It’s that time of year again – the shortlist of albums nominated for this year’s Mercury Music Prize are about to be announced, and the annual debate on the state of the British music scene will recommence. It’s the perfect time to reflect on the value, the integrity, and the relevance of albums that have been released by UK artists over the past 12 months, and so, as speculation takes over as to who will appear on the Mercury shortlist, The Line of Best Fit has come up with our own list. Following intense debate, and some unfortunate disqualifications (sorry, Jamie xx – even though most of us agreed that your album is exceptional, we decided that remix albums are a no go), we’ve compiled a list of 12 extremely worthy competitors.
The year has seen releases from some of the country’s most established artists such as Radiohead and PJ Harvey, as well as an extrememly exciting wave of sounds from new performers. Taking all of those albums into account, 12 of The Line of Best Fit’s contributors have detailed exactly why they think that their album of choice should be the victor in the battle to see who should awarded the accolade of The Line of Best Fit’s British Album of the Year, so read on for the first installment of our look at the best that Britain has to offer.
For a taster of what each album listed has to offer, listen to our handy playlist by clicking on the ‘play’ button above.
I guess Nick Hemming and Christian Hardy, helming The Leisure Society through the notoriously troubled and apparently turbid waters of “that difficult second album”, would have settled for blowing the cliche out of said liquid. They had a lot to live up to following debut The Sleeper, which installed the Wilkommen collective as the critics’ blue-eyed band and netted Hemming Ivor Novello nominations in 2009 and 2010.
Into the Murky Water is a slightly deceptive title for their follow-up. Through sweet sorrow and infectious bliss alike, the murk is well disguised. I fell instantly for this mostly breezy record with its richly-layered and impeccable orchestration (assisted by a wealth of contributors – I make it 27 in total). Bustling and abuzz but with room to breathe, it exudes a splendid eccentric Englishness, in a subtle, sometimes pastoral, way. With tunes so sonorously vibrant that they stay inside your head and a tone that blends romantic yearning and intrepid resolve – there is nothing not to like.
It’s also a beautifully balanced sequence of songs, where the roisterous ones rollick and the reflective ones shimmer, with each track-to-track transition perfectly placed. It isn’t just the droll, lucid lyrics or these complementary landings and launches that lend the album its eloquence but also the habit its songs have of coasting into orbit, exemplified by ‘The Hungry Years’ in its effortlessly exquisite final third.
I think it does great credit to any artist to have produced something so comprehensively engaging, where there isn’t a note out of place, and there’s not a track that would improve the album by its absence. Much more than this, Into the Murky Water is positively exhilarating at its best. The brilliance builds from song to song: such albums are rare and I’ll be savouring this one for a long time to come.
- Chris Jones
Towards the end of 2010 electronic music was used purely to soundtrack a moody meander through a 3am gritty city scape. The xx had painted everything drizzle grey and the horizon revealed only the coffee table bureaucracy of James Blake. Beats and bleeps were rationed; the neglected victims of recession, while the great hope of Dubstep wobbled in the clutches of Reggie and Grimmers as they yelled shout-outs to children.
There was a real danger of guitars becoming relevant again, but in an Essex living room, a man known as Derwin was collecting samples from charity shops and mobile phone recordings, and dusting down gasping analogue synthesisers. We had already heard Gold Panda’s blueprints, the oriental ‘Quitter Ragga’ and the crackling Casio of ‘Back Home’, but in October 2010 Lucky Shiner roused dance music to a sunrise over a mist filled valley. Opening track ‘You’ is the dawn chorus, different samples compete in turn, infusing organically into one of nature’s wonders.
‘Vanilla Minus’ and ‘Snow and Taxis’ are epic Trance tunes – repetitive, layered and building, but more akin to the sub-psytrance of Tribal Gathering than the banging Donk and hotpant-hysteria of Saturday nights. ‘Marriage’ reintroduces gentle piano house and ‘India Lately’ is the warped crackle of Kraftwerk on board the Trans-Orient Express.
Lucky Shiner is a “proper” dance record, with one man behind a forest of wires and magic boxes, pressing buttons to conduct samples to their natural place. Its analogue creaking gives it an organic feel which is all too often compressed out of electronica, and allows it to honour the history of dance and watch it blossom into a new era.
- David Newbury
Having spent 2010 releasing various EPs to get the dubstep world excited about his debut long player, James Blake confidently hit mainstream consciousness with ‘Limit To Your Love’ – a Feist cover which successfully showcased his masterfully edited vocals and post-dubstep beats in something we can all sing along to. The track cleverly eases us into the rest of the album, to which, unless you happen to have impeccable rhythm, we mostly can’t.
It’s true that much of James Blake is more radio-friendly than the London producer’s previous releases, and the album is considerably further from the dubstep scene in which Blake emerged than many would have liked. If though, like we should be able to do with everything, you remove the album completely from context – don’t think about what it was supposed to be, but what it is – what it is, is something intense and hauntingly beautiful.
