Here is a completely personal and subjective ranking of the albums I heard this year. Many of them are albums one of us reviewed for this blog; some are not. In compiling the rankings I have a few arbitrary, self-imposed rules. First, I only included albums, not EPs. Second, I didn't include any reissues of single albums (I have included them in the past; as I wrote, these rules are arbitrary). However, I have included a compilation of songs of several different artists previously issued in limited form because it is the first time the songs have been released together and are generally available. I paid no attention to how these albums sold or charted elsewhere. I make no claim that my list is the final word on album rankings for 2011. There are many albums that I haven't heard, or haven't heard enough; if I haven't heard it, I can't rank it. There is more music, and more good music, than any of us can ever experience. My focus is on albums that I enjoy enough to play repeatedly despite having other new music available, rather than attempting to judge objective artistic merit. Further, I tend to focus much of my time for this blog looking for new or emerging bands, so it wouldn't be surprising if I missed a worthy album by an established artist.
I had some intentions of keeping the list short, but I've heard too much music I've liked this year to do that. Moreover, I think that these artists deserve a bit of press. Note that these rankings are a snapshot in time, and could change if I were compiling the list at a different time.
I have provided links to previous WYMA coverage of the albums so you can explore further. In many cases I have embedded a video or sound clip to help you decide whether to explore further. Happy listening!
1. The Bats, Free All the Monsters -- The masters of indie guitar pop are in top form with warm, jangly guitars, memorable melodies and an excellent collection of songs. It earns this lofty spot not only because of its quality, but because I know I will keep listening to it for a very long time (perhaps until the next bats album is released). WYMA Review
2. The Raveonettes, Raven In The Grave -- A slight shift in pace for the Danish duo, but they retain their reverb-heavy sound and back it up with double drums, haunting vocals and their trademark careful production. I could listen to these guys all day; at times, I have. WYMA review
3. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake -- Another masterpiece from one of music's better songwriter/performers. A provocative set of songs presented by Harvey's commanding soprano. [WYMA did not review the album.]
4. Sons and Daughters, Mirror Mirror -- Partially a return to their roots, and partially an expansion of their sound with analog synths and heavy beats. It may not have connected with all the critics, but I think it is brooding masterpiece of rhythms and nightmares. WYMA review
5. Wake the President, Zumutung! -- Heirs to the Josef K, Fire Engines and Orange Juice brand of Scottish pop/rock. For me, the twin brothers have mastered the art of the modern, urban guitar pop song: Not too long, musically engaging, lyrically bittersweet and cynical, with a twist of sinister. There are ten songs and I regard nine of them as first class. If you are signed up for Spotify, give the album a try. WYMA review
6. Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls -- Fuzzy, jangly and distorted guitars, female/male vocals, dark stories and good songcraft. This is a smashing debut. WYMA review
7. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient -- This is another band that deserves to be much better known. Slave Ambient has crunch, polish, jagged nerves, tension and release and jangle.
8. Jacob Yates and the Pearly Gate Lock Pickers, Luck -- Sometimes raucous Scottish roadhouse blues and sometimes heavy-hearted storytelling, all delivered with a sharp tongue and a sense of humor. This album has a big, bleeding heart and it is all rock and roll. WYMA review
9. Edinburgh School for the Deaf, New Youth Bible -- Shoegaze with a driving rhythm section and a dose of garage rock. They can blast you, dance you ragged or make you cry. WYMA review
10. Bwani Junction, Fully Cocked -- An infectious blend of Scottish guitar pop and world rhythms with songcraft that belies, and swagger that underscores, the band's tender years. And "Two Bridges" is one of the year's best songs. WYMA review
11. King Post Kitsch, The Party's Over -- A delightfully varied, assured and inventive romp across indie rock genres that leaves you hoping KPK (i.e. Charlie Ward) spends less time engineering other artists' albums and more time making his own. WYMA review
King Post Kitsch - Don't You Touch My Fucking Honeytone by Song, by Toad
King Post Kitsch - Walking on Eggshells by Song, by Toad
12. Girls, Father Son Holy Ghost -- As I wrote in my 2010 list, I love this band. To my surprise, I didn't love this album as much as many other fans and reviewers, but I liked it enough to place it on my list.
[WYMA did not review this album as it was reviewed in many other places and was available for streaming by the public.]
13. Wax Idols, No Future -- Buzz, clash and fury that doesn't forget the hooks and well turned lyrics. For me, this debut from Heather Fortune and friends is one of the most welcome rock surprises of the year. If you keep an artist-to-watch-for-and-see-live-if-they-come-to-town list, Wax Idols should be on it. Twice. I'm looking forward to the follow up album.
14. Centro-matic, Candidate Waltz -- Our Blogfather, John Hyland, called it "a terrific rock record that's catchy, crunchy and raucous." I agree, and I found it a very well crafted rock album that gets under your skin and stays there. WYMA Review
15. Milk Maid, Yucca -- Fuzzy, buzzy, noisy bedroom garage rock. The band's sound evokes Guided By Voices and The Jesus and Mary Chain, but in their own loose, one-take style.
