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I turned to this post with something of an uncertain heart: 2011 was, in many ways, a year of musical disappointments for me, in which ther were many albums of interest, but few of excellence. I listened to and enjoyed Feist’s Metals,  Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Wolfroy Goes To Town, Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far, Ryan Adams’s Ashes and Fire, Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, Gillian Welch’s Harvest and Beirut’s The Riptide, but none excited me quite as much as I might have hoped. Others for which I had fewer expectations, like Yuck’s self-titled LP, Tim Key’s With A String Quartet on a Boat, or Alela Diane’s Wild Divine, tickled me with their novelty but don’t seem somehow heavyweight enough for an activity of such artificial gravitas as a post like this.

Nevertheless, a few records – and, as in years past, not necessarily those I’ve most listened to – stand out as complete, intriguing, and multi-layered. Here they are, in no particular order.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Robin Pecknold’s troupe of bearded revivalists have always had an ear for a pretty tune (‘Blue Ridge Mountains’) or mesmeric harmonies (‘Sun It Rises’), but it was hard not to credit Helplessness Blues as a serious step-change. It wasn’t that this, their second full-length record, was in any way less indebted to the sort of folk forebears to whom the band had previously paid homage; it was simply that they did more with the heritage, and did so with more depth, than previously. The title track may well be one of my favourite songs of the year, but from opener ‘Montezuma’ to the closing ‘Grown Ocean’, this record ebbs and flows with pitch-perfect control. Fantastic arrangements and superior lyrics complete a pitcture of what is a properly splendid album – with,  admittedly, all the slight post-ironic fustiness that description might suggest.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

It is Callahan who deserves the ‘most important living American songwriter’ title often applied to Ryan Adams, and on Apocalypse he shows why. Though this is a fractured and at times challenging seven-track sojourn into a not always coherent dreamscape, it is simultaneously a prolonged and convincing meditation on the modern (American) condition. Most obviously ‘America!’ sees Callahan worrying over questions of patrotism and identity; but in opening track ‘Drover’ he spins a long metaphor about cattle-driving into something with broader and more diffuse relevance. Not only that, but in such a short and spare record he covers a variety of modes and moods: from the flighty jazz of ‘Free’ to the spiky soul of ‘Universal Applicant’, Apocalypse achieves a rare and rather grand fusion of disparate lyrical, generic and imagistic elements – and it puts Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, an album good enough to reach my 2009 top five, a touch to shame.

Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Indeed, I risk looking narrow in these selections, because here’s a second reappearance: Marling was in last year’s top five, too, and yet in 2011 she like Callahan released a record of such disciplined intent that it made that previous effort look thin. As I said in my capsule review of the album published in this here blog’s sidebar in October, with this LP Marling surely enters the pantheon of canonical English songwriters. Not only are the performances energetic and characterful; her craft has matured to a point at which all its flab and fat has been removed. I may here be rewarding the perfection of a sound I enjoyed already – but few British ‘best of 2011′ lists would be complete without this record.

Frank Fairfield – Out On The Open West

Another entry from the sidebar, this time August’s, Fairfield’s is in many ways the simplest record on the album: very often solo pieces recorded directly and subjected to minimal post-production, these 12 songs have titles like ‘Texas Fairwell’ and ‘Up The Road Somewhere Blues'; they include traditionals like ‘Turkey In The Straw’, and no instrument more complex than the bull fiddle. Uncompromisingly pre-modern, it is undoubtedly a record unsuited to some tastes, and its principle strength – that it sounds as if it could have been record in 1921 – may seem an antediluvian reason for placing it in a twenty-first century list of the year’s best albums. So it may be, but there’s something serious about Fairfield which goes beyond the hi-jinx of Pokey LaFarge or the supple soundings of Gillian Welch: there is in these songs, as in Callahan’s, a kind of critique of the world of 2011. They’re also terrifically pretty if you listen for long enough.

Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen

Pearson, meanwhile, gives you no choice but to listen long, with four of these seven tracks breaking the ten-minute barrier. Like Fairfield, he sticks for the most part to solo performance rooted in received forms. Unlike Fairfield, he breaks down the pre-conceptions one might have about the acoustic singer-songwriter and rebuilds the concept from the bottom up, manufacturing a howling, droning, plaintive sound, most clearly evidenced on opener ‘Thou Art Loosed’, which is sly in its abuse of our familiarity with the guitar and the voice. ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’ is a great, keening prayer of a song, and Pearson’s resemblance to Alfred Lord Tennyson only heightens his image as a sort of wry, post-romantic sage (“The only good thing I’ll ever give to you is my good grief,” he sings on ‘Country Dumb’). Delivered by a prog-rock Lefty Frizzell, and including some of the most startling acoustic guitar sounds heard in some time, this is a remarkable album which doesn’t sound like anything else released this year or in any other.

