Between The Concrete and Clouds is perhaps Devine’s calmest album, but it is also his fullest instrumentally. Lush atmospheres complement Devine’s sensitive crooning like we have never heard before, and his lyricism here is brilliant enough to stand alongside former tour mates Jesse Lacey and Andy Hull. This is an essential listen for anyone whose taste leans towards alternative rock and/or acoustic songwriting…definitely one of Kevin Devine’s most mature and complete recordings.
Utilizing a minimalist approach to achieve a sense of calm still, this album is strikingly reminiscent of an afternoon spent lazily staring out the window while droplets of water collect on the outside edge of the sill. The soft, supple arrangements and electronic inclusions contribute to a natural flow within the album that makes it quite the cohesive work – with nary a forced or artificial moment to break up the magic created by string after string of beautiful, almost celestial, atmospheres. Full of spacey, haunting, and charged atmospheres, Sleepingdog have once again shown us that less can be more.
Sample: “He Loved to See the World Through His Camera”
New Heaven sounds eerie, unfamiliar, and unpredictable the majority of the time. This can be directly traced to 1,2,3’s unlikely fusion of indie-folk with harder, borderline industrial rock and heavy doses of electronica. They waste no time enveloping you in their unique brand of experimentation, and somewhere between the thunderous drum beats, searing guitar riffs, and gentle, rural-vibe acoustic strumming, it is impossible not to become immersed in this imaginative world that 1,2,3 have crafted.
Sample: “Heat Lightnin”
I Was Here For A Moment, Then I Was Gone gives me hope that post-rock can still flourish. This album is ridiculously compelling. It is urgent, yet fragile and emotive. Its careful balance between gentle soundscapes and metal-leaning instrumentation keeps the record thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes purely instrumental compositions.
Sample: “Take This To Heart”
There’s something overwhelmingly peaceful about the cover of Sarabeth Tucek’s latest endeavor, Get Well Soon. While clearly a painting, it seems to divulge subtle undertones of harmony and tranquility through a row boat – one that rests on the still, glass-like surface of a small lake. The music of Tucek’s second album is definitely a reflection of that image, plunging into a rich but organic acoustic atmosphere that would never reveal what Sarabeth was actually going through at the time: the tragic passing of her father due to a massive heart attack. But upon careful listening, somber moments and moving tributes can be found around every corner of Get Well Soon, as Sarabeth Tucek displays admirable doses of fortitude and delivers the simplest yet most moving album of her young career.
Perhaps no album came as a bigger surprise (at least to me) in 2011 than Keep You Close, a release from a band that I hadn’t even heard of until discovering the title track. That track, like the record as a whole, features magnificent vocal harmonies, dense alt-rock atmospheres, and swelling violins. It all blends together in a way so satisfying that you will begin to wonder yourself why you haven’t heard of them before.
Sample: “Keep You Close”
The Boxer Rebellion have crafted a sound that is undeniably haunting – something between the likes of Coldplay, Radiohead, and The National – and spread it out across layers of alt-rock ambiance. The instrumentation anchoring The Cold Still is almost exclusively geared towards concocting a vivid atmosphere, as the weighty drums, U2-like ooh ooh’s, and echoed acoustic picking all come into play at various points in the album. The wave-like progression from one track to another is expertly arranged, and it is just one aspect that allows the album to thrive to such an admirable extent. At ten songs that total just under forty minutes, The Cold Still will leave you salivating for more.
Sample: “Locked In The Basement”
Arrows and Anchors is discernibly different from prior endeavors by this band. The album’s sound maintains their progressive qualities, but also fuses it with heavy alt-rock and metal that ranges anywhere from System of a Down (“Rikki Tikki Tavi”) to Coheed and Cambria (“Golden Parachutes”). This is a record capable of satisfying fans from multiple different genres, and its complete lack of hesitation to try new and weird things makes it one of the most interesting listens of 2011.
Sample: “Whiskey & Ritalin”
Means is a raw affair, charged by frantic drumming and angst-ridden riffs that give the album a definite punk feel; one that is also accessible enough for a mainstream audience. The record is packed with eleven quick, punchy tunes that will have listeners tapping their feet, rocking in their seats, and occasionally even jumping out of them. Brown’s perfect-for-punk vocals, Littler’s short but effective electric riffs, and Rogers’ audible bass contributions make this a full band effort – one that occasionally packs a punch comparable to the Ramones in their heyday.
Sample: “Scream Walk”
Yellowcard’s seventh studio album is a gentle nudge towards tomorrow, reminding us to always keep an eye on the road ahead. If the band’s reunion wasn’t symbolic enough to convey that very notion, then the opening track ‘The Sound of You and Me’ makes certain to ring it loud and clear. With lines like “someday everything ends” and “I’ve never been more ready to move on” lead vocalist Ryan Key sets the tone for change. There are definitely still tracks that reminisce, but they always manage to bring the lyrics full circle and tie it to the future in a positive way. From start to finish, this is an album that does everything it can to lift your spirits and point you in the right direction…and amazingly, most of the time it does a pretty damn good job.
