Uptonian Thoughts

My Favorite Albums of 2011

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A Musical Year

Music has been a huge part of my life for a long time now. I started playing the violin in the fourth grade. I played the saxophone for six years, including for four years in my high school marching band. I played in a punk rock band with my best friends from high school for four years. The next and latest chapter of my musical life began when I moved to Austin, TX in June of 2010.

They call Austin the “Live Music Capital of the World”. To many, that sounds like exaggeration and a desperate grasp at something to be proud of. To those who have experienced it, it is almost an understatement. Whether you’ve been punched in the gut in the pit at Emo’s or just seen that gnarly rocker chick band Guilty Pleasures while walking past Thirsty Nickel on a Saturday night, there’s no denying that music is in the blood of Austin. I love it.

2011 was a musical year for me. According to Last.fm, I went to 46 musical events, including SXSW, ACL, and FFFFest. And that doesn’t count the numerous times I caught local acts on the weekends. Some might have thought of 2011 as a lackluster year for music, but I disagree. There were some fantastic releases by some great bands; old favorites thanked their fans with fresh material and new (but sometimes only new to me) acts dug their way into my ears and heart.

A New Medium

There is something else that affected my music listening habits in 2011: Rdio. I signed up in July and immediately started listening to tons of new music. In November, I listened to at least one new album each day as part of Month of New Music (see my #monm playlist.) Rdio tore down any remaining barriers that hindered listening to any music, anywhere, quickly. I chose Rdio over Spotify for a few reasons: Rdio has better social features, better recommendations, a similarly-sized catalogue, better apps on both the desktop and mobile, and a better blog filled with interviews with musicians, reviews, and recommendations.

According to iTunes, I have seventy one albums that were released in 2011. This is lower than any other year that I have been adding music to iTunes, but that is explained by my prolific use of Rdio. I have purchased a few albums after streaming them, but Rdio is almost like having a second library. I briefly looked for statistics on Rdio listening habits, but I couldn’t find any. Believe me when I say I listen to a ton of music every day while working.

I made a list of nineteen albums that were my favorites of the year. I’ve pared it down to ten that I want to talk about, but I’ll mention the others at the end. All in all, it was a great year of music for me.

Running From a Gamble by Company of Thieves

Running From a Gamble by Company of Thieves

Genevieve Schatz can sing. She has a huge voice, especially for such a small, unassuming person. She’s backed by a band that can simultaneously rock out and complement her vocals. This is a poppy album, but it’s filled with soul and rock. The first song I heard from Running from a Gamble was the incredible “Death of Communication.” From a simple beginning, it quickly builds into a spunky anthem. The outro to that song leaves you wanting more, and more is what you get on Gamble. Every song has character, with lots of soul and even blues influences. See this band live and stand in awe.

Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars

Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars

If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever pick a folk or country-influenced album to put on my list of favorites from the past year, I would have laughed. Then I heard Barton Hollow.

This is a bit of a silly and meaningless (to everyone but me) story, but I’ll recount it anyway. I was at a friend’s house for a party over the summer. I had traveled halfway across the country to go, so I was staying over and was the only one left the next day. I have a tradition to trade music with this friend whenever we meet up, so he gave me a number of albums and told me to check one or two of them out while he went to take care of some errands. I just picked Barton Hollow by chance. I put it on and laid down on the bed and just stared at the ceiling and listened to the entire album. It’s so calming and soothing, and it was perfect for that moment.

I’ve since listened to this album many times. Both members of this band can sing incredibly well, and their song-writing and story-telling skills are second to none. The vocals are certainly the focal point of The Civil Wars’ music, but the guitar picking and occasional percussion are nothing to scoff at. This is beautiful music.

The King of Limbs by Radiohead

The King of Limbs by Radiohead

I’ll never understand why The King of Limbs was poorly received by both critics and fans alike. I tend not to compare Radiohead releases to each other — Kid A is one of my favorite albums, but it doesn’t mean I like it any better than OK Computer or Hail to the Thief, it just means that I enjoy it for what it is and how it makes me feel in comparison to other albums that are not made my crazy Englishmen.

Radiohead is definitely a band all about feel. Limbs seems to have more of an electronic feel to it. There are little “glitches” on the tracks, the percussion is so precise that it’s almost robotic, and synths are prevalent. Radiohead has always had hints of this kind of thing since early on, but it’s out in the open here.

The band released a set of remixes of the album throughout the year, and they actually serve to show how great the album is: each one of these songs can and is interpreted in a number of ways.

