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!


List! 9 Fake Movies Named After R.E.M. Songs

Since R.E.M. has already had one film named after one of their songs, Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999), and named one of their songs “Imitation of Life” after the excellent 1959 Douglas Sirk film, I though I’d explore the R.E.M.-to-film relationship. If any of these come to fruition, I fully expect a percentage of the profits.

1. Gardening at Night. This romantic comedy stars Gwenyth Paltrow as Janie, a recently widowed factory worker and single mother, who notices her suspicious, yet alluring new neighbour Alvin (played with aplomb by Thomas Jane) is always working in the yard when she gets home at 3:00 a.m. Janie begins an innocent relationship out of curiosity, never thinking that this new man next door with peculiar gardening habits might be able to heal her wounded heart!

2. Talk About the Passion. Director Clint Eastwood takes you on a journey through three generations romance with this Oscar winning drama. Cancer patient Ellie Mills (a heartbreaking performance from Michelle Pfeiffer) spends her final days at the family home on Martha’s Vineyard with her mother Esther (Glenn Close), and her daughter Erica (Rachel McAdams). There Ellie comes to terms with her terminal illness and reveals Erica’s father is not who she believed. Ellie shares her tragic college romance that resulted in her pregnancy, as Esther and Erica share share similar stories of loves lost. Make sure a box of Kleenex is handy as these women Talk About the Passion!

3. Crush with Eyeliner. The latest from Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation director McG, Crush with Eyeliner stars Nina Dobrev (TV’s Vampire Diaries) as a high school student Sandee Salinger who is hopelessly in love with comic book nerd Henry Clarkson (Anton Yelchin). To get Henry’s attention, Sandee dresses as a superhero for a school dance, but before she can get there, she saves Henry from being mugged, and becomes a real-life crime-fighting sensation! Now torn between two worlds, Sandee finds herself struggling with being a hero, getting her homework done, and winning over the boy of her dreams! Hilarity, action, and romance ensue.

4. Don’t Go Back to Rockville. Matthew McConaughey directs and stars as a successful New York lawyer who, after a series of unfortunate events, is divorced and disbarred. Penniless and jobless, McConaughey returns to live with his wacky mother and father in Atlanta, GA. He reluctantly takes a job as the midnight to 4:00 a.m. DJ at Rockville, the local radio station he helped establish in college. There he reconnects with his his friends he left behind, reconsiders his priorities, and begins to rebuild his life.

5. Star 69. Director Michael Bay’s sci-fi epic is part Sunshine, part Battlestar Galactica. Starring Channing Tatum, Dennis Quaid, and Anna Kendrick, the film focuses on a group of space explores set out to find a new planet since earth is deteriorating. The crew finds a seemingly perfect planet orbiting around an orange star in solar system 69. As the crew explores the new planet, they find they are not alone. In 3-D.

6. Nightswimming. A tense psychological drama from City of God director Fernando Meirelles about Mary Cartwright (Amy Adams), who had a mental breakdown after the night-time drowning of her lover. Now, ten years later, Mary is released from a mental institution into the care of her brother Bobby (Mark Ruffalo) who was also there the night of the incident. Soon after her release, though, Mary becomes haunted by flashbacks of that night. Bobby, too, begins acting strange. Is her mind not as stable as she thought? Or has Bobby been hiding something from Mary all these years?

7. Driver 8. Cocky race car driver Max Carson (Keanu Reeves) has a gambling problem, and after losing $100,000 to the mob when he bets on himself to win a race, he’s forced to become the get away driver for a bank robbery. When the robbery is a success, Max becomes obsessed with the dangerous thrill of it, and becomes a professional get away driver. FBI agent Jason Collins (Aaron Eckhardt) is assigned to crack this gang of bank robbers. Sparks fly and rubber burns as the two square off in a dangerous game of life and death! Eva Mendes co-stars, Brett Ratner directs.

