My Top 10 Albums of 2011

Oh, 2011. Such a nice year in music it was. I want to follow up on my hugely successful post about the top 10 albums of 2010 with a similar list for 2011. As a service each album will also include a link to that album on Spotify and/or Rdio, if it exists there. That should make the music accessible to anybody, because let’s face it: You suck if you don’t have a Spotify or Rdio account. Or maybe you’re just not interested in music? Anyway, consuming music these days is soooo easy with services like these, and 2012 will probably be the first year where I don’t buy a single CD. I bought 1 CD in 2011, and that CD is obviously on the list below – the music purchase itself wasn’t exactly a great success. Well, I actually still subscribe to the excellent FabricLive compilation series to get my fix of contemporary music from the British Underground. It’s actually possible to purchase that compilation as downloads instead of a physical CD, but I simply can’t get myself to pay for music (or movies for that matter) if I can’t handle a tangible object. So in that way the premium streaming services are a very good way for me to stay legit along with the excellent Google Music service which allows me to stream my entire music collection from my Android phone.

Inspirations and sources

The streaming services are also an excellent way to discover new music through their excellent use of various social networks, and that is the source of a lot of the music I’ve discovered this year. As always Roskilde Festival and their always excellent lineup is a great source of inspiration, and I can’t help myself from being heavily influenced by some of the live shows I’ve seen with a couple of the artists in my list. I really love a good live show although I haven’t seen quite as much as I would have liked to in 2011. And that’s probably going to get even worse in 2012 when the junior DJ makes his scheduled arrival in late February. Oh well …

I listen to a lot of music on my bike commute to work. This is the perfect setting for the more difficult music that requires some contemplation to settle. Another scene is the office speakers, but that only works with music that everyone can accept, as this is a working environment, so we definitely listen to a lot of chill wave. And the last setting is the gym, where the intensity of the music sets the intensity of the workout.

Stuff that didn’t quite make the cut

Tough decision to get the shortlist down to 10 albums, but you always have to make a choice. I really wanted to add some Skrillex (rdiospotify) to the list, since 2011 was the year I discovered his awesome electronic music, but his best album is from 2010, and the stuff he has done in 2011 is good, but not quite good enough for the top 10. Another one that almost made it was Pala by Friendly Fires (rdio / spotify), but again this album isn’t quite as good as the first one. Cults (rdio / spotify) almost made it, but I guess I decided not to give in to the hype. Another one that didn’t make it was The War on Drugs with Slave Ambient (rdio / spotify). With this one I guess I find it really annoying that I can’t tell the album title from the artist title. And one of my favourite Danish hip hop acts Suspekt didn’t quite make it with their Elektra). I was really impressed with that one on listening to it the first couple of times, but it slipped out of my mind after a while. Also it isn’t quite as good as Prima Nocte from 2007.

10 – Mastodon: The Hunter

(rdio / spotify)

I’m moving well outside of my comfort zone with Mastodon. It’s almost metal, and the live concert I caught at Roskilde Festival last summer featured several variations of mosh pits right in front of me, which isn’t something I typically see at concerts, although I fully appreciate how it adds to the atmosphere of the event. Not a lot of acts in this range of the genre spectrum on my all time favourite list, but since I discovered Mastodon through “Crack the Skye” I’ve been a fan. Incredible skill combined with excellent production quality where you can actually distinguish each instrument instead of the typical wall of distorted noise you hear in other metal. Compositions and harmonies are of equal high quality and the drummer is out of this world. Favourite moment is where the drums build up the composition of the whole song during the intro of “Dry Bone Valley”. They’re also excellent live and I was soooo tempted to join the mosh pit last summer, but it’s probably a good thing I didn’t. I guess Mastodon is what Metallica would be if Metallica didn’t suck …

9 – Oh Land: Oh Land

(rdio / spotify)

First Danish act on the list this year. Nanna Øland was clever in picking this name for herself, since she is clearly aiming for something much bigger than Denmark and she clearly has the potential to break through. Also she is really hot … I love the ambition this lady has – the first track of the album is even called Perfection. Despite the name of that track the album isn’t perfect, and there are tracks I usually skip over, but there are amazing tracks as well. The combination of beautiful grand scale compositions with electronic elements and Nanna’s amazing voice really do it for me in tracks such as “White Nights”, “We Turn It Up” and “Sun of a Gun”. Oh Land reminds me of another wonderful Danish artist named Randi Laubek who did two amazing albums more than 10 years ago but got too cutesy after that. I hope Oh Land retains her edge and I can’t wait to hear and see what the future holds for her.

