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The 50 Best Albums of 2011

Written by FACT Team on Wednesday, November 30 2011

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This week, we’ll be rounding up FACT’s 50 best albums of 2011, continuing today with entries #20-#11.

We’ve already selected our 50 best reissues and 10 best labels of 2011, and we’ll be following albums with our 50 best tracks next week. And yes, we know it’s a little early, but as they say in Peep Show, why wait ’til everyone else has had their fun with the olives?


50: XANDER HARRIS
URBAN GOTHIC
(NOT NOT FUN)


‘I Want More Than Just Blood’

Synth records referencing 70s and early 80s horror scores – Goblin, John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi et al – are ten a penny these days, but this offering from the US’s Xander Harris really hit the mark, perfectly balancing tenebrous atmospherics with moments of high italo camp.


49: AFRICA HITECH
93 MILLION MILES
(WARP)


‘Out in the Streets’

Africa Hitech have been accused of being too clever for their good, and although 93 Million Miles does contain moments of that (thankfully, the leaden – and offensively pointless – grime retread of ‘Caveman Style’ didn’t make the album cut), it also contains its fair share of classic Mark Pritchard material: obviously the rampaging ‘Out in the Streets’ is king, but the gently malevolent ‘The Sound of Tomorrow’ and bit-crushed ballad ‘Our Luv’ give it a good run for its money.


48: JUICY J & LEX LUGER
RUBBA BAND BUSINESS 2
(SELF-RELEASED)


‘Stoners Night’

Trap rap has existed by other names for years now, but 2011 – thanks in no short part to Lex Luger’s 2010 productions for Waka Flocka Flame and Rick Ross – saw it become more talked about and prevalent than ever. It’s hard to think of many big rap hits Stateside this year that didn’t adopt the 808 basslines and snapping snare rolls that Luger’s perfected, while the UK’s road rap sect – not to mention observers like Kuedo – appropriated them for their own means. On the Rubbaband Business mixtapes though, Luger proved he was far from a one-trick pony, while Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J did a more than admirable job of keeping up with the kids.


47: CONTAINER
LP
(SPECTRUM SPOOLS)


‘Protrusion’

This year saw a deluge of techno-not-techno records made by people from the noise and DIY synth – as opposed to dance music – spheres. None were as convincing as Container’s disjointedly funky LP, which reminded us how punkish, pungently psychedelic and downright nasty 4/4 jack music can be.


46: DAMU
UNITY
(KEYSOUND)


‘Don’t Cry in my Bed’

A worrying amount of the UK dance music that spawned from dubstep’s failings descended to self-parodying levels of politeness this year: white boys sampling Aaliyah records they never liked the first time around in a sea of beige. Manchester’s Damu, however, took many of the trademarks of British club music in 2011 – r’n’b vocal samples, “neon” synths, 130bpm tempos – and unlike his supposed peers, made them mean something. Driven by unforgiving amounts of ambition and a noted musical background, Unity wasn’t perfect, but on its finer moments (‘Don’t Cry in my Bed’, ‘Plasm’, ‘Breathless’), it marked Damu out as a talent with lasting power far beyond the should be-silent majority.


45: BLANCK MASS
BLANCK MASS
(ROCK ACTION
)


‘Chernobyl’

While most ambient music is by its very nature meek and mousy, the debut album by Blanck Mass – a solo project of Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power – was anything but. It’s ambient music of enormous sweep and a gushing, neo-classical grandeur; its aspiration, and its destiny, to soundtrack an IMAX documentary about the Big Bang. 


44: BJORK
BIOPHILIA
(ONE LITTLE INDIAN)


‘Biophilia’

More than anything, it’s an incredible feat that Biophilia didn’t drown in a sea of its own paraphernalia. Bjork’s eighth studio album, lest we forget, was released alongside a series of iPad apps – one for each track – and supposedly spent time as a museum installation and an IMAX film before it was an album. It was born out of hours of research on DNA and astrophysics, and was also released with its own series of remix singles. Miraculously, when you cut through the fat, you’re left with one of Bjork’s most fine-tuned and well-executed, if perhaps unspectacular, records yet.


43: WILD BEASTS
SMOTHER
(DOMINO)


‘Albatross’

Hayden Thorpe’s quivering falsetto vocals continue to divide opinion in this office as in the wider world, but for those of us not adverse to his cherubic delivery, Smother was an impressive album indeed – beautifully written and produced, daringly stark at times, and possessed of a gravitas rare in contemporary British guitar-pop.


