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.
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.