In a year that my top two
bands of the 2000’s (Last.fm stats to prove it) were both releasing new albums, it was easy for me to
assume that one of them would grab my top spot for 2011. And while both of
those albums were terrific, they were not the artists’ best works, and did not grip
me with the depth that my number one album did. For most of my life I have a
pretty good idea of my “album of the year” the first time I hear it. This year
was no exception; but when that thought first crossed my mind about this album I
thought it to be ridiculous because the album is so chaotic and unlike most of
the music I listen to. However, despite being chaotic, it is fantastic:
terrifying, beautiful, heavy, atmospheric, and perfectly-executed…
Top 20 Albums of 2011:
(Links are to the "best" way to purchase these albums as I discussed in my recent post; both digital and physical options are provided. As always on my blog: *=available on vinyl, **=I own on vinyl. 18 of the 20 albums below have vinyl releases, which is a record for all of my year end lists.)
The Spirit That Guides Us was honestly barely on my radar through the mid-point of this year. Their debut album, The Sand, The Barrier, was released in 2001 in Europe and I don’t know if it ever got distribution in North America. I can’t even remember how I got my copy, and while the name of the band and the song titles are in the artwork for the CD, neither the name of the band members nor the name of the album is. I have had a hard time ever learning anything about the band (even if you do a Google search most of what little there is will be in Dutch), and most of what I did know until this year I learned during my only trip to Holland in 2003.
1. Innocent Blood
2. The Sand, The Barrier
3. We Are Under Reconstruction
4. North and South
5. Don’t Shoot, Let Us Burn
2. Thrice- Major/Minor**
Digital Vinyl (OOP)
3. Death Cab for Cutie- Codes and Keys**
This is the album I had been hoping would be the follow-up to Transatlanticism. Plans was fine, Narrow Stairs was bad, and Codes and Keys is finally something different and optimistic from the band. I can’t write a review about it without mentioning Zooey Deschanel, as she is clearly the inspiration for most of these lyrics. When it was announced last month that she and Ben Gibbard divorced, it definitely took the fun out of songs like “Monday Morning”. These are some of the only “happy” songs Gibbard has written, and now it it doubtful there will be more anytime soon.
4. Mates of State- Mountaintops**
When I first heard this album I thought, “People are going to love this.” Unfortunately, I also thought, “Man, I miss the simplicity of the last album.” Re-Arrange Us is my favorite Mates of State album and was my #1 of 2008. It was quite a departure for the band at the time, dropping the organ and keyboards for songs built on piano. Mountaintops is a return to form in a way, but they have also greatly expanded their sound; this is by far their most produced work, with endless layers of diverse instrumentation.
5. Josh Garrels- Love and War and The Sea In Between
6. Sleeping at Last- Yearbook
Digital CD (Box set)
7. Manchester Orchestra- Simple Math**
8. Eisley- The Valley**
9. The Belle Brigade- s/t*
I only discovered this album last month. The single “Losers” got my attention, and I was surprised how different the rest of the album is. Sounds very early-80’s, yet with completely organic instrumentation. The Fleetwood Mac comparison is spot-on. Still digesting it, so don’t have many thoughts yet.
10. Burlap to Cashmere- s/t*
11. Over the Rhine- The Long Surrender*
Over the Rhine’s last album, the Trumpet Child, was a huge disappointment. It was honestly the first Over the Rhine album since I had discovered them in 1997 that I didn’t like; the jazz overtones are not my style. I saw them in concert on that tour, and when they played nothing from Good Dog Bad Dog, I very much feared for the future of the band (this would be like U2 not playing any songs from The Joshua Tree in concert). Thankfully the band went back to the drawing board, raised a lot of money through their fan-base to record with Joe Henry, and released The Long Surrender in December 2010 (I actually bought it for my wife for Christmas last year). The official release date was in early 2011, and this review echoes my sentiments perfectly…
Josh Hurst for The Hurst Review: Certainly, it is the best-Over the Rhine album, something that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one; the album marks their first collaboration with Joe Henry, a record producer whose work always favors warmth, intimacy, and simplicity… For someone who has no history with this band to speak of, Henry understands what makes for a great Over the Rhine album with remarkable clarity, and he has aided them in creating just that– not a departure so much as an album that embraces the band’s essential and therefore feels, immediately, like their most essential work… It is a deepening of the sound of albums like and , albums that chase the elusive spirit of Americana without seeming to care so very much about whether they actually catch it; the fun, it seems, is in the pursuit. Even so, this is their most seamless and integrative album, more graceful than anything they’ve done in its elegant conjuring of country, folk, gospel, and jazz.
