411 Music Presents…2011 Year In Review Part 1: Top 10 Albums of the Year
Posted by Adam Hill on 01.03.2012
From Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne and Adele's 21 to Red Hot Chili Peppers' I'm With You, Radiohead's The King of Limbs and more, the 411 staff begins their year in review by looking at their top 10 albums of the year!
STAFF TOP TENS
Well, folks, here we are again, the end of the year. Everybody who has ever had an opinion on music is currently reflecting on the past 365 days of rock ‘n‘ roll, making their lists, and checking them twice. Here at 411 Music, our staff members are no different. You'll get the chance to see the result of our collective thought process later on, but right now, it's all about each writer and what they thought. So relax for a moment, and take a look at the albums that really rocked our individual socks off this year. Then hit the comments section and tell us how little we know about music and why we are all idiots. Go on, it's Christmas, treat yourselves.
(Author On Sabbatical / Features Contributor)
1) Kuedo - Severant There is no point wasting anyone's time, this album is stunning. It's as simple as that. Severant, as you will soon hear, is heavily influenced by Blade Runner and the sublime beauty of the Vangelis soundtrack that accompanied it. " I wanted to capture a really futurist sentiment, kind of melancholy and grand luminescent, so I used the instrument that most evokes that for me - that sweeping Vangelis brass sound", explained Jamie Teasdale (a.k.a. Kuedo). He nailed it. Like the staccato drums, the brass is almost ubiquitous throughout, swirling and swooping through your ears.
You cannot listen to Severant without being transported to some dark, dystopian future. It consumes you, close your eyes and you can see the spacecraft cruising above the gargantuan, neon encrusted skyscrapers, all while the rain teems down around you. Vangelis may be the predominant influence, but there are others. Jazz, hip-hop, drum and bass, UK road rap; all have been taken in, broken down and reconstructed to create dazzling, multi-layered soundscapes. When you're not staring at this wondrous megalopolis you have been transported to, your head will be nodding, the beat taking you round the corner to the next delight.
There is a lot of synth music out there right now and there is a lot of dubstep as well; none of it sounds like this. Nothing even comes close to sounding as intelligent or as complete as this. You could quite easily find yourself lost in Kuedo's world for quite some time; it's a great place to be.
2) Blood Orange - Coastal Grooves I've spoken before about my love for the music of Devonté Hynes, so it should come as no real surprise to anyone that he features on my end of year list. Nor, really, should it come as a surprise that it is for an album recorded under yet another moniker and showcasing a further step in his musical evolution. Hynes is unquestionably an incredibly talented guy. He's not quite 26 and is already onto his third musical incarnation, following on from previous efforts with Test Icicles and as Lightspeed Champion. Each manifestation too has seen a stylistic jump, he has retained little of his indie-pop sound and instead dived headfirst into an altogether seedier, late 80's, funk inspired world. Each of the ten songs are a triumph, with exquisite electric guitar patterns and riffs coupled with Hynes' customary lyrical expertise, he has channeled his inner-Prince to dazzling effect. Coastal Grooves is Hynes' most complete and accomplished album and on any other year, would probably have sat comfortably atop this list.
3) Cocknbullkid - Adulthood Anita Blay is blessed with the kind of voice that made millions fall in love with Sade and then Skye Edwards all those years ago. It is heavenly and her songs are like ambrosia, uplifting and revitalizing, even when the subject matter is dark and melancholy. Dealing with her spiritually confusing upbringing and teenage depression, it is never an album that feels self-indulgent or melancholy. It is bright, colorful and, quite simply, this is a stunning album of pure pop delight and should be heard by as many people as possible.
4) Cut / Copy - Zonoscope This is an exquisitely crafted record. Embracing a multitude of styles and influences, Cut Copy produced something very much of the time, yet quite retro feeling, something that is unmistakably antipodean, yet that infuses an energy and sounds from across the globe. From the beginning, in "Need You Now", we are treated to over minute of a simple, yet infectious, repetitive beat that behooves the listener to nod away in time. Already you're hooked, enthralled in its trance. When Whitford's vocals kick in (which are perfectly suited to this form of pop music) it is like the hypnotist whispering instructions and like that, you're gone, whisked off to a vast metropolis, bursting with skyscrapers spinning all around you as you run, searching for your loved one amongst the madness as the whole album opens out in front of you like an electro-funk labyrinth, waiting to be explored. This is a superb piece of tropical, tribal and groove-tastic synth-pop. Get it and enjoy it.
5) Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost Embracing the old and drawing influence from artists of yesteryear is not the most difficult thing to do in music; the real trick is making it sound entirely new and unique. With Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Christopher Owens et al have done just that. We‘re not talking about the kind of ‘making this sound your own' that X Factor judge Louis Walsh bellows at every karaoke performer he sees on a Saturday night. No, we're talking about the heartache tinged sadness of a prog-rock guitar solo, the jaunty pop sounds of a mainstream head bobber, the grind of early nineties Seattle based bands, all thrown together with delicate and emotionally raw lyrics and vocals. This is an album so carefully and beautifully crafted, with such exquisite melodies and musicality. Girls have truly established themselves as one of the most exciting bands around and in Father... they have produced an album that will remain on stereos long into 2012 and beyond.
6) Metronomy - The English Riviera There is something quintessentially British about The English Riviera, not least the title of course. No, it's more that Metronomy have produced an album steeped in escapism, like that traditional rush to the seaside we Brits used to make, back when kids would play out on the street until it got dark and everyone went on holiday at the same time and to the same place. But the escapism felt here is not to a white sandy beach, bathed in dazzling sunlight. No, this is an album that conjures a much more realistic and down to earth image, that of sitting on the front, watching the sea through the rain spattered window of a quaint but dilapidated B&B. In that respects it is the ultimate summer album for the UK, in all other respects it is a magnificent album of understated but wonderfully crafted downbeat dance-pop.
