Top 20 Albums of 2011

As I was reviewing all of my new music purchases from 2011, working up my “Best Of” list for the year, it occured to me that 2011 is the 20th consecutive year that I have publicly offered such a year-end list for reader scrutiny, either on commercial websites, or for various print publications, or as a member of a couple of different blog communities. Before I lay out my 2011 list for your perusal, therefore, I thought I would share my “Album of the Year” winners for the past two decades, just for grins and giggles. There are a couple of years where, with 20/20 hindsight, I’m not quite sure exactly what I was thinking when I made these choices, but I own ’em and embrace ’em, for better or worse, occassional lapses in taste be damned. You may look at this list and decide that you don’t really care what I liked most in 2011. I’d understand and respect that.

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
1995: Björk, Post
1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
2001: Björk, Vespertine
2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
2003: Wire, Send
2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
2011: To be determined . . . below . . .

Okay, so with that as preamble and teaser, let’s move on to 2011, which was a very, very good year for challenging new music, by any measure. There are some years when picking my Album of the Year is really quite easy, since one disc so dominates the competition that there’s not a lot of thought required come December. This wasn’t one of those years, though, as I found myself looking, on first cut, at a list of six outstanding albums that had seperated themselves from the pack over the course of the past twelve months, and really being challenged to decide which one of those six deserved Album of the Year honors. It took some re-listens, some research, and some reflection, but when all was said and done, I feel good about making the following selection . . .

2011 ALBUM OF THE YEAR: W BY PLANNINGTOROCK

Planningtorock is the stage name of Janine Rostron, an Englishwoman currently living and working in Berlin. Her music is richly arranged, merging organic and electronic elements, and she heavily processes/treats/masks both her voice and her physical appearance to create a compellingly angrogynous, mysterious musical character. She writes abstract, yet evocative, lyrics, and as weird as much of her music is, you can pretty much tap your feet or shake your hips to all of it. It’s brain music that speaks to your pelvis, if you know what I mean. My first exposure to Planningtorock was the video for her song “Doorway,” which instantly became a playlist staple for every member of my family. The rest of W (the album) is just as exceptional, and it’s a rare day when I don’t find myself turning up the (iPod) stereo to listen to at least one of Rostron’s challenging and exciting songs. Here’s a link to the “Doorway” video that first lured me in, and ultimately led me to honor Rostron as the creator of my 2011 Album of the Year. This album is terrific, and I hope you find it as haunting and engaging as I did on first play . . . and still do today!

So what about those other five albums that were in the woulda-coulda zone, rubbing shoulders with Planningtorock as I culled the list down to the best of the best? Here they are in alphabetical order:

2011 HONORABLE MENTIONS

Death Grips, Exmilitary: This is one of the most original, harrowing, bracing, and blistering Hip Hop albums I’ve heard in many, many years. The recording is hot, hot, hot (needles in the red, speakers shred, exploding head), and the rhymes and beats are just absolutely brutal. “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated)” deconstructs Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” in unimaginable, but utterly mesmerizing, fashion, and it stands as the centerpiece of a truly revolutionary and radical album.

Future Islands, On The Water: Had this album come out earlier in the year, so that I could have lived with it longer, I think it would have been Planningtorock’s strongest competition. This Baltimore (by way of East Carolina University) three-piece provide insight into what might have happened had Tom Jones once fronted Cocteau Twins. It’s almost disturbing the first time you hear it, but once the initial shock wears off, it’s one of the most soulful and tasty things you’re likely to experience in this, or any other, year.

Krallice, Diotima: Massive orchestral black metal from New York, with huge, long songs evoking Glenn Branca, Steve Reich and Rhys Chatham just as much as they invoke Burzum, Emperor and Dimmu Borgir. The most amazing thing about this album is how relatively accessible it is: if you can handle a Richard Wagner “Ring Cycle” opera, then you can handle this . . . so long as you are able to adjust your expectations to recognize that now the opera isn’t over until The Cookie Monster sings.

