I know that there are albums that will be noticeably missing. I'm sure the moment Mark Clark (hi, Mark) reads this list, he will ask himself, "Where the @#*% is Steven Wilson?!?" It's no secret that I have loved everything remotely related to Steven Wilson, whether it be the first project I fell in love with (No-Man) or my "favorite band of all time" (Porcupine Tree). This year not only brought a new Blackfied album, but a second "solo" project. I wholeheartedly admire both albums (with the exception of track 2 on the Blackfield album), but I haven't completely connected with either album.......yet.
Chances are, if you were to ask my my favorite album of 2011, in a year's time, I might say "Steven Wilson's 'Grace For Drowning'", although that's bloody unlikely.... only because Fleet Foxes are THAT good. A comparable example would be Talk Talk's 1988 release, "Spirit of Eden". It has been 22+ years since it's release, and it only gets better with age. Upon my initial listen of that album, I was puzzled as to what they were trying to accomplish. Subsequently, 1991's "Laughing Stock" seemed like the band had completely derailed. When describing "Laughing Stock" to people, I simply say that it makes Pink Floyd's "The Wall" seem like Michael Jackson's "Thriller". It's that far out in left field. By 1988, Talk Talk had completely washed their hands of creating "hit singles" and focused on the art of their music. What began as an album that I barely tolerated has become one of my favorite, IF NOT my favorite album of 1988. Such may be the case for Steven Wilson.
Many albums that I intended to put on the list didn't even make it (My Morning Jacket, Warren Haynes, Booker T. Jones, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Big Harp, Blitzen Trapper, Death Cab For Cutie, to name a few). It is simply because the albums, although very much enjoyed, took a back seat to many of the other albums that crossed my path.
2011 has been a year of aural consumption. I've become more exposed to the world of Indie Rock and it has taken hold of me. The longer I play guitar, the more I associate with the heartfelt, pure sound that comes from many Indie singer/songwriters. Where I used to feed off of elaborate production and intricate rhythms, I now feed off of a solo, sincere, heartfelt voice and a simple finger-picking guitar style. I have no apologies for this change in my musical life, as I still embrace the beautiful, deep musical styles of the past.
With that said, let's get busy with my Top 21 of 2011. I hope you like them...
1. FLEET FOXES - "HELPLESSNESS BLUES"
For anyone that knows me, or pays the least bit attention to my music tastes, it will come as no surprise that my number one album of the year is "Helplessness Blues", by Seattle's FLEET FOXES. For many bands, the second album is one of the most difficult to put together. It's often said that, in the world of music, you have a lifetime to create the first album, but only a year to do the second. This album was anything but a letdown. Taking their signature harmonies (heavily influenced by bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and bringing both deeper sound and deeper subject material, they created an album that not only equaled their debut full length album, but, in some areas, surpassed it. If it weren't for some of the extravagant experimentation with various instruments (bass clarinet, anyone?), this album would have been flawless from start to finish.
I should point out that it's one of several to come from the notorious Sub-Pop label. Best. Label. Ever.
2. OTHER LIVES - "TAMER ANIMALS"
My second favorite album of the year comes from Oklahoma's OTHER LIVES. If I recall correctly, I discovered this album via the KCRW podcast, MORNING BECOMES ECLECTIC. I was nothing short of blown away when I heard how amazing this band sounded live (in studio), and I felt a dire need to explore further. With what little birthday money I had, I hunted down this album and was amazed at what I heard.
It wasn't until just recently that I was made aware that singer Jesse Tabish was born and raised (to the age of 12) in Salt Lake City, Utah... my hometown. Really, that fact is irrelevant. Their sound, which features an eclectic array of instruments, says it all.
The funny thing is that I discovered them on my birthday, just a week after they had played Salt Lake. I had the opportunity to see them just last month, when they returned to Salt Lake City to play my favorite venue, The State Room. I was not only ecstatic to see them on this tour, but considering they were just asked to play a sizable chunk of Radiohead's forthcoming North American Tour, it was probably the last time that I would get to see them in such an intimate venue.
3. KATE BUSH - "50 WORDS FOR SNOW"Kate Bush, British songstress that was discovered by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour (at the age of 16) has been one of the most prolific singer/songwriters to surface in the last 35 years. Early in her career, Kate was churning out album after album of inventive, mind bending Art Pop. As her career progressed, her albums became more and more sparse, ofttimes going years between releases, yet the music remained poignant. Between the early 90's and mid 00's, Kate had completely disappeared from the music scene. Most of this time was spent starting her own family, but it didn't mean that she had disappeared entirely from the world of music.
