1. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (Island)
And so to the big one. It’s an deeply unsurprising choice, seeing as I’ve been deeply in love with this record for the entire of 2011. PJ Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning album is, for me, one of the best albums of the last decade. In fact, it shouldn’t just be given a Mercury – it should be elevated to a Nobel Prize for Art. Peej’s eight album shouldn’t be compared to other artists that might merely neatly innovate or carve out a new sub-genre. Let England Shake is a eulogy to war and the concept of war being about land – soil and dirt and trees and stones. It is about the loss of young life; a set of lullabies for their spilt blood as it mixes with the earth. Let England Shake sits comfortably alongside the war poems of W.H. Auden or Picasso’s Guernica. It is that good.
A favourite book of mine, Sebastian Faulks’ epic novel Birdsong laid bare the ravages of the Great War. The stench of death in the trenches and the futility of a soldier’s life were beautifully woven into a story of love and hope. Polly Harvey’s extraordinary album could be its soundtrack. Recorded in a cliff-top Dorset church, as if to gaze outward from her tarnished country, Let England Shake showcases one of music’s most vital artists in majestic form. Whether lamenting the brutal loss of life (“Arms and legs were in the trees,” she proffers on the astonishing ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’) or the crumbling sham of an Empire (as on the scolding title track, “Let England shake / Weighted down with the silent dead,”) Harvey’s words are poetic memorials to the fallen.
But, perhaps incredibly, this is neither a dark or depressing album. The deft and inventive instrumentation, supported by long-time collaborators John Parrish and Mick Harvey, provides the songs with light and air. Quite simply, tracks like ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘In The Dark Places’ are two of the finest songs you will hear this year – or any year. In 2011 Polly Jean Harvey has delivered her masterpiece – Let England Shake is an utterly magnificent album and my favourite album of this and many years..
For more information about PJ Harvey visit: www.pjharvey.net