Another sound year gone by, 2011 (Top Music)

2011 in retrospect turns out to have been an exciting year. Some bands produced great music; some as they have always done, some as they once did (and then left off a bit, so we can use the word ‘comeback’), some as they did for the first time. I’m glad I postponed this overview a bit, as I purchased some (what turned out) great recordings last-minute in the year. I also caught up with the past, so I’ll be mentioning some older recordings in 2011 although they should have had a place in previous Top Music overviews (2008, 2009, 2010). Or much longer ago.

Top 5

  1. dEUS – Keep You Close
  2. Snow Patrol – Fallen Empires
  3. Agnes Obel – Philharmonics
  4. Smith & Burrows – Funny Looking Angels
  5. Elbow – Build a rocket boys

dEUS released a simply brilliant album with Keep You Close. It shows a sound and cohesive band, not afraid of alt.rock breaks and rhythms, subtle background noises and little bites but still manages to be funky, steamy or romantic while keeping an eye on melodies and pop-ear friendliness. The album is full of great arrangements and orchestrations, and integrates their well-known indie weirdness into a very mature approach to modern rock. dEUS made me realize the mistake of not buying their previous work (Vantage Point), although I already had all of their albums, including a whole bunch of singles and some specials.

dEUS ran a close race with Snow Patrol, whose new release Fallen Empires I only decided to get on the verge of 2012. I am absolutely fond of the band and its down-to-earth charismatic singer/writer Gary Lightbody. But I didn’t feel like buying their previous collector album, and their new singles felt over-familiar. But how wrong was I. They expanded their sound pallet enormously with subtle key boards, synths and electronics. But they managed to keep their essential integrity although I feel even the approach to their guitar playing has been shaken up a bit. I hear them immersing the later rock orientation of Eyes Open in the indie sound of Final Straw (my first love) and still opening that up to wider horizons and stadions.

Agnes Obel surprised me with the sheer beauty and stillness of Philharmonic. I didn’t buy it upon the Riverside single on the radio, but after seeing her playing it live at some television show. And although it is a fantastic song, the album has more than enough besides that single. There’s the follow-up Brother Sparrow for instance, but I have a personal favor for the interpretation of the John Cale song Close Watch. Because I waited long enough I was able to buy the “Deluxe Edition”. It is a terrible insult for the early buyers to release such editions later, but maybe they find rest if I tell them that the additions (“Live In Copenhagen” versions and “Piano Sessions”) don’t add too much as far as I’m concerned.

The only regret I have over the winter album Funny Looking Angels by Smith & Burrows is their band name. Well, it isn’t really a band name, and that’s what I regret. But, hey, the album itself is a terrific combination of own material and carefully selected covers. From the care put into them, in the singing, the (re-)arrangements and the instrumentation, you can’t tell them apart. Both artists turn out to be great singers ànd musicians. The first being a sort of surprise as far as Andy Burrows is concerned, the latter for me not really, being a gigantic fan of Tom Smith and Editors. Music to listen to while slowly drudging through the snow, replacing a warm fireplace, or -better- sitting by a warm fireplace you longed for during that long drive.

It’s too easy to say that Elbow has confirmed their quality with Build A Rocket Boys. Although they did, their standards for intensity, beauty and withheld charms are so high that even just confirming earns them a place amongst the best albums of 2011.

New

The last days of 2011 gifted me with the debut of Belgium’s School is Cool. And I must admit that I am highly surprised by the song material, the overall sound and production, the drive and the variation on their debut Entropology. Sort of too bad of the silly band name, but luckily I overcame that and got their record.
Intergalactic Lovers
is another Belgian band that released their debut in 2011, called Greetings & Salutations. But unlike School Is Cool, the album isn’t convincing overall. The singles are great, but stick out too much compared to the rest of the album. In their lyrics I feel Intergalactic Lovers need to grow while in that area, School Is Cool shows much more maturity.