8. Turn You Inside-Out. Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Turn You Inside-Out stars Ron Perlman as Chazz, a museum curator who receives an ancient Mayan mask. On the morning after a full moon, a disemboweled body is found in the museum. As more disemboweled people are found around New York, Chazz begins to believe the artifact is cursed. Can Chazz and his colleagues uncover the mystery of the mask and save the city before it’s too late?

9. All the Way to Reno. Honeymoon in Vegas stars Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker reunite for this hilarious road trip comedy! Directed by Tom Shadyac (Bruce Almighty), the film finds Sarah Jessica Parker as an uptight Seattle ad executive who misses her flight to Nevada and is forced to rent a car and drive. Along the way, she accidentally hits hitch-hiking, laid-back male prostitute Nic Cage.  Feeling sorry, she offers him a ride to Nevada. Can these two strangers from different worlds survive the 12 hour car ride?!

List! 3 Pretty Great Albums by Past & Present Guns N’ Roses Members

Forget Slash’s Snakepit or Duff’s albums, forget the high-profile misfire Velvet Revolver. These are three pretty great albums by members of Guns N’ Roses worthy of standing alongside the band’s best work.

1. Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds – Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds (1992)
Izzy Stradlin, one of the founding members of Guns N’ Roses and the band’s secret weapon, was the first to leave of his own volition. With GN’R, Stradlin co-wrote many of the band’s best songs (“Mr. Brownstone,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Patience,” “Don’t Cry”) and brought a quiet, cocksure attitude to the group to counter some of the other strong personalities. Since his departure, Stradlin has put out 11 albums, but his unfortunately titled debut is still the best. (Ju Ju Hounds? Goo Goo Dolls should open for them) The album is ten solid tracks of laid back, Stones-inspired rock ‘n’ roll. More than GN’R, Stradlin lets his influences shine through, but doesn’t imitate them. The single “Shuffle it All” is one of the greatest road trip songs (especially for a hot summer day with windows down).

2. Gilby Clarke – Pawnshop Guitars (1994)
Let’s face it, Gilby Clarke, Stradlin’s replacement, was a good fit for GN’R, but didn’t bring enough personality. Or at least he was never given the chance to let his personality through. Clarke toured with GN’R to support the Illusions albums, and played on The Spaghetti Incident?, but that’s really it. Clarke never had the opportunity to write with the band, and after hearing his solo debut, Pawnshop Guitars, he really could’ve been a strong addition. If we’re just going for straight comparison, and I think it’s somewhat warranted, Clarke isn’t as strong a singer as Stradlin, but he still has a knack for Stones-y rock ‘n’ roll (are we seeing a pattern here? Hey, he even covers “Dead Flowers”!). Clarke’s influences are largely the same as Stradlin’s (The Stones, The Clash – he also covers “Jail Guitar Doors”) and Pawnshop Guitars makes a good companion to the Ju Ju Hounds. Though, where Stradlin’s record is more classic sounding, Clarke’s tunes at times embrace modern rock, and some tracks would sit very comfortably next to Stone Temple Pilots. (GN’R-philes will want this album for Axl’s appearance on the “Dead Flowers” cover)

3. Tommy Stinson – Village Gorilla Head (2004)
By the time Tommy Stinson released his first solo album, the Replacements had been broken up for 13 years and he’d been the bassist for Guns N’ Roses for almost six years, despite the fact that Chinese Democracy was still four years away from being released. Interestingly, Stinson’s solo sound has much in common with other GN’R spin-offs. Like Stradlin and Clarke’s records, the Stones influence can be felt just as clearly, especially on the Exile-inspired “Hey You.” Yet, (the also unfortunately titled) Village Gorilla Head is more varied in its approach: “Not a Moment Too Soon” rivals anything in Paul Westerberg’s solo catalogue, “OK” oddly recalls The Traveling Wilburys, “Motivation” is punky Warning-era Green Day, and the title track embraces samples, loops, and atmospheric studio trickery.

*Alright, I know I started this off by saying forget Slash’s Snakepit, but they do have one absolutely great song: