As of December 31st, we are officially at the end of 2012. Time flies, eh? Maybe it’s time to check in on what those New Year resolutions were (remember those? Don’t worry, me neither.) Make sure you’re over last year’s ex, and most importantly, make sure you have an arsenal of great new tunes. But, but we’d be reminisce if we didn’t remember all the great music that came last year.
So, true to form, I’m here to showcase what I think were last year’s most notable albums. Note that this list will primarily focus on albums that shy from the mainstream – not to be hipster, but simply to give attention to those who deserve so much more of it.
Now to be clear I hate top ten lists. No one is ever going to agree with your list, and you always end up shafting something that someone feels deserves to be on your list. So, below is a list, not of 2011’s best albums, but in my opinion, the year’s 14 most notable albums. I tried to keep true to the blog, and have something for everybody – some rock, some R&B, some metal, some hip hop, and others. After, is the long list, the also notables that didn’t make the list. There are definitely albums I missed – but while this list doesn’t claim to be a summary of every single good album that came out this year, many of what I feel were the years most enjoyable albums are here. Every album won’t be for everybody, but there is definitely at least one album for everybody (except perhaps dancehall fans,) here. Enjoy.
The 14 Most Notable Albums Of 2011
The Cunninlynguists album was one of the top 14 albums of the year by a leap. But due to the amount of great hip-hop released this year, and the different criteria for judging hip-hop, none was included in this post.
14. Foster The People – Torches
Mood: Fun, Upbeat, Chill | Style: Indie Pop | For fans of: MGMT, Oasis, Grouplove
Sorry, Adele, Feist, James Blake, SebastiAn, Rustie, Florence + The Machine (seriously though. Each deserves this spot, and I highly recommend you check out each album below) …but the 14th spot on this list goes to Foster The People.What a banner year for indie pop. One of the things I absolutely love is when an indie band makes it big. When Death Cab topped the Billboard 200 with their fantastic Narrow Stairs. When Florence + The Machine’s ‘Dog Days Are Over’ started getting radio airplay. And this year, the break out of Foster The People. It all started with one track – ‘Pumped Up Kicks‘. The track was a success, an album needed to follow. But blissfully, FTP took their time, didn’t succumb to any pressure, and came out with a quality work. The album begins with the great electro-tinged ‘Helena Beat‘, showcasing FTP’s style, with a funky little breakdown, followed by a quick acapella section. It sets the stage for an enjoyable album. The second track is the massive single ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ (if you haven’t heard it by now…Youtube. Now.) Then, the two tracks ‘Don’t Stop (Color On The Walls)’ and ‘Call It What You Want’, both of which match the infectiousness of ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ while being more upbeat. Then the equally catchy ‘Waste’. The chill, ‘I Would Do Anything For You’ comes next, featuring great harmonies, and atmospheric production. Then, second lead single, ‘Houdini’. A fun blend of drums, piano, and unidentified, this sounds like a fun pop song from the 90s – perfected. With a harmony as catchy as the melody, this song is another winner. Then, two glitch-infused tracks, ‘Hustle (Life On The Nickel)’ and ‘Miss You’. ‘Miss You’ is a great track, featuring a slow falsetto, glitch-electronic sounds, and a guitar solo. The album closes out with ‘Warrant’. It starts off with angelic choir, brings in the pulsing bass and drums, then brings in Mark Foster’s great high vocals; the track is a great whimsical, piano driven end to a great album. If just for the first half, this album is worth checking out.
Mood: Varying from calm to intense | Style: Electronic, Electro, Electro House, Dubstep | For fans of: Excision, Downlink, Nero
In the first twenty five iterations of this list, Skrillex never made the top fifteen. Then, last minute I decided – you know what? He deserves this one. After an absolutely massive year, being the face of a new generation of a genre, and indeed defining the new sound, Skrillex has really been busy. In little over a year, he’s released three EP’s – Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites in 2010, and More Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites and Bangarang in 2011. This is a credit to all three – for a range in styles more than one might realize, for a budding musician (who used to be in a band with real instruments!) and for defining a genre – for better or for worse. Zubin already reviewed Bangarang
12. Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
Mood: Varying, from inspiring to intense | Style: Progressive Metal
It’s always interesting to see what happens when a band loses a massively important member. And that, more so than any song on this album, is what makes this album notable. In this case, the revered Dream Theater lost their drummer, Mike Portnoy, and replaced him with the skilled Mike Mangini. When such an event happens, it sees natural to want to compare an album with the band’s previous work. I’ll try and avoid that as much as I can. Let’s dig in. ‘On The Backs Of Angels’ opens the album nicely, and is a pretty decent rocking track. ‘Build Me Up, Break Me Down’ starts with a subdued beat, then brings in a kick-ass guitar riff. Bring in grandiosity at its finest. The catchy vocals come in next, and then the hook: “You build me up, you break me down/Until I’m falling to pieces/I crash and burn I never learn/I’m your guilty addiction.”
‘Lost Not Forgotten’ is a classic track. Featuring some psychedelic shredding, smooth yet rapid changes in pace, an extended guitar solo, and a decent hook. ‘This Is The Life’ follows as a slower track, featuring some great harmonies, and lyrics all about seizing the life you’re given. ‘Bridges In The Sky’ starts off with a deep tribal sounding vocal, then follows with what seems like a Gregorian choir – a great intro. Then, kicks. Just a sweet song – watch for the Arabians strings, and the guitar solo that becomes a psychedelic rock organ solo; and just for jokes, the song ends with the tribal call/belch again. Perhaps the strongest track on the album – when they let the instrumentals rule, and have extended songs which tell a musical tale, is when they excel. ‘Far From Heaven’ is a slower piano based piece about knowing you can change, but being strong to who you are. ‘Breaking All Illusions’ is an awesome track, starting slow, then as the theatrical boys do, picking up the pace. This one has some really great moments – watch for the heavy/light interplay around the five and a half minute mark, the messing with the theme, including a quick disco-like break, a crescendo, then another story arc. The story arcs, the tales told through the interplay of great musicians, are the best part about listening to progressive rock/metal music. Mike Mangini’s drumming is sightly less complex, but still rapid and pounding. Not the best of their work, but definitely still good. Ah, there’s my comparison – oh well. Worth a listen.
11. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Mood: Dark, atmospheric | Style: Neo-R&B
I don’t listen to a lot of R&B, I’ll admit. But here’s the thing. So many of the people that fell in love with The Weeknd don’t. But he drew us in on his silky, spider web rope, tangling us in the web of his lustful, dirty mind. His longing and soaring voice took us flying, and brought us deep into the music – even if we didn’t know what he was talking about, the atmosphere was still all around us. I’ve discussed The Weeknd’s career before here, but allow me to say that this is a great record. While I told myself that I wouldn’t have any mixtapes on this list, I couldn’t help it – this isn’t so much a free mixtape as much as a free album, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay it. With so much attention and success in 2011, it will be interesting to see what Abel does next.
10. Kaskade – Fire & Ice
Mood: Varies from fist-pumping to ambient | Style: Ambient, Electro House, Progressive House, etc.
Another double disc album, and an ambitious one at that. The master of the progressive comes back with a two disc set – the first full of songs varying in style, and the second containing his own remixes of each of them. Intrigued yet? Let’s start off with the first disc, Fire. Fire starts off with the absolutely beautiful, piano driven ‘Eyes’. Mindy Gledhill’s soft voice is perfect for this soft track that will still have you jumping up and down dancing. ‘Lessons In Love’ the third track on the album, is a super catchy electropop number, featuring Neon Trees. Backed by a strong bumping beat that knows how to fade and evolve to allow the vocals to take over at the right times, this track works. ‘Lick It’ is another good cut off the disc – featuring Skrillex, the play between Kaskade’s synths and vocals, and Skrillex’s chopping, funky basslines and beat, this is a fun track. ‘Let Me Go’ featuring Mark Bently is another chill track, with a simple and stead bass line, and decent vocals – a vibe similar to 90’s house perhaps. ‘Waste Love’ features a more upbeat, but similarly 90’s house vibe – that even has what sounds like an upright bass with a string section. Works, considering the group featured on the track, Quadron, describe themselves as “electronic soul”. ‘Ice’ is a loud house track that is half filler, half worth listening to. The last two tracks on the first disc are decent – ‘How Long’ bumps along, starting with an acid jazz intro, then continuing with subtle synths and soft voice. ‘Room For Happiness’ with Skylar Grey leaves the album on a fun note, with bouncing synths.
Then there’s Ice. The album brings a more ambient and chill vibe to the songs of the first disc. The ICE Mix of ‘Eyes’ is absolutely jamming. ‘Turn It Down’ begins chill, then the piano starts going, featuring some sweet production, some wonky off key synths, then out of nowhere, and what you’d expect when you hear the contrast to Fire, Kaskade throws in a brief, but ridiculous dubstep breakdown. Each track on Ice tends to bring out the vocals (though ‘Lessons in Love’ just disposes of them.) ‘Lessons In Love’ becomes a funky trip hop style number. Many of these tracks become ambient , or chill (with Eyes and and Turn It Down for example becoming piano driven), and makes for an enjoyable spin on the first disc.
9. Cults – Cults
Mood:Varying from peaceful to upbeat | Style: Indie Pop
Every once in a while, an album and group just pop out of nowhere. That’s what happened over the summer with Cults. A couple of nobodies out of New York, this duo created buzz around the blog scene when their first single, ‘Go Outside’, drifted on the Internet through their Bandcamp page. Go Outside starts with the quote “Death is not a fearful thing – it’s living that’s cut-throat.” The peaceful, yet pulsing, song, driven by a xylophone and a too-catchy melody, is the antidote to life’s roughness. The album feels at times heavily influenced by the 50s, and at other times, in it’s own peaceful indie pop world, while tracks like opener Abducted (once it kicks at 0:39 below,) show Cults can get louder too. Some of these tracks will definitely be stuck in your head for days, while others may go by the wayside. Definitely an enjoyable album, and 11 tracks that will perfectly soundtrack then end of long summer days as the sun sets.
8. SuperHeavy – SuperHeavy
Mood: Jamming | Style: Soul, Indian influences, Rock
SuperHeavy is by far the years most interesting collaboration of people, earning it a spot on my notable list. SuperHeavy is the supergroup made up of Mick Jagger, soul singer Joss Stone, Indian musical legend A.R. Rahman (those not familiar with Bollywood will remember him from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack,) Damian Marley, and David Stewart (known for being half of Eurythmics). Quite a collection of people. So what’s the result? Not bad, surprisingly. Each artist gets the opportunity to allow their talents shine, with perhaps the exception of Stewart. They all bring something unique to the table. Joss Stone’s fabulous voice is great every time, while Mick Jagger’s voice is beginning to show it’s wear and tear, though his songwriting skills makeup for it. A.R. Rahman brings fantastic production to the table, Damian Marley brings jamming reggae vibes, and David Stewart brings subtle production nuances and guitar licks that give the album depth. Each have their dominant song. One Day One Night could be a cut off a Mick Jagger solo album, Rock Me Gently is Stone’s with Stewart’s guitar work, and Mahiya is all A.R. Rahman’s production. However, it is when each artist rocks out to each others vibes, and the sounds fuse, that this album gets interesting. As a collection of dominant sounds, and as a fusion, the result is an enjoyable work. Lead single Miracle Worker, and Mahiya are both great tracks to check out.
7. August Burns Red – Leveler
Mood: Technical, Heavy | Style: Metalcore
The boys did it again – but better. Leveler is ABR’s fourth album, and by far their best. Leveler is a well put together album, with all five members of the band chipping in to bring together interesting and cohesive tracks. On this album, ABR becomes more musically diverse; Internal Cannon includes some South American sounding guitar work, Salt & Light has a chill breakdown, as does 1/16/2011, and while there are simpler go ahead heavy songs, there are also songs with more complex work, such as on Poor Millionaire. Matt Greiner provides his expected excellent drum work, and the guitar solos, and general guitar work is the strongest this band has ever had.
6. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Mood: Calm, uplifting, peaceful | Style: Modern Folk | For fans of: Mumford and Sons, amazing harmonies.
SPIN called Helplessness Blues the most beautiful album of the year – and beautiful it is. With their second album, Fleet Foxes grow musically, without losing the core sound that made them beloved in the first place. The layers of harmonies are still here, as are the strong melodies. However, on The Shrine/An Argument, the second half of the song features what quite literally sounds like an argument with instruments. In contrast to the rest of the album, you hear dissonant squawking instruments take the top of soothing strings. Overall, this entire album is a great listen, such that it’s hard to recommend individual tracks. But definitely check out ‘Bedouin Dress’ and ‘Helplessness Blues’.
5. Mutemath – Odd Soul
Mood: Jive | Style: Alternative, Bluesy, Electronica | If You like: The Black Keys
This is truly a wicked album. Gaining more of a blues sound from previous work, this is a tight album from start to finish. The loss of guitarist Greg Hill poses no barrier on Mutemath making great music. Each song is perfectly put together, integrating sounds from the straight forward rock number Blood Pressure, to the stomping beat of opener Odd Soul, to the seven minute long rock and electronica jam of Quarantine, this is one of the years finest rock albums.
4. Idle Warship – Habits Of The Heart
Mood: Ranging from upbeat to calm, plenty of grooves and rhythms | Style: South American to electro-hop.
Idle Warship is the project between hip-hop MC Talib Kweli and singer Res. Frequent collaborators in the past, after releasing their mixtape Party Robot in 2009, they came back with their full album this year. The result is an absolutely fabulous album, and one that flows right from start to finish. Each song commands your mood, such that by the time you’re halfway through the album, all you want to be listening to is the song that’s on, and won’t want to switch back to an earlier song. The variety of styles on this album is fantastic. From South American grooves to electro-hop to piano ballad backings, this album has a great balance. Talib Kweli long ago established himself as one of the finer MC’s in the game, and he doesn’t dissapoint. However he does something strange – sing, and sometimes have Res rap. And as strange a thought as it is, his sing-rap works well in the context of the musical landscape.
3. Underoath – Disambiguation
Mood: Dark, atmospheric | Style: Metalcore
Now I know this album came out in 2010 – but I jammed to it mostly during the 2011 year, so it’s all good. This is the album you’ve always wanted Underoath to make – which is funny, because it’s the first without any of the founding members. Dark, brooding, powerful without needing to be obnoxious – this is a fantastic album. The first track starts off with piano tinkles, brings in low strings, the drums, then the rocking guitar line – and then, the last touch, the vocals. Let the vocals soar along, have the track start to churn along, and then…kick with the chorus. In ‘My Deteriorating Decline’ you have thrashy moments, while ‘Driftwood’ is a slower number, witha more technical sound. Overall a great album, and a good one to listen to as a whole.
2. Submotion Orchestra – Finest Hour
Mood: Chill, subtle intensity| Style: Fusion, Jazzy, Trip-hop, subtle dubstep influences on this 7 piece band.
If you like: Thievery Corporation, Burial, Bonobo, Zeds Dead, Miles Davis
Make no mistake: this album is beautiful. In a musical landscape where dubstep has become all about how hard the drop is, and how obnoxious a song can be, Submotion Orchestra reimagines dubstep to it’s roots, in a 7 piece band format. People have started using terms like ‘post-dubstep’ – encompassing sounds such as this, and the likes of The Weeknd. While I may eventually start using the term, I think it’s stupid. Don’t think of this as a dubstep album. This is an album of jazzy sounds, fusion, soul, that incorporates the 140 BPM, and occasionally also the underlying bass line elements of dubstep. Don’t think there isn’t any intensity – it’s just subtle. Take Back Chat for example. This 7 minute epic starts off with haunting piano chords. Then brings in the lead singers great voice. A piano riff, which then gets repeated by the trumpet. But in between, a dubstep break, with a quietly roaring, throbbing bass line.
Then there’s tracks like Secrets. On show is jamming percussion, an upbeat swinging horn section, and light vocals sprinkled over top. Finest Hour features a string section, trumpet, soaring vocals, and more great drumming in 140 BPM. Clocking in at 7:47, this track, like the 9 others on the album, showcases the high level of synergy and musicianship this band possesses. Some might say listening to this album and chilling out is, as the appropriately labeled last track indicates, Perfection. A strong debut, with much promise for the future.
1. And that brings us to our number one spot…
Let’s pause for a second. Electro and house sounds have become increasingly saturated in mainstream music, such that even non-commerical house music has in and of itself become mainstream. In the same way that the 90s were defined by alternative rock and boy/ girl groups, the first decade of the 2000s was defined by electropop. So what’s my point? That so often electronic songs get released, finding homes on blogs or Beatport, but don’t come from albums proper. So my top album of the year won’t be an album. It’ll be a collection of noteworthy songs – some from albums, some not, that were released in 2011. Does it seem mainstream? Then you see what I mean!
Disc One: The Big Ones
1. Benny Benassi – Cinema (Skrillex Remix)
2. Rihanna – We Found Love feat. Calvin Harris
3. AVICII – Levels
4. Knife Party – Internet Friends
5. Martin Solvieg – Hello feat. Dragonette
6. Pendulum – Watercolour (Deadmau5 Remix)
7. Swedish House Mafia – Save The World
8. Steve Aoki – Turbulence feat. Lil John, Laidback Luke
9. Nadia Ali, Starkillers, & Alex Kenji – Pressure (Alesso Remix)
10. Tiesto & Mark Knight – Beautiful World feat. Dino
11. David Guetta – Getting Over You feat. Chris Willis, Fergie, LMFAO
Disc Two: Pop World
Bruno Mars – The Lazy Song
Adele – Rolling In The Deep
Jessie J – Domino
LMFAO – Sexy and I Know It
David Guetta – Without You feat. Usher
The Wanted – Glad You Came
One Direction – What Makes You Beautiful
Pitbull – Give Me Everything feat. Ne-Yo, Afrojack & Nayer
Drake – The Motto
Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know
Coldplay – Paradise
Disc Three: The Fun/Chill Alternatives
1.Craft Spells – After The Moment
2. Capital Cities – Safe and Sound
3. Chairlift – Bruises
4. Metronomy – The Look
5. Awolnation – Sail
6. Miguel Migs – Breakdown feat. Lisa Shaw
7. SBTRKT – Wildfire
8. Little Dragon – Ritual Union
9. White Lies – Is Love
10. Yann Perrau – Mes Prisons
The Other Notables
Arches – Wide Awake | For fans of: Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear. Another chill album, one to relax to. Peaceful, atmospheric.
Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind Of Fix | This last year has seen a lot – a lot – of chillwave music come out. Bombay Bicycle Club’s effort fits right into that. A little more of the H&M sounds than their last album, but some of the tracks are pretty great. If nothing else, ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’ is just too good a track.
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key | Another great album by Bright Eyes. From upbeat to relaxed, this album has a bunch of really great tracks. Watch out for the narration about life, and multiple universes, interspersed throughout the album. As good as previous albums? Who cares. It’s decent enough to listen to at least once.
Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto | My first listening of this album was similar to my first listening of Justice’s Audio, Video, Disco – it all sort of blended together. But, when you start listening to tracks by themselves, you realize they’re pretty good. Chris Martin had stated that Coldplay had wanted to make this album more “stripped down” than Viva La Vida. On that note, they failed. If there is one thing this album suffers from, it would be overproduction. Yet, despite of that, there are a couple great cuts. Lead single ‘Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall’, while to me was initially disappointing, grew on me. ‘Paradise’, ‘Hurts Like Heaven’, and Charlie Brown are all great tracks. In the end, the album is enjoyable. But does each track shine and stand out like every track on Viva La Vida did? No. But that doesn’t mean it’s all bad.
Death Cab for Cutie – Codes & Keys | What do you do if you’re an indie band that’s finally made it big? The answers vary, but this definitely isn’t Death Cab’s best album. While some tracks are very fresh, there are definitely a couple tracks on this album that sound like they’re trying to unsuccessfully cover their own sound. Still, not bad, and the album is decent enough to earn it a listen – with some tracks simply standing out from the rest. I hope Narrow Stairs wasn’t a pinnacle that they will descend from – I hope they rise again.
Explosions In The Sky – take care, take care, take care | Explosions In The Sky are no strangers to The Harmony. I talked about them in my post-rock feature here. This was a decent album – some great moments, but not quite as emotionally compelling as previous albums. But chiming waterfall guitars, decent drum work, and a mostly consistent sense of melody give this album a cohesive sound. 7.7/10.
Feist – Metals | This is definitely not the same as Feist’s last album ‘The Reminder’. The songs are way less pop oriented – there really isn’t any ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ or ‘My Moon, My Man’, or ‘I Feel It All’. But what it does present is a great alternative and folk album, and proves Feist is one of the strongest songwriters to emerge from the Canadian scene. Thought I’d need more listens to give a proper rating, this one sits around an 8.9/10. The calm, and interesting sounds which provide a backdrop for Feist’s melodies are probably not for everybody though. Songs to check out: ‘Anti Pioneer’, ‘How Come You Never Go There’, and the more upbeat, 10/10 ‘Cicadas And Gulls’.
