(feat. track – Amely – “Back To Love” [spotify] from The Raleigh Sessions)
This was an incredibly rich year for music. It was also a year in which I immersed myself very deeply in new music, maybe more than any year to date. At 28 artists, 2011’s “Best Of The Rest” is almost comically long, and yet there were another 20 albums that could have made this list had I not decided I needed to cut myself off somewhere. So don’t take this to be everything I liked this year; if it made this list, I really, really liked it.
Tomorrow, I’ll unveil my #1 album of the year. In the meantime, here’s a whole lot of stuff that didn’t quite make my Top Ten Twelve but still left a big impression in 2011.
Reviews I’ve written on any of these albums are noted. Spotify links have been included, where available.
Amely – The Raleigh Sessions EP [spotify]
Teen scene also-rans Amely drove the stake through their own heart this fall, but just before sputtering out, they turned loose this startlingly mature EP. The product of unfinished studio work intended for a new full-length, The Raleigh Sessions feels incomplete at times, and sags a bit toward the end, but when it hits (like on the Killers-esque lead track “Back To Love”) it hits hard, and vocalist Petie Pizarro’s newfound croon lends the proceedings a soulful emotional heft.
The Cinema – My Blood Is Full Of Airplanes [spotify]
Somewhere between the announcement of Lydia’s disbanding and the band’s resurrection a scant few months later, frontman Leighton Antelman hit the studio with producer Matt Malpass, and the album they cooked up together as The Cinema might be the best thing either has done in years. Antelman’s boyish vocals would make for a perfect soul-in-the-machine counterpoint if not for the fact that Malpass’ buoyant-but-downbeat indietronica is so chock full of soul to begin with. As Antelman intones on album highlight Kinetic, “you can’t fight the motion // it’s kinetic // you can’t stop the moment // it’s electric”.
Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years [spotify]
Wes Eisold’s (American Nightmare / Give Up The Ghost) latest project has garnered lots of comparisons to The Cure. To my ears, it sounds more like The Psychedelic Furs and early OMD fed through Sleigh Bells’ compression grinder. Either way, the overdriven bombast and huge choruses are exactly what I want out of rock and roll, even when it’s being played with keyboards.
Divided By Friday – Prove It EP [spotify]
Until a Fall Out Boy reunion happens, this is the next best thing. On top of getting their huge hooks and killer melodies just right, Divided By Friday also manage the much harder task of tapping the same emotional vein. Derivative, sure, but still worthy.
The Downtown Fiction aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but they do what they do really well, and in power pop that’s the magic formula. Let’s Be Animals takes the straightforward approach; Pineapple pushes into some new sonic spaces, dabbling in 90s alt-rock (of both the dirty post-grunge variety and the sunny Sugar Ray style). With both, melody rules the day.
*full disclosure – my brother worked on a number of tracks on Let’ s Be Animals
Edelweiss – Pre-Colombians EP [spotify]
I already dedicated a full post this year to raving about Edelweiss’ CMJ performance. Suffice it to say that I’ve been mildly distracted ever since they announced they were back in the studio. That’s ok, I wasn’t really planning on getting any work done this year anyway.
Every Avenue – Bad Habits [spotify]
It’s a tough time to be a straightforward rock band, but Every Avenue keep plugging on. Bad Habits is their most consistent effort to date, ten all-killer no-filler tracks that find the band stretching their range a bit at times but never forsaking their core sound for gimmickry. Any world that doesn’t have room for Every Avenue’s brand of muscular power pop is a world I want no part of.
Fireworks – Gospel [spotify]
Amidst the new wave of rougher, tougher pop-punk, Fireworks are a bit of a sonic throwback to the smoother sounds of the late 00s, full of pretty harmonies and background keyboard riffs, and that’s probably got something to do with why they seem to have been lapped by most of their peers this year. Which is a shame, because I defy you to find an album with a better opener/closer combo than Gospel’s “Arrows” and “The Wild Bunch”.
Gallows – Death Is Birth EP [spotify]
Intensity in ten minutes! When quintessential uber-Brit Frank Carter stepped away from the mic, there were real questions about whether Gallows could exist meaningfully without his manic presence, but what new frontman Wade MacNeil lacks in Englishness, he makes up for in pure, blistering rage. Gallows 2.0 is a whole new animal, and it’s a BEAST.