7) Summer Camp - Welcome to Condale There is something undeniably charming about Summer Camp, the English indie-electro duo made up of Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey just exude warmth and tenderness. This debut album, written about the fictional Californian town of Condale and the various lives within it, is full of super-infectious, foot-tapping, pants-swinging retro-pop tunes. It makes you want to sway from side to side like a kid at a disco in the 80's and bizarrely, that doesn't feel even remotely weird. It probably helps that Elizabeth has one of the warmest, most amiable voices in pop.
8) Joan As Policewoman - The Deep Field Warm, rich, witty, Joan Wasser's latest record is a beautifully sung cornucopia of emotion and fragility. What at first may appear to be an album of self-indulgence is actually a sumptuous, multi-layered affair that offers both dark and light. It is an album that will resonate with the listener long after the less textured but more widely enjoyed soft-pop of the day has long since been forgotten.
9) Caveman - Coco Beware I've really been digging Caveman this year and love their late summer evening sound. For all the swooping guitars, incessant drums and dreamy lo-fi feeling to the album, the overwhelming and most pleasant aspect is just how far this is a pop record. The choruses and delicate falsetto are to die for and it's no wonder that this Brooklyn band is generating such buzz. When telling friends about them I've summed their sound up as being a bit like Pavement mixed with the Beach Boys, which frankly is ridiculously exciting.
10) Ladytron - Gravity The Seducer Full of haunting, evocative melodies Gravity..., like many a Ladytron album, has the feel of a record that has been buffed and polished until you can see your face in the shine. The smooth synth-rock soundscapes worm their way into your soul, a kind of Kraftwerk meets ride electro-shoegaze if you will. However you choose to label it, it's just wonderful.
(Author of "The Low End Theory News")
1) Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne The moment I heard that these two men would be putting together a compilation album, I was ecstatic. Of course, I wasn't the only one. The entire hip hop world went into an uproar of praise! The album, admittedly, was most likely heralded as number one before even coming out. It is with great pleasure that,in my opinion, at least,the album met expectations and exceeded them. Upon initial listen, my stance was that it was relatively hard to relate to, what with the excess talking of riches and the like (And you can read the review here!), but I had a bit of an epiphany after numerous listens. What the hell are Jay-Z and Kanye supposed to talk about? Hell, the album is the announcement of success, the portrayal of "I've made it," the essence of "look at me, motherfuckers." And really, what is wrong with that?
Kanye West is on point not only with some production credits, but lyrically as well. From the heartfelt "New Day" to the damn near perfect "Niggas in Paris," Kanye went deep into the well of emotions and also had fun. A range unparalleled really. Similar to Kanye, Jay-Z brought the fire as well. Whether he was motivated by the up jump of Kanye, or just had a lot to say, he made it known with songs like "Why I Love You" and "Otis" where he displays more storytelling and messages that yeah, maybe have been heard before, but with such gusto was very pleasing. This is every bit a number one album as any other that my colleagues can vote for and was a very, very EASY choice.
2) Eminem and Royce Da 5'9" - Hell 2: The Sequel Look, the only reason why this album isn't number one is because I can control my bias...to an extent. With that being said, the number two spot is well deserved. Eminem has been the man I've long since heralded as the best rapper alive and from 2004 all the way up until, and in some cases, including Recovery, a lot of people claimed that Eminem was simply a shell of his former self. People begged and pleaded for the Eminem of old, the Slim Shady LP Eminem. The truth is that Eminem in 2011 wouldn't work and I don't know why people don't understand that. What Eminem did by bringing Royce to the fold was reinvigorate a fire that was already burning hard. I thought Recovery was amazing and a true return to form. His metaphors were way better than any Lil Wayne verse of 2011, and his ability to stack them atop each other in a matter of three to four lines is untouchable. He's truly a wordsmith that needed no extra push.
Then along came Royce Da 5'9," an underrated MC if there ever was one. A long tenured and well documented beef between the two was finally squashed completely and gave both men a reason to get back into the studio together. What ended up happening was magic. The two pushed each other to greatness and in doing so, created an album that can't even be considered full length (unless you're Radiohead...). Hell: The Sequel is an album that transcends both of the men that created it. While there are songs on the album that shows these two are doing nothing but having fun, there seems to be a layer of talent that is so thick, it's hard not to take a bit and savor it. While all of them are impactful in some way (mostly lyrically), be sure to check out "Take From Me" that is essentially a message to the fans that burn and sell media a lot. While I'm no saint, the song really touched me in such a way that I urged people continuously to purchase their favorite artists' albums.
3) J. Cole - Cole World: The Sideline Story I said it in my review (Which you can read here!) that this album came out of left field and slapped the shit out of me, demanding I listen. At the end of 2011, I still haven't changed my mind. J. Cole did something that, in a year of good hip hop, was extremely hard to do. He stood out. His album was powerful, sexy, rough, full of spunk and excitement while still grounded and humble. He held ground with Jay-Z, he outclassed Drake, he made Trey Songs seem like an afterthought and even brought back Missy Elliot for fun! His album told stories, wooed girls, and made the guys nod their head, not just with the beat but also with a listening ear.
Cole World: The Sideline Story is truly my breakout album of the year. It created a feeling that I haven't had since Kanye West's debut album. Any debut album that you can throw on and listen to fully, be it on shuffle or from track 1-19, is an album worthy of anyone's top "insert number here" list. While the name of Cole had been in the mind and ears of many hip hop heads for a few years already, with his mixtapes and guest spots, there wasn't a platform of his own to stand on before this. The album, backed by the powerful Jay-Z and a hardcore fan base turned this would be listener into more than just a reviewer, but also a fan.
4) Adele - 21 Imagine a rough day of work, tie loosened and first shirt button unbuttoned. Your cufflinks are off and you're at the edge of the bar, thinking life is all but hopeless. A twirl of a straw and a wink from the bartender causes you to nod, but only nonchalantly. Then a nice bass line kicks in and some "oooo"ing starts up. You turn your head and see this girl that has a pretty face, is a little on the plus side, but none of that matters the moment she opens her mouth and sings. From the first, sultry word to the end of her set, she has you enraptured and suddenly, even with all the woeful and sad songs she sings, everything in the world is better. Everything.