Panda Bear – Tomboy | Tomboy is the fourth album by Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox, of Animal Collective. The album layers harmonies with reverbed synths, seamlessly matches choruses with hooks, and random samples that just work. Add to that various electronic backings’, and a variety of drum samples, and this album provides a pleasant listen. Tracks like ‘Last Night At The Jetty’ shows using just vocal harmonies, a reverbed synth, and drums, Panda Bear can create a peaceful yet uplifting track. ‘Alsatian Darn’ shows he can create his own version of a spirited upbeat track, with a constant 4/4 beat, a quicker tempo, and quick(er) vocals. ‘Afterburner’, one of the album’s stronger tracks, follows a similar vein. A steady 4/4 kick drum, a quick and steady acoustic guitar, a thumb piano, mixed with various electronic sounds make this track a winner. ‘Drone’ shows he’s still got a sense for experimental melody, using just constant experimental chords (the “drone” if you will,) and his voice to create an entrancing sound, including a 45 second outro of constant synth of the same note. And, of course, there’s always the slow song – that’s ‘Scheherazade’, a slow piano based track named after the story teller from ‘Arabian Nights’. Not everything works – the album begins with the so-so ‘You Can Count On Me’ – a simple tune including random samples, harmonies, soft synths, and an alright chorus. An alright track, but not one I would choose to open the album, and probably the only sub-par track on the album. The following second track, ‘Tomboy’ is the lead single off the album, and ratches things up a notch to get the album going. This album will satisfy Panda Bear fans, and perhaps earn him some new fans, looking for music that fits neatly into the background or the foreground. Worth a listen, hang in there for a couple tracks to let the album get going. Standout tracks: ‘Slow Motion’, ‘Afterburner’, ‘Last Night At The Jetty’. Only for those who like the super chill style though.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs | On The King Of Limbs Radiohead go more into what’s downtempo than anything else. A difficult album to take in one swallow, this one needs a proper listening to hear all the little details. The album is truly made by the small little quirky details, Thom Yorke’s vocals, which make the tracks catchy, and the offbeat drumming. ‘Bloom’ introduces the album by ways of stuttering synths, piano tinkles, the the frenetic, eclectic drumming, and Yorke’s overlaid soaring lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, there aren’t many, but the cosmic theme is strong on the track, with Yorke throwing out the non sequiturs that oddly make sense. ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’ features catchy vocals, a stuttering (there’s that word again) guitar line, and pulsing subtle feedback, and more drumming that seems pretty standard, but still comes off as offbeat. The bass lines keep the track moving as much as the drums do. ‘Little By Little’ follows in a similar vein, and while both have a normal enough song structure, they still come off as quirky. Feral is just a straight up jam track, where they loop themselves over and over, messing about, and messing with the EQ – sometimes amplifying the bass, sometimes the drums. ‘Lotus Flower’ is by all means, a nearly ‘normal’ track.’Codex’ is an ethereal piano-synth track that is simply enjoyable to listen to, and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ almost does away with electronics (other than a bit of vocoder) and is a relaxed mostly acoustic track. On the first couple times you listen to it, the vocals won’t seem as catchy as they later will, yet you’ll still come back and relisten to the album, even though you don’t know what you’re looking for. Offbeat is as always, yet in a way that’s perfected. Sometimes simple, sometimes intricate, this album is a good listen for both needs. The boys have range, and still got it. Overall: 8.5/10.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy | This album is one of those that needs a few plays to get into. St. Vincent’s last album, Actor was one of my favourite albums of 2009. This one isn’t quite as accessible, but I’ve grown to enjoy it. St. Vincent is weird, and if you don’t like weird things, this album probably isn’t for you. Her strange blend of melody and dischord all work together to make this album work. From strange high pitched vocals over sparse guitar plucks and synths in dischord to hooks that are melodic – and that’s the first track. It goes from that to more ‘fun’ layered track ‘Cruel’. ‘Neutered Fruit’ on the other hand is a much more accessible track, with escalating vocals and vocals and instrumentals that are all in tune with each other. A good track to work yourself into St. Vincent’s style. ‘Cheerleader’ is another great track that may have broader appeal with its layers and enjoyable vocals.
White Lies – Ritual | White Lies have a style that is Depeche Mode meets Joy Division meets 2000’s punk rock. This album is grandiose, with pulsing bass lines, distortion, and scaling electronic background production. What they do, they do well – start slow, then bring all the elements of their songs together, repeating the chorus, bringing their tunes to a crescendo. While a few tracks on the album are forgettable, some of the tracks like ‘Is Love’ will have you going for the repeat button.
James Blake – James Blake | Slow, thought out, fantastic. James Blake brings the growing subculture of dubstep – what some people are calling ‘post-dubstep’ but really just brings dubstep back to its chill original roots. The album is a mix of 140 BPM, soul, and electronic, all twined together in a captivating listen. You get the sense of the album from the first track. ‘Unluck’ has growing synths, James ghostly heavily Auto-Tuned vocals, Blake sets the stage. ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ has a similar vocal pattern, but really shows Blake’s ear for melody. Similar to the first track, he repeats his vocals, but builds and messes with the track, over and over. And so sets his formula. He follows it again on ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ which stars off with soulful harmonies and ends with subdued, yet monster synths in 140 BPM. His cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ is massive. Slow and gorgeous, and dropping a huge bassline, this one is worth a listen. ‘Give Me My Month’ is only piano and vocals, and shows Blake can write a lovely song without any electronics. Overall, a great blend of good songwriting, alternative electronics, and knowing the value in keeping it lush and slow. This albums is definitely a fresh sounds on the scene. Recommended tracks: ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, ‘Limit To Your Love’, ‘Give My My Month’. Overall: 9/10.
Justice – Audio, Video, Disco | For fans of: SebastiAn, Daft Punk | Mood: Energetic, Grand | Style: Electronic meets prog rock
My first listen of this album was similar to my first listen to Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto – the album sort of washed over me, and save for a couple exceptions, the tracks blended into each other. Repeat listens fared this album much better. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Justice – the duo that changed the scene with their debut album Cross, making glorious electronic prog rock. The album starts with ‘Horsepower’, a strong track that’s bound to get you amped. Everything about this track is larger than life. From the punchy synths, to the strings, to the breakdown, this track just works. ‘Civilization’ the lead single off the album follows. Taking similar straight hi hat drum patterns that filter throughout the album, and more punchy synths, the distortion gets turned up a notch, and Ali Love’s catchy vocals, this song was an obvious single choice. Watch for the ‘Baba O’Reilly’-esque cascading background keyboards. ‘Ohio’ comes next. Sweeping melodramatic harmonies intro the track, thanks to Vincent Vendetta from Midnight Juggernauts, and everything becomes worth it for the killer electro-guitar breakdown two thirds of the way through the song. Then, ‘Canon’. The intro starts of Gaelic, then brings in the disco meets arena-rock fusion. On’n’On is another vocal track, featuring Morgan Phalen, and is a good listen. Intense ending. Then ‘Brianvision’, then ‘Parade’ with a head nodding stomp-stomp-clap beat, and a sweet pan-flute like melody, that switches up into a simple, but rocking number. ‘New Lands’ is another rocking number, with some wicked guitar riffs. It also features vocals from Morgan Phalen. ‘Helix’ follows, and then, ‘Audio, Video, Disco’ – the second lead single from the album – closes the album. AVD is by far my favourite track on the album. With it’s cross between electro and gothic arena rock, this song builds up on itself and just leaves the album on a massive high point. Also, I strongly believe the organ is the king of all musical instruments – and it just bolsters this track that much more. Overall, definitely lighter fare from Justice, but a grand work nonetheless, that avoids sinking into blandness. A pleasant listen. Overall: 7.9/10.