Good Problems – I’m Changing My World EP / Be Eccentric EP
Former Sing It Loud frontman Pat Brown’s overdriven nasality is a bit of an acquired taste (I dig it, personally), but the unrepentantly pretty hooks on these two EPs of easy posi-pop are undeniable. The well-buffed Be Eccentric ups the production ante from I’m Changing My World’s staples-and-tape aesthetic, but Brown shines in both settings.
I Am The Avalanche – Avalanche United [spotify]
Avalanche United was a long time coming, but pretty much everyone is in agreement that it was worth the wait. I’m still having a little trouble adjusting to the (great sounding) filled-out, studio-shined versions of “Brooklyn Dodgers” and “This One’s On Me” (formerly “The Drinking Song”) after years of hearing them live, but tremendous new tracks like “Amsterdam” and “Is This Really Happening” sure help smooth things over.
August’s excellent Twelve Towns compiled tracks Evan Weiss had released on splits with acts ranging from Pswingset to Koji over the past two years; September’s Proper turned around and absolutely blew it out of the water, with full band recordings that ratcheted up the energy but preserved his quirky, midwestern emo throwback sound. Whether in troubadour mode or with his raging band, Weiss is consistently solid but always nontraditional (unless your tradition contains a lot of Braid and Mineral).
Jonah Matranga – You’re All Those Things And Then You’re None
The always-innovative Matranga released this album in two versions, one stripped-down and self-recorded, the other filled out with the crowdsourced contributions of friends and fans. Both find him in a particularly upbeat, if mellow, mood; the lazy swing of “Roots” and the perky “Sweet Life” are perfect Sunday morning music, and the collective version of “Happy-hee” might be the most upliftingly cheesy-sweet recording I’ve ever heard (no exaggeration).
K.Flay – I Stopped Caring In ‘96 Mixtape
K.Flay’s built her reputation as an MC, but on this three-part mixtape, it’s her dark, minimalist beats and creaky loops that really stand out, sucking up the vibe of Tricky’s Pre-Millenial Tension and spitting it back as post-millenial ennui. A photorealistic painting of a mythical now.
Little Bombs – Little Bombs [spotify]
If ex-Sing It Loud singer Pat Brown went the upbeat route, their guitarist, Kieran Smith, took a decidedly different tack – Little Bombs is a downcast and dour slice of late-90s tinged power pop, full of dark days and lonely nights. An unassuming little album that I seem to keep coming back to.
The Maine – Pioneer [spotify]
The Maine have to got stop releasing albums earlier in the year. 2010’s In Darkness And In Light was released the last week of December; it would have certainly made (at least) my Best Of The Rest list that year had I heard it in time. Pioneer didn’t come out quite as late this year, but there’s a good chance that, had I had the opportunity to spend significant time with it sooner, it would be in my Top Ten. The Maine’s latest evolution finds them pumping out the most mature, self-assured, well-crafted and hardest hitting music of their careers. Rock and roll ain’t dead yet.
Mod Sun – In Mod We Trust EP [spotify] / Blazed By The Bell mixtape / single tracks
The first time I saw Mod Sun was at Bamboozle 2010, playing the final set of the festival (at the same time as headliner Weezer was presumably rocking the main stage), with more friends on stage than kids in the crowd. 2011 found him raising his profile considerably: between a Rolling Stone contest, collaborations with folks like the currently-blowing-up Schoolboy Q, a weekly webcast that draws tens of thousands of “no fans just friends”, and even a cosign from Saved By The Bell’s very own Mr. Belding, it’s easy to lose sight of the music that underlies it all. But while this year’s flurry of releases were at times inconsistent, high points like “Take The Credit, Imma Keep The Change,” “No Girlfriend” and “Time To Celebrate” are among the best work Mod’s done to date and, more importantly, with each release he seems to be really finding his own unique sound.