Dramatic, I know, but Adele does just that for me and it's no wonder she's topping practically every list out there. While her name was thrown about a bit, she truly hit the spotlight with "Rolling in the Deep," a song that captured male and female, young and old alike. But I'll be damned if the rest of her album 21 isn't every bit as soulful and powerful as that one. "Rumor Has It," "Set Fire to the Rain," "Need You Now," "Take it All," the list goes on and on! Seriously, the album kicks all kinds of ass and I'm not afraid to say it at all. The image I portrayed above, it's fictional, true, but for a song to create that entire image, means something to me and Adele does just that. She's ass kickery in the version of a voice and every bit as soulful as the crooners of yesteryear. Congrats for making a hip hop head's head turn.
5) Wale - AmbitionAmbition is another album that I didn't buy right away and Wale is another artist that I didn't listen to right away. A friend of mine claimed he was the shit and was someone I should definitely listen to and listen for, because he's coming with the fire. From what I heard, I thought Wale to be a guy with some lyrical talent who only needed the right backing and confidence to boost him to the upper echelon of rap fans. A few months later, he signed with Rick Ross's Mayback Music and set to put out Ambition. The album boasted the sentiment that I could do nothing but respect: "Sure, clap for me, but I've always been this great." The perfection of this united idea behind the album is that he backed it up.
Ambition is really that, as a majority of the tracks push the listener to excel just as much as they pushed Wale to do the same. While there were some problems (Which you can read here!), by and large, the album held my attention and had more positives than negatives. Wale getting the middle spot of the list is by no means an insult as it was such a good year for hip hop. So much, in fact, that it's something to applaud that he is on the list so in the words of Wale, "Don't hold your applause."
6) Tech N9ne - All 6's and 7's Wow. That was my initial reaction. Tech N9ne has always been a name that I've left on the bottom of the list of "People to listen to" only because I've been so stuck on the people that I like. Thanks to the help of my co-writer, Hope and the ability to open my mind, I've been able to listen to numerous new voices that although not new to the game, are somewhat new to me. Tech is one of those very people. I've heard the name, I've heard a song or two, and I've read interviews. I've accepted his spot in the underground and appreciated the way he could flow but my immediate thoughts were that no one could do that for a whole album. I was wrong. WAAAAY wrong! While this isn't his only album, this is a definite highlight of 2011. All 6's and 7's, while heavy in guest stars, does not detract from the main attraction of Tech N9ne. He is every bit as talented as people have been telling me he is and jumped up the list of amazing rappers in my mind.
As I said before, the album has quite a few guest stars, but there's not a damned thing wrong with that considering the amount that Tech raps here. Truly, his content is as scattershot as his rapping and there's not a damned thing wrong with that. His ability to flow coherently, consistently, and rapidly is so hard to do. Seriously, just ask Twista. While the ability to spit faster than a 13 year old's first time is impressive, there is something more needed to be on a list such as this. Lyrics and content go hand in hand, and sometimes all I ask for is for the person in question to make sense. The last thing I want as a listener is to hear people throwing words around simply because they rhyme. Tech can easily go this route, considering the excessive speed he lays his lines down, but he refuses to do so and I can do nothing but appreciate this. It's also interesting to note that in some cases, he pushes his guest stars out of their comfort zone and allows them to speed up and intensify their rhymes such as "Am I A Psycho" with B.o.B. or "I Love Music" with Kendrick Lamar and a highlight of the album with Snoop and E-40 in "Pornographic." The album, and the artist, surprised the shit out of me and I'm so happy that they did.
7) Red Hot Chili Peppers- I'm With You I realize that the RCHP have been considered not the same since their lineup change but I'm okay with it, and the band put out yet another standup album with or without John Frusciante. What I want from Red Hot are a few things: music to chill with, a poetic type of lyrics, and a song or two that makes me remember my youth, living in this beautiful state of California. "Factory of Faith" is my go to song on this album to just sit back and smoke a ***** to while writing, along with "Happiness Loves Company" and "Meet Me At the Corner" which, coincidentally, clocks in at 4:20. The poetic lyrics are strong in "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and "Monarchy of Roses." And of course, "Dance, Dance, Dance" just puts me in a happy ass place, like a trip to the beach in the summer in my buddies VW bus...yeah, it's a bit hippie of me, but I'll be damned if it ain't fun as hell. All in all, that's seven tracks that stick out to me which makes this album stronger than most others I've listened to aside from those on this list and that's not to say there's not plenty more to listen to here. Red Hot Chili Peppers may not have John Frusciante but they still got the style and substance that has made them who they are today.
8) Lupe Fiasco - Lasers For an album that he claimed to have disliked a whole lot, I enjoyed thoroughly. While Lupe has done and said some things this past year that have made me facepalm, his music is still spot on and this album, even with its different sound, still holds the things that make Lupe, Lupe...his lyrics. These are important and vital to the survival of any album, but especially for Lupe, as he definitely went a different direction on this album. Similar to Kanye, he expanded his horizons and tried new things. While he may not have been happy with the results, this listener definitely was. Songs like "Till I Get There" and "Coming Up" sound more like Lupe of the old and should satiate any nostalgic listener, while "The Show Goes On" and "Break the Train" show the experiments that Lupe stretched out to do. I found them successful and brought a new life to a man that is just under mainstream and just over underground. I've loved Lupe for a long time, but this album did quite a bit to bring him to the forefront of hip hop and he really did give it a hard time. It's strong for what it's worth; an experimental album, and is more powerful than even its own creator gives it credit for.
9) Radiohead - The King of Limbs Checking through my iTunes, each track of this album has more than 20 plays. That's not on my phone, that's simply on the laptop. This means that this album, even in its short span of eight tracks, has been played whether together or uniquely more than twenty different times. This album had no right to be as soothing and powerful as it was. It had no right to put out a measly eight tracks and have each one be as powerful as the next. It had no right to give me nearly 40 minutes of awesomeness only to cut it short. Damn you, Radiohead, you had NO RIGHT!! In all seriousness, Radiohead created such a unique sound on this album that you'd be surprised how little artificial sound was used. Perhaps that's what's so amazing, that seeing these guys live would be no different than them in your ears at home. At least, that's what I'd assume.
