So I figure everyone else is doing his top albums thing, so I might as well. Now I don’t get free albums or anything, so I have to spend my hard earned money on music. Thus, my list is limited to the top ten, but you’ll get the idea.Now, are these the best albums of the year? Most likely not. Is it my top ten? Like my favorite albums of the year? Mostly. I honestly find it difficult to find great albums, as consistency just isn’t easy to carry off, apparently. Like track 1-12 consistency. Even some of the best albums are uneven. So here are my top 10 favorite albums that I happen to I own from 2011 in alphabetical order. Enjoy. Or don’t.
Beirut – The Rip Tide
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It seems Mr. Condon has gone out of his way here to cut through the nostalgia and make an album that sounds, gasp, at least semi-modern. This one won’t make grandma do a double take like some of his other stuff, as there are instruments invented in the 20th century pinging and ponging around the edges. It’s not to say that he isn’t still living in another time, but this one feels much brighter and shiny in its antiquity and not like found dusty instruments in a forgotten trunk. Perhaps it’s the more upbeat nature of most of the songs, cleaner production, or just a general lack of many dirges and intentionally foreign-sounding tunes. Maybe that’s it; the thing just feels more genuinely American and less old world Europe. I no longer picture starving peasants, gondolas and handlebar mustaches on Russian strongmen. This is almost verging on a really good version of a John Vanderslice album. At times it’s even downright catchy! There are some great things going on here, and I wish, as I have so many times in the past couple of years, that other artists would drop the bleep-bloop gimmicks and all the nonsense and just make an earnest playing and singing album like this.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
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Something about the opening track on this album brings to mind screamo stalwarts Thursday’s “War All the Time.” Of course CEG’s song goes on to spin out into indie rock goodness beyond the walls of that other song, but it is hard to get past the first impression that this album is going to foretell the second coming of the emo train. Leave it to the cool indie band to bring back something that originally outlived its welcome (i.e. short-shorts on dudes, mustaches and legwarmers) and make it happenin’ again. I mean there is a certain debt to be paid here to bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and the like, with their spiraling orchestration, a great rhythm section, loud/soft dynamic, complicated song structures and even some of the vocal stylings. Whatever the comparison, these guys don’t do anything the easy way. They’re a guitar, drums and bass band at their core, but every manner of instrument wends its way through their songs. But their mostly subtle inclusion doesn’t feel gimmicky like it does when some other bands use piano or horns or strings — it just kind of adds to the pastiche and makes the overall sound even fuller than it would otherwise be. Like most albums that include all sorts of time signature changes and difficult lyrics and dramatic ups and downs, this album didn’t fully capture my brain on the first run through. But now with multiple listens, this is quickly becoming one of my favorites of 2011.
When I heard The Decemberists were making a country album I cringed a little bit. And then I recalled that I actually don’t mind country music when it’s coming out of the West Coast (i.e.: CA, WA, OR, etc) and not somewhere in the Midwest or South. I guess it’s what those folks out there call alt. country, though this doesn’t really fit that genre. Yes, there are slide guitars and fiddles and some banjos and harmonica, but this is a band that regularly uses multi-instrumentation in their songs anyway. And what, ultimately, is the difference between using a hurdy gurdy and a violin? All they basically do here is take an album full of what are essentially typical Decemberists songs and add different, more country-ish and Americana-ish instruments to the mix, tone down the shite about seafaring and foreign lands (while amping up local, home flavor) and add some nice harmonies reminiscent of what people assume comes with country music. My favorite song I can’t seem to stop listening to is “Rise to Me,” which is certainly in that slide guitar and harmonica wheelhouse and is a lovely song. Lovely, I said. There is just a wonderful nostalgic and warm feel to the album that is not normally their thing. No songs about legionnaires or Chinese trapeze artists, but things much closer to home and heartfelt lyrics and truly American roots sounding instrumentation. There’s nothing quite like a pleasant surprise.
My reaction to this album was somewhat akin to my reaction the first time I heard Spoon’sGirls Can Tell. It was a Spoon album, to be sure, but a Spoon album that took a sharp turn to the softer side from the album before it and the album before that. In really listening to this album, Bejar’s soft rock meets AM jazz concoction (which ends up sounding like the end credits of a 70s Bond flick) with its horn flourishes, Yamaha DX7 keyboard effects, flute solos and smoothed out vocals was an inevitable direction for the band to head. Ultimately it’s a group of songs in which Bejar basically says (without actually explicitly saying it), “I want to do loads of coke and fuck you in my sunken living room while a bunch of stoned chicks in jumpsuits with feathered hair and big sunglasses lazily half-watch through the haze of pot smoke.” Don’t get me wrong, you won’t be running into any Sting shite here, it’s just kind of an initial shock that doesn’t stop with the almost disco-ish title track (that does indeed mention cocaine) but subsides over multiple listens as you realize that Bejar is somehow avoiding being ironic, goofy or insincere with his new found sound, but has in fact embraced all that was nostalgic and in some odd way cool about this time period and genre. And, again, it’s not as if this isn’t a Destroyer album at its core, just one wrapped less in Ziggy Stardust and more in pixie dust (or is it angel dust)?
There was the cool 80s and then there was the lame 80s. Handsome Furs clearly aim for the former. Though, with the influx of retro-sounding bands over the last decade, who knows what constitutes modern anymore? If drum machines and synths and a vague sense of like Top Gun, Flashdance and Footloose all rolled into one are the most horrible reference points ever then you’ll know how badly this stuff messes with my mind. That’s because at its heart it’s Americana, just shifted into the hipster world of the electronic. I do like Dan Boeckner’s voice, a straight rock and roll voice nice and legible amongst the bleeps and bloops. Seriously, you could take many of the tracks on this album, put them to a drum kit, an acoustic and maybe some side percussion and a harmonica and have a John Mellencamp or Kenny Loggins comeback album! If that sounds terrible, it’s not at all. It’s a gnarly amalgam of the sounds I like, the sounds I used to like and the sounds I could possibly like in the future.
