2011: Another Year, Another List

by Ken DiTomaso

Is 2011 over already? Apparently so, and that means it’s time for another top ten. One thing that became immediately apparent to me after assessing this year’s music is how many of its best records are by artists who’ve been around for decades. But hey, if they’ve still got it who am I to discriminate? Here’s my top ten (in the usual descending order) followed by six more albums I liked this year and six that I didn’t as much (in no order).


10. Justice – Audio, Video, Disco
The general critical consensus of Justice’s sophomore album seems to be that of mild disappointment in comparison to their debut album. I confess, I’ve yet to hear their first album, but perhaps that’s a good thing since I came into Audio, Video, Disco with no expectations and was pleasantly surprised. It’s an album with an obvious electronic bent but the focus here is on nostalgic pop-rock. Instead of using synths in ways you might expect, they use them in place of traditional instruments to serve the same purpose. Some listeners may not even realize that most of this album is constructed this way. Prog-rock-influenced instrumentals weave in between pop songs, giving the album a very cohesive feel and an excellent flow. Audio, Video, Disco is an album that is more than the sum of its parts, and it works best listened to as a whole rather than as individual tracks.


9. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
The first Tom Waits album of all new material in seven years is perhaps the quintessential Tom Waits album. There’s really nothing new or surprising here, but there is a taste of nearly every style he’s ever done. There’s something for everybody here. Bad As Me could function as the perfect introduction to Tom’s off-kilter persona for someone new to his music. These songs are short, to the point, and they leave you satisfied but still wanting more.

8. Steve Hackett – Beyond The Shrouded Horizon

As a guitarist, Steve Hackett has been responsible for some extremely influential techniques (such as tapping in a rock context), but restraint has always been his greatest strength, and that’s exactly what often causes him to be overlooked. Unlike so many other talented guitar players, he realizes that the song should always come first. Hackett hasn’t put out a weak album in years, and Beyond The Shrouded Horizon continues that streak. He proves he still knows how to make classic-style progressive rock that isn’t just flashy demonstrations of instrumental prowess. There is true honesty and emotion behind his work, which is something that is very hard to find in progressive rock artists these days. Hackett is just as comfortable with quiet classical guitar pieces as he is with loud metallic rock, and you’ll find all that and more on this record.


7. They Might Be Giants – Join Us

Join Us brings They Might Be Giants back to their glory days and is perhaps their best album since 1994’s John Henry. It contains all the elements that make TMBG a great band: a fun atmosphere, off-the-wall arrangements, silly esoteric lyrics, and catchy, catchy melodies. Their last few albums were aimed at kids and while they were decent for what they were, I didn’t think they’d be able to hop so easily back into making great albums for all ages. But it turns out I needn't have worried. Both John Linnell and John Flansburgh know what they’re doing and are once again writing songs at the top of their game. I do wish the production had been beefed up a little though.


6. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
Kate Bush has never made the same album twice, and her main offering of 2011 is no exception. 50 Words For Snow is a slow-paced, moody concept album that demands intensive listening to extract its intricacies. Lyrical tales of everything from a romantic encounter with a snowman to unrequited love spanning decades paint pictures as vivid as any in Kate’s catalogue. Steve Gadd’s masterful drumming feeds off the feel of Kate’s piano, and lulls the listener into a hypnotic rhythm of sound. These songs are longer and more drawn out than any in her back catalogue, but patience will reward you. 50 Words For Snow may not be an easy album to digest but it is a triumph of subtlety and songcraft.

