It’s that time of year again, when I compile a list of some of my favorite music from the last year. There were many strong releases this year from some of my favorite bands, but what I really enjoyed were a few surprise albums that really captured my attention unexpectedly. One of my favorite things is the joy of discovering something truly remarkable and that happened this year.
Here is part one of my top 20 albums of 2011, beginning with an honorable mention!
Sigur Ros | Inni
Sigur Ros hasn’t released brand new material since 2008. Since then, they toured extensively before going on a hiatus so the band could focus on family and so Jonsi could record his first solo album. Before regrouping to make new music, the band put together this live album and commissioned a concert film by Vincent Morriset (the man behind recent Arcade Fire films and videos). This set of songs a great sampling of Sigur Ros’ catalog and depicts the band at what seems to be the close of the 2nd chapter in their history. In my mind, chapter one was the early years through the departure of their longtime collaborators Amiina. Chapter two then was composed of their years recording and performing strictly as a four-piece and featured more joyous numbers than seemed possible before. Now, the band appears ready to close that chapter and try some new approaches. This album is a snapshot of the band, and these songs, as they were – and perhaps never will be again. Time will tell. In any case, it’s a wonderful collection that any fan of the band will appreciate.
My Brightest Diamond | All Things Will Unwind
Shara Worden’s 3rd album as My Brightest Diamond finds the operatic singer surrounded by gorgeous and clever string arrangements. Her clear, avian voice rises and falls as he spins strange stories and pleas. While much of the album is melancholy, she allows some of her quirkiness to show as well on some more upbeat numbers that bring to mind a Regina Spektor-like vibe.
Key Tracks: In the Beginning, High Low Middle
Foster the People | Torches
Of all the albums on my list, I’ve only heard song from two of them on the mainstream radio station we play at work. This is one of them. Foster the People came to prominence out of nowhere this year and their infectious songs won fans in many demographics. Insistent drums and hook-laden melodies combine for some great pop tunes. Listen closely to the lyrics, however, and you will wonder how a song so dark can sound so happy.
Key Tracks: Pumped Up Kicks, Houdini
Lykke Li | Wounded Rhymes
Like many artists, Lykke Li spent some time in seclusion to write her latest album. The result, she said, is darker and more primal than her debut album. Li sings about longing and sadness with the perfect feeling. Her voice is gorgeous in the reverb saturated landscape this album. The arrangements perfect as well and the album is very enjoyable from start to finish.
Key Tracks: I Follow Rivers, Get Some
Fleet Foxes | Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes were part of the folky acoustic bumper crop from a few years back that also brought Bon Iver to the world. Their sound is reminiscent of AM-radio folk from the 70s, lo-fi in the best possible way. On this record, the writing of lead singer Robin Pecknold really shines through. Take this line from the title track: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique | Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see | And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be | A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” Good stuff.
Key Tracks: Helplessness Blues, Montezuma
Seryn | This is Where We Are
When you listen to Seryn’s album, you may be tempted to conclude that there are 10 people in the band. There are only 5 band members, but the sound they are able to put out is immense. At the core, this is folk music, but the intensity and dynamic approach that Seryn creates takes it way beyond a simple folk outfit. It brings to mind Arcade Fire’s ability to scale a mountain of sound, but Seryn’s songs are less cynical than Arcade Fire and bring a pastoral wonder that is really quite beautiful. This band is going places.
Key Tracks: We Will All Be Changed, On My Knees
Justice | Audio, Video, Disco
The French electronic duo, Justice, got plenty of airplay with their first album of rock-influenced dance music. With their second album, they expanded their formula and borrowed from 70s disco and rock music to infuse their beats with some great sounds. Grinding guitars, spacey keyboards, crashing drum beats and sampled vocal lines create some really enjoyable songs. I have listened to this album a lot in the car this fall. It makes for some great driving music.
Key Tracks: Canon, On’n’On
The Decemberists | The King is Dead
Colin Meloy and company decided that they needed to take a break from their conceptual story albums to make more conventional record of folk songs and, while I love those theatrical albums, I think this was a wise choice. This album features a lighter and more liberated band that sounds like they are having lots of fun making music together. Instead of trying to spin out a large, complicated narrative, these ballads read like short stories of lost love and other timeless themes.
Key Tracks: Down by the Water, Rise to Me
Waterdeep | No Doubt of Sunshine
There are only a few bands that command an instant album preorder from me and Waterdeep is one of them. With their new album, Don and Lori Chaffer have taken care to create some elaborate and yet intimate soundscapes. Densely layered vocals, interesting arrangements and their always-great lyrical work combine to make this their strongest album in years. I feel like I need to listen many more times to fully unpack everything they poured in – and that’s a good thing.
Key Tracks: Time and Time Again, We Already Got It
Radiohead | The King of Limbs
Radiohead followed up their groundbreaking “In Rainbows” experiment this year with “The King of Limbs”, a perplexingly understated album released in a more traditional way. Where “Rainbows” was energetic and rocky, “Limbs” is more of a chill album with a few jams here and there. The biggest wave the release made with with a music video featuring Thom Yorke dancing madly in black and white in a possible send up of Beyonce. But after a few listens, this record is worth its salt. It was nigh impossible to follow-up the best record of their career and it’s probably a wise choice to take it slow at first.
Death Cab will likely never again reach the heights that “Transatlanticism” achieved, but that’s probably okay. Fans would fine with an album that simply approaches those heights, which they haven’t really been able to deliver yet. But “Codes and Keys” comes closer than ever. Decidedly more experimental and sunny than their last record, this one takes the formulas of early DCFC albums and brings them to maturity. The lead single “You Are a Tourist” is the high point of the album, which a driving drum part and a quirky guitar riff creating a perfect pop tune. Considering Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel recently ended their 2 year marriage, this may be the last “happy” Death Cab album we see for awhile.
Key Tracks: You Are a Tourist, Doors Unlocked and Open
Look for my top ten later this week!