|via The Guardian|
Albums that are available on Spotify have direct links to their music. If not, they're noted otherwise:
#20 The Beastie Boys Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Ugh. I seriously considered not adding this to my top 20 but after listening to it again I was a reminded of how little I listened to this album, primarily buying it because I have all their other stuff. It's not terrible, in fact, the most common review I read this year said, "it's better than To The Five Borroughs" and some even found it to be their most inspired work since Ill Communication or Check Your Head and I can hear similarities here with those albums, yet the writing isn't nearly as inspired nor are the samples there like they used to be. So, yes... much better than their last album and should over time hold a solid place amid their discography. For me, I think there's more of a realization that I'm just not as into them as I once was - plus the silliness of three white boys from New York, in their mid-forties still rapping like they're 17 years old. The tunes are good, the variety is there, I just think it lacks the spontaneity, the creativity and the clever writing that was once able to draw millions to their sound.
#19 The Horrors Skying
If there's a band out there today hanging on to the early brit-pop sound of the 80's - 90's, it's The Horrors. Their 2011 release is imbued with a variety of sounds, from the Psychedelic Furs and The Stone Roses to early-Radiohead, often centered on the Madchester/Baggy trend of the early 90's. The Horrors have channeled, better than most, the sounds of my childhood with soaring, ethereal vocals and thickly layered synths, as Skying exhibits many of the qualities I loved about this period in music. The album is highlighted by the grand scale of the opening track "Changing the Rain," the speedy 80's pop-indulgence of "I Can See Through You" and the dreamy glow then alternately hard-edged goth-punk of the bi-polar "Endless Blue." One of the only real issues I have with this album is the often staticy and unfinished feel to the production, yet at the same time it's in perfect congress with my closet 80's/90's music obsessions which is, in many ways, just too much. Some might find this too cheesy, too indulgent or too obvious, yet sometimes this kind of pop is the best remedy for what ails ya and for that reason and more I am glad to have added this album to the list, despite my own occasional doubts.
#18 Foster the People Torches
Another surprise successful debut that really shook a wide swath of the music community in 2011, most notably the huge new market of social music networks. And there's no denying they garnered a huge following considering the mass-appeal of their echoplex pop electronica, backed with disco beats, further punctuated by periodic hip-hop breaks, 80's r&b grooves and random guitar flourishes. Featuring the insatiable hit "Pumped Kids," a song that couldn't outrun anybody's bullet... but definitely a hallmark among 2011's pop tunes. Other highlights include my own personal unshakable ear worm "Don't Stop (Color the Walls)," a parsed version of which I heard hundreds of times in a Nissan commercial this Fall. One thing I do love about this band is their willingness to be silly, at times reveling in goofy lyrics and dorky personas much like Devo or They Might Be Giants. The first four tracks hit the listener fast and without remorse like a fresh bucket of sunshine, but as is the case with many of today's front-loaded, singles driven artists today, the best of the album stops after "Waste" soaks us in boy-band sappiness. From there on out, the obvious and flagrant lapses into bad 80's synths, fake hand-claps and cheeseball vocals render the remainder pretty ok. Ultimately, I can't not recommend a album that so many love, that even I from time to time find to be an unexpectedly fun frolic and consistently catchier than most other albums this year.
#17 Icebird The Abandoned Lullaby
Behind the beats/production of RJD2 and the smooth and pleasurable vocals of Aaron Livingston, their duo, named Icebird, brought refreshingly tasty soul/funk/r&b flourishes to their collaboration. Overlooked by many for some reason (lack of originality?), I found this album to be a fun middle path between Cee Lo Green, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Fitz and the Tantrums and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. What sets this album apart in it's presentation is RJD2's production which includes rich percussive textures and his signature stellar sampling. Some of the stand out tracks include the opener "Charmed Life", one of my favorite singles of the year "Going and Going. And Going," and the funk lines of "I'm Green." To be fair, there are a great variety of sounds here including jazz interludes, darker blues themes and even some 80's synth/r&b fusion. Some might find the replication of those aforementioned artists tiring upon completing the first few tracks but as the album progresses the depths of their approach become more apparent and quite rewarding in the long run. More than anything, I love that this sort of album can still be made and put out to the public today - a couple guys that want to revel in their favorites, while expanding beyond the expected pop structures of the day. I for one hope it's not a one time collaboration, as I found The Abandoned Lullaby to be one of the less than obvious gems of the year, certainly worth a good polish.
