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!


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]