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
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I’ve always had trouble categorizing these guys. It’s like indie rock Americana or emo-alt roots rock. And that’s what makes them them, defying categorization and classification. This album starts right in their wheelhouse, with big sound that includes stomping, handclaps, multiple-instrumentation and impassioned vocals. Then they transition right into their other strength, with a slinky baseline, up front weepy vocals (a la Chris Isaak) and a great ghostly pop sensibility with just a hint of humor. The production throughout is littered with all sorts of flourishes and surprising sound effects and immaculate layering. I think that’s one of this album’s greatest strengths: just the pure sound quality of the whole thing, swelling in all the right places and dialing it back to strummed guitars one second and then huge booming sound complete with choruses the next. And they seem to pull it off effortlessly. With the constant building to bombastic theatrical heights, this isn’t the album you want to necessarily put on late at night to fall asleep to, as this is engaging stuff, stuff that almost commands you listen to every wonderful and varied twist and turn.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
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Hey your Smashing Pumpkins is in my Cure. Hey your Cure is in my Love and Rockets. Hey your Love and Rockets is in my OMD. Okay, bad Resse’s Peanut Butter Cups references aside, you get the point. Or maybe you don’t. The band sounds like a big rock band performing for swaying kids in long coats and died black hair somewhere in the late 80s with anthemetic songs like “Belong.” And then they amp it up with some sweet keyboard and synth flourishes that recalls some really cooler than it was 80s alt act somewhere left of the Psychedelic Furs, fitting right in in the after prom scene in a lost John Hughes film before he started making family movies. The lyrics are simple, straightforward angst ridden teen drama about girls and stuff. The Smashing Pumpkins flourishes are also over the place, with crazy layering of sound, big sonic rushes, some crunchy guitars under the gauze and a kind of sentimentality that Billy Corgan and the band used to bring to the table with songs like 1979. Apparently some of that was coaxed out him by the producer Flood, who happens to also be the knob twiddler on this album. The singer’s voice reminds me a bit of Belle & Sebastian as well. Wow, all the references, but none of them really relates to the sum of the parts, which ultimately sounds pretty damn good. My first listen I was a little less than enthused, but subsequent plays have really endeared me to this thing. Kind of like Uncle Buck.
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing
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I honestly cannot stop listening to this album. That doesn’t happen often for me. Less outgoing than their last album, this one is a more spare, wintery affair with the same awesome up front production that manages to feature Jeff Mangum-like vocals, absolutely ridiculous drumming (though not quite as stunning as on Hometowns) and some very nice female harmonies in a consistently compelling package. I think that’s the key here: consistency. The whole album follows the cold, winter love theme excellently, flows perfectly from indie folk ‘n’ roll song to song and keeps the high level of quality throughout. At ten tracks, it’s a little short, but there isn’t a dud on the whole album, with each song soaring with energy but keeping the emotion contained within tight, driving packages. There isn’t a spare moment wasted, as they churn through the full album of toe tapping music that still grabs you by your frozen heart and warms it like a drive on a frozen road in the middle of North Dakota (or their homeland of Canada) by the glow of the FM dial. This is easily in my top ten for 2011, and is a perfect album to help wrap up this miserable winter.
It took me quite a while to get into this band. Despite having almost too much indie and critical cred, their oddball world music filled pinata drove me away like a later day Beck album. They just seemed too bohemian for me, too intellectual and scarf and vest-laden. I’m more of a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy than I am tweed and loafers, which led me down the professional road — and to blow them off as a trend to skip. It turns out that walking through the city listening to them in headphones changes your whole perspective. My appreciation built, and today I consider myself not an ardent fan, but certainly an admirer. This, their fourth album, would seriously have to take a poop to piss off the critics after the hallelujah their last album, Dear Science, unanimously received. This album, right off the bat, feels a little more loose and chilled out. Not that the others are filled with agro tirades, but this time around they feel more in line with your typical hipster band than ever before. Cool electronic sounds, fuzzed out noise, layered, falsetto vocals and repetitive looping drumming over some melodies that sound as if they could have been crafted in the 70s (see “Killer Crane”) make for a nice mashup of old and new. There are some nice bits that remind me of the latest Menomena album, though not quite as dark, and even some (and I know this sounds weird) Peter Gabriel. This is a summer album, no doubt, and will make a wonderful addition to my seasonal playlist.
Wu Lyf – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
I’m honestly not sure if these guys are singing in English or what. It sounds more like a pack of angry animals or drooling vampires croaking over a chiming and expansive soundscape. But before you check that off as a bad thing, imagine a bizarro combination of Band of Horses and like a Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade /Wilderness mash up. Hard to fathom? Then try a smattering of Modest Mouse for good measure. What you’re left with is something that sounds vaguely evil (as their full name World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation might suggest) but is also on the verge of dancey and is clearly produced to within an inch of its lovely brink. It would have been easy to tame some of the insane drumming, tamp down the echo a bit and find a lead singer who didn’t sound as if he was being burned alive while he was shouting and called itself the new new pop band, but these guys, from my minimal reading on the subject, don’t sound like the kind of dudes who go for convention. Granted in this day and age, being weird and “controversial” is the standard. So who knows what’s real and what’s just smart salesmanship on their part? Whatever the case, they’ve made an album here that defies my minimal ability to describe its coolness. I’m sure only the Williamsburg crowd will be able to validate their hipness, and I’m certain they’re already well on their way to be being crowned the new new thing.