Best Albums of 2011

Best of 2011: Music


Album of the Year: Amplifier
The Octopus

     How underrated is Amplifier’s The Octopus? This album is not even on Metacritic. Rock music is truly dying but The Octopus didn’t get that memo. This uncompromising self-release from a little known Manchester trio (Sel Balamir, Neil Mahoney, and Matt Brobin) fulfilled my prog/alt-rock fix with out-of-this-world bombastic sci-fi imagery and as much intensity as Muse’s tangentially similar space-rock/prog opus Black Holes and Revelations album (also my #1 the year it came out). This groundbreaking Octopus record is full of the kind of unabashedly adventurous music not heard since the 1970s when albums actually had concepts and, for that matter, when music actually had albums.A sprawling if muddled narrative through line explores an Asimovian notion of traveling the universe to escape one form of tyranny (religion, corporate, government etc.) only to encounter another. It seems that humanity is doomed to encounter the same story as the eponymous Cthulhu-like Octopus from the cover art reaches out and threatens to destroy everything it touches. Woah. Songs like “Interglacial Spell,” “Fall of the Empire,” “Trading Dark Matter On The Stock Exchange” help build this über nerdy and often psychedelic concept into something that is worthy (and surpasses) many sci-fi movies and books of recent years. Any album that has an un-ironically song titled “Planet of Insects” on it needs to be given a high five. The album’s centerpiece is “Interstellar,” an otherworldly jam that Amplifier literally kicks it into “overdrive” by taking the listener on a trip to a distant sun “faster than a laser beam” (cue Amplifer’s laser beam sound drop) to explore far away galaxies. This sublime and, again, non-ironic 10+ minute prog fueled track crescendos with the revelatory notion that traveling faster than light is the only way to be “truly free.”

While this not a conventional pick for album of the year it’s been a long time since an album so thoroughly invaded my listening hours so I got to give credit where it’s due. Spanning two discs (what are those?) and an impossible to market sound/concept, The Octopus is in instant classic. This is a hopeful indication that music’s future has the potential to be, to borrow that Amplifier lyric, truly free when more artists realize that the narrow minded record industry is hurting the music scene more than it’s helping it at this curious stage in its evolution.


2. Radiohead
King of Limbs + King of Limbs From the Basement

Loving this album takes work and dedication. One must earn it’s respect before it whispers its secrets to you. Just another Radiohead album in other words. I was just as underwhelmed by Limbs as so many other fans were but the album’s beguilingly uneventful melodies, hypnotic rhythms and sleepy lyrics/vocals lingered far longer then I expected after my first listen. I called it a work of lazy brilliance and I would still call it that today except when I say it now I mean it as a compliment. While most are ranking Limbs just above Pablo Honey as the worst Radiohead album to date, I would argue that this is in fact Radiohead’s best album since their similarly impenetrable Amnesiac. Like that A+ album, soon after my lethargic reaction I found myself re-listening to it almost daily (alongside a superlative live version of Limbs featuring two new tracks  “The Daily Mail” and “Staircase” and a decent enough remix album called TKOL RMX 1234567) without known why. Now that the year has ended I still don’t have very good grip on the album because my approach differs from one listen to the next. There are no shortcuts to Limbs. The album’s ability to grow and evolve over time will (hopefully) earn it more fans in the years to come.

3. Puscifer
Conditions of my Parole

From looking at the cover art you would think this album was a goof. Wigs, fakes moustaches and prison outfits. Is Maynard James Keenan doing another one of his Mr. Show type skits in album form? Far from it. Crazy but fun live shows aside, Puscifer’s two album releases have been very sober (Tool pun intended).  It’s hard to convey the level of success this album reaches. It took me a few listens to orient myself to the reality that this is, in fact, a very serous and even soulful album. Elements of industrial, alt-rock and even country wash over you as the mellifluous Maynard croons and groans into the abyss of a digital oblivion. This album stands as Maynard’s most mature and deeply felt effort to date. No “Cuntry Boners” here. While low key, this is an accomplished work that has the potential to appeal to fans of Tool, A Perfect Circle and those who don’t like either. That it ranks with the best of Maynard’s previous efforts is no small feat.


