Monday, December 19, 2011

A Year In Review: Top 25 Abums of 2011

2011 has come and gone, and though there were some great aspects in the music world, I feel that 2011 will be looked back as a year of darkness. Let’s just take a look at some of the bands and artists we lost this year:  The White Stripes, R.E.M., LCD Soundsystem, Sonic Youth, Wolf Parade, Rilo Kiley, Gil-Scott Heron (RIP), Amy Winehouse (RIP), Gerard Smith of TV On The Radio (RIP), Bert Jansch (RIP) and of course among others the big man himself Clarence Clemmons (RIP). These were not just any other bands, these were hugely influential artists that have impacted the music world forever. Despite the losses, some crazy good music was released this year, and so let’s take the time to recap on what we loved. 

1) Atlas Sound - Parallax
 Bradford Cox is a certifiable genius. He especially shines when he is with his main outfit Deerhunter. However it’s his introverted side-project Atlas Sound that takes the cake for me in 2011. On Parallax Cox produces his most accessible record to date by marrying the rock & roll of Deerhunter with his avant-garde experimentalism that we’re used to with Atlas Sound. There’s one song in particular called “Flagstaff” that starts off as a hushed acoustic track that then gradually becomes a hallucinatory journey. I’ve been listening to music since the day I was born and I cannot think of a single song that uses feedback in such a peculiar way, Sonic Youth would be proud. This record is superbly versatile with everything from the hard guitar riff of  “My Angel Is Broken” to the blissful pop of “Te Amo.” It’s the kind of record that takes you on a stylistic journey, all thanks to Cox’s never ending creative streak. 
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2) Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Parallax might take the cake for creativity, but it is no question in my mind that Girls’ sophomore record is the best sounding album of the year. Girls have created eleven tracks that all sound like they belong from a different era in Rock History. Until you realize how wholly unique this record sounds are you able to stop trying to place a finger on their influences. This time around Girls have upped their production quality and have added a few other bold elements to their sound including a gospel choir on a few tracks including the epic “Vomit.” Girls are a rock band for the new generation that graciously tips their hat to the old, I expect within a few years they will become a household name. 
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3) Tom Waits - Bad As Me
 Talk about from a record coming from left field! When Waits announced he would be releasing his first album in seven years I had expected another album with a similar aesthetic to Real Gone. Nope. Not at all. Instead he dropped Bad As Me which is his most accessible record that doesn’t let go from the chugging start of “Chicago.” In fact I would go on record by saying that Bad As Me is the best album to introduce a Tom Waits novice to. The reason being is this record has a bit of every style of music Waits has ever touched. From his late night diner musings on “New Years Eve” to the chaotic cacophony of “Hell Broke Loose.” Oh yeah, did I mention that Keith Richards, Flea, Les Claypool, and one of the Los Lobos guys are on this record? Waits knows how to put a band together. This man ages like a bottle of rusty wine, and thank god for that. 
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4) tUnE - YarDs - W H O K I L L 
  Whokill was my number one album for the first half of 2011 and it’s between “Bizness” and Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues” for my favorite song of the year still. This album is a frenetic artsy mess and I love it, even though Sirius XMU killed “Gangsta” for me by overplaying it. Frontlady Merryl Garbus is a force to be reckoned with. 
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5) Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
Bill Callahan’s new album is like a Cormac McCarthy novel in album form. It is a bleak, sparse and chilling record of country/folk/rock. Though there are some soft moments in Callahan’s Apocalypse “Riding For The Feeling” is a lightheaded breezy tune as well as the hopeful “One Fine Morning” shines a little light in the otherwise pitch black portrait Callahan paints. I’m a sucker for good imagery in lyrics as well as
apocalyptic themes in general, and this album marries the two perfectly.
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6) The Black Keys - El Camino
The Black Keys don’t sound like they did back in their Rubber Factory years and that’s perfectly alright with me. Anyone who ever said that “Rock is dead” needs to pick up a copy of El Camino and then eat their own words. Though El Camino is not as varied as Brothers it certainly makes up for it with sheer adrenaline. There is one slow song on this record “Little Black Submarines” which happens to also be the album's strongest song. Some of the songs get lost in El Camino’s dust but for the most part this record is one memorable hook after another. 
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7) Cut Copy - Zonoscope
With me in my infinite depression over the loss of LCD Soundsystem (seriously guys, come baaaaccck!) I was forced to find a new dance rock band to love, while they’re no LCD Cut Copy is damn talented in their own right. I want to run track to “Need You Now” the pulsing yet melodic anthem that tore up the floor wherever these guys performed. Up until the release of Zonoscope, Cut Copy were good at releasing a few good tracks and a bunch of misses, however with this album these Aussies have really stepped up their game. 
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8) Radiohead - The King of Limbs
