It’s that very time of every year when all the music critics and fans start listing their “Best of the Year”. And it’s also that very time of every year, after viewing tons of “lists”, when I realized how much good music I have missed in the the past year. And since none of my favorite singers had any releases this year (Mariah Carey, Dido and KT Tunstall), my focus has been shifted from the shitty pop to the more indie/alternative-rock side. I’m not saying that there’s no decent works in pop this year, there’s still a big portion of the genre in my list. It’s just I’ve been annoyed by the radio stations blasting off those same old songs over and over again for an entire year, in most cases a synthesizer was all it took to complete the production that it made you wonder what the roles of those “singers” in the songs were. So I turned to the alternative, and man, what a grand landscape I have found (Thank you Spotify)! Now here it goes.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
I was first introduced to Bon Iver by a YouTube video of the band playing to a small audience. With only a guitar and a drum set, Justin Vernon was having an intimate conversation with the dozen people through their harmonious chords. Unlike Justin Timberlake’s sassiness or Robin Thicke’s sexiness, Vernon’s falsetto was more unrefined and sincere. The album starts with what sounds like the music of a marching band, then proceeds into the calmness of that lake on the cover (or a body of marsh that keeps dragging people down to the deepness of its permanent tranquility?) Before you know it, you are well intoxicated, even when you can’t clearly make out every word he sings. Music can be just as simple yet beautiful as this.
Recommended: whole record
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
This is a perfect extension of their first album, a dark mood set by the beautiful harmony and meditation.
Recommended: Grown Ocean; Helplessness Blues
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
An example of end-of-the-year discovery of good music. The folk/alt-country duo released their first full length album in as early as February, and I’ve just recently found them on Time’s year-end list, and got instantly mesmerized by their perfect harmony. Joy Williams’ voice is crisp and pure like that of a nightingale warbling throughout the songs (take a listen of Falling and you’ll see what I mean), while John Paul White (isn’t that Johnny Depp?) has this deep, heavy vocal that embraces the former wholeheartedly. The lyrics further created a sense of melancholy and sorrow. Their poised calmness, regardless the gradual loudness at some points, is consistent throughout the album that leaves you spellbound. The best examples can be found in Poison & Wine and their cover of Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. After discovering this finely tuned project, I now shudder at how many truly talented artists and great albums I must have missed all these years.
Recommended: Poison & Wine; Barton Hollow; Dance Me to the End of Love (Bonus); Falling; Birds of a Feather; C’est la Mort; 20 years
Boy & Bear – Moonfire
This must be the biggest surprise for me in 2011, and of course one of my favorite. Never had I fallen in love with an Australian band before since the disbanding of Savage Garden. Also a debut album, Moonfire delivered with a strong taste of Australian native music, blending with rock/pop elements, leading listeners into the borders of the island country, separating it from other albums of the same genre. And you’ll love the raw vocal of Dave Hosking!
Recommended: Feeding Line; Part Time Believer; Lordy May; My Only One; Beach; Golden Jubilee; House & Farm
Nicole Atkins – Mondo Amore
I can’t even begin to describe how excited I was when I learned that this woman had put out her second full length studio effort, so quietly and unnoticed. It’s been three years since her debut album Neptune City, with merely a few EPs released during the time span. I love how powerfully rangy and vibrant Nicole’s voice is, and how it blends seamlessly with the magic touch of retro arrangement in the background. After the breakup with her ex-boyfriend, her band and Columbia records, she wrote down her stories, her feelings, her emotions and put them all in this gripping, darker project where you can feel her energy flowing throughout the entire record.
Recommended: War is Hell; Hotel Plaster; Vultures
Brandi Carlile – Live at Benaroya Hall (With the Seattle Symphony)
As a pop singer-songwriter, Brandi somewhat had me stunned by the title of her first album in two years. First of all it’s a live recording of her 2010 performances in Seattle, WA. Second it’s accompanied by the Seattle Symphony. Yes, there were many pop singer-symphony cooperations out there, but I just couldn’t imagine the combination of her music and an orchestra. Turned out she somehow manages to deliver a feast for ears that showcases her vocal ability and music talent.