#16 Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Here we have one of those albums that the indie rock media just gushed over and I heard so much about that I had to at least check it out and revel in the praise they afforded it. I love big swaths of this album, especially the first half and the last few tracks of the album which tend to revel in gooey 60's pop-rock. Really dig the first three tracks: the unofficial hipster anthem and first single "Honey Bunny" (a succinct overture for the album as a whole), the varied moody rock stylings of "Alex" and one of my favorite tracks of the year, the epic prog delights of "Die." After a few beautiful ballads, the album takes a ruminative turn on the alternately melodramatic and epic scope of "Vomit," then the repetitive throw away track "Just a Song" that really starts off beautiful then decides to revel in it's own sad and lumpy lyricism over the final few minutes. The issue for me is that this is a really well structured concept album, but it's delivery with short, pop/ballads up front, then some overlong sappy songs plum in the middle just kill the great momentum it once had. I can't argue with the work they've put together here and I know there are many out there that'd disagree with my thoughts on this, but for me, I'd rather listen to their previous release Album. I'd recommend this album to the lonely hearts and to those who (whether they realize it or not) would fall into the realm of the hipster. Over time, the album failed to embed itself in my daily playlist of repeat listens and is in many ways to me what I'd describe as one of the wrong directions modern independent rock has taken lately - full-fledged self-indulgent prog rock.
#15 TV On The Radio Nine Types of Light (full review)
Dear Science, which 3 years ago was a revelation for many, set the bar high for a band who's form and function has always morphed from one album into the next. If anything, this might just be their most subtle approach to songwriting yet as Nine Types of Light is buoyed not by the intense flourishes that have characterized their previous albums, but an even greater focus on pace and mood. "Second Song" sets the album out into the familiar territory of it's predecessor, sporting jagged guitar licks, falsetto choruses and hip electro-beats. Sure, there are plenty of intense moments such as the brash horns and fast percussion of "" and blip-funk of "New Cannonball Blues," as well as their characteristic protest songs. There's also a greater emphasis on rock/punk ala Living Colour as evidenced by "" and the anthemic closer "Caffeinated Consciousness." Yet in keeping it interesting they also feature electronic drums and 80's synths in "You", then later exude a thick layer of soul and R&B with their first single "Will Do." This feels more like a return to the quiet and lush forms evident in their debut release Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, unlike the persistent intensity of Return to Cookie Mountain, nor does it possess the much heralded material of Dear Science. What Nine Types of Light does possess though is something more comfortable in approach than they've produced in years, a more balanced release that's a must have for any TVOTR fan.
#14 Cut Copy Zonoscope
I really love this band from Australia and their previous release "In Ghost Colours" and it seemed to me that this album could potentially even eclipse that previous work, but it comes up just short. The main difference I found here versus their last album was a heavier reliance on electronics, less willingness to invoke their own craft and more likely to revel in the sounds of others from the 80's and 90's disco/dance scene. The slow building synth-disco opener "Need You Now" will either breed a patience in the listener needed to get through the remainder of the album or push them away as it certainly sets a lumbering pace for an album the generally over shoots the mark. I love the hip, stomp groove of "Where I'm Going," the back-to-back track listing of the blippy 80's "Pharoahs & Pyramids" and the electro-marimba, hook laden disco of "Blink And You'll Miss A Revolution" (the album was coincidentally released 11 days after the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution). While the 15 minute closer "Sun King" is a bit longer than necessary, I still enjoy it's languid jam which allows the listener to unplug, instead of having to endure it's length right in the middle of the album. I have to admit that the finished product is unfortunately overshadowed by their amazing predecessor, yet this album is still a fun lark of an album if you have the patience for it and repeated listens will generally reward those willing to embrace a love for electronic dance music.
