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!

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!

Sweetness Follows: R.E.M. Call it a Day.

In an announcement on their website, R.E.M. has decided to hang up their hats after 31 years of being one of the most influential American bands. The news of R.E.M.’s break-up saddened me in a way I hadn’t expected. I mean, there was no horrific accident, no one died. And then I came to a sort of realization: perhaps more than any other band – more than The Beatles, more than The Clash – R.E.M. really defined my formative years.

In 1987, when I was seven or so, my family got our first CD player. It was this big behemoth machine (that looked like this), and with it we had only a handful CDs: a couple of film soundtrack compilations (Star Tracks and Time Warp, specifically), U2’s The Joshua Tree, and R.E.M.’s Document. Document is probably the album that got the least amount of play from me, though my young ears loved the unbridled enthusiasm of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” but it would take me a few years to really sink my teeth into deep cuts like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “King of Birds.” Like many, I started to really get into the band through 1991’s Out of Time, an album that found massive success from the single “Losing My Religion.”

However, eight years prior to Out of Time‘s crossover success, R.E.M. made waves with their debut Murmur, an album so enigmatic and striking, it ranks as not only one of the band’s (many) crowning achievements, but one of the best albums of the 1980s. From there, the band had an incredible run, putting out one great album per year from 1983 to 1987 – Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document – before jumping to the majors with 1988’s Green; with each album, their sound got bigger, bolder, and more dynamic. Never a band to rest on their laurels, R.E.M. challenged themselves to explore new musical territories throughout the 1990s on Out of TimeAutomatic for the People, Monster, and New Adventures in H-Fi.

The 1990s is where R.E.M. really took hold of me. Automatic, Monster, and New Adventures are three albums I never wanted to be without. While other bands I loved came and went, or fell out of favour with me, R.E.M. were always there, always on. Though other bands like The Beatles, The Clash, U2, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and The Smiths had a profound effect on my life, it was R.E.M.’s albums I looked forward to the most. Michael Stipe’s obtuse and oddly personal lyrics spoke to me in ways I can’t really explain, and the result was empowering. I felt like R.E.M.’s music was mine. Their music consoled me, gave me hope. It’s as if Stipe’s words could say more about me than I could myself.

Between releases I would go back and get acquainted with their earlier albums, which soon I would obsess over too. I discovered brilliance of Murmur, the murky, quirky folk-rock of Fables of the Reconstruction, and the sheer brilliance of the timeless-sounding Reckoning (probably my favourite R.E.M. record). I wanted to hear it all. I could barely contain my excitement when they performed “The Wake-Up Bomb” on the MTV video awards before New Adventures came out. I spent much of my time and hard earned money tracking down singles so I could hear those B sides I read about in rock magazines (I scored big when I found the single for “Bittersweet Me” with a cover of “Wichita Lineman”). Even my one R.E.M. t-shirt was my absolute favourite. (this one actually, and I wish I still had it.)

After the drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997 (he had an aneurysm on the Monster tour), the band carried on as a trio, trying to reinvent themselves time and again on subsequent albums Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. At this point, R.E.M. and I drifted apart; I enjoyed much of Up, but I was left disappointed. And to be honest, I never gave Reveal or Around the Sun a fair shake. Yet, the band proved it was still capable of surprising, turning out a very good record with 2008’s Accelerate and reaching near-greatness with this year’s Collapse Into Now. It was with Collapse Into Now that I rekindled my love of R.E.M. (just ask the missus, I’ve been listening to them non-stop all summer). A flood of memories came back while listening to “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” as if I had forgotten exactly how much R.E.M. meant to me for so many years (I almost felt bad neglecting the band in recent years). Indeed, it is sad day to see one of the greatest bands bow out of the spotlight, but their incredible legacy will be remembered for generations to come.

[by the way, this is my favourite R.E.M. song]

Studying the Smashing Pumpkins 2.0, Part 2: TheFutureEmbrace

Following the sudden demise of Zwan in 2003, Billy Corgan opted to embark on a solo career.  TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan’s solo debut, dives headfirst into the electronic stylings addressed on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore.  Never afraid to musically cite his influences in the past, such as Boston and Black Sabbath, TheFutureEmbrace showcases Corgan’s musical kinship to both Depeche Mode and New Order.  An album of gothic romanticism, TheFutureEmbrace is arguably Corgan’s most politically and socially conscious record to date.  The album’s lyrics are evidence of Corgan’s headspace at the time as a paranoid media saturated American living with the threat of terrorism.  This position is reflected in “Mina Loy (M.O.H.),” which expresses his sentiments for his hometown of Chicago (btw, M.O.H. stands for My Old Heart, which was the songs initial working title).

