November 27, 2011

AwkwardSound Presents: The 25 Best Albums of 2011

If you've been a loyal reader of AwkwardSound throughout the year, then there should be no surprises here -- The albums of 2011 signaled a changing in the guard of attitude across the indie rock and alternative rock landscapes following what seemed like an eternity of "music for guys who pee sitting down" (more on that later...) and synth-pop over-saturation. Of the more important stylistic and trend touchstones, hardcore is definitely "back," everybody loves the '90s and whatever was leftover of lo-fi last year has been done away with for hopefully several years to come. Let's hope you brought your earplugs, because AwkwardSound's 25 Best Albums of 2011 comes from a high decibel-wielding group of musicians who make music meant to wreck your stereo...

25. Mr. Dream - Trash Hit
With so much emphasis being put on the grungier side of the current alternative revival, Mr. Dream channel a different path of '90s nostalgia on their debut album, Trash Hit. The trio, made from two-thirds of former music journalists, steps out from behind their MacBooks and onto the stage to rock through punk-laden indie that's well versed in Shellac, The Jesus Lizard and The Pixies' angstier releases. Here's to never again questioning whether or not a writer at Pitchfork knows what the hell he or she's talking about.

24. Disappears - Guider
Disappears showed a lot of promise on their 2010 debut, Lux, but the addition of Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and his veteran drum skills gives them a heavier, undaunted edge on their sophomore LP, Guider. Where as their previous strength relied on melody that came as quickly as it went, Disappears put catchy repetition to good use by bridging it across the entirety of the album. The result is a more cohesive, fulfilling fete that lives up to Disappears' potential.

23. Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation
Youth Lagoon's debut, The Year of Hibernation is one of the year's most beautiful signs of life to emerge from the unlikeliest of places: Boise, ID. The cassette-friendly release is an emotionally-connected one that draws lines between fleeting nostalgia and moments of solitude conjured up by young mastermind Trevor Powers. Despite creating a delicate sound submerged in loneliness right from his bedroom, The Year of Hibernation manages to warm the heart when no one else is around.

22. Cold Cave - Cherish the Light Years
Wes Eisold's past as the frontman of seminal hardcore act American Nightmare comes back to haunt him in a great way here on Cold Cave's sophomore LP, Cherish the Light Years. Where as the project's debut slightly lacked an edge and ultimately made for one too many New Order and Joy Division comparisons, Cherish the Light Years has one that's as sharp as the razor blade guitar riffs cutting their way through the cold wave ice. The '80s synth-pop and post-punk influences that shape Cold Cave's sound are still lurking in the dark shadows on Cherish the Light Years, but it's Eisold gnashing his teeth which makes it pleasantly jarring.

21. Liturgy - Aesthethica
As one of 2011's loudest affairs, Aesthethica is the culminating moment of a creative direction that Brooklyn-based existential rockers Liturgy have been heading toward since 2009's Renihilation. Disregarding labels altogether, Aesthethica transcends boundaries of black metal with a chaotic, artsy noise rock approach that will likely piss off metal purists and enlighten even the most discriminating of music fans who may have never figured the two genres could be married in this particular unholy matrimony.

20. Title Fight - Shed
It's been awhile since a promising melodic hardcore act has shot out of the eastern Atlantic breeding grounds, but Kingston, PA's Title Fight have arrived as serious contenders on their debut album, Shed. Produced by genre lifer Walter Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, Rival Schools), Shed is aggressive, tuneful post-hardcore in the vein of Lifetime, Kid Dynamite and Jawbreaker that -- alongside contemporaries Touché Amoré, Loma Prieta, Joyce Manor and a host of others -- is cleaning up the sound of the scene for the better.

19. JEFF the Brotherhood - We Are the Champions
Nashville's JEFF the Brotherhood may not have been alive or old enough to experience either era in music, but they find themselves rocking out some sweet '70s classic rock riffs and '90s-era Weezer nerd jams on their breakthrough effort, We Are the Champions. While neither era really sounds like the other, it's on the edge of brilliance to hear how well Jake and Jamin Orrall glue them together -- Especially considering that Rivers Cuomo has been attempting to do just that for the better half of the past decade to unsuccessful results.

