The Best Albums of 2011

It’s the other most wonderful time of the year! As another year comes to an end, it’s time to take stock of what 2011 was. Which, for me,  means creating a list of all of the good albums I’ve heard this year and ranking them in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. It’s difficult to say how time will treat these albums over the years, but as of this writing, I love them all. So, without further adieu, I present the Top Ten Albums of 2011.

10. The Strokes – Angles
After a five year hiatus and a bunch of solo/side projects from various members, The Strokes return in full force, though Angles was tepidly received. The band took what they learned from their extra-curricular activities and brought them here, expanding the sound of The Strokes, adding lots of 80s New Wave sheen that doesn’t feel like window-dressing (see “Two Kinds of Happiness” and “Games”). There’s lots of interesting textures and succinct, energetic tunes to match. Key tracks: “Machu Picchu,” “Under Cover of Darkness

9. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
Florence + the Machine’s 2009 debut, Lungs, was an auspicious one, full of huge vocals and dramatics. On her sophomore release, Florence Welch sounds even bigger and more dynamic, if that’s possible. Welch and her band too, expand on the sounds of Lungs, making an album more varied stylistically. Many of the tracks here have been road-tested on tour, and it shows; Florence + the Machine are a more comfortable and cohesive as a unit. These songs feel weightier and lived in. Key tracks: “Shake it Out,” “Never Let Me Go”

8. Destroyer – Kaputt
Winner of the 2011 Most Saxophone award, Destroyer’s ninth album is, on the surface, an ode to all manner smooth yacht rock of the 1980s. It’s a really slick and polished record, with lots of keyboards, backing vocals, and sax, sax, sax; imagine New Order by way of Hall & Oates and you’re getting close.  Though it mines the 80s for sounds and textures, Kaputt doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. Dan Bejar embraces these elements and incorporates them into his quirky songwriting, as oppose to the letting the sounds dictate the songwriting. Key tracks: “Savage Night at the Opera,” “Chinatown”

7. Portugal. The Man – In the Mountain in the Cloud
A lot of this year’s best albums seem to be looking toward music’s past for inspiration, and while many bands are preoccupied with the 80s, Portugal. The Man are thoroughly entrenched in the 1970s. Taking a cue from glam-era David Bowie and T. Rex, Portugal. The Man’s major label debut sounds like it comes straight out of 1976. It’s full of hazy, psychedelics, it may come across as hippyish, but the Alaskan band isn’t all sunshine and good times; many of the tracks here reflect the band’s politically-fueled anti-establishment sentiment. Key tracks: “Got it All (This Can’t Be Living Now),” “So American”

6. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
What initially sounded as R.E.M.’s revitalization turned out to be the band’s swan song. After a couple directionless albums, R.E.M. were on the path to a comeback with 2008’s Accelerate and with Collapse Into Now, the band returned in full force, delivering their best album in over a decade. Sadly, the band called it quits in September – only six months after the album’s release – leaving Collapse as a solid final offering. Key tracks: “Discoverer,” “Oh My Heart”

5. The Roots – Undun
The thirteenth offering from Philadelphia-based hip-hop/neo-soul outfit The Roots is a powerhouse.  Following two offerings from 2010 – How I Got Over and Wake Up (with John Legend) – Undun is concept album in reverse, beginning with the death of the character Redford Stephens. Like a hip-hop version of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Undun is a unique and thoroughly engrossing listen, not just for the album’s themes of struggling for survival in an urban landscape, but also because of the band’s organic grooves and soulful unity. If that weren’t enough, they flex their jazz muscles closing the album with a four-part suite that’s utterly gorgeous. Key tracks: “Make My,” “Lighthouse

4. Butch Walker & The Black Widows – The Spade
Probably the best (and my favourite) straight-up rock record of 2011. With his sixth studio album, Butch Walker continues to prove he’s the most consistent songwriter of the last 15 years. The Spade is full of Stones-y swagger and catchy-as-hell choruses, but the album is varied and balanced better than anything else in his catalogue – deftly moving between the T. Rex-ish glam of “Everysinglebodyelse” to the White Stripes-y pseudo-folk of “Dublin Crow”. Key tracks: “Sweethearts,” “Summer of ’89

