December 26, 2011

Best of 2011

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.)


1. The Spirit That Guides Us- Innocent Blood* 
Digital Vinyl
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.

The Spirit That Guides Us released another album, North and South, in 2004, and it did have U.S. digital distribution. I never got that into it though; I thought it paled in comparison to the outstanding debut. I then lost track of the band, and never heard We are Under Reconstruction (2006) and Do Not Shoot, Let Us Burn (2008) until this year.

During the summer I heard the first song from Innocent Blood, called Demons and Diamonds (you can buy it for any price—including nothing—on Bandcamp). 


It blew me away. I was soon trying to figure out how I was going to purchase the full album, and I wanted a physical copy. I was in the middle of a familiar dilemma—trying to figure out how to fit independent music from Europe into my music budget. As usual, it was going to cost me about $30 including shipping for a CD and $40 including shipping for a vinyl record coming from the Netherlands (not to mention postage costs, music costs much more in Europe than it does in North America).

I took matters into my own hands, and found the email address for a member of The Spirit That Guides Us. I explained how much I liked their band, only owned one of their now five albums, and how I wanted to buy it all but couldn’t afford it. Well, this resulted in frequent emails with Erik van Winkelhoff, one of only two original members of the band. He cut me a ridiculous deal, and sent me the entire The Spirit That Guides Us discography; I got half a dozen CD’s, a couple of vinyl records, and a t-shirt.

I never expected to love Innocent Blood so much. Now that I am able to listen to every song The Spirit That Guides Us has ever recorded, you really never know what you are going to get. Stylistically they are all over the map, and while I mostly enjoy every style they play—melodic rock, metal, hardcore—the quality also varies. This is due to the fact that the band is really more of a collective, with rotating members. Based on what I can tell, they have had at least 12 members over the course of the decade. Well, their line-up has finally meshed, and they have never been more on top of their game.

Without a doubt, this is the best album The Spirit That Guides Us has ever recorded; however, it is also easily their most inaccessible. I would guess that less than one percent of my readers would give it a chance. As usual, the genre is unclassifiable. It is rock, but with frequent hardcore breakdowns (yes, screaming). What makes this album different are the shoegaze elements, which seems ridiculous in concept. The My Bloody Valentine influence is strong, which would make one think it is forced. However, it works and seems perfectly organic. And despite how noisy and chaotic this album is, it has beautiful melodies. Some are obvious, and some take multiple listens to notice.

Most of the rest of the content on my year-end list will be quotes from reviews that I have found all over the web, and that is how I am going to end this one. This is a summary of a 2-star (out of 5) review I found on the Dutch website NU.NL, which I can only read using Google language tools. You would think a 2-star review would be negative, but they actually describe the album perfectly:

The title is hard to digest… like the music on this disc. You cannot say that this group chooses the easy way. Not only because it is rough rock music combined with a spiritual message, but more specifically because they are not simple songs to put together. Harsh screams and dissonant guitar work are accompanied by beautiful crystal pieces recalling My Bloody Valentine. Original recipe for sure, but it is questionable whether many people will find the result enjoyable. Songs like Rip Out Your Heart and Remember, however, have an undeniable beauty. It is a particularly bizarre sequence of regularly contrasting passages that makes this album quite tight.

If you live in Europe, I highly recommend you buy The Spirit That Guides Us’ CDs and vinyl straight from the band. But if you are like me and live in another part of the world, now ALL of their albums are on Amazon for less than $9. Here is how I would rank their full lengths:
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)
It is well-known that Thrice is my favorite band of the last decade. I listen to them weekly, almost daily, and no other artist comes close. That said, my expectations for this, and every Thrice release, are through the roof. And I hate to say it, but the band let me down a little. Major/Minor is great—terrific songwriting, outstanding musicianship—but it is missing what I love so much about Thrice: experimentation. Arguably this is the most straight-forward album the band has ever released. It is a great rock record, but nothing about it surprised me. Some of Dustin’s best lyrics, and all the guitars are awesome; it sort of reminds me of 90’s Pearl Jam. The only reason I mention that comparison is because it seems silly to say.

