So now we get to the real meat of things – my favorite albums of 2011…

 

20. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto – For as much crap as they get from critics and music snobs alike, Coldplay can actually be a pretty damn creative band. This album is no different, starting off with a new wave inspired dance-rock track, and proceeding to bounce around from experimental pop to soaring ballads and all points in between. There’s no clear-cut hit single, and the hooks aren’t quite as strong as they have been in the past, but this oddly named collection of songs is an accomplished piece of work that holds its own against the rest of their work, and stands head and shoulders above the generic radio rock that Coldplay are so frequently lumped in with.

19. British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall – By now most fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they dive into a new British Sea Power album. Valhalla Dancehall contains all the dark brooding rock, spacey sounds, and stadium sized choruses that the band are known for, but it takes all of these qualities to their logical conclusions. Things start off a bit heavier than expected, then as the album progresses they get a little more atmospheric, a little bit catchier, a little more British Sea Power. While this might not be their best album, one could easily say it was the most British Sea Power of all British Sea Power albums, if that makes any sense at all.

18. The Smithereems – 2011 – While the basic conventions of power pop have a certain timeless quality to them, no band this old has any right sounding so young. It’s almost as though the Smithereens purposely named their album after the year it was released, so as to inform you that this was not a long lost gem from their mid-80’s heyday. If you like Beatles-inspired melodies, crunchy guitars, great production, and choruses that bore their way into your brain and refuse to leave, by all means check out this disc.

17. The Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 – Leave it to a bunch of Jews from New York to be the only rap collective to be consistently fun and interesting for the better part of three decades. They might not be on the pulse of what is currently popular in hip hop, but as anyone who has listened to the radio lately can affirm, that’s actually a good thing. The Beasties just keep on doing what they do best, mixing rap, rock, and electro with smart ass rhymes, obscure pop culture references, and attitude to space. Probably the best party album of the year, one can’t help but with that Pt. 1 would surface.

16. Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine – I honestly have no idea what this whole “chill wave” thing is about, but for a style that is supposedly under the umbrella of electronic music, this is a surprisingly warm and organic sounding record. To my ears, Toro Y Moi has more in common with modern psychedelic rock like The Flaming Lips and “space age bachelor pad music” of the 90’s like Stereolab than with anything currently going on in the electronic underground. This album seems more concerned with expanding your mind than moving your butt, and with lots of retro sounding synths, textured guitars, and tasteful acoustic drums, Underneath The Pine is the ultimate in mood music.

15. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead – Early on, The Decemberists made a name for themselves with stories and concepts. All of that coalesced on 2006’s The Crane Wife, a near perfect rock opera of an album that was a surprise hit with critics and fans alike. The only way to top something like that is to go bigger in every way, but with 2009’s The Hazards Of Love, the Decemerists somehow forgot how to write good songs that can stand apart from the whole. With this album they retreated and turned out their most stripped down and song-based album in years. The overall sound is less rocking and more folksy, and REM’s Peter Buck drops by to lend some tasteful guitar work to a few tracks. Over the course of an entire album the overuse of harmonica gets a little tiring, but that’s a very minor flaw on an otherwise amazing collection of extremely strong songs.

14. Wilco – The Whole Love – By most accounts, Wilco peaked with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album where they finally broke free from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and became something more than just another Americana inspired rock band. In the time since then they’ve continued to experiment, mixing Beatleseque psychedelic rock, power pop, southern rock, and jam band grooves, but nothing has really measured up. Their last album was downright boring, and I had pretty much given up on them. From the opening drums of “The Art Of Almost” it was clear that the experimental Wilco of 2002 was back. The Whole Love covers a lot of ground stylistically, and while not everything works, the highs are better than anything they’ve done in years. Highly recommended.

13. Thundercat – The Golden Age Of Apocolypse – Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, has made a name for himself as bassist extraordinaire for hire, playing with everyone from Suicidal Tendencies to Flying Lotus to Erykah Badu, so it was anyone’s guess what his eventual solo work might sound like. If you guessed “retro jazz/funk/soul fusion,” here is your prize – an amazing album of mellow grooves and virtuoso playing that works equally well as background music or the center of attention. A lot of artists make music for the masses and the top of the charts, but Thundercat seems to want to be a musician’s musician. That’s not to say that you have to be a musician to appreciate this album, but if you are one then this is quite possibly the best 37 minutes of 2011.

12. The Disciplines – Virgins of Menace – It’s no secret that The Posies are my favorite band of all time. Their mix of classic pop and alternative rock always manages to hit the right spot. For the past decade, Ken Stringfellow has been the “sensitive” Posie, his more recent songs being piano based, mellow, and melodic. It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who spent his formative years in punk cover bands and sang the praises of Husker Du with “Grant Hart” on 1996’s Amazing Disgrace. Well, at least that was the case if you hadn’t heard The Disciplines, his high octane side project. On their second album they combine all the best things about garage rock, punk, power pop, grunge, and “no wave” into a loud, pissed of, and fun package that leaves you wanting more.

11. The Kooks – Junk Of The Heart – The Kooks have been making great music for the past half decade, combining raw garage rock with Kinks-inspired Britpop. With this album they basically stick to the same plan, but break form here and there, adding things like orchestras, synths, folk pop, and reggae-lite grooves. While it’s nothing groundbreaking, The Junk Of The Heart is fun, witty, and catchy as hell. I will never fully understand what is wrong with American ears – quality pop/rock like this should be ruling the charts, yet pretty much no one on this side of the pond has ever heard of these guys. It’s really quite a shame, because this is a solid release that would most likely make many more best-of lists.

 

Stay tuned for the final installment of The Best Of 2011, coming tomorrow…

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