Darren's Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2011
While 2010 brought us such great follow ups as High Violet, The Suburbs, and Brothers, the theme of 2011 seemed to be impressive debut albums. While there were a decent number of new releases by old favorites, there were also a fair number of let downs. Overall, this year introduced me to a lot of new artists I'll have to pay attention to in the future.

The following list is 10 of my favorite albums of the year, whether they be new debuts or solid entries from old stalwarts, although I truthfully haven't listened to anything close to everything that's come out in 2011. Rest assured, if your favorite isn't on here, there's a decent chance that I didn't listen to it"¦..or that it completely disappointed me. One of the two.

10. The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

This band became known with their single "Post Break-Up Sex," which probably wins the "most awkward song to listen to in front of your parents" award for 2011. Although I never really grew to like this track, I liked much of the rest of the album on the first listen. While I prefer the powerful, simple, and short songs such as "Wreckin' Bar," "If You Wanna" and "Norgaard," I realize that the band is not the Hives and can't make a whole album like this. Instead, they slow down to make the remainder of the album, which isn't necessarily as catchy but isn't bland either. Songs like "Wetsuit" and "All In White" still stick out despite their slower tempo, and the band shows that they're capable of handling a decent variety of styles. All in all, it's a promising debut, and hopefully they'll stick to their mix of slow and fast songs.

9. Miles Kane - Colour of the Trap

I first heard of this super-British singer-songwriter from his side-project The Last Shadow Puppets with Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. The byproduct of this collaboration grew to be one of my all-time favorite albums, and I'm glad that Kane borrowed its sound when starting his solo career. As someone who listens to a lot of British indie rock, I have to say that a lot of it does blend together at times, but Kane's debut sticks out due to its strong 60s influence. Colour of the Trap opens with its solid singles "Come Closer" and "Rearrange," both of which are lively, catchy, and set the retro tone on the album. Not all of the tracks fit this criteria, and "Counting Down The Days" and "Take The Night From Me" kind of come off as filler. But the rest of the album is brimming with such 60s British rock energy that you'll be orderly queuing up for more.

8. The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar

The Big Roar is the debut album of female-fronted The Joy Formidable, who have slowly been building towards its release after putting out singles and an EP in the past couple years. It definitely doesn't disappoint, and my first impression was that the album flows exceptionally well. At the same time, it has tracks that can stand by themselves, such as "Austere" and the shoegaze-sounding (+500 hipster points if you know what that means) "The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade." In other parts, the album goes between extended jams like "The Ever Changing Spectrum Of A Lie" and "Whirring" to shorter and more rockin' songs like "The Magnifying Glass" and "Chapter 2" without either sounding out of place. The album's high energy is curbed a little in the latter half though, where its more forgettable moments dwell. Overall, this debut sets a fairly high bar for anything The Joy Formidable will put out in the future.

7. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

While this band is mostly known for their songs that tell tales of chimney sweeps and mariners, their latest album exchanges their trademark vignettes for extensive harmonica and a country-influenced sound. I was skeptical of this at first, but was mostly just happy that they didn't make another rock opera like The Hazards of Love. None of the songs are particularly long, feature unusual instruments such as harpsichord or balalaika, or require Wikipedia to understand their lyrics. The only song that resembles their earlier albums is the Celtic-sounding "Rox In The Box," as the rest have Americana-themed instrumentation. "Don't Carry It All" and "Down By The Water" have strong harmonica parts, "Rise to Me" features steel pedal guitar, and "All Arise" is driven by fiddle. And while I realize that a variety of instruments is what listeners expect from the Decemberists, I actually found myself a big fan of their simple guitar-driven songs "Calamity Song" and "January Hymn." I'm truthfully not sure if the Decemberists could pull off making another album like this, but I also wouldn't say that this is Decemberists having a misstep by trying something new.

6. Panda Bear - Tomboy

I got Panda Bear's album Person Pitch after it was hailed as one of the best of 2007, although I didn't really start to appreciate it until last year - maybe it's because I got into Animal Collective in between or started wearing tighter pants. Regardless, when I heard about Tomboy I was expecting another release with 12-minute long centerpieces and looped samples. Instead, Tomboy consists of shorter and more eclectic songs, which range from sounding upbeat ("You Can Count On Me") to downright creepy ("Scheherazade"). Lennox's voice in Person Pitch made him sound like the red-headed stepchild of the Beach Boys, and this can also be found on the really pop-sounding songs of Tomboy like "Surfer's Hymn" and "Last Night at the Jetty." While I appreciate the album's lyrics, such as the sincerity found on "Alsatian Darn," for the most part you can't understand a word Lennox says with all of the vocal effects, which I guess is his norm. The album does have its more complicated and experimental songs, although some, mainly the aptly named "Drone," are a little too out there to fit in with the rest. Overall, this album's strengths come in its accessibility and its catchy tracks that can stand alone.