Ryan Reed for Pop Matters: Gone are the electronic ghosts that pulsed through Alchemy, vanished are the dreamy guitars and ambience that defined their last effort, 2009’s Beggars. Much of Major/Minor finds the band squarely in full-on, stripped-down riff-rock territory, downplaying experimentation in favor of immediate, throat-grabbing structures. Opener “Yellow Belly” wastes no time showing off their newly dusted-off wardrobe, flaunting a raunchy, detuned guitar figure, and Riley Breckenridge’s bass pedal-heavy drum kit… For every clunky riff, there’s a well-rounded track that demonstrates the power of which these guys are truly capable. As nice as it is to hear them back with much-needed intensity, Thrice almost always sound best when it’s dissecting a track from the inside out: “Cataracts” is downright phenomenal, utilizing a wicked guitar/bass interplay that perfectly suits the raw production, while “Words in the Water” rides a Modest Mouse-esque guitar landscape and Breckenridge’s muscular, driving snare rolls, building to a lighter-waver chorus with a biting melody. 


3. Death Cab for Cutie- Codes and Keys** 
Digital Vinyl
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.
Matt McKechnie for And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’: I’ve read the reviews on Codes and Keys and for the most part, it seemed like the public were sort of ‘enh’ in their response to this record—but I think that’s because it’s an album with layers that takes some precise digging and a bit of guesswork. In this day and age of spoon-fed multimedia, DCFC has put out a record that truly makes the listener sick an ear to the speaker for a closer review and get lost in the cavalcade of sound.


4. Mates of State- Mountaintops** 
Digital Vinyl
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.

Adam Kivel for Consequence of Sound: Way back in 2000 (that phrase seems so wrong), the debut disc from Mates of State, My Solo Project, was much lauded for its gleeful, rough-around-the-edges take on indie pop. The married duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel propelled themselves forward on rabbit-thump drumming, gleaming keyboards, arching vocal harmonies, and, probably, a pretty decent amount of sugar. Their pop hooks were readily apparent, but there was a charming messiness about the thing, a sincerity that shone through in the fact that this wasn’t lo-fi for effect, that these were two musicians finding their own place, their own sound, and their own potential. Since then, their stock has considerably risen, and with each successive album, those rough edges have been sanded down, little by little. But rather than losing any authenticity, the duo have kept their strengths, all while bolstering their sound with new instrumental flourishes and stronger songwriting to couch those still-powerful hooks.


5. Josh Garrels- Love and War and The Sea In Between 
Digital (Free)
The first time I listened, I really didn’t like the first song on this album. It is fine, but it reminds me of Ray LaMontagne, and that is not a good thing. Thankfully, I stuck with it and was richly rewarded. Until this year I had never heard of Josh Garrels, although he is a prolific singer-songwriter. Thankfully he decided to give away his new album for free, and we are all better off. The only thing stranger than me ranking The Spirit That Guides Us #1 is me ranking this album at all. I can’t emphasize enough how spectacular this album is. Read the story here.

Josh Hurst for Stereo Subversion: Garrels’ is a prophetic voice, then, and he delivers his songs—glad tidings and sad laments in equal measure—not as dogma, but as the convictions of one who knows all too well how lost he is apart from the hand of Love. His latest record is a particularly weighty thing—but then, of course it is. The name of it is Love & War & The Sea In Between, and, at 18 songs, Garrels says it's inspired by the sheer scale and thematic complexity of the great Russian novels. He is, obviously, cruising for a major letdown. One could criticize this work for being bloated, overlong, and self-serious, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a mighty whallop of a record, one that transcends its own implicit pomposity to become something truly rousing, deeply human and aching for the Holy… Obviously, it is a very big record, tackling big ideas and presenting them as a series of interlocking ideas, and musically, the thing is a little all over the place. 


6. Sleeping at Last- Yearbook 
Digital CD (Box set)
In October of 2010 Sleeping at Last (who is now only Ryan O’Neal) embarked on a 12-month EP project in which they would release 3 songs a month. After the first three EP’s, I ranked them as my #1 EP of 2010. Well, after 9 EP’s in 2011, and 36 total songs, it is not an EP; it is 3 LPs. I have been with this band since the beginning, and while I preferred them when they rocked a little more, the songwriting is better than it has ever been.

Michael Schiele for Stereo Subversion: The project has proved fascinating… The music itself is full of sweeping crescendos, strings and piano. Sleeping At Last has never been afraid of great swells of emotion or romantic interludes, but the absence of a drummer is noticeable on these songs. Not to say that these tracks miss out on a sense of rhythm (tracks like “Next To Me” bristle with a banjo pop), but the EPs hold ample amounts of intimacy and experimentation. Sleeping At Last benefit from the constraints of the small format, allowing the theatrics and atmospherics soar without risking overindulgence.


