Feature Article, List, Music

So here it is, Part 2 of my look back on the best albums of 2011! Behold, the Top 15 along with my honorable mentions.

If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 to see #16-#30 (you can click here)

So let’s get to it!

Full disclosure: the Arctic Monkeys are my favorite band. Why? They have everything I like in a band: they fully understand dynamics of music, the lyrics are poetic but not too difficult to understand, they can rock out harder than the rest of them, they can produce ballads better than the best of them, they produce albums at a consistent rate without losing quality, and they feel like guys who could be my best friends. More than all that though, the truth is, I never know what to expect with each album they put out. Each one is distinct and different, each a separate direction they take and explore.

With this album, they move further away from the high-school shenanigans of “Whatever People Say I Am…” and away from the super fast post-punk of “Favourite Worst Nightmare”. They stay in the more mid-tempo range of their last effort “Humbug” but have drifted away from the Josh Homme-inflected darkness and move towards a more light affair. This record is more awash in shoegaze-era sentiments and a bit of nostalgia but not too far removed from the snarky playfulness that defines them.

There are rockers on this album, for sure (“Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”, “Library Pictures”) but they seem to matter more than ever. They have constructed an album that not only has a focus, but a purpose. A lot of thought has been put into what the music means to them and what they think it will mean to us. “Piledriver Waltz” and “Love is a Laserquest” are among their best songs, not only because of the truth and character that defines them but also due to the structure and writing of the songs. Although the term is bandied about quite a bit when a band puts out their 3rd or 4th album, the Arctic Monkeys have truly matured. But not too mature to forget their trademark snarl.

Following their mainstream breakthrough “Brothers”, the Black Keys return with what I truly believe is their strongest set of songs. Although “Brothers” was a fantastic record, the ideas were a tad bit too stretched out and the pacing was off in certain parts. Producer Dangermouse handled the duties on “El Camino” and it helps bring the best out of this duo. Things are wound tighter than a guitar string, with just enough space to breathe for what is only absolutely necessary. It’s never suffocating though and the result is a laser focused piece that has all of the fat cut off.

What you are given is Dan’s ever-improving vocals and Patrick’s frantically shifting drum patterns. This album never bores, never lets you down and never lets you go. It holds you but allows you to groove, dance, and get your mojo on. It’s funky, it’s bluesy, it’s a bit raw in places but more than anything, it’s a high achievement, a record that sounds more effortless than anything they’ve done before and yet, sounds difficult to accomplish within the same moment.

This is a band that I had never really heard of until this year but was one of my favorite discoveries. Being a huge fan of the Flaming Lips and MGMT, this band managed to combine both styles of those respective groups and still add their own flavor to it.

The songs are varied enough to never be boring. It’s drenched in synthesizers, no doubt, but there are still many flashes of omnipresent acoustic guitars, bass, and electric guitars dotting the landscape. The lyrics point towards many philosophical ideas which seem harder and harder to come by in an era of realist intentions from songwriters, wanting to simply dabble in love and relationships for an album’s length. Which makes sense because many times, philosophy gets drowned out in negativity; an ocean of nihilism and rejection. In this instance, they use it to project an energy for life itself, which turns out to be invigorating.

The best part is that the music fully embraces this. On stand-out track “Julius”, they tease us with darts of playful synth bubbles before exploding into a chorus that succeeds in uplifting the spirit and moving your feet all in one stroke. They manage to make a song called “Bury Us Alive” sound happy and melancholy. The dance rhythms can be propulsive (“Mystery Cloud”) and sticky enough to make you wish it would last forever (album closer “Quality Time”). It’s a rare album that not only makes you want to dance but makes you think.

On “Eye Contact”, Gang Gang Dance have proven that they are willing to grow, willing to adapt, and not afraid to show not only their experimental side but even their pop-sense of songcraft and writing. The synths swirl and the guitar jabs guide you up and down the stairway of psychedelic noise. There is a clear focus to this album, perhaps more focused than their previous albums have been. And just like how a little focus worked wonders for Pink Floyd (who went from the messy “Obscured by Clouds” to the monumental “Dark Side of the Moon”), it works to this band’s favor.

