2011 turned out to be a pretty great year for music. Though it started off a bit slow, an impressive amount of new talent as well as seasoned songwriting vets emerged with stellar releases this year. In some cases, bands and artists returned with their strongest material in years. In others, emerging artists have given us some amazing things to look forward to for the future. And in others still, bands who have been kicking ass for a few years now are, well, still kicking ass. Here are Record Geek Heaven’s Top 20 Albums of 2011:
20. East River Pipe – We Live in Rented Rooms
Fred Cornog may enjoy dabbling in depression and hopelessness, but he lives for a great sing-along melody. This juxtaposition is characteristic of all East River Pipe albums, but We Live in Rented Rooms seems to take both extremes to the extreme. If you find yourself belting out the lyrics to the timid country of “When You Were Doing Cocaine” as if it were a power ballad, it’s no accident.
19. The Jayhawks – Mockingbird Time
History tells us when a band reunites after 8 years to record an album, pretty unmemorable, boring or downright awful things can happen. But in the case of The Jayhawks, the timing could not have been better. Mark Olson’s return could have been marred by sub-par material (such was the case with Olson and Gary Louris’ 2010 acoustic album), but on Mockingbird Time, the entire band sounds 110% invested, and on top of that, ready to rock again.
18. Wilco – The Whole Love
Considering the quality of records I have come to expect from Wilco, I wasn’t totally floored by The Whole Love. But, it’s still better than 90% of what was released this year. That is the kind of talent we are dealing with in Jeff Tweedy – even when he doesn’t quite live up to his own standards, his work still trumps most everything else. On this album, it sounds as if the latter day lineup of Wilco is attempting their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and while it’s impossible to repeat such a milestone, it’s still a bold move that makes for great listening.
17. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
OK, so Oasis broke up – most of us are over it by now. It’s not like they were still churning out classic records, and thanks to the split, we have two Gallagher bands to watch. Liam’s band Beady Eye wasn’t embarrassing by any means, but NGHFB represents a much higher creative tier. Noel’s songwriting sounds completely rejuvenated here, and there’s little doubt that this record will give old school Oasis fans a sense that something is right in the world.
16. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Though Fleet Foxes still only work for me at certain moments – usually when I’m feeling super chill or if it’s cold and/or rainy outside – Helplessness Blues charts some major growth for this band. The title track – one of the best songs of 2011 – is an enthralling musical and lyrical stream-of-consciousness rumination on discovering meaning for oneself in the world.
15. The Strokes – Angles
The Strokes probably won’t be around for much longer, and considering how consistently great their records have been, it’s quite a shame. Chief songwriter Julian Casablancas insists that his decision to remain completely cut off from the rest of the band during the writing and recording of Angles was merely an experiment – an experiment the rest of the band objected to greatly. But hey, it led to “Under Cover of Darkness”, one of the best singles of the year, so who’s complaining?
14. Deerhoof – Deerhoof vs. Evil
Deerhoof has always been a defiant bunch, but it seems they have grown even more so since the critical success of 2007’s Friend Opportunity. It’s as if once the public started to think Deerhoof was really onto something, the band deconstructed their sound even more. Though I appreciate Deerhoof’s insistence to push themselves further into the weird with every record, it wouldn’t mean anything if the songs weren’t as strangely catchy as they are. Deerhoof vs. Evil isn’t their best, but it does continue the band’s recent streak of great records.
13. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Thanks to producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the Pains have more than satisfied their 90’s jones on their second effort. For the most part, the songwriting is still pretty one-note, but there is something resolutely honest about the Pains’ approach – they never stray too far from their mission statement of combining innocent twee pop melodies with smoldering guitars, which is the perfect focus for this charmingly green band.
12. Title Tracks – In Blank
This album may sound like a collection of demos – all songs were recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs – but if it’s all done in tribute to 70’s power pop records (which, judging by the awesomely raw cover of The Flamin’ Groovies’ “I Can’t Hide”, seems to be the case), I’m not one to complain. I would love it if more new records boasted this sort of tenacity and immediacy, especially considering how easy it is to make records these days.
11. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
This is the album that will top most Best of 2011 lists, and for good reason – very rarely do ideas this progressive and production this immaculate come together in one record. It’s tough to get away from how massive Bon Iver has become, but at least the music is still the focal point. One thing I worry about when good bands get huge is great songwriting being passed over in favor of a cookie-cutter template version of what others expect. Hopefully, Bon Iver can hold it together and keep a fresh perspective for the third release.
10. Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Deceptively simple and relentlessly concise, it did not surprise me to learn that the songs on 12 Desperate Straight Lines were written by a drummer. Michael Benjamin Lerner takes the attention-getting drummer/vocalist role during live shows, but on record, he IS Telekinesis, and his songs act as quick, fervent blasts of power pop into a naval-gazing indie climate.
9. Das Pop – The Game
These Beatle-obsessed Belgians have loaded their fourth album with insanely catchy melodies and songs that, depending on your mood, will either make you want to knock stuff over or burst into a public sing-along. Still, Das Pop boasts a welcome dynamic range on The Game, thanks to brilliant ballads “The Thunder” and “Flowers in the Dirt”.
