Looking out my window on this crisp November morning, all the Fall colors have disappeared and left only a few survivors hanging from the naked trees in the neighborhood. Winter is upon us here in Denver, Colorado and those few hangers-on will be gone with the next storm. It’s a transitional time, out with the old (and after a few months of ice and snow), in with the new. The same can be said for the albums of 2011. These are the weeks I paddle upstream, holding onto only those albums that I deem necessary for the journey. Making my lists, checking them twice — putting together those year-end catalogs I will probably laugh at just a few years from now. I enjoy this time though. Come November I stop listening to new music altogether. For two months I can relax and spend quality time with those I love. During this process, there are always a handful of albums on the fringe. Like those last leaves on the tree, the winds of change have yet to take them away, but that doesn’t make them safe from the elements — safe from being a forgotten leaf in a year of millions. This list is to protect those I don’t want to lose. These are the 12 albums I never got around to recommending over the past 12 months, but I refuse to let be relegated to the halls of obscurity. In fact, some of these albums are among the year’s best.
BADBADNOTGOOD – BBNG
This Canadian ‘nu-jazz’ trio presents instrumental interpretations of hip-hop classics, with original material for thrown in for good balance. They have Odd Future connections, in case that’s something that matters to you. I actually know nothing about jazz, nothing what-so-ever, all I know is that this is album is simple, yet additive. It is also free. BBNG are not bad, they are good (good).
Born Gold – Bodysongs
(Hovercraft/Crash Symbols, 2011)
Remember those Gobble Gobble singles that made my longlist of tracks last year? Ever wonder when the album was coming out? Well, it seems it arrived under the disguise of Bodysongs — the debut album from Born Gold (the new name for the same band). Threatening a subgenre of their own, let’s just keep it simple and call them Canadian synthpop.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical
This album has no right to be this good. CYHSY were the ultimate indie buzz band back in ’05 when they gained so much popularity, so quickly, they essentially wrote their own terms. That self-titled album rose to the top in a year that has yet to be surpassed in terms of incredible releases. And then they imploded. Some Loud Thunder came off as a cry for help from under the collapsed tower of fame. The pressures associated with the hype were just too strong for this fledgling band. CYHSY went away for four years before resurfacing with Hysterical, and they have learned a lot during this hiatus. Hysterical is not only one of the strongest ‘indie rock’ releases of the year, it showcases an extremely confident band.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
(Barsuk/Memphis Industries, 2011)
Cymbals Eat Guitars are hardly underdogs. Both their albums have been heavily praised by those in the know, but somehow I feel like they are always going to exist on the fringes of the ‘hype-band breakout’. I pride myself on being the only one in my small circle of influence who really likes this band. Why There Are Mountains was one of the best albums of ’09, and while Lenses Alien doesn’t quite live up to that debut, it is no sophomore slump. I especially love the fact that it opens with a nine minute track — kinda like a test (or a middle finger) to those just testing the waters. This is by no means my favorite album of the year, but it has been on heavy rotation for quite a while — cementing itself as a part of 2011.
Drake – Take Care
(Young Money, Cash Money, 2011)
The fact that Take Care is listed here is a testament to how good Drake‘s newest egoaugrphy really is. I am not a huge Drake fan. He get props for writing rhymes — there are countless genius lines here — but I can’t help feel like he’s just regurgitating what he has learned from Yeezy and Weezy. There is no debate that he can out-sing any of his contemporaries, but when it comes to rapping, I find him lacking. So, why do I like Take Care so much? Two reasons — the absolute confidence and the well-placed guests. On Crew Love, The Weeknd might beat Drake at his own game, and on We’ll Be Fine, the Birdman almost embarrasses him as an emcee. But these, along with Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Andre 3000, Rick Ross, and of course Lil’ Wayne, break up the monotonous Drake-flow and add an element of depth to this album. I know I sound like I’m hating on the guy, and maybe I am, but I like what he has to say, I like his flow and I like his choice of friends. This album works as one of the best in the genre despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of his delivery.
Future Islands – On the Water
(Thrill Jockey, 2011)
This Baltimore trio are among my prized possessions. When I think back on bands I discovered ‘way back when’, Future Islands hold court with the likes of The Hold Steady, The National, Titus Andronicus, Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade. It was the live show that hooked me, and it was In Evening Air that catapulted them to rockstar status in my eyes. So when On the Water was released a few months ago, I was nervous. I listened to it once and immediately filed it away for later. On first listen I was disappointed. I couldn’t get past the fact that it was a muted version of the band I knew and loved. But like a good bottle of wine, this sophomore release for Thrill Jockey just needed time to breathe. Essentially an album of love songs with the occasional dance track, this album proves to be much more honest than previous works. Like I mentioned in the live review, Sam is a man literally exploding with emotion — secreting sincerity. For the Future Islands novice, I would recommend spending time with In Evening Air before delving into Sam‘s personal diary. But once you develop a taste, you will realize 2011 was a fine year for Future Islands.
