10. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Robin Pecknold wants to be the man on the screen – that much is clear from the get-go – but how far are we willing to bend to accommodate him? Quite a bit, it seems, judging by the Santoshian levels of patience with which all of us waited for his band’s sophomore release, Helplessness Blues, to drop. Although three years usually isn’t seen as a particularly long gestation period for an album – just ask Kate Bush – it wasn’t really the length of the wait that ended up toying with us big time, but rather the stop-start nature of the band’s initial recording sessions and Pecknold’s sketchy vision of what he wanted his group’s second album to be like. Having first said that he wanted the album to be released in late 2009, and that, “even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there: I want there to be guitar mistakes; I want there to be not totally flawless vocals”, the principal songwriter for the Fleet Foxes ended up scrapping virtually the entirety of their first batch of recording sessions once he decided that he didn’t quite like what he was hearing, thus sending his entire crew back to the drawing board and about $60,000 in the hole. Once famously described by Seattle producer Phil Ek as having “talent coming out of his ass”, the Seattle native was now starting to seem both unbearably stubborn and precociously impulsive.
But when Helplessness Blues finally emerged in early spring of this year, it soon became clear that Pecknold had only the best of intentions in deciding to bring about such massive delays to his group’s project. From the blooming recesses of opener ‘Montezuma’, to the wildly romantic timbre of ‘Sim Sala Bim’, and across the pagan feel of the massive ‘The Shrine/An Argument’, every inch of Helplessness Blues delights and revels in its own aural magnificence. The densest and most flavourful moments also find themselves marked by instances of swirling, riotous cohesion between the band’s instrumentalists and their larger-than-life lead vocalist. Mandolins billow, harps twirl, and guitars jangle energetically as Pecknold engages and enthralls us all with his oddly persuasive marriage of street philosophy and attentive, penetrating poetry (“Both the slave and the empress/Will return to earth, I guess,” he sighs on “Montezuma”; “You took a room and you settled in/Washed off the chalk from your weathered skin/Daylight sleeper/Bloody reaper,” chides ‘The Plains/Bitter Dancer).
While both the Fleet Foxes’ debut and their Sun Giant EP were also excellent – if not flat-out phenomenal – records, they frequently lacked pop music’s cheapest and most derivative contraband – the simplistic joy found in the euphoria of a solid hook. Helplessness Blues doesn’t see Pecknold descending to the production of Billboard 200-scaling pennings, exactly, but the pieces which he and his band has produced this time around are much easier to get one’s head around – almost as if they’re just simple functioning cogs in some great machinery, serving something beyond us all. – Irving
9. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Being a music fan brings with it many joys, but there are few more satisfying things than seeing an artist make it to the top after years of hard graft. Last year, it was The National who were rightly rewarded for their tireless endeavour, and this time around, it’s been former Million Dead frontman Frank Turner who has seen his fierce work ethic pay dividends. Though the punk spirit of his earlier days is still very much in evidence, England Keep My Bones strays far from his roots, with a considerably fuller sound filling out his songs and contributing towards some of his most accomplished moments yet. Storming anthems such as ‘I Still Believe’ and ‘I Am Disappeared’ and ‘If Ever I Stray’ are rendered an extra edge from the added instrumental input, and that’s before you even get to the more reflective ‘Redemption’ and jubilant closer ‘Glory Halleluljah’, quite simply some of the finest songs he’s ever written.
Moreover, though, this is s record which perfectly portrays what it is to be English – while maintaining such a vast appeal that it can strike a chord just as easily with those overseas, as evidenced by his growing following across the Atlantic. For many, 2008 masterpiece Love, Ire & Song will remain his greatest achievement, but this fourth LP really isn’t far behind, and you’d struggle to find a single soul who’d begrudge this fine artist his much deserved breakthrough. – AliW1993
8. The Dear Hunter – The Color Spectrum (The Complete Collection)
Few, if any, albums can match the breadth, depth, and overall scale of The Dear Hunter’s massive The Color Spectrum. Spanning nine EPs with a combined total of 36 tracks, the album is a staggeringly large collection of creativity and ingenuity that sees The Dear Hunter at the top of their game. Featuring influences from all across the board, as well as Casey Crezsenso’s thoughtful songwriting, The Color Spectrum manages to hold within it some of the greatest material of the band’s career. Right from the dark, brooding opening notes of the Black EP, to the very end of the White EP, there is something here for everyone. Dreamy pop exudes from the Yellow EP, while smooth, expressive electronics ebb and flow within the Indigo EP. The amount of variety is breathtaking, but what shocks even more is that the band pulls it off so damn well.
