Tired of end-of-year top 10s? Here’s the eight best albums earworm reviewed in 2011. Think of it as the eight-track of end-of-year best album lists.
8. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now [Warner Bros]
Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills called it quits in September mere months after delivering Collapse Into Now to a – frankly – indifferent world. Which was a bit of a shame because it was their best album in years.
Finally the oft-claimed R.E.M. “return to form” eventuated after a series of disappointing albums over the last decade. Collapse Into Now is derivative but at least it plunders the band’s own back catalogue sounds to deliver a greatest hits-like set featuring new songs.
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Album number 15 (fifteen!) was – in retrospect – a good way for R.E.M. to bow out with the likes of Discoverer, All The Best and Mine Smell Like Honey reminding fans why they loved the band so much back in the days. A bonkers Peaches cameo on Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Anitmatter was a welcome bonus.
earworm verdict: ‘…there’s life in the old gods yet…’
7. Death Cab For Cutie – Codes and Keys [Atlantic]
US indie rock popsters Death Cab For Cutie’s seventh album released in May seemed to suffer from the law of hipsters’ diminishing interest in the old since they prefer to covet the new. No longer the hipsters’ new favourite band, Death Cab For Cutie struggled to retain their status as their old favourite band.
To be fair, nothing on Codes and Keys compares to the thumping magnificence of I Will Possess Your Heart from its predecessor, 2008’s Narrow Stairs. But not much does.
Repeated listens revealed an unusually optimistic set of songs from frontman Ben Gibbard. Marriage to the object of many indie kids’ affections, adorkable Zooey Deschanel, obviously suited him. They announced their divorce in November. So, at least that’s material for the next Death Cab For Cutie album sorted out then.
A Codes and Keys remix EP released in November featuring radical makeovers of the album’s *ahem* key tracks by Cut Copy, Yeasayer and other superstar DJs is also well worth checking out.
6. Radiohead – The King of Limbs [self released]
Radiohead were another band that suffered the curse of hipsters’ short attention span in 2011. The King of Limbs was suddenly unveiled in February without any pre-release fanfare via internet download before the physical album shipped to shops in March. A lukewarm reception compared to previous Radiohead missives was its fate.
Being consistently brilliant is eventually taken for granted, it would seem.
Radiohead version 3.0* continued their obsession with skittering beats and oblique lyrics ahead of straightforward guitar noodlings on The King of Limbs and that’s perhaps why its critical reception was somewhat muted. This was an expansion of Kid A and Amnesiac-era bleep-bloppery and not the next great leap forward for Oxford’s finest. Maybe next time. This shouldn’t mar the enjoyment (yes, enjoyment) of The King of Limbs‘ best moments.
Lotus Flower, Little By Little and Separater all haunted the ears long after listening. And the sedate Codex is one of Radiohead’s loveliest numbers.
If you think Radiohead is over then you’re wrong.
*Radiohead version 1.0 = Pablo Honey, Radiohead version 2.0 = The Bends to OK Computer, Radiohead version 3.0 = Kid A to The King Of Limbs
earworm verdict: ‘…take the time to relax and let these songs drift away with you’
5. The Black Keys – El Camino [Nonesuch Records]
A very late entrant into the albums of the year list, El Camino is the sound of the Black Keys kicking their Money Maker garage rock machine up a gear with producer Danger Mouse’s help to infiltrate the mainstream. Its immediately addictive songs – perfectly encapsulated in lead single Lonely Boy – is the souped-up sound of the summer.
El Camino‘s longevity is doubtful but “they” do say that about most rock ‘n’ roll don’t “they”?
Detractors will moan that it’s a stupid album for stupid listeners but sometimes crunching songs about wanton women, booze and good times are all you need.
earworm verdict: ‘…young, dumb and full of fun’
4. Real Estate – Days [Domino]
Days by the woefully-monikered Real Estate (seriously, how does the band expect anyone to find them via Google?) is the best kind of album. The kind that worms its way into your listening habits by stealth. It’s the definition of an earworm.
Those with a limited attention span may criticise its seeming blandness but underneath its calm exterior these songs have real hooks. It’s Real, Out Of Tune and Wonder Years to name but three meld the jingle-jangle pop nous of – to name but three – The Byrds, Teenage Fanclub and Big Star. There’s almost no higher praise than that.
Real Estate deliver the sweet, sweet sounds of the New Jersey suburbs to the world.
3. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain [Vice]
Self-declared “flower punks” Black Lips hired uber-producer Mark Ronson to add a little pop sheen to their shambolic garage rock sound for sixth album Arabia Mountain. Major mainstream success may have again eluded the Atlanta band but Ronson’s commercial nous made tracks like Family Tree, Modern Art, Mr Driver, New Direction and the surf-rock summer hit that should have been Go Out And Get It crackle and pop.
Hopefully, Black Lips will keep their private party going for a few years yet. You’re invited. Jump on board.
earworm verdict: ‘…scuzzy pop garage rock at its finest.’
2. The Horrors – Skying [XL/Remote Control]
The Horrors arrived straight out of…Southend on Sea in 2007 with shoddy debut album Strange House. A fantastic second album – 2009’s Primary Colours – and this year’s skyscraping Skying refocused their swirling psychedelic rock template to make The Horrors that rare modern musical beast: a band that’s getting better as time goes by.
They’re not the first goth(y) band to plough the widescreen rock field and they’ve inspired a clutch of current copycats headed by S.C.U.M. who’ve not come anywhere near matching Skying. In fact, those other bands have only illustrated how tricky it is to pull off the melding of 1980s gloom rock with a modern pop sheen sensibility.
Anyone who’s ever thrilled to the sounds of The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen or early Simple Minds should check The Horrors out. Still Life, I Can See Through You and Changing The Rain all stand tall amid those band’s finest work.
1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake [Universal]
PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is English singer-songwriter Polly Harvey’s eighth album and it’s her strongest set yet. Previous efforts have featured great songs but Let England Shake — in the modern age of single-track downloads — holds together brilliantly as a cohesive whole and deserves to be heard as such.
Released in February, this is a state-of-the-nation critique that draws on that country’s wartime history — mostly during the First World War — to illuminate its gloomy wartime present. It’s also a bloody good set of songs. And these songs are literally bloody. From the opening title track to the closing The Colour Of The Earth, Harvey’s lyrics vividly depict death on foreign fields and the futility of battle for many of its participants.
Let England Shake won the 2011 Mercury Prize for best British album of the year. The judges got it right. Let England Shake, like the outstanding fourth series of TV show Blackadder, sees pop culture reminding us of the horrors of war. Lest we forget.