She actually performed around the corner from where I live, but unfortunately I was busy trying to do a surprise audition for Simon Cowell at the Ago on Melrose that night. Hoping to catch her next time she is in LA.

Did I mention how hot she is?

8 – Chase & Status: No More Idols

(rdio / spotify)

Chase & Status had a sure spot in my list, but then they almost blew it by being the biggest disappointment live when I caught them at Roskilde Festival. There are so many potent tracks on this album that I could imagine would work wonders in a live setting and I had really been warming up to the concert in the months before it by listening to the album LOUD when working out. Roskilde Festival always has amazing sound at their concert and electronic music almost always works live. Except on this occasion. The sound was bad and not nearly loud enough and there was a bad angry (not good angry, such as during Mastodon – bad angry!) atmosphere. They even cut the front of house sound at one time during the concert to keep the crowd from going mental, and the act kept playing because nobody had told them the only sound that could be heard came from their monitors,

So I actually stopped listening to the album after that. Frightened Rabbit suffered a similar fate a couple of years ago when I realised the lead singer sounds horrible live. I forgave Frightened Rabbit because the albums sound really good, and I’m willing to forgive Chase & Status as well. Their music is way too powerful to be dismissed because of one bad live experience, and I actually think I would give them a second chance if they came to a club near me. The music is really intense, the buildup during the tracks is always amazing and it’s not really possible to find a bad track on the album. The guest list is also really good and adds a good variation to the album.

7 – Jay Z / Kanye West: Watch the Throne

(rdio / spotify)

It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for Kanye West and the way he brands himself. He happened to do the best album and the best single of 2010 and he is probably the best hip hop producer right now. And Jay Z is another old favourite of mine and one of the finest and most skilled rappers ever. So this collaboration was eagerly anticipated by yours truly. Kanye West always manages to balance on the edge of being way too much in everything he does, but he hasn’t tipped over the edge yet and this is no exception. The album is a grand masterpiece of pop hip hop and Jay Z definitely got his swagger back. “Lift Off” with is a perfect example of how the production is almost too much – it starts with an ” All Engines Running” sampling and the song really lifts off with a grand horn section and Beyoncés glorious contribution. Everything is turned up to 11 in this one and it just works.

The Watch the Throne tour definitely adds to the grandeur of this collaboration. I was fortunate enough to attend it a couple of weeks ago and it was a tour de force from two gentlemen with an incredible catalogue of songs and the knowledge that they are the kings. Kanye West started “All of the Lights” over 3 times because he wasn’t satisfied with the response from the audience and they ended the show by playing “Niggas in Paris” seven times in row and turning the Staples Center into a gigantic rave.

6 – Cut Copy: Zonoscope

(rdio / spotify)

I somehow managed to miss “In Ghost Colours” when it was released in 2008 so I didn’t know Cut Copy until Zonoscope received a very favourable review in Pitchfork in early 2011. But I’m glad I read that review and got to know Cut Copy. It’s a little difficult for me to tell my impression of the two albums apart since I started listening to them at the same time, but they’re both really good. This is also the first album on the list found acceptable by the working environment, so it’s been given a lot of airplay at the office. I don’t know what it is about this album, but it just makes me really happy. Maybe it’s the pictures it creates in my mind? I love the way “Need you now” builds up and adds new layers for every verse until it puts all of the layers on top of each other at the end. Music for dancing, that’s for sure

4/5 – Washed Out: Within and Without & M83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

(rdio / spotify)
(rdio / spotify)

