My friend asthenia* (Ethan) and I wanted to make a collective list of our favorite albums of 2011. We each came up with our own, then combined them to make a list of our favorite albums of the year. We each wrote up a thing for 10 of the albums, I put who wrote each thing beside the album title. Here's what we got!
20. Dan Mangan – Oh Fortune [Dan]
The Dan Mangan that I was used to was always very stripped down and acoustic, but on his most recent release he embraced a much richer sound and full-on orchestral accompaniment. At first I was put off by it, but after a few listens this album really grew on me. First off, this guy’s voice is just awesome. Even the weakest songs on the album are made bearable because of how smooth his voice is. Second, he’s a great lyricist. His lyrics are not always the most profound or relatable, but they’re always interesting. The album opener is probably my favorite track. That song, along with “Post-War Blues”, gives me a strong Fun. vibe, and I’m a huge Fun. fan. He also handles the slower songs quite well; both “If I Am Dead” and “Regarding Death and Dying” are really moving, with the latter song being especially haunting. The album closer “Jeopardy” is a powerful – albeit understated – ending to the record, and “Oh Fortune” and “Starts With Them, Ends With Us” are a great couple of songs in the middle of it all. If you haven’t ever checked out this guy I’d highly recommend him.
Pick 3: 'Oh Fortune',' Starts With Them, Ends With Us', 'About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All'
19. Bayside – Killing Time [Dan]
Bayside has never been a band that I’ve really loved. I enjoyed their self-titled album quite a bit but nothing since then really held my attention. That’s why I was so surprised by Killing Time. Yes, the lyrics are still super over the top, but that’s to be expected. This record is a perfect refinement of everything Bayside has done in the past. It has the urgency of the older records with the pop sensibility of their more recent releases. “Already Gone” and “Sick, Sick, Sick” start the record off with a bang. They are reminiscent of older Bayside while also showing off how far the band has come. The following song, “Mona Lisa”, has become one of my favorite Bayside songs. The unending key changes and hook after hook make it a clear standout. Other highlights include the handclap-filled “It’s Not A Bad Little War”, the obligatory slow song “On Love, On Life”, and closer “Killing Time”. The last song is both insanely catchy and slightly hopeful. It’s a great conclusion to the best and most consistent collection of songs that this band has ever released.
Marianas Trench is the best band you aren’t listening to. Although their last two album have been reviewed on AP, they have yet to achieve anything in the US resembling their popularity north of the border. This is a travesty. In a post-Folie a Deux world, Marianas Trench is the bridge between Hot Topic and the top 40, managing to incorporate everything from dance synth, to Dave Grohl-influenced growls, to world music percussion, all the while displaying a knack for progression that should make Max Bemis jealous. The title track is less a song than a declaration. Marianas Trench are hungry, and every other band should be aware of them For good reason. “Haven’t Had Enough”, ‘By Now’, ‘Desperate Measures’ and ‘Fallout’ are Billboard-ready anthems, just begging to be covered by Glee’s New Directions. However the album houses notable risks. ‘B-Team’ casts off the standard verse-chorus-bridge formula with a percussion interlude, while ‘Truth or Dare’ is the best Michael Jackson tribute Patrick Stump never wrote. Finally, ‘No Place Like Home’ manages to combine all the aforementioned elements, displaying the expansive breadth of Marianas Trench’s vision. One can only imagine what they’ll do next.
Pick 3: ‘Ever After’, ‘Truth or Dare’, ‘Desperate Measures’
17. Mansions – Dig Up the Dead [Ethan]
Like any other year, 2011 was an assortment of highs and lows. But, while the highs were welcome and appreciated, they were also few and far between. I was down for 2/3’s of the year, and Dig Up the Dead is reflection of that. Christopher Browder has garnered comparisons to Brand New, Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine for his work as Mansions, and there are certainly elements of each on this record. Though it boasts only one ‘upbeat’ song, the fantastic ‘Blackest Sky’, Dig Up the Dead’s disillusionment rarely feels redundant. Browder’s songs are intricately layered, with everything from whispered background vocals (‘City Don’t Care’), to low-fi, nearly lost in the mix-rhythm guitar (‘Seven Years’). Of course, the songs were strong already. Browder is a songwriter’s songwriter. Most of the tracks are founded in basic chords and while the melodies aren’t revolutionary, they are memorable (‘Not My Blood’). The songs would sound great stripped down. Like the aforementioned Devine, Chris knows when to whisper (‘You Got Cool’) and when to scream (‘Wormhole’); and much like Brand New his use of distortion and feedback is great. Comparisons aside, Dig Up the Dead is a inspiring record. This industry needs artists like Mansions. I needed him, too.