Old New

I would absolutely like to mention the new Waterboys album, An appointment with Mr. Yeats. In several interviews over the last years, Mike Scott pointed out that he had been around for so long and had lived and survived so much in music that he was having a hard time working out new songs. Although their live shows are superb and energetic, yondering from past to modern with great improvisations and full of musical drive, the Book Of Lightning album did prove Mike’s point. However, the boys did not only find inspiration in Yeats’ poetry, they turned it into vivid songs, grabbing what made them so great in the past and mixing that in a melting pot with rock and folk ingredients, and layering it with great backings, violins and flutes to spew a wild, organic and enthusiast set of multi-layered songs.

Gavin Friday produced a very alienating album catholic. Although not co-written with long-time companion Maurice Seezer, the overall arrangements are equally subtle, emotional and rich. It sometimes revives the past (in a good way) to show us the wild performer, but mostly Gavin sings of the emotional rollercoaster that ran over him during the last 5 years. To date I still feel that he’s showing and hiding at the same time in his lyrics. He’s being very personal, but it feels like at the same time he runs from it by generalizing his expressions in order to hide. His completely authentic approach to (pop) music suffers a bit from it, but his amazing live performances totally stand out.

For various reasons I intensely enjoyed following albums:

  • Axelle Red manages to take different directions with each album. Although probably not always too successful in it, Un Coeur Comme Le Mien knew to convince me in combining the French language with some country feel and Axelle’s chansons.
  • I had lost sight of Heather Nova, except for her radio singles, for many years. But 300 Days At Sea showed her using her roots to update her sound, and focus on song quality again (over production). Glad to have seen her play live as well.
  • Editors gave us the low-cost collection You are fading (part I-IV), combining some great songs, new or alternative versions of existing material, as well as sometimes showing that some materials were rightfully not included on the regular albums.
  • Nid & Sancy gave us the free collection of songs bundled as Add Nightmare And Rinse, that -to a certain extent- blew me away. They certainly know how to mindblowingly combine electronics with soft shocks of infused guitars and voice noise.

The Kaiser Chiefs (The future is medieval), The Horrors (Skying), British Sea Power (Valhalla Dancehall), Florence + the Machine (Ceremonials), PJ Harvey (Let England Shake), Beirut (The Rip Tide) and Arctic Monkeys (Suck it and see) all showed their star quality and their status as firm and standing rock artists.

New Old

As mentioned, I wanted to hear the previous work of dEUS in its current incarnation of people. And Vantage Point (2008) is worthwhile. It lacks the broader perspective of Keep You Close, but it’s certainly more coherent than Pocket Revolution. I can’t tell whether it would have made my Top 2008, but I do know that The National would have made my Top 2010 with High Violet. Because it is a work of staggering intensity, driven guitars and killer rhythms and percussion.

2011 proved again that you can’t get your youth completely out of your system. Siouxsie and the Banshees with Tinderbox (1986, remastered 2009) and The Dead Kennedys with Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables (1980) have been in my favorite playlists for quite some time. And not only did they not bore me, they still give me much joy.

Nederlands – Dutch – Niederländisch – néerlandophone

In ons Nederlandse taalgebied, en met Nederlandstalig werk, bevestigde Yevgueni met Welkenraedt wat we al enkele malen live hadden meegemaakt, namelijk dat ze stevigere rockers, eerder dan folkies, zijn dan eerder werk misschien deed uitschijnen.

Mira liet met het gelijknamige album een zachtere zijde zien, zonder haar spitse taalkunde uit het oog te verliezen. Alhoewel de muzikale songinslag van Hannelore Bedert gevoelsmatig knapper lijkt, kan haar Uitgewist mij niet ontdoen van een voyeuristisch gevoel, dat net iets te mono-thematisch is. Maar, let wel, het blijft huiveringwekkend knap soms. Tegenstrijdige gevoelens dus. In lijn met het album?

Luc De Vos bracht met zijn vehikel Gorki allicht zijn beste album sinds enige tijd uit, Research en Development. Maar hij blijft lijden aan het syndroom dat hem tegelijk zo sympathiek maakt, namelijk dat het allemaal niet te ernstig moet zijn.

Via Radio 1 ontdekten we onze lokale zigeunerkoningin, Lady Angelina. Met Amor y Caracon bracht ze ons vertederende, licht-droevige maar steeds warme en tedere beschouwingen.

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