Well, it’s halfway through January, so I figure it’s a fine time to talk about what I thought were the best albums of 2011. I figure the extra two weeks is just time to be really, totally sure about my picks.
Overall, I found 2011 to be a little disappointing. While it may just seem that way based on 2010 — 12 months so solidly packed with hits I’m still discovering albums I overlooked during the period — I can’t help but shake the feeling 2011 will eventually be remembered for highly anticipated offerings from artists that either turned out to be underwhelming at best (Radiohead) or just plain old overhyped (Bon Iver).
No. 5: Dye It Blonde - Smith Westerns
I genuinely believe that most albums would be a lot better if the band just got in there, said what they wanted to say and got out again in 45 minutes. By that token, Dye It Blonde must be extra good because it’s only 35 minutes long. The songs on Dye it Blonde have packed their suitcases densely, but neatly with ideas (mostly hooks) that they unfold with lighting speed then pack up again just as quickly. The songs aren’t rushed, but they almost unfold mechanically: hook, chorus, swingy guitar solo (with the right amount of reverb and fuzz) and then done. Overall the music captures a fantastically sloppy and free vibe, but like the classic britpop bands they claim to be influenced by (Oasis and Suede being the most commonly named dropped ones), the songs are put together with a very keen sense of structure. There is no time for random noodling or explorations of “what just happens here man…” — Smith Westerns know what they want to sound like and know what needs to happen in 3 minutes for it to happen. Smile (one of the longest songs, clocking in at 4:11) is the best example of this, but the kicky opener Weekend is also a solid example of a well put together song that doesn’t sound well put together at first.
Overall: Detroit garage meets britpop meets California reverb plus “who gives a shit” vibes that belies a pretty well put together record. Listen to while driving.
No. 4: Days - Real Estate
This album wasn’t actually going to get anywhere near this list until I went back and listened to it again and realized how much I had grown to like it without noticing. The songs on Days have a tremendously subtle staying power, but are not so overwhelming that they’d ever stick in your head outright. You just end up humming parts of them aimlessly to yourself and wondering where this little song came from. Nothing on Days is too fast, too hard or too ambitious. It’s the kind of music you listen to in the summertime while on vacation by the sea. Imagine listening to Green Aisles while on the beach. Maybe you’re drinking a cold beer. It’s a nice feeling and Real Estate have put together Days as an album of nice feelings. The songs weave an almost shimmery, hazy field over you as you take them in, and it’s pretty obvious these boys are looking to Pavement and Pinback for influence (see the instrumental number Kinder Blumen) which is not a bad thing at all in my books.
Overall: Pleasant, summery songs with nice choruses that doesn’t need nor want to get in your face. Listen to while sitting in the sun.
No. 3: Within And Without - Washed Out
Oh Chillwave. I shouldn’t like you, but I do. You’re like all the best elements of 80s pop, shoegaze and bands who smoke lots and lots of pot. Chillwave is all about having a nice time, but it doesn’t need a guitar to do it, and isn’t really interested in rushing you along or making you do a whole lot to get there. Within And Without is one for the headphones — there are too many small details, synthy flourishes and delicate touches to listen to this anywhere with lots of people and voices around. Without proper attention it all sounds samey and too atmospheric, but in the right conditions it’s easy to hear just how much production effort went into the album.
A lot of reviews sort of position this album against the rest of the Chillwave genre, and I think it does it a bit of a disservice because the stuff Within And Without is more than strong enough to stand on its own merits. It’s the kind of album that when it comes up on shuffle you suddenly want to go back and listen to the whole thing. Amor Fati’s chorus (which can only be described as bangin’) will easily shake you from any stupor or work and grab your attention so you notice the synths (which I can only describe as arcane, but in a good way). I really, really like this album.
Overall: Indie pop meets downtempo meets the 80s. Listen to while on a walk on a rainy day/stoned off your ass.
No. 2: Scintilli - Plaid
Andy: Man, we should make an album. Like a real album, not a soundtrack.
Ed: Yeah. But people didn’t really… appreciate what we were doing with Greedy Baby or Spokes.
Andy: Yeah. Hey, do you remember the 90s?
Ed: Oh man, the 90s were awesome.
Andy: We should do an album that sounds like the music we were making in the 90s.
Ed: That sounds awesome!
Kathleen: —-> http://myfacewhen.com/94/
No seriously, Plaid are great, and their music is always /good/, but it’s not always good listening music. This is their first album in a long, long time that’s been captivating and fun to listen to not because I’m an electronic music nerd but because it is genuinely fun to listen to. Plaid feel younger and fresher here than they have been in a while and as much as I hate the term ‘IDM’, which was so horribly abused in the 90s, this album fits right into what most people less familiar with electronic music would recognize as IDM — music that is intelligent, challenging but also really exciting to listen to.
Overall: Just go listen to this. Plaid running on full steam (and using all their best tricks). Unbank may make you want to dance, or at the very least nod your head. Listen to anytime!
No. 1: Mosaik - Siriusmo
How fitting my favourite album of the year would start off with applause, even though it quickly devolves into jeers. It’s a weird, unconfident start to Moritz Friedrich’s first “real” album, even though he’s been releasing EPs and singles since 2000. It makes you think that he’s finally ready to take a big step, but he’s still not sure his oddball mix of techno, dance music and mid-nineties Warp Records throwbacks are quite ready for today’s listeners. Unlike almost everything on this list, which had a laser focus on its sound, subgenre and even the mood it was trying to convey, Mosaik is a genre-bending throwback of an album that draws on a hugely varied crop of influences and sounds. The result is far less calculated and lot more fun to listen to than most of the music that came out this year. No two tracks are the same: Sirimande sounds like it borrows a page from Squarepusher’s 90s output(complete with jazzy accompaniment), Bad Idea adds dubstep’s drops and beats to the mix, and at its core Idiologie is just a solid piece of techno, which makes it all the more subversive for it’s 2:48 running time. By far the best album to come out in 2011. Creative, inventive, fun and brimming with old ideas that are well used, but not over-used, even people who don’t like electronic music will like Mosaik.
Overall: It’s even got a “secret track”! It’s so quaintly old fashioned. Well played Siriusmo.