Saturday, January 7, 2012

Best of 2011

This is a post attempting to sort and describe my 12 favourite albums released this year. This was extremely hard, because it’s been such an amazing year. Let’s just recap it, shall we? It started in royal fashion, with the January 14th release of The Decemberists’ The King is Dead, followed by The King of Limbs by Radiohead on February 18th. The indie vibe continued one month later with the release of The Strokes’ first album in 5 years, Angles, on the 18th of March. Amon Amarth also released their latest viking-metal epic, Surtur Rising, on March 29th. April was quieter, but only to make way for an amazing month of May (any reference to a 2010 Arcade Fire song is purely coincidental here), which saw If It Carries on Like This We’re Moving to Morecambe by The Fierce and The Dead on the 16th, 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everythingby Steve Lawson on the 18th, and finally Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie on the 31st. A few days later, on June 7th, we were blessed to receive the Arctic Monkeys’ latest masterpiece, Suck It and See, before Sounds of a Playground Fading came to us from In Flames on June 15th. It was a quiet summer, which allowed us to digest all these amazing albums and ready for the fall, which started with the September 26th release of Matt Stevens’ (supposedly) final “acoustic” album, Relic. October brought M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming on the 18th andJustice’s long-awaited, highly-anticipated second album, Audio, Video, Disco on the 24th to close out a year of truly awesome releases (and probably a host of others I never got a chance to discover).

So, here goes the ranking…

12. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys

I only recently got into Death Cab, but I enjoyed them enough to be excited for the release of their new record. My favourite of theirs was their latest album, Narrow Stairs (2008), so I naturally thought that I’d continue enjoying their slow but steady evolution as a band. And I did, but not as much as I thought I would. The problem is, I don’t think they evolved enough, so everything still sounds like Narrow Stairs - which is hardly a problem, but it’s just disappointing in a weird way. I expected something new and didn’t get it. Instead we got an amazing album from a great band which sounds just like their last amazing album.

11. In Flames - Sounds of a Playground Fading

In Flames has been going through quite a bit recently. 2008’s A Sense of Purpose had already signaled a strong departure from the melodic death-metal sound these guys had pioneered with fellow Gothenburg natives Dark Tranquillity. But last year they also permanently lost Jesper Strömblad, one of their guitarists and main creative forces. They got a solid replacement in Niclas Engelin (Gardenian, Passenger), but losing Jesper was still a big deal. Nevertheless, Björn Gelotte promised he would step into the creative gap left by Jesper and the band got to work.

Fast forward to June 15th of this year and we get to hear what they’ve come up with. From the opening title track, a few things immediately became clear. First, this was a logical evolution from the sound of ASoP. Second, Björn had done an amazing job as In Flames’ main creative guitar force. The signature IF melodeath sound was still there, manipulated like they’d done in ASoP but with different flavours - departures in style I credit to Björn. SoaPF is a much more rich and interesting album than ASoP, although it is modelled in the same way and based off the same general sound. As great an album as it is, however, it is not an In Flames masterpiece of the grandeur of 2002’sReroute to Remain. And somehow I get the sad feeling that those days are long gone… Yet SoaPF remains a splendid album by a band who keeps making solid, interesting, and daring records.

10. Amon Amarth - Surtur Rising

Amon Amarth is one of those bands who barely evolve, if at all, and yet keep making interesting albums you can’t stop listening to. This year’s release, Surtur Rising, is no exception. Although one can point out a few stylistic departures from 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God, it’s essentially the same brand of epic viking metal that these crazy Swedes have been making forever, it seems. It’s beautiful, it’s powerful, it’s epic, it’s full of doom and blood and guts and sweat and tears. Somehow, though, I think Surtur Rising is a touch better than Twilight of the Thunder God - it seems they’ve done a couple more interesting things, but that might just be me. It’s a great album and if you like Amon Amarth you should get it.

9. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

To me, M83 set the bar so incredibly high with 2008’sSaturdays=Youth that it would be almost impossible for their follow-up to be anywhere near as good. When they revealed it was going to be a double-album, however, I gave it some hope. And I’m glad I did, because I think Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is now my second-favourite M83, afterSaturdays=Youth, of course. It’s long, so you supporters of the 30-minute album can go buzz off somewhere while I talk about this. It’s like other M83 albums in that it’s a voyage through different atmospheres, but it’s fresh because they’re using some new sounds and new arrangements. M83 has always been able to create these albums that all have the same overall feel and sound but are all incredibly different somehow, and this album keeps that going. So if you could get through The Wall, then boldly pop this on and enjoy the ride.

8. Steve Lawson - 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything

I find everything about this album brilliant, from the cryptic title (think 11 tracks and “everything” < 3) to the content. So why isn’t it number 1 on this list? Because there are seven other albums I liked better… But this is truly a piece of genius. I’d downloaded some of Steve’s stuff before but hadn’t really gotten into it, but after listening through11RW3IGTE (that’s an amazing acronym - better than In Flames’!) I went on and rediscovered everything else. It’s solo bass stuff, looped and arranged and improvised and awesome. It’s for everyone from serious musos to people who just like chilled out background music. It should definitely be in your music library.

