It was another good year for new releases, which meant another tough year to narrow down the candidates for a final list. As always, there was lots of shuffling of positions and revisiting of albums for a few last spins, but here's how 2011 shook out for me musically.
And if you're feeling nostalgic, here are some of my other more recent year end lists: 2010, 2009, and 2008 .
Dreamy pop with chiming guitars and smooth, relaxed harmonies that makes them sound a bit like an American Chills (and a bit of fellow New Jerseyans the Feelies).
It's impossible to discuss Longplayer's debut without mentioning ELO. The Swedish band is practically an ELO tribute band with production, instrumentation, song writing style, and vocals that pull from the Discovery through Balance of Power albums. But they're great craftsmen of slick pop with tight harmonies and made a record that is just plain fun.
Although they just entered my radar this year, this is PTM's 6th album and, based on what I've read online, their major label sell out. The band plays uplifting psychedelic glam rock with a little bit of prog. At times they're like a less weird Flaming Lips, but Marc Bolan is the easiest comparison, especially in the vocals. The band works in a pretty narrow template, so not many songs jump out over others, but it works well as a flowing full album.
For their third album, the British quartet have tightened up their sound and focused on straight ahead bouncy British guitar pop. They've dropped the mod revival of the first album (despite recording this one in Paul Weller's studio) and don't break any new musical ground, but they have made an album loaded with bright choruses, ringing guitars, and feel good melodies.
For their 9th album, London's High Llamas build on the rich Brian Wilson inspired chamber pop of their last few albums and end up with a beautiful and cohesive album of summery soft rock. After a while High Llamas seemed to be more about sound than songs, which caused me to lose interest over the years. The last album from them to excite me was 1994's Gideon Gaye, so this one came at me from left field.
There's a layer of melancholia over this whole 2nd album from the San Francisco indie sweethearts d'jour, which is actually what pulls together the differnt styles they dabble and makes it a cohesive album. The songs are poppy, but restrained enough to make some of their charms take a few listens to fully sink in.
If giant fuzzy guitar riffs (heavy on distortion and light on chords) and plodding drums are your speed, then Jeff the Brotherhood is the band for you. On their second album the Nashville duo makes an unlikely combo of big dumb stoner rock and infectious Weezer-like pop. The album is pretty evenly split between punky garage rockers and classic rock fueled dirges. They have elements of Blue Cheer, the Ramones, and Black Keys without really sounding like any of those bands. In another band's hands the formula could get tired quickly, but the brothers know their way around a hook and it's obvious how much fun they're having.
Big crunching guitars, high energy melodies, and solid hooks are all in plentiful supply on this debut from New Jersey's Meyerman. They don't reinvent the power pop wheel, but they do a fantastic job keeping it spinning. This album reminds me a bit of Velvet Crush, Love Nut, Matthew Sweet, Flop, and the Shazam. Gripweeds drummer Kurt Reil produces. Snippets of each song on their website.
Wilco is a band I've always respected and enjoyed in parts, but out of eight albums this is only the second one I've loved from start to finish (the other being 1999's Summerteeth, which was surprisingly my #1 album of the year). This album is eclectic and the band has room to experiment, but the songwriting seems more focused than the last few albums and it feels like a whole band working together as a single unit.
On his 2nd album, the British singer/songwriter excels at Summery 60's inspired pop with jangley guitars and rich harmonies. Joining him is friend Nigel Clark of Dodgy, who is an obvious compatriot in style and musical sensibility. Cox is a top-notch songwriter in the classic power pop tradition and delivers an infectious batch of sharp, concise pop treats. Tony Cox MySpace page.
Not that they had many rough edges to start with, but for their third album the Kooks have refined their strummy Britpop sound and moved a bit more to the middle of the road. There are more acoustic guitars than I remember on their first two albums with a little less Kinks influence and a bit more mid period Beatles. The songs are well crafted and deceptively simple, but combined make up a real consistent album full of gleeful ear candy.
Other than maybe Loudon Wainwright III, nobody can shift as effortlessly between biting social satire and heartfelt and personal declarations as John Wesley Harding does. He has a seemingly endless supply of lyrical wordplay, but his bag of musical tricks appears to also be as deep and diverse. He's backed by an allstar cast, including a core band of Peter Buck and the Decemberists, along with Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey (who also co-produces with Wes) and Rosanne Cash. His sense of humor is dry and some of his observations can be bleak, but he delivers the songs with such charm and optimism that the album is a joy to listen to.
The 3rd solo album from this Welsh pop eccentric (and Super Furry Animals frontman) is a subtle grower of record. The easy going melodies have a vibe of 70's AM pop, but with loungey and slightly psychedelic flourishes that recall artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach, Divine Comedy, and the Zombies. Occasionally a bit melancholy, but always with a sweet optimism that keeps bringing me back to it. This is one of my favorite headphones albums of 2011.