Recommended: The Story; Dreams; Looking Out; Hallelujah
Adele – 21
Oh yeah, this is THE album that has turned the entire industry upside down this year. I’m guessing it will repeatedly show up in all kinds of “Best Of 2011” lists, as well as numerous Grammy nomination in different categories. The new British diva’s sophomore album, in which she demonstrates a different aspect and more diverse elements than her first one, 19, continues to highlight the quality of her heartbreaking, soulful voice. Personally, I am more inclined to her last work, but this one is so outstanding in charting performance all over the world that no one can ignore it, a rare feat achieved by a vocal artist now who speaks with real music.
Recommended: Set Fire to the Rain; Someone Like You; Rolling in the Deep
Foster the People – Torches
Named after its lead vocalist Mark Foster, Foster the People is an indie-gone-viral story, thanks to the power of Internet that brought them to the attention of mainstream. And who’d have thought that a groovy record about school shooting (speaking of which another unfortunate year for Virginia Tech) would become one of the biggest hits in 2011? I wonder how many people would pause to think about the theme expressed in the song when they hear and even sing along with it. Anyways, it’s quite an achievement for a new indie group. And what’s unusual for me is that although the entire album was consisted of 11 songs in a similarly upbeat pattern, which could have easily tired its listeners, I found it quite refreshing that every song is so different from each other.
Recommended: Helena Beat; Pumped Up Kicks; Houdini; Call It What You Want
The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love
A boy surfing on the tides of waves with arms wide open, with the capital bold title in white on a huge black block on the left covering nearly half the black-and-white cover, this is no doubt one of the most conspicuous album artworks of 2011. This is a band that combines their unrefined punk sound with elements of dance and house. And after your first listens of this album you’ll feel exactly what the boy on the cover felt: excited, thrilling and satisfied, especially the fading of the solo in the title track that leaves you hanging onto the ending and wanting for more.
Recommended: In the Grace of Your Love; How Deep Is Your Love?; Never Die Again
The Weeknd – Balloon Trilogy: House of Balloon, Thursday, Echoes of Silence
I stumbled upon Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd on YouTube recommendation (yep, not from Drake, whose raucous voice I really can’t find myself enjoying). It’s hard to imagine a 21 year-old has developed a new territory in the R&B genre PBR&B, just like the equally talented and young Janelle Monáe before him. In the Balloon Trilogy, The Weeknd has created a surrounding of moody, depressive atmosphere that echoes in your ears for a long while. In a time where most R&B singers have lost their tracks and market, it’s talents like Abel and Janelle that reignited people’s passion for the genre. The Trilogy was self-released as mixtapes and can be downloaded for free on his website here.
Recommended: All three mixtapes.
Beirut – The Rip Tide
Whenever this band releases a project, it’s hard to resist their Balkan-influenced music. There’s not much change from their last album, and you can even say they are what’s left off the last album (not that they’re not as good), but you just can’t get enough of those exotic components in the songs.
Recommended: East Harlem; Santa Fe; A Candle’s Fire; The Rip Tide
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.
Midnight City is probably the best song of the year! The opening of the song is said to be the synthesized effects of frontman Anthony Gonzalez’s voice, which sticks in your head long after the it ends. This is one of the albums that make me rethink my opinions on electronic, a genre that was pretty much ruined by the likes of blank, blank, blank, etc.
Recommended: Midnight City; Intro; Outro (Well the entire album is amazing)
The Black Keys – El Camino
Lonely Boy is one of the catchiest songs in years, and the video of a middle-aged guy dancing awkwardly to the music is both hilarious and innovative. Other than the lead single, I haven’t found another one that can compare to Tighten Up, Howling for You and Everlasting Light from Brothers, but it’s quite an enjoyable album and I can’t stop swinging with the rhythm most of the time. Despite the Grammy halo around them, they stick to their bluesy rock roots and produced a record with honesty and sincerity, unlike many other acts whose Grammy-ensuing projects are always obvious with a feeling of “trying too hard” and end up lost in the crowd.
Recommended: Lonely Boy; Little Black Submarine; Dead and Gone; Sister; Hell of a Season
Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
“By your hand is the only end I foresee, I have been dreaming you’ve been dreaming about me”. Following a string of bouncy keyboard, the first sound of Hello Sadness has caught me off-guard with the chanting of this line, and every time it appears during the song, it’s like an orgasm for the ears. And for me, this song alone is enough already to take me through the whole album without skipping a single track.