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy: Like Planningtorock, St. Vincent is the nom de rock of an exceptionally talented female solo artist, in this case American Annie Clark. In her third outing under the St. Vincent moniker, Clark offers an utterly riveting collection of super-compelling melodies, all spiced with some truly deranged arrangements. Best of the best: the synth solo in “Northern Lights” is, I kid you not, the most outstanding piece of spazzy electronics since Eno’s seminal solo on Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.” It must be heard to be believed, which actually describes a lot of this album.

White Denim, D: Austin, Texas’ White Denim are one of those outrageously talented bands (like, say, Ween) who can perform any style of music they chose to perform, as well as it can possibly be performed. Their latest album, D, finds them expanding from a three-piece to a quartet, and there’s some sort of exponential mathematical thing occurring here, since a 33% increase in staffing results in a 333% increase in the depth, breadth, and vision inherent in the music. White Denim’s music evokes that old joke about the weather in flaky climate places like Albany (or Des Moines): if you don’t like it right now, sit tight, and it will change to something else that you will like, soon enough. It’ll be worth the wait, honest. This is a great record that covers a lot of ground.

Alright, so there are six particularly great albums down, and here are the remaining 14 discs (also great) of my 2011 Top 20 . . .

2011: THE BEST OF THE REST

Cheeseburger, Another Big Night Down the Drain: Big AC/DC-styled riffs merged with snotty, Noo Yawk, Ramones-like vocals about drinking, girls, and drinking and girls. Stoopit, in the best possible sense of the word.

F*cked Up, David Comes To Life: I hate this Canadian hardcore band’s name (which I have censored here), but their four-part concept album is incredibly well-written, performed and produced, with a depth of melodic creativity and instrumental arrangement (three guitarists!) that you rarely encounter in the hardcore world. (And I say this as a long-time fan of hardcore). Bonus props to F*cked Up for releasing what I consider to be the music video of the year: “Queen of Hearts.”

Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow: As always, Buckingham delivers thrilling finger-picked guitar, terrific melodies, and sweetly sung, richly-layered vocals. It’s a shame he has to hang out with Stevie Nicks to get people to pay the attention to him that he should garner on his own.

The Fall, Ersatz GB: For the first time in their three-decade plus career, a single line-up of Mark E. Smith’s morphing Fall group has managed to issue three albums in a row with no personnel changes. The result is a raggedy gem, with Smith’s incomprehensible slurs and snarls mixed front and center, where they belong, atop a stew of tight riffs, wonky synths, and wildly processed guitars.

Hooray for Earth, True Loves: Big synth-based fun, with killer hooks atop phat pads, sort of a Human League for the digital era, minus the distracting female singers.

I’m From Barcelona, Forever Today: I’m not normally a fan of collective groups that list everybody who picks up a triangle or makes some toast as a member of the band, but this 29-member Swedish ensemble deliver some heavenly sweet music, including some instant singalong classics, so I will forgive them for having a member whose credited contributions are “heart and soul.” But just this once . . .

Pete and the Pirates, One Thousand Pictures: Fantastic Brit-Pop that sounds nothing like Oasis, or Blur, or Pulp, except for the thick accent in which these catchy gems are delivered. And that would be a British accent, and these are, for the most part, pop songs. Hence Brit-Pop. Shutup, pedants. This is a great album from a really promising young band, regardless of what you label it, and it’s a big step up from their already outstanding debut album, so I predict ever greater things for these guys.

Primordial, Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand: Ronnie James Dio is fighting dragons in heaven now, but if any band is poised to step into his place in the histrionic, over-the-top metal lyrical department, then it is Ireland’s Primordial. The group offers killer metal riffage, with cool Celtic filagree, and some of the most metal lyrics imaginable in a post-Dio world. Like here, check this, from “Death of the Gods:” “We stood on the shoulders of giants, like Atlas with the burden of faith / We clasped our hands in praise of a conqueror’s right to tyranny /This is a language that has not passed our lips in one thousand years.” And the whole album is filled with stuff like that. Can you get any more metal?

