Albums of 2011: Bill Callahan, Björk, Battles, James Blake

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Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

My album of the year, Callahan’s latest is insular and intimate but of universal import, addressing themes of patriotism, of things ending and being renewed. Apocalypse is characterised by dark, witty and often beautiful lyrics, vocal pauses and spacious Americana arrangements, whose instinctive restraint allows for swathes of ambiguous meaning to rise out of seemingly minor musical and vocal details. Hearing these qualities unfold with repeat listens is a liberating experience, for which any listener should be grateful.

Björk – Biophilia

It might be contended that the biophilia hypothesis – that humans sense a genuine connection with other biological systems – captures the spirit of Björk’s career better than any other idea. Ironically, on its eponymous album, her love affair with nature is swamped by technological dimensions, with an iPad app released to coincide with each song. The musical elements – bespoke instrumentation, virulent beats and swooping choirs – often hark back to earlier work, but they’re put together in challenging new ways.

Battles – Gloss Drop

With figurehead Tyondai Braxton leaving the band to focus his unique talents elsewhere, Battles might have imploded, but instead powered through the loss to produce their funnest music yet. John Stanier’s relentless drumming and other instrumental fragments are the heart of a hugely rhythmic work, given melodic content by idiosyncratic contributions from guest vocalists, including Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino and techno producer Matias Aguayo. It might sound frenzied, but its frenetic quality masks an amazing level of control.

James Blake – James Blake

In truth no more deserving of a place than a great many other innovative producers of electronic music, James Blake captured the mainstream critical imagination by fusing popular styles. His peculiar, disjointed dubstep-soul hybrid embodies the Kid A spirit, insofar as it reflects the increasingly fragmented cultural world facing new music fans. Blake’s repeated vocals fight against a mesh of icy beats and synths, to the point that it’s no longer clear whether the music’s intimate and human or distant and robotic. Either way, it’s not quite like anything else.

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