Top Albums of 2011 – Part II

After running through numbers 20-11 earlier this week, it’s time to reveal my top ten favorite albums of the year.

Lisa Hannigan | Passenger 

Lisa Hannigan was part of Damien Rice’s band for a long time and her voice was prominently featured on his albums. Since she left the band, Rice has released zero records and Hannigan has now released two. On “Passenger”, she really come into her own as an artist. Her voice is lovely and draws the listener into her stories of traveling and coming home again. The arrangements feature lush folk instrumentation and some lovely harmonies. She even mentions Minneapolis in the title track! That seals it for me. Like Marketa Irglova’s album, this one will probably not get much press, but it should.

Key Tracks: Knots, Passenger

My Morning Jacket | Circuital

MMJ’s last album was a little uneven, but it had it’s moments. With “Circuital”, the band bucked down and focused their efforts on interesting arrangements and filling their musical space well. The result is a fantastic album of epic arena-ready rock. Jim James’ reverbed voice climbs up and down the scale with ease and the band backs him up admirably. I didn’t get a chance to see them live at Rock the Garden this year, but the reviews were as stellar as ever. I hope I can see one of their legendary live shows for myself some day.

Key Tracks: Victory Dance, Holdin’ On to Black Metal

Wilco | The Whole Love

From the opening strains of “The Art of Almost”, you know that this going to be fun. After spending their last two albums exploring a more standard sound, Wilco is back to the formula used on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born”. With the skittering drums and keyboard flourishes, the opener sets the stage for a set of songs that prove why Wilco is one of the best bands working today. Jeff Tweedy sings more of his patented melancholy lyrics over these unique arrangements and gives us a whole lot of joy and love.

Key Tracks: The Art of Almost, Dawned on Me

Explosions in the Sky | Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

It’s been four years since we had new music from EITS and it’s been worth the wait. The instrumental quartet returns with a new album featuring six more pieces of transcendental rock music. Their sound has expanded, but only slightly as they rely on their winning formula of building and breaking down songs. The frantic drums and dueling guitars of EITS are perfect for everything from reading to painting to washing the dishes.

Key Tracks: the whole album

The Civil Wars | Barton Hollow

Joy Williams and John Paul White met at a Nashville songwriting retreat and began working on music together. They immediately realized that they compliment each other remarkably well and formed The Civil Wars. With their debut album, they show off the amazing harmonies their voices achieve as they pass melody lines back and forth. Their songs are sometimes romantic, but often sad and full of longing. The exception is the title track, which is a stomping ballad of an outlaw beyond redemption. With chemistry like this, I hope Williams and White collaborate on many more albums.

Key Tracks: Poison and Wine, Barton Hollow

St. Vincent | Strange Mercy

Annie Clark has now released 3 albums under the name St. Vincent. This album, however, is definitely her most personal. Struggling with depression in 2010, Clark spent a prolonged period of time alone while writing this album. While the lyrics are always veiled in uniquely crafted allegories, the listener can see through the windows of Clark isolation chamber to get an idea of what she went through. On the track “Surgeon”, Clark laments a prolonged state of bed-ridden depression and pleads for a surgeon to cut her open. The spiritual implication of those lines stuck with me for days after hearing them. I’ve moved this album up many spots after listening to it more and more.

Key Tracks: Surgeon, Strange Mercy

Marketa Irglova | Anar

Earlier this year, word broke Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard, the main players in The Swell Season, had ended their romantic relationship (though they continue to collaborate musically). Marketa then announced she would release a solo album and I was extremely excited because I thought her voice was underutilized on the recent Swell Season record. My excitement was warranted. This album is a gorgeous showcase of Marketa tender voice, personal lyrics and gorgeous piano arrangements. It will probably fly under the radar this year, but it deserves to get some attention.

Key Tracks: Go Back, Only in Your Head

Iron and Wine | Kiss Each Other Clean

The first time I listened to this album, I was struck by how well mixed the dense arrangement were. The myriad of instruments featured on this album could easy become muddled and sound too busy, but the expert arrangements and production just make it perfect. Sam Beam has come a long way from the spare, acoustic debut album of 2002 and this album could almost be called “Prog Folk”. One minute you have acoustic guitar and thumb piano in the forefront and the next it’s a heavy bass riff and electric guitar jolts. The sonic diversity paired with Beam’s poetic lyrics make this a great, great record.

Key Tracks: Rabbit Will Run, Glad Man Singing

M83 | Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

I’ve been following M83 since their 2003 album “Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts”, but Anthony Gonzalez really started to gain momentum in 2008 with “Saturdays = Youth” which captured an epic sound that was modern and yet strangely nostalgic. As a followup, the band unleashed a double album of lush electronic pop music. At 74 minutes, the album may seem daunting, but the flow is constant and there are no points at which the listener may be tempted to exit. Each track is expansive and epic in its own way and the synth hooks have a lot of staying power.

Key Tracks: Midnight City, Steve McQueen

Bon Iver | Bon Iver

Justin Vernon’s first album as Bon Iver is one of my favorite records and garnered a lot of positive reviews. However, many wondered if the Vernon could deliver a sophomore album that properly built on the success while not trying to copy himself. The answer, this year, was a strong “yes”. With this self-titled album, Vernon dramatically expanded his soundscape – adding horns and electronic touches. The broken hearted lyrics are still there, sung in Vernon’s angst-ridden falsetto style. It’s an album that gets better the more you listen to it and unpack all the imagery and tangled verses. No sophomore slump here.

Key Tracks: Holocene, Calgary


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