42: 2562
FEVER
(WHEN IN DOUBT)


‘Wasteland’

Fever is a concept album with a very simple but rigorous set of rules – every nuance and texture is half-inched from disco records produced from the mid 70’s to the early 80’s, with producer Dave Huismans’ own birth year of 1979 acting as a temporal pivot. The results don’t sound like disco at all – beyond a certain joyous, celebratory quality – but rather a new kind of dance music; dynamic, shapeshifting and irrepressible.


41: LEGOWELT
THE TEAC LIFE
(SELF-RELEASED)


‘Half Moon 106′

The TEAC Life, a pay-what-you-like download album of “forest-techno” posted this year on the official Legowelt website, found the Dutch eccentric at the top of his game. “And when I say Techno,” he wrote in the accompanying blurb, “I don’t mean that booooooooooring contemporary sh*t they call techno nowadays with overrated talentless pretentious douchebag c*nt DJs playing a few halfassed dumb mongo beats and being all artsy fartsy about it.” Amen to that.

40: THE HAXAN CLOAK
THE HAXAN CLOAK
(AURORA BOREALIS)

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‘The Fall

An astonishingly mature and skillfully realised debut album from young Londoner Bobby Krlic, The Haxan Cloak was this year’s benchmark for sophisticated darkness. Krlic drew on elements of noise, neo-classical, industrial and doom metal to craft his own brutal but nuanced, organic sound, prompting inadequate comparisons to the disparate likes of Tim Hecker, Dead Can Dance and Earth along the way. It’s just the beginning of what will surely be a glittering career.


39: JAMES PANTS
JAMES PANTS
(STONES THROW)

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‘Every Night’

This self-titled LP found James Pants in breezier mood than he was on 2009’s angsty, apocalyptic instant-classic Seven Seals. His skilled studio touch, combined with years of record-digging, means Pants is preternaturally adept at conjuring and combining very specific textures, moods and eras: so when he sounds like Bobby Beausoleil working with Joe Meek on a cover of Dirty-era Sonic Youth, you know that’s precisely what he intended. Another terrific album from one of the most talented (un)pop artists working today.


38: SURGEON
BREAKING THE FRAME
(DYNAMIC TENSION)

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‘Presence’

Taking cues from the spiritual minimalism of Eliane Radigue and Alice Coltrane – most obviously on ‘Presence’, ‘Not-Two’ and ‘Dark Matter – Breaking The Frame found techno stalwart Surgeon putting dancefloor considerations to one side and setting his controls for inner space. Though not quite the equal of his 2001 masterpiece Force + Form, it’s a bold, challenging and highly rewarding work.


37: BALAM ACAB
WANDER / WONDER
(TRI ANGLE)

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‘Motion’

The most distinctive artist on Tri Angle’s impressive roster delivered his debut album this year, and although Wander / Wonder didn’t exactly come loaded with surprises, it took the crystalline, lagoon-like aesthetic that Balam Acab established on last year’s See Birds and dove even deeper. Without headphones this record might pass you by, but pay it proper attention and you’ll realise it’s a real grower of an album, full of detail and beauty.


36: TROPIC OF CANCER
THE END OF ALL THINGS
(DOWNWARDS)

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‘The Dull Age’

Compiled as a farewell to Downwards, The End Of All Things collects Tropic of Cancer’s past singles for the label plus a handful of previously unreleased recordings. Combining a sighing, shoegazey romanticism with uncommon rhythmic steeliness, Camella Lobo and John Mendez’s immaculately stylised drone-pop is rarely less than ravishing, and this disc has us eagerly awaiting their debut album proper.


35: JON BROOKS
MUSIC FOR THOMAS CARNACKI VOL. 1
(CAFE KAPUT)

Listen to clips

This remarkable, digital-only album by Jon Brooks – best known for his work as The Advisory Circle on Ghost Box – might just be the last word in hauntology. Under a title that nods to the supernaturally-attuned detective of William Hope Hodgson’s pre-war fantasy fiction, Brooks presents 27 perfectly-formed miniatures of occult ambience, queer-pitched radiophonics and pseudo-classical whimsy. An absolute delight.