18. Real Estate - Days
Surfside indie rockers Real Estate let go of the summer for their Domino debut with a collection of tracks that transcend the seasons but still keep their sunny, breezy feel in tact. With a bit of creative growth and shedding of their lo-fi skin, Days is a step in the right direction for the New Jersey act despite the loss of a fourth member since their 2009 debut. Real Estate's three remaining members trudge along just fine on their own here with more confident songwriting by frontman Martin Courtney, and guitar / bass duo Matthew Mondanile and Alex Bleeker perfecting on what's become Real Estate's signature sound. (Note: Since the release of Days, the band has grown into a quintet with the addition of a permanent drummer and keyboardist.)

17. Atlas Sound - Parallax
Between Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox's two main musical endeavors have begun to evolve into a stylistic overlap with each subsequent release. It's on his latest and third effort, though, under the latter moniker that Cox creates a boldly assured solo effort which bares no loyalty to either. Rather, Parallax stands alone as a confident outing by the Athens "codie" rocker's strengths as a punk songwriter.

16. ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Tao of the Dead
The emancipation from a major label is boarding well for ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's creative control as Conrad Keely and company make a return to form on Tao of the Dead. It's said the seventh studio effort took only 10 days to record, but you would never guess it based on the tight-knit epics that make up this listen which beckons back to the Austin band's acclaimed breakthrough Source Codes & Tags, throws in a little Daydream Nation for a noisier measure and gets lost in prog-rock space à la Dark Side of the Moon.

15. The Horrors - Skying
If you're hoping to see The Horrors in skin-tight black goth punk attire and eyeliner again, best come to terms that those days are behind us, as the curve ball the UK quintet threw our way on their sophomore effort continues here on their third LP, Skying. This time around, the mopey music makers add some glimmering colors taken from Brit-pop's past onto their lush palette of alt-rock, and the result is a luminous collection of music made brighter by the way it manages to crack through The Horrors' penchant for melancholia.

14. Cloud Nothings - Cloud Nothings
Like many bands who came out from behind the lo-fi curtain, none may have benefited more from clarity than Cleveland indie act Cloud Nothings. Dylan Baldi expands his solo bedroom project into a quartet here on their self-titled debut, and the fuller sound results in beefed-up power chords and choruses that -- while simply constructed -- put pop punk back on the map without making Baldi and crew sound like a bunch of nasally, girl-crazy mall rats. Baldi may sing a lot about young love here, but Cloud Nothings shows signs of someone heading toward a mature direction.

13. Thursday - No Devolución
Thursday end their reign as one of the most important post-hardcore bands of the past decade on a high note with arguably their best LP, No Devolución. This dark, moody effort influenced by electronic-leaning alternative kingpins such as The Cure and Portishead may not sound like the car crash of hardcore that is New Brunswick band's previous releases, but it's a testament to Thursday's admirable risk-taking abilities at a point in their career when their other like-minded contemporaries are content staying the same.

12. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
In the past, Oneohtrix Point Never has travelled into the outer limits of electronic experimentation to create his drone-heavy sound, but on his fifth LP, Replica, Daniel Lopatin turns to his fellow man for inspiration. Replica is a listen built mostly on vintage television advertisements stitched together by OPN's dense atmospheric sound, and it ultimately makes for one of the noise musician's most cohesive and accessible releases to date. Where as prior efforts by OPN can be broken down to a futuristic science, Replica finds its pretensions simply by roving over earthly terrain.

11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
How do you make sugary shoegaze-pop even sweeter? Try getting the genre's most influential producer-mixing duo on board for your sophomore effort and add in just the right amount of '90s nostalgia. On Belong, Brooklyn's The Pains of Being Pure at Heart ween themselves off of lo-fi production, team up with Flood and Alan Moulder and put their confidence behind distortion pedals instead of new wave synths. The results are a glossier version of the quartet's noise-pop style that still holds the same intimate sound they burst onto the scene with two years ago.

10. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Anthony Gonzalez reaches for the stars on M83's on his ambitious double LP, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, and it turns out the sky's the limit for the French electro-pop musician. Over the course of two discs, his sixth full-length listen features everything from potential festival-pleasing synth-pop singles to the dense, atmospherics which M83 has built the foundation of his music on. In the end, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is the culmination of every direction that Gonzalez has sought out to conquer since starting the project 10 years ago.

9. Drake - Take Care
The applause you've been holding since Degrassi's most successful alumni released his debut Thank Me Later last year finally deserves to be given on his sophomore follow-up, Take Care. Instead of relying on big names and big hooks, Drake returns to (and improves on) the sound we originally fell in love with on his early mix tapes with the help of an eclectic group of up-and-coming producers and assists from the Young Money roster and Hot 100 chart-toppers. Take Care is also a humbly stated and self-deprecating listen from one of rap's brightest stars, and in a post-Kanye pomp and circumstance era of rap, being personable goes a long way.

