AUDIO: Top ten albums of 2011

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The Allegheny Campus – Top 5 Albums of 2011

By CODY MILLER

Music Reviewer

2011 was full of left-field moments. Some of the year’s most critically acclaimed and anticipated albums ended up duds (we’re looking at you, King of Limbs) while some of the best came from newcomers or bands previously thought to be washed-up or outmoded. Here are our picks for 2011’s best:

1. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres

Matana Robert’s Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres is an experience nothing short of exhausting. The album clocks in at just over an hour and demands the listener’s utmost attention as Roberts blazes through a compelling, conceptual narrative. In many ways, this bolsters its greatness, for while the album’s narrative is so emotionally taxing, you will be hard-pressed to find something as instantly rewarding both intellectually and aurally. Roberts’ pieces impose weighty, unavoidable questions upon the listener, forcing one to, in some sense, confront his or her past conception of African American history and the current racial dynamics of modern American society.

Backed by a 16-piece ensemble, Coin Coin is rife with tense, visceral instrumental flourishes, which only magnify the sheer tension underlying these pieces. Within minutes of the opening track, “Rise,” I was confident that this would top my favorite albums list. It simply makes everything in its wake sound so trite, and no album this year provokes as much thought nor elicits such a maelstrom of emotions as this avant-garde masterpiece.

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey is the epitome of a great songwriter for this particular reason — she is constantly evolving. With her eighth studio Let England Shake, she reaffirms this, with a collection of twelve harrowing, brilliant pieces, expounding upon the sheer destructiveness of war and British national identity. Though the record certainly carries with it an political tinge with pieces such as “The Words that Maketh Murder,” “Let England Shake,” and “The Glorious Land,” Harvey manages to sound more like a journalist than a protester, and these lyrics read more like vivid, eloquent diary entries than blatant political statements. Impressively, she handles the subjects with grace and a sense of unaffected authenticity.
The best rock album of this year, Let England Shake avoids the pitfalls of being a dry, melodramatic protest album and stands rather as a vibrant, engaging political statement, which only adds to the already impressive repertoire of who is currently rock’s most consistently brilliant songwriter.

3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes front-man Robin Pecknold muses about the trappings and misgivings of adulthood on the Seattle folk group’s superb impressive sophomore release Helplessness Blues. While in some ways sounding like a rustic, aged piece of Americana, the album simultaneously creates a world that is so timeless, so ethereal, and so endearing that it seems like it could go on forever. Yet as Pecknold sings, “Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one, why in the night sky are the lights on,” he is searching for a sense of immediate, defining purpose in sea of disillusionment. Whether he finds these answers is left to be said, but nevertheless, Fleet Foxes has managed to craft a masterpiece of American folk and breathtaking ambition, far eclipsing their already stellar self-titled debut.

4. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

At a time when anthemic, arena rock seems so unfashionable in the realm of indie rock, Welsh trio The Joy Formidable craft a defiant ode to grandiosity, with their debut album The Big Roar. Make no mistake about it — this album sounds huge. Though, what’s so striking about this debut is not the band’s unapologetically grand ambition, but rather how they situate this within the context of front-woman Ritzy Bryan’s downright heavenly vocals. Fundamentally, she is a master of the pop hook, and while never fully reveling in this forte, Bryan uses this ability to create pieces which, while lengthy and epic, seep into the psyche of the listener. one of the most sublime, exuberant releases this year.

5. tUne-yArDs – W H O K I L L

On her second release, W H O K I L L, Merill Garbus (a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs) deftly infuses elements of afrobeat, R&B, folk and electronica into a surprisingly cohesive whole. Disjointed, erratic, incendiary and absolutely infectious, W H O K I L L is rife with thundering, poly-rhythmic loops and random, almost non-sensical electronic flourishes. Yet, Garbus is never eclectic for solely for the sake of being eclectic. Beneath the album’s volatility is a striking sense of grace. Garbus accomplishes the high task of rendering her multifaceted work accessible by discerningly drawing from this diverse range of genres. She deftly employs this dysfunction to propel her convictions. As a result, Garbus crafts W H O K I L L into a penetrating, singular artistic statement.

6. Russian Circles – Empros

With Empros, Chicago-based post metal trio Russian Circles have put out a release that sounds nothing short of a revelation in a genre, which has drifted into creative stagnation and at times, near-pretentiousness. While the Circles’ spirited, cathartic mini-symphonies are carefully calculated and meticulously constructed, the band displays a sense of immediacy which feels so raw and open that the album sounds at times as if it was recorded impromptu in a cramped rehearsal space. It is this balancing act between visceral free-ness and subtle virtuosity that places Empros amongst the finest post-metal releases of recent years.

7. The Weeknd – House of Balloons

This semi-anonymous mixtape by 21-year old Canadian vocalist Abel Tesfaye is perhaps this year’s most promising debut. Tesfaye juxtaposes his fervent and at times sensual vocals against engrossing, murky aural and lyrical landscape that feels refreshingly singular amongst the plethora of trite R&B releases this year. Graphic, intense, and alluring, Tesfaye’s songs create a uniquely engrossing landscape.

8. The Roots – Undun

Easily the best commercial hip-hop release of the past year, the Roots construct their magnum opus with their 11h studio album Undun. In a reverse-narrative, album follows chronicles the life of drug-dealer Redford Stephens from death to life. Few albums manage to successfully channel the sort of ambition found on Undun, and even fewer, do so in a manner that seems to natural and effortless as the pieces of this release. Never before has the band sounded as cohesive, organic, and self-assured, and in this sense, Undun embodies the spirit of the Roots better than any release before it.

9. Thursday – No Devolución

Thursday’s No Devolución is the sound of a band desperately pushing itself to write the best record it could possibly make and triumphantly succeeding. More so than anything, No Devolución is a bold statement to the nested potential of a band marred by a catalog of overly angsty, mediocre, melodramatic releases. The band implicitly pledges to never return to such past mediocrity.

Yet, while No Devolución is, at times, a multifaceted, genre-bending affair, Thursday does not abandon its core sound. Their fiery angst is still present, their intricate, tight guitar interplay still roars, and drummer Tucker Rule’s percussion till trembles with power. But, for the first time, the caliber of songwriting is so great and such angst is articulated so poignantly, that the band creates a piece that not only sets a new standard for themselves, but also for their respectively genre as a whole.

10. Krallice – Diotima
On Diotima, black metal quartet Krallice wage an all out assault. Diotima is visceral yet atmospheric, astute yet free, and vile while not entirely inaccessible. As with their previous releases, Krallice keeps to their characteristic brutish and gruelling roars and swift, pummeling guitar interplay. While the band has always favored the vile over the pure, Diotima has a uniquely atmospheric and, at times, progressive tinge that illustrates their willingness to take significant artistic leaps, even if it does make the band sound somewhat out of place at times amongst many of their black metal counterparts.