It’s the end of 2011, and so that makes it time for the now-obligatory list of ‘albums of 2011’, just in case you’re not finished with your Christmas shopping yet and want to add some of these to your list. There’s been some great stuff out this year, across the musical spectrum, so these are offered up in no particular order, and also attempting to keep the superlatives to a minimum (last year’s list certainly over-used the word “superb”).
I’ll try and post a list of my favourite songs of the year some time in the next week too.
So, without further ado, then:
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Of course, you should have bought Bon Iver’s album already, but if you didn’t, you’re missing out on one of the most surprising and bizarre second albums of all time. Justin Vernon’s take on love and nostalgia is layered and dense, not to mention nigh-on impenetrable, but it’s also an album that is haunting, too, creeping inside your head and surfacing at unexpected moments.
If you’ve only heard first single Calgary, it’s well worth looking at the rest, especially Wash., the sublime Perth and the so-uncool-it’s-hip-again Beth/Rest. Hear a beautiful acoustic piano version of the latter here.
Gungor – Ghosts upon the Earth
Already reviewed on this blog, Gungor’s very odd follow-up to the widely-loved Beautiful Things leaps from jaunty folk to growling prog-rock, confusing Christians who listen to Chris Tomlin across the world in the process. It’s very definitely not background music, and it’s certainly an album that will take some time to love, but on repeated listens it reveals itself to be arguably more powerful than their more accessible last album.
Highlights are the choral-accented Let There Be, not to mention When Death Dies, which you can hear here, the totally bonkers Wake Up Sleeper and the triumphant answer to death that is This is not the End.
David Crowder Band – Oh for Joy
Prime contender for best Christmas album of the past decade, David Crowder Band’s is a pure worship album in the way that only Crowder can pull off. Whether it’s adding banjo and fiddle to Angels We Have Heard on High, an epic and desperate O Come, O Come Emmanuel, a rapturous rendition Joy to the World or a beautiful cover of Go Tell it on the Mountains, which you should listen to here, there’s not a bad song on here. Highly recommended.
Josh Garrels – Love & War & The Sea In-Between
Josh Garrels’ album, which is incredibly still free over at Noisetrade, is the album I’ve returned to most over the past year. Garrels’ unique voice and thought-provoking lyrics hold together a long album that leaps throughout genres, with the folksy Farther Along, my favourite song of the year, next to the hippy rap of The Resistance and the glorious melancholy of Ulysses. Another album that takes some time to sink in, but easily one of the most nuanced EPs released this year, and given that it’s free, what do you have to lose?
The Sleep Design – All That is not Music is Silence
Another free album from Noisetrade, The Sleep Design make post-rock that initially sounds like it is made up of offcuts from Brand New, but their album is a surprisingly worshipful collection of soundscapes with a few standout moments. The Woman, with its emo closing vocals, Fire, the Grave and the Eyes of Man, and These Dreams Haunt & Capture are all high points.
Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
A different breed entirely, long-standing post-rockers Explosions in the Sky return after nearly five years off with an EP that almost reaches the dizzying heights of their classic The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place. Single Trembling Hands is quite unlike anything else the band have ever done before, but it’s the closing moments of Human Qualities, which interweaves a classical melody throughout, that will take your breath away. Postcard from 1952 is wonderful, too.
Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
Death Cab for Cutie’s new album didn’t change the world, despite Ben Gibbard’s new, sunnier disposition since his marriage to Zooey Deschanel (now sadly dissolved), but it did have enough quality tunes to remind Death Cab fans why they stuck it out in the first place. In particular, You are a Tourist, with its echoes of The Cure and its fantastic video, was terrific, but the title track, the jaunty art-rock of Doors Unlocked and Open and the upbeat closing number Stay Young, Go Dancing, should also be enough to win you over.
Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
Somebody said that Laura Marling sounded like the prophet of a Texan doomsday cult on her latest album. Well, I don’t know about that, but the third album of a woman who is extraordinarily talented is still easily one of the best albums of 2011, and by some way. Stunning centrepiece of the album The Beast is rightly most talked-about, but there are other gems here – Sophia, of course, channelling Joni Mitchell, but also My Friends and All My Rage, showcasing just where it is that Laura Marling could go next.
Matt Kearney – Young Love
Portland native Mat Kearney may produce polished pop-tunes, but the clap-beat on his latest single Hey Mama is literally irresistible, and pretty much the same can be said for all of his latest album. Admittedly, only about half the songs – Down and Ships in the Night in particular – really have any visible heart in them, but all the same, I defy you not to smile when you listen to songs like She Got the Honey or Young, Dumb and in Love, which are pop in the very best sense. Terrific.
Switchfoot – Vice Verses
Returning after their divisive last album Hello Hurricane, Switchfoot’s new album is the usual mixture of heavier rock and the haunting acoustics that Jon Foreman does so well, but Foreman’s lyrics are if anything better than usual this time round. The emotional potency behind songs like Restless or Vice Verses makes them among the best that the band have ever written, the latter closing with the lingering question “Where is God in the city-life? | Where is God in the city-life? | Where is God in the earthquake? | Where is God in the genocide? | Where are you in my broken heart – | Everything seems to fall apart | Everything feels rusted over | Tell me that you’re there?”
It won’t win everybody over, but it’s up there with the best albums of the year on the evidence of songs like Thrive, Afterlife, Dark Horses and brilliant album closer Where I Belong even without the two songs already mentioned.
Honorable mentions go to Elbow, who miss out because I don’t love the whole package of their latest album, just a few amazing songs; M83, whose album I’ve listened to, but not enough to fully comment on (it’s good, though, certainly), Coldplay, whose new album is rather schizophrenic, and is the modern equivalent of the Beatles’ Abbey Road; you like it a lot, but maybe because it makes you feel nothing at all (also, it is Coldplay); and Worship Central, who deserve a mention because they did well in hitting the actual charts with their album, and also because it’s quite good, but who are missed off the list for the most sustained Twitter spam campaign in history, which is unfortunately worthy of shame.
You should listen to Matt Redman‘s “10,000 Reasons” and James Vincent McMorrow’s “Early in the Morning”, too, which deserved a place on this list but were missed off purely because I was in a hurry when I wrote it.
So, how did I do? What did I miss? What do you disagree with me on? Let me know!