A year in review: Fave Albums of 2011

[By Brian Lee]

I must say I’ve been blessed with good music throughout the year 2011. Narrowing 50+ albums into a top 15 list is no easy task as these are equally excellent albums and they all speak to my heart dearly.

 Nevertheless, I think there is a vast array of excellent LPs from our indie darlings (Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Bjork) and promising new artists (Anna Calvi, Youth Lagoon, and SBTRKT) that will make significant strides for years to come. And discovering these new artists is my sole reason why I became that obsessed music fan today – downloading daily MP3 blogs, reading MOJO as my bible, or going to obscure artists showing at the Echo. Yes, in the midst of burgeoning music mediocrity, there are still artists out there who think outside the proverbial box and travel the road less travelled!

Honorable Mentions: Beirut – Rip Tide, Bjork – Biophilia, Portugal.The Man – In The Mountain, The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient, Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, The Horrors – Skying, St. Vincent – Strange Mercy, Feist – Metals, Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes, Iceage – New Brigade, Austra – Feel it Break.

15. The Weeknd – House of Balloons

One word to describe The Weeknd music: DEBAUCHERY.  Talking about sex and hard drugs while blending hip-hop with Burial-style techno scrape, 21-year-old Ethiopian-Canadian Abel Tesfaye is one of the greatest forces in contemporary R&B. This FREE download is the furthest thing from a throwaway, it’s a CLASSIC.





14. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

 I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played “Will Do” and all the remix variations on my dingy IPOD. “Will Do” conveys a simple message: To fall in love is an excruciating agony. Nonetheless, I was very excited to hear another album from TV on the Radio. No, it’s not the experimental rock ala “Dear Science” or “Return to Cookie Mountain”, instead they approach simplicity here by writing intimate love songs.




13. Cults – Cults

I was lucky enough to stand two feet away from the speaker in one of their showings. Say what you want about Madeline Follin’s childlike-alto, but her vocal at the show is the furthest thing from cutesy. In short, Cults’ self-titled debut is fun, surprisingly profound, and very familiar. A pastiche of early sixties girl pop sound (The Shangri-Las) and surf rock guitar, this is a summertime pop-gem that you’ll find yourself playing over and over again as you sing along with your buddies (during those drunken nights, of course).


 12. Atlas Sound – Parallax

 I wrote a thorough review of this album here. In short, I said “Parallax” still reflects Cox’s isolation and self-deprecating persona, however, his progression in songwriting and minimum vocal effects make him sound as if he’s more comfortable conveying his emotions. Those looking for an entry point to Cox’s sometimes cryptic outings may have found their answer in this carefully experimented pop album.



11. Zomby – Dedication

This is a very experimental yet highly artistic dubstep album. For the most part, I am intrigued with the fidgety nature of this album. At some point he builds up this hypnotic rhythm and when you expect that big bombastic roar, Zomby delivers the unexpected: a somber piano play that sends chills down to your spine.  The emotion in this album is also very whimsical, for the most part solemn, but there were some jovial moments too.  My only gripe is: Why did this ear candy have to stop after “only” 35 minutes?



10. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

There’s no denying that dream pop ala Cocteau Twins is the ubiquitous music trend these days. And I nominate 22-year-old Trevor Powers as the whiz kid of this burgeoning power pop movement.  That fragile vocal distortion and ethereal soundscape creates this larger than life melancholy longing and nostalgic feel; it’s the kind of record you want to play on repeat while hiding under your blanket during the cold Sunday morning. His lyric approach is so highly introspective that you can’t help uttering your deepest sympathy for Power’s teenage melodrama. “July” is probably the quintessential of teenage anguish as he croons, “Five years ago, in my backyard I sang love away…Little did I know that real love had not quite yet found me”

 9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Four years ago Justin Vernon crafted “For Emma, Forever Ago”, a stunning acoustic guitar arrangement embellished by his emotionally-charged falsetto. That was easily my top 5 all time beloved albums! A few months ago I was extremely apprehensive about listening to his follow up album. I was afraid I wouldn’t feel the same 10,000 volts of electricity surging under my skin every time I listened to “For Emma, Forever Ago”. Instead, he proved me wrong! “Bon Iver” is an amalgamation of folk music with R&B and 80’s contemporary pop that creates such a gorgeous landscape into Vernon’s musical reverie. The emotional depth is not as significant as “For Emma, Forever Ago” but Vernon is eyeing something else: Creativity!

8. Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine

Chillwaves could feel quite stagnant with the droning sound and heavy repetition. Today, Toro Y Moi is deepening the chillwaves’ palate with psychedelic guitar distortion, heavy disco beats and funk guitar chords in favor of guitar sampling and hazy-sinth. The result is an amazingly relaxed record that necessitates fervent dancing.  



