Thursday, December 22, 2011

Matt's Top 20 Albums of 2011

While I'm fairly new at creating a top 20 list of my favorite albums of the year, I can't imagine it getting any more difficult than this year.  There were so many great releases to which I was exposed and oftentimes I found myself not being able to fully digest many albums since I kept trying to hear other new releases.  In a sense, I was plagued with a lot of ADD this year and I still feel like there was a lot that I missed out on.  It's quite clear to me that with the technology we have today and the sheer amount of quality music coming out that I will never be satisfied in my musical knowledge.  Having said that, I think I have created a list that while far from perfect, is pretty close to my overall impressions this year.  So here we go.

                                        20)  Deer Tick – Divine Providence

A more bar-friendly rock album you will not find this year.  These guys just lay it all out and take you through what is mostly a forty minute in your face ode to partying, drinking, and a night out on the town.  Placed in there are a few ballads that bring the speed down but the overall sentiment is there.  At times it lays heavy on the partying (complete with retching sounds no less), but for the most part, it’s a great rock album.

                    19)  Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

The best evening/chill album of the year for me goes to this four piece from Texas who plays a style of music known as “Post Rock”.  Never heard that term before but I definitely like what I hear, which is strictly instrumental ambient music that when at its best starts from nothing and builds to a huge crescendo that bursts through the speakers in a way that few others do.  With only six tracks, the album clocks in at just over 45 minutes so each song takes you on a relatively long, yet very satisfying and exciting journey.

                                          18)  Panda Bear – Tomboy

This album took some time to grow on me but after a few months, I really saw how amazing it was.  Panda Bear (AKA, Noah Lennox) takes a much simpler approach than his previous and much more convoluted album Person Pitch which for me was a welcomed change.  However, some of the concepts and styles of this album are still very much in the same league as his previous solo efforts and those with his other group, Animal Collective as the album is chock full of electronics and beautiful harmonies that echo all over the place.  It’s not something many will like, especially right away, but upon repeated listenings you can really hear some amazing stuff going on here.

                                17)  Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials

What I can best describe as “Orchestral Rock”, Florence’s sophomore effort picks up from her first and does not deviate much from her boisterous sound that pretty much includes a full-blown orchestra complete with harp and background gospel singers.  She tops it off with a unique and powerful voice that is one of the best on the scene today.  Though the album is a bit long (over 70 minutes), most of the songs here are quite inspiring and at times even send chills down the spine.

                                       16)  Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Sweden’s newest export is also one of its best.  Lykke Li came out with a great album that varies in song structure but keeps an overall production quality that is very reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and oddly enough, Li’s voice has a very Ronnie Spector type sound to it.  Mixing between slower, somber tunes and upbeat dance tracks with sticato timpani, Li has created an excellent album that bodes well for her future.

                                      15)  M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

80’s synth-pop enthusiasts can take comfort that the genre isn’t totally dead as 2011 saw much welcomed returns from Duran Duran and the Cars, but the true accomplishment in this vain was this double album from the French musician, Anthony Gonzalez.  Throughout the 70 + minutes on this double album, Gonzalez doesn’t hold much back and gives us all hope that this type of rock was not just a fad and has a place in the 21st century. 

                                            14)  Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Critics love this band that is mostly the brain-child of Justin Vernon.  Unlike their debut album which is mostly stripped down acoustic songs, Bon Iver takes a different approach as a much fuller and produced effort that includes more electronics than its predecessor.  A very melancholy atmosphere permeates the album that compliments Vernon’s yearning falsetto nicely.  While I am not as much in awe of this band as others, I really appreciate this album which also may include some of the best yacht rock ever heard.  Particularly the phenomenal closer, “Beth/Rest”.

                                   13)  Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Touted as a “Super Group”, this debut album from the front men of Deer Tick, Delta Spirit, and Dawes is a very complete album divided almost perfectly by the three members who trade off on beautiful ballads with lush harmonies and all-out folk/roots rock.  “Super Group” may be a little overstated here as most people are unfamiliar with the three bands these guys come from, but for those of us who are familiar with their work, the title is not only apt, but the results far exceed any expectations this venture may have brought about.

                                              12)  Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Oh man, is this guy on some other level.  Waits is sometimes hit or miss for me and at times I need to listen to his stuff over and over again before I can truly begin to enjoy it.  But for some reason, it seemed easier with this album that is chock-full of that traditional junkyard rock as well as heartfelt ballads that Waits does so well.  Despite the fact that it seems harsh and unfamiliar, at the heart of each song is a great melody or blues riff that is hard to resist. 

                                       11)  PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

The first Harvey album I ever delved into has become one of the more intriguing albums I have heard all year.  Critics have always praised her stuff, but I never took a listen until last month.  This at times haunting and eerie album also has moments of funk and jazz as it incorporates a variety of instruments including horns, xylophones, and a crisp, light, and ambient guitar sound.  I can see why some feel Harvey’s piercing voice gets wearying, but I find it to be a great contrast to what is otherwise a very palatable and beautiful album.

                                        10)  Dawes – Nothing is Wrong

The sophomore effort from this Southern California band is very reminiscent of the rock styles that originated in that area in the 70’s when Jackson Browne hit the scene, which is why it’s even more appropriate that Browne guests on this album that is loaded with great rock melodies and harmonies.  There are also reminders of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the Band here but Dawes somehow makes it their own sound.  And though admittingly I am not much of a lyrics person, the ones found here are some of the best I’ve heard.  It might not be as good as their debut from a few years ago, but a sophomore slump it is not. 

