30. Deafheaven – Roads To Judah
Riding on the curtails of a buzzing demo, followed by the left-field addition into hardcore/metal label Deathwish, Bay Area’s own Deafheaven is a poster child of success this year. Essentially springing up out of nowhere, their own special blend of “My Bloody Valentine meets Weakling” has spring boarded them into the limelight, reaching and relating to fans of multiple genres and styles. Roads To Judah carries so much depth as an album that its nearly unimaginable to believe that it’s only a debut, leaving the door open for countless possibilities and directions as to which path this enigmatic group will tread upon next. Whether its the shoegazey haze of ‘Violet’, to the post-rock/black metal hybrid of ‘Unrequited’, Roads To Judah is a melting pot of various musical styles that blend together to create one of the most memorable debut albums this generation has ever seen. – ThisLifeisGenocide
29. Protest The Hero – Scurrilous
“Vulgar verbal abuse; foul-mouthed; coarse, abusive, or slanderous,” reads the dictionary definition of “scurrilous”, which, while a more-than-decent descriptor of Canadian progressive metal band Protest the Hero’s (PtH) third studio effort, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Scurrilous sees PtH indulging in shenanigans that frankly didn’t seem possible during their unpolished (but much-heralded) Kezia and Fortress eras. Most evident of all is their blatant excising of a lot of their hardcore influences, swapping their trademark harsh, syncopated rhythms for more purposeful and quirkily-timed shredding. Songs like ‘C’est La Vie’, ‘Moonlight’, and the utterly vile ‘Sex Tapes’ exhibit this sonic evolution best, operating as they do off a gamut of arpeggio speed runs, some muscular metal riffing, and sharply polished vocal hooks courtesy of the inexhaustible Rody Walker.
While many PtH fans might be dismayed by the fact that Scurrilous didn’t come bound together by a central lyrical theme, and was intended to operate instead as a loose collection of high velocity metal tracks, to dismiss it out-of-hand would be a huge mistake, for this deliberate lack of focus has visibly unshackled the band on many fronts, allowing them to explore new ground that they were not able to previously. Indeed, Walker sums it best when he intones on ‘Tandem’ that, “This isn’t a eulogy, or a requiem/Just a few words I’ve sketched out/Cause I haven’t said them.”
Slanderous words? You decide. – Irving
28. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
I feel so incredibly sorry for those who consider themselves die-hard fans of the Foo Fighters – I really do. I mean, it must be ridiculously hard to keep supporting the same band valiantly for the greater part of the last two decades, knowing that each and every one of their six releases thus far has constantly managed to fall short of the band’s full potential.
Thankfully though, the Foo Fighters seem to have finally bucked the trend with the arrival of Wasting Light. This studio effort – the Foos’ seventh – hits like a brickbat to the face from the word “go”, with first track ‘Bridge Burning’ staking a fierce claim to the title of the year’s best opening song: galloping drums tumble out from under a series of raw and tremendously agreeable guitar riffs, as Dave Grohl puts in an absolutely savage vocal shift and practically carries the song across the finish line on his own. But don’t let this rollicking opener fool you, for there are quieter (note that I use this term relatively) moments elsewhere (‘I Should Have Known’; ‘These Days’), and even a few random, unapologetic breaks from the Foos traditional songwriting template (‘White Limo’; ‘Walk’).
