I know I’m a little late to the “Best of 2011” party, but these albums deserve recognition, regardless of my penchant for procrastination. Better late than never, right?
Before I address the actual content of this entry, I’ll take a moment to answer the question that I’m sure is on everyone’s mind: Why a top thirteen? At first, I figured I would do a nice rounded-off number, such as ten or twenty. Then I briefly entertained the notion of doing something cute like eleven for the year 2011. However, as I re-reviewed the many albums that have interested me this year, I realized that the outstanding releases of 2011 could not so easily be broken down. I arrived at the conclusion that there were thirteen albums that really spoke to me this year. There were thirteen albums that earned my deep love and affection. There are thirteen albums that will achieve digital immortalization in this humble blog entry on this fair website. Plus, I think thirteen is kind of cool in a sinister, heavy metal/slasher flick sort of way.
With that said, I feel it’s necessary to issue a disclaimer: I’m bad at picking favorites. Ask me what my favorite albums of 2011 are, and rarely will you receive the same answer twice. While I certainly know what I enjoy listening to, I’m a fairly indecisive guy when it comes to ordering things as such. Furthermore, while I fancy myself an open-minded listener, I don’t listen to everything. I’m sure there are some great releases this year I simply haven’t had the privilege to look into. So take what I’ve written with a grain of salt.
But I digress. Without further ado, I present to you, dear reader, my ordered thirteen favorite releases from 2011:
13. Die Aesthetik der Herschaftsfreiheit – Rome
I’m not the most versed neofolk listener, but it’s definitely a genre that interests me, and I’m a passionate fan of some of the scene’s more notable bands. When I first was exposed to Rome, they had to face up to the impossible standards of acts like Current 93 and Death in June. As a result, I wasn’t terribly impressed, despite Rome’s loyal fanbase. However, with each listen, and with each album, my love for Rome grew a little more. Is Rome in the same league as the early neofolk greats? Unfortunately, no. Is Rome still a unique, talented, and ambitious musical act that is more than worth checking out? Absolutely. And Die Aesthetik der Herschaftsfreiheit is their most ambitious release to date. It’s a feverish and oppressive (in the best way possible) odyssey of war spanning three full discs. It’s thick on the atmosphere, so make sure you listen in a well-ventilated room.
"To Teach Obedience" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN3gZAL8zmU
12. Paragon of Dissonance – Esoteric
Dense, heavy, inspired. It’s funeral doom metal and no one does it better. Esoteric has a strong body of work, but Paragon of Dissonance may be among their best. Like most funeral doom, there is obviously a strong effort put forth in establishing atmosphere, however this atmosphere was accomplished far more tastefully than with simple droning guitars and background noise. There was always something materializing within the soundscape. The ambiance is never meandering, it was always working towards something, and it was very interesting to hear how a rhythm and instrumental melody formed within each track. The riffs are solid throughout, and although I'm not normally into guitar solos, the album featured some tastefully-placed and well-performed guitar solos. Additionally, I was quite impressed with the drumming, as well. It seems like funeral doom often gravitates towards pretty simple drumming that is used more for accents than actual rhythm, but in the case of this album, the drums are a much more immediate rhythmic presence. Rather than just a singular accent, there would be periodic fills that helped to build up each piece. Likewise, when rhythms locked in, the groove (yes, there was in fact a groove) was always interesting, whether it be the blasting death metal-style material or the jazzier, snare-based stuff. All in all, a terrific album that stands as a ray of light within a somewhat stagnant subgenre.
"Loss of Will" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EgCjqrU6ag
11. Mirror Traffic – Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
No alternative rock fan should be a stranger to Stephen Malkmus (who will henceforth be referred to as SM), but I did not expect an album like Mirror Traffic from the legendary Pavement laureate. Obviously I admire SM, but everyone knows that aging musicians have only the downward spiral to look forward to. SM’s work, while containing its fair share of solid material, held every indication that he would soon by following this unfortunate, but all-too-real trend. And then Mirror Traffic happened, and all was right with the world. The album ranges from jumpy alternative rock to mellow, introspective pieces, and every part in between. Mirror Traffic successfully married the goofy exuberance of Pavement-era SM with the more mature, later-career solo songwriter SM. It’s new alt rock for the old school fans and it doesn’t feel forced or dated. I anticipate Mirror Traffic will become yet another classic in an already powerful body of work.
