is how cohesive it sounds, as if the duo had been working together for years and understood each other’s every musical move and how to compliment it. The reason for choosing this album is best summed up by Sam Cleeve of Drowned in Sound “While Wiltzie and O’Halloran both have their obvious contemporaries to draw parallels between (Hammock; Eno/Frahm; Arnalds), this emotive disc balances a hushed intimacy and vast expanse that places it in a unique sonic terrain.”

Toro Y Moi – “Underneath the Pine”

Back in February I described Toro Y Moi’s “Underneath the Pine” in the following way, “from its chiming and droning intro track right through to the last rhythmic charge of ‘Elise’, it does no wrong. A fantastic concoction of ’80s style funk riffs and grooves matched with emotive soundtrack backing and the glorious rush of good pop music, it’s a leap forward from his impressive début ‘Causers of This’” Since then I’ve had more time to contemplate the album and its subtleties, discovering the stylistic similarities to Stereolab (who featured in his mix for The Quietus) and deepening my admiration for the lush atmospherics present in the tracks and the way that the singles ‘New Beat’ and ‘Still Sound’’s infectious upbeat energy contrast with the album’s more thoughtful moments such as ‘Good Hold’ and opener ‘Intro/Chi Chi’. On the surface “Underneath the Pine” is full of simple pleasures but reveals more and more with each new play.

Top Ten Album’s of the Year

10. Battles – “Gloss Drop” (Warp Records)

 As with any Battles release there’s a lot to take in and one listen simply won’t cut it in terms of any real in-depth analysis. The trio made a good first impression proving they can do great things without former member Tyondai Braxton, whom was always seen as a key band member. This is definitely a Battles album yet they’ve shed some of the uptight, over thought jazz-prog that had previously manifested itself in a frustrating way. This is a looser, freer band. Drummer John Stanier is able to make his techno influences much more explicit, this and the Carribbean/Latin/Calypso touches that are littered throughout the album add a new rhythmic interest and lightness of touch that are both great new additions to the Battles sound. This isn’t a band trying to play techno or calypso through; rather they are trying to fold these influences into their already established sound. Another interesting facet of the sound is that on many of the tracks feature ambience and background sounds that evoke grey concrete that is juxtaposed with the lighter and happier calypso influenced melodies and riffs. ‘Gloss Drop’ is a bold statement from band that could have collapsed but has instead shown a new strength.

9. Chancha Via Circuito – “Rio Arriba” (ZZK Records)

This album by an Argentine hip-hop producer Pedro Canale fuses J Dilla-esque beats to traditional Columbian cumbia percussion samples, melodies and vocal samples to create a heady and humid hybrid that recalls walking through the South American jungle after dark. Like all the best hip-hop producers Canale has a deep understanding of the music that he is sampling but doesn’t respect it to the point that it limits his innovation. His music and grooves feel organic but also as if they’ve been subtly subverted in his sampler. “Rio Arriba” isn’t all about the beats. He uses atmosphere to evoke a time and place and is one of the only new hip-hop producers I’ve heard who achieves this to such a high level, you don’t just hear the time and place either but feel the emotions of the singers and the instrumental tracks so brilliantly convey. It’s difficult to properly describe Chancha Via Circuito’s music but with “Rio Arriba” he has created the debut album of the year.

8. The Horrors – “Skying” (XL Records)

I’ll admit to never having been taken by The Horrors and other than the excellent track ‘Sea Within a Sea’ I didn’t see what all fuss was about with their last album “Primary Colours”. However, their new self-produced album “Skying” finds them striking a balance between clear melodic lines and thick, swirling psychedelia. Previously the band sounded muddy with the melody submerged low in the mix. There’s also a new feeling of purpose to tracks like ‘Still Life’, ‘Moving Further Away’ and ‘Endless Blue’. The band combine the motorik rhythms of Neu!, the English psychedelia of late 80s Julian Cope and the power ballad dynamics of Simple Minds (not something I thought I’d ever be recommending) into a punchy pop-rock package. They’ve left behind the restrictions of recreating gothic post-punk sounds and the doom laden, muddy psychedelia of previous albums and have emerged as a band that delivers where once they merely promised.

