Every music critic likes to imagine, even if only subconsciously, that their year-end wrap-up will have some neat tale or trend that encapsulates the year in a couple of easy paragraphs. Unfortunately, the nearest one I could find is that two of the year’s best albums both had ‘England’ in the title and wrote about the country from completely differing, yet equally telling angles; and not only is that a drastic over-simplification that ignores 96% of my yearly top 50, but writing about that on an American website is hardly all that user-friendly, is it? (And hell, it’s probably about as relevant as pointing out that another two of the year’s best were also recorded by women with the surname Roberts.) For a while, I though the fact that I couldn’t find an angle might be the angle, that I’d end up writing about how music had splintered so much that it would be impossible for a story-arc like 1967’s psychedelic revolution, 1977’s punk outbreak, 1991’s ‘year of grunge’, or 1995’s Britpop wars to ever happen again.
Then I looked at the music I’d listened to this year, and I suddenly realized what the real story was – this was a fucking great year for music. There was so much good going on this year that I feel like I’ll still be catching up with it in April; there’s at least a dozen acclaimed albums I’m sure I’d like that I simply haven’t got around to yet (hello,
I guess it’s that time of year again. The time of year where I relentlessly put off things like studying and finals to somehow narrow down all that I’ve listened to in 2011 to a coherent 25 albums, which proves to be a near-impossible task every time. Yet, knowing that I’m almost certainly going to hate this list in a couple months, here I am anyways, trying to explain how or why these albums are better than the rest, and why some are better than those, and why one is better than them all.
I mean, I always mess it up. For context’s sake, last year I inexplicably managed to put Sufjan’s The Age of Adz at the top position, in a year that had The Monitor and The Wild Hunt and a bunch more deserving records. This year I also go with an out-of-nowhere oddball, a brilliant record that I didn’t realize was so amazing till very recently. I don’t know why I do this. Seriously. I mean, I guess it always becomes an emotional thing at this time of the year, when subjective thought takes a backseat. I feel as if this can be excused, though. It’s almost Christmas.
And it’s been a hard year. Without getting too sappy or self-involved or anything, a tragic event happened this year that shook me and my entire community to its core. Four of my friends died in a car crash coming back home from…
If there was a year where music met the digital, it was 2011. It was the year where the persona encompassed the artist to the point where it mattered more than the music. The obsession over identity explains the rise of Odd Future, the polarizing Lana Del Rey, Kreayshawn, and countless other hyped artists. Though it’s been said, many times, many ways, Twitter and social networking have changed the perception of our favorite artists forever. Who would Tyler, the Creator be without @fucktyler? How could The Weeknd have emerged without Drake tweeting about them and without their ability to create an initial image through a free, downloadable mixtape and smoky, hazy static-image YouTube videos. Would ASAP Rocky have gotten a $3 million record deal?
That being said, my favorite music of 2011 largely stays out of these battles. With the possible exception of The Weeknd, there was no artist who leveraged their ability to construct an identity through the digital age and embody that space in their music. That’s not an easy task, and to date, only Kanye pulled it off last year with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Strictly musically, 2011 was a year where every genre flourished, and I became more and more invested in hip-hop as the most culturally important genre around right now. It’s another product of going digital, with more and more artists gaining enough publicity for us to notice. More and more artists have the tools to create music. It’s a wonderful time for…
I’m sorry for the TL;DR length of this. I guess I rambled a lot. And secondly, I apologise for the quality, which might be the result of a late 5 hour rush through this. It has been a very good year.
All of these are lovely Sputnik 4.5s, I would say. Unless they’re 5s. Enjoy!
Dananananaykroyd– There Is a Way
When I saw these guys play their last show in Leeds (ever!) on their last tour of the universe as we know it, I sort of felt like I was hitching a ride. Everyone else seemed so clued in on these guys, so it was like the outside of post-hardcore’s very own in-joke, one that only makes sense when you see how joyous an experience they are. There’s the hair ruffling—which I was on the receiving end of—and the wall of death that converts death into hugs. Most will tell you that prior knowledge of their albums is pointless, and it kind of was that way: I could pick up every chant of “da na na na!” as it bounced from fan to fan. It was the gig first for this band, but going back to There Is a Way felt wholly satisfying to me- I was able to see where one ridiculous song ended and where the next began. The two best—“Think and Feel” followed by the stomping “Muscle…
Earlier this year, the world was meant to end. You’ll probably recall that it didn’t, but on looking around, you could probably just about be forgiven for keeping the champagne on ice; it’s not exactly pretty out there. With that in mind, there is obviously no room any more for miserable or downtrodden music. Forget F# A# Infinity: the true sound of the apocalypse is blind defiance in the form of these nine songs, some ecstatic, some considered, all (ultimately) optimistic. And it goes like this:
Coldplay – Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall
Said soundtrack begins, obviously, with a synth. Everything about Mylo Xyloto was euphoric and celebratory but this track is a microcosm of all the joy and release that Coldplay’s new album sprints through. In 4 minutes it morphs from an innocuous (but still insatiably catchy) beginning to a deafening climax. Every tear, every tear, every teardrop is a waterfall. Denial? Who cares.