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming | Mood: Upbeat, glorious | Style: Electronic pop, Shoegaze, New Wave | For fans of: MGMT, Genesis
M83 is a French electronic band masterminded by Anthony Gonzalez. This is a double disc concept album full of great jams, and about dreams. The first album starts off with an interesting feature by Zola Jesus, goes into the bouncy electropop ‘Midnight City’, and then into Reunion,….’Wait’ is a catchy, dreamy, folk number. Both styles get mixed together on ‘Raconte-Moi Une Histoire‘, which features some background vocals à la the shoegaze genre, but also a small child talking about…a magical frog (let the drug references commence.) The rest of the first disc goes from funkier (‘Claudia Lewis) to complete New Wave (‘This Bright Flash’). The album is meant to show a transition from the dreams of a child to those of an adult, and the transition is seen clearly as one continues on to the second disc. You hit a bit of fun and rowdy adolescence, then go into a grander adulthood, as seen on tracks like ‘Splendor’. The adults still have fun, on tracks like ‘Year One, One UFO’ – but by the time one hits ‘Steve McQueen’, some might get weary of the sound of the album; the changes in pace are needed to keep the album going.
Imagine a vast valley in the dark, and seeing the first rays of the sun come over a mountain peak…the song that’s playing is folksy-electropop ‘Soon, My Friend’, the closing track of the first disc. Then imagine the ensuing battle, and a bloodied, bearded man leaping towards his enemy in slow-motion and delivering the final thrust of his sword into his enemy’s heart to declare victory – the song that’s playing is the next track on the album, ‘My Tears Are Becoming A Sea’, the first track of the next disc. Then imagine the same bearded man having a sweet time with his lady that night in the victorious afterglow (you don’t actually have to imagine this,) – that’s ‘New Map’. Now that all might seem a little abstract, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll still be playing this album months from now. While the album may be a little long for some, this double disc album has some great numbers that go from upbeat MGMT style electronic jams, to songs more closely resembling folk-rock. Overall: 7.35/10
OVERWERK – The Nth | A tight debut by this producer from London, ON. Read my take on the album
Porter Robinson – Spitfire| This is what we call a rocketing career. At the age of 20 – born in 1992, feel shameful – Porter Robinson has already played shows with deadmau5, Tiesto, Skrillex, David Guetta, Diplo, and others. Spitfire is his first EP after having released only singles, and is a remarkable work. The style varies from dubstep, to electro house, with even a little bit of euro mixed in. The EP begins with the title track – and ‘Spitfire’ is absolutely a masterpiece. An incredibly strong song, that truly shows how much potential this young producer has. With a wicked slow intro, the album starts off on a dubstep note. But make no mistake, for every bit of hard hitting bass this song has, it counters with a gorgeous buildup, and slow deliberate moments of crescendo-ing synths, and xylphone like sounds. These six minutes and 45 seconds fly by. A great mix of sounds, and a great song. The EP continues on an electro/progressive house note, with ‘Unison’. With a super catchy synth line, this one was made for the ravers, and the remixers (as evidenced by the two remixed included on the EP by Knife party and Mikkas.) The track revolves around the synth hook – starting off with simple notes, then building upon itself to become to become a massive chords which then layer on top of a hard hitting electro backing, that brings to minds tons of coolant being ejected at a rave. ‘100% In The Bitch’ continues with a more jumpy electro house style, and interplays with a slowed down beat. It also features an interesting vocal sample – it is what it is. Vandalism is the first track with proper vocals, provided by Amba Shepherd. The vocals work well, before Porter jumps into a pumping synth chord that for a brief moment seems euro-trancy. It quickly settles from that, with a chill rounded reverbed synth, before jumping right back in. ‘The State’ follows, with a strange heavy anti-government, anti-socialist message. Take the vocal sample as you will – I chose to take the “taxation is robbing” line as one that worked simply for the musical objective of the song (though the anti-conscription message is more generally palatable. Plus, the vocals say we’re robbed of our taxes at bayonet point – how can you not like a lyric that talks about bayonets?) ‘The State’ is the second mix between electro and dubstep on the EP. The Seconds starts off with beautiful vocals provided by Jano, but then rather abruptly drops in the synths. The rest of the track flows nicely however. The remixes on the album are also great. Knife Party and Mikkas’ remixes of Unison are both crazy, with the former being just downright dirty, and the latter being simply well done. The Downlink remix of ‘100% In The Bitch’ however, is a little repetitive, but can be dealt with. The Skism remix of ‘The State’ dispenses with most of the vocals, and just delivers a solid track. The EP closes out on an excellent note, with Kill The Noises’s drum and bass remix of ‘Spitfire’. Overall, Spitfire solidifies Porter Robinson’s role as a very talented up and coming producer. Get ready for him to be a household name among those who love EDM, if he isn’t already, and be excited for the future – because this is a man to look out for. Notable indeed – and promising. Overall: 8.5/10
Rustie – Glass Swords | This was a great alternative style electronic album. Some interesting production. Definitely a variety of funky flavours. Check out “Ultra Thizz”, “Flash Back” and especially “Surph“. Recommended.
SebastiAn – Total | Another great electronic album. Recommended for fans of Justice. From the fun and catchy “Embody”, to the more intense “Ross Ross Ross” and even more intense “Fried” and “Total”, the first of which includes a sample from what sounds like a Casio keyboard beat; to the single ready, and chill, “Love In Motion” (of which there was the phenomenal Skrillex remix) and the superbly awesome “Kindercut”, this is a pretty cool album. Recommended.
