The year that seemed to never end is finally over. That means it's time to roundup the best albums of the year. This year was surprisingly easy to pick the top 20 albums. There was a huge difference between these records and the other hundred or so albums I heard this year. There is also quite a big difference between 1-10 and 11-20. What I'm trying to say is that there were fewer albums that really wowed me this year than in years past. There were also less new bands that impressed me, with only two making this list. Perhaps I'm just getting older and more set in my ways. Either way, these albums were great and made the year worthwhile in music. Feel free to leave comments disagreeing with me...just keep in mind that there are still quite a few albums released in 2011 that I have yet to hear. Each album contains my review from earlier blog posts. Enjoy.
1. o'death - outside: The fourth album by the pioneering New York gothic folk outfit was one of my most anticipated albums of this year. Easily one of my favorite bands to emerge in the last five years, their previous albums all rank highly on my list of albums of the last decade. It only makes sense that this is hands-down the best album I've heard this year. Shifting slightly away from the death-folk harshness of their previous album, the band finds a something of a beautiful calm on this one. It's almost as if the last album, Broken Hymns, Limbs & Skin was an act of violent death and this album is the peace found afterward. Truly brilliant.
2. Uncle Acid & the deadbeats - Blood Lust: Heavy 70's prog metal music reigns throughout. Pounding swing drums, blistering guitar, and a singer that's absolutely phenomenal. From the first song when they sing, "I get my kicks from tortury and screams," I dare anyone not to take notice of the madness going on in this record. Easily near the top of my list for favorite albums of the year. These guys are from the UK and have a previous album released last year called Vol 1. A review of that album to follow soon.
3. Sivert Hoyem - Long Slow Distance: The new solo album from the singer of Madrugada is his first since 2009's Moon Landing. This is easily his best solo album since his first, 2004's Ladies and Gentlemen. It's also one of his best ever records, solo or otherwise. This is closest to Madrugada's masterpiece The Nightly Disease. The mood is dark and brilliant, something akin to the soundtrack of a mild nightmare. This has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year. Exceptional tracks include "Warm Inside," "Animal Child," "Red on Maroon," and "Blown Away." This is a must have album, period.
4. Tom Waits - Bad As Me: The devilish howler's first studio album in ages, and first non-live album since 2006's outstanding three disc collection Orphans, this record has naturally received a lot of attention since its release late last month. Despite hearing the rave reviews, I went into it a bit skeptical. Artists that have been around as long as Tom, and who are as worshipped as him, tend to get undue praise when they do anything new. I worried that would be the case here, but how wrong I was. From the opening to the ending, this album is phenomenal. Musically and lyrically, it is what Tom has always done best, creating nightmarish tunes accompanied by his irresistible growl. Easily one of the albums on my short-list for best of the year.
5. The Decemberists - Long Live the King: This six song EP, released this week, is a companion to the Portland band's album The King Is Dead, released earlier this year. Like the full-length album, these songs continue the band's country rock phase, hearkening back to early to mid-70s California movement. There's even an amazing cover of the Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy," a classic of the genre. "Sonnet" feels a little like a song that could have been on Five Songs, the band's first release, a sound of theirs I've missed. There are no weak songs on here and it once again affirms this is a band still at its peak. I've been listening to this non-stop this week and love it more with every listen.
6. The Bevis Frond - The Leaving of London: Nick Saloman has been releasing quality psychedelic indie rock records as The Bevis Frond since 1986. I own many of them, and they are all quite excellent. This is his first album since 2004 and is definitely worth the wait. With 18 tracks, spanning an hour and twenty minutes of great music. The formula hasn't changed much since the late '90s...driving guitars, piano melodies, and a wonderfully interesting voice singing songs representing a sense of disenchantment with the world. I've been listening to this a lot over the past two weeks and it's quickly becoming one of my favorites of the year.
7. Wilco - The Whole Love: The pioneer Chicago americana indie band is back with their first album since 2009's self-titled and it's their best since 2007's Sky Blue Sky. Every song on here is good and the album is bookended with two longer masterpieces. Incorporating strings and plenty of acoustic guitar, this album is simply beautiful and a perfect autumn pick. Stand out tracks include "Black Moon", a throwback tune to their earlier days "Dawned on Me," and "One Sunday Morning."
8. Alex Turner - Submarine: These six songs, recorded as part of a soundtrack for a film of the same title, show a side of the Arctic Monkeys and Last Shadow Puppets front man that is rarely heard on the recordings of those bands. Accompanied mainly by acoustic guitar and piano, these tracks are softer than the hard edged early Monkeys material, or their grander recent work. The result is a pretty wonderful little album by one of the best songwriters of the past 10 years.
9. Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: I immediately knew there were some songs on here that were brilliant and among his best (Rabbits Will Run, Your Fake Name...) but I wasn't feeling the others. After months of listening to my three favorite songs that made it onto iPod and loving them, I dug the album back out and have been listening to the whole thing pretty much every day this past week. The songs I wasn't sure about still aren't as good as the ones I was, but they are certainly better than I first gave them credit for. If this keeps up, this might end up on my year end list. Another lesson in why albums need more than one chance.
