Feature Article, List, Music

So originally, I was going to write a Top 10 Albums of 2011 list. This soon became a Top 20…and then a Top 30. Including the honorable mentions, I could probably do a Top 40 but I don’t want to waste TOO much of your time here. After all, I want this article to make you drop the keyboard and go to the record store, not keep you at bay forever.

As each year goes by, I am finding myself falling more and more in love with music. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I truly believe we are living in a new golden era of music. Why, you ask? With the internet leveling the playing field, musicians have more of a chance of getting their work out there, completely unfiltered and uncensored. There is more music being created and released now than ever before. For better or for worse, a songwriter can record a song and upload it to Youtube and watch as it racks up thousands of hits, all without interference from record labels.

Combine that with the way electronic instruments have evolved and you can see how easy it is to obtain a Pro Tools box or recording hardware of equal quality. It becomes less about access to a studio and more about the actual quality of the music itself. Many of my favorite albums lately have been recorded on laptops, which would be insane if you told this to a music listener in the 90’s. Software now allows us to do unthinkable things, chopping, slicing, drenching sounds in effects, or even turning on a virtual synthesizer that sounds almost as good as its $3,000 Moog counterpart, all for less than the cost of a full tank of gas.

On top of that, we have access to all of the music made before which allows it to live on through new generations. Many examples on this list showcase an affinity for music from the 60’s all the way up through now. We still have access to The Beatles and super-obscure 60’s psychedelic bands such as Flower Travellin Band or Forever Amber. Vinyl sales have been on the rise over the past few years showing that some consumers DO care about sound quality and will pay to hear their favorite songs in the best format possible, instead of through an ultra-compressed MP3 coming out of a digital device.

Essentially, it was extremely hard making a list like this. I will say that ALL albums on this list deserve to be listened to and it doesn’t always come down to a matter of “this is better than that” but more of “if you’re looking for this, try this”.

The quality in music has not dropped one bit, even if radio has gone downhill. And with that said, I present my Top 30 Albums of 2011, broken up into two parts for easier reading. Enjoy and don’t forget to visit your local record store to pick these bad boys up!

I will be the first to admit that I pretty much hated the debut album from The Horrors. It felt extremely mediocre to me, noise for the sake of noise and ultimately, nothing interesting to be found. Much to my surprise, they grew exponentially and have shaped their best album to date, “Skying”.

They wear their influences on their sleeves, for sure, but they mold them into something new and adventurous. They deftly hop from genre on each track, showing a certain skill of taking a format and turning it inside out. They exhibit patience and a glowing trust in their material which allows them to get creative with the sounds.

Phase induced shakers, arpeggiated synths, fuzzed out guitar tones, droning vocals and atmospheric pads are all here to be found. They take you to the sky and they take you back down to the outer regions of a stadium, but never too fast and definitely never too slow.

“Slave Ambient” is a bit of a mystery but I believe that is part of the appeal of this album. Not that it is hard to approach, no; its that a lot of the album is wrapped in intriguing touches, jumping across different decades and genres from one song to the next. Somehow, it all adds up to a cohesive whole.

“Baby Missiles” throws you into the peak of 1980’s neon glow, a churning, musically uplifting number that makes you want to break out your best Flashdance moves. “I Was There” shares a close space to Bob Dylan and even more-so on “Brothers”. It is these shifts that build an interesting character, a multi-layered work that cannot be summed up in just a few words.

Neon Indian was one of the breakout artists of the so-called “chillwave” movement a few years ago, releasing an amazing album by the name of “Psychic Chasms”. That album helped establish Alan Palomo’s distinct take on electronic music and craftsmanship, a warm soup of melodies and ideas that felt like a hazy day in the sun. While “Era Extrana” doesn’t quite reach those peaks, it manages to provide its own unique tone and place.