The Dangerous Summer – War Paint
Like those intro drums indicate, sometimes it’s better to clench your fists and rise to a challenge; here, it’s the noble cause of laying down your arms. Poltical relevance! But really, nobody pictures a battlefield in the Middle East on hearing the words “Come down; all the fighting’s over!” It’s packed full of adrenaline and conviction in all the right ways, and opens one of the most relentlessly energetic albums of 2011. COOOME DOWWWWWN…
(25) Kevin Devine – Between the Concrete and Clouds
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.
(24) Sleepingdog – With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields
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”
(23) 1,2,3 – New Heaven
New Heaven sounds eerie, unfamiliar, and unpredictable the majority of the time. This can be…
As much as year-end lists are basically a conglomeration of everything said about an album over a twelve-month period, it would be criminal not to repeat once more the artistic merits of Joanna Newsom. Newsom went from a quirky (bordering on annoying) harpist intent on increasing her listeners’ patience to a well-developed songwriter and accomplished vocalist who learned how to trim the fat from her songs to create a much better product, and from an elfish girl who posed in animal skins to a sexy woman in hot pants and high heels. She has always had ambition, but never has she been as focused as she is on Have One on Me, which overflows with realized potential and the kind of songs we always knew she could write. Perhaps what is most surprising about the album is the fact that, after her grating warble on Ys, the songs on this album go down easy. Yes, like falling asleep. – Channing F.
As 2010 grilled our patience for new Glassjaw material from crispy to charred, we got a record from California’s Letlive that was arguably just as good as anything the former ever released. Fake History might not have Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence’s cathartic, slightly uncomfortable angst or Worship and Tribute’s deranged perfection, but what Letlive ape from their most obvious influence they amplify, polish, and release with more honesty and heart than Daryl Palumbo’s cryptic lyrics and ironic vocal style could ever allow. Letlive don’t shy away from cheese – lead singer Jason Butler’s clean vocals have more than a hint of Claudio Sanchez – but they’re not winking as they indulge in it. Fake History oozes passion, Letlive selling rage as though they are under the impression that they’re the last angry band out there. And though there’s not much density to the album, there doesn’t need to be. Letlive remind us that sometimes you don’t have to give an album a great deal of thought for it to be all sorts of awesome. - Adam D.
It has come to the point where we can safely proclaim that Floridian quintet Anberlin could not record a bad album if they tried. Their fifth LP, Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place, may not be as ambitious or influential as Cities, nor as catchy and immediate as New Surrender, but it turns out to be a real grower. Densely layered and subtle musical touches abound, but it is Stephen Christian’s majestic vocal work that takes center stage. From the catchy ‘Impossible’ to the acoustic ‘Down,’ from the hard-hitting ‘To The Wolves’ to the splendid ‘The Art of War,’ there is something for everyone on this slightly back-loaded LP that contains absolutely no filler. - Davey B.
The Saddest Landscape got everything right in 2010. Mostly, it involved just being there. See, ever since their hiatus five years ago, there’s been a Saddest Landscape-shaped hole in the musical scene where a band who continually pushed sonic boundaries used to be. Then, out of nowhere, they took everything that happened in post-hardcore since their departure and crammed in
From First to Last to simply first, Sonny Moore’s debut as an electro fiend with a penchant for wicked bass drops and unintelligible Auto-Tune somehow worked, in its own messy way. Skrillex will never win any critical awards, but as the rawest form of party starter, few could match up to the relentless stream of house, electro and dubstep that Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites spits out. Pills not included. – Rudy K.
Girls’ follow-up EP still wrestles with all the youthful pensiveness that made Album such a revelation but this time Christopher Owens’ melodrama ditches its scrappy lo-fi distinction for a timeless, polished gleam that’s much more welcoming. With partner Chet “JR” White’s production coming into full swing, this is the sound of a confessional with guitars evolving into an actual band. – Kiran S.
