Friday, December 23, 2011

Best Albums of 2011

Here it is, after lots of listening, writing, and thinking --- the best albums of 2011 in my humble opinion, based on my own preferences of course, but also with a music journalist's ear (ha). Feel free to drop me a comment!

1.     Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Very few albums can make me instantly want to weep…and while such an experience may not seem enjoyable, Justin Vernon’s (aka Bon Iver) ability to provoke perhaps unwanted emotion is a sure sign of his undeniable talent as a songwriter and singer. A profound follow-up to an already incredible album (For Emma, Forever Ago), here he offers a fuller, more multifaceted sound with much less outright-folk involved. And while For Emma requires lying in a field, Bon Iver will turn your blood to ice. Even if the final track is a little too Peter Gabriel for my tastes, the rest of the album is more than beautiful.
      Tracks: “Wash.” & “Holocene”

2.     O’Death – Outside
A Brooklyn-based band combining folk, bluegrass, metal and punk to form mosh-happy songs, O’Death has topped an already stellar album (Head Home). Each song on Outside speaks to their influences in a new way, as genres mix and meld and cease to mean anything. These guys are like musical gypsies roving ancient lands in caravans. While some tunes (“Bugs”) are folksy and melodic, others (“Howling Through”) set the scene for something macabre and altogether wicked.    
            Tracks: “Alamar” & “Ourselves”

3.     Active Child – You Are All I See
LA-native Pat Grossi is a classical harpist and ex-choirboy with a ghostly falsetto that moves through you like wind. On this first LP, he creates a richly textured experience that combines the musically technical with the abstract. An emotional and possibly spiritual wake-up call, this album is a modern-day masterpiece.
            Tracks: “Hanging On” & “Shield & Sword”

4.     M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
A double-album is no easy feat for any band, yet somehow M83 leaves me wanting even more. Epic without a shred of pretension, these 22 tracks harken back to ’80s beats and vocals à la Tears for Fears, though all the choral-style harmonizing feels like ambient Arcade Fire. With an array of voices, trickles of piano, one-minute instrumental tracks, and almost classical compositions, you can slide through this album while lucid dreaming.
            Tracks: “Midnight City” & “Echoes of Mine”

5.     Bjork – Biophilia
Bjork is one of the most ambitious artists of our time and Biophilia is her most ambitious project. I haven’t delved into the album’s multimedia aspects, but Bjork described it as a collection “encompassing music, apps, internet, installations, and live shows.” And though I don’t own an iPad, Biophilia includes ten separate apps all housed within one “mother” app…not only that, but the music was partially created and recorded using an iPad. Bjork has never been a stranger to collaboration nor to technology—in fact, she embraces the unexpected unity of nature and technology. But games, apps, images, and invented “instruments” aside, the ten tracks on Bio roll off the tongue, once again demonstrating Bjork’s vibrant voice, poetic lyrics, and imagination.  
            Tracks: “Crystalline” & “Hollow”

6.     Zola Jesus – Conatus
Young, talented, and musically interesting female performers are not as plentiful as one might hope, and while Ms. Jesus isn’t swimming in completely uncharted seas, her talent continues to blow me away. The songs on Conatus are blissfully soulful, as her resonant voice slips under and climbs over beat-laden crescendos. It’s this voice that acts as the main instrument of every track, as Zola exhibits avant-garde pop like some kind of mystical warrioress.   
Tracks: “Vessel” & “Hikikomori”

7.     The Soft Moon – The Soft Moon
So I caught these guys (well really it’s one guy) against flickering images in Brooklyn’s Monster Island Basement, where the jam-packed, spontaneous mosh pit left me scratching my head (and nearly getting killed). See, The Soft Moon’s orbiting post-punk doesn't exactly lend itself to basement-moshing. It is, however, ideal for driving at midnight with the windows down. Surf across these waves of reverb and echoed howls!
            Tracks: “When It’s Over” & “Tiny Spiders”