34: KODE9 & SPACEAPE
BLACK SUN
(HYPERDUB)

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‘Kyron’

Kode9 is one of the masters of dissonance in dance music, and Black Sun proved it – a record built on detuned synthesisers that fizzed and screeched to levels of alarming beauty. In fact, some of its best moments (such as beatless Flying Lotus collaboration ‘Kyron’) were completely removed from the dancefloor, which bodes well for the solo record that Kode9 has alluded to recording next.


33: MAIN ATTRAKIONZ
808s & DARK GRAPES II
(MISHKA)

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‘Chuch’

It’s been hard to keep up with hip-hop this year: there’s more mixtapes being released than ever, and new artists jumping on the latest trends every day. One of this year’s defining themes was “cloud rap”, a style defined by the rounded off, sample-heavy productions of artists like Main Attrakionz’s Squadda B, A$AP Rocky collaborator Spaceghostpurrp and based world elders Clams Casino and Keyboard Kid. 808s & Dark Grapes II, true to type, was one of several Main Attrrakionz tapes released this in 2011, but stood out as the best, balancing that sky-high production with gritty street code mantras.


32: THE HORRORS
SKYING
(XL)

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‘Still Life’

Faris Badwan and friends have never sounded as confident or convincing as they did on this year’s Skying. From the faintly U2-esque ‘I Can See Through You’ to the cascading, blissed-out shoegaze of ‘Still Life’, it’s an album written and recorded with stadia in mind, but it still manages to sound heartfelt. Indeed, not since early Verve have we heard such an earnest and honest effort to whip up a storm in heaven.


31: RICARDO VILLALOBOS & MAX LODERBAUER
RE: ECM
(ECM)

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‘Reblazhenstva’

Munich jazz label ECM’s mission statement has long been to deliver “the most beautiful sound next to silence”, and on Re: ECM, two of electronic music’s finest – minimal touchstone Villalobos and Sun Electric’s Max Lodebaur – twist some of history’s most precious source material in entirely new ways over 150 minutes of dissolved bliss.

30: GANG GANG DANCE
EYE CONTACT
(4AD)

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‘Glass Jar’

Eye Contact may have been Gang Gang Dance’s biggest album to date, and arguably their most accomplished, with immaculately written songs and hi-res production from Chris Coady, but for us it fell a little short, lacking the idiosyncrasies and unpredictability of their classic Saint Dymphna. Still, there are few bands better at making rushing, percussion-driven tribal pop music, and it’s difficult to argue with the technicolour assault of tracks like ‘Glass Jar’.


29: PATTEN
GLAQJO XAACSSO
(NO PAIN IN POP)

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‘Fire Dream’

This album by faceless London producer Patten may not have been perfect, but it was one of 2011’s most promising records: an icy slice of cramped, compressed and warped techno-not-techno that recalled the likes of Actress, Clark and Autechre without playing by anyone’s rules but Patten’s own.


28: ANDY STOTT
PASSED ME BY
(MODERN LOVE)

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‘Dark Details’

This album was perhaps the most influential and widely acclaimed electronic release of 2011; surprising really, given how it pales in comparison to Stott’s previous full-length outing, Merciless. Timing, though, is everything, and Passed Me By‘s mournful, claustrophobic “knackered house” (thanks, internet) sound – not to mention its title – chimed perfectly with a general feeling of listlessness among 4/4 fanatics this year.


27: PEAKING LIGHTS
936
(NOT NOT FUN / WEIRD WORLD)

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‘Amazing And Wonderful’

Originally released on vinyl by Not Not Fun and subsequently reissued internationally by Domino sub-label Weird World, Peaking Lights’ 936 was one of the most talked-about underground LPs of 2011, and deservedly so. Hazy and digressive but decidedly hook-heavy with it, it’s the perfect dub-pop odyssey for our hypnagogically attuned times.


26: BYETONE
SYMETA
(RASTER-NOTON)

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‘Golden Elegy’

A marvellous work of ascetic, experimental techno in classic Byetone style, but with totally fresh and dynamics, thanks largely to its maker’s decision to embrace influences from the margins of motorik punk and gutter-rock. Vigorous, visceral and unpredictable, yes, but above all fun – not something one would could readily say about the last Byetone album.


25: MACHINEDRUM
ROOM(S)
(PLANET MU)

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‘Now U Know Tha Deal’

New York’s Machinedrum has been churning out confrontational, distorted hip-hop and club instrumentals for the best part of a decade, but on Room(s), his first album for Planet Mu, he tried something new: taking the frantic drum patterns of footwork and inverting them into a kind of ambient pop: sometimes soothing, sometimes mournful, and comparable to Burial’s vision of 2step with Untrue.