Admittedly, Wasting Light does wax strangely avuncular at times – one hears a little of Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace in ‘A Matter of Time’, for instance, while there’s a lingering scent of In Your Honor’s wry, anthemic feel in both ‘Rope’ and ‘Dear Rosemary’ – but the Foos also appear to have encoded in this album’s DNA each lesson learnt from the shortcomings of their previous releases, which makes all the difference. All told, this really doesn’t feel like the slick and polished piece that one might expect of a band now entering its seventeenth (!) year of existence, but the honest work of a group of not-so-average-joes that just sincerely want to please. – Irving
27. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
A year ago hardly anyone, sans the most underground of musical connoisseurs, knew about a project known as The Weeknd. Now, a year and a couple hundred thousand fans later, Abel Tesfaye, better known by his moniker The Weeknd, has become one of the greatest underground hits since Danger Mouse’s controversial Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up in The Grey Album. And we all have his debut mixtape House of Balloons to thank for it. Shallow ranting of a drugged out club-goer or the dark confessions of a Jersey Shore cast member – Abel sings, croons, and raps about a side of society that is easily looked past as superfluous and irrelevant and reveals the true horror of it all. House of Balloons captures a drug induced party life, numb of any real emotional expression, and about as colorless as the mixtape cover suggests; becoming one of its main draw points for both the intellectual hipster and the swagged out frat boys. Whether a club banger like ‘Glass House Girls’ or a chilled out, after-party burner like ‘The Morning’, The Weeknd, with House Balloons, provides a soundtrack to some of the very best (and very worst) of a much misrepresented lifestyle of debauchery, recreational drug usage, and deep, bass driven music. – ThisLifeisGenocide
26. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972
For me, Tim Hecker has always been in the shadow of contemporary Aidan Baker, who is overwhelming with something like 3 records a year (some good, some average). With Ravedeath…, Hecker cements his place as one of the best in the ambient genre. As is further elaborated upon in a Pitchfork review, Ravedeath… is centered on the concept of ‘sonic decay’, shown through the juxtaposition created by the record’s two conflicting aesthetic forces. The record’s base is a foundation of organ work, recorded in an Icelandic church, to which Hecker later added electronic composition in the studio. The result is an ambient record that incorporates a fair share of drone and even glitch, but is not emotionally sparse or unaffecting like a lot of these minimalist styles can be. The ‘natural’ feel of the organ clashes with the almost artificial and lifeless electronic component, creating a haunting ambiance. Hecker seems to pursue the ‘masterpiece’ aura on every one of his records, and while several do come close, I believe Ravedeath… is his most accomplished work. The record is heavy and very invasive – the double LP might seem like too much of a good thing, but in these winter months it’s proven to be a steadfast companion and my unrivalled record of the year. – Rasputin
25. Submotion Orchestra – Finest Hour
If the best albums are the ones that put emotions, thoughts, and images into your head, then Finest Hour deserves to be thought of as one of the year’s most eclectic masterpieces. An unlikely fusion of dubstep, ambient electronic, soul, and freeform jazz, this collection of tightly coiled tunes constantly manages to evoke stirring images of cobbled streets, towering neon signboards, and smoke-ring halos every time it discharges from one’s speakers, with each new blaze of sound bringing with it another scene to dwell upon and never forget. These are the songs that you and your urbanite psyche have somehow known all your life – even if you’ve never actually lived in a city, hit up the local jazz club scene, or grinded the night away with a sensuous femme fatale on the dancefloor before.
Viewed through such a prism, Finest Hour’s creator – Submotion Orchestra, a 7-piece project out of Leeds – is probably better thought of as a musical architectural collective, capable of building and cementing concrete auditory forms in our heads, as opposed to a motley crew of diverse and seemingly-unrelated instrumentalists. Indeed, the musical structures speak for themselves: deep bass-driven grooves, practically dripping in reverb, find themselves erected right next to progressive, spacey textures, as syncopated drums combine with sonorous keyboards and chopped-up trumpet patterns to create a sound that is at once airy and heavy, yet both playful and pragmatic. While slick and sultry beats populate the inner workings of songs like ‘Pop & Lock’, others like ‘Back Chat’ find the band falling back on the simplest of things – in this case, a monochromic piano riff – to regulate both the freestyling excesses of celestial groove master Ruckspin and the propulsive, but wildly romantic, contemporary jazz influences of Simon Beddoe.
