A good year for music in terms of the sheer number of enjoyable albums to listen to. But not a very top heavy list, as I’m not sure any of top 5 would even crack last year’s top 5 (Surfer Blood, No Age, Against Me!, Dead Confederate, Titus Andronicus). But still, there was no shortage of great stuff to listen to this year. So here’s my top 5 for 2011:
5. Wooden Shjips – “West”: I love the duality of the prototypical psychedelic drone against the searing lead work, whether those leads are coming via organ or guitar (the two trade off). Wooden Shjips have been around for 5 years or so now, but they feel like a veteran band as their proficiency in this form of psych/stoner rock. The sound on this album was considered a little too accessible for some hardcore fans of the band, but I think it plays to their strength. Last year the Black Angels showed us there’s a place for quality psychedelic rock in today’s scene, and Wooden Shjips are just perfecting the art. I challenge anyone to listen to this album without tapping your foot and/or nodding your head along with the rhythms. It’s next to impossible.
4. The Joy Formidable – “The Big Roar”: Perhaps the most aptly titled album of 2011. There is so much passion and intensity and urgency in the relentless pounding at the hands of this band’s enormous wall of rock rhythms. The band is so in tune with one another, from guitar to bass to drums, that at moments it’s hard to believe this much rocking can come from a 3 piece band. There aren’t too many frills or surprises with this album, just a nonstop assault of the senses from this great band from North Wales.
3. Kurt Vile – “Smoke Ring For My Halo”: I went through a period of almost 2 months where it seemed like every morning couldn’t get out a rut without listening to this album first. It was almost as essential as my morning coffee. Almost. Kurt Vile isn’t so much a musician as he is a craftsman. These beautiful pieces of art that he calls songs are so careful constructed and layered that every song takes you on a journey. In many ways the album reminds me of some of Mark Lanegan’s amazing solo stuff. Not as dark, and certainly a much different sounding voice, but both men put so much emotion into the vocal melodies that they carry even the songs that are slightly more subdued or repetitive. But beyond just that, both Lanegan and Vile are exceptional of filling in the spaces between the music with a sound that ends up being so much larger than the sum of the individual parts. The end result is something atmospheric, poetic, and just flat out brilliant. The album is truly sheer joy to listen to.
2. REM – “Collapse Into Now”: I won’t waste my time lamenting the last decade of REM. Most fans are familiar with the issues of the post-Berry iteration of this legendary group. So this album very well might have been the most surprising album for me. Quite frankly, I didn’t know REM still had an album like this in them. The album calls back various aspect of all the various eras of REM music and combines them into a modern sounding version of Automatic for the People. I wouldn’t say this album is anywhere near as good as that classic staple, but it’s the album Collapse Into Now most reminds me of. The albums opens with a soaring intro riff before yielding to the various twist and turns. Piano ballads, mandolin, short up tempo rockers, mid tempo anthems, ballads. They’re all represented. Some stellar guest appearances help highlight the album. Eddie Vedder lends some backing vocals on a track, but the real star guest appearance goes to Peaches who absolutely steals the show on her song. The album closes with a haunting collaboration with Patti Smith with Michael Stipe offering up some spoken word poetry in a song that will posthumously be considered something of a closing statement to REM’s career. The song then ends with a call back to that opening soaring guitar riff. Full circle. A perfect album. A perfect farewell to one of the greatest American rock bands ever.
1. Yuck – “Yuck”: A lot has been made of 2011 being the year of the reprise of 80s shtick into modern music. There was no shortage of synth and pretentiousness in art rock circles. But then this band from London, England just showed up out of nowhere and reminded us all why the 90s where the superior decade for indie rock music. Obviously the influences of Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth are evident. The band doesn’t just wear their influences on their sleeves, but they cherish those influences. They’re not afraid to admit where they come from. But make no mistake, this album does not sound dated and nostalgic. What makes this album so great and definitively my favorite album of the year is that it can lean so heavily on those obvious 90s indie rock influences while still making a sound that is all their own. There’s no album that I listened to in 2011 more than Yuck. The flowing lead guitars, the great interplay between the rhythm guitar and bass, the catchy vocal melodies…there are moments that are noisy and raucous and there are moments that are quiet and tender. It’s easy to look back to the past with Yuck and talk about Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, etc, but Yuck is merely building on that legacy and showing that maybe, just maybe, those bands’ noble approaches to rock music truly are timeless and in the spirit of what rock music is supposed to be all about. In other words, we know what’s in our past, but sometimes a band like Yuck comes along and makes us excited for what the future of indie rock has in store for us.