Beyoncé’s “4” is easily my favorite pop album of the year. While other artists have adapted their sound to fit into the dance-pop craze that seemed to be so popular this year, Beyoncé didn’t go that route. This is an album that is distinctly Beyoncé and could not have been pulled off by any other female artist in popular music today. Highlights include the 80’s R&B influenced “Love On Top” and the quirky but huge-sounding “Countdown.” Both of these songs, along with most of the album, are all about love. Despite being a glossy pop album, Beyoncé still conveys the passion and honesty needed for all of these songs to really work. She just sounds happy, and this believability only makes the songs better. Another high point is “Best Thing I Never Had”, an “Irreplaceable”-esque slow jam that deserved to be a far more successful single than it turned out to be. Yes, there are quite a few slow songs, but they are all good and none are skip-worthy. This is the best pop album you’ll find in 2011 and a great alternative to the Rihanna and LMFAO-styled dance-pop that is dominating the radio.
Pick 3: 'Countdown', 'Love On Top', 'Best Thing I Never Had'
15. Into It. Over It. – Proper [Ethan]
Evan Weiss was a busy man this year. Aside from Proper, Into It. Over It. also released two 7 inches and another full length compilation, Twelve Towns. While this output alone is impressive, it is all the more so when considering its high caliber. Indeed, with each subsequent release Weiss’ craft becomes more finely tuned. Proper is a testament to this, offering up 12 tracks with next to no-filler. While elements of his previous efforts are apparent, the muddled production of ‘Embracing Facts’, the mathcore rhythms of ‘Fortunate Friends’, Proper seems intended to reintroduce Weiss. Only two songs consist of Into It. Over It’s standard live arrangement of Evan and his guitar (‘No Good Before Noon’ and the haunting ‘The Frames that Used To Greet Me’), and while strong, the full band songs are simply to good to be played solo. ‘Discretion and Depressing People’ needs it’s second verse bass groove. ‘Fortunate Friends’ needs its call and response guitar lines. You can’t tell me ‘Write It Right’ would sound better without it’s chorus harmonies. Like Chris Carrabba or Bob Dylan, Into It. Over It’s means have outgrown their ends. Proper’s noodling and distortion make it’s delicate moments all the more tender, in turn making the final result all the more remarkable.
Pick 3: ‘Write It Right’, ‘Where Your Nights Often End’, ‘The Frames That Used to Greet Me’
14. Thrice – Major/Minor [Dan]
I’m a huge Thrice fan so I was very excited to listen to Major/Minor, especially after how much I loved 2009’s Beggars. After hearing the album opener, “Yellow Belly”, I was slightly worried. That song is a bit too ‘radio rock’ for me and I’m still not a big fan of it. Luckily, the following songs don’t follow in the same vein. “Promises” is classic Thrice and “Blinded” would sound right at home on Beggars. The middle section of the album is very strong, with each song containing individual parts that really impressed me. With that being said, the album really takes flight during its final four songs. “Words in the Water” is long, but beautiful. It reminds me of something from the Alchemy Index and it would be a perfect companion to “Daedalus” off of the Air EP. “Anthology” is my favorite song on the record and one of my favorite Thrice songs of all time. It is the culmination of everything that I love about Thrice: it is both heavy but melodic, and Dustin Kenrue’s vocals soar. I’m very sad to see Thrice go but Major/Minor was a perfect sendoff after an already amazing run for the band.