7. Tune-Yards –“Who Kill” (4AD Records)

Tune-Yards delivers on what was hinted at on her debut album ‘Bird-Brains’. Strong vocal performances and use of vocal layering are ever present as are the hip-hop rhythms that dominated her debut. She also brings a host of surprises, the processing of vocals through a modular synth, pop melodies that pack a punch and a day-glo sound indebted to both African music and dub yet at the same time all of her own. Though the album dips towards the end ‘Doorstop’ and ‘You, Yes You’ show there are yet more directions in which Tune-Yards’ sound can be developed. In addition to this the album reflects its time through its politically engaged lyrics and of protests both personal and local. In a year dominated by protests and political upheaval, “Who Kill” provided a vibrant soundtrack. All-in-all this is a great album from a unique artist.

6. The Field – “Looping State of Mind”  (Kompakt)

This year Axel Willner delivered another great album as The Field and continued to evolve his glacial techno sound. His music is now warmer and more organic (see ‘Arpeggiated Love’ and ‘Burned Out’), while his grooves have become funkier and more human recalling those found on LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound of Silver”. The best way I can think to describe “Looping State of Mind” is LCD Soundsystem grooves matched with the inverted dance structures and Tangerine Dream influenced kosmische music of The Field’s typical productions. A match made in heaven.

5. Tamikrest – “Toumastin”  (Glitterhouse Records)

This is another great Taurag album that throws down the gauntlet to Tinariwen (who’s “Tassili was a massive disappointment). Though there’s a lot of familiarity to the Tamikrest sound these young men find a way of subtlety incorporating new influences into the template. From the funk bass that underpins ‘Tidit’ and ‘Tarhamanine Assinegh’ to the Western rock guitar of ‘Adjan Adaky’ and magnificent closer ‘Dihad Tedoun Itran’ via the regular and clever employment of female vocals as a counterpoint to a very male sound, this shows there is more to Taurag than fans already know. The band masterfully conquers both the more groove based and moody and downbeat material with confidence and ease. This is great album from a band full ideas who’ve possibly yet to reach their full potential.

4. Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2” (Capitol/Grand Royale Records)

With this album the Beastie Boys returned to form creating their best album since “Hello Nasty” (1998). They went back to basics and came up with a collection of short punchy songs full of energy, hooks and humour. Though the album is a thoroughly Beastie Boys creation they do seem to have rebooted their sound, with the help of producer Philippe Zdar, concocting a new synthetic retro-futuristic Beasties sound. The album’s 16 tracks whizz by in a blur and it’s hard to pick out favourites in this heady brew but if pushed I’d go for ‘Make Some Noise’, ‘Non Stop Disco Powerpack’, ‘Too Many Rappers’ feat. Nas, ‘Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win’ feat Santigold and excellent instrumental ‘Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament’. The only disappointment is that ‘Tadlock’s Glasses’ finishes far too soon.

3 . Mark McGuire – “Get Lost”  (Editions Mego Records)

At first “Get Lost” seemed like business as usual for Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire, All the typical traits of McGuire’s guitar playing are present especially his fuzzy lead lines and repetitive yet hypnotic delay heavy rhythm patterns and guitar-synth drones aplenty. However, the more I listened to the album, the more it became clear it was almost a direct relative of the collaborative work of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp particularly 1975’s brilliant ‘Evening Star’ album. The colourful washes of sound swirl around the stereo image and immerse you but are perfectly balanced with the melodic lines that weave in and out of them. I didn’t think that McGuire could equal last year’s amazing “Living With Yourself” but with “Get Lost” he’s managed it and combined the best elements from all his previous releases into a cohesive whole.

