Sunday, January 08, 2012

My 2011 Top 10 Albums of the Year

According to what I track over at RateYourMusic, I've listened to 901 albums that were released in 2011. That simply boggles my mind. Yes, I listen to music about 7-8 hours a day on average, but that still comes out to almost 3 new albums listened to per day. True, some I listened to once (maybe only halfway through) and realized they were crap or not for me, but just knowing that I've had that much new music pass through my ears makes me question, at least a little bit, the contents of this list. I've had a lot to keep track of and maybe there's something out there that truly connects with me, but I just didn't listen to it in the right mood (or, god forbid, I didn't get around to listening to it). Because of the low barrier of entry for new bands to get their music out to the general public to listen to, we have more music at our fingertips than we could possibly know what to do with. Some days I feel overloaded by the amount of new promos staring at me in my inbox, CDs sitting on my desk, stuff I downloaded wanting to sample, or albums I bought from Bandcamp which, by the way, has to be one of the best outlets for new bands to get discovered. With all of this in mind, below are 10 albums that I truly loved this year. Each connected with me in such a way that it commanded multiple, repeated listens, even in the face of a myriad of other new albums I could flip on instead.

It is a rare thing to come across an album that hits you on every level. After two moderately respectable albums, Hands' third effort is a spectacle to behold. They have tapped a sound that resonates with me musically and lyrically. They have written a concept record that is deep, challenging, and mature. They have melded genres in a way that sets them apart from both their peers and their influences. This album's concept, one of a journey where the existence of god is questioned, the belief in a higher power is struggled with, the end of life is contemplated, and the meaning of our spiritual journey is confronted… it mirrors my personal struggles of faith, it captures my fear of death, and to some extent gives me hope that someday there will be an epiphany to put it all into perspective. No other album even came close to challenging Give Me Rest for best of the year, and that's really saying something.

Periphery was last year's king of the djent sound, and I honestly thought the genre, even though it was only starting to gain wider exposure, was peaking last year. I was quite wrong, thankfully, and this year saw many amazing djent albums drop with TesseracT maturing the genre even further. One is not a concept album per se, but the 6-part "Concealing Fate" suite that makes up the bulk of the album is some of the best progressive, djent metal that I've heard. The combination of the thick polyrhythmic sound along with the beautiful melodic vocals and underlying atmosphere make this album simultaneously pummeling and beautiful.

Dubstep, love it or hate it, gained a hell of a lot of popularity as a genre this year and I, like many others, got sucked in. Most of the dubstep I listened to, however, didn't hold my interest for very long. There were neat songs here and there, but nowhere could I find an entire album that I'd actually listen to all the way through, let alone listen to multiple times… until Welcome Reality found its way into my car stereo. This album is candy for my ears as Nero takes dubstep, heavily infuses it with pop sensibilities, and makes sure to give every track a unique feel. I've probably listened to songs like "Crush on You," "Innocence," "Promises," and "Must Be the Feeling" more times than I can count. This is pop music for people who don't like pop music.

This album was almost a casualty of my thirst for new music. Since I listen to so many albums, if I'm not captivated initially, I too often toss aside something and don't come back to it unless it comes up on random when listening to my entire collection. This means "grower" albums almost never catch on with me… except in this case. "Dance on Blood" came up one day on random and got my ears to perk up. After giving the album a few more spins, their unique combination of a textured, dense, modern rock sound, along with some definite Deftones and Katatonia influences, turned out to be infectious. There are more and more layers that can be uncovered with each listen.

On album #5, Falling Up have finally done it. Whereas Junius created a dense slab of modern rock, Falling Up went in the other direction and made a more open, exploratory, modern, progressive rock album. Add to that the fact that this is Falling Up's most prog-oriented album to date and you have a peculiar mix of The Pineapple Thief, Hopesfall, and Far-Less. I at times found myself disliking the album for being somewhat too proggy for a modern rock album, but it kept calling me back regardless, which is saying something.

This is a real latecomer to my list. I had this album sitting on my desk for ages and never got around to it, but I am so thankful I did before the end of the year. It's best to think of this as a sister album to Hands' Give Me Rest, which probably explains my instant gravitation to it (once I finally did get to it...). Sonically, this album is a mix of Explosions in the Sky, Isis, As Cities Burn, and Cult of Luna, creating a pretty interestingly diverse album, yet it never falls apart or feels incoherent. The lyrics and sounds of the album explore concepts and feelings of lost faith, death, family, and change so there are a lot of heady thoughts in this musical mix and it all comes together perfectly, showing yet another band this year fully realizing their potential to create a career-topping album.

Yep, I hopped on this bandwagon as well. I couldn't have asked for a more engaging hip-hop album this year. Childish Gambino, or Donald Glover(his given name), put together a mix of songs that jump between aggressive, dance-tastic, pop-ladden, and ballad-y. Yes, his lyrics are sometimes odd and feel a bit forced, but his flow is so perfect and fits each of the myriad of approaches he uses on this album. This is hip-hop for the people who haven't quite found that poppy hip-hop album that they like quite yet.

Take the djent sound of TesseracT or Vildhjarta, make it even more mechanical in nature, and add a 2 ton sledgehammer of aggression… then let it hit you in the face and you've got Sees. This album knocked me on my ass the first time I heard it, and it quickly became a motivational album for my visits to the gym, propping up my adrenaline level with every song. This laser-sharp focus may make the album seem somewhat simplistic, but when a band does what it does so well, that's not necessarily bad.

There's an interesting trend I noticed with this year's top 10--only 3 entries are from new artists releasing debut albums (and in the case ofTesseracT and Nero they've actually had previous EP output). It seems to me that either a) new artists just weren't that appealing to me this year or b) that we are seeing a number of bands reaching their creative peaks. I would argue the latter. Ghost Brigade, with this effort, has created their most diverse album yet. Fully embracing their melodic, acoustic side, we hear moments where Ghost Brigade explore this side in depth. A perfect example is the opening track "In the Woods." Not to be outshined by this new side, Ghost Brigade also continue to dive deep into the atmospheric sludge and progressive metal realms that they've mastered on their previous albums. It seems as if Ghost Brigade is completely unafraid to try anything they feel is necessary to express themselves, and that gamble keeps paying off.

Upon my first listen of Go Now and Live I was completely let down. I loved We Are the Ocean's Alexisonfire copycat approach on their debut, Cutting Our Teeth, so to hear them move away from it to more of a straight-up post-hardcore/rock sound didn't seem right. Then, after months on the shelf, I discovered the album all over again and it suddenly clicked with me. "What It Feels Like" re-ignited the love I originally had for this band. Yes, they've changed, but in doing so they've shed the shackles of sounding exactly like one of their influences and instead sound like their own band. It's a case of yet another band growing up and showing their maturity.

Honorable Mentions:

Floating Me - Floating Me
Omnium Gatherum - New World Shadows
Draconian - A Rose for the Apocalypse
Leprous - Bilateral
Blueneck - Repetitions

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