I love the muted guitar on “Morning Mr Magpie” and the haunting lyrics of the aptly-named “Give Up The Ghost”. If nothing else, Limbs has made me look forward to where Radiohead takes us next.

Weightless by Animals as Leaders

Weightless by Animals as Leaders

Two eight-string guitarists and one insane drummer — it’s such an unusual lineup, and Animals as Leaders is an unusual band. Started as a bit of a side or solo project by lead guitarist Tosin Abasi, his debut album featured just one man and programmed drums, but it laid the groundwork for a technical metal act like no other. After recruiting some bandmates, Animals went on tour and proceeded to melt the faces of anyone who got close.

Weightless takes the concepts explored on the debut — polyrhythms, syncopated percussion, quickly sweeping arpeggios — and multiplies everything by ten. Thousand. It’s heavier, more chaotic, and tighter than ever.

This is another band to see live. They somehow still have stage presence despite the lack of a proper frontman and vocals, and Abasi seems to take genuine pleasure in blowing minds with his music. Percussionist Navene Koperweis manages to keep up with both the twisted programmed beats of old and with his own work on Weightless. It is certainly a feat to play something that someone else wrote with a computer; it’s something else entirely to continue to write new material in the same style.

Burst Apart by The Antlers

Burst Apart by The Antlers

My immediate reaction to “I Don’t Want Love” was “this is a lighter direction for The Antlers than Hospice.” Peter Silberman’s lyrics weren’t much (or even any) happier, but the music was lighter, more melodic, and a little poppier. There’s more rock influence throughout this record than on Hospice. In fact, there’s more, period. Every song is meatier. While some may say that the sparseness of Hospice was one of its key elements, the full-bodied, well-crafted songs of Burst Apart are even more essential to bringing The Antlers to life.

The main contributors to this full sound are Michael Lerner’s focused percussion and the addition of layered guitar work, provided live by Timothy Mislock. The riffs in Parentheses are a definite stand-out. Both on the stage and in the studio, one can see the passion behind the music. I’ve been lucky enough to catch The Antlers live a number of times, and each show is better than the last, with more energy than they could capture on the record. I’ve seen them on the intimate Parish stage, and I’ve seen them on the giant AMD stage at ACL. No matter the setting, these guys play their hearts out.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls

Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls

Once Father, Son, Holy Ghost gets going (which is right away), Girls start rocking. There’s a bit of Spoon influence on the opening track, and a bit of Wilco throughout, but Girls manage to carve out their own rock niche here. “Die” really puts the pedal to the metal, and crowd-favorite “Vomit” has an incredibly catchy melody.

I admittedly know very little about Girls. I saw that they were recommended to me on Rdio, and I couldn’t stop listening to the album. I saw them live at Fun Fun Fun Fest, and they were amazing, but the record is where they really shine. It’s the sort of rock that doesn’t really stand out from the crowd too much until you realize that you’ve stopped doing whatever else it was you were doing while listening and your undivided attention is given to the music.

Little Hell by City and Colour

Little Hell by City and Colour

With the addition of percussion and backup guitars to nearly every song, Dallas Green has fleshed out his solo project to a full-fledged folk act. His lyrics are still tragic and romantic, but now they have more meat behind them.

I must have listened to Bring Me Your Love two hundred times. I haven’t listened to Little Hell that much just yet, but I know I will. I can’t exactly pinpoint why, but this music is inherently re-playable. It never gets old. I usually chalk it up to Green’s incredible story-telling ability and pleasant accompaniment, but no matter how you try to explain it, this is great stuff.

Prepare to be saddened, but also prepare to leave what you’re doing and enter Green’s lyrical world.

No Devolución by Thursday

No Devolución by Thursday

Thursday turned a furious corner with 2006’s A City by the Light Divided and hasn’t looked back. No Devolución is the ultimate manifestation of the post rock-influenced dynamic that was only hinted at on their previous two efforts. There is an almost monstrous quality to some of the tracks on No Devolución: “Past and Future Ruins” is chaotic and grandiose all at once. The percussion through the entire album is forceful: the drums drive and the bass pulses. Ghastly yells are next to quiet, almost croaked vocals.

Geoff Rickly’s lyrics have always been somewhat enigmatic, and that is no different here. There are moments of poignancy — “I lost my wedding ring / down the kitchen sink” — but there are still some puzzlers — “There’s a thousand black cars / driving around in my blood stream.”