4. The Horrors
Skying

How did this album not make it on more best of lists?! I don’t want to jinx the band but we really could be looking at the moder version of The Clash. Their last album snagged my song of the year (“Sea Within a Sea”) and a spot in my top five. I was blindsided by The Horrors’s Primary Colours album in 2008. Many were along with me (NME for one). And many, like me, figured The Horrors would never recover from such unexpected burst of brilliance (a.k.a. Franz Ferdinand Syndrome). Well, the band blindsided me again on Skying.I should stop being surprised when The Horrors makes a great album. It shall now be assumed that they’re going to make something this outrageously good. In an interesting twist, this new album is a departure from last. Instead of playing it safe and recapturing the gothic-punk magic of Colours, The Horrors decided to evolve into a sound that’s less Horrors and more in tune with British alt-rock bands like Doves and British Sea Power as well as a number of older influences (some shoegaze). Skying is not only better than anything from those two (great) bands have but the best thing The Horrors has ever produced. More to come.


5. PJ Harvey
Let England Shake

I was a huge fan of Harvey’s last album (the dreamy White Chalk) because it was such a wonderfully realized departure from her usual alt/indie rock brilliance. I am a bigger fan of this album however because it is such a strong example of what Harvey does best. Lively rock with a real sense of spirit guiding it along. Let England Shake is (another) rousing achievement for Harvey who has no shortage of those. It is required listening for any Anglophile and a perfect example of England’s sad and solitary duty of keeping rock music alive (7 out of my top 10 albums are from UK artists!). Lyrically, it’s the smartest album released all year as well as the most spiritually enriching. It goes beyond genres to reach the very soul of a nation. And the listener.


6. The Kills
Blood Pressures

The Kills took matters to a new level (and genre) with Blood Pressures, transitioning from what was once a decent enough punk band that, on the album Midnight Boom, achieved a sloppy form greatness almost by accident. Oddly enough I think Alison Mosshart’s stint with the abominable Jack White garage blues band The Dead Weather (let us never utter than band’s name again) somehow rubbed off on The Kills, preserving the best elements (what little there were) from Dead Weather (ack!) while shit-canning the bloated country/rock indulgences. If you want to be blown away by how good The Kills have become then listen to the track “Nail In My Coffin” off Blood Pressures. Or you could listen to just about any song here. Really, it’s that good. Blood Pressures has a smoky, bluesy sound that fits beautifully with the band’s usual guttural rock howls. The Kills nailed this album so hard that they even managed to outdo The Black Keys’s El Camino in 2011.


7. Steven Wilson
Grace for Drowning

The criminally underrated Steven Wilson’s Insurgentes solo album was a cool little side project that showed off Wilson’s penchant for rocking by his lonesome. This album is a full fledged experience good enough to be put in the same company as his seminal modern prog band Porcupine Tree. The stream of consciousness songs, spread over two discs, range in influence from Mars Volta’s jazzy dissonance, Depeche Mode’s industrial synths, movie soundtracks and too many classic prog albums to count (Yes, Floyd, early Genesis etc.). A song like “Track One” begins with a Beatles-esq sound and follows that up with a few minutes of Nine Inch Nails gloom only to end with a fluffy guitar riff. This organized chaos is why this album is such a big deal. Much as the classic progressive movement mixed and matched sounds in the 70s, Steven Wilson samples form that period and goes one step beyond by adding a modern touch of alt-rock, electronic and metal. It is a truly modern progressive masterpiece; completely original in its ambitious wide-screen soundscapes. There’s even a 20+ minute track! Indulgent, yes, but that’s the quiddity of this genre. When such a skilled musician is indulging in his craft at this high a level it’s best to shut up and just take in the experience.