Even a casual perusal of my year end lists should tip you off that I'm a big power pop nerd, and that makes me the target audience for LA's Army Navy. Their second album is a nice follow-up to one of the all time great power pop debuts, offering a new batch of toe tapping songs along the lines of Teenage Fanclub or Let's Active. Full of shimmering guitars and punchy melodies, this is one of the happiest collections of songs about heartbreak you'll hear all year.
Tommy Keene might very well be the most consistent and reliable pop artist making records today. His guitar playing is a bit more muscular than most of his pop contemporaries and he likes to rough up the edges with a bit of grit and fuzz, but he is a classic pop song writer in every sense of the word. He doesn't deviate far from his established template of jangly power pop with ringing guitars and what appears to be a bottomless well of instantly catchy hooks, but he does mix in a few surprises like an occasional horn blast or the weird keyboard instrumental right in the middle of the album. Most of the songs here could comfortably fill in anything off of his last few albums without missing a beat, but a new batch of Tommy Keene is something to celebrate.
Gang of Four have a legacy that's pretty hard to live up to, but for their first album of new material since the 2005 reunion (and revitalization) they turn in an album that falls somewhere between a redeux of past glories and a fresh attack on what they should sound like in 2011. This is unmistakenly a Gang of Four album - loaded with Andy Gill's signature guitar bursts, a propulsive rhythm section, and Jon King's distinctive tense vocal delivery. It doesn't stand up to Entertainment or Solid Gold, but it does stand up to endless line of bands that have been trying to emulate or rebuild the Go4 template to varying degrees of success. I wish they would have done it with bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham, but their presence didn't prove to be as essential as I would have thought. There's a slight mis-step or two here, but overall it's a sincere and solid album of well crafted dance-able post punk that's been a playstack staple for me all year.
For album #6 the Decemberists have ditched much of high concept pretension that bogged down the last few records and focused on more straight-forward Americana pop. Colin Meloy still fills his songs with quirky twists, but this time the emphasis in on the melodies. The record is warm and organic, full with acoustic guitars, pedal steel, banjo, organ, jangley guitar (some of which comes from guest Peter Buck), and some wonderful harmonies from guest vocalist Gillian Welch. The King Is Dead makes subtle nods to artists like Gram Parsons, the Band, Cracker, IRS Records era REM, and on a few songs they somehow sound like an Appalachian Smiths.
Le Butcherettes' debut is an exciting burst of new wavey punk with a powerful combination of catchy hooks, garage energy, and genre pushing experimentalism. The band's edgy attack is given an almost radio-friendly slickness thanks to production from Mars Volta/At the Drive-In's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (who also plays bass). Singer/guitarist Teri Gender Bender has a great voice and is as comfortable with warm sultry singing as she is with in-your-face punkrock shouting. The closest reference I can think of is the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP (before they toned down the intensity) or a more hyper Kills. Their approach is confrontational and occasionally they sound a bit dangerous, but they never lose that sense of fun, which is what makes me keep coming back to Sin Sin Sin.
Sonically, Blood Pressures is one of the coolest sounding records I've heard in a long time. The Kills have toned down some of the dance beats of their last album, returning to the more minimal blues dirge of the first two records. But they don't coast on atmospherics and attitude - they have a well written batch of songs and the type of hooks that get lodged in your head. They do quite a bit with what would seem like a limited template of drum machine, vocals and gritty guitars. Alison Mosshart's seductive vocals are stronger than ever and perfectly suited to the sleazy world the band has created.
For their third album UK press darlings the Horrors tackle epic synthpop, coming off like a modern Simple Minds with a 90's Brit Pop and shoegazer influence. Almost all of the songs are mini anthems, building on gorgeous melodies with dense arrangements and larger-than-life choruses. There are bits of Echo, the Verve, OMD, the Chameleons, and My Bloody Valentine woven into their sound, but they never stay on one musical reference point too long before moving on. I think the best description of the Skying I've read is that it sounds like a long lost John Hughes soundtrack.
Although only 28 years old, Fela Kuti's youngest son Seun has led his father's band for half of his life. On this, his second album, Seun confidently leads Egypt 80 (more than half of the current lineup also served under Fela) through a burning batch of funky polyrhythmic grooves with politically charged lyrics. Seun is an Afrobeat traditionalist (unlike his brother Femi, who incorporates more pop influences), but he does tweak the sound a bit for a new generation, thanks in part to production from Brian Eno and John Reynolds. It's easy to get lost in the album's hypnotic looping rhythms and layers of horns, but it's far from a background record.
I'll be upfront and say that I'm probably not the most reliable person to give a critical analysis to a new FoW album. They're one of my alltime favorite bands and I love everything they've done, so as long as it still sounds like FoW I'm going to like it. This is their fifth album and it's in the same mold that they do so damn well. The album is stronger than their last, Traffic and Weather, but doesn't break any new ground. You get a bunch of bouncy and mid-tempo pop songs with clever lyrics and stories of everyday minutia from middleclass suburbia. Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger have comfortably settled into the niche they've carved out for themselves after 20 years and for fans like me that's what I want.