8.     Cut Copy – Zonoscope
Cut Copy’s sense of rhythm and melody make Zonoscope sound like something a modern-day, electronica-minded Beatles might create, even if New Order is a more obvious influence. And while disco synths are the icing on the cake, the heart of each track lies in Cut Copy’s actual songwriting, which has the potential to outlast any particular era.
Tracks: “Pharaohs and Pyramids” & “Sun God”

9.     Radiohead – The King of Limbs
As the years go by, the ever-innovative Radiohead has been getting progressively atmospheric and ambient; King of Limbs reflects this musical wisdom and penchant for experimentation. On the band’s eighth studio effort, all eight tracks seethe emotion via complex musical landscapes and Thom Yorke’s otherworldly voice.
            Tracks: “Codex” & “Feral”

10.  Yet Cut Breath – Hinges
A seven-track debut, Hinges showcases Anna Morsett’s vocal and emotional range, with songs that soothe and sadden amidst those that pack a glistening punch. Powerful songwriting drives the organic instrumentation, and a violin and cello add a gorgeous neo-classical touch.
            Tracks: “Kindness” & “Tied”

11.  TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
While there’s no track that matches the immediate potency of “Wolf Like Me” and “I Was a Lover” (from 2006′s Return to Cookie Mountain), the ten tracks on Nine Types are full of hooks, horns, and vocal rambunctiousness. Aside from the five band members who all play multiple instruments, Nine Types also features ten other musicians, which only adds to the funky eclecticism.
            Tracks: “No Future Shock” & “Repetition”

12.  Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will & Earth Division EP
Every time Mogwai puts out a record (be it LP or EP), they manage to offer something new while sticking to the brand of post-rock that made them famous in the first place. Both Hardcore and Earth Division are full of epic builds (though these songs are slightly shorter than on previous albums) as well as slightly more "standard" heavy rock tracks. For me, Mogwai is always most poignant when they bring out the piano, like on the somewhat unnerving “Get to France.” 
Tracks: “Letters to the Metro” & “Does This Always Happen?”

13.  Caveman – Coco Beware
This quartet’s Local Natives' vibe gives them a major thumbs up in my book. But though the two bands (from opposite corners of the country) may share an indie-rock sensibility I can’t completely put a finger on, Caveman steers us on a new path, one lined with whimsical (but never quaint) melodies that will surely stick with you.
Tracks: “Old Friend” & “Vampire”

14.  Phantogram – Nightlife (EP)
Last year, Phantogram’s debut album, Eyelid Movies, clocked in at #2 on my best-of-list. Luckily, the duo once again graces us with their gritty-and-pretty approach to indie-electronica. This year’s little EP is perfectly suited to a night of city-set mischief.
            Tracks: “Turning into Stone” & “Don’t Move”

15.  13 & God – Own Your Ghost
An interesting collaborative group (The Notwist plus Themselves), 13 & God released their first (and only) record back in 2005; thus, Own Your Ghost was highly anticipated. Like the first album, the tracks here shimmer with crystalline sounds and oddly delivered lyrics. Mood, genre, and composition shift unexpectedly from song to song. By taking both hip-hop and electronica in these atypical directions, 13 & God assure that their listeners never get bored.
            Tracks:  “Et Tu” & “Beat On Us”

16.  Future Islands – On The Water
Though it comes in second place compared to their first album, In Evening Air, Future Islands have offered another slick record of brooding indie-electro. Oscillating and a bit dark, put this one on repeat and let it steep. 
Tracks: “Balance” & “The Great Fire”

17.  The Black Keys – El Camino
These guys will always claim a spot somewhere on my list. The Keys sustain their dirty rock n’ roll, with healthy doses of guitar solos, catchy drumbeats, and classic-rock vocals. El Camino sounds like it was conceived and recorded a couple decades back, yet there’s nothing imitation about it. Makes me want to jump in a truck and drive across the desert (perhaps the album cover has something to do with that!).
            Tracks: “Dead and Gone” & “Hell of a Season”

18.  The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
Even though The Raveonettes have nailed an early ’80s-goth vibe, some of the songs on Raven are actually sunshiny. And whenever the dense and sometimes eerie guitar-fuzz feels overblown, we still maintain our grip on the gorgeous two-part vocal harmonies for which the duo is known.
            Tracks: “Apparitions” & “Evil Seeds”