They now have direction, a target to aim their experimental weapons toward. It’s not commercial by any means at all but the music they made here is easier to fall into than previous attempts, easier to grasp and more than anything, easier to see how talented this bunch really is. The care that went into this album bleeds through the veins of each song; these are clearly musicians who love making this music as much as they love letting us explore it.

Here is a record that crept up on me. I’m not sure what I was expecting but this thing crawled on top of me before I could even accept it, forcing me to, in a way. Tim Hecker has created a world that sounds like neo noir back alleys coupled with universal light, drenched in a milky black skin. It’s dark but ultimately ethereal and completely rewarding.

Many people describe entertainment as “escapism”, forgetting their current problems and drifting to a different place for a while. This may not be what they had in mind but it fits the description in the truest sense of the word: this is unfiltered escapism at its finest. It is a grey, instrumental zone and almost forces you to drop the curtain on your eyes and become something entirely different than the normal existence of feeling human.

Music is often described as conveying emotions that cannot be said with words. “Ravedeath 1972” fits that term in the purest way.

It’s hard to believe that the Strokes have been here for a decade now. Has time really passed that quickly? What’s even just as startling is the fact that half of that decade was spent waiting on an album; we have not heard any new Strokes music since 2006’s “First Impressions of Earth” which, in my opinion, received some unfair reviews at the time which seemed to point out the obvious: they do not sound like their first albums any longer.

It’s a shame because most people seem to have such a love, such a nostalgia for those first two albums that it seems to taint any new material these guys can come up with. Which brings me to my next point that may shock some folks: I truly think “Angles” is the best record they’ve ever done thus far. Allow me to elaborate.

If there is one adjective that people seem to throw at their debut album “Is This It”, it would be “cool”. When the album first came out, I think I probably heard more about their attitude and leather jackets more than I heard about the chugging guitars and muffled drums. People focused more on everything surrounding the music almost more than the music itself. They talked about the New York scene, the new era of garage rock, etc. And as with almost any band that breaks through in the music scene, there is the inevitable backlash.

That backlash started around their 3rd album. They changed their sound, they grew up a bit, they started making music that didn’t quite seem so “cool” and carefree. Instead of making music that resonated as being effortless, they made music that sounded like they spent a lot of time on it, that sprawled a bit, that went in each and every direction. And for a band whose cool seemed to ride on this effortlessness, losing that quality turned off a lot of people. But here’s the thing: the Strokes never wanted to be cool. They just wanted to play music.

Which brings me back to “Angles”. This is the music of a band that has matured so so much, it’s incredibly satisfying to see. The guitarists can PLAY, they can shred now instead of just bashing repeating chords and melody lines. Julian’s vocals are now upfront and supremely confident, no longer hiding in the mix. Although it’s been known how much behind-the-scenes drama occurred (which, ironically, seemed to be what most reviews focused on), to me, it goes unnoticed on the record: they all fit together, pieces of a collective puzzle.

To put it simply, the Strokes of 2011 are making music that the Strokes of 2001 would never be able to make. They weren’t capable of making “Two Kinds of Happiness” and I doubt they would have been interested in creating anything like “Machu Picchu”. They’ve pushed themselves here, even if it required a lot of hard work. It’s more powerful than what they were able to do before. It may not be perfect music for smoking cigarettes and wearing leather jackets to, but all in all, it is a brave step forward and simply better crafted music.

I have to say, with regards to 2007’s “In Rainbows”, I really felt that it was a good record but not a great one. They weren’t really doing anything new or different, but more importantly, it just didn’t sound fresh, like the entire band was into it 100%. A good listen but not highly memorable.

So going into “King of Limbs”, which seemed to be announced almost completely out of nowhere, I kind of had that same expectation: it will be good, but nothing as memorable as say, “OK Computer”. But when the music came on, I instantly thought “Who is this?!”. I had to check my settings to see that the band was indeed Radiohead. They completely did a 180 from “In Rainbows”. As I’m listening, my head starts bobbing, I’m pulled into the loopy grooves and after a few songs, I start to realize: this is amazing!