"Share the Red" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kfrr91WA4c
10. Plays “High Gospel” – Efrim Manuel Menuck
Plays “High Gospel” is Efrim Menuck’s first solo effort, he’s a distinguished veteran of two legendary musical acts: Godspeed You Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion. With that said, this album cannot be distilled through comparisons to those bands. In terms of style, High Gospel feels a little more formless, taking stronger cues from ambient than post-rock. Efrim certainly took a major role in songwriting for Godspeed and Zion, but there’s a greater level of purity to High Gospel that contrasts these large collaborative line-ups that he formerly participated in. As a solo work, “High Gospel” took on a very warm, personal feel. It’s an elegant and artistically focused album by a consistently interesting musician. I find myself enjoying it more and more with each listen. It’s a truly rewarding experience.
"Kaddish for Chesnutt" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjr7qofKkss
9. Mammal – Altar of Plagues
Strangely enough, black metal is on the rise, and I think the wider audience can largely be accredited to bands like Altar of Plagues. They are a band that exemplifies an artistic balance between restrained, tasteful songwriting and the deadly, teeth-clenching metal ethos. White Tomb, their 2009 debut, was staggering in its ominous atmosphere and powerful blasts of aggression. It seemed they had set the bar too high for their own good, but Mammal shows that they haven’t slacked off one bit. In fact, they might have even outdone themselves (emphasis on the word “might”). Altar of Plagues creates an intense, focused soundscape that really puts the black in black metal. For those interested in dark, filthy, ferocious, and even sometimes elegant metal, Mammal is this year’s go-to album.
"When the Sun Drowns the Ocean" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c61GYG_-iLc
8. Bad as Me – Tom Waits
Tom Waits is truly an unstoppable songwriting force. He’s been recording since the early 70’s, and I don’t think he’s once dropped the ball. Remember how I mentioned that talent departs with age when I was talking about Stephen Malkmus? That was a lie. Tom Waits is 62 years old, Bad as Me is his seventeenth full-length studio album, and it rules. In terms of style, Bad as Me has a very concise feel, which contrasts its triple album predecessor, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. There’s still bawling and brawling and… bastarding on Bad as Me, but it’s denser and to-the-point in a very satisfying way. It’s certainly a hard-hitting release for a man of his age, but its restrained moments are just as powerful. Each ballad has the maturity of fine wine. Overall, in the case of Tom Waits output, it’s never a surprise when it’s good, but in the case of Bad as Me in particular, I was surprised by just how good it actually was.
"Bad as Me" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6Ta3H-ck6s&ob=av2e
7. Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand – Primordial
Well what do we have here? It seems that there is not one, but two Irish black metal bands making an appearance on this list. And to think that Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand by Primordial was released only a day following Mammal by Altar of Plagues. It seems the pagan gods were quite generous to their followers this year. However, it’s a little unfair to discuss Primordial purely in terms of Altar of Plagues. In fact, it’s a little unfair to discuss Primordial in terms of black metal in general. While they are certainly associated with black metal, at this point their sound has developed into a greater amalgamation of metal genres. In addition to black metal, Redemption at the Puritan’s hand also contains strong folk and traditional heavy metal elements that results in what can only be described as a battle cry. Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand is an album for the warriors. The build-up, the energy, it’s absolutely unstoppable. A powerful release from an exceptionally talented band.
"Bloodied Yet Unbowed" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb92nw_FF08
6. Ugly Animals – Retox
I’ve talked about a couple of metal releases on this list, but now it’s time for some good old fashioned punk love. Retox is a hardcore punk band featuring members from The Locust, Holy Molar, Swing Kids, Head Wound City and many other hardcore heavy-hitters. They’re self-titled debut showed they were a band to watch out for, and Ugly Animals has proven to be everything we wanted and more. Ugly Animals moves at the breakneck pace of a powerviolence album, but it has a greater sense of motion than spastic rhythms of powerviolence. Each musical idea is dwelt on only briefly, but developed to in a way that is satisfying to hear, and still leaves the listener wanting more. All in all, there’s a decent level of accessibility, but it’s still intense enough to scorch off your eyebrows if you lean too close.
"Thirty Cents Shy of a Quarter" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCzsqncj8Zc
5. The Inside Room – 40 Watt Sun
The dissolution of Warning was a bittersweet moment for doom metal fans. An excellent band came to an end, but like a gleaming phoenix, 40 Watt Sun rose from Warning’s ashes to blow our minds with The Inside Room. Words like “beautiful” and “evocative” aren’t words that typically come to mind when thinking about metal, but in that’s exactly what 40 Watt Sun is all about. The entire album contains a bitter sense of longing, layered over elegant guitar lines and a tasteful rhythm section. And while the riffs certainly are appealing, they’re actually fairly simple for the most part. The real joy of the album lies in drummer Christian Lietch’s relaxed, but complex groove and Patrick Walker’s soaring vocals. Overall, The Inside Room has a focused sound, but is sprawling in terms of atmosphere and emotion. Easily my favorite metal album of the year.