1. Dredg – El Cielo
2. Glassjaw – Worship and Tribute
3. Gospel – The Moon Is a Dead World
4. Thrice – The Illusion of Safety
5. Kayo Dot – Choirs of the Eye
6. Deftones – White Pony
7. Circle Takes the Square – As the Roots Undo
8. Kidcrash – Jokes
9. Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030
10. Have a Nice Life – Deathconsciousness
11. Hot Cross – Cryonics
12. In Pieces – Lions Write History
13. The Shape of Broad Minds – Craft of Lost Art
14. Daft Punk – Discovery
15. Venetian Snares – Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett
16. Radiohead – Kid A
17. Against Me – Reinventing Axl Rose
18. Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway
19. Passion Pit – Manners
20. Blue Sky Black Death – Late Night Cinema
21. Meet Me in St. Louis – Variations on Swing
22. Son Lux – At War With Walls and Mazes
23. Cursive – Domestica
24. Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
25. The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute
26. Deftones – Saturday Night Wrist
27. Kayo Dot – Downsing Anemone With Copper Tongue
28. Girl Talk – Night Ripper
29. Dead to Me – Cuban Ballerina
30. Hopesfall – The Satellite Years
31. Kronos Quartet & Mogwai – The Fountain OST
32. The Microphones – The Glow Pt. 2
33. Modern Life Is War – Witness
34. Maudlin of the Well – Bath
35. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals …
The Microphones are about as lo-fi as lo-fi music gets. Listening through their discography, you would imagine most of the recordings were completed in the attic of a log cabin, and that certainly may be the case. Even so, their musical output sounds so much grander and richer than an album with top-notch production, and there is a simple reason for this, specifically highlighted in The Glow, Pt. 2, and that is Phil Elvrum’s heart. The Glow, Pt. 2 is a nostalgic journey siphoned through Elvrum’s lyrics, yet the underlying emotional threshold is frequently rephrased through non-spoken portions as well. Listening to the overall ambiance of tracks like “instrumental” and “My Warm Blood,” Elvrum’s specific mood is mimicked through each creaky piano strike or through the disjointed manner in which he strums his guitar. Like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, The Glow, Pt. 2 has an intangible presence surrounding the record that makes it simply divine.
Only listening to The Glow, Pt. 2 as a whole will allow such appreciation, though tracks like “The Moon” are able to be taken aside to be appreciated. It is at times disheveled, but the meaning is never lost as drums defiantly pound over Elvrum’s mum vocals, which exponentially add to the glumness story behind “The Moon.” Quite…
Weirdly enough, Illinois is so damn awesome for the same reasons that so many albums released this decade were not. If the 90s were too lazy and apathetic to care, than the following decade was the total opposite. Too much music was concerned with soaring ambitions and pretensions and that sort of bullshit – and it was mostly all because of this album. Gleefully pretentious and zealous, Illinois is a simple singer/songwriter album dressed up in the fanciest and most ridiculous outfits available, all while thankfully being completely honest yet self-deprecating at the same time. Despite being presented as an embodiment of a state, Illinois succeeds and belongs on this list primarily because it exceeds those high-reaching standards, simply by never losing track of the hopes and feelings of its creator. And more than just that: it never loses the listener as well. Not even the record’s ostentatious nature could hamper Stevens’ gift for creating music that’s accessible and invitational, which is why Illinois truly deserves its following. All those ornate, elaborated singer/songwriter records that followed succeeded in copying Illinois’s aesthetic, but if only they would have recognized the record’s scope. If only. - Cam
Sometimes I wish every band would be like Andrew W.K. (who is crazy in a good way) but more often than not bands end up having a Tim Kasher (who a lot of times seems crazy in a bad way). Still, you can’t argue with results. The Ugly Organ almost completely abandons what Cursive did on Domestica, which was a complex, multi-layered indie album rife with aggressive post-hardcore moments to mirror its relatively simple story perfectly – a man and his wife on the road to divorce. Instead, The Ugly Organ throws much more into the mix, including Pinocchio and lyrics where Kasher actually refers to himself as opposed to a doppelganger. There are strings and hopefulness aplenty, and I would say that the end of “A Gentlemen Caller” is the most inspiring thing ever if “Staying Alive” didn’t sit at the end of the album like the Incredible Hulk about to tie helicopters into pretzels with its message of holding on. Overall, while Domestica might be a better musical statement, The Ugly Organ offers more of everything and also it won’t depress the hell out of you. – Channing Freeman
Max Bemis released his craziest and most ambitious project only after he became decidedly less crazy. In Defense of the Genre turned a lot of preconceptions about Say Anything on their heads (the loner persona, the winding canyons of his earlier songs), but mostly the album proved that Bemis had plenty of ideas beyond how much he hated everyone and everything. While the songs were shorter and less complex, they were also devoid of bullshit, and the fact that In Defense of the Genre has less filler in twice the material than …Is a Real Boy speaks louder praise for the record than anything else. Some of Bemis’ best songs are contained within, including the triumphant, lick-heavy “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” and the longing “Plea.” – Channing Freeman
Panopticon’s opener “So Did We” contains seven lines of lyrics, and they are all sung only once throughout the track. The rest of the song is made up of some of the most hypnotizing metal put to tape, and while Isis could only seem to get it perfectly right for one album, Panopticon stands as a pinnacle of post-metal. The rest of the songs are all similar in their approach yet wholly different…