Have they made songs similar to the ones on this album? Sure, but that may not be fair to say about a band who has pretty much tried every single thing they could think of, touched on more styles and experiments that 100 bands could be classified under. But here, they explore so vastly a style that it feels entirely rewarding, a widescreen soundscape that you fly into. It is very much a groove-oriented record, trying to lull you in as opposed to bashing you over the head with crushing chords and volume (which is not necessarily a bad thing). The bass lines are prominent with the shifting drum fills, loops, and patterns being its main partner-in-crime. Thom Yorke does not try to play leader on this one but simply helps push the mood up front, playing a supporting character role this time around. And it all culminates in one cohesive vision, one singular statement by a band that refuses to grow stale. It feels like a somber dream that you’re half awake in; listening but also, somehow, partaking in as well.

My first exposure to Cults wasn’t with their most popular song “Go Outside” but instead with “You Know What I Mean”, a song released after they had already blew up the blogosphere (whatever the hell that actually is) and was signed to a major label.  The song instantly stuck with me and is probably still my favorite song by them. They managed to show a controlled sense of dynamics, a dash of 60’s influence and some incredibly catchy vocal melodies. On top of that, they went from quiet whisper to rocking out, all within a span of minutes.

I was intrigued from that point on and simply had to pick up the record. I hoped that the album would have more of this feel and thankfully, I was not disappointed. It should be said first and foremost that I am an unabashed 60’s fanatic. Everything, from the music to the films, art scene, books, culture, philosophies, you name it. And to hear that same love of 60’s music but filtered through a modern day outlook was supremely satisfying. Although there is a ton of nostalgic influence here, the songs are simply so good that they stand on their own. There is an impressive range, going from doo-wop to more keyboard influenced gems. They want me to “Go Outside” but why do that when I can simply play this record over and over?

Like most listeners, I first discovered Washed Out through the EP “Life of Leisure”. I was an instant fan, really warming up to not only the spaced out vocals but also the memory-inducing production Ernest Greene employed. It felt like something familiar, a feeling you had all along but forgot all about.

From there, I was eagerly anticipating a full length proper album. I got my first taste when I saw the band live at the Next Big Nashville music festival in 2010. Due to technical difficulties, they only got to play a 30-minute set, which was unfortunate. But they were able to play 2 brand new songs that come off of this album and my expectations where shattered. The songs threw me into a daze, allowing me to shut out all outside forces and connect directly with the mood and melodies. That is a very hard thing to do to me and I had no option but to surrender to it. The songs were that good. My anticipation for this album pretty much exploded at that point.

And thankfully, this album did not disappoint. Not only is there more range to the previous sound he established, the songs propel you into a state of bliss. I listened with my head bobbing, eyes closed, the world shut out. “Echoes” was more of a hard edged trance, “Soft” made me fall in love with music all over again and “You and I” gave me chilly goosebumps, making me feel a lot of things that were perhaps buried within myself. All in all, this record opened up a realm, a distant place that perhaps isn’t so distant at all.

I was a huge fan of Feist’s previous album, the breakthrough “The Reminder” that came out in 2007. “1,2,3,4” was everywhere, playing in iTunes commercials and even warranting a guest appearance from Feist herself on Sesame Street. That album has many sunny pop moments, sing-along songs that make you happy to hear them.

Which is probably why “Metals” threw off so many listeners. Not only did we have to wait 4 years for a proper album followup but Feist almost entirely abandoned the same feelings that made her previous album such a breakthrough success. After listening to the record, “Metals” is a most appropriate album title; it is abrasive, cold, even a bit uninviting. And I loved it all the more for it.

There is no “1,2,3,4” to be found, no “I Feel it All” or “Sea Lion”. Instead, there is sparse production, stomps, clangs, and percussion that punctures the already-bleak soundscapes. There are no songs that ask “tell me that you love me more”; instead, you get songs detailing “The Bad in Each Other”. This is an artist who wants you to meet her on her own terms, no matter how depressing or unexpected it may be. And that is what I love most about this record; Leslie Feist went out and simply wanted to make music that pleased her and you can tell. It’s unfiltered, unfussy, even a bit in your face. Above all, it’s honest. And the music is incredibly good, showcasing her amazing voice as always while throwing in mountains of harmonies chanting refrains together. It’s a black abyss that somehow sounds cathartic.