#13 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. It's A Corporate World
Another of the last minute albums I came across over the past month, It's a Corporate World's sonic explorations and catchy beats frame gentle electro-pop balladry that shouldn't be missed. Lead vocalist Joshua Epstein emotes a Paul Simon like earnesty in his voice and maybe the whole thing might feel a little too cute, but the album is certainly unafraid to revel in fun and unpredictable colors, textures and beats. The flow of the album, in fact each song, changes enough to keep your attention and is uptempo enough to keep from being maudlin. I love the varied Flaming Lips-esque sonic/percussive experimentation of the opener "Morning Thought," the reggae/mellow synth beats, bass drum and quirky electronic textures of "Nothing But Our Love," and the delightful folk-stomp of "Simple Girl." All of the above and all the other tracks feel complete and are really quite an achievement as the encompass all of the following forms, sounds, musicianship of the following (a composite of my listening notes): acoustic guitar, a 3D feeling of space, warmth, tambourines, electronic flourishes juxtaposed with sweetheart vocals, synth-disco beats (a Postal Service feel), spare piano sampling, beautiful progressions, nifty percussion, ambient electro-interludes, fun, catchy, intense desperation, 80's guitar licks, great headphone music. So, a little of everything for everyone here. The creativity, depth and originality of their songs really set Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. apart from many other bands making music today and I sincerely hope they keep at it. Had I spent more time with this album, it would have easily been listed among the top ten of the year.
#12 Radiohead The King of Limbs (not available on Spotify)
An album that I initially panned that grew on me over time, The King of Limbs is a curious and unique offering from a band that at this point can do just about anything and be generally free of scorn from critics and fans alike. For years now, with a few exceptions on In Rainbows, Radiohead has dispatched with traditional melodies, which in turn make them unique and non-mainstream, but can also seem, especially on the first listen, more monotonous. The feeling here, over the course of the first 4 tracks, trends toward their past glitch-pop offerings on Hail to the Thief and Yorke's solo release The Eraser. I especially love the uptempo "Mr. Magpie" and the percussive production juxtaposed with delicate vocals and clean guitar of "Little By Little." The second half of the album has a more maudlin feeling, highlighted by Yorke's sad soul croon on "Lotus Flower" (reminding me of my favorite In Rainbows track, "Reckoner"), the dark and somber tone of "Codex" and the beautiful folk simplicity of "Give Up The Ghost." The stark duality of the album has compelled others to compare the first half to Kid A's experimentation and the second half to Amnesiac's somber tones - I find this a broad statement but not one without merit. In the end, the strengths and weaknesses of this album are one in the same: an album that's slight in length, yet big on textures, mood and scope. Not to be missed, yet nothing revolutionary, making the album difficult to digest for fans expecting more from a band who's made their name for breaking many a mold. It'll grow on you, if you let it.
#11 Night Moves Colored Emotions
A great country tinged, electro-blues-psych-funk first release from the Minneapolis four-piece. As you may have noticed, it's difficult to categorize the band as a result of their unique delivery. What really makes Colored Emotions stand out is it's concept album-like track listing, often moving from one track to the next without the listener expecting it. This collection of tunes moves so quickly and thematically that it rushes through it's movements beautifully without a hiccup. The album is currently undistrbuted nationally (self-released in the Twin Cities area), but it could be eventually. Regardless, it easily deserves to be considered among the best album concepts this year. Below you'll find a live stream from their performance on The Current's Local Show.
After never really being able to understand nor listen to much of his prior release For Emma, Forever Ago, I stayed away from the Bon Iver fever that appeared to be sweeping the nation... until a few weeks ago. When I finally sat down and listened to it all the way through. I was impressed. Track notes:
#1 Perth: Triumphant, textured and anything but bland. Goes cleanly into #2 MN, WI: playful percussion, beautiful finger-picking. #3 Holocene - slow acoustic, electric slide, rolling snares and ringing vocals - excellent post-midnight tunes - come-down music. #4 Towers - somber and slow transforms into a jubilant and beautiful tune. #5 Michicant - quiet, ruminative and short, more ringingly plucked guitars - clever percussive interjections. #6 Hinnom, TX - echoed synth, vast depths and 3D vocals. Then juxtaposed lead vocals, first bass, then falsetto on the R&B/Soul tip... unique and pretty, potentially the album's best. #7 Wash. - repetitive piano base, then strings, warm but weakest track thus far. #8 Calgary - synths, 80's squeeky electric guitars, distortion, meh... #9 Lisbon, OH (instrumental interlude) #10 Beth / Rest - features shitty bad Bruce Hornsby and the Range vox keys, some auto-tuned vocals, crumby guitar solos... ick.
