in Top Ten

John’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

Musically speaking 2011 was a peculiar year for myself as most of the albums I liked were released in such a short period of time. I was basically good up until June and then uninterested in most of everything I heard afterwards. As usual I delved into the pool of new artists proclaimed good by various magazines near the end of year but I didn’t discover much that that really struck a chord with me (also as usual). Overall I have mixed feelings about 2011 but I’m still happy with this list, enjoy.

10. The Black Keys – El Camino

The Black Keys just barely nab a spot for continuing to evolve and move forward with their most ambitious album to date. I still think I need some more time to let it permeate in my brain and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been distracted by their ever increasing popularity. What I do know about El Camino is that it’s production and instrumentation is big, beautiful, and calls back to some of the best retro sounds of the 60s and 70s.

9. Foster the People – Torches

Watching bands rise to the mainstream always carries a hint of sadness for myself so I was hesitant about getting into Foster after they hit it big with the catchy “Pumped up Kicks”. A few songs steer towards a kind of pop that isn’t necessarily “My Thang” but for the most part there’s some very melodic material here. I only hope the mainstream attention and performances with Kenny G on SNL doesn’t get to their heads.

8. The Strokes – Angles

I feel like there was so much excitement for this record and then when it finally did get released all that just fizzled out. I don’t know what the critics consensus was but I haven’t seen it on any end-of-the-year lists. Whatever the matter I’m still of the opinion that this is some of the group’s best material in awhile. Though it seems clear that The Strokes will never again reach the levels of Is This It? it’s still interesting to see how they continue to tweak their trademark sound. Angles has a bit of an 80s vibe to it as the band delivers a sound that’s expansive and yet tighter than ever. The songs here are more complex than what we’ve heard in the past but still catchy, I’m glad they’re back.

7. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

As usual Radiohead succeeds at tapping into the unusual with the unpredictable genre mish mash that is The King of Limbs. Though tinkering around with laptops and tape loops seem to be more prevalent than ever I wouldn’t necessarily call this an electronic album, it’s just Radiohead. The songs are all distinctive in their own quirky ways, most notably the lead single “Lotus Flower” that was only made better with it’s music video that has become one of the weirdest memes I’ve ever seen. I still tend to gravitate towards the more guitar band based Radiohead on tracks like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and my favorite odd ball “Little By Little” but even those seem to inhabit their own little worlds.

6. Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some

Peter Bjorn and John have played with so many different sounds on their last couple of albums that it was a nice change of pace to see them go back to basics. I can’t imagine how they could of played most of the material on their last two albums live but now my mind can be put at ease with this very straightforward yet still very Peter Bjorn and John sounding rock album. This easily accessible collection of garage rockers goes down smooth with a mix of both punky and radio friendly tunes. “Second Chance” in particular is a standout for being the song that may have finally dethroned “Young Folks” as the group’s most successful and/or well known song. I’m always intrigued when these guys experiment with various genres and instruments but it’s nice to get an album like this every once in awhile too.

5. Cage the Elephant – Thank You Happy Birthday

Here’s a surprise, a band I previously had absolutely no interest in releases an album I really like. No longer the poor man’s Jack White sounding band I previously dismissed them as. Cage the Elephant has evolved into more of Pixies/Punk inspired band on their second album and I welcome the change. Thank You Happy Birthday has a gritty garage rock feel with an exciting energy that can only come from a young band. “Aberdeen” is still my favorite song of 2011 and has not lost any of it’s impact even after multiple listenings. There’s just something about that particular song that I find very emotionally affecting and not just because of it’s melancholy music video featuring a sad claymation dragon. Cage has earned my respect let’s just see if they can hold on to it with whatever direction they go in next.

4. The Decemberists – The King is Dead

If there is one album on this list that I’d recommend as a must listen right at this moment it would be this one, which wouldn’t be an easy task. The King is Dead isn’t the most accessible album and The Decemberists aren’t the most exciting group but there’s so much passion here. The Decemberists have such a beautiful Indie Folk style that’s only been made better on their sixth album with some welcomed hints of bluegrass. There’s also accordions, banjos, harmonicas, cellos, all played to a tee by this talented group of multi-instrumentalists. Of course everyone has their role but it’s still frontman Colin Meloy with his quavering vocals and clever lyrical wordplay that draws the most attention. Guest musician Gillian Welch adds some well blended backing vocals on seven of the album’s ten tracks and R.E.M’s Peter Buck stops by for some pitch perfect guitar and mandolin performances, including the very R.E.M. sounding single “Down By the Water”. In terms of folk music this album throws in the hole folky kitchen sink but never loses any of it’s sincerity, I wish I could rate it higher.

3. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

Death Cab has simply established a winning formula. Their signature sound is damn near irresistible to any fan of alternative rock and they’re yet to show any signs of diminishing creativity. Codes and Keys doesn’t give us much that we didn’t already hear on Narrow Stairs, keyboards being the exception, but it’s still effortlessly cool with an almost calming mood to it. “You Are a Tourist” is an immediate Death Cab classic and the title track may be my favorite Death Cab ballad ever conceived. We should be very proud of our boys from Bellingham.

2. My Morning Jacket – Circuital

What I love about MMJ aside from the fact that they MF’N rock beyond all belief is how unpredictable they are. I’m still not sure what to make of Circuital. Stylistically it’s a little bit country, it’s a little bit rock and roll, and it’s a little bit space arena rock. James is still an amazingly unique rock figure but one should not overlook the amazingly proficient musicianship that continues to compliment his soaring vocals. MMJ sounds like no one else and continues to fearlessly explore new rock waters with each release. It’s funny that the albums I really like are usually the ones I have the least to say about I suppose the music just speaks for itself.

1. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

From the opening Shaman-like monologue by Denny Brewer I knew this would be an album that would stay with me. Each song is its own little story tied together by an eclectic collection of instruments and talented people. This was my introduction to Bright Eyes and right away I could see why so many before me have been drawn to the powerful songwriting and presence of Connor Oberst. Though all intellectual themes and messages aside this also happens to be a great rock record. The songs on The People’s Key range from somber and brooding to perfectly pleasing upbeat pop. It’s amazing how well this album gels together considering how much is really going on and hey, it taught me all about secret-lizard-people, thanks Bright Eyes and thank you 2011.

Honorable Mention
Yuck – Yuck
Metronomy – The English Riviera
Wilco – The Whole Love