The Best Albums of 2011
Ladies and gentlemen, 2011 is about to call in a night. After a year of Yeezy’s ramblings, Justin Vernon popping up more frequently than a bad case of herpes, and Adele proving that you don’t have to be a corporatized whore in order to become the break out female singer of the year, 2011 can feel the spins coming on and she’s not sure if she wants to remember the past year come January 1st. Lucky for us we still got time to pry over all of the music that has come and gone over the past 12 months and compact it into a pretty list with criteria that doesn’t really assist in categorizing various styles and genres of music that can’t really be compared. Who had the better album this year: Drake or Yuck? Foster the People or Mastodon? Feist or Fucked Up? (Yes, to those of you who don’t spend way too much time on formerly-obscure-turned-heavily-traffic’d music blogs, all of the aforementioned bands are in fact real.)
Lucky for us, my favorite albums of the year all seem to share similar characteristics amongst the bands that created them, namely being beards, harmonies, guitar heroics, and a lack of female participation. So before you all run away and blast some phat beats to get the stench of educated white boy off, here is my list of the Top 10 Albums of 2011.Honorable Mentions:
Gotcha! Okay, before we embark into the land of top 10 glory, I want to give some love to two fantastic acts that put out stellar EPs this year and are slated to do BIG things in 2012.
Gary Clark Jr. – The Bright Lights EP
For all of you who aren’t lucky enough to call Austin, TX home, Gary Clark Jr. is considered sort of a legend in these parts. He’s played with the likes of Jimmy Vaughn, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy. He won the Austin Music Award for Best Blues and Electric Guitarist, on three different occasions. In 2001 the Mayor of Austin declared May 3rd “Gary Clark Jr. day.” Did I mention he’s only 27? It’s ok to feel useless when looking at all Gary Clark Jr.’s accomplished at such a young age (He’s actually a really nice guy. I met him once while waiting in line to go to Barbarella. That tells me one thing: Gary likes to party).
Although most of the songs found on The Bright Lights appeared on his self-titled 2010 album, the polished sound on title track “Bright Lights” and “Don’t Owe You A Thang” highlight Clark Jr.’s incredible ability to blend rockabilly and the blues with a modern feel. Additionally, the two live tracks found on the EP show off Clark Jr.’s amazing soloing abilities, which is definitely something to look forward to with his future full-length release.
Phantogram – Nightlife EP
Phantogram is a band that I heard a while back and have been trying to spread the word of as hard as I can ever since. It’s hard for me to pin down what it is that attracts me to their sound; it could be that it reminds me of what a night spent stumbling around Manhattan after a really great party would be like, or maybe it’s that even though they have such an street-beat feel, they actually recorded most of their first album Eyelid Movementsin a barn in their hometown of Saratoga Springs in upstate NY (side note – it could also be that lead singer Sarah Barthel is a goddess and watching her perform makes me think bad things, VERY bad things).
With Nightlife, Phantogram picks up right where they left off with their first LP, combining aspects of trip-hop and simple guitar structure to create beautiful odes to aspirations of nighttime triumphs coming up just slightly short. Songs like “Don’t Move” and “Nightlife” each act as the perfect listening ear from the roommate you wish you got to come home to to reflect on a night with. After seemingly coming out of nowhere in 2010 and touring relentlessly over the past year, Phantogram is set to have a big 2012 with a new album expected and even more instances of Ms. Barthel swaying her bangs and rocking out in stilettos and leather pants (God Bless America).
10. The Head and The Heart – The Head and The Heart
Every year a few bands come along and put out a song and you immediately think, “Man, Starbucks is going to beat this poor band to death.” “Down in the Valley” was that song for 2010. However, once people heard the ethereal harmonies and Avett Brothers-esque earnestness that permeates from the Seattle five-piece, it was apparent that The Head and The Heart were more than just some new folk act from Seattle. The band originally released The Head and The Heart in 2009, but a re-mastered edition was released this year to accompany The Head and The Heart becoming one of the most sought after opening acts in America. Ballads like “River and Roads,” “Heaven Go Easy On Me,” and “Winter Song” all highlight the bands innate ability to resonate emotionally with every lost 20-something in a way that few really can. In a time when bands go from being unknown to doing the festival circuit in months rather than years, it’s nice to see a buzz band who creates moments based on themes that just about anyone can relate to: distance, heartbreak, the sense of being lost. Also keep in mind that The Head and The Heart went from being a band that formed through a weekly open mic at a pub where one of the future members bartended to opening for Iron & Wine, Vampire Weekend, The Walkmen, Dr. Dog, Dave Matthews, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and Death Cab For Cutie in the span of less than a year. Once they take a break and have time to record again, The Head and The Heart will be a young band to definitely keep an eye on as they suddenly have the spotlight thrust upon them.
9. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
Hey remember when Sam Beam, mastermind behind Iron & Wine, used to finger pick and whisper sweet nothings into a four-track recorder to create his formerly signature-sound? Well, after one listen to Kiss Each Other Clean opener “Walking Far From Home,” you can proclaim those days are even deader than they were post-The Shepherd’s Dog. Kiss Each Other Clean is layered with textures and grooves surpassing anything anyone thought Iron & Wine would ever concoct. It’s a slurry of AM pop and doo-wop sweetness thrown together with some of Beam’s most traversed themes: religion, love, family, and the highs and lows that accompany each of those.
For those of you worried that Beam has jumped off the deep-end by using voice effects and massive amounts of mixing to flesh out a completely different sound, don’t worry, his angelic pipes are still on display for much of Kiss Each Other Clean. “Tree By The River” and especially “Godless Brother In Love” showcase what makes Iron & Wine so great even after all the stylistic evolution: Beam’s ability to transfix you with his voice and storytelling ability. Similarly, album closer “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” is the closest Iron & Wine will ever come to straight up rocking out on a track and although Beam restrains his voice during the closing of the track, it’s easy to imagine him howling in all of his bearded glory to cast out the sins in each of his audience member’s souls.
8. Wilco – The Whole Love
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most defining albums of the early 2000s. A Ghost Is Born is considered by many to be one of the most heart-wrenching and blistering albums of the mid-2000s. And then there’s Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), both of which had some good moments, but both of which also led Wilco to being thrown into the off-putting category of “dad rock” (in theory though, is that really a bad thing? Most dads that listen to Jeff Tweedy and the gang were most likely blazing to The Dead and popping their heads to Talking Heads in their formative years). What worried people was this sense of complacency that appeared to have taken over Wilco once they cemented their six-man lineup and Tweedy got clean (ah, the good ol’ days…), which can be heard on some of the more lax tracks on Sky and Wilco.
Enter The Whole Love and, in particular, album opener “Art of Almost.” This seven-minute clusterfuck is the lovechild of so many different Wilco back-catalog standouts: “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “At Least That’s What You Said,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” to name a few. Immediately after turning on The Whole Love the thought of “Wilco’s back” will cross your mind and that my friends is a beautiful thing. Rather than Welcome to Suburbia Volume III, Tweedy pushes the band into a new, experimental direction. Sure, a lot of the angst and uneasiness is gone, but the desire to explore and surprise listeners is incredibly apparent. “Capitol City” and “Standing O” present some of the greatest examples of straight up Rock’n’Roll writing to ever grace the Wilco repertoire, while “Rising Red Lung” and the 12-minute opus “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” bring out the inner folky-mindset that helped make Mermaid Avenue so memorable.
7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Justin Vernon in under 60-seconds: gets booted from a band, girl breaks up with him, retreats to cabin, records album, tours the world, records with Kanye West, becomes biggest indi-crossover (in shortest amount of time) since pals Arcade Fire. Phew, okay, now that we’re all caught up… Bon Iver, for lack of better words, is ambitious. It’s very finely tweaked, incredibly focused, and all aspects of it are as honed as possible. It’s a beautiful concoction of precision, effort, and expansion. Where For Emma played to Vernon’s then-strengths of simplicity and haunting honesty, Bon Iver aspires to create a grand gesture of healing. For Emma was a very winter-heavy group of recordings and although Bon Iver seems to be much more Spring-esque, it still brings about images of a bleak, frozen environment, just this time it’s on the cusp of a thaw (maybe if I lived in a colder climate still I’d appreciate some of the bleaker, more connecting aspects of Bon Iver, but alas, no Snowpocalypse for me this year).
