We are oh so close to the end of this countdown, you can almost taste it. Today’s dishing out of my Top 50 Albums #20-11 makes for a rather enticing bunch. There’s a great variety of styles among this group, including and not limited to punk rock, soft rock, indie pop, psychedelia, electronica, 90s revival, and folk. I love this kind of diversity. You’ll see when we get there, the Top 10 are just as diverse. For now, please enjoy this particular segment of the countdown, and familiarize yourself with the rest of the family by following the links below:
And now, click past the jump to read my Top 50 Albums of 2011: #20-11!
20. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
There’s not nearly enough punk rock masterpieces these days. Few bands appear to have the creative drive to look beyond a handful of power chords and hooks towards something more challenging both aesthetically and thematically. Thankfully, Fucked Up are not one of those bands. When you make a heavy concept record like “David Comes to Life”, you run a huge risk of having everything turn out disastrous. One could argue that punk rock is a much more ideal format for the rock opera, given its expedient and noisy nature, we’re less inclined to care about hearing something truly innovative making it that much more of a surprise when we do. For Fucked Up, this record represents the culmination of years of hard work and development, and thankfully it appears to be entirely worth it. The sheer steps from conception through execution have been nothing short of smart, and the songs are both effortlessly catchy and raw while simultaneously having to deal with the heavy story content required. “Tommy”. “Zen Arcade”. “Double Nickels on the Dime”. These are some of the big and legendary records “David Comes ot Life” has to match up with, and in effect, it has.
19. Destroyer – Kaputt
There’s so much about “Kaputt” that absolutely screams corny, cheesy, out of style, and tacky. Pull some of the brass out of this record and you’ve got something much more new wave and on the righter/better side of 80s music. Take out all the synths and leave the brass, and you’ve got something severely soft rock/jazz that’s just about the worst sin you can commit to record (in my humble opinion). When placed together as they are on this album, the natural conclusion to draw is that it falls somewhere in between those two parallels. Instead, it’s a miracle of an achievement – one of those rare cases where two separate and unequal parts can combine to create something greater than either could hope or dream to accomplish separately. Really this record (and in many respects Bon Iver’s latest as well) should be viewed as the blueprint for how to take the horrible stigma out of the idea that soft rock is your “parents’ music”. It also works to Dan Bejar’s distinct advantage as well, pulling him out of his comfort zone a little and also allowing him to stretch out a bit more vocally. The addition of singer Sibel Thrasher to the Destroyer fold also brings a new balance to Destroyer, something to both assist and bounce off of Bejar. In all it’s one of Destroyer’s best to date, even as it skirts perilously close to becoming one of the most uncool records released in 2011.
18. Wilco – The Whole Love
Wilco are in a rut, or at least that’s what some would have you believe. Having finally solidified their lineup for a few years now, they’ve become too comfortable to venture far from the nest they’ve built. I’ll disagree about the use of the word “rut” or any synonyms of it to describe where Wilco is at presently, save to say I know “The Whole Love” isn’t the best or most creatively stimulating record from the band. Yet something compels me to proclaim it one of their best, and definitely the most consistently great since “A Ghost Is Born”. The album’s two bookends “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” are in many ways polar opposites of one another while also being brothers in arms. The former is 7 minutes of obtuse, experimental brilliance, the likes of which we haven’t heard from them in at least 6 or 7 years. The latter is a 12-minute acoustic groove that rolls along with warmth and grace even though it doesn’t really break from the pattern it starts with. Such is the dichotomy of this band though, and the journey of getting from one end of the album to the other is filled with so many great stops along the way. From the emotion of Jeff Tweedy’s voice and lyrics to the intense guitar work of Nels Cline and straight through the drum work of Glenn Kotche, “The Whole Love” is finally the Wilco record that feels like the band is a well-adjusted family and utilizing each of their talents to the fullest. They’re not lazy or bored or stuck, they’re simply optimizing.
