Graham’s soundtrack to 2011

Disc 1

1 M83 – Outro (excerpt)
2 Friendly Fires – Live Those Days Tonight
3 Akron/Family – Silly Bears
4 The Go! Team – Buy Nothing Day
5 Tom Waits – Chicago
6 Tune-Yards – Sunlight
7 John Vanderslice – Convict Lake
8 Coldplay – Charlie Brown
9 Plaid – Missing
10 Apparat – Song Of Los
11 Elbow – Lippy Kids
12 Radiohead – Lotus Flower
13 The Antlers – Parentheses
14 Beat Connection – Silver Screen
15 Woods – Be All Be Easy
16 Jonsi – Saint Naive (live)
17 M83 – Raconte-Moi Une Histoire
18 Caribou – Niobe
19 Panda Bear – Drone

Disc 2

1 Cut Copy – Need You Now
2 The War On Drugs – Baby Missiles
3 Friendly Fires – Chimes
4 Washed Out – Amor Fati
5 Radiohead – Codex
6 Youth Lagoon – Posters
7 Low – Try To Sleep
8 Kurt Vile – Baby’s Arms
9 Colin Stetson – The Righteous Wrath Of An Honorable Man
10 John Cale – Paris 1919
11 Lana Del Rey – Video Games
12 PJ Harvey – Written On The Forehead
13 Portugal. The Man – Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)
14 Radical Face – Mountains
15 Akron/Family – Light Emerges
16 Florence & The Machine – Shake It Out
17 Jonsi – Sticks And Stones (live)
18 Coldplay – Don’t Let It Break Your Heart
19 M83 – Outro

‘The best version of what I could imagine / Just happened’

We’re almost up to the present day. Between the drama and excitement of the years that fell either side of it, 2011 seems like a quiet, sedate year for me, but at least it gave us a ton of good music.

To start the soundtrack, I thought I’d try something a bit different – lop off a part of a track to begin the thing and then put the whole song at the very end. So you get a very small taste of the since-ubiquitous synth lines of M83’s ‘Outro’ – used and abused on all manner of slow-motion sport and advertising montages, before we get into the real action. ‘Live These Days Tonight’ is a fist-pumping return from St Albans’ finest, Friendly Fires, and a nice riposte to those bores who think music and its related culture were so much better ‘in their day’. I played their second album to death in Barcelona this year – 2011’s successor to Delorean’s Subiza in that regard. It’s followed by Akron/Family, a band whose previous, excellent album I neglected on the 2009 soundtrack. They seem like a fun band to be in, not just from the exhuberant joy of their music but also from their videos. ‘Silly Bears’, whose gloriously silly video you can see here, uses a couple of bears searching for honey as some sort of allegory for humans having a grand night out on the tiles. What’s not to love?

It’s been diminishing returns for The Go! Team ever since Thunder Lightning Strike, but they churn out at least one classic on every following album. This is their latest, featuring Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast on vocals, and would have fitted right in on their peerless debut.

I welcome back Tom Waits to the soundtracks next after a 12-year absence. When he last appeared, he was singing beautiful, tender ballads from the end of the bar. In ‘Chicago’ he’s in full growling Captain Beefheart mode over the top of a clattering ensemble of horns and percussion. I was first turned on to this song after Waits’ ingenious promotional YouTube clip that pretty much plays to every pre-conception you ever had about him.

Similarly weird is Merrill Garbus, who is tUnE-yArDs (absurd capitalisation is her own). She played a fantastic set at Primavera Sound, but I discovered this tune (recorded on a cheap cassette recorder, and sounding every bit like it) on her debut, and fell in love. That same year she had a new album too but it was almost a bit too polished.

Tom Ravenscroft’s show was continuing to be a big influence on my tastes and they gave me two tracks towards the centre of disc one. John Vanderslice recorded an album with a group of musicians called the Magik*Magik Orchestra this is the pick of the songs from said album, a cautionary tale about taking drugs on a camping trip. Meanwhile, Warp Records stalwarts Plaid returned for their first album in seven years, and the lead single was my favourite track of the year. Though it fits in here almost as a ‘breather’ piece, it’s too intricate and delicate to be ignored, showing the beauty that can be found in what is essentially mathematical music, a series of downward and upward scales. Between the two songs is one that I’m sure Ravenscroft would have baulked at playing but I’m not ashamed to stick it in myself – Coldplay’s ‘Charlie Brown’.