8. Elbow
Build a Rocket Boys!

Guy Garvey is like a modern rock version of Frank Sinatra except way cooler and actually a talented.  Elbow, the most grown-up and downright classy alternative rock band around, has crafted their most grown up album. The band’s shimmering Build a Rocket Boys may not be as visionary as their Mercury Prize winning Seldom Seen Kid (or its equally wonderful live counterpart) but it’s actually better in a lot of ways. For one, as with The Kills and many other bands on the list this year, it’s Elbow’s most consistent effort. One soulful song smoothly shifts into another, starting off low key and swelling into a lush anthem of melancholy redemption. I listened to the proggy song “Birds” more times than I can count (it’s the perfect song to walk dogs to) and consider it in the running for song of the year. Another potential best-of for Elbow, “Neat Little Rows,” manages to make the gloomy prospect death beautiful in a strange way. Elbow is the perfect band for anyone raised on 90s music and wants to listen to something dignified but not boring for a change.

9. Yacht
Shangri-La

So many things from this band and for that matter this album should annoy me. Vegan hipster hippies Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans cawing endlessly about extremely shallow new-age spiritual matters and pretty much nothing else. Sample lyric sound like this “Don’t you worry about god up above, we’re going to live life in… LOVE” or this “If your enemies cause you cancer then we’ll find a cure for you and bring it to the club, yeah bring it to the club!” There’s also song about “Paradise engineering” or (some such shit) that goes “If there is a hell/ that’s where I belong/for breaking all these rules/and singing all these songs.” Fuck off, posers! Except… don’t. Yacht pulls it off. And I can understand why; this album would annoying if it wasn’t so groovy. Perhaps it’s the playful sense of fun the duo brings to each song that keeps it alive and popping for every ecstatic second of its 44 minute running time. Laughable lyrics and messages aside, there’s hardly a misfire in the whole album. With its rousing anthem “the earth, the earth, the earth is on fire,” Dystopia is one of the all-time best 80s songs not released in the 80s. Yacht rocks every track as if it’s the last thing they’ll ever do before the metaphorical “end” they so love to muse over before invariably twisting that subject to focus on revolutions and new beginnings. Shangri-La is one of the more successful 80s electronic throwbacks ever, full of catchy hooks and a vocal approach by Evans that is so bad it’s downright charming. She makes Karen O look like a seasoned Opera singer. Unlike O’s Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, Yacht seems to be incapable of making a bad album.

10. Mastodon
The Hunter

Mastodon makes a super conventional rock album yet somehow figured out how to rock just as hard within the usually damning confines of mainstream metal. The album may not be as ambitious as the brilliant Crack the Sky (or Leviathan or Blood Mountain etc.) but it’s a wonderfully managed effort that will hopefully gain this esteemed metal band some much needed new fans who could very well be eased into the metal scene thanks to The Hunter. Take a song like “Curl of the Burl” for instance. First off, it’s brilliant. Second, it’s fucking brilliant. Third, I have no idea what a curl is or, for that matter, a burl, but I love them all the same and have become quite fond of belting out “it’s just the curl of the burl, that’s just the way of the woooooooorld!” when nobody except my Pug is around. It’s the band’s best song to date despite being the kind of track the woolly metal thrashers would not have been able to pull of on past albums that were defined more by epic metal ruminations than straight forward iPod friendly tunes. If it sounds like I’m dancing (or moshing) around the fact that the band has sold out, I am, but so what, this is the kind of “selling out” that is good because it maintains a high level integrity while offering something more accessible and polished to fans and non-fans of this neglected genre. If rock is dead then metal is REALLY dead so this is a good thing. Metalica could learn a thing or two (or five thousand) from Mastodon’s latest album.


11. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
I was enthralled by Reznor and Ross’s Social Network soundtrack. It showed a side of the Nine Inch Nails frontman that I had not seen; an album that is perfectly contained with a fascinating sense of experimentation with 8-bit sounds. It is one of the most revolutionary music scores of all time, proving that all soundtracks don’t have to sound like John Williams farted them out of his crusty tuba. Just a year later and Reznor (along with longtime producer Ross) did it again! Threefold! This epic album surprises but not in the same ways Social Network did. Like the Social Network soundtrack this soundtrack is better than the movie it’s based on. After getting into the murderin’ mood with a simmering cover of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” that manages the (easy) feat of being better than anything the overrated Zepplin has ever done (not counting Tool’s version of “No Quarter”), the album wallops you with an endless stream of brooding ambient textures. Deeply resonating  guitar riffs get the blood flowing on tracks like “A Thousand Details” while the ambient sounds textures chill it at the same time. Most surprising is the album’s length: 3 HOURS. As Trent Reznor instrumentals go that’s is positively Ghost-sized. The album’s length is perhaps excessive but I appreciate the extent to which Reznor is able to immerse the listener in David Fincher’s dark film world. It’s the kind of album where you press play and loose track of time only to wake up naked in the snow with a bloody knife in one hand and a cat’s head in another. Uh…

12. M83
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Not M83’s best album (more on par with Saturdays = Youth than Dead Cities) but despite a number of lulls and cheesy moments (the spoken word stuff has always been too emo), the album maintains the standards I expect from this dependable electronic band. Not only is there lots of gorgeous shoegazing but the 80s vibe (a trend in 2011) that Anthony Gonzalez infuses into his music gives Hurry Up a unique personality. I wasn’t aware of how much I liked this album until I realized that whenever a song would pop up on my iPhone’s shuffle I never skipped it. I have a feeling this album will grown on me in the months to come and while I look forward to my impendingly growing appreciation I do not look forward to the regret I will/might feel for not placing this in the top ten.

13. Battles
Gloss Drop
This is not a great Battles album but it is a great album that happens to have been made by a band that once called themselves Battles but, upon the departure of guitar/keyboard/vocalist Tyondai Braxton, just as soon abandoned the quirky prog electronic signatures that put them on the map, or Atlas as it were… this sentence needs to end.

14. Gang Gang Dance
Eye Contact
Great Great Album.15. Daft Punk and co.
Tron: Legacy Reconfigured
I never expected a remix album from a Disney movie (and a bad one at that!) to make it this high on any best of list. Not that my standards are that high but, well, it’s Tron we’re talking about here and as everyone knows by now: Tron sucks. While I really enjoyed Daft Punk’s first music soundtrack on its own terms I felt it was a perfect example of one of the world’s best bands being held back and creatively suffocated by the demands of a tame, zero risk taking cinematic vision. That Daft Punk survived the lamentable Tron debacle with a product that did not outright embarrass them just shows you how good they are. This album unloads (or downloads) more electronica awesomeness than you can shake an Ethernet cable at. It holds nothing back. It even brings to the foreground a lot of stuff I missed the first time around, showing just how complex the original soundtrack might actually be. This reconfiguration is almost what I would expect from Daft Punk if they approached the initial soundtrack as an actual album rather than a movie score. Featuring re-interpretations from electronica acts like M83, Ki:Theory, Moby and Photek, Reconfigured is that rare remix album that surpasses the original mix!

16. Justice
Audo, Video, Disco

The album was put at a disadvantage by the fact that everyone expected it to top †. Well, that’s not happening –not by Justice or anybody– but, seriously, that’s not a good reason to grimace one’s way through the likable Audio, Video, Disco. Anyone not hooked by a song like “Civilization” might not have a pulse. As the album title promises, this new Justice album is full of infectious 70s/80s era disco house dance songs that are easily as good if not better than anything Lindstrom has done in the last few years.

17. St. Vincent
Strange Mercy
In 2011 the masses were placated by the phony, slightly-above-American-Idol-standard stylings of Adele. Fools! For the people who knew what the fuck is up however there was St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) who, on Strange Mercy, took full command of her sound (arty pop on par with the likes of Annie and Nellie Mckay) and converted a lot of listeners like me who were on the fence after her underwhelming Actor debut.

18. Tom Waits
Bad as Me
Sometimes I want an artist to innovate. Other times I’m perfectly content with hearing them do what they do best. Waits has made a traditional album that only he is capable of. Only Waits could sing a song from the point of view of the last leaf on a tree as winter approaches (winter is coming!) and make you feel emotional connected. Full of growls and an indescribable carnival-gone-wrong sadness, the gravely master attains a nice concoction that, while not the powerhouse that Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards was, settles nicely in his accomplished catalogue.

