2011 was a wonderful year for music. For listening to music, dancing to music, thinking about music, writing about, watching, falling in love with, dropping what you were doing, grabbing your keys and running full pelt after music. It was for me, anyway. And I haven’t heard a fraction of what was released last year; I don’t know a quarter of the records mentioned in the big intermag end-of-year lists, and the ever-tiddlier sub-genre lists of The Wire etc. send me into a vertiginous panic. There’s simply not enough days in the week or weeks in the year to listen to enough of this stuff to make any kind of coherent omniscient pronouncement on 'music in 2011'. Given that we can only ever experience music subjectively, personally, partially, through our own skewed and faulty ears, I might as well just tell you what I heard this year and why it made me happy.
And it was mostly pop. Girls making pop. Very few of the bands I loved this year consisted of four white boys with guitars, although that template has been responsible for some fairly monumental things over the last four or five decades. Maybe it’s finally as redundant as it ought to be, that kind of monolithically gendered/racialised noise. The world is busier, brighter, cleverer, oh yeah, far too clever for that particular shape to be a likely mouthpiece for any kind of zeitgeisty blurt. Is that what they mean when they lament The End of Rock? Well, sod that, rock can, if it must, go on and on and it can mutate itself quite happily thank you very much. Rock’s not dying. And as time rolls onwards in its capriciously non-linear way, rock is ultimately as unpindownable as any musical genre; try to draw definite lines and it squirms away from you by throwing up EMAs and Planningtorocks and PJ Harveys all over the place.
If I were going to draw what I listened to this year into rough circles of scribbly convergence, I’d go further than the "pop, mostly girls" and say "pop, mostly girls, of Scandinavian origin". Make of that what you will. Make a new mask for Karin Dreijer Andersson out of it or a big red cloudwig for Bjork. I've no great socio-cultural analysis of why that might be to offer and no particular knowledge of the pop histories of the countries involved: this is going to have to be a pick'n'mix type affair, as flawed, simplistic and unfair as any such grouping of disparate acts tends to be.
I’ve already written about Lykke Li’s wounded rhymes so here’s a rundown of those other Scandi-pop goddesses that have blasted sodastream bubbles through my 2011.
Stockholm's Those Dancing Days started the year with a bounce but sadly their frenetic, giggly, day-glo puppy-scrap of a second album turned out to be their last, as they split up to do other things (including going to university) with 2011 hardly begun. It's worth checking out not only Daydreams And Nightmares but also their first gem of a single, 'Those Dancing Days', recorded in 2007 when they were still at school. It is teenage thrill embodied in sequins and squelchy keyboards and barely manages to hold itself together in its headlong rush to the finish. It's a song continually on the verge of being wrong - out of tune, out of time - but finds absolute joy on that brink. There's maniacal drumming (courtesy of the pretty much the cutest drummer of all time, Cissi, who pounds her kit with all the messy verve of a toddler launching itself at chocolate cake) and lyrics that chirrup with the delight of being "high on life, high on love... living for music, living in a dance". How much more pop could you want?
'Fuckarias', their first single of 2011, finds TDD stomping on solider ground, four years (and not just any four years but those which bump one painfully, wonderfully, from child to adult) older, wiser, more proficient but thankfully just as ferocious and which, whether through youthful gawky genius or second-language-itis, has lyrics as magnificently wrong as you like: "You're an uninvited clown/A foolish puppy with a too long tongue/You stumble and fall, you're the worst of them all/You're in my space, get out of my face". Fuck what's right, let's dance.
Icona Pop, in contrast to TDD, have just left the starting line, are on the B of the bang, with no physical product at all yet as far as I can see, just a handful of perfect synth-pop digital darlings, bristling with smart and sass and tunes. Never mind about albums, ‘Nights Like This’ and ‘Manners’ are ace on their own. There's some of TDD's sheer enjoyment of sound, particularly in the way they revel in the parps and stabs and swoops of aged synthesisers, but considerably less of the speed. "Manners!" they chorus "Take a second look and you'll see / There is no-one like me!", a mixture of threat and promise in a perfectly adroit pop package: "You'd better reconsider/You will never do better!"
I saw Robyn at Bestival, wowing a hillside of festival partyers with peculiarly solipsistic takes on her icy pop songs; she has that trick of throwing such awkwardly heartfelt shapes – the kind you’d usually keep behind teenage bedroom doors – that you don’t know whether to cringe or cheer on her courage in laying her heartbreak out, stadium-huge, for us all to gawp at. I'm going for cheer, because she's such a remarkable performer and her songs slot so neatly and fittingly into canonical synth pop that you’d think she was already the global megastar she dances as if she were. Both 'Dancing On My Own' and 'Call Your Boyfriend' have jaw-dropping videos, controlled desperation writ large in spikily dramatic narratives of the kind that swamped the charts in the 80s.
I also saw Björk at Bestival. Lucky me. It was a contrary thing; she didn't use the huge video screens at the side of the stage to relay her performance to the back of the enormous crowd, instead filling them with Biophiliac squiggles which, while disconnective in some ways (it meant most of the thousands gathered to watch her couldn't see her flamboyantly peculiar outfit or the skittery dances of her massed female chorus or the strange, custom-built instruments the music was blossoming from) also had the effect of making the experience less gawp-at-the-popstar and more lose-yourself-in-the-music. If you could do that and stop pining for the hits – which it was apparent not everyone could – then the show was an incredible, immersive, gorgeous thing to be part of, a sweeping up of people and notes and colours and patterns and grassy hillsides on the Isle of Wight into a big wowy beauty. A synaesthetic, meterological trip of a show. It certainly had me believing that 'Crystalline' (whose pretty icicle showers shatter into THE most remarkable Aphexy percussion coda: complexity and order and counterintiutive marvels measured out in rattling beats) was the most beautiful music in the universe. And oh my god! 'Declare Indepence'! One of the few non-Biophilia tracks of the set and the best grimy distorto-bass line since 'Dr Buck's Letter', thumping up from the stage in fat curls across the crowd, sending visible shockwaves up through the dancing bodies. A song to make you open your throat and howl. Fucking wow.
I Break Horses do the Austra/Zola Jesus/EMA kohl-eyed noise’n’pretty schtick that I'm a sucker for. There are muzzied vocals and urgency and swoons aplenty, and on Tom Rowland's dark and delicious remix of 'Hearts' they are a bleepy-bleeped-heartbeat away from swirly perfection. I suspect they’d be headswimmingly monstrous live.
Sacred Harp are, er ... strange. Strange good and strange confusing and sometimes strange really quite fucking alarming. If I said "impro jazz, classical, film scores, pop, Fever Ray, experimental, prog rock" at you all in a fevered rush it would – quite rightly – make you wary and possibly irritated. So instead I will tell you how (adopted Scandinavian but originally Dutch singer and main Harp) Jessica Sligter’s vocals slip and slide out of key and out of easy melodic tropes with infinitely precise control. She sings like comfort is a dirty word. She sings like a cat stuck in Mike Oldfield’s recording barn. Like a dryad stranded in the big city, caught between marvels and mayhem. By hooking her calculated tonal mis-steps around our ankles and sending us lurching into unknown territory, Sligter gives us a ride that thrills, bothers and allures. Marvellous stuff.
Sacred Harp - Found In The Open Country (The Underlying Deep Structure) by brainlove
First published on Collapse Board