                                           9)  Foster the People – Torches

This year’s breakout indie rock band is a trio from L.A. who blew up the spot with their hit “Pumped Up Kicks”, which is the catchiest song ever written about chasing down a bunch of kids and firing bullets all over the place.  No matter.  Torches is a full-blown pop-indie masterpiece that demands head bobbing at the very least and an all-out spontaneous dance party at the most.  Fans of 80’s synth pop will find plenty to love here and snobby hipsters will have a tough time pretending they don’t like it just because they heard “Don’t Stop” one too many times on those stupid Nissan commercials.

                                               8)  Wild Flag – Wild Flag

Ever since one of my all-time favorite acts, Sleater-Kinney, went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2006, I only hoped that one day they would reunite.  While that has yet to happen, 2011 was the second year in a row that one of its lead members produced an excellent album; this year it was Carrie Brownstein’s turn.  She returns with SK drummer, Janet Weiss and members from two lesser known bands, Helium and the Minders, and produced an all-out kick ass indie rock/punk album that is much more reminiscent of SK’s sound than last year’s effort by Corin Tucker in the Corin Tucker Band.  While I still hope for SK to get back together, as long as albums like this are produced, that itch will remain scratched.

                                          7)  Wilco – The Whole Love

The eighth album from one of my all-time favorite bands begins with their most experimental song in some time, and then continues to take you through a variety of different rock, pop, and folk songs that span all kinds of emotions.  Some have said that this album represents a band that has truly come to know itself and is comfortable and knowledgeable about what it does well.  After repeated listenings, it’s hard to argue with that.  This is the sound of a band truly hitting its stride.

                                                     6)  Adele – 21

I don’t know who the dude was who broke this woman’s heart, but whatever he did, it must have been on an epically transcendent level of doucebaggery that has rarely been replicated before.  There is no other explanation for the passionate, personal, and emotional roller coaster that this album of blues, pop, soul, and folk takes you on.  The fact that Adele was only 22 when she started recording it is even more amazing.  Every so often an album comes around that regardless of what type of genre one likes, most anyone can get down to it.  21 is that album for 2011.

                                 5)  Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones

The surprise album of the year for me is the fourth LP from this English artist who does an amazing job of melding folk and punk rock that oftentimes results in all out sing along anthems.  I knew some of Turner’s work before and liked it fine, but I was just blown away by this album that not only includes the punk and folk rock mentioned above but also has some great English/Irish traditional sounds to it that brings me back to the Irish pubs I hung out in back in Dublin in 1998.  And it could very well include my favorite song of the year “I Still Believe”. 

                                    4)  Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Even when Radiohead miss it is still a hit for just about anyone else.  Despite the fact that this could be my least favorite Radiohead album, it’s still amazing and in typical Radiohead fashion, gets better with repeated listenings.  With their eighth studio album, the band has seemed to revert back to its Kid A sounds that includes very little guitar and more electronics.  But what really puts this album in the next level is when you hear and see the band perform it live.  They’ve recruited a second drummer to enhance the intricate percussion going on here and the fact that a band can replicate a highly produced album with little traditional instruments is very special.  Particularly when they make it sound even better live.

                                        3)  The Black Keys – El Camino

After last year’s release of Brothers, I didn’t think the Keys would top it, at least not within the span of one year.  Yet it appears they have as El Camino doesn’t mess around with any slower ballads.  Now I don’t mean to knock ballads, as the Keys do that style fairly well.  It’s just that they truly shine when they go upbeat.  With Camino they opt for straight up blues rock much in the way they did in their earlier efforts, but this time they combined a more lush and produced sound that truly amplifies their talents.  It also comes in at a very digestible 38 minutes that leaves you begging for more when it ends.

                                        2)  My Morning Jacket – Circuital 

My Morning Jacket is slowly becoming one of my favorite acts.  Along with their stellar performance at Bonnaroo this year, Circuital is making that fact apparent to me.  This album, while simpler than their previous effort Evil Urges, expands their sound a bit but in a way that is truer to their roots.  There are some epic rock tracks, dramatic tunes that sound like they came out of a James Bond film, and some of the most beautiful ballads heard all year.  From start to finish, this is an amazing album and a very promising assertion that this band is here to stay.


                                   1)  The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

The year’s best album for me is a very simple release, but one that reminds me of my true pleasures in listening to music.  I loved this album from the minute I heard it and I have yet to lose any interest.  Front man Colin Meloy diverted starkly from 2009’s convoluted and epic rock-opera The Hazzards of Love and came back to earth to produce an album full of folk/rock/pop gems that he stated is really where the band’s roots are.  It also doesn’t hurt that in doing so he channeled R.E.M. and Springsteen which is highlighted beautifully in “Down by the Water”.  I’ve listened to this album around 20 times and I find it nearly impossible to listen to it and get the smile off my face.  If that’s not qualification for album of the year, I don’t know what is.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the heads up on Middle Brother.... Delta Spirit is one of my fav bands!! Although now that I'm writing this, I think you may have mentioned this band to me a few months back while you were visiting the area and I plum forgot. I need to get their music. Also, your top three ( The Black Keys, My Morning Jacket and The Decemberists) would definitely be in my top 5 of the year... with probably MMJ at the #1 spot.... I've listened to Circuital perhaps 200 times and each time it will always carry the same sound to me as if I were listening to it for the first time.