19.  Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
I am well acquainted with Julianna’s ethereal, silky, multi-layered songs, having interviewed her, caught her live, and listened to both Sanguine and Florine. Now on Asthmatic Kitty, Julianna’s songs shine even brighter. But true to her Brooklyn-bedroom musical process, she didn’t plan her record before stepping into the studio, which certainly became a magic place.
            Tracks: “Vow” & “Bob In Your Gait”

20.  Braids – Native Speaker
Native Speaker is musical rock candy: shiny and sweet, with a few sharp edges. Combining the slow-paced glaze of Slowdive with the vocal meanderings of Bjork, these seven songs truly sparkle. 
Tracks: “Lammicken” & “Native Speaker”

21.  Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
It may only be six tracks long, but Take Care is sprawling. This Texan quartet knows how to create emotionally present musical terrains, with driving drumbeats and long-winded guitars that race around a central melody.
            Tracks: “Last Known Surroundings” & “Trembling Hands”

22.  Yuck – Yuck
With a delightfully ’90s indie vibe, or that of a slightly poppier Sonic Youth, Yuck’s self-titled debut is fun and familiar. Break out your Walkman and tie the laces of those Chucks!
            Tracks: “Holing Out” & “The Wall”

23.  Boris – Attention Please & Heavy Rocks
The Japanese trio that is Boris may owe their name and some musical inheritance to the Melvins, but these simultaneously released albums comb through genre conventions. While Attention is poppier and exhibits some rather sexy experimentation, Heavy is an absolute gem for any post-rock fan.
Tracks: “Aileron” (two different tracks with this name appear on both albums) & “Party Boy”

24.  Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
This album is musical poetry that carries an emotional but not melancholic weight. Even the song titles are lyrical, like “Blood Never Lies” and “In Silver Rain with Paper Key.” Most of the album feels hushed, accompanied by Samara Lubelski's familiar violin, but I particularly love those moments when Thurston’s thoughts become “demolished.”  
            Tracks: “Mina Loy” & “Circulation”

25.  The Kissing Club – Little Acorn (EP)
This little four-track EP is like a handcrafted invitation to a divorce, or perhaps a peace offering of love gone awry. While the very slow songs scratch at the bones, a classic-rock-style guitar solo on “Someone Else” breaks the supposed tranquility and reminds us just how purposefully restrained these "sweet" songs really are.
            Tracks: “Honeymoon” & “Someone Else”

26.  Atlas Sound – Parallax
Deerhunter frontman Brandon Cox continues his dreamy, woozy art-rock that can lift you to the stars even though it doesn't feel ethereal. Cox’s subdued take on experimental indie is refreshing when set against some dancey post-millennial bands; therefore, the minimalism of Parallax (a very apt title considering those prior-mentioned stars) can be as comforting as tea.
            Tracks: “Doldrums” & “Te Amo”

27.  Weekend ­– Red (EP)
Droning and churning, this trio takes from post-rock, stoner-rock, post-punk, and shoegaze to create something uniquely theirs (even if a million other bands have some form of ‘Weekend’ in their name). Echoed vocals and swirling guitars will mildly assault your eardrums.
            Tracks: “Hazel” & “Goifers”

28.  JEFF The Brotherhood – We Are Champions
These brothers are the lovechildren of Fugazi and The Ramones, though let’s throw in some White Stripes and Black Keys for good measure. Evoking images of hair-in-your-face parties in somebody’s basement or garage, JEFF goes at it with a stripped-down guitar-drum combo, perfect for soaring riffs that literally shred.
Tracks: “Ripper” & “Health and Strength”

29.   Paleo – Fruit of the Spirit
David Strackany wrote a song every day for one year using a “half-size children's guitar” while playing shows and being homeless. Some of these songs appear on Fruit, which maintains the sweet simplicity of life on the road. With tracks that are loosely constructed yet tightly melodic, Paleo is a descendent of the likes of Daniel Johnston and Darcy Clay.
         Tracks: “Over The Hill and Back Again” & “Lighthouse”

