Watch + Listen: 8 Album Picks from 2011 (So Far)

by Kevin on July 8, 2011

With 2011 more than half over, I’ve been looking back at some of the albums I’ve listened to over the last 6 months and I’ve been a bit, well, disappointed. It’s probably my fault: I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to old records (that’s right kids, records) and haven’t been catching up on the new music. I’ve probably missed out on quite a bit, but from what I have checked out, my opinion is that this year just hasn’t been as great.

Some albums by bands I usually get excited about—Radiohead and TV on the Radio, for instance—just haven’t been on par with their other work, and a lot of the albums getting great reviews (Smith Westerns’ Dye it Blonde, Tune-Yards’ W H O K I L L) don’t do anything for me (yet). Who knows, by the end of the year my picks might be completely different.

For now, here are 8 albums I’ve been spending time with this year. Feel free to offer up your favorites in the comments, and let me know what else I should be listening to. Maybe with the right lenses, 2011 is a great year for music.

The Antlers
Burst Apart

I barely noticed The Antlers’ debut album Hospice when it was released in 2009 to plenty of critical praise but very little acknowledgement from, y’know, actual people. It didn’t help that the album was a heavy-concept, meticulous piece of art rock about a relationship between a hospice worker and a terminal patient. Burst Apart, by contrast, is open and loose, with the concepts more vague and relaxed. Song structures and instrumentation are more traditional for a “rock” band, which is to say that there are actual songs this time around, for better or worse.

There are still a few moments of unrelenting theatricality, such as the arduous closing track “Putting the Dog to Sleep.” But even the gentler (somber?) tracks like “Hounds” and the wavelike “Rolled Together” are more welcoming than anything on Hospice. Burst Apart is more accessible, sure, but it also contains enough depth that it should prepare a listener who missed Hospice the first time (like myself) for another look backward.

Also recommended: Radiohead – The Butcher; James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream

Beastie Boys
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

Were it not for the accessibility of music and the ease of collecting a massive amount of digital media, it’s likely that most younger listeners—i.e., those born after 1988—might overlook the Beastie Boys save for a stray mp3 of “Sabotage” or “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” Hot Sauce Committee Part Two would likely have released to little or no fanfare, or perhaps not even been released at all.

But time is a meaningless construct in the digital world, and discovering an artist’s entire catalog can be done in an afternoon. Thus, the Boys have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance, thanks to deluxe reissues and a successful tour. Thankfully, Hot Sauce is a better album than To the 5 Boroughs or The Mix-Up, and stands alongside Hello Nasty as a fun epilogue to the band’s most successful and lucrative run of four albums. “Make Some Noise” and “Too Many Rappers” are odes to the big, retro-futuristic sounds of Hello Nasty, while “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” is reminiscent of the early reggae/punk influence of Bad Brains. Hot Sauce is definitely for fans only, though there seem to be a lot more of those now than there ever were.

Also recommended: Shabazz Palaces – An Echo from the Hosts That Profess Infinitum; Random Axe – The Hex

Bon Iver
Bon Iver

Justin Vernon’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago was one I enjoyed in small doses. Vernon’s folky introspection and wispy voice were a bit too fragile for my tastes, though I appreciated him as a songwriter and a musician. His 2009 Blood Bank EP was (mostly) a step in the right direction, along with a couple of tracks released on comps that same year: “Brackett, WI” from Dark Was the Night and “Roslyn,” his collaboration with St. Vincent found on a, um, Twilight movie soundtrack.

Nothing Vernon had done so far, though, had adequately prepared for the expansiveness of Bon Iver, which builds on his winning formula by adding big, dynamic moments on top of sparse melodies. Rarely can Vernon’s actual words be made out; mostly Bon Iver swims along, swirling vocals, strings, and woodwinds together and giving the entire album an easy pace. The opener, “Perth,” sets the tone well, using strings to build us to a dramatic finale of drums, guitars, and brass. “Calgary” begins as a haunting, swirling melody before breaking open halfway through. Overall, Bon Iver is probably the most rewarding album of the year—so far.

Also recommended: Cults – You Know What I Mean; The National – Exile Vilify

Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues

Whether you’ll enjoy Helplessness Blues depends heavily on your opinion of Fleet Foxes’ earlier releases. While the new album is distinct from its predecessors, the same basic formula is in play: literate and indulgent songs rooted in the progressive-folk/rock of CSNY and Heroes and Villains. What’s different is the wider range and creativity as the band finds more tools at their disposal to accomplish the sound they’ve been reaching for. The harmonies are richer, the structures are more complex.

