This third installment of my “Top 35 Albums” list is one filled to the brim with great music from both established artists and fresh faces. While there are undoubtedly some albums that may have slipped through the cracks, and though some of you may disagree with my inclusions and omissions, my hope is that you will find this feature entertaining and informative. It is the least I can do for those who continue to support me in my music journalism endeavors, and I hope that you discover some great music as you’re reading this.
35. Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean Sam Beam’s major label debut saw the former four track superstar continue his transformation into a full fledged band leader, and Kiss Each Other Clean proved to be a worthy set of songs to ease him into his new role. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album was Beam’s full embracing of his voice. No longer content to whisper his lyrics, his confident and rich singing voice mirrored another troubadour legend, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and it injected his words with life in a way that was only hinted at on previous albums. Beam’s willingness to diversify and experiment with instrumentation was another sign of growth, as everything from synthesizers to saxophones gave his songs a kind of wide screen splendor that one would have never expected from him only a few years ago. These new found aspects of his sound allowed him to create several songs that rank alongside his best work, including “Walking Far From Home,” “Tree By The River,” and “Big Burned Hand.” While many people may lament the fact that they will never hear his beard bristling the microphone amidst tape hiss again, Kiss Each Other Clean marks an exciting future for Iron & Wine, and one that continues to prove why Beam is one of the most talented songwriters of this generation.
34. The Decemberists: The King Is Dead Most people figured it only logical that the Decemberists would make a full-fledged rock opera, but 2009’s Hazards of Love saw the band courting their indulgences to a polarizing effect. While a few songs still stand their own, the album as a whole marked a low point for the band, as their ambition came at the cost of overall quality. As a stark contrast to their magnum opus that wasn’t, The King Is Dead saw the band paring things down and delivering their most straightforward effort to date. Band leader Colin Meloy decided to forego the English folk that had influenced most of the band’s earlier material, and instead looked to Americana and old R.E.M. records for inspiration. The result was a solid set of songs that fit naturally in the Decemberists catalog. Meloy’s musical and lyrical shift, along with the band’s ability to morph along with his vision, allowed him the breathing room needed to concentrate on actual songwriting instead of story arcs. While this is far from the best Decemberists album, the band’s renewed focus marked The King Is Dead as a turning point for them both artistically and commercially. They recovered nicely from what most people considered a grave misstep and gained scores of new fans along the way, something that should be commended for a group who almost burrowed themselves into obscurity.
33. Neon Indian: Era Extrana While I listed it as one of my favorite albums of 2009, I quickly grew out of Neon Indian’s lauded 2009 debut Psychic Chasms. It got to the point where I would immediately try and find the skip button upon hearing the first notes of “Terminally Chill” or “Deadbeat Summer,” as the initial highs from that album left an uninspired aftertaste in my mouth. As such, I was a little skeptical as I approached Alan Palomo’s sophomore effort, Era Extrana. However, this album finds Palomo’s sound maturing in a way that no one could have predicted. This is a much darker album that largely abandons the acid induced haze and 80’s video game feel for more fully realized electronic soundscapes, with harder hitting drums and more pronounced synth lines. Additionally Palomo’s lyrical outlook shifts from lazy summers to the more adult subjects of love, and his vocal performance injects his songs with a kind of emotional heft that was sorely absent in Psychic Chasms. Palomo’s sound has grown a lot in two years, and this fact makes Era Extrana a more rewarding listen than Neon Indian’s debut and reason to care about his future endeavors.
32. Old 97’s: The Grand Theater: Volume 2 Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent return to form, The Grand Theater: Volume 2 continues Old 97’s winning streak with an equally high quality set of songs. Recorded during the same sessions as The Grand Theater: Volume 1 (both were initially planned to be released as a double album), there are plenty of moments that demonstrate just how focused and determined the band was when they entered the recording process. Rhett Miller’s character studies are just as affecting as ever, and tracks like “I’m A Trainwreck” and “Manhattan (I’m Done)” add a few more feathers to his lyrical cap. Meanwhile, Murray Hammond’s contributions, the left of center “White Port” and the wistfully gorgeous “How Lovely It All Was” are just as affecting. Though it does not differ too much from the tones and motifs of Volume One, The Grand Theater: Volume 2 sees the gifted men of Old 97’s continuing to produce some of the best music of their careers. If consistency is the lifeblood of keeping a band relevant, there’s a good chance that we will still be discussing this band in another ten years.