7. Matt Stevens - Relic

Matt Stevens is one of the first musicians who I saw harnessing the awesome power of the Internet and using it in ways I just thought were brilliant. This was around the time of his first album Echo, in or just after 2008. Not only was his social networking avant-garde to me, but so was his playing - looping himself and building these awesome instrumental tracks filled with sheer greatness. I followed his evolution throughGhost in 2010 and finally Relic this year, and saw as he started adding different instrumentations and more careful production. Relic is the amazing pinnacle of all this work, and although I think it’s his most creative album, I don’t think it’s my favourite. I seem to prefer Echo andGhost but there’s no denying that Relic is another work of genius and should be treated as such (by going and getting it, for example).

6. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

We’re getting to the part where it was really hard to separate these albums and give them an order. It pains me to see Radiohead’s latest gem “so far down” at number 6, but the truth is there are five other albums that I enjoyed more. Even though I think The King of Limbs is a brilliant continuation of Radiohead’s work on In Rainbows (2007) and should be in everyone’s music library. Even though I will argue passionately and endlessly with anyone who tries to say that Radiohead’s best material is behind them and that their new stuff is just “too weird”. Even though everything about this album is beautiful and simply phenomenal. I just wish there was a way to make “number 6” look way more badass.

5. The Fierce and The Dead - If It Carries on Like This We’re Moving to Morecambe

Matt Stevens shouldn’t be too disappointed that I didn’t like Relic as much as his earlier albums, because I certainly loved the full-length he finally put out with his band The Fierce and The Dead. (Warning: acronyms beyond Steve Lawson’s level are forthcoming.) TFATD came out last year with an EP and a single that whetted my appetite for their amazing instrumental rock sound and left me begging for a full length which 2011 finally delivered in the shape of IICOLTWMTM (see, I told you). This is some of the finest and weirdest instrumental rock around and I absolutely love. And you should absolutely have a listen.

4. The Strokes - Angles

Boy did we wait for this one. I discovered The Strokes a few years ago and didn’t go through the wait other fans did after 2006’s two-faced First Impressions of Earth (which has to be one of the most brilliant album titles ever - too bad only the first half is good), but the hype was still enormous surrounding the release of this year’s Angles. Then it finally dropped, and the Internet came alive - with disappointed fans. And I couldn’t understand. I’d been listening to Angles almost constantly after its release and I saw these fans complaining about “the sound” or how it “wasn’t as good as their old stuff” - and I just didn’t get it. Sure, it’s no game changer like Is This It was in 2001, and it doesn’t have the same sound as 2003’s Room on Fire, but Angles is one bloody amazing album. It’s interesting, polished yet raw, driving yet atmospheric, popular yet indie and still very much The Strokes. It’s not a “sellout” album, it’s an amazing work of music from a band that is showing us how great they still are and will (hopefully) continue to be.

3. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

What a way to open the year. Not even halfway through January, the wannabe-East Coasters from Portland release an absolutely outstanding album. Recorded in a barn, just to add to their image of being the original pure hipsters. But yeah, it’s so good, and so different. They’ve almost gone country, but it’s so refreshing and so still The Decemberists. It’s very acoustic, much more “back to their roots” than their first album even is, if that makes sense. A huge change from 2009’s epic concept album The Hazards of Love. Changes and evolutions always make me happy, as you may have noticed. So it started the year as my favourite and only got bumped down twice - once in June and once in October. It’s just that awesome.

2. Justice - Audio, Video, Disco

This is one for which I’ve actually waited, because I’ve been a Justice fan since their first album, , came out in 2007. Their concert at the Sound Academy in March 2008 was my first real “rock” style event, even though it was, y’know, electro. Whatever, it was awesome. And then we waited. A Cross the Universe dropped and we revisited  in a live setting, and hugely enjoyed the documentary. All the meanwhile, I grew disenchanted with the electronic music scene. House was doing alright - deadmau5 was absolutely killing it (in the best of ways) and I was discovering the older stuff (Jean-Michel Jarre, Laurent Garnier, St. Germain). But harsh, Justice-style electro was just full of wannabe Justice acts, copy-cats with little to no creativity and zero interest to me. I knew that whatever Justice were preparing would be amazingand would completely turn the electro world on its head. Again. And it did. Listening to Audio, Video, Disco completely blew me away. And it showed me how electro could be done in a completely new way. Again. Quite literally mind-blowing stuff.

1. Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See

Quite simply my favourite album of 2011. Partly because of the cheekiness (the title being a jab at everyone who complained about the “drastic” evolution in the band’s sound between 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare and 2006’s Humbug), but mostly because it’s a purely awesome evolution from Humbug. Everything the Arctic Monkeys have ever done well (which is, in my mind, quite a few things), is done better in this album. The interplay between the two guitars, the lyrics, the vocals, the interplay between the drums and bass, the dynamic range in the album - everything is simply beautiful and, well, ridiculously awesome. Phenomenal. Outstanding. Whatever. Make up words. This album deserves them.

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