Pick 3: 'Anthology', 'Disarmed', 'Words In The Water'
13. I Am The Avalanche – Avalanche United [Dan]
While you are listening to the album opener “Holy Fuck” for the first time, I dare you to not tap your feet or bob your head along. Now, I dare you to not sing along with it after you’ve heard it a couple times. It’s impossible. It’s so easy to get caught up in the sheer passion and energy of these twelve songs. The first three tracks are pop punk gold. The aforementioned album opener is both catchy and sincere, “Brooklyn Dodgers” has a nostalgic quality that I love, and “Amsterdam” features some of the best moments on the album. “This One’s On Me” is all about the importance of friends and family and is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard all year. You can tell that the band was actually enjoying themselves when they created these songs, and that sense of fun makes it all the more infectious. Also, “You’ve Got Spiders” is 2 minutes of the pure pop punk bliss and I imagine that it would tons of fun to see live. This is an album that you want to listen to while you get wasted in a good buddy’s basement, and for that reason I love it.
Pick 3: 'Holy Fuck', 'This One's On Me', 'Amsterdam'
12. The Wonder Years – Suburbia I’ve Given You My All and Now I’m Nothing [Dan]
If you had asked me at the beginning of the year ‘which pop punk album do you expect the most from this year?’ it probably would have been Suburbia. Initially I was slightly disappointed in the record because it didn’t include anything as classic as tracks like “My Last Semester” or “Logan Circle” from The Upsides. While this album doesn’t outdo their last, it’s still a great record that I’ve grown to really love. “Came Out Swinging” opens the album and proves exactly why TWY are one of the best bands in the genre. It ends with Soupy screaming the chorus out at the top of his lungs and it’s a great moment of passion that reminded me why I love this band so much. There are many other moments like that scattered throughout the album. Other notable highlights include the relentless “My Life As A Pigeon”, the ode to good friends and memories with them in “Summers in PA”, and the catchy-as-shit sing-along “Don’t Let Me Cave In”. Also, Soupy’s lyrics are as painfully personal and honest as always. It’s fantastic pop punk with heart, and that’s what makes it so great.
Pick 3: 'Came Out Swinging', 'Life Of A Pigeon', 'Don't Let Me Cave In'
11. Childish Gambino – CAMP [Ethan]
To paraphrase Brain Fallon (roughly), “People need music for Saturday nights”. While the Gaslight Anthem front man was referring to his own bands purpose with music, this quote applies to Childish Gambino’s CAMP as well. Though 2011 was full of albums that offered me a chance for self-reflection, CAMP wasn’t one of them. This album was like a grocery store gossip magazine for me. It afforded me an opportunity to ignore whatever was going on my world, and just indulge in someone else problems. Regardless of what this says about me, it speaks to the strength of Glover’s story telling, particularly in songs like ‘Outside’ ‘Bonfire’ and ‘L.E.S’. Though Pitchfork doesn’t understand, Gambino serves as an outlet for Donald Glover. Songs like ‘Backpacker’ ‘That Power’ and ‘All the Shine’ are clearly cathartic, and whether you think his problems are shallow or inconsequential, you have to respect Glover’s honesty. Furthermore, where ‘Freaks and Geeks’ had no noticeable hook, songs like ‘Heartbeat’ ‘Firefly’ ‘You See Me’ and ‘Sunrise’ show that Childish actually can write pop-hooks without sacrificing his wit or flow. While there are some missteps on the album (‘Kids’ and ‘Letter Home), the album generally takes what Gambino fans have come to love and expands off that. We couldn’t ask for anything more.
Pick 3: ‘Outside’ ‘Bonfire’ ‘Backpackers’
10. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials [Dan]
This album is just gigantic. The production sounds huge, the chorus’ have massive hooks, and Florence Welch’s vocal performances are enormous. You listen to this album and you feel like you are sitting in some giant cathedral with Welch and an army of choir singers belting these songs out at you with everything they’ve got. As a Florence + the Machine newbie, I was taken aback by how powerful songs like “Shake It Out” and “Spectrum” were, with “Shake It Out” being one of the frontrunners for my favorite song of the year. Yes, they’re both totally melodramatic and completely over the top, but that adds to the appeal. No, there’s nothing as catchy as “The Dog Days are Over” from 2009’s Lungs, but you’ll quickly overlook that small flaw when you realize just how accomplished this entire album is. “Never Let Me Go” is the signature power ballad that Adele wishes she wrote, and “Only if for a Night” shows everyone in the music industry how to turn auto-tune into art. It really came as surprise to me but I can’t say enough positive things about this record.