12. Mogwai- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will**
It took me almost 10 years to truly appreciate Mogwai; for the longest time rock music without vocals really didn’t do a whole lot for me. Thanks to my brother, I actually heard them at their inception. Well, once I “got” them I have fallen in love. This is potentially my favorite Mogwai album.
In the early 2000’s, Blindside was probably my favorite heavy band. I loved the diversity of 2004’s About a Burning Fire, but then they dropped off the map. The actually released another album the following year, but The Great Depression lacked all the energy of their previous work. 2007 brought an average EP, and then no news at all for probably 3 years. Blindside returned with a bang, and With Shivering Hearts We Wait picks right up where they were in 2004 but with all kinds of interesting new twists.
14. Explosions in the Sky- Take Care, Take Care, Take Care** Digital Vinyl
Nothing really that new from the band, but they are so good at what they do. This isn’t taking anything away from the music, but the highlight of the album is by far the artwork and packaging.
15. R.E.M.- Collapse Into Now*
I’ve been an R.E.M. fan for almost 25 years, and I am probably one of the few people on the planet that thinks they are actually much better than U2. I would argue they are the greatest American rock band, EVER. 2008 brought Accelerate, which was a supposed return-to-form, with short, fast rock songs. While it was fun, and did sort of remind us of what R.E.M. sounded like when they started out, it was too forced. Collapse Into Now is much more natural and much better, and as R.E.M. called it quits this year, it is a perfect ending to an amazing career.
16. Fountains of Wayne- Sky Full of Holes*
I am a BIG Fountains of Wayne fan, and honestly I have not listened to this album enough. I thought their last album, Traffic and Weather, was far too overproduced, and the more acoustic sounds here remind me of my favorite Fountains of Wayne album, Welcome Interstate Managers.
Jody Rosen for Rolling Stone: For 15 years, Fountains of Wayne have been rock's sharpest storytellers, chronicling the dreams and setbacks of middle-class types with heartbreaking precision and crunchy guitar hooks. Their fifth LP is rootsier than usual, but the characters are as vivid as ever. There's the boozer looking for love on an Amtrak ("Acela"); the woman reliving teenage nightmares at her parents' country house ("The Summer Place"); the hapless hipster entrepreneurs in "Richie and Ruben." The songs are filled with jokes - but the punch lines often turn into epiphanies. And FoW nail the boredom of the touring life: "In between the stops at the Cracker Barrel/And 40 movies with Will Ferrell/I need some way to occupy my time."
17. Coldplay- Mylo Xyloto**
Coldplay is the most popular rock band in the world right now, and this is clearly not their best album. However, it is good, and more importantly, it’s fun. Probably the poppiest the band has ever been, and it works. I feel ashamed to admit it, but my favorite song on the album is a duet with Rihanna.
18. Radiohead- The King of Limbs*
19. Thursday- No Devolucion**
20. Bright Eyes- The People's Key**
2. Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken- Tennessee Digital CD
3. Pinback- Information Retrieved Parts A and B** Vinyl (Vinyl only, two 7" records)
4. Sarah Jaffe- The Way a Sound Leaves a Room Digital CD/DVD
5. The Hawk in Paris- His + Hers Digital
1. The Decemberists- The King Is Dead* Digital Vinyl (bought yesterday, love it after three listens)
2. Bon Iver- s/t* Digital Vinyl
3. Foster the People- Torches* Digital Vinyl
4. Marketa Irglova- Anar Digital CD
5. St. Vincent- Strange Mercy* Digital Vinyl