Real Estate, Days: A sweet and sunny sophomore disc from the New Jersey quintet, washed in reverb, drenched in dub-space, perfect for an afternoon on the beach with your Sugar Doodle, or for snuggling up in front of the fire, wishing that it was beach weather. Mmmm . . . smooth . . .

Red Hot Chili Peppers, I’m With You: Yeah, they’re one of those bands that everybody loves to hate on (especially singer Anthony Kiedis), but this disc finds the Chili Peppers tossing aside the overwrought over-reaching of the unlikable and unlistenable (to me) Stadium Arcadium, cutting things back to the groove-based rock and pop that’s always defined their best work. While I generally like John Frusciante, I think all parties benefited from him leaving the Peppers and letting his associate, Josh Klinghoffer, take the six-string reigns. Klinghoffer doesn’t try to turn them into the Beatles (as Frusciante seemed intent on doing), but rather lets the ace Chad Smith and Flea rhythm section do its thing, then adds tasty decorations atop their potent sonic substrates. “Brendan’s Death Song” is the best thing they’ve done since BloodSugarSexMagic days.

Shabazz Palaces, Black Up: In a year without Deaths Grips’ Exmilitary in it (see above), this weird and woozy underground hip hop disc could have been a contender for rap-related album of the year, but missing that high mark doesn’t make it any less rewarding or enjoyable. If the flow sounds familiar, it’s probably because MC/Producer Palaceer Lazaro was once known as Butterfly of Digable Planets, who once achieved a level of commercial success that this record’s not likely to match, though it most certainly should based on the quality of the music offered here.

Sin Fang, Summer Echoes: Another engaging, endearing side project disc from Sindri Már Sigfússon of Iceland’s Seabear. A nice bookend companion piece to Real Estate, perfect for snuggling with your Sugar Doodle in front of the fireplace, or for spending an afternoon on the beach, wishing it was fireplace season. Mmmmm . . . smooth . . .

Wire, Red Barked Tree: The second full-length from the three-piece incarnation of Wire retains the group’s signature blend of monophonic, monorhythmic dugga-beats and fractured melodies that somehow often manage to coalesce into instantly memorable ear-worms. Graham Lewis outdoes himself on this album with fantastic vocal performances on “Please Take” and “Bad Worn Thing”), while Colin Newman’s featured numbers offer all the bite and snap that you usually expect from him, supplemented by a few surprisingly sweet and wistful moments as well. It’s a good year when both The Fall and Wire are on the Top Album chart, both of them carrying the torch for post-punk in ways that none of their peers or successors will ever be able.

Yes, Fly From Here: A reunion, of sorts, of the Yes lineup that recorded Drama in 1980, only with vocalist Trevor Horn moving to the producer-songwriter-backing vocals chair, and newcomer (and former Yes tribute band member) Benoît David taking over lead vocal duties. The first side of the album is a long-scrapped suite by Horn and former-Buggle mate Geoff Downes from Drama days, while the second side includes a collection of unrelated songs from guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and Horn/Downes. This should have been a trainwreck, but it actually turns out to be the best Yes album since, well, Drama. If you’re an unreformed ’70s prog junkie, then you owe it to yourself to give this one a chance. Even if your friends make fun of you for doing so. Which they will. And then they will steal your lunch money. But it will be worth it. Honest.

31 thoughts on “Top 20 Albums of 2011

  1. Totally with you on Krallice, Yes, and Effed Up (The Chemistry of Common Life is the best modern hardcore album not produced in Pittsburgh, IMO). Time to go check out Planningtorock…

    (my album of 2011 so far: the first CD-R from Torso, a heinous, scummy, disgusting local act who will blow your head off. Runner-up: Veins, one of $lOwhead’s three(!) 2011 releases…)

    • Hey Goat!