3. Sloan – The Double Cross
Twice Removed and One Chord to Another are two of my favourite albums, yet the remainder of Sloan’s discography has never grabbed a hold of me. However, The Double Cross is probably the album that comes closest to reaching those two aforementioned albums’ greatness. Like a combination of The Beatles, KISS, and Big Star, Sloan’s new album is a power-pop classic: instantly familiar, invigorating, and undeniably fun. The Double Cross runs the gamut from Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles (“Follow the Leader”) to late-70s riffage (“Unkind”) to disco-ish pop (“Your Daddy Will Do”) to wherever else Sloan wants to go, yet it remains a solid listen. Key tracks: “Unkind,” “Green Gardens, Cold Montreal”

2. The Decemberists – The King is Dead
The Decemberists have never put out an album quite like The King is Dead. Forgoing their usual penchant for elaborate narrative-driven songs, the band tones down their theatricality and delivers ten glorious, tight, and concise tracks. Channeling the influence of numerous bands – from The Smiths to R.E.M. to The Byrds to Tom Petty – The Decemberists produce an album that already sounds like a classic. It’s easily the band’s most accessible, satisfying, and best record yet. Key tracks: “The Calamity Song,” “Don’t Carry it All”

1. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
Awash with luscious synths and elegiac vocals, M83’s follow up to their 2008 masterpiece Saturday = Youth is simultaneously grander and more cinematic, yet a more intimate affair (it’s almost as if Anthony Gonzalez is trying to make an alternate soundtrack to Donnie Darko). Seemingly inspired equally by bands like Talk Talk, Smashing Pumpkins, Tangerine Dream, and My Bloody Valentine, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is an audacious, sprawling triumph from one the last decade’s most talented artists. It’s a magnificent, invigorating album that will no doubt be in rotation for years to come. Key tracks: “Midnight City,” “Steve McQueen

Well, there we go, my ten favourites of 2011. However, no list is complete without a bunch of Honorable Mentions:

  • Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
  • Childish Gambino – Camp
  • Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
  • Future Islands – On the Water
  • Jack’s Mannequin – People & Things
  • Panic! At the Disco – Vices & Virtues
  • Radiohead – King of Limbs
  • Real Estate – Days
  • Patrick Stump – Soul Punk
  • TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
  • The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
  • The Weeknd – House of Balloons
  • Washed Out – Within and Without

For my ears, that’s 2011 in a nutshell. Did I miss anything? Let me know what you think!

45 rpm: Third Eye Blind – “If There Ever Was a Time”

For a band who has only four albums to their name over the last 14 years, it comes as a surprise that Third Eye Blind would release a song in support of Occupy Wall Street. This marks the first release by the band since 2009’s Ursa Major, and first to feature new guitarist Kryz Reid. “If There Ever Was a Time” recalls the kind of ubiquitous protest songs of the 1960s; it’s a straightforward plea – aimed squarely at America’s youth – to join the movement. The song is not overtly damning or as political as a track like “Don’t Believe a Word,” nor does it share that song’s biting anger. It is however, a fine one-off single, and a reminder that Third Eye Blind are, indeed, still an active unit. Some might write the song and (the band) off by unfairly comparing it to “Semi-Charmed Life,” though both share upbeat tempos and catchy choruses. To do so, however, would be to miss the bigger picture about the importance of supporting Occupy Wall Street and the need to do away with economic inequality, unemployment, greed, and corruption. You can listen to the song below and download it for free from the band’s Facebook page.

On the Record: Patrick Stump – Soul Punk

On the earlier Fall Out Boy records, singer Patrick Stump’s undeniably powerful voice seemed confined by standard pop-punk/emo vocals. With the last two releases from the band, 2007’s Infinity on High and 2008’s (excellent) Folie à Deux, Stump began moving away from those trappings, experimenting with different styles, adding R & B and soul textures to tracks like “What a Catch, Donnie” and “I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off.” When the band went on hiatus, Stump forged ahead, and 2011 saw the release of his full-length solo debut, Soul Punk.

Those R & B and soul textures are brought to the forefront on Soul Punk. There’s absolutely nothing here that resembles Stump’s work with Fall Out Boy, and the album is all the better for it. Though it sounds thoroughly modern in its production, with Soul Punk Stump digs deep into exuberant Michael Jackson and Prince territory on floor-filling tracks like “Greed,” “Spotlight (New Regrets),” and the phenomenal “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers).”