10. The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love: What started as a NYC dance punk outfit with 1999's Mirror had morphed into a more psychedelic sound by 2003's Echoes and more new wave by their last album 2006's Pieces of the People We Love. The five years off have certainly been spent wisely. This album sees the perfect combination of the greatness of Echoes with best bits of Pieces. It's still an alternative dance sound, but extremely well done. This has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the summer.
11. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far: The new album by one of my favorite bands of the last few years, this has certainly been on my highly anticipated list. However, two disappointing singles from the album over the winter kind left me feeling nervous. Thankfully, the singles were a bit of a fluke, and even those songs work much better in the context of the album. While it doesn't stray far from the folkish indie rock sound, it is certainly different from their last album, 2008's The Stand-Ins. This feels like more of a spiritual record to me. "The Valley" could be one of their best songs ever.
12. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing: Released in March, this the Toronto indie band's second album, following 2008's wonderful Hometowns. I really like the way this band captures the howl of the plains in an unexpected way. It isn't haunting the way in which that feeling is usually captured, instead it kind of kicks and fights against it. This reminds me a bit of a modern Eleventh Dream Day's Praire School Freakout.
13. Moonface - Organ Music: Moonface is basically just a Spencer Krug solo project (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes). The EP put out under the Moonfacename was one of my favorite EPs of last year. It was just one 20-minute song, but it was fantastic. This is a full album of five songs, all over 7-minutes long, which keeps the feel of the EP. These are definitely story songs, told in Spencer's wonderful Neil Young-esquehowl and experimental instrumentation. Of all Spencer's other projects, the Moonfacetracks remind me most of early Sunset Rubdown in structure, but with later day Wolf Parade soundscapes. The combination is excellent, like most everything he does.
14. Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O: This 2011 album from a band born from the ashes of Norway's My Midnight Creeps and Madrugada has been one of my favorites of the year so far. It has a similar moody rock sound to those previous bands, but incorporates some prog elements and horns that really bring it to another level. Not to mention it has one of the best covers in year.
15. Low - C'mon with Acoustic EP: Another album, though it came out in April, that I kind of missed. I've been a fan of this Minnesota slowcore band ever since I heard their version of "Down by the River" with the Dirty Three in my friend's apartment in Queens, circa 2001. Their blend of indie spiritual songs played sometimes at a such a slow pace that you feel the tension between notes is addictive. This is one of their best albums in a few years, and the bonus acoustic EP, with versions of half the songs included, makes it spectacular. "Witches" is one of the best songs they've ever done in my opinion. Great stuff this. Great stuff.
16. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake: After finally hearing this album in its entirety, it's easy to see why it's currently the highest rated album of this year on Rate Your Music. Harvey has continued to reinvent herself and evolve over her career. The trek has lead to this stellar alternative folkish album about England. It incorporates many different genres in an effortless cohesion of moody songs. Not my absolute favorite album of the year, but certainly high on the list.
17. Portugal. The Man - In the Mountain in the Cloud: Over the past few years, this neo-psychedelic outfit has become one of my favorite bands of all time, delivering amazing album after amazing album. Released this week, this new album continues the trend. Though I find it almost indistinguishable from their last two efforts The Majestic Majesty and American Ghetto, that's quite okay with me because those are wonderful albums. More psychedelic indie rock with falsetto beauty swirling all around.
18. Man Man - Life Fantastic: One of the more interesting bands of the last decade, this Philly's band's previous three albums are chaotic blend of Captain Beefheart meets the current world of experimental indie rock. Sounding a bit like a roving band of gypsies is what has always given Man Man their original appeal and this album is no different. Starting with 2006's Six Demon Bag (a masterpiece) to 2008's Rabbit Habits (an album I loved and have recently been listening to a ton) to this album, the band has mellowed a bit. Though anyone who knows these albums knows that 'mellow' is a relative term. There's something of a Burrough's surreal nature to these albums, like a Tom Waits album on a dust. Life Fantastic is fantastic indeed.
19. J. Mascis - Several Shades of Why: The new solo acoustic album by the Dinosaur Jr. front man follows in the footsteps of 2005 similar Sing + Chant for Amma, only with more defined song structure. I very much enjoyed that album and was interested in checking this one out. What I discovered was an album by a musician that, decades into his career, is really hitting a new creative high. This is an album that simply grooves. It never feels forced. It just taps into a vibe and keeps going through it until the end. Once it was over, I found myself thinking, damn that was really good.
20. Sic Alps - Napa Asylum: The third and latest album in my continued exploration of this lo-fi San Francisco band is definitely the best. Released in January, this is also one my favorite albums of the year so far. The band has refined their sound by now, streamlining the songs into a perfect modern Grateful Dead experiment with heavier psychedelic overlays. The songs sometimes feel like snippets, but they all weave into one another making a truly interesting and at times stellar album.