5. St Vincent – Strange Mercy
For her third full-length effort, Annie Clark has given her songs a big boost in energy. Unlike her previous records, which were largely solo home-recordings (and sounded like it), Strange Mercy sparkles with personality and verve. She’s still writing pop songs, but these tracks indicate that something greater is beginning to develop. She’s got an experimental edge but knows how to use that to bolster the quality of the songs instead of distract from them. Before, St. Vincent could have been mistaken for nothing more than yet another female singer-songwriter (albeit a very good one). This album makes it clear once and for all that there’s a lot more to her music than that.
4. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life & David’s Town
Fucked Up’s massive rock opera project spanned two full-length albums and numerous singles, telling the story of David Eliade and exploring his character, life, and relationships. Listening to it all in one go can be a little trying thanks to how relentless it is, but it certainly rewards those that do. The guitar work on David Comes To Life is incredible; layer upon layer of distorted guitar lines wash all over the mix constantly evolving and changing with every moment. Just make sure you have a lyrics sheet beside you as the excellent lyrics are generally very difficult to discern underneath frontman Damian Abraham’s harsh vocal rasp. The album may only have one core sound (anthemic hardcore) but the number of different moods they’re able to achieve within it is astounding. David’s Town is the complete opposite; it’s short, messy, and very diverse but every bit as good, and makes for a fine companion piece.


3. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is a bold artful work of saxophone performances. Not only is Stetson’s playing stunning (most of these compositions were performed live in just one take), but the production is absolutely masterful. Multiple microphones captured different aspects of the same performance and when mixed together it sounds like there’s a lot more to these songs than just one instrument. The various textures and atmospheres that he’s able to pull out of his saxophone make for a hypnotizing experience that someone can lose themselves in. I’m not sure what to call the genre Stetson is playing (ambient avant-jazz perhaps?), but I know he does it really well and I can’t wait to hear more.

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Robin Pecknold’s songwriting has developed to the point that his songs would sound deep performed by almost anybody. Thankfully, he’s got the gorgeous vocal harmonies and earthy instrumental tones of the rest of his band to give these songs the treatment they deserve. Helplessness Blues leans much more on roots influences like The Band and Cosby Stills & Nash without losing the eccentricities that made their debut album so special (such as their fondness for inserting seemingly unrelated short snippet segments between the full length songs). No modern band has production quite as warm and inviting as the Fleet Foxes. The lyrics are thoughtful but never overbearing, the melodies are memorable but never obviously hooky, and the arrangements are mature but never boring. Helplessness Blues sounds incredibly lush, full, and detailed. And just like their previous work, it’s got a timeless quality to it that suggests that it will be enjoyed just as much years from now.

1. The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions
Argue all you want about this not belonging here because it was recorded over four decades ago. It was released in 2011 and that’s what matters to me. It certainly never had a chance to be on any “best of the ‘60s” lists did it? It’s difficult to keep coming up with new words to keep things interesting when praising an album like this, because every single aspect of it just makes me feel so overwhelmed with positive emotion. Had Smile been completed and released in 1967, the entire face of popular music as we know it could have been altered, who knows? While this 2011 version isn’t quite perfect (even as finished as possible it’s still clearly missing some things), it’s a testament to the quality of the music that even unfinished and compiled from various sources it still stands tall as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Some other albums I liked this year…

Lindsey Buckingham – Seeds We Sow

If you’ve heard any of Buckingham’s other recent solo albums, you can probably guess what this one sounds like. Not only is his sound consistent but his songwriting is, too; it’s just one memorable melody, beautiful harmony, and brilliant acoustic guitar lick after another. With a formula like that, how can you go wrong?

Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full Of Holes

Like Lindsay Buckingham, Fountains of Wayne have a style and they stuck to it. But it works well, so you can’t really blame them. Simple guitar-based power pop tunes that stick in your head. This isn’t one of their best records or anything, but I’m glad this band is still alive and kicking.

Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins – A Scarcity of Miracles: A King Crimson ProjeKct

If personnel is all you’re concerned about, this is basically a King Crimson album (only one of the five musicians featured here hasn’t played with the band before), but it’s clear upon listening to it that this is something different. These songs do not rock in the slightest; you’ll find no intricate guitar battles here. Instead, there are six long and meandering tracks based upon Robert Fripp’s ambient guitar soundscapes and Mel Collins’ fluid saxophone and flute playing. But at the same time these are most definitely songs, with hummable melodies and everything, which is something that’s become increasingly rare in King Crimson’s chaotic and improve-based recent work. King Crimson hasn’t put out a proper album in eight years, so hopefully this is a good sign for the band’s future.