17. Atlas Sound – Parallax
At what point is Bradford Cox going to stop surprising us? The guy’s a songwriting machine, cranking out record after record year after year, whether it’s with Deerhunter or on a solo jaunt via Atlas Sound. Each time something new comes out with his name attached, it features another new development or twist that proves his versatility and immense talent. Sometimes those developments are small, but each one always marks forward progression. In the case of “Parallax”, it’s the first Atlas Sound album to be fully cohesive from start to finish. Whereas his last record featured a few guest vocalists contributing to tracks that ultimately felt like one-offs, Cox is front and center for the entirety of “Parallax” and the result is a cohesion and flow that enriches the listening experience as a whole. Additionally, Cox is slowly starting to give into his own pop sensibilities, which helps make the songs that much easier on the ears. Bits like “Mona Lisa” and “Angel Is Broken” are attractive and catchy without disrupting the rather psychedelic flow of the rest of the record. Whether he wants the attention or not, Bradford Cox continues his streak of great records and his profile continues to rise along with them.
16. Givers – In Light
Here’s a record almost guaranteed to make very few year-end lists. That’s less a statement about its overall quality and more about how it’s been lost or forgotten come December. See, “In Light” is distinctly a summertime record. Okay, so it’s still great in cold weather, but above all else, happiness and fun is what it preaches. And preach it does. Givers are the happiest band I’ve ever heard on record. They even beat out Matt & Kim and those two are Happy with a capital H. Their energy, their pluck and their ability to craft perfect or near perfect indie pop songs slayed me earlier this year and I’ve been hooked ever since. This record is auditory candy to me, my soundtrack for going out with friends, for exceptionally sunny days, for times when I’m feeling a little down and need a pick-me-up. It’s only fitting the first song on their album and first single is called “Up, Up, Up”, because that’s how it makes me feel. But “In Light” is a sugar high from start to finish, with more highlights than I choose to name because it’s really most of the 10 tracks anyways. Still, “Saw You First” is a particularly special moment in my mind, the male-female harmonies and Paul Simon-esque guitar picking sticking in my head just a touch more than the rest. It may be tough to call Givers’ sound inventive or innovative, but they take everything in stride and with huge smiles on their faces. To borrow a phrase from Charlie Sheen, Givers truly are winning.
15. Real Estate – Days
As the last few months of the year have progressed, I’ve found myself listening to “Days” more and more. It’s become close to an addiction, and with good reason: there’s so much to love about it. As a follow-up to their also-great self-titled debut album, Real Estate sound more focused and solid than ever before. Sun-kissed nostalgia is what they do best, and much of the record is spent in a calming, blissful state that’s on the right side of relaxation. Put “Days” on as your soundtrack to laying down in an open field staring at the sky, or a trip to the beach, or a long car drive through the countryside. Really anything involving being lazy and observing nature, “Days” is perfect for. As the music drifts along in the most effortless way possible, it’s guitarist Matt Mondanile whose serpentine melodies give each song its own distinct life and character. More than a few of them even actually manage to have hooks sharp enough to stay with you. The opening trio of songs “Easy”, “Green Aisles” and “It’s Real” all manage to grab your ear and not let go, and mid-album slow jams like “Out of Tune” and “Municipality” keep that trend going in amazing ways. It’s going to be tough for them to sustain this same sound for many more albums without it becoming redundant, but for the time being it’s doing some great work helping this high strung writer relax just a little bit.
14. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
Oh no! The king is dead. Earlier in this countdown, I mentioned that I reserve the top spot on every year’s top albums countdown in case something new gets released from Radiohead or TV on the Radio. I wrote that back at number 39, under TV on the Radio’s “Nine Types of Light”. I couldn’t hand off the #1 album to them in good conscience, and here you’ll see I can’t do the same for Radiohead either. That’s a shame. I’ve long held a policy of never writing an official review of any Radiohead album, the reason why being that I study them to no end. I know enough about every Radiohead album to write separate 200 page books for each of them. I spent 2.5 years listening to “Kid A” at least once a day, every day. In some ways I’m still processing “In Rainbows”. I know I’m definitely still processing “The King of Limbs”, but when the year-end list time comes, you’ve got to figure out where/if it belongs. My official thoughts, in a mere couple of sentences, are as follows. Clearly this isn’t the band’s best album. I’m of the opinion they’ve never made a bad record (even “Pablo Honey” has its moments), and that “The King of Limbs” keeps that streak running. And while it isn’t as strong as most of their back catalogue, I do feel it is the record they wanted to make and needed to make. They needed to make it to shake things up, because they were close to becoming predictable. They needed to make it because if you examine all the evidence surrounding the band that was both musical and non-musical, they were headed in this direction anyways. Nothing’s really bad on this album, it’s just dark and extremely uncommercial/unconventional. It had the potential to be mindblowing, but didn’t quite make it. Ah well, there will be more Radiohead albums, and plenty more chances for them to reclaim their throne as the best working band today.
