Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorite Albums of 2011

Only a couple days left in 2011, so it seems natural to write my annual favorite albums piece. Music has been changing a good bit over the last few years with plenty of independent bands getting mainstream exposure and the lines being blurred between mainstream, alternative, progressive, and indie. It's been an interesting pill to swallow at times, but in the end my favorite albums ended up being the ones that made me feel something. No matter how the music is played, at the end of the day I just want to feel an emotion as a result of what I'm hearing. My favorite albums this year made me feel alive in some way. I hope you enjoy!

10. 1, 2, 3 - New Heaven - These gents seem to be catching some fire after forming in Pittsburgh and basing themselves in New York City. They spawned from one of my all-time favorite bands, The Takeover UK, and have kept some of the edge and all of the vocal beauty. Their first track, "Work", gives you that immediate blue collar feel that comes from the Steel City and resonates to the Big Apple. Pittsburgh also looks amazing in the video. I'm excited to see how far they'll go.

9. Owen - Ghost Town - Owen is the brainchild of stay-at-home dad Mike Kinsella. I never listened to Owen until this summer, but Kinsella's Live... video series for Ghost Town put him in everyday places for stationary shots of him playing a song from the album. My personal favorite location is the Graham Elliot Kitchen in Chicago. Look for that one as well as the first one for "Too Many Moons" where his adorable daughter makes a cameo. My favorite track, "I Believe", is in the video below.

8. Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones - I live near Seattle these days. For the birthplace of grunge, the music scene feels like it's lost its edge over the years. Consequentially, I love grasping for anything that reminds me of the east coast, or even the British isle. To be simple, Frank Turner sounds exactly like what he should sound like; a former punk rocker turned acoustic-driven frontman. He's got that scratchy tone that makes you feel like you're sitting in a Winchester pub sharing a pint with Turner's cousins.

7. City and Colour - Little Hell - Dallas Green's side project has become a main attraction with their full band release from 2011. Green continues to bring about subtle introspection paired with an acoustic guitar and tattoos covering his body like battle wounds of days past. While this album may have a cynical title, it is actually slightly more pleasant than past releases most of the time. Its title track is haunting and will get stuck in your head. The simplicity of this album is summed up in this track.

6. The Decemberists - The King is Dead - Possibly the most consistent album of 2011, the Decemberists came around to the idea of a constantly catchy pop-folk album while maintaining their ever-unique sound. This album is full of track after track that you just want to listen to. The hardest part was picking a favorite.

5. The Strokes - Angles - The Strokes returned in 2011 with a healthy mix of old Strokes and new direction. As can be expected with every Strokes album, the guitar riffs are tight, the drums are simple, and Julian Casablancas sounds like he doesn't give a what. All of the elements are there, with a little extra effort given to synths and electronic elements. At its core, though, Angles is vintage Strokes. "Under Cover of Darkness" is my favorite song of the year, hands down. I listened to this song about 100 times when I first heard it last year and it continues to get repeated when I listen to the album now.

4. New Shouts - Sing New Shouts - New Shouts are my favorite Pittsburgh band. Sorry to the other fantastic bands that I do love, but New Shouts just get me going. They have a purposefully-retro 1960s sound that is replicated flawlessly. These guys have fun on stage and clearly have fun in the recording studio. Any time I needed a pick-me-up this year, Sing New Shouts was hitting my iPod. "Hung on You" is one of the catchiest songs I've heard all year.

3. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow - I resisted the Civil Wars for a while, which was a massive mistake. The Civil Wars come up with some simple, yet beautiful, Nashville music that you just remember. Joy Williams and Jon Paul White combine for a monumental vocal combination to go with White's old school country guitar. Nominated for a couple Grammy's, the Civil Wars deserve all the accolades they receive for their debut release.

2. The Head and the Heart - The Head and the Heart - These folks from Seattle/Tacoma provided me with my personal soundtrack for 2011. My good friend, Andrew Redfield, passed along "Rivers and Roads" well before I realized how big the Head and the Heart would get. That track turned into the anthem for a cross-country move and major life changes for myself and several friends. My heart still drops a bit every time I hear the first chord. Round it out with some beautiful harmonies and catchy, acoustic-driven folk instrumentation and you've got a very impressed debut.

1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver - I've never been more certain of a number 1 album. Bottom line, this is the most beautiful album I've heard in years; maybe ever. Justin Vernon created a masterpiece a few years ago with For Emma, Forever Ago, which made music lovers like me wonder how he could possibly follow it up. Vernon ditched the solo acoustic stuff by adding about 8 members to the band and creating hauntingly complex music that, at its core, still has the soul of Emma. Bon Iver, as a full album, is arranged with near perfection. Each song makes you want the one after it. I mean this in a way that every song is beautiful, yet when one completes you are ready to hear what's next rather than sticking with one or two tracks over and over. When a song ends, you aren't quite sure what you're in need of next, until the next track begins and you realize it's everything you've ever wanted.

Vernon shows incredible vocal range on this self-titled release. From the falsetto we've become used to on tracks like "Perth" and "Michicant" to the extreme deepness of "Hinnom, TX" that must be experienced in-person, Vernon has shown the world the depth of his musicianship on Bon Iver's second release. The album takes you through a journey, winding up in "Beth/Rest", which is so independent that it's the only way to conclude the album.

To fully explain my love for this album, you must know a few things. First, there have been times when I've become physically angered by the music because it is so beautiful that I can't understand it at times. Second, seeing this album played live was worth a 4-hour drive to Washington, DC, from Pittsburgh as well as dropping a nice chunk of change on a sold-out show in Seattle in the same summer. Third, the obsession with this album reached a fever pitch when I drove out of my way off of I-90 through Wisconsin to simply grab a picture of this record sitting on a street corner in Eau Claire, WI; the home town of Justin Vernon. Moving forward in music, every album I ever hear will be compared with Bon Iver. Good winter, indeed.

Honorable Mentions
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

Adele – 21
Foster the People – Torches
Young the Giant – Young the Giant