24: JOHN MAUS
WE MUST BECOME THE PITILESS CENSORS OF OURSELVES
(UPSET THE RHYTHM)

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‘Quantum Leap’

With a title and cover art like that, John Maus’s latest was always going to have a place in our hearts. It helped that its music constituted his most focussed, accessible and exuberant set to date. In a year where 80s synth-pop pastiches were frighteningly numerous and almost uniformly dull, We Must enchanted with its wit and vivacity, and saw Maus assert his role as a romantic hero for our past-pulping, post-everything era.


23: JAMIE XX & GIL SCOTT-HERON
WE’RE NEW HERE
(XL)

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‘My Cloud’

Sure, ‘NY is Killing Me’ became annoyingly inescapable, but it wasn’t even close to the best track on this often sublime remix package of material from Gil Scott-Heron’s downtrodden final album I’m New Here. Not when competing with the shimmering ‘We’re New Here’, the gently rocking ‘My Cloud’ or ‘I’ll Take Care of U’, a piano anthem for another world that Drake and Rihanna saw fit to reinterpret on the former’s Take Care.


22: ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER
REPLICA
(SOFTWARE)

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‘Replica’

Those expecting another album of Juno synth drift from Oneohtrix Point Never were foiled: on Replica, Dan Lopatin proved that despite possessing a reassuringly familiar sound, he’s impossible to pin down, with each track sounding like an individual artifact excavated from wholly distinct times and places.


21: ROLY PORTER
AFTERTIME
(SUBTEXT)

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‘Arrakis’

After a prolonged absence, Vex’d co-founder Roly Porter returned to the fray with this exquisitely executed debut solo album. Using strings, vintage over-sized synthesizers, reinforced sub-bass and gargantuan reverbs, Porter created a moving, sometimes disturbing, soundtrack to the end of days, ranging from ‘Tleilax”s jabbing, howling power electronics to the cinematic, Godspeed-esque orchestral grandeur of ‘Hessra’. A stunning achievement.

20: CUT HANDS
AFRO NOISE VOL. 1
(SUSAN LAWLY)

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‘Backlash’

Fusing caustic electronics with frenzied, polyrhythmic percussion played on instruments sourced from Ghana, the Congo and Haiti, in the main this was as brutal an offering as you’d expect from Whitehouse mainman William Bennett, but at times it was strangely reflective, even spiritual, too: with space for delicate, sensuous pieces like ‘++++ (Four Crosses)’ and ‘Impassion’ in amidst the more battering rhythmic voodoo. All in all 2011’s most visceral album release, one which made most contemporary “dance” music seem impotent and lily-livered.


19: DANNY BROWN
XXX
(FOOL’S GOLD)

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‘DNA’

What an album. At times, it’s one of the most difficult records to listen to you’ll find in any genre – on some tracks Brown is practically screeching before he is rapping, and he doesn’t always make a lot of sense – but once you’ve fully taken in XXX, particularly its second half, with drug ballads ‘DNA’ and ‘Party all the Time’ and relentless closing track ’30’, it starts to make sense. XXX is an unbalanced, unforgiving examination of hedonism, shame and the concessions of trying to make a career out of music before it’s too late (the title’s XXX apparently stands for Brown’s age, 30), and isn’t afraid to be 100% honest about both the good and bad side of this Detroit rapper’s story to date.


18: PATRICE & FRIENDS
CASHMERE SHEETS
(SULK)

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‘Obvious’

Cashmere Sheets – a CD-R release of ’80s funk and r’n’b ballads reimagined at footwork tempo by UK house/grime producer Slackk – came out of nowhere this year, and quietly wiped the floor with the sexless dance music that makes up more and more of what’s coming out of the UK right now. This is music with genuine shine, dripping with sweat and sex; granted, a lot of that comes from the superlative source material that’s sampled, but that’s always gonna be half the battle.