Kyrstyn Pixton – Embyrs Mood: Cosmic | Style: Electronica
Kyrstyn is an electronica artist out of Oregon. Her music is best described as electronica; I had the opportunity to ask Kyrstyn what she would classify her music as, and she said her favourite answer was electroacoustic glitch-pop – definitely an interesting title. This album lives up to the interesting categorization. A wonderful amalgamation of layers and sounds, this album is a great one to listen to. The album begins with the strong “Crusade” – a song that will put you in a trance-like state. Then there’s songs like “Unfathomable Things” a track which is simply lush, recorded beauty. There are songs on here that you’ll listen to, and without expecting it, find yourself humming days later. That’s the beauty of this album. Lots of great sounds, lots of rhythms, and tons of potential. Keep an eye out for Krstyn, hopefully in the era when everything has become about ‘the drop’, she’ll get the fame she deserves. Check out Crusade below, which is available as a free download on her Bandcamp page. Overall: 8.6/10
Little Dragon – Ritual Union | Cool mix of sounds. Some great experimental sounds, to more melodious catchy tracks. The title track in particular is an infectious chill track that definitely stands out. Then there’s tracks like ‘When I Go Out’ which features jamming percussion, allowing the drums to carry the track and make it unique, topped with some interesting vocal harmonies. This album may take a couple listens to sink in, but it’s interesting for a run through either way. The synergy between all the band member’s is really what’s showcased here: from Yukimi Nagano’s great vocals, to Fredrik Wallin’s simple but effective bass lines, Erik Bodin’s fresh drums, and especially Håkan Wirenstrand interesting keyboard work. Overall: 7.6/10
Thievery Corporation – Culture of Fear | Pretty sweet downtempo album. Chill throughout. Good listen.
Afrojack – Lost & Found 2 | If you know Afrojack from his hit ‘Take Over Control’ you are most definitely in for a surprise. While he can still get party crazy on tracks like ‘Show Me Your Rage’, and ‘What Are You Doing’, many of the other tracks are very different, showcasing a very chill tech house. A really interesting album – just don’t expect any mainstream pop house songs. Also, absolutely love the Canada love, with two of seven tracks (‘Montreal’ and ‘Vancouver’) being named after Canadian cities.
Wolfgang Gartner – Weekend In America | Led by strong singles ‘Illmerica’ and ‘Space Junk‘, this album perhaps gets a little too noisy at times – but it’s noise done well. The album varies from more pop, with songs such as Forever featuring will.i.am, to great progressive, on Cognitive Dissonance. If you’re looking for an album to play while you have your pre-drink, this one will do the trick.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver | Perhaps the chillest album of the year. While definitely not single oriented, and while the tracks don’t stand out individually, it still provided a great listen – but it might take a couple listens to appreciate. 8.5/10
Hard Rock/Metal (As the Grammy’s would have it…)
Animals As Leaders – Weightless | Animals as Leaders started out as the brainchild of Tosin Abasi, who for the first disc played all the guitar and bass and had someone program the drums. For the progressive metal group’s second disc, the group becomes a trio, with Javier Reyes joining on guitar, and Novene Koperweis on drums. The first disc was meant to display Abasi’s guitar work – this disc does the same. The level of musicianship is massive on this album. The quick paced stuttering guitar work, matched by the driving, fast and changing – and times also stuttering and techno-y – drums, make these cuts complex pieces that’ll have your bobbing quickly – and slowly too. The group isn’t afraid to get heavy, on tracks like New Eden, or Isolated Incidents – which deserves kudos just for the alliteration. Those who fiend vocals may not enjoy the work of this instrumental group. But for all those who appreciate some ridiculous playing, awesome timing, and well put together tracks, this is a great album. Recommended tracks: ‘Do Not Go Gently’, ‘Cylindrical Sea’, ‘Weightless’.
The Devil Wears Prada – Dead Throne | Absolutely loved this album. Really great work. Worth the listen.
Protest The Hero – Scurrilous | The Canadian boys have outdone themselves again. This album is pretty intense, with tight arpeggio, those lovely clean vocals, and the smoothest shifts in pace. ‘Hair-Trigger’ is a great example of the changes in pace. Featuring seamingly personal lyrics, with Jadea Kelly helping with the vocals, the song shifts from wicked riffs to heavy chords with longing lyrics to a downbeat section that just has so much going on, to an even slower bass line driven section, to hit up the riffs again, and again with a higher intensity. If that seems like a run on sentence, it just goes to show how much is going on here. Word on the block is that this album was all composed on the computer – then they had to teach themselves how to play it. With each album, the band’s musicianship rises, as does the complexity. For any progressive metal fan, this album is a rising writhe of meshing fast guitars and drums, and an awesome album. Either that, or I’m in a good mood – but more likely that this is just a solid album. The clean vocals are a really great touch. Recommended tracks: ‘Tandem’, ‘Moonlight’, and especially ‘Tapestry’.
Thrice – Major/Minor | Thrice consistently put out great work. Right from the awesome first track, “Yellow Belly”, this album is no exception.