Recommended: By Your Hand; Hello Sadness; The Black Bird, The Dark Slope
Katie Herzig – The Waking Sleep
I’ve never learned to resist a female voice like Katie Herzig’s – sweet and mellow, exactly what I feel for Lily Allen and Lenka. The happy opener Free My Mind can easily have people’s attention on the first listen, but the highlight of the album is the third track Way to the Future, where you are instantly drawn into the tune by the hasty violin at the beginning and the way it builds up to the climax of the chorus. It’s like a extension of Forevermore from her 2008’s Apple Tree but brought to a more exuberant level. As a prominent singer-songwriter, Katie is capable of making her own pieces of music and steadily bringing it into mainstream.
Recommended: Way to the Future; Free My Mind; Best Day of Your Life; Lost and Found; Oh My Darlin’
Kasabian – Velociraptor!
I love this album! Their self-title album has always been one of my favorite. This one came with various elements mixed together: rock, post-punk, electronic, psychedelic, and even oriental, and it’s still smooth with consistency, like a roller coaster ride from start to the end leaving you screaming for more.
Recommended: Re-Wired; Goodbye Kisses; Man of Simple Pleasure; Velociraptor!; Acid Turkish Bath (Shelter from the Storm); Days Are Forgotten; La Fee Verte; Switchblade Smiles
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Needless to say, St. Vincent is a superstar of social media in indie music. Before the release of the album, she’d built up large enough buzz around it by asking her Twitter followers to tweet the hashtag “#strangemercy” in order to unlock the new tracks and video. I’ve never been a fan of St. Vincent, partly because her music is a little too “inexplicably weird” for me to accept. Strange Mercy got me listen to her previous albums once again, and I finally saw where that weirdness came from: the very contrast between the melody and beat, and her always passive sound that doesn’t seem to fit. Such can be seen from the first single “Cruel” – Where it is led mostly by a groovy and even disco-y beat with gloomy lyrics, St. Vincent’s voice is indifferent and composed like always. And the video for the song kinda reminds me of some cases in Criminal Minds where a single father and his son tried to kidnap women, and force them to fill in the role of the woman who’s been missing from the broken family. CREEPY, I must say.
Recommended: Cruel; Surgeon; Chloe in the Afternoon; Northern Lights
Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys!
I don’t know much about Elbow. All I know is that they are a Mercury Award-winning band. Build a Rocket Boys! is a quiet album, and can calm you down whenever you listen to it. Also, this record somehow reminds me of One eskimO in so many ways, the singing and the feeling they created.
Recommended: Lippy Kids; With Love; The Birds
Amos Lee – Mission Bell
It’s a mixing of folk, country, blues, and neo-soul. I’m usually not into religious music, but Lee’s voice in this album is presented in very diverse ways – tender, powerful, bluesy when he tries to communicate with the ONE above and I really dig it!
Recommended: El Camino; Windows Are Rolled Down; Clear Blue Eyes
Eva & The Heartmaker – Dominoes
This is a couple duo contestant from Norwegian Idol 2005, I can’t even find their biography on Wikipedia. Normally I’m not enthusiastic about reality show contestants, not to mention the one from a distant north European country, and their music is all about dance pop, a genre that I already got sick and tired of after being tormented by the likes of Ke$ha and Britney, to name a few. However, there is something refreshing in their music that comes to wipe out those tacky auto-tune elements manipulated by studio recording technology.
Recommended: Dominoes; Signals
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
I love how this folk band never failed to deliver pleasant melody with their frisky music and playful tale-telling lyrics to constantly create mental images like movie scenes. I also love how they incorporate various instruments in their music – violin, piano, harmonica, accordion, etc. In their sixth album The King is Dead, they perfectly mix the ingredients from their previous albums with some seasonings of other genres such as progress rock and blues, bringing together a comforting flavor of indie-folk-rock.
Recommended: January Hymn; Down by the River; This Is Why We Fight; Don’t Carry It All
Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See
Well, I’ve never been a big fan of this band, but this album is the one that I can listen to repeatedly without skipping a single track. Maybe it’s just because they’re becoming quieter and softer on this one…
Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
I have to admit that one of the reasons I started taking notice of Death Cab for Cutie is their lead vocalist Benjamin Gibbard’s marriage to Zooey Deschanel in 2009, despite their fourteen years into formation. Since Zooey is an actress and a singer herself (lead vocalist of the duo She & Him whose last album is one of my favorites in 2010), I wondered what kind of guy would be lucky enough to walk down the aisle with this woman. It turned out this is a really awesome band~~~Most of the time with such lush arrangements in the background, Gibbard’s voice sounds like it comes from a distant place that you have to have your headphone on, but then you can feel their emotions infused into your mind and body.