Apparat’s latest album divided opinion, with some thinking it was a dip in quality while in search of more commercial waters (Coldplay were mentioned here very much in the pejorative), but everyone could agree on how good this track was. Meanwhile, Elbow marched on, simply being Elbow. You pretty much know what you’re going to get with them at this point, which would become boring if they won’t so good at it. ‘Lippy Kids’ was another song reflecting on their hometown (just like 2005’s Station Approach, one of my all-time favourites). And we got another Radiohead album, and another one that split their fans right down the middle. ‘Lotus Flower’ is probably more famous for its video at this point, which spawned a fair few parodies, this is nonetheless a strong return from perennial favourites of mine.

The Antlers were a band that I’d got into with their previous album Hospice, an extraordinarily brutal listen. When I saw them at Primavera Sound they were sensational, and I had really high hopes of their follow-up Burst Apart, thinking it was going to make them enormous. It didn’t, and the album was a bit of a let-down, but it did at least give us the claustrophobic ‘Parentheses’. After the run of doomy tracks we need a bit of pop to uplift us, and Beat Connection’s ‘Silver Screen’ does its job perfectly before a lazy-afternoon summer tune from Woods, ‘Be All Be Easy’ (another Ravenscroft-aided discovery).

The inclusion of Jonsi’s ‘Saint Naive’, along with another Jonsi song on disc two, is a cheating a bit – as his Go Live album came out right at the end of last year, but weren’t shipped until the start of 2011 (so it counts). The album came with a few new songs which weren’t on his debut, of which this was one. I’m also cheating a little with the inclusion of a second M83 song on this disc, but as the first was only a quick excerpt, it’s fair game to include ‘Raconte-Moi Une Histoire’ here. Although a couple of years on, that kid’s whimsical tale of turning into a frog grates just a little.

But it absolutely pales with what comes next. ‘Niobe’ is another wildcard, the closing song from Caribou’s 2007 Andorra LP. I included ‘Niobe’ because I saw Dan Snaith do an absolutely epic version of this, twice, at Primavera. The first of these performances is here, and I just wish it captured the power of that apocalypric bassline Play this very loud, with the bass turned up high, and it doesn’t get close). The track single-handedly converted me from a casual listener of his music to a full-on fan. And to finish off the disc, the most accurately-named track of all time, ‘Drone’, from Panda Bear’s second album Tomboy – the influence of Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember coming through loud and clear in those endless chords.

Disc two gets under way with a party tune – or more of a getting-ready-for-the-party tune. I was never a fan of the Australian band Cut Copy before, their album In Ghost Colours overrated by all and sundry, but ‘Need You Now’ is what they might call a beaut. It’s followed straight up by a piece of driving music at its finest. If Bruce Springsteen hired Kate Radley to play keyboards on his next album, it might sound quite a bit like The War On Drugs’ ‘Baby Missiles’, while the lead singer actually sounds a bit like Richard Ashcroft too – the vital early-mid-90s one). I’m a big fan of the harmonica solo halfway through. Meanwhile, former War On Drugs guitarist Kurt Vile makes a solo appearance later on with the dreamy, mellow ‘Baby’s Arms’.

It was very, very close between ‘Chimes’ and ‘Hawaiian Air’ for my second Friendly Fires pick, but ‘Chimes’ just shaded it thanks to more happy memories from my second trip to Barcelona for Primavera Sound. It wasn’t a standout year for albums, but the pick of the bunch was Within And Without by Ernest Greene under his guise Washed Out. He’s been credited as one of the developers of the chillwave genre, dismissed as muzak by many (and fair enough in some cases), but Within And Without is way too worthy of your attention for that – even if I couldn’t name a single song on it. I’d have struggled to remember the title ‘Amor Fati’ had I not included it here, but I loved it, even if the song became the soundtrack to writing into spreadsheets rather than the activity the album cover suggests.