Robin Thicke – Love After War | Oh man is this ever awesome. From the punchy first track, Robin brings the soul. Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re listening to Marvin Gaye, and I can’t pay him a higher compliment than that. The horns, his voice, the bassline of ‘An Angel On Each Arm’ are a great way to kick off this album. It follows up with ‘I’m an Animal’ which like the previous song, sounds like it was lifted right from Motown Records. Tons of energy, tracks you can just get into the rhythm of. Each one of these cuts are just jams you just want to sing along to, and sing raucously with at the top of your lungs. Some parts romantic (‘Pretty Lil’ Heart’) and some parts pumped up (‘Never Give Up’) and some parts hunting the new era (‘The New Generation’) this album covers the gamet of old school r&b topics. While he can be jazzed up, with the uptempo crescendo-ing ‘Never Give Up’, Robin can also be slow and sexy with ‘Love After War’, and ‘All Tied Up’. Robin’s also perfected the ballad. One of my favourite tracks on the album has to be ‘Pretty Lil’ Heart’. With a slightly forgettable Lil Wayne feature, this song is absolutely perfect. Subtle horns, a catchy hook, met with equally catchy verses, this song is way too great. Ballads galore, with some flamenco styled (‘Lovely Lady’, ‘Tears On My Tuxedo’), some truly soulful Motown sounds (‘I’m an Animal’) and some songs halfway between (‘Full Time Believer’ – a song Michael Buble wish he had written), this album may clock in at 17 tracks but flows right by. Pretty fantastic, and though he uses it a bunch, the smooth slick romantic bit shouldn’t wear you out. 9/10.
Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do | If you’re familiar with Mayer Hawthorne’s style, you’ll know what to expect with this album. His throwback style of soul and R&B harks back to the Motown. Most of these tracks are slow burners, and ‘Can’t Stop’ even features Snoop Dogg crooning away. If you love the old style, you might enjoy this album.
The Black Keys – El Camino | Definitely one of the best rock albums that came out this year. The Black Keys don’t disappoint. Notable not only for some solid riffs and catchy hooks, but also because they showed that an indie rock band can really make a name for themselves – and indeed become one of the bigger rock bands in the world today.
Rise Against – Let me know if you see this.
Gotye – Making Mirrors | Great album. Lulls you into a fall sense of calm with the opening track, ‘Making Mirrors’, then jumps into the faster paced ‘Easy Way Out’ which shows the depth of great production Gotye is capable of with it’s layers. Then the driven ‘Eyes Wide Open’. Here’s where you start to get a feel for his distinguishable voice, sense for melody, and ability to make a pleasant song. Then, the song that just went massive, and spawned dozens of covers – a handful as memorable as the original, like the Walk Off The Earth Cover, of ‘Somebody I Used To Know’. The track shows that he came make a track that’s far more stripped down, but still just works so well.
Grouplove – Never Trust A Happy Song | This album fit in really well with the rest of the high energy fun indie pop that came out in 2011. From lead single ‘Tongue Tied’ to ‘Itchin’ On A Photograph’, there are some really great high energy tracks. They also slow it down on tracks like, well…’Slow’. Overal an enjoyable album.
Paul Simon – So Beautiful, Or So What | Paul Simon long ago stopped having to care about what people thought of his output. Like Paul McCartney, this Paul just keeps kicking, and making new music. And just like McCartney, I’m glad he does. First listens of albums never count – that’s something I’ve grown to learn. Just like what propelled his solo career with Graceland in 1986, Simon incorporates sounds from around the globe, and then switches smoothly to well made folk-rock. ‘Dazzling Blue’ starts of with deep classical Indian vocals, then builds off that. ‘Rewrite’, which follows it, starts off with what seems like a sweet folk-rock backing, then incorporates Indian-style guitars, a sitar spotlight, and then incorporates both back in as the vocals come back in and the song continues. The tabla (an Indian drum) does a fantastic job, bringing in some serious bassy grooves. ‘Love and Hard Times’ comes next, starting off with a melancholy piano intro, then turning into a sad dreamy track, that matches its title – but ends on an optimistic note, with Simon calling out “thank God I found you in time.” The next track, ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light’, comes in with a stomping beat, and a twanging guitar. It begins with some words just talking about the interconnectivity of life, switches up to some personal musings, and even a look at current music. ‘Questions For The Angels’ is a funny ruminative track, featuring such gems as “If you shop for love in a bargain store/and don’t get what you bargain for/can you get your money back?” But goes deeper too, with the chorus going “Who believes in angels?/ Fools do/Fools and pilgrims all over the world”, but then near the end of the song, switching it up too: “Who believes in angels?/I do/Fools and pilgrims all over the world.” Also, a great contemplative line about people idolizing Jay-Z as an angel, consumerism, and all that. The lyrics make the track. Overall? Not too shabby. You go Paul CoCo.
Adele – 21 | There was no way I could write about 2011’s most notable’s albums without mentioning Adele. She truly ruled the radio waves this year, first with her massive hit, ‘Rolling In The Deep’, and more recently with ‘Set Fire To The Rain.’ She championed the heck out of 2011, and ruled well. Good for her. While the first time I listened to this album oh so long ago, it seemed pretty idle, when you remove some of the songs from the rest of the album, like with Justice and Coldplay, it allows them to breathe.
Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials | I absolutely LOVED this album. Earlier I mentioned indie bands that made it big, one of them being Florence + the Machine. So the biggest question is: once you have had a big breakout album, what do you do next? Florence knew her answer: she wanted an album that was “more dark, more heavy, bigger drum sounds, bigger bass, but with more of a whole sound.” Working with Paul Epworth, who has worked with Adele, Bloc Party, Foster The People, and countless others, that is exactly what she achieved. Overall: 8.9/10.
Above & Beyond – Group Therapy | Beautiful progressive trance album. From slow, emotional tracks such as “Prelude” to those with more of a beat such as “You Got To Go”, featuring Zoe Johnston, to a combination of both, like the lead single “Sun & Moon” featuring Richard Bedford. Honestly, this album could have just been “Sun & Moon” and I still would have loved it – because that song is ridiculously catchy, and just a great track. This isn’t an album for the bro crowd. This is an album for those who want to be inspired, elevated, intrigued. And, those who want to dance a little. Recommended for all progressive fans. Overall: 9/10.
Well there you go. Forty eight hand picked albums, numerous listens, and so many edits later, that’s my list. Hope you found something you like.
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