Key Releases of 2011

Steven Rainey chooses his top five Northern Irish albums of the year. Agree or disagree?

It seemed unlikely, but 2011 turned out to be just as strong a year for Northern Irish music as 2010 had been, and 2010 was indeed a vintage year, with Two Door Cinema Club's award-winning debut, Tourist History, and The Divine Comedy's tenth studio album, Bang Goes The Knighthood, proving particular highlights.

2011, however, saw some of the great and the good release strong albums to increasingly widespread attention. In case you missed out, here are five of the best. Snow Patrol's Fallen Empires isn't included, but then all 'best of' lists are subjective. Feel free to post your own favourites below.

And So I Watch You From Afar – Gangs
Label: Richter Collective

An instrumental outfit that are highly respected amongst other Northern Irish musicians, the pressure was on ASIWYFA to follow up their incredible self-titled debut album from 2009. The stopgap Letters EP hinted at a different sound – jazzy riffs replacing the delicate sonic interplay of before – but no one expected Gangs, a tour-de-force of righteous power and emotion.

Strident and euphoric, Gangs is the sound of a band on a mission. Interesting that the band's previous signature tune, ‘The Voiceless’, because with the release of Gangs, suddenly the virtuoso foursome found that they had something very important to say.

An apocalyptic tone hangs heavy over the album, and one can almost smell the fires burning as they lock together tightly around coiled riffs and world music-inspired grooves. This is inclusive music, a wordless call to the alienated and dispossessed.

Ending the year with key line-up changes means that 2012 is going to be a crucial time for the band. Whether or not this latest collective will be able to mine the rich seam of inspiration they struck on with Gangs is yet to be seen. But, suffice to say, that it would be unwise to underestimate this consistently exciting band.

The Japanese Popstars – Controlling Your Allegiance
Label: Virgin

By what yardstick do you measure success? After making a splash with their debut album back in 2008, the stage seemed set for Derry~Londonderry based dance outfit, The Japanese Popstars, to come crashing into the mainstream, turning their underground credibility into crossover success.

Roping together a stellar cast including guest appearances from The Cure’s Robert Smith, Jon Spencer of the Blues Explosion, Lisa Hannigan and James Vincent McMorrow, Controlling Your Allegiance initially met with mixed reviews. There were accusations of 'too many cooks spoiling the broth', and, in my opinion, the dance three-piece's unique approach to songwriting was overlooked in the process.

Taken on its own merits, the album does perhaps have a scattershot feel, with the frequent guest star collaborations diluting the impact of the collection as a whole, but this is to ignore the strength of the tracks when considered individually.

Their collaboration with Robert Smith on ‘Take Forever’ is one of the best things the indie godfather has produced in years, while ‘Let Go’ featuring dance legend Green Velvet is a guaranteed floor-filler.

So, whilst Controlling Your Allegiance might not have been the step up into the big league that was predicted, it provides an interesting road-map of where The Japanese Popstars may go next. Whether it be as producers for other artists, a studio band, or simply as a world-beating live act, this is not the last we’ve heard from The Japanese Popstars.

Cashier No.9 – To The Death of Fun
Label: Bella Union

In one of the year’s more unlikely success stories, Cashier No.9 took their own brand of affable, charming indie pop to a nationwide audience and found them to be hungry for more. The Carryduff band have been local favourites for a number of years now, but it seemed increasingly likely that their David Holmes produced album would linger in development hell.

Fast forward a year and one of the most respected indie labels in the UK seized upon the band as the discovery of the year, radio fell in love with them, and they proved themselves contenders for 'best act of 2011'. And they accomplished it all by refusing to compromise on their sound.

To the Death of Fun succeeds because it draws you into Cashier No.9's world on their terms. Musical reference points abound, with the shimmering exotica of Air lingering behind some of David Holmes' production choices, the motorik drum pulse of Neu! powering the engine room of the band, and the whimsical, laid-back wordplay of Pavement colouring the vocals.

But the sound is all the band’s own, converting even the coldest heart. The world is surely theirs for the taking.

Boxcutter – The Dissolve
Label: Planet Mu Records

Lurgan’s Barry Lynn has been quietly making a name for himself as one of the premier electronic auteurs of recent times, and his 2011 album The Dissolve brought a cinematic sheen to his music that has long been hinted at.

Leaving some of his earlier dubstep influences behind in favour of a retro sound that gives his work a warmer ambience than before, The Dissolve is the sound of a truly gifted artist finding a new palette of colours to paint with.

Ultimately, what impresses about this album impresses is Lynn's songwriting. Calling to mind 1980s cop show themes and the hazy fuzz of a television tuned to a dead channel, Lynn has tapped into the sense of retro nostalgia that’s permeating music so heavily in recent times. Rather than being consumed by it, however, he has allowed that nostalgia to take him in more interesting directions.

‘TV Troubles’ floats by on waves of synthy ambience and angular bass, whilst a heavily treated guitar leaves mathematical doodles over the skyline. The title track features an impressive guest spot from Brian Greene, bringing a kind of dislocated soul to the proceedings.

Dubstep purists cried foul, but The Dissolve shows an artist refusing to be constrained by the trappings of genre. In light of his overall body of work, The Dissolve might turn out to be an interesting diversion for Boxcutter, rather than a full blown re-imagining of what he does.

But it’s unlikely that this restlessly creative individual will settle on one thing for too long. As he pushes himself further and further out, we stand to reap fine rewards.

LaFaro – Easy Meat
Label: Smalltown America

Refusing to play anyone else’s game but their own, LaFaro followed up 2010’s debut with a sprawling, chaotic bundle of songs that guaranteed to leave a section of their fanbase scratching their heads in puzzlement. Interludes, on a rock album?! Were this deliberate obstinacy, or were LaFaro simply enjoying themselves?

The band’s influences, no matter how obfuscated they might be, shine through on Easy Meat. Echoes of the primal thrash of the Jesus Lizard come through, as well as the pummelling riffs of Helmet ramped up in the mix.

The vocals of Jonny Black are buried in the mix, allowing the guitars to take centre stage this time, unleashing all manner of breakneck angular riffs that charge along before you can get a handle on them. Easy Meat rocks – and it rocks hard – but often at the expense of the listener.

However, repeated listening allows for an appreciation of the depth of this album. Here, LaFaro show a natural gift for melody and arrangement that could yet take them to new and explosive heights. And the skits and sketches that are scattered throughout the record leave the listener in no doubt as to the record’s place of origin. LaFaro have created their own uniquely Northern Irish take on post-hardcore.

Come for the riffs, stay for the banter, but it’s the writing that you’ll be taking home with you for a very, very long time.