Top 25 Albums of 2011
Looking back on the albums that came out in 2011 builds a strong case for how convoluted the process of assigning music a numerical ranking is. The three albums our editors and staff felt stood above the rest this year couldn’t be more different, in genre, spirit and sound. One by a man referred to as The Screaming Eagle of Soul who after 40 years of being a musician finally released his masterful debut full length; the next by one of the more prolific indie rockers of the last 5 years who just now is starting to get the national recognition he deserves; the third by a French Electro-Pop band who after a decade of releasing quality albums have finally broken through in a huge way in the States this year.
If fickle diversity is a value than it’s certainly one we hold in high esteem here at Pinpoint. The bottom line is for us it’s all about the music, and how it fits in to an image or brand really doesn’t factor in. Soul Music, Electronic, Psychedelic Hip Hop, Singer-Songwriters, and all flavors of Indie Rock grace our top albums of 2011 and we couldn’t be happier with the eclectic blend.
Looking forward to 2012 there’s going to be an obscene amount of growth here at Pinpoint as we prepare to launch our new Pinpoint Concerts recommendation engine in the very early part of the year. There’s no way we could have done it without the loyal support of our readers and the musicians that inspire us. So from the bottom of our heart thank you to everyone who made this possible and we hope you enjoy reading our picks for the top albums of 2011 as much as we enjoyed making them.
From everyone at Pinpoint have an amazing holiday and an outrageous New Year.
Existing somewhere between Kate Bush and Jeff Buckley, Manhatten-based Annie Clark’s songs have a lament about them that belies her years. At just 28 years old, Clark is writing songs like ‘Champagne Year’, where she reflects “I make a living telling people what they wanna hear/ It’s not a killing but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear”. It’s not exactly uplifting, but if she’s writing songs like this now, then we’re in for a treat when St. Vincent is releasing albums well into her forties. Beautifully understated.
Forget the lo-fi, this is beach rock. Soft and shimmering and easy as dusk on the Best Coast with the girl from Ipanema mixing margaritas until there’s nothing left to do but head home and get high with your tan, smiling buddies. The guitars are light. The tunes are midtempo. The song’s whisper Pacific delight. Nice.
Thee Oh Sees
Carrion Crawler / The Dream EP
Everything about The Oh Sees makes me want to rock out with them. I want to be at their show right now. I want to be half drunk and a little stoned and not care that I forgot my earplugs, because my awareness of my body breaking down-be damned, these guys sound like being in a band and playing rock music is the best thing in the world and I don’t want to let my stupid ringing ears get in the way of what I’m experiencing with Thee Oh Sees.
w h o k i l l
The musical project of New England native Merill Garbus, tUnE yArDs isn’t for those with conservative tastes. Fusing afro pop, funk, RnB, acoustic folk and more into one cohesive album is no mean feat, yet Garbus managed to do just that on her second album as tUnE-yArDs. W h o k i l l, believe it or not, sets down a more traditional path than her debut Bird Brains, but remains unmistakably a tUnE-yArDs album- Unique and quite brilliant.
For anyone who doubts the existence of psychedelic sensibilities while caught in a vacuum, 2011 has come to save you. Peaking Lights create a mind bending electro-playground which has been drenched in krautrock and hash smoke. While never reaching speeds other than a crawl, this narcotic album is perfect for chill out sessions beyond the asteroid belt. .
I Am Very Far
As with the albums they’ve released over the last few years, it will take quite a few listens to realize what the overarching message is on I Am Very Far. But that’s a part of the allure and what makes the album so successful; the message is not thrown in your face, crammed into your ears. Songwriter, Will Sheff, explores the theme from many different angles, dives into it, interprets it, and then scrambles it in any way he pleases. The result is thought-out, complicated, well written songs; something Okkervil River always achieves.
Yuck belongs. Without hesitation, searching or the slightest lick of uncertainty, Yuck arrives with an unbelievably strong presence that makes you not only agree their self-titled debut as something great, but makes you accept the idea that they will be making great albums for a long time. Yuck loved the 90’s grunge rock thing, it’s obvious, but the best thing about Yuck wearing their influences on their sleeve is that they’re not too cool to try and make it something else. They actually make me want to believe the 90’s were the best decade for music.
