Another top ten albums of 2011 list

Published on The Spectator website (December 18th, 2011)

Picking my favourite albums this year reminded me of three things about the current state of music. First, the obvious point of how everything is driven by single tracks rather than albums, making the task harder each year. Second, how so much of the most interesting and innovative art is being made by women right now. And third, how the future of music is increasingly found in places such as Kinshasa and Johannesburg as much as in the traditional stomping grounds of London and Los Angeles.

Anyway, here’s my list, in reverse order. And since any of these lists are an exercise in self-indulgence, can I cheat and give mentions in dispatches to Little Dragon, Metronomy, Nneka, Owiny Sigoma Band, SBTRKT & Toddla T? And also plug my favourite video of the year, Spoek Mathambo’s astonishing township house version of the Joy Division classic ‘She’s Lost Control’?

Ghosts Outside — Steve Mason & Dennis Bovell

Dub makeovers of rock albums used to be commonplace, but have been out of fashion for a while. Ghosts Outside reminds us how good they can be. Veteran reggae producer Bovell hits the reverb button, turns up the echo and transforms the former Beta Band’s singer’s album from last year into one of this year’s hidden gems.

Strange Mercy — St Vincent

The third album from this Texan singer, a collaborator with Bon Iver, is her most confident and daring yet. One minute her beautiful voice hovers over what sounds like almost like a conventional pop song, then suddenly there are slashes of guitar, strange time signatures and almost unseemly bursts of synth. Absorbing, irresistible stuff.

Smother — Wild Beasts

Another third album, and another one revealing artists growing in confidence as they evolve in often-thrilling style from baroque oddballs to festival headliners. This elegiac work lives us to its title, smothering listeners with its sensuality and emotional strength. From the opening brilliance of ‘Lions Share’, here is a band brave enough to allow space to intrude on their music, which serves to highlight its sublime intensity, but never losing their sense of fun.

Let England Shake — PJ Harvey

I know, I know, it’s a bit boring to include the Mercury Prize winner — but, trouble is, Let England Shake is such a fantastic record. Not just because musically this is the best work yet by one of the country’s finest artists, but because her exploration of war and nationhood gives it a profundity not often found in pop music.

Soundtrack to the Struggle — Lowkey

Without record company support, hip-hop activist Lowkey caught the mood of the times with an album that was — in his words — 25 years in the making, covering subjects both highly personal and deeply political. Songs such as ‘Long Live Palestine’ and ‘Dear England’, his response to the summer riots, may be too strong for some tastes but I love his passion and engagement as much as his lyrical dexterity and strong tunes.

Kinshasa One Two — DRC Music

Congo has long been the heartbeat of African music. Three years ago, Damon Albarn and I travelled to Kinshasa with Africa Express and were blown away by the futuristic sounds created on primitive, home-made instruments. This summer, he went back to this extraordinary city with some producers and made this album in a week with local musicians. Inevitably, there are rough edges but at its best this is an intoxicating blend of ancient and modern.

Whokill — Tune-yards

Merrill Garbus is another of those courageous female artists pushing boundaries with her music. This album, her second under this name, is extraordinarily bold, overflowing with ideas and fusing so many musical elements from folk to funk to free jazz, often underpinned by slinky African and Caribbean rhythms. Sometimes strange, always original, Whokill is an intriguing collage of pop music at its most primal.

Fatou — Fatoumata Diarawa

A couple of months ago I asked Fatou how long she spent practicing the guitar and she told me about five hours a day. This — combined with her gorgeous voice and immense talent — explains why these deceptively simple songs are so stunning. Live, she is even better, a brilliant dancer and one of the most exciting performers around. Already named world music album of the year in several places, but forget such outdated ghettoisation — this is one of the albums of the year.

Wounded Rhymes — Lykke Li

The subject matter is sombre, the lyrics laden with sadness, but this sophisticated collection of songs takes the sounds of the sixties and uses them to twist tales of heartbreak and unrequited love into something strangely beguiling and of its time. I’m baffled as to whyWounded Rhymes wasn’t a bigger hit for the Swedish singer.

 Kinshasa Succursale — Baloji

My pick of the year is another album created in Kinshasa. After a decade on the European rap scene, Baloji set off to explore the heritage and music of his birthplace. The aim was to make music both African and contemporary – and it paid off in dramatic style on this vibrant, life-affirming album. Some songs are new, some reworkings of his older tracks, others updated Congolese classics. The result is a rich, bubbling stew of soul, soukous, doo-wap, rap, reggae and exuberant dance music that reminds us of the cultural strength of one of the most blighted nations on earth. Best of all are the opening track, an affectionate reworking of ‘Independence Cha-Cha’, the exhilarating ‘Congo Eza Ya Biso’ and the extraordinary ‘Karibu Ya Bintu’, in which Baloji raps over the hypnotic thumb-pianos of Konono No 1. His clever videos are well worth checking out too.

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