Gone are the “Deadbeat Summers”, instead replaced with an unappreciative “Polish Girl” and a longing to “Fallout” of love. It’s a bit cold to the touch, like a hug from a friend who hides their sadness on the inside while forcing a smile. It may speak softly at times but the implications are huge. The best thing however is that Alan manages to carve out more of his own niche, his own personal style. While it may not be the best album he’s done in his still-blooming career, I firmly believe that it contains his best songs.

Real Estate is another band who I feel made a quantum leap from their previous album. “Days” seems to fully accomplish what the band set out to do, making music that touches the soul but is not overbearing. It invites you to bring your own past into the listening booth while also inviting you to sing along if you so desire.

They produce a tone that is ever-evolving but always immensely appealing. It feels like going back to your hometown to hang out with your best friends; there is happiness to be found but an undeniable longing for something that is no longer there, and a longing for dreams that have been put on the backburner.

This was definitely an unexpected surprise this year. The story goes that the main songwriter in this group listened to the famous box set of Phil Spector’s work titled “Back to Mono” and then went on to write the handful of songs on this album. And as a fan of that box set of 50’s/60’s music, this immediately appealed to my tastes.

Not only did I get hit with the unfettered joy of that era, I also got the scuzzy fuzz rock that defined the latter period of the 1960’s. It’s a warm sound, unabashedly happy in tone, as willing to please as the nerd on his first date with a new lady friend. It’s fast and over before you know it and accomplishes one of the best things an EP can aim for: it leaves you wanting more.

My favorite thing about this album is the reckless energy on display, a complete disregard for being politically correct. It is truth, as filtered through PJ Harvey’s distinct point of view. You can feel the fire from these songs, both from the lyrics and the laissez-faire attitude of the compositions and the quiet destruction it leaves.

“Death is everywhere”, she sings. It is not a record of hope exactly but one of a much needed truth for a place she feels gets off way too easily. And she was inspired enough to declare a battle-cry heard around the world for a place she clearly loves so much but at the same time, feels saddened by. It’s heartbreaking, but in the most triumphant kind of way.

With “Zonoscope”, we see a dance-rock band managing to explore new territory in a genre that is often hit-or-miss for many. But thankfully, they have continued to work on their songwriting chops, making the growth sound intuitive and logical. They are able to make your feet stomp with 4/4 dance tracks but they recognize the value in patience and variety.

This sense of confidence allows them to explore more than they have previously before; witness the scope of “Sun God”, a 15-minute track that never manages to bore, keeping the feeling chugging along while providing fascinating detours along the way. There is nary a weak track on this album, a solid entry that sounds completely of the present while still being influenced from the most memorable parts of the past.

Ever since I heard “Tomboy” was announced, I knew it would be hard to outdo “Person Pitch”, his previous album. Although “Tomboy” doesn’t quite match the level of its predecessor, it comes very close to doing so.

What marks this album more than anything to me is the depth of emotion portrayed. There is a looming sense of loss, sadness and emptiness. Not tears, per-se, but perhaps the memories of them. It’s a more restricted effort in scope but it accomplishes so much. And it also happens to break away more from the sample-based foundation of his previous album and go into more live-instrumentation territory, as evidenced by “Slow Motion”. In interviews, he mentioned being influenced by Kurt Cobain for this album, which is not a touchstone many would immediately think of when it comes to Panda Bear, but it somehow fits in more ways than one.

Although some will argue that Tyler, the Creator’s album “Goblin” should be given more appreciation due to what it accomplished in the music scene, I personally feel that “Blackendwhite” is the more balanced and focused out of the two which results in a much better record. Granted, this is still Odd Future Wolfgang we’re talking about; no punches are pulled and anything and everything under the sun can be expected, no matter how daunting or offensive it may be.

But the youthful energy that seems to define Odd Future is on full-out display here. It’s playful music that you can’t help but love in some dark, twisted way. Even lines like “You shop at K-Mart, I shop at AK-Mart” could sound corny in the wrong hands but here, it fits. The music itself is as tripped out and druggy as usual which really makes me think that “psychedelic rap” would be a more appropriate term for what they’re doing. But then again, as soon as you place a label on this group, they’ll bust out of it quicker than you can say “kill em all!”