Bon Iver shows us a different side of Vernon, one that’s heavy on synths and homage to Bruce Hornsby, the likes of which are evident on “Calgary” and “Beth/Rest.” However, Bon Iver really flourishes in its most orchestral moments. Since originally touring as a four-piece group, Bon Iver has grown into a 13-man behemoth with multiple percussionists and a horn section, all of which support the newfound complex arrangements that Vernon has become so fond of. “Perth,” “Holocene,” and “Towers” in particular highlight this new plateau that Vernon & co. have ascended, an ethereal place no doubt. With four Grammy nominations this year and a soon-to-be-role as festival headliner, that bearded guy from Wisconsin with the funny falsetto has truly achieved what few do so quickly: cross-over acceptance.
6. Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Middle Brother is not a super group. Let’s just get that out of the way now. Is the band made up of three lead singers from other bands? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re super. In an online musical landscape where someone will blog about the fact that a member of a band bought groceries, tied their shoes, or breathed, it’s easy to forget that just because you and your friends love a band it doesn’t mean that everyone knows who they are.
That being said, John McCauley (Deer Tick), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) got together in Nashville with Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket (OU what up!?)) and made a kick-ass album of folk, blues, and country, which has each of their other bands’ influences written all over it. “Me, Me, Me” and “Mom and Dad” come straight from the Deer Tick playbook. “Blood and Guts” and “Million Dollar Bill” sound like they could’ve come straight off Dawes’ new record (the latter of which does), while “Blue Eyes” and “Theater” are Delta Spirit to the core. Interestingly enough each of Middle Brother’s members was either recording with their other band at the same time as the Middle Brother sessions or started to shortly after and you can see the growth in Deer Tick, Dawes, and (come March) Delta Spirit’s new albums because of it. Maybe Middle Brother will surpass the expectations of Monsters of Folk’s output in the future, but for now, let’s just keep the “super” out of the discussion.
Wow, halfway there folks. Let’s take a quick commercial break and talk about some albums to look forward to in the New Year.
Dr. Dog (February)
The Shins (March)
Delta Spirit (March)
Avett Brothers (Unknown)
Trampled By Turtles (Unknown)
Dr. Dre (Maybe?)
5. The Black Keys – El Camino
The Black Keys’ recent success makes me incredibly happy. After being stuck in the shadow of the recently splitsville White Stripes for years, Akron, OHIO natives Dan Auerbach & Patrick Carney have ascended to the top of the Rock thrown by basically staying true to each other and infusing creativity into their steady stream of blues-driven guitar and drums (and now bass and keyboard) assault on reason. They spent years driving around in a van, playing anywhere that would have them, and struggling to really get noticed. Now they’re playing SNL, helping to sell lingerie, and headlining an arena tour with Arctic Monkeys opening.
All of this leads to what makes El Camino so worthwhile. The cover of The Black Keys’ new album features the actual van they used to tour in, parked in a lot where the factory that they recorded Rubber Factory once stood. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I feel like it’s deep somehow… El Camino opens with “Lonely Boy,” which is also the first single off the record, and it’s thumping guitar and frantic/savage beat invites you into 38+ minutes of dirty rock that just won’t let go. “Gold On The Ceiling” and “Hell Of A Season” play as signature Black Keys jams, while “Nova Baby” and “Sister” highlight the evolution of their back-to-basics sound that has led to their incredible growth in popularity over the last few years. However, if you’re looking for straight ruckus, “Little Black Submarines” is the winner in the “Just kiddin’, let’s rock the fuck out!” competition. Opening with a soft-spoken Auerbach singing about a broken heart over acoustic guitar picking, the song slowly progresses adding in percussion and organ slowly before unleashing a dirty riff straight out of the Magic Potion era. Turn up your stereo and enjoy.
4. The Sheepdogs – Learn & Burn
Do you like The Who? How about The Doors? Maybe you have a Credence tape lodged in your car’s deck? Well, you’ll probably dig Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s most famous rock import: The Sheepdogs. It’s been a BIG year for this group of throwback Canadians, who won the Rolling Stone cover contest this past spring and suddenly found themselves touring relentlessly at breakneck speeds. I don’t remember when I heard about The Sheepdogs originally, but after landing in Israel in May, I found them on my iPod and decided to give them a listen. WHOA.
