Top Ten Albums of 2011 (Plus Four More)

I’m a little bit late, but I’ve been away from my library for the better part of a month and have only now gotten a chance to sit down with all of my music and really make a decision about what I determined to be the “best” of 2011. Generally, I’m against list-making of this sort, because taste is so ridiculously subjective, and I would never be so arrogant as to claim that these are actually the best that the music world had to offer this year. Frankly, I haven’t even had a chance to catch everything that I wanted to catch, so this list is – and will always be – incomplete. That being said, it’s almost the end of January, and I really can’t stretch this out any longer. So, here it is: my ten fourteen favorite albums of the last year, in no particular order.

(Yes, there are fourteen albums. They’re the ones I thought merited mention the most for one reason or another, and while I found that ten would be too difficult – I’m lazy, I know – I found that there weren’t twenty or even fifteen albums that I thought shared the level of quality as the albums here.)

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Neverending White Lights — Act III: Love Will Ruin, Pt. I

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Daniel Victor’s much-delayed third entry in his musical experiment that includes as many guest vocalists as can possibly be herded into a single LP marks a bit of a departure for the artist, for several reasons. Firstly, this is first entry in the series that features Victor’s own vocals on half of the songs – up from less than a third on his previous offering, ACT II: THE BLOOD AND THE LIFE ETERNAL. Secondly, this is a double album, the latter part of which will be released sometime during 2012.

Though I still prefer his sophomore effort to this recent release, there is much to praise here: Victor’s tireless and admirable dedication to performing every single instrument himself is still intact here, and there is a wide variety of them to choose from. The album is a much more focused entry than his admittedly meandering debut, though this is to be expected when the album has essentially been cut in half. Still, at a running time of only (only!) fifty minutes, it puts the other albums astronomical runtimes to shame (78 and 70 minutes, respectively) and makes for a more concise listen.

Guest vocalists (including Todd Clark of Pilot Speed and Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat) are all on the top of their game, but this is Victor’s chance to shine – his vocals are more varied and in control here, and it’s nice to hear him slowly abandon the gimmicky (albeit fascinating and original) nature of the project and simply embrace his own musical genius.

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Eye Empire — Moment of Impact

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It’s sort of rewarding to see this long-lost descendent of the Wind-Up Scene grow and thrive; it’s almost like discovering one of the bands that the individual members all come from all over again. And as great as it is to hear the band evolve from their Dark New Day roots into something more notably original, what makes this band truly noteworthy is the fact that it makes Donald Carpenter relevant again in a way that he hasn’t been in a long time.

As one of the best frontmen to come out of the Scene, Carpenter has been controlling audiences in front of me since I was a freshman in high school, and he’s no less powerful and commanding here. If anything, he’s grown in stature in the years since Submersed, and with a darker toned band behind him he really gets a chance to show off his range. Gone is the falsetto juxtaposition that so defined him in his early years, replaced with a dark growl that could only be hinted at previously.

The riffs are tight, the rhythms powerful and the hooks unsurprisingly grand in scale. Though a touch rough around the edges, this release is a notable step up from the previous, independent version of MOMENT OF IMPACT, and I expect they’re only going to keep getting better.

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Incubus — If Not Now, When?

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An excerpt from my earlier review of the album:

“It’s an excellent album that showcases the band’s versatility, even if you miss the energy of previous offerings or prefer a more outrageous performance from rhythm section Ben Kenney and José Pasillas than the subdued one they give here. It balances the band’s eclectic side – which was certainly becoming overripe by the time MORNING VIEW hit – and the commercial appeal of more recent records into something entirely new. What is interesting about the album is that despite its avoidance of anything resembling the musical absurdity of earlier albums, it achieves nothing within the realm of “mainstream”. While many unhappy fans may descry the album as “pop”, it is nothing of the sort; with a few notable exceptions – such as follow-up single and album standout, “Promises, Promises” – IF NOT NOW, WHEN? is noticeably devoid of the massive hooks that make an Incubus record what it is. This is a restrained and subdued batch of songs that is sure to be endlessly divisive among fans, calling back to mind the question of who, if anybody, this record is for; if the answer does not lie somewhere in the realm of the open-minded listener, then it must fall squarely on the shoulders of a maturing group of talented musicians that grew weary of screaming when a whisper will suffice.”

