As 2011 quietly and quickly comes to a close it is a good time to reflect on the year just past. A year of exploration and discovery, fun and enjoyment. Pain and beauty. Joy and ragged edges. Trends and movements. Disappointment and surprise. Elation. Sometimes. Many albums were purchased, yes I still do that, and some exceeded expectations.
One album though met and exceeded all expecations. The cover told a story. Through faces, homes, planes and mountains we peered into the depth of humanity. From within voices glistened and instruments sounded the memory lines of music. Fleet Foxes showed that it is still possible to make music that matters. That can lift you up and sometimes calm you down. It was a triumph to be sure. There were many others as well. Although I would consider 2011 to be a solid year in the scheme of things. I would suggest that there were perhaps two or possibly three classic albums. However there were an awful lot of very good to great albums. Many good albums failed to make my list in fact, but you need to draw the line somewhere. So without further ado, here they are!
1. Helplessness Blues-Fleet Foxes
From the very first second I heard the the title track my ears were tingling. My anticipation was set at high. Thankfully the remainder of the album lived up to the hope (hype?). This is music at its purest. Most serene, most quixotic. Most everything. More expansive, possibly darker, than the astounding debut, this album caresses and comforts. It is fun too. But in an important way. It lives and breathes. Tender moments explode into life continually. Oh harmony and melody!
MP3: Helplessness Blues
2. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care-Explosions In The Sky
The Texan quartet tried something different but still managed to deliver more of the same. That is, bonecrushing power and inescapable beauty. If you ignore trends and fads and concentrate on what is great I think it is impossible to deny the greatness that exists here. This music resonates like few others, sending me to places unknown. Guitars and drums flex their muscle with great effect. The magnificent "Postcard From 1952" is worth the price of admission alone.
MP3: Trembling Hands
3. Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT-Akron/Family
Quite a journey this one, but it is truly spectacular. Warm guitars wash over sublime harmonies with ease. Folk, rock, trance all combined into one glorious stew. This band has been on a roll for quite a while and there appears to be no stopping them yet. Emotionally charged music that hits a raw nerve with its honesty, directness and sincerity.
MP3: So It Goes
4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver-Bon Iver
Justin Vernon and company I think trumped the spectacular debut. These are glorious sounds, evoking memories and feelings that sit long in the mind. There is a warmness and almost sensual feeling that emanates almost through the entire album. Deep as a river and considerably consequential this release manages to improve with every single listen.
5. Father, Son, Holy Ghost-Girls
A fantastic record. A fantasy. A unique experience. I never bought the hype before. In fact I was a little turned off. But this sledgehammer of an album turned me on. It sounds like The Beach Boys met Led Zeppelin in a seedy bar and decided to record an album. There are killer tracks everywhere, especially the superb "Vomit" and the heartfelt "My Ma".
6. Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped-Moonface
Sparse, spectacular music from the incomparable Spencer Krug. After the shock of losing Wolf Parade and maybe Sunset Rubdown, we waited for Krug's next move. Moonface was it. Five songs of cathartic power and stark emotion. Recorded on organ these songs grow and collapse onto themselves. I can not wait to see what Spencer does next.
MP3: Fast Peter
7. Burst Apart-The Antlers
2011 marked my awakening to The Antlers. I had owned "Hospice" and it was good. But this year I suddenly awoke to its greatness. So their new album was heavily anticipated. "Burst Apart" proved to be a mature, weighty, intelligent album, dripping with meaning and intent. Sad but never depressing this album packs a huge punch to the heart.
MP3: I Don't Want Love
8. I Am Very Far-Okkervil River
Batten down the hatches, here comes Will and company. All guns blazing, sabres rattling. This is a noisy, clattering album but it is also great. Fiery, passionate, literate. Yes, all those things that Okkervil River do so well. Long may you write songs Mr Sheff.
MP3: Wake And Be Fine
9. Slave Ambient-The War On Drugs
A complex, sophisticated, glittering album. These songs just reek of greatness and elan. When I listen to this album I just want to dive in and luxuriate in the tones and gentle shifts. Adam Granduciel's voice is luxurious and inviting, just like the music.
MP3: Come To The City
10. Wolfroy Goes To Town-Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
There is only one Will Oldham and another year on and another record released I am truly grateful for this. There is a quiet beauty to this album, it unfolds and informs, glueing together the wonder strains of American music. Glorious, just glorious.
MP3: We Are Unhappy
11. Smoke Ring For My Halo-Kurt Vile
Hard to separate this from number 9. Of course it is, Vile was a former member of The War On Drugs. The melodies, textures and subtle shifts and changes are a total delight.
12. No Color-The Dodos
Vibrant melodies abound with great effect. Back as a duo and stronger then ever. Doesn't hurt either to have the services of the great Neko Case.