With their last album, Peter, Bjorn and John went to the gallows, wallowing in extremely sparse song creation and going for mood and melody over arrangements. They’ve used that as a springboard to produce “Gimme Some”, quite possibly their strongest record to date.

The two albums could not be any more different: one cold and distanced, the other hard rocking and welcoming. This might possibly be their most approachable record to date, even more inviting than “Writer’s Block” which saw them enter public consciousness with “Young Folks” being sung (whistled?) by every schoolkid and adult alike. It sounds like a band who simply wanted to jam out and enjoy each others company, which they have exceeded beyond what they more than likely set out to accomplish.

With this record, they prove that they are a bonafide rock band. “Breaker Breaker” and “Black Book” scorch as they make their way across in less than 2 minutes. “Tomorrow Has to Wait” is just as catchy as anything they’ve ever done and “Second Chance” sees them bringing it all together in one cohesive track. It was difficult to see where the group would head next after their last album, but thankfully, they just decided to relax and have fun, letting the music spring from their personalities instead of forcing the process.

With “Kaputt”, Destroyer main-man Dan Bejar manages to craft a floating cloud of sound that is awash in memories but distinct in tone. Some of his songwriting reminds me of David Bowie (VERY high compliment coming from me) with his voice sounding bittersweet, even when delivering dark thoughts. It’s a dreamy album, launched into the stratosphere with opening track “Chinatown” and never stopping until it’s over.

A mood piece, for sure, but an incredibly accomplished one. To be honest, Destroyer was never really on my radar until this album and now I can fully say that I am definitely a fan. It’s dance-y at points and makes you feel as if you’re living in 1970’s limelight; at other points, time doesn’t exist at all and you are instead floating in the universe all by yourself. It’s these range of emotions that lend this album its weight and will ensure its longevity.

Out of all the albums on this list, this seems to be the one that I happen to revisit the most. The irony is, I’m not normally a fan of “looped” based methods of music making. I prefer stacked harmonies, melodies, a whole wall of sound that shifts and surprises. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of trance music because, although I understand what is trying to be done with repeated patterns, it usually doesn’t lull me into the music and instead makes me think that the musician is simply lazy and hit “repeat” for 16 bars in their computer program.

But with The Field, Axel Willner manages to accomplish the main task of pattern-based music (putting the listener into a trance) while making it still sound organic and natural. It doesn’t feel like someone arranging blocks of sounds in a computer sequencer, it sounds like someone with a sense of purpose. He smartly augments his loops with live instruments which breathes a hefty amount of life into the music. He is also extremely patient, some of the more rewarding songs exceeding 10 minute lengths.

As I’m listening, I don’t even hear some of the things creeping in. “Subtle” is a vast understatement; there were times when I started listening to a song and before I knew it, realized that 15 different things were going on at one single moment. That was the moment I realized the brilliance of this work. It doesn’t try too hard but it works hard enough to make the listen worthwhile.

This is also another album that seemed to get lost in the maze this year with some people preemptively dismissing it before it even came out. In an odd way, it seems like the backlash towards Vivian Girls happened almost immediately and I’m not sure why. Pretty much all of the members branched out into other projects and bands so I was never sure exactly where Vivian Girls stood any longer but the answer was not only surprising but ultimately, quite fulfilling.

You see, Vivian Girls know what you think of them. They know that they, for better or worse, boxed themselves in with their first two albums. And they also know that several groups have followed in their steps, such as Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls, who are now both enjoying considerable acclaim. So what do they do?

