Albums of 2011
10 - James Blake/James BlakeFavorite Tracks: The Wilhelm Scream, Lindisfarne I & II, Measurements
If this list were based on potential talent alone James Blake would surely sit near the top. Soulful & sparse, Blake crafts his ballads with alien rhythms, processed vocals & soulful pianos. His approach may be bracing to the average music fan but at warm center of ‘James Blake‘ are the beautiful melodies & tender vocal performances (auto-tune be damned). Bon Iver fans take notice- James Blake is a kindred spirit & a great playlist companion.
9 - St. Vincent/Strange MercyFavorite Tracks: Champagne Year, Cheerleader, Year Of The Tiger
At first glance ‘Strange Mercy‘ appears to be a set of shockingly confessional songs by Annie Clark. Digging deeper you realize that she is ‘The Actor‘ & that these are in fact roles. The emotional potency of these performances make them all the more impressive. ‘Strange Mercy‘ is 2011‘s ‘Age of Adz‘ where any song can start with air tight structure & unravel into a feedback scorched electronic freak-out or a venomous guitar shred. Never hiding behind a pretty voice Clark explores dark territory with the best lyrics of her career.
8 - Washed Out/Within & WithoutFavorite Tracks: Before, A Dedication, Soft
Filling out our Sub Pop quota for the year is Ernest Greene‘s project Washed Out. ‘Within & Without‘ is atmosphere music, it ebbs & flows with layer upon layer of textured synth & Greene‘s hypnotic vocals. Rising star Ben Allen (of ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion‘ fame) lends his sizable production skills to Greene‘s full length debut. Both are names to watch in the coming years.
7 - The Black Keys/El CaminoFavorite Tracks: Lonely Boy, Gold On The Ceiling, Little Black Submarines
Ever wonder what a 30$ Sears guitar would sound like run through 100,000$ worth of equipment? Here‘s your chance. ‘El Camino‘ is one of those moments when the mettle of a band is truly tested- it‘s insanely glossy production seemingly veers away from every obvious strength of the musicians involved. The results are... another excellent Black Keys record. Their progression from low-fi heroes to arena kings is complete with virtually no miss-steps along the way.
6 - The Strokes/AnglesFavorite Tracks: Under Cover Of Darkness, Two Kinds Of Happiness, Taken For A Fool
It‘s a testament of some kind that what may be a middle of the road effort by the Strokes will end up on many year end top lists. Their larger than life image has made them quite a few enemies over the years and yet their loyal fans continue to buy into the guilty pleasure. The fact is this band writes damn good songs and they‘re tight as hell. Does anything else really matter?
5 - Wilco/The Whole LoveFavorite Tracks: Dawned On Me, One Sunday Morning, Capitol City
If you hang around long enough you‘ll hear a few Wilco albums you fall in love with and couple you can‘t wrap your ears or brain around. This is a band that has made a career of pushing americana to it‘s sonic limits and then brought it back to the middle again. ‘The Whole Love‘ finds Wilco in a steady groove, a few albums into the Glenn Kotche/Nels Cline/Mikael Jorgensen era. This is the band‘s strongest lineup to date, giving adventurous strength to a quality set of Jeff Tweedy songs.
4 - M83/Hurry Up, We‘re DreamingFavorite Tracks: Wait, Steve McQueen, Midnight City
M83‘s brand of epic dream pop owes a great debt to New Order, 80‘s movies, shoegaze & euro club music. 2008‘s stellar ‘Saturdays=Youth‘ now seems like just a warmup for this masterwork. Anthony Gonzalez‘s songs mix the optimism, immediacy & heartbreak of teenage romance with sonic imagery that Jim Henson & Frank Oz would be proud of. ‘Hurry Up‘ is a grand achievement- the sweeping double album with minimum filler while still being the most listenable record of M83‘s career.
3 - DeVotchKa/100 LoversFavorite Tracks: The Common Good, The Alley, Sunshine
A melting pot like DevotchKa could only happen in America. From mariachi to gypsy, parisian folk to chamber pop there‘s nothing they won‘t add to the mix. It all works again on their 5th lp ‘100 Lovers‘. Dramatic vocal flourishes mix with gorgeous string arrangements & exotic rhythms. It‘s refreshing to hear a band that is so unconcerned (or unaware) with the leanings of popular indie music yet land smack in the middle of it. There are no conventions here... and there‘s something for everyone.
2 - The Decemberists/The King Is DeadFavorite Tracks: June Hymn, January Hymn, Don‘t Carry It All
Colin Meloy has been writing books of late. This creative outlet may have led to a more concise Decemberists album. Meloy‘s new found focus on songs over song cycles and matters of the heart over historical fiction may throw some of their long time fans for a loop. This straight ahead approach (with some fairly obvious R.E.M. worship) suits them well. It hit the spot early in the year and is holding on strong into another winter. ‘The King Is Dead‘ has more heart, less brains and it‘s better for it.
1 - Bon Iver/Bon IverFavorite Tracks: Holocene, Michicant, Calgary
Bon Iver‘s sophomore effort is one for the ages. Justin Vernon has spoken in the media about his changing approach to songwriting. He‘s not just a simple singer/songwriter anymore & just one listen to "Bon Iver" will make that clear. Rather than from his acoustic guitar these arrangements spring from Vernon‘s sublime falsetto & keyboards and branch out with strings, horns, pedal steel & chimes. In the end it doesn‘t really matter how these songs were crafted, they bleed wild originality & ambition while still having a feeling of strange familiarity. Justin Vernon is a world class vocalist & on "Bon Iver" he shows off a wide array of influences- there‘s Brian Wilson & blue eyed soul, 90‘s R&B & yatch rock... country, folk, on & on... Making good on four years of expectation is no easy task-Bon Iver has delivered.
Honorable Mentions of 2011
5 - Mister Heavenly/Out Of Love
4 - Cut Copy/Zonoscope
3 - Lord Huron/Mighty
2 - Beirut/The Riptide
1 - Kurt Vile/Smoke Ring For My Halo
Singles of 2011
5 - Washed Out