Sample: “The Sound of You and Me”
I didn’t think anything could top Lungs, but lo and behold, Florence and The Machine had to go proving me wrong with their very next release. Ceremonials may not have as many stand out hits, but it is a better complete album. It is darker than the band’s debut, and it also fulfills a lot of the promise laid out by Lungs a few years ago. As you would probably expect, Florence Welch is what makes this record. Her distinctly powerful voice and sinister lyrics drive this thing forward, and there are many spine chilling moments to await listeners from what has become one of rock music’s best female-led groups.
Sample: “Leave My Body”
Major/Minor carries darker undertones which are brought to the surface by a heavier overall style. Moments that would have been filled with soft croons and acoustic passages on recent works are now characterized by coarse vocals, controlled/melodic screams, and sludgy, temperamental electric guitar riffs. The album never makes a full return to the intensity of Thrice’s youthful days, and there is nary a ‘Deadbolt’ present here, but Major/Minor treads on at a consistent level that never sacrifices its fire at the wrong time. Perhaps it is yet another byproduct of Thrice’s ever-growing wisdom, but this is a record that knows when to amp up its sound, when to slow it down, when to balance tempos, and when to fill a void with plain silence. The band’s ability to prove their vitality without sacrificing a single aspect of maturity is nothing short of admirable, and it is just another reason why Major/Minor is able to grow and progress within itself for almost a full hour.
There is a peaceful, almost sublime air surrounding Lance Ferguson’s first solo release. The Bamboos’ front man, who goes by the moniker Lanu, has collaborated with Australian vocalist Megan Washington to compose an album that is equal parts indie, dream pop, and electronica. Her 12 Faces blends these eclectic styles effortlessly and yields something so pure and smooth that it hardly feels like a fusion of anything at all. With heavily textured atmospheres, funk undertones, and a laid back Caribbean vibe, Lanu has bestowed upon us the perfect summer album.
Sample: “Hold Me Down”
Justin Vernon’s sophomore release is a flourishing, pastoral folk album that will elevate you to the pristine mountains of northwestern Wisconsin. There, you will find that not only has Vernon prepared another rich and vibrant soundscape for you, but that he has also put some coal on the fire to take the chill off the wintry For Emma gusts that still occasionally leak through the drafty, boarded-up cabin walls. Synths and strings sway liberally, horns blast out joyfully, and Justin Vernon sings in a delightfully soulful falsetto that, like a warm cup of cocoa in front of the fireplace, will put you in a trance. Seriously, did you expect anything else?
The last time we heard Coldplay, they were gently closing the door on 2008’s smash success Viva La Vida with chants of “I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.” Suffice to say, the only thing that has departed is their musical direction, as Mylo Xyloto ushers in a new era to follow a string of award winning albums dating back to their turn-of-the-millennium debut Parachutes. Although that brand of reserved, contemplative indie rock still surfaces periodically, it appears to be nothing more than a brief cameo in a much more diverse scheme. Mylo Xyloto presents us with a new Coldplay; one that isn’t afraid to indulge its every eccentricity. The result is a pop album bursting at the seams with vivacious melodies, along with electronic fibers that have been skillfully woven into their time-tested fabric to give fans something quite unlike anything they have ever heard.
Sample: “Princess of China” ft. Rihanna
Kiss Each Other Clean is the boldest step Iron & Wine has ever taken. Trading in Sam Beam’s trademark acoustic sound for a more multi-faceted approach is bound to come with its share of risks, including the polarization of his ever loyal fan base. He has pushed the boundaries of his music with his major label debut, spurring a transformation towards a style that is completely fresh and, remarkably, every bit as fascinating as his celebrated back catalog. The result is an album unlike anything Iron & Wine has created to date, one that is saturated in a pool of exciting new ideas and musical directions.
Sample: “Walking Far From Home”
I would like you to take a moment and study the cover of the album. What adjectives come to mind? Frigid, desolate perhaps? Or maybe unfamiliar and distant? Anything is really possible based on your perceptions, and even though the cover has a bleak, wintry look, I was immediately welcomed by its outward appearance. Something about it, even with its solemnly gray artwork, told me it was just a shell – and that underneath that exterior, something much warmer was waiting to be embraced. As the opening strums of ‘Michigan’ graced my ears, I couldn’t help but crack a smile because I could tell that Prologue would end up being everything I hoped it would be. ‘Michigan’ is nothing short of a perfect introduction, demonstrating the crystal clarity of the slow rhythmic strumming, the more intricate picking, and the swaying-in-the-breeze vocal harmonies that surface frequently throughout the duration of Prologue.
