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The official Rambling Fox best of 2011: The Honourable Mentions

05/01/2012

Happy new year ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another year of infrequent random updates by yours truly. Maybe this year I’ll even get a new banner sorted that isn’t as horribly five-minute-photoshop-rush-work as the current one (not to mention the amazing Irfanview work on the official best of banner above).

As is tradition among the music writing world, it’s time for best of 2011 lists. Well, for me – most of the world already released theirs in December but I like to stretch it to January, if only to give me more time to think about the whole thing while listening to the albums over and over again. This year it’s been especially hard – 2011 was a very good music year. Whilst it lacked the sort of albums that legends are made of, it produced an overwhelming number of great, exciting and constantly rewarding releases that made music snobbery such a fantastic pastime throughout the 12 months. In fact, the number was so overwhelming that when it came to making a top ten list it became downright painful to strip away some albums from the coveted ten slots.

So I came up with blatantly stole this idea: runner-ups and honourable mentions. Albums that didn’t make it to the top ten but which nonetheless form a big part of why the year was such a good one. So before we tackle the medal winners, we’ll first touch upon five albums that didn’t quite make it to the finals but which are definite highlights of the year for me, one reason or another. Presented in alphabetical order.

KATE BUSH – 50 WORDS FOR SNOW

50 Words for Snow was the closest one in this list to make it to the top 10 – in fact, moving it here was a very last minute decision and a result of a lot of contemplation: the latest in Kate’s sporadic reappearances is a genuine thing of beauty and as such it feels odd not to include it among the year’s best highlights. Released at the very last legs of the year, it begs for a winter atmosphere to go with it. It’s music of snowy landscapes, frozen air, dark evenings and warm fireplaces, made to soundtrack the idyllic calm of a white fairytale winter. Kate strips down her music out of everything that could be considered excess, focusing on magic between her voice and piano, with other instruments mostly relegated to faint, sparse background appearances. The extended suites (7 songs, 50 minutes) go through wholly different variations on the wintery theme, from catching snowflakes to making love with a snowman. It’s a haunting, beautifully melancholy album save for the lead single “Wild Man”‘s off-curve groove and the genuine fun of the fantastic title track (which many seem to find as excessively repetetive but what joyless creatures they are). For an artist whose every album seems to be some sort of a landmark title, 50 Words for Snow doesn’t disappoint.

The reason for its relegation in this update is that its sheer dedication to the sound it goes for makes it something to cherish only at specific times. The set of seven songs here aren’t for everyday listening, it’s not an album you can simply pick up from your shelf and put on. A right setting is required. It’s a great album and when you put it on at the right moment, it’s a downright marvellous one. In comparison to the more ‘universal’ capabilities of nearly everything else that’s going to be talked about in this and the next few updates, it’s slightly chained by its wintery sparseness. Even the idea of listening to it outside winter is bizarre in itself. 50 Words for Snow isn’t an album that’s meant to be listened to endlessly – but when you do finally get the chance to hear it where it’s meant to be, it’s hauntingly magical. And of course, it has to carry the weight of “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” – a song that could be amazing if it didn’t make the mistake of including Elton John and his melodramatic wailing, turning the song from a potential highlight into an eight-minute speedbump.


Snowflake

KEMOPETROL – A SONG & A REASON

On the other hand, here’s an album that never really had a chance to get to the top 10 (for all its strengths, it does carry a couple of significantly weaker moments too) but which has become one of my surprise sleeper hits of the year, despite its occasional shortcomings. Most excitingly, it gives me a reason to be excited about Kemopetrol again. After their great and truly inspired 2000 debut Slowed Down, the band’s been going through more and more motions with each album, seemingly unsure what to do or where to go. The result has been a steady supply of nice music but with little fire behind it: songs that could be enjoyed, but nothing that would give a reason to love or follow the band outside some general curiosity. With A Song & A Reason, they’ve finally regained that fire. All of a sudden the music seems to truly matter again; it feels important and like there’s a genuine reason why you should be listening to it. For a long time now I’ve had no hope for getting a captivating Kemopetrol album, and now one has arrived just as when I was least expecting it.

To achieve this, they’ve gone for a new sound which suits them perfectly. A Song & A Reason embraces atmosphere and instrumental space, leaving behind the clear pop tendencies of the past and digging somewhere deeper. There’s a lot to thank for keyboardist/primary songwriter Kalle Koivisto’s sudden rise to the spotlight. In the past he’s always surprisingly been in the  background, but here not only do the layered keyboard patterns get a lot more time in the sunshine but he even takes frequent vocal cues. Not that he’ll even threaten Laura Närhi’s lead vocal position, but his voice works excellently with hers and adds yet another layer of depth into the mixture. The pop hooks are still there but they’re working subtly underneath the dreaminess and thick atmosphere. It sounds lovely.

A Song & A Reason makes me want to hear more from Kemopetrol again.


No Horizon

LADY GAGA – BORN THIS WAY

Born This Way is, without a doubt, a gigantic clusterfuck. An insane mess of over-the-top ambition and over-reaching overly serious idealism. The work of either someone who feels like they’re the most important voice of the generation, or who uses her current spotlight to try and become one. Political and equal rights commentary sharing the space with sex and lust. Every little snippet of information before its proper release seemed to be another arrow ready to shoot straight in the heart, from the downright insane cover image to the political posturing and the moments where you could almost believe that Gaga herself was deadly serious with each new grand statement she made about her legacy and work. Born This Way is a far, far reach from the fairly innocent dance pop she introduced herself to the world with or the ambitious pop statements that she became a critical darling with. By all rights, it’s an insane album.