Stump refines his songwriting skills here, too, embedding each song with catchy melodies and bright, anthemic choruses, such as on lead single and Chicago love letter “This City” or the Hall & Oates circa H2O “The ‘I’ in Lie.” Stump is a charming singer, and the positive messages on “This City,” “Spotlight,”  and the album-closing “Coast (It’s Gonna Get Better)” come across as wholly genuine and never crass or baiting (as, say, Lady Gaga sometimes does). He’s able to change mood o the stop of a dime, though, being alternately sexy (“Allie”) and sardonic (“Run Dry”) without breaking the flow of the album. Stump has managed to produce an engaging mainstream pop record that doesn’t feel calculated or mechanical, which is a feat in itself, considering Stump wrote, produced, performed the album himself.  This is how a pop record should sound in 2011.

Friday Freebie: A Frightened Rabbit EP

Frightened Rabbit, one of our favourite bands right now here at Cool Kids, have released an EP for your listening pleasure for FREE! You can get it here in exchange for some info. The EP has three tracks, and exhibit the softer – though typically introspective – side of Frightened Rabbit. The best of the lot is “The Work,” which features Scottish folk legend Archie Fisher. Enjoy!

Mötley Crüesdays: “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)”

Released in September of 1989, Dr. Feelgood would become Mötley Crüe’s signature album, thanks in part to their massive popularity and the ubiquity of the album’s five singles. “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” the fourth single, peaked at number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, and is fairly typical in terms of 80s Crüe, musically and lyrically. Also, it’s one of the best tracks, with an exuberant and undeniably catchy energy.

45 rpm: “England” – The National

At the close of 2010, I named Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the best album of the year. However, ten months into 2011 the album from last year that seems to get the most play around this house is The National’s High Violet. In many ways, High Violet‘s best track, “England,” is the ultimate National song. It begins slowly, moodily building toward a raucous, muscular refrain that is as cathartic as it is catchy thanks to the band’s tight arrangements (and Brian Devendorf’s propulsive drumming). Matt Berringer’s vaguely Stipian lyrics are are typically opaque, evoking grand images of cathedrals, angels, London, and Los Angeles. Breathtaking stuff.

On the Record: Nirvana – Nevermind

Quite surprisingly, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s groundbreaking Nevermind doesn’t make me feel as old as the fact that it’s also the 10th anniversary for The Strokes’ Is This It? and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived with Nevermind so fully since it seemingly single-handedly changed the face popular music in 1991. It arrived a full-fledged, timeless classic. When it debuted Nevermind sounded like nothing on mainstream radio or on MTV. Through the album’s B-sides, and the band’s other recordings, Kurt Cobain’s influences become clear, but Nevermind never sounds like anything else. Coming off of 1989’s Bleach, Nevermind finds the band in full form, and at their creative peak – no matter how good Bleach and In Utero are.

In the years following the album’s release, Cobain rallied against the sound of Nevermind, likening it to a Mötley Crüe record, but it sounds absolutely perfect in it’s final product. For contrast, the newly minted “Super Deluxe Edition” of the album comes with a disc labelled the “Devonshire Mixes,” early mixes done up by producer Butch Vig. These mixes don’t sound drastically different, though it’s a little rougher around the edges. Funnily enough, Vig’s mixes sound more dated than the glossed up Andy Wallace ones. Yet, what comes through no matter how you listen to the album, is that Nevermind is a pure and perfect pop record at its heart. Big singles like “In Bloom” and “Lithium” have huge, infectious choruses, but so do the album’s deeper cuts like “On a Plain” and “Lounge Act.” Cobain’s personal, off-beat lyrics are alternately harrowing, frightening, and surprisingly, fun.

I’m pretty sure at least two songs from Nevermind have been played on rock radio every single day in the two decades since the album’s release, which might make listeners not take note of this re-release as they should. Sure, it’s reassuring to hear “Come as You Are” on the radio on the drive home from work, but it’s not the same as revisiting the album in its whole; it’s a captivating, haunting, and energizing listen. Nevermind turned heads and made the world take notice in 1991, and it still has that power today – it’s a self-assured, magnificent album from start to finish. The rest of Nirvana’s catalogue is all essential, but there are few albums as singular, staggeringly brilliant, and timeless as Nevermind.