17: MOTION SICKNESS OF TIME TRAVEL
SEEPING THROUGH THE VEIL OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
(DIGITALIS)

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‘Telepathy’

Inspired by psilocybic rambling and the tranquil LeGrange, Georgia countryside in which Motion Sickness a.k.a. Rachel Evans dwells, Seeping Through The Veil of The Unconscious is a precious melding of pattering synth sequences, miasmic drones and wordless, heavily reverbed vocals that could be registering spiritual awakening, or erotic bliss, or both. Though its beatless passages are plenty mesmerising, the album’s most powerful moments are those of subtle, sensual pulsation: stand-out track ‘Telepathy’ comes over like Chris & Cosey’s Songs of Love And Lust smashed on diazepam but not ruling out a tussle between the sheets.


16: KUEDO
SEVERANT
(PLANET MU)

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‘Truth Flood’

So effective and immediate was the Kuedo sound – arpeggiated Blade Runner synths cascading over 808 drums that managed to deliver hip-hop roll, dubstep skank and footwork bounce all at once – you wondered why Jamie Teasdale (formerly of Vex’d), or indeed anyone else, hadn’t come up with it before. Of course, the formula wouldn’t work if it wasn’t as skillfully executed as on Severant: slick, ghetto-savvy and hook-heavy, and the best soundtrack to night driving we heard all year.


15: ZOMBY
DEDICATION
(4AD)

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‘Natalia’s Song’

Zomby’s first full-length for 4AD took some stick at times, and it was mostly the usual complaints (“there’s not enough bass”, “the songs are too short”, “there’s no proper outros”). The thing is, although that penchant for casually knocking out pieces of genius and leaving them unfinished is always gonna be part of Zomby’s charm, it also sells Dedication short. There’s a lot of detail to this album, in its subtle use of panning and its barely-there layers of drums and backing instruments, and those prepared to pay it due attention will be rewarded with the maverick producer’s most beguiling record to date.


14: A$AP ROCKY
LIVELOVEA$AP
(RCA / POLO GROUNDS)

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‘Bass’

2011’s biggest money release – LIVELOVEA$AP was released weeks after news broke that Harlem rapper Rocky had signed a deal with Sony / RCA worth $3 million – also proved to be one of its best. At first listen, it’s easy to conclude that Rocky’s been overshadowed by the beats on his debut mixtape, with Clams Casino, Spaceghostpurrp, Burn One and more coming together for a clouded-over production masterclass, poised perfectly between Southern crawl, classic New York and contemporary cloud-rap, but the more you listen to LIVELOVEA$AP, the more you realise that Rocky’s skill comes in sitting back and riding whatever comes his way with staggering levels of nonchalant cool.


13: JULIA HOLTER
TRAGEDY
(LEAVING)

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‘Goddess Eyes’

A work of of luminous beauty and rarified poise from the hitherto little-known Holter, Tragedy was inspired conceptually inspired by Euripides’ Hippolytus (what else?). Musically it was a marriage of meditative folk and psychedelic concrete, amorphous and unpredictable – one minute affecting a Bad Seeds-style gothic stomp (‘Try To Make Yourself A Work Of Art’), the next channelling ‘O Superman’ on the perfect pop of ‘Goddess Eyes’.


12: JAMES BLAKE
JAMES BLAKE
(ATLAS)

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‘The Wilhelm Scream’

The last sixteen months saw the world fall in love with James Blake, and a lot of people promptly become sick of him. The glut of interviews that surrounded the release of his debut album didn’t help (mostly because very few of them were worth reading), but generally the backlash was unfair. There are a couple of moments where James Blake doesn’t quite work – what else would you expect from an album written while its creator was still at uni, long before ‘CMYK’, ‘The Bells Sketch’, and the rest of last year’s singles were penned – but it also contains some very special moments. If anything, we’d have liked the album to be a little less glitchy and stop-start; a little less self-conscious and a bit more pop. Tracks like ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ are so well-written that it seems a shame that other songs don’t get a similar chance to soar.


11: LAUREL HALO
HOUR LOGIC
(HIPPOS IN TANKS)

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‘Hour Logic’

We really didn’t expect Laurel Halo to produce one of the techno records of the year, but that’s exactly what she went and did. Billed as an EP – but consisting of six tracks substantial enough to warrant inclusion in this list – Hour Logic was a work of expansive, immersive audio science fiction that harked back to the more mellifluous moments of Rephlex’s 90s catalogue, particularly on ‘Aquifer’ and the epic title track, with hints of Derrick May, Carl Craig and John Beltran worked into its glittering matrix. Superb.