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Twin Atlantic — Free

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This album surprised me quite a bit, keeping in mind the eclectic nature of this band’s debut, VIVARIUM, which was something of a hit-or-miss offering – I was in love with about half of the songs, while I found the rest deeply forgettable. This may have had something to do with the quirky idiosyncrasies that I’m sure to some made the band what they were, but they kept me at arm’s reach, disassociating the music and becoming almost self-aware in their emotional disconnect.

Almost all of that is gone on their follow-up, FREE, and it’s for the better. Though Twin Atlantic’s frontman Sam McTrusty still has a frighteningly unique sense of melody, he’s managed to rein himself in just enough here to deliver miraculous hook after miraculous hook without compromising any of the things that make him special – including the almost ridiculously apparent Scottish accent that permeates his vocals.

The band bring their A-game, too, maintaining their strange sense of timing and all-over-the-map riffage. The stylization is just varied enough to keep the record interesting for its forty-six-minute runtime, though it may have benefitted from a few hard cuts late in the game. Still, it’s a sonically unique contribution to this year’s rock output.

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Yellowcard — When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes

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After a three year hiatus and five since their latest studio offering, Yellowcard returns with their most concise, consistent album to date. This is pop-punk at its finest, and at a brisk 37 minutes the band get in and get out almost before you realize they were there, leaving us only to wonder whether they ever left at all. This album -which was followed up later in the year with an appropriately all-acoustic rendition of the LP from top to bottom – gives pop-punkers exactly what they need: high-tempo slabs of power chords with massive choruses and a few melodramatically overwhelming ballads to round it all out. With some of the most memorable tracks the band has produced since their debut, it’s a nice return to their original sound after a few bloated (but nonetheless creatively fascinating) detours.

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Dark New Day — Hail Mary

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Another long-delayed release, the aforementioned VICIOUS THINKING (now-titled HAIL MARY) finally sees an official release despite the fact that the band doesn’t really exist anymore. Coupled alongside an album of b-sides – not to mention the oddly-timed release of another album, the upcoming NEW TRADITION – Dark New Day might just be the most prolific band that doesn’t actually exist anymore.

This album suffers from one thing: its track-listing. Despite what some shuffle-heads might think, track ordering is one of the most important elements of an album, and this proves it: the track list that the band officially released makes this a much less interesting album than the one that was originally leaked. Sacrilegious as it might be, I’ve manually re-ordered the tracks to the original listing for digital purposes, as the album is vastly superior in that form.

What’s interesting about this album is the way that it almost entirely abandons the abstract sound of the band’s debut, TWELVE YEAR SILENCE, in favor of a balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll album and, for the most part, it really works – there are some genuinely fierce chest-pounders among the dozen tracks, as well as some nearly poppy hooks that are almost too sparkly for the dark, dour instrumentation and lyricism. But that’s what makes the album so interesting: Hestla’s massive vocals move the tracks from sinister to communal in a single line, never pausing to let you think about the juxtaposition.

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Evaline — Woven Material

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Here’s an interesting, obscure album. Leaning almost towards prog-rock in their expansive arrangements, Evaline doesn’t seem to give a shit about the difference between a seven-minute crescendo of an opener, an under-three-minutes rock ‘n’ roller and a pop-rock hook-fest; they’re all here, and they’re all smothered under a blanket of atmospheric, experimental noise. Admittedly, at nearly an hour the album is a tough pill to swallow and makes for a significantly heady listen. There is so much going on here that the heaviness and spacial intensity is almost overwhelming, and it can be – this album is anything but light, almost demanding attention. It’s worth the full sit-through for that phenomenal closer, though – “All In My Mind” is one of the best tracks of the year.