The King of Limbs was my first introduction with Radiohead, I admit. Of course, I have heard the song that everyone knows, but never have I sat and listened to an album. When The King of Limbs came out, I purchased it through a recommendation of a friend, Dora. Shortly after, I bought their entire discography and learned the beauty of Ok, Computer. Of course, Limbs is a different sound, but the same group and was just as impressive, if not more. Limbs makes the list due to the impact it had on me as a listener and the intensity that the music has had over damned near 10 months.
10) Sublime With Rome - Yours Truly I've always been a fan of Sublime, but something happened last year that really bothered me…I got tired of ‘em. Yes, I know, being from California, that's almost blasphemous, but the reality is they were played far too much over here. Whether it was a smoky bar or a smoky garage, there they were. Suddenly, everyone sang along with Date Rape and everyone couldn't wait to get to Garden Grove. Not to say that being a fan of Sublime was a privilege or a niche thing, but oversaturation of anything kinda bugs me. Nonetheless, it was time for something new. Something with the same sound but a noticeable different momentum behind it. Yours Truly did just that.
Shockingly, this album was met with mediocre response, claiming it was too popish or that they shouldn't have done it considered the main man, Brad, wasn't going to be there. I say that's just unfair to the rest of the group and Rome as well. His voice is every bit as soothing and pleasant. The album has some great hits such as the Wiz Khalifa guest starring "Can You Feel It" and the personal favorite "PCH." It has sounds of the Sublime of yesteryear while still bringing out something seemingly fresh to the listener as well. It's just a pleasant sound and a good album, at least for me.
(Author of "Buy or Sell" – Lord of the Music Zone)
1) Adele - 21 This is the year of Adele. The British pop chanteuse set the world (and her vocal chords) on fire as 21 became the most-talked about album of the year, and for good reason. In the days where Katy Perry, Rihanna, Ke$ha and other pop acts are Auto-Tuning up the airwaves, Adele came out and gave us something very different and extraordinary. From her giant hits like "Rolling in the Deep" and "Set Fire to the Rain" to other album tracks like my personal favorite "Rumor Has It" and more, this was an album that you can listen to all the way through and have no bad pieces of music in it.
2) Various Artists - Drive Soundtrack I don't often take soundtracks as seriously as I do other albums. There's a simple reason for this; they're usually either a collection of hits we've already heard before, a bunch of lesser efforts (that may have been B-sides) by big-name bands or purely instrumental music and nothing hooks me in like great lyrics. So to say that the Drive soundtrack deserves a spot near the top of my list is great praise indeed. Let's ignore the fact that it's a brilliant movie; just the fact that it's an incredibly great selection of music earns it this spot on my list. The electro-pop score by Cliff Martinez is fantastic work and the few songs with lyrics are all instant favorites of mine. If you haven't checked this out, you absolutely need to; it dominated my playlists for the last half of the year.
3) 2Cellos - 2Cellos 2Cellos is an album that slipped in under the radar for me. It's likely that you've heard one of the tracks; their performance of "Smooth Criminal" became a YouTube sensation, which is what prompted the album. Every song on here is a cover, without lyrics, of major rock and pop hits and the cello work of Luka Šulic and Stjepan Hauser is simply breathtaking. On this relatively simple instrument they capture such diverse sounds as Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Dick Dale's "Misirlou (Theme From Pulp Fiction)" and more. One of the best covers on the album is of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" which manages to have just as much soul and emotion as Jackson's own voice without a single word being sung. That's amazing in my book.
4) ATB - Distant Earth A lot of people dismiss trance music, and for good reason. Most of it is the musical equivalent of a half-assed acid trip. ATB, however, transcends that. His sound is something that can't be denied and it soars above most of his fellows; there's a reason why he's considered to be one of the top deejays in the world. I've always been a big fan of his but for the last couple albums it feels like he hasn't been able to top his apex album No Silence. Distant Earth is the album where he equals it, if not quite improving on it. The production values are top notch and it truly seems like he's found his inspiration again. This is one of those albums that have been a consistent part of my playlist since its release in April and I don't see that ending any time soon.
5) Foo Fighters - Wasting Light This one is pretty simple for me. Wasting Light is the best we've heard of the Foo Fighters since 1997's The Colour and the Shape. That isn't to say that I don't love most of their stuff that's been released between then and now--in fact, "Best of You" from In Your Honor is one of my favorite rock songs of the last decade--but there's an energy in Wasting Light that Dave Grohl and company didn't seem to have a grasp on in the last fourteen years or so. The key word with this album is "consistency." Each track has a consistent level of quality and inspired sound to it; there isn't any song that really feels like it sags or drags the album down. It's just another example of the band proving that they're one of the best rock acts going today.
6) Jay-Z/Kanye West - Watch the Throne People were disappointed with this album because it didn't live up to the hype, and honestly I think that it was impossible to live up to the hype of Kanye West and Jay-Z's first collaborative album. That doesn't mean that this disc isn't great, because it is. There are a couple tracks that I'm not huge on, primarily the Beyonce contributions on "Lift Off," but other than the rare exception this is a fantastic piece of music. Kanye and Jay have an undeniable chemistry and they flow incredibly well together, with the lyrics coming over some typically bombastic Kanye production values. Once again, this is an album that shouldn't work as well as it does, but the risks they take pay off and the end result is really good stuff.
7) Eddie Vedder - Ukulele Songs I will admit that when I heard about this album the first time, I thought it was going to be a disaster. I really liked Eddie Vedder's solo work on the Into the Wild soundtrack, but a concept album around ukulele music? Really? What stunned about this album though is how well it really does work. It goes without saying that Ukulele Songs is not an album for people who come to Eddie Vedder just for the alt-rock, as it's a far cry from his Pearl Jam work. But it's undeniably an Eddie Vedder piece of work in that there is integrity to the album and the voice of a man who will do what he damn well wants and do it well to boot. No one else could have pulled off an album like this so well, and kudos to Vedder for accomplishing it.