Elsewhere, vocalist Ruby Wood takes turns at sounding both seductive and painfully sincere throughout, with her voice’s incorruptible timbre working simultaneously as both a call to reason and desire. “You don’t need nobody else because all that you need is me,” she spells out on ‘All Yours’, gently telling us what we already knew all along. Yet, it’s not all aloof confidence and dancehall swagger for Wood: album opener ‘Angel Eyes’, for instance, finds her practically pleading and begging as she desperately ruminates, “When will my suffering end?/Will my angel eyes see you again?”. It is the unnerving juxtaposition of lines like these that squarely place Wood and the rest of her band in their rather unique niche as both contemporaries for the middle-aged and the representative voice of a disillusioned and lovelorn Generation Y. It’s a massive honour, to be sure, yet the sense is that Submotion Orchestra deserve it – Finest Hour is really that good. – Irving
24. CunninLynguists – Oneirology
An in-depth look into the darkest reaches of the human subconscious, Southern rap trio CunninLynguists pull out all the stops on their most recent album. Every aspect of Oneirology is top-tier; Natti, Deacon, and Kno are constantly at their A-game, delivering some of the most darkest and sinister rhymes of their career that range from the shockingly relevant, to the hysterically improbable. Yet for an album tied together by the strange worlds found in ones dreams, it makes all the impossibilities that might come up lyrically on Oneirology frightening real and tangible.
Stellar guest performances by the likes of Tonedeff, Big K.R.I.T., and Blue Sky Black Death only demand further praise to be heaped upon Oneirology, yet its crowning achievement could possibly be found behind the production board. Kno, already a well-established producer in his own right, has quite possibly crafted his magnum opus with Oneirology, perfectly complimenting the already dark themes with a moody atmosphere that only seems to get better and better the farther into the album they go. After four years of relative inactivity, Cunninlynguists have come back and released arguably their finest work to date in the form of Oneirology. – ThisLifeisGenocide
23. Swarms – Old Raves End
Swarms wow and dazzle with one of the most impressive and diverse debuts put forth in the world of electronic music in quite some time. Elements of dubstep and ambient come together as Old Raves End weaves often complex beats into swelling atmospheres of electronic breaths. The flowing, organic synths dance over autonomic, pulsing rhythms in beautiful contrast. Some tracks are treated to serene arrangements with more traditional instruments, hinting at the post-rock pedigree within the trio. The echoing lines of clean guitar in ‘Flikr of Ur Eyes’ are met with swelling bass, ethereal vocals, and the coming and going of programmed drum licks for five of the most transporting minutes in music in 2011. Don’t expect any mindless, ketamine-fueled club bangers here – just a collection of beautiful and thoughtfully crafted tracks of refreshingly original ambient dubstep. If Old Raves End is anything to go by, the group has a lot left to share with both the scene and their fans. – AngelofDeath
22. The Wonder Years – Suburbia: I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing
Suburbia… really sneaked up on me. A beyond solid, catchy, expansive pop-punk release in a year destined to go down as the best year for pop-punk possibly ever. That was my first impression. But upon delving deeper into the lyrics, Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s genius storytelling becomes evident through the allusions, motifs, and indelible one-liners found throughout every song. Even more astounding is the fact that his lyrics are frighteningly personal, and yet every listener will be able to relate to and empathize with the experiences described in Suburbia…. On a final and maybe most important level, as one reviewer put it: I can’t help but think that this is the kind of music I would make if I made music. It’s just so darn fun. – BroFro
21. Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning
After the monolithic, hugely varied release that was Insurgentes, it was difficult to tell what musical terrain was left for Steven Wilson to traverse in his sophomore effort. From the first track’s soft piano and harmonies, to the expansive, titanic jams and ambient sections of 25 minute track ‘Raider II,’ the more pressing question seems to be just what kind of music Steven Wilson can’t do well. Cliched as it is to say, there really is something for everyone on Grace For Drowning; more accessible efforts such as ‘Postcard’ and ‘Index’ recall Wilson’s more melodic work with Porcupine Tree, whereas prog-infused jams such as ‘Secretarian’ and ‘Track One’ reek of a King Crimson influence which, happily, pervades the album. To cap all of this innovation and variety off, the album features what is probably one of Steven Wilson’s best songs with any project, the lovely, sprawling ‘Deform to Form a Star.’ This really is an ‘album’s album,’ with the kind of lasting appeal that should stand it in good stead for its inevitable ‘classic’ status in future. The mind boggles to think of what the man will do next. – MarvellousG
20. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Since WU LYF dropped their absolutely confounding record back in the spring, I’ve been a pretty big detractor. Sure the “loopy” guitars were neat, and the hollow, encompassing atmosphere was pretty cool, but paired with the “unapproachable” vocals and bizarre songwriting, the band simply couldn’t do enough to save the irrevocably aimless debut. I sat there wide eyed-with a few others, as the band quietly led a revolution, while I looked around wondering what the hell had just happened. That is, until I stopped thinking what Go Tell Fire to the Mountain should be, and instead, accepted it for what it was: bold, provocative, and incredibly creative indie-rock that didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. Silly me, the music here isn’t unapproachable in the least. Dramatic instrumentation lifts up the distinctive and incomprehensible (but wholly like-able) vocals, as the band feels like a wonderful cohesive unit, rather than a collection of musicians. Albums like this don’t come around often, as WU LYF are simply a one of a kind act, with their debut being a one of a kind record. – Xenophanes
19. Defeater – Empty Days and Sleepless Nights
Empty Days and Sleepless Nights is an album that attempts to reinvent the wheel of modern hardcore and just marginally almost does exactly that. It’s quite amazing that with such an unbelievable level of hype a band has been able to successfully ride its wave in under two full-lengths, yet, somehow, Defeater has done this. The passion, emotion and just plain raw intensity that is witnessed throughout the album borderlines on the immaculate: not just a simple progression of musical ability that some bands can accomplish on their sophomore albums (or entire discographies for that matter). The story created on Travels has come full circle on Empty Days…, and while relying quite a bit on the plot lines of their debut, Empty Days… is a much more visceral, darker and desperate affair than its predecessor, one that will haunt the listener for years to come. – ThisLifeisGenocide
18. Scale The Summit – The Collective
There’s just something about The Collective. It’s instrumental metal, but it never loses itself in any mindless shredding, or any other kind of stereotypical self-indulgence. Yeah, it has solos (not in every song though, which is unique in itself), but they all actually do something for the song they’re in, and they’re all gorgeous. The riffs are nearly always huge and catchy, and the melodies are nearly always dazzling. But unlike other excellent instrumental metal albums out there, there’s more to The Collective than just good entertainment. There’s a whole lot of brilliant substance underneath. Every musical idea on the album is given plenty of time to breathe, and every idea is placed so well, that every riff, melody, solo, and entrancing atmospheric passage moves as much as it entertains. The Collective obviously had so much effort and love put into it, that it’s a delicious feast for the ears and the heart. – YetAnotherBrick
17. Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man
If I had to give an award for the ugliest album of the year, Andrew Jackson Jihad’s Knife Man would certainly be in my cross hairs. Featuring all-too-truthful lyrics about the harsh reality of humanity’s griminess, Knife Man comes out with guns blazing; a gloriously messy, chaotic American folk-punk record that presents the band’s unrefined sound in a gleeful, and almost beautiful way. While it may be a tad crass, there’s no denying that Knife Man is one of 2011’s most charming and engrossing albums. Mixing Sean Bonnette’s wailing, grating vocals with the duo’s sublime instrumentation, the album coasts along with all the highs and lows one would expect from an AJJ record, albeit this time in a much more cohesive fashion. To put it simply, Knife Man is a marvel, and an absolute high point in a career that has thus far been nothing less than spectacular. – Xenophanes
16. James Blake – James Blake