Despite the lengthy run time, The Color Spectrum is void of any filler, consisting of pure, unadulterated music from one of alternative rock’s most consistently intriguing bands. Although it may seem daunting, The Dear Hunter’s latest is a marvelous creation, bursting at the seams with creative energy. A true 2011 standout if there ever was one. – Xenophanes
7. Thursday – No Devolucion
The news in 2011 that Thursday would be dissolving their band was, well, upsetting to say the least, but we do have one thing to be happy about: they chose to end their musical career on an emphatically high note. No Devolución might just be their best album, in fact. Without meaning to discredit their previous records, this is inarguably Thursday at their creative apex, and their maturity as a band is almost unfathomable. Where so many of their contemporaries have failed in this regard and faded into the background, Thursday have matured and aged beautifully through the release of 5 LPs leading up to this masterpiece. No Devolución is a huge success for numerous reasons: it’s easily their most atmospheric album to date, the production is impeccable, and it’s their most emotionally conscious work – all the while still bringing with it an aggressive edge.
Imbued with passion and beauty, No Devolución comprises the constituent element’s of Thursday’s past post-hardcore releases without ever feeling derivative. It’s a little less post-hardcore in the traditional sense though; Rickly’s vocals seem shoegaze-esque – occasionally indistinguishable, being buried under the music which itself feels like it draws much influence from post-rock. No Devolución deceptively leads with ‘Fast to The End’, a song whose introduction makes it initially feel akin to their heavier material, but shortly thereafter this – much like most of the album – it’s revealed to be rather sentimental and delicate at its core. And that’s ultimately the driving force behind No Devolución: its fixation on emotional subjects through texture and atmosphere (‘No Answers’, ‘Empty Glass’, ‘Sparks Against the Sun’) that makes it feel like such a natural progression for Thursday.
And thus, Thursday have cemented their legacy as one of the most important and creative post-hardcore acts to ever exist. Even if they choose to never write again, at least they went out with what’s stylistically their best and most fully realized work to date. No Devolución is both an excellent entry point for those unfamiliar with Thursday and those who are devout fans. – Gyromania
6. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
The absolute worst review that I read all year was one that was written for this album, mainly because it ended with a line that would score approximately fifteen billion out of 10 on the reviewing cop-out-o-meter: “The King of Limbs is Radiohead all grown-up,” wrote the hapless wag. Now, even if I wanted to dignify the usage of such a clichéd reviewing frontispiece by extending its usage to my very own blurb on The King of Limbs, it has to be said that that particular analogy had it completely ass-backwards, because if anything, The King of Limbs is basically the sound of Radiohead being more reckless and petulant than ever.
For starters, news of the band’s latest impending release come off the back of a casual – almost indifferent – announcement on their official website. Then they arbitrarily decided to bring forward the release date by a full day – “It’s Friday… It’s almost the weekend…It’s a full moon….You can download The King of Limbs now if you so wish!” posted guitarist Ed O’Brien airily on the band’s homepage a full twenty-four hours ahead of schedule – before Thom Yorke sauntered up and willfully stunned us all into mental submission with his now-immortal attempt at illustrating what it would probably look like if we all had electrodes that were wired into a funky bass beat clamped onto our nipples. Worse – the band even seemed to hint that this was only the beginning of their cheek and that there just might be a King of Limbs Part II, with the album’s now-famous final refrain of “If you think that this is over then you’re wrong” willfully toying with us for days on end.
