I think I listened to more new albums in 2011 than any other year of my life. Between searching for quality releases to review for my own blog and being asked to contribute to Popblerd!, my quest to find new music easily took me through a few hundred albums. Some I couldn’t make it past more than a couple songs before I knew it wasn’t for me. There were plenty of disappointments and yes, I’m looking at you Coldplay. Some were enjoyable, but not essential. But the beauty of music is when you find “those” albums, the ones that grab you instantly and announce to your ears that something special is happening here. The following are the eleven albums that moved me, grooved me and joined my ever growing list of favorites to be revisited time and again.
11. Other Lives, Tamer Animals
Oklahoma’s Other Lives have seen their profile grow in 2011, scoring an opening act gig with Bon Iver. They’ll gain even more much deserved exposure in 2012 as they’ll be supporting Radiohead during their U.S. tour. Their sophomore release is a cinematic folk/rock gem, akin to a soundtrack to a classic, long forgotten Western. Swelling strings dominate highlights such as “Old Statues” and “For 12”, while the title track is a piano based pop number that could appeal to the Coldplay crowd.
10. Jeremy Larson, They Reappear
I first came across Jeremy Larson’s music through a MySpace friend request four years ago. Given the amount of garbage that was prevalent on MySpace, I’m thankful his was a request I did not ignore. He returned in 2011 with a stunning achievement. Written, produced and almost entirely played by this super talent from Springfield, Missouri, They Reappear is a song cycle through life, love, and loss that sounds as if it were recorded with a full orchestra. But no, that is Larson meticulously recording every string part himself in the studio and creating an orchestra of one. His finest work to date.
9. Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now
If you’d have told me a new album by Duran Duran would make my Top Ten of 2011, I would have politely suggested professional help. I’ve been a Duran fan since their first album back in the early 80’s, but there hadn’t been an album worth raving over since 1988’s Big Thing. Then these pop music legends teamed up with Mark Ronson who helped them rediscover that classic Duran Duran sound and produce, at long last, the true follow-up to Rio. I’d swear some of these songs were long lost unreleased tracks from 1982 they sound so vintage Duran, but still fresh and current. From the ballad “Leave A Light On” to danceable nuggets “Girl Panic!” and “Being Followed” to album highlight, the sultry funk masterpiece “The Man Who Stole A Leopard”, Duran Duran returned to relevancy in a major way.
8. Bell X1, Bloodless Coup
The biggest band in Ireland not named U2, Bell X1 has enjoyed moderate success State-side, but not nearly as much as they should. This is a head scratcher to me. Their music is intelligent yet accessible, for my money Paul Noonan is one of the wittiest song writers in pop music today, and they’re often mentioned in the same breath as Coldplay, Radiohead and Talking Heads. Everything should be there for this band to be much bigger. Filled with swooning ballads, electronic influenced rock and pop tunes and the mind blowing album opener “Hey Anna Lena”, which would sound right at home on In Rainbows, Bell X1 delivered their best album yet in Bloodless Coup.
7. Adele, 21
I first heard 21 about a month before its release, loved it immediately, and knew this would be the one to blow Adele into the superstar stratosphere. Am I now sick to death of hearing “Rolling In The Deep”? Yes, and “Someone Like You” has reached over-saturation as well. But I can’t hold that against Adele; it’s nice to see a major talent with killer songs selling tons of records and getting over-played on the radio for once instead of the majority of the garbage that permeates the airwaves. Long after the 21 hype has died down and radio has moved on to the next big thing, it will still be a great album.
6. Radical Face, The Family Tree: The Roots
Ben Cooper returned late in the year with his latest project released under the Radical Face pseudonym. The first of an intended trilogy of Family Tree albums, The Roots is a lovely folk/pop journey through a fictional family’s early generations that will seemingly be fleshed out in the remaining two volumes. Cooper excels at melodic, acoustic and piano based music and The Roots is chock full of it from beginning to end. Compelling and a simply beautiful album.
5. James Vincent McMorrow, Early In The Morning
My introduction to the music of James Vincent McMorrow came courtesy of his fellow Irish musicians Bell X1, when he opened for them in 2010. It was one of those opening sets where a hush came over the audience immediately once McMorrow, armed with just an acoustic guitar and his mesmerizing voice, started his first song. His Early In The Morning came to the States this year and it’s another brilliant 2011 folk/pop release. If you like this genre of music and you’ve not yet heard this album, rectify this problem. From the wintry “Follow You Down To The Red Oak Tree” to the jumping “Sparrow And The Wolf”, McMorrow is in complete command of his craft. Recorded solo in a beach house in Ireland (insert Bon Iver comparison here), Early In The Morning is a spectacular debut.
4. Active Child, You Are All I See
It’s the rare album these days that haunts you upon first listen, but that is exactly what Active Child’s debut did to me. New Jersey’s Pat Grossi, a former member of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, utilizes his angelic falsetto to stunning effect throughout. Throw in his ethereal harp lines, a heaping portion of 80’s synth pop, various modern day electronic genres and a sprinkling of ambient and classical influences, and there wasn’t much else quite like it I heard released this year. There’s even an electro-R&B duet with How To Dress Well in “Playing House”. But You Are All I See truly shines on the heartbreaking “Hanging On” and album closer “Johnny Belinda”, an icy cool orchestral masterpiece topped off with Grossi’s magical, soaring vocal work.
3. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon opened his music up to a more collaborative effort in the studio this time around and avoided the dreaded sophomore slump in the process. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed this album much more than his debut. Covering different locations, moods and emotions, this is a warm, masterful creation. Even though arrangements are fleshed out with horns, synths, strings, you name it, Bon Iver never sounds over-produced. It’s no surprise this has ended up on so many year end Best Of lists and if there was a more gorgeous song than “Holocene” recorded this year, I’ve yet to hear it.
2. Dolorean, The Unfazed
Shame on me for just discovering the music of Dolorean this year. Since 2003 this Portland based band, led by Al James, has been releasing top notch music, drawing from folk, country and rock influences. The Unfazed serves as James’ masterpiece, an exploration of the end of a relationship that is at once deeply personal, but still highly relatable. On “Country Clutter” James sends one last kiss-off to his ex, singing “I have moved out, packed up my shit/if you find anything I left behind, well you can have it/Let it clutter up your life, the way you cluttered up mine.” But by album’s end he sits in wonderment at the feeling of falling in love again with someone new on “How Is It”. With melodies and harmonies for days, The Unfazed grabbed me back in January and never let go.
1. The Envy Corps, It Culls You
The Iowa-based Envy Corps have started selling a tongue in cheek T-shirt declaring themselves ‘Radiohead For Coldplay Fans’. As funny (and oftentimes true) as that is, It Culls You is better than the 2011 output from either of those bands. Three years in the making and self released after a stint on a major label that didn’t work out, Luke Pettipoole and company returned with a scintillating album that has not left heavy rotation for me since it dropped in August. Although still firmly entrenched in the melodic indie pop/rock field, the band gets downright funky on “Ms. Hospital Corners” and “Command+Q”, Pettipoole’s bass work crunches throughout. But it’s the nothing short of gorgeous tracks like “Give It (All) Up” and “In The Summer” with its haunting guitar line circling in your head that carry the most emotional weight here. Sometimes it is difficult to express in words how a particular album makes you feel. It Culls You staggered me on the first listen and its brilliance has only grown with each play.