So here it is; my favorite albums of 2011. I hope some of you take the time to check some of them out. Detailed descriptions can be found by clicking on each album title.
While a lot of the music here won’t show up on the Billboard Top 100 list, there’s still plenty here for most of you to like; you just have to give it a try! As always, thanks for reading. Happy New Year!
The Rest of the Best
21. Foster the People: Torches
22. Seryn: This is Where We Are
23. Adele: 21
24. Manchester Orchestra: Simple Math
25. The Roots: Undun
26. Wild Beasts: Smother
27. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part II
28. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
29. The Strokes: Angles
30. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Bon Iver (specifically lead singer and mastermind Justin Vernon) first entered our consciousness about 3 years ago with the brilliant but sobering debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Armed with a guitar, a few mics and a makeshift drum kit, Vernon recorded the album alone in a cabin in rural Wisconsin. Encompassing years of heartbreak and love loss, the album evoked a sense of pain that was palpable and all the while enthralling. A year and a few Grey’s Anatomy episodes later, Vernon’s star was on the rise. Most notably, Vernon took a turn as singer and collaborator on Kanye West’s most recent album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After touring extensively, Vernon and his mates returned to the studio for a follow-up, resulting in this, their eponymous follow-up.
Back again is the signature ambiance, marked by Vernon’s haunting falsetto vocals. Except this time, the production is more dynamic resulting in a bigger sound. The opening track “Perth” starts up with a guitar lick that repeats, followed by deeply reverberating vocals and a marching snare; somewhat familiar territory. But then the song picks up its intensity with horns and a double bass drum; perhaps a signal of what lurks next. The dreamy “Holocene” sounds much like something from the previous album, except that it’s far more layered in sounds and textures. The album’s first release, “Calgary” is also the band’s most upbeat song on the album. Essentially straight-ahead rock, it rounds itself out nicely with some carefully placed synth work. The album closes in a peculiar way with “Beth/Rest,” an 80′s styled-ballad that would make Michael Bolton blush. Replete with 80’s keyboards and a sax solo (yes you read that correctly), the song sounds like it was meant to be played during the credits of some random 80’s flick. Don’t worry though, somehow- like the rest of the album- it works.
Learn more about Bon Iver at http://www.boniver.org/
Select Cuts: Perth, Holocene, Calgary
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Perhaps no other genre of music personifies the term “timeless” more than soul. From Sam Cook to Smokey Robinson to Curtis Mayfield, soul music has that rare quality of endurance and accessibility. Thankfully, modern day crooner Raphael Saadiq knows this all too well. As lead singer of the 90’s R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq helped craft a slew of hits that fit the New Jack Swing style of the day. After departing the group, Saadiq first turned to production and writing before releasing a series of albums as a solo artist. His third album The Way I See It, was critically acclaimed and created somewhat of a coming out party for the artist. Not wishing to rest on his laurels, Saadiq released Stone Rollin’ in 2011, to equal acclaim; and for good reason. Like its predecessor, Stone Rollin is at its core a throwback soul album, that manages to retain a high degree of originality by blending classic soul with elements of rock n’ roll, and classic pop music. The production is first rate, and the arrangements on the album demonstrate a high degree of songcraft. Overall, the album has that rare quality of blending the past (you might think you were listening to a Booker T. & The MGs tune on “Stone Rollin”), with the present (see the opener “Heart Attack”). Stone Rollin is truly a great album, and there’s a little bit here for everyone.
Select Cuts: Heart Attack, Stone Rollin’, Just Don’t, Movin Down the Line
The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar
The Joy Formidable may be the best rock band to come out of Wales since Badfinger. Alright, alright, maybe that isn’t saying much, but seriously this band brings it. Led by the diminutive Ritzy Bryan, The Joy Formidable are a power trio in the most literal sense. This fact becomes apparent, almost from the very beginning of The Big Roar. The album opens up with the “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie.” A heavy-handed anthem of a song, that takes a bit to get going, but by the 3:00 minute mark is in full throttle. In many ways this opener represents the overall feel of the album. Guitar-driven, shoegazey rock that crescendos into big, bombastic anthems, loud enough to make your eardrums bleed.
Bryan is accompanied by a formidable [no pun intended] rhythm section comprised of bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas. Considering how heavy Thomas plays, I have to imagine he replaced at least a half dozen drum heads during the recording of this album. In fact, one could argue (as I do) that Thomas’ muscular drumming is what really makes their sound explode. Certainly Bryan is the showpiece here. With sweet vocals and a blitzkrieg approach to the guitar, she gets most of the attention. But Thomas is a force that makes the difference between The Big Roar being a just decent album and being a great one.
As far as comparisons go, The Smashing Pumpkins and Silversun Pickups probably come to mind. But these guys are heavier than both. What’s more, the rhythms on display here — sometimes in odd meters — offer far more in variety than either (the pulsating “Austere” being a perfect example). In the end, The Big Roar is heavy but complex, angry but also sweet, and worthy of your time; but only if you’re willing to crank it up.