Of course, the album has its downfalls: the mantra-like lyrics could often benefit from conveying a little more, as largely they feel more like an original idea to be built on than a song proper. But then, this minimalistic approach is part of what makes the album so compelling. The words may disintegrate into meaningless syllables fairly quickly, but they’re so steeped in emotion that they can almost mean anything we want them to. And of course, there’s no denying that James Blake has a great voice.
What really makes the album wonderful, though, is Blake’s unmatched use of space and silence to create build-ups which shatter into cacophonies of crushing, exquisite noise. That, and the layer-upon-layer of harmonised vocal loops which beautifully utilise the diversity of Blake’s voice, do strange things with time, while penetrating drum sounds bring it back into sharp focus, and make this album an extremely strong debut. And not only that, but a debut that is accessible to a much bigger audience than a straight-dubstep album would have been.
- Buzz Stas
The best band that Scotland has ever produced (who makes up the top three? Well since you asked, it’s Teenage Fanclub and Jesus and Mary Chain), Mogwai are responsible for two of the greatest albums of the 90s in Young Team and Come On Die Young and 2011′s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will completely deserves just as much recognition – and not just for Scorsese-style The Departed valedictorian/career oeuvre reasons. Not the band’s best album but still streets ahead of most British bands in terms of ingenuity and musical ability, it’s a kind of highlights package of Mogwai’s stylistic changes in the 15-plus years they’ve been at it.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will contains some of the prettiest moments in the band’s catalogue – the beautiful and stately opener ‘White Noise’ – and some of the poppiest in the likes of the Krautrockin’ ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ and the straight-up alt. rock of the brilliantly titled ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’. It still throws in the heavy noise (the metallic ‘Rano Pano’) and the delay-and-release side of the band that fans know (and love) with ‘Too Raging to Cheers’ and epic closer ‘You’re Lionel Richie’. Just for the hell of it, the band also added a second disc to Hardcore…, a single track lasting over 20 minutes called ‘Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain)’ which is a majestic orchestral piece showing off the band’s ability to create complex musical arrangements.
Mogwai might always be best experienced in concert for the sheer visceral power of the band, but we shouldn’t ignore the recorded material. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will shows that in a genre like post-rock where variety can be hard to find, these Scottish lads still have plenty of wonderful tricks up their collective sleeve.
- Andrew Hannah
Excusing the pun, we ought to acknowledge that the success of Aaron Jerome is spreading like a “wildfire” of sorts. Just the other day, the surprising figure of Drake joined the act on stage in Toronto to perform a remix, confirming the idea that 2011 is the year where the UK “post-dubstep” scene is becoming something bigger than a loose, slightly-berated term.
SBTRKT hosts dark, underground sounds which have been given a pop rinse and shine. With the help of vocalist Sampha and a couple of other contributors, Jerome manages to finely balance tasteful dub with accessible pop, far more successfully than contemporaries Jamie Woon and James Blake have managed. In recent months, Woon produced an inventive, albeit a little lifeless album and Blake manages to split opinion by the day.
Each track on SBTRKT has a selling point. ‘Hold On’ demonstrates the emotional croon of Sampha, while ‘Pharoahs’ holds a more tropical, summertime feel. Then there’s ‘Wildfire’ with Little Dragon’s stunning, show-stealing performance. ‘Wildfire’ is the most instant, poppy of the album’s tracks, but something as heartfelt and soulful as ‘Trials Of The Past’ proves to be equally as affecting.
As an album, it feels like a complete work. A culmination of playing shows in London clubs, making contacts, Jerome seeing a music scene progress right before his very eyes. To date, in terms of sheer mind-boggling attention, the Drake appearance must surely mark some kind of peak, yet there’s a feeling that things aren’t going to slow down for SBTRKT just yet.
- Jamie Milton
Rare is the band that at their commercial and critical peak, choose to make an album less immediately approachable than their previous releases. Just four years after being introduced as an arrhythmic, angular band with a music hall sensibility, the band have found a modus operandi and a coherency in serenity. The arpeggiated guitars are still present, as is a good deal of propulsive drumming – Chris Talbot has always been the secret weapon driving force behind their shifts – but for the most part, Smother strips away any excess angularity found on the band’s debut.
The best thing about this album is that it confirms that Wild Beasts are resolutely their own men. The ambience, unfolding at its own pace and produced with extreme care to highlight every element and layer, takes influence from the uncomfortable slow motion of late Talk Talk and the Blue Nile on the one hand, and the subtle, fluttering electronic atmospherics of Junior Boys and Oneohtrix Point Never on the other.
Meanwhile Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming are at new lyrical peaks, refining their gregarious ideas about love and taking sentiments into darker, more internally conflicted places, as with the subject of sex as a tool of self-distrust rather than of quick pleasure, for example. The intimacy of many of Smother‘s key moments is emotionally commanding, whether that be during the quiet passages, or the tension and release crescendo of noise that fills out ‘End Come Too Soon’. It’s no easy, passing listen, but it rewards all the effort.
- Simon Tyers