Critics Poll 2011: 20-1
Yesterday, we revealed the first installment (picks 50-21) of our fifth annual Critics Poll. Today, it’s the top 20 Australian albums of 2011; a vintage year.
20. Belles Will Ring
(Dot Dash/Remote Control)
Key notes: Conceived in rural New South Wales and recorded in co-frontman Liam Judson’s parents’ living room, Crystal Theatre took BWR’s spooky psych revivalism and full-screened it, with pleasing results.
More reading: Track By Track
19. Sand Pebbles
(Dot Dash/Remote Control)
Key Notes: Fifth album for the Melbourne psych-rock collective, who boast a member born in each decade of rock’n’roll (1950-1990). More acoustic guitars, similar quantities of trippiness.
More reading: Track By Track – Sand Pebbles
(Dot Dash/Remote Control)
Key Notes: Third and final album from the Perth-via-London quartet. Amidst ominous drones and rattles, themes of dislocation and paranormal communication are enacted. Not as silly as it may sound.
More reading: Interview – Snowman
17. Jack Ladder and the Dreamlanders
Key Notes: The shape-shifting Ladder’s third album, and his first in front of the newly christened Dreamlanders. Recorded by Burke Reid in a federation-style Yass mansion. Features ‘Cold Feet’, which came in at #1 in our Tracks of the Year.
More reading: Interview – Jack Ladder
16. Witch Hats
Key Notes: On album number two, the Melbourne quartet stirred actual songcraft into their mix of feedback and misanthropy. The result? Songs about prostitution of the soul and Martin Bryant, with bouncy Combat Rock-era Clash grooves.
More reading: First Listen: Witch Hats
(Two Bright Lakes/Remote Control)
Key Notes: First full-length from the Adelaide/Sydney email band. Genre-wise, they manage to combine dreamy keys and loops with glitches and hip hop flourishes. Features ‘Don Juan’, which came in at #13 in our Tracks of the Year.
More reading: Interview – Collarbones
14. Laura Jean
A fool who’ll
Key Notes: A singer known for hushed acoustic albums – Our Swan Song (2006) and Eden Land (2008) – picks up a Gibson SG and goes electric. Features longtime collaborators Biddy Connor and Jen Sholakis and guest contributions from the likes of Grand Salvo and Magic Silver White.
More reading: Storytellers – Laura Jean
Key Notes: Debut album from band comprising former members of McLusky and The Nation Blue, plus a female gospel choir. Features ‘Cacophonous Vibes’, which came in at #5 in our Tracks of the Year.
What we said: “The contrast between the brutally stark music and the angelic mini-choir couldn’t be more severe, yet unexpectedly they meld into a unified whole that is infinitely greater than the sum of its constituent parts.”
More reading: Track By Track – Harmony
12. Teeth & Tongue
(Dot Dash/Remote Control)
Key Notes: Jess Cornelius’ second album as Teeth & Tongue, following 2008’s Monobasic. Features Popolice’s Mark Regueiro-McKelvie on guitar, and an assortment of drum machines and keys.
More reading: Track By Track – Teeth & Tongue
11. Oscar + Martin
(Two Bright Lakes/Remote Control)
Key Notes: Debut effort for the ex-Psuche duo. Self produced, with assistance from Nick Huggins, For You sounds like indie kids having a stab at replicating the ’90s R&B of their childhood.
More reading: Track By Track – Oscar + Martin
More jangly than a wrist full of bracelets, Melbourne’s Twerps have never been afraid to reveal just how firmly their influences are embedded in their DNA. Yet in the time between their first recorded offerings and this album’s release, they’ve slid over that uncomfortable hurdle between surly teenage homage and the liberating, yet harsher, light of adulthood to declare their own sovereignty. Though their hair’s a little longer and jeans more frayed, Twerps have emerged spiritually untainted, with their lust for experience and late night moments of profundity intact.