19. Tim Hecker
Ravedeath, 1972
Hecker’s last album An Imaginary Country made my top ten. Ravedeath, 1972 is actually better in retrospect. Every year I make room from some good ambient music and I have to say that Hecker is perhaps the best artist working in this genre right now. His music is truly addicting but I’ve never been able to capture why exactly because I suck at writing about music. At any rate Ravedeath (which sounds like a city in Skyrim) blankets the listener with well crafted shapes, sounds, tones and inexpressible emotions.

20. The Rapture
In the Grace of Your Love
Not even its status as the band’s worst album to date can stop The Rapture’s new entry from being great compared to most others. Like Radiohead and M83’s 2011 entries, it didn’t do much for me at first but I found myself revisiting this album countless times and getting into a surprising large number of songs such as the title track, “Miss You” and of course the band’s most popular song to date “How Deep is Your Love?” Very deep it turns out. The Rapture is a great band that has far too many albums to its name. MOAR!

Special Mention


21. Cliff Martinez
Drive
Another 80s throwback! I’ve been a huge Cliff Martinez fan every since hearing his score for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey.” His work on “Drive” however is an eye opening display of artistic growth. It’s just one of the many, many things that movie does perfectly. The fact that it works just as well as an album then as music in a film puts old Cliff in Trent Reznor’s company.

22. Washed Out
Within and Without
Provided 2011 with some much needed ccccccccccccccccccchhhhhhhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll.
23. Gorillaz
The Fall
The Fall is the Gorillaz’s most problematic album. As a huge Gorillaz fan I’m hesitant to even consider it cannon–it’s more of a side-project within the overall side-project that is the Gorillaz proper. An experiment within the experiment. After the “band” made Plastic Beach, the very best album of 2010, the non-animated frontman and creative hurricane behind the band (oh, and a little band called Blur) Damon Albarn decided to have a piss and record The Fall on his iPad while on the Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour (one of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever been to). Or so the story goes. It is not an ambitious album compared to the band’s last three high concept, highly collaborative efforts, and not even a very good album in some spots, but the fact that its any good at all (“Revolving Doors” is one of the band’s best songs) is a testament to Albarn’s creativity. After hearing The Fall I am now convinced that Albarn could literally make an album in his sleep and not have it suck.

24. Dream Theater and Opeth
A Dramatic Turn of Events and Heritage
Truly a banner year for prog as evidenced by Amplifier, Steven Wilson, Opeth and of course Dream Theater’s offerings. Dream Theater’s album continues the band progressive metal sound but, as with the equally solid (though far from fan favorite) Black Clouds & Silver Linings’s album, the band mixes things up with some softer, more concept driven passages that’s less metal and more classic prog. The album is heavy to be sure but Dream Theater lets the material breath and the results are successful. As for Opeth, Heritage is one of their most progressive and palatable albums to date. Like Dream Theater’s “watered down” (not in a bad way) album Heritage lacks some of the band’s more intense death metal signatures (perhaps due to Steven Wilson’s departure as a producer) but is a worthy addition to their impressive catalog. It may not be the album that Opeth purists of 2001-2005 (Blackwater Park, Blackwater, Park Damnation) have been asking for –demanding actually– but in all honesty this direction seems more organic. Not many artists can rock and growl through an intense death metal sound after almost 30 years.

25. You Love Her Coz She’s Dead
Self Titled
Let’s hear it for Nintendocore! What’s that you say, this band ripped off Crystal Castles? Well good on them! More bands should rip of Crystal Castles. After releasing some random tracks and EPs since 2008 this British band finally got enough material together put out this full length self-titled debut. It lives up to my hopes but does not exceed them. Like Castles, the tracks here are vigorous and abrasive and the 8bit sounds are welcome. While not as melodic or clever as either of Castles perfect albums, YLHCSD finds their niche and will hopefully continue to explore the boundaries of this genre.