Earlier this year, Kate released DIRECTOR'S CUT, which was a collection of reinterpretations of songs from her 1993 release, THE RED SHOES, in addition to material from 1989's THE SENSUAL WORLD. For those of us that have been fans of hers for nearly 3 decades (or, in my case 25 years), we enjoyed the new take on familiar work, but hoped that it wasn't the only material that we would hear from Kate for the next few years.
As 2011 marched on, buzz began to surface about a "Seasonal" album that Kate was working on. Would it feature traditional Christmas music? Would it be original material? Only time would tell. In the end, we were treated with a collection of new material that was, essentially, a concept album based around Winter and it's elements. The word Christmas is only mentioned once, and only in conjunction with snow. The album has a very deep Winter feel to it, and I know it won't be anything that I will listen to in the middle of Summer.
To put it in perspective, 50 WORDS FOR SNOW is probably my second favorite Kate Bush album of all time, behind 1985's HOUNDS OF LOVE. Now that I think about it, it may even be better...
4. BLUE OCTOBER - "ANY MAN IN AMERICA"
For those of you that have been listening to Blue October for any amount of time, you will be very aware that the aspect of the band that pulls you in is singer/lyricist Justin Furstenfeld's heartfelt, passionate lyrics. From early on, Justin felt that one of the best ways for him to deal with his clinical depression was to sing about it. Heck, folks, the name of the band is derived from the time Justin first spent "institutionalized".
What really sucks me into this album is the subject matter. Most of Blue October's earlier work dealt with Justin's depression, anxiety, mental breakdowns. 2009's APPROACHING NORMAL ended up being my least favorite album of theirs, and that was primarily because Justin was... well... approaching normal. The music didn't have nearly the punch that the earlier work did. It was good, yes, but it didn't pull you in like their more intense, personal work.
It wasn't until the events that unfolded following the release of APPROACHING NORMAL, and the subsequent touring, that their greatest work was to be unveiled to our listening ear. Between 2009 and the release of this gem, Justin's wife left him, and screwed him over in a custody battle over their daughter. I don't think I have ever heard an album with as much genuine venom as this album has to offer.
One may think that my affinity towards this album comes from MY recent life circumstances, and you may be right. That being said, Justin's experiences go a little lower than mine, and you hear it... dare I say FEEL it on each and every song.
5. ADELE - "21"
When I purchased this CD on it's release day, early in 2011, I had no idea how big the album would become. Like my number 4 album (Blue October), this album is fueled with a lot of passion stemming from nasty break-ups. Adele Adkins, if nothing else, wears her heart on her sleeve. And, if that isn't enough, has enough soul in her voice to make you FEEL the pain that she has been through. Typically, I shy away from albums that dominate the charts... because, typically, they suck. Such is not the case for this gem. This album bleeds soul, both in the lyrics and in her music. And did I mention her voice?
6. BON IVER - "BON IVER"
Bon Iver, otherwise known as Justin Vernon, may be best known in Popular music as an occasional collaborator with Kanye West. For those that listen to the burgeoning Indie scene, Vernon is a singer/songwriter that is not afraid to explore musical waters often left alone. His lyrics are very personal, very beautiful, and the songs, themselves, are a soundscape of wonder. It wasn't until this past month that I saw a review that pointed out that this album has some similarities to late-era TALK TALK. After a subsequent listen, I finally heard it.... and perhaps that is why this album struck a chord with me from the get-go.
7. CARY BROTHER - "UNDER CONTROL"
My seventh favorite album of the year comes from LA singer/songwriter Cary Brothers. Up until the time that I saw Cary open for his longtime friend, Joshua Radin, I hadn't the slightest clue of who he was, even though I owned the GARDEN STATE soundtrack, which features an earlier song by Brothers. It was during Cary Brothers' warm-up set at the Joshua Radin show that I was exposed to some of the catchiest Pop that I have heard in quite some time. I immediately went out to the merchandise table and picked up the LP record. It is an album that demands repeat listens, and one that does not get old with repeated listens. It may not delve into the intensely personal waters of some of my other favorite albums of the year, but it has a charm that few of the other albums manifest.