Pick 3: 'Shake It Out', 'Spectrum', 'Never Let Me Go'
9. La Dispute – Wildlife [Ethan]
Few albums released this year were as polarizing as Wildlife, but the people who love it really love it, and for good reason. Few lyricists were able to hold a candle to Jordan Dreyer this year; and Wildlife is a testament to this, functioning more like a novel than merely a record. The fourteen tracks form a linear narrative examining the urban decay of the author’s city, which parallels his own despondency. While its overarching themes alone are remarkable, however, they are more so in that they don’t hurt the songs. Each track is passionate, and every part is intricate. There is no filler here. From the noodley leads of ‘Harder Harmonies’ and ‘Edit Your Hometown’ to toe-tapping bass and drum groove of ‘St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues’ or ‘The Most Beautiful Fruit’, La Dispute have clearly never been better musically. Brad Vanger Lugt’s drumming and percussion skills are particularly remarkable, often adding a much-appreciated emphasis to Dreyer’s stories (‘King Park’ ‘Edward Benz, 27 Times’). However, this album is a perfect storm and this can’t be attributed to single member or technique. Rather, Wildlife unabashedly explores the tragedy that often is human existence. This tragedy stems from our imperfections, which are something we can never escape. However, bleak as this sounds, Wildlife also suggests that it is this universal that will save us in the end (‘You and I In Unison’). By fighting our darkness we become stronger, we manage to keep the wilderness at bay. This was a reality I needed to hear this year.
Pick 3: 'Harder Harmonies', 'King Park', 'Edward Benz 27 Times'
8. Thursday – No Devolución [Ethan]
What can I say about this album that I didn’t already cover in our Double Feature? I’ve spent a lot of time pontificating about music and the state of the industry this year, and Thursday’s dissolution without a doubt exemplifies the worst-case scenario available to any band. However, Thursday’s situation is all the more bittersweet because they quit at the top of their game. They were essentially forced out of the picture due to all the extraneous bullshit associated with the machine. In the weeks that have passed since our Double Feature, I have begun to explore the band’s back catalogue and I can say that in terms of creativity, No Devolución was truly an expansive leap for the band. Tom Keeley and Steve Pedulla’s controlled, often-subtle guitar work had never been more tastefully applied (‘No Answers’, ‘A Darker Forest’), while Andrew Everding’s keys managed to become Thursday’s secret weapon, framing much of the album (‘Sparks Against the Sun’, ‘Empty Glass’). However, Geoff Rickley will always be Thursday’s focal point and No Devolución is no exception. Luckily, Rickley’s lyrics and vocals were as articulate and passionate as ever, if not more so (‘Stay True’, ‘A Gun in the First Act’, ‘Fast To the End’). But while this album is strong musically, it’s inclusion here is more a testament to another fallen front-line soldier. Thursday was these men’s lives for 15 years, and they never phoned it in. Rather, they seemingly got better with every release. While other bands were trying to find mass appeal, Thursday tried to remain loyal to their fan-base while also maintaining their artistic integrity. That they went broke doing so only further speaks to their passion. This industry needs people like Thursday, and I hope I someday care about anything as much as they cared about us.