31. Yuck: Yuck For a band that wears it’s influences like a badge of honor, it is quite an achievement that Yuck were able to craft an album with the level of quality as their self-titled debut. Taking heavy cues from just about every band this side of late 80’s/early 90’s shoegaze and noise pop, the project of former Cajun Dance Party members Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom combined just about every enjoyable aspect of those genres and came away with a memorable homage. The sheer bombast and enjoyability of rockers like “The Wall” and “Georgia” see the band in pure fuzz mode, and particularly highlight Blumberg and Bloom’s able guitar work and the group’s punchy rhythm section. On the other side of the coin, ballads like “Shook Down” and “Suicide Policeman” serve as tender counterbalances. Regardless which end of the shoegaze spectrum they embody, there are plenty of moments here that show that Yuck are quite content with building upon the template of those that came before them. Of course, when the results are this good, you’re usually given a free pass from accusations of idol worship.
30. Toro y Moi: Underneath the Pine While it was a little late to the chillwave party, Toro y Moi’s 2010 album, Causers of This, managed to distinguish itself thanks to Chaz Bundick’s ability to incorporate a more groove and funk driven aesthetic amidst the wash of laptop noise. Less than a year later, Bundick returned with Underneath the Pine, an album that one would be hard pressed to associate with the genre that gave him his start. The addition of a full time bassist and drummer allowed Bundick the ability to expand upon his funk tendencies, and the increased production values gave the low end grooves of songs like “New Beat” and “Got Blinded” the necessary push they needed to make their way into your head. While Bundick may not have the best singing voice, his performance here sees him even more assured of himself, and it is clear that the shift in artistic direction didn’t phase him in the slightest. The colorful atmospheres, serious grooves, and inspired performances make Underneath the Pine an album that is very easy to like, and one that shows that all Bundick needed to do to realize his vision was simply close his laptop.
29. Washed Out: Within and Without Though many of his contemporaries rushed at the opportunity to distance themselves from the confines of chillwave, Washed Out’s Earnest Greene felt that there was still enough redeemable qualities about it to construct his full-length debut. Within and Without proved his theory to be right, as this collection of songs work comfortably within the chillwave motif to create something lush and inviting. While much of Green’s early material was defined by it’s lo-fi production and hazy atmospherics, the absence of these qualities lends songs like “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati” a distinct feel to them that is both warm and sensual. Greene’s vocals are mixed higher and cleaner here, finally bringing his musings on love more to the forefront among his denser arrangements. Additionally, the album has a kind of cohesion to it that allows it to flow at a natural pace, a nice touch for an artist who made a name for himself releasing singles and EP’s. There were plenty of signs of growth and maturity on Within and Without that signal Greene’s talents as a career artist, and whether or not he decides to follow his peers in leaving chillwave behind, this album remains one of the genre’s best.
28. Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise It’s extremely difficult to categorize Nicolas Jaar’s debut. Space Is Only Noise is an album that has it’s roots in electronic music, but feels more like a collection of noises and sounds than anything one would normally associate with the genre. From the calming sounds of running water and spoken dialogue of album opener “Etre” onward, Jaar fuses his various influences into a quietly affecting piece of work. Despite how easy it is to listen to, this is a curveball of an album that is unlikely to please the average consumer. The flirts with beats and grooves are too slow or strange to be danceable, and Jaar’s deep voice and laconic delivery are unlikely to motivate people to shuffle their feet. However, those who go into Space Is Only Noise with an open mind will be rewarded for their patience, as little details continue to unveil themselves after repeated listens. The way Jaar effortlessly combines elements of house, dub, jazz and many other styles with his voice and samples into something so subdued and beautifully strange makes for a fascinating listen, and one worth revisiting many times over. It may have been one of the quietest releases this year, but the imprint that Space Is Only Noise leaves is anything but.
27. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde While their self-titled debut may have garnered attention for arriving at the peak of the lo-fi craze a couple of years ago, Smith Westerns were able to differentiate themselves through their nearly criminal ability to write tightly constructed pop songs. Armed with a bigger studio budget, the band returned this year with Dye It Blonde, an album that perfectly captured the wide-eyed essence of youth through a delightfully fuzzy glam rock lens. Anchored by Max Kakacek’s scuzzed out guitar riffs and Cullen Omori’s sweetly innocent voice, the band managed to create some of the year’s most memorable songs. The albums is filled with tales of budding romances (“Fallen In Love,””End of the Night,”) weekends spent together (“Weekend”), and the joys of embracing a significant other (every other song), and the band’s ability to write musical and vocal hooks could not be denied. Throughout, the band exude levels of confidence that defy the still young age of it’s members, and not a single note sounds out of place. Dye It Blonde is a pop record in the purest sense, and in the capable hands of Smith Westerns, it is one of the year’s best.
