Before I get started with the top five, I realized that I left out on very important album release of 2011. I think these kind of countdowns are almost always slightly skewed toward records released toward the end of the year, since their impact is so fresh. The Decemberists – The King is Dead is certainly worth mentioning, but since it was released so early in the year, I forgot that it was released in 2011. It is, at the very least, worth the most honorable of mentions. Here are the top five.
5) Thrice – Major/Minor
With every Thrice record comes an evolution of some sort. They are never content writing the same kind of record and that is one thing that I absolutely love about them. Major/Minor is no different. It is still Thrice, yet it is also something that has never really been done before. Listeners can hear the strong influence of their past records, but only as much as listeners can hear the influence of one band on another band. If it weren’t for Dustin Kensrue’s unique and powerful voice, you wouldn’t be able to recognize the band from one record to the next. Not easily anyway.
Major/Minor is the most powerful record the band has put out since their earlier days, yet it is arguably the most melodic. It plays with time changes, key changes, and just about every other musical change. It is sophisticated, yet simple at times. It is loud, yet very soft at times. It is Thrice, and it is very, very, very good music.
4) Feist – Metals
Speaking of good. I listened to nothing but this album for about two weeks and I still listen to it as frequently as any other. Feist took a long hiatus from songwriting after her hit record The Reminder and it was worth every moment of the four-year wait. The singer/songwriter has one of my all-time favorite voices, male or female. It’s classy, yet dirty, classic, yet new and unique. Metals is the same. It’s powerful at times, see opening track The Bad In Each Other, and likely to lull you to sleep with the soft and beautiful feel at others, see closing track Pine Moon. It is a lot of things, and each one of them feature the word great.
3) Bon Iver – Bon Iver
This album starts out with the most powerfully mellow song I have ever heard, titled Perth. It’s perfectly accompanied by Justin Vernon’s eerie falsetto, a trademark for Bon Iver. For about the first seventy-eight listens of this album, I could only understand about one word per song in the lyrics, but that never even mattered to me. Vernon might as well have been singing gibberish like Jon Birgisson from Sigur Ros. The music is that good. Once I finally read through the lyrics though, I was absolutely blown away. The dude is a poet. I don’t know what a large portion of the lyrics mean on paper, but I haven’t really taken the time to analyze them. I don’t feel like I need to because the music says it all. Where the lyrics disperse into ambiguity, the music gathers with pure and genuine emotional strength. It is something you have never heard before, but something vastly familiar. It is winter in a headphone. It is absolutely brilliant.
2) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I was a pretty big fan of these guys until I saw them live this summer. Then I become an obsessive fan. I have never heard a band sound that truly amazing live. It was almost a religious experience. Helplessness Blues is certainly darker than their amazing self-titled debut, but it is just as good, filled with tympani, strange screechings (possibly kazoos?), and the best harmonies you will find since the Beach Boys’ releases of Pet Sounds.
This album takes folk music to a whole new level. It is filled with the beautiful harmonized wailing, the anxious and striking voice of Robin Pecknold. The album begins with the anxiety-filled Montezuma, building on its listener’s emotional integrity and sets the tone for the more triumphant track two, Bedouin Dress and on through the remainder of the tracks. This is an album to be listened to all the way through. It takes its listeners on a journey filled with ambiguous lyrics and unique pacing. It is like reading a novel, each song serving as a chapter. You love the song you are currently at, but can’t wait to feel what the next song serves you. “I was raised up believing, I was somehow unique like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes unique in each way you can see. And Now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” Though every song is a highlight, that is definitely my favorite lyric on the album, a lyric that I think would be hard to top by anyone on an album that, this year was only topped by one.
1) Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Cloud
And that is In The Mountain In The Cloud. I have been obsessed with Portugal. The Man for years, possibly to an unhealthy degree. I’ve seen them perform four times in the past three and a half years and each time they blew my mind. That’s why, when I told my friend Charlie that In The Mountain In The Cloud was hands down, without a question, the best Portugal. The Man album to date, he was skeptical. “Brendon,” he said. “You say that about al of them when they first come out.” But this one was different and I knew that immediately. It seems to be the kind of music the band, who famously releases one album each year without many breaks in touring, has been reaching for with their previous three or four albums.
The album starts out with possibly one of my all-time favorite tracks, So American, continues on through nine tracks that convince me that they are my favorite with each listen, and end with certainly one of my all-time favorite tracks, Sleep Forever. Every single song is unique to the album, yet perfect for the album, layered with countless keyboards, ambient noises, classic guitars, etc. This album is a masterpiece in music and I could write pages and pages about it. But I will just end here and let you listen for yourself.
Have a happy new year.