3 new albums from The Avalanches, DJ Shadow and Blood Orange.

The Avalanches' Wildflower.

The Avalanch­es’ Wild­flower.

The Avalanch­es released their debut album Since I Left You in 2000, and its kalei­do­scop­ic mix of sun­ny sam­ples mould­ed to infec­tious groves saw it right­ly her­ald­ed as one of the albums of the decade. Wild­flower is their belat­ed sequel. So why has it tak­en 16 years to arrive?

Well for one thing, the even larg­er num­ber of sam­ples they need­ed for their sec­ond record took over 5 years for clear­ance. Then the five Aus­tralian DJs became two, and are now two plus one. Then their record label went bel­ly up, and one of them devel­oped a life threat­en­ing, debil­i­tat­ing illness.

avalanches-since-i-left-you1The good news is, and not with­stand­ing the wait, Wild­flower feels like the com­plete­ly nat­ur­al next step after Since I Left You. As you’d expect, a slew of guest vocal­ists have joined the par­ty now, with Jonathan Don­ahue of Mer­cury Rev, David Berman of Sil­ver Jews, War­ren Ellis and Father John Misty bob­bing up and down in the sea of metic­u­lous­ly lay­ered sounds.

A few peo­ple have grum­bled that it’s too rec­og­niz­ably a new Avalanch­es album, and that they haven’t evolved enough. But that’s always the fate of the avant garde. What begins as weird and aggres­sive­ly off-putting quick­ly becomes accept­able and then the norm. This is even more obvi­ous­ly the case with DJ Shad­ow.

DJ Shadow's The Mountain Will Fall.

DJ Shad­ow’s The Moun­tain Will Fall.

The new album, his fifth, is called The Moun­tain Will Fall, and like the pre­vi­ous cou­ple it’s gone large­ly un-noticed. That’s because the hype that his debut album Endtro­duc­ing gen­er­at­ed in 1996 was bound to be fol­lowed by some­thing of an inevitable back­lash. And once again, as I wrote ear­li­er on his pre­vi­ous albums here, this is most unfair.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this is a much dark­er and more brood­ing affair than the Avalanch­es’ album, but it suf­fers from the same, unjust crit­i­cism. How can this sound so rec­og­niz­ably like a n oth­er DJ Shad­ow album? Shouldn’t he have moved on?

The point is, what he and then the Avalanch­es were doing was not some sort of pass­ing fad. Effec­tive­ly, they’d mined a new art form.

Beyonce's Lemonade.

Bey­on­ce’s Lemon­ade.

The instru­men­tal hiphop that he pio­neered was man­u­fac­tured by piec­ing togeth­er sam­ples from oth­er records and from all sorts of dis­parate eras and gen­res, and piec­ing them togeth­er to form a glo­ri­ous­ly coher­ent and for­mi­da­ble soundscape.

The trou­ble is, nowa­days that’s how all albums are put togeth­er, from the obscure fringes to the main­stream cen­tre. By min­ing as many diverse sources as pos­si­ble, in every area of an albums cre­ation. There are over 72 writ­ers on Beyoncé’s new album, the excel­lent Lemon­ade, and over 2,000 indi­vid­u­als are cred­it­ed with hav­ing con­tributed to it.

Blood Orange's Freetown Sound.

Blood Orange’s Free­town Sound.

A per­fect exam­ple of which is Free­town Sound, the new album from Blood Orange. In many ways, it’s a rel­a­tive­ly con­ven­tion­al album on the funki­er, RnB side of soul, from a British artist who’s tak­en four or five albums to final­ly find his voice, which he has done here in spades.

But each of the tracks are book­end­ed by sam­ples and film clips that give the album and each of the tracks a decid­ed­ly polit­i­cal edge. So that on the one hand, it has a much more con­tem­po­rary feel to it than either of the above, but on the oth­er, it nev­er could have been made the way that it was, or have end­ed up sound­ing the way that it does, with­out the pio­neer­ing work done by the likes of Shad­ow in days of yore.

Digging for gold, Josh Davies aka Shadow is rumoured to own over 60,000 LPs.

Dig­ging for gold, Josh Davies aka Shad­ow is rumoured to own over 60,000 LPs.

Though not quite as good as some crit­ics would have you believe, Free­town Sound is nonethe­less a seri­ous album, and gets an 8.8 from Pitch­fork here, while The Moun­tain Will Fall gets an unjust­ly skimpy 6.6 here, which isn’t real­ly fair on either count. They more prop­er­ly mer­it about 8.0 each — Wild­flower gets an 8.5 here.

