This is going up really late, but with all the great music that was released in 2011, I feel like it woud've been a crime to not finish what I had started. It's been an awesome year for me personally and I've gotten some really great chances to write for some bigger publications. Currently I'm freelancing for Paste Magazine, Prefix, and Relevant Magazine -- with more on the way hopefully.
As for The Feedback Loop, I have some exciting things planned for 2012, so stay tuned. Below is my final list. Feel free to tell me what music you liked from 2011 in the comments below!
25 TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
24 Little Dragon - Ritual Union
23 Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4Eva
22 Destroyer - Kaputt
21 John Mark McMillan - Economy
20 Grouper - A I A / Alien Observer
19 Bon Iver - Bon Iver
18 Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
17 Jonny Greenwood - Norwegian Wood OST
16 Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
15 James Blake - James Blake
14 Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
13 CunninLynguists - Oneirology
12 Radiohead - King of Limbs
11 Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
10 The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
9 My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind
8 Lia Ices - Grown Unknown
7 Rustie - Glass Swords
6 St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
5 The Roots - undun
4 My Morning Jacket - Circuital
3 Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
2 PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
1 M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
M83 - Midnight City
If there's one thing I've noticed about my listening habits in the past couple years it's that I don't have the same musical endurance I used to have. It might be that I listen to a lot more music than I used to or it might be that we all have a certain degree of ADD from using the internet too much. Either way, I've found that I often spend huge amounts of time with the first half of albums and tend to neglect the latter half. As sort of a resolution to that, I've really begun to love the shorter length of EPs -- four or five tracks that I can really get a good grip on and know inside and out.
It was strange then when I realized that the massive double-album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was, without a doubt, my favorite album of 2011.
However, I found a sense of freedom in the epic scale of the album. Instead of a tightly-knit album of songs, I discovered a lot of space to get lost in the music. Instrumental tracks wandered and grew, only to fade out in the end, while songs like "Midnight City" and "OK Pal" burst with life and celebration. Unlike so many other indie releases these days, it's gestures were grand and majestic, not subtle in any way. While I've found that I enjoy listening to smaller amounts of music in repeated listening times in my day-to-day life, albums like Hurry Up, We're Dreaming and my favorite album from 2010, Sufjan Steven's Age of Adz prove to me that big concepts and ambitious expressions still move me most.
To read more of what I've written on the album, click here and here.
Best Tracks: "Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)", "Midnight City"
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
You don't have to look very far to see that the modern day Western peace movements are partisan politics at best or nonexistent at worst. Sadly, it's beginning to feel like in the Western world the idea of being at perpetual war has become a part of our cultural psyche. Every once and a while, though, a piece of art, film, or music can move people in their serious and somber portrayals of war. In the past it's been films like Schindler's List, Apocalypse Now, or The Hurt Locker -- films that show the tragic effects of war for what they are rather than falling back on typical anti-war rhetoric. For me, PJ Harvey's Let England Shake was this 2011's case against violence and warfare.
In each of these daringly simple, but masterful songs, the singer-songwriting veteran takes a step back from personal dramas to create her magnum opus of sorts. From the opening titular track on, PJ Harvey had me hooked to her idiosyncratic vocal deliveries and sparse arrangements -- a stunning exercise in controlled creativity and an example of a musician and songwriter at the top of her game. More than anything else though, as the war in Afghanistan drags on and U.S. military bases continue to pop up all over the world, I can't help but turn to my own country that I love and wonder if we need our own PJ Harvey to finally wake up.
Read my full review here.
Best Tracks: "Let England Shake", "The Words That Maketh Murder"
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
If there's one thing that can really turn me off from any music publication, it's got to be when albums get discredited simply because it's not the band's first album. Not surprisingly, I sort of did the same thing when I first heard Helplessness Blues. At first I wavered as to whether or not I preferred the simplicity of heart in Fleet Foxes' debut self-titled album over the emotional complexity in Helplessness Blues. I reasoned that perhaps Fleet Foxes were biting off more than they could chew -- that maybe they should stick to singing about furry animals and sunrises. That is, until the Occupy movement hit the streets in every major city in country, young people took over the Republican Party behind a 76-year old libertarian named Ron Paul, and every able-bodied Internet user regardless of political affiliation took up arms against the Internet censorship bill, SOPA.
Not to say that Helplessness Blues is at all a political album. Instead, it's music about desiring to be a part of something bigger than yourself; part of a movement. It rightly reaches back to the Joan Baezs and John Lennons of the original youth movement of the 60s for inspiration both musically and thematically -- attempting to inspire people to dare be more than consumers of materialism. When Paste assembled a list called the 10 Anthems For Our Generation and put the titular track from Fleet Foxes' album at #1 over songs by Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, and The National, they were totally 100% correct.
