I could have easily done a top 30 or even 40 albums of 2011. There was a lot of really great music this year, but I held myself to just 20. There are so many albums left off this list! The ones included here are the kreme de la kreme of 2011, as compiled by yours truly. If you’re unfamiliar with any of the albums selected, click the Amazon, iTunes, or Spotify links to check it out. As always, your comments are appreciated. Here’s to a wonderful 2012!
20. Mona Mona - This album is set to be released in the US in January, but Europe got it in May of this year. I first heard the band after reading about their song “Lines In the Sand” in SPIN magazine’s “Songs You Must Hear Now.” I immediately fell in love with the band’s gritty, mid-western take on Kings of Leon-esque Southern rock. The band first formed in Dayton, Ohio and now calls Nashville, Tennessee home. It is interesting to note that, like fellow Ohio band Cage the Elephant, Mona became popular first in the UK before getting any real attention here in the US. They appeared on Later…With Jools Holland before the release of their album, and only about a month after releasing their first single. The band is set to have a huge 2012 as they’ll see the US release of their album, and no doubt a lot of promotion from their label behind it.
19. Gypsy & the Cat Gilgamesh - I discovered this band when I was going through the Coachella lineup and giving each band a listen. The group consists of Australian DJs Xavier Bacash and Lionel Towers. The group is a perfect-storm mishmash of indie rock, indie pop, shoegaze, and 80s new wave. Obvious influences from artists like Hall & Oates, the Pixies, Paul Simon and New Order can sometimes be heard in the same song. The album opens strong with “Time To Wonder” and keeps the bar for the entirety of the 12 tracks. They are expected to release their followup mid-2012.
18. Hooray for Earth True Loves - Brooklyn-based via Boston, this project is mostly the creation of singer and multi-instrumentalist Noel Heroux. The fullness of the sound gives it an epic feeling and gives the feeling the songs were written for an arena stage. “Bring Us Closer Together” is an example, complete with a hand-clap ready breakdown. With the success of bands like The Naked & The Famous and Foster the People, along with less club friendly acts like Young the Giant, I can see Hooray For Earth having a place on Alternative radio in America.
17. Cut Copy Zonoscope - Another Australian group makes the list with this synth-heavy group. They had a big year with the release of their third album, a massive performance at Coachella, and piles of accolades. Another example of how 80s music is far more influential today than 90s music, Zonoscope is heavily influenced by 80s pop and new wave. Cut Copy has a better dynamic range than most electronic bands, and that really helps to create a sound that stands apart. With their Depeche Mode and Duran Duran influence sewn on to their sleeves, they unapologetically serve a fun and energetic sound that forces a party atmosphere wherever it is heard. Don’t believe me? Drop some Cut Copy at the next party you crash and see what happens. Trust me, it will be a good thing.
16. The Strokes Angles - When word of this album first started leaking it quickly became the most anticipated album for yours truly. And when the album arrived I listened to it nonstop for a day or two, maybe longer. The first half of Angles is brilliant; not a bad song to be found. The second half is a step down from the first half, but is still a good set of songs, they suffer for the comparisons to the songs before them. More than ever before, the band shared songwriting duties. With Julian Casablancas out on tour supporting his solo album, the rest of the band was left to tinker with new songs, sending them to Casablancas for vocal treatment. The separation worked surprisingly well, as the band released their first album in five years, and they are already working on their followup.
15. deadmau5 4×4=12 - The opening notes of “Some Chords” set a tone for this album from which deadmau5, aka Joel Zimmerman, never strays very far. One of the leaders of the electro-house movement has been gaining popularity the last few years, deadmau5 delivers a unique mix that infuses flashes of other genres, and does it without seeming trite, or insincere. His collaboration with Wolfgang Gartner (whose own album, Weekend In America, narily missed inclusion on this list), “Animal Rights,” is perhaps the best track on the album, featuring two heavyweights of today’s DJ scene.