8. The Men - Leave Home
Despite two previous full-lengths, Leave Home -- the third LP by The Men -- is the most immediate and definable introduction yet to this breakthrough Brooklyn quartet's wall of sound. The album may flaunt some rugged, artsier pretensions along the way but its definitely the darker elements that press Leave Home into a noticeable place. Whether it be vintage indie rock, post punk, noise or hardcore, The Men know how to twist their influences together with the results usually being the same: Loud.

7. Iceage - New Brigade
As the debut by Danish newcomers Iceage confirms, the type of punk music that leaves behind the biggest impression is that which arrives a bit disheveled, sloppy and effortless in execution. New Brigade isn't a pretty listen -- It clamors and sinks its hungry teeth into an "everything but the kitchen sink" aural assault of rough hardcore riffs and jagged post-punk influence. Using their inexperience and amateur status as an advantage, Iceage don't get caught up in the details here on New Brigade, and it's this mindset that has AwkwardSound believing these kids are the shape of punk to come.

6. Zola Jesus - Conatus
Last year's double EP release suggested that goth-pop chanteuse Zola Jesus would be bringing her brooding sound onto the dance floor. Her second full-length, Conatus delivers on that promise with a few other surprises along the way. This time, Nika Danilova shows the world that she owns more than a beautiful set of operatic pipes by creating sounds that can often speak for themselves. Whether it be Reznor-esque nods or subtle cold balladry, Conatus goes beyond expectations in that Zola Jesus' music isn't at all very definable.

5. Trash Talk - Awake EP
In the grand scheme of Trash Talk releases, the Awake EP is almost as long as any of the Sacramento act's previous full-lengths and marks a considerable growth in the hardcore quartet's sound since last year's incredible breakthrough, Eyes & Nines. For one thing, the six-songs here stew more cohesively over a matter of minutes rather than thunderous outbursts, but it does little to dull Trash Talk's quench for chaos and urgency. There's a huge statement being made here that goes beyond the lyrics: Awake is a warning sign that this band's fury is just beginning to rage.

4. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
PJ Harvey has always been a badass with words and on her tenth studio album, she casts out some critical ones devoid of praise for English politics, conflicts and its social welfare. Let England Shake also showcases a voice not yet heard from within the veteran alt-rocker. Less rich and seemingly shackled by the troubling images it encounters as its travel through the country's history, this album -- along with the dark, clanky music -- represents the ghosts of England past and present, and another stylistic evolution by one of the genre's most venerable songwriters.

3. Yuck - Yuck
On their self-titled debut, UK quartet Yuck arrive with a fully-formed throwback sound and laid-back confidence that's to be applauded from any emerging artist. Influenced by a treasure trove of '90s indie rock stalwarts like Dinosaur Jr., Teenage Fanclub and Galaxie 500, Yuck is 2011's most genuine example of grunge-era revivalism by presenting a well-rounded listen of fuzz-rock singles and bummed-out afterburners that excel in off-the-wall noise, warm, jangly melodies and an anti-rock star frontman in Daniel Blumberg.

2. Touché Amoré - Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me
A bunch of punks cramped in a sticky basement making the best use of whatever space they can find for some friendly pit action comes to mind on this sophomore effort by Touché Amoré. Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me restores faith in a reemerging DIY community as it embraces the '80s hardcore aesthetic with emotive lyrics and riff collisions in the vein of Rites of Spring and Thursday. Touché Amoré wanted to record the LP live for an "honest / raw approach" and despite the fact it's over in under 20 minutes, it's one of the most genuinely earnest listens of the year.

1. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
On paper, the third LP from Canadian hardcore crew Fucked Up sounds like the most un-punk thing a band like them could do. At 80-minutes long, touted as a rock opera and based on a kid living in Thatcher-era England, David Comes to Life sounds like an exercise in extreme pretension. The story heard in David Comes to Life is secondary, though, and the only extremes being pushed to the limits here are that of hardcore. Fucked Up has flirted with incorporating elements of shoegaze, pop-punk and '90s indie rock with their gritty sound before, but on David Comes to Life, they get the formula right and achieve perfection in building bridges between all styles. Now that's punk rock.

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