26. Handsome Furs: Sound Kapital The untimely hiatus of Wolf Parade left the group’s two principal songwriters to their own side projects. While Spencer Krug’s eccentricities may gain more attention from critics, 2011 belonged to Dan Boeckner. Along with his wife Alexei Perry, they released Handsome Furs most accomplished and fully realized album to date. Boeckner’s guitar heroics, while still present, take more of a backseat on Sound Kapital, and this shift works to highlight Perry’s agile synth lines and pulsating beats. The result is the most vital and urgent sounding music the band has produced. Many of the songs were inspired by the group’s travels to eastern Europe and Asia, where they got to experience first hand the difficulties that musicians face, and it’s clear from the refrain of “When I Get Back” onward that Boeckner and Perry took the experience to heart. Boeckner’s lyrics are just as world weary and politically conscious as ever, and they are injected with life and emotion through his raw and unhinged vocal delivery. He is a true rock star in an age where to be one is decidedly uncool, but there is an honesty in his performance that lets the listener know that he is okay with that fact. Sound Kapital is a loud, brash, and cathartic record, and one that shows that no matter what venue he does it in, Boeckner will find a place to emote and have his story heard.
25. The Antlers: Burst Apart The Antlers last album, 2009’s Hospice, was one of the most emotionally intensive albums of the last decade, one that saw front man Peter Silberman’s personal anguishes unfold in the form of a gut wrenching narrative. It would have been unwise for both Silberman and the group’s followers to expect that level of intensity on Burst Apart, but is not a retread from emotions so much as an altogether different way for Silberman to express them. Though this is far from being another concept album, Burst Apart’s lyrical motifs revolve around love, and Silberman proves here that his choice of words and vocal delivery are where the majority of the emtional heft derives from. The apprehensions about commitment on album opener “I Don’t Want Love” turn into sexual frustrations on “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out,” and by the time “Putting The Dog To Sleep” has concluded the album, Silberman is begging for someone to “Prove to me/ I’m not gonna die alone.” Meanwhile, the band’s shift to a more electronic sound manages to make Silberman’s laments hit just as hard as any of the guitar swells on Hospice, as each arrangement is carefully crafted for maximum impact. Burst Apart serves as a more than worthy successor to Hospice, and is another accomplished work from a band who knows a thing or two about the ways of the heart.
24. Wild Flag: Wild Flag Guitar rock was alive and well in 2011, and Wild Flag managed to make one of the genre’s most assured and enjoyable albums. This should come as a surprise to no one, though, as Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders had a combined decades worth of quality material before Wild Flag came into being. What makes Wild Flag such a success is the fact that the band came into the studio after touring the project for several months, allowing them to build a kind of chemistry that is evident throughout the course of the album. Wild Flag is a diverse album filled with winning numbers like lead single “Romance,” the Timony lead “Black Tiles,” and Brownstein and Weiss’ “Future Crimes,” not to mention the psychedelic “Glass Tambourines.” Most importantly, it is easy to get the sense that the band had fun recording this material, as these songs and the group’s vibe are free from the pretensions or posturing that has plagued so many other supergroups. It may be a while before we get to experience any of the group’s members reliving their past glories, but if albums like Wild Flag are a byproduct we all can be okay with crossing our finger just a little longer.
23. Fucked Up: David Comes To Life Fucked Up are one of the few bands that continually produce astoundingly high quality records regardless the size of their ambitions. This year saw them unleash the nearly 80 minute punk rock opera David Comes To Life, arguably their best work to date. One would be hard pressed to mistake this as anything other than a Fucked Up album, as layers of aggressive, hard hitting guitars and hardcore rhythms serve as the backdrop for Damian Abraham’s instantly distinguishable growl. However, only a band like Fucked Up would be willing to take as many risks as they did, as the narrative structure, multiple guest vocal spots, and willingness to experiment could have just as easily fallen flat. Thankfully, in the able hands of one of Canada’s finest musical exports, David Comes To Life is a stunning achievement. Many of the songs can function independently of the story, and there’s something bewildering and commanding about Abraham’s bark and the group’s musical chops that is quite unlike any other hardcore band. The only reason this isn’t Fucked Up’s masterpiece is that there is always the possibility that they will outdo themselves again in a few years, and we will all be waiting patiently to see that happen.
22. EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints One of the most emotionally charged albums of the year, Erika M. Anderson’s solo debut finds the former Gowns frontwoman displaying her talents like never before. The singer/guitarist creates tense and often captivating atmospheres that are both dense and memorable, as exemplified on the multi-factied opener “The Grey Ship” and many times throughout the album. However, despite her musical chops, it is Anderson’s lyrical openness and vocal delivery that elevates Past Life Martyred Saints into a realm of it’s own. Whether it’s the spellbinding rant against her newly adapted home state on “California” or the desperate plea for love on “Marked,” Anderson injects her words with so much emotion and urgency that the listener can’t help but hang on to every word. Past Life Martyred Saints is a singular release from a woman who is not afraid to bear the darkest depths of her psyche to complete strangers. It is a confident statement that shows that Anderson has a bright future ahead of her, even if her worldview doesn’t necessarily reflect that.
21. Iceage: New Brigade In less than 25 minutes, the young Danish men of Iceage blister through 12 brilliant slices of old fashioned punk mixed with smatterings of other genres that make for an exhilarating listen. Despite their nilhistic and DIY ethos, New Brigade was recorded in a studio, making the wiry guitars and the band’s agile rhythm section hit that much harder. Lead singer Elias Ronnenfelt’s lyrics are often incomprehensible, yet leaving his words open to interpretation is part of the fun. The band’s ferocious intensity never waivers, and it is very hard not to like the sheer manic qualities of songs like “White Rune,” the title track, or album closer “You’re Blessed.”. But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of New Brigade is the fact that, despite being hyped to death regarding their mysterious nature and being written about like the second coming of punk, there is no air of pretension on the part of the group members. Iceage are simply four guys who like to get together and play loud, fast, and hard, and we’re all the better for it.
20. Dirty Beaches: Badlands Whether it was intentional or not, Dirty Beaches’ sole member Alex Zhang Hungtai created an instantly recognizable yet singular sound with Badlands. In both his musical stylings and personal ethos, Hungtai exhibits the 1950’s greaser persona almost too perfectly. Through the use of gritty, distant sounding loops and his fragmented guitar playing, he creates a musical landscape that would sound perfectly at home in a James Dean movie. The front side of the album is all attitude, and sees Hungtai proclaiming himself a “Speedway King,” lusting after a young girl with Jerry Lee Lewis levels of swagger in “Sweet 17,” and perfectly encapsulating the isolated open road feel of Route 66 on “A Hundred Highways.” However, like even the hardest of Fonzi-era badasses, Hungtai is a romantic at heart who is capable of writing memorable and affecting ballads like “True Blue” and “Lord Knows Best.” Though only six of the album’s eight songs feature Hungtai’s voice, Badlands is one of the most singular listening experiences of 2011, a gritty and personality infused gem that would fit right alongside any album in your parent’s record collection.
19. The Rural Alberta Advantage: Departing It’s a familiar story that has played out in the blogosphere time and time again over the last decade. A band who seemingly came out of nowhere with a (initially, in this case) self-released debut is met with lukewarm reaction when their sophomore album fails to capture the magic of it’s forebear. It’s a narrative that some publications unfairly bestowed upon The Rural Alberta Advantage’s sophomore release. However, taken outside of the context of the group’s back story, Departing sees the band improving on just about every aspect of their sound rather than trying to recreate their debut. The core of the band’s aesthetic (Nils Edenloff’s nasally and conversational delivery, the largely acousitc instrumentation, and Paul Banwatt’s intensive percussion) are still intact, yet the band sounds more sure of themselves this time around. It shows in the way that “North Star” arrives at it’s climax at just the right time, the visceral sentiments of album standout “Stamp,” and in the group’s improved musical cohesion and sense of purpose. All of the potential that was shown on Hometowns was fully realized here, and it is a shame that the same publications that built them up were more than willing to write this off as an inferior record. In actuality, Departing is a heartfelt and assured outing that should stand on it’s own regardless of narratives or it’s place within the zeitgeist.
18. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues While others were singing high praises for Fleet Foxes 2008 self-titled debut, I was one of the few people who abstained from placing it at the top of my year end list. It didn’t even finish in my top 10. To me, it was a well executed and pleasant album, but it was not the kind of blindsided smack to the face that my friends and music publications made it out to be (that honor belonged to The Walkmen’s You & Me). However, this year’s Helplessness Blues managed to better it’s predecessor by replacing that albums innocent sameness with a sense of urgency that better demonstrated the group’s songwriting prowess. Robin Pecknold’s tales of red squirrels and Blue Ridge mountains are scrapped in favor of more personal confessions, pondering everything from his place in the world on the gorgeous title track to why he has fallen in love on “Sim Sala Bim.” Meanwhile, the rest of the band continues to branch out their sound, incorporating all kinds of instruments alongside the acoustic strumming and vocal harmonies they have become famous for, and the songs here are performed with the drive and insistence that their debut lacked. It all works to make Helplessness Blues an experience rather than a collection of sweetly sung folk tunes, and though it may not be canonized in the ways that Fleet Foxes was, it is a sign that the band is willing to build upon themselves into something deeper and more meaningful.
17. Active Child: You Are All I See While last year’s Curtis Lane EP showed endless amounts of promise, Pat Grossi’s full length debut, You Are All I See, saw him completely shatter all expectations. Ethereal washes of harp and synth make this album one of the most beautiful listening experiences of the year, but it’s Grossi’s voice that elevates him above and beyond his peers. The way he eases himself from rich tenor to heavenly falsetto shows a level of control that is simply stunning, and his lovelorn lyrics are performed with a sense of urgency and finesse. It also didn’t hurt that Active Child are responsible for two of the year’s best singles, as “Hanging On” and “Playing House” (featuring a guest spot from How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell) highlighted Grossi’s talents as a songwriter who can pen gorgeous arrangements and memorable vocal hooks. The rest of the album fares just as well, with moments of sheer beauty being commonplace throughout. You Are All I See finds Grossi living up to his potential while at the same time showing that he is an artist with a clear idea of what he wants Active Child to be, making it one of the most assured and confident first outings of the year.
16. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy Annie Clark’s talents know no boundaries, and Strange Mercy sees her crafting another work of genius with little more than a standard rock setup. This is a confrontational and extremely personal endeavor, one in which Clark’s clairvoyant voice can be swallowed up by the swells of noise around her at any instant. Always a master of playing to extremes, Clark easily transforms moments of calm beauty into chaos through her fuzzed out and fractured guitar playing, and each change in mood is timed precisely for maximum impact. She remains a commanding presence even in moments of fragility and vulnerability, exemplified on songs like “Cruel,” “Cheerleader,” and the harrowing album closer “Year Of The Tiger,” a quality that only the most accomplished of performers can claim as their own. Strange Mercy marks another high point for Clark, even though she arrived fully formed on 2007’s Marry Me. If anything, it reaffirms her uniqueness and serves as a testament to her abilities, setting the expectation for future releases even higher.
15. Cold Cave: Cherish The Light Years After Caralee McElroy left Cold Cave, there were a lot of questions as to what direction the band should take. Band leader Wes Eisold saw it as an opportunity to go for broke, and Cherish The Light Years sees the band expanding upon the promise of 2009’s Love Comes Close by turning up the volume and tightening up their sound. The result is a gloriously loud record that features arguably the year’s best opening trifecta. The synth and guitar driven adrenaline rush of “The Great Pan Is Dead,” “Pacing Around The Church,” and “Confetti” are some of the best genre exercises of the last few years. Each song features driving hooks, memorable choruses, and is loud to the point where you can’t help but be enveloped by the group’s dark and foreboding soundscapes. The rest of the album follows the same motif, and though they don’t reach the highs of their early album brethren, there is not a single dud to be found across the album’s nine tracks. This album proves that both Eisold and Cold Cave demand to be taken seriously, and if listening to Cherish The Light Years means going deaf an hour sooner, so be it.
14. Destroyer: Kaputt Who would have guessed that channeling the music of Avalon era Roxy Music would result in one of Dan Bejar’s best albums as Destroyer? The satin sheet motif of 80’s soft rock managed to be the perfect backdrop for his heady musings and laid back voice, and Kaputt ends up being one of the most exquisite sounding records released in some time. Though Bejar’s lyrics remain as open to interpretation as ever, they sound right at home amidst these arrangements. Trumpet and saxophone blares meet soft electronic drums, washes of synth, and clean guitar tones that are both easy to listen to and musically dense. Songs like “Blue Eyes,” “A Savage Night At The Opera” and the album’s title track are natural fits in the Destroyer cannon, and the whole album is performed with the kind of effortless air that so many people love about soft rock. Kaputt serves as further evidence that Bejar can take just about any genre and craft gold out of it, and it also severs him by exemplify his strengths.