Pick 3: 'Past and Future Ruins', 'Stay True', 'Turnpike Divides'
7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver [Ethan]
To this day For Emma Forever Ago is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful records I’ve ever heard. Justin Vernon’s unique blend of experimental and minimalist song writing found perfection in its imperfections, as Vernon exposed himself with nothing but his abstract lyricism to shield him. Such craftsmanship was uncontested in 2008, and today Vernon’s contemporaries are essentially students rather than peers. However, in the three year expanse separating For Emma.. and Bon Iver, something radical happened. Vernon abandoned his minimalist approach, surrounding himself with a full-formed band. While this sort of thing is by no means unheard of, for an artist of Vernon’s caliber this was an avant-garde decision, comparable to Dylan going electric or Springsteen recording on a four-track. In doing so, though, Bon Iver became something more. From the opening riff of ‘Perth’ to the fading synth of ‘Beth/Rest’ Bon Iver never relents. It’s as if Vernon had been working with charcoal only to experiment with watercolors. Examples of this abound with saxophone, steel pedal guitar and the aforementioned synthesizer permeating throughout the record (‘Minnesota’, ‘Libson, OH’, ‘Calgary’). Despite these garnishes, though, Vernon’s songwriting is as beautiful as ever; his melodies and subsequent harmonies are lush (‘Towers’, ‘Michicant’). His voice is truly one in a million. Furthermore, the instrumentation is never overwhelming but rather tactfully applied. For all of its strengths though, Bon Iver is especially remarkable because of its reception. Not only is this record beautiful, it is also been accepted by nearly everyone who has heard it with open arms. While the industry continues to slowly capsize, Bon Iver may just become the great equalizer. A Kurt Cobain, or a Bono. Not bad for a sad dude from Wisconsin.
Pick 3: 'Holocene', 'Towers', 'Beth/Rest'
6. Transit - Listen and Forgive [Ethan]
**Blurb thing pending. We forgot about writing this one up.
5. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie [Dan]
I’ll just get this out there right away: I’ve absolutely loved every Gaslight Anthem release. They are easily my favorite band and the ’59 Sound is one of my favorite albums of all time. With that being said, I may be a little bit biased, but this was an easy choice as my favorite album of the year. I don’t think anyone in music today can tell a story the way that Brian Fallon does, and he proves that once again on Elsie. From the opening tambourine shake in “Last Rites” to the eerily beautiful “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together,” Brian and Ian Perkins treat you to some amazing storytelling. “Go Tell Everybody” sounds unlike anything found on previous GA records. Fallon’s voice shines on this track and the crescendo-ing final chorus brings the song to a triumphant end. “Ladykiller” and “Crush” are an amazing one-two punch in the middle of the album, with the latter being my favorite song on the record. Also, I dare you to find a moment of such pure passion, as seen at the midpoint of “Blood Loss,” on anything released this year. The album just bleeds nostalgia, and that may be what makes me gravitate toward Fallon’s music so consistently. It’s an album that you want to yell out in your car while you drive around in the middle of the night, an album that will make you think about every aspect of your life, and an album that will make you feel. It's basically everything that I love about listening to music.
Pick 3: 'Blood Loss', 'Crush', 'Ladykiller'
4. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math [Dan]
After one listen through this album I already loved it. Going into it, I had simply hoped that Manchester Orchestra would be able to create an album that I enjoyed throughout, and on that account I was more than thoroughly impressed. The album is deeply personal, with lead-singer Andy Hull basically spilling the beans on the darkest time of his marriage. Opener “Deer” grabs you instantly. I remember hearing the line “you're probably too busy with your work, or am I just excusing you for leaving me alone?” for the first time. Lyrics like that aren’t generalizations that anyone can write, they’re insight into the mind of a man who is realizing he has problems and faults and who is trying to come to terms with that. The title-track is possibly my favorite song of the entire year. It talks about Hull wishing for the black and white truths found in math and science in moments as he struggles with temptation and cheating on his wife. It’s an absolutely beautiful song both lyrically and musically. “Simple Math” and the other three songs that bring the album to a close are probably my favorite stretch of songs from any album this year. Beautiful strings and orchestral arrangements aid these songs, along with the rest of the record. Despite that, MO still keeps much of the intensity found in their previous albums. “Pensacola” and “Virgin” are good examples. They are both great for different reasons, with the former being the catchiest song on the album and the latter the creepiest.