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Explosions in the Sky — Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

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Explosions in the Sky have been trying to top their pivotal THE EARTH IS NOT A COLD DEAD PLACE for almost a decade now, and I think it’s become something of a moot point. A new Explosions album is something to celebrate – especially seeing as this one is their first in almost five years – and whether or not it stacks up to their seminal work is irrelevant; this is a spectacular album, through-and-through. They are one of the cornerstone bands of the post-rock movement, and nobody does bombastic beauty like Explosions.

TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE marks a new turn for Explosions: it’s the first time they use vocal sampling – as minute as it is – in a track, the wonderful and surprisingly short “Trembling Hands”. It’s something I’d like to see the band delve further into on subsequence offerings, as it adds a whole new sonic layering to the band’s distinctive sound, almost giving them a whole new palette to play with. And although the band has dabbled in spoken-word contributions to their tracks once or twice on THOSE WHO TELL THE TRUTH, it’s nice to see them using the voice as another inarticulable instrument.

But a new Explosions album is exactly what you’d expect it to be: another 45 minutes of pure, musical bliss, with all of the highs and lows falling neatly into place just as they’re supposed to. TAKE CARE is no different.

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Foo Fighters — Wasting Light

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There are simply no bad songs on this album. It’s eleven tracks of pure, perfect rock ‘n’ roll, delivered in proper analog fashion right to the ears of music enthusiasts everywhere. What’s truly wonderful about this album is how simple it is; more than that, however, it’s how easy Dave Grohl and co. make it seem. There is an elegance to how sincere and earnest this batch of tracks is. They haven’t been over-thought, they haven’t been overproduced, they simplyare, and that’s a wonderful and rare thing.

It may lack the diversity and creative experimentation of the under-rated ECHOES, SILENCE, PATIENCE AND GRACE, but it never sets out to be what that album is. In fact, it sets out to be the exact opposite of that album and it succeeds in heroic fashion, carving and conquering a niche on the completely other side of the rock spectrum and proving that you don’t need to go “artsy” to be real.

This is real.

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Childish Gambino — Camp

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There aren’t other albums like CAMP. There just aren’t. Regardless of who Glover is when he’s not in the studio or on the stage, this is a remarkable album. The sheer audacity of the lyricism should be marvelled at by every word-slinger that speaks the English language. There are so many references, puns and allusions that it’s nearly impossibly to pick them all up, even if you spent the time to study them. Glover doesn’t just give Kanye and Pete Wentz a run for their money when it comes to remediated lyrics, he takes them to school and shows them that they weren’t even playing the same game as he was.

This album has it all: standard hip-hop with the female hooks, catchy beats, dramatic ballads, a dipped-toe into dub-step and even a closing monologue that could only come from a writer and actor of Glover’s caliber. It runs maybe a song or two too long, but it’s hard to argue with the results when they’re this damn good. His voice is unique, his flow is varied and he’s even got the chops to sing his own hooks when he feels like it. Dramatic, powerful stuff.

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Family Force 5 — III

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Another excerpt from a previous review:

“III is not a mash-up on a song-to-song basis; III is a mash-up on an album-wide basis. And in that way, III is something of an album-oriented release: an LP whose strength lies in its context amidst not only the rest of the tracks on the album, but the rest of the tracks in the group’s catalogue. The low-key stomp of rave-esque track “Tank Top” would not be a tenth as effective as it is if it were not immediately followed by the beautifully polished ode to ’90s boy-band pop, “Not Alone”. The juxtaposition between genres now takes place on a song-to-song basis, rather than on a verse-to-verse basis. This is a band that does every genre, and does every genre well: from hardened hip-hop to soaring pop, back through dub-step and out again through punk-rock, the band has no boundaries. No limitations. They don’t need them.