13. Regina: Soita Mulle For their fourth album, the relatively unknown Helsinki band Regina decided to largely abandon the light synth-pop of 2009’s Puutarhatrilogia for a more driving shoegaze approach, with synths contributing rather than dominating their sound. The result is Soita Mulle (which translates to “call me”), a strikingly gorgeous and melodic album that shows the band at their most straightforward and affecting. Album opener and first single “Unessa” should be more than enough to draw people to Soita Mulle, as the immediately memorable keyboard line gives way to an almost hypnotizing guitar driven arrangement that compliments Ilsa Pykari’s vastly improved vocal work. In fact, Pykari’s voice is arguably the biggest draw, as she sings in Finnish with a kind of ethereal quality that is at once soothing and forceful. Though the album is only a half-hour long, the band’s attention to songcraft and melodies never waivers, and their ability to weave gorgeous dream pop sequences is highlighted time and time again. Soita Mulle is without a doubt one of the most pleasant listening experiences of the year, and establishes Regina as one of Finland’s premier bands that don’t have the words “black” and “metal” ascribed to them.
12. Danny Brown: XXX By the end of XXX (30), there should be little doubt that Danny Brown released one of the best rap albums in a year filled with high profile releases. It’s a raw and gutsy record that shows that behind his wreckless partying and blatant misogyny is real hurt. Brown flows in a very abrasive tone for most of the album, a high pitched and nasally yap that most other rappers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. However, songs like “Die Like A Rockstar,” “I Will,” and “Adderall Admiral” are perfectly and immediately contextualized by it, as he exudes the kinds of excess and manic psychosis that even Heath Ledger’s Joker would shudder at. However, while these detailed and often hilarious accounts of a mad man would be enough to make for a solid album, it is in the album’s last third that XXX distinguishes itself. Beginning with “DNA,” Brown begins to question his lifestyle in a sobered and deeper voice, revealing details of his upbringing and family life that add a whole other dimension to his character. The listener is able to sympathize with Brown, and it’s this kind of brute honesty that makes XXX such an engaging listen from start to finish.
11. Future Islands: On the Water The full on catharsis of last year’s In Evening Air was a breakthrough for Future Islands. It stands as one of the most emotionally intensive break up albums put to tape, with Samuel T. Herring’s anguish and one of a kind vocal delivery propelling the group’s music from very good synth pop into a thing of harrowing beauty. Herring’s outlook is a bit brighter on the group’s follow up, On the Water, and while there aren’t any songs as devastating as “Tin Man” or “Inch of Dust,” there are still plenty of great moments that make it one of the year’s best releases. Gerrit Welmers’ brighter and fuller sounding atmospherics and William Cashions nimble bass playing lend the album a more wistful and airy quality to the music this time around, and the increased production values make this the best sounding Future Islands album yet. Meanwhile, Herring’s toned down vocals demonstrate that his softer side can be just as affecting as his throat shredding growls. His crooning, urgent and theatrical, makes songs like “Before the Bridge,” “Close To None” and “Balance” beautiful in a different way. While nothing will ever compare to the sheer emotional brilliance of In Evening Air, On the Water is a more than worthy follow up, and one that continues to demonstrate why Future Islands are one of the most unique bands making music today.
10. Real Estate: Days The gray skies and sepia toned houses that grace the cover of Real Estate’s sophomore effort are exceedingly misleading. Days is one of the most lush sounding records of the year, and one that added the right amount of polish and careful attention to an already winning formula. The band was never shy about their sense of melody and ability to write simple yet affecting songs, but the increase in production values and the group’s overall growth as musicians managed to bring the group’s sound into glorious high definition. Martin Courtney continues to improve as both a singer and lyricist, and the wistful nostalgia of “Easy,” the ecstatic feeling of falling in love on “It’s Real,” and the confusion and yearning of “Municipality” all serve as testaments to the notion. Additionally, guitarist Matthew Mondale and bassist Alex Bleeker’s song contributions are just as high of quality, highlighting how much the band members trust each other. Of course, at the core of the band’s appeal is their music, and the immaculate guitar lines and steady rhythms are given extra room to shine thanks to the group’s more refined approach. Real Estate were without question one of the elite bands to emerge from 2009’s summer of sand and sun, but Days is an album that should more than prove that they deserve a spot high above their contemporaries.
