Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorite Albums of 2011

10. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Quite similar to their first album (self-titled), Helplessness Blues is full of those washy vocals, catchy melodies, and quick-pickin' classical guitars. The four-part harmonies echo all over this album as if it was recorded at the top of a mountain. I think this album is more "mature" than the first in the sense that it isn't as childlike and happy-go-lucky; but rather the songs are complex and dynamic, ranging from somber solo vocals to giant, harmonious choruses. If this is your first visit with Fleet Foxes, try out Lorelai.

Favorite Tracks: Bedouin Dress, Helplessness Blues, Lorelai

9. Junior Boys - It's All True

The Hamilton duo released yet another fun album back in June, just in time for summer dance parties and cruisin' - and let me tell you, I did a lot of both. If you have a guilty pleasure for cheesy synth pop then Junior Boys is a must. It's All True is chalk full of they Boys' standard beat-chopping and synth loops. They have an incredible knack for cutting tempo into half-time and then speeding up in double time. This album is also one of the Boys' best produced records; if you listen you ought to do so on high quality speakers so you can notice the panning and layering. I think the Boys' strength is up-beat dance tracks rather than slow ballads and I wish this album had a few more of the former. If this is your first visit with J.B. then I recommend you begin with the first track, Itchy Fingers.

Favorite Tracks: Banana Ripple, Itchy Fingers, You'll Improve Me

8. Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!

Finally this summer the remix superstars put out a full-length album. For the most part everything that Holy Ghost! touches turns to gold (just YoutTube "Holy Ghost! remix"). And the same made be said about almost every song on this 10-track album. From the no-nonsense opener, Do It Again, to the instant dance classics like Jam for Jerry and Wait and See, this album was in heavy rotation in my home, car, and on the dance floor. The album contains some of the catchiest chord progressions and melody lines; if these songs were stripped down to their core you would find well written structure underneath (e.g. Wait and See, Jam for Jerry). If this is your first visit with Holy Ghost! then check out Wait and See.

Favorite Tracks: Jam for Jerry, Hold My Breath, Wait and See

7. Black Keys - El Camino

Where has rock n' roll gone? The Black Keys, that's where. And it didn't take long for this December 6th release to make my top ten favorites. In a cacophony of pop crap, the Keys are keeping rock n' roll alive. Their consistent guitar riffage and straight-beat drummin' is the heart and soul of the Akron-based duo. Though this album is a bit more poppy and produced than their older stuff, it is still grungy and raw. Not only are the guitar tones dirty but the vox are, as usual, distorted and punchy. As a follow up to Brothers, El Camino is a welcomed continuation of the stylings that we heard on Brothers. Ultimately, this is the kind of music that makes you want to buy an El Camino and cruise around. If this is your first visit to the Black Keys then check out the initial track on El Camino called Lonely Boy.

Favorite Tracks: Lonely Boy, Dead Gone, Stop Stop

6. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire

For a guy who puts out an album a year Ryan Adams isn't cutting back on quality. I'd like to know which god he stuck a deal with because this southern songwriter can't seem to write a bad song. Ashes & Fire is the closest that Adams has come to his debut album Heartbreaker. The songs are (for the most part) solo - just Adams and his guitar and they range from bluesy (Dirty Rain) to Dylan-esque country (Ashes & Fire) to light, adult-contemporary (Come Home). I have to admit that I didn't like the album at first but after a couple listens I was hooked. The album is subtle and simple but that is its charm and beauty. The lyrics on "Lucky Now" are phenomenal as Adams reflects on growing older. If this is your first visit with Ryan Adams then try out Lucky Now and see if you want a second taste.