      Off to investigate Torso . . . anything with the words “heinous,” “scummy,” and “disgusting” being applicable is generally A-OK with me.

      Is there any new XTerminal material in 2011???

      • I can’t believe it took the entire Cleveland noise scene eighteen goddamn years to come up with an act called Torso. I am embarrassed for us all.

        I haven’t seen it online yet, but the top dog behind it is Joey Leyva from Arsonist’s Prayer/Plague Mother, a bunch of whose stuff can be downloaded from his label’s site:

        http://atavistictransformations.blogspot.com/

        …which also contains the announcement of (what the hell?) the only XTerminal release that came out in 2011, Yield. I’ve got three more that were SUPPOSED to show up this year (a C3[!!] on Atavistic [with 11 tracks!]), a C32 on Hermitage Tapes, and a split with Plague Mother on Live Bait Recording Foundation for which BOTH Joey and I have forgotten to get artwork to Stephen for four bloody months).

        But I ALSO have a bunch of completed/almost-completed stuff in the hopper, so if any Albany/Troy/Saratoga-area labels are looking for stuff to put out…

      • [You know what, though? A LOT of established bands I really, really love put out albums in 2011… and the only one I can listen to is Butch Walker’s. Within Temptation, Enter the Haggis, Sol Invictus, etc. etc. etc….)

  2. Loved loved loved LOVED the Krallice and F*cked Up albums this year. St. Vincent and Real Estate, on the other hand, nearly put me into comas. I’m still trying to get what everyone else is getting, and all it’s getting me thus far is nowhere but frustrated.

    I’ll be posting my faves next week.

    • BTW: understandable about F*cked Up’s name (sorry, should’ve probably censored it). It kept me away from them for a long time until I heard an interview with them. I was like “wait, these guys aren’t annoying assholes. They’re actually really likable, fun-loving guys. What gives?”

    • I had the coma reaction the first time I heard the first Real Estate album . . . then fell in love with a couple of songs when they popped up in Shuffle mode on the iPod, so I gave the whole disc another shake, and it started working for me. It’s definitely dreamy/shoe-gazey . . . but it works for me, for some reason.

      I LOVED the first St. Vincent album, found the second one to be dull, but am wild about this new one. I always like people who are willing to present pretty melodies with viciously noisy arrangements, and there are several songs on this new disc that hit it out of the park in that regard. She’s quite a good guitar player, too . . . I’ve actually heard her compared to Robert Fripp (one of my guitar and life heroes), and I’d buy that comparison, based on a couple of the solos on the new album.

      • Egads, I have a lot of catching up to do. Of all those, I’ve only heard Krallice and St. Vincent in their entirety. Cheeseburger sounds like it is right up my alley, though (Honkey Toast, anyone?).

        I’m with you on St. Vincent — love albums one and three, but two left me cold. And she, in fact, is a phenomenal guitarist — my first exposure to her was a performance on Austin City Limits that stopped my in my tracks. It was not unlike the first time I saw PJ Harvey’s video for “Rid of Me” – it was impossible to look away it was so arresting.

  3. LOL — I am 2 months over 50, oh no! Does that mean I am old? I have only heard of a handful of this list even going back 20 years. However: JES may not have hit the big 5-0 yet but he isn’t exactly a sprout either (no offense). So me thinks there is another explanation besides age…

    • Yeah, I’m eye-balling 50 soon, too, and if that’s old . . . then I’m already shacking up with an Old Lady (who would banish me to the couch if I ever called her that!)

      So, yeah, it’s probably less an issue of age than it is an issue that I haven’t actually ever bothered to grow up, musically speaking . . . I get as excited about finding today’s new music as I did when I was a mere sprout, grooving to Steppenwolf and Funkadelic well before I’d broached my 10th birthday, no doubt boring friends and family alike trying to explain what was great about them . . . I think my social consciousness was actually awakened by Steppenwolf’s “Monster” . . .