All admit it, for the first few months I was not impressed with the King of Limbs at all. It’s extremely short and it didn’t shake the music world to its core like their previous albums. However after seeing their performances on SNL and The Colbert Report I decided to listen to this album more closely then I fell in love. This is Radiohead’s most organic album to date. I love how Radiohead has become an album band.  They put in their years creating radio-hits so they could then start shedding their skin after each record. This album features some very intricate instrumentation and almost African influences on it. I believe this credit is due to their added second drummer Portishead’s Clive Deamer. What I will say about King of Limbs is that “Codex” and “Give Up The Ghost” are two of Radiohead’s best down tempo songs of their career.  
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9) St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
The actor out of work returns to unleash her complex ear candy on the world once again. To me St. Vincent sounds like the most lavish Sufjan Stevens piece but done entirely on her guitar. “Surgeon” and “Cheerleader” are the standout tracks on Strange Mercy but I really dig “Northern Lights.” It’s a song that builds and builds until she releases her batshit crazy fury on us all. 
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10) Adele - 21
 You know, I will say that most artists get immensely popular due to their commercial appeal, but there are a select few that become superstars because they are un-fucking-believable. Adele is one of the latter. People always ask me, “What’s the best instrument?” and to me, I really believe it’s the human voice. A great voice is unique, it cannot be truly replicated it’s an instrument that can only be mastered by that blessed individual. Adele has a cannon of an instrument. I’ve seen so many people brought to tears over “Someone Like You” because her recounts of her previous breakups are something everyone can relate to. She’s a great talent with a great story, however I’m scared that once she finds happiness and starts reflecting that in her music a lot of people are going to jump off the bandwagon. Is it the story or the voice that really makes Adele popular? We’ll see.
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11) Low - C'mon    
  Low have been around for years but this year’s C’mon was my introduction to the band. A lot of Low fans would say that The Great Destroyer is the definitive Low release but I prefer 2011’s C’mon. It’s a very dramatic and emotional record. I love a collection of songs that have a sense of purpose to them and these tracks are exceptionally crafted. 
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12) M83 - Hurry Up We're Dreaming
 Anthony Gonzalez of M83 is taking traditional shoegaze to newer and bigger heights. With Hurry Up We’re Dreaming he may have crafted his opus, it’s a sophisticated bombastic album filled with memories tied to childhood that spans over two discs. Gonzalez has stated in several interviews that he is proud of the family he came from and tries to capture the magic of childhood in his records. That explains the oddball kids’ story about a frog “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire.” Pitchfork called “Midnight City” song of the year, and while I disagree I find it nonetheless absolutely infectious. 
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 13) Feist - Metals
 Feist returns with a record that though is not commercially as good as her soon-to-be classic The Reminder but is artistically superior. Sure it doesn’t have the hits like “1234” but that song is one of those once in a decade mega hit anomalies. Metals is an album that just sounds so perfect, you can feel the grooves in the strings and the wood of the piano coming through the speakers. “The Circle Married The Line” has to me my favorite track if I needed to pin one down. It’s such a simple and beautiful song. It’s a lovely phrase to describe a sunset, and the use of imagery to show how viewing the sun meet the Earth allows one to take comfort in knowing that all problems pass and all wounds are healed by time. A beautiful record, from one of the most formidable indie artists around. 
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14) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Wow, where to start with this record. Fleet Foxes have established themselves as one of the few folk bands alive that can headline music festivals. The reason behind that is very clear, they have with two albums and an EP gathered a body of work that most bands dream about. The title track is what really does it for me with this record. It’s such a lyrically vivid politically-charged passionate song. I would have to admit that though most of the songs on here are solid, they just don’t stick with the listener as well as the first album did. However Fleet Foxes have been able to be true to themselves and craft another fine woodsy folk rock record filled with twists and turns that keep the listener invested. They are a band that I hope will be around for a long time to come. 
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15) Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
“My Mistakes” is such a god damn catchy pop tune it ought to be a crime. Though the rest of the album doesn’t quite touch the peak of that first single, Eleanor has done a fine job stepping away from her duties as frontlady for The Fiery Furnaces and establishing her own distinct solo career. 
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 16) Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation
Earlier in the year a new DIY artist Youth Lagoon released a song “July” that picked up a ton of buzz, he got signed and quickly released his first record and is now touring the country as an artist. That’s the power creativity and the internet can have. At first glance Youth Lagoon might seem like every other lo-fi DIY artist. But with this record he shows that he knows how to craft great pop songs. I expect that within a few albums he might become a much bigger thing. 
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17) Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
 Here’s another band that have created a tremendous amount of buzz with their first record. UMO are a very unique and funky band. The sound like they are part of a Muppets soundtrack more so than an actual serious band. Their self-titled debut is very short but it’s too intriguing to be ignored. 
