Sunday, January 15, 2012

Top Albums of the Year - 2011

Recognitions and Honorable Mentions

Before we get to the countdown of the top 12 Albums of 2011, there are just a few that I have to acknowledge that didn’t make it on the Year-End Awards post.

Hailing from the United Kingdom, The Joy Formidable came out with a spectacular rock debut with The Big Roar. Opening for such acts as The Foo Fighters, the band did what they were supposed to do: make people go from “who is that?” to “I LOVE THESE GUYS!” Look no further than the album version of “Whirring” to see just what this group is capable of.

Though I think they put themselves in a corner by coming out with a part 2 to their debut album, Gym Class Heroes still ended up offering a nice collection of tracks with The Papercut Chronicles II. The original PC album infused rap into the growing emo-rock genre, but the followup (three albums later) displays a pop side with guest vocals from Adam Levine and Ryan Tedder. Want some swag with that pop? Check out “Martyrial Girl$”

Speaking of returns, there may not have a better call back to glory days than Hot Sauce Committee Part Two from The Beastie Boys. Bringing a sound straight from 80s boomboxes that gels well with iPods of today, the Boys go all out on their eighth studio album. Nearly a year after its release, “Make Some Noise” is still a track that can make anyone Bust a Move.

An import straight outta Iceland, Of Monsters and Men bring an indie-folk record that is set to take the states by storm in 2012. BUT it was released elsewhere in 2011 so it gets mention here. At times a jam-session similar to Edward Sharpe (“Little Talks”) and at times giving Mumford and Sons a run for their money (“From Finner”), My Head is An Animal is an album that should definitely be on your radar.

Florence + The Machine exploded on the scene with "Lungs" but the followup seemed to take on a grander existence. The sounds, and the voice, seemed to just continue to get bigger on Ceremonials. Why did it not make the list? Simple because I haven't spent enough time with it. But the few spins I've been able to give it, I have loved it and thus this spot is given here.

Finally, we come to the newest release from The Black Keys, El Camino. It’s actually a shame this was released in December because if there was a little more time to digest, I’m sure the follow-up to the Grammy-winning Brothers would have made the Top Albums cut. El Camino shows the natural progression of the two-piece, leaning more towards the feet-stomping anthems of their discography than the raw-sessions they are also known for. “Little Black Submarines” is the closest hint of the early days, but even halfway through the intense drumming kicks in and the song gets taken up a notch. El Camino is a toe-tapper, a hip-shaker and a damn good record.

Top Albums of 2011

12. Red Hot Chili Peppers - I’m With You

The newest inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame do what they do best in a release coming in their fourth decade as a band - have an all-out jam session. Yes, they were minus John Frusciante, but Josh Klinghoffer did more than just fill-in; he truly became a member of the band. Anthony Kiedis has had better wordplay, but he still brings the fun. The MVP of this record though? Flea. Never before has the bass sounded brighter on a brilliantly-styled album.

11. Grouplove - Never Trust A Happy Song

The first of three debut albums to crack the top 12, it would have been easy to dismiss this hippified band with their single “Colors” as a one-hit wonder and move on. But the full album saw a combination rarely found: sweet, fun and talented. “Tongue Tied” has also gained mainstream access by making its way into Apple commercials, but its tracks such as “Chloe” and “Betty’s a Bombshell” that show the band’s range. As a challenge, try to listen to “Itchin On a Photograph” and not begin instantly handclapping. Go ahead, try it. It’s actually pretty fun.

10. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

In an era full of an increasing number of sub-genres of rock, it was refreshing to see a band get out there and wail on their instruments and be brutal on the mic. Foo Fighters gave a lesson in Rock 101 with Wasting Light and it would be a testament if up and coming bands took notice. “Bridge Burning” is a beast of a track and “White Limo” is a similar face-melter. The ballads slow things down, but the talent in the band shines through. Even in “Miss the Misery” you can practically see the veins popping out of Dave Grohl’s neck.

9. blink-182 - Neighborhoods

To judge whether you would like the blink reunion, just answer the following questions. Did you like the last album? Do you like Angels and Airwaves? Did you like +44? If you answered yes to all of those questions, chancing are Neighborhoods was the album for you. Any no answers and you might have had a hard time digesting the band’s comeback. And it’s a shame because while they have gone on different paths in recent years, each member of the Mark, Tom and Travis show brought everything they picked up along the way. “Ghosts on the Dance Floor” has excellent verbal usage while “Heart’s All Gone” is a track that grabs hold and never lets go. If it ends up being the band’s swan song, what a way to go out.