III is not the sound of Family Force 5 completely abandoning their roots, throwing in the towel and going mainstream. III is the sound of Family Force 5 coming to terms with what philosophically makes the band tick and then filtering it through a variety of genres. Because, let’s face it; rock ‘n’ roll has never been enough for this group of musicians. They want it all, and III is the album where they finally take it. Just because they actually play their instruments doesn’t mean they can’t write a glaringly gangster hip-hop track.

Get on outta here.”

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Taking Back Sunday — Taking Back Sunday

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After nearly a decade, Taking Back Sunday reforms to their original lineup, releasing a self-titled disc in the process. And it might just be the best thing that’s ever been recorded under the moniker, regardless of the artists involved and rivalling even that of their timeless debut, TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS.

The range on this album is particularly surprising, and it seems to pull from across the band’s entire catalogue, even if the original members weren’t always involved. There are blistering tracks that sonically pull from their Long Branch brethren Brand New, there are punk-rock scorchers that recall their early days and there are soaring power ballads that have become a staple of the group throughout their many varied lineups.

But there are new sounds, too, and bringing Nolan back into the fold is the best thing that could have ever happened to this group. Lazzarra and Nolan have never sounded better together, and they don’t even skip a beat bringing everything back around, sounding somehow simultaneously like both their younger selves and men who have matured and grown over a decade.

The hooks are huge, the musicianship is genuine and the passion and intensity is tangible. These boys are happy to be back together, and you can feel it in every note.

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The Parlor Mob — Dogs

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A few new faces hailing from Red Bank, New Jersey make their triumphant breakthrough with DOGS, and it feels perfect. Balancing Rush-meets-Jack-White vocals with contemporary-classic rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation, The Parlor Mob should be huge, and I feel like they might be in the near future. They deserve to be, anyway. There’s a diversity on this album that is rare on an album of this sort, even on the Foo Fighters’ excellent bid for rock LP of the year, WASTING LIGHT: one moment they’re flying by the seat of their pants with high-tempo riffs and blistering solos, the next they’re tearing everything down for back-to-back ballads. It’s nice to see a band that’s not afraid to take out the acoustic for a third of their album and somehow still manage to feel like they’re bringing the intensity and rock.

And for that reason, DOGS never becomes dull. There’s no time for it to get dull. On an album like WASTING LIGHT, you eventually realize that you’re getting slab after slab of tight rock, whereas here you’re never really sure what’s coming. And at only 42 minutes, the briskness is noticeable – you start the album, and before you know it, it’s over. And somehow, you still find yourself humming along to every single song on the album – these tracks are memorable, they’re distinct, and the album is of the perfect length to make sure you never get a chance to forget a second of it. This is a band to watch.

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Greek Fire — Deux Ex Machina

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Greek Fire, the offshoot of Story of the Year, finally releases their debut album in the form of DEUX EX MACHINA, and it’s stunning. It’s incredible how much of this album works flawlessly: everything from its short running time (37 minutes and eight tracks) to the gloriously and seemingly effortlessly tight musicianship. There is a ton of diversity here for such an impressively short amount of time, and the band members really get to flex their chops; acoustics, furiously tempo’d riffs and even sonic, effects experimentation.

But what’s really remarkable is how good Sneed sounds on vocals. No matter how many times fans have wondered aloud what it would be like to hear him take the mic center-stage instead of backing up Dan Marsala, I don’t think anybody was really prepared for how impressive his range is, his knack for lyricism and his melodic articulation. No matter the tempo, his voice falls right in line and manages to rein everything in under his control.

Phillips’ guitar-work is impeccable, as always, but it’s the bass that truly stands out: not only is it a pleasant surprise to find it so high in the mix, but it’s also a pleasant surprise to find that the bass lines are unique, complimentary and distinct. Everything about this band is working together in perfect harmony, and it’s something that’s rare and spectacular to behold. I expect big things to keep coming from these guys.

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d.a. garabedian

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