16. Kurt Vile, -- Blissed-out bluesy folk-rock that manages to be lovely while mixing in anger, bitterness and humor. WYMA Review
17. Shimmering Stars, Violent Hearts -- The sound is vintage, with plenty of reverb and harmonies in concise packages; the lyrics have a modern dark tinge. Months later, I still play this album a couple of times a week. Check out the song below (the video is one of my favorites), and seek out "East Van Girls" and "Nervous Breakdown". WYMA review
18. Cults, Cults -- These newcomers deftly avoided the "gimmick" rut with excellent vocals and musicianship, producing an album of songs with enough pop sensibility and sexy swagger to hold up well as the year winds down.
19. Dum Dum Girls, Only in Dreams -- While their first album was only promising, this album knocked it out of the park on all the relevant criteria. If they want to, this band can be here to stay. It may remind you of The Pretenders but with female backup and the sound tuned more to noise pop than new wave. [WYMA did not review this album as it was reviewed in many other places and was available for streaming by the public.]
20. Seapony, Go With Me -- A perfect summer album of well-crafted guitar pop and winsome female vocals. This band seems to have a keen understanding of the kind of music they like to play and we like to hear.
21. Crystal Stilts, Love in Oblivion -- Possibly one of the best mixes of shoegaze and garage that you are going to hear. This is another band whose second LP surpasses its first LP. The music more than matches the leather jacket and sunglasses visual vibe. Listen to "Through the Floor", below.
22. She's Hit, Pleasure -- This album is a scuzzy, dirty, noisy brand of garage rock that has drawn some creative labels, but my favorite probably is "dirty surf". The lads also avoid fights with their label, having formed their own to release their album and works by Jacob Yates and other promising artists. WYMA Review
23. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong -- Proving that their debut success was not an outlier, TPOBPAH returned with a sophomore release with a slightly expanded sound, but all of the hooks that grabbed us in their debut. They know what they do well, and they deliver. [WYMA did not review this album as it was reviewed in many other places and was available for streaming by the public.]
24. Craft Spells, Idle Labor -- Jangly, shoegazey guitar pop with summery melodies and baritone vocals. A debut album that has fans clamoring for more.
25. Tom Waits, Bad As Me -- Our reviewer, Jim Desmond, wrote "it clanks, wails, weeps and rages. If I had to describe it with a simple term, it's a rock'n'roll record. There is a groove, energy and major force to this effort. And even classic rockabilly...."
26. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now -- Jim Desmond and John Hyland teamed up for our review, which noted "Collapse Into Now ... manages to capture many of the elements that have made the band so beloved, without sounding like a throwback or safe journey on familiar ground." I think it is true that many would rank this album higher if R.E.M. was a new artist to be judged on this work alone, but most compare any new work to past works. I understand, as I struggle with the tendency as well.
27. We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships -- Rising from the ashes of former band Pela (which was a favorite of mine), Billy and Eric have released a passionate statement of their intent to continue making music while confronting demons and choosing life. And I'm happy for it, and for that.
28. Various Artists, The Bristol Reggae Explosion 1978-1983 and The Bristol Reggae Explosion 2 'The 80's' -- The Bristol Archives Records released these compilations of fine, and little known, reggae from the Bristol scene in the late 70s and early 80s. Many of these tracks previously were only available at the merchandise tables at the artist's gigs. It is really fine stuff in a convenient package.
29. The Weeknd, House of Balloons -- R&B style vocals from Abel Tesfaye and hip hop/trip hop sounds from Doc McKinney and Illangelo, all in a hazy late night urban package evoking loss, regret, predatory behavior, guilt and survival. It was the first installment of a trilogy completed last month, and all available for free download.
30. The Moth & The Mirror, Honestly, This World -- A bold post-punk statement evocative of The Delgados, this all-star collection of Scottish musicians drew rave reviews for this debut in their native UK.
A few albums that just missed the top 30 this year are, in alphabetical order by band name:
Admiral Fallow, Boots Met My Face
The Black Whales, Shangri-La Indeed
Dot Dash, Spark>Flame>Ember>Ash
Fair Ohs, Everything Is Dancing
Heavy Times, Jacker
I Build Collapsible Mountains, The Spectator & The Act
The Little Kicks, The Little Kicks
The Loose Salute, Getting Over Being Under
Simon Bish, All Aboard With ...
Thao & Mirah, Thao & Mirah
We Were Promised Jetpacks, In the Pit of the Stomach
A few of my favorite small labels this year are:
Hardly Art (Seattle)
Captured Tracks (Brooklyn)
Re:Peater Records (Glasgow)
Song By Toad (Edinburgh)
We Can Still Picnic (Glasgow)
Fat Cat Records (Brighton)
Bristol Archives Records (Bristol)
Olive Grove Records (Glasgow)
Sways Records (Manchester)
Chemikal Underground (Glasgow)
And thanks to the following bands not (yet) on the year end rankings for keeping me young and engaged (in no particular order):
The Black Tambourines -- Surfy indie rock from the English coast.
We Are John Wean
The Silver Factory
The Honey Pies
The Louche FC