A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (EP)
A little bit croon, a little late night jangle, a whole lot “all can be right with indie rock” delight with nods to Elvis Costello and his long forgotten proto-punk retro R&B 80’s sock hop revival without coming off as pretentious dipshittery. We, at Pinpoint, are honored to have found our way into this EP and look forward to astoundingly good things from these boys in the future.
The King Of Limbs
King Of Limbs, visually, takes place deep within a botanical lab somewhere underground in a dystopian future. The organic nature of the record is sheltered by an artificial shell among the wastelands of a distraught landscape. If this above sentence is more than enough to help you decide then I have done my job.
James Blake (S/T)
James Blake’s self titled album is a curious one. At times this album soars, yet at others it doesn’t quite hit the mark. ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ and the fantastic cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ are as good as any singles released in 2011, yet tracks such as ‘I Mind’ fail to excite. Listening to the Londoner’s debut though, one thing was always certain – there was no-one else making music quite like this.
Not since the xx has the girl/boy combination worked as well as on this year’s debut album by Cults. Having said that, sonically the two bands couldn’t be further apart. Cults’ sound revolves around lead vocalist Madeline Follin crooning over guys, or guys being in her way, or guys abducting her (metaphorically speaking) or telling guys to go fuck themselves – and coupling these short stories with layers of glockenspiel and samples- which do wonders to take the sting out of such volatile subject matter. Follin’s vocals range from the heartfelt – “He tore me apart ’cause I really loved him” (The driven pop of ‘Abducted’)- to the petulant , “…Fuck you” (‘Never Heal Myself’). Always familiar but never samey, Cults is a brilliantly memorable pop album.
Let England Shake
This may well be the most English release of the last ten years but before all of you Anglophiles rejoice you should probably know that Polly Jean isn’t waving the Union Jack so much as she’s using the mechanized horror of World War I to serve as prescient socio-political commentary as she, once more, reinvigorates her sonic palette. Think Roger Waters shading tenderness with Billy Bragg’s wrenched passion as delivered by a trench widow (often, oddly, in falsetto) ensconced in pop convictions and bluesy antiheroics.
In my review of the band’s first 7 inch, I made mention that Sundelles had all the right elements for a drop dead gorgeous debut record. I love being right. Almost one year later I am happy to report Georgia Swan lives up to its initial promise as it sways, surfs and jumps in slow motion above the sand.
Moody, Standard and Poor
Obits operate in a sweat rock singularity that echoes the damaged leather surf of Link Wray, the effortlessly determined (and criminally underrated) rhythm and blues of The Tennessee Two and the endless possibility of Sonic Youth’s guitar interplay.
And, whereas I Blame You was taut and explosive, Moody, Standard and Poor smolders and breathes. It’s a more confident affair. Unhurried but no less incendiary. Even the more propulsive tracks on the record take their time building, stewing, churning up years of well-earned dissatisfaction to spit straight in the eye of…well…who do you have in mind?
Why am I so surprised that in a lot of ways The Antlers sophomore release Burst Apart sounds like a completely inverted version of their debut album? And as a follow-up rhetorical question how is the opposite of a really good album an even more exceptional piece of work?
On its nose I think the easy explanation for this would be several of the songs on “Burst Apart” carry a higher tempo. Yet I feel that the majority of the vibrancy is actually generated internally. “Burst Apart” is a picturesque album highlighted with a sense of urgency that is the byproduct of The Antlers never spoon feeding an emotion to the listeners, or peppering in worn platitudes for a cheap tug on the heartstrings.
Too Beautiful to Work
Indie pop goes abstract while retaining a lovable exterior. Montreal based The Luyas create a darling little record which is full of fragmentary anecdotes — ones with no beginning or conclusion. I’ve hit my head and 2005 swirls before my eyes.
The Black Keys
Rather than trying to carve out a new corner of rock music as their own, The Black Keys approach has always been to try and put a fresh spin on genres of old; rock and roll, mariachi, blues, psych rock- all get an airing on the band’s 2011 release, El Camino. Their vision does tend to sway when they venture away from the tried and tested sound, but it’s refreshing for a band to be so open about their influences as The Black Keys.