The biggest stylistic departure for Corgan on TheFutureEmbrace is the absence of guitar.  In fact, Corgan limited himself to a single guitar track on each song, thus producing identifiable melodic lines that filter through the rhythmic beds electronics.  For example, check out this performance of “ToLoveSomebody.”

While “ToLoveSomebody” is a Bee Gees cover, the recorded version on TheFutureEmbrace features contributing vocals from Robert Smith (The Cure) and is one of two songs to feature guest contributions.  The second song is “DIA” which features Corgan’s often-cited musical soul mate Jimmy Chamberlin on drums.

Legend has it that the relationship between Corgan and Chamberlin continued to grow strong after the breakup of Zwan, and the pair collaborated not only on “DIA” but on the song “Loki Cat” from the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex’s Life Begins Again.

Other notable performers and contributors to the recording and production of TheFutureEmbrace include co-producers Bon Harris (Nitzer Ebb) and Bjorn Thorsrud who produced Zwan’s Mary Star of the Sea.  As well as programming from Brian Liesegang (Nine Inch Nails/Filter/Ashtar Command) and Matt Walker who famously toured as the Pumpkins drummer after Chamberlin’s departure during the tour for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  Both Liesegang and Walker served as Corgan’s backing band on tour for TheFutureEmbrace, along with keyboardist and vocalist Linda Strawberry.

TheFutureEmbrace was overshadowed at the time of its release due to Corgan’s full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune stating his intentions to reform the Smashing Pumpkins, which appeared on the same day as the album’s release.  As a result, TheFutureEmbrace features some of Corgan’s strongest and under examined work.  Songs like “A100” and “Pretty, Pretty Star” sound like blueprints for the future pop gems produced by the likes of MGMT and The Limousines, while “The Cameraeye” ranks alongside songs like “1979” and “Disarm” as Corgan’s most stylistically transcendent compositions.  “Strayz” posits itself at the opposite side of the spectrum of the majority of Corgan’s discography as it features no drums and no guitar.  Hopefully, with Corgan’s plans to reissue the album in the future it will contain the American iTunes bonus/pre-order track “Tilt” (available here: http://www.4shared.com/audio/j_dATfMA/TILT_-_Billy_Corgan.html) which, along with lead single “Walking Shade”, serves as Corgan’s most upbeat music during his solo period.

I’ll leave you with the official video for “Walking Shade.”

 

Studying the Smashing Pumpkins 2.0, Part 1: Zwan

The following will be the first in a series of installments reflecting on the work of Billy Corgan following the initial breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins.

With Corgan’s recent announcement that he will be reissuing his discography, including Zwan’s Mary Star of the Sea, it is time for his fans to reevaluate their initial impressions his work post Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  In the 2000s, as supergroups whose talent far outweighed their longevity dominated the rock world, there is no better example a group who was judged by what they were not rather than what they were than Zwan.  It is time for them to be recognized in hindsight for what they were.

When the Smashing Pumpkins finished its 4-hour farewell concert at the Cabaret Metro in 2000, the future of its members was uncertain.

After shedding a tear, Corgan stated that he would continue to make music.  The first stage in his post Pumpkins period came in the form of alt rock supergroup Zwan, whose debut Mary Star of the Sea showcased a band distinctly different than those of its predecessors.

Along with Corgan was drummer Jimmy Chamberlin whose presence was somewhat surprising given his past with the Pumpkins.  However, it became clear that the relationship between Corgan and Chamberlin was obviously not a factor in the Pumpkins’ disbanding.

Rounding out the group were guitarists Matt Sweeney (Skunk and Chavez) and David Pajo (Slint).  With Zwan’s triple guitar approach, they averted the wall of sound style that the pumpkins were most known for on Gish, Siamese Dream and Machina: The Machines of God.  Instead, its guitarists’ weaving of intricate melodic patterns characterizes Zwan’s guitar approach that Corgan felt was reminiscent of the Byrds.

Maximizing the sonic textures afforded by three guitars, each guitarist oscillated between rhythm and leads, often trading off roles multiple times within one song.  The dynamic is evident in the group’s first single “Honestly.”

Bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) served to continue Corgan’s tradition of having a feminine presence on bass.  Her lush vocal harmonies served to push the melodies in front of the textures put forth by the guitar trio and the rhythms of Chamberlin’s superb drumming.  Lenchantin’s contributions are best exemplified here with “Settle Down,” a song she cowrote with Corgan.

Not enough has been said about Chamberlin’s role in the band.  At this point in his life and career, he had reclaimed his status as one of the most innovative and standout drummers of his generation along with the likes of Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters/Queens of the Stone Age/Probot) and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers/Chickenfoot/Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats).  He often shows his strength and finesse when restraining his playing, as is evident throughout this performance of “Mary Star of the Sea.”

