My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind
My pick for #9 is, in my opinion, one of the most critically misunderstood and underrated albums of the year. I have read very few reviews that have My Brightest Diamond's latest a proper chance. In All Things Will Unwind, multi-instrumental classicist Shara Worden has crafted an orchestral pop record of the most nuanced kind. When many arrangements in records of this nature are dull and boring, the arrangements here sparkle no doubt thanks to the help of the ensemble group yMusic. yMusic compose most of the backing group behind the music here and their talent in both arrangement and performance truly shine in All Things Will Unwind.
Song-wise, Worden's main attraction is still her angelic voice -- jumping octaves, twisting and turning melodies, and still sounding altogether accessible. Quite simply, I've been waiting for My Brightest Diamond to put out a record like this for a long time and it easily takes the cake for best orchestral pop record of the year.
The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Of all the acoustic indie folk duos that have appeared this year, The Civil Wars have continued to stick in my mind throughout the past twelve months. they've been written about extensively so far, but there is something very special about the interplay between the two members of The Civil Wars. Yes, it's the creative harmonies and yes, it's the intricate songwriting. In fact, I could compliment the technical and musical accomplishments of Barton Hollow for days -- yet in many ways there is something beyond words about how well these two musicians' styles, voices, and personalities match.
"More than anything else, Barton Hollow and the band itself is very much about the 'civil' fashion in which we wage war against our loved ones. The civility of it all is apparent enough in the music; the harmonies that Williams and White sing are almost agreeable and pretty to a fault. There is no clutter getting in the way, just the pristine clarity of an acoustic guitar and two brilliant singers. However, beneath the surface, there is an undeniable tension in the conflicted lyrics and darker musical shades. The best example of this tension might be in their single "Poison and Wine", where they sing, "I don't love you/but I always will". Williams calls this darker side of the music the depiction of the idea that "beauty can be bittersweet and truth can be hard to swallow"."
Read my whole review here.
Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
It should be simple enough to say that Colin Stetson made saxophones cool again, but it turns out there were plenty of instances of that in 2011. Even still, I love giving a top spot on my list to a musician has so perfectly crafted a sound that emphasizes his expertise as a performer. Creating every sound on the album himself in one take, the songs are recorded live with an array of well-placed microphones, capturing every rhythmic fluctuation and noise of Stetson's deliberate performance.
As far as the actual music goes, Judges never lets Stetson's performance overwhelm the songs themselves. Firmly rooted in minimalism and free jazz, Stetson is all kinds of postmodern. But instead of sounding apologetic or high-brow, Judges presents us with a dirty and grimy side of classical/pop crossover. More than that, though, Stetson manages to be legitimately mind-blowing at his instrument without relying on gimmicks or irony. Its a rare thing to find in the indie pop world, but Stetson never really fit into that niche anyway.
Best Tracks: "Judges", "From No Part Of Me Could I Summon A Voice"
Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Everyone knows that Radiohead is one of those bands that will always be constantly redefining themselves and challenging their listeners. Because of that, when people hear a new Radiohead album, they expect something new. Something definitive. Something that will challenge the idea of being a rock band in an "in-your-face" kind of way. And for the past 10 years, that is exactly what Radiohead has done whether it wasOK Computer or Kid A or In Rainbows.
However, King of Limbs presents the band in a new way -- it reintroduces the band as one that can be subtle. So subtle that the band might do something like announce the album for one day and then just release the album the day before in a seemingly inconsequential way. They might release a "newspaper" edition -- a transitory medium that is here one day and forgotten the next. They might have tracks that give the band room to explore and perhaps even jam a bit. Tracks like "Bloom" and "Lotus Flower" feature textures that are mind-blowingly dense, yet at the same time they always feel somewhat effortless. The more I listened to this album throughout the year, the more I realized that Radiohead knew exactly what they were doing with this album and in many ways have surprised fans and critics again, but in a way we never would have expected.
Best Tracks: "Bloom", "Lotus Flower"
CunninLynguists - Oneirology
The world of hip hop is exploding right now and now that artists are releasing free rapid-fire mixtapes online, its been really hard to stay up to date. I understand that. Even still, Oneirology has been one of the must underrated, under-appreciated hip hop albums to come out this year and this is me doing my part. Ambitious, heavy-hearted, and gorgeously produced, CunninLynguists' fifth album is not only their best release yet, its one of my favorite rap albums of the year.
For me, its rare to come across a rap album that has in enough going on in both the rapping and the music itself to warrant listen. Oneirology has Thematically, Oneirology shoots for the moon on Oneirology, taking on dreams as their topic of choice. And by dreams, I mean the beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies that not only exist in our times of sleep, but that color every choice in our lives. CunninLynguists do the ambitious concept justice, delivering some thoughtful rhymes and packing each track with great samples, psychedelic instrumentation, and big beats. Oneirology isn't flawless, but my goodness... listen to "Murder (Act II)" and tell me this thing isn't stumbling upon perfection around every corner.
Best Tracks: "Murder (Act II)", "Enemies With Benefits"
Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
After Girls' debut album dropped in 2009, the surfer-rock indie band was quick to talk about moving in a new direction. While Album was lofi and almost minimalist in a way, Father, Son, Holy Ghost feels overindulgent in comparison. Musically, Girls has opened up to a vast array of new instruments, effects, and new sense of fidelity that makes them sound like a whole new band. "Vomit" is a Floydian ballad that features a gospel choir and an organ while "Die" is a hard-hitting instrumental metal track. Well, "sort of" metal.
