Best albums of 2011, No 6: James Blake – James Blake

In a year in which we questioned our obsession with all things retro, James Blake pulled off the unthinkable, taking dubstep, soul and even barbershop to create a new musical language

This year's most talked-about music tome was Simon Reynolds's Retromania, which examines the predominant nostalgia of today's music. Reynolds was right to point out artists mine previous generations for inspiration, and pastiche is everywhere. But can these influences coalesce to form something more than the sum of their parts, something genuinely new?

I would say so, and the proof is James Blake's debut album, which went beyond retro and synthesised a completely fresh production language out of a set of tangible influences. The first beat of the record, one second into Unluck, recalls the dry rim knock of D'Angelo; while the soulful multitracked vocals hint at his barbershop erotica. Blake's more tremulous, tottering moments recall Antony Hegarty, and hints of Jamie Lidell, Thom Yorke, Chet Baker, Burial, and collaborators Mount Kimbie and Justin Vernon. And yet this is debut never sounds like anything except James Blake.

An all-rounder who can write songs as well as produce atmosphere, and perform the lot, he nevertheless has strong suits. The lucid, repeated vocal melodies, clung to and fed through like rosary beads, are spectacular – I Never Learned to Share's narrative moves from domestic squabble to full-blown spiritual crisis in just 15 words. He's also a scholar of dub and techno, giving his palette of pops and clicks warmth where other artists might create brittle chill.

By sitting on stage behind a piano, Blake aligns himself with tradition – 60 years ago he might have been crooning doo wop in the same stance. But this is musical evolution, not a collapse into the past. That futurism makes him one of the most exciting songwriters today, reminding us there is so much room for the new.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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