“Montezuma” and “Helplessness Blues” to a great job initiating listeners to the album, but the most rewarding surprises can be found in the more ornate tracks: the post-bop freakout in “The Shrine/An Argument” or the extended acoustic bridge at the end of “Sim Sala Bim.” Those who loved the simpler, quieter moments of Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant will find plenty to like here as well, but the more adventurous risks are where Fleet Foxes earns their keep, and their ever-expanding popularity.

Also recommended: Panda Bear – Slow Motion

Fucked Up
David Comes to Life

I give credit to the success of The Hold Steady for inspiring bands like Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up to give punk a badly needed jolt of energy. David Comes to Life is this year’s The Monitor, though Fucked Up are much bigger and louder band, drawing from early hardcore like Minor Threat and post-hardcore (but pre-emo, thankfully) like Rites of Spring.

On David Comes to Life, Fucked Up do exactly what they’ve done before on Hidden World and the overlooked The Chemistry of Modern Life. The band is loud, the melodies tight, the vocals raw, countered with bassist Sandy Miranda’s sweet voice (that sounds a lot like Amelia Fletcher’s, oddly). With these elements, Fucked Up does epic very well, so a punk rock opera is a logical step for such a passionate band. David is an album that aims for greatness and achieves it.

Also recommended: Iceage – New Brigade; Gang Gang Dance – Adult Goth

My Morning Jacket
Circuital

My Morning Jacket has been fairly consistent since 2001’s At Dawn, and it’s been interesting to see them evolve from a harmony-rich country/rock band to concert headliners in their own right. Unfortunately, while 2003’s It Still Moves and 2005’s Z are two of my favorite albums of the ’00s, 2008’s Evil Urges was full of missteps (and some excellent songs) that didn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. This year, MMJ return with Circuital, which is an album that’s very much, well, just there.

Circuital seems like Evil Urges, Pt. 2, with a lot of the quirky funk and hard rock experiments scaled back without really taking the time to focus them as part of MMJ’s overall sound. My reaction reminds me of the first time I heard Wilco’s 2007 album Sky Blue Sky, which was a good album full of good songs that just didn’t feel complete. That said, I’m including it here because the songs are terrific, from the Spinal Tap hijinks of “Victory Dance” to the standout single “Holdin’ on to Black Metal.” The choruses are big and the band is tight, but weaker moments like “Outta My System” and “You Wanna Freak Out” drag the album down from whatever peaks it might have reached. Here’s hoping MMJ’s best days aren’t behind them.

Also recommended: Okkervil River – The Valley; TV on the Radio – New Cannonball Blues

Wye Oak
Civilian

Wye Oak might be one of music’s best kept secrets right now. For three albums now the melodic pop group has flown just under everyone’s radars, despite consistent quality and a sound that gets richer and more rewarding with each release. Civilian builds on the foundation laid in 2009’s The Knot and last year’s My Neighbor/My Creator EP, with songs like “The Alter” and “Civilian” primed for closing film credits at Sundance (or at least inclusion on a Starbucks comp). “Holy Holy” and “Two Small Deaths” also have a surprising amount of rocking out, which is something Wye Oak have never really been reluctant to do but haven’t employed it as effectively as they do here. Hopefully their fan base will continue to grow and Wye Oak will keep making enjoyable music for those of us who are fortunate enough to have found them.

http://youtu.be/E2guLl6Hmwo

Also recommended: Kurt Vile – Society is My Friend

Yuck
Yuck

Hey, remember the ’90s? Yuck sure does. Just as the ’00s saw a resurgence in ’80s post-punk and new wave with the likes of Interpol and Bloc Party, this decade will likely be overrun with the Apostles of Alternative. Yuck takes their cues from the quiet/loud guitar-centric anthems of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, bouncing from the fuzzy “Get Away” to the contemplative “Shook Down.”

While some bands like Silversun Pickups and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart have had some success appropriating the old alt-rock sound, Yuck is the first band in a while to really sound like they could have come from that era, which, depending on your perspective, is a plus or a minus. I could understand someone who says they “liked it the first time,” but part of Yuck’s charm is the earnestness of their throwback sound. I think this is a great first effort, and I’m looking forward to watching them grow.

Also recommended: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

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