What all three albums rep­re­sent is the fruits of a life­time of hard work from seri­ous musi­cians for whom music is not so much a choice as it is a com­pul­sion. And for whom, and thanks to whom, mak­ing an album the old way sim­ply isn’t an option any more.

You can see the video for DJ Shad­ow’s The Moun­tain Will Fall here, the lead sin­gle Augus­tine from Blood Orange here, and you can hear The Avalanch­es’ Colours here- the video for the sin­gle Frankie Sina­tra is pants, which is a shame, as the song itself is impos­si­bly catchy.

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5 Best Albums of 2011.

5. Let Eng­land ShakePJ Harvey

Just­ly laud­ed when it was released in Feb­ru­ary, Harvey’s eighth stu­dio album land­ed her a sec­ond Mer­cury Prize after Sto­ries from the City, Sto­ries From The Sea in 2000. Osten­si­bly, Let Eng­land Shake delves into the psy­chic scars left in the after­math of the First World War. But for all the heart­felt angst of her lyrics, it is as ever the bewitch­ing dri­ve of her music that once again proves so beguil­ing. There’s an eerie men­ace to her sound that’s plea­sur­ably threat­en­ing and draws you inex­orably in. And despite mak­ing prob­a­bly her most acces­si­ble album to date, she remains glo­ri­ous­ly unconventional.

4. Dia­mond Mine – King Cre­osote and Jon Hopkins

Occa­sion­al col­lab­o­ra­tors and fel­low Scots Meur­sault describe the songs they pro­duce as “epic lo-fi”. That describes per­fect­ly the music that Ken­ny Ander­son makes under the moniker King Cre­osote. And when he teamed up with indi­etron­i­ca pro­duc­er Jon Hop­kins for Dia­mond Mine, he was final­ly able to enjoy some belat­ed recog­ni­tion when they were nom­i­nat­ed for this year’s Mer­cury Prize. Incred­i­bly, this is (rough­ly) his for­ti­eth album. And he’s still (appar­ent­ly) the right side of forty. Just sev­en tracks in all, but each one is exquis­ite­ly craft­ed and impec­ca­bly deliv­ered. Track 5, Bub­ble, has the sort of heart-break­ing melody not heard in the Scot­tish High­lands since Belle And Sebastian’s haunt­ing I Fought In A War.

3. The Har­row And The Har­vest – Gillian Welch

Welch and her part­ner, gui­tarist David Rawl­ings made their debut in 1996 with Revival, pro­duced by T‑Bone Bur­nett. But it was when she per­formed with Ali­son Krauss and Emmy­lou Har­ris on the Bur­nett pro­duced sound­track to O Broth­er, Where Art Thou that her career took off. And a year lat­er in 2001 she and Rawl­ings fol­lowed that up by releas­ing  Time, The Rev­e­la­tor. This is their fifth album, and is prob­a­bly their best. By some curi­ous alche­my, the songs they pro­duce suc­ceed in sound­ing at once time­less yet pow­er­ful­ly con­tem­po­rary. Del­i­cate melodies cast in Appalachi­an gran­ite, track 2, Dark Turn Of Mind is a wor­thy suc­ces­sor to Time’s impos­si­bly mel­liflu­ous Dear Some­one.

2. The Less You Know, The Bet­terDJ Shadow

Every time we greet some­thing new with school­girl excite­ment, we have an irre­sistible urge to over-com­pen­sate by sneer­ing at it ever after. Thus it is that after greet­ing DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut Entro­duc­ing… with unbri­dled enthu­si­asm, everyone’s gone out of their way to ignore the three he’s made sub­se­quent­ly. As I wrote in my ear­li­er review here of this his fourth album, one day, a lot of peo­ple will one day feel very fool­ish for hav­ing missed this first time around.

1. Father, Son, Holy Ghost – Girls

Com­pil­ing these end of year lists is invari­ably a process of reluc­tant elim­i­na­tion. So that by the time you’ve nar­rowed it down to your best five albums, the five you end up with are all equal­ly won­der­ful. Not so this year. This year’s best album was unusu­al­ly easy to name. As I wrote in my ear­li­er review here, the sec­ond album from Christo­pher Owens’ band Girls is a seri­ous album. Mon­u­men­tal yet inti­mate, and rang­ing musi­cal­ly across three or four decades, it’s an album that’ll be cel­e­brat­ed and returned to for decades. Enjoy.