Here we go, with the five best albums of 2011. Did I forget a great one? Is your favorite album better than my favorite album? Let me know about it in the comments – I certainly haven’t heard everything from last year and I’d love to learn about more great music that I missed.
05. Cults by Cults // Even by internet standards, Cults faced an uphill battle against the blog hype machine. They appeared as if out of nowhere, had a mysterious boy-girl sound and released the absolute gem “Go Outside” in 2010 on their Bandcamp page. By the time their self-titled debut came out, they were expected to release a pop masterpiece and save music (or something). That didn’t happen, but the record is excellent anyway. The songs are loaded with hooks and constructed in easily-digestible 3 minute bursts. Melodies shine and vocals impress. Dark, echo-filled production gives a deeper sound than typical indie pop. And most importantly, on top of all the other merits, Cults is just fun. Certainly not perfect, but still exceptional.
04. Nine Types of Light by TV on the Radio // I am astounded by the (relatively) negative reaction to the new TVotR record. After three straight releases accompanied by critical drooling, Nine Types of Light has fallen on deaf ears. And it’s a shame, because this is the most complete, accessible and best release in the TVotR catalog. The accessible part is at once the most important and deceiving thing about Nine Types. The record is easy to get into because of song structure, warmth and content. Things are still artful, but never at the expense of song quality, the production is less industrial, and the lyrics gush about love. Yet this is still TV on the Radio. The band is still exploring, pushing music to the limit and using layers of sound. It’s just so much easier to relate to, so much more pleasant on the ears, and so much more appealing to friends. Fall in love with this beautiful record.
03. The Unfazed by Dolorean // This is a bit of a hidden one. If you’ve read the Best Songs list you’ll already know something about the band, but perhaps only just that much. The Unfazed is a sort of roots-rock, nearly country-rock blend of clean guitars, pianos, solid rhythms, and violins. It’s fairly straightforward, but not simplistic. Each song has a very full sound without being overwhelming; instruments are given enough space to be heard alone while still developing interplay. But what makes this stand out is the delicate line Dolorean toes with emotion. Each song is injected with enough heart-on-sleeve earnestness to draw ears and sympathy, but never nears the parody level of emo. That fantastic balance and the impressive musical talent let The Unfazed stand tall. Don’t let this band be an unknown for you anymore.
02. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey // Immediate and nervous, musically and lyrically ambitious, difficult but digestible. It’s quite obviously rock, but it doesn’t let mere guitar stuff get in the way of making an album-wide statement. Yes, PJ Harvey has hit an absolute home run with this album. The whole thing exudes a terrifying uncertainty, matching well with its nearly-paranoid theme against war. And every song has some kind of shocking moment that absolutely floors you. Maybe it’s the creepy shuffle of the opener “Let England Shake,” or the way “The Last Living Rose” threatens to fall apart right before the horns kick you in the face. Or perhaps you’re like me and the goosebumps never go away during “The Glorious Land” as reveille keeps popping up, or you can’t help but feel chills the United Nations reference in “The Words that Maketh Murder.”
Of course, I can’t forget to mention Polly Jean Harvey herself. Her voice is exceptional on every track. She is pained and wounded during “On Battleship Hill.” She is disgusted and lost on “England,” and channels a focused fury during “Bitter Branches.” Just listening to her pointed phrases and expressions is rewarding. When done in union with the powerful backing band, the whole record is stunning. This is a powerful, cohesive statement with no weak links and will capture your attention again and again. Let England Shake is phenomenal.
01. The King is Dead by The Decemberists // This was such an easy choice for me. I sampled The King is Dead when it first leaked in late 2010, and it instantly stole my attention, even as I was trying to deal with Best of 2010 things. I was even more pleased to buy it and get the full sound quality. And the whole thing was really wrapped up when I saw The Decemberists live in early August. Even with more than 4 months remaining, I fully understood that any challenger to the throne would have to be simply mind-blowing.
But then what makes this record the best of 2011? Some have dismissed it as just simple R.E.M. copying or a pathetic withdrawing after the ambitious The Hazards of Love project. Those criticisms miss the point. Surely this record tips its hat at Reckoning-era R.E.M., but it does so while never losing the character and appeal offered by The Decemberists. Similarly, Hazards was an over-the-top concept that failed to really appeal without a full listen of the entire record. That kind of investment was only made less worthwhile by the thick, dense style of music in Hazards.
The King is Dead is The Decemberists cut down to their most essential. Colin Meloy still croons in a lovely voice, and the lyrics certainly appeal to the book-nerds in the audience. But they do so in a simpler way, telling the stories appropriately and never going too far. The songs are very crisp, tightly constructed works and never get lost in instrumentation or soliloquy. The music itself is at times purely jubilant, and at others very heartfelt and quiet. Ringing guitars, smooth singing, fruitful drums and exceptional strings build fantastic worlds within each track. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the outright best song of 2011 is thrown in the mix and fits the rest of the record. The King is Dead may feel less ambitious than previous Decemberists albums, but it comes away sounding more polished and unified.
This is the best of 2011, a composition released a mere 14 days into the year. That nothing came close is disappointing for the year, but not for The Decemberists. This is a record that would stand tall in any twelve month period, and is worthy of such high adoration. Enjoy the best of The Decemberists. Enjoy The King is Dead.