But that's not the only thing new about Father, Son, Holy Ghost -- it does that very same thing emotionally as well. The range of emotion on Girls goes from unadulterated bliss on "Honey Bunny" to somber melancholy on "My Ma" to sickening depression on "Vomit". The only thing that holds the whole thing together is the presence of courageous frontman Christopher Owens. Emotionally fragile but brutally honest at every turn, Owens faces up to his past ghosts and relationships -- not denying them, but also not letting them determine his future. If Father, Son, Holy Ghost is an album about identity like Owens says it is, it offers a thrilling expose on the endless potential of life.
Best tracks: "Alex", "Vomit"
James Blake - James Blake
"Radiohead's Kid A, released 11 years ago way ahead of its time, was a prophetic expression of the "digital anxiety" that was at hand with its avant-garde art pop changing the way people understood electronic music. [...] Through the lenses of dubstep, AutoTune, and electronica, James Blake has crafted his very own haunting brand of electronic art pop..."
Certain parts of James Blake's self-titled album from earlier this year have held up really well -- perhaps even gotten better. Songs like "Wilhelm's Scream" and "I Never Learnt To Share" still ring true with that same crushing desperation I felt when I first heard them. The way Blake seamlessly integrates jazz, hip hop, and electronic stands out among the host of musicians trying to do that very thing. Click here for my full review.
Best tracks: "Wilhelm's Scream", "I Never Learnt To Share"
Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
"...on their first major label release, Iron and Wine continues that which was started on The Shepard's Dog of shedding much of the sound that they were once known for. Beam singing is now anything but hushed and his instrumentation anything but acoustic. Kiss Each Other Clean is definitely not just Iron and Wine plugged in. "
Unafraid to throw out older templates for crafting Iron and Wine songs, Kiss Each Other Clean is a daring release that takes a lot of risks but pays off in almost off of them. Fortunately, rather than letting all the new instruments and styles get in the way, they are all used to emphasize Sam Beam's iconic lyricism and maintain a unique 70s soft rock style throughout that has had me returning to the album more than I had originally thought I would. Ultimately, Kiss Each Other Clean is exactly the kind of album you want to see from a band as established as Iron and Wine: This isn't the Iron and Wine you remember, but its the one you won't be able to forget.
Best Tracks: "Tree By The River", "Godless Brother In Love"
Jonny Greenwood - Norwegian Wood OST
Admittedly, I haven't watched as many films this year as I wish I could have, which of course, also means I haven't heard as many great soundtracks either. However, Radiohead guitarist and composer extraordinaire Jonny Greenwood has written possibly one of his best works yet in his scoring of the Japanese film, Norwegian Wood. Greenwood has this tragic underpinning behind his work that so effectively puts the audience inside the minds and hearts of the characters on screen.
The album opens with "Mou sukoshi jibun no koto, kichinto shitai no", which introduces the twisting theme of the score -- here it unfolds in a series of canons and loops just before unraveling into nothing as if it were never there to begin with. The plot follows the love triangle of three young Japanese college students and the deals with themes of identity, sexuality, and loss in their lives. In tracks like "Quarter Tone Broom", Greenwood shows off his beautiful language of dissonance that brilliantly describes the unwinding mental state of Norwegian Wood's characters. But what really made this soundtrack even more special for me was Greenwood's inclusion of two haunting acoustic guitar tracks that has me convinced that Greenwood is one of the most talented and unique composers working in the film industry right now.
Best tracks: "Mou sukoshi jibun no koto, kichinto shitai no", "Toki no senrei o ukete inai mono o yomuna"
Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
After ignoring this English vocal powerhouse for long enough, I'm now convinced that Florence + The Machine is one of the best big pop acts out there right now. Not only does Florence + The Machine do what is required one of them as a radio-friendly pop group by writing some irresistibly catchy tunes, they surprised me by exploring some darker musical and lyrical themes on Ceremonials. Pulling in some lovely soul influences, Florence writes some pretty interesting spiritual ballads and that make Adele sound like a glorified teenage pop idol.
Furthermore, the interest in soul/gospel and spirituality justifies the enormous sound that the group puts out to me. The huge organs, pounding drums, and gospel choir arrangements might be a bit over-the-top for some, but in a year where I was left pretty underwhelmed by Coldplay's album that felt like a significant step backwards, Florence + The Machine have filled that hole in my soul for British pop that's not afraid to be big.
Best Tracks: "Shake It Out", "Spectrum"
Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
You'll see this one at the top of #1 lists across a lot of publications (perhaps even the Grammys) and I can totally get that. Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore album is an ambitious album that in my mind sometimes bites off more than it can chew, but nevertheless delivers a lush, somber musical experience that's hard to deny. Parts of the album hit me originally as being overwrought and self-aware, but following an emotionally rich album like For Emma, Years Ago, that's to be expected to some degree.
The best tracks on the album like "Perth", "Minnesota, WI", and "Holocene" find a balance between letting Justin Vernon explore some more experimental arrangements and sound-producers without loosing focus in the mix and not sounding like a kid in a candy shop. Amidst the ADD instrumentation exists Bon Iver's strongest claim to fame: Justin Vernon's impeccable ability to write catchy melodies that this album is rife full with. For that alone, this album deserves every bit of acclaim its received.
Best tracks: "Perth", "Holocene"