30.  Beach Fossils – What A Pleasure
These “reverb-slicked indie pop” songs sound like they need a little dusting. For a band that loves when shows get rowdy (at least according to the interview I conducted with frontman Dustin Payseur), this album certainly feels languid. But don’t get me wrong: the band’s lazy delivery is ideal for equally lazy days and lovers of dream-pop.
        Tracks: “What A Pleasure” & “Out in the Way (feat. Wild Nothing)”

31.  Foster the People – Torches
Fun and friendly, Foster the People’s cute vocals and poppy beats make Torches sound like children’s music. In fact, it reminds me of those pink cassettes that used to come with certain Barbie dolls. But such playfulness assures that Torches is properly riding the recent wave of dancey albums à la Passion Pit and CSS. And who doesn’t love when “Pumped Up Kicks” comes on in a bar?
            Tracks: “Pumped Up Kicks” & “Miss You”

32.  Robin Bacior – Rest Our Wings
The songs on this debut LP bloom as soon as Robin sets her stunning voice adrift across handfuls of organic instruments. Sometimes sun-soaked and other times ideal for a reflective rainy day, Robin sings with a musical wisdom far beyond her age: one that reverberates from the late '60s to present day. 
            Tracks: “Pair Migration” & “Ohio”

33.  Gauntlet Hair – Gauntlet Hair
As shrouded, foggy and murky as these tracks may be, they’re still able to lure you in deep. There’s something enchanting about Gauntlet Hair’s debut LP…even if it sounds like they recorded this in the bathroom down the hall!
            Tracks: “Top Bunk” & “Showing”

34.  Elite Gymnastics – Ruin
It’s not like this duo is doing anything particularly groundbreaking, but I’m a sucker for their metronomic beats, samples, hazy vocals, and “electro-hip-hop-chillwave” (according to Oh My Rockness, anyway). Then there’s that Atari Teenage Riot flourish on “Here in Heaven,” plus the parallelism of the entire album: the second half is comprised of softer and subdued echoes of all the tracks that came before. Perhaps the band is referencing the uneven bars!
            Tracks: “Here in Heaven” & “Omamori”

35.  PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Quite the departure from the punkish PJ who sang, “That blue eyed girl became blue eyed whore,” Let England Shake’s PJ is theatrical in a different way. Recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Dorset, the concept here is “the anthem -- a love song to one’s country,” an idea for which PJ conducted historical research. With a Patti Smith edge to her voice and dramatic songs that remind me of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida (conceptually, not musically), this album proves that PJ is not done trying out new sounds, ideas, and even vocals.
            Tracks: “Let England Shake” & “The Words that Maketh Murder”

[those not included on any of my top albums]

1.     The Joy Formidable – “Whirring”
2.     Grouplove – “Colours”
3.     Sleep ∞ Over – “Romantic Streams
4.     Gotye – "Somebody That I Used to Know"
5.     100 Monkeys – “Wandering Mind”
6.     J. Mascis – “Not Enough”
7.     The Kills – “Satellite”
8.     This Will Destroy You – “Communal Blood”
9.     Dom – “Jesus”
10.  Mechanical People – “Magnolia”
11.  Girls – “Vomit”
12.  Cults – “Most Wanted”
13.  Grinderman – “When My Baby Comes”
14.  Lemonade – “The Place Where you Belong” (Shai cover)
15.  Esben and the Witch – “Warpath”
16.  Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”
17.  Gang Gang Dance – “Glass Jar”
18.  Woodsman – “In Circles”
19.  Cass McCombs – “The Same Thing”
20.  Wooden Shjips – “Lazy Bones”
21.  The Chain Gang of 1974 – “Hold On”
22.  Minks – “Cemetery Rain”
23.  Florence and the Machine – “Only If For a Night” 
24.  Davila 666 – “Obsesionao”
25.  Slowdance – "Sweetness" 

And a special shout-out to The XX, whose album I didn’t include in my best-of list of 2010, which you can check out here!


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