The music of Zwan serves to illustrate Corgan’s abilities as a songwriter.  Having proven to be the most prolific artist of his generation with the massive output of recorded songs with the Pumpkins in the 1990s, Corgan’s songwriting showed no signs of slowing down with Zwan.  Mary Star Of The Sea showcases some of his most emotionally direct songs in years such as “Of A Broken Heart” and “Desire.”

Zwan’s potential is evident not only in their debut, but the vast amount of songs that have yet to be officially released released.  The short-lived group had two simultaneous incarnations, The True Poets of Zwan (credited in the album liner notes) and the acoustic bootlegged Djali Zwan.  The most official release of the Djali Zwan is their cover of Iron Maiden’s “Number Of The Beast” which is available as the b-side of the “Honestly” single.

Hopefully the reissue of Mary Star of the Sea will contain much of the forgotten material that can be traced online.  I’ll leave you with “A New Poetry,” a great track taken from on the Mary Star Of The Sea deluxe DVD.

Understanding the Boss.

As a Canadian teen in the 1990s, Bruce Springsteen was the epitome of everything I disliked. Just look at the cover of Born in the U.S.A. – that American flag, those jeans, the white t-shirt. The song “Born in the U.S.A.,” with its bombastic productions, ’80s synths, and anthemic chorus, was what I was against, man. Yet, he was inescapable (“Streets of Philadelphia,” anyone?). For all my resistance, radio still ingrained the Boss into my brain. And then as grew older and wiser (y’know, 15-16) and I explored things other than “alternative” and “punk” music, I began to ease up on Springsteen. I began to know the hits from the radio, a few other tracks here and there, and picked up The Rising in ’02.

So I finally decided to buy that cool new Bruce Springsteen collection that has all of his albums from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. through Born in the U.S.A. I’ve always been a fan of the Boss – though rather casual. I felt it was time to really dig in. I mean, The majority of his albums from the ’73-’84 period constantly make it on all of those ‘greatest albums of all time’ lists. Well, I dunno what it is about these albums, but they make sense. I totally get Springsteen. I think once a man turns 30 the Boss speaks to you in a language you can’t understand until then.

Songs like “Working on the Highway,” “My Hometown” (both from Born in the U.S.A.), and “Thunder Road” (from Born to Run) – songs I was familiar with – suddenly resonate deeper and hit harder than they did in my late teens. A song like “Factory” from Darkness on the Edge of Town (a freaking phenomenal record, by the way) wouldn’t have stirred me either way at 20, but now… now, it knocks the wind out of me.

Through these albums, one witnesses Springsteen’s evolution from wordy Dylan-esque rock ‘n’ roll revivalist (just listen to how The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle burns through the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll) to one of the most prolific and matured artists of the ’70s and ’80s. Lyrically, the Boss builds on established themes of rock – broken hearts, teenage dreams, and the like – but he constructs them in such a complex way, weaving them into intricate narratives and character studies, creating emotionally challenging pop songs.

Ultimately, these albums deserve the amount of praise they’ve received over the last few decades, I only regret that it took me until 30 to understand the Boss.

Their older stuff is better.

I debated long and hard about sharing this little party trick, but I’ve told numerous people, so I suppose it’s about time to share it with the internet.

Have you ever been to party and got to talking music with people? Has one or more of them been music snobs and made you feel stupid for liking a band? Well, I have, and I don’t like. My good friend and colleague Matt Canning indirectly taught me that it’s okay to like whatever music you want. There should be no such thing as a guilty pleasure, so why tell someone that a band sucks once they become (relatively) famous? I was at a party a couple years ago, and I was really into The National’s Boxer (which is stunning, by the way), and the guy I was talking to said, “Nah, their older stuff is better. Actually, everything after their first album sucks.” That ticked me off. So, what to do with these hipster douchebags? I one-up them by telling them about bands they’ve never heard of.

Some Guy: So what else are you listening to?

Me: I’m really digging the new Family Plot EP.

Some Guy: Yeah? I’ve heard that’s supposed be good, I just haven’t check it out, bro.

Who the hell is Family Plot? How did I know they’ve never heard of them? Because I made them up, that’s how. I find in situations like this, it’s a good way to deal with these types of people. Is it cruel? Maybe. But, what the hell, I enjoy it, and the dude played along as if he knew who they were! (Family Plot is Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, and it’s really good). Actually, Hitchcock film titles are a good source of fake band names. The older and more obscure, the better.

“I saw The Lady Vanishes open for Juno and the Paycock last weekend, and they weren’t bad.”

Young and Innocent put out a split EP with Topaz of all Velvet Underground covers.”

Works like a charm.