Top 10 Albums of 2011 Revisited

An Horse - WallsAs I do every year around this time, here’s a look back at last year’s best album list before busting out this year’s version. Now normally this exists to include albums that I missed or didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the initial list. This year’s version is different because, for the first time, all ten albums remain my top 10 of 2011 (they just are in a slightly different order).

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Burst Apart – The Antlers
2. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra
3. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
4. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
5. Walls – An Horse
6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States
7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi
8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan
10. Capes – Tancred

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Burst Apart – The Antlers
2. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
3. Walls – An Horse
4. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra
5. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States
6. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi
8. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan
9. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
10. Capes – Tancred

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Top 10 Albums of 2011

As I’ve gazed around the various lists detailing the best albums of 2011 these past few weeks it’s become more and more clear that I’m out of touch with the critical mass. The albums that are frequently lauding did nothing for me. David Comes to Life left me more preoccupied than fucked up. Bon Iver bored. James Blake made me long for the tennis player. House of Balloons was good, but not gripping. 21 simply wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Watch the Throne was just plain bad. Ect., ect…

So just keep that in mind. I’m apparently horribly out of touch.

Here are the 10 best albums of 2011…

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10. Capes – Tancred

Radiating a tranquil warmth, Capes, the solo debut of Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, is welcoming and easy to slip into. Abbott’s tiny voice barely breaks through the layer of sparse, lo-fi instrumentals, but the smallness is intentional and gives the album character. Unassuming and genuine, Capes is the coziest little album of the year.

9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan

If the masses of Occupy movement had any sense about them, they’d adopt Strange Negotiations as their official album. David Bazan remains as downtrodden as ever, only now it’s the the greedy folks behind the recent financial collapse that have got him bumming. His lyrics are angrier than they’ve ever been, taking aim at those now known as “The 1%” (“Wolves at the Door,” “Strange Negotiations”). Bazan’s somberness on more personal tunes also rings true thanks to very atmospheric, moody arrangements that perfectly suit his melancholy vocals (“Wont’ Let Go”, “Virginia”). Strange Negotiations isn’t an album of hope, but it’s certainly an album of now.

8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable

The title of The Joy Formidable’s first LP, The Big Roar, is actually kind of an understatement. The album is a massive tsunami wave of rock noise led by frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s manic energy. Appropriately, her distinctive guitar sound is a processed pedal attack drowning in guitar effects. In fact, the entirety of The Big Roar is lustrously produced in a manner that would be considered severe overproduction for almost any other act. Yet it totally fits The Joy Formidable’s sprawling sound; one that’s laced with heavy, chaotic instrumental outros. And as much as Bryan’s wailing and guitar flailing gets the attention, the album would be a failure without The Joy Formidable’s solid as stone rhythm section (drummer Matt Thomas and bassist Rhydian Dafydd), who keep Bryan in check and thunderously drive the songs forward. The Big Roar is loud pop rock music in all its shimmering, glistening glory.

7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi

This year’s best mash-up album is all about edge: the hard-edge delivery of the Wu-Tang Clan’s (and their members’ solo projects’) rhymes, Fugazi’s samples instrumentals which brood in the backdrop seemingly on the edge of erupting at any second, and the way that Cecil Otter and Swiss Andy brought it all together so that there’s seemingly no distinctive edge separating the two mashees. The Wu’s lyrics match the tone of their new found post-hardcore backing with shocking ease. The Fugazi element works, in part, because they’re not the most distinctively unique samples, allowing the vocals enter the mix more natural sounding way. The whole package blends together seamlessly, to the point where a listener coming in cold could legitimately think that this is a just a hip hop album where the rappers decided to use a live rock band to back it. And that’s the whole goal of any mash-up, right?

6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States

The Heavenly States continue to toll away in rock ‘n roll obscurity, but that just makes Oui Camera Oui (or 2008’s album of the year Delayer) an even more special gem. Perhaps the reason the band is an under the radar treat is because they don’t do anything “sexy.” The Heavenly States excels at simplicity – all ya need is a hook, great lyrics, balance in instrumentation. Boom. Done. Onto the next song. Whether it’s sweeping sing-alongs (“Berlin Wall”) or more downbeat numbers (“Monarchia”) frontman Ted Nesseth’s words come across with more sincerity than just about anyone in the music business today (especially when compared to his male peers). And if that’s not enough for you, Oui Camera Oui is far and away the best album of wolf-fucking music released this year.*

*Listen to the record…you’ll understand. Continue reading

Top 10 Songs of 2011

Songs! There sure were a lot of them this year, weren’t there? Like, at least 100 of them. Easily. Maybe more. Here are the 10 (+1) best of that bunch.