8) Florence & The Machine - Ceremonials I'm a bit of a late convert to Florence + The Machine, having just gotten into her sound in the last seven months or so. Once I became a fan though, I dove in head-first and I've come to love Florence Welch's voice. Ceremonials is the next step in her sound and I really like the direction. It's an album where every track is good with several reaching levels of greatness. "What the Water Gave Me," the first single, is a great song but not the best on the album by a long shot. If you haven't taken the time to check this out then you're really missing out on a great art-pop record.
9) The Decemberists - The King is Dead Portland, Oregon represent! In all seriousness, I'm usually hit and miss with indie folk. Some of it is my favorite stuff bar none, but most of it just sounds like an effort to fit into a sound that rejects that very kind of artifice. The Decemberists, to me at least, are one of those bands whose indie folk roots are authentic and rarely feel fake or boring and for my money it's one of the band's best albums. It's a more home-inspired album and it pays off, with great songs like "Don't Carry It All," "Down by the Water," "This is Why We Fight" and more. Even if indie rock isn't your thing, you have to respect the band's work.
10) AWOLNATION - Magalithic Symphony AWOLNATION is one of my favorite new artists of 2011 and Magalithic Symphony was an LP that came out of nowhere for me. I found this band when looking for songs for a particular week of 411 Music Buy or Sell and I was impressed with "Sail." Recently I came back across them and decided to listen further; to my surprise, Aaron Bruno's work on this, his debut album, is an incredibly enjoyable listen that I've found myself playing over and over. Bruno keeps things moving with a variety of different techniques and there's something new and interesting around every corner of this album. I'm definitely looking forward to the next AWOLNATION album; if it's even half as good as this one I'll be happy.
(Author of "Ten Deep")
1) Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Since first reviewing this record, I have been singing its praises. The ladies of Wild Flag defeated almost every cliché to deliver a fantastic record. They don't care if you call them a super-group, a chick band, or pretentious hipsters, they are here to Rock and that's just what they do. Wild Flag is the kind of record that has absolutely no weak spots. Any time a song from this record pops up on my iPod, it instantly makes my day better. There isn't anything about this album that is overwrought or pretentious. Every note is perfectly placed, raw, and expertly performed. Carrie Brownstein's vocals are on point and the playing from Janet Weiss on drums and Mary Timoney on guitar is the best I've heard this year. Altogether, this group recalls the very best Rock 'N Roll has to offer. They are having fun and showing it. That is the point of the record and why I love it so much. Tracks like "Romance" and "Racehorse" are why I listen to music. I'm not the only one that loves this record, as it has made an appearance on almost every year-end best albums list I have seen. Greg Kot from the Chicago Tribune even named it the best album of the year (and he wasn't the only one). If Wild Flag can do more records like this, I don't understand why they wouldn't become one of the most important groups of this generation.
2) The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
The Decemberists stripped down their over-reaching concepts and made a phenomenal and accessible record with The King Is Dead. The songs are catchy, but don't sacrifice the level of depth Decemberists' fans have come to expect from the group. The band worked with no less than Gillian Welch and Peter Buck when making this album and the whole thing came together perfectly. "Don't Carry It All' made my list of the best songs of the year, but the Decemberists also received national radio airplay (that's a thing that still happens, apparently) from "Calamity Song" and "This Is Why We Fight". This was the lead candidate for my album of the year during the majority of this year, and it has hardly lost any strength over that time.
3) Typhoon - A New Kind of House
Oh boy, if Kyle Morton keeps growing as a songwriter, as he did from Typhoon's debut Hunger and Thirst to this EP, we are going to have a monster on our hands. A New Kind of House was the only EP I considered for this list because it's five songs are better than five songs from almost any other record released this year. Morton's change on this record was the equivalent of moving from anecdotes to novels. He fully utilizes the twelve member band to create massive sounds that expertly build to maximum emotional payoffs. The final chorus from "An Honest Truth" still sends chills down the back of my neck. It is extremely rare for me to hear a record that I consider absolutely life-changing. This was the only record I heard in 2011 that I give that credit. If Morton had been able to keep that pace over the course of a full LP, this wouldn't have just been my number one in 2011, it would have been one of my very favorites of all time.
4) Bright Eyes - The People's Key The People's Key was the record of 2011 that I thought best utilized the album as a format. From beginning to finish, this record plays as a singular piece. On top of that, this is the best collection of songs that Conor Oberst has ever released. Oberst is a guy that inspires a lot of extreme opinions. Some people think he is a modern genius. Others think he is a pretentious empty suit. I've always fallen in the middle. I enjoy most of his work, but certainly see why some folks are so annoyed by him. With The People's Key, Oberst has at least one convert. I don't like to throw around the word 'genius', but I do think this is an indisputable work of art. Tracks like "Shell Games" and "One For You, One For Me" show more depth than Oberst has ever shown before and the movement from track to track is nothing short of superb.
5) Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing
I make no bones about it, I loves me some Blitzen Trapper. Whether they are taking some far out journey into Progressive Country or writing the perfect song to drink PBR out of the can with, this band is always spot-on for me. American Goldwing fits into the latter area of that spectrum. This record was deeply inspired by 70's Southern Rock, even down to the neon-lit cover art. The personality of the band shines through with songs that rarely go any deeper than drinking with some friends on a Saturday night. Whether it is the infectious, Rocky Mountain Funk groove of "Fletcher" or the down home, easy balladry of "I Love the Way You Walk Away", the band achieves their goals on every level. Like Wild Flag, these guys make a sound that is greater than any of its individual parts and, in the process, make Rock fun again.
6) Buffalo Tom - Skins
Buffalo Tom was a name I had no expectation of using for any of these lists. Like many of the louder Rock bands of the ‘90s, Boston's Buffalo Tom seemingly disappeared with death of Alternative Rock radio. After a nine year break, the band re-emerged in 2007 with Three Easy Pieces. While the album was generally well accepted, it received a lot of backhanded compliments about 'reviving the sound of the ‘90s'. With this year's Skins, the band took a slightly different approach. With the roar of their electric guitars pulled back, flourishes of Americana took the forefront and there was a spotlight put directly on the quality of these guys as songwriters. The absolute strength of this record lies in the songs. These are some of the best lyrics I heard this year and everyone playing comes off like a pro. Not only is Skins the best record Buffalo Tom ever released, it has me thinking that they were doing themselves a disservice for the last twenty years by hiding all of that talent under layers of volume.