 7. Panda Bear – Tomboy

I waited for Noah Lennox’s masterpiece “Person Pitch” follow-up four long years! And he did not disappoint! This king of chillwave nation is still the true music genius even though his formula is quite obvious: two ounces of Beach Boys melodies, one ounce of Velvet Underground’s pop noir, a spoonful of soundscapes, and two buckets of Reverb. The first time I heard “Last Night at the Jetty” I got so hypnotized to the summery haze of Lennox’s vocal harmonies, I proclaimed strongly on twitter, “Fellas, I present you the apex of Western Civilization!”



6.  PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Singlehandedly the best PJ Harvey album since “To Bring You My Love”!  Just when I thought Punk Rock is dead, PJ Harvey explores the central theme of our dysfunctional society: death, war and tales of lost life & identity.  At its core, “Let England Shake” is a fearsome imaginative poetic folk album crafted by a post-punk artist. Long gone are the communal heartbreak sing-alongs (ala “Long Snake Moan”), instead you get a vivid (or horrid) depiction of today’s battlegrounds…as PJ Harvey fretfully uttered, “I’ve seen soldiers falling like lumps of meat” in “The Words that Maketh Murder”. Additionally, the mournful sound of string, horns and piano ballad suffuses a stark somber aura to this somewhat haunting yet upbeat album.  (Thought I was listening to Radiohead’s “Amnesiac” for a second)

5. Radiohead – King of Limbs

Yes I am a sucker for everything Radiohead. At first listen, this eerie yet accessible sonic adventure sounds like any other later Radiohead albums: free-form jazz, hissy beats, spacious bass lines & tricky rhythms. But after listening to this “extremely short 38 minutes” album for an entire week (on repeat), I remembered I just had to play it every day for the next two months. And that’s the beauty of any Radiohead record; it’s not designed for hurried listening instead it builds a curiosity for exploration and you’ll soon be bobbing to this highly artistic soundscapes (Yes, you can have a strange addiction to certain music). “King of Limbs” is not an envelope-pushing album that critics would gush for the next decade (ala KID A or OK Computer) but this album reaffirms Radiohead as the most innovative and exciting experimentalists despite the burgeoning young guns (Flying Lotus, James Blake, Trentmoller, etc).

4. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi

Love…Love…Love this Anna Calvi’s self-titled debut! Pitchfork said her vocal is somewhat a blend of Edith Piaf, Patti Smith, and PJ Harvey. I think Calvi’s vocal equally demonstrates Beth Gibbon’s (Portishead) fragility and PJ Harvey’s bravado. Calvi’s debut album is very similar to PJ Harvey’s masterpiece “To Bring You My Love”. The album is full of dark, atmospheric, seductive pop. Quite easy listening…I know Brian Eno would vouch for this!



3. tUnE-yArDs – WHOKILL

Merrill Garbus, where have you been all my life? Never had this much FUN listening to an album till I found you! Okay, to illustrate the hybrid of her sound is just as HARD as initiating a conversation with a beautiful girl. tUnE-yArDs is an uninhibited orchestration of folk music, afro-beat, free-jazz, dub rhythms, and sunshine melodies. Delivering her tunes with childlike playfulness, “WHOKILL” found Garbus voicing her discontent for American society, especially when it comes to gender, race and privilege. Additionally, I can’t say enough good things about Garbus’ vocal range… Her lower register is quite masculine, but she can also ascend to a sultry R&B or a soul goddess – Quite the perfect specimen!


2. M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

Remember M83’s 2008 “Saturdays=Youth”? Gorgeous, Nostalgic, John Hughes’ teen angst, Ambient and very Bedroom Floor-ish.  What’s different this time around? Massive Volume, Ferocious Drumming, Spielberg’s alternate universe, and very Stadium Rock-ish. As soon as I heard “Midnight City”, I know this is synth-pop maestro Anthony Gonzalez ambitious attempt to create his “OK Computer”.  Yes, the song “Midnight City” is EPIC…The amalgamation of ear-burrowing hook, unruly live percussion, assiduous drumming, indomitable sax solo and Nika Roza Danilova (Zola Jesus) hauntingly beautiful vocal…Just throw the gauntlet and declare “Midnight City” as SINGLE OF THE DECADE!



MY FAVORITE RECORD OF THE YEAR! How do you describe something you truly love? Most of the time you’re speechless…but I will try my best. The enigmatic SBTRKT(pronounced “subtract”) music can be described as dubstep with vocals (while experimenting with half a dozen genre). For me, ordinary dubstep can be quite repetitious (I gotta be in the mood). Conversely, SBTRKT incorporates bass experimentation with funk, house beats, and lots of tender vocals.  I think dubstep should steer more into this direction – singing adds emotion and sensibility to an electronic driven music – whether it’s remoteness, misfortune, or excitement. No different with SBTRKT debut, you get these busy beats that build up your curiosity, then when the vocals kick in…It speaks dearly to your heart.


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