13. Tomboy-Panda Bear
If not the total masterpiece that was Person Pitch, then this was still an excellent record in all departments. Noah Lennox is quite a visionary.
14. Sound Kapital-Handsome Furs
Dan and Alexei delivered album number three and it was just so much fun. Leaning even heavier on the keyboards, this was industrial and ecstatic.
Straddling several genres and styles this band continues to deliver impressive music with heart, soul and intelligence.
It felt like a long wait, but it was well worth it. Leslie Feist gave us an album that was more expansive, more weighty then her previous. But just as enjoyable.
17. Fuck Death-Blackout Beach
Fuck Death indeed. Carey Mercer proved yet again there is no one quite like him. A treatise on life, death and love delivered as only he can.
18. The Whole Love-Wilco
After a couple of albums that were worthy if just a little lacklustre Wilco returned with their best album in years. Inventive and exciting.
19. Mirror Traffic-Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
A hugely enjoyable platter from Malk. Perhaps a couple of tracks could have been trimmed, but this was loaded front to back with great songs.
20. Oh Fortune-Dan Mangan
I'd slept on Dan Mangan before 2011, but this album awoke me totally. Earnest, sombre, fun all in one package. Fairly dripping with heart.
21. The Harrow & The Harvest-Gillian Welch
Talk about long waits. It felt forever, but it was worth it. The queen of bluegrass sent us a subtle, delicate exploration of roots music.
I loved this album. It rages with spirit and heart. Urban meets country in a explosive way that is captivating and intoxicating.
23. The High Country-Richmond Fontaine
Willy Vlautin and company deliver a concept album and succeed greatly. The story of deception and love in a logging community is handled with great care. The chainsaw sea!
24. Degeneration Street-The Dears
Pretty much bad mouthed and forgotten but I'm not really sure why. Sure, it's overwrought but that doesn't really matter when it rocks so hard.
25. Let England Shake-PJ Harvey
A great reminder of the unique talents of PJ. Stark and unforgiving, this drips with intelligence and fierce desire. Seeing her in January. Very excited!
26. Apocalypse-Bill Callahan
Bill returned and reminded us of his considerable talent. That voice, those songs. If not a classic then still a great collection of cerebral songs.
27. Provider-Bry Webb
I literally only started listening to this album this week. Webb's voice is just so great. This is stark, heartfelt music of the highest order.
28. Go Tell Fire The Mountain-WU LYF
There was the mystery and the hype, but they lived up to it. I really enjoyed listening to this record. It was urgent, angry and full of fire and guts.
29. Departing-The Rural Alberta Advantage
Speaking of urgency, this album fairly rocketed along. If not quite as great as their debut it was still a hugely enjoyable slice of Canadian Indie rock.
30. The Rip Tide-Beirut
The buzz might have dissipated, but this album was sumptuous, smooth and utterly delightful.
31. Sun And Shade-Woods
One of my favourite bands delivered another slice of skewered pop.
32. In Loving Memory-The Paper Scissors
My favourite Australian album of the year. Raucous, fun and funky.
33. Diaper Island-Chad VanGaalen
A generous, spirited album of angular melodies and sounds.
34. Strange Hearts-Secret Cities
A band I have come to love. Charming and totally infectious.
35. Celebration,Florida-The Felice Brothers
The brothers returned with an eclectic chunk of rock and roll.
There was gold here, but some of this synth just got me down.
37. The King Is Dead-The Decemberists
A return to roots meant an album full of good times and smiles.
38. Believers-A. A. Bondy
Deliberate, soulful, slow. A serenade for hard times.
39. American Goldwing-Blitzen Trapper
Probably a bit overlooked, I found it an enjoyable ride.
40. We Can Take Care of Ourselves-Roadside Graves
For "Hank Williams" alone this was worth listening to.
41. Black Up-Shabazz Palaces
For what it's worth, the hip hop album of the year. Incendiary.
42. Keep Away The Dead-Siskiyou
A new discovery, this album was a total pleasure.
43. The Year Of Hibernation-Youth Lagoon
Quiet, reflective, contemplative. Look forward to seeing him in 2012.
44. Days-Real Estate
Not quite as good as the debut, but some glorious moments here.
45. Lonely Twin-Hospital Ships
Oddball, off kilter pop that tugs at the heart strings.
46. Parallax-Atlas Sound
Bradford Cox just keeps producing the goods.
47. I Want That You Are Always Happy-The Middle East
Sombre, dark and great. Pity they called it quits.
48. Tamer Animals-Other Lives
Another slice of great Americana.
49. New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges-Colin Stetson
Hard work in parts, but ultimately unique and rewarding.
50. Last Summer-Eleanor Friedberger
I love her voice. What more can I say!