England Keep My Bones is the perfect tribute to one’s homeland. Frank Turner sings the praises of England, as can be heard in the delicate ‘Rivers’ and the more exuberant ‘Wessex Boy.’ However, he also celebrates everything from rock n’ roll to atheism. I could go on for quite some time listing all the reasons why this album is a timeless masterpiece, but to make a long story short, this is just one grand celebration of life. Find out for yourself by listening to the sample below entitled ‘Glory Hallelujah.’
Sample: “Glory Hallelujah”
The King is Dead is an album that is difficult to completely take in the first time. The sudden change in style from over-the-top concepts to a quietly confident, country-tinged record might portray an initial illusion that this is rather dull. But fear not, because such a first impression is just that – an illusion. The Decemberists deserve all the credit in the world for avoiding both of the possible pitfalls following The Hazards of Love: an uneventful snoozefest indicative of change for the sake of change, or even worse, another overblown, fully-realized rock opera. The King is Dead, for all of its undoing of previous material, is actually a progression in The Decemberists’ sound. This is the kind of moment we all wait for. As music enthusiasts, hearing an artist play straight from the heart is as rewarding of an experience as any.
Sample: “January Hymn”
Helplessness Blues just may end up being one of the definitive folk albums of our generation. Fleet Foxes have combined the melodic chants of their debut with a more fully realized sound. The acoustic based style, smooth flow between tracks, and deep lyrics combine to make one remarkably unforgettable experience. Even the instrumental track – ‘The Cascades’ – is breathtaking. If you have not yet boarded the Fleet Foxes bandwagon, I suggest you do so now.
Sample: “Helplessness Blues”
It is obvious from the get-go that Burst Apart is in an entirely different vein than Hospice, with a sparkling, up-tempo sound propelled by the combination of glittery guitars, spacey drumming, and dynamic keys. Silberman’s falsetto still more than gets the job done, and it is often the peak of the song….however, he is no longer the main catalyst moving The Antlers forward, as that responsibility is now far more evenly distributed amongst the trio of musicians. They do a splendid job of gelling as a band and sharing responsibilities, and Burst Apart is much better off for it.
Hailing from Gainesville, Florida, Papercranes is not exactly a household name in folk/alternative rock. In fact, everything about them begs to be left alone. Their raw sound doesn’t aim to please anyone besides themselves, and their work is an indication of the reclusive style that they integrate into their music. Papercranes’ sophomore effort, Let’s Make Babies in the Woods, is a spiraling stream of consciousness expedition into front woman Rain Phoenix’s mind, a black and white soundscape of hurt and abandonment. With folk and psychedelic influences as the impetus, everything from Phoenix’s tortured wails to the music’s underlying depression is put on full display during this unpolished gem.
Hey Rosetta! possesses an ever-changing rock sound throughout all of Seeds. It twists and it turns, often without warning, and leaves you no choice but to continue listening. It is completely accessible and very easy to get into, yet never boring. From the epic build up in the opening track to the absolutely gorgeous closing of ‘Yer Fall’, Hey Rosetta! deliver track after track of memorable, diverse rock n’ roll with an indie flavor. Easily one of the best albums of 2011, and sadly, it doesn’t get anywhere close to the amount of recognition that it deserves.
Sample: “Yer Fall”
The Color Spectrum is an impressively consistent and shockingly varied album from a band that is likely gain a whole new level of respect as a result. It takes your ears and your mind to destinations that you never thought The Dear Hunter was capable of going before. It rocks out with songs like ‘Filth and Squalor.’ It brightens your day (‘A Sua Voz’). It puts you on the quiet hills of the countryside (‘Crow and Cackle’), and then takes you out to the hottest night club in town (‘Therma’). The Color Spectrum may not be perfectly executed from a conceptual perspective, but you have to hand it to The Dear Hunter for trying because they end up making one hell of a rock album in the process. In fact, The Color Spectrum may be most appreciated when listened to as nothing more than that; or perhaps when observed as nine individual EPs instead of one cohesive work. Either way, it is difficult to find flaws damning enough to consider this anything other than one of 2011’s premier releases in alternative rock. It is simply too grand – too overwhelmingly impressive in its scope – not to be enjoyed by fans of all genres. The Dear Hunter present to us their crowning achievement to date; enjoy it.
Sample: “Misplaced Devotion”
Simple Math is colossal in every way imaginable. It takes every hint of brilliance that Manchester Orchestra has subtly displayed in I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child and Mean Everything to Nothing, and nurtures and cultivates it into the single greatest sounding thing that the band has ever and likely ever will create. At times glossed over with heart-swelling strings and at other times perfecting the band’s nitty gritty sound from songs like “Shake It Out”, Simple Math is the perfect balance of Manchester Orchestra’s best traits. It is utterly breathtaking upon first listen, and every subsequent listen will only cause your jaw to drop an additional inch or two. It will stand the test of time as it makes its mark on a generation, simultaneously inspiring others to follow in its footsteps. This is simply the greatest album to be released in the past five years, and it will be worth every drop of hyperbolic acclaim that it receives.
Sample: “Simple Math”