As someone who usually finds himself spinning the same couple dozen favorites over and over again, joining the Popblerd! team gave me new reason to leave my musical bubble and dive head first into the year’s new music. Needless to say, it was a wonderful experience. I ended up with over thirty albums all told in my final tally of the year’s best, but like any bad parent, I was able to pick favorites. So without further ado, here are my creme de la creme of 2011’s newest releases, told through the lens of a twenty-something white guy who likes folk, alternative, and indie rock way too much.
Mixing the front porch picking and stomping sounds of folk rock with the fire and brimstone imagery of a Jonathan Edwards sermon, The Builders and the Butchers’ newest album Dead Reckoning sounds like a record straight out of a backwoods Appalachian tent revival. Lead singer Ryan Sollee’s fiery and slightly off-kilter delivery is the perfect match for the driving drums and sharp twang of the rest of the band and provide a welcome respite from the atmospheric and laidback deliveries so common in modern folk works. It helps too that the band never once backs down from the album’s Pentecostal theatrics, so much so that you can’t help but believe them as Sollee barks “the whole world’s rotten to the core.” If you’re looking for a darker shade of folk rock, congratulations! You’ve found it.
#10. The King of Limbs by Radiohead
In retrospect, the lanky and mildly disturbing dance moves of Thom Yorke in the “Lotus Flower” music video are the perfect visual representation of Radiohead’s most recent studio album, a 37 minute tour of the dark, askew psyche of Yorke himself. Though a far more unsettling and abstract album than In Rainbows, the spacey and looser arrangements, at least for me, lend themselves to a more fulfilling listening experience. It’s undeniably eerie in a way that only Radiohead can be, and one that really grows on you with repeated listens, especially if you allow yourself to get sucked into the album’s diverse soundscapes, from the chill of opener “Bloom” to angelic swells of closer “Separator”.
#9. Mirror Traffic by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
In a year where many artists were embracing increasingly dense and intricate arrangements, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks managed to stand out with their straightforward indie rocker Mirror Traffic. Heavy on guitar and melody, the album boasts more than its fair share of hooks (“I know what the senator wants is a blowjob” may be the best sing-along of the year) and works simply because the songs get in your head and stay there. The styles themselves bounce all over the place, from the quiet acoustics of “No One Is (As I Are Be)” to the full speed ahead drive of “Tune Grief”, yet somehow it all feels like it belongs.
#8. Nine Types of Light by TV on the Radio
Rich, layered, and at times even sexy (thanks to Tunde Adebimpe’s soulful crooning), TV on the Radio’s latest is a welcome return for these consummate art rockers. Once again, the band manages to come across as both smart and groovy as hell, keeping you head bobbing as the band waxes philosophical on the likes of corporations and Beverly Hills culture. But, most importantly, the guys of TVOR seem to be having more fun than ever, and that sheer joy comes through loud and clear. It may seem weird for highbrow rock to be this grin inducing, but just go with it.
#7. Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls
The famous Oscar Wilde quote “Talent borrows, genius steals” comes to mind when listening to the latest Girls album, and in no way is that a slag on the band. Despite drawing heavily from the likes of Elvis Costello, the Beach Boys, and countless other acts from the 60s and 70s, the San Francisco indie rockers manage to produce a work that seems utterly their own in nearly every way. From the sun and surf of “Honey Bunny” to the sprawling Pink Floyd-isms on “Vomit”, Father, Son, Holy Ghost revels in its clear melodies and emotional earnestness, with equal parts heartbreak and celebration. In a world where lyrical obscurity is equated with musical genius, Girls proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves, in the best way possible.
#6. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
You can almost smell the patchouli amidst the harmonic layers of Helplessness Blues, an album that owes more than its fare debt to the folk revival music of the 60s. But the way the vocals, strings, and percussion melt together transcends any single time period. This is masterful songcraft, plain and simple, a modern day orchestra so deep you can get lost in it for days. Ambitious without ever feeling pretentious, melodic without ever feeling trite, Fleet Foxes have crafted a soaring, beautiful record that speaks to almost everyone, regardless of beard length.
For those disappointed by Coldplay’s latest (and if the reviews were any indication, there are more than a few of you), Elbow has the answer. Dealing in the same style of atmospheric and emotional composition, Build a Rocket Boys! is a sprawling celebration of the everyman, sweeping and triumphant in its mundanity. As rich in nostalgia as it is in uplifting melodies, Guy Garvey and company have produced a touching reflection on the universal experience of growing up and all the uncertainty it entails. Also, call me biased, but anthems of humanity like these sound far more believable when they aren’t coming from the guy married to Gwyneth Paltrow. Sorry Chris…
#4. Ceremonials by Florence + the Machine
I enjoyed Florence + the Machine’s debut Lungs, but that album at times felt a bit disjointed. That’s not a criticism I can level at their follow-up, Ceremonials, however, an emotional, powerful, and at times even spiritual tour-de-force of an album. Hinging on the expansive pipes of lead singer Florence Welch, the album delves into darker, more mature territory, dispensing with the winking irony of earlier tracks like “Kiss with a Fist” (and for the better). Ceremonials feels like the work of an artist coming into her own, both artistically and as a person, a breathtaking concerto bold enough to fill a gothic cathedral. It’s Kate Bush without the strange flights of fancy, Celine Dion but artistically viable, and Sinead O’Connor with fantastic red hair. In a word: wonderful.
#3. So Beautiful or So What by Paul Simon
He’s been making music for nearly five decades, but few artists have remained as consistently vibrant and modern as Paul Simon. His latest, So Beautiful or So What, mixes his undeniable popcraft with the expected world music influences of his latter day efforts into a lively, focused, and toe tapping ten song journey. Insightful, groovy, and at times even humorous as it tackles questions of God, mortality, and evil in a way that only someone like Simon can, So Beautiful or So What feels as contemporary as it does classic. While artists like the Stones rest on their laurels, Simon continues to extend his legacy as the bard of a generation.
#2. Bon Iver by Bon Iver
From the opening guitar line of “Perth”, I knew I was going to like Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album. As a writer, I hate it when I have to struggle to find the right adjectives to describe what I experience, but I am almost at a loss on how to describe Bon Iver other than to call it exceedingly beautiful. It’s an album that grabs you almost immediately, yet is layered and nuanced enough to reveal new depth a dozen spins layer. Less a story than emotions captured in audio format, the album never relies on one sonic texture to move its songs forward, basking instead in the intricacies of its arrangements. It’s a case study in emergence, an entity whose whole is far more than the sum of its parts. It may not always be hummable, but the songs get in your head in a way few albums can.
You’d hardly expect a hardcore punk band to release a 78 minute album, let alone one that bills itself as an ambitious rock opera telling a story of love and loss experienced by a light bulb factory worker in late 70s England. Yet somehow Fucked Up has managed to not only undertake one of the year’s most ambitious projects but despite all odds make it work almost flawlessly. The interplay of the band’s dense walls of melodic, distorted guitar and frontman Pink Eye’s aggressive bark produces a sound that is utterly unique yet immediately engaging, and the occasional guest female singers further widen the sonic canvas. Through its lengthy runtime, the album moves effortlessly from the glowing highs of love on tracks like “Queen of Hearts” (a personal favorite) to lows of loss and depression in the albums second act and then back again. But despite the lengthy narrative, the album works just as well on a track by track basis. The songs stick with you and feature more than their fair share of hooks and choruses. It’s a rare album that is equally at home blasting on a car stereo or quietly meditated on, lyrics sheet in hand. David Comes to Life proves that the rock opera still has its place in music.