9. Los Campesinos!: Hello Sadness Los Campesinos! will always be the band that I associate with my years as an undergraduate. From the dough eyed and twee infused Hold On Now, Youngster through their fourth masterstroke in as many years, I have had the privilege of growing alongside them. No other band has so closely paralleled the trials and triumphs of my life like they have, and these sentiments are undoubtedly shared by many in the group’s loyal fanbase. Hello Sadness feels like a thank you letter from the band, and those willing to give the band a chance will be rewarded endlessly for taking the leap of faith. The sonic exploration of last year’s brilliant Romance Is Boring returns, and even in the most straightforward representation of the band’s sound (the astounding first single “By Your Hand”), there are continuing signs of maturity and refinement that mark Los Campesinos! as a continually evolving force. Gareth’s painfully detailed and self-depreciating accounts of love, heartbreak, and everything in between are sung with more conviction than ever, and the group manages to create new and exciting soundscapes unlike anything they’ve tried before. From the swelling title track to the gorgeously grandiose “To Tundra,” the band continues to push themselves in ways that excite with each repeated listen. Los Campesinos! managed to maintain their status as one of Britain’s most exciting, inventive, and unique groups, and I can say with great pleasure that Hello Sadness is the perfect album to take with me as I prepare to enter the next chapter of my life.
8. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It & See Since their landmark 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys have maintained a level of professionalism that has allowed them to drown out the scores of hype and expectations that managed to crush just about every one of their contemporaries. This level of dedication showed in their music, and the band continue to grow musically and prove their worth with Suck It & See, an album that once again shows that the band is not content to stay in one place. The Monkeys once again shift their sound, this time towards the brighter and slower paced psychedelic and glam jams of the 60’s and 70’s, with effortless aplomb. As with anything he touches, Suck It & See finds Alex Turner continuing to add evidence as to why he should be placed alongside Britain’s greatest songwriters. Though his lyrics are more cryptic and a far cry from the riot vans and darkened pubs of his youth, his ability to stitch words and phrases together remains as sharp as ever, and the group’s shift in musical tone perfectly matches his increasingly mystifying wordplay. Six years on and four albums later, Arctic Monkeys remain one of Britain’s most important bands, and Suck It & See is arguably their most accomplished work to date.
7. tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l One of the biggest artistic leaps in quite some time, Merrill Garbus elevated her tUnE-yArDs project from enjoyable lo-fi also-rans into a unique and dominant force in the span of one album. w h o k i l l is an album teeming to the brim with life, as Garbus injects every bit of herself into this set of songs. From her captivating, almost primal, voice to her ability to craft moving arrangements out of little more than drum and vocal loops with a bit of bass, saxophone, and ukulele thrown in, each track is a clear sign that she has one of the most exciting musical minds around. Songs like “My Country,” “Gangsta,” and “Bizness” hit with a kind of force that shouldn’t be possible from their seemingly minimal arrangements, and every word that Garbus sings/chants holds the listener’s attention like a magnet. w h o k i l l is the sound of an artist boldly stepping into her own, while in the process creating something wholly original and quite unlike anything else released this year. It is a left field classic in the purest sense, a work that resonates because of it’s uniqueness, singularity, and fulfillment of the artist’s vision.
6. Cut Copy: Zonoscope After 2008’s groundbreaking In Ghost Colours, it would have been easy for Cut Copy to try and recreate the instant gratification of standouts like “So Haunted,” “Lights & Music,” and “Hearts On Fire.” Knowing that to do so would be utterly impossible, the band decided to populate this year’s excellent Zonoscope with songs that take their time in reaching those lofty highs. The band continued to prove they are masters of crafting affecting arrangements, as the builds and verses sounded just as vital and important as the lofty choruses. This was the sound of a band continuing to exude confidence in their sound, and songs like “Need You Now,” “Take Me Over” and the multi-faceted “Sun God” stand as some of Cut Copy’s best work. Though the release of Zonoscope was unfairly drowned out during a very hype intensive first quarter (see: Odd Future, James Blake, et. al), it stands strong as one of the best electronic releases of the year. Cut Copy may never be able to recreate the ecstatic rush of In Ghost Colours, but Zonoscope is ample proof that they don’t need to.