26. British Sea Power (Valhalla Dancehall)
27. TV On The Radio (Nine Types Of Light)
28. Gruff Rhys (Hotel Shampoo + Atheist Xmas EP)
29. Florence + The Machine (Ceremonials)
30. Trail of Dead (Tao of the Dead)
31. The Chemical Brothers (Hanna Soundtrack)
32. Nicolas Jaar (Don’t Break My Love)
33. Yuck (Yuck)
34. Liturgy (Aesthethica)
35. Fleet Foxes (Helplessness Blues)
36. Gomez (Whatever’s On Your Mind)
37. Wilco (The Whole Love)
38.  Mike Morasky (Portal 2: Songs to Test By) Videogame soundtrack.
39. The Weeknd (House of Balloons)
40. Dum Dum Girls (Only in Dreams)

Guilty Pleasure Pick: Skrillex (Bangarang)–I will not apologize for having horrible taste in music.
Best Unsigned Band: Suns–A band worth checking out. I first heard them when they opened for Crystal Castles. Hear the album on their site for free.
Best Live Album: Radiohead (The King of Limbs Live From the Basement). Runner Up: Rush Time Machine: Live in Cleveland 2011
Best Live Show: Crystal Castles

Best Film Scores

  1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
  2. Drive by Cliff Martinez
  3. Hanna by The Chemical Brothers
  4. Jane Eyre by Dario Marianelli
  5. The Tree of Life by Alexandre Desplat

Best Video Game Score
Portal 2 by Mike Morasky. Runner Up: Skyrim 

Worst, Most Annoying and/or Most Overrated Albums of 2011

  1. Lady Gaga (Born this Way)
    Worst album of the year. Worst artist of the century. Worst music fad of, like, ever. On Born This Way the over-saturated Gaga persona sinks to new lows by sings agonizingly generic and unoriginal pop songs about individualism (a contradiction if ever there was one) while sucking a legion of fans into a hollow vortex of conformist-seeking pap and prefab pomp. Just looking at that whore-id album cover fills me with rage and sadness.
  2. Nickelback (Here & Now)
    Go & Away. Somehow Nickelback has outlived Creed.
  3. Adele (21)
    One word review: HYPE. Corporate pop soul without an ounce of anything resembling soul. Everyone fell for it. A perfect specimen of the American Idol generation. At least it’s a step up from Amy Winehouse.
  4. Daughtry (Break The Spell)
    Spell Broken.
  5. Owl City (All Things Bright and Beautiful)
    All things except this wretched album.
  6. Bon Iver (Bon Iver)
    The most overrated album of 2011. Every song is the same, which would be fine if any song was any good. This album manages the feat of being worse than For Emma. To borrow a Jack Black line from “High Fidelity,” this is sad bastard music.
  7. LMFAO  (Sorry for Party Rocking)
    Not as sorry as I am.
  8. Destroyer
    Daniel Bejar’s atonal and maddeningly smug voice ruins what would have otherwise been a mediocre album.
  9. Lou Reed & Metallica (Lulu)
    What the hell is going on here?! I expect crap from Metallica but not from Lou Reed. This confounding album makes Metal Machine Music look like a pop record.
  10. Red Hot Chili Peppers (I’m with You)
    Another turd from the eternally meh Chili Peppers.
  11. Beastie Boys (Hot Sauce Committee Part Two)
    The longest running novelty act in music history. Just shut up already!
  12. tUnE-yArDs (w h o k i l l)
    aN eXtreMely-uNpleAsaNT liSteniNg expERiencE. i muSt-bE oUt oF tOuCh-thouGh becAusE thIs feMalE veRsIoN o-f aniMaL-coLLective soMEhoW wOn eVeryboDy OveR.
  13. Coldplay (Mylo Xyloto)
    A full relapse. A rush of blood to the bowls.By favoring generic pop to their last few albums alternative sounds Coldplay hasn’t sucked this thoroughly since Parachutes