James Blake’s self-titled debut is that rarest of creatures–an album that goes directly for your brain, your throat, and your heart simultaneously. Now with seven EPs and this quick, thirty-eight minute album under his belt, James Blake’s artistic trajectory has taken on something of an inevitability (can you imagine 2011 without this guy?), so it’s easy to forget just how monumental the impact of this album was when it was first released. It’s direct, visceral, sad, and kinetic. Blake, before this point a massively talented dubstep producer, now takes off a mask of Aaliyah samples and vocal haze and sings directly to us. The productions over which he sings are, as on his CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs, gorgeous and strange, replete with woozy synth haze and vaguely classical-sounding chord progressions. The structure of the album, which may seem flimsy at first glance–two short piano ballads! ‘Lindisfarne’!–instead reveals itself as superbly polychromatic upon deeper listens (‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ into ‘I Mind’ is a brilliant touch). Only time will tell if James Blake holds up through the years, but for now, as 2011 comes to a close, it seems like perhaps the album that both defined the present musical landscape and also managed to feel incredibly personal. – Robertsona
15. Fair To Midland – Arrows & Anchors
Alt metal for the eccentric soul, Arrows and Anchors packs a punch that can take your breath away. It is both spontaneous and unforgettable, with ridiculous energy. The album is also incredibly diverse, transitioning between folksy, poppy, and heavy tracks. Yet despite the plethora of ideas whipping around, every sound is given equal weight, and therefore the album consistently rocks without feeling too jumpy. There’s no doubt, despite the shakiness, that every idea seems very Fair To Midland. With compellingly quirky characteristics, energy, and beautiful moments throughout, Arrows and Anchors is an extraordinary alt metal album. – Pizzamachine
14. Pianos Become The Teeth – The Lack Long After
Not a lot of albums this year have proven to be as hard hitting as Pianos Become the Teeth’s sophomore record, The Lack Long After. Combining the band’s hardcore aesthetic with their emo and post-rock tendencies, The Lack Long After is a riveting album detailing the vocalist’s father’s slow death, and the emotional fallout. Songs like ‘I’ll Get By’ prove that Pianos Become the Teeth are one of the best bands at what they do, blending harsh and expressive songwriting with evocative instrumentation that reaches a new level of emotional immersion. These pieces are excellent in their delivery, as the band perfectly embodies how music can truly cross boundaries, and be effectual even to those who’ve never known the pain and agony of loss. – Xenophanes
13. Bomb the Music Industry! – Vacation
Considering the way in which Jeff Rosenstock has become such a beloved figure in the D.I.Y. punk scene via sad/angry/hungry/dirty/hopeless/frenzied records about being poor and jobless and unhappy and uncomfortable, one might think that toned-down Bomb the Music Industry! songs about lacking reasons to complain and being, dare I say, happy(?) would fall flat on their face. Then again, further taking into account the fact that BtMI! have arguably never disappointed regardless of their oftentimes wacky and tangential musical direction, it really isn’t surprising at all to realize that Vacation is nothing short of awesome, despite its obvious differentiations from their previous efforts. “The point is when you get a perfect wave, a perfect anything, you go for it. You don’t worry about what the shark has stuffed up his butt. I mean there will always be sharks, but how often does this once in a lifetime wave come along?” – iFghtffyrdmns
12. Mastodon – The Hunter
Mastodon have slowly been distancing themselves from the metal scene that bore their fame, inching closer and closer to some sort of “progressive enlightenment.” Media darlings of the metal world, Mastodon crafted their most polarizing effort to date in 2009, as Crack the Skye was seen by many as a jumbled mess of experimentation gone horribly awry. Well, Mastodon have not only made an album for their detractors, but for their fans as well, as The Hunter sees the band return to their roots with a collection of tight, concise metal songs that mixes old with new. ‘Blasteroid’ and ‘Curl of the Burl’ have the same heavy yet groovy and fun feel that fans have come to love, while more ambitious songs like ‘The Creature Lives’ make for some endearing experiments that see the more “fun” side of the band. Although the album is dedicated to Brent Hinds’ brother, who during a hunting trip passed away, the album has a lighter feel to it, more so than any other record by the band. Regardless, it’s Mastodon re-invigorated, embracing both sides of their sound, all while creating something beautifully new. The Hunter is a fantastic and magnificent return to form, and a simply incredibly executed metal album in general. – Xenophanes
11. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Two discs, twenty-two tracks, nearly eighty minutes of lush ‘80s-esque synth jams. There is so much to be said about this album, but all you need to know is that it sounds exactly like one million Judd Nelsons fist-pumping in exquisite unison. – Robertsona