And that’s why it’s great. It’s not even because of the cheaply obvious attribute of simply how different and refreshing it feels among the current, rather insanely inbred crop of the chart pop world. It’s because Gaga is a genuinely great songwriter who is at her best when she’s going bonkers. When she’s more conventional she’s hit and miss. On one hand you have the likes of the title track which may go down to pop history due to its completely unashamed bluntness about its equal rights message, but definitely not because of its tune; on the other you’ve got pop monsters like “The Edge of Glory”. The real gold on Born This Way however, and the reason why I’ve been playing it so much throughout the year, is found in its more insane moments. The flamenco-disco-politics of “Americano”; the hard-banging euro hell of “Scheisse”; the shrieking stomping “Government Hooker”; the bizarre mixture of hard rock riffs and 80s bubblegum pop found on “Bad Kids”; the otherwordly dance glory of “Heavy Metal Lover”. It’s pop brilliance.

It’s an insane mess of an album. It’s an excellent insane mess, however.


Heavy Metal Lover

MICHAEL MCCANN – DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION OST

I always feel slightly awkward about including soundtracks, game or film, in my yearly countdowns. They are, after all, works that are not meant to stand alone. They’re simply a piece of something and the music is inherently tied to its main body. When ranking it alongside works that were always meant to stand alone, the lines between being able to judge things properly begin to blur: there’s always going to be songs that aren’t truly that good as individual moments per se, but thanks to the power of the context they appear far stronger. A runner-up list like this is a good compromise: it both is and isn’t a part of the yearly countdown.

The original Deus Ex is one of my top favourite games of all time and one of life’s sacred cows for me. It already had a sequel once upon a time; it was so dreadful it more or less killed the series. The fact that Deus Ex: Human Revolution not only turned out to be a worthy successor but a jawdroppingly amazing game in its own right was the cause of one of this year’s most joyous moments. It’s truly a marvellous game, and much like its legendary predecessor it’s armed with an excellent score. The largely ambient and electronic score (“Mass Effect 1 meets Blade Runner”, as described by someone else) reflects its world perfectly: it’s futuristic and shiny, yet underneath all the surface sheen there’s an inherent melancholy to it. It sounds like the game looks and evokes a barrage of mental images and memories as the soundtrack disc progresses through. It’s ultimately like every other soundtrack, an excercise in atmosphere and sinking into a mood rather than a tale of invidual hit songs, and it contains a number of songs that only truly make sense in their context rather than outside it. Nonetheless, it’s one of the best game scores in recent memory. And while the main theme “Icarus” comes nowhere close to the legendary main theme of the original game, it’s one of the year’s landmark musical moments nonetheless.

There was once a moment in the game where I dropped everything I was doing to stop and stand around to listen to the music. It’s a great show of the score’s power.


Icarus – Main Theme

WILCO – THE WHOLE LOVE

Wilco’s eight album is a Wilco album. It seems that at this point Wilco have become a band who are happy to continue doing what they’ve been doing for a while now, and keep releasing new albums that reflect that. There’s always going to be some faint little stylistic changes that differentiate the albums from another but true change or experimentation seems to be out of the question. Wilco are masters of wilcorock and they have little desire to rock that boat. It’s fine by me. Sure, there may not be any surprise curveballs thrown around anymore but after a lifetime of lineup changes and stylistic explorations the good ship Wilco has finally found a crew that works in perfect harmony and it shows in the sound: a new Wilco album might not be a revolution but it’s guaranteed to contain a bunch of really good music that a Wilco fan is guaranteed to enjoy.

The Whole Love is bookended by two tracks that belong among the year’s very best. “Art of Almost” is a dip back to their denser, artistic side and sounds so fantastic in its layered haze that you’d wish the band would decide once again to go a little deeper in that direction next. “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” on the other hand is such a perfectly Wilco-like song that it could only have come from a band who have found a perfect place to settle down. Its 12 minutes of peaceful, downright serene melodic bliss and Tweedy’s wistful storytelling may not be particularly adventurous but the combination of Tweedy’s voice, immortal melodies, expert musicianship and warm production turn it into an evocative gem that’s arguably one of the band’s best tracks in their whole career. Elsewhere, The Whole Love is a standard latter-day Wilco album. There’s some particularly delicious highlights (the rollicking lead single “I Might” and acoustic mood moment “Black Moon” in particular), one controversial tracklist choice that’s going to be a thorn on many listener’s sides (the rather cringily twee-country “Capitol City”) and a lot of good, highly enjoyable Wilco songs that breathe the essence of the band. All the pieces fall into place – once again.

By now the trademark Wilco sound is like a friend. There’s no surprises anymore between you two and it’s a joy every time you meet. The Whole Love might lose points when it comes to innovation or exploration of the new, but it doesn’t particularly matter: it’s a solid, good album that’s going to last a long time. It’s a very Wilco album.


One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)

———

The real top ten begins someday soon, in two parts as usual.

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