8. Real Estate – Days
Though slightly understated when compared to their boundary-pushing debut, Real Estate’s sophomore album is no slouch. Boasting one of the best singles of the past decade (“It’s Real”, an ode accepting life as weird and unexplainable), Days packs a soft punch that at first seems forgettable, but the resonance of these seemingly modest tunes is steadfast.
7. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
The year’s best driving record, Slave Ambient seems to exist as a soundtrack to what one would see when watching the world from inside a moving vehicle – some things race by in blurs, but the big picture remains clear. Leader Adam Granduciel (who used to rock with fellow Philadelphian Kurt Vile in this band) captures this feeling of travelling without moving by bringing an aural collage sensibility to his writing and recording techniques.
6. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
I love that Girls have continued to evolve without losing the interest of their core fan base. This is proof that they are for real, and that when it comes to making music, it’s always better to do what feels right. Though Girls have stepped away considerably from the lo-fi, uppity charms of their debut, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a front-to-back stunner that proves the band is unafraid to push or even scare its listeners.
5. Owen – Ghost Town
Ghost Town may seem more instrumentally downplayed compared to Mike Kinsella’s earlier Owen output – strange time signatures and crazy guitar parts have been traded in for slightly more traditional arrangements. But maybe Kinsella just doesn’t feel the need to be all fancy-pants anymore. Maybe he wants the songs to speak for themselves – and when they are as emotionally revealing as “O, Evelyn” and “No Language”, frills and tricks just aren’t necessary.
4. Yuck – Yuck
The debut from these UK youngsters had me in doubt early on, but Yuck’s unrepressed love for all things 90’s and their overall old-school mentality eventually won me over big time. The vocals may be buried under mountains of ruthless guitar noise, but it’s all done out of love for early Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and about 20 other favorite bands of mine. How could I resist?
3. Sloan – The Double Cross
It’s always great when a band I have adored for years and years – in this case, since the late 90’s – can still churn out classic records. Commemorating Sloan’s 20th anniversary, The Double Cross (their 10th album) acts as a veritable smorgasbord of all the musical journeys the band has undergone and where they will be heading in the future. All four of the band’s songwriters are in top form here, and even for longtime Sloan fans, there are several surprises in store. I guess it still bugs people that Sloan’s sound is unapologetically “seventies” – literally every time I play Sloan for a new person, I get the comment “This sounds like 70’s rock” and a confused and/or disgusted look. I’m sure the members of Sloan have gotten similar comments, but I know they take it as a compliment. Don’t worry, Sloan – we understand your plight. Keep the hits coming! (Funny, right?)
2. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo
Since rock and roll these days is viewed as more of a “hobby” than ever before, it makes sense that we would have someone like Kurt Vile come along. Everything from his muttered vocal to his conversational, matter-of-fact lyrics to his blend-in persona seems to paint the picture of a modern-day everyman. It’s his distinctively expressive guitar playing that sets him way outside of the pack, however. If everything else seems decidedly downplayed, it’s probably to allow his haunting fingerpicking style to shine. Producer John Agnello gets involved only when he has to (a little reverb here, some light percussion there, or the occasional full-band arrangement), allowing Vile to exist more or less as he would when playing an intimate solo gig. As the final results prove, Vile is so talented he barely needs any studio frills to bring out his brilliance.
1. The ACB’s – Stona Rosa
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then close proximity leads to downright infatuation. It’s possible I’m a bit biased by naming Stona Rosa album of the year, since it comes from The ACB’s, a band who resides in my proverbial backyard of Kansas City. But who cares? I know lots of people in bands, and if anything, it usually only serves to sharpen my critical ear. Stona Rosa is such a step up and away from the band’s no-nonsense power pop debut, it kind of startled me at first. It’s a brief (less that 30 minutes) yet resonant profile of a band whose growth continues to skyrocket beyond expectations. If they’ve been compared to countless indie bands, it’s only because their originality and confidence in their direction scare people into doing so. They are currently working on more than 17 songs for their next release, which makes me feel that at least at the current moment, the ACB’s can’t be stopped.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Rooftop Vigilantes – Real Pony Glue
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo
Lifeguards – Waving at the Astronauts
Jonny – Jonny
Comet Gain – Howl of the Lonely Crowd
Tags: Adam Granduciel, Alan Moulder, Beady Eye, Beatles, Bon Iver, Comet Gain, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Das Pop, Deerhoof, dinosaur jr, East River Pipe, Flamin' Groovies, Fleet Foxes, Flood, Fred Cornog, Fucked Up, Gary Louris, Girls, Gruff Rhys, Jonny, Julian Casablancas, Kurt Vile, Liam Gallagher, Lifeguards, Los Campesinos!, Marc Olson, Michael Benjamin Lerner, Mike Kinsella, Noel Gallagher, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, Oasis, Owen, Real Estate, Rooftop Vigilantes, Sloan, Sonic Youth, St. Vincent, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Teenage Fanclub, Telekinesis, The ACB's, The Jayhawks, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Strokes, The War on Drugs, Title Tracks, Wilco, Yo La Tengo, Yuck