Yet, despite all these attempts at virtual PR suicide, everything about Radiohead’s eighth studio observation manages to stay on the right side of engaging: album opener ‘Bloom’ bubbles and whirrs comfortably along, propelled forth by a single-minded directness that hasn’t been seen since ‘Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box’ pinged and chimed its way into our collective eardrums a little over a decade ago. Elsewhere, the pairing of ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Feral’ make for one of the most insidious auditory transitions cut to tape this year, casually phasing from a languid, cowbell-timed mid-tempo track to a dense three minutes of flat-out sonic experimentation held together by nothing more than the delusional warbles of a trippy-sounding Thom Yorke. Indeed, at the end of this short (The King of Limbs total run-time clocks just over 37 minutes) but thoroughly exhilarating ride, it is probably safe to say that for many, the single most disappointing moment in the entire King of Limbs experience lay in the ignominy of having to deal with the embarrassing amount of false hope left behind once it dawned that ‘Separator’s’ parting refrain was just an exquisitely-crafted lie. – Irving
5. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math
In a year full of musical moments worth savouring, Manchester Orchestra’s Simple Math makes a convincing case for itself to be chiseled near (or in SowingSeason’s case, at) the top of the year’s music lists purely on the basis of its two strongest and most pivotal moments. The first of these two instances is the exhilarating blood-and-guts communal chant that forms the centerpiece of the track ‘Virgin’: “We built this house with our hands, and our time, and our blood!/You build this up in one day to fall downward and rust!” goes the children’s choir – that ultimate embodiment of creepiness – while dirty and adrenalized sludge riffs wreak havoc in the background. The second moment in turn is none other than the quiet and caustic beauty of the album’s title track, which begins with a mournful guitar hum and spacey synths that soon evolves – or devolves, depending on how you see it – into an visceral paean against some of modern life’s darkest ironies (vocalist Andy Hull memorably ruminates, “What if we’ve been trying to get to where we’ve always been?” before rounding in on himself and concluding, in a tone so detached and disillusioned it seems almost defeatist in mentality: “Simple math, believe me – all is brilliant”). During these moments, it almost feels as if Manchester Orchestra has found a way to distill pure unadulterated catharsis and rip it onto a CD for consumption by the masses.
But that’s not to say that the rest of the album seems pedestrian in comparison – far from it, in fact, as well-placed auditory sections – like the booming orchestral turn near ‘Mighty’s’ halfway point and Hull’s indefatigable vocal performance in ‘Pale Black Eyes’ – prove. And on the off-chance that even that wasn’t enough, towards the end of album closer ‘Leaky Breaks’, one can almost hear the walls collapsing in on Hull and the rest of his crew, who suddenly find themselves gradually being buried beneath the looming aura of quiescence that they themselves had created just five minutes prior. It’s a fitting coda, because if anything it shows that the band themselves – despite all their introspective observations on the many vagaries of life – are merely human, and that even Hull, our emotive lyrical champion, occasionally finds himself surrendering to some divine truth that is far greater than he. It’s a devastating and unrewarding form of comfort, sort of like knowing that your enemy will still be made to pay in full thanks to those dead man switches you installed in those nuclear devices of yours, but a record that’s as grim and fixated as Simple Math just won’t have it any other way. – Irving
4. La Dispute – Wildlife
I was recently presented with the following question: “If you could have a few months to yourself, during which you didn’t have to worry about any of your current responsibilities and just do your own thing for a bit, where would you go and what would you do?” to which I responded, “sit with my feet in the Pacific Ocean and read all the books I’ve been meaning to read – The Origin of Species, Titus Andronicus, The God Delusion, etc. Oh, and sit down and actually listen to Wildlife. That too.” For as stimulating and exciting as Wildlife is, I have been too temporally limited to hear it as anything more than background music or as a walking-to-class soundtrack. Even with such a constraint, the record comes to life and infects the listener with all of frontman Jordan Dreyer’s woes, worries, and wonderings. Almost every track on Wildlife can match up those on their debut full-length in terms of unadulterated emotion, musical fervor, and general intensity, cementing it as another fantastic release from the Michigan fivesome. I know for a fact that La Dispute wouldn’t release a follow up to 2008’s Somewhere At the Bottom of the River… if it didn’t exactly represent their immense capabilities in creating music that is truly captivating and immensely beautiful – here’s to hoping such capacity isn’t cut short any time soon. – iFghtffyrdmns
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
With their second album, Bon Iver are on some mega-pretty shit, kicking it in some hangout spot of aural sublimity with Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid and Talk Talk. Pianos are softly pawed at from a safe distance; swathes of guitar drift up toward the stratosphere, tethered to the ground only by the pitter-patter of a snare drum. I dare you to be in a bad mood while ‘Holocene’ is on. ‘Michicant’ is the song that plays in your head while the sun peeks through your curtain and it’s snowing outside and you smell bacon wafting in from the kitchen below. The solemn, echoing piano of ‘Wash’ probably makes legions of teenage girls cry about their feelings every night.
