Middle 8: Favorite Albums of 2011

It was a particularly off year for rock n’ roll as many of its top bands had no new releases or spent the year on side-projects or retrospective looks back. And bands such as Radiohead and R.E.M. didn’t completely stick the landing on their 2011 releases. This all conspired to open up the field to independent artists, fringe acts, and an a cappella group! (NOTE: With no clear ranking to consider among this batch, the ranking is broken in half by the top four albums and the second four albums. They are as malleable as the moods that control our listening pleasures.)

Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie

After the dark Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie returned with its best effort in years on the upbeat Codes and Keys. The album taps into the band’s various strengths and adds more experimental soundscapes, offering up an eclectic collection of sounds that elevate the band into a brighter atmosphere. Between the lead, affirmation-heavy single “You Are a Tourist” and the album-closing acoustic love-song “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” the band fills the spaces with experimental instrumentation and production that enhances but never buries Ben Gibbard’s brilliant songwriting.

Mr. Saturday Night, Julian Velard

Since Billy Joel no longer records music, we get the next best thing with Julian Velard who released his best effort yet with Mr. Saturday Night. The album is unabashedly inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s pop with Velard’s own witty lyricism grounding the songs in the modern age. With songs like the relentlessly devotional “The Guy Who” and the apprehensive ballad “On to Something” leading the way, Mr. Saturday Day shined through its downtrodden singer/songwriter brethren. (To boot, Velard offered up free b-sides to the album every Monday this past year, some of which were as strong, if not stronger, than some of the songs that made it, proving that Velard is running at an incredible creative peak right now.)

The King is Dead, The Decemberists

The Decemberists shifted away from progressive rock and British folk revivalism in 2011 on the Americana-infused The King Is Dead. Unlike previous high-concept efforts, The King Is Dead goes for a loose collection of bucolic ditties, trading in complex time-signatures and organ solos for fiddles and mandolins. With Peter Buck assisting on guitar on three songs and Gillian Welch as a primary harmonist throughout, Colin Meloy proves he had other tricks up his sleeve with an album daring in its simplicity.

Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes

On their sophomore effort, Fleet Foxes took big strides towards expanding and tinkering with the sound that adorned their breakthrough debut. While many songs retain the retro folk sound they established on their first album, ornate arrangements and more elaborate instrumentation give songs like “Bedouin Dress” and “Lorelai” a more dynamic luster while “Battery Kinzie” is propelled by an anxious piano rhythm. Pack-leader Robin Pecknold once again adorns all of this beauty with pastoral (and often esoteric) lyrics, never better than on “Helplessness Blues” which makes working on an orchard and running a country store sound like a damn refreshing career path.

No One Listens to the Band Anymore, The Damnwells

The Damnwells went the independent route with recording and financing the ironically-titled No One Listens to the Band Anymore throughout 2010. Born to record shops at the outset of a cold 2011, the album yearned for warmer days and open windows with songs like ‘70s-inspired “Death Defier” and bouncy “She Goes Around”. Alex Dezen is often at his best when harmonizing with wife Angela and backed by full band, but excelled even on quieter, lonelier moments like “The Great Unknown.”

The Best Imitation of Myself, Ben Folds

In a year that had its share of retrospectives and rarity collections, as well as deluxe reissues of some of rock’s most hallowed masterpieces, Ben Folds offered the most bang for your retrospective buck with a collection that tackled every aspect of his solo and Ben Folds Five repertoire. At three discs plus an additional 56 songs available via digital release, Folds covered nearly every nook and cranny of his 15-year career, including three new tracks with his former Five bandmates. While the hits were a known quantity, the collection’s strength is both dynamic live performances and eclectic unreleased tracks and various oddities like the boy-band-wannabe “Girl” and brilliant covers ranging from “Say Yes” to “Wild Mountain Thyme.” It might’ve been presumptuous for an artist with a fairly slim catalog to release what essentially amounts to a box set at this point in his career, but the quality of what Folds has compiled here deserved a wider audience than just his die hard fans.

Mylo Zyloto, Coldplay

Though not as strong as Viva La Vida, Mylo Zyloto grows better upon further listening, particularly because of strong sonic departures like “Charlie Brown” and “Hurts Like Heaven” and throwback quieter moments like “Us Against The World” and “U.F.O.” That odd mix of sounds actually turned what’s supposed to be somewhat of a conceptual piece of work into an often-herky jerky collection of songs that flows oddly in places. A synth-heavy song will flow into an acoustic strum or a soaring soulful ballad will fall into the depths of a terrible pulsating Rihanna-invaded dance tune. But it has far stronger moments than weak ones and it’s in those moments where the album truly shines. A few tracks after evoking a Parachutes-era baritone on “U.F.O.”, Chris Martin sends his falsetto soaring with the majestic “Up in Flames.” Album-closing “Up With the Birds” is a radiant finale, an appropriate downshift for an album chockfull of arena-anthems like the glow-in-the-dark “Charlie Brown” and the sprinting synth of “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart.”

Season 3 of The Sing Off, Pentatonix

Though not an album in the traditional sense, Pentatonix’s appearance on Season 3 of The Sing Off was vastly more entertaining than many artists’ original albums and provided one of the best music highlights in 2011. If you take the best of their a cappella performances (almost all of them), you have a diverse body of work that even as essentially live auditions works better than most polished professionals’ meticulous creations. Anchored by an otherworldly  bass and beatbox, the quintet displayed a sound as full as some bands twice their size. By the time they got to a cover of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”, they’d essentially locked up their victory. But along the way, they put up great renditions of everything from “Video Killed the Radio Star” to “E.T.” and captured the imagination of viewers/listeners every week this past Fall.

Outside Looking In: Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean continued Sam Beam’s expansion of the band’s sound and included lots of departures from the quieter songs that once were Iron & Wine’s forte; The Beach Boys’ legendary SMiLE, while not a new album by any stretch of the imagination, finally saw official (albeit unfinished) release in a sweet box set that showed the world that Brian Wilson’s genius in 1967 was also quite evident in 2011; Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key had a lot of great songs surrounded by a few misses and some spoken-word ramblings that sounded profound upon initial listening but became meddlesome on repeat; Pentatonix’s top competitor, the effervescent Dartmouth Aires, had The Sing Off’s most dynamic singer and some of this season’s greatest musical moments, including a mind-blowing Queen medley.

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