From the road trippin’ positivity of ‘Dreamin’ to the hedonistic ‘Who Are You’ and the loving pledges of ‘Don’t Be Surprised’ and ‘Bring Me Down’, this record is the antidote to that Sunday afternoon nothing time when your head hurts, your cupboards are empty and your lover won’t answer their phone. Twerps are the friends that turn up, uninvited but intuitive, grinning at your door with bottles of beer, still-warm pizza and reassuring hugs. This album is evidence that when the Twerps promise that things are going to be OK, there’s every reason to believe them. – Hannah Brooks
9. Lost Animal
Disbanding one of Melbourne’s best bands in favour of his solo project, here Jarrod Quarrell gives us a pared-down sequel to St Helens’ Heavy Profession. Teaming with producer John Lee (Mountains in the Sky) and sideman Shags Chamberlain (Pikelet), Quarrel drifts moodily through a sultry new setting. From the diffuse pulse of ‘(Intro) Beat Goes On’ to the canned wonkiness of ‘Cold Cut Nature’, he oozes romance without resorting to platitudes. He even recasts one-time St Helens tunes (‘Don’t Litter’, ‘Say No To Thugs’, ‘Lose The Baby’) into brooding album highlights. – Doug Wallen
8. Single Twin
An insular side-project by a beloved front-man is by no means an unusual occurrence, but it’s rarely done this well. Crafted over six years on his home computer, ex-Deloris singer-songwriter Marcus Teague self-recorded one of the year’s most haunting albums with little more than acoustic guitar, an out-of-tune banjo and a knack for lyrical poignancy. Absurdly titled in his own name, the record traced stories of split identities, learned reflections and obtuse characters in unfamiliar places - all with desolate arrangements blanketing his murmured poetics. Marcus Teague’s long and trying germination resulted in a uniquely beautiful record; a humble snapshot of six years of one man’s life told with nearly unrivalled sincerity and eloquence. – Max Easton
(Rice Is Nice/Popfrenzy Records)
Different people want very different things from “electronica”, the genre that demands bigger inverted commas with every passing week. Some want howling mid-range chainsaw brutality, others want dimly re-imagined chillout beats and emotive white-soul singing. Genre defying Sydney trio Seekae are stronger than the latter temptation and their 12-track sophomore LP +Dome bows to no imagined commercial pressure. The themes Seekae explore here are a continuation from those they started: +Dome is another contribution to the unstable post-dubstep trend, another combination of the electronic/downtempo/garage/ambient/hip-hop genres, and ultimately another notch on the old indie music belt. – Jen Peterson-Ward
Released in early 2011, the debut solo album for Adalita Srsen – some 20 years after founding Magic Dirt – already feels like a dusty classic. Its songs are timeless and lived-in, unbeholden to trends or passing fads. Though birthed with the help of the late Dean Turner – album highlight ‘The Repairer’ deals directly with his death – this is a solo album in the truest sense of the word; a singular artistic vision executed to perfection. Had it been released in the latter half of the year, it may well’ve topped this poll. – Darren Levin
5. Geoffrey O’Connor
Vanity Is Forever
From the barely audible directive that opens the first track, ‘So Sorry’, it’s clear that from here onwards Geoffrey O’Connor is valiantly taking the reins. ‘Feel Young’ is his whispered mantra: one that lights the candles and pours the wine for the following 12 songs. Like a female dancing the tango, listening to Vanity Is Forever is an experience best enjoyed by leaning into it. Since the destination is complete abandon, resistance or half-measures don’t bode well for travellers touching down on O’Connor’s hazily sensual landscape. While he invites us to have our way with him, really it’s the other way around.