"Between Times" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTq5FhDJK9Q
4. C’mon – Low
I’ll be honest; I’m a pretty big Low fanboy, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when I took a shine to their latest release. However, my love of C’mon is more than just a matter of loyalty. While Low is a certainly a consistent band, I feel that C’mon is something greater. It’s a late-career effort at this point (Low has been around since the early nineties), but the sound on C’mon seems to be an important change for the band. Low has always been known for bleak, restrained compositions, but while C’mon has all the signature harmonies and dense guitars, it’s a much less implosive effort. There’s a certain implacable euphoria to the album; a new sense of fearlessness. It’s emotionally invigorating. The most impressive aspect of C’mon is how Low has managed to change their sound, and yet remain quintessentially themselves. It’s a unique and well-executed turn.
"Try to Sleep" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXgc0I0zsYs
3. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
Have we become so bombarded with Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, and Panic at the Disco that anyone interested in music left of the dial now shuns the term pop-rock? I believe we have, and to quote from “Stay Together for the Kids,” it’s not right (Yeah. I quoted Blink-182. If you want to fight about it, I’ll be by the high school football field bleachers at 2 p.m.). I propose an end to the tyranny, and I nominate The Joy Formidable to be our party leader. As the title would imply, the energy and depth of sound on The Big Roar is absolutely enormous, but they still maintain an infectious vocal pop appeal. In terms of individual musicianship, The Joy Formidable is a perfect rock band. Their sound is bombastic, but extremely tight, which can largely be accredited to an exceptional rhythm section. And yet, they balance it wonderfully with the vocal pop sound I had previously mentioned. Each track is extremely catchy, with hard-hitting sing-along choruses. They’re catchy, they rock hard, and their songs are artistically interesting. What more could you ask for from a band? Ladies and gentlemen, it is once again respectable to be a pop-rock fan. The Joy Formidable has opened the gates to freedom.
"Cradle" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W66yhfMb4d0
2. Outside – O’Death
O’Death’s earlier efforts were interesting blends of folk instrumentation and style, but it wasn’t until 2011 when they really came into their own. It took them a few tries before they really figured out how to combine the diversity of their sound into a cohesive effort, but with Outside, their latest release, the outcome speaks for itself. Outside has a dark, gothic tone, but with well-placed uplifting moments. It has all the atmosphere of moonlight breaking over a cemetery. Each song has a distinct intensity to it, and yet is willing to unfold into something gentler, but just as emotionally intense. It’s actually a little comparable to Low’s C’mon, in that it has a somewhat downtrodden tone with hints of glory (they’re on the edge, as Lady Gaga would say). As far as the compositions go, O’Death seamlessly incorporates elements of folk, country, bluegrass, and modern classical. All in all it makes for a truly gratifying listening experience.
1. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey’s career has spanned twenty years at this point, but she’s always had a knack for creating fresh sounds. However, Let England Shake is extreme even by PJ Harvey’s standards, going so far as to adopt an entirely new vocal style for the album. And although it retains the somewhat ghostly feel of other recent efforts, it is much richer and more textural than any of her other post-2000 works. The lyrics were written before the music, so there’s definitely a distinct singer-songwriter feel that contrasts her work in rock and pop, but this approach to songwriting does not de-emphasize quality compositions and musicianship. As far as the content goes, Let England Shake was strongly influenced by war and conflict. And I know that I used the term “odyssey of war” in reference to Rome’s Die Aesthetik, and I don’t want to devalue a perfectly good album, but honestly PJ Harvey does it better. I suppose that’s the difference between thirteen and one. Let England Shake is high class, plain and simple. The instrumentation is unique (PJ has acquired a newfound love for the autoharp), the compositions are gorgeous, and the vocals are… also gorgeous. Really, there’s not much more that can be said. Even with some unusual stylistic changes, everything works. Let England Shake was quintessential PJ Harvey before the year was even over. And with a career like PJ Harvey’s, that says something. It’s been my favorite album of 2011 ever since I first listened to it, and that belief hasn’t wavered for one instant.
"Bitter Branches" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyfLy8ZOruo