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Jan 3 / Great Apes

Top 5 Albums Of 2011; or Adventures In Unimaginative But Rather Precise Titling

I used to be the kind of guy who could have been a character in High Fidelity.  When I was in college I would listen to almost every album that came out, and at the end of the year I’d put out a list of the best 25, 30, even 50 albums I had heard that year.  And I’d have probably heard three times that many.  Well, I don’t really listen to that much music any more, though I often wish I did.  So instead, I’m going to list the 5 best albums I heard in 2011.  It’s not nearly as exhaustive a list, but maybe 5 seems like more of a “best” than 50 does anyway.  So here we go:

2011’s Best Albums

1. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
If you had asked me before the year started who I figured my favourite album of the year would be by, St. Vincent wouldn’t even have been in my top 10.  I’ve heard previous work by her, but for whatever reason it never really clicked with me.  Strange Mercy, on the other hand, did.  It’s an album full of unusual twists and turns, complex song structures, and unexpected musical divergences.  But it’s also an album with some great hooks and lyrics that manage to be both fun to sing along to and emotionally engaging at the same time.  It also features what are probably my two favourite songs of the year, “Strange Mercy” and the almost-too-clever “Year Of The Tiger” (the meaning of the song title being, as best I can tell, a reflection of the idea that the kind of hyper-masculine behaviour that gets young boys congratulated for being a “tiger” was also responsible for the American financial crisis of 2008-now).
Recommended Listening: See above.

2. Celestial Lineage by Wolves In The Throne Room
I’m not a big black metal guy normally, but I do like heavy music generally, and Wolves In The Throne Room have been putting out a unique and thoroughly compelling brand of black metal for a few years now.  WITTR have something important that many heavier bands don’t – mastery of dynamic range.  Their songs do get very loud, and very dense, and very shouty, but they also have moments of calm, of quiet, even of beauty.  They combine thunderous black metal with melodic contemplation, and they do it as well on this record as anyone I can think of has done it before.  It’s unlikely that anyone who can’t get past shouty/screamy black metal vocals will be able to enjoy much of what’s here, but for fans of music that really rocks, this is as good as it got in 2011. 
Recommended Listening:
The songs are almost all pretty long form and aren’t really distinguished by any particularly memorable riffs so much as a great sense of songcraft.  May as well just plunge in with “Astral Blood“.

3. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
It hasn’t been cool to like R.E.M. for about 20 years now, I know.  But I still do.  And I think this album is better than anything they’ve put out in a decade, and maybe even their best since New Adventures In Hi-Fi (though I think parts of 1998’s Up are quite good, and “Falls To Climb” from that record may be R.E.M.’s best tune).  I don’t know that there’s much to say about this record, except that I think that it’s rather good and isn’t likely to win over anyone who isn’t interested in being pleased by anything after Life’s Rich Pageant.
Recommended Listening: There are no real standout tracks here, but at the same time they’re also all good.  You probably already know if you like R.E.M. anyway, right?  “Mine Smell Like Honey” has a fun chorus, if you need a suggestion.

4. Black Earth by Implodes
Perhaps the most unusual album here, Black Earth is a bit difficult to describe.  It’s released by Kranky, so you might think that it would be an ambient album, and it kind of is at times, but it’s also got a rhythm section and lyrics and mostly-decipherable guitar riffs.  I guess if I had to try to put it into words I’d say that it’s what a shoegaze band might sound like if it was doing psych-rock covers of Swans?  It may be hard to describe exactly what it is in terms of genre, but it isn’t too difficult to describe what it sounds like – dark, brooding guitar is sent through waves of delay and distortion, creating spirals of sound.  To this is added distant, cavernous vocals and patient, insistent drumming.  It’s not great energy music, but it’s perfect for just zoning out (or maybe reading a book).
Recommended Listening: “Hands On The Rail“, the closing track, is my favourite from the album.

5. Lasers by Lupe Fiasco
There is obviously one hip-hop album on my list, and a pretty inoffensive one at that, so that I can appear to have eclectic taste in music and hide the fact that basically I just like powerchords and guitar solos.  I’ve always liked Talib Kweli (who, I must admit, is both a better rapper and more socially insightful than Lupe), but I find that his albums musically tend to be kind of bland.  To me, Lasers is sort of what a Talib Kweli album might sound like if it had more exuberant, engaging music.  Unlike the albums I’ve listed above, there are a few mis-steps on this one, but the best songs are quite good, and I’m prepared to give Lupe more credit for the highs than I’m going to take away for the lows.
Recommended Listening: One of the few songs from this year that rivals St. Vincent, I really like “Words I Never Said“, which has some fantastic lyrics (bizarre 9/11 and aspartame conspiracy theories aside).  Opening track “Letting Go” is nearly as good.

Aside from those 5, there were a couple of albums that I had really high hopes for that weren’t nearly as good as I expected them to be.  After two stellar albums, Thursday’s No Devolucion didn’t really connect with me.  Opening track “Fast To The End” gives the impression that the album is going to be a good one, and then . . . it just kind of fizzles.  Another album that I thought would be better is The Hunter by Mastodon.  It’s grown on me as I’ve listened to it more, but it’s not even close to being as good as Crack The Skye, my favourite album of 2009.  “Stargasm” is the best song on The Hunter if you’re looking for a place to start.  I’ve also not yet had a chance to listen to Elbow’s latest release, Build A Rocket Boys!, but based on their past output it’s likely that it would have landed somewhere in the top 5.  Having not listened to it yet, though, I can’t say for sure.

One Comment

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  1. Pierre / Jan 3 2012

    Strange Mercy is one of my favorites as well this year! The show was amazing, I got to play her guitar during one of the songs and it made the greatest experience I’ve had at a show. I love that she is wonderful musically as well as lyrically. She was from the same superhuge band as Sufjan Stevens, it seems talent definitely emerges from this group and her second album seemed to take influence from him, but Strange Mercy is the first one that truly has her own sound.

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