Gauntlet Hair – Gauntlet Hair
(Dead Oceans, 2011)
Rhinoceropolis-bred Gauntlet Hair are a band I’ve very much wanted to embrace. It’s always exciting when a local act starts getting national attention — makes me a proud card-carrying member of this Mile High City — but the actual music from this Denver (via Illinois) duo has never held my attention as long as the articles written about them. Having seen them live (opening slots only) and downloaded the various singles floating around, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was seeing Animal Collective-lite. It wasn’t until the release of their full length album (as well as a glowing review from a friend who saw them at The New Parish in Oakland) that I came around to Gauntlet Hair. This album is strangely addictive. Like a mood ring, it almost seems to adapt to your current condition — painting exactly the right colors for whatever you’re feeling at that exact moment in time.
Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
(True Panther, 2011)
With Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls shed their back-story and prove to the world that they are more than tabloid fodder. Vomit, with the soaring female chorus at the end, could easily carry this album into critic’s lists across the country all on its own. It might even be the most gut-wrenching (pun intended) song of the year, if not the decade. In the past, I have struggled with Girls (pun not intended), never knowing if I should take them seriously. I couldn’t help feeling taken advantage of — like I’d fallen hard for some sort of joke — but this album, and their epic live performances, have proved this is a serious band, with serious range, making some seriously good music.
Lissie – Covered Up With Flowers
(Fat Possum, 2011)
Having praised Lissie for quite a few years now, I will be the first to admit there is something missing in her recordings. Those who have witnessed the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta exercise themselves from her skinny, white frame are cursed to only hear a muted Lissie on record. The live performance is what make this girl a unique talent — that, and a talent for making the most bizarre cover songs work. Metallica, Lady Gaga, and of course the incredible version of Kid Cudi‘s Pursuit of Happiness are all collected here, along with some Nick Cave and Joe South. Although things still sound a little subdued, this is an EP worth picking up.
Love Inks – E.S.P.
(Hell Yes Records, 2011)
This album haunts me. Every time I dismiss Love Inks as another bland, husband-wife pop band, I listen to E.S.P. again and I thoroughly enjoy it. Month after month I sit down to write a recommendation for this band and these ten simple pop songs and my mind locks up — I have nothing to say about them. And that’s where I stand today. There is nothing profoundly unique or groundbreaking about this album. There is no way to use words to convince you it’s worth your time. I simply like the way it sounds.
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
M83 have yet to release an album that has failed to make my year-end list, and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming will be no exception. However, I do not believe it is their (his) best album — not by a long shot. The slightly less epic Before the Dawn Heals Us will probably always hold the top spot in my book. Maybe it’s just because that album was my first exposure to Anthony Gonzalez‘s work, but it’s probably because the album’s release coincided with my return from a year abroad, and more importantly, my move into San Francisco. From Moonchild to Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun — that album became the soundtrack to my nights that had became my days. A couple years later, Saturdays = Youth took a while to grow on me, but now it holds a spot right next to the classic 80’s movies it was influenced by. And now we have Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — a double album of epic proportions. The sounds is HUGE, the French producer is now a full blown live band (and the hottest ticket this year), and when they are on, they are ON, but that’s not to say there isn’t quite a bit of filler here. I really think this would have been a much better album if edited down a bit, but it will mark 2011 as the year M83 made it — really made it. And I have to admit, I’m kinda jealous of the kids out there — those who just discovered the latest soundtrack to their lives in the after-hours.
Opeth – Heritage
Have you ever been so disappointed in an album — an album that was not only a letdown, but sounded absolutely nothing like what you expected it to sound like. After you’re initial dismay at how bad the album was, have you read reviews and heard from friends that album, while definitely a departure for the band, was actually pretty amazing? Have you then spent more time with said album than any of the albums you really liked that year? Well, Opeth‘s tenth studio release, Heritage, might not be the first album to meet the above criteria, but I think it might represent the largest gap in terms of enjoyment from first listen to tenth listen. I had expected this to be one of the top metal releases of the year, and then it turned out to not even be a metal album. I think that was the biggest hurdle. But listen after listen after listen, and then seeing the material performed live, has made me a believer. Is this the Opeth album I wanted? No. Will it find its way onto my top metal albums of the year? No. (because there were many better metal albums and this is NOT metal) Is it a progressive album with incredible depth and (dare I say) soul? Yes, it is. Opeth didn’t give me what I wanted this year, but they did provide me with the perfect puzzle, and I have to say Heritage was worth the work it took to figure it out.