Still, shouldered as I am with the task of explaining to you why this here album is the third best of the year, I find myself with a sort of critical conundrum–one of the Albums of the Year should be more than just pretty, right? Yet, if not the ultimate factor in its quality, the overwhelming pastoral opulence of Bon Iver, Bon Iver is, at the very least, indicative of why it’s so damn good: if the beloved For Emma, Forever Ago was Justin Vernon as lonesome singer-songwriter, this album shows him in peak form as an unbelievably talented sort of indie Renaissance Man–again as a brilliant songwriter and singer, but also as an arranger, album sequencer, and, perhaps most importantly, producer. I liked For Emma…, and you might personally prefer that one, but Bon Iver, Bon Iver is almost incontestably better, with Justin Vernon using his staggering musical ability and ear for sonic detail to construct a musical language that’s virtually universal in its all-encompassing prettiness. Universal, as in “Grammy-nominated”. Universal, as in “this is probably your parents’ and grandparents’ favorite album of 2011.” Lest we forget, Pitchfork threw a hefty 9.5 on this one and I don’t think anybody even got mad about it. This may or may not be your personal favorite album of 2011–it may not even be your favorite Bon Iver album–but, in an age of social and economic unrest and constant Internet bickering about everything, it’s undeniably the album that, if only for a second, brought everyone together. Vive le prettiness. – Robertsona
2. Laura Stevenson and the Cans – Sit Resist
A dozen seconds into ‘Master of Art’, track two of Sit Resist, “un-uh-ba-shed-oh-muh-dah-lin-you’re-uh-mazing‘” tickles your eardrums, and you realize that you too have inevitably fallen head over heels in love with Laura Stevenson. And why wouldn’t you? She’s adorable, she’s humble. She and the Cans just put together one of the most serene, heartwarming records of 2011. Shit, she even put that offering up online for free for the first month after release, for those heartless souls (or maybe just poor college kids) who found her meekly beautiful songs worth not even a penny. When I met Laura back in May in a tiny bar up in St. Catharines, Ontario, she fulfilled every expectation to the T. And when she drew that little heart next to her signature on my CD, I knew that such a modest yet powerful musician was for real, and that Sit Resist would forever stand not only as one of 2011’s top releases, but also as a timeless and simply stunning musical creation. – iFghtffyrdmns
1. Thrice – Major/Minor
It should surprise very few to see Thrice top this year’s list. After all, the men of Thrice have been staggeringly consistent throughout their careers, creating some classics along the way while inspiring and influencing many others as well. Throughout the band’s storied history, listeners have been able to see the group grow from a bunch of exuberant, impassioned young men, to a much more mature, and artistically brilliant quartet that never rests on its laurels. Major/Minor is a bittersweet release; the perfection of the sound Thrice have been striving for, mixing the traditional post-hardcore sound of their early years with the more streamlined alternative rock of 2009’s Beggars. However, it comes with a bit of sadness, as the band’s future is uncertain, to say the least.
Regardless of where Thrice are headed, Major/Minor is quite possibly the band’s finest achievement. It’s shockingly solid, as they feel so comfortable with their craft and its presentation that it at times borders on perfection. It’s because of this that the album makes few, if any egregious errors, instead coasting along with ease. Each and every track is classic Thrice, with Dustin Kensrue’s gruff voice and Teppei Teranishi’s wonderful guitar work being presented well, as is tradition. Yet despite Major/Minor’s extensive list of standouts, it was ‘Anthology’ that struck this reviewer more profoundly than anything else on the album, and frankly, more so than anything else in the band’s catalog. Drawing inspiration from each point in their career, ‘Anthology’ is the perfect representation of Thrice’s ever evolving sound, and a shining example of why the album is such a standout.
The word “perfect” was thrown around a couple of times in this little “blurb,” and although it may seem painfully hyperbolic, it’s completely justified. Major/Minor is simply a stunningly well executed album; a hard-hitting tour de force that shows that Thrice – a band many consider to be a mere modern rock act- is still able to produce some of the most captivating music out there. That certainly rings true for Major/Minor, one of 2011’s greatest releases. – Xenophanes