Friday, December 30, 2011

RIB's 2011 Album of the Year:
PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake

Happy (Almost) New Year! To those of you who read, this pick may not be a total surprise. To the rest of you, this is the first year I didn't read this to someone, or make the announcement in a private ceremony, prior to the big unveiling on the blog. It's been that hectic this holiday season. Anyway, here goes ...

Some years, choosing my Album of the Year is a difficult process that requires a lot of soul-searching, not to mention listening to two or three albums incessantly throughout late November and December until I get sick enough of one of them for a winner to emerge.

Some years, choosing my Album of the Year is an easy process, often decided before I've even announced my nominees.

The hard years are more thrilling, and usually make the announcement all the sweeter -- out of sheer relief if nothing else. But the easy years are fun, too, because they are years where not a shred of doubt lingers that I've made the right choice.

This year is an easy year.

Only time will tell if PJ Harvey's Let England Shake is truly a top-tier Album of the Year winner -- in a year R.E.M. broke up, I'm still listening to Monster and Up as much as ever -- and I'd be lying if I told you her runner up, John Maus, didn't get some consideration.

But I can pay it this compliment:

Harvey's record, a rock-n-roll epic about World War I, is by far the best album of 2011 -- and, more importantly, in this context at least, my absolute runaway favorite.

Harvey is the second solo female artist in a row to take home the prize (and third overall). Though she and Laura Veirs couldn't be much more different, like July Flame, PJ's record came out early and stuck with me all year long. In fact, in a year marked by dramatic change in my personal life, I still think of last winter when I hear it, and the sense of emerging from the doldrums that was so palpable back then, especially over a weekend in Boston when I had it practically on repeat.

But while Veirs' record is a quiet, personal masterpiece, PJ's is grand, sweeping, the kind of work fanboys like me get all giddy over when we see her playing it live in front of the British Prime Minister on chat shows. There are cavalry horns, bodies falling to the ground like lumps of meat, ironic, sonically familiar pleas to the United Nations, folk sing-alongs about deformed children (featuring backing vocals from John Parish), and so on, but while it's disturbing at times, it never feels morbid, and even comes off as sentimental -- a terrible time worth remembering, and singing about.

You don't need to know a lick about its subject to get it -- it's not a Ken Burns miniseries. Let England Shake lives and breathes, relevant anywhere where there's war or the threat of it. And, as I'm apt to say in these year-end writeups, it just rocks.

I've been a Harvey fan for some time -- I came late to the party on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, but Uh Huh Her was an AOTY nominee and I nearly drooled all over her score as I ogled Mary-Louise Parker as Hedda Gabbler on Broadway. Five or 10 years ago, I expected her to win this award, or at least make a very near run at it, but I have to admit this record caught me almost completely by surprise.

It hasn't let me go.