8. Taking Back Sunday - Taking Back Sunday

On a personal note, I struggled with where I wanted to put this album. Admittedly, TBS is one of my top 2 favorite bands of all time so their reunited lineup was heavily anticipated. I think the expectations were set so high that it was going to be a disappointment no matter what, but after a few listens later in the year I realized it’s a well put together release. The band is in an evolving stage from emo band to rock band and they seem uncomfortable in their own skin at times. However, it’s the songs with full on confidence and swagger that deserves merit. “El Paso” still stands to be one of their heaviest, and best, tracks while “This is All Now” serves as a highlight of the entire discography. Simply put, Taking Back Sunday deserves recognition for being one of the best rock releases of 2011.

7. Jay Z / Kanye West - Watch the Throne

Speaking of high expectations, I don’t think the bar could have been set any higher than taking arguably the two biggest names in rap and putting them together on one release. So even though the duo stumbles on a few tracks, why is it ranked in the top 10? Well, honestly: the shit’s cray. In today’s hip hop world, the attention span seems to be getting shorter as people just want to hear jams. And while that shines through on tracks such as “N****s in Paris” and “That’s My Bitch,” it’s the storytelling found elsewhere that defines WTT. The two seem to push each other to their limits and no where is that more evident than “Murder to Excellence.”

6. Sleeper Agent - Celebrasion

One of the best feelings as a music fan is discovering new music. A runner-up to that feeling is when a debut album complements the lead-off single. Both of those fell in to place with Celebrasion, the introduction to the world from Kentucky darlings Sleeper Agent. The entire disc sounds like Joan Jett’s niece decided to form a punk band but mix in some pop tendencies. The dual vocals here make for a nice exchange and the band’s sugary-sweet combination with a knockout punch will leave you dazed and confused while absolutely loving all 35 minutes of play time.

5. Foster the People - Torches

Hands down the best debut of 2011, Torches was Foster the People’s calling card to let the world know they were here. It could have been easy to dismiss “Pumped Up Kicks” as an MGMT knockoff and expect them to fade away as quickly as those guys did. But that wasn’t the case as the hits kept on coming. From the can’t-sit-still boom of “Houdini” to the car commercial featuring “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)” every song on here is carefully crafted, which aren’t words you would normally expect with an electro-esque band. Another unique facet to that statement? These songs sound even better switched to an acoustic setting. A not often talked about highlight? The soaring vocals on the dubstep-borrowing (but not heavy usage) closing track “Broken Jaw.”

4. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys

Early in 2011, my friend Mike and I did a Most Anticipated List for the rest of the year. and we had a few shared picks, among them was the newest from Death Cab for Cutie. Codes and Keys plays on the best qualities of each member while bringing, dare I say it, a ray of sunshine into their music. I bring up Mike at the beginning of this entry because in his 2011 list he said the following about this album: “Most of the time, Codes & Keys comes across like a vintage photograph, evoking vivid/arresting moods while seeming distanced from the harshness often displayed in modern production.” I couldn’t have said it better myself - so I didn’t. I stole it from him and you should check out the rest of his list here. The band is up to their old tricks with "St. Peter's Cathedral" and "Doors Unlocked and Open" but it's "Stay Young, Go Dancing" that is the highlight.

3. Manchester Orchestra - Simple Math

First there was “I’m Like A virgin Losing A Child” that introduced to the world the strings, bangs and vocals of Manchester Orchestra. It was subtle and low-defined, counteracted by the followup “Mean Everything to Nothing” which saw Andy Hull rip the chord on his voice and go for it with a bigger, more rocking sound while still staying true to a band that seems to show the struggle to get the most out of every song. The hat trick came in 2011 with “Simple Math,” featuring the best of both worlds. “Leave it Alone” and the title track show the band can still lay it down with a soft-side, but “Pale Black Eye” and “April Fool” can whip the crowd into a frenzy at a live show. The defining piece is “Virgin,” a haunting track that takes a hold of you before you even realize what happened.

2. Cage the Elephant - Thank You, Happy Birthday

Surprised to see this album so high on this list, or even on the list at all? For the record, I am too. I had TYHB in my top 10 all year (this was the earliest release on the list, coming out in January) but recently decided it needed to be in the top three. The reason why is that when doing when my top 50 songs of the year, my criteria was that I couldn’t choose more than one from any album. And when I got to the sophomore effort from Cage the Elephant, I realized it was a struggle to select just one track to go off of. The band delivers a sound mixed with 90s grunge inspired and the sounds of today’s indie scene that features a schizophrenic lead singer (and one that has great stage presence in live shows). At times tracks make you want to turn the radio up and break everything around you (“2024”; “Sabertooth Tiger”) and at times can you make you lie back and chill - or perhaps catch your breath (“Rubber Ball”; the acoustic version of “Right Before My Eyes” found at the end of the album). If you haven’t given these guys a chance, pop it in and discover a great band on the rise. Just make sure you don’t have any perishable items around you.

This is where the #1 Album of 2011 should go, but quite frankly - there is a lot of text on this page. And I plan on talking a lot about what was, in the opinion of this blog, the best album of the year.

So you can find that here - as soon as I get it loaded up.
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