14. Peter Bjorn and John Gimme Some - The band’s sixth studio album may be their most complete, not to mention a real change from the thankfully one-off dark sound of 2009’s Living Thing. While Writer’s Block was a great breakthrough album, it is finally with Gimme Some that PB&J are realizing their potential. Intricately crafted pop songs that have a depth not seen in many other bands today (or ever). Both “Dig a Little Deeper” and “Breaker Breaker” are absolutely amazing songs that stand out not just on this album, but among all the songs on all the albums on this list. They are both must listens.
13. Metronomy The English Riviera - I was turned on to Metronomy by my good friend Gary Gorman. After previewing this album on Spotify I downloaded the bands entire discography. I don’t know how I missed on this group before, but I’m glad I finally got to the party. Metronomy is a bit darker than the other electronic bands on this list. While still unabashedly influenced by the 80s, Metronomy tends to lean toward Joy Division rather than the lighter side bands of the new wave sound. Though the album still has its very upbeat moments. Moste notably “The Bay,” a bouncing tune that would make the dead boogie, shows the band’s ability to leave the Joy Division behind and populate a dance floor.
12. Grouplove Never Trust a Happy Song - This band, and their music, is unapologetically positive. The story of how they came together is the stuff of legends, and to-date it hasn’t had an any negative affect. They’re touring relentlessly, and plan to begin work on their sophomore album this summer. Until then, you’ll have to enjoy the indie-pop sensibilities on this album. Story telling like Arcade Fire with the uplifting polish of pop music. Building on the ideas of bands like Vampire Weekend and Modest Mouse, and improving the formula, Grouplove makes an album chock full of irresistibly blissful tunes. Thumpers like “Colors,” soaring arena-pap jams like “Tongue Tied,” slow jams like the sarcastically titled “Slow,” and barn burners like “Chloe” keep this album flowing and without a dull moment to be found.
11. White Lies Ritual - In the last decade several bands that are obviously inspired by Joy Division have garnered attention. Interpol, She Wants Revenge, and others. White Lies are one of these bands, and they are perhaps the best at it. This band manages to combine the darkness of Joy Division shoegaze with the slick attitude of Franz Ferdinand-style pop, and it works quite well; in particular with songs like “The Power & the Glory” and “Is Love.” This London group managed to eschew the sophomore slump with Ritual, which builds on the sound of their previous release, To Lose My Life. Here the group finds themselves more mature, and more sonically together. Creating a more comprehensive sound that continues to show potential beyond what we’ve already seen. The future is no doubt bright for White Lies.
10. Givers In Light - From the moment I first heard “Up Up Up” (thanks to SPIN including them in the magazine’s July playlist) I was immediately a fan. A couple days later I had the whole album and I’ve been jamming their indie rock-influenced pop ever since. The band’s sound also includes elements of zydeco music, which comes as no surprise as the band is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and members were previously involved in cajun and zydeco bands prior to coming together for Givers. With the wispy vocals provided by Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson the group creates a unique sound cajoled from multiple genres and manages to have a mass-appeal at the same time.
9. The Kills Blood Pressures - For the duo’s fourth album the pair of Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince got even bluesier than previous releases. This, of course, seems to have a direct correlation with Mosshart’s involvement in the Jack White project The Dead Weather. I had the pleasure of seeing this band perform at this year’s Bumbershoot in Seattle, and they continue to put on an amazing live show that included many songs from this album, much to the crowd’s delight. Though the tempo is down on this release as compared to earlier albums from the group, the dirty, sexy feel remains. Mosshart exudes sexiness, and Hince captures that aura exceptionally well in the compositions. These two will only continue to get better with age.
8. Bass Drum of Death GB City - I heard about this band as they toured with Japandroids earlier this year. Friends that saw the group opening in various cities couldn’t stop talking about how awesome they were, so I got the album and jammed it on repeat for a few days. For a lo-fi garage band, they manage to create a catchy, almost poppy, sound that is slathered in enough distortion to make even Kurt Cobain proud. Like many other two-man bands, Bass Drum of Death has a heavy blues influence, but where most two-man bands since White Stripes left the garage-rock part of the equation out of it, Bass Drum of Death brings back the urgency of albums like De Stijl and White Blood Cells.
