The Top 10 Albums of 2011
10.“Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing” – The Wonder Years
For a band whose two releases on No Sleep Records have both come within the last two years, it’s amazing to see how widespread feelings towards The Wonder Years have evolved from an appreciation of a Philadelphia pop-punk band’s uniqueness to a downright obsession. It’s not just that The Wonder Years’ musicianship, talent, and creativity are all lightyears ahead of those of any other pop-punk band; The band possesses the ability to craft and convey stories in a way that not only allows the listener to relate, but also feel good about doing so. Suburbia only pushes The Wonder Years further ahead. This album has such a high degree of relatability that it feels as if you could have grown up next door to The Wonder Years, in on their jokes and protector of their deepest secrets. It’s the whole story behind Suburbia that really captivates the most, though. The album is a guide-by-experience progression through the biggest challenge of any young adult’s life: growing up.
Strange Mercy is, in many ways, a simple reflection of the complexity of its author. It’s a pop album in format, with no track longer than four and a half minutes, but Annie Clark has a demonically seductive voice that is often hidden behind a submissive sigh, and she looks nearly off balance brandishing a guitar that she wields with a rock star’s ferocity. String segments layered with carnivorous riffs give the record a delightfully precarious bounce, and careful production saves the constant juxtaposition of milkiness and serrated adrenaline from becoming gimmicky. That coexistence is the woman behind St. Vincent, and that is reflected both in lyrical content and in Clark’s delivery on Strange Mercy.
La Dispute isn’t for most people. They are dichotomous in nature and polarize listener sentiments between adoration and hatred. Wildlife is not at all a vague album. You won’t be confused or ill-advised after listening to it, at least on a literal level. It is exhaustingly specific, gruesomely dark, and full of enough raw emotion to overwhelm even the most callous of listeners. Lyricist Jordan Dreyer’s stories submerge far beyond what is capable with vulgarities or threats; His aggression and frustration permeate through each varying stories told throughout the album. The feeling after completing Wildlife, however, is unlike any other. After the emptiness and gloom dissipate, what is left behind is the impact of a rare album that captivates and engages yet frightens and frustrates. The type of album that is damn near perfect.
Where will Radiohead go from here? After each major release from the Brits who hate to use any genre classification more than once, determining what their next studio album will sound like seems as if it would require a logic puzzle approach. Checking off genres and ideas, Radiohead have been known to blend specific elements from their ever-expanding repertoire with new ideas to create an exponentially-more progressive record. But The King of Limbs feels entirely different. Built almost exclusively around loops and featuring next to no live instrumentation, the album initially feels as if it could be passed off as a Thom Yorke solo album. But upon your fifth or tenth or fiftieth listen of The King of Limbs, you will realize that this 8 track, 37 minutes-and-change album is precisely the direction Radiohead needed to move in.
You are already familiar with Adele Adkins’ second LP. You many not have listened to it all the way through, but that is a choice that you made. You are aware of the record’s existence, you know how popular it was (and remains) and you know, if nothing else, what a tempest her voice is. You don’t need to be spat out the statistics to know that this is one of the biggest pop records that will ever happen in your lifetime. The point is, 21 has earned your attention, and if you haven’t yet given it your time, that is your own loss, as tens of millions of people will tell you. And if you’re one of those millions – if you’ve heard 21 – then extra convincing is laughably superfluous.
Sometimes, indie music can just be a pissing contest to see who can do the more outlandish thing that can be interpreted by enough people as fashionable. For Girls frontman Christopher Owens, that approach isn’t really necessary. Owens’ tunes are generally straightforward and chord-driven, but meticulously crafted to showcase the band’s musicianship and Owens’ simplistic, yet always personally resonant lyrics. And that’s the thing – chances are, Owens is nothing like you. He’s a former Children of God cult member with a thing for opiates, and he recorded a critically acclaimed debut LP (Album, predecessor to this record) in his parents’ garage. And somehow it all sounds like the bastard child of Elvis Costello and the Beach Boys. But Owens’ lyrical anecdotes are stunningly relatable, and that’s the beauty of Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Everyone thinks their own upbringing makes their problems and their lives unique, but there are always parallels as one grows up, no matter how strange that person’s background.
The Rip Tide is the third LP from Zach Condon’s project, Beirut. The record is fairly standard fare for Beirut fans accustomed to the old world charm of Condon’s music, but to a new listener, this is one of the freshest sounds in the industry. Condon masterminds a nearly faultless mélange of strings, piano, accordion, percussion and horns that yields a distinctly baroque flavor of folk pop that is as cute as it is addicting. And it’s all a gimmick; Zach Condon is from Santa Fe, not Budapest. But all the quaint accents aren’t cultural statements defined by geography, like country music. Beirut is a project – an experiment.
Helplessness Blues is the least self-indulgent album of the year. Beyond the fact that lyrics are generally darker than those found on Fleet Foxes, singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold finds himself again in a state of inquisition and analysis over gratification or appeasement. This empathy pays off; Helplessness Blues expands upon their debut while maintaining all the things that made Fleet Foxes great. A record without a sense of escapist submission is rare these days, and so a record like this that gives plentiful opportunity to relate is a beautiful breath of fresh air.
For being just one person, Anthony Gonzalez has quite the reputation for making some pretty massive things. Since M83′s debut album in 2003, each successive record has overpowered the last in terms of “big”, but after Saturdays=Youth, any stronger epical songwriting would most likely overwhelm or desensitize the listener. Although Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a double album, it’s only 17 minutes longer than Saturdays. The approach between the two, however, couldn’t be much more dissimilar. To push past the reserved pastels of Saturdays, Gonzalez makes use of interludes to space out the intensity of Hurry Up, but the result isn’t what you would expect of a double album. Every moment, interludes included, is expertly crafted and with a purpose. Gonzalez’s approach is risky; it’s rare for any band, regardless of popularity, to release a double album without tragic flaws, but in this case, it’s the most powerful M83 album yet.
The sophomore album is the hardest album of a young artists career. It’s a response to all that fans loved in the debut, but it cannot be a regurgitation of material; the sophomore album has to build. It has to be recognizable as distinctly the artist’s creative output while serving as a meticulously directed compass for the continuation of a career. Bon Iver’s follow up to For Emma, Forever Ago strikes this balance with remarkable sure-footedness. Frontman Justin Vernon’s careful experimentation on the 2009 EP, Blood Bank, led to a delicate but thoroughly impactful catharsis on the self-titled second album. Bon Iver maintains the introspective honesty from For Emma, but ventures musically from graceful folk to a progressive ensemble of synth organs, strings, saxophone (courtesy of Colin Stetson), and even features double kick drums. The product is an extraordinary composition whose intricacy manifests both effortlessly and breathtakingly. Bon Iver is the nearly faultless output of a maturing artist not content with mere mimicry of a proven formula.
Happy New Years from Tastemakers Content Team!