Vanity is Forever is a debonair leap into a new realm, one where incredible characters, weaving in and out of songs, line illusory walls and dimly lit strangers spit esoteric truths, while O’Connor, like an omnipresent director, watches it unfold on a flickering, claw-marked monitor. It’s an album that absolutely defies typical descriptive terms, shatters reference points and reduces eras and influences to wisps of smoke. Ingenious, fascinating and inspiring, Vanity is Forever proves that O’Connor has single-handedly changed all the rules. – Hannah Brooks
4. Total Control
Perhaps as an obliquely positive spin on the “doom boom” of recent years, Henge Beat squeezes frontman Daniel Stewart’s primordial references of songs like ‘Stonehenge’ next to the modern concerns of ‘Meds II’ and ‘Retiree’, while the potential limitations of punk codes are contravened by bold and defiant experimentalism. Combining the charisma and scholarly wit of Stewart with the sonic fantasies of Eddy Current’s Mikey Young at its core, the Total Control five-piece administers a bracing rock thrust, while staying hip to the sounds of new young technophiles. Throw in some UV Race playfulness, awkwardly smeared over bleak, if not sardonic themes, plus a synth-punk throwback sound-as-addendum and you have an album revisiting old tropes, making them new again and reminding us that nothing ever really changes. – Steph Kretowicz
3. Dick Diver
New Start Again
Anyone that’s caught them on an off might know that Dick Diver’s knack for charming pop songs can be offset by an impressive capacity for self-sabotage. Luckily, the wry, observational nuggets that populate New Start Again prove the former, while keeping the latter at bay – for the most part. Wrangled by Mikey Young – Melbourne’s own garage renaissance man (see directly above) – the band are loose, but manage to stay just the right side of sloppy. The guitars chime and cut, while allowing plenty of room for Al Mackay and Rupert Edwards’ (and Al Montfort and Steph Hughes, for that matter) frequently brilliant lyrics. On songs like ‘Through The D’, ‘Seagulls’ and ‘On The Bank’, the result is striking; they create a strand of Australiana that does away with Paul Hogan, Noiseworks and the cultural cringe, and they make it sound easy. – Edward Sharp-Paul
2. Royal Headache
“Maybe she broke your heart - I know she did.” One line, but it's like an intense Google Maps search that goes: Australia, Sydney, Redfern, Shogun's living room then straight into his soul. Shorrty, Joe and Law are all great musicians, but Royal Headache is Shogun. That voice is astonishing. He sings, “I know she did” on 'Really in Love', and the band's intense stage performance, ear for melody and no bullshit attitude to the music industry crystallise down into four words. There has been debate and conjecture as to who Shogun and Royal Headache sound like but the point is moot. Right now, they sound like the best band in Australia. – Tim Scott
Really In Love - Royal Headache by Mess+Noise
Work (work, work)
In a year in which pastiche proved fashionable and credible, it’s heartening that an album that sounds like nothing else has come out on top. It’s also surprising that something that is so clinical and relentless has been such a fulfilling and enduring listen throughout 2011, when the dime store diversions of far less demanding music were in high supply. This album prevails though, for at its core, Work (work, work) is a visionary, fully accomplished reflection on the contemporary manifestation of that perennial artistic theme: sex.
Because the problem with pleasure today is that it’s just really hard work. When the injunction to “enjoy!” is no longer optional but a veritable demand in all aspects of our daily lives, desire and its consummation are no longer something special and rare but just a grind. A relentless grind from which we cannot escape. Grind, grind, grind. Or Work (work, work). Labour isn’t just something we do between nine and five anymore, it’s constant, pervasive – at the gym, the club, in bed we’re always, “Working that body out”, as Jonnine Standish intones through the distant haze of ‘Work That Body’.
“Girls move to the back/Boys move to the front”, she drawls elsewhere, on standout ‘Eat Yr Heart’, over genuinely industrial beats, the sound of persons and machinery locked in some doomed sex/death march. “Your body’s so perfect”, “You fill me up” are heard later. Whispered refrains from the mist of the album’s clinical, soulless atmospheres, Standish’s elliptical mantras are like bizarre snatches from the clichéd language of porno talk, cosmetics commercials and R&B tracks – all about sex but strangely void of passion.
This might describe Work (work, work) as a whole: it is both a mirror of contemporary sex and its inversion, mercilessly replicating its hydraulic, oppressive character while also peeling back the true horrors that are its runoff: contorted, mechanised bodies ripped apart and reassembled with petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals so that they may continue their macabre dance of interlocked limbs.
Manufactured pheromones, plastic breasts, “glucose, cellulose, saccharine” (‘Eat Yr Heart’) – not to mention Viagra, amyl nitrate, Ketamine – sex truly is synthetic and we’re all doing bondage, whether we realise it or not. Looking for a eulogy or a genre-defining moment on this record can only miss the point – that the languorous pacing, stubbornly-looped programmed beats, and listless x-rated choruses are all there to teach us but one thing: at the end of all this grinding, we’re emptied out, as bleak as this album’s undeniably desolate atmosphere. Yet, gluttons for punishment, we give into desire once again, get back on the grind and press play. – Lawson Fletcher
CRITICS POLL 2011 PT 1: 50-21
READERS POLL 2011: Top 20 albums