Favorite Tracks: Come Home, Lucky Now, Chains of Love

5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

If Smashing Pumpkins and The Killers had a baby it would be The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It's about time that a band recovered some of the 90's bass-driven sound that fueled that alt-grunge scene for years. But The Pains are a contemporary spinoff, implementing synth and electronic drums over top the grungy guitar and bass. If you ask me, their sound is a welcome reflection on my 90's era favorites. The vocals are eerily Corgan-esque, as are the guitar tones (remember the Q-tron effect, all you guitar nerds?). The third track "Belong" is a blatant Pumpkins rip-off but, if it means more of that 90's sound, rip away. This is really just a solid rock-pop album. Every song is accessible and full of energy. If this is your first visit to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart then have a listen to Heart in Your Heartbreak.

Favorite Tracks: Heart in Your Heartbreak, The Body, Anne with an E

4. The Good Lovelies - Let the Rain Fall

I first encountered this female trio at an intimate house show in Philadelphia and I have been smitten ever since. The Good Lovelies are good all-around songwriters and Let It Rain contains a variety of solid folk songs, ranging from upbeat bluegrass to slow love songs. But what stands out above anything else is the indescribable sound of their voices. When I hear these three women sing together I hear something more, something clearer and more real that touches deep down in my soul. They each have distinct voices that are beautiful when they take turns at solo vocals. But when they blend together in harmony I swear something phenomenal happens. Songs like "Best I Know" and "Mrs. T" will have you melting. If this is your first visit with the Lovelies I recommend listening to Old Highway.

Favorite Tracks: Mrs. T, Home, Every Little Thing

3. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

This album is simply incredible. Bon Iver blends together acoustic and electric instruments as good as anyone I've heard since Radiohead. Take, for example, the second song "Minnesota, WI" - underneath the entire song is an acoustic guitar/banjo picking and distant saxophones; but layered atop are synths and altered vocals. The sounds on this album are just simply beautiful. It's been a while since I've heard an album with the diversity of instruments as this. The album flows together into one masterpiece and I highly recommend listening from beginning to end in one session. The attention to detail is masterful as every song has tiny, minute sounds entering in for seconds-long cameos. This is an album that demands some attention but it is hard not to enjoy. If this is your first visit with Bon Iver, try Holocene.

Favorite Tracks: Calgary, Towers, Holocene

2. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

I have already written a bit about this magnificent album. But it deserves repeating that m83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is one of my favorite albums of 2011. Like Bon Iver, it deserves to be listened to in one take. Like most of M83's stuff, it is a concept album and it therefore contains songs that are purposeful movements to carry the story along. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is a nostalgic reflection on what it was like to be a child: dreaming, playing, imagining - especially in the 80's. The songs capture much of what it felt like to be a child and I find it difficult not to exhibit a cheerful smile as I listen. This album also utilizes an incredibly vast array of instruments; so much so that you might find yourself thinking 'Did I just hear what I think I heard?' on certain songs. The album's first single, "Midnight City," quickly became one of the hottest songs of 2011. If this is your fist visit with M83, try out Ok Pal or Midnight City.

Favorite Tracks: Intro/Midnight City, Wait, Steve McQueen

1. Feist - Metals

This is my favorite album of 2011. Leslie Feist is an incredibly gifted songwriter and this album only further demonstrates her gift. Unlike her previous albums, Metals has a bold edge that tells me Feist was pushing the boundaries on this one. The songs have unpredictable structures and incredibly complex arrangements sometimes played by strings and sometimes brass. Some songs like 'How Come You Never Go There' even explore unconventional time signatures. The guitar work, which is simple as usual, is perfectly placed with just the right amount of clarity and dirty tones. The album has an array of noise and extra sounds sneaking around: things like digital drum pulses, rattling metal, and random human-made noises (footsteps, handclaps, and breathing). Lyrically this, in my opinion, Feist's best work as she ventures into more obscure and poetic lyrics (e.g. Caught a Long Wind) rather than singing about obvious love experiences and personal relationships. While the album has a bit of an awkward flow, each song stands alone as simply a great song. If this is your first visit with Feist, please do yourself a favor and listen to Comfort Me.

Favorite Tracks: How Come You Never Go There, Caught a Long Wind, The Circle Married the Line

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