Although Learn & Burn was independently released in 2010, it received a rerelease after The Sheepdogs graced Rolling Stone’s cover earlier this year. Album opener “The One You Belong To” presents you with a quick explanation of what makes The Sheepdogs such a great band: fluidity, balance, and insane guitarmanship. You can just tell that these guys have played with each other for a long time and understand one another’s strengths and that cohesiveness comes out on every track. “I Don’t Know,” “I Get By,” and “Catfish 2 Boogaloo” all show the band playing to each other’s strengths without indulging too much into guitar heroics. No, they save that for title track and straight up homage to The Doors “Learn & Burn,” along with their best imitation of The Allman Brothers with “Southern Dreaming.” Yet, where The Sheepdogs truly shine is the seven-minute long medley that closes out the album. Sort of a Dr. Dog meets Lynyrd Skynyrd jam session that covers all the ground covered in the previous 11-songs eventually leaving you with a sense of, “holy shit, how the hell have I never heard these dudes before?” Play on Sheepdoggies, play on.
3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes burst onto the scene in 2008/2009 as part of the beard-folk revival, channeling equal parts Crosby, Stills & Nash and Brian Wilson. After being lumped into the same reverb-drenched category as My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, lead singer Robin Pecknold was championed as a new musical visionary and Fleet Foxes were heralded as THE band to watch out for. Well, the Seattle outfit traveled the world, played to adoring crowds on every continent and then essentially disappeared. There were reports that the band was busy recording, nearing the finish line of their follow-up when Pecknold decided that all of the songs were shit and everything was scrapped. Well, after pulling a page out of the Bon Iver handbook and retreating to a cabin, Fleet Foxes emerged with a beautifully orchestrated album that demonstrates an obvious progression in song writing and experimentation. Does Helplessness Blues sound like the follow up to Fleet Foxes? Completely. Is that a bad thing? No. Just because every indi-music nerd out there was highly awaiting the band’s sophomore effort doesn’t mean they needed to change what made them so great in the first place.
Album opener “Montezuma” gives you a great idea of what Pecknold’s headspace was like during the recording process, “Now I am older, than my mother and father, when they had their daughter. Now what does that say about me?” Pecknold grew up a lot between Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues and you can hear that maturity in the song structure and themes found all over the band’s sophomore effort. “Sim Sala Bim,” “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” and the monstrous “The Shrine/An Argument” all demonstrate the band’s incredible ability to shift tempo and arrange movements within songs that are essentially rooted in freak folk and pop.
For all of the tracks that challenge listeners though, there are two that stand out as two of the best, if not THE best, songs of the year. The obvious choice is title track “Helplessness Blues,” which every 20-something that likes to romanticize about an earlier time where they would’ve been stuck working the family trade 14 hours a day rather than doing freelance web design can connect with. Yet, my favorite track on the album and honestly one of my new all-time favorites has to be “The Cascades.” It’s the song that has stuck with me the most since hearing Helplessness Blues for the first time (and my mom also really digs it). It’s a gorgeous instrumental journey that would fit perfectly into a contemporary Fantasia (although the creation of such a thing could result in the Hipsterpocalypse and the sudden implosion of Williamsburg in on itself). Seriously, put on your headphone, crank up the volume, put on “The Cascades” and just let yourself go, you’ll thank me I promise.
2. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
There’s a good chance that a few of you who get this far will gawk, snicker, and roll your eyes at the fact that Circuital was my second favorite album of the year. Most likely, you same people also know how I feel about My Morning Jacket and eventually you’ll relent to the fact that even if they put out a klezmer tribute album, I’d probably still dig it. I was thoroughly intrigued when the earliest reports about Circuital started coming out. Rumors that they were recording in a church gym began to surface. Speculation that they were going to tour Gorilaz-style as The Electric Mayhem of Muppets-fame (sadly the exec at Disney who was working on this with MMJ got fired and his replacement “didn’t see their vision”) started getting tossed around. Supposedly Jim James had grown tired of living in Brooklyn and returned home to Louisville where he bought a home, which had become a studio as well. Oddly enough, all of these reports were true (Seriously, how cool would the Electric Mayhem tour have been? I think Jason Segel needs to get together with them and use some of the revenue from The Muppets to fund a series of club gigs) and as the release date of Circuital approached, we all started learning more about the “back-to-basics” (by far the most overused term when talking about My Morning Jacket’s recent album) approach they took with their sixth album.