13. Yuck – Yuck
Of all the bands peddling their 90s revivalist sounds this past year, none hit me quite as hard as Yuck did with their self-titled debut album. After initially being introduced to the band through the grinding, extremely lengthy and heavy album closer “Rubber”, I was surprised to learn that the rest of the record doesn’t sound much like it. Instead, they’re far more inclined to pull a classic 90s Dinosaur Jr. with their energetic, snaking, fuzzed out guitar work on songs like “Holing Out” and “The Wall”, both of which are also delightfully scarring earworms to stay with you for awhile. Outside of those piercingly nostalgic romps, the band does ballads exceptionally well too. “Georgia” and “Suicide Policeman” are two of my personal favorites, breaking out acoustic guitars, male-female harmonies and airy melodies that contrast the more masculine riffage. Of the many classic bands that bear resemblance to Yuck, few were able to channel both the grittier side of the genre and then back it up with something lighter and more beautiful. Kudos to these charming Englishmen (and woman) for knowing their strengths and playing directly to them, diverse as they might be. Their versatility is definitely going to keep them around for quite some time.
12. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer
Is it bad that I almost don’t want The Fiery Furnaces to continue releasing albums? I only ask because of how much I fell in love with Eleanor Friedberger’s solo debut “Last Summer”. To me, it takes all my favorite things about the Furnaces (aka everything Eleanor does) and distills them down into one record. Well, that’s also a pretty idiotic thing to say, given that “Blueberry Boat” was one of my favorite albums last decade. Matthew Friedberger’s experimental proclivities are interesting most of the time, but they also had the tendency to be remarkably difficult and ruin whatever good pop song mojo the band might otherwise have had going for them. Without him, Eleanor excels in the pop realm with clean, 70s-styled melodies about her adventures across New York in the summer of 2010. There’s the super catchy, bouncy pop of “My Mistakes”, the organ funk of “Roosevelt Island”, the psychedelic echoes of “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, and the pounding, lighthearted piano blast of “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight”, all of which contribute to a near-flawless 10 tracks. Only “Glitter Gold Year” peels some of the shine off this album, certainly proving that all that glitters is in fact not gold. Still, for everyone (including me) that wished The Fiery Furnaces would stop teasing classic pop sounds instead of simply diving right into them, this is wish fulfillment at its best and brightest.
11. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Nobody’s doubting how impressive Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album was. It earned the top spot on many a year-end list in 2008, though not quite mine (they finished second next to TV on the Radio). I’ve listened to that record a good 100+ times by now, and still love every minute of it. From “White Winter Hymnal” to “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Your Protector”, there are highlights galore to command your attention. Naturally, a follow-up would be eagerly anticipated, and “Helplessness Blues” largely delivered on the prospect of “more of the same”. The awkward turn came as the band attempted to expand their sound, sharply increasing the number and variety of instruments used on the album, as if they were trying to for baroque (pun intended). In many ways they succeeded, and the gorgeous, lush sonic landscapes of “Montezuma” and “The Shrine/An Argument” are proof positive of that. Why this isn’t once again towering over almost all other records in 2011 is because “Helplessness Blues” is not the most pop-friendly or memorable album in the world. Outside of the title track, “Grown Ocean” and maybe “Battery Kinzie”, hooks are hard to come by, as are more traditional song structures. All credit to the band for wanting to expand their sound and lyrics, but the end product is a small disappointment. Mind you, that only equates to this album sitting just on the outskirts of my Top 10 of the year.
TOMORROW: My Top 50 Albums of 2011 #10-1!