Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Review: Top 10 Albums

I still can't get over how incredible 2011 has been in terms of music. There were so many exciting new artists bursting onto the scene (WU LYF, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Yuck, ASAP Rocky) while many other well already established artists expanded on and experimented with their sound to create something completely different (The Antlers, Bon Iver, Toro Y Moi).

And while its already been noted in various other publications, one can't help but draw parallels between the current climate of the music world to the current climate of the world. With exciting, democratic uprisings occurring the world over (Arab Spring, Occupy Movement), the people are joining together in search of change. Similarly, the "underground" has seemingly taken over the established norm and the major, corporate labels no longer rule the music industry. With all of the social networking devices, artists can build a brand for themselves without any need for the big budget that comes with a major label contract. As long as their willing to work, artists can find some sort of audience and without the meddling of big businesses worried about sales figures, the art is more pure and the listeners are reaping all of the benefits.

And now, without further ado, out of all the hundreds of albums and all the thousands of songs, here are the top 10 albums of 2011!

10. Middle Brother - Middle Brother

The superest of folk supergroups came together to craft a catchy and diverse debut that highlighted each of the individual songwriters' strengths. I've always been a huge proprietor of collaboration in music and really love that aspect of hip hop and this album (as well as the live show) really has that rootsy, folk collective feel to it. Just a few friends, drinking some brews and playing some music.

9. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
The juxtaposition between WU LYF musically and WU LYF vocally is what makes them stand out. On one hand you have reverb heavy guitar that's texture is reminiscent of a post rock bands like Explosions in the Sky. Accompanying the guitar is an organal synthesizer that further adds to the ambient sound and then the rhythm section which brings a bit of attitude to the otherwise peaceful sound. On the other hand, there is Ellery Roberts' primordial howl delivering very poetic lyrics (good luck trying to make them out, just look them up). Its this contrast that makes this band so special and as this is their debut, I'm excited to see what they produce as they grow and mature as a band.

8. Man Man - Life Fantastic

Another band that is all about contrast, Man Man has crafted their best album to date. With Mike Mogis producing, he's taken all of Man Man's wackiness and quirk and refined it. While past albums have been just plain old bizarre, Life Fantastic is a fresh, intriguing and focused album that joins upbeat, poppy melodies and adds a dark twist. The dark twist is furthered by Honus Honus's deeply personal and disturbing lyrics.

7. Cold Cave - Cherish the Light Years

A former hardcore frontman goes gothic, 80s new wave to craft an album that is equal parts emotion and dance. Wes Eisold has greatly refined his sound from the Cold Cave debut Love Comes Close and where that album showed only glimpses of potential, Cherish the Light Years fulfills it and then some. Each beat brings something different production wise with rock heavy numbers like "The Great Pan Is Dead" and Villians of the Moon" to the more bass and synth driven "Icons of Summer" and "Underworlds USA". He even throws some horns in on "Alchemy and You". Eisold's voice is constantly shifting as well and varies from lustful and unattached to emotional and earnest.

6. Charles Bradley - No Time For Dreaming

Daptone Records out of Brooklyn is bringing Soul music back in a big way with acts like Sharon Jones and the Dapkings and The Menahan Street Band. However, none of their acts is bigger and more important then Charles Bradley. The 62 year old journeyman, aka "The Screaming Eagle of Soul", has finally released his first album after years of working dead-end jobs to support himself and doing music on the side. The gratification he feels from finally fulfilling his dreams is apparent in his vocal delivery on love ballads like "I Believe In Your Love" and "Lovin' You Baby". Conversely, you can hear all of the pain and hardship he feels from 62 years of grinding and struggling to make end's meat. Tracks like "Heartaches and Pain" and "Why Is It So Hard?" are Charles' personal life stories and include the murder of his brother. The unbridles emotion is oh so moving and its everything music should be.

5. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

Justin Vernon has ditched the "man in a cabin in the woods with his acoustic guitar" ethos that surrounded him after For Emma, Forever Ago. He's traded in the sparse guitar arrangements for vast soundscapes of varying instrumentation and dynamic. There is the militaristic drumming and triumphant horns of "Perth, the finger picked guitars and smooth saxophone on "Minnesota, WI", the piano and strings based "Wash." and he even throws in a Bruce Hornsby-like piano ballad at the end with the polarizing "Beth/Rest".

4. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life

The epic 78 minute rock opera from experimental Toronto punks Fucked Up is a sprawling narrative of Shakeperian proportions about love, loss, betrayal and redemption that features unreliable narrators and various plot devices that provide unexpected twists and turns in the story. Musically, the album features the layered guitar sound Fucked Up is so well known for and they match the tone of each song to the aspect of the story being explored.

3. Destroyer - Kaputt

Dan Bejar's newest foray with Destroyer fuses a host of different genres together to form a beautiful, sprawling pop album. Musically, Bejar takes everything awful about the 80s, throws in some jazz, mixes in a bit of adult contemporary for good measure and then adds in some brilliant saxophone playing and other accenting instrumentation and then overlays it with an unwavering, detached delivery. The result of melding all these awful genres of music: genius.

2. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

Welcome to the future of hip hop. Former Digable Planets MC, Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, now pushing 40, is light years ahead of the rest of the hip hop game with Black Up. His abstract lyrics flow flawlessly over the the ambient and ever-changing, bass heavy beats. Butler's flow and his beats are in a constant state of flux and even after 20 plus listens, I'm still gripped by the music. Separately, I was introduced to Kahlil Joseph's video for the album and it is sheer brilliance.

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

On Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut, singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold observed the landscape to craft an album that explored the world around him. On this latest effort, his focus turns inward and he ruminates on his own niche in society. I'll be the first to admit that Fleet Foxes' new album is not the most ambitious and doesn't break any new ground but music is a very personal experience that has more to do with the listener's interpretation and it resonates perfectly with my current place in life's journey.

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