Circuital grows on you. After my first few listens, I felt lost, sort of disappointed and frankly, hungry for more. I was hoping to be transfixed and transported back to their farmhouse studio where Jim James used to record in a grain silo and I’d feel the enthusiasm reigning out of his soul. Then I realized that this was impossible and that those days are so far in the past that it’s silly to even consider it a possibility. Well, once I got over that I started understanding the charm and energy that Circuital contains. From the howled horn-like intro that starts off album opener “Victory Dance” to the Thai-pop inspired “Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” Circuital showed an incredibly focused band at the top of their game. And then I saw My Morning Jacket play the album live and my whole outlook towards Circuital changed. Suddenly I could feel the power behind “Outta My System” and “First Light,” the expansive plain of “Slow, Slow Tune,” and the ethereal beauty of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” Of course, title track “Circuital” highlights what makes Circuital such an important part of the MMJ story. Sure, it may lack some of the youth and vigor from previous barn-burners, but “Circuital” does bring about comparisons to earlier favorites like “The Bear,” “Lay Low,” and “Dancefloors,” which is something that many MMJ fans never got to experience firsthand when those albums were originally released. Look, like it or not, I will always champion this hairy heard of Louisville lads (especially when one of them attended my alma mater) and if you don’t agree, all I can say is see them live, THEN we’ll talk.
1. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
Dear reader, I am so proud that you’ve made it this far. I know I can ramble and sometimes I talk myself into a corner, but you stuck with me and for that I thank you. Now, here’s the sad truth: I really didn’t have a favorite album this year. Unlike in 2010 when it was neck and neck between Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More and Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor being more awesome (the latter of which won out), I didn’t have a lot of albums that really stirred me and stayed true from first listen to last in 2011.
However, if I had to choose a winner (which is a significant part of making a “best of” list), I’d say Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong had the strongest impact of any album I heard all year. I’d argue that no band made more significant strides with the release of a sophomore album in 2011 than this Los Angeles four piece. “Holy shit Max! How could you say such a thing? This is ludicrous! Outrageous! Are you stupid?” No, my friends I’m not. I know that both Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes took massive steps this year, but let’s not forget how much press both of those acts got with their first albums. Dawes, on the other hand, was basically unknown. They put out the solid North Hills and garnered a bit of press for it, most of which was centered on their “Laurel Canyon sound,” and they toured with the likes of Delta Spirit and Blitzen Trapper, but there was nothing about them that was particularly memorable (except for maybe drummer Griffin Goldsmith’s painful faces that he makes while playing).
Enter Nothing Is Wrong, a collection of songs that carry a rare trait: each subsequent song seems better than the one that preceded it. Very rarely do I hear an album, start to finish, and enjoy every single song, but Dawes really delivered. Unlike North Hills, Nothing Is Wrong is strongly driven by electric guitar and a significant amount of electric organ, both of which helped catch the eyes and ears of Jackson Browne and Richie Robertson (of The Band), both of whom Dawes opened for this year. Album opener “Time Spent In Los Angeles” send a clear signal to the listener that Dawes was pushing themselves to play harder and finely tune their craft with deeper lyrics and tighter harmonies. “If I Wanted Someone” and “My Way Back Home” highlight lead singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith’s evolution into soloing territory, while “So Well” and album highlight “Fire Away” are prime examples of how touring relentlessly has helped Dawes become one of the tightest sounding bands around. The track that might stick with me most though is the simplest and slowest found on the album. “Million Dollar Bill” is a beautiful ballad of heartbreak and reflection and is by far the best advertisement for Goldsmith becoming the next great everyman-song writer.
What Nothing Is Wrong lacks in high-level production and studio inventiveness it more than makes up for with earnest, straight forward stories of feeling lost in your own world and dealing with the little problems that make up each of our daily routines. Will people look back at Nothing Is Wrong the same way that they’ll look back at Bon Iver or Helplessness Blues? Of course not and to do so would be irresponsible, but that doesn’t mean that Dawes has provided any less value to music fans in 2011.
What will 2012 bring music fans? Well, who knows, but just like with every other New Year, there’ll be awesome new bands to discover, great new albums by some old favorites, and an ever-decreasing likelihood that Dr. Dre will ever put out Detox. So drink up ya nerds, we made it through Rebecca Black, continuing Beber-mania, and another year of Gaga and THAT is something to be proud of.
If you’d like to hear a playlist featuring my favorite song from all of the previously mentioned albums, you can check it out on Spotify by clicking the following link.
Team Tallsome OUT!