7) The Kills - Blood Pressures
I have said it since the release of this record and am still absolutely baffled that Blood Pressures wasn't a massive crossover hit this year. With Alison Mosshart having spent the better part of the last two years playing beside Jack White in the Dead Weather, she seemed prepared to finally take that step from Indie darling to Rock Megastar. Add on top of that a record that is built for radio. These are short songs, with immediate grooves and buildings full of sex appeal. Though this was The Kills most successful Billboard showing, the massive crossover fame just didn't seem destined for a Rocker this year (Adele nabbed it instead). My gripe aside, I still got a record chock full of great songs. I have always been a fan of the Kills, but my biggest complaint was their repeated flights into noise experimentation. You won't find any of those meanderings on Blood Pressures. The songs here almost border on Pop (if Mosshart wasn't slightly scary, that would be an easier classification). I've loved this record since day one and even more so today. Just try to put "Satellite" on in your car without nodding your head. I dare you.
8) White Denim - D
Don't get me wrong. I love a Psychedelic Rock freakout as much as the next guy. But, sometimes they can get a little samey, a little boring. White Denim found the antidote this year with D. By inserting a few expertly placed Pop hooks and turning the feedback down, the band made one of my favorite records of the year. Instead of mining the darker side of psychedelic, the lilting guitar interplay sounds closer to something from the Meat Puppets II than anything that came from Detroit in the late ‘60s. That influence is probably due to the band's Blues and Country ties in their native Austin. "Drugs" was a great summertime song this year, with a bright hook that wasn't so Poppy as to be forgettable (I'm looking at you Vampire Weekend). This wasn't White Denim's first record, but it is their best to date.
9) Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
I don't think words can actually describe how much I love Steve Earle. One of the few true students of Townes Van Zandt, Earle has a raw songwriting style that relies heavily on American pastoral storytelling. The past few years have been something of a resurgence for Earle. After struggling with (and apparently beating) his various addictions, Earle resurfaced like a man on fire. Producing new music at a prodigious rate, Earle became a recurring character on The Wire (as Bubbles' NA sponsor), hosted his own radio show on Air America, and was regularly involved with various political issues. This year Earle added 'author' to his CV, and still released one of my favorite albums of the year. I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (the title for his book and album) is a fantastic grouping of tales about working people doing their best to get through difficult times. It's an age-old archetype in Country and Folk music, but it seems to have a new appeal given our current circumstances. In particular, I've had a very hard time shaking the old sailor's tale of survival in one of America's most downtrodden regions, "The Gulf of Mexico". I loved pretty much everything about this record and am happy to say that Steve Earle is still an incredibly important voice in American music.
10) Ben Lear - Lillian: A Folk Opera
When I received a review copy of Ben Lear's Lillian I wasn't expecting much. This has all of the tell-tale signs of a record that I'm not going to be interested in. A concept record (with titular use of the term 'Folk Opera', no less), from a second generation celebrity (his father is Norman, of TV writing fame) Brooklyn solo artist. I expected the same high-minded bedroom project flotsam that particular scene has become so adept at churning out. What I got was a phenomenal record. An NYU-trained musician, Lear is no slouch as a songwriter. The true strength of this work though is how he uses his songs to serve the story, and not the other way around. Lillian is the story of a boy searching for his lost love at sea. Wrought with environmentally-conscious imagery and wonderful role-playing performances, this is the first time in recent memory that a concept record actually had me itching to find out what would happen next. It also didn't hurt that I found out during a subsequent interview that Ben is an entirely pleasant human being. That aside, Lear made a fantastic album that I'm still finding new things to love about.
(Author of "The 8 Ball")
1) Sam Roberts Band - Collider In my heart of hearts, I'm just a straight up rock music guy. The Sam Roberts Band makes rock music that sounds classic right away. "I Feel You," is one of the best songs I heard this year, while "Let It In" is just too much fun to sing along to. Never underestimate the appeal of singing along. Collider spent more time on my stereo than any other new album this year, which earns it the top spot on my list.
2) Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire You never know what you're going to get with a new Ryan Adams album. Without the Cardinals, that mystery is heightened. That band provided some stability and sense of what would be coming. For his 'comeback' album, Adams hooked up with famed Rolling Stones producer (and father of Ethan Johns who produced three of Adams's previous albums) Glyn Johns and delivered a quiet, thoughtful, melodic record. It's probably his quietest and sweetest one to date. At first, honestly, I was a little disappointed. It doesn't hit you right away like his previous albums have. There's no song that just jumps out at you. However, repeated listenings have made me love it. It gets better every time I hear it.
3) Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu Everyone seems to hate this album and I don't understand why. Hell, my girlfriend doesn't understand why. I put the album on in the car a few weeks ago to see what she'd think and even her pop radio, American Idol, Sing Off loving self liked most of it. Lou Reed's vocal performance is one that seems to work against Metallica's playing, while actually complementing it in unconventional ways. The songs are large and overwhelming, catchier than they seem on first listen, and hard to ignore. I find myself returning to Lulu again and again, wanting to 'figure it out.' Lulu is a sonic collision of two parties that I love and the result isn't anything like I expected... it's better.
4) The Black Keys - El Camino The Black Keys released an album in the calendar year after their previous album, Brothers. For that alone, they deserve a spot on this list. I love it when bands I like produce new music quickly like that -- that the resulting album is hard rocking and surprisingly catchy in its grandiose production doesn't hurt. The band's previous work with Danger Mouse, Attack & Release, was very stripped down in its sound and El Camino goes in the other direction. It's big and loud and has a touch of the Wall of Sound to it. I'm still just getting to know this album, but I already love it.
5) The Dears - Degeneration Street The Dears's albums always remind me of movies. No Cities Left was a large, sprawling film, while Gang of Losers was a quirky indie film. Degeneration Street is that mid-career film that surprises you for its originality and the way it shows that someone you thought you knew could still do new things. "5 Chords" is about as catchy and driving as the band gets, "Yesteryear" is just poppy fun, and "Omega Dog" gets things started right.
6) Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You One of the themes this year seemed to be changes in line-ups or surprising combinations -- not knowing what will come next, basically. Losing John Frusciante and replacing him with Josh Klinghoffer on guitar meant this album could have been drastically different from the past three Red Hot Chili Peppers albums. And it is in subtle ways. Flea's bass is a little more dominant, the guitar solos aren't quite what they used to be, and, yet, there are some songs that would have fit into previous albums without anyone noticing anything. The surprise here was how familiar the band still seems.
7) Matthew Good - Lights of Endangered Species I'd lost touch with Matt Good over the past few years. His solo work left me a little cold with Hospital Music and I hadn't been back since. But, something made me pick up Lights of Endangered Species when it came out and I'm glad I did. More focused than some of his recent solo efforts, it balanced his traditional rock sensibilities with his leanings towards prog rock-esque musical masturbation. He's not quite 'there' yet, but this is a big step in the right direction.
8) "Weird Al" Yankovic - Alpocalypse "Weird Al" makes me happy. It's impossible to feel down listening to his music. Alpocalypse manages to make songs I hate into songs I tap my feet to and sing along with -- albeit with different lyrics. His musical chameleon act continues to impress. In some respects, this is one of the best technical albums of the year.
9) Buck 65 - 20 Odd Years Part new album, part marking of Buck 65's musical career. The twin meaning of the title applies to the album, which showcases his ability to make very musical rap where the focus isn't specifically on the lyrics as much and his ability to be kind of silly and strange. Not as cohesive and strong as stuff like Talkin' Honky Blues and Situation, but there are some absolutely amazing songs on here. "Whispers of the Waves" with Gordon Downie is a song I can listen to over and over again.
10) Radiohead - The King of Limbs How do you separate the hype from the music when it comes to Radiohead? Ask some people and every new album is their best yet. Ask another group and every new album is their worst yet. I wasn't too impressed with In Rainbows and enjoyed The King of Limbs more. The band took the ideas explored on In Rainbows and advanced them more, refined them, and turned out some better songs. It's still not quite what I'd ideally want from the band, but I'm not complaining when the quality is this high.
1) The Weeknd - House Of Balloons Along with Frank Ocean, The Weeknd turned R'n'B on its head in 2011 with a range of murky swirling odysseys. The beats snap and click in a nod to post-dub step as Abel Tesfaye's divine vocal cries out from within this obscuring smoky mass. The whole package is undeniably alluring as Tesfaye pulls you through (or drags you down into) a series of cocaine comedowns, fractured relationships and physical betrayals.
2) Katy B - On A Mission I've gone back and forth on where exactly to place this album. In an honest sense, it's my favorite record of the year; I've played it, danced to it, and sung to it more than any other. It's a beautiful love letter to music and the club; the mix of drunken emotions, the thrill of the beat, the iron grip of lust, and desire to get lost in the anonymity of the crowd. It's a masterful pop record that spawned seven hit singles in the UK.
3) Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest Most albums struggle to live up to the hype, undermining expectation is the norm today, and with seven years worth of fans and critics calling for her return, you'd think Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings could only underwhelm. Well nobody told them evidently, as they delivered the best album of their career to date; a dark harrowing listen that soulfully subverts the country aesthetic. As bleak but beautiful a record that could have come from anywhere or any when, but feels right at home in a world still living in the wake of a financial crisis.
4) James Blake - James Blake Suffice to say, I enjoyed post-dub step in 2011. While the majority of critics spent their year trying to undermine James Blake, rightly pointing to the clumsiness of his compositions and his underdeveloped lyrical conceptions, they forgot to note that Blake had completely revolutionized the singer-songwriter genre. Recalling Joni Mitchell without sounding like a shameless copycat (*coughs*Laura Marling*coughs*), Blake offered heart shredding minimal catharsis; a man entirely, eerily, alone, with just his voice echoing eternally across his subconscious, leaving him in tears.
5) Colin Stetson - New History Of Warfare Vol.2: Judges Few albums were as rapaciously disconcerting as Colin Stetson New History of Warfare. This entire album was deeply on edge; the modulating beats, awkward pitter-patter percussion, and the sawing contorted sax playing felt otherworldly. At times it felt like a horror movie, a repressive monochrome world of rusty gates, unstable steps, and helpless victims stalked by some unquantifiable menace. The end product is uncomfortable, exhilaratingly so; it may feel queasy at times, but that's the point, this is an album that takes hold, displaces, and leaves the listener awestruck but fearful.
6) Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, U.L.T.R.A 2011 has been an incredible year for R'n'B. The-Dream may have taken the genre to new heights of sonic excess in 2010, but 2011 saw Frank Ocean and The Weeknd bring the genre crashing down to earth with a realist thud. Gone were the lessons in how to prey on helpless women, and in came abortions, deep-seated regrets, and men laid to waste by their own emotional baggage. Rather than running from the weight of his ill deeds, Frank Ocean took them on the chin, owned up to them, and resolved to change on the sonic baptism that was "Swim Good", a true masterpiece on an album stacked to the brim with masterful compositions.
7) Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise So much time was spent attempting to understand Nicolaas Jaar's fusion sound, that the actually emotional tug of the arrangements was lost. Jaar's world, while full of Dadaist humor and bleak satire, was one of repressed expectation, deferred joy, and confused almost timid exultation. When the album breaks out beyond its beautiful downtrodden monochrome march, you sense you've entered a nervous Parisian underground, desperate to express and to live, but fearful of being caught, or being seen to break the mold.
8) Julia Holter - Tragedy Getting on a handle on Tragedy is not an easy task. Even after multiple listens, I feel like I'm no closer to unlocking Holter's ludicrously ambitious Greek tragedy. The muttered utterances, the grand pronouncements, the distorted sonic fog, the clanking metals and the heavenly refrains, this is a record to become absorbed into, it washes over you in one moment and has you utterly surrounded the next. A confounding, but enticing listen.
9) tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L Merrill Garbus created an astoundingly vivid world on her second full LP. It's violent, desperate, questioning, and absolutely brimming with life, but not joy. Her world is one of violence, personal tragedy and dog eat dog existence. It would threaten to overwhelm entirely were it not so beautifully and colorfully composed.
10) PJ Harvery - Let England Shake A timeless artifact that details the British relationship with war and killing. "How is our glorious country sown? Not with wheat and corn" you're damn right.
(Features Contributor/Ex-Music Editor)
1) Girls - Father Son Holy Ghost San Francisco's biggest band of the moment avoided the sophomore slump with this eclectic collection of '70s influenced pop-rock. I would never guess that pastiches to Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Abba and Elvis Costello could work so well together but they do on this brilliant collection.
2) EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints EMA's full length debut is an unsettling record that will give listeners the feeling they stumbled upon a young adult's lost journal. Like (early) Liz Phair without the bubblegum or (early) Hole with more experimental production elements, Past Life Martyred Saints should be required listening for any guy who thinks it's easy being a girl.
3) War on Drugs - Slave Ambient If Bruce Springsteen got his hands on a joint and started listening to electronic music, he would probably put out a record similar to Slave Ambient. More likely, War on Drugs are fans of The Boss and My Bloody Valentine and created this amazing record.
4) Yuck - Yuck 2011 was the year of 90's indie rock influenced bands and no band made it more apparent than Yuck. The most obvious influence is Teenage Fanclub's classic Bandwagonesque. Every song sounds like it was pulled from MTV's 120 Minutes circa 1995. For fans of Dinosaur Jr, Superchunk and Buffalo Tom.
5) John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves Much like his forefathers Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, John Maus has constructed a body of complex, timeless and often times eerie synth-pop. After listening to this record, it shouldn't come as a surprise this guy's in cahoots with Ariel Pink.
6) The Horrors - SkyingSkying is The Horrors third full-length coming off the critically acclaimed Primary Colours of 2009. An ode to late 80's UK darkwave that also sounds modern.
7) Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes The Swedish singer evokes her inner Dusty Springfield on this confident yet vulnerable (and largely superior) 2nd album.
8) Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo A rambling, hazed batch of laid back Americana from this gifted songwriter with a drawl not unlike Bob Dylan's.
9) M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming The best dream-pop album in recent memory and one of the only double albums I have the patience to sit through from beginning to end. Fans of Cocteau Twins and Depeche Mode won't be disappointed.
10) Wild Flag - Wild Flag From the ashes of 1990's indie juggernauts Sleater-Kinney and Helium come this quartet of middle aged women. Their eponymous debut sounds like a greatest hits collection of lost treasures from both of the aforementioned bands. Classic noise-pop.
(Author of "The Love/Hate News Report")
1) Ben Lear - Lillian: A Folk Opera I'm usually the first guy to offer criticism towards concept albums, but Lear's first major offering floored me on the first listen and only gets better over time. This was a good year for folk music, but Lillian was one of the few albums that told large parts of its story with the music, not with Lear narrating everything. You want all of this, trust me.
2) The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck I went nuts in reviewing this album in March, and I went nuts in revisiting this album in July, so I'll keep this simple: John Darnielle is our generation's Bob Dylan, and this is his best collection of songs. I'd list highlights, but that would involve listing every song on the album.
3) Dream Jefferson - Punch Perm This was a great year for free hip-hop (and hip-hop in general), but Punch Perm stood out to me by being so consistent. Every song packs a punch, and these guys could make a quick buck or two by selling their instrumentals. It barely clocks in at thirty minutes in length, but Punch Perm is better than many albums that are twice as long.
4) tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l This was also a great year for eccentric music, and it doesn't get much more eccentric than w h o k i l l. Unlike many "experimental" acts, though, Merrill Garbus knows how to make fantastic music while keeping her quirks in the mix. Here's your head trip of the year.
5) Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost Probably the most "American" album of the year. Hell, you could probably make a story about this album just going track by track, with the protagonist going from being an optimistic youth to a slightly-disillusioned young man near the end.
6) Wild Flag - Wild Flag Two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney get together with buddies and decide to rock out? Geez;of course this is in my top ten.
7) Van Hunt - What Were You Hoping For? Some of the most ambitious, risky music of the year, that's what I was hoping for;and that's what I got.
8) Deerhoof - Deerhoof Vs. Evil It's a spastic pop album featuring a Japanese woman singing random phrases. Nuff said.
9) Firehorse - And So They Ran Faster... Adele's 21 was a fantastic album, but I think this album, which is similar to 21 in many ways, is even better.
10) Destroyer - Kaputt I've soured on this album a bit, but I still think that this is a great "throwback" album.
(Author of "Major Bands, Minor Labels" & "The Music 3R's")
1) Girls - Father, Son, Holy GhostThere was no better album for me this year than Girls latest. It's instantly enjoyable, and you'll find yourself going to it again and again.
2) The Roots - UndunThis was a late entry for me and didn't make my original Top Ten It would have if it hadn't been released so late in the year. I think this will be remembered as one of the most influential and innovative hip hop albums in quite some time, assuming that more listeners find it.
3) Bon Iver - Bon IverJustin Vernon moves out from the cabin to deliver an album bigger in scope and sound.
4) Adele - 21 It's a modern pop masterpiece.
5) Tune-yards - Whokill Merrill Garbus is a total loon, but it's that insanity that creates one of the most memorable albums of the year.
6) Yuck - YuckGreat 90's alternative rock in 2011.
7) Ty Segall - Goodbye BreadGoodbye Bread's themes focus on actual problems that we all deal with -- not having money to buy that nice couch, putting up with a nasty dog, etc. Ty Segall uses them as inspiration for his rock songs.
8) Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong The Pains transitioned from 80's alternative music to 90's, sounding like an actual rock band. There are some great catchy songs on here.
9) Firehorse - And So They Ran Faster...This album was a total surprise for me and surpassed my love for the new albums by St. Vincent and PJ Harvey.
10 Wild Flag - Wild Flag Great, spastic, indie rock.