Without much hype or press, Shabazz Palaces released the most unexpected hip hop album in maybe ten years. Sure some artists take a couple deviations from the hip hop norm; Black Up puts a blindfold on the genre, spins it around in an office chair and does creepy things with it as it falls over in dizzying laughter. Black Up will take places that you may have never thought a hip hop album would take you, like Miles Davis doing all kinds of designer drugs and getting really into fusion; except Black Up has no allegiances, it promises nothing, it kind of broods in a calculated weirdness and makes you rethink what hip hop is and can be.Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Bon Iver (S/T)
Although it’s easy to note the similarities between Bon Iver’s two albums, it’s the differences that make this record intriguing. For Emma, Forever Ago, with its obvious theme of heartbreak was perfectly mirrored with utter sparseness. While the theme of Bon Iver is more obscure, one could venture, due to the fact that all the song titles are (at least loosely) based on geographical locations, that it is about loneliness of a different kind. It has tones of feeling lost, not having a place to call home. Bon Iver perfectly captures its complex theme through a barrage of heavily layered songs. They are on the brink of being overdone, which is exactly what adds to the feeling of being lost and scattered. Each song feels like a completely intimate, personal view into these feelings.
David Comes to Life
David Comes to Life is Fucked Up’s magnum opus. It is what they’ve been hinting at and gearing towards for the entirety of their career. And, no, I don’t understand it all. And, yes, it can be somewhat obvious, occasionally boring and absurd. But many of the songs on David Comes to Life (e.g. “Queen of Hearts”, “A Little Death”, “One More Night”) will be the most unique and meaningful expressions of the human experience that you’ll ever shout and what falls beside is still inspired.
This is a band at their creative zenith.
THIS IS FUCKED UP!
On the Water
One of the greatest aspects of synthpop (and even the larger New Wave movement) is the combination of pop music combined with bleak lyrical themes. Future Islands continues this tradition with songs devoted to the demise and fraying of light for the onset of darkness. On the Water is the last flicker of light before extinguishing forever. Future Islands – On the Water
Father Son Holy Ghost
Father, Son, Holy Ghost is San-Francisco indie band Girls second album proper, and it’s testament to singer Christopher Owens’ song writing ability and vocal deliveries that it already feels like a classic record. Unashamedly borrowing from the past yet never indulging in cheap pastiche or 60′s gimmicks, Father, Son, Holy Ghost uses what are fast becoming Girls’ trademark influences and adds the bands’ own spin- the main spin being Christopher Owens.
The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Elvis Costello all get an airing at some point or other, as well as the occasional Deep Purple curveball. But it’s Owens that really sets the album apart and takes it above being a dad-rock mixtape; using simple, straightforward lyrics that give the album an honesty and almost naivety that proves to be endearing over the 54 minutes.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Throughout the entirety of this record, the listener is actively engaged in Gonzalez’s world of half shared memories. It takes a special type of album to convince the participant of the existence of hope and the fact that a desire for love does not have to be cheesy. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Smoke Ring for My Halo
The meat of the album is KV tearing through his internal turmoil, stemming from his interactions in society. More specifically his relationship with friends, family, women, fans and the expectations others have for him. This territory has already been trudged through by countless artists before Vile but this album never comes off as predictable or cliché. That’s due in large part to a candor so brash that’s it unnerving. Really though, what separates this effort from so many self-reflective, finger picked albums before it is the precision demonstrated by communicating deeply existential thoughts without being superfluous with the wording. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
No Time For Dreaming
Charles Bradley has lived a rough life, and at age 63 the man they call the Screaming Eagle of Soul has lived a lot more of it than every other artist on our top albums list. Undoubtedly the strife that’s been woven through his life is his fuel for greatness; sometimes it takes the hottest flames forge the strongest metals.
No Time For Dreaming is possibly the most exciting thing to happen to soul music in a very long time. Charles brings back a crucial element to the genre of Soul. Just like blues and country, soul was born as true blue-collar music, written and performed by the working class and as this album unfolds you can feel the music liberating the Screaming Eagle from the hardships that have defined his life.
The more you understand where this album comes from, what its purpose is, the more you connect with its message of hopefulness. The entire album was made as a healing process, a way to move on through expression and doing what you love. And what better way to heal? Embrace the tragedies, express the pain, all while looking for the good in life.