2. Apparat – “The Devil’s Walk” (Mute Records)

On his new album Apparat displayed a new skill for writing immediate and engaging material, a difficult balance that has been masterfully struck without surrendering any of this enigmatic artist’s mystery. The album doesn’t instantly recall Apparat’s previous solo work and has more in common with the Moderat project he formed with Modeselektor in 2009, specifically the dark gothic atmosphere that pervades throughout. It seems appropriate that Apparat should switch to Mute Records for this release as many of tracks indirectly recall Depeche Mode at their finest and Apparat’s vocal even sounds like Marc Almond (Soft Cell) minus the camp edge. Apparat’s greatest achievement here is combining modern production techniques with strong song writing. His song are now more memorable and emotionally evocative.

1. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” (4AD Records)

A breathtakingly ambitious album featuring North African guitars, club beats, Indian pop vocals, grime and electro synth bass, and twisted synth arpeggios all working together where they could fail spectacularly. There’s a new found clarity and a massive step-up in the quality of the tunes on ‘Eye Contact’, this is the album Gang Gang Dance have been threatening to make and impresses instantly whereas previous songs were either growers or too awkward to be properly embraced. After a few listens it becomes clear there’s some strong links to “Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective (who are both friends and contemporaries of Gang Gang Dance). The use of psychedelic electronics and rhythms rooted in hip-hop are present on both albums. However, Gang Gang Dance add plenty to this and produce their own unique sound, which is an upbeat opposite to the melancholy of Animal Collective. An interest coincidence is that “Merriweather Post Pavilion” was Sonic Fiction’s Album of the Year 2009 and ‘Eye Contact’ takes pole position for this year. From opening 11 minutes epic ‘Glass Jar’ to the closing ‘Thru and Thru’ with its twisting snake charmer like Eastern melody, tribal percussion and clubby beats and synths via the Sade-esque ‘Romance Layers’ beats the heart of exhilarating experimentation meeting the forward rush of club music and the exoticism of traditional music from around the world. As No.1 in my list there is no higher recommendation!

Spotify playlist:

Sonic Fiction Top Ten Album’s of the Year

Observations

Just like last year two words have loomed large for me this year: Ambient and African; and I have continued my exploration of these types of music. I’ve found myself getting deeper into Ambient music both old and new, especially with FACT publishing their 20 Best Ambient albums in the summer with Steve Reich and Pat Metheny’s – “Electric Counterpoint”, Main’s – “Firmament II”, Bobby Beausoleil soundtrack for “Lucifer’s Rising” and “Ambient 3: Day of Radiance” by Brian Eno and Laraaji  amongst my favourites so far. A spate of new releases towards the end of the year that I’ve enjoyed include “Music for Confluence” by Peter Broderick, “Tragedy” by Julia Holter and “Glimmer” by Jacaszek, “El Tren Fantasma” by Chris Watson, “Replica” by Oneohtrix Point Never and “Tragedy and Geometry” by Steve Hauschildt of Emeralds.  On the African side of things I started the year with the purchase of the Congotronics vs. Rockers compilation album, which was swiftly followed by the debut album of the Kasai Allstars and though I wasn’t listening to much African music during the summer I followed the progress of the Congotronics vs Rockers tour via their blog and towards the end of have enjoyed Analog Africa’s “Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso”, a great compilation covering the rich and varied music of this small and obscure country during the ‘70s.

Some releases have taken a little longer to grower on me than others for instance “A Creature I Don’t Know” by Laura Marling narrowly missed out on being part of my Honourable Mentions yet it has slowly but surely grown on me since its September release. I also recently revisited Laurel Halo’s “Hour Logic” EP and went from liking it to loving its infectious energy matched with abundant atmosphere. I’ve also been on and off with a few artists/albums the main culprit being Maria Minerva who I’ve liked and then found dull and then liked and then found dull again. Albums by The Rapture and Megafaun have also failed to fully convince me, though they still could.

Sonic Fiction’s predictions for up and coming new bands/artists for 2011 mostly seemed premature as many of artists with now release their debut albums next year. Still DELs and Balam Acab produced good debut albums and Laurel Halo and Blondes both had a steady stream of releases, maybe we’ll have better luck next year.

Still to come this week Vier’s Album’s of the Year and Observations.

by Liam Flanagan (Sonic Fiction editor)