7. Manchester Orchestra- Simple Math** 
Digital Vinyl
Despite two strong LP’s under their belt, I had pretty much given up on this band after seeing them play live last year in Atlanta, their hometown. I have been to hundreds (if not thousands) of shows in my life, and it was one of the worst. I’ll save you the details, but it was enough to stop listening to Manchester Orchestra. Then they released Simple Math. I found the title track single irresistible, and the album as a whole blew me away. I did not think the band was capable of something this good. The Built to Spill influence is heavy, and that is a very good thing, especially since it was not evident at all on the first two albums.

Chad Grischow for IGN: At first glance, or at least upon hearing the lead single, Atlanta's Manchester Orchestra seems to have completely reinvented themselves on their latest album. Adding strings to the mix is an initial shock to the system, but the more refined sound feels like a natural evolution on their brilliant third album. Rest assured, Andy Hull and crew are still willing and able to kick you in the chest with burly guitar-driven rock and rip your heart out with soul-baring lyrics… The passionate wailing vocals and southern-tinged guitar swagger of thrashing "April Fool" fits well alongside the velvety layers of beautiful "Pale Black Eye", with a swirling vortex of angst gradually building in the hovering guitars and patient strings. Anyone that thinks this is a giant departure has not been paying attention to the Ying-Yang approach of fire and beauty that has balanced each of their previous two albums. Rather, this is the perfection of that balanced approach, fueled by the most mature songwriting of their career.

8. Eisley- The Valley**
Digital Vinyl
I am pretty sure I am in the minority among Eisley fans, but Combinations is by far my favorite album of theirs, even after the release of this one. Combinations is the most diverse instrumentally, and has the most eclectic songs. The Valley is Eisley rocking at its hardest without giving up the fantastic three-part female vocal harmonies. The album as a whole leaves me unsatisfied; but that is OK because with Eisley the best is yet to come.

Kiel Hauck for Pop Matters: As unfortunate as the circumstances were that led to the writing of The Valley, one can only surmise that they played a large role in molding this band into a unit that has now delivered its best work to date… “The Valley” embodies everything that fans of Eisley’s past work have come to love—amazing and almost angelic like harmonies from the girls, simple yet extremely well placed instrumentation, and a tone that perfectly captures the heart behind their music… When we hear something born of suffering and adversity, we’re moved because it’s honest. It’s real. It means something. This is a large part of what makes The Valley so special. Not everyone has felt the pain of a divorce, but each of us have known valleys in our own lives and the pain, struggle and hope that ensued in our climb to the other side. Eisley has captured this experience brilliantly and crafted an album whose missteps are so few and far between that they simply add to its character as a whole. The Valley is a story that had to be told and now begs to be heard again and again.


9. The Belle Brigade- s/t* 
Digital Vinyl
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.

Wyndham Wyeth for Paste Magazine: The band, made up of brother/sister duo Ethan and Barbara Gruska, writes simple songs about common themes like being in love, loneliness and feeling like an outcast. But it works. The most ear-pleasing quality of the band is the way their DNA-sharing vocal cords are able to vibrate perfectly together, creating full, textured harmonies that seem to rise above the instrumentation while flowing along it… While the band has drawn many comparisons to Fleetwood Mac and other pop-rock bands of the ‘70s, it’s the soft poetry of Simon & Garfunkel and the pop sensibility of The Beatles that seem to have had the biggest influence… The debut LP is a fun album full of breezy melodies straight from the highways of California.


10. Burlap to Cashmere- s/t* 
Digital Vinyl
It is pretty weird for a band to “take a break” for over a dozen years, but that is what they did. Impressively, they are better now (yet much different) than they were when they started. Probably the most complex folk music out there…

Josh Langhoff for Pop Matters: …Their melodies sound even more natural floating over the top of weird roiling meters like 9/8 or 7/8 or whatever. They feel less composed, more like they’re drifting in from whatever ether produced this eternal music. Alternately, they feel like boats adrift on the irregular pulse of the ocean, which makes some sense—Delopoulos really likes singing about the ocean. He wants to live on a boat and sail away with his children, maybe to the Greek island of Santorini. Don’t forget to write! Thanks to the band and maybe Mr. Froom, these songs are constant wellsprings of motion and life, with abrupt dynamic shifts and subtle “diddidit dit dit” background vocals, even some gang shouts. Back on the band’s ‘98 hit “Basic Instructions”, such stuff sounded like it was tacked on to a message song. Now everything is integral to everything else—these new songs writhe around like organisms.


11. Over the Rhine- The Long Surrender* 
Digital Vinyl
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-sounding Over the Rhine album, something that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one; the album marks their first collaboration with Joe Henrya 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 Over the Rhine-ness and therefore feels, immediately, like their most essential work… It is a deepening of the sound of albums like Good Dog Bad Dog and Ohio, 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** 
Digital Vinyl
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.