8. THE MIDDLE EAST - "I WANT THAT YOU ARE ALWAYS HAPPY"
Over the course of the year, I have gotten to be friends with a clerk at a local independent record store. During my association with said clerk, we have spent a certain amount of time discussing music, and sharing recommendations with each other. Young Craig told me about an Australian band that reminded him of Fleet Foxes, called THE MIDDLE EAST. Truth be told, all you need to do is say anything sounds like Fleet Foxes, and I'll be there. The reality is that there are only a couple of songs that remind me of Fleet Foxes, but the rest of the album draws me in every bit as much.
This album runs the gamut of sounds. Ambient, Folkish, simple and lush... it has it all. Not to mention one of the Bob-bitchinest album covers EVER. And the title? "I Want That You Are Always Happy"? Does it get any cooler than that?!? No wonder that banana is smiling.
9. AIRBAG - "ALL RIGHTS REMOVED"
This year's late bloomer is from Norway's AIRBAG. I was exposed to the music of Airbag last year. Well, two years ago, now. The best way for me to describe the music of Airbag is like this: imagine, if you will, that Pink Floyd had not all but dissolved after 1994's DIVISION BELL. Imagine that David Gilmour's voice had become a little more moody, and that his guitar work did the same. If you can wrap your mind around that, then you can wrap your ears around Airbag.
Yes, they have the dumbest name in the history of Rock music..... but they have the sound to make up for it.
Simply put, no self-respecting Pink Floyd fan should be without their last couple albums. In many ways, their albums exceed that of Pink Floyd. If you didn't weigh in the "creativity" factor, they would, in my opinion, be superior to Floyd. That being said, they are probably guilty of taking the Pink Floyd sound and trying to make it their own. And, in most areas, they succeed.
10. CITY AND COLOUR - "LITTLE HELL"
The best part of 2011 was the fact that my life has been surrounded by music enthusiasts. People that share the love of music to the extent that I do. For a guy like me, this is colossal. One such person is the nephew of my dear friend Mary. When you get Quentin and I in a room together, it's enough to send others running for the door. It's a good thing they just tune us out and let us go on with our conversation.
This year, Quentin has introduced me to several artists and bands. One such introduction was to CITY AND COLOUR. City and Colour is the pseudonym of Dallas Green, singer and guitarist for the post-Hardcore band, ALEXISONFIRE. This project is anything but hardcore. If anything, it can be simply summed up as very heartfelt, honest Folk music. Dallas wears his heart on his sleeve nearly as much as Blue October's Justin Furstinfeld. And his guitar playing.... wow. If I were good enough to be a singer/songwriter, I'd like to be City and Colour.
11. ST. VINCENT - "STRANGE MERCY"ST. VINCENT, a.k.a. Annie Clark, is a singer/songwriter from Texas, by way of New York City. St. Vincent has a shoe-in to the hearts of Indie Rock fans based on the fact that she has both been a member of THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, as well as a member of Sufjan Steven's touring band. All that put aside, Annie Clark is creating quite a stir with her creative way of not only writing music, but playing it. There are are few guitarists, at least in the world of Indie Rock, that push the limits of the instrument as much as Annie Clark. If you were to talk music with a friend and discuss what "genre" St. Vincent would be, you would have a lot of silence, with the occasional scratch of the head. It's nearly impossible to pinpoint her sound.
If you were to ask me what she sounded like, I would ask you if you had ever heard Kate Bush's THE DREAMING. Assuming you would say yes (knowing you would really say "no"), I would say, THAT is St. Vincent. It's bizarre, it's chaotic, it's beautiful.
12. THE DECEMBERISTS - "THE KING IS DEAD"
At the tail end of 2010, The Decemberists released a 7" single with a song from their forthcoming album, THE KING IS DEAD. I think this was my first anticipated release of the year. I have been a fan of The Decemberists' quirky take on Folk music, for years now. Combining Folk music with the intensity and structure of Progressive Rock, they have created a truly unique sound. Most of their albums are concept pieces that tell bizarre stories foreign to most popular music. If you don't believe me, check out THE CRANE WIFE.
This album was a departure from their traditional sound, since it was simply a collection of unrelated, standard length Folk songs, many of which featured the unmistakable voice of Gillian Welch. What we had, in the end, was a great Folk album, from start to finish.
13. MARIA TAYLOR - "OVERLOOK"
This, the latest solo album by one half of Azure Ray, Maria Taylor, is a great collection of honest, heartfelt music from one of the purest voices to be found in the world of Indie Folk music. This album doesn't venture from her familiar sound, but, instead, wraps you up in her familiar warmth. If music were a blanket, it would be Maria Taylor.
14. EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY - "TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE"
What can be said about Austin, Texas' EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY? Inventive? Yes. Textured? Yes. Noisy? Hell yes. Beautiful? Immensely!!
This album is nothing shy of classic EITS. For those of you not familiar with the band, you need to check them out. If you have been a longtime viewer of "Friday Night Lights", chances are you have heard them, as they are responsible for much of that show's soundtrack.
All instrumental, all guitars-bass-drums, all engaging..... that's Explosions in the Sky. Not to mention, they had the absolute coolest vinyl packaging I have ever seen.... hands down.
15. NICK 13 - "NICK 13"This album, the solo "Americana" debut from Tiger Army's Nick 13, is one of the greatest Americana albums I have ever heard. While his voice may not have the sincerity of Johnny Cash, Nick 13 makes up for it with his incredibly moody guitar work. For those of you that like some nice moody steel guitar the way I do, this album is for you.
16. THE CIVIL WARS - "BARTON HOLLOW"
I feel like I was a little late to the Civil Wars party, but better late than never. Comprised of two singer/songwriters (Joy Williams and John Paul White), THE CIVIL WARS have taken the talents of two solo artists and turned it into something spectacular. You will be hard pressed to find more beautiful harmonies than those featured on this album. Both beautiful and heartbreaking, this album knows how to tug on your heartstrings.
Truth be told, the only thing that taints this album is that the name Taylor Swift is becoming synonymous with it, and will become even more so when they collaborate on a song during 2012.
17. LOW - "C'MON"
If it weren't for the fact that I just got this album a few days ago, this would probably be further up the list. Much further. This album grows on me with each and every listen. I've been familiar with LOW for years now, but hadn't known that much about them. I knew that they collaborated with TOMANDANDY on the song, HALF LIGHT, from the soundtrack of THE MOTHMAN PROPHESIES. In addition to that, I had also recently become aware that the band consisted of the core duo, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, an LDS (that's the Mormon's, yo) couple, residing in Duluth, Minnesota. Whoduthunk that an LDS husband and wife from Duluth, Minnesota could create such beautiful, dark music... a genre typically known as "Slowcore"...on a label as cool as Sub-Pop?!?
18. THE HEAD AND THE HEART - "THE HEAD AND THE HEART"
Yet another Seattle band on the Sub-Pop label... go figure. Go figure that they are great! And have a kick-ass album cover. 'Nuff said.
19. FLORENCE + THE MACHINE - "CEREMONIALS"
Another album that would probably be higher on the list, had I gotten it earlier. Thanks to Amazon.com for offering the mp3 download for $2.99. I'll try pert near anything for that price. And this baby did NOT disappoint. That isn't all, ladies and gentlemen. It's at least triple that. Heck, QUADRUPLE THAT!!
Daggum, that Florence has a voice. Like my good friend, Kate, if I were a woman, I'd totally be gay for Florence. Kate IS female, by the way. In case there was any confusion.
20. IRON & WINE - "KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN"I almost feel guilty for having this album so low on the chart. It's great. From start to finish. That being said, I largely ignored it this year. I have no excuse apart from the fact that there was always something new to listen to, and it seemed to have been swept under the carpet. Thank heavens for my exclusive Black Friday "Record Store Day" vinyl release of Iron & Wine's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" performance, which resurrected my interest in the release.
Unlike some of the other bands, Iron & Wine BEGAN his career (oh, yes... I&W is a HIM, not a them... HIM being Sam Beam) on Sub Pop Records. This LP was his first major label release (WB Records).
21. MATES OF STATE - "MOUNTAINTOPS"Many may ask, "WHY 21 albums on the chart?" Because. As I told a Facebook friend of mine, "Necessity and surrealism are the step-daddy of innovation. I would not feel right if Mates of State were NOT on the list. Mates of State are hardly the groundbreaking artists of some of the aforementioned artists... people like Kate Bush, St. Vincent, Bon Iver, Low, etc..... BUT, they DO succeed at turning every album into a party.
Like LOW, Mates of State are a husband/wife duo, comprised of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. What The Black Keys are to drum/guitar Blues Rock, Mates of State are to Piano/Drums Indie Pop. With much of their music being limited to the piano/keys/drums combo, it is nothing short of amazing at how much sound they can create. Not to mention, they make it fun.