Throw down the gauntlet with the first track. Instead of songs averaging around the 1 1/2 minute mark, they embark on a 6 minute journey filled with shifting key changes, hard rocking distortion and even a lengthy guitar solo. And it doesn’t stop from there. The rest of the album is filled with this same sense of energy, almost as if they are eager to prove themselves again, to show that they have not gone away and will not die out. They cover some of the same tracks that they’re known for (60’s inflected garage rock, girl group harmonies) but they’re able to topple them over and rebuild them into something new. The difference this time is they have the confidence and know-how to prove it. Your move, Bethany Cosentino!

Known for being messy, reckless individuals, many were afraid that the Black Lips would clean up their act with this record, seeing as it’s produced by pop-gloss-master Mark Ronson. But although there is a bit of a cleaner sound, it’s still inherently messy. By scraping a bit of the fuzz from the tone, the songwriting is showcased at the forefront, which could be a problem when taking a look at some of their previous cuts.

Miraculously though, the Black Lips leveled up in this department. Their songwriting is snarkier, leaner, and meaner then they have been in a while. Although I loved “200 Million Thousand” for its basement murkiness and questionable ethics, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a bit muddled and one-note. Here they show considerable range but their ear for melodies has simply matured with their musical phrases turning into unexpected earworms. This album is definitely more pop than they have ever been but somehow, it allows them to shine like never before.

I will admit, I have been listening to Eminem ever since he broke through with “The Slim Shady LP”. And it was with that particular album that gave me my first glimpse of another Detroit MC by the name of Royce da 5’9″. The name of the song? “Bad Meets Evil”. From there, I continued to be die hard fans of both artists and subsequently torn when both camps started beefing, to the point where Royce got into a fist fight with fellow D-12 rapper Proof, which landed both of them in jail.

But something amazing happened from this violence: they reconciled during their time together. They squashed all beefs and although Royce wasn’t rushing to make tracks with D-12 at the moment, things were neutral again and looking up for both camps. Then the unexpected death of Proof had an impact on all, causing Eminem to spiral downward but allowed Royce to become closer to them. After that, Royce started mingling with D-12 once again but never directly with Eminem. Part of this may be due to Em’s much-needed recovery, as he had not put out a solo album in 5 years.

Thankfully, he put out his best album since “The Marshall Mathers LP” in the form of “Relapse” which also happens to be one of his rawest. Around this time, Royce formed a rap supergroup in the form of Slaughterhouse. They put out an album which caused a huge buzz online and forced Eminem to take notice: they signed with his record label, Shady Records. But they weren’t done there.

Cut to Bonnaroo 2011, a huge music festival in Manchester, Tennessee that I visit every year. I was in the sea of thousands watching Eminem’s set, surprised at not only how good he is live but at how adept his backing band is as well. That’s when he threw out a surprise that I was never expecting: he brought Royce da 5’9″ out on stage to do two songs together. Although I was probably one of the only ones to recognize the significance in the crowd of people most likely muttering “Who?”, I was beyond elated, watching my #1 and #2 favorite rappers getting back together and trading bars as if no bad blood has ever been shed. After they were finished, they announced that they had an EP coming out the FOLLOWING WEEK. I was floating in the clouds at this point.

I dashed my hopes down a bit, not wanting to be disappointed. Both rappers put out albums the year before so I expected these songs to be mostly throwaways, tracks that didn’t make the cut of previous albums that were collected together. I was completely wrong. From the opening track, these men sound invigorated, furious, playful, and simply at the top of their game. I have never heard so much fire in these guys, they clearly inspire and push one another to outdo the peaks they create for their selves. The beats are far from throwaway material with the album starting off with hard hitting drums and a stuttering tempo, flowing into “Fast Lane” which has an instant-classic feel to the beat and the hook.

This is the real “Watch the Throne”. They aren’t concerned with rapping about the life of riches and fame like that particular Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration, they are actually trying to be the best rappers humanly possible, pushing the bar as high as they can and salivating to break that barrier. It’s pure, 100% hip-hop in an era of rap gone pop.

And that’s it for now! Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the Top Albums of 2011!

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