Yes – Fly From Here

It didn’t bode well for Yes that their newest album featured a singer from a tribute band, and focused primarily on revisiting older (albeit unfinished) material. But surprisingly enough, they managed to pull off a very solid album that holds up well alongside anything they’ve done in the past 25 years. Knowing the ease with which this band collapses, here’s hoping they’ll still be around for the follow-up!

The Flaming Lips - Various EPs

2011 was an extremely prolific year for The Flaming Lips. They’ve put out (at my best guess) 8 EPs worth of material, including music packaged in skulls (in both real and gummy form), collaborations with a wide range of like-minded artists, a song meant to be played on 12 iPhones, a 6-hour song (!) and a 24-hour song (!!!). I really don’t know how they do it. All this crazy stuff isn’t necessarily good (though plenty of it is), but it’s certainly all interesting. I have absolutely no idea what they’ll come up with next and that’s something I can’t say about many bands.

Battles – Gloss Drop

Battles almost fell apart in the years between their debut album and this one when their guitarist and lead singer left the band. Thankfully they held it together and this album might be their best yet. Lead single “Ice Cream” is one of the most entertaining and brain-twisting tracks this year and the others are no slouches either. Drummer John Stanier steals the show on most of these tunes, which twist and turn in every way possible. Battles sound like nobody else, and as long as they can keep it that way, they’re going to continue to be a vital modern band.

Some albums that disappointed me this year…

Of Montreal – The Controllersphere

This EP, made mostly out of material that didn’t fit on 2010’s False Priest, takes all the problems of that release and accentuates them. It’s basically bland sub-Prince semi-funk, with little of the charm that Kevin Barnes’ songs usually have. In the past many of the band’s greatest moments could only be found on their EPs, but The Controllersphere truly feels like leftovers tossed together.

Alice Cooper – Welcome 2 My Nightmare

Now it’s not like I should be expecting great things from Alice Cooper since his glory days were over a long time ago. But I know he can do better than an album like this. Everything about it, from its sleazy cover to its dumb title to all the reunions and collaborations just scream “Look at me! I’m still relevant!” No, you’re not relevant anymore, Alice, and the sooner you realize that the sooner you can go back to making decent music again.

Tyler The Creator – Goblin

Tyler’s debut, Bastard, was a raunchy teenage take on rap that felt fresh. But his highly hyped follow-up, Goblin, simply can’t support its own weight. It runs for the entire length of a CD but only has about only 30 minutes of good-to-great material and an absolute ton of dead weight. Add in the fact that the whole album is deathly dreary and monotonous, and you get a record that’s an absolute slog to listen to. Cut every song in half, and delete the really bad ones altogether (anything over six minutes or featuring the word “Bitch” in the title) and add in some tracks featuring the perpetually absent Earl Sweatshirt (the only rapper in the Odd Future collective that has anything close to longterm potential), and then we might have something here. As it is…nope.

Peter Gabriel – New Blood

The only thing that shows a once significant artist’s slide into irrelevancy more than a covers album is a remakes-of-old-material album and Peter Gabriel has now done both back to back. This isn’t as brutally awful as his covers album from last year, mainly since he is at least still able to sing his own material well, but it’s every bit as boring and unnecessary. You’re better than this, Peter!

Panda Bear – Tomboy

There’s some really great material here, but it all sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean. I’d recommend aspiring musicians and producers listen to this record to learn what it sounds like to wreck your songs with too much reverb and delay.

Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

It’s time for everybody to admit it. Radiohead are not infallible. For over a decade now, the anticipation surrounding each new release has been incredibly high, and every time the band has delivered. When The King Of Limbs came out an entire generation of music listeners just cocked their heads and wondered “Is that it?” This album is hardly a fall from grace or a disaster. Thom Yorke and friends continue to make the music they want to make, and that music is as complex, intricate, and serious as ever. But it’s no masterpiece, not even a little bit. Perhaps, however, this is a blessing in disguise. No longer do Radiohead have to be saddled with the weight of being the be-all-end-all of modern music; now they’re just another band, and that’s probably a much more relaxing place to be.

Thanks for indulging me everybody! I hope I said something that somebody vehemently disagreed with so we can have a fine discussion/argument about it later.

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