With this record, Chazwick Bundick moved more from his spacey sampling that borrowed heavily from hip-hop and veered into territory that reminds me more of 60’s/70’s era solo songwriter work. There is much less sampling going on with this record (if any at all) and Chazwick’s songwriting really starts to lead the charge.

The first thing I noticed was his new confidence in live instruments. The bass is very prominent on this record, taking center stage on many songs and providing not only the foundation but leading the charge. On top of that, you have swirling keyboards, sometimes striking piercing chords, other times decaying on and on, looping the listener into a certain haze.

Along with the instrumentation, he seems to have a new confidence in his vocals. Harmonies dot the landscape everywhere you turn and for me, was one of the most interesting parts of this work. They cascade up and down, chant, veer from each other, combine in unison. You can tell he really put a lot of work and love into experimenting with them, fleshing them out, building a house with just his voice. He uses that to prop up his songwriting, which has grown more secure and organic.

It’s upbeat, it’s funky, it grooves and it be playing in your head for days.

This is a record that, to me, did not get enough attention this year and I’m not sure why exactly. The only negative things Pitchfork had to say about it was the mixing of the record…which to me, was perfectly fine (this coming from an audio engineer). Maybe it just slipped through the cracks? Whatever happened, this is a record that deserves discovery.

The first Cold Cave album was barely good for me; not great, but not garbage. It was very hit-or-miss with one song being insanely catchy (“Life Magazine”) and the next sounding like a sprawling, unfocused mess with vocals sounding like they had no clue that a thing such as “notes” existed. So I initially wrote off “Cherish the Light Years” as something that could really be skipped over, something to fall back on if I didn’t have anything else to listen to.

And when I finally sat down and listened, I was blown away from the first song. It sent me an uppercut that I was not expecting. I dare you to listen to “The Great Pan is Dead” and not want to immediately jump out of your seat and do some sort of interpretive dance. It fills you with an energetic feeling and never really stops throughout the record. Not only has the songwriting and melodies taken a quantum leap but lead singer Wesley Eisold has figured out how to best position his voice and choose his vocal melodies. I actually WANT to hear him sing now.

Couple that with the amped up production and unpredictable turns that the songs take and you have a record that surprises you while making you feel a myriad of emotions. And before you know it, it’s over as soon as it began. Which to me, is one of the highest compliments you can give a piece of art; it makes time feel timeless, as if it doesn’t exist, as if the world only lives in the work you are enraptured by.

-sigh- Annie Clark, why do you have to be so damn adorable? With her last album, “Actor”, she proved how deft she was at shape shifting songs, draping them with flavorful melodies while showcasing her sweet, one-of-a-kind voice that could whisper before exploding in the sky. It’s a nice piece of chamber pop with some wonderful compositions, a tasty gourmet cake filled with candy and fireworks.

So I wasn’t exactly sure where she would go from there. Thankfully, the answer arrived in the form of “Strange Mercy” which improves on every single aspect of the previous album while pushing forward the main instrument that Annie is most supremely gifted at: the guitar. She has shown quite a lot of skill on the axe in her previous albums but here, she throws down the gauntlet. Guitar lines curve, wind up, take off, and ultimately, shred like rice paper. She has carved out her own little space with her distinct style for this instrument and has now taken a place on my list of favorite guitarists.

But the melodies themselves seem more thought out, more composed. Things coalesce into each other like chapters in a book, taking their natural pathways without ever feeling forced, and yet, are continuously unpredictable. It’s EXCITING music! It makes you stand up and take notice. Her songwriting has never been better and after listing to this album, I can’t imagine how she will ever be able to top this. But I can’t wait to see her try.

Friendly Fires was a band on my radar that I always kept wondering about after hearing their debut album. That particular record had some great songs on it but a few were a bit mediocre or sounded like they needed work. Cut to 2011 and they seemingly popped up out of nowhere on an episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performing “Live These Days Tonight” a few months before their new album was supposed to come out.

