As 2011 draws to a close, it’s time to look back at the year in music. Below is my list of Top Ten albums for the year; following that is some commentary about good albums that didn’t quite make it, and bands I’m going to be looking at closely in 2012!
As always, remember that this list is about complete albums and not individual songs. Yes, there may be songs out there from 2011 that I liked better than anything on this list… but, as a whole, the following ten albums are my favorite of the year!
#10: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
M83 is a band I always wanted to like. Why not? They’re all French and sophisticated, doing their own special brand of electronic shoegaze. But I’ve never met an album of theirs I liked all the way through… until now. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. is a delight from start to finish. And I’m happy for them! The music of M83 (named after spiral galaxy Messier 83) has been featured in dozens of films, TV shows and video games; I’m glad to see them put out an excellent product.
#9: Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
Julianna Barwick is an American musician who was born in Louisiana and grew up singing in church choirs before moving to (where else?) Brooklyn. It’s kind of hard to pin down her exact sound. To me, she certainly sounds a bit like Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins singing over the late 70s\early 80s ambient work of Brian Eno or Harold Budd. But it’s not that simple. There’s certainly some Björk, Enya and maybe even some Danielle Dax thrown in for good measure. In spite of all the comparisons, I think she has a totally unique sound that’s both ethereal and otherwordly. It sounds like something 4AD would have put out in 1984… and I mean that as the highest possible compliment! On the negative side, Elizabeth Frazer\Enya singing over very mellow Eno\Budd isn’t something you can throw on at a party or on a whim. But that’s cool. Different is good sometimes.
#8: Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Swedish musician Lykke Li (real name: Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson) has been an indie favorite ever since her tune “Little Bit” hit the scene in 2007. But her second album, Wounded Rhymes, just hit it out of the damn park. Like Björk, Li has a tendency to kind of go all over the place with her music, a trait that was held in check better by this disc. And I don’t know why, but I just love this woman’s lyrics: cold, dark, and sometimes just plain clever. “Like a shotgun needs an outcome” is my favorite line for all of 2011.
#7: The Lollipops – Hold!
I liked The Jesus and Mary Chain as much as the next guy back in the 80s. Sure, they sounded cool, and they had a few hits on the alternative charts back in the day… but that was about it. Or so I thought. It seems like almost every band I listen to these days could be described as “a mix of [one band] and The Jesus and Mary Chain”. Who knew they’d be so influential? Which brings me to The Lollipops, a band from Olsztyn, Poland. Imagine taking bubble-gum pop from the 50s and 60s and adding a nice helping of JMC-style guitars. They’re a really fun band, and this is a great disc for getting ready to go out. This music makes me feel young again, like the teenage hipster I once was!
#6: White Lies – Ritual
You know how you sometimes just don’t get in to a band until you see them live? Such was the case with London-based White Lies. I wanted to see Asobi Seksu at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta back in May, as they (Seksu) opened for White Lies. I’d heard of White Lies at the time, and actually owned this album already. So it seemed like it would be a good show. And it was! The band puts out some great “indie-dance” music, and the influences from Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Teardrop Explodes are unmistakable. I almost forgot to include this album in the Top Ten list, because I listened to it so much over the summer that I’m almost sick of it. And that says a lot coming from me.
#5: Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams
If The Lollipops sound like 50s pop meets Jesus and Mary Chain, then give the Dum Dum Girls credit for starting the whole craze. Founded in Los Angeles in 2008, this all-girl band counts The Ronettes, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Ramones, Patti Smith and Mazzy Star as influences, and you can tell. It took a while for me to really get in to this album: the songs that would be singles in the old days are just incredible, but the rest of it takes a while to warm to. But then, I’m like that. Sadly, however, this is one of those albums that kind of all runs together after a while. If you’ve heard one Dum Dum Girls song, you’ve kind of heard them all. However, when they’re on, they’re on.
#4: Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer
I’ve liked Ladytron for some time now (like I wouldn’t like a band named after a Roxy Music song?) But I’ve never been a fan of their albums. Sure, “Seventeen” was a great song, and “Flicking Your Switch” was pretty good, too. But can you name any other tracks from Light & Magic? For a while it seemed like Ladytron would go down like David Bowie, an artist who (in my book) has made some incredible singles, but painfully few good albums. My fears were largely abated with this – in my opinion, the most solid Ladytron disc by far. Sure, there are songs on this disc I’m not crazy about, but I don’t think there’s a single “clunker” on the whole disc. Bravo, Ladytron!
#3: Asobi Seksu – Fluorescence
The Cocteau Twins were one of my favorite bands as a teen, but over time their sound changed from their unique, indecipherable, otherworldly music to much more conventional pop. It was kind of the opposite of the Beatles: the Cocteau Twins started off with Sgt. Peppers and ended up with “Love Me Do”. And I worry the same thing might happen with Asobi Seksu. Their 2004 album Citrus is probably my favorite album of the 2000s. But the band seem to be ditching their synthpop roots to focus more on screaming guitars. I’d be hard pressed to describe Citrus in just a few words, but Fluorescence can be easily summed up as “Cocteau Twins meets Jesus and Mary Chain” (there’s JMC again!). Now this isn’t totally a bad thing. Bands do evolve after all, and with the exception of the Ramones, I can’t think of any band that sounded exactly the same on every album. And it’s not like Fluorescence is a bad record by any means. “Trails”, “Perfectly Crystal”, “In My Head” and “Pink Light” are all totally awesome tunes (as is the odd little instrumental “Deep Weird Sleep”). I just worry that the next Seksu album might be something that I won’t like. But, in the meantime, I’ll enjoy Fluorescence for what it is. It’s not Citrus, but no other album could be. Also, props to the band (or their record label) for getting Vaughn Oliver, the British graphic designer who designed most album covers for 4AD in their 80s heyday, to do the album art for this disc. It’s brilliant!