You might be surprised to find these albums so far up the list once you’ve read all the bad things I’m about to say about them. These two albums are at the peak of the Chill Wave that really hit hard in 2011 and they’re very alike in my opinion, hence the shared ranking. Chill Wave is the equivalent of lounge music of the 90′s in that nobody can be offended by it, it works as background music for sex and it doesn’t really mean anything. This music is also acceptable to everyone in the office, since it is acceptable to everybody. I haven’t bothered listening to the lyrics for any of the albums, since both titles are just so damned stupid that I can’t really be bothered to start paying attention. In writing this I just realised there is a track on the bonus dics for “Hurry Up We’re Dreaming” called “My Tears are Becoming a Sea”. I rest my case …

But where lounge music is really, really bad, both of these albums are really, really good if you allow yourself to be sucked into the wave. Like Air back when they still mattered. Ridiculous music, but at the same time beautiful and sexy.

3 – Bon Iver: Bon Iver

(rdio / spotify)

Hooray, the king of the hipsters made my list along with every other “Best of music in 2011″ list out there. There are many things that get me really offended about Bon Iver, his beard, his flannel shirts and his staying in a cabin in the woods to record his previous album. But maybe these are traits of his fans and not of Justin Vernon himself? I mean, he actually seems like a guy who wants to create incredible music and not worry too much about maintaining an image. He did after all contribute to the incredible “Lost in the World” with Kanye West on the number one album last year.

“For Emma, Forever Ago” is definitely too introvert for me and I dismissed it and Bon Iver when I heard it a while ago. But this new album is incredible. Every single track is amazing. The way it opens in “Perth” sends shivers down my spine every time I listen to it and Justin Vernon sings like an angel. And when it breaks into the chorus first time it is almost too much to bear. “Holocene” made me want to re-learn playing guitar.

I bet that guy gets laid a lot, but I bet he has also helped a lot of other guys getting laid by giving us this incredible album. Bon Iver is the reason I want to go to Roskilde Festival next year even though I don’t have any vacation to spend on it because of the arrival of the Junior DJ. Speaking of the Junior DJ I’m planning on letting his or her arrival in this world be accompanied by this incredible album.

2 – Malk de Koijn: Toback to the Fromtime

(spotify)

Malk de Koijn can’t be easily found on the streaming services. They’re way too old school for that. They’ve also managed to assemble an incredible fan base after they dissolved back in 2003 (or 4?) so obviously they wanted to sell real physical albums instead of making 1/8000 of a cent every time someone plays one of their songs on Spotify. Well I’m really old and part of the original fan base that actually liked and loved the best rap group in the universe before the fan base went ballistic around 2008. I have two copies of each of the first two albums so naturally I had to own a physical copy of “Toback to the Fromtime”. I ordered from Target Distribution well in advance of the release and paid around $40 to have it shipped to the US. It arrived several weeks after the official and had a huge scratch that ruined every single track on the album. I reached out to Target but never managed to get hold off anyone. Fortunately for me there are many fans out there, so when I announced the horrible state of my CD on Facebook no less than 5 of my friends uploaded a digital (and almost legal) copy of the entire album in various places for me to download. Thanks, guys, you are true friends.

UPDATE: I somehow managed to write the wrong email at Target Distribution. When I wrote to the right one, they got back to me almost immediately and shipped a brand new, un-scratched version of the CD. Thanks, Target.

I have so many great memories with Malk de Koijn, and most of them have something to do with Roskilde Festival. 2007 was the muddiest year in Roskilde history and we were pretty miserable most of the time. I remember one late night when it was impossible to find anything to drink, but our neighbours offered to share their horrible red wine with us on the condition that we would play Malk de Koijn really loud on our camp stereo. Great party, and shortly after we found several beers buried in the mud.

2003 had us all struggling to stay awake for the Malk de Koijn concert that started Monday morning at 3.30 am. I remember buying a case of beer around 1.30 am when everything seemed dire to restart the party. It worked and most of us made it up there for a perfect concert, excluding one friend, let’s call him D, who almost aggressive when we tried to wake him up for the concert he had been babbling about all week. I remember biking 20 miles home after the concert ended.