Brice Ezell for Pop Matters: If we judged albums based on titles alone, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will would win the prize of 2011 with nary a hint of contest. It’s in equal measures darkly hilarious, insightful, and, in a peculiar way, career-defining for this influential Scottish band. After dropping a groundbreaking record in 1997’s Young Team, critical mass has generally been of the opinion that the band hasn’t been able to live up to the high standard they set for themselves. This record ought to dispel any such notion. Everything that makes Mogwai great are present here: the rock (“San Pedro”), the imposing, powerful crescendos (“You’re Lionel Ritchie”), and the incredibly beautiful (“Death Rays”, one of the band’s finest tracks to date). If the album title is true, and I’d like to think it is, we all will die someday. Hopefully though, the hardcore music of Mogwai never will.
13. Blindside- With Shivering Hearts We Wait** 
Digital Vinyl
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.

Luke for Kill Your Stereo: The record begins with its strongest track, There Must Be Something In The Water, a grating rock riff that tussles with frontman Christian Lindskog’s seamless changes between clean and dirty vocals. The theme of this track and its follower, My Heart Escapes, combines heavy tones with beautiful orchestral arrangements giving the band a hum of epic proportions… The mood shifts for the first single Monster On The Radio, which features a slightly new take on the group’s sound. The band have always progressed and tweaked themselves with every release and with this track, the programmed beat and catchy/dance like chorus not only makes the song an obvious single, but also gives fans something new… Another stand out is the melodic, Bloodstained Hollywood Ending, a hook heavy rocker that sounds like all of the best parts of Blindside over the years combined. This leads brilliantly into the gloomy Our Love Saves Us and one of the heaviest songs on the record, Bring Out Your Dead. 


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.

Joe Tangari for Pitchfork: So whether or not you dive into Take Care will largely depend on your appetite for loud/soft instrumental post-rock. If your appetite for it is boundless, you will be very pleased by this album, and probably also its elaborate artwork, which can be folded several ways to make the interior or exterior of a building. At its best, Take Care is ruled by drummer Chris Hrasky. The guitars tend to hang on particular figures or throw up an e-bowed haze, and Hrasky is the one who can cut through that… One could argue that the music here is predictable and even a bit old-hat. We've lived with this sound for well over a decade now, and we have classics to compare it to, including Explosions in the Sky's own work. And that argument holds some water. But the simple fact is that Explosions in the Sky are very good at this particular thing, and it seems as though no matter how many crescendos and diminuendos they play, there remains a certain amount of cathartic power to their music. 

15. R.E.M.- Collapse Into Now* 
Digital Vinyl
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.

Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone: Except instead of scruffy young bohemians hustling to make it, it's a portrait of full-grown artists who reached the top long ago but decided to stick together and ride out the decades. You can hear a lot of shared history in the music, but you can also hear conflict, confusion, doubt — exactly the kind of recipe that R.E.M. thrive on… Collapse Into Now is the first truly messy album R.E.M. have made in 10 years, since their underrated 2001 gem, Reveal… Buck shines on Collapse, whether he's going for psychedelic buzz ("Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I") or power-chord thump ("Mine Smell Like Honey")… It's been 30 years since these Georgia boys released their debut indie single, "Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still," which basically invented everything halfway interesting that guitar bands have done ever since. They long ago passed the point where they're beloved just for continuing to exist.

16. Fountains of Wayne- Sky Full of Holes* 
Digital Vinyl
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** 
Digital Vinyl
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.

Ian Cohen for Pitchfork: A new Coldplay album is the sort of thing that's used as a health check for the record industry, and the band is very much aware that they could just release "a new Coldplay album" that would leave everyone involved satisfied-- this is essentially what happened on 2005's X&Y, their fastest seller and also their weakest LP according to many… While Coldplay will always be more enjoyable than groundbreaking and their artistic advances seen as smart troubleshooting than divine intervention, Mylo Xyloto works because the band once again manages to sound like Coldplay without sounding like any of their previous LPs, maintaining their stadium-spanning grandeur while subtly challenging preconceptions… It's all about how they unabashedly flirt with contemporary R&B production, cranking the drums way up in the mix and the massing the vocals on the chorus to overwhelming, Pavlovian effect. They don't want to completely do away with Coldplay qua Coldplay-- they're still four normal-looking guys who introduced themselves with frail post-The Bends Britrock like "Yellow" and "Trouble". But they continually ask, why limit themselves to that?

