William’s Top 11 Releases of 2011

William’s TOP 11 RELEASES OF 2011

11 –  The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

What makes this album stand out of the hundreds released in 2011 is its simplicity: well-crafted lyrics, beautiful vocal harmonies, and a guitar. I’ll admit that now that I know the duo is married – to other individuals – their incredible live performances dropped a couple notches (their loving glances and intimate body language now makes me uneasy). However, that doesn’t take away from the music at all.

Standout track: “Poison & Wine” gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/16632031″]

10 – Wye Oak – Civilian

I missed out on this duo’s first two releases. I never quite connected with them but Civilian just blew me away. The nail in the coffin for them making my best of the year list was seeing them live in Atlanta opening for Explosions in the Sky (a tough, loud act to set the stage for). I had assumed their loud, full sound came from a studio full of musicians. When just Andy and Jenn took the stage and delivered each track just as perfectly as they do on the record I was baffled. Now I find myself listening to their music and constantly remind myself that this incredible sound is just coming from two people!

Standout track: “Holy Holy”

09 – Wilco – The Whole Love

Wilco is reminding me more and more of another favorite band of mine: Yo La Tengo. They’ve been around forever and keep cranking out great music. Their sound isn’t rooted in a gimmick so they won’t ever disappear when a fad of a genre reaches its end (I’m talking to you my beloved chillwave!).

Also like Yo La Tengo, their years decades of experience make them fantastic live performers. Forget glitz, glam, dancers, and gimmicks. They get on stage and just rock (and their banter is pretty sweet too). I wager that those two groups are probably two of the best live acts in the US right now.

Standout track: The epic opener “Art of Almost”

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/22675141″]

 

08 – The Field – Looping State of Mind

I love electronic music and I love minimalist music, so Swedish knob-twiddler Axel Willner’s The Field is perfect for me. His latest release delivers on what its title promises – looping. Lots and lots of looping. At first listen, most probably think it’s just the same thing over and over but Willner’s genius is the way he slowly and subtly adds layer after layer of beats, samples, and ambient sounds. By the climax of each track you have a deep layered soundscape that will suck you right in.

Standout track: “Then It’s White”

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/22437029″]

07 – M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

In 2008, I put M83’s Saturdays = Youth at the top of my year end list. This year Anthony Gonzalez came back in full force dropping a 22-track double disc album. Epic is an understatement. From start to finish I haven’t found a bad track yet. The only downside is that the sheer scope of the record makes it hard to digest. That combined with a late release in the year kept in on the back half of my Top Ten. Give me two more months with it and I’ll probably wish it had been in my top three.

Standout track: “OK Pal”

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/31231614″]

06 – Wild Beasts – Smother

I was first introduced to Wild Beasts via their 2008 sophomore release Two Dancers. A couple tracks really appealed to me but I couldn’t quite get into their uncompromising vocal stylings. Funny enough, with Smother the group was even less restrained with their voices and it had the opposite effect on me.

Smother’s high mark is its beautiful meshing of the band’s two singers’ croonings into lush and sensual harmonies. And sensuality is the running theme of the album – underage listeners beware! This stuff is like a contemporary version of Barry White’s 70s sexy jams.

To read more of my praise of Wild Beasts, check out the show review I wrote of their Atlanta performance.

Standout track: “Loop the Loop”

05 – Radiohead – The King of Limbs

These guys are the king of surprises. This album was announce a mere one week before it’s release. As a result the hype around it was short but intense. And then came the hater.

“It’s too short.”
“It’s basically a Thom Yorke solo album.”
“Where are the guitars?”
I preferred Radiohead’s early work.

Folks were so dismissive of it that most forgot about this release a mere week later. What a shame! We should know Radiohead well enough by now to know they aren’t going to release any crap. Spend some time with The King of Limbs, and it starts to open up (like a lotus flower, wink wink). Each track was meticulously crafted – some took years to perfect (“Morning Mr. Magpie” first showed up on a webcast I watched live nine years ago!).