Select Cuts: The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie, I Don’t Want to See You Like This, Austere, Cradle, The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade
The Antlers: Burst Apart
Here’s a warning: hide all of your knives before you turn this one on, because it’s a downer. I mean these guys put the EMO in emotion. In fact, this is what emo bands listen to when they wanna’ get more emo. It’s also one of the most blissful albums I’ve heard in a long time. And it’s not all downtrodden. While lead singer Peter Silberman starts out of the gate brooding, proclaiming his wish to not fall in love, Burst Apart moves into more upbeat territory with the appropriately titled “French Exit,” a mid-tempo shuffle, laced with dreamy keyboards and lush guitars. On one of the other uptempo tracks on the album- the angsty “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out- Silberman sings along to some of the most straight-ahead rock on the album, singing of the desperation that comes with the loss of self-control. But where Silberman & Co. really shine are on the dreamy tracks like “Hounds” and “Corsicana” that are as good as it gets in terms of sheer beauty within a song. Again, this isn’t an album I’d listen to before a run (assuming I actually ran), nor would I play it at a party (well maybe), because it’s not that kind of album. This one resonates, it has layers, and it takes a while to appreciate. But give it some time, I promise it won’t disappoint.
Select Cuts: I Don’t Wanna’ Fall in Love, Rolled Together, Hounds, Corsicana
M83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
It says a lot about M83’s new album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that it made it’s way onto my favorites of 2011. I say that because I generally find double albums unnecessarily long. And while the album’s length ultimately prevents it from being tops, #7 on the list ain’t half bad. But enough about me, let’s talk about the album, which is, well damn good. The music builds upon the heavily synthed 80’s throwback sound of the group’s previous album Saturdays = Youth (a great album in and of itself). But the two are not carbon copies of one another. Where Saturdays sounds like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie, Hurry Up sounds more like the score to a French action-film. Don’t worry, it’s not an instrumental album. It’s just that the lyrics and vocals are almost entirely incidental to the music, which is enthralling, grandiose, and oh yeah…very LOUD. Sure, lead singer/mastermind Anthony Gonzalez’ vocals ring through. But mostly, the vocals seem to accompany the music, as opposed to the other way around, which incidentally isn’t a bad thing. While there are strong moments on both sides of the double album on Hurry Up, the first one is noticeably better, containing a string of great songs to start the album, including the single “Midnight City.” Overall Hurry Up is a little long in the tooth, but the sheer force of the music makes Hurry Up well worth the price of admission.
Select Cuts: Intro, Midnight City, Reunion, Claudia Lewis.
Elbow: Build a Rocket Boys
Elbow just may be the UK’s best kept secret. That or I’m just (unsurprisingly) very late to the party. Apparently these lads have been banging out records for close to a decade. Heck, they won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2008 for The Seldom Seen Kid, yet I knew nothing of them until I discovered this little-known gem of an album. The title is emblematic of one of the central themes of which lead singer Guy Garvey sings: youth, adolescence and his fond reflection of that period in his life. Musically, Garvey counts Peter Gabriel as one of his biggest influences, and it doesn’t take long to hear it in the music, all the way down to the general timbre of Garvey’s voice. But their sound also reminds me of The National in the way that their songs shift gracefully between the bombastic (“Open Arms”) and the sombre (“Lippy Kids”). Ultimately, Build a Rocket Boys! isn’t all that accessible. Rather, it grows on you slowly until you realize that the music is first rate and the songs endure making it one of the year’s best.
Select Cuts: Lippy Kids, Open Arms, Dear Friends
Rival Schools: Pedals
If, like me, you’re a sucker for old-school 90s alt-rock, Pedals is the album for you. Though they’ve been described as “post-hardcore,” this description is a bit misleading. Most of the music on Pedals is upbeat, and centered around a mix of bright shimmery guitars, heavy riffs, and melodic vocal lines. In fact, these guys sound more California, then they do NYC (home base); more Switchfoot than Interpol. At times the songs tend to blend into one another, but several bright spots (“A Parts for B Actors,” “The Ghost is Out There”) make Pedals worthy of repeated listening.
Select Cuts: A Parts for B Actors, The Ghost is Out There, 69 Guns
TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light
I have a confession to make: I have never been a fan of T.V. on the Radio. You might then ask, how Nine Types of Light ended up on this list. Oddly enough, I promised myself I would give this one a good listen, considering how highly regarded their previous work had been. I’m happy to say that the album doesn’t disappoint. The band’s music is routinely referred to as “art-rock.” But such a term is an over-simplification. Sure, the music gets out there a bit, but its also quite accessible. In fact, it grooves….a lot. Especially on songs like “Will Do” and “New Cannonball Run.” There are more subdued moments on the album like “Killer Crane”, but overall the album takes you to some fun places.
Select Cuts: Will Do, New Cannonball Run, Killer Crane, No Future Shock
Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean
I get the sense listening to Sam Beam that these days he’s really got it figured out. His first two albums under the “Iron & Wine” moniker, while good, weren’t as fully realized as the music that he’s recorded both previously on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, or here on Kiss Each Other Clean. No doubt, Beam has recorded some of his most diverse, and accessible music to date. Taken together, the two flow effortlessly from one album to the next. Or put another way, if The Shepherd’s Dog was Beam dipping his toes in the water, Kiss Each Other Clean is a belly splash in the pool.
At first blush, Kiss Each Other Clean often sounds like something you might have heard on AM radio in the 70s, recalling some of Fleetwood Mac’s best work. But if you listen closely, the album isn’t just a rehash of old themes. It’s actually an interesting blend of folk, pop, funk, and jazz layered under a wide palette of unique sounds- squawks, buzzing noises, fuzz, horns…well you name it. It may take you a while to appreciate the genius here (it took me several listens), but it does not disappoint.
Select Cuts: Me and Lazarus, Tree by the River, Godless Brother in Love, Big Burned Hand