5. Bright Eyes - The People's Key

While my affinity for this album might be influenced by my long-lasting appreciation of Bright Eyes' past releases and not-entirely-platonic adoration of Conor Oberst, I really do think this is a solid record. When I heard that Oberst was going to retire the Bright Eyes moniker to focus on the more country and folk-influenced Mystic Valley Band, the last thing I expected this album to resemble was his often overlooked Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Getting past the odd monologue that opens The People's Key and the fact that a whiny white guy from Nebraska chose Rastafarianism for its recurring theme, the album has a rare positive energy not found in previous albums. Songs like "Shell Games," "Jejune Stars," and "Beginner's Mind," are anything but the angst-filled acoustic melodies most people associate with Bright Eyes, and with "Haile Selassie" and "Triple Spiral" this album approaches indie pop turf. The People's Key does feature a few slower songs that calm things down considerably, but they still feature Oberst's lyrical ingenuity, even if they do sound like they were written with a thesaurus (I'm looking at you, "Firewall.") Overall, while the album may have disappointed those expecting another I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning or Cassadaga, I think we'll get enough of the Americana sound in Oberst's future projects and I'm satisfied that the last Bright Eyes release took this direction.

4. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

While this album lacks the "I-locked-myself-in-a-cabin-for-3-months-to-make-this" sound that his debut had, Justin Vernon's self-titled sophomore effort does indeed bring something new to the table - A SYNTHESIZER. While I loved it when this new feature was applied in subtle amounts - such as in "Minnesota, WI" and "Calgary," it can overdone at times, such as "Beth/Rest," which sounds like it could have been taken from a Phil Collins album. Additionally, the album also features more multi-instrumental tracks in general, notably horns on "Holocene," an electric guitar melody on "Towers," and piano on "Wash." While all of this makes it instrumentally much different than the first, the album still features Vernon's trademark emotive falsetto vocals and cryptic lyrics. And while you can argue that For Emma, Forever Ago was better, I still found this to be a damn fine sophomore effort that didn't attempt to mimic the debut.

3. Cut Copy - Zonoscope

I've never considered myself a die-hard electronic music fan, although more and more synthesizer-driven music has slowly crept its way into my iTunes in the past few years. I'm still fairly picky with the genre, and hold its albums to much higher standards than the "4 British guys with guitars that know some chords" genre. However, Zonoscope really impressed me, and I fell in love with the song "Take Me Over" at first listen. Seriously, this song's 80s sound easily wins it the "catchiest chorus of 2011." The rest of the album grew on me after a few more listens, and all of the tracks have strong melodies that make them stand out from one another against the more repetitive dance beats underneath, especially with "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution" and "Corner of the Sky." This differentiation is assisted by the vocals found on almost all songs, although the album isn't one to listen to if you're looking for deep or original lyrics. The only track I'd say that approaches monotony is the closing 15-minute epic "Sun God," and a few tracks (namely the rock-sounding "Where I'm Going") don't seem to fit in well with the rest. All of the tracks do flow together though, and this album is really worthy of repeated listens.

2. Foster the People - Torches

Like most people, I first heard of this new group from their hit "Pumped Up Kicks" - a slow indie tune with threatening lyrics that received plentiful airplay and could be heard at restaurants, cafes, bookstores, clothing stores, funerals, etc. However, when I got their full album, I was surprised to find it sounded more like MGMT mixed with those 90s electronic groups that loved keyboard. Their other hit, "Helena Beat," is a much better indication of their synth-driven sound. I noticed how the album's lyrics range from the senseless "Color on the Walls (Don't Stop)" to the sincere "Waste" and "I Would Do Anything For You." Thanks to its beats, the album is definitely party-friendly for the most part, and has a real pop energy, which might not be for anyone looking for anything too unusual or gimmick-y (like extensive genre mixing or accordion-playing castrati). Still, the album does feel original, and is definitely an attention-catching debut.

1. TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light

Although everything they've put out has been praised by indie music fans for the past few years, I didn't really jump onto the TV On The Radio bandwagon until last year. I'm really glad I did though, especially after listening to Nine Types of Light. The album's livelier numbers, "No Future Shock" and "Repetition" got me on my first listen, and the rest of the album quickly grew after additional listens. The album still has the funk influences of its predecessors, such as the opener "Second Song," but somewhat lacks the more experimental (I feel like such a douche when I use that word) sound that made them famous. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as its more straightforward tracks like single "Will Do" really are worthy of attention. Overall, four albums in, TV On The Radio still seem very original and it would be hard to argue that anything on this album is filler.

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