18. Radiohead- The King of Limbs* 
Digital Vinyl
It’s Radiohead.

Mark Ptylik for Pitchfork: In this more rhythmic first half of the album, electronic percussion figures in heavily as usual, but also with heightened emphasis on drummer Phil Selway's uneven time signatures. The previously well-rounded band dynamic, meanwhile, feels like it's been reduced to a miniaturized version of itself. This isn't the band that ripped through "Bodysnatchers"; these guys play with a precise, almost scientific restraint that suits the twitchy anxiety of these songs well… Things open up on the softer, dreamier second side, as rhythms recede and more traditional song structures take over. "Lotus Flower", the lead single presumably for having a chorus and not being a ballad, finds Yorke delivering a series of slippery hooks in slinky falsetto mode. Album highlights "Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost" follow, the former a narcotized cousin to "Pyramid Song" that features woozily flanged piano chords, long, plaintive horn trills, and Yorke at his most evocative; the latter an acoustic, guitar-led call-and-response that finds him piling falsettos into a gorgeously ramshackle wall of harmony. Last is "Separator", a clear-eyed, mid-tempo closer that mixes 1990s–era Radiohead with a touch of Neil Young-inspired guitar work and ends on a sweet and easy note that's miles away from the complicated clatter it began with. 


19. Thursday- No Devolucion** 
Digital Vinyl
In 2001, Thursday released Full Collapse, an album I loved. I saw them play twice that year, and they were two of the best and high-energy concerts I have ever attended. The next album bored me, and album after album the band just seemed to go downhill. I had stopped paying attention, and then somehow I heard a track from No Devolucion. It startled me, and it was enough for me to order the vinyl. The album is awesome, and has made the band relevant again. It sounds nothing like Full Collapse, but what it does share with that decade-old release is the originality.

Jason Heller for the Onion’s A.V. Club: Written and recorded in a matter of days with Dave Fridmann, a producer better known for sweeping, expansive indie rock, the album boasts murky puddles of synthesizer, jagged drums, and a sheen of white static that subverts almost every role each instrument is expected to play. Frontman Geoff Rickly swimming along in them; his parables of loss and devotion—from the desolate matrimonial tableau of “Empty Glass” to the aching infatuation of “Magnets Caught In A Metal Heart”—trawl the depths of a heart that’s never been far from the sleeve. As raw yet coldly deliberate as self-surgery, No Devolución isn’t a return to form for Thursday; it’s a searing, scarring reinvention.


20. Bright Eyes- The People's Key** 
Digital Vinyl
I have been aware of Conor Oberst since he started recording music, but I have never really been a big fan. I have liked most every song I have ever heard of his, but never enough to truly get into his music. This is the release I have always wanted him to make; a full-fledge rock album.

Ryan Reed for Paste Magazine: It sounds like Oberst, in particular, needed rejuvenation. His solo and Monsters of Folk tracks were all of high quality, but he failed to surprise, laying out a number of fairly traditional, folky tracks that didn’t embrace his trademark eclecticism. On Key…the instrumentation is raw and electric—guitars and synths battling it out over Walcott’s always inventive drumming. On early highlight “Jejune Stars,” there’s even a punk-inflected breakdown, complete with minor-chord pummeling and a double-bass pedal onslaught. From a purely sonic standpoint, Bright Eyes sound like they’re actually having fun—which just might be a first.

Top 5 EPs of 2011:
1. Appleseed Cast- Middle States** Digital Vinyl
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

Top 5 albums the dozens of year-end lists I read told me (or reminded me) I need to buy (and probably will soon):
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

Most disappointing album of the year:
Swarm of Bats- There is No Tomorrow Digital Brandtson is one of my favorite bands of all time, and this is the exact same line-up minus drummer/vocalist Jared Jolley. It is very obvious that with the break-up of Brandtson the remaining members were trying to do something drastically different. They succeeded, and it is terrible. Instrumentally at times it is mildly interesting, but it seems as if the vocals were recorded in one take and intentionally recorded without thought or melody. I don't even know how to describe it, so go listen to it yourself at Bandcamp (streams for free and you can buy it for any price). The album cover, which I love, is the best part about the album. 

Also, my most disappointing album of 2010, which was recorded in early 2010 and had an original release date of August 2010, is STILL NOT OUT. I am one of the few people in the world who has heard it, and now it has been over a year since I last listened (I don't have a copy). It has undergone a name change, and hopefully they added some new tracks to it. The latest rumor is that it will be released in Spring of 2012. See my comments from last year. 

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