Pick 3: 'Simple Math', 'Leave It Alone', 'Pensacola'
3. Fireworks – Gospel [Ethan]
Despite the industry’s disarray, 2011 saw the continued expansion of the pop-punk community. While this scene brings to mind the Long Island scene of old, it is a different beast entirely. Though a little healthy competition never hurt anybody, there is almost no semblance of that within the group we are currently seeing. Rather bands, independent of label or stature not only influence, but also champion one another. While Fireworks are indisputably a product of this environment, they could very soon break away for greener artistic pastures. Although Gospels undeniably boasts a pop-punk sound, it is by and large the most creative take on the genre seen this year. Dave Mackinder’s lyrics have always been more Stump/Wentz than Delonge, and Gospels is no exception. That said, Dave’s lyrics have never been as consistently great as they are here (see the opening lines to ‘Arrows’ and ‘the Wild Bunch’ for proof). As well, each release finds Mackinder reigning in his Jordan Pudnik nasality, a result only attributable to the band’s constant touring. However, the benefits of experience are not lost on the rest of the band. Gospels makes clear that Fireworks is expanding in all departments. Chris Mojan and Brett Jones’ rhythms have never been so tight, nor their riffs as slick (‘We’re Still Pioneers’, ‘Paintings of Paul Revere’). While the two rarely stray from their distortion, the record does find diversity in the acoustic strumming of ‘I Am the Challenger’, and the lap steel of the aforementioned ‘Wild Bunch’. Tymm Rengers, though, is Fireworks secret-weapon. Although his drumming is often understated on Gospels, Rengers is often the group’s only tie to their pop-punk roots, subsequently allowing the other’s experimentation (‘Oh, Why Can’t We Start Old and Get Younger’). Like any good band, though, Fireworks is a sum of its parts, and that sum seems to indicate a wider scope than the ‘Defend Pop-Punk’ mentality. Am I saying Gospels is their Deja Entendu? Maybe, but stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Pick 3: 'Arrows', 'Oh, Why Can’t We Start Old and Grow Young', 'The Wild Bunch'
2. The Dangerous Summer – War Paint [Ethan]
It’s rare that I review an album without mentioning any of the songs, but for the Dangerous Summer I feel compelled to make an exception. With that said, this is a good album. You may even think it’s a great album. As listeners, we often find records that speak to us, but we rarely find ones that speak for us. I found that in War Paint, and in this sense War Paint is as much the Dangerous Summer’s record as it is mine. 2011 was an incredibly difficult year for me, which subsequently makes writing this ‘review’ all the more difficult. Amongst the scars I collected, there are also some wounds that haven’t quite healed. I’m not sure they ever will. But as my life became more and more capricious, War Paint became more and more of a constant. No matter how my day was going, this record was getting spins. Along the way it stopped soundtracking my day, and started soundtracking my month, my year. On paper, it doesn’t look significant, until you realize that between the months and days life was happening. For better or worse, this album has come influenced the way I think about life and the way I see the world. Furthermore, I will always love people who love this album because it says things about me that I never could. This album followed me into the darkness, but it also followed me out. It brought me closer to my friends, but also myself. Although what I lost can’t ever be completely recovered, when I play this record I feel closer to it. I feel closer to my memories, to her, and the catharsis that accompanies that feeling is a constant reminder of how living is an art. It’s a struggle, but you keep fighting because you’re left with something beautiful.
It’s hard for me to write about Young Pilgrim because I don’t even know where to start. While Ethan and I disagreed on a lot of choices when we were compiling this top 20 list, one thing we didn’t disagree on was our love for this record. I don’t have time to talk about every song individually, so instead I’ll just say this: you owe it to yourself to go listen to this album right now. If you don’t believe me, go listen to either “Riverbanks” or “Thorns” and tell me you aren’t hearing something special. The former has a towering chorus unlike anything I’ve ever heard all year and the latter is just stunning in every sense of the word. Album opener and first single “Down Down Down”, with a final minute that is one of the album highlights, will quickly prove to you that this guy has got some great talent. The album’s intricate guitar and piano work, beautiful vocal harmonies, genuine lyrics, and perfect balance between down-tempo acoustic songs and soaring folk jams all add up to one of the most cohesive and powerful musical experiences of the year. Every song has a part to it that makes it stand out. Whether you’re listening to the Bon Iver-esque beginning of “Hold On”, the falsetto bridge near the end of “I Need A Friend Tonight”, the funky bass that ushers in “Cemetery”, the country-tinged harmonica in “Farmer and His Gun”, or the baby-making sing-along bridge in “Parachutes,” you’ll enjoy every single second of it.