Considering that this is Edwyn's first album written and recorded since his near complete loss of speech and being confined to a wheelchair after 2 brain hemorrhages in 2005, Losing Sleep is a surprisingly uplifting album. As with past albums, he delivers a collection of well crafted post punk rooted pop with an occasional bit of Northern Soul mixed in. For this, his seventh solo album, he gets help from Johnny Marr, Roddy Frame, and members of Franz Ferdinand and the Drums. I was on the fence including this album since it came out in the UK in 2010, but it didn't make Stateside until this year, so I'm letting it slide.
Shimmering guitars and soaring melodies dominate the 4th album from Milwaukee's Maritime. Imagine Nada Surf or Deathcab for Cutie with some shoegazer tendencies and a more propulsive drummer to get an idea of what they sound like. Between their indie rock pedigree (past bands include Promise Ring and Dismemberment Plan) and sheer quality of the songs I expected this to be one of the big buzz records of 2011, but it seems like press moved on to trendier sounds. This is an excellent album of lush and immediately likable pop from a band that makes it seem so easy.
This is empty calorie feelgood pop - the kind of stuff that ends up in pharmaceutical commercials and trailers for romantic comedies. But it's REALLY GOOD empty calorie pop and one of my most played albums of the year. This London five-piece started out as a folky pop band, and the songs here all sound like they started out as smaller organic songs. But they added synths and drum machines (and a gospel choir and xylophones) and gave it a slick epic production. They're a bit similar in style to Arcade Fire and many of the songs have a Tom Petty approach to storytelling. In another case of me not having my thumb on America's pulse, I thought it was a sure thing that "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N." would be one of the year's biggest singles.
It's easy to take Paul Simon for granted - he's ingrained in our musical conscious thanks to a huge catalog of amazing songs. He's reliable to always push forward whithout abandoning his stregnths - even when he misses the mark a bit he's still compelling. For this, his twelth album, he pulls from everything he's done so well over his entire career and brings it all together into one remarkable and cohesive piece. By now the the African and Asian rhythms sound so natural with Paul's voice and guitar it's hard to imagine a Simon record without them. Somehow he's made a record that comforatbly sits along side any of his previous work while still sounding current and vital. The buzz phrase on this record is "Paul Simon's best album since Graceland", but I think you can drop the "since Graceland" part and still be right on target.
Pete & the Pirates are a distinctly British pop band, but not one that can be lumped into the Britpop pool. They have more in common with the poppier songs by post punk bands like the Chameleons, Sad Lovers & Giants, and the Comsat Angels or Different Kind of Tension era Buzccocks. They write catchy songs, but with moody overtones, reminding me a bit of a more playful and diverse Editors. They already have two fantastic albums out, but these guys strike me as a band that still has their best album ahead of them.
Wonderfully produced and excessively retro album that could have been a "style over substance" problem if it weren't for the top drawer performances and high quality of the songs. Miles was the frontman for UK's Rascals and one half of the equally 60's pop obsessed Last Shadow Puppets with Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. This is his solo debut, but it could almost be a sequel to the Last Shadow Puppets album, although with a wider net of music reference points. He shifts from loungey swingers to outright rocking pop with ease and sound equally comfortable with both. There's no denying the homage to the sounds of Motown, Bacharach, Caifornia pop, and the Walker Brothers, but Miles is skilled enough to put his own spin on the sounds and created a convincingly original album rather than just being a nostalgic reworking of days gone by.
These gorgeously lush pop songs play like a batch of little indie rock Phil Spector symphonies. Fueled by a youthful enthusiasm, the second album from Chicago's Smith Westerns is rich with timeless melodies, jangley guitars with George Harrison-like flourishes, and heavenly layered vocals that recall John Lennon's "#9 Dream". I also hear bits of the Raspberries, Suede, and Teenage Fanclub and a little bubblegum sugar. This was easily my most played album of 2011.
A few albums that were contenders but didn't quite make the cut included TITLE TRACKS, CLOUD NOTHINGS, TINARIWEN, RED BUTTON, LYKKE LI, and RAPHAEL SAADIQ.
There were a few records I regret not getting a chance to pick up that I'm pretty sure could have been contenders, including kd Lang, Elbow, Tom Waits, Pugwash, the Oh Sees, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. I was especially bummed to find out Gary Numan's album came out a few weeks ago and I didn't even know about it until it was too late.
And there were a few albums I see getting lots of year end love that I just don't get, namely Bon Iver, tUnE-yArDs, and Florence & The Machine.
Well, another year is in the can and I'm looking forward to starting all over again with a new batch of releases in 2012.