No Devolución is Thursday’s magnum opus in a literal sense of the phrase. It is great, and it is the sum of all the passion that these guys have for music; a true work of the heart. It is sad that Thursday has decided step down off of the stage, but we can all be thankful for what they left us with.

Garden Window by O’Brother

Garden Window by O'Brother

Huge. Everything about Garden Window is full, monolithic, and epic. I first heard O’Brother live in August at Emo’s inside. Even there on that puny stage, they had a wall-of-sound presence that couldn’t be ignored. I saw them a couple of months later at the new Emo’s East, and they were even tighter and bigger sounding. Needless to say, I was excited about the release of their LP, Garden Window.

Every song on the album is meaningful — there is no filler. There are some lengthy songs here — crowd favorite “Poison!” clocks in at nearly eight minutes, and “Cleanse Me” is fourteen minutes long — but Garden Window never drags. Quite the opposite: each song is filled with so much building tension and dynamic that it feels like you’re going to explode with each listen. It’s hard to put O’Brother into a single category or genre, but it’s very heavy at its heaviest and it’s always unrelenting. This is post-rock for those who like their coffee strong and black.

I highly recommend seeing O’Brother live, in case that wasn’t obvious. They do a great job of capturing their sound on record, but it’s one thing to rock out to Garden Window with your headphones on at your desk and another thing entirely to hear the bass drone through a song with a cello bow while eye-bulging screams are heard over a wall of guitars and drums.

Major/Minor by Thrice

Major/Minor by Thrice

Thrice has delivered great musical experiences for over ten years. They have taken a curvy road to the release of Major/Minor, but it’s been an enjoyable journey every step of the way.

Major/Minor is the most natural and expected follow-up to any album in Thrice’s discography. It builds on Beggars’ grooviness but adds a lot more punch and poignancy. Every riff is carefully crafted, every beat brings you into the song. Every song is killer.

Thrice could not have ended their musical career on a higher note. The band could never put out any material that disappointed me, but I think this surpasses even harsh critics’ expectations. Let’s face it though: who’s a harsh critic of Thrice?

The first song I heard was the lead single and album opener, “Yellow Belly”. Its bluesy riff motif is echoed throughout the track, and right from the get-go we can feel that this is Thrice at their best. Other standout tracks include “Call It In The Air”, “Words In The Water”, and “Disarmed”, but there isn’t any filler here.

I was heartbroken to hear that Thrice was taking a break shortly after ending the tour that supported the release of Major/Minor. Thankfully I was able to see them live one last time. I know that every member of the band reached that decision after much contention. I’ve heard rumors that brothers Riley and Ed Breckenridge are working on something together, Dustin Kensrue remains the music worship leader at his church in Orange County, and I know that Teppei Teranishi cannot stay away from making music from long. I’m interested in hearing the direction that each of these guys go after being part of such a great band for so long.

Like I said earlier, I picked out nineteen total albums this year. Here are the “honorable mentions,” so to speak, with a little bit about what I loved about them.

Mastodon - The Hunter

Less “out-there” than Crack the Skye, it has some of the most poppy songs Mastodon has ever written, but all the face-melting is still there.

Man Man - Life Fantastic

Incredible live act; the song writing just keeps getting better (and more sincere).

Neon Indian - Era Extraña

I only just found out about this band. It’s great music for chilling out or working to.

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Vocal heaven. There are so many instruments and layers going on here. This is gorgeous, sleepy music.

Mister Heavenly - Out of Love

“Doom wop” is such a hilariously accurate term, and I can’t wait to hear more from these guys if they keep it going.

August Burns Red - Leveler

These guys keep getting better and better. I don’t know how, but they outdid Constellations here. “Internal Cannon” is a standout track with its salsa breakdown — that’s not a typo.

Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials

A lot more serious this time around, but more heart and passion. I’d love to see this act live.

Childish Gambino - Camp

A lot of people dismiss Donald Glover as another actor-wannabe-rapper, but he’s got the chops. So many great beats and awesome, meaningful lyrics here.

Cloudkicker - Let Yourself Be Huge

It took a lot for me not to include this on my list of ten favorites. The closing track is amazing. The whole album is such a departure from other Cloudkicker material, and I’m curious to see where it goes next. Highly recommended.

A lot of my picks centered around bands that I have also seen live this year. There’s something visceral about watching a band make music right in front of you. Whether you’re hearing a new act live for the first time or you’re enjoying live renditions of some of your old favorites, there’s something to be said for experiencing that beauty up close and personal.

I hope you enjoyed my picks. Please let me know what you think and what your favorite music of 2011 is.