As Washed Out washes over you, you might not expect Thom Yorke to be able to continue the mood, but the stark piano ballad Codex, from The King Of Limbs, does just that. A few people have said this is a retread of Pyramid Song, based on the fact it’s Yorke singing over a piano. It’s a hell of a lot better than that – and the lyrics ‘Jump off the end / Into a clear blue lake / No-one around’ make it a distant cousin to REM’s ‘Nightswimming’ in my eyes. It leads into the similarly sparse, innocent dream pop of ‘Posters’ by Trevor Powers, who trades as Youth Lagoon. The album it’s from is called The Year Of Hibernation and in ‘Posters’, Powers’ cracked, naïve voice sounds like he’s just woken from a long sleep.

Next marks the return of some old favourites. Low’s silences don’t usually last four years, so it was good that when they returned, they did so with their most Low-sounding album of all – C’Mon was the distillation of every sound that had made them so great, and ‘Try To Sleep’ embodied it all as the first single.

After a brief, brilliant interlude from Colin Stetson – 2’24” of prime bass saxophone solo in your face – you get comfortably the oldest song ever to make it on to my soundtracks as a wildcard. Former Velvet Underground multi-instumentalist John Cale’s Paris 1919 album came out in 1973, almost two decades before anything else I’ve included through the years. I included its title track because I was going through a Primavera playlist before heading out to Spain, and this was on there, as Cale was playing its parent album in its entirely at the festival. Sadly I couldn’t see it (I couldn’t get a seat in the indoor venue) but at least I had discovered this wonderful song.

One of those arguments that already feels passé is that one about Lana Del Rey, and whether she was the saviour of music or just another record company puppet. Did it really matter? I hated the Born To Die album overall, but it didn’t matter that much as she’d already given us ‘Video Games’ that sound it like it could have come straight from a David Lynch film. Polly Harvey was an artist critics had a far easier time agreeing on after the excellent Let England Shake, a concept album mostly about World War I. On ‘Written On The Forehead’, Harvey makes the connection between WWI and the Iraq War, while making inspired use of an old roots reggae sample.

2011 was the year I stopped fighting the good fight for the physical format, and jettisoned buying CDs in favour of buying MP3s instead – as my stepmother recently put it, we are not part of ‘the stuff generation’. I barely have enough room in my flat for the CDs I already have, and I’m looking to get rid of them – I don’t have nearly as heavy a heart about it as I thought. Spotify is now my primary source of checking out music after reading reviews and catching bits and pieces on the radio, and the advent of end-of-year best-of Spotify playlists help out with the quest to discover anything I’ve missed along the way during the year. Those playlists helped me discover the irritatingly-punctuated Portugal. The Man (that’s their name, full stop included) and Radical Face – the latter in particular providing me with my perfect winter album. The Family Tree is a three-album trilogy about a 19th-century family, and Mountains is the standout track from its first instalment (the second came out recently as is worth checking out).

The closing run of tracks lift the spirits a little more. For some reason, Akron/Family’s bouncy ‘Light Emerges’ became my ‘happy’ song this year, most closely associated with times of great celebration, like Nat’s cousin’s bar mitzvah and Scott and Emma’s wedding. Next is a band I usually hate. Florence & The Machine have done bloody well getting two songs on to my soundtracks since they started – the other being Dog Days Are Over in 2009. They’re both brilliant anthemic pop songs, floating upon the sea of sewage that is the rest of their recorded output.

Jonsi’s ‘Sticks And Stones’ was another choice from his Go Live album. This version of the song was actually recorded at a gig that I went to, with Dad and Mel, in September 2010. And it sounds just as mental as it did then, with his drummer Thorvaldur Thór Thorvaldsson not only managing to have three similar names but also seeming to fill the part of three drummers at once.

Without a moment’s pause, Coldplay’s ‘Don’t Let It Break Your Heart’, a song that should have been a single, bursts in for its three minutes of powering chords before fading away with heartbeats (a little predictably perhaps). And all that’s left is for us to come full circle; a short snippet of M83’s ‘Outro’ kicked off disc one, and now it’s time for the whole thing – which as mentioned before, has become omnipresent as the lazier promo directors use its sweeping power chords to, you know, express real meaning. It deserves a better fate than to be tossed around like Sigur Ros’ similarly-abused ‘Hoppipolla’, but I guess at least people got to hear it.

And so 2011 faded to black. The following year would provide a little jamboree in Stratford that I’d end up contributing my own tiny part to. A warning: I may mention this quite a bit in the next two posts.

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