10: FRANK OCEAN
NOSTALGIA, ULTRA.
(SELF-RELEASED)

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‘Novacane’

Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean, an in-house songwriter for Def Jam and artist in his own right, released his debut album Nostalgia, Ultra. for free after apparently becoming frustrated with the label. We can’t help thinking that using entire Eagles and MGMT songs as backing tracks might have been an issue, were they designed to make the final cut, but Def Jam’s loss turned out to be all the better for the world at large: Ocean’s debut may be guilty of the odd hammy moment (“My friend said it wasn’t so bad / You can’t miss what you ain’t had / …Well I can / I’m sad”, for example), but its earnestness also makes it stand out, and let’s face it, you just can’t argue with ‘Novacane’, ‘Swim Good’ or ‘Love Crimes’.


09: LV & JOSHUA IDEHEN
ROUTES
(KEYSOUND)

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‘Primary Colours’

London Production trio LV have always been reliable, but even after the promise of last year’s 38 EP, another collaboration with vocalist Josh Idehen, few would’ve expected their debut full-length to be the capital’s album of the year. Crucially, someone who did was Keysound label bosses Dusk and Blackdown, who apparently commissioned Routes shortly after hearing 38. They were rewarded with a record that reflects the turbulent bustle (‘Northern Line’), the unforgettable highs (‘Primary Colours’), the conflict (‘Murkish Delight’) and that constant struggle to keep your head above water (‘I Know’) that defines life in a big city with remarkable subtlety and skill.


08: JULIANNA BARWICK
THE MAGIC PLACE
(ASTHMATIC KITTY)

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‘White Flag’

If you’d told us a year ago that an album of wordless plainsong – looped and layered, set against a backdrop of discreetly shimmering, pastoral electronics, and at one key moment sounding like an outtake from the soundtrack of The Lion King – would count among our top 10 albums of 2011, we wouldn’t have laughed you out of town, but we’d certainly have smirked skeptically. Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place is that album, and it’s a stunning achievement, floating free of genre – and, it seems at times, the earth itself – and carrying the suggestible listener with it. Imagine Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure spliced with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and you’re some way to estimating the timeless beauty and spiritual heft of The Magic Place.


07: DRAKE
TAKE CARE
(CASH MONEY / UNIVERSAL)

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‘Lord Knows’

Ever-divisive Toronto rapper Drake sidestepped the sophomore slump on the follow-up to last year’s Thank Me Later by sticking to what he knows best: nihilism, regret and self-indulgence, all shot in black and white. The production values on Take Care really were staggering, and made even more impressive by the fact that whether it was Just Blaze or Jamie xx contributing backing tracks, they all neatly fitted into the bleached, filter-heavy aesthetic that Drake and his most trusted producer, Noah ’40’ Shebib, used so effectively on Thank Me Later. More than anything, this album was Drake’s College Dropout: 19 tracks long counting interludes, a carefully deployed handful of guest appearances (Stevie Wonder on harmonica, anyone?) and the odd moment that would make anyone cringe (‘Practice’), but overall a spectacularly ambitious major label hip-hop album that hit the spot infinitely more than it missed.


06: JAMES FERRARO
FAR SIDE VIRTUAL
(HIPPOS IN TANKS)

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‘Earth Minutes’

The finest, most accessible example yet of James Ferraro’s ability to turn the detritus and dreck of US pop/commercial culture into gold – or, at any rate, something stomach-turningly psychedelic, mentally disturbing yet oddly celebratory. LIstening to Far Side Virtual is a bit like being trapped in the diet-pill-obssessed, cable-fried brain of Jared Leto’s mum in Requiem For A Dream, its twinkling, mercilessly optimistic melodies and opaque synthetic textures lifted from informercials, transitional fills and ads impelling you to dial 0800. At once his most accessible work to date and, we think, his most extreme, Far Side Virtual is a musical and conceptual masterpiece.


05: ARAABMUZIK
ELECTRONIC DREAM
(DUKE)

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‘AT2′

Diplomats producer with the quickest fingers on an MPC known to man releases album that effectively consists of him firing rushes of hi-hats, cracking snares and clipped kick-drums over the top of classic trance and gabba. This is AraabMUZIK’s electronic dream, and if you don’t like it then you’re quite frankly having a nightmare.