Recommended: You Are a Tourist; Portable Television
Heather Nova – 300 Days at Sea
A woman, a dog, a boat, drifting in the center of the waters, and the horizon where the sea kisses the sky. Don’t you just love this beautiful sight! IMO although this album cannot compete with her previous works, Heather still succeeded in delivering a quality record with her angelic voice.
Recommended: The Good Ship, “Moon”; Everything Changes; Higher Ground
Andrea Corr – Lifelines
The Corrs is back! Well, the Corr. This is a cover album by the family band the Corrs’ lead vocalist Andrea Corr, also her second solo project. Every song is like telling a story under Andrea’s vocal interpretation of how they have resonated in her life, in a whispery and “Irish” way. The entire album reflects the singer’s sincerity and genuine emotions during years of absence, both herself and the band’s. This is a record perfect for listen at night alone with headphone on, and you’ll succumb to the peace and serenity in the music.
Recommended: Tinseltown in the Rain; Pale Blue Eyes; Tomorrow in Her Eyes; Lifeline
“Weird Al” Yankovic – Alpocalypse
That video for “Perform This Way” in parody of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way has swept across the Internet for a certain amount of time, and it was made so cleverly funny.
Recommended: Perform This Way; Party in the CIA; Craigslist; Polka Face
The Lonely Island – Turtleneck & Chain
Here come the raunchy trio of SNL Digital Shorts stars. Most of this star-studded album (Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Michael Bolton, Akon, Beck, ect.) consists directly of the show clips, such as Creep, Motherlover, Shy Ronnie 2, and Jack Sparrow, but there are also some new materials made exclusively for the album that are equally hilarious.
Recommended: Creep; Threw It On the Ground; Shy Ronnie 2
Bonus: Woodkid – Iron
I first heard Iron from the trailer for Assassin’s Creed Revelation, and was immediately attracted to the rhythm of the war drums in the background. After some Googling I found the complete version of Woodkid’s Iron – opening with heavy trumpets and the beating of the war drums, it feels like an impending war is closing in. And as the song progresses, several other instruments gradually add in and culminate into the climax of the battlefield. What’s more satisfying is that the song is accompanied by one of the most epic videos I have ever seen for music. Filmed in black-and-white, the video depicts the scenes of people getting prepared for the war – flags flying, drum beating, people readying, bird fluttering, dogs alerting, horse hissing. The picture of the war itself is like a Chinese water-color painting, grand and beautiful. Check out the video for IRON by clicking the picture below.
Bonus: Drive Soundtrack
You’ve gotta love this soundtrack, best of the year, like the movie itself. Theme song Nightcall is perfectly fit into the movie, with a retro vibe that’s reminiscent of 80’s old-school music, lost and dreamy.
Listen to Nightcall:
Biggest disappointment of the year: Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
I can’t believe this is an album from Coldplay! As one of the most popular bands in the world, Coldplay has left so much classics for us, from Yellow, to Scientist, from Fix You to Viva la Vida. I love all the first four albums, they’re equally amazing and classic. But this one, Mylo Xyloto, is no doubt the weakest in their career! Obviously trying to copy the success of Viva la Vida, Coldplay decided to take “Pop Anthem” to another level, and somehow failed big time. While having gained unprecedented success with Viva la Vida, let’s not forget that a huge part of that achievement is attributed to the heavy commercial promotion from Apple. It’s undeniably Viva is a great single/album, but without Apple, it would not have achieved that kind of feat in the first place. From this album on, Coldplay has officially stepped into the pop genre and made themselves a “pop band”. But what do people need another cheesy pop band for? So it’s predictable that Mylo was a fiasco both musically and commercially. Do not listen to those critics saying how “pop anthem” is what you should sound, do not let the one-time success of the genre lead you on a wrong road. We want the real Coldplay back, we want the Coldplay that dare to explore new territories, the one that stay true to their original musical pursuit.