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18) JEFF The Brotherhood - We Are The Champions
 The Black Keys aren’t the only duo left that can absolutely tear shit up. JEFF The Brotherhood have been making quite the ruckus this year, even Jack White is a big fan of them which I’m sure reminds White of another young rock duo. However whereas The White Stripes were all about emulating the blues, JEFF The Brotherhood seem to have a much more punk background, channeling the grooves of The Ramones and The Clash more. Still this is the party rock album of the year. 
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19) Dirty Beaches - Badlands
Alex Zhang-Huntai’s music sounds like a soundtrack to a grainy black and white noir murder mystery. It’s a shadowy moody lo-fi record that his disturbingly full of menacing character. This is going to be my go-to for future Halloween soundtracks and late night drives down long treacherous roads. Also check out the bonus two track EP Lone Runner he released alongside this record. 
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20) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
 PJ Harvey couldn’t have picked a better year to write an album depicting London burning to the ground. Polly Jean has released a very poignant and politically charged record that is easily one of the best of her career. Some reviews are as simple as that.
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21) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical
  After a long hiatus CYHSY pick up their sticks and head into the studio and emerge with one of their most varied and clean sounding records. I love their first two records dearly, and it’s hard to stay objective when I talk about them because I consider myself a big fan of their career. They are a band that has done every single thing their way and have created some very quality music. They should be as big as Arcade Fire, but they’re not and that troubles me a lot. Get with it world. 
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22) R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
R.E.M. bow out of the game with their strongest album in years. This record will go down as a return to form for the Athens, GA legends. Many criticized that they were slowly losing touch over the years but with Collapse I believe that they have put those criticisms to rest. An odd opinion I have on R.E.M. is that if you give Peter Buck a mandolin he’ll give you a good song, and this record has more than one song featuring that instrument. Their previous album Accelerate was just too straightforward for my taste but with Collapse Into Now the band did a good job at leaving us with a record that touched pretty much every type of song they have ever done.
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 23) The Weeknd - House of Balloons 
   The elusive newcomer The Weeknd, a man who has yet to play a live show ever has released two solid mixtapes this year. House of Balloons just drips with sex. It’s a fresh take on R&B, he fuses Mowtown with hip-hop swag and electronica to make something that has immediately taken off. Within the year he was already producing and guesting on a new track on Drake’s new record. I almost hope he never steps out into the light and forever drops free music on the world for us to enjoy without having to completely commit his whole life to the whole music game. 
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24) Gil-Scott Heron & Jamie xx - We're New Here
 Jamie xx took a gamble by taking Gil-Scott’s already warmly received I’m New Here and reworking it into a completely different record a year later. To some this might sound like the same record remixed and released. However I beg to argue that this is not a remix album. Jamie has taken Heron’s words and shined a different light onto them, giving these lyrics an entirely new life and perspective. Rest in peace Gill-Scott.  
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25) Charles Bradley - No Time For Dreaming
Charles Bradley a new spotlight in the new-soul revival released his first hit record at the age of 63. He is another artist like Adele and Bon Iver that I’m afraid their story might overshadow their actual music. This is a man who stuck with it for years and years of being told “No” and finally as he enters what should be the twilight years of his life he catches his big break. No Time for Dreaming is filled to the brim with the soul that only a man who has been through a lot can deliver. Otis Redding would be proud.  
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Best Reissue: The Beach Boys - Smile Sessions
             I am nowhere near the music historian that I would like to be to make a qualified assessment of how big of a deal The Smile Sessions are. It’s certainly not a record that a casual Beach Boys fan should buy. It’s really a release for the super nerds like me who want to hear four discs worth of outtakes, demos, band members shouting at engineers, and most importantly it chronicles the mental collapse of Brian Wilson. Though I held “Good Vibrations” in the highest of regards before, it wasn’t until this release that I realized how technically complex this song is. There’s an entire disc of material dedicated to this one song! The Smile Sessions are a real archivist’s treasure trove which makes this the best reissue of the year. 
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Here are some records that though they did not make the cut are still worth checking out:
Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic
Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place
The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
Active Child - You Are All I See

**ALSO** Check out this special Spotify playlist I created for both lists. CLICK HERE. 
(Some bands are left out because their music isn't licensed for Spotify, but it's still worth it.)

Also: Top Hip-Hop Records of 2011

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