04: PRURIENT
BERMUDA DRAIN
(HYDRA HEAD)

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‘Let’s Make A Slave’

“Listen on headphones at night while driving through tunnels in Europe.” So read the stickered commandment on the cover of Prurient’s Bermuda Drain, as close to a pop album as we’re ever likely to get from the US noise icon. For the most part eschewing the head-crushing distortion and tortured screams the Prurient project has been synonymous with since birth, Dominick Fernow here looked to the atmospheric techno of, among others, Sandwell District, Aphex Twin and Demdike Stare – which he’d imbibed on long journeys across the Continent while touring with his other band, Cold Cave – for inspiration.

The resulting album was an epic album of seething, psychosexual synth-pop that rendered the new Cold Cave LP redundant. From the arpeggiated car-chase noir of ‘Many Jewels Surround The Crown’ to the symphonic crash of ‘Sugar Cane Chapel’, this was an album that titillated and delivered at every turn; ‘A Meal Can Be Made’ exposed connections between black metal and rave that we never knew were there, while ‘Watch Silently”, ‘Let’s Make A Slave’  and ‘Palm Tree Corpse’ – with its unforgettable talk of sticking tree branches where the sun don’t shine – proved that the earnest articulation of rage isn’t incompatible with musical sophistication. In a year that saw a vast new wave of industrial, minimal synth and art-techno proliferate throughout the underground, Bermuda Drain was the defining release.


03: CLAMS CASINO
INSTRUMENTALS
(SELF-RELEASED / TYPE)

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‘Illest Alive’

At the beginning of 2011, Clams Casino was a Jersey bedroom producer whose idiosyncratic productions had cropped up on mixtapes by the likes of Lil B and Soulja Boy, catching the attention of only the keenest-eared underground hip-hop fans; 12 months later and the boy’s widely and rightly regarded as one of the world’s hottest beat-building talents. This is thanks to the word-of-mouth success, and subsequent impact, of his Instrumentals mixtape, originally issued as a free download album before being picked up for a vinyl release by Type Records. Though his Rainforest EP on Tri Angle and production work for A$AP Rocky were impressive, Instrumentals remains the landmark Clams release to date. Though he’s more than capable turning out minimal, body-popping fare like ‘Brainwash By London’, it’s those mournful synths, sighing strings, and crashing drums – heard on tracks like ‘What You Doin”, ‘All I Need’ and ‘I’m Official’ – that constitute the signature sound of Clams Casino, the one that restored emotion and ambition to modern hip-hop using only the most modest of means.


02: RUSTIE
GLASS SWORDS
(WARP)

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‘All Nite’

Like his Glaswegian sparring partner Hudson Mohawke, Rustie’s always had the ability to imbue his music with larger than life qualities, and on Glass Swords, he conjured up a digital world more widescreen and colorful than anything he – or 99% of his peers – have put their name to yet. The result of retreating from the dance music craze that he unwillingly became a poster boy for, it’s an unashamedly high-res album that, as far as well can tell, looks to Daft Punk, prog rock, Legend of Zelda and ’90s after-party favourites for inspiration, and comes out sounding like the totally honest work of someone who’s found a niche not between genres, but above them.


01: THE WEEKND
HOUSE OF BALLOONS
(SELF-RELEASED)

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‘The Party & The After Party’

Since its release in April, House of Balloons and The Weeknd in general have become such a part of FACT’s make-up that it’s not easy to explain why it’s our number one album of 2011: it just is, and we doubt we’re the only ones. 

The odd lyric that verges a little too far into Gonzo porn territory aside (“rehearse lines to ‘em / and then we fuck faces” for instance; not that there wouldn’t be much more of those on HoB‘s infinitely sleazier follow-up Thursday), its songs are close to faultless – even when they descend into Abel Tesfaye wailing bitter nothings, all production elements melted down into indistinguishable mulch, they’re part of a greater whole that’s so effecting and, let’s face it, so fucking cool that it’s practically impossible to criticize.

Like Outkast’s Stankonia before it, House of Balloons also appears to have brought everyone together this year – r’n’b fanatics, hip-hop lovers, indie kids and fans of the more out there departments of the underground; we’ve even heard Premiership footballer Daniel Sturridge singing its praises. This isn’t to say it’s an r’n’b album for indie kids (perish the thought), but there are very few records that possess the ability to enchant listeners from every corner of modern music’s notoriously picky spectrum, and for The Weeknd to fall roughly in the middle of that particular Venn diagram is far from a fluke.

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