I expected to hear some sort of new kind of dance rock with a running bassline, static drumline and some catchy vocals…but nothing more, nothing out of the ordinary. Instead, I got treated to something unexpected: the instruments were all over the place, the bass firing like a gun when it was needed, a drumline that was far from static and sounded like a coked out Miami tribal drum circle, piano hits crashing. But the main ingredient turned out to be the upheld prominence of lead singer Ed Macfarlane.

He gave something far beyond a catchy vocal line; he gave something that you wanted to shout out loud when you’re walking around the block, when you’re waiting in line at a coffee shop, when you’re driving on your way to work. And trust me, I was that person, catching myself unconsciously singing the hook to that song that I had only heard one single time. Suddenly, I was quite a bit excited about this new Friendly Fires record…even if I still didn’t know what the rest of it would sound like.

The result blew me away. “Blue Cassette” shows some surprisingly catchy sampling that bursts into a gang of tribal drums, pounding away as if Ed was preaching the gospel to a sea of synthesizer pads. Rubbery basslines poked through the surface while also providing a delicious heft of energetic funk. “Hawaiian Air” shows the more humorous side of the band by detailing a plane ride that on paper, doesn’t sound interesting, but the band turn it into a bare bones party, a feeling that a group of friends could turn any situation into a good time.

Three years have come between their debut album and “Pala” and it sounds like that time was very well spent. There is an incredible, overwhelming amount of detail in each and every one of these songs. From the prickling guitar lines to the experiments with vocal melodies, to the ascending moments that reach far beyond the sky. The drum patterns are highly varied, nothing in the least bit predictable. All of that adds up to a whole that never leaves a moment wasted or a space unfilled. And best of all, it will make you dance your ass off, even as you’re completely unaware that you are doing so.

So here we are, 2011 is completely done and finished. When I think back about the year, this is the album that immediately shoots to my mind. I have been a fan of M83 for years now and have every single thing they’ve put out; I say that because, I firmly believe, with full confidence, that this is the best album they have created thus far. It is perfectly sequenced, produced, and written with every song accomplishing its own task, creating it own feel. Altogether, it occupies its own space that it has constructed for itself.

From the opening notes of the first song, I got sucked in. Then I got hit with a curveball: Anthony Gonzalez’ voice. When I first heard him sing “Carry on, carry on!” it gave me goosebumps. This man can SING, my God, and he’s been hiding it this entire time! He can do low, breathy melodies and then hit the top of the stadium. From the vocal melodies to the intricate harmonies, this man has really outdone himself in this department. Truly something I would never expect from M83.

But as the album continues on, it keeps getting better and better. In prior interviews, Anthony Gonzalez described the new album as “the most epic thing we’ve done” and constantly talked about the grand, gigantic feel of it all. Of course, my initial reaction was honing in on the fact that the word “epic” is thrown around like wadded paper balls these days, used to describe everything from the latest episode of “My Little Pony” to the size of a larger-than-normal pepperoni on a slice of pizza. But then I listened…and folks, this album is epic in every sense of the word. It’s grandiose, bigger than life, a bit daunting even. This album engulfs you, makes you insanely happy, makes you want to cry. It’s music at its most emotional state while still able to make you dance or rock out here and there. It feels more like a novel to me and will be something I can’t wait to revisit again and again.

All in all, it is a huge inspiration…both musically and with life itself. And that is why it is my favorite album of the year.
There you have it! Thank you for taking the time to check out this list, I really hope this gets you fired up to check out some new music. There is such an abundance of great music out there, I never get tired of listening to new things and discovering new favorites. And if that list of 30 albums was not enough, here are my honorable mentions that also deserve a listen.

Honorable mentions:
Battles – Gloss Drop
Bibio – Mind Bokeh
Holy Ghost! (self titled)
Iceage – New Brigade
Jeff the Brotherhood – We Are the Champions
Killer Mike – Pl3dge
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
Royce da 5’9″ – Success is Certain
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde
The Antlers – Burst Apart
The Stepkids
Tyler, the Creator – Goblin
Wild Beasts – Smother
Yelle – Safari Disco Club
Yuck (self-titled)

Related Posts

© 2020 Ryan Estabrooks. All Rights Reserved.