Nocturnal Me – Two Faced EP [spotify]
While Dave Melillo’s long-awaited second release under his own name was a mixed bag at best, the EP he dropped earlier in the year under the guise of Nocturnal Me fires on all cylinders. Nocturnal Me seems to have become a catch-all name for all of Melillo’s non-singer-songwriter-ly releases; Two Faced finds him exploring pop r&b with a gift for melodic hooks and a suave, easy manner.
Richard Benjamin – Patience Is A Virtue Mixtape
Whether ridin’ hot over Kanye tracks or reimagining Hall & Oates for more cynical times, Benjamin’s delivery stays consistenly lithe and nimble. Adding just-right dollops of cocksure wit and “aww shucks” charm to equal parts sleaze and steez makes for a winning recipe.
Despite the fact that he still hasn’t gotten around to releasing a full length, it’s hard to deny that 2011 belonged to Skrillex. In addition to the two EPs he let loose, he either remixed or guested on (by Wikipedia’s count) 18 more tracks this year, with results ranging from “great” to “excellent” to “maybe the best thing ever” (that would be his remix of Benni Benassi’s “Cinema” [spotify]). Dude even made Korn sound good. Anything he touches is almost instantly recognizable – he might be operating within the realm of dubstep, but even if you funnel down to the microgenre of “brostep,” there’s nobody else who sounds remotely like Skrillex. He’s created a singular and unmistakable sonic palette of grindy squelches and bullfrog yawps, Transformer-in-a-trash-compactor noises that have been endlessly emulated but not-even-close-to replicated.
Stamps – Stamps Ventures Of A Lifetime EP [spotify]
Stamps co-vocalists Bob Morris (The Hush Sound) and Ren Patrick hail from Chicago and Houston, respectively, but Stamps Ventures Of A Lifetime is pure breezy California pop through and through, full of sneakily-infectious melodies and handclaps galore. Classic pop, the sound of sunshine.
That’s Outrageous! – Teenage Scream [spotify]
That’s Outrageous!’s first two singles made my 2010 Best Of The Rest list, and Teenage Scream lived up to their promise of massively-over-the-top hardcore adorned with shiny digital frippery, but intra-band drama led to founding member Tom DeGrazia’s summary ejection midway through the year. With DeGrazia gone, I’m curious to hear what That’s Outrageous! do next (his former bandmates assert that they were largely responsible for the band’s sound, and I’m curious to see if their follow-up bears this out), but I’d by lying if I didn’t admit I was twice as interested in his new project, Fast Times.
There For Tomorrow – The Verge [spotify]
I’ve always enjoyed There For Tomorrow’s live sets, but on The Verge they finally managed to capture their commanding presence on record. It doesn’t hurt that this is also easily the best set of songs the band has written; there’s not a dud in the whole bunch. This sort of straightforward alt-rock has really fallen out of favor in the last few years; seven years ago, this album would have been huge. As it is, it’s still a gem, albeit a hidden one.
Unicorn Kid – Tidal Rave EP [spotify]
Oli “Unicorn Kid” Sabin actually made my 2009 Best Of The Rest, but spent most of 2010 in label limbo after a signing with Ministry Of Sound failed to yield more than two ho-hum singles and a whole bunch of strife. Now back on his own, Tidal Rave picks up where Wee Monsters left off and bolts towards the future, with three sopping wet glissando-filled ravers that break out of the chiptune ghetto for bluer pastures. Up the seapunx!
We Are The In Crowd – Best Intentions [spotify]
I’ve been a fan of We Are The In Crowd going back to the handful of singles they released on iTunes in late 2009 in advance of their Guaranteed To Disagree EP, and it’s been a blast watching them grow from playing for tens of kids at out-of-the-way corners on Warped Tour to a mainstage slot at 2011’s Bamboozle. Best Intentions is the natural continuation of their earlier work, with deft pop craftsmanship, big big hooks and a contagious exuberance.
I have to be in a very particular mood to listen to hardcore/screamo/whatever it is you might wanna call these three, which means none of them got as much attention as they deserved from me this year. Three ambitious concept albums, each pushed the edges of what heavy music can be, and what it can aspire to, a little bit further out. They make me wish I was better at writing about heavy music. About the best I can do within my own limitations is tell you that, if you like heavy music, you need to listen to these three albums; if you can at least tolerate heavy music, you at least owe it to yourself to hear them.