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Honorable mention: “Whirring” – The Joy Formidable

If I allowed The Joy Formidable’s spinning opus to be on this list, it’d probably crack the top half. However, I’m DQ’ing it for the following two reasons:

A) Despite coming to prominence this year as a single off of The Joy Formidable’s excellent debut LP The Big Roar, the song was previously released on the band’s EP A Balloon Called Moaning. That EP came out in 2008 in Japan, 2009 in the UK, and 2010 in the States, so claiming it as a song of 2011 would be somewhat disingenuous.

B) More importantly, aforementioned previously released version is better than 2011’s more known version. It’s rawer and shorter, doing away with the unnecessarily long instrumental outro. Since this is, after all, a great pop song, there’s no need for the excess fluff tacked on the end.

10. “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets Original Soundtrack

You’re damn right The Muppets made this list. The entire soundtrack to the film is golden, thanks to songwriting by Bret McKinzie of Flight of the Conchords. The Conchords’ sense of silliness and fun is on display in this song (which essentially serves as the film’s main theme). “Life’s a Happy Song” is pure-hearted upbeat fun filled with simple, gleeful rhyme. If this song can’t bring a smile to your face, then you really need to get over yourself.

9. “Won’t Let Go” – David Bazan

There’s a surprisingly long lineage of rock songs about spacemen: Bowie (“Space Oddity”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), and the Foo (“Next Year”) to name a few. But none of those astronaut tunes are quite as dour as “Won’t Let Go” – David Bazan’s take on the theme. With hushed ambient backing Bazan’s repetition of the refrain “I will not let go…of you” feels like a gut-punch. There may be a glimmer of hope in his hopelessness, but you have to mine through a poetically rough shell to reach it.

8. “Berlin Wall” – The Heavenly States

“Berlin Wall” is the best rock ‘n roll sing-along in some time. The song slowly and patiently builds layer upon layer of backing music to support its rallying cries that dream of a post-war machine world. Finger-picked acoustic guitar leads to keys, backing vocals, and a distant beat. The flourishes keep coming until a chorus of voices explodes into a of massive nebulous of jubilation. “Berlin Wall” begs the listener to belt along and is crafted in a way that makes anyone who doesn’t join in after a few spins seem foolish.

7. “Cruel” – St. Vincent

I would not have put my money on Annie Clark making a killer dance track, but that’s just what she did with “Cruel.” While the song starts with sweeping strings typical of a St. Vincent song, they quickly give way to a throbbing beat, vaguely Caribbean-feeling electronic twitterings, and a downright dirty fuzzy guitar line to accompany her woeful lines of causal cruelty. It’s enough to make all the indie tweesters that adore her stop staring for a second to shake their shoulders and hips.

6. “Bridge Burning” – Foo Fighters

After years of growing a little soft (eww…you got Norah Jones in my Foo and it’s gross), Foo Fighters quite literally roared back into rocking mode with “Bridge Burning.” The opening track to Wasting Light set a tone of unadulterated non-stop rock and the Foo never looked back. The song’s opening apprehensive string clangings quickly burst into furious drums, heavy guitars, and Ghrol screams. “Bridge Burning” condenses the essence of Foo into a powder keg and then throws a match it’s way. The resulting explosion is a sound to be heard.

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Wasting Light – Foo Fighters

Twenty years ago, the Foo Fighters’ leader Dave Grohl was part of this band called Nirvana that released a little album called Nevermind. While Grohl has been consistently prolific in the two decades since, Foo Fighters’ latest album, Wasting Light, comes the closest to that classic album’s unrelenting energy and behemoth sound.

On Wasting Light the band and Nevermind producer Butch Vig create a wall of sound that’s less Phil Spector and more Red Bull and creatine. It’s epitomized by the albums opening seconds on “Bridge Burning” as anxious guitar clanging quickly kicks into a pure thrill ride of distorted guitar, thundering drums, and Grohl bellows.

From there the band runs through the gamut of awesome hard rockin’ tropes. “Dear Rosemary” features a jerky three-guitar attack of stereophonic glory, made possible by guitarist Pat Smear has once again joining the Foo. On “White Limo” Ghrol screams like he’s trying to destroy his vocal chords as the music thrashes in a way that would make punks with patches sewn into their jackets proud. Taylor Hawkins’s accent assault on the cymbal during “Rope” (especially the tight chattering in the chorus) give the song a flavor not typical in hard rock. Continue reading