In addition to a knockout album, they produced what became my favorite music video of 2011 (you know it’s good when it launches as many viral parodies as it did). “Lotus Flower” puts Yorke’s quirky stylings front and center. It appears a bit random and chaotic but is actually a carefully choreographed dance. A perfect visual representation of the album as a whole.

Standout track: “Lotus Flower”

04 – Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

Heavenly is an adjective that gets tossed about flippantly. When I say Barwick’s Magic Place is heavenly I am dead serious. When I die, I wouldn’t be disappointed at all if St. Peter opens the pearly gates and this is the music playing on the celestial loudspeakers.

Everyone has a hard time describing what exactly Julianna Barwick does – so check out this video interview I did with her early last year after her show in Atlanta. Though her process is interesting, it is the final product’s ability to transport you to another realm that is so impressive. Definitely one to have on your iPod for those times when you are feeling stressed out or down.

Standout track: “Flown”

03 – The Antlers – Burst Apart

Like Wye Oak and Wild Beasts, I had largely ignored The Antlers earlier work. I just happened to tune in to NPR Music’s live video stream of the band playing at SXSW last March. It was astounding – everything sound pitch perfect from Peter Silberman’s falsetto to the horn players they had apparently grabbed just hours earlier to join them on stage. They played Burst Apart in its entirety and I was sold.

I’ve described this album to others as being reminiscent of Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer. Of course the vocals are similar, but so are many of the guitar riffs and sounds. The lyrical content and overall vibe is a bit of a downer (the opener, after all, is a pop song about hollow sex), but I say “downer” the best possible way. Dramatic, breathtaking, and executed with brilliant clarity.

Standout track: “Parentheses”

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/13049015″]

 

02 – Washed Out – Within and Without

Washed Out Within And WithoutIt’s hard to believe this is Ernest Greene’s first full-length, studio album. He’s made three wonderful EPs during 2009 and 2010 at the height of the chillwave bedroom-studio-pop craze. This year he signed to Sub Pop and very wisely made a big change in his music. He stepped away from solo production on his laptop and made a sound that was more rooted in live musicians.

Yes, those awesome loops, beats, and samples are still in there, but the organic dimension of real humans playing real instruments takes it to the next level.

It’s hard to pick a standout track on this album. I kind of treat the entire record as one long track and will often let it repeat for hours. Calling it perfect background music sounds like a knock, but it seriously is the best stuff ever to work to, drive to, hang out with and just plain live with.

Reluctantly selected standout track: “Amor Fati”

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/17580109″]

01 – Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Everyone thought Justin Vernon would be pigeon-holed into the stereotype of the quiet, lonely, heart-broken dude who recorded in a cabin in the winter. After all, with his debut For Emma, Forever Ago that image was latched onto by the press and everyone else. The quaint backstory was part of what led to his widespread appeal, but it quickly got old. Heck, even other songwriters started going to cabins to record. I’d hear them drop that line in interviews in a desperate grasp for indie credibility.

When this high-anticipated album was released everyone knew that Bon Iver was more than that box we’d tried to put him in. The new record doesn’t loose an ounce of Vernon’s trademark falsetto. What it gains is lush arrangements and instrumentation (and yes, the obligatory 2011 saxophone) and lyrical poetry unlike any other I’ve heard in a long, long while.

Put this record on repeat and as you listen decide which track is best. You’ll find that each gets progressively better. And when it repeats the trend continues… on and on into infinity.

Vernon also took things to the next level by curating some of the best videos to accompany his songs. “Holocene” and “Calgary” each got their own beautiful video productions with plots (of sorts). Then he really outdid himself by getting visual artists to create ten short films, one for each track, that he released with the “deluxe” version of the record in October.

I highly recommend that you take the next forty minutes to watch the playlist below that will take you through the entire album with the stunning videos that accompany each track.

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