10: FRANK OCEAN
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
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
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.
(CASH MONEY / UNIVERSAL)
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)
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.
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.
‘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
(SELF-RELEASED / TYPE)
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.
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
‘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.