 

Open the packaging of Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, and the internal sleeve is blank, save for an antique frame housing a profile image of the man himself. It could be a print, but it could also be a mirror: “To me,” he recently told the Guardian’s Ben Thompson, “this record is like a lot of mirrors, and I suppose if you hold up a mirror to yourself and then you turn it around, it reflects outwards … also, if you look in a mirror you might see someone standing behind you who you’d didn’t know was there.”

The creepy sparsness of the record’s artwork is matched by its sonic landscape: from the repetitive strumming of ‘Drover’ to the gentle riffs of ‘One Fine Morning’, Apocalypse steps even further away from the orchestration of Woke on a Whaleheart than did Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. This tonal modesty comes despite the implicit violence of the album’s title – and, indeed, Callahan’s apocalypse seems to be a personal, incremental one rather than some world-ending cataclysm. As Ben Graham writes in a great review at The Quietus, “he appears to be using the phrase to mean a revelation or epiphany of some kind, both life-changing and extremely personal.” The gentle, brushed quality of the instrumentation, and the slight, almost ephemeral, structure of the nevertheless precision-tuned songcraft, offer a ruminative mood in which Callahan explores without map or direction but with unflagging purpose.

The record is the sound of a man finding if not home then comfort. This leaves a danger that a listener may struggle to find purchase – Callahan’s gnomic utterances at times appear to hold meaning only for him (he’s all you see in the mirror). But that searching mood offers a context in which to orient yourself, and there is a through-line here, from lost to found. Rare is it that we see Callahan depicting things changing for the better, but by the end of Apocalypse, the lightness and sweetness of ‘One Fine Morning’ – indeed, its very title – suggests that’s precisely what he has achieved. In songs such as ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’, Callahan has often reveled in obfuscation; yet, as he revealed in an interview with the New York Times, clearing the smog (geddit?) is at the heart of this new record: “The record is kind of, like, blind, or searching, until that point, and then the flare goes off [in 'Universal Applicant'] and the music stops for a second. And from that point on, it’s like, the music is illuminated.”

That such import is placed on so small a moment helps explain why it’s taken me so long to get to Apocalypse: I’ve wanted to give it proper attention. It rewards that with ambivalence: on ‘America!’, Callahan lists the revered country singers of yore who were also in the US armed forces, and then sings as if startled, ‘I never served my country'; he then proceeds to sing of ‘Afghanistan! / Vietnam! / Iran! / Native Americon! [sic]‘, and there’s no easy reconciliation of reverence and revulsion. “I’m standing in a field / A field of questions,” he sings over a skipping, pastoral flute on ‘Free’s'; an apocalypse does not necessarily lead to permanent resolution. It may not be quite as good as the record that proceeded it, but this one is still a keeper.

 

I was compiling a list of 2009’s best songs to post here, but I realized that doing so would leave off two of my favourite albums. I’ve always been more of an LP guy than a singles fella, so it seemed distorting not to do a top five albums post instead. I’m somewhat pained to have to leave out The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ memorable It’s Blitz!, and Magnolia Electric Company, The Decemberists and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy all released records worth a listen in 2009, too. Anyway, omission is the nature of the listing beast. So here goes:

5. The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin

This is a simply gorgeous record. At times it is ruthlessly simple – the finger-picking which starts the album is standard country stuff – and yet there is always something to add texture, weight or depth. On opener ‘Charlie Darwin’, its Ben Knox Miller’s other-wordly falsetto, couched in the warm tones of backing vocals and humming organs; on the raucous ‘Home I’ll Never Be’, it’s the off-kilter percussion. The vocal delivery is particularly strong throughout, making the record a crowd-pleaser, but a decidedly fragile one. Undemanding possibly, but irrefutably lovely.

4. British Sea Power – Man of Aran

I wrote about this upon release, and it’s remained at the top of ‘to play’ pile ever since. This was one of the albums which would have been passed over by a mere songs list, since there’s no single track – with the exception perhaps of the 12-minute ‘Spearing The Sunfish’ – which can or should be taken from the whole. The band have successfully crafted both a soundtrack and an album in its own right, and the eery sounds which often only just approach the musical remain some of the most piercing I’ve heard all year. Incomparable, really.

3. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

Being one for the underdog, I really didn’t want to select this record, but it would have been disingenuous not to. I haven’t been a great fan of the Monkeys before now – Favourite Worst Nightmare simply didn’t come together for me, whilst Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not was entertaining but callow. That last adjective is not a word that can be applied to ‘Humbug’, which is a substantial record on every level. It’s simply the best thing the band have recorded, and in a period when British music feels very much a poor relation to its American cousin, a joy to behold.

2. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

The second record which would have been unrepresented in a songs list (although Pitchfork counter-intuitively selected ‘My Girls’ as its song of the year), this was the first record I purchased in 2009 and was left largely untouched in quality for twelve whole months. In terms of inventiveness, audacity and sheer verve, Merriweather Post Pavillion was braver than the Flaming Lips, quirkier than Devendra Banhart, and catchier than My Latest Novel. ‘Also Frightened’,  ‘Summertime Clothes’ and ‘Brother Sport’ are highlights – along with the gloriously hypnotic ‘My Girls’, of course – and even when the album flirts with disaster – on the bonkers ‘Lion in a Coma’, or the calculatedly messy ‘Guys Eyes’ – the band’s instinct for the exact moment at which to insert a slither of melody doesn’t abandon them. Tip top stuff, pop pickers.

1. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

This is in some ways a less ambitious work than some of the others on the list – in a sense, it’s a step back into comfortable territory for Callahan, as I suggested when I wrote about it earlier in the year. But comfort is relative, and there’s little on this record in terms of easy resolution or soft consolation. “It’s time to put God away,” Callahan sings, and the whole album is suffused with this abandonment of, well, hope. It’s a lighter album than that makes it sound, though, as if, as in the wonderful ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’ (“Show me the way, show me the way, show me the way / To shake a memory”), Callahan is haunted by the possibility of beauty. There’s just wonderful songwriting going on here – on the suitably airy ‘Rococo Zephyr’, or the harrowing ‘all thoughts are prey to some beast’ (the closest anyone has got, though in quite a different fashion, to the intesity of Of Montreal’s ‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’ since its release), Callahan allies perfection in both composition and performance to superb effect. Ultimately, this is a thoroughly coherent album bursting with incident – and there’s the alchemy which shades it into the album of the year slot.

Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan used to be known as Smog, but he has just released a second album under his own name. One might think of Conor Oberst no longer recording as Brighteyes to little appreciable difference, but Callahan records, whilst sharing the approach of Smog, also add new layers. Of course, Callahan has always been a more interesting prospect than Oberst, whose adolescent meanderings have seen him labelled a new Dylan by adolescent meanderers everywhere. Callahan, on the other hand, is eccentric and left-field, pitching his lyrics far enough away from ‘wilfully profound’ that they approach a more Dylanesque quality all by themselves.

Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle features song titles like ‘Eid ma clack Shaw’, ‘Rococo Zephyr’ and ‘all thoughts are pray to some beast’, and he does his best impression of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner throughout, but in most ways this is his most accessible album to date. His last album, Woke on a Whaleheart, was full of rewarding diversions but at times lacked direction: its songs covered a lot of ground musically without quite coming together as an album. This latest record, on the other hand, hangs together perfectly, whilst maintaining each song’s individual identity. If none of them have quite the immediacy of ‘Diamond Dancer’, this is more than made up for by the record’s overall unity.

Callahan achieves this both sonically, thematically and by means of form: many of the songs repeat a central phrase over and again, and the album as a consequence develops a meditative quality. This character allows no place for alt.country pastiches like ‘A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man’ from Woke on a Whaleheart: each song is seriously itself, inhabiting the broader context whilst offering a new route into its heart. On ‘Faith/Void’, it is chanted that ‘it’s time to put God away’, and at times the album feels like an alternative hymn book, pleading for some form of authority: ‘show me a way, show me the way, show me the way, to shake a memory’ Callahan sings on the mysterious ‘Eid ma clack Shaw’. ‘I looked all around, it was not written down,’ he opines on ‘My Friend’.

Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is probably a break-up album, but Bill Callahan has taken it somewhere more mystical. It is a making sense, but also a taking leave: this is what gives this at times dark album such a sense of forgiveness and, ultimately, a kind of lightness. On this basis alone, it’s an early contender for album of the year.

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