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!

On the Record: Butch Walker & The Black Widows – The Spade

In some alternate universe, Butch Walker is a critical darling and a household name. In our universe, however, he’s merely the former. Cutting his teeth with the hair metal outfit Southgang in the late 80s, moving to power-pop trio Marvelous 3 in the 90s, and graduating to solo artist in the 00s, Butch Walker has remained one of the best, most consistent American songwriters of his generation, and his sixth album, The Spade, continues down that same path turning out a contender for the best straight-up rock ‘n’ roll album of 2011.

Walker’s style may not have changed very much since his Marvelous 3 days, though the modern-sounding studio polish of Left of Self-Centered has been toned down, opting for a more “classic” sound that began with 2006’s (phenomenal) The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites. Where that album saw Walker and company high on T. Rex and glammed to the nines, The Spade is littered with a heavy 70s Stones vibe; tracks like “The Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find” and the album-closing “Suckerpunched” would sound at home on any post-Exile Stones record, while the sexy swagger of “Sweethearts” channels “Beast of Burden.”

Walker has never achieved the success of his peers and the artists he’s produced (he’s never cracked the Billboard 100), but that has never stopped him from making the best and catchiest rock music possible. First single “Summer of ’89” gleefully employs a “Whoa oh ho oh oh whoa!!” Def Leppard-like refrain while looking back at his youth. Elsewhere, Walker explores new musical territory with the folky “Dublin Crow” and manages to amalgamate John Lennon and Ben Folds on the upbeat and catchy “Synthesizer.”

 

 

Lyrically Walker explores the same territory of albums past – mixing poignant observations about lost souls and unrequited love with smirking wit – ett he does it in such a way that it never feels forced or stale, thanks to his enthusiastic vocal performances and the sheer tightness of backing band The Black Widows. It’ll be hard pressed to find a better rock ‘n’ roll record in 2011.