I had originally not planned to include it, then relented and placed it in the mid-teens and just last week it found it's final resting place here at #10. While I was disappointed by 3 of the final 4 tracks (in many ways I feel the same as Sendra's review here) it is still an impressive piece of beautifully soundscaped work and in many ways deserves the praise many others have heaped upon it. I look forward to more listens and a better understanding of his work in time.
Wilco had become one of those ever changing bands that jump from album to album with new and different explorations each time out that often reward the listener for their patience. At least for me, over the past 5 records, this patience has alternately paid dividends in the long term (see A Ghost Is Born) and at times pissed me off too (see Wilco (The Album)). Regardless, I still love their music once I've had enough time with it and The Whole Love is no exception; in fact, it could possibly be their best record since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The opening epic "The Art of Almost" was the first indication that the band continues to grow and is willing to continue experimenting with abstract and edgy Krautrock styles. At times their adventurism on this track feels more like a Radiohead excursion, yet they stay true to their own form and really create the hallmark identifier for the album. Followed immediately by a great foot stomping track "I Might," driven hard by plenty of percussion, a variety of guitars, fuzz bass and some classic 60's organ. This album is full of more great tracks including the uptempo rocker "Dawned on Me," the rich, steal guitar lined ballad "Black Moon," the giddy fun of "Born Alone" and the arena/frat rocker "Standing O." What really sets this album apart from those since YHF is the attention they've paid to variety, Tweed's confident pen and musicianship, a complete return to playfulness, a willingness to improv while recording (it sounds this way to me at least), all of which has given The Whole Love more of a live feel. For a live band to get this production quality conveyed to the listener, with what may already be their most durable and effective line-up to date, is an exciting and fulfilling feeling for a band that's been around for 17 years. For me personally, I only just recently jumped back into listening to this album because I was so unhappy with the last one and really felt like Wilco had past the point of still being interesting to me. On closer inspection, rest assured, Wilco is still a great band (no doubt an amazing live act) and appear to have, at least momentarily, shrugged the "dad-rock" moniker from their shoulders, deciding instead to resume breaking the boundaries of sound.
I was first lured into the fantastic sonic work of Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez when he came and played at Lollapalooza 2005. I promptly picked up his third studio album Before The Dawn Heals Us, an album I felt he had trouble surpassing. Yes, I do need to spend more time with the proper follow-up Saturday = Youth, regardless of how great that album may or may not be, his latest has easily been the best received of his albums to date. A full double-album comprised of 22 songs and a 73 minute running time makes Hurry Up We're Dreaming the longest album sit I've sat all year, but well worth it. First, this album is for those who in part like the "New Romantic" sound from the 80's popularized by bands like The Human League... but everything has that dense, shimmery M83 glaze to it that makes every heart-broken love song glow and every pop-song burst with energy. The synth-pop and shear force that "Midnight City" brings, with it's vox-like chorus squawks and plastic beats, then his soft reverbed verses display a distinct duality at play. Other highlights include the transcendent beauty of "Wait," more 80's synth fun with "Claudia Lewis," the intense opener to the second disc "My Tears Are Becoming A Sea," a more ethereal M83 sound from yesteryear in "New Map" showcasing more of his own unique sounds and a whole bevy of two to three minute interstitial songs that keep the whole concept held together. I was reluctant at first to like this album, with it's obvious immersion in some of the 80's most derided sounds, but in time I found it quite satisfying and recommend it to anyone willing to soak in the synth sounds of the Reagan decade. It's pretty rad.
Modern indie rock and electronica fail in that they found a niche with repetative beats and fewer hooks. So to be "original" and "fresh" you have to break the convention of previous rhythms, harmony, melody and thus, soul. It is here that tUnE YaRds succeed where all the others fail - showcasing ever changing beats and percussion, stop-start rhythms, avant-garde originality, raging soul vocals and actual orchestral movements in their tunes. If there were ever a culturally conscious, unique stab at junk American culture featuring a beautiful explosion of home-spun rock, folk and everything else, it's this amazingly genre-less second release from the Connecticut base duo. There are so many great never-before fused sounds on this LP, yet those that stand out the most include the heavy percussion, synths fusing with soaring vocals and the mad horns of the first track "My Country," the jumpy beat and staccato guitar of "Es-so," plenty more intense looping vocal wails, heavy percussion and urban grime in "Gangsta," the soft croons and eventual reggae swoon of "Powa" and the vocal collage of their first single "Bizness." I recommend it to all those who like pop, rap, funk, soul, reggae, dubstep, indie rock and most anything else. This is an adventurous album, so be prepared for something completely diferent...
This album and band were a startling surprise for me. Apparently they made quite a splash at SXSW early in the year because all the rock writers were going silly over them on Twitter. From the uniquely layered vocals and ever escalating verses of "The Alter", to the broken twang and detuned guitar screech of "Dogs Eyes," this Baltimore duo has a gift to create melancholy tunes that simultaneously feature sporadic natural chords, keeping the entire album well balanced. What initially drew me in was the galloped and crashing cymbal balladry of the title track "Civilian" and I haven't turned back since, listening to the entire album most everyday for the first two weeks I had it, quickly becoming a staple for the entire year. If this album has a weakness it's a willingness to wallow in it's own depths, something that can be a bit of a downer if you're not accustomed to it. I love that it's not a very long album, so it will certainly grab your attention from the start and not let go till the end. I really love lead singer Jenn Wasner's vocals, truly some of the most unique we've heard all year and can't wait for whatever else they might have up their sleeves...
When I think El Camino, I think of a rusty-ass yellow behemoth that always seemed to be parked in my neighbor's driveway as a kid, owned by a long-bearded, trucker hat wearing, tall-boys-before-they-were-cool kind of dude. This El Camino is more like those dirty uncertain LP's you pick up from the dollar discount bin, feeling like a thief in the process by culling out some forgotten gem that by happenstance made it into your hands. Also found here is decidedly less guitar noodling than in the past (aside from the giddy "Stop Stop"), then there's the 60's flashback strut of the opener "Lonely Boy", a surprising number of female backing vocals (most notably on the Canned Heat glam-fuzz of "Gold on the Ceiling") and the shocking bombast (recalling a specific Petty tune by way of Zeppelin) that wraps up the balladry of "Little Black Submarines." This is by far their most high-octane effort to date, finishing in a reasonable running time with none of their tunes eclipsing the 4 minute mark (something I found to be the greatest weakness of "Brothers") and considering the variety of material within, I could eventually see this album hitting the charts and staying there for months if it ever got the kind of airplay it deserves. Highly recommended for those who love Classic Rock, Blues, Soul, Funk, Surf, Garage Punk, Sludge, R&B and Ska. It's all in there and it's easily one of 2011's best.
Those who know me know how much I love this band and I really did love listening to Circuital this year. It's a great album, one I'd say easily surpasses Evil Urges, simply because it still feels less weighty with its shorter length, still has much needed jams and keeps a keener pop focus. For this outing the band has successfully fused the concept of 70's AOR with pop sensibility, while maintaining their rock-god ethos to create a complete and unpretentious work that still falls within a digestible running time of 45 minutes. This album has more simply written pop songs than any of their prior releases and it really works for them, for not only does it suit lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim James' kooky humor, but it also suits this 5 piece act who recorded the album live, in the round, in an old church gym in Louisville. Not only are these pop songs, they're some real ear worms sporting repetitive pop choruses, giant hooks and of course Jim James' shimmering, howling and quivering vocals. Even though the album came out in July, I'm still highly addicted to this release: the breathy 80's vocals and pure ebullience of "The Day is Coming", the 60's Thai-pop inspired theatrics and wah-wah horns of "Holding On To Black Metal", the funny digs at adolescence on "Outta My System" and emo-less kids on "You Wanna Freak Out." On top of that you've got the archetypal opener "Victory Dance" immediately followed by "Circuital" as a one-two punch that came out of some improvisational jams. Lastly, there's plenty of balladry to offer, especially a gorgeous track I'd consider their best southern-fried ballad since "Golden" called "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)." My Morning Jacket continues to be "in form," that is to say formless: a band who continues to mix it up, mystify and all the while doing it with more swagger, with tongue firmly in cheek and having more fun than anyone else doing it. Defying categorization is their trademark and Circuital has once again fit the bill for a band unwilling to be boxed in by boundaries.
#3 Ty Segall Goodbye Bread
(links to music below)
#2 PJ Harvey Let England ShakeWhile I did love PJ Harvey's album, Fleet Foxes second release comes in a nose ahead of their closest rival with the most complete album concept I heard all year. It is a unique folk-rock act that can conjure such an upbeat and lush production while simultaneously summoning their darker angels for aural inspiration. This time around with their newest release, Helplessness Blues, they've subtly changed gears away from the glistening production of their first LP, to now invoke a mood and tone of folk that defined the counterculture of the Vietnam era. What stands out most when putting their hallmark first release along side their newest venture is the greater cohesion this time around.
Widely regarded by music reviewers world wide as the best album of 2011, PJ Harvey's love poem to England deserves all this praise and more. Let England Shake showcases Harvey's ability to rage and sob in a quiet, somber way, while simultaneously penning gorgeous pop songs, torch songs and ballads that bring joy to the ears. It's a juxtaposition I've rarely experienced and it's done to near perfect effect here. There is a persistent social drama being played out in the lyrics, mostly recounting the toughest times in England's history over the past 60+ years. Though on a personal note, much of this music I was listening to in the thick of the Arab Spring, then again as the American Occupy protests began, so while I wouldn't go as far as to call this music political, I'd certainly deem it socially conscious and it's beautiful scope is a vivid soundtrack of modern life. Further, I can't think of any other artist this year that put together as complete a collection of artistically produced music videos as Harvey, including every song from the album in order:
I love the rich human sentiment conveyed here, stronger than any other album this year. The only thing that upsets me about this album is the unfinished and clearly different sound of the closing track "The Colour of the Earth." It doesn't ruin the album, but every time I've listened to the album, especially over the past few months, it's just left a bad taste in my mouth, leaving me with the thought that "Written on the Forehead" would have been a far stronger closing track, but hey, it's not my album. In the end, it’s the little tambourine flourishes, the ring of her auto-harp, the samples, dramatic chord changes and above all, passion and soul that propel this subtly pop piece of art. Sometimes creating manually constructed records is the best way to share with the newest generation of musicians the true sound of folk-rock. In this case, it is the best way to make forward looking modern rock unique and truly necessary.
Their eponymous release put an emphasis on the band's destructively gorgeous harmonies, perpetually ringing in a gloriously triumphant and celebratory fashion. This time around there is a more introspective, humble and spare feeling. It's decidedly less indie and more folk, darker in many ways and interestingly enough, more epic sounding. The vocals are more brash, raw and personal in presentation as opposed to the glossy perfection before. Their song writing style has only slightly changed, now taking their chances on stripping away the pretty production and more prevalent harmonies of the eponymous first album, instead relying on songwriting and vocalized human emotion to propel it beyond their previous effort.
Much like the songs in musicals and stage plays which often cut a character off in mid-thought as another enters the stage to take up a similar song, the songs here tend to meander, then end abruptly. Following a brief contemplative silence, draw attention to the generally quiet and somber theme, then the next track starts, often with a similar beat. Unlike a true concept album, the songs don't run together but a number of the songs, including "Sim Sala Bim", "The Plains / Bitter Dancer", "Helplessness Blues" and "The Shrine / An Argument", have movements within them, making it difficult to discern between the end of one song, the beginning of an other or if indeed you're just listening to one of the aforementioned, multi-faceted songs.
I'm simply in love with this album. It has so much texture and depth that I doubt I'll grow tired of listening to it anytime soon. Even better, the vinyl playback of the album adds yet another dimension to the sound which is already mesmerizing (if you have the means to get the vinyl, get it - it includes an electronic download as well). To be certain, Helplessness Blues is in many ways the opposite of their successful first release, yet it's huge scenic soundscapes and brilliant song craft made it a difficult high-water mark for any other artist to surpass in 2011.
(a top ten list of the top albums chosen by critics all over the world)
Till next year, keep the music spinnin'!