2009 was the re-union of Malk de Koijn at Roskilde Festival. That was one eagerly anticipated concert, and a lot of the festival was about planning how to make it to the front of the stage for the 2 am concert Saturday night. Due to a most unfortunate turn of events I kinda forgot to sleep between Friday and Saturday so my chances for making the concert were pretty bad if I had had a normal festival Saturday. The weather didn’t exactly help – it was unbelievably hot and my wife actually dropped from a heatstroke sometime around noon. I stayed away from the festival site all day gathering my strength in the shade of our camp and didn’t see a single concert. We went to the festival site around 9.30pm to get in line for the concert, more than 4 hours before the scheduled start, and the line already had hundreds of people in it. Staying in the line wasn’t too bad at first, as we were able to get food and beer and sit down to enjoy it, but a couple of hours before it started, somebody got to their feet in the line and a chain reaction forced us all to stand in order not to lose our place in the line. The next couple of hours were not the funniest of my life, and we lost most of the group, including one unfortunate friend, let’s call him D, who had also missed his sleep between Friday and Saturday but hadn’t spent the day gathering the necessary strength to make it to the concert.

Standing in that line sucked – I remember being hit by a plastic glass of water that was thrown from the the front of the line. I could see it coming from a distance, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t get my hands up, so it hit me lige i face. And when they finally opened the gates, we didn’t make it into the closed pits, and the crowds were going really mental in their eagerness to get in. We were stuck 6 meters from the gates but couldn’t reach them. After 15 minutes the gates were opened again to let a new group of people in, and we really fought to get to the front of the line, but unfortunately they were closed rightin front of us. At this point an announcement was made that no more people would be let into the closed pits, and they told us to turn around. But there were still hundreds of people behind us, so we couldn’t even get away from our spot in front of the gates where we would miss not only the closed pits but also the general audience area. So things were looking really bad when the crowd manager with whom I was having a heated discussion received a transmission from the front of the stage. Shortly after he announced quietly that he had been allowed to let another 50 people in, and when they opened the gates my wife, one friend and myself were among the very last ones to be allowed into the garden of Eden. Completely worn out from the fatigue of standing in a horrible line for hours I still managed to jump several feet into the air, and one of the best concerts of my life started right at the point when we ran around the corner.

The Danish Broadcast Radio “released” a live recording of the entire concert and listening to the audience in between and during the songs brings back all those fantastic memories once again.

So plenty of memories and three amazing albums, the last one at least as good as the first two. But not the best album of 2011.

1 – Rustie: Glass Swords

(spotify)

It’s worth asking the question of why “Bon Iver” isn’t the best album on my list. If we detach all the albums on this list from my context, it would be the best album. But this isn’t a list where I take myself, my memories, my experience and my expectations out of the equation. Music is about emotions, about how it makes you feel. About who you are when you experience it, how it moves you and changes you. Who you are sharing the experience with and how it makes you feel that you are sharing this experience with these other persons. The Malk de Koijn album brings back memories of so many great experiences and in it self it is a brilliant album. But when I listened to “Glass Swords” for the first time I immediately knew that this was the best album of 2011 and not even the return of the best rap group in the universe can change that. I regard music as the supreme art form, art as the supreme form of human expression and as such “Glass Swords” becomes one of the finest works of human expression I’ve ever experienced. This will probably not be the case with a lot of other people. I know the good people at my workplace really hated this album when I played it, but what I hear transcends time and space and takes me to another world. The aesthetic experience and expectations I bring into my encounter with this album transforms it into this magnificent work of art for me. My feelings are those I have when I see the opening scene in Blade Runner, when Arthur Dent and Slartibartfast travel through the planetary workshop in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when reading the first two books in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggin-series or when playing Turrican II as a 12 year old boy.

The soundtrack above is what it reminded me of. The most awesome soundtrack for a computer game ever, although I can appreciate that it might not sound that impressive today. But it certainly rocked my world in 1990 (or whenever it was).

Another reference is “Music has the Rights to Children” by Boards of Canada. It has the same qualities in that it feels completely disconnected from time and takes me out of this world. “Music has the Rights to Children” is one of the best albums ever, and “Glass Swords” is as good as that.

“Glass Swords” sits in a niche where not a lot of people will appreciate the qualities it has, but it certainly hit the spot for me. My favourite music for travelling in the whole world, both on the inside and outside.

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