5. Wye Oak: Civilian Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak hit their creative apex this year, riding on the momentum built from each of their increasingly better releases to create one of 2011’s finest albums. Civilian sees the band exhibit a kind of understated confidence that can only come from hours of hard work, and their execution throughout the album is something to marvel at. Wasner is easily one of the most underrated guitarists in the indie world, but after the one-two punch of the thundering “Holy Holy” and the subdued yet affecting title track, there is little doubt that she deserves to be mentioned alongside the genre’s six-string titans. Her voice carries a kind of urgency that was only hinted at on earlier records, and that sense is mirrored through both her and Stack’s performance. Whether they’re squalling at full volume or constructing moody and understated tones, few bands this year were able to achieve such a fully developed sound from such a limited personnel. Wye Oak are one of those rare bands that continue to improve with each passing year, and Civilian is a striking document of a band arriving at its artistic peak.
4. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost One of the most unique things about Girls is how they are able to craft something wholly theirs out of familiar sentiments and sounds. Father, Son, Holy Ghost sees the band exploring different musical motifs with stunning results, whether it was the California highway feel of “Honey Bunny,” the Black Sabbath nod “Die” or the beautifully arranged “Love Like A River.” This genre hopping makes for an engaging listen, and highlights the fact that great songwriting can work regardless of the musical backdrop. Still, the group’s calling card remains front man Christopher Owens’ ability to take even the most straightforward sentiments and infuse them with the kind of passion that makes you feel as though you are hearing them for the first time. Both he and the rest of the band have grown by leaps and bounds since their brilliant 2009 debut, Album, and Father, Son, Holy Ghost serves as a manifest to their talents in a way that was only hinted at just a few years ago. (This blurb also appears in the Austinist’s Top Albums of 2011 feature)
3. Braids: Native Speaker To say that Braids arrived fully formed on Native Speaker would be a gross understatement. The Montreal band effortlessly crafted a debut that was a world unto itself, one filled with dense instrumentation, dream like aesthetics, and arrangements that reveal nuances with each repeated listen. It also didn’t hurt that lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston possesses one of the most powerful voices to emerge from the indie scene in the last several years. Her ability to go from a fragile and angelic coo to an unrestrained primal yelp, as exemplified on “Glass Deers” and the album’s title track, breathe life into her lovelorn lyrics in a way that is simply breathtaking. Every note on Native Speaker sounds lovingly labored over, and as such it is an album that requires intense concentration and dedication on the listener’s part. However, those willing to invest the time will discover that there were few albums released this year that achieve the levels of beauty Native Speaker so often does, and it is without question one of the best debut albums of the last five years.
2. The Field: Looping State Of Mind Axel Willner, the mastermind behind The Field, is without question one of the most talented electronic artists of this generation. The Swede’s third album, Looping State Of Mind, should do little to alter this claim, and it may in fact be his best work to date. Willner is a master of combining loops that at first seem unrelated into sheer ambient beauty, building upon them and adding nuances such as micro-samples of voices and sounds that sound perfectly natural, perhaps best exemplified on the near perfect “Burned Out.” This maximalist approach to minimalist techno is bolstered by the addition of both a bassist and drummer, allowing many of his songs to devolve into grooves that perfectly complement his arrangements, such as on album openers “Is This Power” and “It’s Up There.” No matter the source material, Willner’s loops are filled with life, and they work to create soundscapes that are at once dense and majestic. He didn’t need to prove himself after 2007’s game-changing From Here We Go Sublime or 2009’s equally stunning Yesterday and Today, but Looping State Of Mind should solidify Willner as a godhead of a genre in which simply distinguishing yourself is enough of an achievement.
1. Wild Beasts: Smother For a band that has gained a reputation for it’s eccentrics, including their liberal use of falsetto and graphic tales of debauchery, England’s Wild Beasts struck a chord of genius by toning themselves down. On Smother, the group’s third album, the band decided to take a more subdued approach to their craft, with downbeat arrangements that simmer rather than burn, and lyrical motifs that explore the darker sides of physical and emotional intimacy. Hayden Thorpe’s gorgeous falsetto and Tom Fleming’s brooding baritone drive the songs with heartbreaking intensity, and they elevate songs like Thorpe’s “Loop the Loop” and Flemming’s “Invisible” far and above the group’s contemporaries. The level of maturity that the group displays is staggering, and their attention to detail and careful craftsmanship can be felt at every juncture of the album’s ten songs. The sheer seductive beauty of the group’s music is part of the reason that it continues to grow on the listener after multiple listens, and it is one of those rare records that is a completely immersive experience. No other album released this year sounds like Smother, and its creators deserve both praise and respect for charting a new artistic direction while still maintaining the qualities that make them one of the most singular groups around.