      Come to think of it, my very first real paying job was as a teen reporter for the Mitchel Field (Long Island) base newspaper (even though I wasn’t technically a teen yet, at 12, when I started) . . . I was eventually fired for doing arcane music reviews instead of covering the teen scene on the base . . .

      So I’ve always been like this, in short!!

  4. It is not about age. It is about making it a priority to find and listen to new music. You are either up for it or you are not. As long as you don’t take the position that any music produced after you graduated from college is not as good as the old stuff you continue to listen to, all is fine.

    P.S. I think you did just call me an Old Lady. Ouch!

    • >It is about making it a priority to find and listen to new music.As long as you don’t take the position that any music produced after you graduated from college is not as good as the old stuff you continue to listen to, all is fine. <

      I think it helps to be one of those people who looks back on what you listened to in college and say "WTF was I thinking?" That would be me…

    • I never graduated from college; therefore, I must keep listening to new music. That said, crank up Neil Young’s paean to going downtown, off of the classic 1976 Tonight’s the Night…I defy anyone of any age to find a better “Let’s get wild” song of any era. But I don’t get these radio stations that play nothing but that era’s music whose receptionists take offence when I call and ask them if they think Ford will beat Carter.

      And I’m older than old. No worries for you.

  5. As Eric can attest (because he programs it) my iPod playlist is about 30% old music from the ’70s and 80’s. My favorites (in no particular order) are The Who, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Neil Young. He keeps it fresh though by adding the new music that he thinks I will like or I have heard on the family iPod and commented on.

    Please excuse any suggested elitism. I used graduation from college as the benchmark because most people I know will continue listening to new music until their mid-20’s at least. It is probably more of a function though of attending parties and going out to bars then being in college.

    • Oh, hell, Marcia, I’m as elitist as they come! Getting thrown out of college three weeks before graduation is a badge of honor in this mediocre society.

  6. I’ll have to take a listen to the new Yes: I always thought “Drama” was a unique and fairly satisfying detour in the band’s career, allowing Chris Squire’s pop instincts to cut through the keyboard flourishes of Rick Wakeman and the impenetrable lyrics of Jon Anderson.

    • This is prog heresy, I know, but I really DO NOT like Rick Wakeman . . . my favorite Yes albums are “The Yes Album” (Tony Kaye on keyboards), “Relayer” (Patrick Moraz), and “Drama” (Geoff Downes). I think “Drama” has really held up exceptionally well over the years. To me, the magic of Yes occurs when Steve Howe and Chris Squire play and sing together (the Yes vocal sound is as much a function of the two of them singing harmony as it is whoever is handling the high bits) . . . I find the second half (non-suite) side of this album to be absolutely magnificent, and the first-half suite has its high points, too, though it does drag on a bit. Cutting it up on the iPod actually helps make it more listenable!

      • I went and bought it. Capsule review: If you liked “Drama” (I did) then you will like “Fly From Here” (I do. A lot.)

        I don’t share your dislike of Rick Wakeman: he did a good job on “Fragile” and did some really nice session work back in the day. (His keyboards, especially organ, are all over Al Stewart’s “Past Present and Future.” And I suspect you probably don’t love Al Stewart, either… (My love of that particular record has to do with a certain young lady of my acquaintance back in the mid seventies.)

        • I actually like Al Stewart . . . and Wakeman as a session hand is (to me) always much better than Wakeman with Yes, since the latter tended to result in “how fast can I play how many keyboards while evoking how many classiscal themes?” moments . . .

          • Unfortunately true about Wakeman. I saw the band a few years back on what I think was their last tour with him and Jon Anderson. They seemed to me to be just going through the motions. I checked out a YouTube video this afternoon from the band’s tour this fall in Europe, and Squire and Howe seemed to be having a lot more fun this time out.

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