7. The Naked and Famous Passive Me, Aggressive You - My good friend Corey introduced this band to me about the same time he told me about Foster the People. That was in January or February. I found TNAF more appealing that Foster from day one. Both bands sound strikingly similar, but Foster relies more heavily on a dance aesthetic, while TNAF come off as more of a synth-heavy indie pop band. (There is a difference, trust me.) While still creating bouncy bass lines that would make anyone want to begin swaying; the layers of sound, and subtle ambient sounds create depth of sound not seen much in the new indie rock-meets-dance club sound that is big in Alternative right now.
6. The Joy Formidable The Big Roar - This Welsh three piece has made a big splash in 2011. They’ve caught the attention of rockstars like Dave Grohl, and are working on their second hit at Alternative radio as I type this. Though I haven’t been able to catch them live, I have heard they are legendary. Taking all the lessons taught by Sonic Youth, and pushing them to the max, the Joy Formidable tones down the noise, but not the rock. Ritzy Bryan’s angelic voice is a starkly juxtaposed against the distorted, down tuned sound of the band that it almost masks the aggression. With their sophomore album being so consistently amazing from front to back I look forward to greater things from this band in the future.
5. Cage the Elephant Thank You, Happy Birthday - From the moment I first saw this band live, at Coachella in 2009, I knew they would have staying power. They vindicated my support in releasing a strong sophomore album, deciding not to succumb to the dreaded sophomore slump. The band is the closest thing to a Nirvana descendent that we have today; thankfully Matthew Shultz doesn’t share the same destructive streak as his counterpart. What he does share with the former, however, is a knack for molding lyrics into compelling stories, even when completely intelligible, and the garage aesthetic of the music is well suited for Shultz’s mildly raspy vocals.
4. The Black Keys El Camino - The latest released album to make this list, the Black Keys released their follow up to their breakout album Brothers on December 6. When I first heard their last album I was sure it would be their breakthrough, and it was. This album is going to take them from the theaters their last album put them in and take them to the arena circuit. The songs are big, catchy, and don’t sell out what makes the Black Keys so good: a modernization of blues rock. More than any other blues rock band today (discounting White Stripes, who have broken up), the Black Keys embody the blues ethos, and they use that to guide their way through the rock & roll landscape. And where Brothers was an exercise in downtempo blues jams, El Camino is an exercise in dustup bar brawlers.
3. Holy Ghost! Holy Ghost! - I think it was Corey O’Brien at X96 who first mentioned Holy Ghost! to me. The New York duo met in elementary school and were previously in a rap group together that also released an album DFA Records. However, they’ve left the hip hop behind and made an amazing dance/new wave record that exudes New Order. Each and every song on the album is like a virus, you can’t help but get infected. The beats alone are catchier than the flu, and the vocal choruses are all anthemic. They remind me a bit of Chromeo, but even more dancey and even more accessible.
2. Friendly Fires Pala - I’ve been a fan of this English group since late 2008 when I first heard “Skeleton Boy.” This album builds on what they gave us on their debut and moves it forward several steps. There aren’t enough accolades for me to properly express how amazing this album is. “Blue Cassette,” while sounding happy go lucky, tells such a sad story. While “Hawaiian Air” is an uplifting tune in every sense. This album consists more of the latter than the former, and this album was meant to soundtrack any party you could ever have from now until the end of time (which is coming up pretty quick, according to the Mayans).
1. Florence + the Machine Ceremonials - The sophomore album from Florence Welch and her band hits the list at the same place that the group’s debut landed in 2009: Number 1. When I reviewed Lungs then I said the album would “make one’s ears beg for more.” Well, this is the “more” I was talking about. On her sophomore album we find Welch and company soaring with epic songs with such lively and descriptive lyrics. Her lyrics have made as massive a step forward as the composition of the songs. Overall, the songwriting is amazing. When she sings about ghosts you’ll get chills, when she sings about her broken heart you’ll ache, when she sings about redemption you’ll feel a weight lift from your shoulders. I was concerned that such immediate acclaim from both critics and an exponentially growing fan base might have a negative impact on the band and their ability to write and record good music. That worry has been swept away with such force that it’s almost embarrassing that I thought it to begin with.