#2: Washed Out – Within and Without
For reasons I don’t fully understand, the indie press loves Washed Out, which is actually a guy from Perry, Georgia named Ernest Greene. And Washed Out seems to be the hands-down Internet champion of homemade YouTube fan videos. At least, I didn’t fully understand it until I heard this album. It’s a rare disc that I fall in love with instantly, and boy, did this album hit me like a ton of bricks! I once read somewhere online that Washed Out sounds like “an early OMD demo tape that was dipped in Vaseline, and someone stayed up all night long trying to recreate that sound”. That’s not entirely accurate, but it contains a fair amount of truth to it, too. Sure, the music is delicious 80s electro-pop come back from the dead, but there’s just… something about Washed Out that I just love, love, love, something without definition. I think Washed Out reminds me of a time when my life could have been like something out of an Urban Outfitters catalog (and I sincerely mean that as a compliment). But the music doesn’t make me melancholy – it’s like a celebration of all the joy and heartbreak of being young. And it’s all simply amazing.
#1: The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
Could it have been anything else? As surprising as it is for me, a lifelong Steelers fan, to like anything with “Raven” in the name, this album simply blew me away. There’s not a bad track on it, and The Raveonettes (the first band from Denmark to ever make any of my lists!) mix the best of 50s and 60s pop rock with great walls of Jesus and Mary Chain guitar noise (yes, it’s JMC again!). The band also fills the void left by The Cardigans for European bands which sound nice and poppy, but whose lyrics sound closer to The Velevet Underground than ABBA or The Supremes. This is a dark band, and a dark record. Murder, sex, suicide, drugs, lust and betrayal are just a few topics the band touch on, and in such a glorious way. There have been songs released by other artists this year that I liked much more than any single song on this disc. But as an album, Raven in the Grave beats anything released by anyone else this year, except perhaps Within and Without. I’ve known this was going to be album of the year since it was released in April. And so it is. If you don’t own this disc, head over the iTunes immediately and buy it. Seriously. Stop reading this and click here. This album is too good to be believed.
ODDS AND SODS
– Just in case you’ve forgotten, I put Duran Duran’s All You Need is Now on last year’s list. It was kind of confusing because the band released the slightly shorter “iTunes version” on December 21 last year, but the physical disc wasn’t released in the US on March 22, 2011. I didn’t want to “double dip”, so I left it off this year’s list.
– New Wave giants The Cars and Blondie released new albums in 2011: Move Like This and Panic of Girls, respectively. They both have some good songs on them, but neither one struck me as a good album, which is what this list is about. However, if you want to hit up iTunes for The Cars’ “Sad Song” and for Blondie’s “Mother” you might be pleasantly surprised at how good they are!
– This year’s “Swing and a Miss” Award goes to The Human League for their album Credo. It’s not an awful album, but like last year’s OMD album History of Modern, sometimes it’s best for some 80s bands to remain in the 80s. Oh, and Kim Wilde released an album this August, Snapshots, which featured her covering Erasure, Suede, Kirsty MacColl, The Buzzcocks, David Bowie and others. I didn’t… hate it, but boy I don’t think I’ll be listening to that one again.
– How sad that R.E.M.’s swag song would be Collapse Into Now. Sure, it’s better than Accelerate and Around the Sun, but it’s still pretty damn awful. I stopped listening to them after Green, so I realize I’m not a good judge of this. But it’s still sad to think of the band going out with a whimper like this.
– Too bad I don’t have a “Top EPs” list. Because, if so, Class Actress would win that one hands down. Lead singer Elizabeth Harper was originally a folk artist who ditched her sound for electro-pop. The result is Journal of Ardency, an EP which some say sounds like early Depeche Mode or New Order if Madonna sang for them. I find this to be wildly inaccurate, as Harper sounds nothing like Madonna. She’s much more… breathy (is that a word?), more like Sarah Cracknell than Madonna. But whatever, “Careful What You Say” was my song of the year… even if this disc was actually released in 2010.
– Beach Fossils, I have my eye on you! Their 2011 album What a Pleasure just barely missed the Top 10 list, which is a shame. The band makes happy, jangly indie pop that reminds me of something I’d play on a road trip to the beach. I like your tunes, boys… keep it up!
– Have my music tastes expanded, or is Brooklyn losing its luster? This year’s Top 10 list “only” includes two Brooklyn acts (three if you include Beach Fossils). On the other hand, this might be only year that the Top 10 had a French act, a Swedish act, a Polish act, two British acts, a Danish act, and a band from South Georgia!
– Nice to see Cake back with Showroom of Compassion, their first album of new material since 2004.
– Other good bands\albums worth keeping an eye on in the future: Mates of State (Mountaintops), Chapel Club (Palace), Collapse Under The Empire (Shoulders & Giants), Library Voices (Summer of Lust), The Wombats (This Modern Glitch).