Best Tracks: "Helplessness Blues", "Grown Ocean"
My Morning Jacket - Circuital
There are only a few bands who, in my mind, can still pull off the whole rock band thing these days. Foo Fighters, The National, maybe The Black Keys come to mind -- but few bands can claim the energy and raw musical expertise without a smirk or a wink, especially rock bands of the independent persuasion. But My Morning Jacket's new album Circuital proves that their take on 90s indie rock is the real thing. Having released their first album in 1998, these guys know their stuff and their return to form shows their perfection of the form.
Circuital is one of those rare albums where every single track is absolutely required and non-skippable. From the old-school heaviness of "Victory Dance" to the upbeat indie rock hit "Circuital", Circuital has the emotional punch of their early albums and the relevancy of Z. The strong hooks, thoughtful lyrics, and MMJ's undeniable musicianship all add up to something refreshingly familiar: a classic good album that is easily one of the best of the year.
Best Tracks: "Victory Dance", "Holdin On To Black Metal"
The Roots - undun
In an interview with AdWeek, drummer ?uestlove said, in talking about their new album, that "I definitely feel like How I Got Over was our first record, and now Undun is our second album." In many ways, I can see why he says that. As they settled down as the Jimmy Fallon late night band, How I Got Over felt like a reinvention of The Roots -- a simplified and refined version of themselves. In undun, they pursue a more complex conceptual topic, but still keep the beats simple and raw.
When ?uestlove would later say that this is the best Roots album yet, he really wasn't kidding. Black Thoughts' flow has never been better and the guest spots by Big K.R.I.T., Greg Porn, and Dice Raw are perfectly integrated. The conceptual material of the album doesn't feel like anything new -- after all, how many rappers have made albums about growing up in the hood and entering a life of crime? Yet, The Roots still give the story their own existential, cringe-free spin and produce what is in my mind the best rap album of the year. The Roots' ability to continue to refine their sound and push forward creatively is kind of mind-blowing to think about considering undun is their 11th studio album. If undun is a sign, they show no sign of slowing down any time soon.
Best Tracks: "Make My", "Tip the Scale"
St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Annie Clark has always been able to find way creative ways about talking about herself in her music. She seems to have an understanding of her own identity and her relationships that have inspired some pretty nifty metaphors: the actor, the tiger, the cheerleader, the surgeon -- she's always been able to avoid lyrical cliches. These can be found all over Strange Mercy. In fact, Annie might be at her best here lyrically, tying together themes of femininity, sexuality, and youthfulness all into one cohesive expression. Add in her music video for "Cruel" where she is kidnapped and forced into being a housewife and you've got a pretty unique statement on gender roles and female identity.
But in Strange Mercy, Clark has really managed to take her music to another level. Her guitar-playing has become as idiosyncratic as her unique vocal style and taken on a voice of its own. When she rips into deep electric guitar hooks behind her singing "I don't want to be a cheerleader anymore", Clark has found a way to express herself musically as effectively as she does lyrically. It's a thrilling achievement for St. Vincent, but most of all, it's just plain fun to listen to.
Best Tracks: "Cruel", "Surgeon"
Rustie - Glass Swords
I really never thought an instrumental electronic album like Glass Swords could make it to the top of my end-of-year list -- I just tend to not have the patience for this kind of stuff. Looking to expand my musical palette a bit, though, I did my best to give the debut album from newcomer Rustie a try. Quite surprisingly, I found myself totally addicted the sounds and styles Rustie plays with in Glass Swords. Influences from across the electronic music spectrum make it into Glass Swords and the result is a dizzying blend of styles that only a young producer like Rustie could pull off.
It's heavy on samples, 8-bit synths, and even cheesy guitar solos -- indulgent and maximalist in every meaning of the words. In "Hover Traps" Rustie matches a slap bass guitar with a sample of Navi from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time -- in "Globes" he sounds like a bit like the German electronic duo Digitalism, but "City Star" might as well be the backing track for the best Rick Ross song he never rapped over. Genres, subgenres, labels... throw it all out the window: Rustie is the definitive electronic release of 2011 -- a snapshot of electronic music in 2011 and what the genre has to offer.
Best Tracks: "Glass Swords", "Ultra Thizz"
Lia Ices - Grown Unknown
Every once and a while an album will come along that revives my faith in the traditional singer-songwriter. I understand that a girl singing and strumming an acoustic guitar isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea these days, but among new releases from crowd-favorites like Feist, Lia Ices easily stood out as a unique voice in the genre. Grown Unknown is only her sophomore album, but it already sounds like a mature musical statement from the young artist.
Somber and solitude -- Grown Unknown was the perfect winter album for early 2011. Sparse instrumentation surround Ices' chilling vocals, but every bit of it purposeful and important. As much as a quiet album like this one can, Grown Unknown managed to surprise me with each track. Whether its the hand claps in the title track, the string flourishes in "Ice Wine", or the guest spot by Justin Vernon in "Daphne", the album seemed to offer compelling production choices at every turn. The problem with lists like these is that its so easy to forget about last January -- especially a quiet album like this one. Even still, Lia Ices' voice struck a chord with me that kept me returning to the album over and over throughout the course of the entire year.
Best Tracks: "Daphne", "Grown Unknown"