I hesitate to call the following ten albums the “best” of 2011 as any such list would be subjective and I didn’t listen to Justin Bieber’s Christmas album. For all I know, it blows the following music out of the water. However, I’m fairly confident these albums have made an impact on more than just me and many will populate the “Best of 2011” lists currently flooding the internet. Happy listening!
10. The Soft Moon – Total Decay (EP)
Luis Vasquez remains the lone (lost?) soul at the center of The Soft Moon’s creative process and Total Decay compresses the best parts of 2010’s excellent debut into a 14-minute nightmare of electronic uneasiness broken into four songs. ‘Repetition’ builds around a static bass line as electronic noise ebbs and flows around it until a tribal wave of percussion crashes into the music. ‘Alive’ rises from the darkness with a threatening guitar line that pulls the listener further into the unknown. Vocals are dispensed as noise throughout, with lyrics often whispered and rarely distinguishable from the surrounding din. In this way, The Soft Moon are providing a soundtrack to your own emptiness and leaving it to you to fill in the meanings.
9. The Kills – Blood Pressures
On Blood Pressures, The Kills forsake the dance-floor catchiness of songs like ‘Cheap and Cheerful’ from 2008’s Midnight Boom to create their finest album to date. The jagged blues meets snarling punk in Allison Mosshart’s voice has never sounded better, navigating the sonic minefields created by Jamie Hince. The band’s ability to style a mood remains their greatest strength and ‘Future Starts Slow’ rumbles forward at the outset with a taut sexual tension. The garage blues vibe of ‘Satellite’ meshes with a reggae beat to add a new layer of noise to the band’s sound. The Kills have packed a lot of ideas and sounds inside the album but they have never sounded more focused.
8. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
A modern soul classic that wears its influences well, Stone Rollin’ is sticky in all the right places and cool in all the others. ‘Radio’ shakes, rattles, and rolls around the dance floor while ‘Good Man’ possesses enough swagger to make Saadiq the coolest cat at the party. The perfect groove and vocals of ‘Movin’ Down the Line’ couldn’t be executed any better even if Marvin Gaye took the mic. Album opener ‘Heart Attack’ ups the ante on the retro soul movement with a scratchy guitar that Ike Turner would have loved. Stone Rollin’ dips into a lot of different record collections and reminds us that everything from soul to rock traces its roots back to the early rhythm and blues sound. One of the finer qualities to Stone Rollin’ is that it feels like a complete album, the kind of recording that you put on a turntable without worrying about which song is next. Raphael Saadiq builds upon his influences and the retro vibe never threatens to lessen the importance of this new music.
7. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li’s 2008 debut Youth Novels endeared itself to the world with a charming blend of indie pop that hinted at even better things to come. Wounded Rhymes is undoubtedly the better thing to come but few could have predicted how it would sound. The album sounds huge, like Phil Spector’s wall of sound filtered through Swedish dance/pop. The results are familiar structures arranged at slightly new angles. ‘Get Some’ casts Li as a prostitute over a jumpy rhythm and guitar stabs that reveals a woman as strong as she is fragile. The quiet doo-wop of ‘Unrequited Love’ unexpectedly moves a corner in Bronx, NY into the heart of Swedish pop. ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ could be this generation’s ‘Be My Baby’ and the Ronettes are a band that comes to mind several times when listening to the music that surrounds Li’s openhearted writing. Dark but never depressing, Wounded Rhymes is expertly written album by a young woman discovering that what happens after love is never as good as the promise of what love will be like when she finds it.
6. Cowboy Junkies – Demons
Volume Two of a four album series the band began with the challenging Renmin Park in 2010, Demons finds the band taking on singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt’s underappreciated career and opening up there sound in the process. The thick fuzz of Michael Timmins’ guitar rides atop a droning organ on ‘Wrong Piano’ and transforms Chesnutt’s acoustic original from Is The Actor Happy? into a driving rocker that maintains the loose spirit of Chesnutt’s best recordings. There was never a certainty of direction when Vic played and the band manages to sustain that spirit of adventure in larger arrangements. Maneuvering through the dark corners of Chesnutt’s lyrics falls on Margo Timmins who rises to the challenge with tender resignation. The distraught music Chesnutt left behind in 2009 is taken in new directions by Cowboy Junkies who turn the album into a celebration of his life and another admirable chapter in their long career.
5. Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
On 2009’s addictive Face Control, the synth-pop duo acted oblivious to the fact that lo-fi bands building hook-laden tracks around a drum machine don’t regularly embark on stadium tours. How else to explain the gigantic choruses Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry unleashed at every turn on the record? On Sound Kapital, the band creates an even bigger sound that overflows with more synth hooks than 1986. Much of the album was inspired by the band’s travels through Burma exploring the underground music scene. On album opener, Boeckner sings – “When I get back home / I won’t be the same no more.” Everything about this album holds true to that statement. There is real passion circulating through the sweeping keyboards and mechanical rhythms. ‘Memories Of the Future’ floods the open spaces with emotion instead of the cold detachment one would expect of a song that shares its DNA with new wave explorer Gary Numan. Surpassing any of Boeckner’s work with Wolf Parade and the previous Handsome Furs albums, Sound Kapital is an essential album of 2011 and raises the stakes on what we will expect from this band in the future.
4. William Elliot Whitmore – Field Songs
Placing this on the best of 2011 list feels wrong. Stamping a date on this collection of rural folk tunes almost diminishes their value. When I first heard Whitmore’s voice over a lightly strummed banjo, I wrongly assumed it was a long lost country blues album recorded by an obscure man long removed from this earth. The skeleton arrangements are usually limited to a single acoustic guitar or banjo and the ambient sounds of nature; such as birds chirping on the outskirts of ‘Bury Your Burdens In the Ground’. The album is rooted in the pastoral traditions of early folk and any modern designs have been carefully stripped to the bone. The simplest work of the Avett Brothers feels over produced in comparison. While his first three albums followed dark roads through death and despair, the mood on Field Songs sparkles with flecks of hope like rust on an old plow. When Whitmore sings “But still I know that all I see/Someday soon will cease to be/But I am not feeling any pain”, his voice sounds scarred and worn but ultimately resilient. With kick drum beating under his blues guitar, ‘Don’t Need It’ grabs its tools, heads out into the fields, and leaves the worries of this world behind. This album is your passport to the same.
3. I Break Horses – Hearts
Stockholm’s Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck join the shoegaze revival with an intoxicating haze of blurry guitars and pinging synths. It’s perfect background music for getting lost in a foreign city on the darkest nights. The mystery of ‘Winter Beats’ aligns nicely with modern acts like M83 (who they will soon tour with). The sounds that lie hidden in the reverb-drenched music reward repeated exploration. ‘Wired’ opens with a linear bass line that grooves along the crevice where Joy Division met New Order before the influence of My Bloody Valentine begins twisting and turning the effects pedals to take the song in new directions, often at the same time. ‘I Kill Your Love, Baby’ opens with a throbbing heartbeat to create a beautifully unguarded and unexpected moment of peace within the tempest of sound that makes Hearts such an engaging album. From Slowdive to Mazzy Star, indecipherable lyrics delivered by an enchanting siren within a swirling cloud of reverb has been done many times before. I Break Horses add to that tradition with a stellar work that I find myself listening to more often that I expected.
2. Dolorean – The Unfazed
Singer-guitarist Al James’ comes across as an honest, introspective friend sitting near you at a Portland coffee bar. The intimacy of this record can almost be unsettling at times as you are drawn into his personal relationships. On one of the year’s best songs (‘Country Clutter’), James provides an indie-folk version of Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’ with more devastating results. The arrangements are intentionally sparse with plenty of empty spaces to contemplate love and life. On ‘Thinskinned’ that means hitting the open road with an unsettled lover in hopes the relationship finds better footing in new places. James’ honesty on ‘Sweet Boy’ – “I said I could wait for your past to fade away / I had no idea what I was talking about” comes from a place that you can only reach with someone who has seen you at your worst. These disarming truths are littered across the beautiful, carefully paced arrangements on The Unfazed. Released in January, I’m still listening to it in December with a warm cup of coffee as I watch winter color the desert hills around my home. For anyone who wears the scars of love in 2011, this album offers up a soundtrack to the moments you’re stuck with nothing but your thoughts.
1. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
Exceeding the hype they earned in 2010, the highly anticipated debut album kicks down the walls of influence and channels the soul of rock and roll. From the loud/soft punk dynamics of The Pixies to the stadium shaking power of the E Street Band, The Joy Formidable unveiled an album that will sound fresh long after the Best of 2011’s lists have been forgotten. Album opener ‘The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie’ runs almost eight minutes with a sweeping coda of swirling guitar and thundering drums before yielding to the brief intensity of ‘The Magnifying Glass’. The band keeps the listener on edge throughout with every song threatening to come undone in an explosion of effects pedals turned to eleven. On ‘Whirring’, the band sets the song spinning faster and faster as drummer Matt Thomas brings a refined chaos to the proceedings. Most bands would end the song after the last chorus but the band spends three additional minutes obliterating speakers with an avalanche of noise. ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’ brings together everything wonderful in The Joy Formidable as Ritzy Bryan’s voice floats over the brightly colored din until it all fades away; taking with it little pieces of rock and roll’s past and pointing the way to rock and roll’s future.